Fair Game

by Brian McVety

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Other three what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Such a jerk.”

“But a loveable one.”

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

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

“I’m good.”

“What are you doing later?”

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

“What a surprise.”

“You saying you don’t sleep?”

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

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

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

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

“Okay.”

He smirked. “Really?”

"Ask again and I’ll change my mind.”

“Do you want me to really stop asking?”

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

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

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

“Such a woman.”

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

“Morno?”

“No. Morno! There’s a difference.”

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

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

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

“What?”

“You’re cute when you grade.”

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

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

Dearest Colleagues,

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

Sincerely,
Mr. Thad H. Cheswick.

He sat back down next to her and waited.

“Very funny,” she said.

“I know,” he said, smiling.

“Take it down, please.”

“Maybe.”

“C’mon, Thad.”

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

“But it did happen.”

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

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

“Please. I mean it.”

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

“Morno!” Thad said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mrs. Naples gave a tight smile.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Dear Mrs. Naples,

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

Sincerely,
Sarah Trubiano

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

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

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

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

“Someone get killed in here?”

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

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

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

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

“Sounds like a party. I love dogs.”

She was done writing but didn’t turn around.

“So what time should I come over?”

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

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

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

“Do what?”

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

“What did I do?”

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

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

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

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

“Yes, I’m pissed about that.”

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

She could feel herself growing warmer.

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

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

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

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

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

“Jesus Christ, Thad.”

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

She pushed his feet off her desk.

“What? Sarah, I'm just joking.”

“I have to get ready for class.”

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

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

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

“They’re everywhere,” another girl responded.

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

“They’re so fire.”

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So. What’s going on?”

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

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

“Well, something happened.”

“What kind of something?”

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

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

Sarah exhaled. “Thad.”

“Oh. Thad.”

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

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

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

“He certainly does.”

“But he does make you laugh.”

Sarah didn’t respond.

“So what did Thad do this time?”

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

Mrs. Naples sighed. “Where?”

“In the faculty room.”

“No. Where on your body?”

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

“Your back?”

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

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

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

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

“Does it matter what kind?”

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

“What do you mean context?”

“Well. It is Thad. And it is you.”

“So?”

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

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

“It doesn’t. Unless it does.”

“What do you mean?”

“You sure you want to do this?”

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

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

“We don’t have a history.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

Don’t ask,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

“Sounds like a lot.”

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

Sarah felt herself turning red.

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

Sarah couldn’t meet her face.

“Is it true?”

“Seriously?”

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

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

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

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

“Thanks.”

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

Sarah didn’t say anything.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where’s the nest?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sarah nodded.

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

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

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

“Morno!” Thad said.

Mrs. Naples ignored him. “What happened?”

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

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

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

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

“At least something was done.”

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

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

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

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

 


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

The Firemonger

by Molly Montgomery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

      “It’s January,” I say.

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

 

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

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

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

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

      Whole family, children, grandchildren. All burned.”

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

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

      “Only the newborn didn’t make it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

      “Really?”

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

      “Suit yourself,” Ni Ling says.

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

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

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

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

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

      “It’s not propaganda,” I say.

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

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

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

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

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

      “Do you think the FPS torched it?”

      I frown.

      “I’m sorry?” I say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

      “How have you been gettingout of the neighborhood?”

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

      She stares me right in the eye.

      “Will you take me?”

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

The Inheritance

by Marlene Olin

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

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

        And then it did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                                                                ***

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

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

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

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

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

        Sussman nodded. This was a story he heard before.

        "And now?" said Sussman.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

        Mason felt his stomach cramp.

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

        "So what are you saying?" said Mason.

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

                                                                                                ***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

        Then finally, after endless seconds, she spoke.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                                                                        ***

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

Dear Mr. Klein,

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

Dear Mrs. Greenbaum,

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

Dear Trudi and Myles,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

        "You need a divorce?"

        "Is Max Fein at this number?

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

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

        "Herb Kravitz? Is a Herb Kravitz available?"

        "Speaking."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

        Mason leaned forward.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                                                                        ***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

        Then once again, Frieda began weeping.

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

        "A ring for an orange?" said Mason.

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

                                                                                        ***

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

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

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

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

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

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

        Still he stared at his hands.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                                                                        ***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                                                                        ***

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

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

        Dear Mr. Markowitz,

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

        The folks at Poughkeepsie National."

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

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

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

Ghost Nets

by Danielle Zipkin

When she is not occupied with a gulf, or a
marsh, or some other jagged edge, the sea
backlogs through her open cases, echolocating
justice  upon the plastic ghost nets unwilding her
breath.

She verdicts those blueing strangles property,
summons gauzy seaweed and mollusk knots,  deploys
these charms like bees to green the shine, reform it
unrecognizable. Net becomes vertical reefing.

Imperial, she tides on elsewhere, moonpulling her
wake heavy as a badge. She needs no reason  to
report why she corrodes our forgotten inventions.
Her salt and her swallow are warrant enough.

Above, she feels a faraway smoke slash.
Another blue cuts interrupted as spacemen
in smoky American exodus blast towards
a distant, pixellated sky.

Above, a man unthroats a mucky breath.
Another blue unkneels, and verdicts
follow. In smoky American exodus, a city
shouts
for fire, for other colors.

There are ghost nets haunting
every human blue place.

 


Danielle Zipkin (she/her) lives in NYC with her husband and puppy. She has poems published in The Golden Shovel Anthology: New Poems Honoring Gwendolyn Brooks, Jacqueline Suskin’s Expressions of AweHumana ObscuraSamFiftyFourFeels Blind LiteraryA La ModaVAINE Magazine, and elsewhere. Most days, she educates middle schoolers, dances, and haphazardly gardens. Instagram: @dalyssaz.

Ink

by Celina McManus

FIRST DAY

lungs swallow sludge as moat
time lost under woosh of waves
lop “i am here!” stirring up heat
and heartbeat lurching at the limbs
of my mother’s living body     snip
i awake my mouth wide as the river’s
and what is this foam? i rinse  spit
hear “don’t touch that” as a goldendoodle
sniffs my exposed tongue      we exhale
in harmony    the dog is tugged onward    ink
spills from my fingerprints    light rings expose
trickles of language    in my hands  the sun
a clock!   each day i wake up in a fury at the river’s
edge        my body washes up        while the sun
and moon collapse on top of one another
romping as an evergreen

                                                                                                              FIRST DAY REVISITED

                                                                                                  what is there to know besides now
                                                                                          this october day again and in the same
                                                                                             octave? woosh of waves lop as death
                                                                                                returning          six becomes six again
                                                                                    boats rewind and slow as grace incarnate
                                                                                        struggle home ask why you still love me
                                                                                and fall back asleep before you can respond
                                                                     again at the river sits a mating crane he trumpets
                                                                    “mercy!  mercy!” in ecstasy i pluck his bill off   tuck
                                                            each individual white feather under my head and i sob
                                                             wildly        i sob as the crane curls bill-less on the lump
                                                                 of me     on this day the river rises       i am driftwood
                                                                      i plead to the crane     i only wish to stop thirsting
                                                            unable to respond he flies away and nothing appears
                                                  a real alive nothing a nothing that stimulates cottonwood
                                                                                                     to root deeper into a dying world

 

 


Celina McManus is a poet and educator. She received her MFA from Randolph
College, where she was poetry editor for Revolute. Her work is featured or forth-
coming in Hooligan Magazine, Peach Mag, and Cobra Milk. She is from the foothills
of the Smoky Mountains and lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Sangre y Sudor

by Michael Berton

por siglos y siglos
la lengua de la patria del mundo
escribe en la sociedad

la gente pregunta
los libros
los místicos
los ancianos

sobre cual país
sobre cual moneda
sobre cual cultura
sobre cual moralidad

la boca de la tierra está llena
con sangre pudría y ceniza
del fuego que ha nacido

el aliento en la voz
de las palabras
en los sueños
sudor de un pronóstico
locura en una cueva

el miedo es un arma
de los que olvidan
la imaginación

años pasados años futuros
nunca recuerdan
cuando los cuerpos danzan
en un congreso carnal
y las almas timbran
juntos en un sonido eterno

 


Michael Berton is an educator, traveler, tequila aficionado and percussionist. He is the author of "No Shade In Aztlan" (New Mitote Press) which came out in 2015. His poetry has appeared in The Opiate, Acentos Review, Cold Noon, Talking River Review, Caesura, 2016 Texas Poetry Calendar, Fireweed, Hinchas de Poesia, Blaze Vox, And/Or, Volt, Shot Glass Journal, The Cracked Mirror, Night Bomb Review, and others. A native of El Paso, Texas, he currently lives in Portland, Oregon.

I’m No Climatologist

by Thad DeVassie

But when it starts raining frogs and broken crutches
everyone will take notice – the weather around these parts

is changing. There goes a mistuned piano plummeting
from a penthouse window. Young girls rub their tingling

knees before the onset of acid rain and thick traffic.
The one holding the leash is doing a different kind of barking.

Take it for granted, for what it is: random snippets, punch lines,
tiny revelations suggesting a world out of whack, wholly off kilter.

Ask if this is the new plague, if this is the new world disorder,
if this too shall pass with time, if spring is just around corner,

if it is even possible that this story, where sustainability is in
sustaining selfish abilities, offers us a swan song, a cameo,

at minimum a decent ending. Then notice the steel umbrella ready
for your lifting, for what rains next, as the wheels are about to come off.

 


Thad DeVassie is a lifelong Ohioan who writes and paints from the outskirts of Columbus. He was awarded the 2020 James Tate International Poetry Prize for his manuscript SPLENDID IRRATIONALITIES. His chapbook, THIS SIDE OF UTOPIA, will arrive in 2021 from Cervena Barva Press.

香格里拉 SHANGRI-LA

by Michael Chang

 

To be honest with you, I just assume everyone speaks Chinese

What happened to that Scottish boy with the different-colored eyes ???

If trends are cyclical, is it time to bring back CHATROOM POEMS ????

You are beautiful like my manners

Crystals really do a lot to a room I want to eat on a pile of crystals

Please do not ask abt my self-care/writing routine b/c if I had one would we be here? I think not

My Chinese eyes are all squinty from zooming in on low-res poetry images

Premium content—Madonna told me to be good & I have exceeded expectations

Haha Cavafy I wonder if he would have written abt me do you think he was into Azn

Sweaters are like hugs

Read abt Whitman “self-ghosting” & when I say I have a new kink—

RECENTLY VIEWED ???? I am still watching this ish

My default setting is Azn Glow

Read 6.5 as 6’5” & that tells you all you need to know

They say find a job you love & you’ll never work a day in your life. Well I love judging your shit

Attn universe I need to win some contests it is Chinese holiday so I can do whatever I want

What’s your favorite non-sexual act of intimacy?—NAPPING ALONE

Some of you talk so serious abt manifestly terrible poems & I’m like hehe cheese

PSA: talent is only minimally relevant. Dedication & discipline are much more important.

Chris Evans moderates & throws his shield at interruptions

If you made a horror movie, what extremely upbeat pop song would you want slowed down &
creepified to play in the trailer?—Higher Love

Between this Viet Thanh Nguyen quote (“poetry, the least expensive of the literary arts”) & Robin
Coste Lewis saying she became a poet after suffering brain damage—I feel so validated

Eoin—you’re like 75% vowels—daz hot

I don’t use track changes my word is final

Phil of the Future is still cute. I wish you well in my future endeavors

A famous author said to me: with 3 words you have ruined this picture for me you really are a poet

My work being taught—I feel very powerful almost like D. A. Powell

My poetics is pre-outburst Galliano, 16 collections a year, Couture & Pre-Fall & Cruise & Resort . . .

My brave poetics putting hot sauce in a Valentino bag

These jobs really b tryin to get me to do work for free. No to “writing tests”—have you met me?

We are poet we have no land just cup noodle

I hate mini muffins

Great enterprise invent cranapple

Baked potato, 1962

Resting like a DOG! A SICK CUSTOMER!

Maybe iz like farewell tour. Maybe iz like animal going home to die

I don’t do trends but these pink & black covers are a trend I approve hunny

I don’t know what load-bearing means but am admittedly intrigued

I’d be Patron Saint of Best I Never Had

Met a poet who said her fav books are Harry Potter I said yes yes very sad what has happened to Dobby

Need m*n to open particular jars but other than that drawing a blank

Every day I live in fear of being misidentified as another Azn poet but then I realize there’s no one like me

Writers, when you request a blurb, you don’t need to frame it by saying how gross or terrible or
whatever you are. We KNOW! TRUST!

Dog treat dat human also eat

I have the worst migraine after editing ms & this whiskey is not helping ???? I was told it would ????

Saw photo of tacos & said that is an excellent idea

Wonder if DC Madam is back in biz b/c Lady G has a flip phone so I KNOW they are not on apps

Thank you Russian giveth Chinese taketh away

A construction worker, a m*nly m*n, wants to know what’s so different abt my sex poems. Sir, I say, I am actually desirable in them. He weeps

Call me Costco b/c you need a membership & I am a lot to handle

A poet tells me they listen to Chopin while reading my work. If you’ve read my poems, I don’t foreclose the possibility that you’ve been naughty & skipped ahead, you will appreciate how hilarious that is

I am smol I am petite the Meowth of the team

I just remembered a Senator who claimed to be a tech gal but did not know how to email

Jane Hirshfield has a book called Cum Thief. I once wrote a poem abt queer angels texting. It is lost
to the anus of history now

We are poet we know what la petite mort is thank YOU!

 


Michael Chang (they/them) is a Lambda Literary fellow who was awarded the Kundiman Scholarship at the Miami Writers Institute. A finalist in contests at the Iowa Review, BOMB, NightBlock, & many others, their poems have been nominated for Best of the Net & the Pushcart Prize. Their manuscript <big shot manifesto> was selected by Rae Armantrout as a finalist for the Fonograf Editions Open Genre Book Prize, & another was a finalist in the Diode Editions Book Contest.

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.

The Dog People Who Built Bridges They Would One Day Tear Down

by Bryan Harvey

The river flowed between two nations—one younger and one older—but the river no longer reached the ocean, although it once did.

On either side of the river was a town. In these towns lived people of disparate clans. The people were strangers, but before that they were distant cousins and before that close cousins and before that, quite possibly, they were siblings, sons and daughters of the same mothers and fathers.

On one side of the river, the most popular pets were dogs that looked like coyotes. On the other side, the most popular pets were dogs that looked like wolves. Some people, but very few, on both sides of the river owned bright blue and green birds. But, again, this occurrence was a very rare thing indeed, for birds are prone to give flight and venture beyond the horizon lines of the many visible worlds that exist on the borders of antiquated waterways.

Sometimes these people built bridges, but sometimes they tore down the bridges. This is a story about one of those times: the building or the tearing down.

The men gathered stones and set them in the mud downriver from where the women bathed the town’s children and washed their clothes. The stones piled high until they reached the heights of the bank, and then the men wove hemp ropes together and threw them across the river. The great braid floated high in the air, possibly even in the path of a blue and green bird flying beyond the lines of the visible world, but ultimately the great braid landed on the surface of the moving water and coiled and uncoiled like a snake in the current. The men pulled in the rope and tried again. After several tries, the men managed to lasso a stump protruding from the soil on the other side. Then, holding onto the thick braid of hair, they crossed.

Once on the other side, the men built another stone tower, braided more ropes, and made the bridge easier to cross. When the bridge became easier to cross, more and more people crossed. People crossed in both directions, and some people forgot upon which side of the bridge they had originated. Men and women would go to the custom houses on either side and ask to see the record books, but the books only proved that the bridge had been crossed many times by many peoples and that origin stories made about as much sense as ghost stories.

In fact, people were haunted by the invisibility of their own origin stories as the howling of their dogs that looked more like wolves and coyotes grew louder and the flights of green and blue birds decreased as the bird population within the realms of the visible worlds dwindled with each setting sun and each rising sun and the overall passage of time. In the end, however, some people began to feel frustration over the cloudiness of the past and how it had come to resemble the brown murk of the river where they cleaned their children and washed their clothes. And, with this mounting frustration, meetings were called on both sides of the river.

At these meetings, people complained about the bridge almost as much as they had once complained about the lack of a bridge. And, in this complaining, the two towns hatched two plans which were really part of a single plan. When night fell and as the dogs howled and no birds flew, people passed on the bridge like the hints of shapeless shadows. Hidden in their coats and stowed away in their bundles were all sorts of tools: shovels and picks and hammers and dynamite.

When they reached the opposite sides from where their journeys began, they winked and nodded to one another in the darkness and took out the same tools that the build-ers of the bridge had used and they began to tear it down. They removed the stones with a great deal of clamoring grunts and metal on stone. They severed the braids and even lit them on fire. The coils floated downriver like great flaming snakes—orange furies against the blackness that eventually hissed gray smoke. Then they blew up the found-ations, and those who had not woken to the sounds of metal clanging on stone awoke to the sound of artificial thunder.

 But each of the two plans had a problem, which really was the same problem. They left themselves no way of return. They were stranded. And, because history still would not share its grand secrets, they did not know if they were stranded on the right or the wrong side. This realization struck them like lightning, and they panicked because what they realized was that they knew nothing other than how to destroy the one thing they understood. And it was this reasoning that led each group to construct out of the rubble of the old bridge a new bridge. So, working from a single plan that was really two plans, each group set about building a bridge, which was really two bridges.

When those responsible for the tearing down of the first bridge and the building of the second and third bridges passed from the visible world, the same problems arose in their sons and daughters. People were bothered by crossings and unclear stories and so more bridges were destroyed.

Yet, the destruction always left the same problem: no escape from the wrong or right side of the river. And it was often as the dust and smoke settled on the moving waters that the deserted looked towards the sky, hoping to witness a blue and green bird in flight, and found themselves howling—either like wolves or like coyotes—at their loneliness reflected in the moon’s yellow eye.

Such was true of the first bridge, and such was true of the last bridge. And such was true of all the bridges in between. And somewhere in all that building and not building the river was lost.


Bryan Harvey lives and teaches in Virginia. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming
in FlashBack Fiction, Moon Park Review, Hobart, No Contact Magazine, Heavy Feather Review, The Florida Review's Aquifer, and Cold Mountain Review. He tweets at @Bryan_S_Harvey. Most of his rough drafts begin on long runs and are never finished.