A Place for Those without a Place

A short story by Thomas Elson

Gerald Xavier Kilmer placed his cell phone on the corner of his walnut desk, breathed in deeply, exhaled, looked down from his fourth story window, and saw for the second time that day what he had experienced more than thirty-five years earlier. Kilmer turned away, his eyes followed the long corridor connecting other executive offices, and then he turned back toward the window. When he looked down, it was gone.


Thirty-five years ago, he stood in front of an armed guard, the one rumored to have been the state’s hangman, as he paired the men together. The wind ricocheted from building to bus, then exploded in Kilmer’s face as he stood on the gravel driveway highlighted with small mounds of snow. Another guard shackled the prisoners. First, the individual waist chain, then wrists were secured at the waist with handcuffs. These followed by leg chains attached to each man’s ankles, then a single chain which bound two men’s ankles, one to the other.

“On the bus,” The guard said. Each word pronounced slowly with a pause in between. “On to the bus, ladies.” The former executioner’s voice was amplified by his face—scowling, defensive, angry at some ancient slight, eager to drive his anger into the first defenseless opportunity. Capital punishment by lethal injection had killed his status among the prison guards and relegated him to a bilious bus driver.

Kilmer was one of the prisoners transported that day from a county jail to the State Penitentiary shackled to a man he had never seen—probably someone from solitary. Chained one to the other, they hopped in unison toward the feeble transport bus with its sun-splotched dashboard, no circulating air, windows covered by welded W-beams, and two-degrees hotter than hell—even in early January. Kilmer and the other prisoners sat behind a heavy chain-link wall with their hands locked at their hips.

The arthritic bus gathered momentum, then stopped, creaked, coughed, and exhaled smoke that compounded the odor of unwashed prisoners, guards dripping with anxiety-sweat, and the mold from the bus seats.

The driver cranked the ignition again, shouted at no one—then to everyone:

“They ever service this POS?”

It was going to be a difficult sixty miles, made more difficult by the former hangman’s insistence on complaining about his every imagined slight. “This’ll be a joy,” Kilmer said to himself without smiling. He kept his own counsel in county, decided early to avoid groups, knew he had just enough of a sentence to satisfy a politically savvy district court judge.


The bus bounced over the gravel path, stopped at the main gate for a security check, and drove past the chain-link fence, soon to become the twenty-foot limestone walls of the State Penitentiary.

Sixty miles later, a singular view. The bus crested a small hill, continued down the ridge and toward the right—Lecompton State Penitentiary. The bus was silent. Even the driver stopped bitching. Each man silent. Their fears surfaced. Their intestinal fortitude strained to hide fear, bury helplessness.

From guardhouse, to towers, to stone walls seven feet thick and twenty feet high. Blank stares. Clenched teeth, tight jaws. Eyes darted, as if following a large predatory bird. As the bus edged closer, the noise rose. The men attempted to mask their dread with quick, explosive talk. The one-liners of fear.

Soon to be under the superficial control of the prison guards; in fact, they would be under the care, custody, and control of the rules and customs long established by other prisoners. Alpha prisoners who filled the authority vacuum, and organized to enforce the unique common law of the prison cells and yard. Within minutes, Kilmer’s perspective changed. Prison reality would descend later—locked down inside the cell house, where authority was transferred.

The guardhouse gates opened. Kilmer walked through. He saw drawn faces surrounding abandoned eyes. Men with limps he would soon learn they did not have when they entered prison. Parts missing—parts buried within the prison walls. Keep your eyes down, but stay alert. Don’t look, but observe everything. Kilmer and the others were unshackled on the rock-strewn lot. Sounds alternated between crunching and hammering.

“All right girls, y’all fresh meat now.” Without another sound, the driver’s body bounced up and forward, as if he were laughing as he uttered his default phrases: “Asses inside, ladies. You somebody else’s problem. Keep your legs crossed. And don’t drop the soap.” The other guards ignored him.

The Lecompton State Penitentiary. Officially renamed the Lecompton Correctional Facility. A rose. To Kilmer it was a name change representing only a name change. Built by prison labor in the 1860s, the first cell house completed by 1867, and in continuous operation except for the 1896 smallpox shutdown. The central 11-acre maximum-security prison was surrounded by a 46-acre medium security unit and a separate 85-acre minimum-security area. Towers staffed by guards with rifles, each unit separated by limestone walls and concertina wire. Over 2,480 inmates and a folklore of serial killers that ranged from Richard Hickock and Perry Smith to Lowell Lee Andrews and the BTK serial killer.

Kilmer walked past old men with hunched backs whose resentful eyes followed him. His mouth tightened like a drawstring—then grimaced. He held his head down just enough to seem disinterested, but alert enough to see danger with eye contact made too fast for anyone to take offense.

He shuddered. Scenes flashed as if in a movie—images of young men, heads raised, eyes alert—temporarily above the rules; older men, hope absent, heads and eyes lowered and replete with resentment and distrust; the oldest men, bent and limp like effigies—always crouched as if expecting another body blow. The long-timer’s bravado. The short-timer’s briskness as if passing through on an assignment. An assignment unwanted as hell, but an assignment nonetheless. Consigned to a place for those without a place, surrounded by rage, with just enough hope to inhibit further hope.

During processing, guards separated the new arrivals. Some were assigned to Cellblock D—a semi-isolation building inside the walls; others to Cellblock E—a circle of World War II Quonset huts located fifty yards outside the walls, exclusively for child abusers. The child abusers had remained inside the walls just long enough to scare the living hell out of them. The repeat offenders were assigned to Cellblock A, the notorious limestone fortress—four men into cells designed for two. First-timers, including Kilmer, were sent to Cellblock C for further observation with a more gradual integration into the general population.

As soon as Kilmer entered Cellblock C, a muscular man walked by, looked at Kilmer—whiter than Queen Elizabeth—and then laughed. The man called out to the prisoners seated at a nearby table, then to everyone, “Hey, look; a white guy in Lecompton. They’re ain’t no hope for us now.” He slapped his right thigh and walked on.


After Kilmer returned from the Mess Hall, he sat on the top bunk hoping to remain separated from the others. On the right side of his bunk, a shadow moved, then he heard a voice—“Hi. I’m Seán Tyler.”

On the same side of the bunk, another prisoner walked up, and smiled. “Hickock.” Waited a moment. “James Hickock. Not the other one,” said the tall, thin, crevassed man, referring to Richard Hickock from the 1959 Clutter family murder. He smiled as he talked.

Kilmer leaned away. His voice rose a panicked octave. Words sprinted from his mouth: “I’m sentenced for a short time. I’m engaged. I teach law. And I’m straight.” He caught himself. Regretted his mistake. He had been determined not to reveal his background.

Both Tyler and Hickock smiled. Hickock’s face open and calm, he continued, “Not why I came over. Just wanted to make sure you had what you need. Do you have a glass or cup for water?”

“Yes,” Kilmer said, determined not to become indebted to anyone.

Hickock extended his hand. “Okay, then. I’m in for manslaughter, hit with the bitch.” He said, referring to the third strike law—third felony, you’re in for life. “So, I’m not going anywhere. If you need anything, let me know.”

Kilmer returned Hickock’s gesture with a handshake and a simulated nod of appreciation. As soon as Hickock turned away, Kilmer exhaled. His back was tight, and his neck began its chronic ache.

Tyler, who had not moved during the exchange, waited for Hickock to leave, then said, “I’m in for first-degree murder. Twenty-five to life. Circumstantial evidence. I’m appealing. Since you teach law, could you explain my trial transcripts to me?” He stepped forward, then said, quickly, “What’re you in for?”

Kilmer answered, “I was accused of allowing planes filled with marijuana and cocaine to land on my parents’ farm. Just let ‘em land, let ‘em unload, let ‘em drive off, and not call the sheriff, and I got $2,500 bucks a visit—two visits per week for three years.” Kilmer looked at Tyler as if assessing whether to continue. “Told I’d get a misdemeanor. Judge gave me just enough of a felony sentence to justify being sent here. My best guess is I’ll be here three-to-four months.”


Kilmer and Tyler were assigned jobs with the Lecompton Quartermaster. Each day they stacked the cleaned laundry, then sorted the dirty laundry underneath the outside stairway of the cellblock. They worked together for three days before Kilmer uttered a complete sentence when he asked his first question, “Did you have any Christmas in county?”

“Not even music. Not a sound. Nothing special. Same damn food. Same everything.” Tyler said, as he tossed dirty socks into the stained canvass laundry bin.


At 6 a.m. the next day Kilmer woke with a momentary feeling of freedom, then quickly slid back into reality. Daily decisions. Make ‘em quick. Know where you are. Know how to act. Know the routine. Don’t screw up, don’t look up, and don’t bend over. No favors accepted. No debts incurred.

At 7 a.m., after a guard opened the door, the men were led over to the Mess Hall. As Kilmer walked down the metal steps onto the cement, he heard the wind slam the door against the guardrail. Out into a world of browns and grays lacquered with splotches of industrial green. The color combination of depression and despair usually seen in hospital basements.

A large auditorium with a raised stage at one end doubled as the Mess Hall. Men lined up against the wall near a small, waist-high food service opening. Knives were withheld, even though fork tines served as a respectable substitute. Single tables bolted to the floor—six prisoners to a table. No long rows as in movies. Too difficult to patrol. The Mess Hall divided by a railing that in practice color-coded the prisoners.

“The food’s the same,” Kilmer said. “Brown and white. No matter what they call it, it’s always brown and white.” Kilmer remembered a county prisoner warning about the bread. Don’t eat the bread. The cook fucks the bread. Kilmer grew sarcastic. “Well, at least, nothing bad could happen here.”

After several minutes, Kilmer said to Tyler, “Lucky for us.”


“Lucky for us. Not being sent to A-Block.”

“I’ll be there soon enough”, said Tyler. “You get a decent bunk assignment?”

“Yeah. Typical institutional crap. I’m six-three and have the bottom bunk. The guy on the top bunk is about five-four and sixty years old. Has to jump, hang, then swing to get on the top bunk.”

Tyler pointed to a squat man with a blaring voice. The kind of voice emitted by skinny children from large families whose parents have interests elsewhere. A blaring voice usually followed by a sad-eyed parent saying, “I said no. You can’t.” Usually followed by more bellowing, followed by a louder adult voice, followed by a raised hand and a slap, or with the parent bending over and handing the child the sought-after candy.

“There’s Jerry. I don’t know exactly what he’s in for. He just spends time talking about Russell the One-Eyed Muscle, up the Muddy River, and how when you get out of prison, your soldier can stand at attention, but you can’t make him spit too good.”

Tyler glanced at the peeled, gray floors, and continued: “Jerry also said he was a comedy writer for John Belushi. I doubt it, but he sure can manipulate the system.” He went on to explain how Jerry obtained glasses, then contact lenses through the prison systems, and then how he got his teeth filled and capped.

“The white guy over there,” he continued, motioning toward a stocky, hunched, middle-aged prisoner with a puffy face that served as a roadmap for the results of running a con. “That fellow used to run a check-writing scam on merchants. He’d come into a town, get a bank account, order printed checks, come back after he got the printed checks, buy things like power lawnmowers and refrigerators in the morning, and cancel the purchase in the afternoon, get cash for the returned goods, and leave the merchants with worthless checks. He was caught when one of his meth-whores started talking inside a store. I think they now require a ten-day wait.”

Kilmer stopped eating and said, “You know, just to say it, I’d give some thought to avoiding those kinds of folks.” He caught himself and refocused, “I made a decision in county to stay away from those types.” He looked at Tyler, who was scanning the Mess Hall, and added, “But I’ve got months, not years.”

“Decades,” said Tyler. “I have decades.”

Kilmer said nothing.


As Tyler was leaving the Mess Hall, a guard standing by the raised stage pulled him over.


The guard responded, “I’m pattin’ you down. You carryin’ food? Spread your arms and legs.”

While the guard bent over to frisk him—legs first, then hips—Tyler, with a smooth one-arm motion, extracted the milk carton from his tattered jacket sleeve, and, with the movement of a surgeon, placed it on the stage. After the guard had searched his coat sleeves, he dismissed Tyler, and bent over to frisk the next prisoner. As if his first-degree murder conviction weren’t enough, Tyler cemented his reputation when he picked up the milk carton, placed it back in his coat sleeve, and walked away.

Outside the Mess Hall, dusk buried the prisoners while moving klieg lights exposed them when they leaned against a building. A distant amplified voice: “Step away from the walls… the walls… walls… walls.” The last word reverberated, like Lou Gehrig’s farewell speech. Gothic buildings, cement expanses, stone towers. Impenetrable and immovable. Steel and locks. Patrols and rifles. Their way or solitary. As if thrown into deep water at night, unable to swim or to come to the surface.


Days later, after a dinner of fatty beef (dry as July mashed potatoes), boiled green beans, white bread, and red Jell-O, the guards herded the prisoners back for the evening. Kilmer asked Tyler a central prison question: “How did you get caught?”

The rolled-in television emitted drone-like mantras of canned laugh tracks peppered with over-acting, laced with insults and gratuitous attempts at humor.

Tyler said, “When they came for me I had no place left to go, so I surrendered.”

Kilmer waited for a while, stood, then said, “I’ll be right back.”

When Kilmer returned, he carried Tyler’s trial transcripts, and dealt them on the bunk like a deck of cards. “Pick a card, any card,” Kilmer said with the right side of his mouth tilted upward.

Tyler’s eyes caught the yellow sheets extending from the white transcript pages.

“I’ve made a few notes,” said Kilmer, understating his review. He looked at Tyler, then said, “Who the hell did you piss off?”

Tyler looked up. His face began to form a scowl, before he saw Kilmer’s smile.

During their review, as the guards walked the perimeter outside the cage pretending to maintain a semblance of order, Kilmer outlined his thoughts.

“To start off, certain things didn’t happen in your trial that should have.” He reached for the transcript’s first yellow sheet.

“First, why wasn’t your attorney given a copy of the autopsy tape recording? And where are your copies of the autopsy photographs?”

“And,” Kilmer’s voice sounded like a repeating rifle, “was the person who did the autopsy a certified forensic pathologist, or some moonlighting elected coroner? Those bastards are rife in rural counties.” Kilmer took a breath, and outlined his basic thoughts about Tyler’s witnesses: none called—his attorney’s skill—no cross exam questions asked.

Tyler looked up, mouth slack, eyes clouded.

Kilmer continued, “I didn’t read any of the usual cross exam questions that anyone testifying as an expert is subjected to.” Kilmer glanced down and saw Tyler’s ashen face.

“Sorry to be so damn direct. Let’s just get through this. No need to answer any of my questions,” said Kilmer as he reached for the next yellow sheet.


A few days later, Tyler returned Kilmer’s favor when a tall man with a strained face came within twelve inches of Kilmer and said, “You look like the kind of man that has a Pilipino wife.” A threatening statement given the environment.

Tyler, known as a high-status prisoner with his twenty-five-to-life sentence for first-degree murder, stepped between the two men. “No, no, he has a very nice family; just like mine,” he said. The man backed away.

Kilmer, grateful as hell, knew that Tyler had never seen his family, since Tyler never had visitors.

Then, without notice, a loud voice: “Who? Who the hell? Why?” An echoing voice—a roar lowered to a rising chant. They saw a column of a man holding a wrinkled, brown paper sack, his right shoulder and the right side of his head pressed against the wall as he walked.

Another prisoner dressed in a t-shirt and headband walked up to the large man and said, “Stop it. Stop asking those questions, or you’ll end up in the psych ward.” He pulled the man’s head down and whispered something. The man became silent.

Tyler looked at the two men. “What’s that about?” he asked.

“He keeps walking like that and asking, ‘Why?’ Then mumbles. His voice gets louder and deeper until his protector over there shuts him up. The guards steer clear.”

The next day, three guards came for the man who held his life in a paper sack. As they led him down the corridor, Kilmer heard the man repeat, “Why?” Then he disappeared.

Kilmer fixated on the man. “They’ll bury him in solitary. Christ. He’ll never see sunlight again. Die of neglect in that isolation hole.”

The blare from the guard hit Kilmer’s ears:. “Get off. Move away. You can’t sit there. You, Kilmer, take a broom and sweep.” He pointed directly at Kilmer.


On Sunday morning, breakfast and church services were voluntary. Cellblock C inmates could sleep in. Kilmer and Tyler moved to a window by Kilmer’s bunk.

“How was it—the sweeping?” asked Tyler.

“Sweeping. Hell. After sweeping, he had me clean the toilets. Told me the warden was coming, and he wanted him to see me working. I guess it makes a good impression to have a white guy doing manual labor. Warden never did show up.”


Three months later, before breakfast, while Kilmer and Tyler were talking, a guard shouted, “Kilmer, pack your shit, and get. You’re leavin’ in thirty minutes. Sheriff’s comin’.”

Kilmer stood mute. Tyler said, “Give me your coat.” When Kilmer entered Lecompton, in the luck of the pull he had been handed a new, lined, denim winter coat. Tyler exchanged his thin jacket for Kilmer’s coat, and added, “They’ll never notice it when you leave.”

Kilmer grabbed Tyler’s shoulder. “I’m so scared,” he said.

Tyler, surprised, said, “You’ll be okay. Out in forty-eight hours. Guar-onteed.” Kilmer pulled him in for reassurance. “Thanks. You made this shit bearable.”

With that, they walked down the corridor. The deputy sheriff met Kilmer at the door. After the deputy said all the things required at a time like this, he handcuffed Kilmer and with his left hand guided him away.

Kilmer heard Tyler call his name. He turned his head sharply toward the long corridor. Seán Tyler was gone.

Thomas Elson lives in Northern California. His short stories, poetry, and flash fiction have been published in the United States, Ireland, Wales, England, India, and South Africa.


Bob’s Big Promotion

A short story by Z. M. Darkbloom

The ineffable Sun God Sal, Bringer of Light, Life, Growth, and Sunburn rose every day, and he had done so tirelessly for billions of years. His loyal subjects remained anchored in primordial mud beneath him, dutiful human-apes slouching lowly on two limbs before such an awe-inspiring tapestry of clouds and stars, convinced that the Bringer of Life would not ascend the divine summit of heaven without their offerings and prayers. But how could such simple nether-beasts know that Sal would rise regardless of their groveling? Not that they really considered this—and, if they did, it’s not as though these thoughts would have kept them from sleep or solace. Bob didn’t like to question the ways of the Gods anyhow, or much of anything for that matter—but today he was certain of one thing: Today he was getting that promotion.


He rose with Sal as tradition dictated. Naked, he anointed his body in red and yellow paint, lit incense, and through the cloying smoke he prostrated himself before the Gods as the emberous Father of Light and Life rose to the East. Then Bob strolled naked through his meager apartment to the kitchen. He sat and ate cereal at a small wooden table, reading the newspaper and checking text messages on his phone. Afterward, he showered and shaved and washed off the ceremonial paint, and dressed himself in a new pair of slacks, a white dress shirt, and a garish red and gold tie. This will please Sal, he thought. Before Bob left, he cast bones before his personal altar—the way they landed, what they spoke of, well… praise be unto Them! Success was assured. He smiled and strolled outside to greet this glorious new day, not just a gift from the Gods, but surely a promise.


It was a bright, ceremonious fit of a Sacred Monday, mankind gloriously heading back to work after a weekend of rest, golden bars of light beaming down from the heavens with the dawning of morn, the world of animals alive and slithering. The budding elms and maples that lined the city streets waved in the wind amongst the noodling of the telephone wires above Bob’s head, and with the car windows down, he could smell fresh grass clippings and fragrant spring blossoms in the air. Neighbors waved to him as they strolled the sidewalk. Bob waved back, and as he rolled up to the town’s center an earthy odor of rot filled the car. Bob smiled at this—his favorite part of the day—the approach to the roundabout named “Solstice Circle”. Here the Ceremonial City Engineers designed a monument that was unparalleled for hundreds of miles. The nearby settlements and villages looked upon Solstice Circle with jealousy and spite, praying to Lord Vishra, Goddess of Fury and Scorn to smite them down, but alas, the gods shed only their blessings, or so the High Priests told themselves. At the center of the roundabout a massive granite pyramid was erected, with polished onyx blood-letting channels leading symmetrically down in a star-shaped pattern from the great sacrificial stone tablet at the top of the monolith. Through all the seasons the monument to eternity bore fruit.

The winter had been gentle that year, and spring was promising, with great heaps of organs filling the moat that the blood-letting channels oozed into quite generously. The smell was pungent, a bouquet of copper and iron and sweet decay rich in the air, the grounds covered in thick and syrupy blood. The outer edge of the circle was adorned with heads skewered on long wooden spikes, and mounds of bodies were stacked on each side. Bob smiled as he drove around this holy tribute, certain that today was his day. He nodded to the great ziggurat, offering a silent prayer as he passed its mighty circumference, keeping an eye on it in his rear-view mirror, the heads on spikes disappearing behind him on the way to work.


Bob arrived at the office ten minutes early but Kenneth was already there before him, dressed in the same garish tie Bob wore. He frowned, but Kenneth smiled.

“Look at Father burn,” Ken said, nodding at Sal. (“Praise be unto Him,” they both uttered.) Bob nodded and looked away, attempting to shrug off Ken’s stupid, friendly chatter.

“Hey, I’ve been reading up on the old ones,” Kenneth said—”can you believe these people used to think the Great Sun God…” (“All praises be unto Him,” they both murmured again) “… was just the eye of some asshole called Ra? How dumb is that?”

“Who’s Ra?” Bob asked. Kenneth shrugged.

“Some old god, some superstition—but just the eye? I mean, c’mon! What kinda god is missing an eye? And what kinda idiots even worship something preposterous like that?” Bob frowned.

“I dunno,” he said as he opened the door to the office.


With the last few employees filing into the small brick building, Ashra, High Priestess of the Office spoke over the intercom:

“Sal brings us a new day once more…” (“All praise be unto Him,” the office murmured) “… and to answer His generosity we shall bring Him gifts to slake His fiery hunger, to bid Him rise once more. Let us pray and satiate the Gods of Dawn—Bean, Goddess of Coffee; Bengal, God of Toasted Breads; Birdie, Goddess of Morning Song; and Contraxius, Lord of Business!”

At this, the office prostrated themselves on their plastic floor mats, their rolling chairs offset to one side before their computers, and they offered up their sincerest gratitude and thanks.

“Praise be unto You,” they murmured, bowing towards Sal twenty-seven and a half times, as tradition dictated.

“And Praise be unto us,” Ashra answered through the intercom. “Now let us go out and seek new contracts, bring new glory to the Gods, and if we please Them, then perhaps the great Taco Truck will bless us with a hearty lunch as it often chooses to parketh in our lot.”

“Amen,” the office workers cheered, “Amen!”

Bob set to work, calling more clients, securing more contracts. Kenneth walked to the kitchenette at the back of the office and toasted a bagel. Gloria the intern brewed another pot of coffee, and the office partook.

Praise be to the Gods, Bob thought. Praise be unto Them.


At noon the taco truck waited in the parking lot of the office.

So the Gods truly be on our side, Bob thought, a sure omen that his promotion was forthcoming, that he would be guaranteed to dwell forever with Sal on the Plain of Light, a halo of stars to be all his own, infinite wisdom just out of reach from the limitations of this dirty, deathly, physical realm.

He ordered five carne asada tacos, and once he had his plate he strolled towards the Sacred Sun Altar that was surrounded by a small grove of pine trees behind his office. As was custom, he offered a taco before the large, carved stone altar at the center of the tree ring, leaving it there for the immortals among the many previous taco offerings, and he bowed before it. Then he sat down in the dirt at the edge of the grove of trees, too unclean to sit with the Gods themselves, and he ate in silence. When he finished, he entered the office and Ashra’s voice resounded through the intercom. Bob and his fellow employees prostrated themselves on their black plastic floor mat prayer rugs.

“Let us give thanks,” she said, “to Taquitzo, God of Tacos, let us give thanks to Sal for this unrelenting flood of daylight, let us give praise to Contraxius for another fruitful morning, and may an even more bountiful afternoon be ours, a gift for us to utilize—precious time for us to build upon.” (“Praise be unto the Gods,” the office murmured in turn.)

Bob set to work with a spirituous fervor, like a man possessed, like an animal who was more beast than man.


The work hours were almost up, and already Sal’s love and light and warmth waned towards impending night, the fire of the Father giving and taking His brilliance as He saw fit, coming up short in the fall to inspire faith in the weak hearts of men, and rewarding their piety with the bursting forth of light and life in the spring.

Ashra spoke over the intercom once more, completing the day’s triad of holy proclamations. The front of the office all bowed low on their floor mats as she spoke:

“I am pleased to announce, before the highest Gods and us lowliest mortals, that our new promotion has been chosen,”—this is it, Bob thought, this is my moment—”and that promotion, Ashra said, is Kenneth!”

Kenneth blushed there on the ground a few feet away from Bob. The office cheered. Kenneth bowed up and down on his prayer mat, he bit his lips, he smiled and cried out in joy as sobs of glee shuddered through his body.

“I am not worthy, I am not worthy,” he cried. Everyone in the office cheered.

Dammit, Bob thought, not smiling, not cheering. Dammit. On a sacred Monday? She chooses him?

Ashra entered the corridor to the front office, a vibrant floral-patterned dress kissing her ankles as she walked, feet angled on hallowed high heels, face covered in a traditional black silk veil, auburn hair tied back in thick braids. She bowed before Kenneth, who bowed to her from the ground, and she took him by the hand.

“Stand,” she said, and he did.

With Ashra’s two burly, robed attendants in tow, they walked outside, heads held high while the rest of the office worshippers remained bent low before them. Before Kenneth exited the building, he wiped away a tear, and then he turned and winked at Bob. Kenneth exited the building and closed the door behind him. The rest of the workers remained on the ground, eyes pressed down into the plastic of their prayer mats, with only Bob sneaking glances up to the door, cursing his lowly mortal status as they waited for Ashra’s return.

The employees laid there for minutes that spanned on like an eternity to Bob. In his excited frustration, he forgot he had to pee. He squirmed on his mat, curious now if people had to engage in bodily functions on Sal’s Eternal Plain of Light, when his thoughts were interrupted by a clanging of bells as Ashra opened the front door to the office. She gracefully bowed as she entered the building with blood smeared across her face in the shape of a hand print. She held a brass blood bucket in her left hand, and in her right hand was a dipper. Her attendants stood behind her at either side, holding up bowls of smoking incense and brass bells. As the chimes ceased their ringing, Ashra spoke:

“As you depart from us great Sal, let us offer you this blood, these organs, this head, this heart—in the covenant that you shall rise again.” Ashra dipped her spoon into the blood bucket, and she flung it this way and that, adorning the office in Kenneth’s DNA. The employees cheered, every last one of them except Bob, who only burped quietly in disappointment.

The blood splattered all across his co-workers, across the walls, across Bob’s shirt, across his garish tie, and as it splattered into his face, he spat.

“Dammit Kenneth,” Bob murmured to himself. “Always been such a show off.”


Ashra finished anointing the office in blood, then walked back to her private chambers, her attendants waiting faithfully outside the door as tradition dictated. She clicked the intercom once more to free the children of the Gods from their work day—she spoke deeply and slowly:

“May Mother Moon guide your sleep tonight, and may the Traffic Gods Stahp and Gho show you a swift, safe and merciful journey home. (“Praise be unto Them,” the office chanted in response.) Ashra then sat down and called upon the Sacrificial Body Movers to come and pick up Kenneth’s pieces to be displayed ornamentally at the revered grounds of Solstice Circle. Then she phoned Michael, owner of the taco truck.

“Yeah, yeah,” she said. “Please come by our office again tomorrow for lunch. Noon is perfect. Thank you.”

She hung up and smiled fervently, staring through the office windows into the distance. Then she dipped her hand in the ceremonial brass bucket, the blood coagulating and cooling between her fingers. Ah, she murmured to herself as she craned her neck, closed her eyes, and wiped another smattering of Kenneth’s blood across her face.

“Praise be unto Them,” she said, “Praise be unto Them.”


Bob drove home. He rounded Solstice Circle and as he watched the heads on spikes disappear past eye-shot in his rear-view mirror, he lamented that once more he was not there as sacrifice for all to see. What went wrong? Was he not worthy? Had he not divined the day? Had the bones blessed by Sal himself not read in his favor? No, it wasn’t Sal, it wasn’t the bones. Bob had just read them wrong. No, no, wait. Couldn’t be. It must be the bones. Or maybe it was a hex. A curse. Something or somebody else. However it tumbled out though, he would practice the night rituals and prayers. He would divine the rocks and bones and tarot and tea once more, and surely he would understand. Surely, he would come to know.

Z. M. Darkbloom is a writer living in Southern California, where he enjoys camping, traveling, and musing on the absurdity of humanity’s rich primate heritage.

A Trick My Father Learned in Prison

A short story by Donal Mahoney

I’m not saying my father hated the English, God forbid. If he were still alive, he’d hate to hear me say that. He’d correct me right away and say he didn’t hate the English. Truth be told, he despised the English, especially the Black and Tans. They were the troops the English sent to take over Ireland before, during, and after the Troubles in 1916. That was the time when the Irish first fought seriously for their independence.

My father would tell me often about what the Black and Tans did to him in 1920, at age 16, when he was captured while running guns for the IRA through marshes in rural Ireland. He knew the marshes in County Kerry very well because he was reared there as a farm boy. The IRA thought a boy like him would never get caught. But a boy carrying guns was not a common sight in the marshes of County Kerry.

The Black and Tans put him in a cell with a dirt floor. He sat on that dirt for a month after they broke both his legs with rifle butts. They were in no hurry to summon a doctor.

A cellmate gave him a pad of paper and he would sit on the dirt writing his name backwards with his left hand until his signature matched the normal one written with his right hand.

Decades later, in America, after he had been expelled from Ireland and had married my mother and settled down with a job in Chicago, I heard many stories not only about his life in a jail cell, but his life milking cows and goats on a dairy farm as a young boy. He had to do that if he wanted his oatmeal for breakfast.

I was in grammar school in the Forties when I heard a lot from my father about the Irish seeking their independence. His stories were a lot better, I thought, than paying 25 cents on Saturday afternoon to see a Western with Gene Autry at the local movie house, even if the movie was followed by 25 color cartoons.

One day after school I had some friends over at the house. My father, a man of many moods who was then not yet diagnosed with PTSD, took a pad of paper and, with a pen in each hand, signed his name forwards with one hand and backwards with the other, simultaneously. He then held the pad up to the long mirror in the hallway and, of course, the signatures were identical. My friends and I, crowded around him, were very young but even if we had been adults we would still have been amazed.

After my friends went home, I asked my father how he learned to do that and he told me about the Black and Tans, their gun butts and that pad of paper the cellmate gave him. Rather than write letters to his family and upset them by letting them know he was in prison, he practiced writing his signature backwards with his left hand. This was one of a number of odd things that my father had mastered, all of them interesting to a child, but not worth going into at the moment or I’d be typing for a long time.

Eventually I grew up, went to college, married, and moved to another city and my father wanted to come and visit us and see his first grandson. Fine with me, I thought. I just hoped his affable mood would last and not disappear during the visit. I didn’t want to impose on him the nighttime crying of an infant since he had lived through that with me as a colicky child and my mother said he didn’t weather it well, having to get up early for work the next morning. So I decided to get him a room at a nice hotel. However, I picked the wrong one.

I made the mistake of making a reservation for him at the Henry VIII Hotel, named after the English monarch. I can still hear my father yelling when I mentioned the Henry VIII Hotel over the phone.

Indeed, the Henry VIII was a nice hotel decorated in an English style that would truly have enraged my father. It was torn down not long after he died. But he had never been a guest at the Henry VIII, having stayed at another hotel free of any English taint. And his visit went well, all things considered. No outbursts or commotion.

Had he lived long enough, however, my father probably would have been far more upset to learn years later that his grandson, after graduating with honors from the University of Chicago, went to England to study at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar.

Tuition, room, board, and books were free, but Oxford, of course, was in England—and it was England that had sent the Black and Tans to Ireland, and it was the Black and Tans who had broken my father’s legs.

Sometimes I think about what it might have been like had he lived long enough to learn that my son had won that scholarship. I imagine calling him to tell him the news, and suddenly I can hear him yelling louder than when I told him about the Henry VIII Hotel. This time he would sound like a muezzin in a minaret on top of a mosque. Only he wouldn’t be summoning the faithful to prayers.

Nominated for Sundress Publications’ Best of the Net and Pushcart Press’ Pushcart Prize, Donal Mahoney is a resident of St. Louis, Missouri. Some of his earliest work can be found in his online collection of poems, The Gravedigger’s Son (2011), part of a series of blogs featured in The Camel Saloon’s Books on Blog™ Web anthology. Some of his newer work can be found at his poet profile page in Eye On Life Magazine.

Tiro al Blanco (Negro)

A short story by Jan L. Zepeda

There were once two university students who wanted to conduct a study on police profiling. One of them was a skeptic and believed the repeated shootings of unarmed minorities were purely coincidental. The other believed that there was something ingrained in police officers’ subconsciouses that made them target non-whites. So they decided to do a little experiment, and went down to a local gun range to ask the owner for his cooperation.

The experiment went as follows: First, they made sure that no one was at the gun range except for three police officers who frequented the place; then, they removed all of the targets and installed three of their own making. The three targets they set up were simple cardboard cutouts of a basic human outline, such as the ones seen on bathroom door signs. One of the targets was painted white, another was painted brown, and the last one was painted black. The white target was set up on the left, the brown one in the middle, and the black one to its right. Once the targets were set up they left the gun range and awaited the results.

The first day, after setting the whole thing up, they drove down to a nearby diner and waited for the gun range owner to call and say that the officers had finished. About an hour later they received the call and headed back. Upon inspection they discovered that the white target had been left unscathed—not a single shot had been fired at it. The brown target was missing its top half, as it apparently had been completely shot off. All that was left of the black target, meanwhile, was a smoldering pile of ashes.

“Surely it’s just a coincidence” said the skeptic. “Maybe they just like shooting at the rightmost target.”

They decided to do the experiment again the next day: This time they re-positioned the targets so the white one was on the right, the black one on the left, and the brown one in the middle. Once again they went down to the diner and waited. Two hours later the gun range owner called and the two students went to check the results. The white target was again left intact—this time, however, it seemed that one of the officers had laminated it. The black target was once again just a pile of ashes. The brown target was nowhere to be found, though. The two students asked the owner if he knew what had happened to it, and he told them that the officers had shot the target to pieces and then scooped up what was left, driven down south, and hurled it over the Mexican border.

By now the results seemed rather obvious. Still the skeptic refused to give in.

“Let’s do it one more time,” he said.

So again they set everything up, leaving the white target in the middle this time, and went down to the diner. After three hours they got the call and headed back. Not surprisingly, the white target was again left untouched—this time, however, an altar had been placed in front of it. Some knee prints in front of the altar and some prayer candles atop it led the students to believe the officers had been praying to it. It was also once again laminated. Again, the brown target was missing, but this time the black target was missing as well. Apparently, as the owner told it, the officers had removed the targets and driven them down to a testing site in the Arizona desert, where they had been blown apart by nuclear bombs.

Both the college students were now not only convinced, but also thoroughly pissed off, and so they decided to play a trick on the policemen. They set up all the targets just like usual, except this time they covered the white target with a thin piece of black paper, so it would look like there were two black targets. They also didn’t leave for the diner—they simply hid and observed. When some shots had been fired the two revealed themselves and called for the officers to stop shooting. They then peeled off the black paper covering the white target.

The officer who had shot it dropped to his knees and screamed, “Why god, why?!”. He looked up at the sky and continued to cry.

The other two looked absolutely shocked, but after a few moments began to brutally beat the third.

The two students wound up receiving various awards, as well as international recognition, for their groundbreaking findings. Of the three officers, one ended up becoming an alcoholic and a hobo who traveled the country spreading wisdom. (And shooting up heroin.) Another became a monk and moved to Tibet to live in the Himalayas. The third (the one who shot the white target) went on trial for first-degree murder. He was convicted in the fastest trial ever recorded. He was sentenced to be hanged—partly due to the tearful testimony of the two other policemen. After being hanged, the jury decided this was not enough, and so using groundbreaking technology they revived him and then burned him at the stake. White Target was the title of a book written about the life and death of the white target. It was later turned into a movie which grossed four hundred million at the box office and received two Academy Awards—the titular character was played by Johnny Depp.


A creative essay by Lara Lillibridge

I had not seen my father in several years, and I had no aching desire to change that. When I thought about my father, I felt nothing. He wanted to visit this past summer, and I didn’t know how to say no, for my children’s sake, if nothing else. Dementia was overtaking him, and the minute-hand of the clock was stealing the person I used to know—every day he was a little less the man I remembered. But I still did not want him to come. Whatever he had or had not been to me, it no longer mattered—I was a parent now, no longer in need of parenting.


When I was a child in my mother’s house, my brother and I spent our summers in the backyard. The grass was thick and dense beneath my bare feet, and the dark brown dirt always stained the pads of my toes. We carved fingernail x’s into our mosquito bites, in an effort to remove the itch. The cicada buzz reverberated in my ears, the tinny radio-static soundtrack of summer. I found their discarded robot/alien shells as clinging detritus on the tire-tread bark of the maple tree. The exoskeletons were the color of toast, slightly translucent. It took me a long time to realize the shells were empty and could not bite, and when I mustered the courage to touch them, they crackled into broken shards beneath my fingers.


I had spent a year plotting my father’s death when I was fourteen—I was going to push him down the brown carpeted stairs of his condo, and then inject alcohol into his veins and make it look like an accident. He was a doctor—syringes weren’t hard to come by, and I was overly confident in my ability to push a needle through someone else’s skin. In the end, I didn’t have hands that would push my father down the stairs, no matter how much my rage instructed them to. My hands were useless wounded birds controlled by my heart, which still yearned for a Daddy who loved me.


The years of unrequited love drained me of all emotion towards my father. I haven’t even been able to muster up anger in longer than I can remember. I have been full-grown for quite some time now. It is too late for him to requite my golden-retriever- like love, to fulfill all those hastily-made promises, or take me to the father/daughter dinner dance. Whatever I hadn’t gotten from him I no longer wanted. But his impending visit made me think I should try one more time, at least to appease everyone else. The night before he came into town, I thought about his attachment disorder diagnosis. Was it fair to shut him off if he was inherently incapable of feeling emotion? Hadn’t he tried the best he was able, small though that had been? He sent me stuffed animals each Christmas, weird ones, granted, like a three-foot- long snake made out of neckties or a weasel instead of the husky I had asked for, but he made time to go to a toy store and bought me something each year. He wrapped them up and wrote out a name tag with his favorite black pen. His handwriting was more familiar than his face. My father was always excited to see me, scooping me up in a tight bear hug and crushing my child-soft cheek against his black-and- red plaid Woolrich jacket.


He didn’t think it mattered that I only saw him twice a year as a child, and I have learned how quickly time passes when you are an adult compared to the never-ending feel of a child’s summer and the eternity of fifteen minutes when I rubbed the toes of my shoes in the brown-gray dirt and tried to guess how much time had passed. I decided to attempt to loosen my shell. Perhaps I could learn to see him through adult eyes. Maybe his attachment disorder really did explain all of his past failings, if only I would stop judging him so harshly. I knew we could not make up for the lost years, but perhaps it was not too late to develop some affection for the person he had become. Maybe a relationship could be had on new terms.


My father and I sat across the table from each other from each other and said nothing, like strangers at a train station. I looked at his eighty-year old hands, ropy with thick blue veins and corroded with deep lines. His fingernails were thick and clean and longer than mine. I felt nothing—not sympathy for an old, tired man, not remorse for all he had never been. I was no longer a daughter-abyss needing to be filled. We sat in silence and he looked into the distance blankly. I knew I was supposed to say something, but I had nothing left to say. My father just stared out towards my garden with unfocused eyes. When I tried to make small talk, he responded with words like, “oh,” words like air, words like emptiness. The cicada had flown, and the empty hard shell I had tried so hard to penetrate as a child was all that remained of my father.


My father peed on the toilet seat and I sat in it. My children asked why Grandpa got mashed potatoes all over the table when he ate. He tried to assemble a simple wooden toy with my seven-year- old and glued everything together backwards. My father, formerly an airplane pilot, boat captain and pediatrician, could no longer distinguish between his left and right hands, could not translate a map, could not follow a conversation to completion.


He asked to have a “heart-to- heart” with me before he left. I tried my best to avoid it. There was nothing he could say that would mean anything to me, and I hoped he didn’t expect reassurance of his parenting or proclamations of my love and appreciation. I just didn’t have it in me to pretend any longer. He stood up from the table where we were all sitting and asked to speak with me, and I could not come up with any more reasons not to. My father and I sat upstairs on my balcony, away from his wife and my family.

I could still see a tinge of brown in my father’s gray hair. His face was foreign to me. He had shaved off his beard when I was twenty, and had looked like a stranger ever since. Even though I had known him clean-shaven for more years than bearded. I always saw him through the eyes of a child, and his face was no longer the face of my childhood. I wondered if his front tooth had always been longer that it’s mate. I noticed how the extra weight he put on over the years filled in his wrinkles. He stared directly into my face, as he always had. I did not see him blink once. I could not sustain that level of eye contact, and looked at his hands instead.


My father told me about his dementia, his Parkinson’s Disease, and his relationship with his wife. He was sorry he was moving closer to her children than to me or my brother. He was afraid I felt spurned. He told me that he knew he couldn’t function like he used to, couldn’t carry on conversations or walk with his old, easy gait. His cicada words bounced off my daughter shell. I just wanted him to go home. I stared at his folded hands and made reassuring, meaningless noises, as was expected of a good daughter. But I was no longer a good daughter.

My father’s hands curled loosely on his lap, so I could not see his talon-like nails. The metacarpals rose in sharp ridges above the wrinkled red skin, his veins were bluer than his eyes. The skin on the backs of his hands was made of some material different from mine, something thinner and less opaque, like the skin of lips, that would chap and tear easily. The eighty years of his life didn’t show in his face, but were betrayed by those red, fragile hands. My body remembered his hands teaching me to tie off the boat at the dock, sew a patch on my jacket. My hands balled up so I would not reach out to stroke his fragile skin. I made an excuse to check on the children, and he followed me mutely down the stairs.

Lara Lillibridge is a graduate of West Virginia Wesleyan College’s MFA program in Creative Nonfiction. In March of 2016 she was a top 5 finalist for DisQuiet’s literary prize in Creative Nonfiction, judged by Phillip Graham. She has had essays published in Pure Slush (Vol. 11), Vandalia, and Polychrome Ink; on the web at Huffington Post, The Feminist Wire, Airplane Reading, Thirteen Ways to Tell a Story, Weirderary, and Brain, Child Magazine‘s Brain, Mother blog. Some of her recent essays have been published in Hippocampus and Luna Luna. You can view some of her work at her website, www.LaraLillibridge.com, catch up with her blog at the Huffington Post, and follow her on Twitter @only_mama.

130 MPH

A flash piece by Mitchell Grabois


Mr. Schenectady and his God were sitting in the ruined schoolhouse, the one Mr. S. lives in, the one with the roof falling in, next to the barn with the roof entirely gone, next to the overgrown grave of the farmer who plowed with horses until he was well into his eighties, next to a proud, 500-foot-tall American turbine, its blades spinning slowly.


Historically, God had compassion for whores and lepers (reasoned Reverend Anne, a 60-year-old minister who’d retired from her first career as an English teacher) so He would also have compassion for the much maligned Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, even though Christie was a blowhard, a braggart and a bully, mired in political scandal, some involving political revenge. They know about revenge in New Jersey. It was where Tony Soprano, the Mafia boss, lived. Soprano and Christie were both big fat men who demanded respect and sneered a lot. They would have enjoyed a cigar together and a single malt whiskey neat. Reverend Anne thought Christie deserved some compassion to temper the contempt that the general public felt for him. She began to study him, looking in the nooks and crannies of his life, looking in the many folds of his skin, for praiseworthy qualities, but then she realized the obvious: that God’s love was unconditional, and she stopped looking.


The turbine contemplates violence (because that’s what Americans do), angelic violence, in which wings beat like a goose wings beating a child near to death, traumatizing him for life, making him unable to even see a bird without nearly shitting his pants well into adulthood. An American Child who hadn’t even been to war yet. But wars were being prepared for him, to complete the damage begun in his childhood.


I think I need some of Anne’s unconditional acceptance. I think my dentist does too. I told her (my dentist) that if she didn’t stop stalking me, I’d call the cops and have her arrested.

She looked hurt. We live together, she said. How can I be stalking you?


The American Child’s first ex-wife filled his house with parakeets before she left him, her final Fuck You.


Despite the apparent rationality of her question, I had her by the short hairs. Since she raped me, when I was in her dental chair, my first appointment, flying on nitrous oxide, she gets edgy if I mention cops, even if it’s something as innocent as telling her about the sinister black police cars new to our city’s department. They look like Batmobiles, the officers avengers of the night behind smoked glass.


Mr. Schenectady wears a red flannel shirt. His God wears plaid pajamas, the same pajamas he wears day and night. He’s Mr. Schenectady’s God, so he can do whatever he wants. Mr. Schenectady brings him glasses of Welch’s Grape Juice without ice. When he wants more, God snaps his fingers.


We get up to 130 mph. We terrify ourselves. Then we stop at the junkyard to study cars, like philosophers studying Life, with serious expressions, waiting for mysteries to be unveiled. We see ourselves in the junkers. Bobby always sees himself as a Studebaker. He has no imagination. He once lived next to a farmer who bought a new Studebaker every year and put last year’s model into his giant, unused barn until finally there were at least fifty Studebakers. The farmer’s long-estranged son, when he finally showed up, hardly remembering the place, opened the creaky barn doors and found the four bearded Studebaker brothers, looking a lot like the mentholated-cough-drop Smith Brothers, singing celestial hymns, until they realized that they were being observed for the first time in fifty years, and the oldest was so amazed, he involuntarily farted.


My dentist, my girlfriend, came home and threw off her clothes, put on a Japanese kimono that emphasized her thinness. She had the most delicate wrists I’d ever seen on a dentist, on any woman. I could snap them like toothpicks if I wanted, but why would I? Every night she filled me with nitrous until I floated on a blue cloud, into her bed, into her body.

Don’t be cruel, honey, she begged me in the Southern accent she’d almost lost. Don’t talk about calling the police on me. I love you so much, despite your bad enamel and your periodontal disease, your fear of dentists and your phobia about dental treatment, and your resentment of me.


Mr. Schenectady hates drinking anything without ice. He once washed up in St Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, after a significant hurricane, and there was no ice for over four months. Mr. Schenectady suffered greatly, especially as he had shacked up with a hot Caribe momma who boiled his blood twice daily, so he really needed the ice. He was not an air-cooled kind of guy. So there they were, Mr. S and his God, God drinking grape juice sans ice and Mr. S. drinking water from a WWII canteen. Time passed, and they were comfortable sitting together, not even talking.


How long did it take you to get through dental school, I asked her, handing her another glass of vodka with very little tonic in it. 

I don’t know, she said. I don’t remember, but it was a long road filled with pain. The pain wasn’t mine, but that didn’t make it any easier.

Mitchell Krockmalnik Grabois has had over a thousand of his poems and fictions appear in literary magazines in the U.S. and abroad. He has been nominated for numerous prizes.  His novel, Two-Headed Dog, based on his work as a clinical psychologist in a state hospital, is available for Kindle and Nook, and in print. To see more of his work, google “Mitchell Krockmalnik Grabois”. He lives in Denver.


A flash piece by Mitchell Grabois


Javier Bardem, who starred as evil incarnate in No Country for Old Men, doesn’t believe in God. 

I believe in Al Pacino, he says, to start our interview. We act to taste life twice. He pauses. received a letter yesterday from Dr. Sara, regretting the position we find ourselves in.

Who’s Dr. Sara, I ask.


Jean-Paul Sartre wrote Nausea after watching the Oscars. Celine wrote A Long Day’s Journey Into Night after watching the Oscars. Kurt Cobane blew his brains out.

George W. Bush invaded Iraq three days before the Oscars in 2003, his eyes set on being a Big Star, standing on the deck of a battleship, hoisted into the air by thousands of hands, whole divisions of men and women. Mission Accomplished! He saw it all unfold.

3. Dr. Sara says that being mortal is a pre-existing condition, Javier says.


Maybe he could wrap it up in three days, Bush thought, before the first star hit the Red Carpet.


Meanwhile, climate change keeps getting uglier. Celebrity murderers hide in storm cellars as tornadoes destroy entire states. Nebraska is gone. Oklahoma. Where there was Midwestern goodness, there is only debris. Cyclones are airborne landfills.


Other minds besides Bush’s also failed to apprehend the consequences of their actions, until later. The twenty-six- year-old third mate was driving the ship. It was his first time in this treacherous channel and the captain had gone to his cabin.

The second mate suggested that the captain was an intravenous drug user, but the first mate told him to shut up, he didn’t know what he was talking about and shouldn’t feel free to malign the captain, his superior. The second mate was suspicious of the word “superior.”


I wanted to be married in Vegas, in the Chapel of the Eternal Elvis, but my fiancée bullied me into the Episcopal Church, where it was damp and cool, a climate for mushrooms and imprisonment.


It was then that the boat began to list. It didn’t take long. It rolled over like the third mate’s headstrong girlfriend turning over in bed. She was a white woman, nothing like the spare Koreans he had gotten used to fucking. She had round, white buttocks. In fact, he was thinking about her at the moment the ferry began to roll, how she rolled over in bed and turned on the lamp. She was reading a novel with the name of a Beatle’s song written by a famous Japanese writer whose name he could never remember. Every time he tried to think of the man’s name, all he could come up with was Hari Kari, and he knew that wasn’t it.


Whales have stopped beaching themselves, no one knows why. Dolphins have stopped acting Uncle Tom. They wear snarls and hatch plans.


She was reading the book in Japanese. He himself never read fiction and did not know Japanese. The students in their cabins texted their parents goodbye, apologized for all the misdeeds they had done, or not done, as children. George Bush, on his victory battleship, and later, never apologized for his many crimes versus humanity. Only the innocent apologize.


The priest couldn’t decide if he wanted us to end the ceremony by kissing passionately or chastely. We practiced doing it several different ways and he critiqued us, then joined us for rehearsal dinner at a Thai restaurant. The priest ordered a cheeseburger, drank several mixed drinks, then delivered a diatribe against “Asiatics.” They’re taking over the world, he said.


The bodies of the students whimpered like the wings of trapped manta rays. There was a jellywash of entombed bodies in the muddy tide, the water dark and secretive, septic even. There was a moment when nearly three hundred students’ lives blinked out, like the lights in a barracks or dormitory.

Mitchell Krockmalnik Grabois has had over a thousand of his poems and fictions appear in literary magazines in the U.S. and abroad. He has been nominated for numerous prizes.  His novel, Two-Headed Dog, based on his work as a clinical psychologist in a state hospital, is available for Kindle and Nook, and in print. To see more of his work, google “Mitchell Krockmalnik Grabois”. He lives in Denver.

Oh, Nereus

A short story by Steve Carr

The sea is my world, and it stretches on forever, on and on in the days since the sinking of my yacht, The Mercy. This world has no foothold, only islands and coasts seen on the horizon, never reached, reefs and volcanoes sprouting up like exotic flowers and simmering cauldrons in the middle of the jade-green and turquoise waters. The sea provides a mattress, a deathbed of rocking waves that lull me into sleep on this raft where I spend my days and nights; all the hours melding into years. All the years lost.

How many years since the day The Mercy went down in this watery graveyard, this salty, liquid earth? It’s like counting the pinpoints of light in the Milky Way. The days pass like that, twinklings in a distance, miscounted. I can lie on the boards and with the rising sun and its setting, watching the morning and evening skies shift, creating patterns like rotating colored glass in a kaleidoscope. I can watch the moon appear and disappear like a whale’s eye in the ocean of space.

At the bottom of the sea, The Mercy may rest in some crevice, some fissure where striped fish, gray eels and the ink-spitting octopus swim in the darkness. Maybe The Mercy is broken in half, like the Titanic, bow and stern separated, its contents – luggage, furniture, skeletons – scattered and decomposing in the depths or preserved in the coldness. Maybe the First Mate, Pete, stares out at the sharks and barracuda, watching from inside The Mercy. He’s trapped forever in the cabin as he peers with lifeless eyes through the porthole, the porthole where I last saw his has handsome face, his blue eyes full of sorrow. I fell past him, past that porthole, into the sea, tossed from the sinking yacht into the storm-driven waves.


The squall came upon us so quickly, so unexpectedly, that before The Mercy went down, Andrea didn’t have time to tie her daughter’s shows, Maximilian and Jan couldn’t tally their gin rummy score, Lucy was unable to fasten the top hook of her Christian Dior gown. Pete couldn’t get the door to his cabin open. I banged on his door. I rammed it with my shoulder.

“Pete, I need you,” I called in to him, then ran up to the deck, to the starboard side to get an ax. I wondered as I fell past his porthole if he thought I’d jumped – that I had abandoned him and the others. He must have known that The Mercy would be swallowed into the sea.

Of the others, including the effeminate Ray and his macho partner Mack, their room full of leather and feathers, of Suzanne who drank too much and looked older than her twenty years, of Sam the cook and the other servants; I don’t know they spent their final moments.

On the way to get the ax to rescue Pete, who could rescue all of us, who knew the yacht better than me, I saw Andrea as I passed her cabin. She was kneeling before her daughter, Tracy, and trying to tie Tracy’s running shoes while Tracy wailed against the horrors of the creaking ship, the pounding of the waves against every outside surface.

“It’ll be alright,” I yelled to Andrea, my shout barely heard above the stormy din.

I climbed the stairs and past the dining room and saw Jan, laughing, his Swedish voice booming “you didn’t win. I won.” Maximilian, much older than his young blond lover, was holding up the pad with the score and laughing also. They didn’t see me as I passed.

Neither did my teenage daughter, Lucy, who stood in front of the wall mirror in the living room, her feet squarely planted on the carpeted floor as the yacht tossed about, her hands behind her neck trying to fasten the top of her gown, a birthday present from me. She looked so much like her mother, the only woman I had ever slept with, when I was twenty, and before I knew what my true sexual tastes were.

The wave that washed across the yacht, that shattered port side windows and portholes, that swept me over the starboard side, seemed like a hand that held me in chilling fingers and emptied me from its palm into the sea. In that moment, beneath the water, I saw a school of fish blithely swimming on like a choreographed marching unit, and it seemed as if there were no storm at all. When I surfaced, I turned every direction, my eyes slapped with the stinging salt of the ocean as I searched for The Mercy. I was submerged again by the crush of the hand that had guided my watery fate, and beneath the water I saw the sinking yacht, The Mercy, stern-first going down into the darkness, bubbles rising from it like giant jellyfish racing to the surface.

I didn’t think at that moment about how such things happen, or why. I didn’t ponder the question of ballast or buoyancy, of the incredible sinking speed, the failure of the yacht to withstand the squall. I thought of Pete, waiting nude in his cabin for me before the squall hit, his door jammed as the boat was suddenly smacked with a monstrous wave, his voice sounding calm, yet strained, as he beat against the door before I ran to get the ax, before I was plummeted into the drifting eternity.


And now I try to count the days, the months, the years, and all are lost to me. Just as the memories fade and become distorted, so had time. The hypnotic sparkle of sunlight on sea, the mesmerizing quality of a shark’s fin slicing the water’s surface, the timelessness of playful dolphins; there things alter my perceptions and minutes become hours that become a day. I was thirty-seven when The Mercy sank, and was fit and handsome then, free of the stress of a less-wealthier life. I know by the wrinkles in my face, the whiteness in my hair, the aching in my muscles, that I have entered old age like a man who awakes from a coma and finds his past can never be regained once lost.

Even Nereus can’t stall the ravages of time that will someday be my salvation, my death. In his questioning eyes I see him pondering the growing slowness of my movements, of my weakening limbs as I swim with him beneath shooting stars.

“I’m getting old,” I say to him. “It happens to men, all men.”

He replies in a sing-song vocalization, like a quartet singing in a foreign language, tenor and soprano all at once, and though I have taught him some of my language, I can’t understand his. He reaches out and touches my hair, holds the white strands between his strong, tanned fingers and looks at me with alarm and misunderstanding.

This raft I’m on, this twelve-by-twelve board topped with a canvas tent and a single mast with a single sail, has taken me, I think, around the world, past continents and island chains. I’ve floated and sailed out where the horizon is another man’s piece of poetry. From miles off I’ve seen beaches and cities, ships and harbors. I am trapped on this cell as Nereus’ man. He doesn’t understand the concept of captive, or prisoner, or even possession, as he pulls me with a rope attached to the raft – a rope he holds in his strong white teeth as he swims the seas.

At night he climbs aboard the raft and crawls into the tent and holds me in his wet muscles. He kisses with salty lips, and we make love as he sings, and his songs attract the whales who swim with us as night as I teach Nereus over and over the ways in which men make love.

Nereus knows these things: how to bring food, fish, kelp and canned goods from sunken ships and stolen from ship’s stores; to replace my tent and sail and bedding when they are ragged, by going into harbors and stealing such things from small boats; how to pull me to safety during storms. All other things I must re-teach him every day, every night. He knows that I am changing, growing older, but I don’t think he remembers what I once was, how differently I made love at thirty-seven.

Nereus doesn’t age.

“I want to go home,” I tell him every day.

Nereus laughs and splashes in the water and pulls the rope, drawing the raft so that I go first in one direction, then another, and his message becomes clear: I am home.

“Take me there,” I tell him when we see a beach, a city, a ship. He tilts his head to one side and with grave eyes sings me what I’ve taken to be a warning, a musical note of caution, just as he does when we see a shark or we see an oncoming storm.

Occasionally he brings me things: a shoe, a wooden bowl, a piece of pretty coral. He lays these items at my feet and looks up at me with adoring eyes and rolls onto his stomach and my thank you is to take him, to make him sing, to bring the whales.

From sunken ships and harbor boats he has brought me books and clothes, and hundreds of small items, kitchen utensils and toys, and though there is not room on the raft for all these things, I have thanked him each time, thanked him because I hoped some day he would bring me a blank book, a diary and a pen, which now he’s done.


Today the sea is calm and the sun is high above the canvas tarp I wile away this endlessness of moments by recounting what till now has occurred, how my life ceased when The Mercy sank, though I am alive and fed and clothed, provided shelter and safety from the storms, and have a lover who is insatiable and infinite in his lovemaking, and amazing and breathtaking in his beauty. How many times have I cursed this all, and endless times jumped into the sea to end it, only to be pulled back onto the raft by Nereus.

Nereus has brought me a long piece of rope, a gift, laying at my feet and offering himself to me. While inside him, while he sings to the whales who sing to him, I think about the sea, the maddening sea, about getting home at any cost.

In the night the sea is as still as the day and I count the stars reflected in the black of the waters. The half-moon provides candlelight shadows as Nereus and I make love on the boards outside the tent, with the warm breeze drying him, drying his scales that cover his flipper, the whales singing in response to Nereus who seems particularly happy. Afterward we sit in the starlight as he preens his flipper. I comb his sea-green hair and decorate his long locks with starfish and pearls. I feed him seahorses, his favorite, while he strokes my weathered face.

He falls asleep in my arms and when the rhythm of his breath and the tenor notes of his sleep-sighs assures me that I won’t awaken him, I take his gift, the rope, and tie his arms and hands. I tie them so securely that even I couldn’t undo the knots without a knife. I fear that his adoring eyes, his pained song will stir me to change my mind.

When dawn comes, the sea sprinkled with shimmering sunlight, red and pink, I awake to the singing alarm of Nereus struggling with the rope. His eyes implore me, searching my face for answers. Maybe for a moment he thinks it is a game, because he smiles. But when I don’t smile back his alarm increases.

“I’m so sorry, Nereus,” I say, “but you don’t understand. I have to go home.”

Nereus looks about the sea.

“No, Nereus. This isn’t my home.”

I put up the sail and let the winds push the raft, and we float, sail on, and the day grows hot and Nereus becomes quiet. The following whales fall behind, and a school of dolphin who had accompanied us in the night, are gone from sight. I dip my hands into the sea and pour water to his lips and let him drink from my hands.

We float, sail, and I dream of home. I think about the way it would feel to walk up a tree-lined street, to feel the earth beneath me, to walk barefoot in the soil, to see a mountain, solid and unmoving. I think of how I’d smell the flowers and look up at birds other than seagulls.

In late afternoon I fall asleep, made drowsy by the breeze and warmth. I awake a while later to the sound of thrashing in the water. Nereus has rolled himself off the raft and is caught on the edge of the raft by the rope I have tied him with. Several sharks are circling around him, closing in. Nereus is singing, his sing-song voice rising out of the water like children playing flutes. I reach into the water to grab him, to pull him aboard. He looks at me, his eyes full of loathing, and he kicks at my hands with his flipper. His body breaks free from the raft – the raft he placed me on when he found me as The Mercy sank.

The sharks devour him.

Tonight I sail on a satin sea, and I have no idea where I am, but I suspect because of weather and stars it’s somewhere in the Pacific, maybe near Hawaii. If I should die on this raft in the seeming endlessness of ocean, then it will be a just and fair retribution for the death of Nereus. If I awake in the morning, or any morning, or any hour, and spot land and am saved, I’ll tell my saviors that I grew old and alone on a deserted island since the sinking of The Mercy.

The End

Steve Carr began his writing career as a military journalist and has had short stories published in Double Feature, Tigershark Magazine, The Wagon Magazine, CultureCult Magazine, Fictive Dream, Ricky’s Back Yard, Sick Lit Magazine, Literally Stories, Viewfinder, and The Spotty Mirror, as well as in the Dystopia/Utopia anthology by Flame Tree Publishing, the 100 Voices volume II anthology by Centum Press, the “Waiting for a Kiss” by Fantasia Divinity Magazine anthology, and the Neighbors anthology by Zimbell House Publishing, among others. His stories are scheduled for publication in NoiseMedium, Door is a Jar, Visitant Literary Journal, Panorama, and Bento Box, as well as in the “Winter’s Grasp” anthology by Fantasia Divinity Magazine, to name a few. His plays have been produced in several U.S. states including Arizona, Missouri and Ohio. He is a 2017 Pushcart Prize nominee.

Strawberry Daiquiris and a Hot Summer Night

A short story by Ed Higgins

A hot summer night walks into a bar and orders a drink. A frozen strawberry daiquiri with lots of crushed ice, she says. She brings with her the slightly fragrant scent of roses from outside, and a dusky, green hint of the ripening cornfield across the highway. A large, neglected rosebush outside in a half-whiskey barrel sits to the left of the green, padded vinyl door. Its leaves brittle, desiccated petals falling from wilted blooms, stark thorns you could make a halo for Jesus with. Sitting at the bar with her strawberry daiquiri, the hot summer night’s hair is limp and disheveled from the evening’s muggy air. The bartender knows her kind. She’s hot but likely poor material for a pick-up. She may be good for a couple of drinks. Another strawberry daiquiri? he asks, picking up the twenty she has left on the bar. His interest is piqued and the place isn’t particularly busy since the air conditioning broke down a couple of days ago. He’s played hell trying to get a service technician out here to fix the damn thing with all the heat-wave breakdowns apparently going around. The hot summer night is plain vanilla but not unattractive. She has a slight bead of sweat along her upper lip and the dark hair at her temples is clearly damp. Warm night out there, he says, trying a subtle approach. Sorry about the air conditioning, been out for a couple of days now. But she doesn’t care about the lost air conditioning. The hot summer night knows that even in the midst of a long, stultifying summer, rain earlier in the day leaving its mugginess, the corn harvest beginning soon—we are all nonetheless ineluctably approaching death’s long winter. She smiles, letting the bartender continue hitting on her. The hot summer night is serious enough without ever yielding to it. She orders a second strawberry daiquiri.

Edward Higgins’ poems and short fiction have appeared in various print and online journals including Monkeybicycle, Tattoo Highway, Triggerfish Critical Review, and Blue Print Review, among others. Higgins and his wife live on a small farm in Yamhill, Oregon, raising a menagerie of animals including an alpaca named Machu-Picchu.

Higgins is the assistant fiction editor for Brilliant Flash Fiction, an Ireland-based flash journal.


A short story by Scott Archer Jones

(Originally published in The Otter, no. 2 (2014).)

I, Joseph, am King of all I survey. The steam roils off the water and into the dry crisp air over the village, anointing my subjects like incense. I loll back, silver hair streaming from my temples. They always say that I look like Leonard Bernstein. The principal difference is that I am tone deaf, and he is dead.

It’s been a perfect day for me, so far. My contentment stretches out before me. I turned sixty-eight last week and the proper number of people paid obeisance – this I remembered at the moment of awakening. The market opened up in New York, rendering life even easier. I arose at seven and shaved away all my body hair, taking due care with the razor. I then drove here to the gym. After the tanning bed, I visited with Becky of the Black Tights and attended a spin class, followed by the easy version of water aerobics. Now, here in the hot tub float three of my friends and a ravishing stranger. I recline in the hot water, sense the morning’s strain of body maintenance melt into liquid magic and into camaraderie, flawed as it is. We all paid the price, spent our hour or more panting and heaving. In that shaky, ragged feeling from the workouts, we’d retreated from the fitness center to our hot tub outside. To my regret, our stranger rises up, water cascading from her hair and body, and in the twenty-degree weather flip-flops for the door. She’s quite young, about forty-five, and I undergo that stirring I call the Viagra Aftershock. I’ve felt it several times this morning.

Across from me sits my old friend, Carl. Besides being the best orthodontist in Taos, he is the original comb-over man. I’ve stared at that comb-over for twenty-five years. Now though, it has parted from his scalp and flies away as a crumpled up wing out over his left ear, angling off towards the Taos Mountain that looms above us. The Viagra and my hypertension medicine make a potent mix and they have improved my fantasy life – the drugs help me see his thoughts. A cartoon text balloon forms over Carl’s head. It reads, ‘Just this once.’ Carl’s voice comes through the steam. “Let’s troop over to the Plaza Café after we shower. I want a five-thousand-calorie salad and a Pinot Grigio.” The bubble flashes ‘Bacon, cheese – lots of cheese.’

I count nods of assent all around. I announce, “And so it shall be.” Beside me, my Egyptian beauty Noha stirs, irritated by my patronizing tone. Her thought balloon reads, ‘Really, Joseph. Shut up.’ She perches upon my right hand as I drape my arm around behind her. Her delicious bottom presses up against my palm. She is a full and charming woman, with beautiful skin and black hair, long and luxurious. Her eyes are huge and brown. I feel her weight shift as she leans forward and her thigh presses into mine. Noha is our cougar. We hear of all of her encounters, real and imagined, with the young men that she – well – hunts.

“Philip was my trainer this morning. We did lunges on the half ball. Each time, as I moved from the floor onto the ball, you know,” and she glances over at me and flares her eyes. They are enchanting eyes, like fireworks. “He’d steady me on each lunge. At first he gripped my waist, but then he moved to my knee, to keep me from drifting. At least, he started at my knee. By the end, his hands had moved up my leg – just below, nearly there. I became all flushed. He’s so strong.”

I say, “Noha, they are always strong, or you wouldn’t be interested.” She squirms just that little bit and my loins tingle. I have had that ample plump dessert – and I would go back for more.

“Yes, Joseph. You’re not jealous of youth, are you?” Her bubble indicates, ‘Time for another face lift, my friend.’

“Unlikely, sweetheart. They have stamina, but I have guile. They have a certain charm – not to mention supple and unwrinkled skin. But I have a true appreciation and understanding of women.”

Mara, the fourth friend in the hot tub, interrupts us, once again about her mother. She and Carl are burdened by family, unlike Noha and I. Instead of flying free, they drag their aged parents along behind.
Mara is Irish-fair, and as we say, beat-all-to-hell. Even for seventy, she would be rough and hard – and she’s sixty. She had plaited her hair, really iron gray but dyed to its original red, up onto her head, but it has begun to fall in the steam. The balloon over her reads ‘I’m twisted off!’ She leans over to Noha and touches her knee under the bubbling water. I believe Mara must have been a lesbian, before she gave up sex for bitterness.

“Noha,” she says. I watch the bubble spell out, ‘My angel.’ Mara pauses, a claim for our attention. “Your Mother and Dad are dead, aren’t they?”

“Yes, Mara. You know I flew home to Egypt two years ago when my mother passed on.”

“That’s right. Lucky you.”

Noha shakes her head, a furrow chasing sadness across her forehead. “Mara, that’s cruel. I loved my mother. I miss her every day.”

Mara’s thought balloon reads, ‘Typical.’ She snorts, an ugly sound of mockery. “Be glad you got out when you were young. I remember the old joke about life begins when you’re forty sleeping with twenty.”

We all chuckle for her, but she doesn’t want a laugh – she wants a tirade. “I always thought life began when your parents died.”

“But Mara,” I say. “Your mom lives in a home in Kansas. Surely she can’t be ruining your life from there?”

“She expects a call most every day. And I have to visit, every couple of months.”

Carl’s bubble displays, ‘My turn! My turn!’ Carl stutters when he’s in a hurry. “My mo mo mom lives over in Arroyo Seco and it’s a lot of work, taking care of the details she can’t handle anymore. WhWhWho would have believed I’d be babysitting when I turned sixty-three?”

Mara’s bubble reads, ‘Who gives a shit, Carl?’ She ratchets back up. “Mom will live to a hundred and ten. She looks like it already.”

Noha tries to defuse the so-unpleasant rant, “It’s only natural, Mara. They took care of us. So we take care of them.”

“No, it’s unnatural. Old people should croak in their late seventies, not hang on-and-on ruining our glory times. All those drugs and treatments, they drag it all out. It’s just pathetic, that’s what it is, a horror.” Mara’s cartoon bubble shows, ‘I could kill the old bitch.’

I think, who wouldn’t hold on to the last bitter second? A bed you’re dying in is better than the casket on the other side. I say, “Mara, it’s not that much of your time. You have a great life here with us and I don’t think you miss much. With a butched-up body like yours, you’ll outlast us all, much less your mother. Don’t worry so much about it.”

She says with raised eyebrows, “Why thank you, Joseph. That makes me feel all better.” The balloon reads, ‘Screw you, you old lecher.’

“You’ll see, darling,” says our delectable Noha. “This weekend will be our usual round, as Joseph says, of parties and laughter. I promise you at least a good meal and lots of wine.” I see her bubble waver up over her head, half-formed, murmuring, ‘A long afternoon with my trainer. A private workout.’

Carl heaves himself up by grasping my hand and jerking. Water cascades from his meager shoulders and off his pendulous belly. His balloon reads, ‘You’ll be dead in a month.’ My mouth drops. He shakes his head over me, dripping down into my iconic face.

He sloshes to the tub edge, grabs his towel. “Mara, I promise you a drink right now. Come with me to the Café and we’ll eat spinach salad with fried cheese croutons, with sliced egg and hot bacon dressing. We can even split an order of truffle fries. That and a margarita will hold the Living Dead at bay.”

I stand, turn for my towel. The wind at twenty degrees cuts through me. I shiver like the damned.


It starts slow, a perception of fullness, a distension of the belly. I get so the wine doesn’t work – I experience nausea after, and sugary desserts give me intense diarrhea. My back hurts. She hovers across from me, my Doctor. She wears a new perfume – its high-dollar scent wafting towards me. But I don’t care. Not today. “Okay, Joan, I can take it. Is it a brain tumor?” My ancient joke.

She flashes me that beautiful smile, the one so nice to wake up to. “Joseph, you wouldn’t be peeking down my lab coat and blouse if it were a brain tumor. However, it’s definitely something. I don’t like your weight loss – I know you think you worked off those love handles by yourself, but your legs and arms look, well, spindly to me. Far too thin.” A cartoon forms over her head, ‘You look like shit.’

“Then I shall return to lifting weights and guzzling growth inducers, dear. I shall bulk up enough to please you.”

She ducks her head to the paperwork. “And your blood work isn’t right. You’re hyperglycemic, with some ketone buildup in your urine. I’d swear you were diabetic if you had any history of smoking and obesity. Then there’s that back pain.”

“Admit it, Joannie. You’re puzzled. A beautiful mind in a beautiful body, but once again I baffle you.”

She chuckles, but she does it for show. “I’ll write you a referral. I want you to see an old classmate of mine in Santa Fe – he’s the best. He’ll order the workup, and we’ll find out what we’re dealing with. I’ll call ahead – I want you in quick.” Her bubble pops up, ‘Cancer. It’s always cancer.’


I am bloody cold lying here in this hospital bed. Off and on for two weeks they have scanned me, probed my orifices, inquired about the health of my sphincters. They have whittled all of my dignity away. Now they have thrust a hollow sword into my back, through my intestine and into a mass the CAT scan detected and the MRI paints like a bird’s nest in violet hues. I have a foreign body lodged within me, a frightening plague of my own cells.

Mara sits beside me. She has driven down from Taos, a two hour journey, by herself. She actually appears to care. At least she has all the right behaviors. My cartoon bubbles have failed me, so I don’t know what she really thinks. Probably ruined by the extra drugs.

She hitches forward in her chair. Now I will have to suffer through the explanations. “How big’s the mass, Joseph?” She appears distraught – amusing.

“Oh, the size of an orange. Perhaps a grapefruit by today. Of course, it is not a simple round thing. Rather messy, tangled up with my pancreas. And gut.”

Her eyebrows arch and her pupils dilate. “Pancreas!” The bitch already knows, from Noha, but we must pretend.

“Yes, Mara, we all know about pancreatic cancer. That’s why they thrust that huge, painful needle into me.” I hold up my hands, eighteen inches apart. “A monster.”

Ridiculous, playing the role, she nods. “Biopsy. You’re taking it okay.”

I know different. I am a little man inside my godlike head, screaming away. My smart phone delivered the web-page news days ago. Only a one-in-four chance to live a year. I summon a smile – it feels plastic on my face. I work harder, try for sincerity. “I am less worried than you think. I’ve always had luck on my side.”

She leans forward to take my hand. “I’m sure it’ll all work out. How long before they get the results?” Her red hair floats forward across my arm. Ghostly.

Her kindness makes me want to smash at her, and I would too, if I were not so tired. At least with unkind words. “It’s about a week. But they will peer at it through the microscope before it goes off to the lab. That should tell them something.”

“And then you’ll know.”

I try on the condescending grin. Silly woman. “Oh, no. They won’t tell me. If they were wrong and it’s not malignant, they would have to explain later. And I would sue for mental anguish.”

“Surely not. They’ll tell you.”

My turn to pat her hand. I know the conventions. “I have become a cog in the machine, Mara.” The little screaming man is louder now – I think he wants out.

She slips her hand out from under mine. “So it’s a week. Do you stay here?”

“Oh God no, not here. But I have a room at the Residence Inn. The drive back and forth to Taos, it’s too much.”

She frowns. Her lips have those vertical trench-marks of a woman who doesn’t care what she looks like. “Joseph, you should have told us. We could drive you.”

“Hah. You think that I drive myself? No, Carl chauffeurs me. But speaking of back and forth . . .”

“Yes, sweetie?”

“They’ll check me out in a couple of hours. Can you give me a lift to the hotel? Drive me back to my modest suite, tuck me into bed for the night?”

I watch her grin, the first genuine thing today. “Why, I believe you are trying to get me in the sack, you old fart.”

I can feel the burning in my eyes. Tears want to form. I hate it when she is right. I ache for a woman’s coddling, even a burned-out grizzled lesbo’s. At least a distraction.



No chemo, no radiation, no surgery. Oh, to be Mara’s parent, lying in a Kansas nursing home, waiting for my centennial so many years away! Instead I lie in this unimagined terrain – hospice. A morphine-infused wait for the cancer to explode out of my abdomen and vomit across the room. A wait for blood to cascade out of my rectum and float me off the sheets and onto the floor. I hear a skritching in my ears, like dog’s claws on the linoleum. It is my anger.

Her head eases round the door, hesitant. Noha is still the most beautiful woman I have ever taken to bed. But now, when I see her, I see what I will lose.

“Are you awake?”

She among all still deserves a smile from me. “Come in, come in. You’ll relieve this continuous tedium.”

She leans across the bed, touches her lips to my forehead. I had imagined they would be hot, like her blood, but they are cool and dry. She asks, “Why are you all the way down here in Albuquerque?”

“No one at home, Noha, no one to shuffle my bedpans or stick morphine patches on me. Carl took my cats over to his mother, and the house sits empty.”

“Can I watch the place for you, water plants?”

I nod. “That would be lovely, dear. Or better yet, throw them all in the trunk and take them to your place. You can have them.”

She tosses both hands up in protest. “Oh, but you’ll be coming home.”

“Noha, you saw the sign on the building. I’ll not be coming home.”

Her face collapses like a melting milk chocolate. She didn’t have to confront the imminence of death as long as it went unsaid. I have spoiled it.

She dabs at her eyes with a pink kleenex. “How are they treating you here?”

I see no need to swamp her with complaints about the service, service that cannot matter compared to my Big Event. “They’re quite kind. Sit beside me, beloved.”

Not in the chair. She perches on the edge of the bed, bundles my hand up in both of hers. She presses her tush up against my side and my glance flickers there before proceeding up past her breasts. She gazes down into my face. “We’ve had happier times, Joseph.”

I clear my throat. “This morning I was thinking about our trip to Florida, five years ago.”

She has the sweetest smile. “All that lovely sand and the sun.”

I chuckle, for her benefit. “You didn’t want to spoil your complexion. Instead you lay under the cabana.”

“And you burned bright pink, racing around in the sun.”

“But the pain of sunburn did not inhibit my performance.”

Now her face flares pink, beneath that luscious Egyptian chocolate. “Just at dusk, lying together, the sides of the cabana hanging down to give us privacy.”

I remember that the fabric fluttered like wings as the evening breeze drifted in from the ocean, showing me flashes of the hotel, of the beach, of the lights at dusk. As I poised above her. “Dearest Noha.”

She is pleased by the memory. She smiles, her full lips open slightly to show white teeth gleaming. “Yes, Joseph. It was so lovely.”

“Noha, would you do me a favor? The smallest of favors?”

“What is it, Joseph?”

“Perhaps one last time. Could you… ”

Her eyes open as wide as they can. She stares at me from head to toe. My hair, no doubt sticky and matted, the beard stubble-gray across my cheeks. The gown wrinkled, and perhaps odiferous. Crumpled sheets. The squalor of sickness.

I gaze up into her face. “No, not the full shebang. Just a little manipulation. For old times sakes.”

Her forehead crinkles, then clears in a beautiful smoothness. She hops down, whirls to the door, and locks it. Back by my side, she fishes the sheets down, raises the gown. “No catheter? Thank God.”

“I should allow a man to thrust a tube up my penis? Not until the very last, my dear.”

Using the lotion on the overbed table, she straightens me, rubs in the lubrication, begins her motions. “How wicked you are, Joseph.”

I stare at her, the part in her hair, her head dropped, concentrating on me, on this thing we share again. “That is so very nice. It’s like we are teenagers, in the back of a car.”

She raises her face, a grin appearing at the corner of her mouth. “I grew up in Egypt. Father had a chauffeur and we dared not use the backseat.”

“Oh, oh, ah.” My body contracts, three times. I curl up in the final shudder, and she hesitates, then strokes me a few times more. She catches all of it in her other hand – it pools up and looks like lemon curd. Nothing. I feel nothing, though my body performed the oldest dance. I have ejaculated without an orgasm.

She kisses my forehead again, fishes a tissue out of the box and wipes her palm. “You scandalous old man. Promise me you won’t do this with anyone but me.”

“I promise.” My voice gags in my throat. I promise to let it go, cast it away from me, not to think about it.

“I can’t wait to tell Mara. Or perhaps it should be our secret.” She reaches up, strokes my face with the hand that brought me to my sticky end.

I want, I need a moment by myself. “Noha love. Can you fetch me a cup of ice. My mouth is so dry these days. The nurses station on the hall will tell you where.”

She is so pleased, her face soft and adoring. Some domestic task, after having done the dirty. Taking a Styrofoam cup, she unlocks the door, slips out like a courtesan leaving the chambers of the king.

I stare about the room. Institutional, florescent light eradicating all shadow. A giant TV hung from the ceiling, a black vacant slab. The side table and the overbed table filled with bedsore ointments, tissues, a box of alcohol swabs, bedpan and urinal, moisturizing wicks for cracked lips, abandoned Styrofoam cups. A litany of objects, my final possessions.

It’s been a perfect day for me, so far. My contentment stretches out before me. Unlike Mara, I am not dragged down by paternal constraint. Unlike Carl, no gluttony gnaws at me. Unlike Noha, the need for sexual congress has disappeared. The air conditioning blows down upon me. I feel a cold wind.

Scott Archer Jones currently lives in northern New Mexico, after stints in Louisiana, Texas, the Netherlands, Scotland and Norway. He was on the masthead at The Prague Revue.

He launched a novel in 2014, entitled Jupiter and Gilgamesh: a Novel of Sumeria and Texas, available from Southern Yellow Pine. Jupiter was a finalist in the 2014 “New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards” (New Mexico Book Co-op) in four categories and in 2015 won a bronze “IPPY” (Independent Publisher Book Awards) and a silver award in the FAPA “President’s Book Award”. (Florida Authors & Publishers Association.) His novel The Big Wheel, for which he received both a silver and gold “President’s Book Award”, appeared in 2015. Fomite Books published one of his novels, A Rising Tide of People Swept Away, in March of 2016, and garnered him three FAPA silver awards.

A publication list of his short form work is dull but available – what is more important is that he cuts and splits all of his own firewood, lives a mile from his nearest neighbor, and writes grants for his community.