Planes

A short story by Anders M. Svenning


Previously published in The Furious Gazelle.

(April 27, 2018.)


Not long after the plane lands, Davis Parker finds himself behind the wheel of his aged and misshapen Lincoln Town Car. Road lights coast past, methodical, casting feigning shadows across the dashboard, which has his eyes strained even more so than his jet lag.

It is something he has grown used to, the fatigue. It comes along with his profession; and it has been said by a considerable few—scientists, theorists, and psychologists—that commercial pilots experience shorter life spans as an effect of the detrimental lack of sleep, numbers ranging from as early as one’s mid fifties, the causes of death a disingenuous slew from heart attacks to quiet exits in one’s sleep to death not of the body but of the mind.

All that, though, in the words of Dave Parker’s woman, is mere statistics. Jessie would be curled up in bed, waiting for the morning and her husband’s company with expectations of late night popcorn and candlelit dinners coloring her dreams. “Statistics,” she says, “shouldn’t be regarded as anything more than numbers and false positives. You just can’t trust those numbers, you know?” That is her gift to him. Besides her surprise evening kabobs and the lessening-in-frequency in-shower involvements, that is her gift to him—wisdom and council—given through by the shade of her charm, a gift to her otherwise “dense but heartfelt husband,” unable to separate hype from truth. “It’s all about how you live your life, you know? Munch on fast food on your layovers and you’re going to have a heart attack. It’s that simple.” And it is that simple.

Simple, just like—altitude. Everything is relative. Yet still, the notion of numbers and studies holds-fast in Davis’s mind at inopportune times, thirty thousand feet in the air, listless.

A cup of coffee has been drank just after his landing in Miami, bitter and burnt; but it is something to keep him occupied from passing out standing up or passing out driving, like a narcoleptic. It did not have much taste at all, the coffee; Davis has been up for what is now nearing thirty-six hours, and his senses, he knows, tend to dull when he hits hour twenty-four, if not hour twenty, thanks to countless cups of the stuff and caffeinated sodas. Now, there is only the drive home, then he can shoot headfirst under the sheets for hibernation.

Alignment needs fixing. The car, a 1999 piece of work, color white, with glossy hubcaps, is still chuffing along, a beater, in all respects, enough to get him from the house to the airport and back, dinged, incognito, and grand. The Lincoln feels cheap to Davis after landing such a behemoth of an aircraft. It is a good transition, though, from that preciseness to the ease of home life. Davis stays course northward toward Boca Raton, high-speed vibrations jarring loose attentiveness, shaking him into trance.

Loose fitted clothing, long hours in the sky, nothing more than a dim overhead light, enough to read a book. The drone of four low-humming jet engines, the intimacies of the flight and in effect the ride home. Light sandwiches and orange juice from the cockpit cooler; red, green, and white luminescence on the console before him, countless switches, buttons, gauges and dials, levers, static and radio frequencies.

It used to be a passion, breathing inside the clouds, pulling Cessna’s noses up into a loop, feeling his lips, cheeks, and forehead rescind the direction of the plane, carrying the weight of the centripetal forces, extending the flaps of the small turbo-prop and opening up the window to stick out his hand and scoop the air like ice cream.

It was a childhood dream, flying, and flying never quite lost its exhilaration even as a captain of the seven-fifty- and seven-sixty-seven, especially during take off: a wild ferocity under the sweaty, expectant hand of just as well many pilots before his. And still, flying is not quite the same as the early days, in the small planes, when he knew nothing separated him from the ground but fiberglass and water vapor. Jessie has grounded him, her heart and home-style cooking an endless well of flavor and smells. Davis Parker has speculated how, even through her impeding bangs, she notices the flaws in his evening dress or the spot of tomato sauce on his chin during dinner.

Familiar clusters of trees and road-signs tell Parker he is nearing his exit. Vibrations escalate to fervent jostling at around fifty-five miles per hour, settle back to a comfortable streamline at forty.

The three-way intersection of Grevillea Lane and Shoreline Road is not far off. He would make the left onto Grevillea presently and would strip down to essentials upon climbing the stairs, casting aside the clothing’s mundane representation of the past fourteen days in Germany and flights reaching as far south and east as Dubai, UAE, then crawl into bed for a very much anticipated sleep.

His ear is bitten almost clean off that night. The thing should have burst, the way she has bitten into it. After two cranberry and vodkas each, they are red hot, piping, and her smoky eyes have sent him to the floor. He has found what he needed to catch his second wind—alcohol, women—she has been planning this surprise for days, this swirling ease and rock, sunburst cycles between strength and nurture.

Five hours later, morning is creeping in through the half-slit Venetian blinds; dew clings to the glass. The sunlight is laid like a quilt over Davis and has him dressed to the effect of a grocery store loaf of bread: a striped sun-and-shadow barcode draped over his body. Sleep when you’re dead.

He Swings out his body, shuffles to the master bath, and brushes his teeth in his own sink for the first time in weeks. He can smell the bright fruity Kenyan organic breathing from downstairs, Jess’s favorite, the Kenyan. It is almost too sunny this morning, Davis squinting through the silver sunlight, and walking downstairs.

Jess is already in her solid yellow sundress, floats across the tile floor into her husband’s arms when he emerges. “Coffee’s up, Dave. Welcome home!” She pecks him a kiss and floats back toward the kitchen table. “I took the liberty of making you some toast. I’ve already had breakfast.” The beige grout glows from between the tiles underneath Davis’s feet. The entire room is glowing, the blue morning light, the walls around him suggesting a definitive break from the outside world and the inside world. The house is fluorescent—the alcohol, maybe, from last night, he thinks. The sex? Davis pours himself a coffee and has a seat across his wife, the steam still rising from the mug, and the two are quiet for a moment, feeling the pressure and vibrations lingering from the previous night.

“How’ve you been,” Davis asks. “You seem happy, to say the least.”

“How couldn’t I be?” she replies. “I’ve been sleeping like a baby recently. I don’t know why. Oh, and Beth and I went to the ocean the other night to watch the meteor shower.” Davis raises his eyebrows from behind his coffee. “It was beautiful, but I’m sure you see meteors all the time.”

“We see some.”

“We saw a bunch. And the wine. It makes them have some kind of meaning, you know? Like they really are wishes.”

“How is Lillian?”

“She’s doing well,” says Jess.

“Where is she anyway, sleeping?”

“Sleeping upstairs still.”

“I’ll be right back.” Davis lifts his weight from his seat, coffee in hand, and returns to the bedroom.

Somewhere deep down in the luggage lies a large chocolate candy bar wrapped in a white wrapper, in between two magazines he has snagged from an airport kiosk. Rummaging through the suitcase, brazen sunlight crystallizing the bedroom, he retrieves the chocolate bar and strides, thoughtful, through the upstairs hallway, past the bathroom on the left side and past the tapestry on the right, into his daughter’s room.

The yellow walls soften him, and he lulls the eight-year-old child, Lillian, who is maintaining, it seems, her deep meditative state. Lillian, with puffy cheeks and stringy hair, is sleeping on her side with her arm curled into the other and with her legs, he knows, crossed at the ankles. She has been photographed with her ankles crossed three months before her original birthday, vis a vis a sonogram, and she still sleeps the same way at the age of eight years old.

Davis uses his toes to carry him across the room to the side of Lillian’s bed and there he stays for a moment as she breathes. Breathing in and out, her eyes flutter open, and her lungs fill with air.

“Hey, Bird,” says Davis, his eyes stringent but warm. The chocolate bar rises from behind the bedside, where it has been hidden and where Davis is crouching. Lillian, still in her post-morning state, is anticipating this treasure, for she knows beforehand her father would be home on this morning, and, as her vision came to focus, seeing the chocolate, she sprouts, yelling, “Oh my God! It’s the biggest chocolate bar I’ve ever seen. Dad, is it for me?”

Davis hums, “Is it for you?” Hums again. “This three pound piece of candy from the chocolate center of the world, is it for you? Hmm, well, it can be yours only if—hmm—only if you count to—a baker’s dozen.”

She begins counting, reciting slow the numbers, to the number twelve.

“And?” Davis says. “And?”

“Dad, please!”

“Okay, Bird, say ‘thirteen’ and it’s yours.”

“Mom went to the meteor shower. I didn’t go though.”

“No problem, Bird, there will be another one in a couple months.”

Lillian says, “Thirteen.”

“That’s a girl. Go ahead and have a piece of chocolate then clean your teeth. I’ll meet you downstairs in five.”

“Thanks, Daddy.” Lillian bounces up and goes to her desk to open the candy bar while Davis returns to the master bedroom to unpack.

The bedroom, as far as he could tell, has not changed since they have moved into the house, the two small Germanic tapestries on the wall above their bed, an armchair in the corner. The clothes have begun to unpack themselves, the shirts forming a stack on Davis’s left, pants stacked beside the shirts, the shoes and toiletries taking their usual spots alongside the edge of the bag where they would stay until next week when he would have to leave again, on another trip.

One addition they have made to the room since the closing is the mirror opposite their bed. A large crystal, bordered by worn blue-painted wood, takes up nice space on the wall. Davis Parker, walking across his room out the door to meet his child and wife downstairs, catches his eye inside it, and is encountered by strange sense of jamais vu, upon seeing his reflection.

When the pilot, Davis Parker, his wife and his daughter arrive at the zoo later that day they find something that can not be found elsewhere, even in the walls of their home or in the nuts of a chocolate bar. They observe the animals in their habitat. The trees are not indigenous, the rocks are not as real as they should be, the water the animals drink from a tap, but otherwise it is the same. The animals know no different. Davis Parker himself can see little difference. All places remind him of the same place.

Lillian, in her great innocence in the world, has been adopted, is not the direct branch from the parents—Davis and Jessie—and the two, Davis and Jessie, decide on keeping the secret well stored in their hearts. They have made the decision months before Lillian’s birth and have the opportunity to see the sonogram. The only people who know Lil is adopted were the two, and that is as confining as keeping the secret locked within their own, though one has never shared the thought with the other.

Lillian knocks on the glass dividing the viewing area from Nairobi, Kenya. A caracal stares bug eyed back at her. The lynx-like cat has triangular tipped ears with black fur and twists its tail as Lillian knocks. It then moves, walks down the path a few feet to where the trail continues up the wall, and the cat laps up water from a cistern with a small sign above it that reads, Leave Water On.

Riding Amtrak, back when working and when the family is living in Virginia, he keeps photos in his wallet, one of Lillian, one of Lillian and Jessie, one of all three of them. The wallet has shrunk over time.

What used to be a leather brick, is now a white sliver with a screen, which shows the high definition pictures of his family, and Boeing seven-fifty- and seven-sixty-sevens, as well as photos of great meals and the past year’s Halloween—the carving of the Jack-o-lantern, the costume party—which is Davis’s fondest memory between then and now. Davis dresses as bloody monster and Jessie dresses in a black leotard and is wearing black wings that cling weightless to her back. The two have dressed Lillian as a turboprop biplane, the four wings sticking out on either side like extra limbs.

The costume party is to take place at an acquaintance’s home, one’s home who has been introduced to the Parkers through a man, Charles Osberg, who is also a pilot. Osberg, with his chivalric tone and brown wavy hair, has found a wife, has decided to slow down, to take his time, make money, and create a family, get a better job, travel the world, see the onion tops of the Taj Mahal, the decrepit stones of the Great Wall, the configured steps up the Andes, which the Incas have seeded. Osberg, on Halloween, has announced he has accomplished most of these benchmarks.

“Yet to have kids though,” Charles Osberg says. The ground rumbles and vibrates along with the party guests—the children, the adults, the witches, ghosts, and mummies. Apple bobbing is underway and there is still four bags of apples stashed in the corner away from the bucket. “Yet to have kids,” Osberg says again. “Hey, it’s not like they’re some kind of rare commodity. Too many of them homeless around the world. You should have seen what it was like in Bombay. Ghettos stretching miles. These people run across the runway, Dave, you should see it. They run across the runway when the plane’s coming in. Ghetto’s right next to the airport. God knows what they’re looking for.”

“Good food, good times.”

“Hey, say that again. Lillian’s behind you.”

“Lillian, come over here!” shouts Davis. The girl taxies backwards out of the crowd surrounding the punch bowl. The wings have grown clumsy, bumping into tables and people. “Lillian, you remember Mr. Osberg, right?”

“Mr. Osberg? I think so. Yeah, Mr. Osberg!”

“How are you, Lillian? I’ve been seeing you fly around this party all night. Looks like your having a blast. You’re a lucky girl, Lillian, having this guy as your father.” Lillian nods; the party hums. “You know what? Yes, you even have his eyes.”

“Okay, Charlie,” Davis chuffs.

“No, really. You have his eyes, and because of that I know you’ll be as good a person as him. I can see these things, Lillian”

“Thanks, Charlie. She’s a good girl.”

“Seriously, just don’t forget who brought you into this world, Lillian. Because if you do, there’s no point to this life. You have know where you’ve been and where you’re going. Me? Kuala Lumpur next month.” He laughs.

“Kuala Lumpur, huh?” Davis asks. Where you’ve been, where you’re going. “Never been there.” The party begins buzzing in his ear, like a mosquito. “Maybe one day, huh, Lillian? Maybe you’re on your way to Kuala Lumpur.” The dripping of the punch bowl, the wet faces bobbing for apples. “Never say never, huh, Bird?” No point.

Davis starts noticing the painted-on moles and the green skins of witches with more intensity. He can no longer differentiate who is beneath the rolls and rolls of toilet paper. Dracula’s lips are covered in red blood and he is biting into the neck of a woman, who is laughing. The Joan of Arc leans against the wall in her gnarled armor, looking intoxicated. Jessie is over by the stereo, talking with another patron. A long while has passed since the early days, but the times are moving, moving; she is doing well.

He has not told Charles yet that he is getting transferred to the Miami hub, onto being captain of the seven-forty-seven. Virginia has been a good rush. At long last the planes, the largest planes in the world, are in his palms, at his fingertips. He flies the gargantuan machines into air, feels the heaviness, the lift of the aircraft, lifting him into the skies, where he sees the extensive curvature of the earth, the stenciled coasts and wispy waters of the earth, where he glides across the clouds crocheted at the top of the world, and he thinks, after long, hard work and dedication, With all the going bad on in that world down there, it is really not so bad at all, not so bad at all, all the way up here.

A long, pallid silo juts from between his knuckles. He sits back a moment looking at the Florida starlight. It is a clear night; he has never seen so many stars from his home. It is as if he could pluck one from the sky and pop it into his mouth and taste; they are so vivid.

Humidity low, temperature moderate, visibility ideal, turbines imploding, he feels however facetious. Jessie has almost let it slip. The woman has taken a highway up into dreamland and has almost let it slip. Lillian would have been a mess.

He can understand though. Options are not abundant. Back when they pick her up from the hospital options are not abundant. They have no choice but to adopt; it seems it is not meant to be, them having their own children—Lillian, though, in all senses, in most senses, is their child.

Years of timing and ovulation cycles, countless organic and synthesized supplements, stretching, experimentation, love and hope cannot deem him father of his own child. And he has redoubtable desire. He wishes to see his wife bear a child, he wishes to see her belly grow, he wishes to hold his own child and feel that incomprehensible connection, that connection knowing this child is a part of him, that this child has his blood inside, has his mind and tendencies, his color, his depth and chromosomes and his parents’ chromosomes and their parents’ chromosomes.

And Jessie has almost let it slip. What is the point? If the child knows, the magic is gone. Belief is a strong emotion, but what happens if she is to know? Would he be less a father? The thought tolls like a bell. It has grown redoubtable. She has almost told Lillian she is adopted.

The stars are keeping Davis’s mind taught. Sleeping inside is Lillian in his bed. Jessie is flitting in and out of the bedroom. Davis’s hand is trembling.

His coughing is too loud to be subtle. He takes another drag off the cigarette. Grown on a field out west, this is medicinal, and that makes all the difference. He has his permit to smoke this stuff however shunned it may be for pilots. It is an infrequent habit, smoking, and will be out of the system in less than a week, back, ready, sure for work.

He coughs, rancid, inhaling, and returns his wrist to the armrest. Spicy smoke is filling his sinuses. Already he can feel his body warming, blood collecting in his eyes, home seeming a softer tone. Now, instead of vividness, the world around him is different, though still the same place. He feels some sort of togetherness with the trees, the railing, the grass, that big ball of cheese in the sky, this seat beneath him, its mesh holding him. He can feel himself rising. Toke. Gray smoke filling his lungs and turning him into vapor. He can feel the space around him as a dome, not the trees far away, but the space around him, his personal space; he can feel himself, all within arms reach. 300 degrees North-North-West, incline of 30 degrees, is Jessie, pink and solid.

The bus stop just short of Maslow Rx. was the first time. Another couple of minutes and they would have been running, trying to catch up with Bus D and end up walking, having a cup of coffee at Lyle’s, where they would have their second date, lose their heads, skip town, and go to Mexico for the weekend; but instead they remain tied, shackled, ball and chain, squeezed into two seats on the bus after a quick conversation, and exchanged phone numbers and kisses, and more words, “I’ll have you tomorrow,” croaked into his ear. The prospect of figuring out how to get her to fix her lips would be a true accomplishment; the fragments of bad times and the fuzz of the good in between them keeps them at bounds. The more the merrier, and the less the more you will have to keep at it, making love, a child, or a midnight snack.

Nothing more can enter his skull but more smoke, and the all-superior notion that this time is his. The two girls inside, and the night itself, will keep him rolling on. Aurora Borealis may as well reach as far south as the state of Florida, U.S. of A. on this night, and his little girl, just inside, is sleepy enough to miss if it were visible; she may as well be the one dreaming it up. Penny-copper hair and graphite eyebrows woven into cream skin, woven into the smoke; those small, little nostrils she uses to breathe; her bright voice, bright, much too bright to be kept clotted inside that furry mane.

Psychologists say no two people see the world the same way. Davis wonders just how that chocolate bar tasted to his little girl; did she enjoy the dark chocolate more, or the nuts? He feels pressure at the top of his head—it happens when he smokes this stuff and tonight he needs it—a beam into the skies past the moon and astral dusts, navigating through the planets and constellations, the rings of Saturn too ill-fit for any woman’s finger he has known; he is driven forward, seeing his oblong self blow out of the Milky Way galaxy; the vanilla swirl he knows and loves is shrinking. Home. Does not know where he has been going, where his family is. Past the boundless expanse he slows.

He is tranquil, suspended, floating in space, with nothing surrounding him. All there is to know, here, a wide space available to breathe, and it is his, this incredible airiness, this incomprehensible reality. And he feels that familiar sensation—home. He turns an outward eye further away, but can see blackness, blackness in all directions. There is no difference no matter which way he looks. The blackness can go on forever. Before the day starts, he almost feels the charged weight of the world descending on him, the cushion of his bed and sheets, and it is gone just as he wakes, unattainable.

Days in the sky, and the world is the same, the whole world, a simple jump away. He takes one final toke, and is burned by the filter’s heat; it has been smoked down so close. Not just the opening of the glass door jounces him, but his daughter’s sigh as well from inside, and he rises, flicks the non-existent cigarette over the balcony rail, and returns into his bedroom.

The pink and blue checked coverlet, wrapped around little Lillian like a roll, the little pink piglets of her toes poking from the open ends. He, nonsensical, accepts that this is his, this is what he made his life up to be, a caricature of locales around the world, as if the little tokens he brought home capture the outlandish reality of their respective birthplaces.

“Lets get her to bed.”

Davis flinches, having forgot he is not alone, that Jess is there. “I’ll get her.” The smoke clings to his shirt. “Little girl, are you ready to go to your own bed? Lil?” A nod of her head and extended arms tells Davis and his apparition of a wife that she is quite ready for bed.

“Good, Lil, come on.” Quick and purposeful steps draw the two closer to the girl’s yellow walled room. Davis is quick in putting her to bed, so she does not get too roused and wake them up at three A.M. “Good night, Lillian. I’ll see you tomorrow. Pleasant dreams—”

“How was she?”

“Out like a light.”

“Fantastic. Are you tired?”

“Not quite,” Davis says, crawling under the covers. The bed is still warm where Lillian has been sleeping.

“You know you are a good father.”

“She almost found out tonight that I’m not her father at all, thanks to you.”

“I didn’t say anything.”

“You would have if I didn’t shove that sugar cookie in your mouth. What were you thinking?”

“She has to find out someday,” says Jess. “Just—”

“Just let it happen naturally.”

“That’s how I do things. Naturally,” says Jess, her nails caressing Davis’s arm. “It wouldn’t have been so bad.”

“Not so bad for you.”

“Dave, stay quiet. Quiet your mind. Pretend you’re in an airplane.” Davis senses a change in air pressure. “Pretend we’re in an airplane together. Does it get cold in the cockpit?”

“Sometimes.”

“Pretend we’re in a cockpit,” says Jess. “Pretend we’re the only ones in the cockpit.”

“Not hard to do.”

“Pretend I’m the airplane. Take me somewhere, Dave,” caressing his chest. “Take me somewhere,” pinching his nipple.

Vessels dilated, influx at one-hundred percent, the descent is definite. Tweaking one side, she raises his shirt and traces clouds into his chest. “Pretend we’re over the Antarctic,” bending and nibbling each nipple. And descending.

“How about Africa,” Davis says. “I’ve never been to Africa.”

“Africa is nice.”

The teeming wilderness, the bush, the animals, the jungle cats. God knows what goes on in Africa, must be a great place, a heathen place, hot. Virile. She tickles his sack. The place is full of life. Green, green. Yellow grass. Hot pink skies. The bed is burning. And his eyes are dilating further. This woman is a lion. He has never been to Africa. Or to many places in the southern hemisphere, for that matter. The bed is hotter than the Serengeti—wildlife is sprouting, children are shouting, lions are roaring—the wildlife of Africa is at his fingertips, her hair tangled, and it seems for just a second, home, this exotic climate. This is as close as he will get. This moment, before it all slips away.

A coy itching on his back springs his attention. He squirms to itch it and she laughs, down in the brush, hunting.

Bringing back the arch to her hips, the glow from the hallway light lights up her lower torso, its two little dimples, its full moon, a Goddess. He tickles her ear; she has on earrings he has not seen. Jess mounts him and just before melting, he thinks he is sleeping in a stranger’s bed, one who is working his undeniable black magick from where nothing comes. He wants to find an herb that makes him potent in bed, rather than in mind. Pins and needles and he will soon be fast asleep, under the nuances of the other parents, Lillian’s biological parents, the ones he wanted to be. He cannot wrap his head around the thought, who were they? But maybe it would come tomorrow, what he is looking for—life, truth—maybe it would come sometime in the night, like a visit from a stork, or a spirit. Maybe it would come to him. The one truth, though, reigns clear to him, the truth being: he has fathered this lie.

The lurid darkness is disturbed by a knock, not metallic or wooden, but of glass. A snarl, raising the hairs on his arms and neck, is heard, followed by the star struck vibration of purring. He is seeing through his closed eyelids.

The Knock! Knock! of the moment is halted by the citrine and amethyst glare of a jungle beast—a lion—who is staring back at him, with the innate intellect of felines. The beast is power. He is helpless, he notices, just before taking a knee, naked. The jungle cat snarls and shows for a glimpse his teeth.

The vision opens to a boundless expanse, an interior notion of gargantuan borders, his knees brushing against the fronds and savanna grass and sound—the locusts, thousands of them—flying upwards into the cirrostratus clouds, the crest of consciousness, of Africa. The wind takes his attention to the west, where the ball of incredulous fire flames, the Sun warming his skin and emblazoning the beast’s eyes, the warmth inviting the pilot into the bosom of mother Africa. He is here.

The lion strafes across his periphery. His phantasmagoric coat and iridescent eyes anchor him, keeping him from soaring toward the light. And he turns south toward the lion and hears again the Knock! Knock! which seems to be coming from the top of his skull, this knocking, the choking fallacy of tears, heat, sun, and sparks. His mind is riveted, ever-changed in this infinite moment. “Wake up,” calls the knock, blurred by a higher frequency. The dichotomy of earth and air are finding each other. And the words, “Wake up,” the knocks, the tears, the omni-flowing shards and jewels pouring now from the beast’s glare, push Davis Parker toward nostalgia; he is out of step, not meant to witness the regal matter of this place. “Wake up!” He turns, and somewhere in the non-space between he and the distant tree line is a forsaken pane of glass. And the knocking calls—“Wake up! Wake up!”—heard by him, his lasting recognition of this lion.

Planes. That is what they are. He is looking through the planes, looking through the window onto the landscape below, the planes that take him from place to place, which blast the light back off him and into the eye of the sun; he has been kissed.

His vision dims to a gray darkness, this place never to be seen again.

His vision returns, the Sun, draping him in the barcode that never fails to present itself. Jess is awake; she is not in bed, and he can smell again the Kenyan brew downstairs. A quick puree and what was once a bean is now powder. Try grinding beans with your own hands. Impossible! Nevertheless, the smell calls and he is downstairs, his arms around his wife, Lillian playing on her handheld.

“I had a crazy dream last night, dad,” she says.

“A crazy dream?” Davis replies. “A crazy dream. What happened?”

“I was swimming in water and there were fish all around me.”

Davis pats her head, walks to the coffee machine, and then pours himself a cup of Kenyan coffee.

It is the day before his next trip. He will fly out to New York and boast the seven hour commute to nowhere as he lands with grace on the tarmac. But today, the Osbergs are over for dinner. Jess has been working, preparing sauce and potatoes, while Davis is outside grilling the mahi-mahi. The smoke rises into his eyes.

Thirty years he has been flying these planes, along the pathways of the gods and still cooking right here in this spot is his favorite place in the world. This grill, the same old smoke, the same old tears, sweat, and salivation. He sips his beer. Fruity, the ale smacks his lips and he loves it, the air, the frothy bubbles, the buzz. It just keeps going. The fun never stops. It just keeps rolling and rolling, like wheels on a hill with kids inside them. Lillian is in the pool with her floaties, trying to see if she can hold her breath for more than thirty seconds, looking for fish.

The Osbergs will be coming in about thirty minutes from now, them and their two kids, along with their casserole, which Charlie Osberg has leaked to Davis is incredible. Charlie has also confided he is trying to keep everything under his belt, working out of London now, a little too far from the sunshine down here in the South, but it does well for him, he says. A little rain never hurt anyone.

The doorbell rings and Jess answers it in her canary yellow sundress, the same she wears every Saturday evening when they have people over. It is like a tradition. It gives her this glow she likes, and the house mirrors it back. It is a good ultimatum. It makes the visitors feel just right.

She answers with her normal cheer, “Hey, Charlie, Beth, welcome! Come in!” And the date is off—the cheery noise, the kids laughing and screaming, the men huddle after minutes outside, polishing off another one of those cold ones, the ladies swirling their dresses, the sun bright and the sky blue and ivory.

“It’s much too great, being back in the state of Florida,” says Charlie. “I miss it.”

“Gets me every time,” says Davis. “Every time I come back, it gets me, how healthy the air is. It seems full of vitamins, minerals, somehow.”

Charlie’s two boys are chasing Lillian. She has cooties, they say. They are trying to cure her. The mahi-mahi is begging to be eaten. The potatoes are bursting. And underneath it all, the bellies are being thrummed with the anticipation of another child, Beth’s third. “We’re not sure what we’re going to name it. In fact, we’re going to wait to see the gender.”

“Indeed,” says Davis, glad for his friend.

The kids are out, tired, watching T.V. for the last hour before the Osbergs head home, back to the hotel. “It’s Disney tomorrow,” says Charlie. “The kids have never been.”

“Likewise, neither has Lil.” With a farewell kiss, the party disperses. The morning comes, the sun is blistering, the birds are chirping, and eyes are wide.

Davis Parker is walking down the jetway, checks his watch, and sees he is right on time. The plane will leave on schedule and they will be in New York for dinner. But something is missing. Between the drive out here, security, thinking about last night’s meal—the boys, the Osbergs—he notices that the flame is gone. He knows what he needs. He needs the sky.

Luminescence blots out his vision of the world, the dials and switches, the gauges and frequencies. He sees now his life. As they taxi out, out toward where the ground ends and the air begins, he feels electricity, a twinge in his belly, the controls in his palms, the headset over his ears. He hears the words, “You are clear for takeoff.” And he pushes the throttle. One-hundred-and-five tons of steel and cargo gets pushed by the Rolls Royce engines off the ground, at an incline of thirty degrees. He sees the clear image: the blue sky, crowning in through the windshield. It has hit; this is life. A blue sky limitless in the horizon, a child to raise and make one’s own, a clue in life, where it is going, where to turn.

Far down, people are tiny, buildings are bricks, cars are toys. They fall away, too far below to be seen. The incline is too high, the angle too small. He needs to find a way, he thinks, a way to capture this feeling, like a firefly in a jar. Because that is what life is like, a firefly, and we are all just seeing it along, watching it live out its life. Everything he has known is in one glass case, delicate snow falling over the houses below. He is nearing New York. Through the windows, into the blue expanse through which he is flying, he captures a person, a long-faced, a bonafide revolutionary. He descends, lands the plane on the ground. His feet are anchored and he breathes in the cold air of New York. Flurries turn to a heavy snowfall. He is in the north again, but feels home more than ever, a wandering, lustful person, finding everything he has needed—a stratum that is never-ending, one ample and his to nurture.


Anders M. Svenning was born in New York. He started writing with seriousness at the age of nineteen and has now been published in many literary magazines throughout the United States and abroad. Some of the most recent include Good Works Review, The Furious Gazelle, and The Bracelet Charm. He is the author of 50 States Poetry (Pansophic Press), Verdant Grounds, Subtle Boundaries (Adelaide Books), Otus in Betulaceæ (Adelaide Books), Occipital Circus & Other Stories Regarding Phrenology (HellBound Books), and Life After Schizophrenia (Scarlet Leaf Publishing House) and has a forthcoming book titled Affe and the Candle to be released in early 2021 by Adelaide Books. Anders M. Svenning lives in Palm City, Florida.

Have Heart

A short story by Benel Germosen


My heart walked out on me today. It just left. I woke up and it was standing by the door, looking up at me thorough its ventricles. It was just staring at me, not saying a word. Then it turned around and walked out the door. I didn’t get up and go after it. I figured it just needed to take a walk on its own. When I came back from work though, it was still gone. I haven’t seen it since.

I was a little bit relieved at first. My heart hadn’t been working well for months. It ached at times and it made it hard to breathe. It used to pump just enough to move the blood around. My heart was threading water for a long time. I didn’t appreciate the lack of effort.

Sometimes it would just stop dead on me. If I was stressed out or working too hard or if I was laying on my back or something, it would just stop beating. I had to punch myself in the chest to get it going again. I could tell it didn’t enjoy that because it would tighten up as soon as I did it, but what was I supposed to do? I like my blood. I like having a heartbeat.

Anyway, I thought things had gotten better. My heart seemed happy to be beating again, but I don’t know. It’s been two days and my heart isn’t back yet. I’m starting to get worried.

~

Things are weird for me without a heart. For one thing, I notice things. I’m not more alert and attentive but I notice things. I notice things about people, about how they act around each other, and the decisions they make, and how they form relationships. I talk a lot less too. I don’t say much to people at work anymore. It’s made me more productive, I think. I’m getting a lot more done.

I’ve taken extra shifts at the firm, working late on weekdays assessing account overheads. I’ve gotten our books straightened out and about four years of balanced budgets done from here to 2016. I might do estimates for the four years after that, but I don’t know. I haven’t decided if I should start on that or spreadsheets.

Anyway, yeah. Things are a lot different now that my heart is gone. I sleep a lot these days. I go to bed at eight and I wake up around six. I get home at around four and decide what do then. I used to watch T.V or read or play music or work out, but none of these things interest me anymore.

My Saturdays are my days off, so one week I started cleaning my apartment. I cleaned the floors and the windows. Then I cleaned the walls and the rooms. I make the beds; I dust the vacuum and arrange the things I own. It takes most of the day to get everything in its right place, but I take my time.

I wake up early on Saturdays to do it and then I go to sleep around eight. I finished scrubbing the bathroom tiles today. Everything is now clean and organized.

Clean and oraganized.

~

I put everything I owned into boxes and labeled them. I went through the house, organizing things. Now my house is neat and tidy. Neat and tidy. Clean and organized. There was nothing left for me to do after work, after everything was boxed and put in its place, so I started going for walks.

I like taking walks. I get to see things. I notice a lot more things now. I notice how disorderly things are compared to my apartment and that the outside world is just filled with things out of place. The hallway leading up to my apartment is crooked. On the sidewalks, there are cracks and holes where weed grows up thorough the cement. Cars don’t stop when the light turns red. No, they slow a little while after and then stop, as if the light would do them a favor and just let them pass. I noticed that people don’t wait in straight lines.

There is a lot of disorder with people. I hear people talk around me all the time. If you’re really quiet and listen, people don’t notice you, so they say things they normally won’t say.

People at work talk. Susie in accounts is sleeping with Rob in I.T. and Rob is married with kids and Susie might be pregnant. Least that’s what Janis told Becky in the break-room. Arnold works in the cubical next to me and he wants to get promoted. Anthony, our supervisor, said that Arnold is probably getting laid off at the end of the month. He and a few other people.

I think that should be funny, but I can’t seem to laugh anymore.

It’s been three months since my heart left. I don’t miss it, but I think I should.

I was in Cleveland for a business conference this week. There was a convention downstairs and Anthony talked me into getting passes and walking the floor. It was a sales convention and he thought it would be a great way to network. Anthony talked to people while I watched and listen.

The convention was disorganized, but at least it put on a professional face. A lot of people were unhappy waiting outside the hotel ballroom before it opened. The organizers tried to placate the people with complementary buttons. The people behind the booths were disorganized too. Some were late, some were under-prepared. Flyers and leaflets and papers were left out on tables in neat piles, but when
people took them they didn’t bother to restack them. I noticed that and it should have bothered me but it didn’t. It was just something I noticed.

I know when things should bother me. When something is out of place or something isn’t right, it should bother me but it doesn’t. I notice things, lots of things and lots of should bother me but nothing does. It know that’s not good, but I can’t change things. I don’t have a heart anymore.

After the conference, Anthony and I went to the hotel bar. Anthony wanted to talk to me about accounts when he started drinking. The more he drank the less he talked about work and the more he talked about the cute booth attendant at one of the tables. Finally, he stopped talking to me and started talking to another guy at the bar and eventually he left with him. I stayed at the bar.

I ordered a mojito because I remember thinking that I used to like them a lot and I was trying to figure out why. A woman sat next to me and ordered a white wine spritzer. She wore a pale purple dress with heels and a mother of pearl necklace coiled around her neck and I thought she looked pretty but I didn’t say anything to her.

I sipped my drink and she looked at me and she smiled. I looked at her from the corner of my eye and then I smiled, because that’s what you do when people smile at you. I turned my eyes back to the bar. After a while, I noticed that she was still smiling at me.

“Yes? Do I know you?” she said, but I shook my head. She didn’t stop staring. “Yeah, yeah, I know you. I saw you around last year. Um… what was it? … the Telefax retreat in Austin. You were there and there was another guy. What was his name?”

“Arnold?”

“Yeah. Arnold.”

“Right.”

“Yeah… You don’t remember me?”

Last year, I went to a company retreat. There were motivational seminars and a weekend of conferences and bar-hops. I got drunk one night and sang karaoke at the bar in front of a bunch of people. Arnold was there. So were Anthony and a few other people. She was a speaker at one of the seminars and might have been there, I think. I didn’t remember her name.

“I know… I know.” She cupped a hand around the glass and sang into it like a microphone. “’Don’t cry. Don’t raise your eye. It’s only teenage wasteland.’ That was you, right? The Who guy?”

I looked at her and after a while I nodded.

“Yeah.” I said. “I’m the Who guy.”

She laughed at that. I didn’t know why. She must have thought it was funny.

“Oh man, you were so great. You were the highlight of the retreat. That thing you did off the stage…”

During the breakdown to “Baba O’Reilly,” I windmilled my arm like Pete Townsend and caught the edge of the microphone stand, cutting open my hand. I was spurting blood but I finished the song. I even managed to slide off the stage on my knees. I was drunk and I sang all the way to the hospital.

She looked at me and smiled and ordered another white wine spritzer.

“So, how’s your hand?”

“Good.”

“Okay. Good. Good.”

We were silent for a while and then she said, “What are you drinking?”

“Mojito.”

“Is it good?”

“I dunno. They used to be.”

She laughed again. I looked at her.

She ordered me a fourth mojito and I ordered her a white wine spritzer. I listened to her start talking and we kept drinking. I was drunk but I didn’t feel buzzed. She was drunk and she couldn’t stop giggling. The bar closed at eleven and we stumbled out into the hotel lobby.

She said, “Do you wanna…?”

“Wanna what?”

She smiled at me and I must have smiled back because she licked her lips and took my hand.

“Oh…” she said. “Your hands are cold.”

“Yeah.” I never noticed that before.

We went up to her room. We fucked a couple of times. At around three, we fell asleep in each other’s arms.

When I woke up, her side of the bed was empty. The shower was running in the bathroom. When she got out, she seemed surprised.

“Oh.”

“Hi.”

“I thought you’d be getting dressed already.”

“Um…”

On the dresser was a ring and she walked across the room and took it and put it on. She looked different with it. She wasn’t the woman in the purple dress and the mother of pearls. She looked older. Like someone’s mom or their wife. She was the same woman but her skin seemed different.

“Look, uh… I wish I didn’t have to say this but…you’re a nice guy and… I mean, no. I mean… you know that last night was—“

I looked at her and she bit down on her lip.

“I was really drunk.” She said.

“Yeah.”

She sighed and then she had this look in her eyes like she was going to rip off a Band-Aid.

“You should go.”

I got dressed and left.

~

My heart left me a voice mail. It said:

Hey, hey pal. Long time, huh? You miss me? How’s everything? Are you okay? Are you doing alright? I was just hoping to hear from you. I’m in New Orleans at a jazz festival. I’m a little… I’m little drunk right now to be honest and I was just… I was wondering what you were up to.

Look, I kinda wanted to tell you… I mean, I wanted to talk about… I wanted to let you know that I’m doing alright. I know it’s been a few months and everything and I Just want you to know that I’m okay and I’ll be home soon.

Look, I’m not proud of the way I did—I mean, what I did. I’m not proud of walking out like that, but I’m proud that I did walk out at all. I got out and… and I went to see the country man. I went to Venice Beach, I went to the Grand Canyon. I hiked up the Rockies. I saw Florida! I went… Oh man, listen to me rambling on. Look…

How can I say this? I guess there’s no right way to say it. I’ll just… say it. I just… I miss you. I didn’t realize how much until last night, though. I didn’t realize…

I’ve been doing some soul searching and I came to realize that I can’t be mad at anyone. Everything that happened, it… it wasn’t your fault and it wasn’t my fault. I mean, it was and then it wasn’t. It’s not all you and it’s not all me. It’s about us, together, who we are as people. People and bodily organs.

There’s things I want that I can’t get from you and there’s things that you want that I can’t give you. I can’t be your lovely little metronome and you can’t be my thrill-a-minute… Indiana Jones, I
guess. I have to pump. I need to squeeze. I need to feel life flow through me. I can’t just do twenty minutes on the elliptical—“Here you go!”

That’s not me. I have to feel… something. Even if it’s just loneliness.

But I still shouldn’t have left you hanging. I hurt you and I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to abandon you. It’s just… I’m sorry. I wanna come home, man. I wanna come home. There’s just a few more things I’ve got to do here. There’s a few more things I need before I come back. I just wanted to call and tell you to wait for me. Can you just wait for me, please? I’m going to be home soon, okay? Just… just wait for me… okay? 

I love you. Bye.

~

I take a shower but my hands are still cold and clammy. The sun is going down. I’m lying in bed and I’m thinking about the last few months. I think about my heart and I remember it beating in my chest and how it used to make me feel. The blood coursing thorough my veins, hot and red. I think I miss the blood pumping the most. I miss the feeling of being alive. Sitting here, in my bed, I think I should be feeling hope right now.

But I don’t.

 

The End

The Daily Mail

A short story by Jason Feingold


John Schwartzkopf awoke to the police banging on his door. After last night, he wasn’t surprised to find the Mail Nazis had come for him. They were going to disappear him like they had so many other mail objectors in the past. With no friends or sympathetic followers to protect him, no one would know he was missing. He’d simply fall off the face of the earth. He wasn’t going to let that happen. If he was going to die, he was damn sure going to make sure that as many citizens as possible knew what was going down.

He took an old .38 revolver his grandfather had left him and tucked into the waistband of the pants he had hurriedly put on. After donning a t-shirt, he went to the front door and opened it, but he left the screen door closed.

“Are you John Schwartzkopf?” the officer asked.

“That’s me.”

“I have some questions for you. Can I come in?”

“Sure.”

John backed away from the door, leaving it to the police officer to open the screen door on his own. As the cop was doing so, with his hand occupied by being on the handle of the door, John drew his weapon. The officer jumped back and went for his own gun, but John had the drop on him, and to prove it he fired a warning shot. He’d meant for it to go to the right of the officer, but it grazed the cop’s left arm instead.

“Step inside,” John ordered. “Drop your belt.” The officer complied with difficulty, his left arm being useless for the moment.

“Now take out your handcuffs, and no funny business.” The officer did as he was told. “Go to the kitchen and handcuff both your hands to the refrigerator door.” John gave the officer a wide berth as he did so. In a moment, the officer was handcuffed to the handle of the refrigerator door and dripping blood slowly on the kitchen floor. He writhed in pain.

“You don’t want to do this,” the cop said. “They’ll come looking for me. This can only end one way.”

“I know that,” John said. “I knew it as soon as you knocked on my door.”

“Uncuff me,” the officer said. “Turn yourself in. It’ll go easier on you if you do. You’ll get a plea bargain.”

“If only that were true. I’m not going to let you storm troopers send me to the Postal Re-Education Centers that easily,” John said. “Not until everyone knows about you Mail Nazis and your Mail Führer.”

* * *

John could not remember a time he had not hated the mail. As far as he was concerned, nothing good ever came by mail.

He knew what time the mail usually came. He could pick out the sound of the mail truck from anywhere in the house. He could hear it stop and go as it came down the block. He couldn’t ignore it. His heart would leap into his throat, and the only way to get it back where it belonged was to go and check the mailbox. He was drawn to the box the way a dog is drawn to its own vomit.

The mail brought student loan default notices, threatening letters from child support enforcement, and notices of garnishment.

The absolute worst thing he could find in the mailbox was a notice that he would have to go to the post office to pick up a certified letter. If nothing good ever came from the mailbox, then certified letters were absolutely diabolical. He’d have to wait until the next day to pick it up – twenty-four hours of excruciating angst spent wondering how bad it was, knowing that the ax was sure to fall. In this, he was usually correct. Legal papers came by certified mail describing various actions that had been brought against him to get more money out of him.

One day a thought popped into his head out of nowhere: the mail was the problem – not his ex-wife, not Navient, but the mail itself. Mail was the medium through which the tyrants of money enslaved people. The whole concept of mail was abominable, and it had to go. If a document were that important, the people who were out to get his money could deliver it by themselves. His resolution to combat the Mail Nazis was firm.

He was going to stop the mail.

* * *

“Now where’s your phone?” John asked the captive officer.

“In my right front pants pocket.”

John set his .38 on the stove and went toward the subdued officer.

“If you try anything, I’ll shoot you again,” John said.

The officer nodded. John retrieved the phone.

“Who are you calling?” the cop asked mildly.

“911.”

John put the phone on speaker.

“911,” the phone said. “What is your emergency?”

“My name is John Schwartzkopf. I’m at 543 Oakfield Drive. I’m holding Officer, what’s your name?”

“Bradley. Ed Bradley.”

“I’m holding Officer Ed Bradley at gunpoint. I have a list of demands.”

“Is he okay?” the operator asked.

“Tell them,” John ordered.

“Shot in the arm,” Bradley said. “Not seriously. Hurts like a bitch, though.”

“Shut up,” John said.

“What are your demands?”

Sirens spoke out in the distance.

“I’ll tell the person in charge.”

“Who is that, sir?”

“You know who.”

“No, I don’t, sir.”

“If you want to play games, we’ll play games,” John said. “I want to talk to the Mail Führer.”

He hung up the phone.

* * *

John began his anti-mail campaign by writing to the head of the USPS.

Dear Postmaster General,

I am writing to you today to demand that all postal services be stopped. All the mail does is deliver bad news from bad people to good people who deserve good news. Mail is all about taking money away from people who don’t have much money and giving it to people who already have enough money. As a citizen and a taxpayer, I have a right to demand that you stop the mail immediately. As a civil servant, you need to honor my request.

Sincerely,

John Schwartzkopf

He waited a few weeks for a response, but nothing came back in the mail. He wasn’t surprised. The mail people were all going to stick together on this one. They were afraid of honest work. After all, they made money with each letter they delivered. That would stop, at least as far as he was concerned. He got online and put an indefinite stop delivery on his mail.

Afterward, John took a bottle of lighter fluid to his mailbox and set it on fire, watching the plastic that had been approved by the Postmaster General bubble and melt and drip to the ground as it burned. Didn’t the Postmaster General have anything better to do than approve mailboxes? By the time he was done, there was nothing left but a metal post sticking out of the ground. With a fair degree of effort, he removed it and chucked it into his garage.

A few weeks later his cable TV stopped working. Then the lights went out. Then the water was shut off. Finally, his telephones, both landline, and cell, stopped working, even though he hadn’t received a bill from any of them.

Dear Postmaster General,

Clearly, my last letter fell on deaf ears that don’t want to see the truth. If you think that your lackeys in cable, water, electricity, and telephone can stop me from exercising my RIGHT to demand that the mail be stopped, you’ve got another thing coming. I know that the Constitution requires the government to redress grievances, and you are required to redress mine by halting all mail activity both at home and abroad.

Sincerely,

John Schwartzkopf

P.S. – Restore my utilities immediately!

Still, there was no response.

Postmaster General,

If you don’t honor my demand that the mail be stopped, I will have to
resort to further action.

John Schwartzkopf

It was only after John sent the last letter that he realized that the Postmaster General was, in fact, the Mail Führer. He studied some stamps he had stuck in the kitchen drawer. If he looked closely enough, he could see the swastika cleverly embedded in each picture the stamps contained. Well, he wasn’t a hundred percent sure it was a swastika, but it was close enough to count.

The Mail Führer completely ignored him, so it was time to take his message to the street. He put a sign in his front yard that said “End the dictatorship of the Post Office! Tell the Mail Führer to STOP THE MAIL NOW!” Once he put it up, he sat in front of his living room window to see if anyone was reading it. He concluded that they were, because a lot of cars slowed down in front of his house, presumably to study it. Some of them tooted their horns.

On the second day, the mail truck pulled up in front of it while John was watching. He couldn’t be sure because of the viewing angle, but he was pretty confident that the mailman spat on it. John was so angry he came out of his house with a bat to confront the Mail Nazi, but the man drove away in his truck before John could open the door.

“Fuck you!” John called out down the street at the truck. “Drive away like a scared little
Nazi bastard!” More than a few neighbors stopped and stared.

It was time for the revolution to begin.

* * *

John sat on the kitchen floor. He had his .38 revolver and Bradley’s .40 caliber Glock and two fully loaded magazines next to him. He could see blue and red lights through the covers of every window in his line of sight. He knew his house was surrounded. He knew he was already dead.

Bradley’s phone rang.

“Hello?”

“This is Sergeant Bill Murphy. I’m calling to talk to you about your demand.”

“I want to talk to the Mail Führer,” John repeated. “If that doesn’t happen, Ed Bradley here is as good as dead in sixty minutes. Tick tick tick.”

“Let’s stay calm,” Murphy said. “Can you tell me who the Mail Führer is?”

“Like you don’t know. She’s the person in charge. She’s the one who cuts your marching orders.”

The line went silent for a time.

“Do you mean the Postmaster General?” Murphy asked.

“So you do know,” John said in an “ah-ha” voice.

* * *

Before the police came and after his nightly ritual of filling his water bottles from his neighbor’s hose, he left the house dressed all in black with his aluminum baseball bat laying across his shoulder. He had duct-taped a towel around the bat to muffle the sound. As he roamed through the neighborhood bashing mailboxes, he imagined how grateful his neighbors would be once they discovered that they couldn’t get mail anymore. He hoped a few of them might take up his cause, going into other neighborhoods and relieving good, honest working families from the totem pole of fear and hate and repression symbolized by their rural route mail receptacles.

* * *

“I don’t think we’re going to be able to get her here in sixty minutes,” Murphy said. “Is there someone else you’d like to talk to?”

“Yes. A TV news crew. I don’t care which station.”

“I’ll tell you what,” Sergeant Murphy said. “You release Officer Bradly, and I’ll get that news crew for you.”

“Are you kidding? Do you really think I’m that stupid?”

“I don’t think you’re stupid, John.”

“You better not. Because I’m not stupid. You have an hour to get the TV people or I’m going to pop another cap into this Mail Nazi’s ass.”

With that, John hung up the phone again.

* * *

“They’re here,” Sergeant Murphy called and said forty-five minutes later.

“Send them in.”

“I’m not stupid either, John,” Murphy said. “I’m not giving you more hostages.”

“I’ll send Officer Ed out if you send the reporter and the cameraman in,” I said grudgingly.

“No deal.”

“I’ll send them out again when I’m done.”

“I can’t do that, John. You know that.”

“I’ll still have a couple of guns,” John said. “We’ll get to have our shootout.”

“No one wants that,” Murphy said.

“If you don’t send the camera crew in, I’m going to shoot this cop in the thigh. I’m not sure when the femoral artery is, so I hope I miss it when I shoot him so he doesn’t bleed out all over the floor. I’m not going to shoot him with this piss-ant .38 either. I’m going to use his Glock.”

“Wait a minute,” Murphy said quickly. “Let me see if the news people are willing to go in.”

John waited.

“I want you to know this isn’t personal,” John said to Bradley. “You’re just on the wrong side.”

“Sure,” Bradley said. “I understand.” John knew he didn’t understand. He was just a soldier following orders, blissfully unaware of the tremendous evil he was doing.

Murphy came back on the line.

“They’re willing to go in,” Murphy said. “I’ll let them go in when Bradley comes out.”

“You’re treating me like I’m stupid again,” John said. “You send them in and I’ll send Bradley out.”

“How do I know you’re telling the truth?”

“I haven’t lied to you so far,” he said.

“Okay,” Murphy said. “We’ll do it your way. I’m taking an awful risk. Make sure you keep your word.”

“Tell them I’m in the kitchen,” John said.

A male reporter and a cameraman entered the house and went to the kitchen. John held the gun on them. He had the reporter retrieve Bradley’s handcuff key and let him loose.

“Go,” John commanded. Bradley left without hesitation. John stood up and turned to the reporter.

“Start interviewing me,” John said.

The cameraman manipulated some buttons on the camera and gave a thumbs-up.

“I’m here at the residence of Mr. John Schwartzkopf,” the reporter said. “Mr. Schwartzkopf was holding a police officer hostage, but he released the officer in exchange for my cameraman and myself entering the residence.

“Why are you doing this, Mr. Schwartzkopf?” the reporter asked, shoving the microphone in John’s face.

“I’ll tell you why. I hope the people who are watching are paying attention because they’re about to hear the truth.

“For hundreds of years, people have suffered the tyranny of the Postal Service and the dictatorship of the Mail Führer. Nothing ever good comes in the mail, and that’s an understatement. The USPS uses the police to let all of the big corporations to send enormous bills to everyday people who are tricked into believing that they actually need to pay money to receive services like cable, electricity, water, etc. People don’t know that the big corporations don’t actually need the money. All they do with the money is line the pockets of the fat-cat CEOs on Wall Street.

“Even dogs know that the Mail Nazis are evil. Trust your dog. Trust your instincts. You know I’m right. Anyone in a uniform is a Mail Nazi. Take it to the street. Abolish the postal system now.”

John stopped talking.

“Is that it?” asked the reporter.

“That’s it,” John said.

“What are you going to do now?” he asked. John admired the fact that the reporter seemed so calm. In the same situation, he’d be shaky and stuttering. Come to think of it, his situation wasn’t much different.

“I’m going to send you out,” John said. “Thanks for coming in. It was very brave. I hope the Mail Nazis don’t do anything to you for coming in here.”

John watched them go. After a few minutes of silent reflection, he held the Glock in his right hand and the .38 in his left. He walked out the front door, taking aim at the nearest Mail Nazi.

He didn’t get a single shot off before he heard the loud pop that knocked him off his feet. Sitting up against the door jam, he looked down at his chest. Blood was flowing freely. It wouldn’t be long until he was dead.

A policeman in tactical gear approached him from behind a riot shield. He moved the shield to the side as he knelt down in front of John.

“Right conspiracy, wrong conspirators, comrade,” the policeman whispered. He bopped John on the head with a hammer, and then a sickle came out of nowhere and tore out John’s throat.

Cupcake Mistake

A short story by Glen Donaldson


This felt neither odd nor quirky, just wrong. Instinctively, even culturally, ‘sunglasses at night’ wrong. At the distinct risk of laboring the point, a hundred shades of wrong with counter-intuitive thrown in to match. In fact, a degree of wrong on such a scale Glorbert Fletcher’s personal amber alert had had no choice but to go into immediate car alarm mode. And now the most ill-fated and far reaching of consequences were set to follow.

Moments before, unsuspecting Glorbert had been forced to watch, in something approaching mouth-gaping horror, the sight of his fiancée of precisely twenty-six and a half weeks, the love of his life Taliqua Clancy, use her privileged right index finger to separate, in one sweeping, seemingly well-practiced motion, every last butter cream-based molecule of the St Patrick’s Day-green icing from the cupcake she had held poised ready to eat in her hand. Incredibly, for Glorbert, she then inserted the denuded mini sponge into her open mouth and flicked the discarded icing into a foot operated trash bin resting in the far corner of the room.

‘Freakshow’ was the ungracious pronouncement that filled Glorbert’s head with the force of a judge’s gavel smashing down on a wooden sound block. He’d been somehow able to overlook Taliqua’s past series of offbeat indiscretions, those such as serving milk with dinner or fried chicken with waffles and syrup. He’d managed to convince himself to almost-but- not-quite accept her regular purchase of bizarrely apportioned three liter wine bottles. And recently he’d been worn down to such an extent he’d even bowed to her habit of pouring milk into a bowl and adding the cereal last. But this?

A travesty of this magnitude caused the whole delicately poised pack of personal-habit playing cards to come cascading down in spectacular fashion, coming to rest in a scattered heap at the base of his feet. He felt an ancestral chill run down his spine, for he knew what it all meant. The preference for cheese from a squeeze can, the deep fried oreos, and the spam, especially the spam, had all been little red flags trying to gain his attention with an unsavory message he hadn’t been ready to hear. Separating icing from a cake like this meant there would be no cake. Separation yes, but definitely no cake.

He chanced a final look at the dented silver trash bin that now contained the cast-off green icing, before having his gaze come to rest once more upon his once-beloved Taliqua. He regarded her now, for the first time, as a stranger he’d once known. Glorbert’s mind began churning, like the milk-eggs-flour-butter-mix-covered stainless steel blades of the blender he’d used so lovingly to make those very cupcakes not the day before. Words fell out of his mouth like vapor, though he’d intended them to land in Taliqua’s guts like shrapnel.

“I’ve never seen anyone do that before.”

“Do what?” she replied innocently, her expression advising she was unaware of the unfolding
calamity.

“What you just did.”

“Oh that? That’s what those bins have a pedal for, isn’t it?”

This was the trouble treating people like fools, thought Glorbert to himself as he began scanning Taliqua’s face, this time rapidly, from eye to eye, as though she were a magician’s ball-under-which-cup game. You had no way of knowing whether the other person was doing the same thing back to you. How is it possible, Glorbert wondered, to know you are in denial and yet snuggle into the feeling anyway? It was clear to him she had retained her talent for being completely unaware of what was bugging him.

But now, now it was time for him to get serious with Taliqua. Time to descend upon her from the rafters with a full roll call of all her exasperating, maddeningly eccentric ways. Carrying out his own little prenup, pre-decided exit strategy would follow. There was just one thing he had to do before any of that though. He simply had to retrieve that precious abandoned icing from the trash bin. Scooping it out lovingly as though it were some precious, about-to-be memorialized baby placenta, and placing it in the fridge on a china plate next to a plastic wrap covered container of asparagus gave him comfort and made breathing easier. Relationship-destroying idiosyncrasies might be one thing, but to the unbending mind of Glorbert Fletcher, sheer waste was plain unforgivable.


Glen Donaldson’s writing style has been described as “an intriguing combination of Tolkien, Donaldson and Abercrombie”. This is astonishing to him on precisely two counts.

Glen blogs at SCENIC WRITER’S SHACK.

Swamp Thangs

A short story by Susan H. Evans


Blond, thirty-something Cousin Billy tells me, “Sue, we need to rent a canoe and go down the Congaree Swamp.” Trawling through a South Carolina bog with B-movie creeptoids and festering sloughs seems too attractive to miss. I phone my daughter, Laura, that saucy blue-eyed minx, and she is in.

The day of our trip dawns sunny, and soon reaches 75 degrees. Before leaving his Charlotte condo, Billy asks prudently, “Aren’t you all bringing a change of clothes?” I don’t really see the point, but Laura and I tuck extra jeans and tee-shirts in our backpacks.

At Congaree National Park, we stop by the Visitor’s Center to pick up a map. Over the center’s entrance, a small chalkboard reads, “Be aware of submerged logs.” Hmmm. Oh well, who cares about a couple of dinky floating sticks?

At Cedar Creek parking lot, the banana-colored canoe is heavy as a pregnant elephant when we try to get it off the roof of Billy’s car. Under Bannister Bridge, Billy tells me to sit in the canoe middle since I weigh the least. He vaults in next to roost in front while Laura steadies the canoe—bucking like a bronco on Ritalin—from the bank. Then she flops in. I smile. Fraught with danger already, and we have just launched. It takes a gutsy woman like me to venture into the swamplands like this.

We glide peacefully under the forest canopy, with the river as silky as a blue ribbon, paddling past bald cypress and otherworldly water tupelo, their roots exposed like gums in a very pathogenic mouth, anchored in the bowels of the swamp. We row past a few downed trees and floating logs but manage to paddle around them. I love this oozy place.

After an hour of seeing no one, we row to a low-lying area and pull the canoe up on the shore, stretch our legs, and take a couple of pictures. Then we get back in the canoe. This time, Cousin Billy thinks it best for Laura to sit in front with me again in the middle.

Halfway back, Laura—redolent of Lot’s wife that just had to take one last look at Sodom burning—turns and leans sideways, saying “I think we are about to hit a log.” It is an ill current that flows no good. Her weight to the right as we smash into the log does it. Our canoe pitches forward and butts heads with another poorly appointed floating log.

I barely have time to utter, “Here we g-o-o-o-o,” before catapulting over the side of the canoe like a rag doll pitched over Niagara Falls. I eventually stand up, sputtering a gurgling profanity, looking like a cat that has been dropped in a toilet, my hair plastered to one side of my head. The pockets of my denim jacket full of water weigh on me like sacks of ball bearings.

Laura, with all the natural grace of a rhinoceros, half-falls and half jumps out of the canoe, while Billy strategically scrambles into the fen before the craft turns over, and starts a slow descent into the bog. Billy takes charge and tells me that I must get out of the quagmire. I manage to squeak, “How?” He picks me up like I am a Dutchboy knickknack and sits my soggy bottom on a log.

Then Billy tells Laura, “Let’s just get the canoe up.” Laura scrabbles to help, and Billy, with herculean force, heaves it at a 45 degree angle onto the bank.

Meanwhile, I am morphing into an amphibian. Billy looks around and fixes his blue eyes on me turning green on my bole. He resignedly says, “Sue, you need to walk to the shore.” Shivering like a naked Floridian in February Fairbanks, I eye the thin layer of dark chocolate slime over the heavy leaf sludge. Screwing up my last crumbs of courage, I slog to shore, my sneakers filling up with muck as I go, and my throat in a wet pocket of my jacket. I make it to shore and find a rock jutting out of the sand, and soak into it as I wring out my socks, curse the swamp, and wonder why God hates me so.

As Billy puzzles out how we will all get back in the canoe, a flotilla of 20 or so curious gawkers in a tour group slowly move by, plying their oars smoothly in the water. Some faces register sympathy, some barely conceal mirth, but most just look at us sourly. Two hours in the water. Seeing no one. Now they appear.

The plump female ranger eyes our errant water bottle floating downstream, and motions to the bottle, suggesting gaily that we go get it. Billy and I ignore her; both of us would rather even poke her in the eye with a burnt oar than go after that bottle.

Later, Billy, Laura, and I get back to the parking lot. I retrieve my dry clothes from Billy’s Hyundai, and in soggy jeans waddle to the port-o-let. It reeks of abject defeat. I sigh.

Months later, Laura asks quite innocently, “How come we turned over?”

Return from the Land of Olive Pits

A short story by Susan H. Evans


Our flight out of Porto’s TAP, possibly meaning “Try a Pushcart,” airport is scheduled for 6:40 a.m. Christiana, our glib Portuguese cruise director, assures us that only one pilot’s union is on strike and she will alert us about flight cancellations 24 hours in advance.

At 15 minutes to 4:00, on the morning of our flight, I arise from a sleepless night, tangled and strangled in bedclothes, to the sound of Stan’s funereal voice: “Susan. It is time to get up.” Stan shuffles off for breakfast. He returns at 4:00, and we wrestle luggage outside our cabin for the porters. I ask Stan if he inquired about our airport cab, and – not one to ponder the immediate future – he did not. So he bounds back up the steps to ask. I throw on already worn tee shirt, jeans and raincoat. It is dark and drizzling as we clamber over the metal walkway bridging the Douro River to the shore. The ship’s lights dance on the water. A pot-bellied driver waits, his car motor humming. I wearily climb in the back of the cab. A rosary dangles from the cab’s rear-view window and the taxi maneuvers through the wet streets. We arrive at the Porto airport at 4:30. But all the swinging rosaries in Rome won’t help this morning.

The driver swivels around in his seat and in heavily accented English announces, “Twenty euros, por favor.”

Stan, in his own mid-Western accent, explains that the ship is to pay for the ride and tells the cabbie, “Call the ship.” The man can’t understand and jibber-jabbers angrily, thinking we are English-speaking lowlifes. I stay mute in my morning fog. Stan throws a credit card at the man. The card reader promptly refuses it. Stan fishes another credit card out of his wallet, but the result is the same. I have no euros and keep my Visa to myself.

The argument drones on. Stan, a 72-year-old reedy former LAPD cop, darkly threatens to alert the policíal, one of the few Spanish words he knows, except for the phrase, “Drop your weapon and put your hands in the air.” The threat to call the law seems to work because the driver and Stan slam out of the cab.

I superglue myself to the cab’s backseat, afraid that Stan will push the driver’s taximeter too hard and the man will speed away with my valuables in the trunk. My pink and purple earrings and frog matador tee shirt are priceless. To me, anyway.

When I hear the welcome sound of the car trunk click open and the thunk of our suitcases hitting the pavement, I untangle myself out of the cab’s backseat, collect my battered blue suitcase, and scurry through the automatic doors of the airport like a squirrel with its eye on a newly fallen acorn. I’ll let the men sort it out. I have a plane to catch.

Stan catches up with me just before an escalator, and says breathlessly a cruise employee appeared and appeased the cab driver. We settle on metal chairs to wait for our gate to open and the plane to board. Time leaks away like water in a clogged-up sink, and we don’t board. Ten minutes before we are scheduled to fly out of Portugal to Madrid, people around me start rising, shaking their heads, and gathering their belongings. I snare a young man who tells me, “Si, our flight has been cancelled. Pilot’s strike.”

Over at nearby Gate 6, I spy a Senora in Charge. High heels. Swinging high glossy black ponytail. Coat in lime green. Like refugees fleeing bombed-out Berlin circa 1945, we hightail over to Gate 6. The woman crisply tells us, “Collect your luggage and come to the third floor.”

After an interminable wait for suitcases, we race to the third floor, only to find Porto-Bombay, sitting and standing dark-haired people and piled luggage in a long spread out queue. No sign of Lime Coat.

After an hour waiting, I wander off to find a restroom and spot the green-coated senora. I rush up to her and beg, “Will I be able to reach the United States any time today?” Again, a curt reply to bring my bags and follow her. I race off for Stan and the woman walks us over to a counter where a man in his early twenties sits at a computer.

After tapping some keys, he says that the earliest flight out to Madrid is tomorrow morning at 8:10 AM. We protest, and look suitably deranged – Stan, with his wispy white hair saluting the air and Polish face screwed up in a scowl, and me, whiny and pitiful in a salmon raincoat and with frizzing red hair – that the startled young man considers other options to get rid of us. He allows that we COULD go by train to Lisbon’s airport and might be able to fly to Madrid today.

I explain to Stan what the young man says since Stan can only pick up the sound of a speeding train two feet away. Not an option for him. He is antsy to go home to eat his next breakfast at the Outback Steak House and ride his lawn mower. And neither of us is convinced that we won’t have our flight cancelled again in the morning, so we race downstairs to catch the next metro.

We ride the metro for 40 minutes to the long distance train station. Wallpapered with damp people, Stan and I scrunch up in two adjoining train cars. We are to get off at the Campanhã station. Although I am limp as an old rag, hungry, and drowsy, I must stay alert. Someone must. The effervescent Stan nods off, his head buried in the neck of his navy jacket like a turtle, just when the train announcer, over a crackling intercom, intones our stop. At my pantomime request, three young women poke Stan and frantically motion to the door.

The train station is outside through a courtyard. Rain beats a staccato on the breezeway. I open my suitcase and drag out my new lambswool sweater from Barca D’Alva and my Walmart umbrella. Cobblestones crunch under our feet.

Stan and I board the train, bone-tired and swimmy-headed. As we steam south to Portugal’s capital in economy seats, the trains’ green shutters flap in the wind and a watery gray landscape flies by. We disembark to find hundreds of animated teenagers and an expensive looking shops surrounding us. Bewildered, we finally realize that we are not at the airport on our way to a concourse, but stranded at a far distance from where we need to be. It is a terminal condition.

I approach some young Spaniards who say we need to ride Bus 44 to get to Terminal 1. They wave us off in an easterly direction where the bus ostensibly shows up from time to time. I suggest to Stan that we hail a cab. His unshaven face reveals a miserly and wizened money-clutching soul, but he reluctantly agrees. Then he grumbles bitterly like he had been pricked by the devil’s pitchfork when the cabbie announces a whopping fare of 4 euros.

We get new boarding passes at Terminal 1. Stan is in front of me in the security line, grabs his suitcase, and sprints off to find our gate like an ancient stallion on steroids. I lift his boarding pass out of the tub on the conveyor belt and follow the signs to our gate.

Seeing My First Dead Person

A short story by Alan Balter


“Funeral homes,” “funeral parlors” or “funeral chapels”—whatever they’re called, people are dying to get in. Hah!

I was 12 years old at the time, almost 13, in the seventh grade at school. It was April; the last of the dirty snow had melted, and it was getting light enough for the neighborhood kids to come out after dinner. Even better, the softball season was starting, and I was ready to take my position in left field. The first time out there in the spring meant the end of winter and the joy of running free again.

I got to school in the morning and joined a group of my classmates who were standing in a circle talking and waiting for the bell to ring. Someone passed around some Chiclets, little pieces of gum with mint flavor. Vincent Abbinanti was practicing “Rock the Cradle” with his Duncan yoyo, and Frankie Schmidt was spinning a metal top. He could bring it up and make it spin on his hand: To me a very amazing trick.

Lorraine Lucas, who wore lipstick and eye makeup and had a fine rack by the end of sixth grade, stopped cracking her gum for a second and told us that Carmine Bellazinni’s father had passed away.

“Yep,” she said, “my mom told me he ‘expired’ yesterday while he was changing a flat tire on his car. Probably a heart attack.”

“Do you mean he died?” I asked

“Yeah, like deceased,” Lorraine said.

“What’s with the fancy words?” I asked. “Dead is dead, y’know? And it doesn’t matter what you call it.”

“Yeah,” Vincent said, “especially to the person who croaked.”

“Well anyway, some of us should go to the funeral parlor,” Lorraine said. “Carmine is our classmate and friend, so we should go and tell him we’re sorry that his father expired. That’s what you’re supposed to do, y’know? Like, pay your respects to the family of a deceased person.”

At the dinner table that evening I told my parents what had happened. They agreed that going to the funeral chapel would be a nice thing to do.

“You’ll need to take a bath, put some Brylcreem on your hair, and wear clean clothes and your new shoes,” Dad said.

“Well, what am I supposed to do when I get there?” I asked. “I mean, am I allowed to talk, and how long am I supposed to stay? Do I sit down or just stand around with the other kids from school who won’t know what to do either?”

“Walk in quietly with your classmates and look for Carmine and his mother,” Mom said. “When you see them, go up to them, shake their hands, and tell them how sorry you are for their loss. Stay for just a few minutes, and before you leave, you might tell Carmine that if he needs help with anything, like the schoolwork he’s missing, he should ask you.”

The next morning eight of my classmates were wearing their new shoes, too. They would be going with me to visit Carmine at the funeral parlor after school. The rest of the kids took a pass. My guess was that they were planning to pay their respects after Carmine got back to school or maybe send him one of those sympathy cards that tells a person how sorry you are for their loss.

During class, Mrs. Peppin, our teacher, asked if any of us were going to the funeral parlor. When a few of us raised our hands, she said, “It’s nice of you to go; be on your best behavior, and don’t stay long. You might want to tell Carmine we’re all praying for him and his family.”

I’d never spent much time praying, but I thought old “Peppy,” the nickname for our teacher, gave us some good advice. I liked her even though she had buck teeth and put on too much perfume every morning.

When the bell finally rang at three o’clock, we headed out together on the four-block walk to the funeral parlor on Madison Street. For the first three blocks, we were playing around like kids usually do. A few of the guys were teasing Rosita Contreras and pulling her hair. A couple of other girls were giggling and whispering secrets, all the while checking out their reflections in the store windows. The guys were mostly talking about baseball, except for Billy Comforti, who was making fun of Peppy, who couldn’t hear very well and once told him to, “put it on the blackboard,” when he asked for permission to go to the restroom.

As soon as we saw the funeral home, though, everyone got real quiet; I think “mute” is the word for it. And, when we got to the entrance, each of us waited for someone else to open the door and walk in. Finally, Linda Ciccelli took the lead and the rest of us followed. Inside, the lights were dim and some soft organ music was playing. A few people, relatives and friends of Carmine’s family I guessed, were milling around and talking in soft voices. There were bouquets of flowers all over the place giving off a real sweet smell that almost made me sick. A bunch of chairs were arranged in neat rows, even though no one was sitting. A priest was there too, with the black suit and backward collar, talking to Carmine’s mom and some other folks.

Carmine was off to one side looking uncomfortable, kind of stiff I’d say, in a suit and tie. He was standing next to his mom whose eyes were red from crying. I went over and told them how sorry I was for their loss, like I was supposed to do. The rest of my classmates did the same, and that’s when I should have said “Arrivederci” (“goodbye” in the Italian tongue) to Carmine and his mom and gone home. Instead, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the dark wooden coffin with Carmine’s dad all stretched out on his back with his hands folded over his chest. He was decked out in his own suit and tie, and he looked very gray. He was the first dead person I had ever seen, and I didn’t want to look at him too much, but I couldn’t help it.

Eileen Spiegel, Larry Farkus, and I walked over to the coffin, got down on our knees on some soft cushions, and stared at Mr. Bellazinni, who was looking more and more gray with every passing second.

An adult standing behind me, a relative I think, who was fat and smelled of booze, said, “He looks so peaceful, almost like he’s asleep. Surely, he’s with the angels now, in a better place.”

All the time I was thinking that Mr. Bellazinni wasn’t sleeping at all. He was as dead as a brick, and he was never going to wake up from any kind of peaceful slumber, either. Maybe he was with some angels in a better place, but there were a whole lot of better places that I’d rather be, including left field, religious school, a piano lesson, cooped up in the library on a sunny day, or even the dentist’s office when he’s coming at me with his drill and his hand is shaking. Fact is, the whole thing was starting to creep me out, so I gave my place on the cushion to the fat guy who smelled of booze.

Finally, we said goodbye to Carmine and his mom and headed out into the sunlight. A few of us, including me, were scared. Actually, I’d say that all of my classmates were scared, even Vincent Abbinanti who was usually not afraid of anything, but none of us wanted to admit it.

When you’re scared because you’ve just seen your first dead person, you want to get home as soon as you can. So, I walked as fast as I could, even ran some, in order to make sure I made it home before dark. All the time I was thinking that I should have given the whole thing a pass like most of my classmates did. Carmine wouldn’t have cared much if I hadn’t shown up at the funeral chapel to stare at his dead father. Fact is, he probably wouldn’t have missed me at all, and his mom wouldn’t have given it a thought either.

Truth is, I had nightmares for months. In most of them, Mr. Bellazinni and his gray face were chasing me. One time he caught me, and when I looked at his face, it was me. Another time I was back on the soft cushion again, and Mr. Bellazinni sat up in his dark wooden coffin and pointed a skeleton finger at me.

Of course, I’ve been to many funeral parlors since my first visit. I’m always relieved when the coffin is closed, and when it isn’t, I stay in the back, as far away from the gray person as I can.

Vincent Abbinanti and I are still friends after all these years. I meet him for lunch almost every week, and we both remember going to Mr. Bellazinni’s funeral. I told Vincent that if he doesn’t come to my funeral, I won’t go to his. Hah!

Backseat

A short story by Mike Lee


We were on the road again, with Kansas nothing flying by on the narrow
Interstate strip, barreling toward Salina, to take the turnoff south through Oklahoma, and to old homeland Texas.

I sat in the back with my daughter, both of us bitching about the cold. Won full custody of her the month before. Child protective services said it was cool to take this trip and not inform the mother of our plans, reminding me that the court removed her parental rights.

Dorrie, my daughter, returned to her book, wrapping herself tight with the blanket Lia gave her. I pulled my black leather motorcycle jacket together, zipping it up.  I looked out through the window staring at some exposed rock on the side of the road.

I felt loose at every inch, thinking of American mermaids I dated that could have been Dorrie’s mother. Instead, I picked the Irish bottle-stashing drunk who I caught choking the kid. Had mom led out in handcuffs, slapped papers on her while she was in rehab and ground her through the family court machine back in New York.

I hated every minute of it. I may have fallen out of love of my estranged wife, but I did marry her, put up with years of bullshit, and let things slide to apocalyptic lows. But I am a man who causes trouble for himself, and at the moment while staring at flat fields of prairie spotted with exposed glacial stone, I committed the guilty sin of dragging the innocent into my bad decisions.

Lia was driving; her glasses slightly askew while her husband read the book lying on his lap. Lia asked him to change the music on the iPod attached to the cigarette lighter.

The music was some Americana band I had a vague affection for, Wilco, and I recognized the song. Dorrie’s ex-mother liked that song. I liked it better. “I’m Always in Love”—that certainly wasn’t the problem for anyone but me because maybe it was not true. Maybe for one, someone whose heart I continue to beat for.

Could have been Lia. I knew her since she was fifteen, but she is married to Tad, and though she bailed me out of this jam, she is glued to the man. I accepted the help, but this still felt weird relying on girlfriends from 30 years ago.

No, it was someone else. She was before Lia, and although she was not the first girl I kissed, she was the one I fell in love with.  This distinction belonged to that American mermaid dream with green eyes who was Texan with each hand gesture and in the tenor of her voice.

While Heaven loves that driver, the one I wanted behind that wheel was that Texas girl; she may still be around once we arrive in Austin. I’d look her up, but she has a boyfriend she told me she liked in an e-mail she sent when troubles formed like thunderstorms on the horizon.

The backseat where this new family sat was getting slightly warmer. The heater kicked in big time by the turnoff toward Oklahoma. It spared that lucky child, Dorrie, who let the blanket drop while silently reading her book.

I thought to ask the woman I loved to please let me in, but knowing she may say no, I shifted my thoughts back to the road ahead. We were looking at twelve hours through Oklahoma, then across the state line and on to a hotel in Georgetown.

Closed my eyes and leaned back in the seat, slumping against the cold glass. I pushed my hat aside to keep my head warm, and fell asleep.

When I woke up it was getting on sunset. I pulled my cell phone out and took a couple of photos of the draining sunlight on the far western horizon.

The faster Lia drove, gunning it up to make Georgetown, the closer to home and green eyes from teenage years I felt.

Maybe I will look that girl up. Won’t tell anyone.  After we check in, I will tell Lia I need some air. Knowing her, she’ll be tired and crash out while Tad goes on his laptop and plays all-night online bridge while lying in the bed next to his wife. Dorrie will be in her room, probably still with her novel, maybe watching television.

I will go out into the Texas cold, flip open my phone and look for her number. I have it written on scrap folded neatly in my wallet.

I did not call her during the hell-time. I did not want to be a bother.

Fumbled for the number. Could not find it. Frustrated, I sighed and walked to the gas station for another pack of cigarettes.

I sat on the curb, smoking nervously, wondering how I could have lost that
number. Felt like I had let that connection become severed, and for no good reason.

Instead, I made up a poem on the spot, reciting the words I knew I would forget before I went to bed. The girl in my memory would hear it, though, as I lost myself to the cadence of my feelings and lit one smoke after another.

In Austin, I will be with Lia and Tad. Dorrie. Lia’s mom had arrived earlier, with her daughter and son-in-law’s children. I will have no time to find the girl I actually really did love.

Perhaps just being in Austin will be enough. It is possible I will run into her and finally tell this woman face-to-face how I feel, boyfriend or not. I shall even say it in front of him, if need be.

I finally finished reciting my poem, and bid her good night with a sweet, lingering kiss into the winter night.

I slept through until half past dawn. The best, restful sleep I had in years.

So be it.


Mike Lee is a writer, labor journalist and photographer based in New York City. His fiction has been published in West Trade ReviewThe Ampersand Review, Paraphilia, The Airgonaut, Sensitive SkinReservoir, The Avenue, and others. His photography is currently being exhibited at Art Thou Gallery in Berkeley, California and as part of a group show at Darkroom Gallery in Essex Junction, Vermont, curated by Bruce Gilden.

Bitchin’ Freeze

A short story by Maxine Kollar


I got a dog.

I didn’t want a dog.

It was fluffy and white and never barked. It just made a soft humming sound followed by a high-pitched sound. It sounded like a fan gathering speed but I never told it that.

All dogs going to heaven is a movie; well, a straight-to-DVD waste of time, but still. Not true.

This damned dog entered my world through a hole. He had torn the throat out of a boy named Adolf and had been sent here. It didn’t belong here. The boy named Adolf had continued on in another time and the dog couldn’t save the people. It tried. It was a good dog. You should get points for trying but this damned dog got hell for trying to save humanity from itself. A hole opened because there was a tug of war of sorts for its soul. Yes, it has a soul.

He was supposed to fall into the lake but I saw the fluff ball coming down and stuck out my hand and well, here we are.

How do you care for a dog in Hell? I wasn’t even sure what kind it was. Bitchin’ freeze?

“You know that animals know things that people never do,” said Edmund after he saw me ‘stealthily’ looking at my… the dog in the bag next to me.

“Like what?” I asked. Edmund and I were working on the intestinal torture line.

“I dunno. That’s just what I heard. But I’m pretty sure they can tell when earthquakes are coming,” he said.

“That’s stupid. We get earthquakes all the time and…” There was a big one coming right now. The dog started whining in a pitiful way. You’d think we’d be used to that kind of stuff by now—oh, the cries for mercy!—but this was different. I started stroking him and Edmund leaned over and started making a shh noise. The dog quieted down even as we hung on for all we were worth. Big Guy was mad this time.

Two days later, Malicant comes walking up behind me and Edmund while we’re feeding her. She likes intestines and we have plenty of those. Malicant is actually a manager, but he’s been at this for so long that he can’t even bother anymore. He asks her name.

Edmund and I look at each other. We took to calling her ‘The Dog’ and kept it that way because anything else would be how you get attached to something. We didn’t want to get attached. I mean, we were keeping her from getting scared and we sure weren’t going to let her get thrown into the lake with people. But that was it.

We tell Malicant that we don’t have a name for her. He says that it’s important because she is a female dog and if she gets lost you can’t just run around Hell calling, “Bitch, Bitch, hey Bitch.” He had a point.

We named her Contessa without knowing why and without much of an argument. It must have just fit. Malicant comes back the next day and we tell him to take Contessa for a walk. He is delighted but tries to hide it by breathing fire that scorches our foreheads and horns.

Unfortunately, a new manager gets transferred into the Division. He is young and eager and a total pain in the neck. Literally. That’s his thing. Anyway, when he finds out about Contessa, he loses it, while still smiling and scraping my trachea with the sharp end of his tail. He is writing up the report when Malicant walks up behind him and bites his head off. We roll his body into the lake with the people.

No new managers transfer into our division anymore.


Maxine Kollar is a wife and a mother of three. Her works have appeared in Mamalode, Clever Magazine, Funny in Five Hundred, Rat’s Ass Review, and elsewhere.

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.