Nothing Good Ever Happens in a Flyover State

By Colin Brightwell

Betty was eight months pregnant and Sherman was eight months on the verge of breaking. He’d come into work complaining about Betty busting his balls about painting the room and names for girls. He’d give us this high-pitched shrill impression of her and sulk the rest of the afternoon. Me and the other boys at the construction site were starting to take bets on how soon he’d snap.

Mary and me lived in the same trailer park as Sherman and Betty. We were high school pals, baseball players from the old glory days. Our dads were union workers who spent their days at the bar and came home mad and bitter. Sherman and I thought we wouldn’t end up like them, that we’d fly out of here and end up somewhere warm, where money grew on trees and your car always started. But we got married and settled down and that was all she wrote. Ten years passed and we were busting our asses on the sides of highways and knocking beers down when the world went dark. We hung around together because we stayed behind, both of us reminders of a lost time. We talked in past tense and acted like nothing had changed. But I was growing up and understanding that the world didn’t work that way. Life moved on and you had to move with it or else you’d drown in your own shit.

 Some nights in the summer we’d sit on faded patio chairs and watch the cars roll down 40 Highway towards the city and slam back beers while the women chatted. I liked to think we were all content, taking each day one at a time. But there was always something that got Sherman bitter. He would always say what a life we had, Gene, when we were in high school. All the babes we had. Names were dropped, names and faces that memory faded and I just nodded my head and tended to agree with him. Yeah, Sherman. It sure was great.

 And now he had that baby girl on the way and everything was catching up to him. One night he came over and said that he was dying, that he had to get out and cut loose for one more night. One more night to reclaim that old glory.

“C’mon, Gene,” he said. “It’s killing me being cooped up in there with her.”

 So I kissed Mary goodnight while she slept before the night shift at the hospital and we headed down the highway as the sun started to go down. It was late winter and that Missouri cold was biting and I worried my engine would kill itself halfway down the road. 

 We pulled up to Harve’s, sat at the bar, and ordered a round. Sherman looked around and said that this place hadn’t changed one bit. The bar was empty save for the bartender and us, and I felt alone sitting next to Sherman. He seemed different when he drank, violent. One time he threw a beer bottle at some guy for looking at him wrong back after school ended. But now he seemed ready to explode and tear down anything that got in his way. 

 Sherman slammed his beer down and ordered us a shot of whiskey. We held our glasses up in a toast for the last few weeks of his freedom.

 “Don’t get you a baby,” he said. “I tell ya, there some nights I sit up all night and think about leaving.”

“We keep trying,” I said. “Nothing’s happened yet.”

It always scared me, having kids, but for Mary’s sake we kept trying. But deep down, seeing what it was doing to Sherman, I didn’t want a baby in the house just yet. Money was tight enough anyway. In my head I pictured the bills from hospitals and diapers and daycares and college. 

“Be glad about that. Sometimes I think this is what killed my dad.”

When I was younger I saw my dad’s face grind down to nothing but a pulp mess of wrinkles. I saw that same thing on Sherman’s face. I looked at the mirror behind the bar and tried to see if I was starting to look that way. I drank my beer and nodded along with Sherman.

He got up and chucked some quarters into the juke and played some blues. B.B. King’s guitar wailing about evil women and then Springsteen crooning about some promised land at the end of a winding highway, a place he knew he could get to if he just paid his dues and put in his time. I pictured this highway blasting through the trailer park, the pavement fresh and black, and me and Sherman shredding down the road towards the rising sun. Then the Boss yelled about a storm blowing away all those dreams that eat away at you and that highway disappeared. I ordered another beer and felt a wreck happening deep in my guts and sighed.

“You know, we played some great ball, Gene,” Sherman said. 

“Hell,” I said with a half-assed chuckle, “we couldn’t even make state.”

“I’m just sayin,” he said.

Sherman brought this up time and time again those months when Betty was pregnant. I stopped thinking about ball a long time ago after Mary and I married. I knew I wasn’t ever going to wear a jersey again with my name on it. I was a below average player and knew it. But Sherman wouldn’t let this go. He kept bringing it up, the pathetic cliché lost on him. Kept talking about how he could have pitched for the Royals or Red Sox and been real hot shit. Could have married a swimsuit model and lived in a mansion. He was talking nonsense. He wasn’t ever gonna live that life. We were here, and this was it, the end of the road.

“Why don’t you quit that talk,” I said. “You got a baby on the way. Ain’t that enough?”

 He nodded and looked around the empty bar, at the posters of half-dressed girls holding sweaty beer bottles and inviting men with their smiles. “That’s what I’m afraid of.”

 “Why can’t you be grateful?” I said. “Betty’s one hell of a woman.”

“Once that baby comes that’s it for me,” he said. “No more ballgames on the weekends, no more bars. Just diapers and Barney.” 

Mary and me knew each other all through high school, and I knew then I’d spend my life with her. She had these freckles on her face that looked like stars and hair that was fire. Mom loved her something bad and would never let it go if I broke her heart. She was pregnant when we married. She had a miscarriage a month after that. I somehow managed to keep everything alive this long. But there were some nights when I would look at her and think that living in the Highway Estates Trailer Park across the highway from an abandoned drive-in wasn’t enough for us. Maybe she resented me for tying her down to this dead-end way. I thought about leaving so many times but crawled back into bed instead and tried to hold her close, thinking to myself that this was all I wanted. 

“Pretty soon,” Sherman said, “there’s gonna be nothing but crying in my home. All night. Goddamn, this is what it all comes down to.”

 I told him to shut up, finish his drink, and let’s go find another place that had more noise where I wouldn’t have to hear him talk and think about myself anymore, tear into the meat of whatever was awaiting us. 

 We drove down the highway speeding down the empty lanes. Patches of pale light from the street lamps helped guide the way. I pictured that winding highway again from the song and wondered what that promised land looked like. If the streets were lined with whatever you desired, if when you came home from work your body didn’t feel like it was broken every which way, if the beer never went flat and the sun never went away and the air was always warm. I wondered if such places existed at all. It seemed to me that places like that were only real in your head. They were fantasies you told yourself to get you through the workday before you crawled back home and realized that you were stuck there. 

We were halfway to the heart of Independence when we saw her. A lone girl hiking on the shoulder of the highway in a coat that was thick as animal hide. She had blonde hair and looked smaller than a twig. I wondered if she would freeze out there.

“Pull over,” Sherman said. “Let’s go talk to that chick.”

He rolled his window down when I stopped next to her and that cold air blasted in like a shotgun. Sherman smiled at her and called out, wanted to know what in the hell a pretty girl like her was walking outside in the Antarctic. 

“My car broke down a few miles back,” she said. “I was heading west.”

“Well,” Sherman said, “why don’t you get your ass in here before you keel over.”

She peeked in and saw me. I tried to look nice. 

“Where you two going?” 

I glanced at her and even in the dark I could tell she was young. 

“We’re just driving around trying to find another bar,” Sherman said. “You look like you could use a drink.”

She put her hands in her coat pockets and looked down at her feet. “I’m only twenty.”

Sherman chuckled with a sweetness I hadn’t heard in ages. “Hell, nobody cares about that. You come in with us and they’ll let you drink whatever, honey.”

“I don’t know,” she said. Her eyes seemed distant and I thought about pushing down on the gas and leave before she decided to get in when Sherman started talking again.

“You’re gonna freeze standing out there,” Sherman said. “We’ll get you a drink and some food and get you on a bus out of here.”

She shrugged and slowly eased into the back of the car. Maybe she thought she could get some free beer from us, find somebody at the bar willing to take her as far west as they could. Sherman kept talking her ear off and laughing like a madman. Her name was Alison. I kept glancing back at her through the mirror and thought about kicking her out and heading back home.

After a while Sherman told me to stop at a gas station to grab some smokes. He said he’d be back in a flash and winked at the girl and ran in. 

It was quiet before she said anything. 

“I quit school,” she said. 

I nodded and kept watch for Sherman coming back out.

“I’m heading west because I don’t like it here. It’s too cold.”

“It’s Missouri,” I said. “What did you expect in winter?”

She leaned over between the driver’s and passenger’s seats. Her breath smelled like mint. “You lived here your whole life?”

I nodded and dicked around with the radio, trying to find a song worth listening to. But all there was on the air waves this late at night were commercials and talk shows where all they did was talk talk and talk till you lost your patience and slammed the whole thing off and sat in silence. 

“Why don’t you leave?”

“It ain’t that easy,” I said. “Believe me.” She was only about ten years younger than me but she didn’t understand the first thing about life. I thought about playing dad with her and telling her this. 

“You know what they call Missouri? A flyover state. Know why?”

“Because people don’t want to come here,” I said. “Everyone just flies over us and doesn’t give two shits about places like here.”

“That’s right,” she said. “I want to leave. I have family out in California. Or I can stop in New Mexico and work at some tourist joint. I heard it’s always warm out there. The sun’s always out.”

I turned back around as Sherman was coming out. “Maybe you’re right about that,” I said. “I wouldn’t know. Maybe it ain’t all that bad.” 

The Boss’ promised land highway came back to me and I pictured this girl walking down it towards the coast. I looked at her and realized that I wanted her to get out of this place, to find out for me if places like that really existed. I wanted to tell her to get out right now and find someone else to take her out there.

Sherman got in and slammed the door and yelled giddy-up and we drove around till we found a bar off the highway. Some place called The Grid Iron. Trash littered the parking lot and the sign was flickering in and out of life. Some people were gathered outside smoking. They looked half-dead and lost, straight out of those Depression-era photographs they showed us in school.

We sat in the back booth and Sherman ordered himself and Alison a beer and I ordered a whiskey. The same kinds of posters lined the walls, the same kind of women holding the same kind of beer. They didn’t look real to me. They looked like conjured up ideas of women. Sherman kept glancing around at them and Alison. 

I wondered what her life was like back home to make her go out west. She and Sherman were talking but she didn’t seem all that interested. He was giving the same old runaround he gave girls back in the day. He was drunk and she could see that.

After a while he got up and found the juke box and played some slow number and went up to her and grabbed her from the booth and started dancing with her. Her face looked bored, as if she regretted taking a ride with us. She looked like a department store mannequin dancing with him, stiff and lifeless and he buried his face in her neck and her eyes looked gone. 

The song ended and she tore away from him and sat next to me back in the booth. Sherman followed and sat across from her. 

“You’re a pretty little thing, you know that?”

She nodded and looked around the bar. “Thanks. Can you take me to a bus stop now?”

“I wish I knew you a long time ago,” he said. “Maybe I could have gone west with you.”

He sounded desperate and I had an urge to leave the both of them and head home onto the highway on foot.  

I had a strong feeling that one day soon I would end up like Sherman. That Mary would finally get pregnant and I would hate it and try to find some and get drunk and sound pathetic. Looking at him right then and there I felt sick. He was a piece of my past that clung to me like those fish cling to sharks. He was pulling me down and I wanted to hit him. Maybe then he would have finally snapped out of whatever it was that was making him like this. 

“Stop it, Sherman,” I said. He was trying to grab her leg from under the table.

He looked at me and rolled his eyes. “Stop what? I ain’t doing anything. She likes it.”

She asked Sherman for a cigarette and she stepped outside to light it. He watched her go.

“Boy,” he said, “what I would give for a piece of ass like that. Just once.”

“Let it go, Sherman,” I said. “Let’s leave her here and head on back. I’m tired.”

“Suit yourself,” he said. “I’ll stay here. Play things out.”

He winked at me and struggled to get out and walked into the night with a cigarette in his hand.

The bar was full of greasy men. I figured their lives weren’t any better, driving around the night trying to chase something they thought they could find. Something that would make them feel like they did before life bit them in the neck. I imagined their faces when they realized nothing was there. Walking around in their lives looking for something to blame. Sherman was doing just that. He hated the world so much he couldn’t blame himself for the way things went. He’d just keep hating the world and reliving the past instead of coming to terms with the way it was. 

They were gone for a while, and I had a craving for a cigarette. I paid the bartender and headed out. Outside the bar was empty and the highway seemed desolate. I didn’t see Sherman or Alison smoking, so I walked around to the back.

He was standing over her, pacing back and forth, breathing hard under his breath. I could see the vapor leave his mouth like a piece of his soul. He turned around and looked at me. 

There was one lone light on the wall of the bar, and I could see his face. He didn’t look surprised that I was standing there. She was lying there like she just fell. In the light I could see a pool of black around her head. 

“What the hell happened?”

Sherman shrugged and wiped his nose with his sleeve. “I think maybe I pushed her too hard,” he said. “She just sort of lost her footing and hit her head on that dumpster.”

“What did you do?”

“She started it,” he said. “It got out of hand. She tried hitting me, telling me to back off and I had to get her off me. The little bitch was hitting me hard.”

He looked back down at her. I walked over and got a closer look. I couldn’t tell if she was breathing. She looked about dead. There was nothing in her eyes. I could have left then, got into that car, and roared down that highway and that would have been that. 

“She’ll be fine,” Sherman said. “Let’s get out of here.”

Back on the highway he didn’t say one word. He sat looking out the window as we passed the streetlamps and empty buildings that lined that section of road. I felt disgusted with him, with myself for letting him leave her there. I could have called the cops or left him there to deal with it himself. Now I was involved. In the TV shows they called it being an accessory after the fact. Sooner or later, someone caught up to people like me. Nothing seemed to bother Sherman about this. 

Whenever I blinked, I saw Alison lying on the pavement. She’d never get out west away from here. I thought that maybe she’d be a ghost that stalked the back of the bar, doomed forever to never leave this flyover state. I could see the blinking light from a plane overhead and pictured its passengers looking out their windows. We were so small to them. It was like we didn’t exist. They would never come here. Even they knew there wasn’t anything good here.

When we pulled into his driveway he didn’t move. He sat there staring at the front door of his home, tapping the dashboard. 

“No one needs to know,” he said. “It was just an accident.”

“Shit,” I said, turning away from him. “People saw her with us. Someone’s gonna find her.”

“Well, what do you want me to do?” he asked. “Throw my life away over a little slut? It doesn’t matter. She just fell. She was drunk. Could have happened to anybody.”

“Get the fuck out,” I said. When he didn’t move, I nearly pushed him out, hitting him. He slammed the door and spat. I watched him walk up the steps and Betty greeted him at the door. He gave her a great big hug and kissed her on the cheek. She smiled and waved at me. I backed out, my knuckles turning white gripping the wheel.

Back home, the trailer was quiet and dark. I fixed myself a bag of ice and sat in the kitchen while my skull throbbed, and I thought it was going to explode. 

When I crawled back into bed, I wished Mary was there, wished that she would get off her night shift early and come home so I could hold her tight. I loved her and I pictured us having a real family. It would be a matter of time before somebody found Alison and put the pieces together. Pictures of her would be on the news. There would be a knock on both of our doors. I wanted to get out before any of that happened. In the morning I wanted to tell Mary to pack up her things and get into the car. We were going to get the hell away from here. Anywhere. I wished I believed myself. 

About the Author: Colin Brightwell is a Missouri native, from the greater Kansas City area and Jesse James country. He has fiction upcoming in Reckon Review and Bull Magazine. He is currently in the MFA program for fiction at the University of Mississippi.

A Sleepover with Coral Rose

By Lauren Slagter

Pain in her neck was the first thing Sara became aware of as she blinked open her heavy eyelids. She noted a blue curtain running the length of the linoleum-tiled room, metal rails on the side of her bed and a splint on her left wrist, with a petal of the rose inked on the inside of her arm just visible beyond the black velcro strap. 

Slowly, she turned her stiff neck so she could face the Sunday morning light streaming through a small window on the far wall. She heard voices murmuring on the other side of the curtain and the beep of machinery near her head. 

“What happened?” The words scratched her dry throat, coming out barely above a whisper. 

A metallic jangle of curtain rings sliding along the rod announced the entrance of a heavyset woman in medical scrubs. 

“You don’t remember last night?” the nurse said. Her quick smile didn’t spread far enough beyond the corners of her mouth to cover the glint of judgment in her eyes. Sara knew the look well. 

“Good morning?” Sara frowned and tucked a strand of her dark hair behind her ear with the hand not in a splint. “Who are you?” 

“I’m the person who’s been taking care of you all night. My name is Pam,” the woman said, scanning her clipboard. “The police are on their way to pick you up, so we need to get you discharged.” 

“Police?” Sara raised her eyebrows. 

“Yes, the police.” Pam’s disapproving look wasn’t papered over with a smile this time. “They said you were drinking last night when you crashed your car. You sprained your wrist, so you need to keep this splint on for seven to 10 days. And you may feel pain in your neck from whiplash.” 

Sara struggled to piece together what happened the previous day. She remembered the fight with her mother, Kim, who had been pestering Sara about plans for an upcoming court-mandated sleepover with her daughter, Coral. 

“What do you think you’ll have for dinner?” Kim had asked standing over her kitchen sink doing dishes, her sweatshirt sleeves pushed up and her graying brown hair pulled back in a ponytail. 

“Not sure yet, maybe those frozen chicken nuggets you throw in the oven?” Sara replied from the stool at the kitchen counter without looking up from the Cosmopolitan magazine she flipped through. Sara had never cared much about doing her hair and makeup, and she was much curvier — the nice word for the extra weight she carried — than the women pictured on the glossy pages. But she liked to pretend she could be glamorous if only she bought the recommended lipstick. 

“You’ll want a vegetable, something healthy,” Kim said. “What about after dinner? Do you have games to play with her? Books to read together?” 

“I’ll figure it out.” Sara was tired of the topic. 

“And you need to clean up your apartment before she and the caseworker come over, right? When are you planning to finish your laundry?” 

“Mom, relax! The sleepover is a week away. I don’t have every minute planned yet.” “You want me to relax?” Kim stopped with the dishes and turned toward Sara, water still streaming from the faucet. “You’re relaxed enough for the both of us. Someone has to show up for our girl!” 

“And let me guess, you don’t think I’m up to the task. Thank God you’re here to save everybody,” Sara fired back sarcastically. 

They hurled insults at each other until the slam of the front door ended their screaming match as Kim stormed out of her own apartment. More doors slammed as Sara paced the kitchen, opening cupboards so she could bang them shut. She spotted a bottle of vodka tucked behind a stack of paper plates in the cupboard by the sink. 

The familiar burn of the first gulp spread from her throat through her chest. Another pull and the tension dropped from her shoulders. She slid her hip on the edge of the kitchen counter and perched there, cradling the bottle to steady her hands still trembling with anger. 

Coral hadn’t spent the night with Sara since she was placed in foster care nearly two years ago. That night Sara had put Coral to bed and then gone to a friend’s house. She was blacked out on Vicodin and Jim Beam when police arrived to break up her fight with another woman. The officers called Child Protective Services, and a caseworker arrived in the middle of the night to pack a bag for Coral and take her away. 

That was when Sara “hit bottom,” as her court-mandated group therapist said. She’d since quit the booze (mostly), stopped seeing the doctor who treated her chronic back pain with endless Vicodin prescriptions, taken the required parenting classes, passed her drug tests, and sat through countless supervised playtimes with Coral. Under the watchful eye of the caseworker, Sara and Coral played Uno and forced small talk so Sara could prove her parenting abilities. The problem was Coral had become so angry. The girl was only 12, but Sara couldn’t say anything without Coral snapping back at her. 

If they could successfully get through a few sleepovers, Sara’s attorney said she would have a good shot at regaining custody of her kid. Taking swigs from the bottle of vodka, Sara felt the walls of her mom’s now-silent apartment closing in on her. Her daughter, her mom, the CPS caseworker and the judge were counting on her to do this sleepover right — though deep down, she suspected they doubted she could. She doubted she could. 

Sara hopped down from the kitchen counter and grabbed the keys to the beat-up black Ford Escort she shared with her mom. She needed to get out of her mom’s apartment and out of her own head. A trip to Joe’s, her favorite bar, would make her feel better. She hadn’t been there in months, since she was on her best behavior for the court. But a night of chatting with the bartender, Shawna, and running the jukebox would be a welcome relief. She could refocus on the sleepover and make up with her mom the next day. 

She didn’t remember anything else from the night before. 

**** 

“So the hospital’s blood test confirmed your blood alcohol concentration was 0.12, over the legal limit. The police say you crashed your car into a light pole in the apartment complex parking lot,” Sara’s attorney, Mark, read to her from a police report as they sat on a bench outside the courtroom following her arraignment Monday morning. “They’re going to bring this up at your next hearing. We’ll have to decide if you want to stick with the not guilty plea we entered today or try to negotiate a deal. I want to warn you, you could face jail time.” 

Sara nodded numbly. The boom of the judge’s voice as he announced the driving under the influence charge still echoed in her aching head. Turns out, she never made it to the bar or even out of the apartment complex after the argument with her mom. Officers had checked her out of the hospital and into jail on Sunday afternoon. Unable to post the $500 bail, she spent a sleepless night on a metal bunk before appearing in the courtroom, where the judge waived bond since she couldn’t afford it. 

After debriefing with her attorney and finally on her own, Sara paused on the steps outside the courthouse. A deep breath of chilly Midwest January air cleared her muddled mind. She made a beeline for the bus stop down the block, eager to be home where she could crawl into bed and pretend none of this was happening. As she waited for the bus, she switched on her cell phone for the first time since jail staff returned it to her. Voicemail alerts flooded the screen. The bus pulled up, and she hit play on a message from her caseworker as she stepped aboard and paid the fare. 

“Sara, this is Linda. I was at the courthouse for another case this morning and saw your arraignment on the docket. We need to meet Thursday to decide how you want to proceed with your custody case. In light of this new charge and the fact we’re nearly two years into this case, we’re prepared to file a motion to terminate your parental rights. That means we’d have a hearing where the judge would make a permanent decision about your ability to parent Coral. Or, you have the option to voluntarily give up your parental rights and we don’t do the hearing. I’ll tell you more about each option and answer any questions you have on Thursday. Please be at our office at 10.” 

Sara slumped in the bus seat and watched through the window as street signs and trees passed by against the gray sky. 

At the liquor store near her apartment, she grabbed a cheap bottle of pinot grigio from the bottom shelf. Not like another drink could make things any worse. Finally home, she unlocked her door and carried a burst of cold air into her one-bedroom apartment. The living room was furnished with a TV stand, couch and chair her mom helped her pick out from the Salvation Army. A crockpot she was using more frequently to make dinner — like the parent educator taught her — sat out on the kitchen counter. This apartment didn’t feel like home. She and Coral had always lived with Sara’s mom, Kim; that was home. But now half of the monthly disability check Sara received due to her back pain went to rent for this apartment a couple buildings over from her mom’s place. Sara had leased the apartment to appease her caseworker, who insisted she demonstrate she could take care of herself as well as her daughter. 

Struggling with the corkscrew to open the bottle of wine tweaked Sara’s wrist again, but after half a glass, the wine dulled the pain. She sank onto the couch and absentmindedly rubbed her right thumb against the tattooed rose petal on her left arm — the touchpoint that reminded her of her daughter. A coral rose for her Coral Rose. Actually Sara got the tattoo first — to celebrate her 17th birthday, shortly before finding out she was pregnant. Her favorite color and favorite flower, why not her baby’s name? Most people would get a tattoo in honor of their kid, but Sara always seemed to do things backward, unaware of the status quo other people seemed to grasp innately or unable to meet others’ expectations for her. A basket of laundry taunted her from the living room chair, so Sara scooped it up and walked to the bedroom intending to put away the clothes. But her gaze lingered on the pastel drawing of an oversized rose tacked to the wall above her bed. Drawing had always been Sara’s escape. Moving her hands to create lines and shapes was the only way she found stillness inside. Her thoughts could assemble themselves in the saturated colors she blended, rather than swirling around in her head. Art had been the one class she looked forward to in high school, before she’d dropped out when her rounding belly made her the topic of gossip whispered at her classmates’ lockers and announced the pending arrival of Coral Rose. 

**** 

Coral was 9 when she and Sara drew the rose picture together, a few months before Coral went into foster care. Sara remembered waking late that Saturday as Kim finished clearing Coral’s syrup-covered breakfast dishes from the table and announced she’d be at bingo for the rest of the day. Battling a hangover, Sara reached for the pill bottle in her purse. “What do you want to do today, girlie?” she asked Coral, who was still wearing her pink camo pajamas. “We could walk to the park. Maybe check out books at the library.” Sara froze when her hand landed on the pill bottle and felt no rattle inside. Had she taken her last Vicodin the night before? Her mind raced through her options to get more pills and realized none of them were possible with Kim gone with the car and Coral under Sara’s supervision. Without her steady supply of pills, Sara would be in no condition to take her daughter in public. 

“Actually, you know what would be fun?” Sara shifted tactics, trying not to panic. “What if we drew a picture together? Like a big one, with my nice crayons.” 

“The nice ones?” Coral’s brown eyes widened, surprised she would be allowed to use the pastels her mom said were for grownups. 

“Yeah, I’ll show you how to use them. Why don’t you go get my crayon case and a sheet of drawing paper from the bedroom,” Sara said, leaning back on the couch. She took a ragged inhale and tried to focus on a second of relief from her pulsing headache. Coral settled on the floor beside her mom, and they spread the large sheet of paper across the coffee table. Sara started to outline a rose, ring after ring of petals stretching to the page’s edge, her hands shaking as she drew. 

“It’s your flower,” Sara said, grabbing the orange, pink and red crayons from the case. “And this is how we make your color.” 

Coral’s fingers followed Sara’s as they blended the creamy pastels between the lines of the spiraling petals; the girly pink, sunny orange, and fiery red combining to create a warm hue that always reminded Sara of a tropical breeze — or at least what she imagined a tropical breeze felt like when she looked at the poster of a beach scene hanging in her principal’s office, where Sara had waited to hear the same lecture every time she was caught cutting class. Sara’s stomach churned, but she forced herself to conceal her pain from her daughter. 

“It looks like your rose,” Coral said, standing back to admire their masterpiece and pointing toward her mother’s wrist. 

“You’re my rose,” Sara replied, catching her daughter’s hand and pulling her close to her chest, her arm wrapped around the girl’s small shoulders. She couldn’t let her know anything was wrong. 

*** 

A few sips of wine remained in the bottle, and Sara gave up on the laundry and lay down on her bed. The court didn’t understand the bond she had with her mom and her daughter. Kim had requested custody of Coral, but the court knew Kim and her daughter were inseparable. If Coral was to live with either of them, Sara would need to clean up her act. Coral’s dad — who Sara spent time with when she was skipping class during high school — had cut ties with Sara years ago; the latest she heard he was in prison. 

“It appears the grandmother often prepares snacks and activities in advance of the mother’s supervised visits with the child,” read a line in the thick stack of reports the caseworker had compiled on Sara’s interactions with her daughter. 

So what if Kim helped out? Sara was still the girl’s mom. At one of their recent visits, Sara had suggested Coral draw with her like they used to. 

“Mom, I’m too old for coloring,” Coral rolled her eyes. Instead she told her mom about the A she got in math, how her teacher said she could be an engineer when she grew up, the sleep-away camp her foster parents planned to send her to this summer, and the neon Under Armour hoodies she’d meticulously selected during back-to-school shopping for sixth grade. Her words jabbed at Sara, underscoring the gap between what Coral wanted and what Sara had to offer. 

Suddenly Sara felt the wine coming back up. She dashed to the bathroom, kneeled on the dirty blue mat in front of the toilet and threw up the acidic alcohol. Along with the bitter bile, up came the sadness she carried in the pit in her stomach, the insecurities and self-doubt, the belief she could be better. She emptied herself of all she could no longer stand, and her head felt surprisingly clear as she steadied herself on the bathroom floor. She knew what she needed to do. 

**** 

The frigid air cut through Sara’s T-shirt as she got off the bus a few days later and walked up the cracked blacktop driveway toward the Department of Health and Human Services. The square brick building was blandly administrative, looking both innocent of the emotional baggage dragged through its halls and appropriately ominous. 

She took the stairs to the Child Protective Services waiting room on the second floor, where she’d spent so many afternoons over the past two years. Sara often brought Kim along to these meetings, but today she wanted to come alone; she’d already told her mom what she had decided. The smell of stale coffee met her at the door, and the receptionist greeted her by name. Sara managed a nod in acknowledgement as she settled onto a hard plastic chair. She usually stole glances at the other people in the waiting room, looking for signs these folks were more or less messed up than she was. But today, Sara focused on untangling the words she’d need to explain her choice. 

Seated across the table from her caseworker, Linda, in their usual meeting room, Sara fiddled with her wrist splint. She talked in circles about the car crash, how hard she’d tried the past couple years, and how she wanted to do right by her daughter. Finally, there was nothing left but to detonate her sentence-long bomb. 

“It’s better for Coral if I give up my parental rights.” 

With her revelation came a flood of tears. 

“I respect your decision,” Linda said, her blazer bunching awkwardly around her shoulders as she leaned toward Sara. “Coral’s foster parents have expressed interest in adopting her, and your decision will allow that to proceed more quickly. They’ll take good care of her.” 

Sara inhaled sharply and closed her eyes for a long moment, trying to block out the image of someone else taking care of her baby girl. But she wanted better for Coral than what she could give her. This could be a fresh start for both of them, a chance for Sara to pick a different path for herself. 

Linda handed tissues to Sara as she cried. After several minutes of trying to catch her breath and stem the flow of tears, Sara rushed out of the office and away from the course of action she had set into motion. On the bus, she rode past the stop at her apartment complex and got off near Joe’s instead. The place would be mostly empty this early in the afternoon. She felt more at ease as soon as she stepped into the dim room that smelled faintly of cigarette smoke and beer. Weaving through a cluster of low black tables and chairs, she settled onto a stool at the dark wooden bar. 

“Hey girl, it’s been a while,” the bartender Shawna, wearing her signature black T-shirt and heavy eyeliner, greeted Sara and started mixing her usual vodka-tonic. Shawna eyed the splint on Sara’s wrist, and Sara’s right hand instinctively reached to touch the rose petal there. “What happened to you?” 

“Just my latest screw up,” Sara’s laugh didn’t come out as light-hearted as she had hoped. “It’s not a big deal. I’m sick of wearing this thing.” She started to undo the velcro straps and slid the stiff fabric off her arm, her skin looking pale and shriveled where the splint had left imprints. Her coral rose seemed especially vibrant in contrast. Shawna set the drink on a napkin in front of Sara, alongside the splint she’d laid on the bar. 

“Oh, I’ve never noticed your flower,” Shawna nodded at the tattoo. “How long have you had that?” 

“I got it on a whim in high school,” Sara said, realizing in all the late nights at Joe’s she had spent joking with Shawna, she hadn’t mentioned her daughter. There was no reason to bring up her and her connection to the tattoo now. 

“It’s pretty,” Shawna said as she turned to head to the other end of the bar. Sara folded her injured arm against her stomach, the coral rose inked on her skin held protectively against her soft center. With her other hand, she picked up her drink.

About the Author: Lauren Slagter is a writer and freelance journalist who lives in Ypsilanti, Michigan, and has roots in a handful of small Midwest towns. Her journalism has won numerous awards, and she has a creative nonfiction piece pending publication in Great Lakes Review. See more of her work at laurenslagter.com

Exodus into Suburbia

By Alexis Draut

Louisville. South side suburb
synthetic flowers in hospital room: I
came out crying, gills for lungs in a
basket on the Ohio River, baptized
in July fireworks and thunder

Favorite color was swing set under sky,
leaves dried on sidewalk, Mother cried
for City’s mercy, peach trees in Saint
Matthews always with barren seeds,
sewer fish thirsty for feet

Swim through humid autumns,
hands grown from a holy love of
pumpkin guts, baseball cap covering
sunscreened red bangs behind third,
a mitt ready to catch the foul

A first sorrow: bikes don’t teach 
flying lessons. A second: blue television
living room light pixel grained breath – 
every sun-filled minute of spring
drenched in Dogwood-soaked sweat

July locusts, popcorn and lemonade 
stands, selling watermelon just beyond
front room mustard walls: who knew a
small house could claim an entire decade,
Lourdes’ bells fill a child’s first gasp

About the Author: Alexis Draut (she/her/hers) is a nature writer who has worked for a small-town newspaper, an organic farm, and a study abroad program. Her poetry, which she describes as place-based, has been published in The Social Justice Review, Havik Anthology and Internet Void. Alexis recently earned her MFA in Creative Writing at Chatham University (Pittsburgh, PA), and is currently working on her Ph.D. in English Literature at the University of Kentucky. She is a native Kentuckian, born and raised in Louisville. 

The Sin of Sunday Rock And Roll

By Cerys Harrison

Henry Ford built Greenfield Village as a shrine to American commerce. He dismantled historical homes from across the country and reassembled them on the property he purchased in the middle of my hometown. Locals were hired, at minimum wage, to dress in period costumes and perform Americana chores for tourists like candle making, butter churning, hog feeding.

My father, a rabid Democrat, asserted the real reason for Greenfield Village was to keep ol’ Henry’s property taxes down. Regardless, each year he bought a family pass, and we spent many Sunday afternoons chugging around the Village in the 1873 Torch Lake locomotive that encircled Henry’s menagerie. I felt as if I was traveling between two worlds. One world held the clean, refurbished wooden benches on which we sat as we tooted past the pond with Stephen Foster’s steamboat on our left. The Southfield Freeway on my right led to another world, with Corvettes and Barracudas revving their engines.

I inherited a passion for gift shops from my mother and the one in Greenfield Village was exceptional. The summer I turned twelve I wrinkled my nose at the dolls with heads made from dried apples and the wooden hobby horses that had fascinated me the year before. Instead, I made my way to the section of the shop with racks of women’s dresses and matching bonnets, where shelves with Early American cookbooks and pamphlets with stencils for decorating rooms with Early American patterns soldiered next to packages of vintage sewing patterns. I imagined myself transported back in time to the general store in my cherished Little House books.

I wanted to churn butter with Ma Ingalls. I wanted to read books with Laura by candlelight. I wanted to wear bonnets and skirts that rustled around my ankles. I wondered what kind of underwear Early American girls wore. Those patterns weren’t on the racks in the Greenfield Village Gift Shop. I wondered, too, what Early American girls did when they got their periods.

“They used rags,” my friend Merilee replied as she crossed her delicate arms over her narrow chest and planted her Buster Browns firmly on her backyard grass. “That’s why they say, ‘she’s on the rag’.”

I wondered how Early American girls kept their rags in place. My newly acquired sanitary napkins were constantly sneaking out of their belt and laying at odd angles on my panties.

Merilee fixed me with squinted eyes. “Back then, girls didn’t run around all over the place like you do. They sat still and were quiet. So, the rags didn’t move.”

Merilee’s statements automatically carried the weight of authority whenever we had discussions. She was taller, eight months older, and she consistently brought home better report cards than mine. During Olden Days arguments, Merilee was especially persuasive because her father was a minister and her family lived as if they were in the Little House books. Like my own, Merilee’s family were Fundamental Baptists.

“And then some.” My mother rolled her eyes as she slipped her hands into soapy dishwater and looked through our kitchen window at the Hanson’s backyard.

As next-door neighbors and best friends, Merilee and I were often in each other’s houses. I studied the Hansons’ home as if it were in Greenfield Village. The rooms were dark with the curtains and blinds drawn, no matter the time of day or outside temperature, giving the entire house a musty, old closet smell. The small living room was cramped with bulky dark furniture, including an uncomfortable sofa with two matching stiff, boxy chairs.

“Is this horsehair?” I demanded of Merilee as I ran my hand over the unfamiliar, natty fabric of the living room couch.

Merilee rolled her eyes. “It’s tweed.”
“Feels like I’m sitting on a dead horse.”
To the left of the front door was the kitchen, twice the size of the living room, and Martha, one of Merilee’s two older sisters, was usually there. Large-boned and tall, Martha had just finished her high school freshman year, but she carried herself like a matronly widow, shoulders tucked forward, rarely making eye contact. She was solitary, quiet, and quick to respond when anyone made a request of her. I thought she could easily get a job churning butter at Greenfield Village. Her drab brown hair was long and twisted into a tight bun at the back of her neck. Her button brown eyes seemed smaller because of her bulbous, highly set nose. When I saw Martha walking from the parsonage to her father’s church, her movements were furtive, awkward.

But the Martha who ran the kitchen was a marvel. There, her movements were certain and forceful. The pies and cobblers she pulled from that antique oven were works of art. Her roasts steamed with fragrant juices wafting down the street to the delight of our neighbors. The pastries she delivered to the kitchen table were better than anything served at the cafeteria in Greenfield Village.

“Martha,” I gulped a bite of homemade apple pie, “you should call ol’ Henry Ford and offer to run the Early American Restaurant. Just send him some of your desserts. He’d hire you in a heartbeat!”
Martha ducked her head and gave me a grin that reached from one side of her wide face to the other before she scampered off to load the lunch dishes into the kitchen sink. Merilee gave me a sidelong smirk as she collected both our plates for Martha to wash.

The distribution of labor in the Hanson household perplexed me. Reverend Hanson spent most mornings working on the sermons he would deliver to his paltry congregation. Martha was responsible for everything that happened in the kitchen, all the cooking, cleaning, and shopping. Judy, the eldest, was the smart one. Her job was to do the laundry after she studied for the classes she would take in her upcoming senior year. Merilee was still being treated as a child by her parents, and their only requirement of her was to keep her eight-year-old brother, Archie Jr., entertained.

“What does your mother do all day?” I challenged Merilee. “My mother does all the cooking and cleaning. She does the laundry, too.”

“That’s because you’re spoiled,” came her familiar admonishment.
After lunch each afternoon, Mrs. Hanson sat in the uncomfortable chair by the front door. She smiled benignly, hands folded in her lap, easily blending into her surroundings. Her dark hair hung limply on her thin shoulders. Her black dresses reached the heels of her shoes, when she stood, which wasn’t often. I was fascinated by her stillness, her unaffecting voice, and, most of all, her complexion. It was thick, leathered, and wrinkled like the apple doll heads on display at Greenfield Village. I desperately wanted to touch Mrs. Hanson’s skin, to feel if the wrinkles were as parched as they appeared.

Each weekday afternoon, perched on that chair by the front door, Mrs. Hanson watched her husband like a crow on a telephone wire while her daughters went about their housekeeping chores. Her head dipped to the left as her eyes followed Reverend Hanson from the living room to the kitchen, then it dipped to the right as he moved from the kitchen to the stairs leading to his study on the second floor. Her hands were still, but her eyes skipped and jumped as she followed her husband trotting through the house.

Like clockwork, “Daddy?,” she’d call out minutes after Reverend Hanson returned to his upstairs study. “Do you want me to fix you a little something?”

“Just a cup of tea, Mother. If it’s not too much trouble.”
“No trouble at all!” Mrs. Hanson would shoot straight up from the chair. Off she’d scuttle to the kitchen, where Martha brewed a pot of tea and set a plate of cookies on a wooden tray with cups and saucers for two. Merilee, Archie Jr., and I would hear Mrs. Hanson softly knock on the study door, followed by the creak as it opened for her and, moments later, the click of the key in the lock. We knew what that meant. Merilee and I could play uninterrupted by her parents for the next several hours.

Both Merilee and I received transistor radios for Christmas and we agreed that CKLW, “Radio Eight-oh!,” played the best music in town. Every weekday, after her parents disappeared into the Reverend’s study, Merilee and I tuned our radios to 800 on our AM dials, slipped on our transistor’s wristlets and, each holding our radio against an ear, sashayed down the block. We toured our neighborhood from Telegraph Road to Crowley Park, from Lapham School to the railroad tracks singing along to Chicago’s “Colour My World” and Cat Stevens’ “Peace Train,” logging several miles each afternoon. Occasionally, we’d meet a kid from our class who screeched his bike to a stop and attempted a conversation. Merilee was unaware she had a habit of allowing her gaze to lazily wander from the boy’s hairline to his shoes and up to his eyes while her lips slightly pouted.

“Boys! Pfft! C’mon!,” I’d grouse, slipping my forefinger through the belt loop on the back of her pants and dragging her to consciousness.

That summer, we devoured teen magazines and I decided cut-offs was the look for me. I ripped and frayed my old jeans with fringe that hit mid-thigh. I wore my Keds without socks in a vain attempt to make my legs look longer. Merilee’s older sisters had recently handed down threadbare shirtwaist dresses in shades of taupe that looked like they were costumes from Greenfield Village. Her father allowed her to continue wearing pedal pushers and sleeveless blouses through the summer, but when we started seventh grade in the fall, her parents would insist Merilee wear those old dresses to our new junior high school. Although she and I didn’t talk about it, we both knew Merilee would have a lot of explaining to do to the other kids.

Merilee and her eldest sister, Judy, had the good fortune to look like Joni Mitchell when “Clouds” and “Blue” were the rage. Their blonde hair was worn long and straight with bangs that swept across their almond eyes. They looked sophisticated and svelte. I struggled with unexpected and self-conscious curves — hips and breasts that seemed to have bloomed overnight, and cheeks that retained their baby fat. If I had worn her pedal pushers and sleeveless blouses, I would have looked like I raided my grandmother’s closet. On Merilee, the look was stylish, retro.

One afternoon just before sixth-grade graduation, my mother and I stepped into Kresge’s Department store. While my mother debated the merits of buying Tupperware knock-offs, I wandered over to the makeup department to experiement with the Maybelline samples. I noticed Judy at the opposite end of the counter, poking through the Yardley display. I raised my hand in a wave as she stood, stunned, looking in my direction. Judy’s lips glistened wetly as she made a quick swivel to her right and bolted out the main door. Later that afternoon, while I unloaded my mother’s Kresge bags from her car, I glanced at the street in front of the Hansons’ house and saw Judy sitting very close to a boy in the front seat of his car.

I reported these events to Merilee one August afternoon when she lectured me

on the reasons God didn’t want people listening to rock and roll on Sundays. Tiger baseball games were okay. Like Reverend Hanson, we were fans and listened to every game on our transistor radios. The Reverend said listening to baseball on Sunday was in perfect accordance with the Bible, but listening to rock and roll was not.

“What about the rest of the week?” “The rest of the week is okay.” “Even The Doors?”
“The Doors are okay.”

“But they sing ‘don’t you love her madly’.” “They mean don’t you love her a lot.”
“I don’t think so.”
“That’s because you have a dirty mind.”

“What about Love Me Two Times? Does that mean to love him twice as much?”

“Sure. What else could it mean?”
“I don’t know. But I don’t think your dad would like Jim Morrison no matter what

day of the week it is. I mean, look at his picture in Tiger Beat! He doesn’t have a shirt on! And look at what it says his favorite meal is, pizza and beer! I think if your dad saw this Tiger Beat he would make you change the station when The Doors came on.”

Merilee frowned as she considered this because Jim Morrison was our favorite rock star.

“Daddy said rock and roll is okay. But not on Sundays.”

“Wait.” I shoved my glasses up the bridge of my nose. “Are you telling me I’m going to hell?”

Merilee’s arms crossed her chest. “Your family does lots of things on Sundays that they shouldn’t, like listening to rock and roll or going to Greenfield Village. It’s not just your family going to hell. All the people who work on Sundays are, too, even if they don’t know the Bible. Daddy says if your dad was a better father, your family wouldn’t have to worry about hell.”

My cheeks flamed as tears pooled in my eyes and the part of me that is my mother’s daughter chewed on my lower lip, but the part of me that is my father’s child won out. I squared my shoulders, wiped away the tears, and took a step towards her.

“I’m going to hell because my family does things like go to the Village on Sundays. All the people working there in the concession stands and the ticket booths, they’re going to hell, too, because the Bible says no one should work on Sundays.”

Merilee nodded firmly. “That’s right.”

“At Tiger Stadium, people working in concession stands and ticket booths on Sundays won’t go to hell?”

Merilee’s eyes flicked around her bedroom.

“Can you show me where it says in the Bible that God. Likes. Baseball?” My nose was an inch from Merilee.

“Daddy says listening to rock and roll on Sundays is a sin but baseball is okay!” Merilee’s Buster Browns stomped on the parquet floor.

I played my trump cards about her favorite sister, Judy.

“You are such a troublemaker. She had wet lips because she licked them, probably. And the boy who drives her home from school needs help with his homework.”

“Brother!” I hooted. “I hope I never have to help a boy with his homework if it means he has to put his arm around me to study!”

Merilee chewed her thumbnail and glared at me. “Daddy is going to be so mad.”

After this exchange, we spent less time together. Merilee resented learning her sister had worn makeup and socialized with a boy because she had no choice but to rat Judy out to her parents. I was furious that my closest friend, a girl who was older and smarter than me, parroted her father’s hypocrisy. We were at a stalemate.

Judy didn’t finish high school in my hometown. Not long after Merilee and I debated the sin of Sunday rock and roll, Reverend Hanson announced Judy needed to improve her relationship with God and she was sent to an evangelical high school in Indiana.

“It doesn’t make sense to me.” I huffed. “If Christians only stay with other Christians, what’s the point? Our preacher’s always saying how tough it is to be a Christian, but it wouldn’t be if everyone were.”

“You don’t understand.” Merilee glared at me.
“No. I don’t.”
“Daddy says the boys around here only think about one thing. He says we need to be around other kinds of boys.”
“The boys we know only care about baseball.”
Her eyes narrowed. “No, they don’t. And you know it.” “You mean they think about sex.”

“Yes.” she nodded, arms crossed and Buster Browns planted. “You and I think about sex.”

“It’s not the same.”
“You and I think about sex all the time.” “It’s different with girls.”

I smirked.
“It’s true. You and I think about it, but we would never do it.”

I rolled my eyes. “We wouldn’t know what to do.”
One Saturday afternoon in late September, Merilee showed me a letter from

Judy describing a proper boy from her senior class who proposed marriage on their first date. Judy said yes. Merilee thought this was very exciting and proof her parents’ decision to send Judy to their alma mater was the right one.

“Don’t you see? If she hadn’t gone there, she never would have met him. He wants to get married right away, right after they graduate. It’s so romantic!”

“What are they going to do for money?”
“They don’t need money, they’re going to college!”
Shortly after the receipt of Judy’s letter, Martha and Merilee each packed a

suitcase and waited in the back seat of the family’s Buick Roadmaster. I lay in bed staring at the clock on my nightstand. The day before, I sat on Merilee’s bed while she packed sensible shirtwaists and anklets, her copies of the Little House books, and her transistor radio. I promised I would get up early the next morning to wave goodbye from my porch, but I didn’t. My body felt as if it were made of stone as I imagined the black Buick pulling out of the driveway. Merilee broke her promise to send me her new address. I never heard from her.

As seventh grade rolled into eighth, I considered the loss of Merilee’s friendship to be an ache that had calloused over. The days spent pouring over teen magazines and learning the words to songs I shared with a best friend were wispy, infrequent memories. On the morning of my first day in high school, I climbed up the school bus steps to find there was only one open seat. Gwen, a girl I slighlty remembered from sixth grade, used an envelope to mark her place in a worn New Testament and beamed up at me from under white blonde lashes as I sat next to her.

We chatted about the reputations of our teachers as we compared our class schedules. We had none in common. Our conversation stalled. Gwen began twisting a lock of hair around her index finger. She suddenly blinked rapidly and grinned. Did I remember Merilee Hanson, the girl who used to live next door to me? I admitted I did, addled by the unexpected question. Gwen’s cheeks flushed as she pulled out the envelope.

“I just got a letter from her! During summer vacation, I went to the Bible camp Merilee’s brother-in-law runs in Indiana. We had such a great time! There are some people, you know? You just click with them. That’s how it’s always been with me and Merilee. Ooooh! Are you okay?”

“New contacts,” I lied as I examined the mascara smudges on my fingertips.

#

The summer I graduated from high school, I got one of those minimum wage jobs at Greenfield Village. I didn’t feed chickens at the Firestone Farmhouse or cook meals over the hearth at Cotswold Cottage. At the orientation meeting, I received my assignment to research the late 19th century Bloomer Girls and develop a character to play while on the job as a reenactor. I was given a bicycle from the Overman Wheel Company and a list of items to retrieve from the Village’s costume shop including, to my astonishment, underwear appropriate for an Early American Girl: a loose chemise and tight corset.

I soon discovered I had a plum assignment. I simply rode my bicycle around the Village, chatting up the guests at a Suffragette. On hot, sticky summer days, reenactors who had traditional women’s roles were stuck in their assigned house and the expression “slaving over a hot stove” took on real meaning. Their only relief came from brief excursions to fetch water or wood and from breezes that occasionally drifted past the heavy damask curtains in the houses. For me, the most challenging aspect of my job was getting used to riding a bike on the bumpy dirt roads that crisscrossed the Village.

The small group of roving reenactors included my summer boyfriend. Jamie wore a grey Confederate officer’s uniform that complimented his wavy, dark hair and aquamarine eyes. His character, Rupert Beauregard Calhoun III, was in Greenfield Village because he was making his way back to the family’s Virginia plantation after deserting his infantry regiment at Gettysburg. Rupert’s remarkably poor sense of direction being one reason he failed so miserably as a soldier. Jamie used his character’s AWOL status to scout out the best places on the grounds to sneak a cigarette.

I couldn’t look at Jamie without wanting to run my hands up his arms, to pull his shoulders closer, to kiss the mouth that tasted of Marlboros and Wintergreen Lifesavers. I was heady with lust. We met regularly in the secluded areas of the Village. Afterwards, he helped me pin my hair back into a Gibson Girl pompadour under my straw boater and dust the dirt from my bloomers. I navigated the rocks on the dirt roads back to the carousel in the middle of the Village; Jamie dodged in and out of trees along the outfield of the Walnut Grove Base Ball Field at the far end of the property.

Our affection for each other was mutual and finite. On Labor Day, Jamie would hop in his Mustang Mach 1 and take the Southfield Freeway north to Michigan Tech where he’d finish his degree in computer engineering. I had a one-way ticket to LaGuardia and a student loan for my freshman year in the NYU drama department.

One August afternoon, after Jamie and I clocked in at the Administration Building, we followed the path to the Josephine Ford Water Fountain at the entrance of the Village, a spot where tourists typically gathered to pull out their Instamatics for a snapshot before crossing the railroad tracks and setting out to explore the grounds.

I was walking my bike through the crowd, careful to avoid bumping into any of the guests when I saw that long, blonde Joni Mitchell hair. I abruptly stopped. She was no longer what I would have described as tall; she had maybe an inch on me. Her dress was made of the familiar thin, faded cotton, but it wasn’t a shirtwaist. She was five or six months pregnant. When the baby in the stroller next to her began squawking, she rummaged through the diaper bag on her hip, pulled out a pacifier, and plugged it in the child’s contorted mouth. A slight, older man scurried out from the Gift Shop carrying two large strawberry Slushies. He deposited one in the cup holder of the stroller and slurped the other between animated gestures at the buildings encircling the outer perimeter of the pavilion.

Merilee’s eyes followed the man’s jabbing finger. That’s when she noticed me looking at her from across the fountain. She tilted her head to one side, frowned slightly, then a smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. She said something to the man with her and made her way through the crowd. Jamie turned around a few steps ahead of me. “What?” he mouthed at me.

Merilee nodded at Jamie and addressed me, “Do you mind if I ask you a question?”

Her voice was soft, with no trace of the authoritative tone I remembered. I shrugged awkwardly. She continued, “Can we buy train tickets at the station, or do we have to go all the way back to the entrance and buy them at the ticket booth?”

I hesitated. Jamie interjected she could buy tickets for the train at either place. She nodded at him again, walked a few paces before pausing and turning towards me.

“Thanks,” she murmured. And she was gone.

About the Author: Cerys Harrison was born and raised in the home of the Ford Mustang, Dearborn Michigan. Growing up, she was fascinated with New York City and, after graduating from college during a recession, decided to move there, thinking it was more glamorous to be an unemployed actor than an out of work librarian. After a detour in advertising, Cerys returned to her hometown and libraries. And an occasional turn on the stage. 

Citadel in the Clouds

By Catherine O’Brien

At that altitude everything slowed, everything but our defiance to be understood and known by the people we existed because of. Blindfolded by the night we proceeded at a funereal pace, one of your hands all slayed fingers queried our future, the other held mine heating our palms with all its might. All around us the snow received yet more snow and the ripeness of our loss walked between us. We telepathically agreed to ward it off by replaying the showreels of our memories. Therefore, our giggles were wholly in context. Our laughter was a riotous explosion when it arrived like a lid dancing a jig on a boiling pot. We must have looked delicious to our predators, two marshmallow figures for main, with snow billowing in soft pillows on a dry iced plate for afters. 

It was excruciatingly difficult to breathe as each breath challenged our lungs to a new level of endurance testing. I knew that sparkling stalactites must have dangled from most of my alveoli. You had done well convincing me not to scream their names any longer, it was weakening not waning (the guilt I mean). It divested me of my ability to think straight and so you were our compass. You, their favourite and only son. 

You were also and still are, an accomplished guide and so, we were unsurprised when our destination despite a veritable blizzard spewing all around us, elbowed its way into sight. The moon had usurped the sun’s position in the sky casting playful shadows on the sombre citadel which meditated in the clouds awaiting our arrival. The surrounding walls ravaged by time begrudgingly stayed aloft despite the odd crumble. As we mounted its granite steps, we saw that the sky had belched stiff meringues of snow coating its soaring steeples with dainty edible hats. Two flags, that of our world and that soon to be ours, flapped and slapped a ceremonial welcome. In that moment, the preceding hours and minutes felt like a thumb print on an already blurry picture. We felt giddy with relief and mounting fatigue.  

Although we were soaked through to the skin, the only visible traces of the snow we carried inside were a light chalk dusting on our soles. A man with a cherubic smile who was a touch taller than average approached us. He held his open arms aloft and spoke in a timbre which knew the hallmarks of the unspeakable trauma we were still tethered to. 

“You are so welcome friends but now you must rest”

We walked together as our gesticulating guide provided an impromptu tour. Richard laughed when he saw the growing brightness of my eyes as they swept over the potato fields which stretched before us on our left. Ears of cheeky corn waved at us from the right. I spied cotton ball sheep grazing on the hills above us and butterflies with mosaics on their backs luxuriated in a world not known to hurt. The countryside looked just as ours had before our world fell asleep, recalcitrant in stubborn beauty. A tractor in combat against the earth was like the snap of impatient fingers jerking me back to life. Suddenly I felt present and exposed to vulnerability with just a fig leaf to cover my modesty. Despite Richard’s efforts to stand in front and block it, I saw the poster nailed to a Sycamore tree. The words seemed alien to me but the faces looking at me could not have been more familiar. We stood on either side of them in pixelated realness. I removed us by gently tearing at the perforated fault lines of our lives until they remained wrapped around one another, hip to hip and heart to heart. I handed you the papier mâché of yourself and stuffed myself in my pocket for later. Richard clacked his tongue in sympathy and we moved on towards the accommodations leaving you behind, yet again. 

You, my dear brave brother, were strong enough to start mopping up the splattered ink of our lives. I floundered. 

“Just because I don’t say it, doesn’t make it any less real”

“Yes,” I said.

I envied you, the horologist tampering with his timepieces setting his own increments within which to deal with it. I longed to learn your secret. In hindsight, maybe it was those magnifying glasses that held all the power and called all the clocks. 

“Eventually, it will pass,” you said. 

I didn’t ask what you meant but I considered and still wonder this, is sadness subject to atrophy? Can it be shrunk to a size so diminutive and light that it becomes too meaningless to be absorbed? Those were the thoughts that occupied my mind. Your conversations about them tapered and I imagined you as a bird. You were soaring above the fields among a structured cloud formation knowing the neat circumference of your personal grief. 

Seeking aloneness not loneliness, I sat in the shade of a yawning Eucalyptus tree. There were no apples which spared me a Newtonian moment to shatter my head full of sadness. It wasn’t until the second hand alighted on my shoulder that my heart began to flurry and time lapsed in the most perfect of moments. 

They applied the subtlest compression as they handed me a crumpled poster. 

About the Author: Catherine O’Brien is an Irish writer of poems, flash fiction and short stories. She writes bi-lingually in both English and Irish. Her work has appeared in print and online. She holds a PhD in English Literature. Her work in forthcoming in Idle Ink, Janus Literary, Five Minute Lit, The Birdseed, Free Flash Fiction and more. She tweets She tweets @abairrud2021.

Oasis

By Nick Young

The town was in for it, he knew.  Gonna be a big storm.  He could feel it, see it in the way the thunderheads were crowding the western skyline.   A helluva storm.    

He continued muttering to himself as he picked up his pace, causing the rhythmic squeak of the wheels on the small cart he pulled to quicken – a-wee-ah-kah, a-wee-ah-kah, a-wee-ah-kah . . . 

Gotta get oil, 3-in-One – yes!

He left the alley at Cotler Way and cut west to Main and across the street to Sandy’s Diner — low-slung, neon-lit, big windows all around.  Carefully, as he did each time he came, which was almost every day, he parked his cart in the same spot, a little patch of worn asphalt not far from the entrance, so he could keep a close eye on it while he was inside.

He was a fixture at the place, so none of the scattering of dinnertime customers who remained paid him any mind when he pushed through the revolving door and slid onto one of the red vinyl-covered swivel stools at the end of the counter.

“You’re late, Connie,” said LuAnn as she ambled toward him, wiping her hands on a small towel and depositing it under the counter.  He had never much cared for the name “Connie.”  Too girlish, or so he had it in his mind.  But it was better than his given name – Conrad.  He really hated that.

“Yeah, I know.  Couldn’t be helped, Lu.  No way to avoid,” Connie went rattling away, his mumbled speech like bursts from a machine gun.  “Went all the way out to Luten’s, Lu,” and then he laughed, showing a row of grey teeth benesth his thick walrus mustache. “That’s funny, ‘Luten’s Lu,’” and chuckled again.  He began rummaging around the threadbare Army fatigues he wore, one that still bore his name “Hellenmeir” embroidered in black on a strip of cloth sewn above the right breast pocket.  Connie’s spidery fingers extracted a crumpled pack of cigarettes.  He burrowed into the foil and paper until he found a smoke and pulled it free.  “Last one, Lu.  Maybe I should break it in half.  Save part of it for later, you know?”  The waitress, at fifty old enough to be Connie’s sister, shook her head, leaning across the counter.

“No need,” she said, hushed.  “I’ll take care of you.”  She raised a finger to her lips.  “Our little secret.”  Connie gave her a clumsy wink in return, went back into the pocket for a battered Zippo, lit his cigarette and then appraised his lighter.

“Long time.  I’ve had this a long time.  Do you know how long I’ve had this, Lu?”

“You’ve told me.”

“Yeah?”

“Many times, Connie.”

“Since ‘nam.”

“I know.”

“Same day I got drafted.”

“Nineteen sixty-seven.”

“September.”

“September.  Yeah, September.  How’d you know that, Lu?”

“You told me.”

“I did?”

“Many times.”

“So, yeah.  September, 1967.  That’s a long time, Lu.”

“Almost thirty years.”

“Goddamn.  Long time.”  Connie drew deeply on his cigarette, the corners around his eyes crinkling.  “You can’t tell me who was President then.  Bet you can’t.” LuAnn pursed her lips and appeared to look far away in thought, the repetition of a game they’d played countless times.

“Let me see . . . 1967,” she said, tapping the pencil she held against her chin, finally announcing:  “Nixon.  Richard Nixon.”  This brought a look of glee to Connie’s face, as he leaned his head backward, laughing.

“Noooo, Lu – not tricky-fucking-Dick!  Lyndon Baines Johnson!”

“Oh, yes – why sure, you’re right, Connie,” LuAnn said with mock surprise, “It was LBJ.”  Connie’s head bobbed up and down at his triumph.

“Yeah.  Yeah.  LBJ.  Not the Trickster!”  He took another drag on his cigarette.  LuAnn could not help smiling at the man’s unadulterated joy.

“So,” she began, “what’ll it be for dinner tonight?  The usual?”  Connie’s mirth evaporated as he furrowed his brow for a moment.

“No.  Not tonight, Lu.  No mac-and-cheese tonight.  No.  I would like a Sandy Big Burger – yes!  A Sandy Big Burger with the works – but no onion.  The works but no onion.  And crispy fries.  Large order, crispy fries.”

“And what about something to drink?  Coke?”

“Sure, yeah.  Coke.  Ice-cold Coca-Cola, Lu.”

“You got it.”

“And make it to go.”

“You’re not going to keep me company?”

“Noooooo.  Can’t,” Connie declared.  “Not tonight. Gotta boogie on, Lu.  Big storm.”  The waitress cocked her head and looked outside.  It was getting on a quarter-to-nine.  The evening was drawing down, growing darker because of the thick canopy of clouds moving in.

“Okay,” she said.  “I’ll get this ready for you chop-chop, and you can scoot on your way.”  LuAnn bustled off to the kitchen, leaving Connie to nervously glance outside, first toward the gathering storm, then to make sure his cart was safely in its place.  He drew on his cigarette in between inaudible mutterings.  From time to time his wandering eyes met those of one of the other diners scattered in booths along the main wall and they nodded and smiled or raised a hand in greeting.  Everyone knew Connie.  Everyone liked him, looking upon him with benevolence.  He squinted as the smoke from the cigarette between his lips drifted into his eyes.  Flattening his hands, he laid them palms-down on the countertop and slid them slowly across and back relishing the smooth, cool feel of the Formica.

Long before that night, Conrad Hellenmeir had been well-known in his hometown of Holloway, Missouri.  He began attracting some notoriety when he was just was a schoolboy.  It wasn’t a particularly unusual story; it was replicated in a thousand other small towns all over the country.  

Connie, who grew up on a farm with a younger sister, was a born athlete.  He first showed his prowess during softball and rag football games with the neighbor kids on a half-acre patch of grass his dad had left next to the bean field.

Once he was old enough, Connie started playing in organized baseball, where he stood out as a perennial all-star second baseman.  On the basketball court, he was a pretty fair jump-shooting forward.

By the time he reached Holloway Regional High, Connie’s was a regular name in the sports pages of the local weekly.  And all the coaches were eager to sign him up for their teams.  He didn’t disappoint, either, lettering every year in three sports.  As good as he was on the baseball diamond or handling himself in the low post, he was most gifted as a tight end and middle linebacker for the Holloway Yellowjackets.

“Never seen a young man with his kind of instincts,” Ben Tomlinson, who coached the varsity, often marveled.  “Offense . . . defense – he just knows where the ball’s gonna be on every play.  Somethin’ special.”  

In his junior year, he was a unanimous all-state first-team pick in the Missouri coaches’ poll.  College scouts started sniffing around.  The University of Missouri in Columbia, then rivalling Nebraska as the powerhouse football program in the Big Eight, even dangled the prospect of a full scholarship ride if he duplicated as a senior what he’d done the year before.  And he was well on his way, picking up where he’d left off, catching five touchdown passes and making a dozen tackles in his first two games.

Then came the bicyle incident.

“Here you go, Connie,” said LuAnn as she set a brown paper bag down on the counter.  “One specially made Sandy Big Burger with the works – no onion . . . a large order of crispy fries and an ice-cold Coke.  Oh, and I slipped in a slice of peach pie for you.”  She leaned in a bit closer and whispered, “On the house.”

“Mmmmmm, peach pie – yes!” Conrad exclaimed.  “My favorite, Lu.”  He relished the thought of the sweet fruit filling with the perfect melt-in-your-mouth crust for just a moment before his brow creased.  “Money, Lu.  You’ve got to have some money.  How much?  What do I owe you?”  LuAn dutifully reviewed the check stapled to the top of the bag.

“Looks like four-fifty will cover it.”  This sent Connie thrusting his hand into the other breast pocket of his fatigues.  He drew out a fistful of crumpled bills and loose coins and deposited them carefully on the countertop. 

“You count it for me, okay?”

“Sure,” LuAnn said as she began picking through the money.

“And don’t forget to give yourself a niiiice tip, okay Lu?”

“I always do, Connie.”  All of this was part of the ritual, too.  But LuAnn never took the full amount of the check – that was on orders from Sandy himself — and never a tip.    Instead, she made a great show of counting out the money, then taking a single dollar bill and putting it in her apron pocket.  She folded the few bills left and stacked the spare change on top. “There you go.  All square.”

“We’re square, Lu?” 

“We’re square.”

“You sure?” He was insistent.

“Positive.”

“Well, okay, then,” Connie said, rising from the stool.  He cast a quick glance over his shoulder out the window.  “Gotta get a move on.  Big storm, Lu.”  As he put away his change and picked up the paper bag that held his dinner, LuAnn snapped her fingers.

“Oh . . . I almost forgot,” she said, reaching into the big pocket of her pink apron.  She drew out a pack of cigarettes and pushed it over the countertop.  Conrad’s face broke into a big smile.

“Heyyyyy, Lu – thank you!  My brand, too.  Camels!  How did you know?”  LuAnn smiled.  She had long before taken it upon herself to buy him cigarettes or flints and fluid for his lighter.

“A lucky guess,” she answered.  Conrad tucked the smokes into the pocket of his fatigues.

“Thanks again, Lu.  Can’t stay, though.  Gotta keep truckin’.  Big storm.”

“Stay dry, Connie,” the waitress said as he pushed open the diner door.  Conrad bobbed his head in reply, stepping quickly outside and tucked the bag of food inside the worn khaki canvas knapsack lashed to his cart with a bungee cord.  Then, with another nervous glance at the sky, he hurried off – a-wee-ah-kah . . . a-wee-ah-kah. . . a-wee-ah-kah . . . .

How often does it prove so that the trajectory of a life can be altered irrevecobly by a happenstance that seems inconsequential at the time?

Such was the case of the bicycle accident.

It was in late September, 1966.  A Saturday.  A beautiful fall afternoon. The gold and crimson maples were beginning to shed in earnest, and a few people around Holloway were taking advantage of the nearly windless day to get ahead of the game by raking the leaves into curbside heaps and burning them, infusing the air with their smoky, seasonal perfume.  Conrad and his best friend Ray Dunbar, the Yellowjackets’ quarterback, were walking along Eaglin Street over by the high school on their way to meet their girlfriends at The “In” Spot when, like a bolt out of the blue, Eddie McCorkle, the town’s eight-year-old answer to Dennis the Menace, laughing and looking back over his shoulder, not paying a damn bit of attention to where he was going, came rocketing down his driveway just as the two boys approached.  Connie wasn’t aware, but it caught Ray’s eye and he cried out:

Eddie!

Eddie’s head whipped around and, when he saw what was imminent, slammed on his brakes and swerved.  At the same moment, Connie, startled by his friend’s shout, turned in the direction of the onrushing bicycle and instinctively pivoted to his left.   Eddie’s move and Connie’s reaction avoided an all-out collision, but the young boy’s bike did strike a glancing blow off Connie’s right knee.  He winced and let out a grunt while Ray yelled:

“Eddie, you want to kill somebody?  Watch where the hell you’re going!”

“Geez, I’m really sorry,” Eddie said, abashed.  “You hurt bad?”  Connie flexed his leg. 

“Nah.  Just a bump.  I’ll live.”  He walked up and down a few paces, limping slightly.  Ray glared, still furious.

“You do that again, kid, and I’ll personally drag your ass into the house and let your old man take care of you.”

“It won’t happen again,” said the young boy, now seriously chastised.  “Promise.”

And so Ray and Conrad moved on, Connie rather more gingerly, though he didn’t complain.  Nor did he make much of his injury later when his dad noticed his son favoring the leg.

“Nothing.  Only a bump,” Connie had said.  “Just need to walk it off.”  But that had not worked, and the ice pack he applied that night had had little effect.  The next morning there was stiffness and some swelling.  On Monday, after examining his star player’s knee, coach Tomlinson instructed Connie not to practice during the week in the hope there would be sufficient healing for that Friday’s big conference homecoming game against West Bensonville.

And the knee did come around with plenty of ice and rest.  By Thursday, the swelling had disappeared and Connie was able to run with no pain.

When game time rolled around, he was ready, eager for action.

But as we live betrayal is never far off; it lurks, ever opportunistic.  On the second play of the game, a simple slant pass over the middle, Connie sensed a twinge, nothing more, when he made his cut; but in that instant the supreme athletic confidence of his body failed him, short-circuited by a shadow of doubt, infinitesimal, but enough, and the ball slipped past his fingers by a whisper.

In the stands there was a groan from the Holloway faithful, but no one placed any great importance on the moment.  Although it looked like a sure thing for a score, it was just one play, early in the game; and besides, you couldn’t expect even Connie Hellenmeir to make every catch.

If it had been only that moment, only the one dropped pass, it would have been erased from memory.  But that’s not how it ended.  As the game went on, there were more signs that something was not the same with Connie.  It wasn’t so much his play on defense.  He made his fair share of tackles.  No, it was when Holloway had the ball, and the team was leaning on him to make the big plays the way he always had.  For the shadow of doubt was growing and would soon come to suffocate his self-confidence, in that game and the rest that followed.

It was a mystifying turn that those around Connie – his coach, the team, his parents, the whole town – simply couldn’t explain.  For Connie himself it was an incomprehensible loss of mojo, and the harder he tried to recapture it, the more it eluded him.  In the remaining games that season, he caught only three passes, not one of them for scores.  

It was over.

The college scouts stopped coming around.  Mizzou let it be known that, with regret, there would be no offer of a scholarship.

Yes, there was basketball in the winter and track in the spring, but his play was desultory; and he collected his sports letters at the end-of-the-year awards assembly with no great fanfare.  People had taken to looking the other way.  His name rarely appeared in the newspaper again and then only in the small print, never the headlines.

Without an offer of an athletic ride, college disappeared from Connie’s horizon.  The reality was that he had little interest in the scholarly life and less aptitude for it.  He spent the summer after graduation dividing his time between helping his dad around the farm and bagging groceries at the Kroger in Delmark, twenty minutes south of Holloway.  

With the war heating up, a few guys Connie’s age decided to enlist.  Ray Dunbar signed on for a hitch in the Navy.  He tried to interest his friend in doing the same, but Connie said shipboard life wasn’t for him; he would stick it out as long as he could.

He didn’t have much of a wait.  Connie’s letter from Uncle Sam arrived in late September.  By the end of October, he was doing basic at Fort Polk.  Six months later, he was on the other side of the world, a fresh-faced grunt in a place called Tay Ninh.

*****

As Connie hurried south through the town, the darkening clouds grew increasingly menacing.  There were the first growls of thunder and brief strobes of lightning.  When he reached Oak Street, he paused before crossing to the opposite side of Main.  As he did, a Holloway police car rolled to a stop by the curb and the passenger side window glided open.

“Hey, Mr. Hellenmeir.”  Tim Binter was one of the town’s four police officers.  “You okay?  Everything cool?”

“Yeah, man.  I’m cool.  Very cool, but – “ his eyes shot toward the sky – “gotta keep movin’.  Big storm, Tim.”

“Well, okay.  You find a place to get out of the rain.”

“Dry – yes!  You got it, Tim.  You got it.”  And with that, the patrol car rolled away.  Connie swiveled his head, looking carefully from side to side for traffic and crossed the street.

Two blocks away, he ducked into the entryway of a nondescript three-story brick building flanked on one side by several ancient, towering trees and on the other by a small parking lot.  The sign that ran along the front of the building announced it as the Jasper County Housing Authority, where Connie had lived in a tiny studio apartment on the top floor for more than ten years.  Without any income except from the now-and-again odd jobs he was given around town, Connie needed all the help he could get from the government to keep a roof over his head.  Still, he spent as little time as possible there, choosing instead to walk the streets compulsively during daylight and  find shelter where he could at night.  He never spelled out his aversion to his friends, his sister or his parents.  The only explanation he offered was to his social worker.  He told her the confines of his room reminded him of “a bad, bad place.”

On this night, despite the impending blow, Connie wouldn’t be staying, but he made time to stop by the apartment long enough to pick up a couple of crumpled tee shirts, a dirty pair of jeans and a Ziploc bag containing several dollars’ worth of quarters.  Then he left the building and moved through the lowering gloom as quickly as he could, his cart at arm’s length behind him.

*****

When he was in country, Connie never felt safe.  Nobody did.  How could you?  Vietnam was a thin wire stretched at maximum tension across a chasm of horror.  At any moment it might snap.  By the summer of ’68, the shitstorm of the Tet offensive early in the year had died down, only to surge and ebb in the spring and then flare again over the summer. Northwest of Saigon, the generals had ordered forward firebases set up to cover infantry operations against North Vietnamese regulars and VC moving down from the Cambodian border.  

Three klicks north of Tay Ninh, two platoons had been dispatched to probe along enemy lines; and on July 28, the day before his nineteenth birthday, Conrad Hellenmeir and his squad of eight others moved with all the stealth they could through deep jungle, unsure how far ahead they might encounter Charley.  It was a nighttime patrol in the season of the monsoon, which brought along with drenching rain, humidity that would rival a sauna, magnifying the other miseries of the bush that the grunts had to endure.  

When the downpour eased, with a dull crescent of moon overhead, the sergeant signalled for two men, Connie and Roland Jackson, to angle left and make their way down through a shallow ravine.  Jackson moved out first as Connie lagged back, fumbling to free his rifle which had become snagged on his poncho.  By the time Connie had taken care of the problem, Jackson was crouching low, moving quickly through a small clearing in the ravine about ten yards ahead.  That distance saved Connie’s life, for in the next instant, as Roland Jackson stepped over a fallen log, his right boot touched a tripwire and triggered the Russian-made mine that had been hidden in the undergrowth.  The explosion — a sickening ka-whump! –- blew Jackson apart.  Connie, shielded from the full force of the blast, was raked by small bits of shrapnel.  He would have survived those with little more than a lifetime of scars along the left side of his torso.  But it wasn’t just the shrapnel.  It was the piece of the barrel of his buddy’s M16 that struck under the lip of his helmet, just above the left temple.

Connie never knew what hit him, not until long after he’d been choppered away, his life snatched back by a MASH unit surgical team and flown to a U.S. hospital in the Philippines to recover.  It would be many weeks before Connie was able to comprehend the full story of that night.  He had been the only one in his squad to survive.  A miracle, he was told, given his wounds and the ferocity of the firefight.

All of it was lost to Connie.  His last memory of the night was that of a nocturnal creature snuffling and grunting somewhere near him.  What came next in his consciousness was the red-orange flare behind his closed eyes and the persistent screaming in his left ear, like the noise of an F4 idling on a flight deck.  

It took seven weeks and two more operations before Connie was well enough to be put on a plane back to the States.  The whine in his ear subsided over time.  The noise in his brain and the recurring dreams — haunted nightscapes, full of shadows and dread — never did.  And while Connie regained most of his normal speech, his damaged cognition would never be repaired.

Holloway made a big fuss over his return.  The high school band played at a ceremony outside city hall.  The mayor spoke, calling Connie “our hometown hero,” and pinned a medal that hung from a short strip of red, white and blue crepe cloth onto his uniform.  Over the years, the color in the cloth faded and the gold plating on the medal mostly rubbed off, but Connie was extremely proud of it, even though he sometimes struggled to make sense of its significance.  Nevertheless,  he made sure he wore it every Veteran’s Day, along with his Purple Heart.  And he never failed to wear it on Memorial Day in honor of Ray Dunbar, his best friend.  He was killed in a freak accident aboard the USS Enterprisewhen a bomb he and two crewmates were loading onto a Phantom exploded.  Ray never got a parade, never heard inspiring words from the mayor, never had a ribbon pinned to his chest.  His reward was his allotted share of the family plot in the shade of small elm tree at Rolling Hills Cemetery.  So the medals held great importance for Connie, and he kept them both carefully tucked inside his knapsack.

After all the hoopla died down, Connie settled into a routine.  During the first year or so, he lived on the farm.  A couple of times a week, his sister drove him fifty miles to a VA hospital near Jefferson City for rehab sessions to try to restore his normal speech and unscramble his cognitive functions.  The therapists were patient, and over time, Connie made some improvement. 

His personal life was a different story.  His girlfriend from high school was long gone, living in a hippie commune in Oregon.  There would be no other women in his life.  At home, as understanding as his parents tried to be, there were inevitable tensions.  Connie’s injuries had left a brittle edge to his personality that could easily lapse into a childish stubbornness.  The flashbacks he suffered that too-often rent the night with anguish, alarmed his parents.  And they were deeply sorrowful, filled with guilt that they were powerless to make life the way it had been.  Connie’s taste for alcohol – and his father’s – often led to jagged standoffs and bitter recriminations.  So, after months of deterioration, rather than see their relationship permanently scarred, the decision was made to have Connie move out and into his own place.

In the beginning, Connie liked his Housing Authority apartment, or he seemed to.  But as the years passed, it increasingly became a way station and little more.  In Connie’s world there was another place he had found and adopted as his frequent refuge, especially on a night like this when the lightning and thunder breaking over the town triggered fearful memories of the terror that had gripped him many times while hunkered down in the bush.

The laundromat sat near the edge of Holloway, where West Providence Street ran out and County Route Twenty began.  Built in the Seventies, “The Sudsery” had changed hardly at all.  Its cinderblock walls remained a psychedelic swirl of puce and avocado green, now faded with age, yet still god-awful.  A trio of hazy windows looked out at a small parking lot that was veined with cracks and buckled in several places.  The “laundrymat,” as some of the locals called it, had seen better days, but to Connie there was no place in town more beautiful.  He relished the garishness, the  fluorescent glare.  Most of all he found comfort in the steady rhythm of its machines. 

He hurried up to the door just as as gust of west wind rose and the first fat drops of rain began falling.  Inside, it took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the harsh light.  No one else was there, and Connie knew there was little likelihood there would be through the night because of the weather.  He liked that, having the place all to himself.

“Gonna be a good night,” he said, with a touch of deep satisfaction. He ran a hand through the thick spray of curly gray hair on his head, as his eyes swept the familiar space.  The building’s exterior color scheme became an equally grating combination of tangerine and canary yellow on the inside walls, inset with eight front-load washing machines on one side, eight dryers on the other.  Down the middle of the room sat a row of top-loading washers, and two vending machines – one for sodas, the other for packets of soaps and softeners.  At the far end, there was a sink, small folding table, bathroom and supply closet.  

Connie’s first order of business was rummaging inside his knapsack and removing the wad that was his jeans and black tee shirts.  He put them in one of the washing machines, bought small box of detergent and dumped it in before slipping two quarters into the slots on the washer and starting the cycle.

Hot wash . . . cold rinse – yes!

Beneath the windows at the laundromat’s front ran a plain wooden  bench for sorting and folding.  As the washing machine hummed behind him, Connie reached into his knapsack and withdrew a rectangle of cream-colored linen cloth and unfolded it on the table, taking pains to smooth away any wrinkles.  The first wave of rain rattled in staccato sheets off the window glass, while Connie carefully laid out his meal and began eating, always following the same pattern – a bite of his burger, two fries, a drink of Coke, saving enough of the soda to enjoy with the slice of peach pie LuAnn had given him.

Dee-licious!

Once he’d finished and cleared away the trash, he refolded the linen cloth with great attention to make sure the edges lined up perfectly and put it back into his knapsack. 

It was time to take inventory.

Without fail, Connie’s visits to the laundromat included making the rounds of all the machines, methodically checking each one for change that hadn’t been collected.  Most nights the cupboards were bare, but once in a while he’d score a quarter, maybe two.  He always checked.

You never know!

That done, he next went to the row of washers that sat atop worn white linoleum tiles in middle of the room.  He bent down in a gap between two of the machines and reached behind.  His hand felt around on the floor for a moment before his fingers wrapped around the top of a ziplock bag, and he pulled it free. 

“This is gonna be a real good night – yes!” he exclaimed, eyeing the contents of the baggie.  There was a cluster of quarters, probaby three bucks’ worth, Connie thought.  But the big prize, nestled among the coins, was a pint of bourbon. Smiling broadly so that his mustache flared, Connie slid the bottle from the bag, unscrewed the cap and tipped the pint to his lips, letting the liquor flow down his throat, quickly warming him in the way nothing else could.  And it soothed him as well, taking the edge off his anxiety over the gusty tumult outside. 

It had been this way every night he’d come to the laundromat for the better part of ten years.  Someone had taken to watching over him.  Always, the baggie contained quarters for the machines, sometimes cigarettes or travel-size toiletries.  And, once every week or so, there was an appearance by his old friend Jim Beam.  Connie had no idea who his good samaritan was, and though grateful in his way, he had long since ceased to care.

When the washing machine shut off, Connie put his laundry in one of the big dryers and dropped four quarters into the slot, good for a solid hour.  Now came the favorite part of his nocturnal visits.  From his knapsack he retrieved a book, picked up a small green aluminum ashtray and his bottle of whiskey from the sorting table, squatted and pushed himself underneath the countertop until his back was up against the corner where the row of dryers met the front wall.  

Safe.  Good.

Reaching into the pocket of his fatigues, he took out the Camels LuAnn had given him.  He slowly removed the cellophane from the top of the pack, peeled off enough of the inner foil to expose the cigarettes and shook one free.  He lit up, allowing his lungs to fill with the strong tobacco smoke.  He closed his eyes and held it a long moment before exhaling.  Next, he uncapped the pint bottle and took a small sip, not wanting to rush.  He ducked his head enough to see the big starburst clock high up on the back wall.  Nearly eleven.

Outside, the worst of the thunder and lightning was easing, but the rain continued to fall in sheets, buffeted by the wind.  Connie settled back, listening to the dryer’s thrum, feeling the vibration of the machine through his back.  He let his legs stretch, crossed, on the floor in front of him and gently took up his book.  

It was the only book he owned, the only one he ever read now, over and over again.  Treasure Island, given him as a Christmas present by his sister (“To Connie from Sally, 1955,”read the inscription inside, the letters jaggedly rendered in ballpoint blue ink.)  He was seven that Christmas; Sally was just five, so she could not possibly have known the import of her gift, what it meant to him as a youth, what it had come to mean to him as a damaged man thrust back into boyhood.

The book, with its brightly colored cover illustration of young Jim, Long John Silver and his pirate cohorts coming ashore on the novel’s eponymous island, was fragile.  The pasteboard cover, which had separated front and back along the edges of the spine, had been lashed together many years before with cellophane tape.  Now old and brittle, it was barely up to the task.  But Connie handled the book with great care.  It crackled arthritically as he opened it, turning the browning pages until he reached the beginning – Chapter One — The Old Sea Dog.

Connie read in fits and starts, his mouth moving silently as he formed the words.  He sipped the Beam and smoked from time to time until he began to nod with drowsiness, lulled by the rhythmic hum of the dryer that so calmed him.  At length, he slept.  And dreamed.

He was seventeen again and strong, playing in his final football game for Holloway, the one that mattered most, the one for the state championship.  Banks of dazzling lights bathed the big stadium field, etching the chalk yard markers sharply against the deep green of the turf.  In the stands, ten thousand voices roared as one.  The game had come down to one last play with the clock ready to run out.  Holloway trailed by a field goal.  The only path to victory was a touchdown, with the end zone forty yards away.

As Connie coiled tensely into his stance, he was conscious of the din from the spectators, rising like a massive ocean wave, washing over the players.  The ball was snapped, and time slowed by half as he sprinted, slanting, toward the goalpost.  When he had run twenty-five yards he turned to see Ray Dunbar launch a high, arcing pass in his direction.  He knew he must find within himself a final burst of speed if he was to make the catch.   Time slowed yet again as he lunged, arms shooting out full, hands turning palms-up.  The ball curved over his head, just in front of him  – it was there for the taking!  His fingers flared open . . . 

In his sleep, Connie’s curled hands, resting in his lap on the pages of his open book, twitched once, and he awoke.  A half-mile to the north, the klaxon on the 5:10 freight out of St. Joe, bearing coal and propane, sounded its long, loud warning as the train lumbered through the Holloway station.  Connie’s eyes fluttered.  He rubbed life into them with a thumb and forefinger.  

When the fog gave way in his head, Connie slowly unpacked himself from beneath the bench and got to his feet.  The storm had passed through to the northeast, and the laundromat was quiet except for the low hum from the flourescent lights.  Connie retrieved his clothes, carefully folding and packing them away with his book and what was left of the bourbon inside his knapsack.

Pushing his way through the door, he stepped outside with his cart and stood for a moment before reaching into the pocket of his fatigues for a cigarette.  He lit it, dragging deeply, savoring the first nicotine rush of the day.  The train was way east now, its horn a faint echo off the distant hills.  Connie looked in its direction, noting the scarlet smear where the rising sun met the last scraps of the night’s storm clouds.  The air had cooled; the streets bore a clean sheen and a fresh breeze murmured through the maple leaves overhead.

Conrad Hellenmeir jabbed the cigarette between his lips, turned west and began walking in rhythm with his cart –ah-wee-ah-kah . . . ah-wee-ah-kah . . . ah-wee-ah-kah . . . 

Gotta get oil, 3-in-One – yes!

About the Author: Nick Young is an award-winning retired journalist whose career included twenty years as a CBS News correspondent. His writing has appeared in the San Antonio Review, Short Story Town, CafeLit Magazine, Sein und Werden, Fiery Scribe Review, Sein und Werden, 50-Word Stories, Pigeon Review and Vols. I and II of the Writer Shed Stories anthologies.

Leaving it all Behind

By Jason de Koff

Air flows down a sluice of veins,

across glistening surfaces,

to swirl about imperfect edges.

A frenzy of bobbles

as more follow

describing the meanders

of ever new fascinations.

Capsizing and swelling 

as if borne on the sea

with sights both pleasant

and disturbing

revealed in its wake.

The kite-like conflagration

of whirling and twirling

about its tethered tine

yields much about the chains

yet to be broken

and the change

that must first take place.

About the Author: Jason de Koff (he/him) is an associate professor of agronomy and soil science at Tennessee State University.  He lives in Nashville, TN with his wife, Jaclyn, and his two daughters, Tegan and Maizie.  He has been published in a number of journals including C&P Quarterly, Bandit Fiction, The Daily Drunk, Sledgehammer Lit, Ayaskala, Fahmidan Journal, Near Window, Briefly Zine and Flyover Country Literary Magazine.  His chapbook, “Words on Pages”, is currently available on Amazon at https://amzn.to/3eookJk
Twitter handle: @JasonPdK3

Desperado

By Mitch James

Desperado

Why don’t you come to your senses
You’ve been out riding fences for so long now
Oh, you’re a hard one
But I know that you’ve got your reasons
These things that are pleasing you will hurt you somehow”

-Eagles

Every group needs an other. I don’t know how a society can exist without classifying another as the other.

Rabih Alameddine

It is not possible to extricate yourself from the questions in which your age is involved.”

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

After fourteen years and a child, Eno couldn’t see the fence line like he used to. Once the flesh was picked clean, it was just a long run of skeleton and rebar. Proof that at his core, he was just like them. 

On the other side of his fence line was the Coopers’ property, which sat empty for decades until recently and was now undergoing fertilization. Having not seen it done but once when he was a child, Eno had forgotten how many bodies it took to fertilize sterile land. The Coopers’ men dragged them from the hills by the truck load. When Eno was little, he remembered how they wailed and fought the chains of his grandfather’s men. Now, they were drugged. The Coopers’ men lined them up and, with just a hand on a shoulder, laid them down. It was done humanly, unlike in his grandfather’s day. Now, it was a single bolt through the brain stem. When done like that, they fell like dropped cloth.

The workers had spread the bodies over the Coopers’ land and now scrambled at what to do. Eno would’ve have told them had they asked, but the Coopers swooped in and got to work without as much as an introduction, it evident to Eno that the Coopers were an enterprise used to buying up land. But they didn’t know the white-rumped vulture, local to the area, was nearly extinct, that there were far too few to clean that many corpses before they rotted. That old way of doing things didn’t work anymore. That’s why it was outlawed. But when you have a county that’ll overturn a law to make money, then Eno guessed this is what you get.  Now, for the past three days, the Coopers’ men have been shooting dogs who come from ten miles in all directions to feast. Just the day before, Eno had to tell Beth to keep Hannah in the house while he put a .22 shell through the head of husky dragging himself across the yard, it’s back legs bloomed and useless. 

Botulism attacks the hindlegs of a dog first on its way to its lungs. 

After he killed it, Eno drove the dog to the pasture and pitched it over his fence, onto the Coopers’ land, where it fell limp atop a bloated body he identified as female because of the breasts. As he studied the corpses and then the skeletons upright on rebar, he cinched the bandana tighter around his mouth, certain of only three things: he didn’t feel the same about it, he was raising a daughter, and he didn’t know what to do.  

*

Back home, Eno kissed Beth’s head and touched her hip on his way to shower, then joined her and Hannah at the dinner table. 

“It’s getting hard to even enjoy a simple meal,” Beth said of the stench that followed Eno into the house and clung to their lives. 

The Coopers’ pasture was a mile from the home, but the smell made it to them now, the bodies had sat so long.  “If they were going to repeal the law, I just wish they would have taken all else into account, not just overturning something from a different time to make money now. Times have changed. The process needed to as well” replied Eno.

“Should’ve never been a way of doing things in the first place.”

Eno peered at Beth and thought, you knew what you were getting into when you married me. Sure, you never liked it, but you approved of it more then. He thought, We can’t just uproot our lives and change everything because times have changed. He thought, What would we have then? But he knew not to say it angry or at dinner or with Hannah there.

“How was school,” Eno asked Hanna, changing the subject.

“Fine.”

“What’d you do today?”

“Math and reading. And we looked at maps.”

“Oh yeah?” asked Eno, wiping his teeth clean with a roll of his tongue. “What about maps? Daddy has maps of all the land around here.”

“Maps of where the hill people used to live. They lived in the hills, but they also lived everywhere else. They probably lived right here, where we are.”

  Eno glared at Beth. 

“They’ve got to learn history and geography, Eno. Glad somebody’s speaking the truth,” she grumbled under her breath.

   “You’re teacher’s right, Hannah. They were here first,” Enno confirmed.

  “I know,” she said. “Mr. Tikeman said when our ancestors got here, they killed a lot of the hill people, even children, to force them to be like us.”

 The nonchalant way Hanna discussed the death of children shook him. Looking at Beth, he asked, “Why are they teaching kids this stuff so young?”

 “Because it’s the truth,” she said.

“Lot’s of things are truth. It doesn’t mean a child needs to know. Honey,” Eno said to Hannah, “there are a lot of ways to tell the same story. Our ancestors,” he paused, “who are not us,” he assured, glaring across the table at Beth, then back to his daughter, “came over here and did bad things, but that’s how things were then, so it didn’t seem so bad. Good and bad change over time.”

“Why would it ever seem good to kill a baby?” Hannah asked, with a push that made it clear to Eno that she didn’t realize that if his ancestors hadn’t proceeded the way they did, her comfortable and safe life would be very different.

 After a moment, Eno said, “It’s never right to kill children. It never has been. But sometimes certain things look one way one time and a different way another. Now, let’s talk about what you read in class. That’s enough about maps.”

*

   “Jesus,” Eno said to Beth as they got into bed later that night, “they need to teach this stuff in context.”

  “What she said wasn’t wrong.”

 “I know it wasn’t wrong, Beth, but it wasn’t the full truth. Nearly every nation in this world was built by the bodies of slaves. We’ve always exploited each other. It’s just a bad truth about us being human, but what I wish that history teacher would remind the students is that you and I never did any of those things. And we never raised Hannah to do those things.”

   “Their bodies still mark our property line,” said Beth. “That teaches Hannah something.”

   “My grandfather did that. What am I supposed to do?”

  “Take them down, Eno. Put up a wooden fence like they do in other parts of the country.”

 Eno thought about the land. It was done a certain way for hundreds of miles in all directions. “What would people think? If we took down the property line and put up fencing?”

  “That you’re not your grandfather. That they’re not your wife or daughter, so you don’t care what they think.”

   “It’s more symbolic now than anything. It’s more about tradition.”

  “Does it smell symbolic?” asked Beth. “Does it look symbolic when you’re walking the fence line? Did you symbolically kill a dog the other day?”

 “It’s not supposed to be done that way anymore, but that land hadn’t been broken for over thirty years. Hell, it’s been damn near salt flat since before dad died.”

 “Not supposed to be done that way?” Beth mocked. “What a waste of your words.” 

 “Fine. But what about the other part of it. Breaking new ground is expensive. How’s the county supposed to pay for it? We can’t fertilize all that land by taxes alone. It’d bankrupt us.”

“If you can’t afford to do something the right way, you don’t do it,” Beth growled. “You see us with a huge house? No. Bunch of cars? No. You can’t afford it, you don’t do it. Government needs to live that way too, and if they are gonna splurge, it shouldn’t be at the cost of life. Always about money. What’s the cheapest way to accomplish something.”

“It’s better than cheap, Beth. It’s free.”

“Oh, Christ crucified,” she snapped. 

“I’m not defending it,” Eno growled, “I’m just speaking logic. We make the land prosperous for the community at no cost.”

“You think it doesn’t cost them everything?” Beth asked of the people from the hills. She rolled away from him.

  Eno was quiet a long time. When he wasn’t certain she was still awake, he asked, “When did you know? That you didn’t feel okay about it anymore?”

 “The first time I felt Hannah kick.”

 He thought, I’ll never feel that, something that can make me so certain about anything. Though Beth lie next to him, he suddenly felt alone.

 “I just hope that the teacher’s teaching Hannah none of it’s her fault, that she didn’t do any of it.”

  Beth said, “I think he’s doing his best to make sure it never happens again.”

*

 Eno rode early the next morning, the sky bruise before dawn. Bill O’ Conner had called the night before. Eno listened to the message over coffee and thought of it now as he walked the line and stared at the Coopers’ land over the curve of a parietal bone that looked just like his beneath the flesh. Bill said it had come during the city council meeting, the idea that they could burn the bodies. He said the city council voted it down, but Bill didn’t confirm how he felt one way or the other, though Eno knew Bill had two boys, one a teen, like Hannah. As Eno stared at the sunrise crawling over the bodies, bloat flies settling in like dew, he wondered if Bill could put both on the same page, the killing of the hill people and his own boys.

Eno slipped from the horse and approached a skeleton, the bone white with sun bleach and fissured where the heat had split it. The fence line was simple construction, really, easier to install, even, than a wooden fence. You simply sink number four rebar into a footer and slide the structure over it through the foraman. Though he’d never done it himself, Eno knew that sometimes a drill  was needed for the lower back, but that was it. You just slide it over. Then you link one structure by the hand to the other down the line. When finished, your boundary is marked. They stand like that forever. 

“It takes a long time to weather bone,” Eno mumbled, words his grandfather said decades before, as he held smooth metatarsals to his own. He did the same with Hanna’s pink hand the day she was born and recalled it then.

*

Eno returned home at noon to find no one there and was surprised. Though Beth’s car was gone, Eno still called her name once in the house, then checked his phone to find a missed call. It was Beth, trying to control the emotion in her voice as she told him Hannah never made it to school. She said not to panic, said a number of kids were missing that day and that the sheriff suspected they had simply skipped and taken a couple of quads out on the range. She said she was grocery shopping and would be home by two and not to worry, though it sounded more like she was telling herself and not Eno.

As promised, Beth barreled through the door, grocery bags in hand, at two, the only new update being a call from Sheriff Banks to inform them that both Harold Jackson’s quads were gone, as where his boys Terence and Spencer, and that of all the kids who never showed to school, only Pete McKibben’s pickup was missing. Banks’ detective work instilled a kind of confidence in what he said, more or less proving, he assured, that the kids were skipping school, nothing more, and that they’d be home by dusk. “If not,” said the sheriff, “they’ll need fire to stay warm, and we’ll spot it.”

Eno thanked the sheriff and updated Beth as she shelved groceries.

“What do you think she’s up to?” Beth asked, slotting canned soup onto a lazy Susan.

  Adding a box of cereal to a cabinet, Eno said, “Oh, just being a kid. We skipped our fair share of school days.”

“You did,” she said, giving him a long stare as she climbed far enough back into her mind to see him when he was young. “I was too busy chasing that basketball.”

 “You were.” 

  They paused to smile at each other before finishing the groceries.  

 As the light outside put itself to rest behind the hills, Eno and Beth worked around the kitchen to prevent talking about the fact that Hannah was still gone. Short of a few phone calls from other parents whose kids were missing, there hadn’t been any correspondence since the sheriff called that afternoon. When the dinner was finished, they left it covered on the stove, neither needing to say they couldn’t eat. Then there was a call, the sheriff.

   “Sheriff,” Eno said, answering the phone.

   Beth crossed the room and stood hip to hip with Eno, tipping her head towards the receiver.

  “Hi Eno. I need you to come to the west end of your property line. We’ve got a small rebellion on our hands.”

    Eno heard a deputy chuckle in the background.

   “What?”

   “Just come on out.  You’ll see what I mean.”

 Eno hung up the phone and peered at Beth.

 “I heard him,” she said.  “Let’s go.”

 They drove along the western edge of the property, the orange sunset sluicing across the still grins of skeletal faces, their frames whipping unevenly along the straight line like musical notes along a staff. The truck jerked and rattled atop the course earth until Eno saw a squad car, a pickup, and two quads. The Sheriff stood in his hat at the fence line. A dozen kids, Hannah at the head of them, had yanked the skeletons from the rebar and chained themselves in their place, then joined hands. Looming across from the children was a line of men in thick suits and masks, fuel packs on their backs and torches in their hands, small tongues of orange flame licking from every barrel.

 “Hannah!” Beth exclaimed, nearly falling from the truck before it came to a stop.

 Eno followed suite and looked at the skeletons, then at the children and his daughter chained in their places. He glared at the men facing them with flame throwers. Eno paced his breathing. He felt he might explode. 

 “What’s going on sheriff?” Eno asked.

“Well, as I said, it appears our youths are making political statements now.” The sheriff hooked his thumbs in his belt. “I’m gonna let ya’ll figure out how to discipline ‘em. They locked themselves up pretty good, though. I will say that.” He kicked a bucket of opened padlocks beside his foot. “I sent deputy Woods to the station for the bolt cutters.”

 Eno looked to the children whose backs were to them, then to the men. “What about them?” he asked.

“They work for the Coopers. They’re gonna to do a controlled burn test, just to see the results.”

“The council voted against it.”

“That’s why it’s a test, to see if the council’s concerns are truly warranted.”

“That’s not how that works,” Eno snapped.

“Eno,” said the sheriff, “It’s just a test.”

“We voted against fertilizing the land with bodies too. That was a law, but you all got around it.”

 “Goin’ against that wasn’t my doin’,” assured the sheriff. “That’s above my pay grade.”

 Eno let out a belt of disbelief and spun in a circle.

 “Just take a second,” said Sheriff Banks.

Eno looked at the sheriff, then laughed. “Unbelievable,” he said, looking again at the line of children hand-in-hand, chained to the poles, and the line of men with fire across from them. “Unbelievable,” he whispered again.

Eno walked to the fence line and faced his daughter. Beth stood behind and stared Eno in the eyes in a way he’d never seen. Then he looked at Hannah, her chubby face dirty and hair astray, her eyes fixed on his. There were tears and fire and certainty there, something he’d never break. But there, too, was something else, something that let him know more than ever that she needed him. Beth said everything changed when she felt Hannah kick. This was it, the moment, the closest to that kind of knowing a father can get. Right then, in his own way, he felt his daughter roll and turn inside him. He felt her kick.  

Eno turned from Hannah and slid one body from the pole and placed it on the ground.

“What are you doin?” asked the sheriff.  

 Then Eno did the same with the one beside it.

“I said, what are you doin?”

Eno walked past the children, took Beth’s hand, then took two locks from the bucket.

“Now, Eno, I ain’t plannin’ on holding the kids accountable for all this, but a couple of adults go get themselves involved, well, that’s different. Ya’ll are grown.”

Eno stood beside Hannah and wrapped the chain around his waist, the pole, and his legs, then lopped it in tight and locked into place. He handed the other lock to Beth, who did the same. Hannah looked up at her father, thene took his hand, and he took Beth’s, and together they faced the line of men across from them, the sheriff’s voice, a background sound, something behind them all.

About the Author: Mitch James is a Professor of Composition and Literature at Lakeland Community College in Kirtland, OH and is the Managing Editor at Great Lakes Review. You can find Mitch’s latest fiction at Flash Fiction Magazine and Scissors and Spackle, poetry at Peauxdunque Review and Southern Florida Poetry Journal, and scholarship at Journal of Creative Writing Studies. Find more of his work at mitchjamesauthor.com, and follow him on Twitter @mrjames5527 and Facebook @perhupsous

Farmbelt Inn, Decatur

By John Timm

I’d played this medley a thousand times. I could do it in my sleep and probably have. 

Anyway, I was looking around the room one Friday night a few weeks back. The house was 

about half full after the fish fry ended. There was this one kid—not really a kid, more like in his 

mid-twenties—sitting off to my right in the second row of tables by himself. He had facial hair 

and glasses. That was all I could tell, except I noticed he seemed to stare at me during much of 

the evening.  I flash an automatic smile around the room every so often to make it look like 

we’re all having a good time, and whenever I did, he’d smile back. He didn’t come up during the 

break, and I was just as happy he didn’t; it was getting a little creepy. After the break, he was 

gone and I forgot about it. Until Saturday night.

There he was, alone and staring at me again, this time sitting up front at the edge of the 

dance floor. He would stare, look away, or get up like he was going to leave, then come back, sit 

down again and order another drink. At the break, he’d apparently mustered up enough courage

to approach the bandstand, with me still not knowing who he was and more than a little leery 

about finding out.

I was the first to speak. “Do we know each other?”

“I think maybe we do.”

“How so?”

“Are you Donald W. Lawrence?”

“That’s me.”

“From Harrisburg, P.A.?”

 “I guess.”

“My name is Donald Lawrence. Donald W. Lawrence . . . Junior.”

                                                                        ###

 I’ve spent much of my adult life watching other people having a good time—and 

just as often, a not-so-good time. I’m that anonymous musician you see at weddings, grand

openings, bar mitzvahs, and in my case, playing gigs in hotel cocktail lounges. You’ve seen

me, but you’ve paid little attention. As long as I and my fellow musicians play in tune, we

may as well all be invisible. You could outsource us to a satellite music service and few 

would know the difference. Maybe someday that’ll happen. For now, at least, we’re there 

without being there, if you know what I mean.

There was a time in my life when I sought out fame. I kept searching, mostly in all the 

wrong places.  Certain events in my life managed to get in the way of the dream: women, babies, 

marriage, divorce, booze, drugs, in no particular order. Some say it goes with the territory. I’m 

not sure I buy that. Plenty get into the music game without winding up in blind alleys. I look

back and wonder what I could have done differently to end up in a different place. Any place

other than the dining room and lounge at the Farmbelt Inn. It’s not that I’m bitter. After 

all, the Farmbelt Inn represents the height of nightlife around here. Decatur, Illinois. It’s 120 

miles to St. Louis, 180 miles to Chicago, with not much else in between—unless you want to 

count Springfield or Peoria, which I don’t think you do. 

The Farmbelt Inn is one of a vanishing breed. Motels are now hotels, and the newer ones 

have shorn themselves of their restaurants and cocktail lounges in favor of a breakfast bar with 

do-it-yourself waffles, a toaster and rubbery scrambled eggs. Over the years, there’ve been 

several owners and multiple changes in name. Every once in a while someone spreads the rumor 

it’s being sold again, or torn down to make way for another—you name it—Home Depot, 

another Lowe’s, another Walmart. When things start to get out of hand, the latest owner, Joe 

Patel, gathers his troops together for a quick denial and a pep talk. We all breathe a collective 

sigh of relief until the next time.

We play three nights a week, Monday, Friday and Saturday. We’re just a trio on Mondays, a sextet the other

two days. You want to know why we play on Mondays? That’s when most of the vendors who deal with what’s

left of the local factories are in town. Decent guys, making a living for their families back in places like

Chicago, Minneapolis, or Omaha. They’re usually not rowdy. And while they may eye the occasional stray

female, they tend to start yawning around nine-thirty and disappear by ten.

Friday night is fish fry night, a Midwestern tradition the Catholics brought over from

Germany and Poland and won’t let die. Not that it isn’t a good tradition if you like hand-breaded 

Atlantic cod, crispy fries, coleslaw and an adult beverage for around nineteen bucks. And it’s 

not bad. Even decent, I’d say. It may well be the best thing they put out of the kitchen all week. 

Saturday night is like every Saturday night anywhere else. People get a little drunker, a little 

more sentimental. They want more standards, more torch songs. More Sinatra.

When all is said and done, I’m thankful such a thing as the Farmbelt Inn still exists. My 

leg has never been the same after a car accident ten years ago. At least I got a lifetime payout 

from the other driver’s insurance company. Not like winning the lottery, but along with this gig, 

it all helps keep a roof over my head.

                                                                        ###

Life can smack you in the face when you least expect it. Think of it: Donald W. 

Lawrence, Jr. An unlikely father and son reunion in a most unlikely place. I kept asking myself, 

is this for real? You can only go with what you can see and hear. The rest you take on faith. But I was positive

there’s a physical resemblance. He has his mother’s blue eyes and my jutting jaw. 

The hair is brownish—a lot like mine before the gray took over. He’s taller than me, but that’s 

true for his generation. It was Donny. After all these years, my Donny. 

Even though it was late, when I got back to the apartment I called my half-sister, Karen. 

She’s my only relation within a thousand miles, and I had to tell her the good news. She lives 

only an hour away and said she’d come over on the Monday night. We thought it might be fun to 

surprise Donny with a relative he hadn’t seen in years, maybe bring back some good memories 

for all of us.

                                                                        ###

 Karen showed up around six. I didn’t have to play for another hour, so the three of us had 

dinner together. After the usual small talk, Karen said, “Donny . . . is it okay if I call you that?”

  “That’ll work. Sure.”

 “Donny, I only saw you once. You were three or four. Your Uncle Chuck and I came 

out to Pennsylvania for a visit. Here’s a picture I took of you and your sister.” It’s a wrinkled 

Polaroid of a boy and a girl dressed in matching cowboy outfits. The boy’s hair is slicked down. 

The little girl has a bow in hers. They both wear obedient smiles. Donny held the photo for a 

moment, then handed it back to Karen. She said, “No, keep it. I want you to have it.”

Donny set it off to one side of the table without saying anything and had little to say 

the rest of the meal. Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to spring all this on him. We were leaving 

the dining room when our server came running up. “Someone forgot this photograph on the 

table. I’m sure you wouldn’t want to lose it.”

                                                                        ###

 Donny said he liked the town, and maybe he’d stay if he could find work. He’d gotten 

laid off from a bank somewhere back East. I’m still not clear exactly where. Made it all the way 

to manager. Then one day, just like that, says he was out the door. No explanation. Not even a 

severance. Some people have no loyalty, I guess. Says he wants nothing to do with working at a 

bank ever again. Can’t blame him for that. I offered to let him stay at my apartment. He said he 

didn’t want to put me to any trouble. Maybe he would once he got his feet on the ground.

Joe Patel was nice enough to give Donny a room and let him eat in the restaurant for the 

next few weeks in return for favors on my part, to be determined at a later date. I’d just gotten 

my monthly annuity check from the insurance settlement, and had some spare cash I don’t really 

need, so I spotted the kid enough to make his car payment and some gas money. He refused the 

offer at first, but I insisted. Glad I did. Kids can be stubborn at times. Mine is no exception.

                                                                        ###

 A regular who works over at Caterpillar said he’d heard they were hiring. I told Donny 

about it. “You need to get over there quick. We’ve got a lot of people out of work around here 

ever since the tire plant shut down. Decent jobs are scarce.” 

Donny said he needed some clothes for the interview. He’d left most everything he 

owned in a storage locker Back East. The next morning, I took him out to the mall to get a suit, 

shirt and necktie. The kid looked real good all dressed up. On the way back, he said he was 

hungry, so we stopped for lunch. I figured it would be a chance to get to know each other better, 

too. Donny went right to the top of the menu, ordered the 16-ounce New York strip. He chowed 

down like I did at his age. That’s also when I first noticed he was eating with his right hand. I 

seem to remember he was left-handed when he was little. “You used to eat with the other hand, 

didn’t you? It didn’t come from my family, but I think your mother said there were several 

southpaws on her side.”

 Donny paused to finish chewing the food in his mouth and took a long drink of his 

Coke before replying. “Her boyfriend made me use my right hand for everything. He had 

a thing about being left-handed. He hit me once. Said he’d hit me harder if he ever saw me use 

my left hand for anything. Anything. He was crazy.” 

                                                                        ###

 Most of the time, Donny and I connected at the hotel for lunch and dinner. Whenever I 

asked about Diane, his mother, I could tell it made him uneasy. Maybe he was just trying to 

protect me.

  “I was just wondering if you knew where she is and if you keep in touch.”

 “She kicked me out of the house before I finished high school. Best thing that ever 

happened to me.”

 “So, you don’t have any contact at all?”

  “Not since I was seventeen.”

  “Any contact with your sister?”

   “She left home right after me. Never heard from her after that. Just as well . . ..”

   Afterwards, I felt bad bringing up so many bad memories for him. I hope he understood.

                                                                        ###

 Donny likes to get around like I did when I was at his age. After a few days, he’d

already made some friends in town, even found a girlfriend.  She was with him one night at the 

bar. Jill worked at a tattoo parlor out on Eldorado Street. Pink hair, nose ring, multiple piercings 

and body art. A free spirit like his mother and every woman I’ve ever known. The attraction must be in the

Lawrence family genes.

My own current love life?  It’s on a par with everything else around here. The only thing that vaguely

resembles a female interest is Carla, one of the dining room cooks. A lot of random flirtation that never leads

anywhere. We both do it and both know we’re playing a game. Carla’s been married twice and divorced with

three kids. She’s no great shakes to look at, but neither am I, so we’re even on that score. Carla admits she

barely finished high school, but she’s got plenty of street smarts to make up for it. She likes to say, “Fool me

once, shame on you”—and all the rest that goes with it. She spends most of her nights after work watching

TV reality shows and surfing the Internet. It’s her survival tool. We all have them. Hers are just not as harmful

as some others you might think of.

Monday night, the crowd cleared out early. Donny was somewhere else. I wasn’t sure 

where. I hadn’t seen him all day. As for me, I was at loose ends. I wasn’t hungry or in the mood 

for a drink, but I wasn’t tired either, so I just sat at a table in the dark and collected my thoughts. 

I needed to put some of the pieces back together, apologize for the time together Donny and I 

never had. Except I didn’t know how to go about it. His recollection of when he was a little boy 

was pretty hazy. I didn’t think he remembered much of me. Maybe that was a good thing. I had been gone

much of the time and was not always sober when I was around. After a while, I pretty much decided I

shouldn’t press him about it anymore.

A little after nine, Carla closed the kitchen and came into the dining room. She sat down 

across from me. Not one for much ceremony, she opened with, “I’ve asked myself all day if I 

should tell you this . . . You’re sure you want to hear it?”

 “How can I be sure if I don’t know what it is?”

 Even though we were alone, she lowered her voice. “I don’t think Don Junior is who you 

think he is . . . There’s something about him . . . I’m not sure. Call it a woman’s intuition. I hope 

I’m wrong.” We both got up and called it a night without saying anything more.

                                                                        ###

 On my way out the door, the night clerk called me aside. “Your son and his buddies were 

making a lot of noise in his room last night. I kept getting complaints from the other guests and 

had to go down there two or three times. And somebody broke the light fixture over the sink in 

the bathroom.”

“Does Joe know about it?”

“Don’t worry. Nobody’s going to tell him. I called maintenance, and they’ve fixed it already.”

“My apologies for the trouble. I’ll talk to my kid about it. And I owe you one—big time.”

On Tuesday, Donny showed up at the end of the lunch hour. I wasn’t sure what to say to 

him about the ruckus in his room. I didn’t want to get him kicked out, and I didn’t want any 

issues with Joe Patel, either, especially after how he’d gone out of his way for me. 

“They sure don’t have much left on the buffet, do they?”  

“Look, Donny. We need to talk about last night.”

“Oh, that. Yeah. Some of Jill’s friends heard we were getting together at my place. They 

weren’t invited, but you know how it is. What can you do?”

“I wouldn’t have let them in. But that’s not the point.”

 “I know. I know. It won’t happen again. Swear to God.”

 “Thanks. I just don’t need any problems with the management.”

 “You won’t. Wow. This meat is like shoe leather. And cold.”

We ate mostly in silence. He was about to get up to leave when I remembered to ask him

about the job interview at Caterpillar. It had already been over a week. He said, “Hey, I’m 

sorry, I thought I told you about it. Anyhow, it wasn’t a good fit for me. A paper pusher in the 

maintenance department office. I need something that leads to a career. You know?” Then he 

rolled up his sleeve and showed me a small tattoo with Chinese symbols on the inside of his 

wrist. “Jilly did this. Pretty cool, don’t you think?”

                                                                        ###

 After work, Carla and I had another discussion about Donny. She’d been searching on 

line at those people finder and public records sites. She says the only Donald W. Lawrence, Jr. 

she could locate was married and living in Tampa, Florida. She’d also read about scammers who 

travel the county, claiming they’re somebody’s long lost kid. “They take their victim for 

whatever they can and then disappear again.” She reached across the table and placed her hand in 

mine. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to upset you. And it’s not any of my business, anyway. I hope 

you’re not mad at me.”

 “Don’t worry about it, I’m not mad.”

 We changed the subject after that. No, I wasn’t not mad at all. Carla meant well, but I just 

was not buying it. He was my Donny. I was sure of it.

                                                                        ###

 Next day at lunch time I stopped by the hotel. I knocked on Donny’s door several times 

and then called his room on the house phone because he liked to sleep late. No answer. At the 

desk, I asked if they’d seen him. “I would of mentioned it to you earlier, Don, but I figured you 

already knew. They checked out early this morning. Him and that girlfriend of his. Right after I 

began my shift.”

“Do you know where they were headed?”

“No. Didn’t say. But they both had luggage. Like I said, I figured you knew . . ..”

                                                                        ###

 It’s been over a month now. Mondays, Fridays, Saturdays. I keep scanning the tables 

for my Donny. Then again, maybe Carla’s right. Maybe he’s not my Donny. But it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t have

to be him. It really doesn’t.

About the Author: John Timm writes short fiction in several genres. His work appears, or is scheduled to appear in 300 Days of Sun, Bartleby Snopes, Fiction Attic, and Flint Hills Review among others, as well as several anthologies. John holds a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and when not writing teaches courses in Spanish literature and communications.

                                                                

The Crack Up

By Steve Carr

Morning, a hot wind blowing from the east sent the tall yellow prairie grass bowing in ripples toward the old house. Colin leaned against the wood post to the barbed wire fencing that stretched from east to west as far as the eye could see, altering nothing in the flat prairie, but an intrusion in the pristine western open landscape nevertheless. He lifted a nearly empty bottle of Jim Beam to his parched lips and poured the whiskey into his mouth while looking skyward, squinting in the glare of the yellow sun unobstructed by the white pillows of clouds that hung in clumps in the pale blue sky. He lowered the bottle and with his bare back against the post he slid to the ground, sitting in a nest of grass that he had formed while standing there kicking at the earth with his boots. A meadowlark alighted on a distant post and let out a brief melodic aria. Colin raised the bottle to his mouth again and looked the direction the wind was blowing, focusing blurringly on the house, and took another long swig.

Even at the distance he was from the house, he could hear Jack barking, probably having caught the scent of a gopher or jackrabbit. Good old Jack. Colin opened his eyes wide, trying to fool his booze addled mind into believing he could clearly see what he was looking at. What he was seeing was the image imprinted in that part of his brain that retained the same image he had seen since he was old enough to crawl around in his diapers among the chickens. Gnats buzzed around his ears and sweat ran in rivulets down his bare chest and abdomen. He took another drink of whiskey. 

With the bottle empty he tossed it aside and removed his dingy white cowboy hat and placed it in the grass beside his outstretched legs. The wind rustled his curly black hair and he turned to the east and opened his mouth and gulped in the blowing aroma of the prairie in late August; dry earth and sun scorched plants. 

                                                                      #

The next noon, the chickens in the yard busily pecked about for the scattered kernels of corn that Colin’s mother, Janet, has tossed around in handfuls scooped out of a large wooden salad bowl. Her cotton floral print skirt fluttered in the breeze that also caught loose strands of her graying black hair creating tentacles that curled and twisted around her sun-weathered face. Jack was at her side, rubbing his lean body covered in long red hair against her bare legs. She looked to the west and watched as a line of bison crossed the range beyond the barbed wire fence. Colin came out of the house and stumbled from the small set of stairs that led out of the kitchen to the backyard, catching his balance before falling face-first into the dirt. Jack ran over to him, his tail rapidly wagging.

“Hey old boy,” Colin said, rubbing the dog’s bony head. He held the back of his hand to Jack’s mouth and let him lick it. “It’s going to be another hot one,” he said to his mother.

She turned from watching the bison and scooped the last handful of corn from the bowl and tossed it to the chickens. “Your father was hoping you would ride out to see about the cattle with him this morning,” she said. “He tried but he couldn’t wake you.”

“I think I had a bit too much to drink last night,” Colin said, wavering unsteadily on his bare feet.

“You always have too much to drink, Colin,” she said, looking up to see a flock of geese flying in a v formation cross the sky.

“My friends took me to that saloon in Scenic,” he said, swatting at a horsefly that landed on his shoulder, tickling his flesh. 

“Your friends are what got you in the trouble you’re in to begin with. Them and alcohol,” she said walking past him and up the stairs. As she opened the door she turned to him and said, “We hoped you would try to be sober at least a couple days before you go to prison.” She went into the house letting the screen door slam behind her.

Colin staggered over to the empty water troth, a remainder from and reminder of the days when they rode about the ranch lands on horses. They were sold in favor of a used Ford pickup that his father called Magnet because that was the name of his favorite mare he no longer had. His stomach was in upheaval; the chili he had at the saloon had not set well with the whiskey, his preferred choice of beverage.  He turned around and barfed into the troth, then wiped his mouth with the back of the same hand that Jack had slobbered on, and took a pack of Marlboro’s from his back pants pocket, a Bic lighter from his front pocket, lit a cigarette and took a long drag on it. He watched the curl of exhaled smoke quickly dissipate in the noon time breeze.  He wanted to drive somewhere, anywhere, just for the hell of it. But his car was gone, sitting in a car junk yard among all the other hunks of mangled automobiles.

Driving while under the influence, DUI, they called it.

                                                                     # 

Night, the month of June, Colin was under the influence of a full moon shining bright and low in the early summer star-filled sky. He was under the influence of the rush of wind though his open car windows, his car being filled with the scents of wet earth from a day-long raining spell and sprouting  bright green prairie grass that grew along highway 44 coming from Rapid City. It had not been the fun night he had planned, but he never liked the saloons in Rapid City anyway; too filled with businessmen posing as cowboys wearing clothes, hats and boots that had never been worn on an actual ranch or farm, and desperate secretaries not interested in meeting anyone but these fake cowboys. He had had a few shots of whiskey at the last of the three saloons he had been to that night, drove in a half-lit state around the city with two friends until he found a store where they could buy a couple bottles of Jim Beam. 

He and his two buddies sat in the darkness in the grass along Rapid Creek and drank until sunrise. Leaving them to sleep it off there along the creek, he got into his car, opened the last bottle of Jim Beam, put a Garth Brooks CD in the player, and drank and sang his way under all those influences half way to Scenic before swerving off the road to avoid hitting a deer crossing the road. His car flipped three times before he was ejected miraculously unharmed out of the smashed windshield and landed in the grass, still grasping the neck of the broken bottle. He laid there in the grass with his car upside down on top of a bent highway sign, until a deputy sheriff found him, the demolished vehicle, and destroyed Highways Department property, an hour later. His blood alcohol level was two times over the limit. Two days later he was under the influence of a judge.

“This is your third DUI charge in six months and the records show you have not sought help for your excessive drinking,” the judge said. “What do you have to say for yourself?”

Colin wanted to say he needed a drink, but he looked at his dad who had barely looked at him all the way from the house to the court building in New Underwood, and seeing the pale face and dour expression on his father’s face, he kept his mouth shut.

“You’re a menace to anyone else on the roads. Maybe two years in the state prison will help you with your drinking problem,” the judge said before bringing down the gavel with a resounding crack. 

                                                                      #

Afternoon, three o’clock, the pendulum in the grandfather clock in the corner ticked monotonously from side to side as the chime behind the clock face sounded three times. On the sofa, Colin sat up and ran his fingers through his hair. Through the open window hot wind blew the sheer blue curtains into the room, their hems fluttering and snapping in mid-air. He got up and ducked beneath the curtains and looked out. Jack was lying under the swinging chair that rocked back and forth hanging from  rusty, squeaking, hooks in the porch ceiling. A small eddy of dirt, like a miniature twister, whirled across the bare front yard.  

                                                                      #

Afternoon, fifteen years before, Colin was twelve years old and sat in a hard wooden chair in the principal’s office swinging his legs back and forth under the seat. His father, Al, sat on one side of him in another wooden chair and his mother sat on the other side, in a similar chair. The principal, Mr. Dawson, was seated behind a big metal desk, his hands folded on top of a small stack of manila file folders. The window behind Mr. Dawson was closed and the brown shade up. Colin watched heavy snow fall on the playground equipment and school yard behind the school. Several crows were perched along the top of the schoolyard fence like avian sentinels.

“Al and Janet,” Mr. Dawson said looking first at one then the other, “we’ve been friends for a long time and I’ve known Colin his entire life, so I feel I can be frank with you.”

“Certainly,” Janet said, shifting uncomfortably in her chair.

“Colin is one of the brightest pupils in his grade, but his teachers can hardly handle his restlessness. Mrs. Upshaw said it’s like Colin is fighting against invisible restraints around his body,” Mr. Dawson said. “And as you know, Mrs. Upshaw is not prone to exaggeration.”

“He’s the same way at home,” Janet said. “He was examined by the doctor and all he said was that Colin is just going through a phase.”

Mr. Dawson leaned back in his chair and grasped onto the arms as if trying to hold himself in his seat, and looked at Colin’s dad. “What do you think, Al?”

Al cleared his throat. “It’s nothing that a good hide tanning won’t take care of.”

                                                                        #

Afternoon, 3:15, Colin pulled his head back in and turned around and through a curtain that flickered in front of his face he saw his mother standing in the doorway leading into the kitchen looking at him. She was wearing an apron and her face was smudged with flour. He had never been able to read her facial expressions.

“You have flour on your face, Mom,” he said, pushing aside the curtain that had given his view of her being seen in a dreamlike bluish haze. 

“I’m making bread,” she said, lifting the hem of the apron and dabbing her face, sending a light snowfall of flour onto the wooden floor. “You always liked my bread.”

“You make it sound as if I’ll never have it again,” he said. “I’m going to prison, not Siberia.”

“If only you had gotten some help for your drinking,” she said wistfully. “It’s what your attorney said you needed to do after the second charge.”

“I like to drink,” Colin said. “When I pass out then wake up I don’t even notice time has passed.”

“I don’t understand that at all,” she said, pushing a stray hair back from her forehead spreading flour across her brow. “You can’t just drink to throw away what little time you have on this planet.”

“I can’t think of any other way to do it,” Colin said.

                                                                       #

Evening, 5:30,  Al sat in the large chair in the living room trying to pry a splinter out of the palm of his hand with a Swiss army knife. Jack sat at his feet gnawing on the bone he had been given from the roast that Janet had fixed for dinner. The grandfather clock ticked and a steady hot breeze blew in through the open window. The sound of a lone coyote yelping from somewhere out in the prairie momentarily interrupted the solitude. Colin came into the room carrying some sheets of paper and sat down on the sofa and began to read what was written on the first sheet.

“What you got there, son?” Al asked looking up from the bleeding wound he had made in his hand.

“It’s a list of what I can’t have when I am in prison. Contraband they call it. They want to make sure I don’t bring along any files or hacksaws when I check in,” Colin said not looking up from the paper. “Basically I can’t take anything to make life more comfortable or to make time pass faster.”

“You were never happy with what you had or where you were anyway,” his father said grumpily. 

“It’ll be two years of just sitting around,” Colin said. “I’m going to get pretty restless.”

“You were born restless and you’ll die that way,” Al said.

“You tried to beat it out of me,” Colin mumbled.

“What?” His father asked.

“You tried to beat it out of me,” Colin said, his voice raised.

“What?” 

“You tried to beat the restlessness out of me,” Colin screamed.

“I was just trying to help,” his dad said, his lined, tanned face red with anger. “Look where being restless has gotten you.”

“You tried to beat it out of me,” Colin whispered.

                                                                      #

Night, Colin ambled his way through the tall prairie grass, carrying a bottle of Jim Beam, the one he had kept hidden in his room. He looked up at the night sky and watched a shooting star streak across the heavens and disappear into the clutter of stars. Jack followed close behind and Colin stopped and patted the dog on the head.

“Go home old boy,” he told the dog, who whined briefly then turned and went back toward the house.

 At a wood post, part of the barbed wire fence that divided their property from the open prairie and the boundaries of the Badlands National Park, Colin leaned against it, took his cowboy hat and laid it in the grass at his feet and opened the bottle and took a long swig. He could see the light on above the porch of his home but all the windows were dark. Coyotes howled in the distance. He drank until he was drunk and had reached that point where the passing of time went unnoticed and the endless boredom became meaningless. Then he passed out.

                                                                      #

Morning, Colin opened his eyes and shook his head trying to erase the dream he had. It had been so vivid, as if his brain was showing a movie about the details of his life, his home, the blowing of the hot summer winds across the prairie and even Jack’s barking. He looked at the stretch of prairie between him and the house, and the house itself. In the dream he had set it all ablaze. 

 The day before had worn on like most of the days before it, the only difference being that he and his parents were confronting the reality that he would be going to prison. Lying there in the grass he didn’t know what the feeling was exactly, but it was like he was a piece of glass, cracking, about to shatter. Reaching into his pants pocket he pulled out a red Bic lighter, turned westward, flicked the small wheel on the lighter, put the flickering flame to a clump of dead grass, and watched it ignite. With his hat he fanned the flame and felt the heat of the erupting fire. He scooted a few feet from the spreading fire and watched it move westward, rapidly consuming the combustible dry grass, stretching out in a crackling line of exploding grass, north to south, a rapidly moving and expanding inferno. He heard Jack whining, and then silence, and then the house was covered in a blazing blanket.

About the Author: Steve Carr, from Richmond, Virginia, has had over 550 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals, reviews and anthologies since June, 2016. He has had seven collections of his short stories published. His paranormal/horror novel Redbird was released in November, 2019. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice.