Lunch Break

By Sy Holmes

Jim Conville had thirty minutes for lunch, but lately he was taking thirty-five. Running to his car to eat his sandwich in five, then leaving his hardhat in the passenger seat, spending the next thirty sitting in the coffee shop, out of the Great Falls cold. Sipping a large cup of overpriced coffee and thinking over things.

​Jim had a lot to think over. There was the job: electrical subcontracting on a boutique hotel they were building to accommodate the influx of out-of-staters into Montana. Nobody in their right mind, people had told Jim, would build a boutique hotel in Great Falls. But people were out of their minds these days. Jim was the token easterner on the team. He had always wanted to move out west. Out of North Carolina. Into a land of more possibility. Where the skies were bigger and the people freer. Now he was just waking at five a.m. and driving down the skeezy state route from the house he was renting for too much money to the jobsite downtown while it snowed and the roads turned to ice. All the snow of Minneapolis with roads management expertise of Raleigh, he thought. Jim thought a lot of things at five, cup of instant coffee he had made at home in his cup holder. He thought about them while he worked through the morning. Mostly he thought about them on his lunch break.

​The job was going poorly: the entire hotel was out-of-sequence and had been for months now. Parts going faster than scheduled, parts lagging behind. People showing up with shit that wouldn’t be ready to be put in for two weeks. People showing up with shit that should have been here a month ago. The super, Joanna, was losing her mind. Jim didn’t blame her. She was under immense pressure from her bosses, who had also been investors in the project, and everyone has their breaking point. For Joanna, that came when she broke the eighty-hour week mark. Foaming at the mouth. Snapping at her own laborers and all the subcontractors. Subs, there was a bitterness in the way she said it these days that really did make it sound like a domination thing. Every trade handled it differently. The plumbers had gone completely internal, not talking to anyone but playing upbeat music from the ‘50s while they worked. Hank, Jim’s boss, was trying to handle it with good humor, but he was running out of steam.

​“Jim,” he said one morning, “I feel dead inside.”

​The welders, more a tribe of feral apes than actual human dudes, who were from somewhere south of Missoula and were assholes, had decided to go to war. Openly smoking on the jobsite, which had a strict no-smoking policy. Going home early. Screaming matches between Joanna and their foreman. They had been fired from the job about six times but kept getting hired back. It was a seller’s market at the moment. Jim wondered why they hadn’t just moved on. Every morning Jim sat in the car for five minutes and took a couple deep breaths. Some days would be great. Some days something he or another electrician did would trigger a Halifax-sized explosion from somebody involved in project management. Eardrums gone. The eyes of any child unfortunate to be looking in the direction of the jobsite melted out. But he was never sure what kind of day it would be, and one kind could turn into the other in a second. At lunch he had only reached the half-way point. Landmines could lie ahead. That was the son-of-a-bitch of it all. The constant uncertainty. He needed coffee and a fancy-ass scone to fortify himself.

​He looked at his phone. No texts. Nothing. The thing he had had with this girl who had been working with small businesses to help them weather the crisis had blown up yesterday. She was a couple months out of a six-year relationship with an Air Force pilot who was still stationed at the base up here. It was a casual thing, never would have gone anywhere. Chill on the couch, watch dumb movies, drink and smoke weed. Jim had gotten too drunk at his house on Saturday night and hooked up with the yoga instructor who sold his landlady/roommate shrooms. Turns out the two were best friends and things had collapsed from there. Small town problems, he should have known. There’s no Hallmark card for shit like that, Jim thought. “Sorry, I wouldn’t have done it if I had known because I’m not an asshole but since I didn’t I did and now I feel like an asshole.” These things happen. He never thought he would be missing nights on a near-stranger’s couch getting it on while Blades of Glory played. Ridiculous shit like that. But it was some sort of intimacy in the middle of this cold-as-shit spell. He had told Chris, one of the other journeys about it and he had just laughed.

​“Get back on that horse, son.”

​Jim wanted to explain that he didn’t want to have to get back on any sort of horse – he just wanted to stay on one, but it wouldn’t have been any use.

​Jim wanted to get out of one thing, though. His landlady, who lived in the other room in their house that sort of looked like the Unabombomber’s cabin, had been brought home by the cops on Tuesday morning, right before Jim left for work, with her crazy sister after some sort of altercation with her ex-boyfriend at a bar in town. Jim had been standing on the porch and the officer just looked him up and down in the kind of way that said he would remember him. The coke dealer, who sold shitty Montana white for criminal prices, was coming around the house like the motherfucking milk man. Her best friends coming over with weird, sketchy dudes and doing blow in the living room from six to six. No uninterrupted sleep in a week. Youtube videos of a random French guy explaining the history of tea blaring in his ears just so he wouldn’t hear his landlady’s sister yelling at her boyfriend. Lease still had three months on it, but the situation was out of control. He liked his landlady as a person. She was cool. She had driven him places when his car had been broken down and occasionally bought him beer as a sort of apology. He was sorry it had to end this way. It felt like a weird breakup. Now he had to try and find another place to live and it was all just a pain in the ass. That’s all it was. No big existential crises these days, no burning questions, just extended pains in the ass that dragged on way too long because they weren’t so urgent that he couldn’t ignore them when he put his mind to it. Could ignore them until they turned more critical than they had any right to be. Just little shit that piled up and ruined his lunch break. ​

About the Author: Sy Holmes is a writer from western North Carolina. He lives in the mountain West with other people’s dogs.

Turtle-Gate

By Dan Brotzel

Arriving early on the empty beach, the black sand a vast naked canvas, he and Lilly had dared to dream big.

Google ‘sand turtle’, grandad, she said.

The template they had sketched out with Google’s help was easily as long as him. He saw that the turtle’s flippers would have to come out much higher up the body than he would have imagined, almost up by its head. He was also surprised to realise that the creature would need quite a long pointy tail.

But it was only after he and his middle grand-daughter got started that he realised that the sand where they sat was compact and unyielding – especially hard work as they only had one split bucket and a tiny plastic spade between them.

About 15 yards away, however, there was a lovely big pile of loose sand that must have been displaced for someone else’s holiday project the day before; this sand was loose and crumbly, even if the surface around it was too uneven for turtle-building.

So there was nothing for it but to get stuck into the laborious commute between their spot and the pile, filling up the bucket over and over and tipping sand into the middle of an animal shape which now seemed impossibly large, almost infinite. Lilly joined him for the first five minutes, signalling her official approval of the project by ferrying a few tiny handfuls.

He had been soldiering on alone for a good half-hour when he became aware of another family group settling down close to them, in a position at right angles to their own encampment and directly to the side of the turtle.

While his group comprised two grandparents – him and his wife Jan – and three grandchildren, this new group boasted the full generational flush, by the looks – a pair of grandparents, a son with his wife, and a little toddler of indeterminate sex.

Together, they gave off an air of quietly complacent affluence. The gran was an attractive woman with a deep all-over tan, hooped earrings and expensive-looking casual beachwear. The grandad wore deck shoes and blue cotton shorts and a Polo shirt with a designer logo that was international code for ‘expensive’. His receding hair was artfully cropped to make him look rugged and well-travelled. He looked like the sort of man who owned a boat and once ran his own company and now went into town once a week to attend the odd board meeting or check in with his broker.

The new group had brought with them a fancy cool-box. It contained food that appeared to have been sourced from an Italian deli, though to his knowledge there wasn’t such a thing within 30 miles of here. They had clearly disdained the local Spar, where Jan had bought their crisps. They were clearly not local.  

He was initially a bit put out by just how close this new family had chosen to sit. But then he looked up and saw that while he had been slaving away at his turtle, the beach had been steadily filling up. An hour ago the beach had been all theirs, but the prairielands of the virgin frontier had given away to tight-knit strip-farms. Space was at a premium.

It quickly became clear to him too that the new family did not like his turtle, especially as little sandy avalanches from the creature’s growing shell kept tumbling onto the space they had marked out as theirs. The new family kept ostentatiously brushing bits of the loose blackish sand away, strategically placing towels and blankets right up to the edge of the shell and pointedly fidgeting in its direction.

What complicated matters more was that, in order to shortcut the creation of a 3D effect, he had decided to turn the outline of the animal into a deepish gully. This would instantly give the illusion of depth and cause the animal to ‘pop’, as Lilly put it. But to dig the turtle out the whole way round, he would eventually be obliged to encroach on the other family’s territory further.

Why was he still working on the turtle anyway? Lilly had wandered off to the rockpools ages ago and seemed to have completely forgotten about their shared project. She might come back to it perhaps, you never knew. But finishing the turtle had for some reason become a point of personal pride, especially as there was a hostile force – or family, if you will – that was now actively trying to stop him.

Completing the gully could have been a flashpoint. But just as he neared his Gibraltar moment, the posh gran suddenly set off with the toddler to paddle in the tide.

Britain at its best, he mused. There was naked animosity in the air, but no one was going to actually talk about it.

The gully completed, he sat back on the far side of the turtle from the interlopers, and began to smooth and shape the huge shell. Perhaps Lilly would want to decorate it with all the seashells and pretty stones that she would be bringing back from her exploration of the shore.

He sat back and surveyed what he had done. It was, he had to admit, a ludicrously large thing he had created, its scale all wrong in among the bustle and throng of a holiday beach.

Just thinking about what he had done tired him. He felt tired all the time now, a sort of grey wash that lay behind everything he did. The constant tweaks of back and bone. The endless need to pee. The breathlessness at the top of the stairs. The strange heavy feeling as he sunk into his bed every night, the weight of time pushing him down into his mattress, as if the bed was a grave and he was sinking deep into the earth. The early waking, the sense of sleep as a temporary respite that never really left him feeling rested or refreshed. The way he had to sit down and stare into space for ten minutes after a walk to the shop for the paper. The absent-mindedness. The endless need to pee.

He was old, of course. He looked at his wife, Jan, who was old too, though she looked much better on it than he did. Jan was chatting happily with Izzy, their eldest grandchild. Izzy wore a skimpy bikini these days – in a shade she told him was ‘electric pink’ – and spent hours in the bathroom and took endless selfies on her phone. It was just five minutes ago, surely, that Izzy had been dressing like Snow White and writing endearing letters to her tooth fairy; this morning, he heard her humming a song about waking up with murder on my mind.

And here they were again, looking after the grandkids for yet another week. He loved to seem them, of course he did, and Jan would have had them over every weekend given the chance. But living on the coast was a hostage to fortune.

He stood up and arched his back tentatively. The posh woman was on her way back from the water now, steering the toddler expertly between sandy puddles and somehow keeping her white culotte things spotless.

Tom, his youngest grandchild, was over with Lilly now too, he noticed, jumping in and out of pools and chasing seagulls and lying down in the tide and just generally being a boy. (Albeit a boy who had no interest in giant sand turtles.) Tom’s grandad looked over at the other family, the turtle-haters, and hated them back.

On the way down to the water, he saw that elaborate sand fortifications and comedy burial scenes were springing up everywhere on the beach. Men stood, hands on hips, boasting to other men of their new phones, comparing motorway routes, troubleshooting boiler issues. Women rubbed their necks with cream, closed their eyes and looked to the heavens. Excited children ran past carrying milkily translucent buckets full of crabs. Tiny ones dipped their feet in the brisk tide for the very first time.

But as grandad stood at waist height in the water, the queasy hostility he had felt from the earlier tussle for territory slipped away from him, like a burial at sea. The current pushed and pulled at his frame, and he let it drag his steps where it would. Looking back myopically at this vista of happy human ants, he wondered if there was anything on earth as profoundly pleasurable as weeing in the sea. The oceanic amniotic surrender to the warm, wet embrace, all-knowing and all-forgiving. And again. Aaah.

Out beyond him, towards the horizon, jet skis and dinghies traced white plumy lines in the infinite blue. The sun breathed warm and true on everything and everyone. It became impossible to believe that anyone in the world could wish harm on anyone else.

He took to pondering the meanings of Turtle-gate. Why this sudden anger? Was it to do with politics in some obscure way? Everything else was, these days, apparently. Was it a projection of his annoyance at being taken for granted by his son and daughter-in-law, who assumed now that he and Jan would have the kids for this week every year? As far as he recalled, they had offered to take the older two when the third arrived, because the parents obviously needed some relief. But somehow this had morphed into a regular annual obligation, a tradition that he had no memory of initiating or even signing up to, but which he was convinced his son now thought of as a favour to him. He could just imagine the pair of them, lamenting the fact that they couldn’t go to Spain or The Canaries in August ‘because mum and dad would be so disappointed’.

Would we heck.

Well yes, OK, maybe. We’d miss the little buggers.

More delirious weeing. He fantasised now that when he returned to the beach, the giant turtle would have come to life and turned out to be (what else?) jovial and endearing, taking all the kids for rides on its shiny convex back. But like any respectable fantasy cartoon animal, it would of course always be aware of health and safety issues, taking care never to stray out of the kids’ depth. And it would even take up the little one from the other family, and bring everyone together, so they all sat round in one big circle and held hands and sang songs, and the posh gran was really rather attractive, actually, and…

What actually happened when he got back, or soon after, was that Tom got stung by a wasp. Tom, the youngest, the boy, the tough wiry one who seemed to feel no physical pain but was insanely sensitive to the slightest barb, more sensitive in fact than the two girls put together, launched into a hysterical delirium of panic from which he could not be consoled. Wasps were everywhere, they were all out to get him, everything was infected, nowhere was safe. He clung to his granny for dear life, ducking and flinching as imagined aerial assaults rained in on him from every direction.

The fact that granny had just brought everyone a lovely ice cream was no consolation; it only made things worse because of course wasps love ice cream. The day was ruined. Happiness was gone forever. Life was over.  

Grandad did his best to stroke Tom’s head over his wife’s embrace, but Tom just thought he was under attack again and roughly pushed his arm away. Under cover of his undoubted concern for the boy, he felt a rising irritation that he was going to have to clear everything up again so soon – all the beach crap that he had so laboriously lugged down the hill and across the sand only a couple of hours ago: the canvas bags, the sandwich boxes, the flask, the folding chairs, the towels and mats, the broken bucket. Not to mention leaving the turtle. Only…  

Only now the other family were in there with them, offering sympathy and soothing gestures and practical help. The posh gran had produced wipes and cream and water. The posh granddad was telling little Tom in a lilting Welsh voice that wasps never sting someone twice, that no wasp would ever sting him again, that in fact it was a mark of great fortune to be stung by a wasp, a sign that Tom was a man of courage who was destined for great things. (All obvious nonsense, but it did seem to be having an effect.) The posh gran had produced a special ointment which she said was ‘a magical and proven wasp-scarer’ – wasps would never go near the smell, she said. (He could see that it was actually some sort of M&S lavender moisturiser thing, but this too seemed to be working.)

So: the enmity had been a fiction. The hostility was in his head. It was the sort of scene that could restore your faith in human nature. Indeed, the only sand in the sandwich, the only piece of grit in the oyster, was that, in the course of their ministrations, the other family had accidentally stamped on the face of the turtle, mutilated one of its flippers, punctured the shell beyond repair, and smudged the artfully pointed and surprisingly long tail into an effete little stump.

After all the drama had subsided, he glanced over at posh gran, stretched out on a fancy, adjustable lounger that now occupied what had until very recently been the bottom half of a giant turtle. For a moment her gaze seemed to lock with his from behind her dark elusive shades, and a gold filling glinted as she flashed him a triumphant smile.  

About the Author: Dan’s debut collection of short stories, Hotel du Jack, is published by Sandstone Press. He is also co-author of a forthcoming comic novel about an eccentric writers’ group, Work in Progress (Unbound). His stories have featured in numerous competition lists and publications, and received both Pushcart and Best of the Net nominations.  

The Sunday Incident in Nebraska (That Will Never Make the News)

By J.V. Sumpter

Last Sunday, at 9:32 AM, Father Francis almost confessed to the congregation that, for the last ten years, he’d been stealing from the collection to buy himself booze and drugs. In fact (he almost said) he’d once performed a wedding completely trashed, and what’s more, he didn’t even believe in God.

Unlike most confessions he’d made and heard, this one wasn’t born of a conscious-rankling secret. It didn’t dig its claws into the ego, a spidery parasite. No, this secret was more than willing to dawn the wings of confession, be reborn in the hearing of many witnesses. As Father Francis scanned the unsuspecting faces in the pews, it felt like the most natural thing in the world to let this go. Speechlessness dropped from his lips. His tongue relaxed. The exact words he would need queued helpfully on his tongue, and he let his mouth fall open—

but he stopped himself. In time.

What am I doing? he asked himself. He felt suddenly lightheaded and clenched his teeth together, hard, until the moment passed.

The most bizarre part of the almost-confession was that Father Francis hadn’t done any of those things. The untruth of it will confuse the old priest to no end. He’ll spend the next three weeks in solitary prayer, chanting rosaries while his mind wanders back to the strangest temptation to ever come over him—the temptation to tell a lie that would have gotten him in big trouble.

*

At precisely the same time that day, Aesop Castellanos, oral maxillofacial surgeon, was performing what would be his last operation, though he didn’t know it at the time. Afterwards, he walked out of his practice on shaking legs.

He hadn’t planned to retire until two years later but figured he had enough money to live comfortably after he quit. Maybe he would find another job. But it wouldn’t be surgery. No. Not after he’d almost pulled every tooth out of that unconscious teenager’s mouth.

He didn’t know why he’d wanted to do it. Or maybe “wanted” isn’t the right word. It happened right as he removed the second wisdom tooth. He’d been standing there, surgical knife and suction tube in hand, when he was hit by the sudden realization that he could do it, and that if he did, it would be absolutely awful. His mind instantly flooded with nightmarish visualizations. Empty, pocked gums erupting blood onto the blue t-shirt. The teen’s eyes would speak terror as the kid starts choking on blood and gauze. A hysterical mother, a bewildered judge, an unpayable fine, a life sentence. And most painful of all, guilt.

The terror of it gripped him with the sudden impulse to make it real. It moved his hands fluidly back to the unsuspecting teenager’s mouth. But by the grace of God, Aesop Castellanos, oral maxillofacial surgeon, did not pull any more teeth out. He finished up, sealed the holes, and hightailed it out of the building.

He won’t explain to anyone why he suddenly decided to give up his job (and his cushy salary), not even to his none-too-thrilled wife. He will take the crime he nearly committed to his grave.

*

It wasn’t a coincidence that these parallel incidents happened to the surgeon and the priest on the same day at the same time. All across the state of Nebraska and parts of northern Kansas, people terrified themselves by almost committing senseless and dangerous acts. A builder on a riser almost pushes his partner off (and the partner was his brother). A man who’d just secured a promotion and a first date almost jumps from his tenth-story office window. A mother with her five-year-old daughter and two-year-old son almost crashes her car into a tree.

But something stops them just in time. The brothers on the riser look at each other, wordless. The businessman stumbles back into his chair and puts his head in his hands. The mother pulls into a parking lot and stares at her kids in the rearview mirror for a long, long time. When the girl asks, “You okay, mommy?” she doesn’t respond.

The state-wide incident doesn’t make it to the news. Everyone assumes their part in it was a personal incident, some freak expression of a hidden perturbation in their psyche. Shame keeps what happened from ever being brought to the public’s attention like an effective spy.

This covers over the mistake made by actual government agents. You see, a team of them accidentally created an anomaly from their secret labs in rural Nebraska. Fortunately, they were able to reverse it in under two minutes, and everyone was able to bear through their strange temptations that long.

Everyone, that is, but me.

*

I’m grateful though. My temptation was comparatively innocuous. All I was tempted to do was take your phone out of its case—and throw it clear across the mall.

I’ve never played a sport in my life, but I wound up like a pitcher, let it fly with such good form that even you would have been impressed if you’d come back from the bathroom in time to see it. I watched its perfect arch and smiled as it reached its zenith. Then it started its decline, and I was suddenly reminded of our relationship’s recent trajectory.

 But I swear our recent fights don’t have ANYTHING to do with me throwing your phone. I was compelled to throw it by the invisible force of a statewide anomaly created by secret government agents. Haven’t you been paying attention?

About the Author: J.V. Sumpter recently earned her BFA from the University of Evansville. She is an assistant editor for Kelsay Books, Thera Books, and freelance clients. She received 2020 Virginia Grabill Awards in Poetry and Nonfiction, and her most recent publications are in Leading Edge Magazine, Not Deer Magazine, and New Welsh Review. Visit her on Twitter @JVSReads.

Riding Bikes With Devin

By Nick Gardner

Ryan was drifting off in the shade when his neighbor bashed open the screen door, slung a writhing pillowcase into the front yard, and squeezed off three shots at the hissing and scrambling ghost. The cat dodged out in a zigzag, flicked like a skipped stone under a parked car where it proceeded to lick. The neighbor dropped the gun to his side. He grinned. He said, “There we go. Cat’s out of the bag.” He laughed at his own joke. “Name’s Drew.” Ryan’s ears rang, his mouth hung open.

“Ryan,” said Ryan.

There was a silence as they looked at each other, then Ryan said, “You better put that thing away. Cops are probably coming.”

Neighbors congregated on their porches. Shadows materializing to gawk. Drew shouted, “Nothing to see here. Everyone can go back inside.

He turned back to Ryan, winked. The screen door banged behind him.

#

Three months earlier, Ryan had been elated when Devin asked him to move to the city with her after she enrolled in Columbus College of Art and Design. She said she didn’t like the idea of dorms, shacked up with someone else’s mess, but Ryan’s was a mess she knew from high school hangouts in his basement where they’d create playlists, burn CDs. And Ryan could easily find another job. The Midwest was peppered with factories. He had worked at Richland Sensor for the last year and saved a decent chunk of money, a nice cushion to prop himself on while he waited for the right job. The house in Columbus was beautiful, though a bit rundown. It was also cheap. Victorian Village was absent of parents, of anyone they knew. They could be whoever they wanted there.

Ryan imagined riding bikes with Devin in Columbus, through the neighborhoods, passing their aloof shuttle and weft against the fabric of traffic. It was only a couple miles from their new house to the Short North where they could stop by a gallery or coffee shop. And when they got home, they would sit on the porch like so many other Columbus kids and drink beer from the convenience store down the road that Devin said didn’t card. They would smoke cigarettes or joints if they pleased.

So it was the beginning of Summer when Ryan and Devin took the U-haul from the Western Ohio farmland of their parents to the rental in Victorian Village. The house had slumped gutters and wood floors with worn out pathways down the center of the hall and cracks you could see through. In the kitchen, the linoleum peeled up to reveal layers glued onto each other as previous owners covered over one ugly style with another. The drawer handles pulled out and twisted loose in their sockets. The bathroom door didn’t latch properly and had the habit of being pulled open by a draft catching the user in embarrassing positions. They were happy with the house though. It was the first home of their adult lives, and it was close to Devin’s school.

#

“What is that?” Devin had said as Ryan rolled the 1976 baby blue Schwinn down the ramp of the moving truck.

“Your new bike. I bought it cheap and fixed it up. It’s how people get around.”

Devin had a smile that was only a tweak in the side of her mouth, then she hugged Ryan who turned bright red and grinned at the wall.

That summer they rode every street of the neighborhood. These were tall houses with steep roofs, balconies on the second floor, turrets and stained glass. They were trimmed exquisitely, carved wood that was now cracked and peeling paint from the sunshine. They were faded, elegant houses made cheap by their disrepair and Ryan and Devin loved them.

When school started and Devin was too busy to ride with him, Ryan biked alone. He could do 30 miles, pass an afternoon cutting down alleys instead of filling out applications. He’d blow through stop signs and ignore interviews.

When Ryan made it back to the house, he took the chain off the bike, walked to the kitchen, filled a bowl with degreaser, and dropped the chain in. Devin smoked a joint and hovered around her sculpture. She liked to alter her perception while she worked. Her long hair hung in her eyes as she bent over the piece, backed up, closed in on another view. Her medium was barbed wire and rebar scalped in rusted clumps from abandoned buildings and construction zones. She worked in the living room on a tarp, clipping, bending, twisting, sprinkling a light flurry of rust flakes. Music was always turned way up, Dead Milkmen, Buzzcocks, The Cramps. She liked punk while she worked. The sculpture was much too big by now to move through the door.

After his rides Ryan would lean into the fridge, feel the cold air and the empty space of it, then emerge with a beer in his fist and announce his mileage as he read it off his tracker. He would say, “Thirty four miles today.” And Devin would say, “Damn! Well done,” without looking up. Then Ryan would move through the house on his wobbling legs and floating body to sit on the porch and drink without anyone to tell him to do otherwise.

#

A week after the incident with the cat, Ryan got home from a late afternoon ride and saw a large package on his porch. He hauled his bike up the steps, set it against the wall of the house and opened the box. When he broke through the carbon lining, the smell of dank weed hit him full in the face and he jerked away. Inside the box was at least a pound of high quality marijuana.

When Ryan looked up, he saw his neighbor watching. Drew stood attention-stiff with that same grin. Ryan waved and bobbed his head hello, but didn’t meet Drew’s eyes. Then Ryan had a thought, looked back at the box’s label and turned red. It was addressed to Drew Goddard, number 346 and Ryan’s address was 344. He shouldn’t have opened it. Ryan gestured to the box, said, “Sorry dude. They delivered your stuff to the wrong place. I didn’t realize…”

Drew grinned but didn’t move, “I see that.”

“Here,” Ryan picked up the box and carried it over the lawn and up to Drew’s porch. His hands shook, heart punched.

Drew asked, “You see what’s inside?”

“I mean, I don’t really give a shit. What’s your business is your business.”

“Hold up.” Drew picked up the box. “You wanna smoke?”

 “Well.”

“Come on. It’s good shit and I have a new vaporizer.”

Drew’s house was spotless and the first thing Ryan noticed was a De Kooning on the entryway wall that didn’t appear to be a print but must be. He followed Drew straight into the kitchen where he set the box down on an expensive-looking table scrubbed into an oaky mirror.

Drew said, “Pick out a bottle to sip while we smoke. He gestured to a wine rack filled with dusty labels. “And call your girlfriend if she wants to join.”

Ryan said, “She’s not my girlfriend.” Which sounded defensive. He said, “We’ve just been friends forever so it’s like, you know.”

Drew said that was a shame and winked and walked into the other room. “Still, call her if you want. Plenty to go around.”

Ryan picked through the bottles, finally settling on a 1991 because that was the year of his birth.

Drew emerged from the bedroom. He hadn’t stopped grinning since the porch and Ryan began to feel like this was all going to turn into a giant practical joke. But Ryan also didn’t feel like he could decline Drew’s offers, like saying ‘no’ would change Drew into the angry man who shot cats in the front yard. It was just weed and some wine, and Ryan didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.

“I see you picked the Bordeaux,” Drew said, “A hundred fifty dollars. Brought it back from my tour in France. Bourgogne.” And he continued to announce other expensive items saying things like, this glass is a Steuben. Ryan asked about the De Kooning, and, yes it was original, bought on a whim from a collector when Drew was stationed in Baghdad.

The wine was tannic, a perfect melding of tastes that moved over each other so as to become indistinguishable. The weed was dank, rainforest deep, and Ryan’s head floated with these pricey objects. When Ryan asked which branch of the military Drew was in, Drew said, “Private. Security contractor, but I’m thinking about retirement.” He smiled and winked.

#

Ryan went to a party that night at the house of one of Devin’s art school friends. There was a DJ sliding beats around on his MacBook and as the night went on the number of dancers increased and their inhibitions decreased.

Ryan and Devin hung out in the basement where a kid named Antoine screened Brakhage films while spinning Coltrane on the record player. The room was filled with smoke and Ryan was on his third beer when he realized Devin was no longer with him. He was on the couch telling either Jack or Jake – he hadn’t quite caught his name – about starting a bike repair business out of the local makerspace, and then he looked around and Devin was gone. He checked his phone and there was no message. It was only a mile home, but he had hoped they’d walk that together.

 He knew it was no big deal though. He shouldn’t make it a big deal. He had only hoped. He said to Jake or Jack, “Anyways, I have most of the tools and I know how to do it. I should just do it. Yeah. I’m going to do it.”

Jack or Jake nodded, passed the blunt, and said he’d be right back.

Ryan coughed on his next inhale and it hit him all at once. The film and music blended perfectly but no one else was watching. His legs were light but sturdy as he made his way upstairs. The bass vibrated the floor and lights roved the room in primary colors.

Ryan saw her then, sitting at the coffee table sniffing powder off a hand mirror and leaning back to make out with the tall thin boy beside her. He had never seen Devin do anything but weed and he felt an urge to yell at her, to tell her to stop, but it wasn’t his job to control her. The music was not Ryan’s thing. The party was too wild, and he would be walking home alone.

#

The cat was filled with incredible forgiveness and was back within ten days. Drew stopped sweeping the orange and yellow leaves from his porch, to crouch and pet the animal while its body lunged and convulsed with each swallow of canned tuna. Ryan watched from his porch, trying to understand this bond that could snap and fire bullets at you in an instant.

Drew seemed to sense Ryan’s wonder and said, “I think she’s learned her lesson. Don’t you?”

#

Later that night, Ryan and Devin walked to the corner store, Lou’s, to buy some beer and smokes. Ryan kicked a shard of sidewalk along in front of him for a time and didn’t say much. It was the first time they had hung out since the party. Just too busy with school and things.

When they got to the counter, Drew was in front of them ordering the cashier to retrieve pricey bottles from the glass case behind the register. Drew was sweaty despite the cool night and there was a deep channel of wet that went down his spine to the bottom of his untucked shirt. His hair stuck up at all angles. He was still attractive, a well-carved jawline, television smile, twinkling eyes that were life itself and wild.

Drew took them in with his grin, said, “Back in Iraq they had me in this cushy office job for a while. Paid me one hundred grand to sit behind a desk and drink and smoke cigars. Got a taste for the good stuff and now I’m hooked.” He gestured to the counter, “But it’s hard as fuck to get quality whiskey in this shithole.”

Ryan said, “Hey, this is Devin, my roommate.”

Drew offered his largest smile yet and a hand to shake. “So this is the beautiful, mysterious roommate that you’re not dating?” Then he turned back to the counter to settle up.

Devin shoved her hands deep into the pockets of her cutoff jeans and blushed, blinked. She couldn’t meet Ryan’s eyes. But when Ryan nudged her, she did look at him and blushed more deeply.

They walked back together. While Ryan floated off in his head, Devin jabbered away with Drew, asked him questions about what he had seen overseas, what his family was like, and when he asked his own questions back, when he flirted, she stumbled over her reponses. Ryan had never seen this nervous side. She let Drew lead and she followed every step.

Back at Drew’s place, Ryan sat on the couch and sipped scotch worth half his monthly rent and Devin reclined on a La-Z-Boy, tipped her drink back a little too fast. Drew paced in front of them and told stories of Iraq, how he holed up on a rooftop for days before he took his shot. Hours of waiting to release his breath, squeeze the trigger, watch the body drop. Then he went on, as if continuing the same train of thought and described the expensive drinks with important people, exotic places. Devin hung on every word as Ryan slipped into a boozy darkness.

Drew didn’t mention why he was now in Columbus, only that his dad used to rent out the house out but had given it to Drew to use while he tried to settle down. Drew didn’t mind where he ended up. He had money. He could make friends. “With enough booze and weed,” said Drew, “You can sleep easy anywhere.”

#

But Drew did not sleep easy. At some point Ryan must have blacked out. He woke up on the couch to Drew telling him to get the fuck out. Drew screamed, “You think this is some kind of fucking hostel?” A boot flew through the air and bounced off the cushion next to Ryan’s head.

Ryan jumped up and fled. Another shoe struck the door as he pulled it open. There was no sign of Devin, Ryan realized as soon as the door slammed behind him and another shoe hit it.

#

A week later Ryan was back on the porch with a beer. It felt like a very Columbus thing to do, he thought. Devin had been hanging out at Drew’s most nights, brought over pizza, maybe a six pack, while Ryan sat on the porch with his forty and watched the Fall breeze by. He didn’t know if he could believe anything that Drew told them. The only evidence was a rage that spiked and then disappeared with no warning whatsoever. Devin insisted that she could help Drew, but Ryan wanted no part in it.

#

That spring, Ryan got the phone call he’d feared. Just that month, two houses in the village had been bought and were being refurbished. For what seemed like the first time in a century, a street sweeper made its rounds and just last week the city tore up the sidewalk to begin repairs. He didn’t know exactly what would happen next, but he felt it was something else beyond his control, something else changing, pushing him away.

Ryan stopped his bike beside the road and opened his flip phone. The landlord began right away, “You know the year’s almost up and it was just a year lease,” he said, “Property values are increasing, property taxes are rising. I could easily get double what I charge you.” He said he would hate to lose Ryan and Devin as renters, but he had ends to meet. He was really giving them quite a good deal.

 Ryan choked on a fistsized ball of disgust. He figured it would come but he had also hoped. He said. “You stingy fucking bastard! Do you have any idea what you’re doing to people? You don’t give a shit about anyone, just your goddamn money!”

The phone had already clicked off. The click said that the landlord knew exactly what he was doing. It acknowledged and accepted that the landlord didn’t care. Ryan would have to tell Devin, but first, he wanted to get drunk.

#

So, later, after he downed a forty and a half alone, and after he’d texted her with no response, he went next door. This is how he found Devin: sitting on Drew’s couch reading the labels of fourteen prescription bottles that sat on the coffee table and putting the drug names into her computer to research. Ryan sat down beside her. He noticed the bruises on her arm, but didn’t mention it. He asked her what’s up?

She said, “Drew’s gone.”

“Gone where?”

“Nebraska. Or some shit. He took me with him to buy a van. He buys a POS minivan with cash and hauls off to BFE to pick up a bunch of weed. He’ll probably come down from whatever he’s on, hate himself and flush most of it.” She took a swig of wine from a Steuben glass and set it down in its ring on the table. “But today, he just assumes I’m going with him. He demanded it. Fuck that. He refused to take his scripts.”

She spilled several pills into her hand. They bounced on her callused skin and rolled but she contained them. She plucked one between index finger and thumb and held it up to Ryan: “Klonopin. Want one?”

“I’m not taking his pills.”

“It’s fine. I’ve been taking them all afternoon. It’s not like he’s using them.”

“He’d flip his shit if he found out.”

“He doesn’t care. When he gets like this he starts giving everything away anyway.”

“I think.” Ryan paused, wondering if this was the right time. “Dev, don’t get mad at me, OK. But I think we need to get him help. Is he hurting you?”

Devin said, “Hurting?” Like she was mulling it over. She placed a pill in her mouth, chewed, scrunched up her face and chased it with a shot of wine. Then, she pushed the Rx bottles away from herself. She said, “I see why he doesn’t take this stuff. It doesn’t do shit for me. Just makes me feel weird.”

“For you? What all have you taken?”

“All of it. Lexapro, Lithium, Lamictal, Xanax…” She continued picking up orange bottles, reciting names. She said, “They only make me feel fuzzy, make everything meaningless. I’m a little bit sick.”

“You took all of those?”

“Only as prescribed,” she held up a self righteous finger then bowed over and puked on the floor. When she was done, she looked back up with watery, innocent eyes.

Ryan jumped up. “You took all of those? Shit!”

Devin nodded, knelt next to the puddle on the floor. Ryan could see pills dissolving in the waste in front of her. Devin said, “Look at this!” She spread her arms gesturing at an overwhelming everything. “There’s nothing I can do.”

#

That night Ryan could hear Devin tossing and turning in her room down the hall. She had absolutely refused to go to the hospital. Most of the pills had been puked up anyhow. The next day she stayed in her room and when Ryan knocked she said she wanted to be alone. He was glad she was talking, but he couldn’t tell her that the landlord wanted $250 more per month.

Ryan took off on his bike and headed toward campus. He cut through the university and took the roads on the other side at speed. Heavy air, thick with mown grass. If he had been his father he would work sixty to eighty hours per week, save money, and plan for marriage and then retirement. But Ryan wasn’t Ryan’s father. He was too sad, too anxious. He also wasn’t lazy, but he’d seen his father after 30 years running General Motors presses and that life didn’t seem like life at all. Maybe all Ryan wanted was the freedom to choose, to take control and not be killed by it.

After a time Ryan found himself on a road with fields on either side. The country. The breeze blew warmth into him, a chipmunk scurried across the road, then stopped, terrified, and sprinted inches in front of him either showing off or attempting suicide, Ryan couldn’t tell.

he turned around and headed back to the house. It wasn’t his home with Devin like he imagined. More a derelict interstitial space he’d been stuck in too long. He lived there. He survived till he didn’t. When he arrived he sat on the porch and drank beer, just like it was Columbus and just like he belonged there and everything wasn’t over. He drank like he had an idea of what he was even doing. Devin came out and joined him. They sat in silence. Then Devin said, “We got a notice in the mail that rent’s about to skyrocket. Stingy fuckers.” She took a drag from her cigarette. “Drew said I could move in with him if I wanted.”

Ryan didn’t say anything. Just swigged his beer.

Devin said, “Anyways, Drew called from Nebraska to apologize. I don’t want to leave you out on your own, but I have school and stuff.”

Ryan said, “I may just move back home. Get my old job back.”

“I’m so sorry, though. I keep trying to make everything work and it just falls apart. I’m sorry I dragged you along.”

“No. I get it. It’s fine.”

“But I also don’t want you to be mad.”

#

Ryan had to live with his parents and save up for three months before he could afford his new place, a two bedroom farmhouse with attached garage where he set up his bike stand and began repairs. His old road bike didn’t cut it on the gravel and dirt of his hometown so he bought a hybrid with wider tires. There were no bike lanes anywhere, no sidewalks and people liked to speed around in their trucks creating a level of danger that excited him, kept him alert. Ryan coolly pedaled on.

The move was worth it for the world around him. He liked the cows who wanted nothing more than to chew grass, backs turned to the road, farting at traffic. He liked the fields, the trees. He had even developed a nostalgic passion for the smell of skunk as long as it was faint and passed by quickly.

He hadn’t seen Devin in a year, a few months since they had even talked on the phone, but her parents had let him know that she moved back home to recover. A bullet had grazed her cheek. She said the gun wasn’t supposed to be loaded, but then she stopped answering questions altogether about Drew, about whose hand held the trigger, any of it. Ryan read that Drew had been arrested, charged with quite a few misdemeanors, and released on bond.

On the phone, Devin admitted there was nothing she could do to help him.

When Ryan looked up his old house on Craigslist it had been completely remodeled and the rent had more than doubled.

Ryan went out to the garage. He had three bicycles on stands in varying stages of repair and two more in the queue. From the ceiling hung more than a hundred wheels both old and new. It wasn’t perfect. He still struggled, but he woke up and went to his workshop every morning, clicked on The Clash and sanded and painted as long as he wanted to, which could be quite long if he was in the mood. He pulled down an old Schwinn outfitted with fat tires and he took off down the road, picturing Devin’s face back when it used to smile, memories of cigarettes and a laugh they shared over inane conversations in embarrassingly goofy voices.

He turned onto Washington South Road and heard the Super Duty truck with its loud muffler pummeling behind him. It revved by him then, a shout from the window gone indistinct in its cloud of smoke and sound. And Ryan hit the ditch, sprawled out on his hands and knees at the edge of the cornfield. He lay there in the sun, inventoried damages. He rolled over and sat up, stretched his legs, his arms, knees a bit tender, hands stung. He held up both middle fingers at the lingering cloud of exhaust from the truck’s stacks, but the truck was long gone. He stood up, shook himself out. Lucky. Some people get to walk away without a scratch.

About the Author: Nick Gardner is in recovery from opioids and is an MFA fiction candidate at Bowling Green State University where he is an assistant editor at Mid-American Review. His poetry and fiction has appeared in Ocean State Review, Fictive Dream, Flash Fiction Magazine, Main Street Rag, and other journals. His book of poetry, So Marvelously Far was published in 2019 through Crisis Chronicles Press. He lives in Ohio.

Blood and Dust

By Mitchell Nobis

Cal stomped the clutch, and the massive tractor lurched to a halt and disappeared in a tower of dust. There had been a metallic screech and a clunk, and he instinctually pulled it out of gear and eased back a hydraulic lever to raise the implement out of the dirt. He turned off the ignition, and in the new quiet, he could hear birds over by the creek. The dust billowed around the tractor. He sighed and put on his worn Tigers ball cap, took a swig of water from a dusty gallon milk jug, and once the wind blew the dust away, opened the cab and climbed down.

“Shit.”

The problem was obvious from fifteen feet away: The left wing of the front-folding bean drill had sprung a hinge again, causing the wing to drag at an angle. Any farther and the wing might have broken off altogether, let alone planted the beans in drunken, unsteady rows. It was a ridiculous breakdown, the result of inexcusably poor workmanship. Cal pulled out his cell phone.

“Ricky,” he said. “I broke down again. Same part. Yeah, I know, ‘reconditioned’ my ass. Yeah, get the old one and bring it out here so we can get rolling again today. I can’t move this one without screwing it up worse, so I’ll call Hector’s to let ‘em know they’re coming out to fix it here and for real this time. And for free.” He watched the birds and listened to Ricky. “Yeah, we’ll need both tractors here. I’ll stay and keep planting, so tell Dale to follow in a pickup so you’re not stuck out here.”

Irate, Cal made the phone call, reamed out the dealer, and when he finished, plopped down on the bean drill’s hitch bar. It was, by most regards, a perfect day. The sky was endless and blue with occasional clouds skirting past. Spring days like this used to elicit boyish excitement from Cal. He would stroll up to his workers in the morning and bellow, “We should be on the cover of a magazine today!” He must’ve said it a hundred times. Cal was still a good boss, a fair boss. He paid his workers well and treated them like professionals. One of his neighbors a few miles away paid his men low cash wages and worked them during planting and harvest seasons for 19 or 20 hours at a time without more than a piss break. Cal often wondered how the man could sleep after claiming to be a Christian in the daylight.

Gonna take Ricky awhile to get here, Cal thought as he watched a flock of Canadian geese fly overhead. Cal was working one of the distant properties, a good mile from any houses and about seven from the farmstead. Plus, a tractor pulling a bean drill can only go so fast in the first place. He knew he had to call his sister.

“Hey, we’re going late again. I’m broken down on the 80-acre way over by Johnson’s. I’ll have to go well past dark.” Cal was quiet for some time, listening to her and watching a fox skulk along the creek bank. “I know.” He paused and listened again. “Yeah, I know. Look, I’d like nothing more than to see her tonight, but I gotta get the beans in. We’re almost done. They keep saying rain’s coming, and without anything in the ground we get no money, you know.” His tone was dry. Cal went quiet again. His jaw tightened. “Dammit, I know she’s my daughter.  I also have to buy her clothes and food, y’know. Look, I’ll talk to you later.” Cal resisted the urge to see if he could throw his phone all the way to the creek. Instead, he set it down on a knobby tire and walked away, rubbing his head and kicking the dirt.

He made his way to the creek. Dry, sun-bleached stalks of last year’s pussy willows lined the creek bed on both sides.  A few trees grew along the creek too, and he watched a silver maple’s reflection ripple in the water. Cal wondered why everyone always said water was blue. The creeks were almost always brown. He remembered reading once about tannins leaching from roots into the water, or maybe he heard it on a field trip as a child. Either way, he had never seen a river or creek run more blue than brown.

Cal sat on the bank, rested his elbows on his knees, and stared down into the water. In the stagnant pockets behind branches or rocks, pollen gathered thick atop the water. He saw tadpoles dart about from under it and thought it seemed early for tadpoles, but there they were. It was spring again, and the world went on though he admitted to himself that until now, he hadn’t really noticed.

Cal realized he was tensing his muscles again, and he took conscious, long breaths. He’d had trouble breathing since the bank’s most recent round of calls. Several years of low crop prices were crushing the operation, so his advisor suggested doubling down, both playing the futures market and rotating crops based on those prices. This all made Cal’s chest tighten and stomach churn. Life only got more complicated over time, he thought, never less.

Thinking about crop prices made him antsy. He got to his feet and walked along the creek. He watched a turkey buzzard float lazy circles above a straggling oak tree out in the middle of the field, but he didn’t watch where he was going. His ankle twinged with quick pain as it caught and twisted into a hole. Cal barked and tumbled over. He grabbed his ankle.

“Goddamn woodchucks!” Cal groused to himself after sitting upright. He brushed the dirt off to check for swelling and left the boot on in case he had rolled the ankle or even sprained it. He moved his foot in circles against dull pain. On the rare afternoon that Cal was caught up with farm work, he brought his .22 to the fields and shot woodchucks. Their holes along the creek caused erosion and damaged his machinery. Since they were only doing what came naturally, he felt a moment’s regret when he plugged one, but it passed quickly. He put some pressure on the foot to test it. He couldn’t sit in this dirt all day, he thought, so he dragged himself upright. Cal stepped back tenderly on the foot, unzipped his fly, and loosed a steady stream of urine down the hole. It steamed in the spring breeze.

 Cal stumbled back to the tractor, walking off the tightness in his ankle. The ground north of the machinery was rough, but to the south and behind it, the soil lay furrowed with clean, straight rows, a fine seedbed for the beans if only rain would finish the deal. The ankle wasn’t badly hurt but ached enough to be an annoyance. He climbed up the ladder back into the cab, rooted through an oily cardboard box of tools, and pulled out a grease gun to freshen up the bean drill while he waited.

Climbing down gingerly, unable to put his full weight on the ankle, Cal wondered if Ricky was at least on the road yet. He hated down time when there was so much to do, especially when he was stranded out in the field. Cal ran through a mental checklist of everything that needed to be done before he could quit for the day. It was good that his sister could help because he wouldn’t be home till long after nightfall. Were he at the farmstead, he had plenty he could be doing. Ricky or Dale could grease the drill while he crunched numbers, he thought. But he wasn’t at the farmstead, so he turned his attention to the broken implement’s grease fittings.

He started at the front and then worked his way across the machine, crawling on the dirt and contorting to reach the secluded spots under the drill, a sprawling contraption of steel, tubes, discs, wheels, seed bins, grease, and magic. A horsefly buzzed nearby, so Cal pulled up his collar to protect his neck. He avoided the broken hinge but was pumping new grease into the other fittings when he realized he needed to lower the drill to prevent extra pressure from breaking off the hinge altogether. As he hurried himself backward and out from under the machine, Cal spotted a length of wire wound around an axle. This plot had turned up all sorts of discarded bits over the years. Lord knows what used to be here, Cal thought. Farmers could turn anywhere into a junk yard. He paused and yanked at the heavy wire to loosen it enough so he could unwrap it from the axle quickly, but it was a thick gauge and sharp on its broken, pointed ends. Cal braced his foot on a cross-bar and pulled harder. The wire jerked and slipped from his hands, gouging his right palm and the fleshy pad of his thumb. Cal inhaled between gritted teeth. The cut was deep. With the instant first look, he saw skin and muscle tissue separated cleanly in a straight line about three or even four inches long. He didn’t think he saw bone. The blood pooled and overflowed the cut’s ravine. Cal pressed his hand in his left underarm.

He pulled himself upright with his left hand and hobbled into the cab. His shirt wicked and spread a darkening expanse of blood. Using his unsure left hand, Cal dug through the box of tools and pulled out a utility knife. He also grabbed the thin roll of paper towels from behind the seat. After tearing off the dusty outside layer, he ripped off three feet of towel. He poured water from the jug over the cut, and quickly and clumsily, he folded up the paper towels and compressed the wad on his cut. The blood grabbed hungrily at the paper and stuck it to his wound. Cal then used the knife to cut off a shirtsleeve. He wanted to cut off his left and leave the right to keep the injured arm covered and warm, but that meant using his sliced hand to maneuver the knife. The thumb was useless. It couldn’t move, and he feared severed tendons. He laid the knife on his thigh and used his index finger to slide out the blade. Then, he gripped it with the middle, ring, and pinky fingers, directing it between his index and middle fingers to avoid putting pressure on the thumb.

He managed to hack off the left sleeve and tie it tightly around his right hand. To make sure it stayed put and to help seal if off from dirt, he wrapped it all with a few layers of duct tape. It wasn’t pretty, but it was better than nothing.

Cal realized his jaw was starting to spasm from gritting his teeth this whole time, so he took a steady, deep breath. Ricky’s on his way; he can plant, and Dale’ll be right behind in a pickup, he thought, so I’ll just head in with him and go get stitched. Cal cursed himself under his breath for not grabbing leather gloves out of the cab before greasing the drill. All he could do now was wait.

He turned the key and clicked on the radio. He punched the buttons until he got news. The market was down for the day. The governor announced new regulations at a press conference earlier. There were traffic jams over by Detroit. And the weather forecast remained the same as it had been all spring: warmer than average and dry but with rain on the way. The forecast had yet to manifest in actual rain. Cal sighed and clicked off the radio. He climbed back out of the cab and calculated that he had at least thirty more minutes until Ricky and Dale would get there.

The initial shock of the injury began to ebb, and the pain made Cal wince. In the bright sunlight, he inspected his bandaging job. It appeared to be staunching the flow, but it wouldn’t stay clean. Dust stuck to the bloody residue on his shirt, jeans, and makeshift bandaging. He had forgotten about the ankle, but he hobbled back to the creek’s oasis of moist green and lay down in the new-growth weeds and grasses. A dragonfly hovered over him for a long moment. Cal wondered how he looked to the bug, what the bug must think of him, but he decided the bug probably didn’t much care about him one way or the other. The wound throbbed.

Each pulse brought new pain, and Cal started to consider the possibilities. He didn’t think the cut was bad enough that he could bleed to death, but it could cripple his hand if he’d sliced tendons. A man can’t bleed to death from a four-inch cut, can he? Cal thought, and he wondered if he should stumble the mile to Johnson’s. The wind picked up, and Hal grew reflective lying in the grass. He hadn’t been a good father, in his estimation. He was practically an absentee parent, trying to raise their daughter alone while operating the farm. He worked 365 days a year and he knew that if it weren’t for his sister, he would’ve had to sell the farmstead and seek new work. Either that or make his daughter drop out of school to work for him. That would’ve been the only way he could see her and raise her in those circumstances, the only way he could be sure she was okay. Cal wasn’t sure if her staying at his sister’s so often wasn’t actually a good thing. He never felt like an adequate parent anyway, and this way she had a female to look up to, to learn from. Still, Cal ached when he thought of his child. The only thought he allowed himself of her mother was that it was a clear, dry day like this when they buried her. Yes, it was a day just like this, he thought. Cal snapped his head to the side, looking for more bugs or a plant or anything to prevent his thoughts from going down that road. He spied the dragonfly again. He watched the bug and watched the bug and breathed deliberately and evenly for several minutes and watched the bug. In time, Cal dozed off.

The horsefly’s buzz by his face jolted him awake. Cal leapt up, screamed from the electric pain in his hand, lurched away to avoid the horsefly, and tripped from his own sudden momentum. He fell and rolled down the bank, rolling over his hand twice. He doubled over and screamed again from pain. The flesh around the bandaging looked discolored, but that could just be blood and dust. When the pain subsided enough that he could breathe, he lifted his head and saw water. Had he rolled another foot, he’d have been soaked.

Then he couldn’t keep it back anymore. It was a day just like this when they buried her, a day just like this, and he looked at himself in the water. He clenched his teeth again and breathed rapid, shallow breaths. His eyes swelled and spilled for the first time in months. The tears coursed down his filthy cheeks, dripped off his chin, and fell into the creek. He gulped air and howled an unearthly, guttural wail as the day rolled over him.

After some time, he caught his breath and wiped his face with his right sleeve. He stared at his reflection for several exhalations, tucked his wrapped hand behind his back, and dunked his entire head under into the water. He kept it there. His cap floated off down the creek, and two deerflies zipped around it like scavenging satellites. Finally, Cal lifted his head out and water streamed off him, soaking his clothes and leaving trails in his dust. A shudder passed through him. He stumbled and rose.

Cal climbed up the creek bank. He saw dust rising to the north. It had to be Ricky and Dale, he thought. His hand pounded inside the wrapped sleeve and duct tape. He needed medical attention. He needed to hug his daughter, to thank his sister. He needed to get these beans in the ground, and he needed to figure out the market, how to buy or sell the future. The rain was nowhere to be seen. He looked at the new green of the creek bed all about him and thanked God that the dust cloud was getting closer.

About the Author: Mitchell Nobis is a writer and K-12 teacher in Metro Detroit. His poetry has appeared in HAD, Roanoke Review, No Contact Magazine, Porcupine Literary, and others. He is a co-director of the Red Cedar Writing Project and hosts the Wednesday Night Sessions reading series. Find him at @MitchNobis or mitchnobis.com.

Two Poems by Yuu Ikeda

The Birth of Blue

The birth of blue

changed bloody dawn

into hopeful dawn

The blue was not mere blue

Humming of sorrow

Waves of bravery

Hovering of expectations for future

When the blue

appeared in my hands,

every fear was burnt,

and

every will bloomed

strongly and hopefully

The birth of blue

was the birth of light for life

The blue was not mere blue

The blue was everything I hoped

In Spring

Vulnerable hope

whirls in faded purple spring

Under an umbrella,

I’m waiting for rain of hope

to moisturize me forever

Dewdrops emit

woeful smile

in the morning glow

I look back them,

and imagine that

momentary spring

weeps on leaves

Under an umbrella,

I’m waiting for spring

to stop crying

Instead of spring,

I swear to cry

for vulnerable hope

About the Author: Yuu Ikeda is a Japan based poet. She writes poetry on her website.https://poetryandcoffeedays.wordpress.com. Her published poems are “Broken Pieces of the Truth” in <Briefly Zine>,“The Shadow of A Cross” in ❤ Moon Magazine>,“On the Bed” in <Nymphs>, “Love? or Death?” in <Sad Girl Review>,and more.

A Piece of Work

By Dan Brotzel

i.

An exhausting evening out with Trish in The Calf and Plough. She has freckles, I notice. I don’t really like freckles.

Trish is having troubles with her on-off boyfriend Rob. Rob treats her like shit, she says. He takes her for granted. ‘One minute, he’s all into it, knocking at my door at midnight with a bottle of wine,’ she says, with a hint of that West Country twang I got rid of long ago. ‘Then he’s off at dawn, and I don’t hear from him for weeks at a time.’

‘Have you asked him where you stand?’ I say, grateful for a line I heard on daytime TV that very morning.

‘I’ve tried. He just says, we don’t have to give it a name. Or some such.’

‘Hmm. It’s almost as if Rob only ever comes round when he wants a shag.’

‘Oh shut up, you,’ says Trish, pushing me playfully but actually quite hard. ‘It’s just coz of his parents. He was really hurt when they split up.’

Trish seems to think that I’m joking about Rob, but I was just making what seems to me an obvious inference.

‘You can talk, Matt, you big old dog,’ she says. ‘How many have you got on the go now?’ 

‘Three in play and another five potentials,’ I say.

‘You probably could too, if you wanted,’ she says, apparently determined not to take anything I say at face value. ‘You’re going to break a few hearts in this parish, you know.’

‘Well, there aren’t many eligible blokes, but there seems to be a glut of needy young women,’ I say. ‘Not to mention all the affluent widows and widowers. I’m bound to clean up.’ 

‘Sarcastic sod,’ she says, laughing again. 

By closing time, Trish has run through the Rob saga a further three times. It’s basically the same account each time, with a few additional details: gifts he’s given her, promises he’s broken, things he likes doing in bed, more things she said that he didn’t respond to.

‘Rob’s on to a winner,’ I try again. ‘He gets ready sex when he wants it, with someone who’s always prepared to make excuses for his failure to commit.’

‘Oh stop it,’ says Trish. ‘He’s not like that. You should see these texts he sends me. I know he wouldn’t see anyone else.’

I know about the texts. I helped him write some of them. I also know about the things he likes.

When it’s time to split, Trish leans over and gives me a big wet kiss on the cheek. Her freckles loom in at me, and I’m subjected to a big rancid blast of cider breath. It’s no wonder I don’t drink.

‘Thanks for letting me get all that out, mate,’ she says. ‘I feel so much better now.’

‘No worries,’ I say. ‘See you at Choir.’

‘It’s great that we’ve got each other again, isn’t it?’ she says, as her Dad’s car approaches. ‘Someone that knows you inside out. Someone you can say anything to.’

‘You don’t know the slightest thing about me,’ I say.

‘Oh you,’ she laughs, and punches me again.

‘Hello Matt!’ waves Trish’s Dad cheerily. He seems nice. He doesn’t for example slur You’re a fucking piece of work into the dark, as he bolts the little attic door shut on me for another night.

After Trish leaves, I unlock my bike and cycle down to the lorry park by the ring road. I find a man there who bangs my head against a car door and gives me what for. It is a convincing performance and I decide to spare his life.

ii.

‘Matthew, would you come here a minute?’

‘Coming!’ I say, as brightly as I can. I throw my Bible down on the sofa, where it stays splayed open at the Book of Jeremiah.

‘Could you just give this a read-through for me?’

Nicholas is hunched as always over his PC, pecking away at another of his life-affirming takes on contemporary politics. He is a profoundly Whiggish writer, a cut-price Pollyanna who can take the blackest situation – fatal bushfire, devastating plane crash, ethnic oppression – and find a silver lining to console his audience of worried Christians, whom I imagine, like him, sitting in their little cottages wringing their hands at the Radio 4 news in their identikit M&S outfits. All wishing, no doubt, they had the courage to take in a refugee, only, you know, the box room still needs a proper clear-out and the neighbours might not understand.

‘It’s good,’ I say, leaning closely over him with an arm on his shoulder, in a way that I know makes his breath quicken. ‘I love the bit where you compare Christ to a bottle of hand sanitiser.’

‘Oh good, good,’ he smiles, sitting back, removing his specs and sucking on one plastic arm – a gesture, I have learned, that means he is feeling very pleased with himself. ‘I was worried you might think I was going too far.’

‘Absolutely not, Nicholas! It’s the best bit.’ Nicholas has an extraordinary talent for finding things to compare Christ to, usually in a way that he thinks gives his work a refreshing contemporaneity. In the last few months since he hired me to be his editorial assistant, Christ has variously appeared in his columns and radio talks as a cricket bat, a lightning rod, a respected trading partner and even as the ultimate bingeworthy box-set.

‘Please,’ he says. ‘Call me Nick.’

My role is to be a sounding board, to provide praise and validation, but if my judgements are to be credible, I know they cannot be 100% positive.

‘Only one thing,’ I say.

‘Yes?’

‘That quote from the Psalms at the end there. It’s a bit hackneyed, isn’t it – a bit obvious?’

‘Yeeees,’ he says.

‘How about that one from Jeremiah: ‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ says the Lord. ‘They are plans for good and not for disaster.’

He is silent a moment, and I have no idea what he is thinking. I keep my arm on his shoulder.

‘Oh yes! In those days when you pray, I will listen. If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me. That’s brilliant!’ he says, clapping his hands in delight. I return my gaze to the screen and pretend not to notice as he steals a glance in my direction.

‘Quite a piece of work,’ he smiles to himself. His expression, I know, is one of naked admiration.

iii.

After Choir, we younger ones go for a quick drink in the Calf and Plough. (Or the Blade and Bastard, as I like to call it.)

Trish has alerted me to rumours that Becky has a thing for me. She is not the only one, of course, and I have done my best to keep them all interested with some carefully rationed parcels of attention. Now, on returning from the loo, I discover that somehow Becky and I are the only two left in the bar.

‘They’ve all gone, it seems,’ says Becky, with embarrassing transparency. She is, I suppose, the sort of woman that many men might find attractive. Her expression could be read as kind, and I see that her eyes cannot lie. She has petite ears and rather large teeth, not alas a combination I have ever cared for. (Though I suppose the opposite combination would also have its drawbacks.)

‘I’ll walk you home,’ I say.

We stroll the long way round, like lovers are supposed to, and I make sure that we saunter and meander and tell stories and share jokes. When we reach the door of her flat, she asks if I’d like to come in for a coffee.

‘No thanks,’ I say. ‘I never touch caffeine after 11am.’

She touches my arm lightly and I sense that I have misread her meaning. There are those born only to give, and it is my duty to accept their offerings in good part.

‘Do you have any sparkling water?’

The power of my words often surprises me, for she leans up to me and flings two arms around my neck. As we kiss, I can sense her body trembling, and for a moment I feel a tremendous, aching hollowness. A space, I suppose, where pity might go.

Twenty minutes later, she is leaning heavily across me on the sofa and the necessaries are well under way. There is the usual confusion of textures and odours, sensations and sounds. I am wondering why I’m here until I spot a photo on a cupboard.

‘Who is this striking woman?’ I say, picking up a framed photo of a glamorous older lady in some sort of ballgown.

‘Oh that’s my gran. You must have seen her around church. Myra – she does the flowers.’

Indeed I have.

‘So,’ says Becky a little later, with terrifying predictability. ‘Perhaps we could see each other again?’

‘I’d love to,’ I say. ‘How about three weeks on Thursday?’

iv.

‘Matthew,’ he says.

‘Yes Nicholas?’

‘Nick. Please.’

‘Sorry. Nick.’

‘There’s something I want to show you.’ He’s been smiling away to himself all morning, and now we are about to discover his ‘secret’. ‘Would you mind stepping this way, sir?’ This comic formality is his way of expressing affection. (I do not mock him for this specifically; it is one more way than I have.)

I follow Nicholas into his little pantry and out through the door beyond, which he now holds open for me. It is, as I well know, the door that leads to the neat little grannexe that housed his mum right up until her long-overdue death a year or so ago. (I only met her a few times, but it never went well; I would have liked to have done more to hasten her departure.)

‘I’ve been thinking about your money troubles and accommodation issues and so forth,’ he is saying now, although I am not really listening; I’m just watching the key he keeps twirling in his fingers. ‘You’ve been absolutely invaluable to me in my work. And so I can’t help thinking that it’d make more sense all round if you were to… move in here.’

I put my hands over my mouth and count to ten, as planned.

‘I don’t know what to say,’ I say, as planned.

‘Think nothing of it, old boy!’ he beams.

‘Those dreadful beige curtains will have to go, though.’ This was not planned, and I sense from Nicholas’ expression that I have committed some sort of error. But it is an error that is not hard to rectify, especially once I start touching him in an intimate place and enjoy the rare spectacle of the great commentator at a loss for words.

‘Well Matthew,’ he says, picking himself up off the floor at last. ‘I did not expect that.’

‘Please,’ I say. ‘Call me Matt.’

But he never does.

v.

I find I am becoming more and more active in the church. It began in the Choir, which is where I reconnected with Trish again, years after we used to hang out together at school. For some reason I have joined the Youth Team and become the Youth Liaison on the Parish Council, which is how I first got to know Nicholas. Through Trish, I met Rob (though Trish does not know this) and Becky too, and through Becky I found a connection to Myra. There are plenty of other assets, some in play and some as yet to be activated. They’re all on the spreadsheet, awaiting their turn. It’s password-protected of course, along with my poems.

It’s well-known in the parish that I now lodge with Nicholas, but he is keen to keep our relationship discreet for now, as there are many who still have fond memories of his wife and might be troubled, he says, by this change of direction so late in life. I encourage this view, since it occurs to me that Becky might be troubled by it too, and possibly Myra and a few others. Such complexities show why a spreadsheet is so useful.

Father Martin is a great ally. He and I have got to know each other well. To Nicholas’ great pleasure, I have decided to put myself forward for holy orders. Father Martin has to approve my application, and we’ve begun a series of chats to ‘explore my call to the diaconate’. I can’t help feeling all this will be a formality. I do so much around the church, I’m already the vicar’s right-hand man. ‘You have an enormous heart for service,’ he’s always telling me, as he eyes my pecs. I do sometimes wonder if he isn’t a little besotted. People often are.

Trish expresses surprise at all this. She says she just doesn’t remember me ever being very religious at school. I’m not of course. But it’s a wonderful way to make valuable connections and unearth new potentials.

‘I don’t remember you ever having much of a thing for priests and Jesus and all that,’ she says.

‘I’m very interested in Jesus,’ I say. ‘We can learn a lot from him.’

‘I think that’s the idea,’ she laughs.

I am indeed interested in Jesus. Also his father. I like how he gets people to do all sorts of stuff against their will – and then they just worship him for it.   

vi.

I am just updating my spreadsheet – adding a new row for another girlfriend of Becky’s – when Nicholas calls out to me. I drop his phone into an empty vase and head into the study.

‘Take a look at this,’ he says. ‘How does it sound?’

Following our weekend in the Cotswolds, my friendship with Matthew has taken off in a completely new and unexpected direction. I know now that we are meant to be together, and that I am about to embark on a wonderful and quite unprecedented new chapter in my life. This is not a decision I have taken lightly, and Matthew and I continue to discuss future plans and details. But I can say with confidence that I now know where the rest of my life is heading, and I have never been happier.

‘I’m not sure the Anglican Herald will print that,’ I say. 

‘You mistake my intention, sir!’ says Nicholas, chuckling fondly. ‘This is to Bob.’

I put my hand over my mouth and count again. Twelve beats seems about right this time. Bob is Nicholas’ best friend. He was the best man at Nicholas’ wedding to Diane. He also did the honours when they divorced three years ago – ‘more in sorrow than anger’, as Nicholas always puts it. (I met Diane once. It didn’t go well.)

NB: Bob is Nicholas’ solicitor.

‘This is so exasperating,’ says Nicholas now. ‘I can’t find my phone again.’

‘Oh Nicholas,’ I say. ‘This is becoming quite a habit, isn’t it?’ And then I say, quietly and for the first time: ‘Darling.’

He looks up at me and smiles.

‘Thank the Lord I have you,’ he says.

‘I’ll always be here,’ I say.

‘I shall have no other gods before you,’ Nicholas says. He has the arm of his specs in his mouth again.

First I do a scandalised look, and then I do ‘secretly delighted’. Nicholas smiles at me cravenly.

‘When did you last brush your teeth?’ I say. ‘You stink.’

‘I’m so sorry,’ he says, and hurries away to the bathroom.


vii.

Trish is not sure if me dating Becky is such a good idea.

‘She’s not really in your league,’ says Trish. ‘You’re studying for a Masters,’ she says. ‘She’s more of a babies-and-baking kind of girl.’

‘I like babies,’ I say. ‘Though I couldn’t eat a whole one.’ Trish slaps me. ‘I’ve seen you do this before,’ she says. ‘You like to be around people that make you look clever.’

‘I am clever,’ I say.

‘You know what I mean. You always want to be the one with the intellectual put-downs.’

‘Becky is a lovely girl,’ I say. ‘I’m meeting the whole family on Sunday.’

‘Well, I’d be keeping a close eye on you, if I was her.’

‘“If I were her,” I say.

‘What?’

‘The subjunctive.’

She gives me a funny look, as if she’s uneasily aware that she’s become the butt of a joke she doesn’t understand. It is a feeling I once knew, before I made the world my punchline.

‘I’m really looking forward to meeting Becky’s people,’ I say. ‘Especially Myra.’

‘What is it about you and Myra?’ she says. ‘You’re always mentioning her.’

I have this answer ready. ‘Becky is really close to her,’ I say. ‘I need to get her gran on side.’

‘Wow,’ says Trish. ‘This sounds serious! Perhaps she’ll make an honest man of you yet.’

‘I’m the most honest person I know,’ I say.

Later that night, as the village bathes in the unpolluted skies of a full moon, I rise from my place next to Nicholas (a man who could sleep through a bombing raid) and let two men in to the grannexe. I explain that I have sinned and need to do urgent penance. They understand, as they are paid to, and I take my carefully defined punishment like a man.

viii.

I am about to head into Myra’s for another Sunday lunch with her and Becky when I receive a text from Nicholas.

‘Have you seen my credit cards?’

‘Try under your keyboard,’ I say, fingering his plastic.

‘OK. Keep feeling dizzy,’ is his satisfactory reply.

Myra is 82 but she has, I tell her when Becky leaves the room, the heart and soul of a much younger woman. I tell her how beautiful she is, and how I cannot understand why she is on her own.

‘Just haven’t found the right chap, not since my Clive passed,’ she says, with a sad nod at the jumble of silver-framed pics that clutter up her sideboard, all showing her in various poses and settings with a cheery-looking bald man with a silver moustache. Then she nods at the ceiling. ‘Anyway. It’s all in His hands,’ she says. ‘My will is His will.’

Her walls, I notice, are dotted with crucifixes and devotional texts and photos of Myra and Clive standing next to various men of the cloth.

Now she catches my eye. ‘Becky is a lucky young woman,’ she says gravely.

‘The man who could woo and win your precious heart would be a lucky man indeed,’ I say. I worry for a moment I have overdone it, but I have forgotten the bottle of prosecco I brought along, half of which has already descended into her gullet.

She blushes and simpers and smiles and looks at the floor all at once. Then she says something that sounds like ooaammhhh. It is hard to spell but easy to interpret, even for me.

ix.

Nicholas’s behaviour, I confess to Father Martin, is becoming steadily more erratic. It’s hard to know with certainty how things will progress, it’s not as if you can look these things up. (The idea that one can delete one’s search history is a transparent fiction, of course.)

Nicholas keeps losing things, forgetting things. His speech is slow and repetitive. Some mornings he can barely drag himself out of bed. It seems obvious to me, I tell Bob, that he is suffering from some sort of as-yet-undiagnosed neurological deficit.

One evening, I stay on for supper at Father Martin’s. I confide in him my worries – I tell stories of the delirium, the mood swings, the violent outbursts. The falls. Father Martin is such a good listener that I end up tearfully confessing my fear that Nicholas has a severe alcohol issue.

‘Poor Matthew,’ says Father Martin, with a fierce arm around me. ‘It’s not exactly the ideal engagement gift, is it?’

‘In sickness and in health,’ I say with a sad smile.

Father Martin says, ‘You’re very brave, Matthew.’

‘Till death us do part.’

x.

Now Trish knows that Nicholas and I are engaged, and she wants answers. When did I know I was gay? It’s the first she’s heard of it. Why did I string Becky along for so long? How can men be so heartless, taking what they want from someone and then just pissing off at the very moment that the other person has let them into their hearts?

‘Are we talking about Rob again?’ I can’t help asking, and am rewarded with yet another shove.

‘I’m sorry,’ I hear myself saying. ‘I know you want some answers, and you deserve them.’ The thing with Nicholas comes from a part of me that I’ve always tried to repress, I tell her. But this is a union of heart and soul, and mind, and with Nicholas I have at last had to acknowledge my true feelings, my true self. I tell her that it all goes hand in hand, somehow, with the growth of my faith. My friendship with Becky – and yes, other women – was a desperate attempt to deny my true nature.

‘So: Are you saying you’re gay now?’ she demands. ‘That you’ve never been straight?’

‘You’re drinking rather a lot tonight,’ I say. ‘I get enough of that at home.’

‘Oh.’ She eyes her cider guiltily. ‘Is Nicholas still…??’ she asks, her face a picture of concern.

‘Yes,’ I nod sadly. ‘I’m working on it, but old habits…’

I open the crisps. I bring my own, as they don’t have prawn cocktail in the Axe and Foetus and it’s the only flavour I eat.

‘Anyway, it’s not a question of gay or straight,’ I add. ‘It’s about your relationship with an individual person.’

Then I tell Trish that she is the only person in the world that I can really confide in, and that her friendship means everything to me, and that Rob is a prize dick for not appreciating what he had with her. That she is such an amazing person she can have anyone she wants, and that I’m sure it won’t be long before she finds someone who is worthy of her.

Trish blushes on cue. Then she hugs me, and all that.

No. It’s not about gay or straight, I reflect later as I lie in a crumpled heap in a diesel-tinged puddle in the lorry park. It’s about those who define reality – and those who submit to it.

God gets it.

xii.

A visit from Bob and from Diane, who has driven 76 miles to be here. I believe they are attempting some sort of intervention.

Nicholas slumps in his chair, silent as instructed. I wait on him hand and foot, as always, but cannot/do not prevent the empty Bells bottle slipping out of his dressing gown.

‘Are you sure you’re really up to all this, Matthew?’ says Diane. ‘Nicholas seems to need a lot of care right now.’

‘Matthew’s all I need,’ says Nicholas, on cue.

‘And now I understand you’re studying for the priesthood too, as well as editing Nicholas’ book and completing your masters?’

‘You mean Musings Against the Backcloth of Eternity? I’d hardly call it a book.’

Diane looks at me sharply, and I imagine her suddenly disappeared.

‘I see it as more an ongoing conversation between a questing soul and its saviour than a mere book,’ I add smoothly. (I don’t mention that I wrote most of that twaddle anyway. My favourite section is called ‘The Lord is my air bridge’.)

‘And what about your parish duties?’ says Bob. ‘Visiting the sick and hospitals, and so forth. I gather you’ve taken on Whiteoaks Care Home too. How will you fit it all in?’

‘Attending to the elderly and the infirm: it’ll be good practice for married life.’

‘How do you mean?’

‘Well, look at him.’ Nicholas is now lolling almost sideways in his chair, dribbling and babbling, like a man who has been innocently ingesting a small amount of a toxic substance in his hot milk every night for several weeks.

Diane feigns shock, but I know lots about her from Nicholas.

Later, I step lightly to the closed pantry door, where Diane and Bob are conferring in a low murmur.

‘Something just isn’t right,’ she says. ‘How can Nicholas have just declined like that?’

‘It’s certainly very sad,’ says Bob. ‘But at least he has a full-time carer now, in a sense, someone who obviously means a great deal to Nick.’

Please just tell me he hasn’t signed over the house.’

Silence.

‘Bob? Bob?

‘You know I can’t comment on that,’ I hear Bob say.

The ensuing silence is broken only by Diane swearing very quietly but forcefully.

‘Look at this kitchen,’ says Diane, clinking things. ‘There are bottles everywhere. It reeks of spirits.’

‘It is very sad,’ says Bob again. ‘I just don’t remember him ever being such a big drinker.’

‘I was married to Nick for 23 years,’ says Diane. ‘And one thing I know for sure about my ex-husband is that he couldn’t stand the taste of whisky-’

I open the door fully so they can see me, holding a pack of antiseptic wipes, and togged up in Marigolds and a wipeable apron.

The pair of them look around, like a couple of children caught with their hands in the cookie jar.

‘And did you ever know this about him, Diane?’ I lift up my top and show off some of my choicest cuts and bruises. They are both suitably appalled.

I take a hand from each of them, so that we are joined in a little circle of concern. ‘I know it’s not really him, when it happens,’ I say. ‘That’s what I tell myself.’

Diane sobs. ‘He’s not the man I know,’ she says.

‘Me either,’ I reply sadly. ‘But we must put all this in His hands. Perhaps… we could all say a prayer?’

Bob and Diane bow their heads obediently, and I scrutinise his bald spot and a little patch of eczema behind her left ear, as I invoke some of the words that Father Martin used with me the other night.

Listen, Lord, to our prayer; hear our cries for help. We call to you in times of trouble, because you answer my prayers.

Psalms. A little obvious and hackneyed, perhaps, but it seems to do the trick, for Bob at least. But I notice that Diane’s eyes – eyes that live 76 miles away, by the sea – do not stay closed as we pray.

x.

Myra is touched by the way I look after Nicholas. She comes round on a Tuesday or Wednesday afternoon with one of her lovely lemon drizzle cakes or a plate of her delicious chocolate and peanut cookies.

‘I daren’t ask you for the recipe,’ I say coquettishly.

‘Oooh no!’ she laughs. ‘That one goes with me to the grave.’

We sit by his bed – Nicholas rarely gets up now – and we talk of this and of that. In her company I develop the story of Gabrielle, my half-sister, and our crowdfunding project. She has a rare liver disorder and requires specialist treatment. In Israel, I add.

‘The Holy Land!’ she says, marvelling.

‘Yes,’ I say quietly. There is no need to add that this treatment would be very expensive.

One week, Myra arrives to find me sitting in a deep prayerful trance by Nicholas’ bedside. A bottle lies under his pillow. Nicholas does not move.

At the funeral, I give a faultless eulogy, loosely adapted from one I ghost-wrote for Nicholas’ ex-father-in-law. Afterwards, so many parishioners come up to tell me that I am ‘brave’, a usage that has always confused me. Only the weak can be brave.

Outside the church, Nicholas’ relatives huddle together in the rain, trying to draw strength from each other. They acknowledge me with nods and handshakes and muted smiles. Only Diane stands aloof, eyeing me coldly across the coffin. A 76-mile stare. I can’t help thinking how fitting it would be if she were to fall into the hole beside dear old Nick.

Grief is a terrible vice, cloying and narcissistic. The sniffs and moans appal me. I maintain a dignified silence, head bowed at all times. Black becomes me.

At the graveside, Myra holds my hand for the first time. That’s one for the spreadsheet.

Xi

I like to spend my weekends round Myra’s, helping out with the house and the garden. There are always lawns to mow, bonfires to build, pictures to put up, white goods to drag out and clean behind. Things that involve a bit of heavy lifting or the climbing of a stepladder.

Myra is endlessly grateful. It’s nothing, I say – just another way I can serve the Lord, by lending a hand to one of His most faithful servants. It’s amazing what you can do with a bit of elbow grease and a few power tools.

Myra hates phoning companies and ‘being passed from pillar to post like some sort of leper’, as she puts it. She says she can only get through the waiting by quietly reciting her favourite bits of The Book of Common Prayer.

I say I’m happy to help.

On the six-month anniversary of Nicholas’ death, I find myself dialling for her again, this time to help her divert some funds from an ISA into a crowdfunding account for Gabrielle. We agree it’s probably easier just to transfer the sum to me first.

I do the phoning and the waiting and the chitchat, and then when I’ve got hold of the right account executive at last, I pass over the handset and discreetly retire. It is not for me to intrude on such conversations, though I can’t help catching the phrases ‘sometimes you just want to do a bit of good for someone’ and ‘withdraw it all please’.

I retreat to Myra’s guest room, which I have made into my study, and to my personal poetry. Myra is not an easy rhyme, but with a rap-like intonation the words starts to flow…

Myra
I’ll build you a pyre
To set you on fire

As you turn to ash
I’ll burn through your cash


It’s a little different to the verse I present her with that night.

Myra, you have set me on fire
With righteous passion;
Holy beauty; I am wholly yours.
I yearn for your embrace,
For the sunlight in your face —
The exquisite surrender
Of a heart full of grace.

Xii

Myra has doubts. Her intimates are worried for her. The age gap, the finances, the business with Nicholas that some in the village will continue to mither on about. A call from Diane that she will not discuss.

‘I understand,’ I say. I’m supposed to be going away that weekend, on a Bible Studies course for Anglican ordinands at a residential centre run by the diocese.

‘Let us pray,’ I say, and she smiles and bows her head. I head off to the guest room, where I’ve got all my books out, to fetch my missal.

‘Oh my God! Myra!’

‘What is it?’

‘I don’t believe it!’

She heads as fast as her arthritis will allow into the guest room, where a series of large, slightly cursive letters, written in the ash of Ash Wednesday, spell out a message across the far wall and window.

M + M: BELOVED SERVANTS

BLESSED UNION

LOVE AND SERVE ALWAYS

‘M & M!’ says Myra, breathless and ecstatic. ‘You don’t think…’

‘Well, I don’t think it’s the chocolates.’ I do not say this, though I very much want to.   

That night, a Friday, Myra takes me to her bed for the first time. She is surprisingly directive and I happily follow her lead. I have learnt a lot about what people want, and what to do when, but it is refreshing when someone like Myra – with the impatience of age – just lays it out for you. Afterwards I lie with my head on her bosom, and I wonder if this is what mothers and children do, albeit no mother I ever knew.

‘Well. I did not expect that,’ she says. ‘Not at my age.’

‘My bride and my queen,’ I say, and I feel a deep heaving sigh beneath me. I think about the strength in frailty, and the beauty in disgust, and how in the morning the letters will have gone, and the possibilities before me are so many that I almost swoon.

I bring us both cocoa in bed, and make sure Myra drinks all hers. I have a long drive before me. Seventy-six miles.

xiii

Despite what I say to people, I am not one for visions as a rule. But recently I dreamt of a woman who lived in a wooden house by the sea. And in my dream I betook her to the very top of a cliff, and smote her with kindness, and lay her down with her dead head overhanging the sea. And I made a hole through her skull, from one temple right through to the other, so that her blood flowed straight out pure and true, and lost itself in the green waters far below.

I was not able to follow my vision to the letter. But I like to think, out there on the moor, with my axe and my power saw, that I was true to its spirit. Visions are good, but proper Ordinance Survey-backed research is your true friend, every time. 

I think if Diane could have her time again, she would probably not have opened her front door to me. She would probably not have got in the car. She would probably have started struggling sooner, or called for help while there was still a chance that people might hear.

But I told her that I needed her to be happy with what was happening. She was the person everyone looked up to. Myra, like Nicholas before her, trusted her judgement implicitly. I apologised for the lateness of the hour, but I realised that I too needed her blessing. I just wanted to go for a drive and talk things through. And if I couldn’t convince Diane of my good faith, I would gladly withdraw from the parish and the village altogether. I would bow to her wisdom, her powers of discernment.

I was humble. And Diane, in spite of everything – in spite of herself – was flattered. 

When I arrive home, Myra is still in bed, as she should be. She has slept through it all. I slip in beside her just as the light of a new day starts to peep beneath the curtains, and fall into the deep sleep of the just. In the morning, delighted to find me there, she brings me a tea in bed. I tell her how well I slept, and how happy I am to be here. 

‘What about your training course?’ says Myra.

‘I couldn’t bear to be away from you,’ I say. ‘I can learn more about grace and the living faith here.’

This is almost too much for her. ‘Bless me, father,’ she says breathlessly, and – though technically I’m not allowed to do this yet – I slice a cross through the air, up and down, and left to right. Myra makes the sign of the cross too, and her whole face settles into an expression of devout calm. It is powerful magic.

I think about the day, three weeks hence, when we shall go to the cathedral and the bishop will lay his hands on me, and I shall be ushered into the inner circle of the ordained.

Forgiving sinners, healing the sick, saving souls, casting out demons, bestowing holiness with the wave of a hand…

I open my laptop and I start a new poem.

Diana the huntress
I penetrate your fortress
Lady Di, your time to die

To be or not to be
There was no question. 

What a piece of work is this man.
How like a god.

+++

HMP Bedward, August 2019

Hi Jill

Thanks again so much for agreeing to take a look at this.

Just to recap the background: Matthew Manston remains on remand here at Bedward, awaiting proceedings at the Central Criminal Court on two counts of Murder, one of Attempted, and various Attempting to perverts.

Following the granting of an expedited exhumation licence, full post-mortem forensics were carried out on the body of Nicholas Roy. The discovery of the (partial) remains of Diane Harkness will of course be familiar to you from TV and tabloids. 

The alleged crimes apparently only came to light as a result of extensive informal surveillance carried out by two of the defendant’s former friends, Rebecca Winstrop and Patricia Wright. Courageous and resourceful stuff, by all accounts.

As discussed, the judge has requested a more detailed psychological evaluation, and I’d very much value a second opinion – specifically yours! – at this point. I think a good place to start are these extracts from the defendant’s diary, which he stored on his laptop and regularly updated over a period of almost seven years. These extracts cover the period March 30, 2016 to February 12, 2018.

Do give me a shout if you have any questions. Perhaps I could give you a call in a week or so when you’ve had time to digest?

All the very best – and thanks again Jill!

Robert Steveny

Head of Forensic Psychology, HMP Bedword

PS Despite the weight of media opprobrium to which he has been subject, I have to say Manston has conducted himself as a model prisoner at all times. He has been helping a number of other prisoners to develop their literacy skills, and has been on hand to offer support and guidance to two prisoners – and one prison officer! – experiencing spiritual distress. All in all, he is a charming resident, and we will miss him.

About the Author: Dan’s debut collection of short stories, Hotel du Jack, is published by Sandstone Press. He is also co-author of a forthcoming comic novel about an eccentric writers’ group, Work in Progress (Unbound). His stories have featured in numerous competition lists and publications, and received both Pushcart and Best of the Net nominations.  

Coping for Tomorrow

By Angelo Lorenzo

It was a Saturday night when Giselle felt a new episode coming. Her heart slammed in her chest, trying to rip its way out as if it had a mind of its own. She tried to take deep breaths, but a certain pressure gripped her throat. A call for help would be vital, and she would do anything to have someone to talk to right now.

She rose from her bed and darted toward the window. She swung the panes out and let the breeze in. Deep breaths from the cooler air outside helped ease the tension. For a while, she stood there, trying to avoid the thoughts that made her worry. The panic attack was unsolicited, but current facts about the pandemic were hard to ignore.

The Coronavirus flu, as sources said, was lethal, and it exempted no one from catching it. It had been a month since the world was asked to stay home. Although she was safe under her parents’ wing this summer, she was having a hard time managing her paralyzing anxiety. How could this not be a natural reaction when, around the world, the virus was spreading at a rapid pace? Numbers of positive cases doubled every week in April as she’d seen and heard on the news, and there’s no telling whether this was slowing down any time soon. Everyone was vulnerable.

Standing by the open window, she saw the tinted panes glinting with the glow of the streetlamps below. The sight was a good distraction, a respite from the surge of thoughts that troubled her. When her breathing returned to normal, she thought she heard music.

 “How are you holding up?” A young man stood up from a stool on the terrace across her house. They were facing each other. The guitar he held with both hands caught her attention. Its brown wooden board gleamed with its varnished surface and the silvery metallic strings.

“Conrad?”

He smiled, revealing braces that shone, complementing the glee in his face.

She remembered the last time their eyes met. He had that same smile. They had grown up together, had gone to the same school. But years of not seeing him again had left her wishing and wondering how he’d be in a time like this. She remembered the Conrad who had the potential to easily win over people’s hearts with his performances at campus events, where intermission numbers from parent-teacher conferences to programs during the school’s founding anniversary had him strumming his guitar behind a microphone stand onstage. Whether it was an original composition or a cover of a Jackson Five hit, Conrad had known how music could easily relate to people. She, on the other hand, had grown fond of the comfort she found in solace. After all, she believed books would never leave her like people would.

She remembered way back when he used to play his guitar on that terrace. This was the Conrad she knew. But he wasn’t there to catch her attention or to play for all the neighbors to hear. He used to spend his time there, usually before bed, alone but with music as his company. She had asked him about it once during one of the bicycle rides around the neighborhood one afternoon many years ago. He said practice made him feel good.

She snapped out of the flashes of memories. But she forgot what he asked a moment ago. “I’m sorry. I didn’t quite get that?”

“Can’t sleep?” he asked instead. His brows narrowed. He had asked that before. Many times. Perhaps every time she had opened her window to hear him play. At this time of the evening, she had her gaze fixed on him. Seeing every detail — from his black close-cropped hairstyle to his glistening eyes — brought back the same feeling she had every time she’d seen him before. Only this time, he was just older than she had last seen him up close. She knew this wasn’t a dream, and she couldn’t deny that a reunion like this made her feel better.

 She ran her fingers through her hair all the way to her shoulders where it ended. She felt the strands dampened with sweat.

Conrad smiled and strummed his guitar. “You don’t mind if I play, do you?”

She shook her head. “You don’t mind if anyone listens anyway.”

He shrugged and tilted his head to one side. He closed his eyes just as she did, and the music began. It was one of the same songs he had played before. And she started humming, recalling the lyrics of that song he used to love so much.

Emotions could betray people. She had known from the many times they would trigger another reaction. She knew better than getting stuck. So she opened her eyes and closed the window before she could think twice.

 Later that night, she took a peek through the window to see if he was still there. All the terrace had instead was an empty space. She sat on the corner of her bed and, with the beam of the moon, gazed over the scar on her knee. Like an inkblot, it had darkened with age. She still couldn’t forget that one afternoon when she had fallen off her bicycle. He had been there with her.

The next day, Giselle was plucking malunggay leaves on the counter of their kitchen while her mother was stirring the heated contents in the pot on their stove. Plucking didn’t require much effort as the leaves, shaped like the curves of a clover leaf, detached easily. This mundane task eased her mind just as sweeping the floors and wiping tables did.

Her father was at their dining table next to their kitchen. His eyes fixed on the laptop screen. His ears were covered with a headset. He had been on a virtual meeting with his clients since morning. They needed to inquire about their insurance policies as the pandemic was projected to affect the economy and inflict not only sickness but a stream of global crises. Businesses were at a standstill, and lives were at stake. She knew he was not meant to be disturbed.

The appetizing salty scent of pork cuts boiling in broth wafted in the air, mingling with ginger and bundled lemon grass. The brewing fragrance had always uplifted Giselle, who grew up with her mother’s sumptuous dishes. Pour in the malunggay leaves and the meal would be complete.

“Is everything okay, Giselle?” her mother asked.

“Oh, it’s nothing.

“You seem so silent lately. What’s bothering you?”

 She sighed. “I just thought about Conrad.”

“Well, that’s something new,” her mother said. Like Giselle, she was a tall woman with long sinewy limbs. Maybe it was maintaining a distinct fashion even while at home — with a ruffled floral overall duster — that gave out her slender figure. “You don’t usually want to talk about him. But it’s good that you remember.”

“Well, it’s not really a big deal,” Giselle said.

“Why isn’t it? You two used to be so close.”

 “Yeah, sure. I don’t see how that changes anything.”

 “Are you feeling okay?” Her mother ceased her stirring and looked at her with raised eyebrows.

 “No, Ma. I just-…” she sighed. She didn’t want to be interrogated. She felt her heartbeat rising again. She dropped the malunggay stem into the bowl.

“You know I can’t hear you when you’re mumbling,” her mother said. “You can always tell me if there’s something bothering you.”

 Giselle didn’t want to ruin lunch with an argument.

“I’m fine, Ma. You don’t have to worry about me. Now can we please continue with the cooking?” She pushed the bowl containing the malunggay leaves, showing that she was done. Her mother pointed at the stem in the bowl. Giselle picked it up and bent the green supple stem with her fingers.

 She didn’t want her parents to worry. But if there was one nightmare besides closed windows and dark rooms, it would have to be the collective sight of white sheets draping the mattress on a stretcher, the glint of a needle’s sharp tip beneath bright fluorescent lights, and the bottles of alcohol emitting nausea in the guise of sanitizing the air. The memory brought her back to when she was nine. The wheels of her bicycle had struck stones scattered on the road. Whoever put them there remained a mystery, but what happened afterwards was impossible to forget. Off she flew into the air before she landed on the rusted bars that covered the mouth of a canal between the sidewalk and the road. Little Conrad had been there too, but Giselle had to take the road alone, limping in their subdivision, screaming as the blood dripped off her open wound. She had wept, nearly losing her voice as they took her to the hospital’s emergency room.

She remembered the white tiles that covered the floor and the walls. White lights glared from the white ceiling. The green plastic curtains closed around her. Her mother’s hand holding her arm, caressing. It’s going to be okay. The lullaby didn’t help silence the mild weeping of a lady on the other side. Beyond the green curtain, she could imagine the lady on a stretcher like her. No, it was a woman, and those were tears of joy, her mother had explained later on. A baby was on their way.

Then there was a man who held a syringe. The word, tetanus felt strange in her ears as he explained what the shot was for.It was a word she could associate with another word she had learned growing up. Tenacious. The pandemic was tenacious, she would describe from the headlines she had been reading on her phone in present day. She didn’t want to get sick. She didn’t want to have a needle pinned deep into her skin, didn’t want the sting to last for days.  The sickness drains anyone dry, and treatment would always be given in the hospital. Ever since that accident, she had dreaded being confined to a hospital again.

She knew that happened years ago. She was well now, safe from all the harms that the accident had brought. She opened her eyes and sunlight streamed through her window, casting light around the blue walls in her room. It calmed her.

 She had spent the rest of the day doing chores to distract herself from reliving that memory. But three nights since Conrad played his music again on the terrace, she felt her body sinking into her bed. She heard her pulse throbbing in her temples. She pushed the sheets off with her clammy hands, and winced as she brought herself up. No more nightmares tonight. Her joints started to ache from her neck to her knees. She sat on the side of the bed and took in deep breaths before her pulse settled. She checked the time of her phone. It was half-past midnight.

 An hour later, she kept turning in her bed to find the right position. But whether she lay face-up or to her side, she couldn’t find a way to relax.                

She decided to do what worked before.

Through the window, music came in with the breeze. The acoustic was a fresh sound from the buzzing of the air-conditioner behind her. It was enough to calm her down.

She looked straight ahead, and there he was. Broad-shouldered in his white shirt, cradling the guitar on his lap as he sat on the same stool, Conrad was playing his music. His eyes were closed as if he was immersed in his element, unaware of the world around him.

She stood by her window and listened to him play. And when the tension eased, she closed the window, hoping that the episode would not come back sooner than expected.

There were a lot of reasons why people had to go separate ways and move on. It’s when circumstance sets them apart, or when choice dictates their actions. If only there had been enough closure to say goodbye…

Race towards home! She remembered him saying that fateful afternoon. Last one to reach there is a stinky loser.

For a nine-year-old, she had the whole world to prove.

She had felt the wind through her hair as they had increased their speed. Her hair waving behind her. The air whistling. She remembered their laughter, some squeals and giggles that defined joy that had no end. Danger only lurked in the pages of fairy tales. The race to the finish line could go on forever.

Then there were the stones scattered before them, gray like the road. The wheels squeaked on the rough surface. Palms wet with sweat slipped from the handle bars. She screamed. He screamed. He never talked to her again.

 Did she wish to talk to him again? After all these years, it had to take a pandemic to bring people together. What choice did others have but to let everyone know they care that they really do? Why do people have to go their separate ways? Why did she have to leave him there?

 The next night, she opened her window again and saw him leaning over the terrace railing. His guitar on the stool behind him.

“Aren’t you going to play your music tonight?” she asked, mildly a whisper.

 He smiled but kept his lips together. She remembered those cheeks that rippled in rosy tan whenever sunlight hit them. But tonight, the light of the moon made his face paler. “Shouldn’t you be sleeping instead?” he responded.

 She shook her head. “It’s hard to pretend that everything’s okay, Conrad,” she said. “It’s been years since it happened, and I still remember every detail. I know I should just let everything go. But I can’t forget you.”

 “Do you feel better when I’m here?” he asked.

“I’ve always wished… you were.”

What would he look like now that they were sixteen? She pictured him with close-cropped hair. Braces that he had always wished to have since some classmates in school would call him, Doc, and pretend to hold carrots to imitate the comical gesture of a cartoon character. And there was always his guitar, which was the only thing that kept reminding her of him.

“Conrad…”

He looked at her.

“I’ve missed you so much.”

He raised his hand to the side of his head, the exact spot where it had hit the rough road. Then he gestured a salute. “Whenever you need me…” He went back to his stool and held his guitar. Remembering him that way was a good distraction. But she knew it didn’t have to last. It was not a question of who was in a better place now. The world keeps going even for those who had seen loss right before their eyes. But everyone can grieve. There were those who remember. He was a memory, and she remembered.

As he played tonight, his image gradually receded. She saw all that was left over the dark and dusty terrace of the house that had long been emptied since his parents moved to another city. Dry leaves swept by the wind. Dust coating the rusty railing.

She closed the window and wrapped herself in the sheets of her bed. She hadn’t cried hard enough since she was nine and wounded. Heavy sobs released the tension, eased the pain. Tears could hydrate the soul. She remembered her mother’s words. Anything that’s bothering her… Will her father spare a little time to listen? Will her mother understand?

Despite all those cold nights, shallow breaths, recurring dreams, and thoughts about the world ending, she found herself breathing easily tonight. Nothing could last forever. If good things don’t, so do those that end them. She thought about tomorrow. There was still tomorrow.

Tomorrow came and she was with her family at their dining table. On the table, faint vapor swirled from the bowl of vegetable soup she and her mother had prepared for their lunch. While they were all seated with their plates set before them, the TV at the living room just beside their dining hall showed news about the cases concerning the pandemic. By this point, it had infected thousands in the country, and thousands more across the world.

“Dad?” she asked after setting her spoon on the edge of her plate.

  “Hm?” was all her father could say between chewing.

 “Is it okay if we turn the TV off?”

  “The news is important, Giselle.”

  She sighed. She couldn’t bear watching and listening to the rising number of cases.

  Before she could say anything else, she felt her mother’s hand on her back.

  “Is there anything wrong?” her mother asked.

 Perhaps this was her chance to be blunt about what she had been feeling lately. On the TV screen, she caught sight of a family in a commercial where they’re gathered together in their homes’ living room. The words, We heal as one, appeared below the scene.

 It took her a few moments to respond, but she wanted to believe that her parents would understand.

“I’ve not been feeling so good lately,” she finally said.

Her mother and father looked at her with concern in their faces. Her father laid his hand over her forehead. “Are you sick?”

 She shook her head. “It’s not that.”

Her father put his hand away, grabbed the remote, and switched the TV off. For a while, silence dominated their home. He gently shifted in his seat and faced her.

“Would you like to talk about it?”

Both of her parents were looking at her now, concern deep in their faces. She heaved a sigh. She pushed back her plate, and told them everything. She started with the panic attacks that disturbed her sleep and that particular traumatic moment on a bicycle ride back when she was nine. Then there was that memory of Conrad. Remembering him was her way of coping, and her parents began to understand everything she had told them.

Opening up to them had somehow eased the tension in her chest, as if the weight of the problem had gradually lifted off her. Then she found herself in her mother’s arms, and her father hugged her as well. “Don’t worry, my child, this won’t last forever,” her father said.

 She now understood that opening up to her loved ones whatever that concerned her was a good way to cope. The pandemic will not last forever, she believed, and if there was anything good that might come of it amidst all the sufferings it had caused, it would probably be the experience of being with her family again.

Later that night, she stood by her open window and saw the lights glowing from the streetlamps below. The neighborhood was silent save for the drone of frogs and crickets somewhere in the distance. But despite the darkness, the lights still shone. She thought about the many people who had to go through this trying time. Everyone has different experiences, but she believed all of this shall pass. Her father reassured her of it. Her mother encouraged her to share anything that’s troubling her. Whatever happens, she has her family.

Losing someone she cared about due to an accident was a pain she had to bear, but moving on was inevitable. After seeing Conrad’s limp body on the street where they had both fallen off their bicycles many years ago, she had been convincing herself that someday, he would return and they would see each other again. But accepting what happened was the first step to moving forward.

Conrad would still be in her memories just as the people who have passed on will remain in the hearts of their loved ones. She wondered about the many lives that the pandemic had claimed since it broke out earlier this year. Like the families of deceased loved ones, all that’s left of them were the memories. She would always remember Conrad with his guitar, his music, and his songs.

She went back to her room and pulled the window panes close. As she sat on the edge of her bed, she breathed calmly. She held onto the fact that, despite the night, a bright new day will always follow. She went to sleep with this thought in mind and let her dreams fill her with hope for better days ahead.

About the Author: Angelo Lorenzo (he/him) writes from Cagayan de Oro City, Philippines. His works range from journalism to literature. His articles can be found on news media outlets such as the Philippine News Agency, Rappler, and Sunstar, among others. His short stories have been published by New Pop LitThe Elixir Magazine, and Marias and Sampaguitas, to name a few. He is currently taking his Master’s Degree in Literature at Xavier University-Ateneo de Cagayan while assisting podcast producers in his full-time job, and interviewing passionate individuals in his YouTube channel

Two Poems by Michael Igoe

 Cheer Section

Way back in 1963

I remember when

My dad and Jesus,

with John Kennedy,

young Jack Kerouac,

on a hitchhiking spree.

They left town in a Rambler,

lived it up in plastic saloons,

those formica counter joints

what they wanted for roosts.

They entered dry good stores

where they all tried to boost.

Only Jesus smoked Kools,

discarding his spent packs

across the stinking desert.

In high top blue boots,

he strode into a motel

they call Mesa Springs.

After beers they join up

at an old drive-in movie

to watch King of Kings.

Starlite

They took time

to frame me up

as a meddling pauper.

They caught me laughing

tried to make me glum.

I am very much alive,

behind inanimate glass.

See through glass,

never disrespected.

You can glimpse,

a climate change.

The lion and the lamb

never wanted

to lie down together.

They told the assembled

they weren’t quite ready.

But we have their blessing,

in both their orphaned eyes.

About the Author: Michael Igoe is a neurodiverse city boy who used to live in Chicago and currently lives in Boston. He has had numerous works appear in journals online and in print, including: https://linktr.ee/derailleurpress, bookofmatcheslitmag.com , Spare Change News(Cambridge Ma), The Poets Of 2020 (Anthology), Avalanches In Poetry (Fevers Of The Mind Press), National Library Of Poetry Editor’s Choice Award 1997, and Feather Pen Blog best Poem 2020. You can find him on Twitter: @MichaelIgoe5. Urban Realism, Surrealism. He likes the night.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             

Two Poems by Jason de Koff

Road Trip

In the early morn of departure,
a misty coolness entices the sleepy,
to the warm harbor of car seats,
to reinstate their abbreviated slumber.

They weave amongst belts, doors, and seats,
heads bobbing to the road rhythms,
oscillating between,
the staccato beats of road work,
and expansion joint lullabies.

Waking later, the vacant stares,
admire the impressionist strokes,
of leaf and limb,
where colors deepen with elevation,
between twisted deciduous,
and tall pole pines.

The inner dryad,
imagines the mossy mattresses,
festooned with clusters of yarrow,
and the sunlight dapples,
of mid-afternoon senescence.

The acute-angled sun,
hints at evening adventures,
with new realms to be found,
and explored.

Largesse

Single steel blades,
cut parallel tracks,
across solid lake,
like northern Nasca lines.

Sweeping away the downy layer,
with windswept strides,
reveal multitudes of shiny spheres,
crystallized above the black beyond.

As if a slumbering beast,
might yield its time,
and seed the surface,
cracking the eggshell silence.

The crisp air brings craggy summits,
into hawk-eyed resolution,
occasionally blurred,
by foggy exhalations.

The quiet solitude,
beckons the mind to dream,
with the warmth of inner aspirations,
tempered only by the cold.

About the Author: Jason de Koff 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 published in a number of scientific journals, and has over 60 poems published or forthcoming in literary journals over the last year.