Extinction Event

By Lindy Biller

***Content Warning: allusion to domestic abuse 

*The children’s book quoted in this story is Dinosaurium, by Chris Wormell and Lily Murray

It started slowly, without warnings or sirens. Astrid pulled out a box of Cheerios and found it coated in a fine layer of ash. Her fingers left circles of yellow cardboard. It was the same with everything else in the cupboard: the bear-shaped honey, boxes of cheddar crackers, bags of rice. All of it a dusty gray. 

She brushed off the Cheerio box and poured each of her daughters a bowl, one with milk, one without, just the way they liked it. After breakfast, she took them to the park, planted each child on a swing, googled ash kitchen cupboards. Found articles about ash sapwood, ideal for building cupboards and pantries. She watched her daughters swinging. Whenever her husband was around, the cupboard doors were always falling off. He would yank them too hard, or slam them shut, or shatter her mother’s china against them. The plates with the tiny orange flowers. 

Push us, Mama! the girls shouted.

She pushed them, the chains groaning. Maybe it was termites? Accumulated smoke from all the charred cookies and heads of cauliflower and pot roasts she’d left cooking too long? She toyed with her wedding ring. The girls soared back and forth like birds on a string, tethered.

By evening, the ash had spread. A thin layer on the drop-leaf table, the laminate countertops. The girls giggled and drew pictures in the dust: shooting stars, princesses, dinosaurs. Astrid rinsed out a saucepan and made macaroni and cheese. She called her sister in California, but the call went straight to voicemail. 

It’ll be okay, she imagined her sister saying, even though her sister never said things like this. She tried to think of the last thing they’d talked about, before they stopped talking. Before her husband exploded between them, his blast radius flattening everything for miles. She couldn’t remember. Maybe something about winter. How cold it was here. 

The next morning, Astrid made coffee, stirred Hershey’s syrup into cold milk for the girls, and they sat on the porch together, watching the sun glow through a haze of smoke. By now, people were talking about it on social media. A weather anomaly. Maybe something to do with all the wildfires. How could it be everywhere, all at once? What did it mean? 

“This is not an extinction event,” a scientist said emphatically. 

Astrid knew denial when she heard it. She pulled out one of the girls’ old dinosaur books—the most up to date book she could find, with chicken-sized velociraptors, with full-color, sad-eyed illustrations. At home, while the girls played, she read about the asteroid strike. How ash choked out sunlight, and the world went dark, and all the plants died. Then the plant-eaters. Then the meat-eaters. Except for a few, the theropods who discovered flight. Their arms became wings. Their bones lightened. 

It would’ve been a time of cold and darkness—winter on an epic scale, the book said. All major extinctions of life on earth have been followed by a burst of evolution, it added, softening the blow. 

Astrid dropped off her kids with a neighbor, who was drinking margaritas and soaking her feet in a kiddie pool. “They’ll be fine,” she said, “go out, have some fun, you’ve earned it!” Astrid went to the grocery store, where panic clung to her like tar. She bought jugs of water. Toilet paper. Fruit snacks shaped like actual fruit, orange slices and strawberries and bumpy clusters of grapes. She saw church people with coal-black smudges on their foreheads, even though Ash Wednesday had been months ago. She saw a man with a curved beak like her husband’s, elbowing to the front of the checkout line. She watched him slash the air open, making space for the hunger of his body. 

Astrid went back home. Retrieved her daughters from the booze-soaked neighbor.

“We’re going for a drive,” she told them. 

She packed their clothes, the dinosaur books, the matching baby dolls. She packed the last of the unbroken china. The winter gear. She packed sunscreen. She left her ring on the table, where dust immediately began to cover it. They drove. 

The highway twined through countryside, its waving cornfields sugared with ash. It would be a four-day journey, with breaks for sleep. The six-year-old read out loud to the three-year-old about the fossils on a site called Egg Mountain—parents, eggs, juveniles.  “Many would never hatch,” she recited. “Instead they were covered by volcanic ash, preserving them for future study.” The girls ate fruit snacks. They played rock, paper, scissors. They fell asleep, their bodies folded like praying hands. 

Astrid turned on the radio, and listened to the voices from far away, trying to make sense of things: “scientists still have no explanation,” and “people are advised to shelter in place,” and “if by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction,” and “water should be strained through cheesecloth or coffee filters, then boiled before drinking.”

Astrid turned off the radio. Listened to her daughters’ breathing. 

I love you, she told them, until the words became only sound. A mourning-dove coo.

At a playground outside Omaha, Astrid checked her phone. Three breaking news updates. Seven voicemails from her husband. One text from her sister: Please, please call me. 

This time, her sister answered on the first ring. 

“Astrid, thank God. Thank God. Where are you? Where are the girls?”“Nebraska,” Astrid said, and then she laughed, and couldn’t stop laughing. She could feel it filling her up. The lightness. Wind through hollow bones. She told her sister to set up the spare room, and she’d call again soon. She made peanut butter sandwiches and spread a blanket on ash-choked grass. She pushed her girls on the swing set, higher, higher, their T-shirts billowing open like wings.

About the Author: Lindy Biller grew up in Metro Detroit and now lives in Wisconsin. Her fiction has recently appeared at Chestnut Review, X-R-A-Y, Longleaf Review, and Superfroot Magazine. 

The Belle Fair

By Timothy Tarkelly

For Nolan and Elena

The parade made me nervous
as every cop car and fire truck
in a twenty-mile radius were there,
tossing candy and blaring
their cacophonous tune of catastrophe
for fun, for the kids. I just hoped
no one’s house was burgled or burnt
to the ground as we cheered
for childhood’s best motivators,
for the promise of funnel cake,
for the newest queen of Belle, Missouri
who came riding in on a bale of hay,
who later thanked a crowd of grandparents
for this royal opportunity, her queen’s heart
showing through seven layers of makeup,
sparkling even brighter than her plastic tiara,
making us all forget about the smell of the pigs,
about how one day she will grow old
and stand in the mud, with not a single set
of eyes looking at her. 
By the time the bluegrass band
takes the stage, we’ve moved on,
lifted plastic cups to toast the evening’s
humid diffidence and almost let Mark
convince us to steal the show ourselves.

About the Author: Timothy Tarkelly’s fiction and poetry have appeared in Rhodora Magazine, Back Patio Press, Paragon Journal, and others. His third book of poetry, On Slip Rigs and Spiritual Growth, was published by OAC Books in July 2021. He has two previous collections from Spartan Press: Luckhound (2020) and Gently in Manner, Strongly in Deed: Poems on Eisenhower (2019). When he’s not writing, he teaches in Southeast Kansas. You can find him on twitter: @timothytarkelly or at timothytarkelly.com

A Place Called Beautiful

By Jane Hammons

When you live in a town like Vlan, and it is not much of a town, you must look far and wide for a place that is pretty enough for a picnic with your family and friends. If you should find a spot in the dry scrub and yellow grass, don’t go so far as to take visitors from out of town there, expecting them to marvel at its beauty. It is unlikely they will share your view. But down by the river there is a place called beautiful, and if you find it, you will not be alone. The water is the color of a well-worn slate, the earth red clay. In winter when covered with a brittle layer of frost, you will seldom see another soul out there. Bent twigs of mesquite along the river path, barely visible impressions upon the near frozen ground and the slight muddying of otherwise undisturbed waters are the only signs that someone has come before you. Few appreciate this beauty. Hondo Duggins and Estrellita Serna were two. Before the first snow fell and ice formed on the surface of the water they buckled up and took a drive to the bottom of the river.

Hondo and Estrellita were one year out of high school and still hanging around town like kids do when they don’t go off to college or out to the oil fields. Hondo was a busboy at Benny’s. Estrellita was a student at the Beauty College. Their absence was noted with silence for fear that merely pronouncing their names would disturb the quiet that had come since they had gone, which is exactly what happened once the strange woman arrived. 

Plagued by dreams of hair—long twisting strands, short blunt clumps—she’d wake to find her auburn tresses decorating the pillow where she slept, the follicles black and dead. Her stylist assured her it was common in middle-aged women.

“I hardly qualify as middle-aged.” The woman bristled at what was meant to be reassuring information.

The stylist did not respond. She didn’t know the woman well, but she’d done her hair often enough to know she didn’t want to do it again. She bestowed upon the woman her last tube of a homeopathic treatment her parents had made before they were forced to cease production because of their products’ disturbing side effects. She took the tube of ointment from a drawer. 

“Riovlan.” The woman read from label. “What is it?”

“I don’t know,” said the stylist, and that was true enough. “But it works.” 

Following the directions on the tube, the woman massaged the ointment into her head for several nights. She didn’t expect immediate results, but she also didn’t expect to see a young couple appear next to her own image in the mirror as she sat at her vanity. Frightened by the hallucination, the woman immediately swore off the Riovlan and shoved it into a drawer. But the next morning, there were fewer strands of dead hair on her pillow. She attributed the ghostly images to her stress, and returned to the treatment regimen. Again the young man and the young woman appeared, even more clearly this time. Though concerned about her mental state, she could not help but note how handsome the man was, how beautiful the woman, what a perfect couple they made. Over the next few days, she saw them reflected everywhere she looked—the side view mirrors of cars in parking lots, puddles of water left by rain and even in the highly polished surface of the wide cleaver she used for chopping lettuce. 

 She interpreted the advent of the two youths as a sign she was meant to be part of a couple, so she flirted with inferiors at work and visited a dating website a couple of times before deeming the available male population of her town worthless. The ointment almost gone, her head full of hair, she dreaded the loss of her visitations as much as she had the appearance of dead follicles. The couple wiped her tears, stroked her cheek and ran their fingers through her hair until at last the woman got it. Their ministrations were an invitation. She wasn’t meant to be part of just any couple. She was meant to join them. She consulted the tube of ointment that had summoned their appearance, noted where it was made, quit her job and closed up her apartment. Then she purchased a bus ticket to Vlan, a place few have dreamt of.

Upon arrival the woman appraised herself in the glass door of the bus station. She smoothed her skirt over her trim hips, tucked her soft white blouse into the tiny waistband of her skirt, then yanked her suitcase from the bottom of the pile on the luggage cart and headed down River Street to The Rio Inn, its metal sign beaten and battered by the sun and wind into the flat dull sameness of the rest of the town.

While the woman waited for the couple, she wandered out to the little kidney-shaped swimming pool where she admired herself for as long as she could stand the heat. In the evening, she’d walk along the dusty banks of the soggy creek that ran behind the Inn. Covered by trickling water, bright ferns flourished beneath the surface. Fronds extending above the shallow water were dead, blackened by the sun. Reminded of her affliction, the woman took this as a clue and began visiting every beauty parlor, as they were still called, in Vlan. She asked questions about a young couple, describing Hondo and Estrellita perfectly. No one responded until finally Lupe Villanueva directed the woman to Velynda Ashcroft’s Beauty College. 

In the restful months that had passed since Estrellita’s absence, Velynda Ashcroft had put the wicked girl out of her immediate thoughts. She became agitated when the redhead came into the Beauty College asking questions about a girl who had once attended her college. Noting Velynda’s distress, the woman knew she had found a source. She sat down in one of the many vacant chairs, freed her long hair from a tight French twist and requested a shampoo.

Velynda’s hands tingled with the anticipation of getting her hands into that gorgeous hair. She tied a stiff plastic apron around the woman’s neck and led her to a sink where she plunged her fingers into the auburn locks, shampooed and rinsed, shampooed and rinsed again as she talked about the frustration of teaching cosmetology to students who did not truly appreciate the science of beauty, did not comprehend the importance of the right haircut, professionally manicured nails, the correct moisturizer, foundation and lipstick.

Estrellita Serna. Velynda could not stop herself from saying the name, was such a student. She had not attended college to learn how to properly cut, comb and curl, but only to pass the hours her boyfriend was at work. Estrellita refused to keep up her tuition payments. She stole beauty supplies. But worse, she had destroyed the reputation of the Beauty College. 

Every fall Velynda and her students represented their profession in the County Fair Parade. And every fall since Marva Kunkel was thirteen years old, all the beauticians in Vlan had vied for the presence of her thick chestnut hair on their float. With the promise of a year’s worth of styling and beauty products, Velynda had won Marva in last year’s contest.

On the morning of the parade Velynda, Marva and all of the students gathered at the College to style one another’s hair. Only Estrellita was idle; she refused to style her glossy black hair, letting it hang as always straight to her waist. So Velynda assigned Estrellita the task of turning Marva Kunkel’s ponytail into long symmetrical ringlets. But instead Estrellita cut it off and ran shrieking triumphantly from the College, waving the shimmering trophy as she went, leaving Marva with an unattractive ducktail protruding from the back of her head.

Though in a state of shock Velynda and her students were determined to go on with the show. Velynda surrounded herself with her sniffling, nail-biting students and rode center stage, having whipped her hair into a hurried beehive that collapsed half way down River Street. The tale of Estrellita’s assault on Marva spread quickly along the twelve blocks from North to South River where the parade ended. Townspeople booed and hissed at the Beauty College float as it rolled past, its black tires disguised as pink sponge curlers.

Filled with compassion for the shorn Marva Kunkel and repelled by Estrellita’s behavior, the woman doubted it was Estrellita she sought. But to be certain she asked for the address of Estrellita’s family.

Weary from washing, combing out and blasting every bit of natural wave out of the woman’s hair with a powerful blow-dryer, Velynda didn’t think to ask why she wanted it but trudged to the shoebox where she kept the delinquent file. After giving the woman directions to the Serna’s house, she closed up shop. Overhead small dark clouds, clenched like fists, beat upon the glaring face of the sun. Blinded by jagged flashes of lightning that ripped open the sky in a sudden thunderstorm, Velynda dashed madly across the street to her usual parking space in front of Primm’s Pharmacy just as Tad Ostermann sped down toward her, an hour late for a date with his girlfriend Marva Kunkel. He didn’t see Velynda and hit her hard. She flew several feet into the air before landing in the back of his truck. Her spine snapped, Velynda died quickly, splayed out in the bed of manure Tad had planned to spread on his mother’s lawn.

Sip Drang, sole reporter for The Vlan Daily Witness, was in the pharmacy purchasing travel size toiletries to take on his annual vacation, keeping a journal from which he’d write his popular Great American Sights column. Folks in Vlan don’t get out of town much, so he used GAS as a way to educate them about the larger world. Sip saw the entire incident and supported Tad’s claim that it was a terrible accident though the town gossips would call it an act of revenge.

Meanwhile the woman walked toward the Serna’s small brick house on Sunset Ave. According to Velynda, Estrellita was a great beauty, but there was little evidence that she had inherited her looks from the woman who answered the door, Mrs. Serna appearing wrinkled and worn beyond any reasonable affect of time. She stood firmly in the doorway and told the woman that Estrellita had probably run off with her boyfriend, Hondo Duggins. Then she shut the door.

The woman walked a few blocks to Benny’s dinner where she assumed she’d find an in tact phonebook in the indoor phone booth. Three Duggins were listed. She called each of them asking for Hondo. The first swore at her; the second number was no longer in order. On her third call, she found a woman named Modine who owned up to being the boy’s mother, gave her directions and invited her over. 

Modine Duggins had plenty of things to worry about. The disappearance of Hondo was not one of them. She counted that among her few blessings. Her husband had recently run off with another woman, and she’d just had a phone conversation with her daughter, Nodell, who said she had found a lump on her right breast. But she welcomed the woman into her home anyway. She hauled out the family scrapbook to show the woman a picture of Hondo but ended up showing her a collection of newspaper articles about Nodell’s short-lived career as a faith healer.

After a few reported successes, Nodell had attempted to cure Mrs. Russell Palmeyer of arthritis. When she grabbed the cane from the old woman’s hand and commanded her to dance before God, Mrs. Palmeyer had fallen flat on her face, breaking an arm and cracking a cheekbone. Nodell had been so shamed by Sip Drang’s damning articles in The Witness that she moved out of town.

Hondo? Modine turned to his section and showed the woman clippings about her son’s numerous arrests for fighting, drunk driving and vandalism. She’d quit reading them but dutifully continued to clip and past them into the family chronicle. Just what was the nature of the woman’s business with him anyway, Modine wanted to know.

The woman told Modine how she had been summoned to Vlan. She made clear she was not certain Hondo was the man of her dreams. He certainly resembled the pictures of the boy in Modine’s album, but she was having a hard time reconciling the love she had felt from him with the deeds of Hondo Duggins.

For the first time in her life, Modine Duggins had not a single word to say. She thought maybe the woman had escaped from an asylum and directed her to the door. Then she left a message for Nodell out at the trailer park north of town where she had set up business. PALMS READ HERE the white board with a big red hand on it announced to travelers who ventured down the highway. When she finally returned her mother’s call and heard the story of the redhead’s visit, Nodell claimed that she had recently dreamt of Hondo dead in a watery grave. She felt destined to meet the woman who might have more information. She had a few appointments, but she promised to be home early the following day.

As eager as Nodell was to reach Vlan so was the woman eager to leave it. The youth she dreamt of could not be born of these ugly women in this ugly town. She checked the bus schedule. One last night in Vlan then she would return to her apartment and begin looking for work. The very thought of updating her resume gave her a headache. She’d never had an easy time finding or keeping a job. Not even angry that she’d given no notice only a few days ago, her supervisor had simply escorted her to the door. Feeling foolish she began packing her bag. 

The woman arrived at the bus station early the following morning, purchased her ticket and was the first to board. She hadn’t slept well the previous night. Praying that the couple would come to her rescue, she tossed and turned until it was time for her to get up. As the bus pulled out of the station, she closed her eyes and fell into a deep sleep. The young man and woman surfaced in her murky dream, and she began to choke and gasp for air. 

Sip Drang, who had given his statement to the police along with a list of telephone numbers where he could be reached, was seated directly across the aisle from the woman. He jerked her up out of her seat, positioned himself behind her and performed a quick Heimlech on her.

Infuriated, and not the least bit grateful, to find herself in the arms of the chubby bald man, the woman shoved Sip away. Sip let the bus driver take over. He was on vacation after all, and he had only recently witnessed the demise of Velynda Ashcroft. He didn’t need any more trauma in his life. He’d handed the writing of Velynda’s obituary off to his friend Lupe Villanueva who covered The Witness for him when he was on vacation. He wasn’t sorry he’d miss Velynda’s funeral. Next to Nodell Duggins, Velynda was one of his least favorite people. The two of them had taunted him, wondering how someone so homely and fat could be the son of such a beautiful woman, however crazy she might have been. They’d flirt with him and then reject him, jerking him around like a yoyo. 

Because the woman wouldn’t stop shrieking about a boy and a girl she needed to find, the bus driver decided to take her to the hospital in Vlan. He swung the bus around, nearly running Nodell Duggins off the road.

The ER doctor examined the woman, asking her questions she found entirely too personal. Had this ever happened before? Was there someone the hospital should contact? What kind of medications was she on? 

The woman declared she was on no medication except for the Riovlan she’d been using for the past month.

“Riovlan?”

The woman took the empty crinkled tube from her purse and gave it to him. “It’s made here. I’d like to buy more if you know where I can find it. I wasn’t able to locate the name of the business in the phone book.”

The doctor examined the tube. “La Oscuridad Inc. Not familiar with it. Massage into scalp nightly,” he read the directions aloud. “Have to be careful what you put in your head.” He chuckled at his joke, but got no response from the woman. He handed the tube back to her.

“I didn’t put them there. They came to me.”

Puzzled, the doctor stared at the woman. Then decided not to ask what she meant. “I can give you something for anxiety.”

“Anxiety?” The woman scoffed at the suggestion she suffered from that condition. “A little hair loss,” she said. “That’s the only health problem I’ve ever had in my life.”

“What you experienced on the bus sounds like a panic attack.” The doctor explained his diagnosis.

“I was drowning.” Only in the moment she spoke those words did she understand the vision she’d had on the bus. Catching sight of her rather disheveled appearance in the towel dispenser, she smoothed her hair and left with renewed determination. Somewhere, in dark waters, the couple awaited her arrival. 

When you ask people in Vlan about bodies of water, as the woman began to do, they are most likely to tell you about their ditches, tanks and reservoirs. They might quote you the cost of their new pump or tell you how much they paid to have a well dug. If they mention the river, it will only be to dismiss it. Fishing is poor—mud cats and carp. It is not consistently wide or deep enough for boating or water-skiing. There are no shade trees, so in summer if you are tempted to go there for a swim, you are likely to find yourself alone.

Teenagers go to the river for precisely this reason. There is nothing to do, and they can rest assured there will be no babies or old people to bother them. As they mature and feel the need to find entertainment outside themselves, they’ll drive the thirty miles to Bottomless Lakes. Many of them just keep going. That’s how Nodell Duggins explained the lack of youth in Vlan to the woman who found her annoying but tolerated her because Nodell let her use her car while she worked. She was eager to provide assistance in the search for Hondo and Estrellita, sure that her recent visions would lead to their location and restore her reputation as healer and visionary.

Night after night, the woman was drawn to the cliffs above the river. She parked near the bridge at a turnout in the highway called Scenic Spot. The Spot is where high school kids go to make out. Encased in their automobiles, they find the privacy they long for even though most nights the Spot is about as private as the laundromat on a Saturday morning.

The woman had spent enough time at Scenic Spot to know that if she sat there long enough she would see at least one shooting star. When she saw the pair falling in perfect unison and watched their arc disappear into the river below, she knew she had found her destination.

She fixed in her mind the place where the two stars had fallen and drove back to town. She noted a dirt road that led away from the highway to the river. She was confident that in the light of the following day she would be able to find the place. She was eager to return to the Rio Inn and check her map of the area, but first she had to meet Nodell at Benny’s for what the woman knew would be the last time. As soon as the sun rose, she intended to return to the river. And she intended to return alone.

Sip Drang thanked Lupe again for picking him up at the bus station and waved to her as she backed out of his front drive. From her he’d learned Nodell Duggins was back in town, and that for the past week she’d been stirring things up with a story about how she and a psychic were looking for the bodies of Hondo and Estrellita who had been visiting them both in dreams and visions. 

Sip quickly unpacked, put away his clothing and toiletries without his usual concern for neatness. Then he donned the Panama Hat he had purchased in Baton Rouge and left the house. Eager to learn more about Nodell and her psychic sidekick, Sip pressed the gas pedal to the floor and sped toward Benny’s where everyone was always willing to talk.

When Sip entered Benny’s he was shocked to find that Nodell was something called a Dinner Hostess. As Benny’s had never before had a Hostess, he correctly assumed that Nodell had managed to create a job for herself. She turned a cold shoulder to Sip who seated himself at the coffee counter where he was greeted by those who awaited his return with stories of their own to tell: a new grandchild; a two-headed snake found out on someone’s ranch; Bervin Fall’s prize Longhorn had died.

Knowing Nodell, Sip was prepared for just about anything but he was not prepared to see the woman he’d Heimliched on the bus plaster a fake smile on her face and wave cheerfully at Nodell, inviting her to sit at her booth. Curious, Sip got up to inquire after the woman’s health. Fine, was all the woman said and dismissed him brusquely.

Nodell shot Sip a wicked smile, pleased with the discomfort her new friend had caused him. She slid into the seat across from the woman and explained loud enough for all to hear that Sip used The Witness to spread malicious gossip. The woman, who was beginning to get on Nodell’s nerves, seemed preoccupied and did not respond to her. Nodell ground her teeth. In the short time they’d been sitting together, the woman had admired herself in the window and had even managed to get a quick look at herself in the underside of the waitress’s shiny metal tray. She was using a water glass as a mirror and applying fresh lipstick. Nodell needed a break. She told the woman she’d be unable to drive her around the next day. 

The woman again said merely, “Fine.” She explained she needed to catch up on her beauty sleep anyway and the sooner she started the better. She left Nodell sitting in her booth and walked back to The Rio Inn.

Sip finished the last bite of pie, wished everyone good evening, then drove to the Rio Inn and parked across the street. There he waited, imagining headlines, lead sentences and the Who What When Where Why and How of his next big story, another revealing the chicanery of Nodell Duggins and whoever the redhead was.

Inside her room, the woman took a pen and blackened the road on the map that would lead her to the place in the river. Early the next morning she paid the desk clerk twenty dollars for the use of his car. She drove out of Vlan, past the places that had become familiar to her. Cheerful and feeling at home, she even waved to the boys on a hay truck. Sip Drang, who followed at a discreet distance, had a sick feeling about where she was headed.

As the woman drove along the river road, she watched the water grow faster and deeper with every mile. She stopped near the place where the water runs purple and gray. She got out of the car and made her way down the river path, creeping in and out between the cacti and cholla, until she reached the water’s edge.

The river licked at the tips of her open-toed pumps and invited her in. Caressed by the current, she walked into deeper water. Lulled by the swirl between her thighs, the woman shivered with desire.

From a ridge, Sip watched. He would never forget the day that he and some other youngsters—Nodell and Velynda among them—had taken a large wooden raft out to the river in the back of his father’s pickup. When they put the raft in the water, Nodell told him about the contest they were going to have. What she described hadn’t seemed like much of a challenge. In fact, it seemed like the kind of dumb thing Nodell and her friends would think was an accomplishment. They’d take the raft out to the deep water. Each person would swim the length of the raft while those aboard timed the swimmer. The fastest person won. Though he didn’t expect to win, he knew he could swim from one end to the other. Sip slid off the back end with a confident splash. As he swam beneath it, the raft grew longer, the water darker.

Sip remembered swimming for what seemed an eternity, surfacing in the belief that he had surely reached the end of the raft, bumping his head each time on its underside. Logic told him to swim to the side of the raft and away from it. But his pride and the river’s dark current kept him paddling pointlessly forward.

Weary of the constant thump thump of Sip’s head beneath the raft as he tried to rise for air and the fear that they might actually cause him to drown, one of the boys dove in and rescued Sip as he descended into the muddy arms of the river bottom. Later everyone laughed as they roasted marshmallows around a campfire, telling him that as he swam, they had paddled, negating any progress he made. They had played the trick on others who had all been smart enough to simply swim away from the raft once they began to tire. No one had ever been as dumb as Sip Drang. “No wonder you’re mother left you behind,” he could hear Velynda Ashcroft saying again, “you’re not just fat, you’re stupid, too.” He let them laugh and said nothing about the seductive force that had pulled him deeper and deeper into the river.

Sip scrambled down the river path and plunged in after the woman. When he saw her disappear, he took a deep breath and dove after her, grabbing her by the hair and to his horror, ripped it easily 

Her lungs filling with water, the woman clutched her bald head in humiliation. She sank into the purple water where she saw Hondo’s dirty black car. Decayed flesh dripped from Hodo and Estrellita’s bodies. Tiny fish swam in and out of their eye sockets. Tendrils of green algae and moss flowed from their mouths. Their noses were plugged with debris and mud. Dozens of Styrofoam wig stands bobbed about in the back seat. A blank-faced hollow chorus, they jeered at her. Angry at their betrayal, she pulled at the door handle, but it gave way in her hands. They were beyond her reach. An old catfish with sickly pink eyes circled the woman, jutting back and forth between her legs, tickling her with its whiskers. It gave the woman one last scaly caress before she slid beneath Hondo’s car and settled behind one of the tires.

Sip walked back to the ridge, his soggy sneakers leaving damp impressions upon the ground. When he looked inside the car the woman drove to the river, he saw the map inside her large open purse. Next to it, something caught his eye—a shiny flattened tube decorated with a purple snakelike figure. Something familiar about it filled him with dread. He retrieved the tube and discovered it was what he suspected. Riovlan, made by La Oscuridad Inc., his parents’ old company. Riovlan was just one of their many products made from the red clay he stood upon mixed with the waters of Rio Oscuro that flowed past him as well as plants native to the area. So many people complained about the sickening side effects of their homemade remedies that they had eventually gone bankrupt and out of business. Sip’s mother took his little sister with her to live among a group of Wiccans, leaving Sip behind with his father who became a goat farmer for a few years before dying from an undiagnosed stomach ailment. Sip put the tube in his pocket. It had been a long time since he’d thought about his family. He credited his career in journalism to their talk about magic and cures and spells. Disgusted by their superstitions, not to mention the harm they’d done him and his sister, using them as guinea pigs for their concoctions, he’d turned to facts.

But he’d lived in Vlan long enough to understand that their were things he could not explain. He put the empty tube of Riovlan in his pocket, drove to his house, changed his clothes and went to Benny’s for an early lunch.

Sip ate his omelet slowly, waiting until Nodell had no one to seat, no kids to boost into booster chairs, no customer to chat with. Then he took a deep breath and approached the Hostess Station, which was just a TV tray that Nodell had brought in to sit behind. Before she could begin insulting him, he apologized for the harsh words he’d used in reporting on Mrs. Palmeyer’s accident. Mouth agape, Nodell stared at him with the deep green eyes that had so captivated him in his youth. He fought the impulse to fidget like a lovesick boy. He told her about his new column for The Witness: VIP Vlan’s Important People. If she wanted, she could be his first subject. In it, she could respond to the faith-healing fraud article if she chose to. Nodell listened, chewing on her already chapped lips. She was suspicious but interested.

When she told Sip she’d consider it, he acted grateful. “Don’t wait too long. I need the interview by tomorrow.” He took a peppermint candy from a glass dish and unwrapped it slowly. “My second choice is that new woman—the redhead.” He popped the peppermint into his mouth.

“She can’t be a VIP,” Nodell protested, “she’s not even from Vlan.”

“Well,” said Sip. “She seems to love the place, the way she drives all over the countryside. And let’s face it, she’s a knockout. A photo of her on the front page will sell a lot of papers.”

“Fine. Tomorrow,” said Nodell.

“I’ll pick you up, and we’ll drive out to the river. Real pretty this time of year.”

Nodell snorted. “It’s never pretty no time of year. I want my photo taken in front of my trailer.” She held both of her palms out in front of her. “PALMS READ HERE.”

“Your trailer isn’t really in Vlan. We need a local background, especially for the launch story.” 

Determined to become the first VIP, Nodell agreed to the river.

“Four o’clock sharp. Maybe we’ll catch a pretty sunset.”

“Don’t get any ideas, fat man,” said Nodell.

“Strictly business.” Sip cracked the peppermint between his teeth and left.

The next day Sip and Nodell made uncomfortable small talk—the only thing in common a history of dislike. Sip talked about his recent trip to Louisiana. Nodell described how to read the palm of a hand.

When Sip pulled up right next to the car the woman had driven to the river, Nodell hopped out, curious about who was there. When she looked inside, she recognized the familiar marked up map the woman had left on the seat. Nodell yanked the door open and grabbed it. “What are you and that crazy woman up to?” She waved the map in his face.

Sip played dumb. “I had no idea she’d be here.” Casually he followed the path the woman had taken to the water. “Looks like she went this way.

Nodell scurried to catch up with him as he approached the water. “You have some crazy idea we’re going to compete for VIP, for your attention. Dream on, you idiot.” She grabbed Sip by the arm meaning to spin him around and unload a barrage of humiliating name calling on him. She was surprised when he pulled her into the river behind him.

“She’s waiting for you,” he said.

Nodell recoiled at his touch, but as they tussled in the shallow water, she became excited by Sip’s hands slipping up her skirt and down her blouse. He groped and grabbed trying to get a firm hold on her. They tumbled farther out into the river, losing their footing as the current grew stronger, the river deeper. Nodell got up on Sip’s back and pushed him under. She held him down and beat on his bald head. Thump thump. She laughed, remembering the sound of his head bumping the bottom of the raft so long ago. She was surprised when Sip surfaced easily and tossed her off. He swam for the dark water. Determined to teach him another lesson Nodell slipped out of her skirt and swam after him, thinking he must have forgotten that she’d been the state 400-meter freestyle champ all four years in high school.

Sip was happy to see her taking the bait, but the sight of a newly energized Nodell, her muscular legs churning the water, made him tired. He wasn’t worried about the dark water. Twice he’d been caught in its current, and twice it had released its hold on him. He worried that he wouldn’t have the stamina to lure her out to the deep water.

Just as Nodell reached him, she went down. She popped back up, her eyes wide in surprise. She yelled something at him before she went down again. When she surfaced the third time she flailed only briefly before she disappeared.

When he got to the shore, Sip picked up the map Nodell had dropped along with her handbag and tossed them into the river. If their bodies were found, the people of Vlan would acknowledge a logical conclusion to the story they’d gossiped different versions of for the past couple of weeks. He sat down on the bank of the river and warmed himself against the flat sandstone rocks that layered the shore. He took off his shirt and let the heat of an early spring sun warm his flabby white belly. He saw the delicate blossoms quiver on the hardy cactus. He allowed the yellow grass to tickle his face and chest. He watched the fluffy white clouds separate, revealing the brilliance of a turquoise sky. Dark water coursed through his veins, and he called the place beautiful.

About the Author: Jane Hammons taught writing at UC Berkeley for thirty years before moving to Austin, Texas, where she writes, takes photographs and, before the pandemic, listened to a lot of live music. Her nonfiction has appeared in The Maternal is Political (Seal Press); Selected Memories (Hippocampus Press); Columbia Journalism Review; and San Francisco Chronicle Magazine. Three of her photographs were included in Taking It To the Streets: A Visual History of Protest and Demonstration in Austin, an exhibition of the Austin History Center. She is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.

Permanent Reverberations

By Carter Davis Johnson

Blades of grass,

Adorned with frozen robes,

Transient.

Delicate. 

Vaporous crystal. 

These are the unbreakable things; 

These are the permanent things. 

The hewn dominion of granite, 

Ruling the ages with stoicism,

Trembles.  

Even you, proud granite,

Wear on your smooth head 

Slow decay, 

Like a crown of washed pebbles

That the shore carries 

in her breast pocket.

Heraclitus and the Lethe watch 

Over the ruins of Wolf House.  

Your flinchless form is regal, but

Shrunk 

With every drop. 

Your time, absorbing nothing

save heat and chill, 

Wanes

Imperceptible to the aged eye, lest he 

Keep watch with Tiresias. 

No. You are no more 

Permanent than the 

Effervescent jubilation of frost covered 

grass;

Until the canopy of torn canvas 

Wrinkles and rends,

Its death is perpetual resurrection.

Dancing daughter of frailty.

Bone-chilling felicity.

Lyre of the morning. 

The intersection of permutations with

Permanent reverberations. 

About the Author: Carter Davis Johnson is a Ph.D. student at the University of Kentucky. In addition to his scholarly interests, he is also a creative writer who has been published in The Society of Classical Poets, The Voices Project, and SteinbeckNow. 

*Photo by Tyler Johnson

Two Poems by Rodd Whelpley

By Rodd Whelpley

South Loop

Thankfully, this was years ago

our family in a receiving line

at a restaurant on Harrison or Wabash,

my wife first, me, and our son –

maybe 10 – shaking hands

with our first set of grooms, 

thanking them for including our kid 

on the invitation, apologizing 

for making this political, but he needs 

to see this. 

                    We all need to see this. 

Then, me at once hugging both the husbands,

the three of us gazing over shoulders, wondering 

at how hard it is to steal home, to have 

a Jackie Robinson of marriages, hoping

one day, we can criticize the shitty tuxes, 

the way too many bridesmaids, take odds 

on just how long these kids will last, be catty, 

drunk, and hell-bound joyous at these things –   

just the way we used to.

Although Zero Structures in Our Hometown are Listed as Historic Places

There lived the deities,           the populace of childhood:

                                                Coach. Teacher. The Senior quarterback 

                                                we didn’t know would never make

                                                Ohio State. Bobby Burton’s guide dog

                                                plucking dimes and nickels 

                                                from the floor of his master’s bookshop.

And the household gods         Grandma. And the babysitter, Mrs. Druppel,

                                                who blushed, when, we, tired before our naps,

                                                called her grandma too – 

Who we thought of as             our unwitting saviors those nights

                                                when mom’s, then dad’s, voices,

                                                whet as kitchen steak knives, 

                                                much too loudly echoed words distorted 

through the old-house heat vents

Twins alone                            in separate rooms, wondering

                                                what we did to make things

                                                go so wrong.

 
– inspired by Lannie Stabile’s poem “Callisto”

Rodd Whelpley manages an electric efficiency program for 32 cities across Illinois and lives near Springfield. His poems have appeared in numerous journals. His chapbooks include Catch as Kitsch Can (2018), The Last Bridge is Home (2021) and Whoever Said Love (coming in 2022). Find him at www.RoddWhelpley.com.

 

                                               

                                              

                                             

                                              

                                           

                                                

                                              

         

                                                

                                                

                              

                                                

                                                

Kneel the Cattle

By L. Ward Abel

Under winter lightning kneel the cattle 

while behind windows  

          I bathe in a flashing room.  

Dreams of sea-level fill thunderheads:  

they drain all darkness down to the Gulf.  

Their song rattles windows  

          hereabouts.  

Someday I’ll die too 

on a course to later fall as rain 

when the cedars bend  

and the air changes just  

enough—then the number ‘one’  

will  

share me  

with about  

          a billion stars.  

About the Author: L. Ward Abel’s work has appeared in Rattle, The Reader, The Istanbul Review, The Worcester Review, The Honest Ulsterman, hundreds of others, and he is the author of three full collections and ten chapbooks of poetry, including  American Bruise (Parallel Press, 2012), Little Town gods (Folded Word Press, 2016), A Jerusalem of Ponds (erbacce-Press, 2016), The Rainflock Sings Again (Unsolicited Press, 2019), Floodlit (Beakful, 2019), and The Width of Here (Silver Bow, 2021). Abel resides in rural Georgia.

Ice Chest

By Jody Rae

*Content Warning from the author: this piece engages in the subject of suicide, however there are no graphic scenes.

 On some mornings, the base of Simplot’s Hill was littered with white, malformed ice blocks abandoned on the grass from the night before. We never saw the people who brought stacks of ice blocks, purchased from the Shaver’s grocery store farther down Bogus Basin Road, only to sit on them and ride down a particularly steep incline which, over time, gouged the earth and left raw, muddy wounds in the otherwise pristine green grass. 

My mom and I jointly judged those ne’er-do-wells, those suburban hoodlums who carved their inconsiderate glee into private property. Mr. Simplot was never stingy with his estate. He didn’t mind the ant-like march of schoolchildren across his hill each morning and afternoon; our little legs straining and slipping against the tilt of each rise in the dewy, lumpy hillside; our dirty backpacks full and awkward over our coats or t-shirts. He didn’t care if we tossed our backpacks on the slope to roll ourselves down the hill, shrieking as the world spun faster and faster, just so we could share the thrill of dizziness and grass stains when we stood up at the bottom, only to climb back to where we dropped our book bags. In the winter, his was our favorite sledding hill. 

 Though he was conspicuous in his consumption and material wealth, we regarded Mr. Simplot as a benevolent distant uncle or a prestigious forefather of Boise’s white settlement. We would never recognize him on the street; he remained faceless and voiceless, always, yet we considered him a legitimate member of our community. Neighborhood lore kept us in awe of his financial prowess and might; it was said that trick-or-treaters who broke away from the lower neighborhoods on Halloween to traipse up to his mansion and knock on the door would be rewarded with full-size candy bars. Nobody we knew actually trick-or-treated at Simplot’s mansion, but the myth of regular sized candy earned him our respect, and we pledged allegiance as much to his rumored philanthropy as to the enormous American flag that flapped above his mansion on a twelve-story steel flagpole. 

 I was never really interested in seeing the interior of the Simplot Mansion, nor did I fantasize about living in it. I loved our own house too much, even if it was the dumpiest house on our block. Amidst grand English tudors and elegant Cape Cod style homes nestled against the Boise Foothills, ours was a shoddily-constructed, two-story wood-shingle eyesore that my parents painstakingly painted a light grey with teal trim, by hand. But it was the largest house we ever lived in. The second story, merely a reading loft with a master suite, made me feel rich. I loved my bedroom, with the high vaulted ceiling and morning sunlight. I loved the three tall pines in our steep, private backyard that may or may not have been a retaining wall hazard, and I loved our two and a half bathrooms. I loved our street at sunset. I didn’t need a palace perched on a hilltop to feel at home. I didn’t need the grandiose staircases and sweeping views of the Highlands that many of my friends had. 

 At night, snug in my canopied bed under the moonlight and the shadow of Simplot’s flagpole, I silently gave thanks for my quiet bedroom tucked against the backyard, and my own telephone on my bedroom wall. Sometimes one of our cats, Jasmine or Mocha, would nudge my door open and crawl onto my bed to doze on my chest. “I have everything,” I would whisper to the cat. The cat would purr and knead the bedcovers with its front paws. 

 Occasionally, my friends gathered the remnants of melting or evaporating ice blocks and tried to sail the morning frost of Simplot’s hill, but I remained indignant, chin in the air, resolved to rise above my station. Nobody was instructed to quit ice-blocking on Simplot’s Hill, per se. The police were never summoned. No private security guards ever drove down the mountain to scold anyone. And yet, for the most part, ice blocking was only ever done after dark, as if everyone knew it was at least somewhat disrespectful and uncouth. 

And so, when our refrigerator broke and we were forced to store food in Dad’s creaky old Coleman cooler in the garage, I was horrified when Mom’s outwardly judgmental position on ice-blocking shifted from loud scoffing when we drove by the jagged remains to an air of opportunistic complicity. For weeks, if she spotted the gleaming white shards of ice on the grass near the road, she pulled over and ordered me and my sister out of the car. 

“Hurry!” She said. “Run out there and pick up as many as you can! Quick, I’m parked illegally!” 

We scampered to and from the car, carrying lumps of muddy or grass-flecked ice in our bare hands, ice blocks that strangers sat upon the night before, to deposit on the floor of Mom’s light blue Subaru sedan. Then Mom raced home to dump the scavenged ice into the cooler, where we kept our milk and cheese and yogurt; items that soured no matter how many ice blocks we picked off of Simplot’s Hill. 

“People’s butts touched these ice blocks, Mom. This is butt-ice,” I said, picking grass off a particularly battered block. 

“Oh, just make sure to get it underneath the milk,” she said. 

 My grandparents stopped by one day and expressed dismay over our cooler in the garage, where we tried to quarantine the sour smell. They asked my mom why she hadn’t replaced the broken refrigerator yet, and I was stunned when she told them, “I don’t want to buy a brand new refrigerator for a house that’s going up for sale! Let the new owners buy themselves a refrigerator.”

This was news to me. Selling our house, the house I loved and wanted to live in forever, seemed unthinkable. And yet, hadn’t Mom been dropping hints for years?

My sister remembers the day Mom seemed to give up, ostensibly on housework but as it turned out, on a lot of things. According to my sister, we were ten years old and Mom was in the middle of cleaning the house when she sat on the stairs leading up to her master suite and numbly said, “I just can’t do it anymore”.

Instead of gardening for hours in the evenings, or sewing velcro strips into the seams of her blouses to affix shoulder pads while watching TGIF shows, Mom took long naps after work and got a prescription for Prozac. 

That summer, as soon as school was out, Mom drove us to California to visit Aunt Carole and other relatives. After only a couple of days at Aunt Carole’s house, I woke up to find that Mom had driven herself back to Idaho, leaving me and my sister behind. Aunt Carole couldn’t understand why Mom hadn’t told us her plans to leave us there, but she also couldn’t believe Mom didn’t pack enough underwear for us. We shuffled between relatives’ homes for several weeks, our suitcases bulging with new pieces of clothing or stuffed animals to augment our vagabond wardrobes. As my duffle bag swelled, I felt like a growing burden with each passing day until my aunt and uncle finally drove us partway to Idaho to meet my Mom, who acted as if silently leaving in the middle of the night all those weeks ago was a totally normal, stable thing to do. 

I didn’t understand depression so, with Mom already deep in the pit, I was prone to uncharacteristic fits of jealousy. Back at our own house, I yelled at her and tried to coerce her. I ripped her precious shoulder pads out of all her blouses and dresses and blazers. She responded by either ignoring my antics or hollering. On at least one occasion, when I argued with her about her endless threats to move away to California, she yelled, “Well, how about I just kill myself! How would you like that, huh?” I feared I would find her in a bathtub with her wrists cut for the next five years. 

But she was serious about moving us away to California. We would have to leave our dad behind, who came to see us on weekends and holidays and special events. We would have to leave the only friends we’d ever known, the community we grew up in. My house. 

When I came home from school to find our cats sniffing a For Sale sign in the yard, I dropped my backpack on the grass and tried to pull the sign out of the ground, but it was surprisingly rooted into the topsoil. I didn’t care if neighbors saw me karate kick that sign loose enough to wrestle it out of the ground and toss it over our back fence. When the realtor stopped by the next day to replant the sign, she gave me side-eye, but I gave it right back and called her a Homewrecker behind her back. 

I turned to some of the adults I felt close to at the time, or at least trusted enough to open up to about my impending crisis. Seeking an ally, I prodded grown ups to advocate for me. But they were squarely in Mom’s corner.

“Don’t you want your mom to be happy? She deserves to do this for herself. You’re the kid, don’t you see? Your feelings don’t matter.” Over and over, Mom’s friends and relatives admonished me for not supporting her decision to spread her proverbial wings, take flight and learn to love herself, at the expense of our family. “Your mom has done a lot for you. It’s time she does something for herself for once.”

I walked through our house in a daze, touching walls as I passed by, trying to memorize the contours of the layout and the textures of the wood or plaster surfaces. In my bedroom, I cranked my cassette tapes up loud and performed elaborate dance routines in front of a slim wall mirror propped against my closet doors. The movement helped me expel just a little nervous energy each day. With no one watching or judging, I could escape into fantasies of Mariah Carey music videos or backup dancing for Paula Abdul. If I kept moving, it seemed, everything else might stay the same.

When the Homewrecker sold our house in October, we moved into my godmother’s basement for the next five months to prepare to relocate to California. My godmother, Skylar, and our godsister, Willow, lived in a huge house built into a cliff in the Highlands with broad views of the foothills, the Crane Creek golf course, and a distant, clear shot at Boise’s handful of downtown skyscrapers. Before we moved out of our house, I stowed one of my journals in the secret room behind Mom’s closet, believing I could come back one day to find it and prove to the current owners that I had a claim on the property, and they would obligingly sell it back to me. 

 Skylar’s basement had two tiny windowless bedrooms with low ceilings, a comfortable den, and a bathroom with a bathtub but no shower head. My sister was the Alpha so she got her own bedroom and slept in a twin bed. I was forced to share a full sized bed with my mom and our two cats. Mom snored and listened to Louise L. Hay audio books as she tried to go to sleep, which meant I had to listen to them, too. I barely slept at night with all the racket, and soon my forehead erupted in tiny red zits that persisted no matter how many times a day I washed my face with Clearasil. Puberty was nigh, and I was in no way prepared for hormonal or stress breakouts, nor the hygienic requirements thereof. The boys who were my friends growing up started being mean to me; adults had a sadistic habit of pointing out my budding acne. My godmother once greeted me in the kitchen one morning by way of commenting on how my preadolescent zits reminded her every day how fast we were growing up. I responded to this chaos by chain-reading novels like a literary junkie. 

Each night, Louise’s sonorous self-help voice would haunt my dreams if I managed to fall asleep before the tape ran out, and I resented her when I started memorizing her instructions for creative visualization. 

“See peace breaking out all over the planet,” Louise read, and I could only imagine the Earth’s surface breaking out in tiny red volcanoes, making it ugly and unbearable to look at, impervious to the Creator’s brand of zit cream. Louise L. Hay became a target for the extreme hatred I felt towards my circumstances. Instead of following her nightly instructions, I wrote long missives in school about how much I hated the sound of her soothing voice and I creatively visualized her having terrible Christmases. 

The heat in Skylar’s house was used sparingly. While lying awake all night, I tried to remain as still as possible, because to move a half inch in any direction meant all the heat I’d gathered against my skin would leak rapidly into the dark. To touch the ice-cold wall immediately to my left was certain to shock my senses, but I refused to snuggle against Mom, who slept soundly while presumably dreaming about palm trees and seashells. I learned to drape the next day’s clothes over myself on top of the bedspread. That way, by morning the clothes might have absorbed some of my body heat and I could squirm into them while staying under the covers, my teeth chattering in the dark. 

Because the basement bathroom didn’t have a shower head, I didn’t shower during the entire five months we lived at Skylar’s. Instead I ran a bath each night and washed my hair in my own bathwater. I thought this was an effective way to stay clean, until my friend Jenny walked behind me in single file on our way to P.E. one day and began swiping at the dandruff and dried soap flakes in my hair. Later that day, Mr. Loveless, our P.E. teacher asked me, “How come you never smile?”

The only showers in the house were way up at the third level, and those were Willow and Skylar’s quarters, so I never went up there unless they were home and watching TV on the loft. Mostly I stayed in the cramped room I shared with Mom, listening to Bryan Adams while reading a stack of library books. 

My sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Henderson, was my first role model for feminism, art appreciation, and outrage against the Patriarchy. She was tall and slender and had long dark hair. She was married but waited tables three nights a week to cover her bills. I’m not sure we deserved her. But she looked out for me in a lot of ways. I was obviously struggling at home, but what may have initially tipped her off was when it was my turn to present on current events for the week and I mounted a half-hearted defense of Dr. Kevorkian. 

While windshield-wipering my bony legs on a tall squeaky stool in front of the class, I grasped the lank news clipping between my fingers as my only visual aide while describing how the doctor assisted terminally ill patients with end-of-life wishes.

“Last year, the judge dismissed charges of first-degree murder, but the state of Michigan revoked Dr. Kevorkian’s medical license. And this week,” I told my peers, “the Governor of Michigan signed legislation temporarily banning assisted suicide. So. Legally, Dr. Kevorkian isn’t allowed to help people anymore.” I shrugged. They stared at me, slack-jawed, at a loss for words. Most current events stories were human interest pieces, or anything NASA-related. Brandon had just reported on the New York Yankees signing a new pitcher. Mrs. Henderson glanced nervously around the room before excusing me back to my seat. 

At Skylar’s house, I was embarrassed about not having a shower, or a room, or a bed of my own. When we first moved in, my godsister Willow, eager to maintain her reign in her own house, told her mom that I didn’t want a ride home from school, so I walked the mile and a half home, entirely uphill, in the winter. I did want a ride, but I also missed privacy, so I didn’t mind the cold or the gray skies. I liked the fresh air and I liked imagining myself living alone in any of the fancy houses I passed on the sidewalk. I wiped my runny nose on my coat sleeve as my body curved under the weight of a backpack wider than my shoulders. My ankles ached against the steady incline. I didn’t have a space to dance to my favorite songs anymore, so I began to look forward to the cold walks and the clarifying burn in my chest and throat. It was often the best part of my day. 

Meanwhile, a new family moved into our old house, and they had a daughter who was our age. Her name was Kelsey and she enrolled in my sister’s class, which was a blessing because, even though I liked her, if I had to look at the girl living in my old bedroom every day at school, I would not have handled it well. Kelsey found the journal I stowed in the secret hideout and she read it. She knew who I was, and she felt compelled to return it to me, so she delivered it to my sister. “Please give this to your sister for me. I would return it myself, but I’m worried she might be mad at me for living in your old house. Tell her I promise not to erase the height marks she made for herself on the bedroom wall.”

I wasn’t mad at Kelsey, no, not really. And I appreciated her sensitivity to the situation, which actually showed a great deal of maturity on her part, for an eleven-year-old. I didn’t know what to do with the old journal where I had written all my deepest fears and thoughts and lists. But I did know I wanted it to stay preserved, in Boise, so I tossed the journal into the storage space behind the washing machine at Skylar’s house, ceremoniously, like they were my own cremated ashes. But a few weeks later, Skylar cleaned out that long dark cavern and found the journal. She returned it to me, thinking it was misplaced somehow. What the hell, with trying to offload this damn journal? I thought. 

It was during one of my long walks home from school that I hatched a plan. If I could turn everyone at school against me, they would be mean, and I wouldn’t miss them so much when I left. Because, oh, how I would miss them, and already did; these classmates I cherished and wanted to keep close forever. In my young brain, sabotage seemed like the only solution.

It was an obnoxious revelation that backfired gloriously. When one boy made a benign wisecrack at me, I walked behind his chair and yanked his hair. When my friend Beth, who sat directly behind me, tried to talk to me in her unwavering kind and friendly manner, I blatantly ignored her. At recess, I took a book outside or kept to myself, leaping from one slick ice mound to another on the playground, hoping I might slip and knock myself unconscious. Perhaps I would enter into a coma and my mom would have no choice but to stay in Boise, working at the public library, while I struggled to survive at St. Luke’s hospital, her plans ultimately thwarted. 

The other kids gave mostly bored or dismissive responses to my alienating scheme. The girls, not yet hardened by middle school social warfare, left me to my own devices and wasted no time or attention on me. The boys were insensitive but not cruel, save for the two boys in my class who were, we later realized, raised by abusive fathers. In me, they saw an easy thing to verbally torture. Stopping just short of any physical harm, the two boys attacked from separate angles, with no coordination between themselves. Their words are lost on me now, as they were then. Nothing they said to me gave them any indication that I was bothered, and this seemed to both excite and infuriate them. To hurl invectives and insults towards an unresponsive or aloof girl like me became less about hurting me and more about performing for everyone else. 

After some time, their behavior wore on everyone. “Come on, just leave her alone, will you?” The boy I loved since fourth grade said one morning, while keeping his head down on his schoolwork. He didn’t love me back anymore; he just wanted some peace and quiet. Mrs. Henderson occasionally overheard one of the two boys’ vitriolic rants and she intervened. “Why would you say that to someone? How do you think that makes her feel?” She yelled. 

“I’m fine,” I’d say. “It doesn’t hurt my feelings.” After all, I reasoned, my feelings didn’t matter anyway. 

The worst part was saying a slow goodbye to my dad. My parents split up when my sister and I were three, but I never suffered the pain of divorce because my dad was always at our house on weekends, or we were with him in McCall, a hundred miles north. He was with us every holiday, every birthday, and a lot of major school events. My mom assigned constant projects for him around her house, even though he didn’t live there. On any given weekend, our outing involved walking the wide concrete aisles of a hardware store while Dad shopped for materials for Mom’s house. As we slowly transitioned out of Idaho, he was visibly breaking down. Sometimes he wiped his eyes while driving us around in his loud Chevy van.

My godsister Willow was watching her own parents split up at the time. She spent half her time at her dad’s house and half at her mom’s, and even though we were raised together like sisters, this was never something we discussed. I remember being told not to talk about it unless Willow brought it up, which of course she didn’t. She was ten. 

Instead Willow became extremely attached to her terrier, A.J., who never left her side. While her parents divorced, A.J. was Willow’s solace and constant companion. That is, until we let him follow us down the street to a friend’s house and we watched him get run over by a car. Nothing will erase the sound of Willow’s screaming sobs when we raced towards A.J.’s still body; nothing will erase the small pool of blood seeping from his ear onto the asphalt. Nothing would ever compare to the helpless feeling of watching tragedy strike someone I loved, while not being able to stop it, even as I stood right beside her.

That afternoon, while Willow’s parents handled A.J’s effects, Willow and my sister and I roamed the main floor, wailing separately, like three ghosts passing from room to room, unable to look at each other. Now, not only was Willow dealing with her parent’s divorce, she had to mourn her dog, too. With the two of us living together, it became a very bleak house indeed. 

When Christmas arrived, my dad seemed to panic. He took me and my sister shopping and bought two of everything we wanted so we wouldn’t have to share. That meant two boomboxes, two sets of the same cassette tapes, two pairs of Reebok Pumps – those sneakers with an internal inflation device that they didn’t even make in kids’ sizes. Dad bought us adult sized Pumps because we thought they were cool and because it fit his shopping philosophy that I would “grow into them someday”. The sales guy at the shoe store said something like, “Seriously, man, don’t do this.” I wore the Pumps at school, but changed out of them before and after recess so they wouldn’t get dirty. We in fact never grew into those Pumps. 

I wasn’t aware at the time that my dad, who doesn’t go to the mall on purpose, was having a prolonged emotional breakdown. But while I memorized En Vogue’s Funky Divas album in its entirety, it occurred to me that he was desperate because his daughters were moving away soon. 

I tried to picture my life without the classmates I’d grown up with, even the ones who were mean to me, and that was unbearable. But when I finally realized how much my dad was hurting, I sealed off some important part of myself and tried to absorb as much of the impact for him as possible. If I tried to keep a stiff upper lip in his presence, maybe he could think about things other than the clock winding down and the calendar flipping towards the inevitable. Sparing Dad’s feelings became a priority, but the weight of despair sunk me further into a cold darkness. 

“You can stay behind and live with Skylar or move to McCall to live with your dad, but I am going to California with or without you,” I remember Mom saying flippantly, while rolling her hair in curlers before bedtime. I was angry that she refused to wait until I finished sixth grade to relocate. For the first time, I felt forced to choose between my parents. When I asked Dad if I could live with him full time, he told me, “Well. I’d like that. But I just don’t know how to raise girls…” As if anyone does. 

In my vocabulary tests, I began to reference Dr. Kevorkian in example sentences. Mrs. Henderson noticed. So one day my mom pulled me out of school to visit a psychologist. If I had to guess, my gingerbread house at Christmastime was the final straw for Mrs. Henderson, when I added a graham cracker gallows platform in the frosted yard, complete with a red vine noose. Also, not one for subtlety, the entire roof of my gingerbread house was aflame in orange gumdrops. Next to everyone else’s cheerful and cozy cottages, mine was a Halloween hellscape of spun sugar and red sprinkles, “for blood splatter,” I explained to one of the room moms, who pursed her lips and furrowed her brow with matronly concern. My cry for help could not have been more shrill.

I certainly was not a little Wednesday Addams at the beginning of the school year, so Mrs. Henderson took the only action within her power, forming a protective dome-like barrier over me in her classroom. But then I submitted an Historic Figure report on Billie Holiday, with a strong emphasis on her heroin addiction and tragic death. I don’t think Mrs. Henderson worried so much that I was aiming for Lady Day’s trajectory. To her, this was just one more chilling message shot over the bow of my sinking ship. 

The psychologist across town on Parkcenter Boulevard was a friendly lady, with short silver hair and kind eyes, but she remained silent throughout the entire session. I recognized the office park because my friend Tyler’s family owned the Red Robin across the street, and my friend Jennifer’s grandparents owned the Garcia’s Mexican restaurant where we used to eat fried ice cream, back when friends used to invite me places. In the psychologist’s office,  I played with a toy train in a sandbox while my mom waited in the lobby. Even though the psychologist let me stay quiet for almost a whole hour, she must have mastered her technique, because five minutes before our session was over and without any prodding, I burst into heavy tears. 

“Please tell my mom not to move me away from my dad and all my friends,” I begged her. “I hate living in someone else’s house and I want my own bed. My dad says he doesn’t know how to raise me, so I have to live with Mom. But, please, she won’t listen to me.” The psychologist’s face, held for so long in a soft and pleasant stare, hardened into a thin-lipped, straight mouth. She glanced at her watch and handed me a tissue. 

“I would love to see you again soon,” she told me as she escorted me into the waiting room, softening once again. I beamed, as if I had passed an exam. “Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to speak with your mother for just a few minutes.” 

My mom took me out for ice cream afterwards at the Baskin Robbins on Broadway. She was chipper and she smiled, but I never saw that psychologist again. 

Louise L. Hay’s voice continued to interrupt my sleep habits. I remember crying after Mom fell asleep when Louise airily stated, “If you can’t get close to other people, it is because you don’t know how to be close to your own inner child. The child in you is scared and hurting. Be there for your child.” Since Mom was fast asleep, I wanted to elbow her awake to ask, What about the child right next to you? What about her?

At school, I sometimes looked at my arm resting on my desk over an open textbook, and I suddenly felt like the arm didn’t belong to me, as if it was a weirdly detached mannequin’s arm inside a too-short jacket sleeve, the white cuffs dingy and hollow above the wrist where the elastic wore out. Whose arm is this, I wondered. If the classroom became loud during group activities, the sounds elongated near my ears so that everyone sounded very far away, or like I was underwater. I no longer raised that mannequin arm in class to swiftly answer questions incorrectly or tell long-winded stories to stay alert and interested in the topic at hand. I wrote love notes to Idaho on my desk, desperate to leave a mark of my existence on a place I would leave behind. 

On another long night while Louise droned on, the words landed haphazardly in a way I’m certain the author never intended. 

“Responsibility is our ability to respond to a situation. We always have a choice,” she read. Yes, I thought. I do have a choice in this situation. And that choice is to run away. Surely running away would communicate to my mom how desperate I was to avoid moving out of Boise. In a colorful note with hearts drawn along the borders, I informed my friend Beth about my plans to sleep under a bridge somewhere. I didn’t know of any bridges in the Highlands, so I would have to walk downtown, or perhaps curl up inside one of the long metal tube slides at Camel’s Back Park. Beth begged me in a reply note not to run away. She pleaded with me to stay logical and consider the real and perceived dangers of sleeping outside in the winter. 

After Beth tried to convince me not to run away, I walked home to my godmother’s house, searching out alcoves and hideaway spots near the street where I could camp. In Skylar’s basement, I started packing a book bag with supplies like snacks and a blanket, but when it came to clothing, I didn’t know where to start. I had never owned a quality winter coat and any ski gear that still fit was packed away in a storage unit with the rest of our belongings. It was below zero outside and I lost my nerve. Instead, I daydreamed about opening the car door while Mom drove us on the highway to California, losing consciousness the moment I hit the blurred pavement. 

I didn’t know much about how suicide should be accomplished without Dr. Kevorkian’s calming voice at my bedside, leading me to the other side with an intravenous tether, but I’d heard that ingesting massive amounts of multi-colored pills or drinking chemicals from under the sink ought to do it. No stranger to chemicals under the sink, growing up I fancied myself a yet-to-be-discovered genius chemist. I frequently locked myself in the bathroom with a notebook and a tall water glass, where I would mix various cleaning solutions and record the results of each reaction in a notebook. I didn’t know about volatility, so I didn’t consider how close I came to mixing rudimentary napalm through one of my under-the-sink potions. It was years before my folks broke down and finally bought the small chemistry set I kept asking for. But I was older and wiser now, and I suspected I could decipher a noxious poison from an inert substance. The thought made my heart quicken. 

In the meantime, I read my books, one after another. Biding my time.

Mrs. Henderson led a reading program that rewarded students who read the most books each month with a pizza party. I never missed a single pizza party until we left Idaho. I lived for those monthly pizza parties with just Mrs. Henderson, a few classmates, and maybe a special guest faculty member. For every book we read, we got to write the title on a large green paper leaf that Mrs. Henderson attached to a giant papier-mâché tree trunk that crawled up the front wall and across the ceiling over our heads. At the end of the year, after I had already left the school for California, they counted up the leaves and I had the most, with sixty-three leaves. Nobody else came close. 

Mom left us with Skylar to move some of our stuff to California. 

“I’ll only be gone a week! Stop crying, right this instant!” 

Uncle Roger arrived in a giant moving truck and loaded all of our stuff out of the storage unit. I knew this was serious because Mom took Jasmine and Mocha with her. While she was gone, I finally had the whole bed to myself, but I didn’t sleep because I was terrified Mom wouldn’t come back, and I would be the last to know, just like that summer she left us behind in California. As angry as I felt, I spritzed her flat pillow with her amber-colored perfume, which was called something like “Wild Musk”. That week, I took her pillow upstairs to the den to watch TV with Willow and Skylar. Willow snuggled with an old bone that her dog A.J. used to chew. She wrapped the jagged bone in a fuzzy blanket and tucked it into its own bean bag chair, or she cradled it absentmindedly while I curled up on the carpet with my musky Pillow Mom.

Once, during a commercial break, Skylar said, “You know, you’re welcome to stay here with me if you want to keep living here.” I shrugged with my back turned to her. My throat constricted in a silent sob. Don’t kids belong with their Mom? I thought, even if they don’t? 

If I stayed with Skylar, how could I live in the basement all alone? I don’t have my own alarm clock anymore. How will I wake up for school in the morning? I need Mom to help with my homework, I reasoned. Looking back, I am surprised this was a concern for me. I could have asked my friends and their parents for help. I could have asked Mrs. Henderson to find me after-school tutoring. I could have stayed behind, but I had already secluded myself at school and severed the most important ties in my life. And doesn’t a kid belong with their Mom? 

In March, Mom moved us to Aptos, California and rented a mildewy duplex on Seascape Boulevard that exceeded our budget, but was within walking distance to the beach. I gathered Jasmine and Mocha into my arms and murmured into their fur, talking shit about Mom. They concurred through a twitch of a tail, a short yowl, a violent purr. I telepathically whispered to them that I would find our way home. 

We enrolled at an elementary school to finish out the last two months of sixth grade. The school was woefully overcrowded, and reeked sweetly of rotting food and garbage from the playground. My sister had to share a desk and textbooks with a girl in her classroom. The only reason I got my own desk in my classroom was because it was vacated by a boy who went to rehab or a psychiatric hospital for sniffing glue.

It is difficult to articulate the arrival of rage that had surely gained momentum over time. When it made its presence known, it gave no indication that it was inside of me, other than it was the only thing that seemed to bring feeling back into my mannequin arms. During heated moments, when I looked at my hands, I felt every nerve tingling down to my fingertips. Destruction was not instinctual before, but suddenly I wanted to mindlessly wreck things. I meditated on how I could pull the entire wooden entertainment center away from the wall, and let it crash across the kitchen table. The garage was lined with shelves, stuffed with all our belongings that couldn’t fit in our tiny duplex. Those shelves could come down with a shove, and kiss my ass on the way down. Though I didn’t act on it, my desire to topple heavy pieces of furniture frightened me, and soothed me all at once. 

After just three days at my new school, I sat on the stairs in our duplex and whispered, “I just can’t do it anymore”. I locked myself in the bathroom and sat on a soft, tasseled champagne bathmat while I emptied cleaning supplies from the cabinet beneath the sink. I opened and sniffed each bottle, some of which still had the faded green “Mr. Yucky” stickers I brought home from school, where they taught me not to do the exact thing I was now doing. I didn’t want any of the dyed solutions, which felt impure and I wondered if perhaps the dye diluted the strength of the active ingredients. I chose a small brown bottle filled with clear liquid that had an ominous name. 

I sat cross-legged on the bathmat and brought the bottle to my lips, my hand shaking, and I thought my final thoughts. My plan was to haunt my old elementary school in Boise, in a friendly way, but scare bullies away from the loners. I thought about my dad and my friends in Idaho who I didn’t think I would ever see again. I thought about my new school and how impossible it was that I wasn’t sitting in Mrs. Henderson’s class that very moment, bored with plant cell structures, instead of staring down the open mouth of a dark bottle of poison. What I wouldn’t give to hear those two abused boys unleash their fury on me, just to be in Boise again. Leaving everything I ever knew behind, while knowing everything was still progressing day by day without me, felt like a death. As if my absence didn’t really affect anyone.

I drank from the bottle and coughed immediately. I anticipated discomfort, but I did not foresee the burning in my throat and the roof of my mouth. Terrified by the sensation, I remembered hearing on an after school special that milk can neutralize acid, so I ran upstairs and gulped milk straight from the jug while my mom and my sister watched Golden Girls in the living room. Gasping, I immediately confessed to my mom and my sister, my eyes watering and my voice shaking. 

“Well, you seem fine now,” they said. God, Mom could be such a Sophia. And my sister was always such a major Blanche.

Later that night I heard them snickering together in the bathroom over the scattered bottles on the floor. Sons a bitches, I thought. I had tried to poison myself with hydrogen peroxide, which at best may have caused vomiting and at worst would have caused tissue burns. 

Then Mocha ran away, leaving me and Jasmine behind. For days I sat on the front porch, stroking Jasmine’s giant gray belly while he sunbathed. Every once in a while, he jerked his head towards the street, his light blue Siamese eyes fixated on nothing, and I thought he sensed Mocha returning. I hurried up and down the unfamiliar road in socked feet, calling her name. Maybe she was lost and couldn’t find her way home? I cried for all the neighborhood to see. 

I made posters every day after school and taped them on every corner mailbox within walking distance and on the bulletin board at the Seascape Village. The signs were torn down as quickly as I put them up, and it became a sort of cold war between me and the culprit as my mission shifted from Missing Cat to, I’ve got no real friends here and all the time in the world to make flyers, Asshole. I drew Mocha in haughty repose, her fluffy black lion’s mane crowding under her ladylike chin; I drew her mugshot, straight-on and in profile; I drew her dainty paw prints, like inked fingerprints that would somehow crack the case. 

One afternoon, I came home after my daily flyer distribution, and our living room was filled with all my aunts and uncles and older cousins. It was a Welcome to California party, where they mostly sat in the living room watching footage of the Branch Davidian compound tragedy in Waco, Texas. I forgot they were coming over to see us.

“Is this a shoulder pad intervention?” I asked. “Because maybe you’ve noticed my mom is out of control.” 

“Oh, stop that,” Mom yelled from the kitchen. Later, they failed to comfort me with platitudes bordering on guilt trips. “Think of your mother’s happiness,” they said. “She deserves to be happy”. The implication was that I didn’t deserve to be happy as much as my mom did.

Eventually, we admitted to ourselves that Mocha was likely overtaken by a gang of vicious raccoons. Or hit by a car. I thought of A.J. lying in the street back home, and I recalled Willow’s agonized moans, and I wondered which was worse: never knowing Mocha’s true fate, or witnessing her sudden death and forced to grasp the finality of it. 

Along the beach, atop sheer cliffs of sandstone and granite, enormous houses as big as Simplot’s mansion sat silently like a row of sturdy, gleaming teeth. The residents and owners of those mansions were faceless, but also nameless. None of them possessed the mythical reputation of Mr. Simplot. None of them allowed hundreds of schoolchildren to cross their property, ever, let alone daily. None of them even seemed to like having neighbors; iron gates and thick stucco privacy walls kept them enclosed and separated from the rest of society, discouraging even the most intrepid trick-or-treaters. Their mansions spoke above the fog bank, you can look, but you can’t touch. 

Like other things I’d lost over the past year, I held onto Mocha’s disappearance like a hard, frozen tangible object close to my heart, letting it gouge raw grooves into a place struggling to regenerate. Louise L. Hay would never approve of my methods, but during rare moments at that time when I felt my heart warming towards the future, or glimmer with hope, or grow affection for anything other than my cats, I gathered those losses close, preserving them and letting their weighted, cold touch cool any warmth in my chest. I had to. To allow those losses to evaporate meant losing them forever, even when I knew I couldn’t keep them forever: my dad, my house, my room, my friends, my cat, my school. My whole world. No, letting go of all of these at once could only mean that nothing really mattered at all, least of all my feelings. 

About the Author: Jody Rae’s creative nonfiction essays appear in The Avalon Literary Review, The Good Life Review, and From Whispers to Roars. Her short story, “Beautiful Mother” was a finalist in the Phoebe Journal 2021 Spring Fiction Contest. She was the first prize winner of the 2019 Winning Writers Wergle Flomp Humor Poetry Contest for her poem, “Failure to Triangulate”. She lives in Colorado, and her work can be found at www.criminysakesalive.com.

Surviving The Autopsy

By Susan Sonde

They’ve trimmed my hair, pared my nails, picked my teeth clean with a knife, Broom strolls from the closet. Cat’s got a wild look in his eyes. I’m thirsty. Fire’s burning up the morning darkness. I think he wants to kill me. 

I thought of you again last night. 

The streets are overflowing with people. The water in my tap’s never cold enough. How much you didn’t love me. In winter it’s never hot. My algorithms don’t add up. There goes the neighborhood dive bar. 

My memories of you are endless       

winding stairwells. I never reach the top. Oh, memory that stems from abandonment, you make my head heavy with zeroes. The butchery of the heart never stops. I, always the first to  apologize. You, always looking naked and desirable in the clothes you wear when you leave. Your name in my throat’s become a feral cry. Our lives together were a rising tide. Day after mismanaged day going under. My thoughts grew increasingly fearful of one another. Standing under water made me giddy on my feet.

The wind’s turning pages. I hear the slurred speech of trees, the rustle of a few raindrops it hectors into the leaves. Air’s the color of an open wound left to fester. It’s a challenge to breathe. Street’s now flat as a meadow minus its mellifluous sheep. The day won’t hold still for a picture and there are ashes between my teeth.

About the Author: Susan Sonde is an award winning poet and short story writer. Her debut collection: In the Longboats with Others won the Capricorn Book Award and was published by New Rivers Press. The Arsonist,  her fifth collection was released in 2019 from Main Street Rag. Her sixth collection, Evenings at the Table of an Intoxicantwas a finalist in the New Rivers New Voices 2019 contest. The Last Insomniac was a 2019 finalist in The James Tate Award. 

Grants and awards include, a National Endowment Award in poetry; grants in fiction and poetry from The Maryland State Arts Council; The Gordon Barber Memorial Award from The Poetry Society of America. Her collection The Chalk Line was a finalist in The National Poetry Series.  Individual poems have appeared in Barrow Street, The North American Review, The Southern Humanities Review, The Mississippi Review, American Letters and Commentary, Bomb, New Letters, Southern Poetry Review, and many others.  

Liquid Gold in Big Sky

By Michael Carter

Mother said we would no longer be hungry when the rain came. Rain would grow the rye, and we’d take our harvest to town. We’d sell it, buy food and medical supplies, and if there was money left over, maybe a doll for my sisters.

She baked bread for us each morning. When our stomachs shrank, a large piece of bread made us feel full most of the day. But we were still hungry. At night, I dreamed of the borscht and green-pepper soup she used to make for us.

I learned later that Mother was lying about the rain. Even if the rain came and even if we had enough energy to harvest, no one could buy it. That’s because the “suits” thousands of miles away made mistakes just before Halloween of ’29, and now nobody had any money.

Mother told us other things to keep our hopes up. “Maybe we’ll move to California, where it’s warm,” she’d say. We could pick peas year-round, she explained, and we might find gold along the way.

“We’ll stop in Helena to see if they’ve struck gold again. Then we’ll make our way to Carson City, Nevada, to see if they have gold there. We’ll buy food with the gold, and you’ll all be full.”

I said, “Maybe there’s gold here?”

Mother said, “No, sweetie, there’s no gold out here in the Plains.”

So I prayed each night for the rain. And even though Mother said there wasn’t any, I prayed for gold. I prayed that Mother would make it all work and we’d eat.

When the rain finally came, I left our sod hut and peered into the big sky, greeting the drops as they hit my face.

Mother and my sisters joined me and did the same. I looked at their faces and saw something that made me think Mother was right about hope but wrong about the gold.

I saw smiles as the raindrops glistened and rolled off their cheeks. Like tears of happiness. Like liquid gold running down their faces that would drip to the ground and make everything all right again.

We put our arms around each other, and for that moment, a moment in time that felt as long as the span between the horizons, we were no longer hungry.

About the Author: Michael Carter is a writer from the Western United States. He comes from an extended family of orchardists and homesteaders in Montana, also known as Big Sky Country. He enjoys RVing and wandering remote areas of the Rocky Mountains with his dog Hubbell, primarily along the banks of the Gallatin River. He’s online at michaelcarter.ink and @mcmichaelcarter.

*This piece originally appeared in Spelk on February, 8th 2019. An archive can be found here: https://spelkfiction.com/2019/02/08/liquid-gold-in-big-sky/.

A Good Villain for the Ages

By Ernest Gordon Taulbee

“You don’t remember me, do you?”

At first, astrology wasn’t just some bullshit built for people to check horoscopes in old TV Guides they found while cleaning out their dead grandma’s house. Originally, astrology was an attempt to understand the universe and the human’s place within it — when math was made of monsters and science was a demon that could crawl into your soul. It holds the concept of a Great Year and within that construct there are smaller portions known as Ages. 

An Age consists of two millennia, a century, and a few decades to spare — a good stretch of time. There have been only a few Ages at best since the Great Year was first conceived, and, though it may seem like a poor man’s approach to understanding infinity, it is the perfect length of time for the nap my body needed.

Now there’s this guy. He’s been blowing up my phone all morning. He blew up my supervisor’s phone yesterday. He blew up my director’s phone the day before. I called him back and made an appointment with him. I have complied. I hope he mirrors that behavior, because all I want is compliance. 

The process should be simple: Metrocall receives the complaint, the complaint is sent to a compliance officer, we inspect and send our report to the owner, they make the repairs, and we close the case. Your most eager egghead shouldn’t be able to make a very interesting flowchart out of that one, but it always gets complicated. 

Owners complain. They don’t want to make the repairs. It isn’t financially feasible. It’s not their fault the property is in disrepair. It was like that when they bought it, and, if Metro expects them to make repairs, they will leave it in the lawyers’ hands. 

This guy was no different. The problem with him is that he was supposed to be different. His company was supposed to improve the neighborhoods. His company, Promise Properties LLC, submitted a plan to the city saying they would purchase vacant properties and have them ready for market within eighteen months. I was instructed by to “work with them.” 

His company could be called Broken Promise Properties LLC for all I care, because I am yet to see one of the properties improve. One of those astrological Ages could pass, and I doubt we would see improvements. The developers are all the same. At first, they see cheap properties they can flip and by flipping improve the neighborhoods and make tons of money. Then the financing gets tricky and they realize it may not have been that wise to invest in such an economically depressed area. 

Then, I’m stuck being a compliance officer who doesn’t get compliance on his cases. I stopped working with him and placed some fines. I figured the non-compliance would get me more noticed than the fines, and I desperately need to be under the radar. 

After the fines, the phone calls started what seemed like Ages ago, and now here he is asking if I know him.

“Sir,” I said. “I don’t think we’ve met.”

“Goddamn, Devin, how can you not remember me?”

“Sir, I would prefer Inspector Prentice?”

“I’m calling you Devin. That is what I have always called you and will always call you.”

“Sir, we just met.”

“You don’t remember me,” he repeated. “How can you share a bedroom with someone for two years and not remember them?”

***

Is something we see something we experience?

That was the question I kept asking myself. I have been doing the job for almost seven years. I had just finished my fifth year when the trouble started. It’s been nearly two full years of trouble. 

There were actual experiences before “the trouble.” My wife left me less than six months after my father died. The truth is my father had been in poor health for twenty years, and we weren’t that close. Also, my wife and I were both messing around on the side and our marriage had ended long before she left me. 

 It wasn’t either one of those that made me drink. It was the stuff I saw that made me want to stay drunk. There were the last minute Narcan saves, after I found a body in an alley. There were the kids covered in bedbug bites. There were the people who hoarded their used toilet paper, whose skin looked gray from the constant exposure to toxins. It got in my head and made me thirsty. 

 I may just be driving around sending notices about broken downspouts and gutters, but I saw things scribbled on walls inside vacant houses. The vacant houses got to me as well. I had to verify the doors were open before I could submit the boarding requests. Usually the front or back door was kicked in and everything was in plain view. I could see inside those houses and get an up-close look at how time passes and everything fails. Looking at these dead houses reminded me Ages end. 

 I drank before the job, but in group settings and rarely alone. Once I settled into the job and the forty-hour week, I started to drink more. Then, I was working with a hangover every day. Then, the hangovers went away. Then, I was mixing a vodka and Sprite in my thermos in the morning and keeping the blood alcohol content even during the day, until I could turn it up after my shift.

 My steward was the one that tipped me off that I was being watched. He told me it was better to confess than to get caught, so I did. The steward met me at the office and I spilled my guts. My drinking was out of control and I needed help. 

Help was offered along with a correction plan at work. Moving forward I would have to submit to drug and alcohol screenings. My urine could not test positive for either.

***

“You know, I tell my kids about you?”

“How could I possibly know that, Caldwell?”

“Well, first, don’t call me Caldwell. My name is Steven.”

 “I thought your name was Caldwell Stevens.”

“It was, but I changed it when I was adopted. I always hated Caldwell. I especially hated the way you said it, but I liked Steven. I kept it and took my adoptive parents last name, so now it’s Steven Simpson.”

“It’s a great name,” I said. 

 I knew him now, but I could still barely recognize him. He was well over six feet tall. His hair was thin and he wore glasses, but he looked healthy in a way I could not remember him ever being. His body was lean. I could still see the tiny circular scars on the top of his scalp, especially now that the hairline was receded. 

“Don’t patronize me, Devin,” he said. His clothes were crisp and his tie was in perfect knot.

“I’m not trying to patronize you at all, Steven.”

“Oh, no, not you. Never. “

“I swear, Caldwell.”

“Steven.”

“Sorry, yes, I meant Steve.”

“Not Steve. Steven.”

“Jesus Christ, can you just calm down so we can talk?”
“You don’t tell me to calm down,” he said. “You know I did an open records request for your employee file? Did you know that?”

 “I didn’t,” I said. “They gave it to you?”

“Yes, they gave it to me, Devin. They had to. It’s the law. I know you are a fuck up in your job. I know you are hanging by a thread.”

“Can we talk about the property, Steven? We’re supposed to be here to talk about the property.”

We were standing in the yard just outside an old Victorian. His company owned it and I had placed a fine on it for exterior violations. It had been vacant for years before he bought it and it had been vandalized several times.

“You knew it was mine, didn’t you? You figured out Promise Properties was my business and that is why you started fining us. Admit it.”

“No, I placed the fines, because you weren’t keeping up your end of the bargain. You were supposed to fix these properties, not just leave them vacant and boarded.”

“What would you know about keeping a bargain?”

***

 I was drunk the first time I took copper from a house. It was about a year before I had to go into my supervisor’s office and ask for help. My inspection area has the largest collection of vacant and abandoned houses in Metro, and half of my inspections were to get them boarded. I can remember seeing the back door open and walking up to take my picture to have the thing secured. 

I needed to take a leak. Typically, compliance officers pop into convenience stores and fast food places to use the john. The job requires us to use bathrooms intended for customers and not the general public, but few places complain about it. I had grown skeptical of doing this, because I was afraid someone would smell booze on me and report me to Metro the same way they do tall grass and graffiti. The open doors on vacant houses made for a perfect place to release. 

I could take a few steps into the vacant house, stomping the floor to make sure termites hadn’t devastated it. Then, I could relieve myself and go about my day undetected. 

On one such break, I saw the pipe lying on the floor. It was tarnished the way copper will discolor, but they were perfect pieces about two feet in length. There were about two dozen pieces total. It didn’t make any sense. I didn’t know if someone had left them there, intending to come back for them, but I didn’t care. 

I bundled them up and put them in my trunk.

I knew the value. Copper prices were on the rise and have been on the rise for ages. Security had cracked down on it a bit, but you just had to show ID and say where you got it from. It was too easy. I could get extra money with little to no effort and all while on the clock. Extra money was something I could always use. I had felt the need for extra income for the entirety of a Great Year, or at least since I first began working. 

Within days of my first collection, I had copper cutting tools in the trunk of my work car. I would swing by on Friday nights after my shift was over and retrieve the week’s collection. Saturday mornings I was at the scrap yard in the neighboring county, which kept me off the Metro records. Abandoned as they may be, the houses in my area were built right and full of copper. I couldn’t believe how much money I could make while doing my regular work. It was genius, really: evil genius, but genius nonetheless.

***

“I am working on them,” he said. 

He walked to the electrical meter and grabbed the green tag hanging from it. I knew what that meant. Red meant the power was off due to nonpayment, yellow meant that the power was off due to nonuse, and blue meant that the meter had been tampered with at some point in the past. 

Green was good. 

Green was always good, be it with grass or money or power or the tarnish on a piece of copper. Green meant the power was on and the bill was being paid.

“I send my crews in at night. They pull up in the back and they take the boards off and they go inside to do renovations. I am fixing the interiors first. I’ll take care of the outside once I have the insides fixed. If people see the outside in good condition, they’ll start breaking into them. I’m going to bring this neighborhood back to life all at once, so I am doing the exteriors dead last.”

“Well, Metro Compliance prefers an opposite approach,” I said. “We like to see the exteriors repaired first.”

“I know you do,” he said. “That is why I made the arrangement with your director. Have you ever had to get the grass cut at one of my houses? Have you ever had to get one of them secured?”

 “No.”

“That’s right. You gave me a fine over violations that existed years before I bought these houses.”

 “I was just doing my job, Steven.”

“You did the opposite of what you were told to do, that’s why I know you figured out I was the one who owned them.”

 “Steven, we were kids. I don’t have any problem with you.  I mean, fuck, Steven, we were kids.”

 “I know we were kids. I told you, I tell my kids about you.”

  “What do you tell them?”

  “I tell them bedtime stories about Caldwell the Kid who fights the evil Devin the Devil Boy.”

“Jesus, Steven. Do I really deserve all that?”

“You’re my villain, Devin. You terrorized me. You could have accepted me, but you treated me like shit, and I’ll never understand why.”

“Neither will I. I can say I’m sorry.”

 “You wouldn’t mean it.”

 “Goddamn, Steven, I would mean it more than I’ve ever meant anything in my life.”

***

 The conditions were strict. I had to do inpatient care and successfully complete the treatment program. After that, I had to attend meetings to keep me sober and submit to random screenings. I did well at first. The screenings were “random” but seemed to run on a schedule; I became predictable and I could plan for it.

 I really tried, though. I’ll give myself credit for that. I wanted to stay sober. During the doctor visits and screenings, I did find out that I had some liver damage. Cirrhosis and heart problems took my dad out. He drank as long as I could remember. In fact, I can remember being surprised even as a child we were allowed to keep foster children in our house. I assumed the social workers would figure out that he drank and that would be a nonstarter. I was wrong.  I guess he hid it well. I knew he stashed his beer and bottles away before their inspections. 

 I began to keep books with me in my work car. That is when I started reading about astrology. I liked the idea of it more than the practice. It seemed comforting to believe your fate was written out in the universe and you had no control over it. It made things make sense.

 Sobriety made it easier to get the copper too. 

 My hands steadied and I was more focused. When I found an open door, I could pop inside and pull a few pieces of pipe and stow them in my trunk. I had to come by after my shift to empty my trunk almost every day, because I didn’t want my coworkers to see my harvest. I was able to put money aside. As amicable as it was, the divorce did a number on my finances, and the copper was really helping me get caught up. 

 I started to drink again though. I found this huge house full of unsullied copper pipes – more than I had ever seen in a single dwelling. I took more from it than I taken from any other house, and it just seemed to keep giving me more, like it was growing back once I cut it out of the walls and from between the joists. Then I found it secured. I never had to have it boarded before. The door was just unlocked, not destroyed. That let me just take the copper and close the door behind me. Then someone secured the damn thing. Guess who: that’s right, Promise Properties. 

 It was a recent acquisition. 

***

 The truth is I hated him. I still remember the night he showed up at my house. He was the same age as me, but he was much shorter. That is why I found his current height so shocking. He had scabs in his hair I could see from where his parents put cigarettes out on him. He cringed every time my father spoke. Whenever my dad saw it, he would kneel down in front of him and apologize for upsetting him. My old man would rip the roof off the house to yell at me, but when Caldwell teared up Dad was Captain Comfort to the rescue. My mother was always made food that Caldwell liked and took him to appointments. 

 During summer vacation, he got a new bicycle. Mine was a hand-me-down from my cousin. It was infuriating. The worse part was I always had my own room before, but I had to share it with Caldwell once he moved in. There were two girls that stayed with us as well. They were sisters and they stayed in one room. They left me alone, but Caldwell meant I had to give up my space.

 He woke up screaming a lot too, and my mom would run into the room to comfort him. She would tell me to shut up whenever I complained. Sometimes he would wake me up crying as well. He did this quiet enough for my parents not to notice, but it always woke me up.

“Devin the Devil Boy is always trying to set traps for Caldwell the Kid, but Caldwell is always too smart to get caught in them. I use them as little parables to teach my kids how to treat other people.”

“We were kids, Steven. I can’t say that enough.”

“I don’t remember being a kid. Maybe you do, but I sure as fuck don’t. I refuse to let my kids miss out on their childhood.”

“I don’t know what to say, Steven. I can promise you I’ll back off your properties, though. No more citations. I’ll get out of your way and let you do your work.”

***

The first time I pissed dirty Metro was all sympathy. They sent me in for more in-patient treatment. It was just a week this time, but it seemed much longer. All I did was sleep, eat, and read the old horoscopes in the stacks of magazines that were strewn about every surface in the place. I had group therapy twice a day to talk about what caused my relapse. The truth was I just stopped drinking the first time to save my job, and, though I did well with it, I always felt thirsty. Even when I wanted to sober up, my body didn’t agree.

Once I was released, they had me ride with the steward for a few weeks for re-training. It seems my quality controls were under the microscope. The number of inspections I did during the day were below the rest of the team, and – in truth – my area should have a high number of inspections per day, since little owner contact was necessary. 

While the steward was with me, I couldn’t take any copper. That was sad, because at that time the income from that was nearly as high as my take home pay from being a compliance officer. I had paid off my credit cards and had money set aside. I stayed dry while he was with me. 

 Once I was back to myself, I tried to stay dry as well. I shot for meeting production and trying to coast back below the radar. I figured going unnoticed would help me get myself back together and keep the trunk full of copper. 

 I kept feeling thirsty, though. 

The second time I pissed dirty, they weren’t so kind. At that point, they stated Metro’s obligation to me was nearly fulfilled, and that there were only so many chances available. That one was my fault. I assumed they would keep the same schedule as before, but they randomly tested me less than forty-eight hours after I pissed clean. 

 The steward told me there was only so much he could do, but he ran what he called a “last chance grievance” by them, and they went for it. I think the point was to get both Metro and the union off the hook if I fucked up again.

 I think that is the only reason I was given any patience when the call complaining about my citation against Promise Properties LLC hit my director’s desk. Still, the kid’s gloves were ready to come off, and I knew it. 

***

“May I ask you a question?”

“Sure.”

“And I mean this with all due respect. I mean it with all sincerity. Why keep the Steven? Why not just pick out a new name all together? Why keep any shred of the birth name?”

“I wanted to be someone new, but I didn’t want to forget why. I wanted my life to change trajectory, but I didn’t want to forget how my course in life started. I don’t know if that makes sense, but that is the best way I can explain it.”
 I had spent my evening at home looking over his Facebook page. He had one for his business and one for himself. The business one was not of interest. I knew as much about his business as I wanted to. His personal one grabbed my attention. He had three kids and appeared happily married. His wall was filled with pictures of all five of them at amusement parks and the beach. It seemed he was a key funder in a victim’s advocacy group. I looked at it for ages. If a contest started in that bedroom when we were kids, he won. There was no doubt about it.

“I think I get it,” I said. “What I need you to understand is I don’t know why. You were a stranger in my house. You were a stranger in my room. You were this kid who showed up who was messed up in the head and who my parents paid all kinds of attention to, rather than pay attention to me. I didn’t understand.”

 I had his personal cell phone number in my work phone. I cracked a bottle and drank up enough courage to call him. He answered on the third ring, seemingly uncaring I called so late. He cleared his throat and entered into the conversation.

“Your parents treated me like a son, you could have treated me like a brother.”

“I know I could have, but I didn’t understand what was going on. I didn’t understand why they treated you better than they treated me. And, I mean, wasn’t the guy who adopted you a doctor? I know the foster care system ends in a jail cell for a lot of kids in situations like yours, so I think you did okay.”

“No thanks to you. It was thanks to your parents and to the parents who adopted me. They shaped me into the man I am, but it didn’t happen overnight. Your parents and my parents were eternally patient with me. Their patience is the stuff of legends, but so was your cruelty.”

“Well, the man you are turned out better than the man I am,” I said. “I can guarantee that one will go down in the ages. You turned out better than I did, if it’s any consolation.”

***

The house that was full of copper was not secured. Someone had slammed through the back door. I was surprised. As soon as he had purchased it, he kept it secure. It was bound to happen in this part of Metro. I would actually have to make him aware he needed to get it locked.

 I needed to piss, so I walked inside. Normally I just took a leak in the corner, but I didn’t want to do that here. It didn’t appear that any work had been completed. This one must have not made it to the top of the list for interior renovations yet. I went into the bathroom. I could see it from the open exterior door. I did what I needed to do in the bathtub. The entire interior was in disarray. There were empty beer bottles and someone had taken a shit on the living room floor. I collected a few pieces of copper that were lying on the kitchen counter and went back to my work car.

 I texted his phone to let him know the building needed to be secured. He texted back that his crew was aware and would have it secured by the close of business.

“Hey, maybe we could get together for coffee or something,” I texted.

“Sure,” he replied. “That may be nice.”

The texts continued.

“You know, when we were kids, sometimes the bad guys in the cartoons would shift sides and help out the heroes. Does Devin the Devil boy ever turn into a good villain and try to help Caldwell the Kid?”

“No, but maybe someday.”

***

 The steward called me the next morning. He said he needed me to meet him at the office, because management wanted to do a follow up on my last chance grievance. I figured it was another piss test. They dip the sample into a container that gives them results in less than two minutes. 

I knew I would piss dirty for the third time and that would be the end of it. I had an extra set of keys for my work car. I figured I would come by after hours and collect the copper from the trunk. I could probably make a decent living scrapping copper under cover of night, until something else came along. I agreed to meet him and take what was coming. 

The steward was waiting outside the office building and he led me to a conference room. When he opened the door, my director and my supervisor were sitting at the table. There were two police officers as well. Steven wasn’t there, but there was a man wearing button down shirt with Promise Properties embroidered on the breast.

He was the one who played the video on a laptop. It was me walking around inside I found open yesterday. The video included me walking out with an armful of copper. The power was on and so was the security system. 

Another police officer entered the conference room announcing that my trunk was also full of copper. I knew he was telling the truth. I had a load that would have nearly paid my mortgage for the month waiting to be cashed in sitting in the trunk of my work car.

The steward remained silent, as I was taken into custody.

The police officer stated I would receive professional courtesy, which meant – since I was sworn officer – I wouldn’t be put into general population. I was given the name of a bondsman in anticipation of making bail. 

On the way to booking, one of the police officers commented on a take-out place we passed, saying she hadn’t eaten there in ages. I remembered there were two police officers with the social worker the first night Caldwell and I spent under the same roof.

It’s not my first time being arrested, and I knew it would seem like forever between being booked and making bail – it would feel like the Ages. I sat on my cuffed hands hoping those Ages would pass through like the stars lighting vacant houses and a child’s room. 

About the Author: Ernest Gordon Taulbee has published stories in The Electric Rail, KAIROS Literary Journal, Molotov Cocktail, Centifictionist, Litbreak, and several others. One of his short stories was a finalist in Still: The Journal’s Fiction Category in 2017. He holds an MA in English from Eastern Kentucky University and lives in Louisville, KY. His Twitter handle is @gordtaul.