Category Archives: Fiction

PRINCIPIUM TEMPUS

In the beginning, we thought the fires were an accident. It was later decided that the fires were not an accident. It always annoyed me when the headlines read “… breaks laws of physics.” Like some asshole checked the sums and declared the transgression. No laws were broken, we just had it wrong.

Ferrolus said, “We, bleating blindly at the cosmos, err in confidence. We ought better to acknowledge our folly and be done with this faithless confession.”

I think I know what he meant.

The fires were not an accident.

My aunt used to take me on walks down the dirt road. It was my favorite. Now that I think of it, she probably only took me on one or two walks, but they were so monumental that I had the notion that it was a habit. You know what I’m talking about, don’t you? She used to take me on walks, and told me this story one time. It was about a time long ago. Those people were really smart, so they decided.

Ferrolus said, “The gods are born of decisions.”

That’s all it takes, decisions. So they decided. Not because it was easy, but because it was hard. And they almost did it. They almost uncovered the Truth. But He didn’t like it. So He started a fire, and it wasn’t an accident. Now we are all shit-talkers.

BEGIN.

I heard that those fires ruined everything. At first people liked to go gawk at them. The fire crews gave up trying to stop them. They spread too quickly down the mountain. And then it was said that people were setting more. It was a lost cause, and so we stopped trying. Sometimes it’s easier to let go of an old idea. You get beat too many times by the old question and just give up. It’s too hard trying to outdo the Corinthian King. So you let go of it, let go of it all, and joyfully watch it roll down the hill one last time.

So we went to watch the fires crawl down the mountain. Pretty soon we were choking on smoke.

So we left.

BEGIN.

People used to like telling stories about how things would get real fucked-up someday. But let me tell you, that’s a lot of horse shit. It doesn’t get worse. It doesn’t get better. It’s always the same smoldering ember. Just about to flash. Well, you want to know the truth? It did flash once. That ember up and blazed. But most of us forgot about it. You would think that all the holy books that we’ve writ would give a clue, but they don’t. But here we all are, like it doesn’t even matter if we know it or not. And I’ll tell you something else: He doesn’t like it.

BEGIN.

Yesterday a few of the others signaled that they made it. I am still not convinced. We’ve always been told He wouldn’t allow it. I’m going tomorrow to see for myself. Taste and See and all that.

BEGIN.

They were right. I can hardly believe it. The Location is real. The fires were not an accident. The implications are staggering. Another chance. It will be another several years before we can depart, but preparations are already being made. When the Explorers left us, they had charted a location where success was likely, the source of four small rivers. Our tethers will probably guide us to that place. Not all of us will go, of course. The decision will not be an easy one. In fact, many object completely to the idea.

Ferrolus said, “In those days, heresy will be your master, and you will desire him.”

BEGIN.

Sometimes I think I can remember. We used to talk about it more. Now it’s too embarrassing or some shit.

BEGIN.

Did you know that time used to take longer? It was all stretched out and just took longer. Most people talk about how things go by faster these days. That’s not what I’m talking about. That’s just you running out of novelty. Your brain is bored as shit and doesn’t care that you can’t concentrate long enough to have a decent thought or experience. What I’m talking about is Time; the old bitch herself. She is compressing.

Trying her best to run us frantically off The Cliff.

And He doesn’t like it.

BEGIN.

Lies. The gods told us lies. I made a mistake when I triggered the signal. They will no doubt blame me for the consequences when they arrive. There is only one thing left for me. I am uploading my Anima Tabula into the Device. With any luck it will be able to warn them of the conditions here. Life is not possible. They will have to find another way. For what it’s worth, I probably never really believed. UPLOAD COMPLETE.

<BEGIN>

about the author
Nathanael Johnson grew up in the Dayton area. Over the years, he has written in his spare time, some fiction, mostly essays.  He has several projects written with his sisters that have grown into foreboding reminders of laziness. He is a U.S. Air Force veteran, father of five, and currently is going back to school for a computer engineering degree.

PRUNING

LUZ REZENDE

Mark came up behind her, put his hands on her shoulders, a vacant look in his eyes. She had pruned the clematis to a single stem. It would never come back.

“Don’t worry,” Nicole said. “I’ll get a new one at the nursery.”

“I liked the one I had,” he said, sizing her up and wandering off alone, leaving her frowning, her eyebrows almost touching. She let the pruning scissors fall—no longer a menace. Her stillness nestled in the heat of summer, an insect encased in amber. The neighborhood too seemed immobilized.

He was lying on the sofa, an open book pressed against his stomach. The day before, she had mentioned she might stay on after the workshop finished.

“We could go for a walk. Before sundown. Have dinner somewhere.”

“You forget I’m writing a book. Going out breaks the spell.”

She wanted him to stretch his arm and pull her down to the sofa, but Mark had glanced at her, letting her know she was intruding. He got up and moved away, disappearing into his room with his book, shutting the door.

Beyond the tall spruce in the driveway, thunder rumbled far out, building up one of those storms that leave a dark trail between the corn fields. That year, nothing would grow on that Ohio farmland, where scorched grass across the fields told of desolation. When she first arrived, driving out of town, he had pointed to the rare old wooden barns, now abandoned beyond repair, their red paint withering against the rolling countryside.

They had met in Cincinnati on a Sunday. Nicole had gone to the game with her new friends from the writers’ workshop she was attending in Yellow Springs. Mark, a professor on the workshop board, was lining up to buy a ticket at Riverfront Stadium.

“Hey. Why not join us?” She was surprised she had said that, panicking at the thought he might think her fast. He turned his head slightly, without any sign of recognition, refraining from commenting. She shortened the distance between them, insisting. “Remember Teresa and Joyce? We met at the Workshop reception. You got us drinks.”

He gave no sign of recognition. “Sure,” he said.

But once inside the stadium he loosened up, giving details about the game’s box score, strategy, top plays, home runs, why it was important to sweep and dust the artificial turf while the players warmed up—how an umpire had died at the stadium’s opening game. They went behind the stands to buy mulberry-flavored ice-cream.

As the game continued Nicole watched his face. He seemed distant, eyes fixed on the field, assuming a new personality, a shadow merging with the teams, losing substance. The Cincinnati Reds defeated the Houston Astros that day. After the game, the four went to a bar overlooking the river. Mark sat next to her, legs touching, eyes locking over the beer, his excitement over the winning Reds giving way to anticipation. He signaled to the waiter, waited for the bill, and when it did not come, he got up and settled at the counter.

“Let’s go. I’ll drive you back,” he said.

On the way, she chatted about her favorite rock music, but he told her he preferred the far more intricate sound of a Mahler symphony. She was totally ignorant about classical music, as she had been about the ballgame, but nodded, giving up on conversation, preferring to let herself warm up to the touch of his hand on her knee. She put hers at the back of his neck, but he kept his eyes on the road.

When they reached Yellow Springs, he went up to her rented room, stayed the night. They rolled in bed but he seemed distracted, never came. He turned from her, faced the wall, knees close to his chin, his body pulsing, like a sulking child. She thought she heard him sobbing. Darkness hid her disappointment.

Despite the frustration of their initial love-making, they slid into a more intense affair, melding their awkward limbs in tight embraces, riding on the edge—baffled by their own desire. Mark would signal the end of their lovemaking by turning toward the wall, his naked body shaking. He seemed to find comfort in his childlike, curled position, but when she woke up in the morning, she found him gone. She stared at the crumpled sheets, her appetite for breakfast ruined. The view from her single window became unbearably common. One morning she paid her landlady, packed her bags. She would fetch them later.

She relished the thought of trimming his neglected garden, sitting out on the porch before sundown under the black parasol he had bought in the new Oriental shop at the edge of town. The assistant had suggested a red one with a Japanese pattern, but when she saw his look, she did not insist.

At first, Mark had been skeptical. “Why move to my place? You’ve got privacy at that guest house.”

She had swept away all arguments with the kind of rash innocence that usually goes with youth. “Who wants privacy? I’m getting writer’s block from that dreary view. Besides, I can walk to the grocer’s from your house. We can eat at home. Save on food. I’ll sweep, do laundry, wash the car. We’ll get drunk . . . listening to Mahler.”

He flinched, but in the end he gave up.

Sipping coffee at the kitchen table, he sounded dreamy, enthralled by the symphonic intricacies of Mahler’s First, as he began recalling his past. He would linger on detail about his childhood, giving her details of his mother’s work at the telephone exchange, her bleak war memories, as if his mother were still holding his hand as she walked him back from grammar school, guiding his first steps as a boy—now a man.

Nicole waited, hanging on his words, as he filled in gaps in his tale, wishing to learn from what he craved in the past.

“We always stopped at my father’s used car lot on our way home from school. All I could think of was that battered gunmetal Hudson with the bulging chrome grill and its the shiny ornament—a glittering goddess darting sparks. I would rush toward that car, sitting on its faded leather seat, fidgeting with the wheel, glancing sideways at my father, who would wink at me in silence from the passenger seat, avoiding war talk.”

But the thought of that glittering goddess was powerful enough to break his dream.

“Junk,” he said, his voice rising above Mahler’s winds—“like a marriage.”

Nicole ignored his remark and walked out onto the deck, shutting the connecting door behind her. The sun hung low, close to the fence, bringing shadow to the backyard. Ohio’s damp summer heat brought out dragon flies buzzing above the artificial pond. The sound of water cascading over the waterfall’s basalt rocks mixed with the male toad’s hoarse croak. Nicole lay on the deck squeezing one of Mark’s sweaty t-shirts.

Night fell, but Mark remained inside the house listening to Mahler, as if his passion for music excluded her. He never called her in.

His solitude remained a mystery to Nicole. Often, when they shared a meal, she would look
into his granite-speckled eyes, fixed on some azimuth, while listening to his modulated voice, her coffee getting cold as Mahler’s First came to an end with a clashing of sound. He would fall silent, listening to the reverberating notes disturbing the air, then brush her mouth lightly with two fingers. She parted her lips waiting for a kiss.

But he continued to stare, and she noticed the furrows in his brow grow deeper, his mood
changing, as if an ill wind was blowing from some hostile dark matter from an earlier life—the failed marriage, the ex-wife he seemed to have relegated to a hidden pouch in a shadowy recess of his mind. Whatever was catching up with him—some elusive, chilling flash into his past—became invasive like Japanese honeysuckle.

She glowed with a sudden happiness, her senses heightened by her recent experience with Mahler’s dissonant sound. The sight of the natural, violent world out in the garden made her bold, as she watched the erratic flight of bats, birds pecking, fighting for worms in the rain-soaked grass, wings rustling, uneasy at the proximity of the squirrel. She could feel the wilderness within her, as she paced the backyard counting her steps, but her frustration mounted as she realized she could never equal the beauty of sunsets and flickering glow worms in the stillness of summer night. She would be the one falling silent, sensing tears coming to her eyes, while she deliberately slowed the unbuttoning of her blouse to show her breasts cupped inside her bra.

Meals. Short-lived bliss. “We’ll do with salad. Chickpeas. Tuna.” She spiced her cooking with exotic herbs, coloring rice with saffron, turmeric, adding an Indian flavor to mango-yogurt paste. When she lit a candle and burned incense sticks on a special copper-engraved wooden block, he blew them out before sitting at table, giving no explanation.

She was unsure about his liking Mediterranean or Indian food. He never complained, refraining from commenting on the meals, eating in silence, indifferent to her talk. He would lower his eyes, scraping his plate clean, pushing it aside. She watched him pick up the milk carton, then stand facing the open refrigerator, glaring at the bright light, scrutinizing its shiny interior, the food stacked and aligned in neat rows.

“We’re out of butter, leeks, celery . . . corn. Make a list. I can’t afford taking you out.”

The shopping lists were endless. She made sure the refrigerator needed replenishing, throwing
leftovers to the birds, sensing his rage at having to interrupt his work on the book, while he felt an urgency to leave things behind, slam a door. Like Scheherazade, she tried to hold his attention, forever suggesting errands to the local grocer’s, the distant mall and its bright crowds, where he would wander around, sizing up giggling teenagers. She would leave her bra on the sofa, walking naked from the waist up before going to bed. Once he grabbed his jacket and placed it over her shoulders.

Trash—leftovers from lunch. Splintering Mark’s best dishes—the porcelain ones with the thin gold rim and the Zodiac signs he had fought over with his sister when their mother died. His granite eyes darkened, roaming over disaster.

“What the hell have you done now? Those were my mother’s plates. Priceless.”

Nicole saw him stare beyond the fence, disembodying himself from her presence. He seemed to speak out of memory, as if recalling a scene painted in somber colors, perhaps from the early marriage—a time he seemed reluctant to recall, even when she pressed him for details. He stalked from the room, dismissing the matter over his shoulder.

“Forget replacing them.”

Next day, after dinner, she ventured, “I saw plates, much like your mother’s. I could get some.”

“You’ll only break them again.”

“Give me a chance. You can’t hold on to things forever. Let your ex go.”

“Stop.”

She regretted her last remark, touched his cheek with her hand, drew nearer to him on the couch. But he seemed absent, isolated inside some bubble, carried away by some enthralling Mahler cadenza. Her eyes scanned his tall figure, disproportionate to that low-ceilinged house sitting on the edge of town, where birds fought over spilled seed in the aftermath of storms and bats swished close to the French window, possibly aware of reflections—life inside the house.
Wrestling in bed, naked, sweating to exhaustion, he would fit his mouth to the hollow between the two protruding bones at the base of her neck, before turning against the wall in fetal position. She thought she heard him crying.

“You make me nervous.”

His inertia disturbed her, as he continued to lie in the bed, without moving. She would get out of his narrow bed and head to the bathroom, splashing cold water over her face and neck, then take a deep breath, before heading back to the bedroom. His silence told her he had relegated her to the tool shack, among harvest knives, hedge shears, pruning scissors. She clutched to his naked body, curled like a threatening Kafkaesque beetle feeding on her dream. A sense of déjà vu.

In the weeks that followed, Nicole’s energy throbbed, building up to its usual peak. Sensing a resistance from the house—a negativity surging from some gutted quarry on the property—she would get up when darkness was at its quietest,  rearranging the library and Mark’s CD collection. Later she would watch him silently restoring books and CDs to their original order. She found the incense sticks and candle in the trash.

When his friends from the university came to visit, curious about the new guest, she remained silent, afraid to spoil the evening by some inappropriate remark. She retreated to the kitchen, leaving the crowd to their bickering.

Days vanished like a magician’s illusion. Soiled dishes piled up in the sink, since she had silenced the dishwasher, clogging the drain. The water had ploughed across the kitchen and into the living room, running freely over the wooden floor, soaking the Kazak Oriental area rug—another irreplaceable item that had belonged to his ex-wife.

Cursing the marriage, he dragged the wet rug out to the garbage pickup at the end of the driveway. Nicole watched him walk back to the house, uneasy at the thought that he cared more for the rug than for the woman who had left him. He stood looking at his mother’s carved walnut chest, which had stood on the now useless rug, entertaining some idea he had no intention of sharing.

The telephone rang, but before he turned away to pick up the receiver, she heard him say to no one in particular:  “Aha! The chest looks better without it.”

That evening, he had shut his bedroom door, his telephone busy late into the night. She had waited for him to return to the living room, but he never did and she fell asleep on the sofa.
Some days later, the ballgame was on, and Mark had left the door to his room ajar. This was his inner sanctum, an untidy space, unlike the rest of the house. She leaned against the bedrail, watching the game, the Reds pushing to win. Larkin singled to right field. Sanders scored.

“Lucky, if they make it to second place this season.”

Nicole brushed against the TV, aware his remark was not directed at her. She sensed he was keeping her out of his private enclosure, slumping on his couch, inert and aloof, dwelling on the game’s mathematical combinations and infinite dead ends. He glanced swiftly at her and she seized the moment, moving toward him, sitting on the edge of the bed undoing her jeans.

“Want a beer?” she asked.

But nothing could drag him out of that stupor—not even desire.

Outside, the tangy smell of freshly-cut grass heightened her senses, as she walked past the
untamed bitternut hickory, shedding its woody nuts, casting a mottled shadow over the back porch.

Inside the garden shack she kneeled to inventory the array of tools neatly stacked on the lower shelves. She honed the hedge clippers and pruning hedge shears, their cutting edge sharp against the wood, then reached for the razor-tooth pruning saw hanging on the wall. Her arms had grown stronger from clipping.

Pushing the wooden ladder outside, she positioned it under the hickory, ignoring the pain from the blisters on her fingers, as she handled the saw expertly with one hand, back and forth, while humming a familiar childhood rhyme—Eggs, butter, cheese, bread, / Stick, stock, stone dead. / Stick him up, stick him down, / Stick him in the old man’s crown—the rhyme turning into a dreary warrior song, her voice growing harsh, rasping, as the hickory branches tumbled to the ground. The woody nuts clattered on the deck, as if echoing the sound of the crowd on a big day in Riverfront Stadium. She heard the gray squirrel’s chattering sending out alarm signals, flicking its tail, growing nervous—aggressive. She raised her eyes from her work with the saw to look at the grimacing squirrel doing his balancing act on the fence. Fixing her eyes on the rodent’s furry coat, she arched her slim shape, both waiting for the other to make the first move.

The ladder was back in its place. Nicole grabbed the heavy-duty garden broom, the finger hedge shears and some smaller weeding tools. A tremor crawled up her spine at the thought of worms breeding in the undergrowth. She edged closer to the shallow Japanese pond. Overgrown papyrus grass had clogged the drain, stopping the pump from recycling the water, making the pool overflow, wetting her garden boots. She crouched to inspect the muddy green pool, a decomposing reptilian universe pulsing at her feet.

Rising from her position, she surveyed the backyard, its narrow brick path cluttered with untamed ivy creepers, the yucca’s glossy white buds littering the deck, fading to a rusty shade. The bordering Virginia creeper stretched across the path narrowing it every day. The heat was stifling, sweat made her T-shirt cling to her breasts, but her feverish hands had acquired a life of their own, tugging at the thriving dandelions and musk thistle, uplifting them by their roots from the cracks in the brick walkway.

Like a frightened animal, her ears perked up in attention to summer vibrations, she listened for some friendly sign, or call from inside the house. She watched tiny drops of blood on her parched hands as she snatched off the gloves. She crossed over to the heavy-duty trash can in the garage, raised the lid and ditched the pair.

Walking down Main Street the day before, she had stopped at the hardware store and bought the boots and the pair of rubberized garden gloves, choosing them for toughness.

“How much?”

Old man Chester took a while before answering. He saw an attractive woman, probably in her fifties, the outdoor type, tanned arms and legs, her smile showing the eye wrinkles beginning to surface. His eyes traveled over her face, no thrill, no questions, letting her know he was aware she was staying with his faithful customer, the professor living on Suncrest Drive.

“I’ll give you a discount,” he said. “You’ll be back,” he added, while he thought, like the others. Many of the professor’s women had come his way, and he usually gave them a rebate, volunteering advice. “Check on soil acidity for azaleas; make your own compost. Watch out for invasive species, treat them with care. Don’t kill them all. Leave some for your next visit.” He laughed, paused before adding one last comment: “The professor likes clematis—the indigenous type.”

Like a player entering a scene, she remembered her lines. “I’ll keep that in mind. I’ll be seeing you.” She enjoyed Chester’s mischievous babbling, already feeling at home with him, treading her ground with assurance, unaware of the silent audience hiding in darkness beyond the crude summer light.

Nicole refrained from talking, as she watched Mark revert to his usual lethargy, revolving in his silences, muttering, barely moving his lips, his eyes frozen on the TV screen. Another home-run for the Reds. Larkin was still hitting well.

Fireworks showered, decaying into low energies, then a nothingness. The Reds won six to one over the Cardinals. The green field drained itself of possibilities as the teams wandered off, turning their backs on the crowd. He slid the volume down, stared at the commercials.
The late night phone calls increased when the baseball season was in full swing. She could tell something was ablaze, noticing he had been unusually hungry. Nothing seemed to last inside cupboards.

Young women in tank tops and ragged shorts would come to the house, flocking in and out,
staying only long enough to feed their appetite, draining his energy. Nicole had no idea where they came from, as they were too young to have been his former students. They made her afraid, and she would retreat when she heard giggling coming from the bedroom. They seemed to be everywhere, sitting cross-legged on the couch, showing white cotton bras and slivers of soft skin, their T-shirts hanging from the back of chairs, or lying on the floor, as if setting a scene for an artistic photo.

Nicole watched them wrenching open the kitchen cupboards, snatching at chocolate-chip cookies, emptying the lemonade pitcher. She would find hair in the shower, running socks under his bed. Gum. Unexpectedly, they would dash into her bedroom, looking into the medicine cupboard, leaving the door ajar.

There were no pledges, few words. He would walk out the door, waving from the driveway. “Won’t be long.” Never returning before midnight, sometimes only for breakfast, or a late lunch, just putting food in his mouth, not even hungry. She would stand dumbfounded, finding her breath coming short, her tongue stuck in her throat, knowing he had been with that restless crowd always pulling at his elbow, those sparrow-like young girls in tight sweaters with shiny belly-buttons peeping out of their jeans, invading his house, never apologizing for messing up his papers, his sheets, using far too much toilet paper, not wearing enough makeup.

Those days she would wander aimlessly around the house bruising herself against furniture, chewing cookies, killing bugs. She would pull at the phone cord, her icy blue veins on the back of her hands arching over the age spots. She tore at her clothes, then at the flowering bushes, trampling on the buds. Surveying the devastation, she circled the koi fish pond, crouching close to the fence, waiting for the neighbor’s lawnmower’s soothing drone. Mark would return and notice the trail of debris, but he would only shrug, reverting to his usual silent sidelong stare, ignoring the broom, the pail—the warfare.

Naked. Slouching on the couch watching the sports channel, he would pull her into bed when she passed within his reach, remaining flaccid, condescending, never complaining about her presence—quietly breathing out disaster. Desperate, Nicole would cling to an old image of Mark holding her tight after her orgasm, never seeming to let her go. The phone would ring, shattering the moment, as she would hear him whisper into the mouthpiece, his eyes glued to the TV screen.

She hesitated on the doorstep, eyeing the garden with indifference, dwelling on the faded plants and dried bushes—watching blue bottle flies buzzing around a dead field mouse, ants busy, lining up for a snatch at the flesh. She watched Mark put on his walking shoes, going over to talk to a young man in khaki shorts and Birkenstocks. He had contracted the youngster, out of rehab, to do the mulching.

The young man stood there, balancing his weight from one foot to the other, looking at the sweet peas entwining through the trellis that divided the garden from the sundeck facing west. Nicole saw him nod his head, then he raised his eyes and met hers through the open French windows.

“Is he your husband?” The youngster from rehab was leaning on the rake, looking down at a pile of compost. He had traded his shorts for some faded overalls.

“I’m just visiting,” she said, staring hard at his cheekbones. “I love gardening too.”

He looked up, as if seeing her for the first time.

“Pretty blouse. White suits you,” he said.

Her tight jeans showed just enough of her belly below her small breasts.

“It’s too hot out here. Come on in. How d’you take your coffee?”

Bees hummed close to the open window. A metallic blow fly hit against the pane. She turned on the ceiling fan at a high speed.

“He comes and goes,” she said. “I should have stayed away. Who knows?” She looked straight into his eyes, holding her gaze. “You got a name?”

“Brad.” He was holding his mug with both hands, as if trying to steady it. She ignored his embarrassment, peering into his grayish-blue eyes.

“More coffee?”

“I better go now. The ivy in the back fence threatens to fall.”

The slim young man moved quickly to the sink, rinsing his mug, leaving it upside down to dry.

“Damn.” Nicole spilled the remains of her coffee, wiped the table clean. She opened the front door wide to mop the rough Indian slate floor, glancing at Brad tearing at the gooseberry bushes along the driveway. He worked relentlessly, his bare arms tanned from the harsh sun, revealing his salient bluish veins.  She watched him drive away in his pickup truck, vanishing in a great cloud of dirt, taking with him strings of knotted ivy and cut offs from the gooseberry bushes. Nicole stared at the rake lying on the front lawn.

Undressing that night, she heard the telephone ring. She stood facing the bathroom mirror looking at the fine lines under the eyes, dipping her fingers into her cleansing cream, rubbing the paste on her face, wiping it clean. The face that stared back at her had a glossy, rubberized texture. She kept pulling tissues from the box and letting them drop on the floor.

The next morning, Mark still had not come home. Nicole packed her bags, called for the shuttle. She clipped the phone lines with the hedge shears, left early before the garden began to stir.

about the author
Luz Ruzende was born in Lisbon, Portugal, has studied and lived in England, and worked in Portugal as a Project Manager with the U.S. Agency for International Development. After retirement, she went back to studying literature and philosophy at the University of Maryland University College (UMUC) and began writing fiction. She has participated in Oxford and Cambridge summer literary programs and is a member of the National Society of Collegiate Scholars.

Amos

Anna Cates

For thirteen years, Amos Woods had never left his hometown of Sabina, Ohio. He knew
Wilmington was down the road one way and Washington Court House up the other, but he
considered travelling unsafe.

He spent hours every day staring out the window, distrustful of passersby. At least once
a week, he inspected his house for bugs, peering into crevices for ants, examining floorboards for roaches, and lifting musty curtains for ticks and fleas. Sometimes, Amos wondered if
someone might be watching him through the TV screen. One day, he smashed the set with an ax and never watched Friends again.

Amos maintained a strong scruple against wearing white socks—they harbored sweat
stains and became discolored in the wash. Unbearable. Instead, he’d slip on socks of vibrant
colors and patterns—red with Christmas ornaments in the summer, purple with hearts, or black with orange pumpkins all year long. Amos always wore Levis, even to bed.

Amos didn’t trust women even more than he didn’t trust men, but he couldn’t help but notice how beautiful dogs looked as they’d strut down the sidewalk beside their masters, smug and leashed. He wished he could own a dog, but he didn’t trust himself with one. Just the sight of dogs gave Amos sensations he grew to hate so much that one day he castrated himself with a pair of kitchen shears.

Surviving on Social Security for a mental health disability, never getting out much or ever
leaving Sabina, nobody noticed the change in Amos, but he always felt the dogs knew.

about the author
Anna Cates lives in Ohio with her two beautiful kitties and teaches English and education online. Her first full length collection of haiku and other poems, The Meaning of Life, is available at Cyberwit.net and Amazon: http://www.cyberwit.net/authors/anna-cates

Anna Cates in the Living Haiku Anthology:
http://livinghaikuanthology.com/surnames-c/290-anna-cates/2687-anna-cates.html

An Unexpected Warmth

“Jacob!” His mother’s voice carried from the landing. “It’s time to go!”

Jacob rolled his eyes. He set down the controller for his game, opting to leave the console on until he came back. There wasn’t enough time to save, and he didn’t want to lose his progress.

He pulled his coat from the closet. The sleeves were too short now. Muttering under his breath, he dropped it on the floor and grabbed a thick hoodie instead. He shuffled his feet down the stairs, reluctant to join his mother and two sisters, who waited all bundled up at the door.

“Where is your coat?” his mother said the minute he appeared.

He shrugged. “Doesn’t fit.”

She threw her hands up. “I don’t know what I’m going to do with you. If you end up freezing to death, don’t blame me.” She opened the door and walked out, his youngest sister in tow.

“I won’t freeze to death if we’re just walking to the car,” he grumbled.

He climbed into the front seat, buckling himself in while his mother got his sisters situated in the back. Outside, water was dripping off the icicles along the awning of the house. It was warming up; the snow might melt today. He’d wanted to go sledding with his friends in the afternoon, but it looked like that would be impossible now.

His mother started the car, backing out so fast that she almost ran into the mailbox. He could tell she was angry; she was always angry during the holidays. He’d never understand it. What was the point of running around if she didn’t even like it?

“Jake Jake,” his sister Susie, who was six, repeated from the back seat.

“What?”

“Mommy says you’ll take us to ride the train. Are you going to?”

He hunched further into his seat. “I don’t really want to.”

“I promised Jake would take you, didn’t I?” his mother cut in. “You don’t have to worry about that, Susie.”

He glared at his mother from the corner of his eyes.

“I saw that, Jacob. You can stuff that attitude of yours.”

He fought the urge to roll his eyes. His sisters were bouncing excitedly behind him. Well, it was more like Susie was getting Carrie wound up rather than them both being excited over the same thing. He wished he had brothers instead; they wouldn’t want to do things like ride fake trains at malls.

His mother pulled into the parking lot of the mall. It was packed full of people who all looked unhappy. He got out of the car while his mother helped the girls out. She handed him Susie’s hand. “Hold on to Susie and don’t let go of her,” she warned.

What was he, nine? Of course he knew not to let go of his sister—he was thirteen. His hand clenched around Susie’s.

Susie whimpered beside him. “Jake, too tight.”

“Sorry,” he said, loosening his grip.

His mother lifted Carrie into her arms and grabbed Susie’s other hand. “Let’s go,” she said, dragging them all forward.

The mall itself was teeming with people hurrying from store to store. When they reached the directory, his mother stopped and set Carrie down. “Jake,” she said. “Take your sisters over to the train. When they’re done, you can either come back here or let them wait in line for Santa.”

“Where are you going to be?” he asked.

“I’m going to shop for a while. Don’t go anywhere but those three places, you hear me?”

He nodded, half annoyed. If she’d let him get a cellphone, this wouldn’t be a problem. Then she could contact him once she was finished, and he wouldn’t have to stay in only three places. But he didn’t say any of that. Instead, he picked up his sisters’ hands and began walking toward the middle of the mall, where the train would be set up.

“Jake,” Susie complained, “you’re going too fast.”

He looked down at her and sighed. She was right; he was walking too fast. Carrie could hardly keep up. He tugged Carrie forward. “Stop looking around, dummy.”

“Don’t call her a dummy,” Susie said. “She’s a baby still.”

“She’s almost three,” he shot back. “And who’s the older one here anyway?”

“Just ‘cause you’re older doesn’t make you right.”

“Do you want to ride the train?”

“Yes!”

“Then don’t argue with me right now, okay? Otherwise I won’t let you ride the train.”

“Mommy said you had to.”

He rolled his eyes. “Mom’s not here.”

“But I’ll tell on you if you don’t.”

Carrie began jumping up and down excitedly, pointing toward the train that rolled by on its tracks. “It’s a big train! It’s a big train!”

“It’s a little train,” he said.

“Let’s go ride it, Carrie!” Susie exclaimed.

He stood in line with them until the train was free, then helped them into it. Shoulders slumping, he trudged his way over to a bench and sank down onto it. He didn’t remember if he’d ever wanted to ride the train like this; he thought his sisters, laughing and giggling, looked pretty stupid. He hoped that he never looked like that.

His sisters got off the train and came running up to him, both breathless and happy.

“Did you have fun?” he asked.

“Can we ride it again?” Susie’s eyes were bright.

“Again! Again!” Carrie echoed.

“Go get in line if you want to ride it again.”

“Yay!” they shouted in unison, then raced off to get back in line. He smiled in spite of himself; they looked really silly running around like that. His shoulders relaxed as he leaned back against the bench. Maybe he’d buy all of them a pretzel if they had time after this.

“What’s your name?” a high-pitched voice asked beside him.

Startled, he glanced down to see a small girl, who couldn’t have been much older than Carrie, staring up at him out of large blue eyes. She had a head full of curly hair and a curious expression on her face. Not knowing what else to say, he said, “Jacob.”

She hopped up onto the bench without even asking, and snuggled herself very close to his arm. “I’m Sophie!” she said brightly. She tilted her head, looking up at him, her eyes fluttering and a soft smile on her face. He stared at her, confused. “Can I sit here with you?”

“Uh, sure,” he said. Not that he could have stopped her if he wanted to.

“Why are you sitting here?” she asked. She was really articulate for a kid that young; even Carrie wasn’t speaking that much yet.

“I’m waiting for my sisters to get off the train.”

“Hmm,” she said.

“Sophie!” a voice called. “It’s time to go!”

“That’s my mommy,” she explained. He glanced over to where the voice was coming from to see what looked like her mom and grandma standing off to the side. Her mom was very pretty.

She hopped off the bench and grabbed his hand. “You should come home with me.”

“What?”

She tugged at his hand. “Come home with me!”

“Uh, sorry, I can’t. I have to wait for my own mom.”

She pouted. “I really want you to come.”

He laughed, a smile cracking out. “Sorry, maybe next time.”

“Promise?”

“Sure.”

He watched as she returned to her mom and grandma, who were both trying to hold in their laughter. He frowned thoughtfully.

Carrie and Susie bounded up to him. Feeling more patient, he asked, “Do you want to ride again?”

They shook their heads.

“I’m hungry,” Susie said.

He nodded. “All right, let’s go get a pretzel.”

“Really?”
As he walked, his sisters’ hands in his, he thought that maybe it hadn’t been such a bad outing. It wasn’t as fun as playing a video game, but it had been pretty funny.

He bought them each a pretzel, although he ended up not having enough change to get himself one. Susie offered him a bite of hers, which he took.

“Let’s find Mom,” he said.

Neither of the girls disagreed, and they returned to the directory where they’d first separated. His mother wasn’t there yet, so he found a bench for them to sit.

“Who was that girl who was talking to you?” Susie asked.

“What girl?”

“You know, when we were on the train.”

“Oh, just some kid.”

“She made you laugh.”

“Yeah, she was cute.”

Susie pouted. “You don’t ever laugh with me.”

“You jealous?” he teased, ruffling her hair.

“Me, too! Me, too!” Carrie tugged on his arm.

“Well, you’re my brother, not hers. What she’s doing talking to you anyway?” Susie crossed her arms.

“I’m so glad to know you care,” he said, but he put his arm around her shoulders anyway. “Look, she was just a funny kid. You’re the one who’s my sister. And you have to share me with Carrie anyway, remember?”

“Carrie’s different. She’s mine too.”

“You just don’t like sharing.”

Their mother appeared then, laden down with shopping bags. She looked frazzled and worn out, not at all like that little girl’s mother had.

She set the bags down in a heap. “Jake, you’ll have to help me carry them,” she said, breathing hard. “Did you take the girls to the train?”

“Yeah, they rode it twice. I bought them pretzels, too.”

She smiled warmly, and he felt better. “Thank you. That was really nice of you. Let’s go have lunch and then head home. I’m worn out for the day.”

He helped her gather up the bags. She lifted Carrie onto her hip, then grabbed Susie’s hand.

He looked up at his mother once they’d walked back out into the cool air. “Guess what, Mom.”

“What?”

“I got hit on by a kid Carrie’s age today.”

“Don’t say things like that! Where on earth did you learn that?”

“What’s ‘hit on’?” Susie asked suspiciously.

He grinned down at her. “That’s when—”

“Jacob! If you say another word, I’ll take all your games away from you!”

He didn’t want that, so he shut his mouth. But his mother was smiling, and he could see her shoulders shaking. She was fighting not to laugh, too. He looked down to hide his own smile.

“I’m hungry,” he said, allowing himself one tiny complaint.

“Well, where do you want to eat?”

“Somewhere good.”

“You can pick this time. Just don’t pick anywhere that your sisters won’t like.”

As they piled back into the car and drove away, he decided that he was glad he’d come.

about the author
Rae Niehaus has been making up stories since before she can remember. Her first short story was published in Independent Ink Magazine in 2013. She spends most of her time searching for hints of magic in the ordinary and, of course, writing whenever she can.

Lemonade Standing

His lemonade was left standing in the tallest glass, but he was slumped, a fragile body over the counter, askew. He was an old man, but never before had he shown it. He walked the joggers’ route, ate more cayenne pepper than I could, and built marvelous sandcastles that never got to see the light of day. The water knew they were meant to touch.

(I only know that because my life revolved around the boardwalk. I practiced my swimming there so my mother didn’t have to pay for lessons. The sunshine was brighter, but the artificial light in the evening shone like magic.)

He never looked old until the last time I saw him. It was an odd moment where he seemed absent in his presence. His counter was the newest thing around, younger than me if I remember.

Every other stand, kiosk, and booster faced toward his business. It could be argued that everything that surrounded the stand made more money. The wine gallery was well dressed. To prove it, a velvet shade surrounded it, as if hotels were built by puzzle pieces and that bit was left outside. The keychain kiosk glowed like warm flesh, but it was just wood, with straw fringe around the top of it, like a tiki bar for locksmiths. I guess because we were on the East Coast, it made it look exotic. Kids would gather around it all the time; those cheap keychains were Christmas presents, birthday presents, or a little joy to save the day for their distressed parents. The other one, just around the lemonade counter, was a fabric and cloth counter, which I found peculiar on a beach, but it worked. It wasn’t surprising that it looked like a half-made tent, fabric on top of fabric was almost all you could see, colonies of printed cotton, pastel chiffon and dyed silk. Older women loved to go there and showcase the dresses that they had made the week before, an offering to the sun.

The lemonade stand was the husky, determined Boy Scout equivalent of all the stands around it. The lemonade stand was the one to listen to, the one to be afraid of, and the one to learn from. It was a simple counter—but enormous. The stand looked like a kitchen pantry.

Lemonade filled jars of all sizes, shapes, and tints stacked on tiered shelves. People swarmed to it like a beehive. Something about that lemonade was different. Not too sweet. Not too tart or bitter. Not too pulpy. Not too watered.

The last day I saw him, Mr. Micah leaned over the counter, semi-upright. He worried me. My head rattled with worst-case scenarios. I had never seen someone decay in front of my eyes. His age suddenly defined him.

“Mommy, what’s wrong with Mr. Micah?” I thought aloud, not meaning to voice the question for fear it would come across as judgmental.

“Oh nothin’, hon. He’s a little tired from time to time. Been on this beach forever, bless his heart. He’s got true passion for what he does.” She mildly rubbed my left shoulder as I placed my head on the corner of her hip. What happens after forever?

The next time I returned to the East Coast, to the boardwalk, my mother accused me of negligence. “Bless your heart.” She had to reach to rub my shoulder now. I embraced her to dissolve the feeling that I was too invested in myself. When I released her, I asked if I could tell her about school over my favorite drink.

Lemonade.

Her smile began to wilt. “Is that why we’re here?”

I didn’t understand. “What’s wrong, Mom?”

We reached the end of the boardwalk. As if the boardwalk was a cigarette, this end had been flicked off. The remaining counters held “For Rent” signs, and no one had any rent. The fringe of the keychain kiosk was almost completely gone. It moaned silently in the wind about losing its hair, and one support beam was broken. The small, mobile wine gallery was anemic with dark purple and red stains. The fabric and jewelry market was charred from the sun, wood splintered like kindle. It was all melancholy.

My childhood at the boardwalk flashed before me; all of my chore dimes and nickels were lost to the dust.

An alarm rang in my head. “Mom, should I even ask?”

“It was gone, almost as soon as he was,” she answered my unasked question.

The lemonade stand was nowhere in sight, and neither was Mr. Micah.

I went there the next day to find where the stand had stood. It intrigued me, a counter I once had to push past tanned of metal and wood. I didn’t understand.

I started on the right side of the boardwalk instead of the left side, where my mother’s new condo stood before the disaster.

I knew that everything had been destroyed. I was too stubborn to believe it.

I started up the steps, and something caught my eye. I thought it was it was a rock, but it was flat and long. Then, it hit me.

I was stuck, but not physically. I didn’t know whether to go back down the steps and risk disappointment or to put it behind me and head home. I was exasperated.

I found a place to lean on the frail keychain kiosk, and pulled my mouth taut.

I’m here for nothing. The past is the past, right? The past is the past.

I thought about the last thing Mr. Micah had said to me, the last day I saw him.
That day, the lemonade stand was not swarmed by people. In fact, nobody but Mr. Micah stood there. It felt wrong.

Fifteen cents in my hand, I walked to his counter, trying to wipe the sand off my wetsuit at the same time. I stepped towards the aging Mr. Micah as if I approached the ageless one.
He was surprised, and so was I. I’d never seen his face change. I was a runt, so I barely saw his face regardless, but when I did, he seemed coin-operated. He would pass paper cups and roll quarters almost simultaneously.

This time, he turned as if he had rusted, a coinop left in an unroofed, abandoned building.

“My, my. Lookie here, a customer!” He wheezed out a laugh. He rarely spoke. I think I replied by nodding.

“You made my day. I’ll never forget you. As long as I live.” He escaped in an awkward laughter behind the counter and rose up again, setting my glass on the counter next to a lollipop. “Here you go, kid. Know something?” He handed me the glass and lollipop together. “Always try new things, but never forget the old.”

I cocooned the lollipop in my hand, squeezing it from the center of my palm to the top of my fist. “Cayenne pepper flavored. 100% Organic. 100% delicious.”

Never forget the old.

Something faulty clicked in my head, and I did the oddest thing. I ran too close to the edge of the boardwalk. By the time I stopped, it was too late to break my fall.

A structure caught me on my top, and as the buttons snapped, I hit the ground. I hit hard, but it could have been worse. I got up to see what had spared me.

There, at the edge of the rail, the extravagant Boy Scout that had enticed me years ago had me at its mercy again. The chunky, linoleum covered counter lay in halves. One half caught my eye, and the other, well, caught me.

Like the hands that had handed me lemonade on the hottest of days past.

about the author
Carolyn Hunter is a senior at Stivers School for the Arts. She studies visual arts and creative writing. She enjoys eating chocolate and drawing comics. She has four blogs and explains that writing is her form of therapy.

Tornado Alley: McClean, West Texas, 2006

Mikayla blazes brighter than sun with eyes of stars and hair of burning comets. Her galaxy yawns a wide welcome inside this cyclone-howling F5-er. I reach for her. Boots stomp against truck-bed metal, and she just wants to fly fly fly. Balanced on knees, I wait for an answer, heart thumping hard hard hard. Mikayla’s supernova smile gives nothing away. She pulses with howling screams, and mouths: I know there is a better world. My scorched fingertips graze a fiery outline, whispering through her smoky cloud. These fierce McClean winds will blow apart our constellations, and she will leave for her better world. Holding Mikayla is like fisting moonbeams—brilliance runs like water between closed fingers. In its wake, only the lunar-dusted shine of Mikayla remains inside my empty wet palms.

Meredith Doench writes and teaches in Dayton, Ohio. She has published in literary journals such as Hayden’s Ferry ReviewWomen’s Studies Quarterly, and Gertrude, among others. She is also one of the fiction editors of the literary journal Camera Obscura: Journal of Literature and Photography.  

Dream Rider

Dream Rider
Lori Lopez

“Last time someone said that to me, I drew their entrails.” My smile was full of derision as I added in a whisper I didn’t think the boy could hear, “Death is never pretty.”

The room lay in shadowed darkness, though I suspected he’d been standing there for some time and his eyes adjusted so that he saw me clearly. He looked at me with brown puppy dog eyes, twirling a twenty-sided die in his hand as if I were the monster. In my world, he was the demon.

“Do you have a name?” I asked, hissed more apt. I extended a hand, retracting the claws at the expression on his face. “I am known as Arch.”

“What kinda name is Arch?” His nose twitched like a cat, and I involuntarily let slip a fang. The next he spoke, “You’re not human,” came out in a quiver. His fear smelled of anise.

“With seven-foot wings, claws of steel, and fangs, I’d say not. Nor am I something to be feared. You cuddle Charlie.” A hint of sulfur tinged the air at my sarcasm.

The boy I had no name for tried to hide the surprise that I knew he slept with a purple stuffed bear named Charlie. He shifted foot to foot then looked at me with renewed strength. In the years I’d been a part of his life, I’d yet to learn his name, and thus felt a measure of guilt. I waited.

He stood taller, still barely reaching my chin, and puffed his chest out. No longer a frightened little boy, nor quite a man, he was ready, while I was still trying to figure out how he’d gotten here.

“Elijah. I come from a line of heroes.”

“Humph.” The sound slipped before I could recall it. “Do you know what it means to be a hero, boy?” A beat passed and I lifted my wings. “To stand against those who will surely try to kill you, in defense of those who might as soon spit on the ground you walk, under other circumstances.”

“More than you.” He looked at my feet, bird-like with talons of carbon blades, then met my stare.

Deep in the windows of his soul, I saw a truth I’d not expected. He knew the breadth of me, knew what I was and how he’d come to be in my world, even as I did not.

“Tell then.” It wasn’t something I wanted to admit, that he was correct, but vain as I am, I am not stupid. “How did you come to be in my realm, and more immediately, why?”

Before me, he shot up my equal in height, shoulders broadened and jaw wide, aged. I took a mental step back. The Spiderman pajamas he’d been wearing when I’d first found him, when he’d insulted me, were replaced with a suit that in another text I’m sure would have been of armor, as it were: cloth, blue with navy pin striping.

“You’ve been absent. I thought you dead.” His voice, deeper than a scant moment ago, gave me pause. “You were my friend. The one I counted on. Someone I trusted. And the warrior I fought. You taught me to stand for myself.”

“And tried to kill you more than thrice.”

“Then you were gone.” He aged again, silver hair edging his temples, bags forming beneath eyes that had dulled, a sadness covering his very countenance. “You deserted me.”

“You left me behind,” I said, sure it was this and not the other. Years had expired, and I’d been negligent in my duties, I could see that now, but times shift. “What do you wish of me?” That was the pressing question. I’d been sleeping when roused, and irritated at the wakening. Now I worried what travesty had befallen, if he’d sought me in this domain. Before he spoke, I knew words of death would follow; somehow he wanted me to return and make it better. I could not.

“What the heck do you care,” he said instead. The boy stood before me again, and I realized, as I in his world, he in mine, appeared as I wanted, not as he truly was. He was a boy, scared, searching me out for my prowess.

Stunned, I woke to my temerity and found that which I’d dismissed. Day had risen, not decades traversed. Hurriedly, I dressed. An ink black feather wafted as I leapt to my station, bounding into his dreams. I, the monster under the bed, his utmost fear to face, that comrade who’d stand at his side before being dismissed and called to charge again at his night’s fall, had overslept.

about the author
Reader, writer, wielder of wrenches. By day, a mild-mannered postal mechanic turning wrenches for the USPS; by night, a purveyor of stories to tempt your imagination.