Fiction

Karl Wallenda’s Watch

by Bill Meissner

 

 

Each step should be precise and tight and complete, he thinks,

the sides of the foot cupped around the wire as you walk the toward

the middle. Each step should be graceful and exact, and so

silent that you can hear the gasps of the crowd below, a sound

like fluttering wings.

 

The dream fades from Chance’s mind. He finds himself in a

circus museum, staring through a glass display case. Inside it is

the wrist watch Karl Wallenda wore when he fell to his death.

“Look,” he says to the woman he loves, who tours the museum with

him on their weekend getaway, “It’s Wallenda’s watch.” But

when he turns toward her, he sees that she has walked further down

the display and doesn’t hear him above the off-key circus music

piped through the overhead speakers. “Look,” he says again, but

she’s already turned the corner and entered another room of the

display. It bothers him lately that, he never seems to speak to

her at the right time, and that she never seems to hear him.

 

For the past couple of years, Chance has had the recurring

dream of walking a tightrope, a silver wire strung over a dark

canyon. In the dream, he’s standing on the brightly painted red and

yellow plywood platform, concentrating on the wire that’s perfectly motionless,

like a silver crack in the sky. He places his first shivering

bare foot on it and leans his weight forward. He knows the crowd

is down there, their upturned faces like pebbles at the bottom of a

clear stream, but he doesn’t look at them. He follows with his

left foot, and he lets go of the support ropes on the platform as

drops of sweat burn his eyes. Before he knows it, he’s halfway

across, staring straight ahead as he knows he must, the soles of

his feet finding the wire ahead of him. In the dream, he always

thinks how it’s easier than he thought it would be—this being

halfway. He’s an artist now, and it’s a slow, graceful float over

the canyon below, as if he were a bird, gliding. Before he

realizes it, he’s almost to the gray platform on the other side.

That’s when the wire begins to waver, as if there’s an earthquake,

as if the whole earth is shifting its weight left, then right, then

left.

 

At that moment the wire suddenly widens and flattens and

Chance wakes in a bed next to the woman he loves, and he feels the

sweat on his face, the adrenalin making his heart squeeze hard like

a fist grasping to hold on to something.

 

He always wakes at that moment when the wire wavers.

 

He never knows if he falls, or if he makes those final

steps onto the other platform, never has the chance to hear

the applause from the tense audience, gathered below at the edges

of the canyon. He sits up in a bed that’s still and solid and

unmoving. And when he leans over and kisses her, it finally brings

him back to pure, sweet consciousness.

 

* * *

 

One night, when he woke from his dream, his kiss woke her.

 

“Why did you kiss me?” Grace whispered.

 

“So I know I’m not falling,” he said.

 

“Falling?” she said, her sleepy voice becoming more practical.

 

“Why would you be falling?”

 

He never answered her question, didn’t really how to respond.

 

After all, he’s never told her about this recurring dream; he just

keeps the falling inside himself, where it belongs.

 

* * *

 

Today, in the museum, Chance stares through the glass case at the

pictures of The Flying Wallendas, sees them on bicycles on the wire, sees

the famous seven-person chair pyramid, a tight-rope act which they performed

without a net. The pyramid collapsed one day, dropping several

of the family members to their deaths. He cringes when he reads

the placard which describes the accident. Chance wonders a lot lately

about life’s straight lines that seem to lead you forward, and the

way you have to balance to stay on. He tries not to think about

falling off. He is always honest with himself except when it comes

to the falling.

 

The placard describes how Karl Wallenda—known as The

Great Wallenda—was injured in the incident and,

and, after recuperating, got back on the high wire again.

All the survivors stepped back on the wire again to perform

more circus shows. What must have been going through their minds

when they climbed back onto that wooden platform and touched their

toe to the wire again? Chance wonders. They couldn’t have allowed

their minds any image of that deadly fall. All they could possibly

think was toe to wire, next step, next step. That’s the only way

to approach it, he thought: one step after the other, shoulders

arched back proudly. Never a thought of the darkness below.

Confidence was their only net.

 

At the front of the display case is the watch worn by The

Great Wallenda at the time of his death. Chance can hardly get

himself to study it, but he forces himself: It’s a simple watch,

with a plain black leather wristband and a small, delicate silver

watchface. Chance is amazed that the crystal of the watch is not

cracked or broken. The placard tells that Karl, at age 73, walked between

two ten-story buildings in Puerto Rico when a sudden gust of wind

caused the wire to sway. He was holding his balance pole, but that

didn’t help—the pole suddenly tilted to one side, pulling him, and he fell.

Chance pictures the moment: Karl’s outstretched fingertips

reaching for a wire which might as well have been a thousand miles

away.

 

He wonders: What went through Karl’s mind as he fell to the

pavement 121 feet below? Did he close his eyes? Did he

concentrate with all his powers, trying to transform solid concrete

into a layer of sponge? Did he hear someone in the audience call out to him,

a soft voice, as if to break his fall? Or did he simply accept

that this was his fate: to be destroyed by what he loved most, and

to know that if he had the chance to live his life again, he would

climb back on that wire. He would climb back on it again and

again. He would do what he loved, no matter if his fragile bones

shattered a thousand times.

 

The hands of Wallenda’s watch read ten after twelve. As he stares

at it, Chance wonders: did the watch stop at ten after twelve, exactly

at the moment when the pavement rushed up to meet Karl? Or did it

keep running for a while, pulling Karl’s spirit into the future for

a few minutes or hours before it finally wound down?

 

Chance’s mind races—he wants to ask Grace these questions,

he wants to tell her his dream, but she’s already walked further

along the circus displays and has turned the corner into the next

room. As he walks down the narrow, picture-lined hallway to look

for her, he finds himself placing one foot in front of the other,

delicately, along a seam in the concrete floor.

 

When he turns the corner, she’s there, standing in front of a

brightly painted red and yellow circus wagon. She looks up at him,

her eyes large, blue, two pools of sky.

 

“What’s wrong, Chance?” she asks, her voice melodic. “You

look pale, like something terrible happened.”

 

“It did,” he says. “The Great Wallenda died. He fell from

the wire and was killed.”

 

A puzzled look washes across her face. She puts her hand on

his shoulder. “I know that,” she says. “But that was a long time

ago. You say it like it just happened.”

 

He looks down at his feet and sighs. “I feel like it just

did. ”

 

He looks into her eyes and he wants to say more. She’s always

so certain about her career in business, confident about her life, her

direction, thinks Chance. He wishes he could explain everything

to her, but just like the Great Wallenda couldn’t find the wire as

he fell, he can’t find the right words.

 

* * *

 

Back at the motel, he tosses in the bed for a long time,

unable to sleep. He looks at his wrist, notices that he forgot to

take his watch off before bed. He stares at the face of the watch,

its faintly glowing hands already past two a.m..

 

He knows he might have the dream again when he falls asleep,

knows he might be taking those steps across the middle of the tightrope,

that, even though it’s only a few yards long, will seem to stretch into

infinity. One foot in front of the other with exact gracefulness,

and, when he approaches the far platform, everything will begin to

waver. Knows that he’ll suddenly look clumsy up there, not an

artist at all—his whole body wobbling like a top that’s lost its

spin, knows that the darkness might rise up from the canyon to

swallow him and that he’ll feel no balance, no balance at all.

But right now that doesn’t matter. Right now what matters is

that he’s close to the woman he loves. He slides his arms around

her, and kisses her cheek. She jolts slightly, as if waking.

 

“I was dreaming…” she whispers, her voice sounding suddenly

frail.

 

“Dreaming what?”

 

“I dreamt I was in the middle of a tightrope wire. It must

have been the museum. And what you said about Wallenda.” She

pulls back from him a moment and he sees, for the first time, a

fear, a doubt behind the beautiful, unbreakable bones of her face.

He hates to see that look on her face, but he loves her for it, too.

She clicks on the lamp, sits up in bed and seems to shiver.

He notices, for the first time, a slight tint of gray on the side

of her hair.

 

“Don’t worry,” he tries to assure her. “It was just a dream.”

 

He thinks maybe this is the time to tell her about his dream, about

the strange coincidence of common dreams, but then he decides that

maybe it would upset her more. So he keeps quiet about it. Maybe

he’ll tell her first thing in the morning, or on their long drive

home. The words will rush out, and he’ll tell her about Karl

Wallenda’s watch, and how far he fell, and how the crystal wasn’t

even shattered. And maybe she’ll tell him her worries, too, her

wavering. Maybe she’ll admit that her life, which always seemed

to stretch so far out in front of her when she was young, doesn’t

seem so endless any more. Maybe they’ll tell each other that

there’s no holding still, there’s no guarantee that, once they

reach the great middle, they won’t lose their balance and fall.

He clicks off the light, touches her hand and they embrace

across the canyon of the bed. He feels her breath on his sweating

neck, feels her thoughts intertwine with his like a strong, tight

cord, feels the tingle of static electricity in her skin.

He hears his voice, her voice calling out from a distance, as

if they were watching someone falling, or as if they themselves

were falling.

 

She sits up suddenly and says, “Talk to me.”

 

“About what?” he asks.

 

“Anything,” she sighs. “Just talk to me.”

 

For a few seconds, he doesn’t say a word, just closes his

eyes. It occurs to him that now, right now, is the time to talk

about everything. He pulls her tightly to him and feels her hands,

like nets, pulling him at the same moment. They balance there together,

as if it will always be this way between them: catching each other,

then falling, then catching each other again.

 

* * * * * * * * * * * *

 

Bill Meissner’s first novel, SPIRITS IN THE GRASS, about a small town ballplayer who finds the remains of an ancient Native American burial ground on a baseball field, was published in 2008 by the University of Notre Dame Press and won the Midwest Book Award. The book is available as an ebook from the UND Press. Meissner’s two books of short stories are THE ROAD TO COSMOS, [University of Notre Dame Press, 2006] and HITTING INTO THE WIND [Random House/SMU Press, Dzanc Books ebook].

Meissner has also published four books of poems: AMERICAN COMPASS, [U. of Notre Dame Press], LEARNING TO BREATHE UNDERWATER and THE SLEEPWALKER’S SON [both from Ohio U. Press], and TWIN SONS OF DIFFERENT MIRRORS [Milkweed Editions].

“Karl Wallenda’s Watch” is included in Meissner’s newly-released chapbook of stories and poems, THE GLASS CARNIVAL, published by Paper Soul Press,  Pittsburgh, Pa.  [papersoulpress@gmail.com].

He is director of creative writing at St. CloudStateUniversity in Minnesota. His web page is: http://web.stcloudstate.edu/wjmeissner/

His Facebook author page is:
http://www.facebook.com/mobileprotection#!/pages/Bill-Meissner/174769532541232?sk=info

Three of Meissner’s poems and a trailer for SPIRITS IN THE GRASS are on youtube, accompanied by images and music.

 

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Samuel46detail from  Merida Daytime by Samuel Barrera

 

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Fiction

Afflictions, Michigan Winter & Failed Clowns

by Mitch Grabois

 

Afflictions

1.

He tried to cross a corrosive sea. His boat dissolved under him. His skin dissolved, his nerves his bones, his family members, but he’d had no choice. The rabid fundamentalists were after him. They would have raped his wife and daughter, beheaded his son and used his skull as a soccer ball and praised the name of Allah as they did.

He’d dipped his toe in the surf’s foam but didn’t feel the danger. It took some time before he began noticing the effects, but by that time they were under way and the boatless terrorists were on the beach, screaming curses and threats.

He didn’t understand that the oceans had filled with acid rain, that the clouds in the sky carried not water vapor, but sulphur fumes. He cursed his life, his powerlessness, his death , the death of his family.

His curses were mere whispers at the bottom of the sea.

2.

You may get Shingles because if, as a child, you had Chickenpox, the Shingles virus is in your body waiting for the right amount of stress to unleash it. You can get a vaccine for it but that doesn’t mean you won’t get it. No protection is 100%.

If you get it, you’ll think that you should have gotten the vaccine twice, but now it’s too late for anything but pain and regret.

3.

I hung out in the hot tubs with Mexicans, mean guys, heavily tattooed. My flesh was naked white. I decided to get a tattoo. I decided on a simple one: No Regrets, but the next time I went into the hot tub I discovered that the tattoo artist had left out the NO, so what I was left with was: REGRETS.

The Mexicans appreciated that—they nodded sagely in my direction.

You may feel that your Shingles is Karma—that it was the bad things you did that caused your suffering. You wish you could go back and undo the suffering you caused other people, but of course you can’t.

 

Michigan Winter

1.

I stood on these cold beaches at times of the year no one else would come here. My wife and I pulled out half-frozen sandwiches and sat at a picnic table covered with ice and there was no one there to say: Those people are crazy.

We wished we could climb the lighthouse stairs and grip the rails to keep from being blown off and flung into the frozen surf or against some rocks, but the lighthouses were closed for the season. We told ourselves we do this because we’re Michiganders and we believe there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing, but we really do it because we were both laid off and don’t have anything better to do and after being out in the freezing cold, the inside of the tavern feels really good.

2.

The farmer’s black cow has escaped the field and is in the road. The farmer is my cousin Joe.

An Amish neighbor calls to tell me that one of Joe’s cows has gotten loose. Joe doesn’t like me much. I call him anyway. The phone rings and rings but he doesn’t answer. He may be passed out from too much drink. I’m not going over there. I’m not going out in this blizzard.

Joe once ran into my son’s trailer when it was parked in front of my barn, broke out a taillight, bent a strut, and then drove off as if nothing had happened, but both my son and I saw it. That white trash fucker, said my son.

Maybe he’s down the road at his mom’s house, I thought. His mother had recently had her legs cut off. It was a diabetes thing. She used to beat their milk cows. I helped with the milking and cringed when she hit them with her two-by-four. They were dumb, submissive animals, sometimes slow and stubborn. I called up his mother’s house but no one answered there either. She’s such a hoarder, I thought. Maybe Joe’s over there and can’t get to the phone. Maybe he tried for a while and just gave up, looking at the endless piles of junk in his way. I let the phone ring and ring.

Maybe his mother died and he just discovered her and now he’s crying secret tears because he never let on that he liked his mother at all. It always seemed that he despised her, almost as much as he despised his younger brother.

I called Cowboy Rufus who lived next door to Joe but no one answered his phone either. I figured Rufus was at work up in Manistee at the salt mine down the road from the liquor store that every Autumn lettered their sign: Hello Darkness my old friend. Next to the liquor store the House of Flavors served ice cream all winter but it didn’t make anyone feel better. Even if they went to the casino and won, they didn’t feel any better.

Fuck, I said to myself, going to the closet and pulling on my coat. I walked out the back door and over to my old van, the one the mice had got in last summer and stripped some of the wiring so I had to rewire it.

It started. I drove down to my cousin’s house. I saw the cow, black against the snow. I knew that cow, always complaining. She was the biggest complainer of the herd and now she’d gotten out.

 

Failed Clowns

1.

Failed clowns from Brooklyn and Milwaukee pack their whiteface and red lip gloss and board airliners for Greece, where they plan to cheer refugees with their antics. In America they have been losers for decades, practicing arts no longer appreciated with talents inadequate for the task. But in Greece, the dispossessed from Iraq and Syria laugh uproariously, the one bright spot they’ve had for months, or years.

The clowns think again about quitting their day jobs.

2.

The poet (a type of failed clown) taps his teeth with his pointer finger, pulls at his ear lobe until it is as distended as an African tribesman’s, and makes everyone at the Thanksgiving table nervous to distraction. Yet they are thankful that he has not been a burden on them, has not demanded that they provide him with a place to live, or support him.

Sitting at the turkey table, he writes more poems in the soiled notebooks he carries with him everywhere. Behind his back his brother calls him Walt Whitman because he is bearded and disheveled and has leaves of grass in his long hair.

He’ll be famous after he’s dead, says his mother.

He’s a bum and he’ll always be a bum, says his father.

His niece says: Uncle, read me another poem.

His work, truth be told, is as humorous as that of Ogden Nash and the niece giggles until stuffing comes out of her mouth.

3.

And when it was his time, the Angel of Broken Legs lifted him up and carried him up to a cottony cloud, where she gently laid him down, whispering all the way about recklessness and caution. He just laughed at her, having no respect for angels or devils—his father had raised him to be a nonbeliever and he refused to believe anything he could not see and even what he could see, like the angel of broken legs.

 

 

* * * * * * * * * * * *

 

Mitchell Krockmalnik Grabois has had over a thousand of his poems and fictions appear in literary magazines in the U.S. and abroad. He has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, The Best of the Net, and Queen’s Ferry Press’s Best Small Fictions for work published in 2011 through 2015. His novel, Two-Headed Dog, based on his work as a clinical psychologist in a state hospital, is available for Kindle and Nook, or as a print edition. To see more of his work, google Mitchell Krockmalnik Grabois. He lives in Denver.

 

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young emma in hats

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Fiction

The Flock Unseen

by A.S. Coomer

 

The sirens woke me. I opened my eyes to the flashing red lights coming in through the closed blinds. My first conscious breath was painful, something spiked and bristled in my chest and I couldn’t complete it. I sputtered and coughed and tried to swing my feet over the side of the bed to sit up but couldn’t.

“Don’t.”

I looked over and my wife was standing there. Deep pockets of weary concern on her face.

How many times had this moment occurred?

Too many.

“They just got here,” she said, placing a cold hand on my shoulder. “Don’t move. Sit still.”

I tried to let myself fall back onto the bed but anything other than holding myself completely rigid sent the painbirds fluttering. They’re finicky creatures.

“Lie still.”

From somewhere below and off to the left, the front door opened. I didn’t hear it but I felt the change in the house’s pressure. It was new enough, still not really settled, that you could feel things like that.

She had her arms wrapped around herself now. Her frail hands, an old woman’s hands I could see now, were stroking her naked arms. Consoling herself. The hands and slight enfolding embrace an attempt to tell herself it was going to be ok.

I tried to find her eyes.

I opened my mouth to call her name.

Nothing came out.

Two women came through the bedroom door, official and stone-faced. I thought I recognized one of them from another time, another lesser visit.

There was a fresh fluttering of the wings in my chest and I couldn’t help but close my eyes. Tears snuck past the corners of my closed eyelids and streaked down both of my hot, fevered cheeks; icy slalom skiers making one last run.

When I could open my eyes again, she was talking to them. She had stepped further away from the bed, back against the wall, another enclosure giving her a sense of herself alone, confined and self-contained, her lips moving and eyes bright with anxiety, with uselessness, with time.

I tried to say her name again but couldn’t. A soft avian chitter in the night followed by the flock unseen’s full response. The birds were really singing now.

They came and threw back the sheets. I felt a wave of chill thrill across my wasted legs, my half-exposed stomach poking out from under the ruffled pajama shirt, the folds of my weather-beaten neck pulling back a bit, just a fraction tighter.

The understanding that the cold slowly sucked you back in time dawned on me like the first glimpse of clear-skied December sunrise. Seconds began to flash backwards, abandoning their forward march as if it had all just been another training exercise, a fire drill, a cursory, fretless, feckless thing.

I tried to look toward my wife but my eyes were not the eyes I closed the late April night before. They were not even the eyes of my seventy-sixth year.

I saw her through eyes ten years younger, misting around the edges; all slightly out of focus but in a very nice Coppola sort of way. She was smiling in earnest–not realizing I was watching–at the rising Minnesotan sun, her first poured cup of sugary black coffee steaming up in swirls around her chin, giving her the appearance of some beautifully aged, asiatic sage.

“What is it?”

I must’ve blinked because then I saw her through eyes at least twenty-five years younger, sepia-toned and warmly hazy. She was coming in through the door of the old house we used to live in downtown, her arms laden with plastic grocery bags, her face flushed from the summer heat. Little hairs were stuck to her forehead and her dark hair looked frizzled and wild. Her smooth face was florid but content. She unloaded herself onto the kitchen table and wiped her forehead with her forearm then saw me. The smile streaked across her face like heat lightning, late evenings in early August.

My stomach dropped. The birds sang louder.

I saw her, again, through eyes I’ve had at least fifty years since. She was sitting across from me in a little booth for two at a Mexican restaurant somewhere in the flaxen wastes of Kansas, ballcap on her head, tinted lipbalm colored in slightly outside the lines of her mouth, beautiful and famished after a long day in the car. Her large eyes, anchored wonderfully in her smooth, sun kissed cheeks, were scanning the sticky, plastic shrouded menu. I watched them bloom as they lighted on what she wanted.

“Ma’am, I need you to step back.”

“What’s happening.”

“Ma’am.”

“Do something.”

The birds sang another note, it surrounded me, and I felt the feathers ruffle against my chest. I opened my eyes but everything was dark. They nestled closer and I, too, began to sing.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

A.S. Coomer is a writer. He likes cats, tacos, books & comics. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in issues of Red Fez, Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Literary Orphans Journal, The Quill, Blotterature, Flash Fiction Magazine, Oxford Magazine, The Poets Without Limits, The Broadkill Review, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Thirteen Myna Birds, 101 Words, Intrinsick Magazine and Serving House Journal, to name a few. You can find him at http://www.ascoomer.wordpress.com. He also runs a “record label” for poetry that can be found here: http://www.lostlonggoneforgottenrecords.wordpress.com.

 

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young Eva

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Fiction

The Taints

by Jane Gilday

 

Heidi listens with mischief in her heart. She listened like that as I described the strange sense of having a whole new sex growing–or blossoming–between my balls and my ass. She said “Janey, that’s the Taints Region cause it tain’t one nor the other.”

Wise guy alpine cowgirl.

But I don’t know how any of it works. Not one minute, grain or word of it. Maybe you do so I’ll pass along some selected moments, like a Hallmark Kodak cavalcade, only honest, meaning this: how real can any love be that’s been sold for all occasions at $1.99 a pop fourteen-and-one half-billion times a day forever? This is love for taints and tin ears, you damn civilians.

The first time I listened deep to Horses I lay flatback on an indian bedspread in a Manchester attic. Above me the sheetrock ceiling vanished, giving way to a vault of deep blue that was heard not seen, and children began to sing those hymns you knew before some man put the fear of god in you. I smelled seawater, bird dung, and henna and knew it was all temple stuff, like playing the outfield forever. I was completely sexually aroused without any sense of body or mind, all motionless. It was taint sex, as has been rumored of the Texas that was Truly Texas, before being replaced with a body double. It was part of an Egyptian Mexico.

The wolves were everywhere. They all had the last name of Wolf, guns in glove compartments or purses, vans full of serious stolen military technology. They were beyond arrest. If I made up a song in the afternoon, they would be singing it that night as I heeled into the drag bar. Any curiosity I exhibited toward any subject, no matter how far-fetched, would be answered with wonderful onion-layered jokes.

One day I thought “Does anyone in the phone book have the last name of Queen?” Picking up the Hartford directory, I located one–and only one–such listing:

Queen, Cleo ……………………….321 Niles Street. 297-6666

I dialed. A voice of indeterminate age, race or gender answered. “Janey Janey Janey, won’t ya come along with me?…Janey Janey Whoo!, Janey Janey.” I swear on the bible this really happened.

I left town the next week, moving to a telephone booth on an unmarked industrial access road near the refinery district of Maytree. They called me as soon as I was all settled in. I gave up trying to hide, and went to a midtown Manhattan address, as they instructed. I expected to be found floating in the Hudson. Instead they told me to learn how to dance and gave me a blouse and a little book called ‘it ain’t what you think’. I began to feel like a beautician or just look like one.

Walking back to The Port Authority Terminal, I passed Andy Warhol, just leaning in a doorway. Amazed, I shouted “hi Andy.” He just pointed to a nameplate on his denim jacket, the kind of nameplate that people wear at those business-card-swap networking power breakfasts they hold for the damned. Moving closer, I could make out a name on the badge. It read ‘Theresa’.

Feeling foolish and hick, I mumbled “sorry, Theresa.” She said “just call me Sis” and said I seemed kinda tainty for a boy but not to worry about it.

So.

I went down to the Upland Empire, the totally-liberated zone in the high appalachians that neither Confederacy nor Union could ever invade, defeat or even engage in combat. Any army that managed to reach the entrance gaps was met with sudden typhoon-force winds and grapefruit-sized hail, although the skies far above the mountain tops kept on shining blue and clear.

The only way in, then and now, is through those gaps, and to enter you gotta wear a nametag. Uniforms are forbidden.

Winding high and higher above Kingsport, I ended up at the Carter Family Reunion, playing mandolin behind two fiddlers–both named Charlie–along with Edith Gilliam on guitar, her 78-year-old fingers nimble as a catamount on highground. All night folks danced barefoot on the lawn, right in front of us as we played. The powers-that-be don’t publicize any of this cause it terrifies them and the locals just figure that anyone who does show up is some sort of kin. We played until the only light was the milky way above the dark mountains and high lonesome wind.

The next day, self-consciousness overtook me. I dressed so different than anyone else there. My hair was so long and my clothes so ragged. My small boobs showed through my ‘felix the cat’ t-shirt. My cheeks reddened furiously, as I thought “they probably all think i’m crazy–and what would they think if they’d seen me last night in the motel room, wearing my long black gauzy nightgown?”

At that exact, precise, moment Dewanna leaned over towards me, winked, and whispered conspiratorially. “Person’lly, I tain’t never met anyone who tain’t a little crazy, have you? Ya know what my favorite song is? It’s that ol’ Long Black Veil–it’s really purty. And didn’t that ol’ Milky Way shine sooooo purty last night?”

It sure had, but you had to look up to see it, and the lowlanders rarely look up, being so grounded and wary of taints.

All these are true, really true, events in my life, and I still don’t understand any of it or try to.

I’m still feeling like a flower, like a taint–and I’m still singing and Heidi still teases about my lower regions.

 

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Jane Gilday is an artist, poet and musician who lives in Pennsylvania. Her artist statement: “jane gilday is 8 years old and likes to color”

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Jane 29Painting by Jane Gilday

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Fiction

Jehrico Finds a Mistress

by Tom Sheehan
Jehrico knew what he was, and right from his first pick-up, a token-type horseshoe: He was a collector of things tossed aside, and Jehrico assumed that the Indian woman he was looking upon had been thrown aside, like so many of the tossed parts he had retrieved and made something of in his foraging about the old west, which was, indeed, his land of discovery and recovery. In fact, the token-type horseshoe, at his insistence, was made into a Bowie knife by a Mexican blacksmith whose father had fought at the Alamo and came away with stories of Jim Bowie.
Unwittingly he had started his small business with that token-type horseshoe.
As for the Indian maiden, Jehrico made his pronouncement early. “She is the most beautiful maiden I have ever seen, ever been around.” It was Jehrico’s voice coming along a windswept passage in the Randolph Mountain Range. He was not talking about Lupalazo, his wife, or his oldest daughter, Kerradina, a beauty in her own right, and he was not talking to anybody but himself and a piece of the wind that would keep his secret locked in the clouds and the high mass of rock lifting his eyes to the blue sky … at least for the time being.
“I will not buy her if she is possessed now because she must be free in my mind as well as her own mind, but I will trade for her. That is my custom.” The junkman and salvager of the west had not let go of the talismans, the many of them, that brought him luck or the goodness borne in what God designed and what man made and then discarded.
And at the moment his eyes were studying another ghost town he had come across, the dust of the years blowing into the wind, to be grasped, run through the sieve of his mind for what he now called “salvagations.” He had coined his own word for what he accomplished over the years. His friend Collie Sizemore probably had some influence on the coining.
This maiden was part of the old building, for the knotted rope binding her to a beam was thick as her wrist, solidly in place, not eaten by time or vermin of the ghost town, a prisoner of the “knotter” whoever that might be. He had seen no other person and heard no other sound but her moaning.
Surely, though, someone was about, someone who would not let go of this beautiful creature, who had her hog-tied to a beam she could not break down or carry on her back.
In the rear of this decrepit building partially blowing in the wind, part of its dust making the last journey through creation, he’d found her. There was a moan riding an edge of the wind, a human in distress, and Jehrico made his way into and through the shanty-like building on its way to history. Rubble was everywhere, a mess of furniture and various implements, artifacts of a once-livable site, sitting in the last place they had been used, wrecked by time, twist or toss. But every article he spotted worthy of description and identification was slowly sifting through his mind.
He was at work, and at rescue.
Jehrico, once called by Collie Sizemore as the “razor appraiser,” carried only his sharp eyes and a rugged cudgel, a hand-fashioned weapon to ward off the first wild animal to set upon him. He had never used the cudgel for a weapon, but rather to thrust found things aside, into better view, to see what they were made of, what they had left in them, what they might become.
The stories of things he had “turned over” had assumed a legendary status, consisting of so many invaluable finds that truth built upon itself, for many believed what he had not yet found would come to his hand, without doubt, before it blew away into dust. Collie also said, “Jehrico is a savior of all things found and leave no life left on the ground.”
There were folks in Bola City who swore Sizemore worked out of some book that Jehrico had found along the way, in a deserted Conestoga or a fallen schoolhouse, who preached what he read.
Collie, one of his first friends, had become proficient in spreading his status in the west, the way his words seemed fashioned solely for Jehrico Taxico, Collector. “Don’t leave it, he’ll retrieve it.” Don’t toss your tool, you’ll look the fool.” “Don’t fling-off old gimmicks, he’ll make ‘em do tricks.”
Jehrico, it was also known, had never carried a firearm to protect himself. Excelling in bartering, in trading up or down for some target piece he noted still locked into original form, into its first intent, he followed the moaning that issued from the nearly-collapsed building in the sixth ghost town he’d come upon. Each sound, each sigh, each throaty call for help, drew him through the wrecked building, which he assumed even animals stayed clear of.
When he caught sight of her, standing in a shaft of sunlight dancing around her, his breath came to a halt, balled up in his chest, collected itself for a gasp noting pleasure without touching. She was absolutely beautiful in her horrible state. Her clothes, what was left of them, were shredded, tattered, but in such a haphazard manner they had left her as a most desirable woman, beautiful, wanton, dressed for company, undressed for company, exhibiting the shapeliest torso from hips to shoulders and slung with an obviously prominent bust, the finest and firmest of legs and arms, the perfect face of a woman of the west, her moans ascending the loveliest of throats, coming past a perfection of pale lips, sitting on his ears like a psalm of sorts, a prayer of thanksgiving before Jehrico could contemplate or conduct her rescue.
“What will I do now?” he asked aloud in the midst of dust, danger and derring-do. He had to release her from bonds, cover her, see who had imprisoned her in this dangerous site, and engineer a trade. He beheld a vision of Lupalazo when he had first seen her with the Indian he eventually traded with, and now envisioned Lupalazo looking over his shoulder, and fully noting how he viewed this new beauteous maiden of the west, this prisoner. Of all people, Lupalazo would know the unsaid that was being said, the feelings that were conjured, the minute joy being thrust into play.
This new woman of the west was easily the most handsome and beautiful he had ever seen. She was not an artifact, not something to improve, alter, absorb into some new element. She was perfection, unalterable, inalterable. He dared not close his eyes; he was concerned, afraid, disturbed by what he might do, hope for, end up with.
Then he realized she had not spoken a word, uttered only the moans of imprisonment, the pain of roped limbs, but she raised her eyes and stared off to her left; she was alerting him to something, someone. Her eyes squinted tightly and her jaw dropped slack. Fright broke out on her face, her mouth atwitter, her eyes begging salvation.
Jehrico grasped his cudgel tighter, swung around and saw two Sioux Indians standing at the door behind him, one with a lance, one with an arrow in his bow. Neither one carried a stone ax or a long knife.
Jehrico screamed the name “Wakan-Tanka,” one of the gods of the Sioux he was familiar with, then he swung the cudgel and hit above his head a cross-piece running across the room. The walls of the old decrepit building shook dust from secret places, echoed along other sections of joists and beams, shaking the whole building. The two Sioux dropped their weapons and stood entranced in place as Jehrico held out one hand in a sign of peace, even as the shaking of the old structure slowed down, and ceased. He showed no scowl on his face or any part of a smile, neutral for the moment.
But the next move was Jehrico’s and he knew it. Withdrawing his Bowie knife, he cut the bonds off the woman, knelt down in front of her, took her hand and held it on his head for a second, stood up and said again, in his most solemn voice, “Wakan-Tanka. Wakan-Tanka.” He wondered what the pair of them looked like, her in her tattered clothes that showed most of her body, him with a mighty cudgel in hand and saying the name of one of the Sioux gods.
Then Jehrico, not through any bartering as yet, made another strange move; he flipped the cudgel in the air, caught it coming down at its thickest end and held the handle toward the Sioux. Both Indians stepped back, refused to grasp the cudgel, and fled the building without their weapons, the god’s name leaping from their throats, “Wakan-Tanka! Wakan-Tanka!” From the dusty, barren road for more than a half mile he could hear their cries as they carried off fear and surprise in departure.
It was not his old pal Collie Sizemore who first saw the strange pair coming into Bola City, Jehrico leading his mule and a lovely Indian maiden, blanket-wrapped, sitting on the mule as though she owned it, her eyes looking straight ahead into the center of town. But it was Lupalazo from the porch of their home who saw them. The maiden did not see any of the men eventually staring at her, but saw Lupalazo and three children clutching at her knees while staring at the man with a strange woman on his mule, a sight they had never seen.
But it was Collie Sizemore, ever alert, who saw them next, who yelled it out, “See what Jehrico brought home now. She’s a beauty, a bubble of trouble does appear the way it looks from way off here.”
The saloon emptied into the street to see the sight. There was noise galore, roaring guffaws and aws and ahs, as the crowd looked upon the Indian maiden when the blanket fell away from her loveliness.
“Did you dig her up from one of those holy places, Jehrico?” Collie yelled out. “She looks godilly and quite bodily. And your wife is bound by strife.”
There was laughter and wonder and daydreaming galore as Jehrico threw the blanket back onto the maiden still sitting on the mule. Lupalazo smiled, knowing her man, throwing Collie Sizemore a quick look of condemnation for his remarks, but allowing a smile as punctuation, knowing what and who Collie was from near the beginning.
One of the older patrons of the saloon, who had heard or seen Jehrico at bartering before, asked, “What’d you give up for her, Jehrico? You still got all your arms and your legs.”
Collie Sizemore had to laugh at that one, and snapped his fingers in joy, and then Jehrico said, “I only had to use the bait of one of their gods for a couple of Indians.” He threw his head back, his mouth open, as if to show shock of some kind.
“Which one was that?” asked the old man, as though he was plumb familiar with the whole tribe of gods that ran the heavens above.
Jehrico said, “Why, Wakan-Tanka, of course,”
The old patron of the saloon simply said, as he turned and looked out over the congregation of drinkers, his eyes finally settling on Jehrico, “Oh, that one. Serves him right getting used up like that. You’re still ahead of the game, Jehrico. Gotta hand it to you.” He slapped his thighs with both hands.
All of them, including Collie and Jehrico gave the old man credit with heavy laughter; it was loud and lush and long. But it was Lupalazo, the Collector’s wife, the mother of his six children, who threw her arms around the still-frightened Indian maiden and said, as she ushered her away from the crowd, “Come along with me, dear, and we’ll get you cleaned up and into a proper outfit. Something special for what you’ve been through, something right out of my own collection, something a little more attractive for you.”
Looking back over her shoulder, she added, to one and all, “You will be welcome as mistress of our household and then we’ll see who wants to venture close to an Indian maiden.”
She was sure Jehrico understood every word but, just in case, she said it in her own tongue, with no twist in the meaning, “Le dará la bienvenida como maestra de nuestro hogar y, a continuación, vamos a ver quién quiere aventurarse cerca de una doncella India.”
The Master Collector of Junk understood every word, in both languages and, for sure, the full intent.

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Tom Sheehan served in the 31st Infantry, Korea 1951-52, and graduated Boston College in 1956. His books are Epic Cures; Brief Cases, Short Spans; Collection of Friends; From the Quickening; The Saugus Book; Ah, Devon Unbowed; Reflections from Vinegar Hill; This Rare Earth & Other Flights, and Vigilantes East.  eBooks include Korean Echoes (nominated for a Distinguished Military Award), The Westering, (nominated for National Book Award); from Danse Macabre are Murder at the Forum (NHL mystery), Death of a Lottery Foe, Death by Punishment, and An Accountable Death. Co-editor of A Gathering of Memories, and Of Time and the River, two collections about our home town of Saugus, Massachusetts, both 400+ pages, 4500 copies sold, all proceeds from $40.00 each cost destined for a memorial scholarship for my co-editor, John Burns, in the Saugus School system as director of the English Department at the High School for 45 years. After conception of the idea for the books, and John putting out the word for material to be included by former students, and with a proposal of actions and schedules I prepared for a local bank, ten of his former students signed a loan from the bank for $60,000 to print two books not yet written!!!!

And paid it off!!!!

* * * * * * * * * * * *

 

 

Samuel4

painting by Samuel Barrera

Standard
Fiction

Jehrico’s Wolf Pup

by Tom Sheehan

 

When Jehrico’s wolf pup bit the sheriff, on his gun hand, and on his trigger finger to boot, things went from bad to worse. To begin with, Ruben Tarpon was a new sheriff with a fast gun and was trying his best to make his name as good as his gun and do a good job for the folks of Bola City. He was also checking out the pup as a curiosity, some folks telling him about it locked in a cage behind the livery. The sheriff had heard about Jehrico’s stunts and ventures into the business side of Bola City, like his hauling in the first iron bath tub to serve the hygienic needs of Bola City’s male population. Jehrico, Tarpon figured, was gifted with accidental entrances into things that made him money, and him being nothing more than a collector of odd things found in his travels, often just junk. Jehrico, however, knew firsthand the desert, older Indian sites and dwelling areas, ghost towns, closed-down mines, caverns and caves and canyons, and the community trash deposits for a hundred miles around that he reveled exploring in.

None of that stopped the bite when the sheriff put his hand too close to the pup.

And the bitten finger had a far-reaching effect on Bola City’s relationships between the law, local merchants and the bank. The sheriff, an elected official, said aloud to some confederates, “This is all the fault of that damned junk collector, him and his pup.” Though he was a stalwart among the men and a favorite of the women with his ruggedly handsome looks, he was aware of his status at all times, knowing it all came with the territory of the badge, the turn of a key to a jail cell, and the hangman’s noose when it counted.

It all had begun so simply for Jehrico in his newest venture into the world of collecting things. He came up with the pup at the back end of a cave in the mountains, born to snarl it appeared, but cute as a doll.

“Look for the dog in him, Jehrico. He’s as much dog as anythin’.” Jehrico’s pal Joe Brewster was laying it on the line about Jehrico’s new wolf pup he’d brought to Brewster to get his view on having one for a pet. Brewster knew animals, once having lived in the hills around the Strict Elsie settlement on the Guila River for at least ten years before he walked out of the hills one day and came to town of Strict Elsie, leaving all the genuine silence behind him.

He’d spotted Jehrico as soon as he cleared the pass at the high point above Strict Elsie, some vultures riding the thermals hundreds of feet above him, their wings, even that far, as wide as the back side of a pair of oxen in the traces. It was not until Jehrico came within fifty yards that Brewster knew he was carrying a bundle of fur. The way he carried it told Brewster the fur was alive and, of course, had to be a young one.

“Watcha got there, Jehrico? It’s near alive far as I kin see. It ain’t peccary and it ain’t cow, so I’d guess it’s gotta be bear or wolf, and if you say it’s wolf, make sure you handle it like a dog. Like I said, it’s much dog as anythin’.”

He shook his head and said, “If you bring it down into Bola City, be ready to get some sand in your grits; them folks down there don’t like anythin’ that even smells wolf. So best tell ’em up front it’s a dog you found with the momma dead. Them big male wolves have been nosin’ into the wind for a hundred years now. It travels on the breeze, in the wind, and if they find it like we do comin’ in from a month in the desert, knowin’ girl on the wind from a hundred miles away, they’d get mean at things plumb near forgot.”

Jehrico, all smiles, still holding the pup like he was a toy, ignoring the threats of real life, said, “What’ll I call him, Joe? Got any special names you ain’t used up yet? I favor south names, if you know what I mean.”

Brewster, looking at the vultures still at games, said, “How about Bruto, him bein’ so mean and all? Bruto’s good name for that critter just waitin’ to bite your finger off given a chance he come of age.” The two old pals laughed long and loud as they shared the bundle of fur, with white teeth in the middle of the ball.

“You keep to mind them teeth, Jehrico, ’cause they come to growin’ easy as the ground shakin’ when the mountain moves. Bruto get set to use them there’s no kiddin’ around on him. Them kind ain’t born to chew, I should tell you. They was plain born to rip things apart, one part from another, ‘specially they any meat in between or settin’ on them parts.”

The two friends of the animal world set about to make a cage for Bruto, after Jehrico poured some water from his canteen on the pup and said, “I bless you and give you the name Bruto. Wear it where you will, but for now in this here cage we got made, me and Joe. It’s just to keep you from the dogs in town, and there’s lots of them nosin’ around all the time.”

Brewster added a bit more advice. “You best let Bruto smell you every time you feed him, Jehrico. Let him get your smell down good in his belly ’cause it might save a finger or a hand later he come of real age and them teeth do the real thing.”

Jehrico had a rig behind his mule that he could tote the cage in, and that’s how they entered Bola City, Jehrico on his mule and the wolf pup in his cage.

For starters, the sheriff was practically out of commission, and most people around knew it, including some gang members sitting in a cabin at the back end of Snake Canyon off in the mountain range, and knowing the hand of the law was bandaged to a fare-thee-well.

“He ain’t so good a shot anymore,” Dutch the German said, talking to his small gang of robbers, all rested after their last robbery, and just about all the money spent. “He ain’t going to get the jump on us, his hand like it is. That damned wolf pup did us a great big favor. Bola City’s next for us, boys, and that bank over there. We ought to give a toast to that scrounger that brought home a wolf pup, thinking he was going to fool people making them think it was a lost puppy dog his momma run off or killed.”

One member of the gang, No-Foolin’ Toulin, at the back end of the cabin, whittling on a stick, said, “We gotta have a better plan than last time, Dutch. We was lucky on that one.” He rolled his eyes and flashed his hands in the air, both moves for base punctuation.

“Whatta ya mean ‘we was lucky?'” said Dutch. “We came out of there with a whole satchel of dough. So we lost Butchie. Well, he ain’t no big loss to us. You gotta admit he screwed up on the Timberfield job and I think he was asleep again this time. No way he shoulda taken one right in the face. Just wasn’t payin’ attention and somebody else coulda been dropped too, in case you ain’t thought of that yet.” He stressed his statement by pointing to each one in turn and saying, “You or you or you and even you. All of you coulda had the deep end of the tunnel all to hisself, if you really think about it.”

A small wave of mumbling ensued and Dutch the German knew none of the others would speak up; they were too scared, but Toulin came right back. “That stupid scavenger, that Jehrico lug, he ought to be part of us, way things happen with him. You heard about his bath tub and his pianer he brought back one time, like the whole world turned over on its backside for him. They say he smells like gold or silver up close and even gets a free bath once a week. Man like that could throw a whole passel of Rangers right off our trail, he give it a mind to do so.”

Dutch the German had a sudden idea, and he let it run around in his head before he spoke up about it. “What about this?” he said, leaning forward, looking them in the eye, drawing them in one by one. “We turn that wolf pup loose. Let him shake up a few folks, the whole town maybe, and while the pup raises hell of any kind, we rob the bank when they’re all messed up with the thing being loose, like maybe he’s gonna bite a kid or some old lady hangin’ up clothes on her line, or just layin’ around like nothin’ ever’s gonna happen, but the sheriff hisself is already punched out of action by a baby wolf.”

“He still keep that pup behind the livery, near the tub set-up?” No-Foolin’ Toulin obviously knew the answer to his own question. “Want I should take care of him, Dutch? I ain’t too queasy doin’ somethin’ like that.” His head came down into the circle where Dutch’s head had been, demanding attention, getting it, along with a share of responsibility and command. Smiling at Dutch, and then at the other gang members, he laid out a plan. “I figure I ought to feed him somethin’ good, what he likes, while he’s still in the cage. If he’s on the running line, loose as far as his leash lets him go, I’ll still feed him with that somethin’ goin’ to get his blood all lathered up inside, waitin’ to bite the hell out of anybody else comes near him. I learned a trick from an old Indian one time, about dropping a piece of meat in a special sauce, makes an animal go kinda crazy he eats it.”

“Sounds pretty smooth, No-Foolin’,” Dutch said. “He scare half the women in town to screamin’ and we got a walk-through at the bank, and Sheriff Tarpon ain’t gonna draw down on us no way, while all the men folk try to be heroes for their women and kids.”

It all went awry, of course, by the intervention of, not by Jehrico himself, but by his pal, the joker and animal man, Joe Brewster, who, during the darkest part of the night, extricated the wolf pup from the cage, put him in a box in the loft of the livery, and inserted a badger in its place. The badger was as mean as possible for one his size, and Brewster was just hoping to have some fun come morning.

He got all he was looking for.

In the forenoon of the day, a full night’s sleep behind him, Jehrico came to feed the pup and was surprised, but not amazed, to see an entirely different critter in the cage. Instinctively he knew that Brewster had been afoot in the night. He decided not to show any anxiety or any of his surprise, because he wanted to set off Brewster in his own way. The critter was a new one to Jehrico and he decided not to feed him, just to get back at his pal and omit what might be an exciting moment. He heard the wolf pup up in the livery and went to check on him and to feed him his morning ration.

Of course, the exciting moment came when an unsuspecting and usually morning-sleepy No-Foolin’ Toulin came to initiate his plan to feed the wolf pup and set him free to raise havoc all around Bola City. He did not pay much attention to the critter and when he opened the cage to toss in his “special food supply,” that all-out mean badger latched onto the ankle of his boot with a grip that was not about to loosen and sent No-Foolin’ Toulin in a mad, wild, screaming escapade all around the livery area. He wanted desperately to shoot the critter but he could not get his handgun free of his holster, falling knocked down repeatedly or getting knocked against a wall and further drawing out from his deepest insides the unholiest of screams.

Those screams swept across the morning of Bola City like a wild animal caught in a deadly snare, which did force the actions of an uncounted number of people within hearing range.

Jehrico thought it to be Brewster getting hung up in his own tomfoolery, Dutch the German and his gang thought it to be the outcome of the wolf pup on the loose, as promised by Toulin, and Sheriff Tarpon thought someone was being attacked by thugs or a wild thing inside the town limits.

Jehrico sat back in the loft laughing his head off, the wolf pup locked under a box with a heavy weight on top of it. Dutch the German and his gang rushed into the bank to rob it. Sheriff Ruben Tarpon grabbed a pistol in his left hand and fired a shot in the air, then fired another shot, in his attempt to scare off any wild critter or a thug on his rounds of doing nothing good, whatever was going on in his town.

When No-Foolin’ Toulin rolled out into the main street of Bola City, the badger let go of Toulin’s leg and rushed towards the bank in his attempt to escape. Some women screamed their holy terror. People on the wooden walk, which ran in front of the bank and the general store, rushed into the open doors of both establishments, spilling goods in the store and throwing the bank hold-up into absolute turmoil with every man in the place wielding a gun, some expecting to rob the bank and some expecting the wild critter to come right through the front door and were ready to shoot him.

Sheriff Tarpon ran into the street with the smoking pistol in his left hand and screaming all the while for his deputy to get on the job.

Jehrico stayed in the loft, the wolf pup under wraps, envisioning what pal Joe Brewster might be thinking at the time, all the screams and the gunfire and the general excitement gathering steam in the middle of town.

To his credit, pal Joe Brewster was on his horse outside of town heading back to Strict Elsie, hearing the gunshots, thinking that somebody in Bola City was taking shots at the badger out and about town, thinking of Jehrico looking for the wolf pup all the while, and he himself counting ahead to all the laughs they’d have next time him and Jehrico got together, away from Bola City, probably during one of Jehrico’s scavenger hunts.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Tom Sheehan served in the 31st Infantry, Korea 1951-52, and graduated Boston College in 1956. His books are Epic Cures; Brief Cases, Short Spans; Collection of Friends; From the Quickening; The Saugus Book; Ah, Devon Unbowed; Reflections from Vinegar Hill; This Rare Earth & Other Flights, and Vigilantes East. eBooks include Korean Echoes (nominated for a Distinguished Military Award), The Westering, (nominated for National Book Award); from Danse Macabre are Murder at the Forum (NHL mystery), Death of a Lottery Foe, Death by Punishment, and An Accountable Death. Co-editor of A Gathering of Memories, and Of Time and the River, two collections about his home town of Saugus, Massachusetts, both 400+ pages, 4500 copies sold, all proceeds from $40.00 each cost destined for a memorial scholarship for his co-editor, John Burns, in the Saugus School system as director of the English Department at the High School for 45 years. After conception of the idea for the books, and John putting out the word for material to be included by former students, and with a proposal of actions and schedules prepared for a local bank, ten of his former students signed a loan from the bank for $60,000 to print two books not yet written!!!!

And paid it off!!!

 

* * * * * * * * * * * *

kristi2photo by Kristi Harms

Standard
Fiction

Lost

by Aaron Whitaker

 
“How did I get here?”

 
This is the question I seem to be asking myself as I stumble into this alley. Dark, lonesome, and musty; I would avoid this type of place in a heartbeat on a normal day. The walls look moist and slimy; perhaps that is where the aroma of mold is coming from? I manage to trip on some conveniently placed trash, but somehow catch myself just before my nose makes contact with the ground. Good thing too, because at that moment I realize that my hands are touching a surface that’s equally foul. Frantically I rise to my feet and wipe my hands on my pants, and turn to fully examine my surroundings.

 
“How did I get here?”

 
This setting is stark contrast to the one that I was enjoying a few moments ago. Savoring a big juicy burger topped just the way I like it, from this nice diner down the street. Adding in a homemade malt to wash everything down just right. Sitting alone and basking in the silent tranquility. Maybe that’s why I am in this predicament? Seems so far away now.

 
“How did I get here?”

 
My daydreams soon come to an end though. A swift punch in the gut brings me back to reality, and reunites me with my peaceful dinner. “Whoa, Carter you almost got some on me.” The sarcastic laugh was a dead giveaway as to whom it belongs, Francis. He’s your run of the mill sleaze and full of himself to boot.

 
“How did I get here?”

 
The more I ask myself that question, the more I realize that the answer is standing before me. Francis is a middleman, goes around collecting debts for his boss, a loan shark, if you will. “You’re past due.” I take another hit this time with his brass knuckles, which have a bizarre reflection off the slime-covered walls. I think a few of my ribs just cracked. I probably look pathetic hunching over in this dank alley. “Unfortunately we have to forcibly repossess our investment.” A final blow, a kick sure to shatter the rest of my ribcage.

 
“How did I get here?”

 
Am I going to die? Beaten, bruising, coughing up blood; and my day was going so well. Now I welcome the slime and make a nice bed out of it. It’s soft and eerily warm. “Thank you for your gracious payment, I believe we will reconsider our investment. See you next month to checkup on your progress,” Francis chuckles as he throws me my recently emptied wallet. He seems confident that I’ll make it through this ordeal. Either way, I can’t seem to keep my eyes open, perhaps a quick nap wouldn’t hurt.

 
“How did I get here?”

 
The darkness surrounds me; it seems like hands are gripping onto my soul as they pull me down into the abyss. As I fall into the nothing, I can’t help but ask myself the same redundant question; I thought I already knew the answer. It feels as though that this void is draining my emotions to balance my body with the landscape.

 
“How did I get here?”

 
Even though this place attempts to make me feel isolated, I can still sense the presence of others. Their voices start, quietly at first, no more audible than a slow, paced exhale. But breaths turn to murmurs, murmurs change to whispers, whispers progress into statements, statements become conversations, conversations morph into debates, debates lead to arguments, arguments evolve into yells, yells alter into screams, screams shift into battle cries, battle cries epoch at thunderous roars, “I can’t stand it anymore!” The voice that cries out does not belong to me, although it might as well. My rapid decent makes it hard to envision the owner, but as soon as I take notice my speed begins to slow. Perhaps this space wants me to absorb everything that was going to follow.

 
“I can not let this go on any longer,” the same voice screaming, whose body is emanating a light in stark contrast to the darkness around it; it’s almost painful to look at directly. A man in form, he tries to assert power over another figure that is his exact opposite.

 
“I’m afraid that neither of us have a choice in the matter,” is the calm feminine rebuttal. Her body is wrapped in a material that matches her background, just as dark if not darker. The only way I’m able to see her clothes is because of the thin strip of red that runs along her outline. If that wasn’t there, it would seem like her head and slender limbs were emerging from the ether.

 
“How did I get here?”

 
This scene confuses me; my drop is now a hover over the two conflicting entities. I can see them clear as day, but why haven’t they noticed me?

 
“He is only a child!”

 
“Quit acting like he’s innocent. That is something that he has lost long ago,” chuckles the mysterious muse, as chills run down my spine. I’m not sure if they are from fear or excitement.

 
“There are other methods to resolve this.”

 
“He desires punishment… retribution, and right now his focus is on that Francis fellow.” Right at this moment my heart skips a beat, realizing that they are talking about me. And whatever spell that was keeping me immune to their sight breaks with my spike in terror.

 
“How did I get here?”

 
Not sure if that question would be appropriate to ask here, considering I don’t know if I would like an answer from these two, so I say nothing. This doesn’t stop them from turning their heads towards me. A look of horror takes over the gilded man’s face, as if my very presence has increased the stakes of whatever dangerous game they were playing. He stutters for a moment but tries to retake control of this perplexing situation, “I do not believe… that this child of God is lost.” To no avail the woman steps forward, with each pace closer to me her smile widens; a sight that frightens to the core, but at the same time it could enchant even the strongest of wills. “You’re wasting your time. He has made his decision; I can feel it in his heart.” Before I know it she places her hand on my chest, with her free arm wrapping around my back to pull me in closer. Something doesn’t feel right, my skin feels cold from her palm; what is it? Fear… anxiety… acceptance? I’m not sure. As my thoughts begin to broaden, large wings spring from the woman’s back; wings with the same jet black hue and eerie illumination. With one powerful thrust, we are sent skyward leaving the man behind.

 
“Stop!” This is the only thing he can utter before he begins to fade. Some force drags him in the opposite direction to prevent any chance of him catching us. Even his light can’t protect him from what is coming; slowly but surely and resisting with all his might, the emptiness is devouring him. With her head crocked to enjoy the view, she gives only a single somber word response, “Goodbye.”

 
Attention returning to me, the enchantress looks deeply into my eyes. No further words are spoken, just her peering and prying into my soul. Then a sudden kiss, originating out of surprise … or expectation; sealing me to my fate, whatever that might be.

 
“How did I get here?”

 
Damp, must, slime; I’m back in the alley, and I’m standing! This can’t be, Francis nearly broke me in half. But the very thought of his name makes me realize that I am not alone in the alley. Francis is lying face down in a puddle of muck at my feet, with the ground around him flowing into a small river of crimson. “Francis?” I’m not sure why I say this; I guess I am hoping that by muttering his name it will create some miracle response of him getting up, or at the very least a groan of disturbance. Although a quick examination of his body proves that he won’t be moving anytime soon. A large hole has been punched through his chest, as if he had been hit with a cannon ball from point blank range with chunks of flesh frayed to and fro. What could have happened? A quick look at myself gives me the traumatizing answer. I’ve felt damp since I woke up but I only took it as water from the alley; wishful thinking. In reality, my arms are coated in the same dark crimson pulling from Francis. Did I do this? How? These questions echo in my head as if to taunt me for the act I just unconsciously committed. I look over the scene relentlessly, desperate to prove to myself that this wasn’t my doing. These hopes promptly faded away as I turned back to the slime. There are two menacingly bright red eyes staring back at me, but the eyes are my own.

 
“How did I get here?”

 
My feet soon take control of themselves, forcing me in the opposite direction. They don’t seem to care where they take me, as long as it is away from the gruesome attack. Sirens begin to blare in the distance, and they are only getting closer; are they after me? I should be running out of breath, but each stride feels longer and stronger than the last almost as if I am flying. Somehow I manage to find myself in front of my apartment building. Eager to receive sanctuary, I burst through the doors, not paying attention to anyone who may or may not be in the lobby. All I want is to get into my room, and pray for all of this to go away.

 
“How did I get here?”

 
I know deep down that I will never be that lucky. Even in my own house, I can only feel despair and foreboding. Everything is dark; it makes me sick how eerily similar it is to the void. The only glimpse of light in the entire space comes from a dim lamp on my desk. Resting peacefully inside the illumination is a photo… Oh Emma. The photo reveals a joyous depiction of my wife, Emma, and I. It was our first anniversary and we wanted to go somewhere special; she always was a little bit of a thrill seeker, so we went to the amusement park. Not the most romantic of places but I did try to redeem myself with a cliché candlelit dinner; at least we both got to enjoy ourselves. We thought nothing could hurt us. If I only knew what I know now. I would have never gotten myself involved with Francis and his boss; then Emma and I could have continued to live our fantasy. That’s why Emma’s not here; I wasn’t sure how far Francis was willing to go but I didn’t want her to get hurt because of my own idiocy. So I sent her away. Her mother has been sick recently, so it was a good excuse to get her out of the house. But would I want her to come back? Look at me now; as I glance at the mirror hanging on the closet door I can see a literal shadow of my former self. Patches of grey skin form around the stains of blood with eyes red as fire; what would she think of me?

 
“How did I get here?”

 
I think I know the answer to that question now. I don’t want to hurt anyone else. I have to correct the wrongs that I have done. I can’t let Emma see me like this. Easing myself to the window facing the street, I open it. “It should be quick,” those seem to be the words that escape my lips as I step out onto the ledge. But as soon as I’m about to take my leap, I hear two of the most gut wrenching sounds I’ve heard all night. Our apartment door unlocking, followed by an angelic voice, “Carter, are you here?” Turning on the light, a look of terror overcomes her as the sight unfolds before her. Why now; oh why Emma did you have to come back? Silence ensues. Eventually her body begins to relax but the look of terror remains; at this point, tears start to swell in my eyes. I can’t let this go on any further. I have to end it quickly. I don’t want to hurt her.

 
So… I lean forward. “No!” Emma’s screams reverberate in the air around me, spilling out into the street. To prevent any more damage, I look towards my fate. As I do, something else disturbs me entirely. Fire and brimstone breaks though the ground, lurching for me. From the flames emerges the woman in black, embracing me once more. Scared more than I ever have been, I look back. Emma, my angel, is at the window holding out her arm crying for my return. Her face was of fear, but now turns to surprise as another odd yet bone-chilling photo develops in front of her.
Instinctively, the demoness pulls me in closer and whispers into my ear, all the while smirking evilly at Emma, “Welcome home.”

 

 

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Aaron Whitaker is a senior at Heidelberg College, majoring in Anthropology and History. He’s from Woodstock, Ohio. This is his first published story.

 

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Samuel42

art by Samuel Barrera

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