Avenue Zed, by Michael Fowler
I had just moved into an apartment for senior singles, located off a quiet hallway on the third floor of an old brick building. I was the last room in a row of twelve, to the right, as I approached it, of the pale yellow wall that marked the end of the hall. The builders might have put a window there, I thought, to give the tenants a look at the street below, but there was only a discolored wall.
The room came furnished, but the fridge, stove, and the furniture including the bed were of a reduced size and looked almost like toys. But then larger articles would never have fit in such a small room, really a conjoined bedroom, living room, and kitchen with a tiny bathroom off to one side. The freezing compartment of the fridge held one ice tray and one or two frozen meals, and the oven and stove were equally downsized. The little bed pulled out from the wall, and I would scrape my sides in the shower stall. I found these accommodations suitable, and on moving day only worried about bringing up my few articles of clothing, all of them tightly packed in one suitcase, on the small, rickety elevator.
I had just opened the door to my room and was about to carry in my suitcase after the slow and claustrophobic elevator ride, when the door across the narrow hall from mine opened. A buxom blonde lady of about my age faced me through her doorway, bunching about her in one hand a thick robe that barely concealed her flowing front. In her other hand she held out a clear plastic sack containing a pair of gray men’s shoes.
“I imagine you could use a decent pair of house slippers,” she said, giving me a once-over. “These belonged to my husband and look about your size. Don’t worry, they’ve been thoroughly sanitized.”
She leaned forward into the narrow hall, almost touching me with the dangling sack of old shoes. To get rid of her, I reached over with my free hand and grasped the sack, explaining at the same time that I was trying to finish moving in. I then carried the sack and suitcase inside and closed my door in her face.
Alone inside my new digs I made a cup of weak tea, then sat with it in my little easy chair in my little yellow room, the same yellow as the hall outside, wondering what I should do with a pair of dead man’s shoes. For that, as I understood the woman, was my dilemma: her husband had died, perhaps recently of a foul disease, and she was distributing his clothing to her neighbors, supposedly after cleaning his things first.
I decided after some thought that she was doing the right and neighborly thing, and that I should have thanked her for the departed’s shoes. But something about shoes worn by a recently deceased man made me uneasy, and I tossed the plastic bag over by the door to my closet, a diminutive aperture I hadn’t opened yet. Later, after finishing my tea, I went over to the bag and prodded it with my foot, but left it lying on the floor by the closet. It would be in the way there when I got around to hanging up my clothes, but I hadn’t yet thought of what to do with it.
After this draining experience I remained closed up in my room for the rest of the day, with no appetite for food, and that night I had trouble falling asleep in the undersized pull-out bed. I lay in complete darkness except for a low-wattage light I had installed in the bathroom, leaving open the small sliding bathroom door. I lay also in complete silence except for a rustling sound that I barely heard, that was perhaps a neighbor’s TV or the wind rushing by my little curtained window overlooking the street three stories below.
On awaking the next morning, I found that one of the dead man’s shoes was on my foot, and that the plastic sack holding the other was beside me in bed. Disgusted, I yanked off the slipper, stuck it back in the bag with its mate, and again tossed the sack over by the closet where I thought I’d left it. My mind reeling, I made plans to get rid of the bag later that day.
I went for a walk that afternoon, hoping some fresh air and a change of scenery would lighten my mood. My building stood on a small square, of which I could see only one side and a bit of the park that bordered it from my window. I thought I’d do a bit of exploring, and found during my brief walk that aside from a few cheap restaurants and a second-hand clothing shop, the square was composed entirely of taverns. There must have been ten of them. The four sides of the square, where I stood and looked out as far as I could see, gave way to the park I mentioned, a car lot, a churchyard, and a disused railroad trestle. There was also a two-lane throughway, called Avenue Zed, that bisected the square and ran east-west in either direction farther than I could see. Avenue Zed was a fairly busy street with little to recommend it.
I headed home after my walk, regretting that I hadn’t brought along the sack of old slippers to throw out in one of the public trash receptacles on the square. I had been afraid that my neighbor lady would see me and feel insulted, so I left them back in my room. Now I remained exposed to any illness or contagion they carried, thanks to that witch. When I got to my door, moreover, she opened hers across from mine as if she had known I’d be out there. Once again she flourished a hand-me-down enclosed in a plastic wrapper.
“I’m certain you’d enjoy a sport jacket like this,” she said, her front almost bursting through a plain blouse. Her words astonished me, as she held out one of those checked Madras affairs popular with hippies decades ago. Though never a “flower child,” I myself had owned such a jacket, but I had grown to hate the style even in my youth, and was glad when the thing finally disintegrated. “It looks like it would fit you to a T,” she concluded. The hook of a wire hanger protruded from the plastic protector, and she placed the hook in my hand. Having no choice I accepted the gift, nodding my thanks. Then I vanished into my room before she wheeled out her deceased husband’s entire threadbare wardrobe, each article enclosed in plastic.
That night, my second in my new apartment, I found nothing of interest on the tiny TV I had installed in the living area, the screen about the same size as the single-slice toaster a previous tenant had left behind in the kitchen. With nothing else to preoccupy me, I dwelt morbidly on the plastic-encased clothing of a dead man stacked next to my closet. At last I got up and emptied my suitcase and hung up my clothes in the miniature closet, where there was barely room for the three shirts and two pairs of slacks on hangers that comprised my wardrobe, along with the suitcase itself. The cupboard-sized space smelled of mothballs or insecticide and I was glad to shut its flimsy door again.
Done with unpacking, I considered carrying my neighbor’s husband’s old clothes outside in the cover of darkness and putting them in the dumpster out back. But again I was afraid of being detected, and this fear sapped my energy. I decided to leave things where they were for now, and after a glance at my curtained window darkened by night, I turned in early.
As on the previous night, my falling asleep was interrupted by a rustling noise I heard or thought I heard, like branches brushing against my window in the wind, though no trees rose that to that height outside and the night seemed to be still. The sound might have been a neighbor’s TV, except this seemed to be an exceptionally quiet building as far as the tenants went, as if they had all taken a vow of silence when signing the lease.
Vow or no vow, however, tonight a second sound joined in with the rustling one, a high-pitched keening like a distant train whistle or dog howling in the distance. This too might have been a TV close by, or someone singing, or perhaps water gurgling in the old pipes. Fortunately I was exhausted and had no trouble falling asleep despite the rustling and the keening, but I woke up abruptly an hour or two later with the light in my room somehow turned on. Moreover, I lay in bed with both my feet in the dead man’s shoes and one arm in his Madras sport jacket, almost dressed for a love-in. After undressing again, my heart racing, I reinserted the dead man’s clothes into their wrappers and tossed them back on the floor by the closet. I then had some trouble falling back to sleep even after I turned the light off and the apartment once more became dark and quiet. I didn’t awaken until late the next morning.
After dressing I went out walking on the square, looking for a cafe or any interesting venue I might have missed on my earlier walk. I then happened to see at a distance my neighbor lady of the hand-me-downs enter the second-hand clothing store. “Aha,” I thought as I closed in on the shop, hoping to catch a glimpse of the woman’s doings inside, “she has finally realized that I don’t want her dead man’s clothes and has sensibly decided to sell or donate them to the store.” But then another possibility occurred to me. Suppose she was buying men’s old clothes there and passing them on to me as having once been worn by her husband? In that case she would be insane, and liable to accumulate an entire store of old clothes to fob off on me over the continuance of our lives. With that in mind I rushed past the clothing store and entered a quiet little lunch nook on the opposite end of the square.
When I finally got back to my building, and ascended in the tight elevator to the narrow hallway on the third floor, the blonde lady opened the door to her apartment across from me just as I was fumbling for my key. To tell the truth I was expecting a hat this time around, something in straw or felt, and was surprised to find her holding out a harmonica in a sandwich-size plastic bag.
“This was my husband’s,” she said. “He often played ‘Red River Valley’ or ‘Polly Wolly Doodle’ in the evening before bed. I don’t believe you play an instrument, at least I haven’t heard any music coming through your door, so I offer you his harmonica. Don’t worry, I’ve thoroughly cleaned it though my husband treated it like the precious instrument it is.”
That last statement I doubted, as I could plainly see that the item in the bag was dirty and scummed over with use. I took it anyway, nodding and grinning before this eccentric old woman standing there with her shirt coming unbuttoned. While still fumbling for my room key, I said, “You must miss your husband a lot.”
“Miss him?” she said. “Why, he lives with me right here. He’s renounced the world and all earthly belongings, and stays behind a little room divider I installed for him, only sometimes he escapes. Don’t tell the management he’s here, as these apartments are for singles only.”
At last I got my key in the door and let myself in, whereupon I closed the door on the crazy woman and at once tossed the bagged harmonica in my little waste can. I decided that the jacket and the shoes, still in bags on the floor, would soon go in the trash too, when I had the energy. All this made me very tired, and though it was only mid-afternoon I rushed to turn in.
Sleep arrived swiftly, even at such an early hour, but as soon as I closed my eyes I dreamt or imagined that I heard a high-pitched whistle off in the distance, as if a tea kettle were boiling in a room down the hall or someone outside and directly below me were whistling for his dog. Then my room turned completely dark and the image of a shadowy man appeared sitting at the foot of my tiny bed. The dark man held his two hands up to his mouth as if he were sucking or blowing on something, and his two eyes, red as in poorly taken photos, peered at me intently. The keening sound seemed to come from him, and I stared at the two red pinpoints of his eyes until I became unconscious.
Late the following morning I was standing outside my building on Avenue Zed, waiting for the next bus to arrive. I had emptied out the little closet and all my own clothes were in the suitcase I held at my side. Everything else, including the little TV I had acquired, and the one-slice toaster someone had left behind, I left as they were inside the apartment. The plastic bags of shoes, sport jacket, and harmonica remained on the floor or in the little trash can. I had my money ready, and was prepared to board the first bus that stopped at the square, headed either east or west, even if I had to dash across the street and into traffic to catch it.
Once seated among my fellow passengers, most of whom appeared to be bartenders on their way to work or drugged narcoleptics, I gazed out the window, my feet surrounding my small suitcase that rested on the floor. After thirty or forty minutes I decided I was far enough away from my last apartment building, which was so uninhabitable, to look for a new place to live. When the bus stopped at a square that housed a smallish one-story apartment complex called Brookside Meadows, though there was no brook or meadow in evidence, but only a small public square like the one I had left behind half an hour ago, I got off with my suitcase in hand.
I was encouraged to see a sign that read Senior Living out in front of the place, and inside I found a smaller sign on a door that read Manager. I knocked and the door was opened from within by an older blonde lady who bore a strong physical resemblance to my former neighbor from across the hall, even to her breasts that threatened to spill out from the thick robe she clutched around her neck. I could see that the room behind the manageress doubled as her living quarters, and I took in at a glance the small conjoined bedroom, living room, and kitchen. I asked if she could let me have an apartment, stating that I could pay her two months’ rent in advance if she gave me an hour or two to find a bank.
“What I’m really looking for is a resident caretaker,” she said. “Medium to light duties only. Mainly I need someone to shovel and salt our walks and parking lot over the winter, starting today since snow is predicted. I don’t know if your health and condition would permit you to do that.”
Here she gazed at my feet, and looking down I saw to my chagrin that I was wearing the dead or hidden man’s gray house slippers. Somehow I had removed them from their plastic bag and put them on without thinking about it, and gone outside and ridden the bus here in them. I hoped I had placed my own shoes, a collapsed pair of sneakers, in my suitcase, but at this point I wasn’t sure of anything. As for the rest of my attire, I saw that I had on my usual thin brown jacket that I wore in the early fall. I had paid no attention to the weather that morning, and if it was winter now and cold out with snow on the way, I hadn’t given it a thought. In any case, my frayed brown jacket was the only jacket I owned, except for the Madras number I had abandoned and was glad to see I wasn’t wearing. I told the lady I could handle the caretaker’s job, and to my delight she consented.
She took me around the side of the building and opened a storage area that housed a heap of maintenance supplies. “These belonged to my husband,” she said, holding out a pair of old but sturdy work boots. “He and I ran the place until he died last year. You’ll need some better shoes to tackle the shoveling, and I think his will fit you just fine. Over there is a shovel and some salt.”
“Are you positive your husband is dead?” I asked. “Some strange things have been happening lately with bodies, I can tell you.”
She assured me her husband was dead and buried, and left me so I could start work. I put on her husband’s old boots and a pair of his stiffened old gloves, but didn’t tackle my duties until I had searched every corner of the storage area, even looking under a folded tarp in one corner, for what I wasn’t sure, perhaps a bedroll still warm from its occupant, or a smoking cigarette butt. Finding nothing suspicious, I got to work. It hadn’t yet started to snow, but I salted the small lot and short walkways in preparation for a blizzard. After the lady came out to inspect my work, still barely wrapped up in her robe with snowflakes starting to fall, she took me to the room she had assigned to me as a live-in caretaker.
“This was my husband’s room,” she said, showing me a small combined kitchen-living-room-bedroom with a tiny bath. “He lived here and I lived in my room. I’m right around the corner.” She reached out and touched my face with her cold hand. “Some of his clothes and toilet articles are still here, including his straight razor. My husband was immaculately clean-shaven, and it was one of the things I liked best about him. Before we took on these apartments he owned a barbershop. I’d like you to shave as closely as he did.”
She remained in my room while I showered and shaved, though when I awoke the next morning she had returned to her own room. I strode past her closed door on my way outside, dressed in her ex-husband’s winter clothes and a nice pair of his shoes. The snow was just now starting, and I crossed Avenue Zed and entered a small restaurant. I hadn’t slept well, thinking I heard the peculiar sound of someone stropping an old-fashioned straight razor in the middle of the night, but I was hungry.
The woman at the register up front, a mature, ample-figured blonde in a white uniform, welcomed me warmly as I took a seat at the counter. “Would you feel more at home in the kitchen?” she said with a smile. “We have some wonderful cookware and knives.”
I turned and glanced out the front window at the infinite gray lengths of Avenue Zed, made hazy by swirling snow, and wondered why I kept running into this same sort of crazy woman. Why would I be interested in her kitchen utensils? It was maddening.
“I’ll just have coffee,” I said, my appetite gone. Still the lady insisted on taking me back in the kitchen and showing me the pots and pans. I put my hand on a spatula and it felt right at home. I could make it fly if I wanted to.
“I have your pills, Winthrop,” she said. “You’ve stopped taking them again. But they’re right here. I got them out for you when a friend told me she saw you in the neighborhood. You should take them. I need you here. I’ve had to hire a temporary cook. Here, your pills.” She held out a small medicine bottle.
“Your husband’s old medications,” I spat at her. Enraged, I came at her with a carving knife. She parried with a skillet, and I sat down, tired and my head aching. I heard the sound of a phone ringing in the distance.
“The medics are on their way,” she said.
I knew the medics personally. Each was a hefty aged blonde whose husband was dead or in hiding. Their names were Stella, Ella, Betty, and Esther. I never took a pill in my life.
Winthrop was not my name.
Michael Fowler is a senior citizen who writes speculative fiction in Ohio.
Photo by Anna Kumpan on Unsplash
His name was Gunner. He was a tri-colored beagle that nosed his way into my life one misty, Wednesday morning, at first to my dismay.
My name is Gustavo Gottem, better known as Gumshoe Gus, private eye in a one-horse town named Lone Pony. I was picking my teeth with a push pin when I heard scratching outside my office door.
"Come in," I called, victorious in freeing the last morsels of breakfast from my molars. The scratching continued and wouldn't cease. I was sensitive enough to consider this potential client had a disability, so I got off my lazy butt and opened the door.
To my surprise a dog ran in, immediately investigating every square inch of my office as if there was a mass murder and all the bodies were hidden in the room. He ran up to me, got on his hind legs, and began sniffing my unmentionables. I pushed him off, but not without his lapping tongue licking my palms. This rambunctious animal continued his nose to the ground snooping until I finally realized he wanted food. I retrieved crackers from my desk and crumbled them up, feeding him small portions at a time. He made quick work of it and tilted his head for more.
I did my own investigating and noticed he wore a collar without tags. I just inherited a missing dog owner case. Most of my clients come in missing something, now I must work in reverse and find who is missing this animal.
I grabbed my fedora and led the dog outside for a walk and hopefully find the owner. While ambling along, I came across Kitty LaCoocoo, the prettiest but most promiscuous woman in Lone Pony.
"Looks like you found a new friend, Gumshoe," winked Kitty, with a gentle elbow to my midsection.
I informed Kitty the mutt was at my door, sniffed me where it counts, and now I can't get rid of him.
"What a coincidence. Kat's Kennel Club for Untrained Dogs is having its yearly competition tomorrow. I am the event organizer," Kitty announced, with bouncing eyebrows.
"Well, this dog is certainly untrained. What events are part of this competition?"
Kitty explained there were three events, Best in Bark, Best in Sniff, and Best in Poop.
"He can certainly win Best in Sniff, he would sure to be the favorite," I commented, while I spied my new friend running into a yard owned by Beverly the "Ever Lady." Townsfolk named her the "Ever Lady" because of her rapid use of the word 'ever' whenever she fuming mad. Just then, the beagle got into a squat and positioned himself to take care of business.
"Looks like your new friend can also make a run at the Best in Poop award," quipped Kitty.
Suddenly, Beverly swung opened the front door and stormed out of her house.
"I'll bet you lunch at Henry's Hot Dogs From Who Knows Where she belts out at least five evers," I whispered, challenging Kitty to a wager.
"I say at least six. You're on," Kitty agreed, giddy with excitement.
"Don't you ever, ever, ever, never, ever, ever let your dog run in my yard," Beverly yelled, with nose flaring and a finger wagging. She shooed the dog away, but not without finding a present left by the hound.
"I hear pet fertilizer is good for garden plants this time of year," I offered, as a consolation.
"Well, clean up the mess," Beverly hollered at me.
"I never ever, ever, ever, ever, ever pick up after a pet that's not mine. Ever."
Beverly huffed, hurled several expletives, and went back inside.
"Looks like lunch is your treat, my dear," I said to Kitty.
"I heard six evers, Gumshoe."
"No Kitty. You heard five, with one never stuck in the middle."
"I'm pretty sure she meant that as an ever."
"Do you want to knock on her door and get her to confirm it in the mood she's in?"
"No, it would be easier just to pay for lunch," Kitty resigned.
We headed to Henry's with our four-legged detective in tow, nosing every blade of grass in his path. I asked pedestrians along the way if they knew the owner of this lost dog, and all didn't.
Kitty ordered herself and I hot dogs, fries, and sodas. Extra fries as a treat for the beagle. As I was tossing fries into his mouth, I pondered why no one was searching for him. I figured the owner was detained in a way that made it impossible to locate the pet, and I filed that bit of reasoning under brilliant deduction number five-hundred and sixty.
Just then, Sheriff Cherub moseyed into the establishment. I inquired whether he nabbed anyone recently, and he said he arrested a man for a slew of unpaid tickets from Baytown. He had originally pulled the man over for a busted taillight and cracked windshield. He was still in jail because he didn't have bail money. He didn't notice an animal with the man, but admitted he was also preoccupied with the notion of satisfying his growling stomach with some beef and potatoes.
I inquired about the vehicle location and the sheriff led us to a parking lot two blocks away. The beagle rushed ahead and dove through an open window into the backseat and retrieved his leash with a tag attached. The name read Gunner.
I sang his name and he responded with a howl that began with his chin tickling the ground and then up toward the sky. I spied inside the vehicle and saw the contest entry receipt in the glove compartment.
"Looks like he's going to miss the competition," Kitty lamented. "But, if Gunner wins, there will probably be enough winnings to get his owner out of jail."
"How can he win without his owner?" I tsk-tsked.
"That's where you come in, Gumshoe," Kitty offered, with puppy eyes and a mushed mouth. Somehow, I knew she would goad me into this.
"I'll do it on one condition, Kitty. You must get Beverly the Ever Lady to show up for the competition. Don't ask why. I have an idea." Kitty frowned and slowly nodded.
Great, now I have the task of being a makeshift dog trainer, lead Gunner to victory, and bond his owner out of jail. I should start wearing a cape as part of my getup.
I noticed Gunner sniffing and scratching at the trunk of the vehicle as if there were a vast amount of contraband inside. I popped the trunk and retrieved bacon flavored dog food. I attached the leash to Gunner's collar, and we were on our way back to my office.
We got back and I decided to feed Gunner a scoop of his food. He made quick work of it and begged for more. I decided tomorrow morning I would fill him up on the real stuff, extra crispy. I phoned Kitty and asked her to bring a plate of bacon before she went to the event the next morning and she grumbled a yes.
With Beverly making an appearance at the event, I felt Gunner had a decent shot at Best in Poop. The bacon from Kitty might net us the Best in Sniff if I planned it strategically. I was still working on Best in Bark, but I deduced that when I first called Gunner by his name it was sort of in a melodic tone that got the howling reaction.
"Gunner," I sang. Gunner howled as if it could unite wildlife and the wheels turned in my head as to how I can use this to my advantage and score the Best in Bark award.
I fell asleep with Gunner at my feet. I awoke the next morning with Kitty banging on my door.
As requested, Kitty came through with a plate of crispy bacon. I massaged her chin and thanked her for her consideration. Things were starting to fall into place, but there was still a lot of doggone work to be done.
I loaded Gunner up with a healthy scoop of dog food with a few real bacon strips added in, with hopes of achieving a championship bowel movement. I placed the rest of the pork product in a paper bag with designs of using them as a sniffing queue.
We got to the event located at the Lone Pony Fairgrounds and the fields were infested with dogs of all sizes running amok without leashes. I learned there were twenty dogs in the competition, but the favorites and past winners were Norman the Nose, Chihuahua Mouth Mollie, and Dolly Droppings.
The first event was Best in Sniff, with most of these wild dogs either barking or pooping during it. As these dogs were making fools of themselves and Gunner was preoccupied with another dog's butt, I strategically placed bacon strips in garbage cans. Gunner's name was called, and I led him to the first garbage can, and he sniffed it like a police dog, methodically going from can to can, with convincing nods from the judges. When all was sniffed and done, Gunner was announced the winner. One event down, two to go.
The next event was Best in Poop. During the break between events, I retrieved the bacon strips from the garbage cans and loaded Gunner up with them. When it was Gunner's turn, I located Beverly the Ever Lady seated on a bench and led the hound to her. The beagle was all too eager to recreate his performance in her yard a day earlier, but this time inches from her. The combination of bacon dog food and the real thing produced an award-winning performance, as Gunner was announced the winner, to Dolly Droppings yapping dismay, and Beverly's 'evers' firing off at a machine guns pace. Kitty looked on with her hand covering her mouth to prevent an all-out laugh fest.
The last event was Best in Bark. Dogs barked erratically and set off a chain reaction of other dogs barking out of turn. It was murder on the ears. When it was Gunner's turn, I sang out his name, and he responded with a howl that made the sun wish it was a full moon. I encouraged the crowd to sing his name and they collectively joined in. Gunner responded with a howling serenade that silenced the dogs as if by hypnosis. Gunner easily won the event and became a crowd favorite.
Kitty announced to the crowd that since Gunner won all three events, he would also win a bonus overall champion's share. Kitty presented the cash winnings to me with a kiss on my cheek.
Fortunately, Sheriff Cherub was a huge dog lover and took in the competition. I tracked down the man in uniform and handed over the winnings to bail Gunner's owner out of jail. He agreed to escort my new friend and reunite them. I loaded the rest of Gunner's dog food in the sheriff’s patrol car, scratched Gunner behind the ears, and bid adieu to my four-legged friend.
Gunner was reunited with his owner, "The Case of the Missing Dog Owner" was solved, and all was well in the one-horse town called Lone Pony.
Jon Moray has been writing short stories for over a decade and his work has appeared in many online and print markets. When not working and being a devoted family man, he enjoys sports, music, the ocean, and SCI-FI/Fantasy media. More of his work can be found at moraywrites.com.
Is It Evil?, by Bill Diamond
Photo by Kyle Johnson on Unsplash
He tempted my sunny daughter with a promise of a sensuous life. Then sunk his fangs into her susceptible mind and injected drugs into her young body. Melissa fell to his savage predations. Addicted to his hot passions.
Now, she’s in a deep Winter of her soul. Frightened, withdrawn and cowed. Cold and aloof from friends and family. Shunning the bright world of hope and prospects she relished. The spark has left her soul. Her spirit lives in a dark cave of isolation. Unreachable in the crypt of his icy power.
Having exhausted lesser means, I lie in wait with malice and a weapon. Although it’s premeditated and my heart is blind with hate, is this a sin when he’s a heartless fiend?
I pounce and stab determined to free her from his lethal grip. Others, more wise and dispassionate, can decide my fate.
Bill Diamond lives in Colorado where the Rocky Mountains are both an inspiration and a distraction. He writes to try and figure it all out.
The Weaver’s Curse, by Mike Neis
Photo by Darran Shen on Unsplash
Esperanza dropped her paddle, pulled her coracle out of the water and cast it aside as she ran to the charred remains of her home. She saw no sign of her family or their boat. She knew in a moment what had happened. Gromley had convinced the island town of Balnigg that her household on the outcrop was a coven of witches, and in a fit of hysteria the people had chased her family away.
All except Esperanza. She had been deep in the mainland forest gathering roots and lichens for her cloth dyes, so now she had no clue where her family had gone. Head down, she walked to the spot that would have been her bed and wept bitterly. She was so young. The women of her family had just celebrated her first moon.
Everyone in her family had a gift. Ptolemy, her uncle, had a gift for making sounds, like the roaring sea or the crashing thunder. He could perfectly imitate all the people in Balnigg. His version of Gromley always made the family laugh. Mama had a gift for weather. She knew when the rains would come. When she was in a temper, the wind would blow in unruly gusts and Papa would beg her to calm down. On her happy days the sea breeze would caress their house under the shining sun, and the world would be at peace.
Esperanza’s gift was weaving. From the moment her fingers could grasp, she would intertwine strands and tie them into decorative knots. Her father, recognizing her gift, gave her a loom for her fourth birthday. From then on, she constantly wove one work after another. Although she exercised amazing skill in crafting clothes, her most powerful work was making tapestries and brocades. She honed her talents under the supportive guidance of her family.
The island community had once relied upon Esperanza’s parents for their knowledge of plants and the ways of the earth. They made powerful elixirs and potions to ease sunburns and earaches. Farmers would seek their advice on crops and the weather.
In the summers, Esperanza would go to the beach with her family, and she would play games with the other children like “seaweed monster,” and “flee the wave.” In the evening, the townsfolk would gather by a huge bonfire and roast candies and play charades. Soothed by the pounding surf, Esperanza would fall asleep in her mother’s arms.
But the town had changed, and now Esperanza was all alone. She pulled together some rocks and branches for shelter. She gathered roots and set shoreline nets for sustenance as her mother had taught her. She repaired what was left of her loom.
Overwhelmed by fear and isolation, the young woman took the strands of her own life and began new weavings. She wove herself into anonymous obscurity so that no one would remember who she was. She wove a fearsome fog that separated her home on the outcrop from the rest of the town.
Finally, she began work on a tapestry unlike any she had made before. Into this brocade she wove all her hurt and all her anger. The brocade portrayed an ugly town, filled with distrustful people, commanded by tyrants. Anyone looking at the tapestry would feel the hunger of the destitute people in the streets and hear the angry voices of neighbors arguing. The grimaces of the people’s faces and the contorted postures of their bodies showed brutality and ferocity. Sure enough, that is exactly what the town itself became, a dark place, filled with fear and distrust. Crying and wailing wafted over to the young woman’s hut on the outcrop, while she, listening in satisfaction, added more misery to her brocade. She wished for nothing more than revenge against the town after it had taken her family and her dreams. Finally, under the crushing curse of the tapestry, laughter itself died.
As the town became increasingly cold and hard, so too, did the weaver’s unfeeling heart, turning to stone. She became quite ugly, for she wore a perpetual scowl on her face. In her attempts to protect herself, her body became hunched over.
Esperanza forgot the importance of family and accepted loneliness as a necessary part of existence. The thought of friendship became meaningless to her. The incessant noise the world made about love and romance was an alien curiosity.
Years passed. Wars began and ended. Somehow, the town endured. It had, in fact, encountered some good fortune, being recognized as a haven from the crowded dirty cities of the mainland. During the summer, the “White Sands Place,” as the people called it, would be mobbed with visitors.
The White Sands Place had big signs, noisy arcades, and stores painted in bright colors. The end of the Great War brought renewed traffic, as if the crush of crowds were an attempt to make up for lost time. The summers were once again filled with the sound of beach goers yelling at each other, and the scent of ointments to ease sunburnt skin. Hordes of people crowded onto the beach’s boardwalk. White sand burned bare feet and the ocean shone in a mesmerizing sapphire blue. The waters were warm as bathwater, and children would play in the lapping wavelets through the whole day without getting cold.
Although they found their hosts humorless, the people from the mainland would never guess at the town’s terrible curse, because the locals kept it a secret. The summer visitors would take a quick look at Balnigg’s main street because it was a tourist attraction. Finding it quaint but creepy, they would quickly retreat back to the sunny beaches.
Sustained by the power of her gift, the weaver lived through generations. She built rooms onto her hut. She replaced her small loom for a giant one, and from her porch she would create ponderous tapestries and brocades. Tyrants and political leaders from distant countries had found out about her craft and would commission her to make portrayals of themselves. Her brocades showed them at seats of power, young and strong, or victorious in war.
It was said her brocades brought good fortune to their purchasers, and so she charged princely sums for her wares. Her tapestries were so masterfully woven that onlookers would stand and gaze at them for hours, spellbound. They would want to shout praise for the dictators featured in them. They would cower before the pictures of advancing soldiers. Their hearts would ache at the sight of the beautiful maidens holding flowers.
Balnigg, stricken by its terrible curse, changed little with its stone streets, and dwellings that had endured beyond memory. The twin spires of Saint Jerome’s glowered down at the town from gothic heights. The cemetery had gravestones with markings that were well-worn from the passing generations, and some of the stones could not be read at all.
During the winter, the White Sands Place would become an entirely different area. Devoid of all life, the stores would be boarded up against the brutal gusts from the dark ocean. Waves, awesome as boulders, would pound the beach, while fog shrouded the buildings in a gray gloom.
Despite her separation from the town, the old woman still clung to the beach. In all seasons, warm or cold, she would walk its desolate shoreline at the morning’s first light. It was on just such a walk in the dead of winter that she found an old drifter dressed in rags. The beach had drawn more of such people with the hard times. The old woman saw something different in him as he pathetically tried to take shelter by the boardwalk against the ocean’s bracing wind. She knelt beside him and saw in his eyes a condition she herself knew well--outcast. What’s more, she could tell he had a gift. She did not know what his gift could be, but his bearing revealed his true nature to her.
His face was wrinkled, and his whiskers were grizzled. His body was wiry like a vine. His name was Bentley. Without hesitation she brought him to her outcrop and made him her gardener. He took up residence in a small hut at the water’s edge.
The old woman’s tapestries sold well, and she became wealthy. She built a large house on her outcrop. Bentley, out of respect, called her his “Lady of the House.” He would not speak of his past, but it seemed he had at last found his place as a gardener. Although quite old himself, he worked the outcrop’s rocky soil vigorously and with a sparkle in his eyes. He lavished such care and attention to Esperanza’s grounds, that it miraculously burst with life and flowers. He built a large boat for fishing.
The old weaver, from the hidden shadows of her window, would watch him working on the shrubs and trees. Although she felt a piercing ache as she gazed, she could not tear her eyes away from him. When she was not looking at him working in the garden, she was thinking about him: his lovely baritone voice, his sparkling eyes, the lively things he said. Sometimes, when he was handing her fruit from the garden, his touch would jolt her like electricity, and the ache would surge fresh from deep inside of her. She had never experienced such feelings before and wondered what they could mean.
One day the old woman was returning from the town market where she had purchased supplies. A cruel despot from a country in the south had commissioned her most awesome work yet. She passed a missionary from the mainland speaking to a throng in the square. This man infuriated the woman. He reminded her of Gromley, the man who had made the town drive her family away. “Bah!” she said with a dismissive wave of her hand, and she was just about to be on her way, when the sound of a young choir replaced the missionary’s voice. The children were well-rehearsed and sang in harmonies smooth as cream.
The people stood spellbound, watching the singers, led by a choir mistress in a gray robe. They could appreciate the beauty of the children’s voices even if they could not understand their ancient lyrics. Esperanza, however, having grown up with the old language so long ago, understood every word perfectly. They sang of mercy. They sang of tenderness. They sang of love. The old woman became still as a post. She hardly breathed, clinging to every word as if her life depended upon it.
When the choir finished singing, the missionary resumed his speech, and the old weaver went on her way, again with a dismissive wave of her hand.
But she could not forget the song. Its curious lyrics and silken harmonies rolled through her thoughts like a wide river, and an idea sprang to her mind. She decided to make a brocade unlike any she had made before. Her heart pounded and her steps quickened as she worked out every detail in her head. Upon arriving home, she was ready. She did not rest nor eat but sat immediately at her loom and began—not on the commissioned brocade, but a completely different tapestry.
Night and day she worked, with little food and no rest. The shuttle flew, the warps pulsed, and the heddles pounded. Her fingers labored with the dexterity of a young girl. Bentley grew anxious, as he watched his Lady of the House wither with each passing day. He tried to tempt her with his freshest strawberries and apples from the garden, but even that could not stir any hunger within her. What’s more, her eyes burned with a fire he had never seen before, so he kept his worries to himself.
At last, after a month had passed, the brocade was finished, and Esperanza called to Bentley so that he too, might look upon the fruits of her labor.
The tapestry depicted the town. The gardener recognized the White Sands Place and the town streets. What filled those streets, however, was wondrous and new. Gone were the fear, distrust, and horrors that had torn at the town. In its place were prosperity and happiness with people showing patience and mercy toward each other. Laughter was in the eyes and mouths of the children and adults alike. In the center of the town was a procession, and leading the procession was the choir, exactly as the weaver remembered them.
Bentley and Esperanza embraced and wept with joy upon seeing the completed brocade. “Now, at last, you can rest and enjoy your work,” he said.
But the old weaver shook her head. “No. I cannot forget the lovely sound of that choir and the beautiful faces of those children. Their absence is a terrible pain to me.” Indeed, the old woman’s face was contorted in agony, like a mother who is barred from seeing her own children.
Bentley did not want his Lady of the House to suffer. “Do not despair. I shall find that children’s choir and bring them to you. Then you can see their earnest faces and hear their beautiful harmonies, and you will be well again.” After delaying long enough to gather food and his walking staff, he climbed aboard his boat and set out for the mainland.
Esperanza slept, ate, and regained her health. As the hours passed, however, she grew restless. In this state of mind, she visited the old hut which held her terrible brocade.
The hut was quite broken down, with large gaps in the roof and the walls. The tapestry had been subjected to years of weather, so it had grown worn and brittle. “This brocade of mine needs maintenance,” the old woman said, and with her expert hands she set the tapestry on a high frame outside the hut, so that she could evaluate her work in the light of day.
Esperanza wanted a closer look at a part of her tapestry, but it was stuck at the top of the frame, so she tugged on it. The frame snapped, and the full weight of the tapestry fell upon her, knocking her down, burying her in its folds.
At that very moment Bentley had landed on the shore with the children’s choir and their choir mistress. They watched in horror as the heavy brocade fell upon the brittle old woman.
“Hurry, children!” said the choir mistress. “We must help that old lady before she suffocates!”
And so, the children, their choir mistress and the gardener made haste to the brocade where the old woman struggled to escape. “We must get her out, children,” said the choir mistress. “Hurry!”
As the children tugged at the old tapestry, it tore in their small fingers. Strands blew away in the breeze. Finally, they freed the old woman. As she stood, she saw what was left of her work.
“Oh!” she said and leaned heavily against the gardener. Her terrible brocade was in tatters and would now be impossible to repair.
“Oh!” she said again and brought her hand to her chest. The destruction of her work was more than she could bear, and her heart of stone was breaking.
The children and the choir mistress looked on in horror as Esperanza collapsed before their eyes, but Bentley knew what to do. “You must sing, children. Sing. That is the only way to save my Lady of the House.”
The children assembled themselves, and the choir mistress took her place before them and raised her hands. They sang of mercy. They sang of tenderness. They sang of love. As the curious harmonies enveloped the old weaver, the scowl on her face softened, and her body relaxed, becoming less hunched over.
The children’s lovely voices pierced the fog and enveloped the town. The people overcame their fear of the outcrop and crossed over to see what was happening. Upon emerging from the fog, they were drawn to Esperanza’s beautiful new brocade. As they gazed, the people could feel the acts of mercy and kindness portrayed in it. But what held the people in stupefied wonder was that they saw themselves—not as who they had been, but as who they could be. They were so overwhelmed with this vision, that their arms hung down and their eyes glazed over, as if they were looking at a glorious kingdom from a high mountain.
When the choir finished its song, Esperanza lay quite still, as if she were dead. Bentley bid them all goodbye so that he could attend to his Lady of the House. The choir, at the pleading of the people, went to stay in the town.
Esperanza had drifted off in the gentle arms of the choir’s music. On and on they sang in her dreams, bearing her up like the warm breath of the south wind. She dreamed of sacred song carrying her high into the heavens. Clouds caressed her cheeks as she ascended. She felt as though she could touch the moon and the stars as the firmament turned towards the western horizon. Vast throngs of angels flew by, beckoning to her. As the stars vanished to the west, the first light of day burst forth. The warmth of the sun spread across the land.
Esperanza opened her eyes.
She lay on a divan in her porch with the loom. The rays of the morning sun stretched across the floor, making light seem to come from everywhere. As she sat up, she felt none of the aches she had known for many years. She looked at her hands. Her skin was smooth and clear. She touched her face. The softness of youth had replaced the hard folds of her many wrinkles.
A young man sat across from her.
Esperanza stood up in alarm at the sight of this stranger. “Who are you?” she said.
The man’s eyes sparkled. “You do not know me?”
Indeed, the woman knew the voice and the eyes. Her heart began to pound in a way she had not felt since she was very young. A wave of dizziness passed over her as she struggled with the meaning of what she was seeing and feeling. She took hold of the divan's arm and shook her head. “I do not understand,” she said.
The man put his face down. “Forgive me,” he said. He spoke in a hushed voice and became still as a monk at prayer. “My Lady of the House. There is nothing I have loved so much as seeing you work at your loom. In my presumption I would hide in my garden just to watch you. I would sit and stare for hours when I should have been working. Forgive me. But as I have watched, so also have I learned. Last night I wove some new things into your tapestry. I did everything exactly as you have always done. Look!”
The woman looked upon her tapestry, and her eyes were drawn to the two people in front of her big house. She knew in an instant she was seeing herself and Bentley—not old and frail, but young, beautiful, and deeply in love. As she approached the brocade, her face was frozen in wonder. She reached out and touched the work.
Bentley grew anxious. “Are you angry? Did I do it wrong?”
The old weaver, who was actually a young woman now, flung herself into the gardener’s arms. “My darling and my life!” she exclaimed. “You have saved me!” And she kissed him, as a bride kisses a bridegroom.
At that moment, a gale-force wind swept across the island, dispersing the fog that had separated the outcrop from the town. Esperanza and Bentley beheld the lovely old dwellings and the golden beaches and caught their breath in astonishment.
They heard the music of the children, carried by the sea breeze across the water. They looked at the town’s main street and saw the choir leading a procession, exactly as in the tapestry. The sounds of bells and horns filled the air.
Esperanza and Bentley drew close to each other, and another noise, which they had not heard in a long time, rose from the town: the sound of laughter. And so, they too, laughed and sang.
Mike Neis lives in Orange County, CA and works as a technical writer for a commercial laboratory. His work has appeared in Amethyst Review, Rind Literary Magazine and elsewhere. Besides writing, his outside activities include church music, walking for health, and teaching English as a second language.
Photo by Josh Miller on Unsplash
I am a mournful-sublime spark
gentle such Elysian seraphic wings
a glimmer that flies above the delicate homeland
I the twinkling come from balmy Luther's stars
an orb which is enchanting-comfortable
the paradise full glitter persists not far from me
the lights are hanging – a proto-marvelous seal
I am in love in the august magic mirror
the nicely sensitive native country
wrapped in my glow of sparkles
I delight in the warmth of the eternity
because my guardian angel flies for the dreams' sake
I will become now a bewitched moon
a superb-svelte spark-like boat
that brings muse-like dreameries
in the angelic worlds
I am never blazing fiercely
such a blistering purgatory
I am glinting only sky-high
I dream of the paradise
I am floating because of the enchantments
and I am sending poesy alway *(ever)
I am enchanting genial glimmers
pending in the ontology of daintiness
I am going to become the purest metaphysics
I luxuriate in the ethics of ancient times
I want to be dead by no means
ad infinitum to dream – to recall the dream
not wrangle with the dreaming sparks
dreamy – enchanted
eternal – fallen in love
invented – delighted in the being
leisurely home land giddy with sparkles
tarry dreaming and musing in the delight-times of muses!
Paweł Markiewicz was born 1983 in Siemiatycze in Poland. He is poet who lives in Bielsk Podlaski and writes tender poems, haiku as well as long poem.
Jack Beasley was a singularly lonely individual who, despite past sporadic efforts to the contrary, largely kept himself to himself. His parents died some years ago and his only sister, now living abroad, visited him once every couple of years or so. He had no friends or companions and, as a result, for longer than Jack cared to remember he had suffered with the depressing thoughts that only the very deepest pits of sorrow and loneliness can produce. To put it simply, he’d had enough of life, or what little he could call it a life. The loss of his parents and utter lack of companionship had driven him to the brink and today, rather than fight it any longer, he’d decided to simply let himself fall quietly over the edge.
It was a Saturday morning and Jack, as with every Saturday morning, sat alone at his wooden desk in his small living room, browsing in solitude through the morning paper.
He was finishing up an article on a progressing and popular story he had been following for some weeks now - that of the infamous Anna Riley. Indeed, the stories surrounding her seemed to have captivated the public imagination to such an extent that only a recluse could fail to have heard the name ‘Anna Riley’.
Anna, according to the descriptions collated from various victims, was a good-looking girl of foreign descent, no more than 25 years of age. She was of medium height and slender build with dark hair. She didn’t dress ostentatiously, although doubtless she could afford it with the fruits of her deceptive labour. Finally, the descriptions concluded, her personality was genial and inviting, helpful traits indeed when gaining the trust and acquaintance of her victims.
She was on the run after having executed a string of common burglaries. The police believed her to be hiding out somewhere in East London, but beyond this their leads were few and far between.
Interestingly, throughout each story that had made its way into the news of the past weeks, the common theme within the victim’s statements had been the utter lack of initial persistence or pursuit on the part of Riley before executing her crimes.
For example, one of the victims – an elderly widow by the name of Mrs Peacock - described how she first met Riley after she dropped her parcels in the street and Riley, who happened to be passing by, gladly picked them up and offered to carry them for her. Mrs Peacock graciously accepted and, upon reaching the old lady’s house not far away Riley, having deposited the goods back to Mrs Peacock, insisted in a most kindly manner that she must depart. It was only because the old lady protested to this and insisted firmly herself that she stay for some tea and biscuits as a reward for her kind act that Riley was presented with the chance to steal anything at all. Indeed, had Mrs Peacock thanked her and let her be on her way as she was at first inclined, Riley would have persisted in the matter no further and the diamonds would remain in the elderly widow’s possession still.
Yes, indeed, she was a real professional, biding her time and striking only when opportunity presented itself with the least risk.
As Jack read on to the end of the article, it finished with a plea to the public to remain extra vigilant. This final paragraph made Jack sneer slightly as he thought to himself that only fools could be tricked by such, in his opinion, transparent schemes.
Jack finished the article, folded the paper neatly and placed it down on the wooden desk, the contents of which also comprised a pair of glasses and a 1983-model telephone and answer machine - the latter of which had been playing up for some days now despite being only a few years old. However, next to these familiar objects also stood another which had only recently been acquainted with the desk’s usual occupants - that of a loaded handgun.
The time had come. Jack wouldn’t find out whether Anna Riley would be captured and although he did take a mild interest in the story it was not enough to keep him from carrying out the ultimate self-infliction that was about to take place.
He lifted the gun to his head, aware of the coolness of the metal against his temple. His hand shaking slightly while turning off the safety catch. Somewhat nervously, he began to squeeze the trigger, his eyes closed as he took some small measure of comfort in the knowledge that it would all be over shortly. And then it happened, in an instant the acute silence was ripped open. However, the sound was not the sound of the gun releasing its deathly blow but rather the abrupt ring of the telephone. It startled Jack, almost irritated him with its disregard for interrupting his big moment. He could ignore it, he thought to himself, and just continue with his plan. No one would care anyway. But for some reason he lowered the gun back on the desk and picked up the phone.
“Hello?” Jack answered, slightly agitated.
“Beasley? Beasley, is that you?” came an even more agitated reply.
“Yes,” replied Jack, slightly taken aback by the sharpness of the voice down the line.
“Beasley, it’s Stones! Where the hell are you, man? I left you a message hours ago. We’re two men down and I need you to cover the shift. You do know you’re on a 24/7 call-out contract, don’t you? I don’t know what you’ve been up to and, frankly, I don’t care, but I need you down here! This is the second time this week you’ve failed to answer me, if it happens a third I’ll find someone else, so get down here now!”
With the final word still echoing in Jack’s ear, the man who called himself Stones hung up. He was Jack’s boss down at the factory. He started a year ago and it was quite clear that neither liked the other. In fact, Stones had barely attempted to conceal his desire to replace Jack, but until now he had no official reason to do so. The faulty answer machine, however, appeared to be giving Stones just the reason he was looking for. Jack cursed the machine for only letting every other phone call through and replaying messages hours after they had been received.
One would be forgiven for thinking that a person in Jack’s mental state wouldn’t care much about a faulty telephone and answer machine, and truth be told he didn’t, but nonetheless he didn’t want to give Stones the satisfaction of firing him and he certainly didn’t want Stones of all people to be the last person he ever spoke to.
Jack lowered the phone back on to the hook, sat back in his chair and stared at the gun. ‘Damn it,’ he thought. ‘Tomorrow.’
He stood up, deposited the gun into the drawer of the desk, slid his glasses over his nose, pulled on his coat and hurried out of the flat, heading in the direction of Mile End Tube station.
Outside, the weather was crisp and cold, and the low sun was flashing in the puddles that had formed the night before. Jack tilted his chin down and drew the collar of his coat up around his neck, thankful the station was at least only one road away. As the traffic light turned red, signalling to the oncoming cars to let the passerby’s on their way, Jack heard the sound of a train pulling into the station. He quickened his pace slightly as he crossed the road, his head still lowered, eyes following the footsteps of those in front, all moving forward in the same direction as he on the left while those coming in the opposite direction were traveling on the right side of the crossing. However, as he reached halfway across the road, he was knocked back by someone. Startled, Jack lifted his head up briskly, ready to dispense his reproval vigorously, when he realised at once that the opposite party had emerged from the incident worse off than he. Indeed, the person with whom he had unintentionally collided was presently laying on her backside, the personal effects of her bag scattered across the road, and the coffee she had purchased not thirty seconds prior half empty - the other half splattered across her clothes. She appeared dazed, almost as if unsure of how she found herself in her current predicament.
At the sight of this, Jack’s former anger parted immediately and he rushed over to the young lady, offering his apologies profusely as he speedily gathered up her personal items back into her bag. The items gathered and the bag returned, Jack looked at her properly for the first time. She had a small, thin face, possibly the result of being slightly underfed. Her hair was dark brown and fell to her shoulders in an almost messy manner. Jack couldn’t tell if it was usually arranged that way or the consequence of recent events. Her eyes were deep green and flickered in the winter sun, and through them Jack saw that not only was she very beautiful but in her confusion she had yet to really notice him there still.
Hesitantly, Jack said, “Uh, excuse me, are you okay?” Without waiting for a reply, he went on again, “I’m ever so sorry for crashing into you like that, I must not have been looking where I was going. Here, let me help you up.”
At this offer, the girl seemed to come to her senses and accepted Jack’s help politely. He walked her across to the side of the road where they proceeded to look at each other awkwardly. At once, they both started talking, and then stopped simultaneously. Jack bowed his head slightly, indicating for the lady to speak first, “Please excuse me,” she said softly, her accent clearly of European descent, but where exactly Jack could not place her. She continued, “I don’t really know what happened. I’d just bought a drink and was looking down for something in my bag at the same time and next thing I knew I was on the floor.”
“Oh no, no, no,” Jack protested as he waved his arms around, “it was absolutely my fault. I was looking down at the road and should’ve seen you coming. I just do hope I haven’t hurt you?”
“Not at all,” the girl replied reassuringly. “Aside from these clothes, I’m absolutely fine, thank you.”
She looked around but saw there were no clothes shops in sight, only a couple of public houses, tool shops and convenience stores, with flats located above each. Realizing the girl was wondering what to do, Jack insisted, “Please, my flat is just up there.” He pointed to the building behind them. “I have some of my sister’s old clothes, they’ll be slightly baggy on you but better than traipsing through East London soaked in coffee, don’t you think? She doesn’t live around here and anyway she wouldn’t mind in the least.”
The girl eyed him slightly suspiciously, but after a momentary pause, agreed to the idea.
Back in the flat, after redressing herself in the slightly baggy clothes, the girl reappeared from the bedroom, shifting across the hall into the living room where Jack sat waiting at his desk.
“Thank you, I guess,” said the girl shyly, her hair no longer a mess.
“Not a problem,” replied Jack, watching her attentively. As he did, he noticed again just how beautiful she was, but also sensed that he somehow recognized her from somewhere, although he was quite sure he had never met her before.
“Well, I really must get going,” she said, slowly edging towards the door, yet curiously still lingering, as if waiting for Jack to find a way to prolong her staying there.
When Jack said nothing, she turned, “Thank you, again,” she said, this time moving more clearly to the door.
At this, Jack blurted, “Would you like to meet up sometime?”
He didn’t know what came over him. Panicking slightly, he went into a verbose commentary about fate and how maybe there was a reason they crossed paths that morning, not that he truly believed in fate all that much. He let out a sigh.
The girl eyed him patiently. At the end, she simply replied, “Yes, how about Wednesday at 8 o’clock, walk along the Thames, meet me outside Embankment station?”
Jack, unsure if she had thought of the details while he was chattering away or had them pre-planned somehow, simply nodded his assent.
The girl left, and Jack suddenly realised he didn’t even know her name or anything else at all about her.
‘What if she decided not to meet, most likely he would never see her again?’ he thought to himself with some anguish.
He sat there, staring transfixed at the spot where the girl had been not five minutes earlier, when suddenly the answer phone beeped. It was a message from Stones from three hours earlier, the one he’d missed, or rather, the one the answer phone failed to play, telling Beasley he was two men down and needed him in urgently.
‘Damn!’ thought Jack. He rushed out. Stones would not be happy, but Jack didn’t much care, he had other things on his mind now.
Wednesday came, and Jack arrived promptly at Embankment Station. Not five minutes later the girl came into view, strolling towards him from Victoria Embankment Gardens, one of a series of pleasant, tree-lined strips of well-kept gardens built some 100 years prior to the north side of the river Thames.
The evening was particularly cold, as evidenced by the visibility of people’s breath in the air as they walked by. The girl was wearing a crimson-red coat, around her neck hung a white scarf. She looked splendid, so Jack thought.
The pair meandered easterly on the path adjacent to the Thames, passing slowly through the illuminations created by the black, orb-headed lamp posts which sat every few meters on the wall separating the pair from the river below. The sky was clear and the air crisp, and soon any signs of initial awkwardness dissipated for the pair were engaging in flowing conversations about the area and the history.
After a few minutes, Jack turned to the girl and confessed, slightly embarrassed, that he did not know her name. “Jane,” replied the girl, “and you?”
“Jack, that’s a nice name, I like it.”
She smiled and, after this somewhat second introduction, the pair strolled on quite leisurely.
“Let’s play a game,” commented Jane after a while. “I’ll ask you questions and you say the first answer that comes into your mind.”
“Oh, excellent, like a quick-fire dating quiz,” exclaimed Jack excitedly.
He pulled back, she turned and eyed him, smiling, “Ah, so we’re on a date?” she teased.
“I…I didn’t mean…well…I guess I hoped that perhaps it would be something like that,” stumbled Jack.
The girl carried on without reply, smiling. “Ok, ready?”
“Cat or dog?” asked Jane.
“Dog - I’m allergic to cats,” replied Jack.
“Me too!” stated Jane. “Ok next, vanilla or chocolate?”
“Chocolate, every time,” replied Jack.
Jane laughed, “Ah, sweet tooth. I’m more of a vanilla girl – plain.”
“You are anything but!” replied Jack, vehemently.
The girl smiled once more. “Music or film?”
“Film - I often go to the pictures by myself.”
Jane’s expression turned sympathetic. “Oh, I don’t like the thought of you being there alone. We’ll have to go together sometime.” She continued, “Ok…um…favourite food?”
“Lasagna – it reminds me of when my mum used to make it every week, I haven’t had it since she—” he broke off, unable to finish the sentence.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” replied Jane, quietly.
“No, don’t worry, you weren’t to know, it happened some years ago now.”
They walked on in silence. After a few minutes, Jack said, “I’m glad we played this game.”
The girl placed her arm through his and suffice to say the rest of the evening went as well as Jack could have hoped. He found out much about Jane. That she was originally from France although moved around a lot when she was younger, she had scarcely any family and worked mainly as a backing dancer at the theatre but also did some part-time modelling and the like when a job from the agency came her way. He figured he must’ve recognized her from some play or poster one time advertising some product or another, although she didn’t much elaborate. Finally, he learnt that she simply loved crime fiction. In fact, she was in the middle of trying to write her first novel, although she didn’t think it any good for she couldn’t decide on a definitive plot.
At the end of the evening, Jack was positively glowing. He had never felt such a connection to another person. For the first time in years he actually felt alive again. However, despite his enthusiasm, he was also conscious of scaring Jane off by appearing too eager. Nonetheless, he had to know if she wanted to meet up again. As they were making their adieu, thanking each other for a pleasant evening, he tentatively asked if Jane was free on Saturday. She wasn’t. His heart dropped, he’d misread the signs. No matter his effort, he could not conceal the disappointment in his face. Fortunately, this proved only temporary, for Jane followed promptly, “It’s not that I don’t want to, but I’m going away on holiday, to Florence. I go once a year you see, always somewhere different, always alone.” These last words Jane mumbled, almost to herself. She looked at Jack, her lips parting as though she were about to say something more, but then she hesitated. Her lips closed and she looked down.
Jack, however, grabbed his new-found energy for life by the horns and, without hesitation, replied, “This probably seems a bit forward, but what if I came with you on your trip so that you’re not, you know, alone?”
Jane looked up and beamed, and he knew her answer before her voice reached his ears, “I don’t know why, I’ve only just met you, but why not?”
“I’m going to the travel agent on Friday to book my ticket, I’ll book yours then too.” She hesitated, “Only, there’s one thing, it’s a little embarrassing you see, but I’m afraid I can’t just go ahead and book your ticket as I’m a bit short of money at the moment. You see, backing dancers don’t earn a whole lot and the modelling business is always slow in the New Year.”
“Of course,” replied Jack. He looked around and then said, “Ah ha!” and wandered across the road. There he found a cash machine and withdrew £500, a substantial portion of his savings, but enough to cover the cost of the ticket and hotel for the week.
“Are you sure?” asked the girl as Jack handed her the money.
Jack turned to her, his brow twitching slightly as he wondered if there was anything behind her question. He composed himself quickly though, “Of course, why, you’re not going to run off to Italy without me, are you?”
The girl smiled but said nothing.
Saturday morning arrived. Jack had not heard from Jane but took it as a good sign to meet her at the airport as they’d agreed on Wednesday. He arrived promptly, but after 45 minutes was beginning to worry as Jane had yet to appear. He went to the check-in desk and inquired as to his flight. Strangely, the attendant had no information of either Jack or Jane whatsoever.
Jack left the attendant on the desk and wandered slowly over to a seat, one of those hundreds of seats at airports that are all the same. There Jack stayed, fretting unbearably, until finally the flight he and Jane were supposed to board departed. Jack couldn’t understand. ‘No information on this flight whatsoever,’ Jack repeated to himself vaguely the words of the attendant at the desk. Mystery shrouded the affair.
He looked down at an old, battered newspaper lying on the floor a few seats over and all at once his eyes widened and his heart sunk, he racked his brain over the events of the past week and realised what was happening. Indeed, what had already happened. The girl from the paper - Anna Riley - the slim, dark haired young woman he’d read about not five minutes before meeting ‘Jane’. Her foreign descent. The ‘unintentional’ meeting of the victim. Her gentle, subtle nudges that culminated in him parting ways so easily with a substantial amount of money, all the while thinking it was his idea.
‘She never even planned to go away,’ Jack thought as he shut his eyes in anguish. He had just become one of the victims he’d read about in the paper and mocked for being so, in his opinion, gullible. He felt crushed, not because of the money, but because he genuinely thought they shared a connection - a companionship. But then again, so did all the other victims most likely.
He left the airport, wandering aimlessly. Eventually, by the early afternoon, he found his way back to his flat and sat down at the small wooden desk.
He felt empty - painful emptiness. The high he felt over the past week was nothing compared to the pits of sorrow her betrayal engendered now.
He took a long look at the walls of his small living room - those plain white walls illuminated by the already setting sun - and thought to himself numbly, “Always did need a bit of colour; red is as good as any - crimson-red, like Jane’s coat.”
He pulled the gun out of the drawer, lifted it to his head and felt once more its cold metal against his temple. This time there was no unsteadiness, no wavering or hesitation. He squeezed the trigger, the sound of the shot reverberated throughout the apartment and then died away, soaking into the memory of the now-stained walls.
Silence reigned, but only temporarily. The answer phone beeped, signalling a voicemail had been received. It was from last night and had only just come through. It was Jane’s voice, she spoke excitedly, “Jack, hi, it’s me, Jane. I really hope you don’t mind but I need to re-book our tickets to tomorrow evening instead of the morning. Don’t worry, I’ve not had a change of heart or anything like that, in fact I simply cannot wait for us to go away together. Although I hardly know you, there’s something about you that makes me feel, well, like I’ve known you forever. Maybe it’s because we both know loneliness or something, having no family nearby and all that. That probably sounds silly!
“Anyway, the reason I need to move our tickets is because I was asked today by the agency to do a line-up at the police station tomorrow morning. You know, one of those things where five people who look alike stand in a line and the victim has to pick out the criminal from the line-up. Well, I just couldn’t refuse because you know who it was I was asked to line up next to, don’t you? Only Anna Riley herself! That’s right, they caught her, Jack, and they asked the agency for a lookalike and I was recommended. Apparently, she was just walking along the street and someone recognized her and phoned the police. Funny thing, really!
“Anyway, you know how much I love crime fiction, I just had to be a part of that line-up to, you know, soak in the atmosphere, maybe even speak to her for a minute or two if I get the chance, I don’t know. I just feel like it will really give me some inspiration for my book! Oh, I hope you’re not mad at me? I’m sorry again about postponing. We’ll book the tickets when we’re at the airport, I find they always have some spare seats on these planes and we might even get a deal. Anyway, I’ll come over tomorrow lunchtime with some food to make it up to you and tell you all about it, and then we can head over to the airport together after. I’ll see you soon, Jack. I can’t wait for the trip. I know it’s silly, but I’m missing you already! Bye.”
The answer phone declared the end of the message. Jack remained there, still and silent.
Then a knock at the door broke the silence while the smell of lasagna – Jack’s favourite - wafted in pleasantly from the hall. After a minute of no answer, the handle turned and the door opened. Upon entering, Jane sailed radiantly down the narrow hall, excited to surprise Jack. She edged round the corner into the living room and gasped a sharp intake of breath, her green eyes widened and delicate hands clasped her mouth as the lasagna dropped and spread across the floor like the blood across the walls.
The answer machine beeped and shut down for the final time.
Jake Collins is a writer who lives in West Sussex, England.
Jatra Leaves, by Kidd Wadsworth
Exhausted after a fourteen hour day, I step into the kitchen and my breath turns to fog. I touch the radiator, it’s barely warm.
Grann, in her slippers, robe and winter coat, clues me in. “Frank just left. He got the boiler working. I figure it will be another hour before the house warms up.” She’s standing by the ancient stove, only two of its four electric burners work, those are both fire engine red. The cracked chartreuse linoleum floor, the avocado colored refrigerator struggling in the corner and a hole where the dishwasher should be—I’m the dishwasher—reveals our kitchen’s vintage. With age has come dementia, every mechanical contraption from the coffee maker to the ice maker periodically forgets how to work. At least the sink doesn’t clog. No, that would be the sink in our bathroom. And just in case you’d like to take a shower, be advised when you pull the tab on the tub spigot only about forty percent of the water will meander on up to the shower head. The rest just keeps pouring out the spigot and goes right down the drain. Wanna hear about the rats?
I hang my keys on a hook, kick off my shoes and head to my bedroom. In three minutes, I’m back.
Grann looks at the huge book in my arms. “It’ll go wrong on ya.” She shuffles over to the coffee maker and pours herself a mug of Columbian dark roast. “Always does.”
Struggling to hold the tome in one hand, I put Grann’s medications, the napkins, the sugar, the salt and pepper, and the hot sauce on the side counter next to Grann’s landline, and lay Mom’s leather bound book with a skull on the cover on our small kitchen table. As I head down to the basement, Grann’s voice echoes after me. “Leave that poor thing alone.”
In a corner under fourteen grow lights, in a beat-up pumpkin-orange pot is Mom’s Jatra tree. Barely four feet tall and not as wide, I know I’m going to hurt it, so I give it a drink of fertilizer laced water. Not for the first time I mumble something about leaving and planting us both in the tropics.
I harvest four of its pathetically small leaves. On the floor beside the pot is the jawbone of a large human male. Yup, I’m gonna need that too.
Back in the kitchen I place the leaves in the jawbone and the jawbone beside the book.
Grann bangs shut the cabinet door. “You’ve been working that Ju Ju all your life. You know it only brings trouble.”
“I should have gotten the promotion. I should be a lieutenant. It’s gender bias and you know it.”
Her old eyes reach out toward me. “Sweet thing please—”
I cut her off with a single look.
As her bedroom door shuts, I gaze up at the photograph of Mom on the wall. She’s wearing a bright red turban and a white ruffled linen top pulled down to leave one shoulder bare. Celadon green sea glass earrings dangle from her earlobes. I remember her laugh, the twinkle in her eyes, the sway of her hips when she walked. “Shhh,” she’d whisper, “they don’t need to know what’s coming. Let ‘em think they’ve won.”
I rub my forehead trying to erase the pain that lives between my eyes. I’ve already taken the holy trifecta of headache medicines: two Tylenol, two Advil, and half a coke, but my head is still pounding.
I’ve got more collars, fewer complaints, more years on the job…
A tear slips down my cheek, splashing onto the dry, cracked cover of the book. With my finger I smear the liquid watching as it darkens the old leather. Outside lightning flashes across the night sky. Inside—inside me—rage crackles deep in my gut. My voice is whispered thunder. “They promoted that moron over me?”
I open the book, breathing in the dust and mold that floats up from it, and close my eyes. The rain, the lightning, even the incessant hum of Grann’s old fridge fads into silence. I chant the cursed, hungry words, inviting them in, knowing they will eat a part of my soul.
When I open my eyes, a voodoo veil covers my face. I see the kitchen through a black shroud. With a scratch, I ignite the match and touch the yellow flame to the Jatra leaves. A harsh, cruel scent fills the kitchen, burning the delicate tissues of my nose. Recoiling, I reach forward to snuff out the leaves when the fog comes, like oxycodone. Yes, yes, the sweet fog, the no-one-will-ever-know fog, envelopes my mind.
“You’ve got to have a special place,” Mom taught me. “Choose well. There the Ju Ju will come.”
What can I say? I was five years old. I liked story time at the library.
Three days later my cell rings at 5am in the morning. This is the case I’ve been waiting for.
The next day I walk into the south side branch of our public library. Their daily schedule hasn’t changed in fifteen years. At 10:30 the quilters meet. At noon, the diehard readers show up to turn in their books and hastily check out more, all on their lunch hour. At 3:45pm, the after-school tutoring program begins. But at 1:30 in the afternoon, the lunch “crowd” is gone, the students haven’t arrived, and at least two of the staff are on break. I walk into the empty lobby, my police notebook in my hand. The librarian, busy at the computer, barely looks up.
The murder mysteries are shelved along the back wall. I stand at the end and whisper.
“Victim: male, white...”
About fifty books slide halfway out.
“fifty-three years old, stockbroker, rich”
Half of the books reshelve themselves.
“murdered with a knife in the back at approximately 1am last night.”
More of the books whisper back into place; I count eight still sticking out.
“The son was home from college.”
Two books slide back.
“The daughter left after dinner but could have returned later.”
One book reshelves itself.
“The divorced wife was in Barcelona.”
Another book slides back.
“The family has two live-in servants, a butler, and a cook.”
Three books glide back into place, leaving only one remaining. I grab it, check it out, and leave, clutching it to my chest.
Back in my car, I call the precinct. “Travis, I’m running down a lead, I won’t be back in today.”
“Ty’s not going to be happy—”
I interrupt. “He won’t say a thing, when I solve this.”
“What have you—”
I hang up. I park under the Oak Avenue bridge—no cameras—and begin to read. Five chapters later, I can’t keep the grin off my face. Every detail is the same, as if the author had written the book while standing beside me, staring down at the knife sticking out of the guy’s back.
Flipping to the back of the book, I eagerly read the last page.
The old butler, a purple bruise swelling his left eye, limped into the visitor’s area, his once perfectly erect posture, stooped. He’d aged ten years. His face brightened as he saw the kid. He sat and picked up the receiver.
“Why did you do it?” the kid asked, a tear quivering and spilling down his face. “Why did you do it?”
“I did it for you. I was there when the Misses brought you home from the hospital.” He looked down at his battered hands. “All these years. All these wasted years.” Raising his head, with his tired eyes he asked for forgiveness. “After his cruelty drove your mother away, he turned on you and little Elizabeth. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
The kid put his hand on the glass, openly crying.
The butler mimicked his gesture. But for the glass, they were palm to palm. The butler’s voice was ragged as if rubbed raw from years of swallowing his own words. “I love you. I couldn’t love you more if were mine. I just wish I’d done something, anything, sooner. I did it for you, son.”
What? The butler did it?
Riffling through my notes, I find the single word “son” underlined. Beside it I’d written: Nervous. Doesn’t make eye contact.
When I’d asked, “Who inherits all this?” and pointed to the room and the crystal chandelier, he’d said, “I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?”
“Ahh...no. How could I know? Well, I guess it’s probably me and Liz. Yeah, that’s right. But really, I’m not thinking about that right now, because my dad’s been murdered.”
As a chill creeps into the car; goosebumps race up my arms.
“I could have sworn it was the kid.” I say, talking to nobody. “This can’t be right.”
Flipping back a few chapters from the end, I start to read when a single bolt of lightning flashes across the night sky. Inside the car, the smell of Jatra leaves has my head spinning. I pull a lever and the seat falls back. For the first time since Bill stole my promotion, the tension leaves my neck, my headache vanishes. Whoa does this feel good.
The next day I bring in the butler for questioning.
“Did you kill Mr. Wellington?”
“What?” He looks confused. “No.”
“You know, I thought it was Robert Jr.”
His head jerks back; his eyes open wide. “No, it wasn’t him. He’s a good kid.”
“Really? Suspended twice. That’s hard to do when your father is an alum and a major donor. I hear the new economics building is named after him.”
The guy turns puke green. A little more yellow and his complexion would’ve matched my kitchen floor. With my foot I scoot the trashcan over, within vomit range.
He bangs his fist down on the table and shouts, “He...Did...Not...Kill...Mr...Wellington!”
I stare at his wide, frightened eyes, his shaking hands. The day of the murder, this man had greeted me at the door at 6am with, “It really is kind of you to come out this early, can I make you an espresso?”
“And how exactly do you know he didn’t do it?” I ask. “Maybe, I should haul Punk Jr. in. I’m thinking he won’t last five minutes.”
I walk to the door. “Yup, not five minutes.” I turn the knob.
“I did it.”
I grin. Tingles run up my spine. “Why?”
He looks at his hands clenched into fists on the table in front of him. “Mr. Wellington mistreated those kids, belittled them, never gave them a chance. I just couldn’t stand it anymore. He was threatening to disinherit Bobby.”
The butler pleads guilty. He gets thirty years; I get promoted. Some months later when I’m cleaning out my car, I find the murder mystery I’d checked out from the library. I take the book back. As I hand the librarian a ten—yeah, I have a hefty fine—she says, “That was a good one.”
“Yes, it was.”
She hands me my change. “I mean, the cop was so sloppy. You just knew it was the son that did it. What a brat! But the old butler loved him, and the cop, that stupid idiot, was just looking for a promotion.”
“Are you going to read the sequel?” she asks.
The pungent scent of Jatra leaves wafts by my nose.
She leans forward, her eyes twinkling. “All I’ll say is this: that cop, she gets what’s coming to her. Afterall, the killer’s still on the loose.”
Kidd Wadsworth has people in her head and likes to work in her pajamas. Her career choices were limited: write or commit herself to an asylum.
Rosamond, by James W. Morris
Gerard Soest, “Portrait of William Shakespeare,” c. 1667
William Shakespeare. Snoozing in a red plastic chair in the row directly across from mine at Judy’s Suds ‘n’ Go.
I knew the man was not the original of course but he did appear to be an exact replica of what the original was supposed to have looked like. Must be a reincarnation I thought.
The new version appeared as a frail itinerant who had ventured into the laundromat in order to shelter from the cold mist outside. He was damp and dirty and his eyelids fluttered.
Here’s a big coincidence. I was holding a slim well-thumbed volume of Shakespeare’s sonnets in my hand at the time. I had read in an advice column that a single guy reading poetry at the laundromat appears interesting and not at all creepy to young ladies who might be present.
There was a portrait of the poet centered on the back cover of my book and I raised it into my line of vision. The guy across from me was Shakespeare all right.
I folded my clothes and stacked them still pleasantly warm in the green mesh laundry bag I use. Then I paused in front of Shakespeare to get one last look before leaving. My proximity seemed to wake the little man up though. Taking my friendly assessment as a sort of invitation he rose and followed me out of Judy’s.
On the street I stopped and told him I enjoyed his poems and plays but I preferred to be alone. He nodded but continued following anyway matching me step for step along the puddled sidewalk.
I stopped once more. No I said. Go away.
His head bobbed again. But there was no real understanding in his eyes.
What was the proper thing to do? Push my diminutive accoster away violently? Run? The rain dampened my laundry while I pondered the question.
I looked the man over again top to toe. He was skinny and filthy. His eyes were brown.
I thought of myself as a cautious person but decided there wasn’t anything threatening about Shakespeare since I was twice his size physically. And I was curious to learn how it was that he’d been reborn after so many years.
That’s how I ended up taking Shakespeare home with me that day.
And he never left.
He liked soup.
That was a blessing since I soon learned a spoon was the only utensil he manipulated with any dexterity. If you put a knife and fork into his gnarled little hands the utensils were as likely to end up stuck in his nose as his mouth.
I could not decide what to call him so I just referred to him as Old Man. Or Shaky.
Sometimes when my guest was slurping his soup an odd feeling came over me while I was sitting at the wobbly kitchen table across from him. I tried to imagine the reincarnated brain living inside his head.
How many people had made more profitable use of their intellect than he had?
How many had brought more beauty into the world?
How many were better able to capture and express what it meant to be human through art?
So go ahead Old Man I thought. Slurp your soup as much as you like.
He liked polyester.
The clothes Shaky was wearing when I discovered him were just rags. Searching his pockets before discarding the old gear I found nothing. Not a penny or scrap of paper.
I conferred some of my own clothes on him but the Old Man was so small compared to me he practically disappeared wearing them. Finally I went out and purchased a pair of inexpensive polyester jogging outfits. One was crimson and one powder blue. Both sported eyebrow-thin white piping along the arms and legs.
Shakespeare loved those outfits. They were lightweight and comfortable and he actually looked quite spiffy in them though I must admit the sight of the Bard of Avon swishing around my apartment modeling the lowest in Kmart fashions took some getting used to.
He liked television.
On days I had to go out I planted him in the chair in front of my set before leaving the house and when I returned home later I always found him still there raptly watching the same channel.
I fretted about exposing such a magnificent brain to so much cultural crap though. It was the psychological equivalent of a parent who fed his kids nothing but Cheetos.
Shaky’s emotional responses to the aforementioned television programs often seemed inappropriate. Watching those ubiquitous Law & Order reruns with Jack McCoy waggling his head in righteousness at some sneering just-nabbed murderer the Old Man was likely to burst into riotous laughter. When he saw the episode of Seinfeld in which Jerry broke up with a woman because she ate peas one at a time the Old Man wept. Great sobs racked his puny body and hot tears cascaded down his worn and withered face.
I thought at first Shaky was displaying symptoms of advanced senility. I imagined he was a sad old man who was misapprehending the culture of modern society. Then I thought about it and decided he might have understood the world better than I did.
Geeze. I forgot to mention that he didn’t talk.
Actually I should say that he didn’t converse. The Old Man could use his voice when he wanted to. I often caught him jabbering but couldn’t quite make out the words. Most communication therefore occurred through his use of wildly variable facial expressions. In this language Shaky was most articulate. He was able to reveal even the subtlest of wants through tiny alterations in the set of his mouth or eyebrows.
I attempted different strategies to provoke Shaky into interacting on a verbal level since of course I’d be glad to have a reborn genius pontificate a bit and illuminate poor moronic me with his well-reasoned insights into the nature of the human condition.
Direct questions were ineffective. A wry smile was his only reply to any query I posed even those constructed purposefully to offend him into response. I understand Christopher Marlowe was twice the man and the three times the poet you were I said. How do you live with your obvious inferiority?
As an experiment I tried reading his work aloud. I supposed that reminding an artist of his noblest achievements might inspire him to speech since I knew even the shiest of writers was likely to be expansive on the subject of himself. But there was no real response from Shaky. If I recited his sonnets he looked at me blankly. If I acted out one of his plays he fell asleep before scene ii.
One day at breakfast feeling a bit bored I held up the sugar bowl in front of him.
Sugar bowl I said.
Sugar bowl he immediately answered echoing my pronunciation exactly. There was a broad smile on his face. He liked the way the words sounded.
Sugar bowl sugar bowl sugar bowl he repeated savoring each phoneme as he rolled the phrase around on his tiny tongue.
I’d broken through!
I held the cereal box up in front of him.
Cereal I said.
Sugar bowl he replied.
I decided upon a strategic U-turn to get my guest to reengage the world and perhaps talk spontaneously. Why didn’t I see it? No person could be more disenchanted with a set of characters than the writer who fretted over and agonized about and finally worked through those characters’ stories centuries before. To Shaky his plays had simply and permanently worn out their welcome. And modern American television was no substitute. His titanic intellect was tuned to a finer classical wavelength.
What I needed to do therefore was challenge the man afresh. Put a pen in his gnarled little hands and demand he produce a new play.
It would also prove he was who I thought he was.
The idea seemed to me an insight of rare brilliance. My companion might become a vital part of the world again. And the world as reward for its wait would have a newborn play by Shakespeare to add to its treasures. I could see it. Performances worldwide. Scholars nitpicking the hell out of it without appreciating its true beauty. High-school students everywhere cursing his name. Just like the others.
I cleared my tiny kitchen table. I sat him at it and stacked fresh white paper in front of him. I presented him with my best pen.
I said The Globe needs a new play right away. Go to it!
At first Shaky seemed interested only in the stack of paper. He inspected several pieces on both sides as if expecting to see writing already there. Then he examined the pen. He unscrewed it and took out all the parts. He played with the little spring. Then he put his head down on the stack of paper and fell asleep.
The next day I was still hopeful. Rome wasn’t built etc.
I repeated the preparatory procedure of the previous day almost exactly thinking a ritualistic approach to the project might convey the importance of the activity. Then I put the pen in Shaky’s hand and put his hand to the paper.
Write! I commanded.
He took the pen apart like before and examined its guts. I took those pieces away. I handed him a cheaper pen that didn’t unscrew and he spent five minutes trying to unscrew it. Then he dropped the pen onto the slanted tabletop and watched it roll onto the floor. This seemed to delight him and he repeated the action several times.
I couldn’t help but think little progress was being made.
I had an idea that night. Shakespeare didn’t write with a ballpoint pen. Putting a modern instrument in the Old Man’s hands aroused his curiosity but didn’t excite the vestigial memory of the manner in which he used to make plays. Luckily our city had a colonial past and the next morning at a dingy souvenir shop in the Olde City Shopping Mall I was able to obtain quill and inkwell.
I rushed home with my purchases eager to bestow them on the Bard.
I sat him at the table in front of a pile of paper like before. I wrenched open the squat-shouldered bottle of ink and handed him the quill.
The look on his face! I admit I became a bit teary-eyed when I saw it.
Write! I said.
He dipped the quill and made a small mark on the paper before pausing and reclining in his chair thoughtfully. Then he moved forward again and made another mark but shook his head in dismay at the result.
I watched him from my seat on the sofa.
A thought broke free at last. Shakespeare bent to the paper with renewed vigor and wrote some large confident letters in the center of the page before virtually collapsing onto the tabletop exhausted.
Being a genius was apparently quite tiring.
After a few minutes I tiptoed around the table and lifted the diminutive poet into my arms to carry him to bed. I put my best blanket over him and made sure he was tucked in tight.
Then I stole back into the kitchen to see what the great man had written.
He had written the words sugar bowl.
The next day was Tuesday. My regular day to play chess in the park. I decided to leave the television turned off when I went out and instead placed Shaky in front of his now-familiar stack of paper. When I returned home I found the Old Man dozing in fading golden afternoon light using the stack of paper as his pillow. I made soup and woke him. When he lifted his head there was no writing on the paper beneath yet I noted that his hands were stained with ink.
Before setting Shaky in his place at the table on Wednesday I counted the sheets of paper in the stack. One hundred twenty-five.
Upon returning Wednesday evening I found the Old Man asleep very much in the same way as before. After dinner I counted the paper. One hundred twenty. Shakespeare wrote five pages. Or perhaps he ate them. All I knew was that five pages were gone.
A pattern was formed. I left him alone in the mornings and went out into the world to do whatever chores needed doing then returned home to find some paper missing and Shaky asleep.
I did no exhaustive search of my apartment during that time though I was curious about where he was secreting the work-in-progress. Be strong and restrain yourself I thought. One does not disturb Shakespeare in his writing.
Several weeks passed and Shaky and I settled ourselves into a routine as dull and predictable as that of an old married couple. On weekdays I found an excuse to leave him alone then returned home to make soup before we watched television together for the rest of the evening. I knew he was working because the paper and ink were disappearing with perceptible regularity. On weekends we skipped work and went to the park.
I thought the best thing to do was remain mum about the play writing project until the finished work appeared. It is said writers are as superstitious as ballplayers. Don’t mention the pitching of a no-hitter until the game is over.
What worried me was that the state of Shakespeare’s health appeared to be deteriorating. He appeared physically frail since the moment we met of course yet there was at that time in his eyes an inner light. He still ate his soup and laughed at McCoy and cried at Seinfeld but I thought his light was dimming. Perhaps he was not strong enough for the stress of trying to produce a new play after four hundred years.
I suppose what I’m trying to say is that I was afraid I was killing Shakespeare.
One day on my way home from the library I found cans of soup on sale at the local supermarket. Two for the price of one. I therefore bought more than usual and had quite an ordeal carrying the surprisingly heavy bags home.
I reached the apartment and clunked the bags down upon the cement stoop with barely strength enough to knock on the front door. Most of this soup is for Shaky I thought. The least he can do is help me inside with it.
There was no answer to my knock but this was not unusual. Shakespeare was generally to be found asleep at this hour either sitting at the table or stretched out nearby on my tattered sofa.
I sighed and dug out my key to let myself in.
When the door yielded I saw that Shakespeare was on the sofa peacefully oblivious to my entry. I went past him to the kitchen cabinet and put most of the soup away and stacked the excess on the counter. Then I turned and was on my way back to wake the Bard when I noticed a bundle of papers on my kitchen table centered upon the ink-spotted area he used for writing. The bundle was tied up with a bit of string.
Shakespeare had finished his play.
I rejoiced inwardly but decided to tease him a bit in case he was actually awake and surreptitiously watching for my reaction to his accomplishment. For the next few minutes I found excuse after excuse to walk around the table tidying the abbreviated space laughably known as my kitchen. I pretended all the while not to have seen the packet he’d left there.
Then I got a terrible feeling and turned to look directly at Shakespeare. After a moment I walked to the sofa and put my hand on his brow. His skin was stone cold.
Shakespeare was dead.
After a minute I rose and faced the bundle on the table. I realized then that his play was his goodbye note.
The night Shakespeare died. What a night that was.
I take medication for my disability and am not allowed to drink alcohol but decided to buy some anyway so I could toast the Old Man. At the liquor store I bought the cheapest bottle of whiskey they had. The label featured a drawing of a mule kicking a guy in the head.
At home I sat on the floor and filled a juice glass with whiskey. I silently toasted my dead friend on the couch then threw the brown liquid down my throat. As an inexperienced drinker I fully expected to choke and cough and sputter the way inexperienced drinkers do in the movies. Though my eyes burned a bit I didn’t do that. I liked it.
My grief had three layers. The first was a sort of generalized mournfulness I felt on behalf of the world at large which had just lost a reborn version of its greatest playwright.
I also experienced a rueful pang for the man himself. He was an uncontested genius who died in diminished circumstances stretched out on a wheezy sofa. Alone.
Mostly I felt sorry for myself. Shakespeare was my friend. Due to circumstances I won’t describe here he was the only real friend I’ve ever had. The pain was piercing and exacerbated by the knowledge that I wouldn’t be able provide my friend with the funeral or recognition he deserved. I simply didn’t have the financial means or the social skills and emotional wherewithal to deal with arranging a proper ceremony to acknowledge Shakespeare’s passing.
And the world believed he had lived only one life and that one ended four hundred years ago. I’d have a hell of a time convincing people that the body in my apartment belonged to anyone but a bum I found on the street.
That’s when I decided to look at the play.
I sat at the table and undid the string. I was not so overburdened with grief that I was unaware of History standing at my shoulder.
I riffled through the pages and examined through numerous cross-outs and smeared blots of ink the Old Man’s cramped and spidery scrawl.
As you may have guessed the play was utter gibberish.
I awoke with a start a few hours later then inwardly congratulated the manufacturer of the whiskey for adhering to truth in labeling regulations. I definitely felt as if a mule had kicked me in the head.
Nonetheless I drank some more. The bottle was mostly gone when I decided to look at the play again with less expectant eyes. Surely there is something worth salvaging in it I thought. The fact that that old man had written it at my behest endowed the work with value even if it held none in a literary sense. Or even a sensical sense.
I would analyze the manuscript word by word. What else did I have to occupy me?
First the title centered on the top page. It was not Sugar Bowl. A single word beginning with an R.
Rorschach? Ravioli? Ringworm?
No. Ringworm by William Shakespeare? I thought not.
I let my eye trace over the script without judgment attempting to take the word in as a whole.
Yes. The more I peered at it the more certain I became. The title had a nice ring to it though I was ignorant about what it might refer to.
I have no computer or internet so I looked up the name Rosamond in the index of one of my old English Lit texts and found it in a bibliographic list of titles composed by Swinburne. A blank verse drama. This was either a coincidence or a not-unprecedented outright steal although since Shakespeare lived both before and after Swinburne which author would be considered to have stolen from which?
In any case I returned to the work Shaky left me and to my great surprise quickly deciphered the setting. Ancient Italy in the days of the Teutonic invasions.
With growing excitement I realized the play was not gibberish. Far from it.
I got no more sleep that night. I spent hours un-encrypting the text and during that span made remarkable headway. I transcribed the play in its entirety and learned among other things that Shakespeare was a rotten speller and whimsical punctuator. Nonetheless the words fell into place and I believe I recognized about ninety percent of them.
I will summarize the story of the play.
The princes of two rival Teutonic tribes meet by chance in a rural mountain pass and they fight. Alboin of the Lombardi slays his rival but forgets to carry away the other man’s bloody armaments afterward for trophies as is the custom of the day. Alboin’s father the King therefore refuses his son a seat at his banquet table upon his return to court. To restore his honor Alboin takes forty warriors to the castle of the rival king and demands his spoils.
Alboin’s boldness pays off. He is solemnly presented with the dead man’s armaments. But while amongst his rivals Alboin spies another treasure he covets. Standing silently near the banquet table is Princess Rosamond. The enemy king’s daughter is tall and blonde and blue-eyed and fierce. The Teutonic ideal. Taking his bold imposition a step further Alboin impulsively demands her hand in marriage. The rival king is now outraged and refuses. Determined but outnumbered Alboin pretends to return home only to sneak back alone to the castle. After bribing a guard to be alone with Rosamond his awkward and ineloquent attempt at wooing her fails. Outraged by Rosamond’s rebuffs and overcome with lust he takes the princess’s virginity by force.
A bloody war ensues and Alboin kills Rosamond’s father in battle. Afterwards Alboin thinks it the height of proper etiquette to have the dead king’s skull gilded so that the trophy can serve double duty as a rather large drinking cup. He also takes Rosamond as war booty and marries her just after his own father dies. Now Alboin is king and Rosamond is queen of the Lombardi.
One cold night Alboin hosts a particularly rowdy drinking banquet which is not a surprise since it is the chief feature of his government. He decides it might be funny to have his new wife drink some wine out of her dead father’s skull. Rosamond refuses. He forces the issue at knife point saying that his queen must “rejoice with her father.”
Next comes what I would deem the signature moment of the play. Rosamond reluctantly takes hold of the skull filled to the maxillae with sloshing wine and with her hands trembling raises it to her lips. She also utters a quiet prayer which is really a curse. Alboin will pay for his insult with his own life.
When the castle is quiet Rosamond lets an assassin into the royal bedchamber where she has attempted to exhaust the king with lovemaking. Sensing a trap Alboin wakes and reaches for his sword. But Rosamond has secured it in its scabbard. Alboin is slain.
In the days that follow it quickly becomes clear Rosamond does not have the wherewithal to hold the Lombardi kingdom together after her bold act. She flees the outraged populace and takes with her as protector a clod named Helmichis whom she impulsively marries. The couple hides out with a rich neighbor named Longinus who also yearns for r the beautiful Rosamond. Rosie likes Longinus too and decides she might as well use him to trade up from her current kinda boring spouse.
Still disturbed by the bloody mess of her first husband’s slaying Rosie this time decides to try poison. As Helmichis is exiting the bath next morning she is waiting by the tub and hands him a deadly cup of wine. Helmichis is an oaf but he is a well-traveled oaf and knows what poison is said to taste like. Though aware that it’s too late to save his own life Helmichis grabs his nearby dagger and holds it to his wife’s lovely throat. Rosamond can either drink the rest of the poison herself or be stabbed to death.
Rosie waffles a bit in a beautifully phrased speech. Then she chooses the poison and drinks it. Attention scholars. Note the parallel between this scene and the one in which Rosamond is forced to drink from her father’s skull.
It is at this juncture that the acute reader will realize the play is ending since in typical tragic Shakespearean fashion the stage is now decorated with dead bodies.
I awoke later that morning in very much the same position I regularly found Shakespeare. Sitting before a stack of paper at the table with my head resting on my hands. When I rose I realized how remarkably terrible I felt. My head pounded with pain. My neck ached. My mouth felt full of cotton. The mule was still at work.
No more drinking for me I decided. Never again.
I spent some time contemplating the remains of my friend. The problem of his final disposition plagued me. In the end I decided to put off a decision on how best to proceed until a time when I thought my head would be clearer.
I’ll distract myself by reading the play one more time I thought.
When I sat down to look at the pages I quickly realized that during the night something extraordinary had happened. Shakespeare’s version of Rosamond had once again become mere gibberish in my eyes. It was all scrawls and inkblots. The whole thing was utterly illegible. Even the title. How in the world did it ever seem coherent to me?
I hesitated a moment before taking up my transcribed version fearing a similar revelation. I discovered that the pages I penned were intact.
Many months have now passed Shakespeare died. The play he left behind is my most treasured possession. The more I read it the greater the amazement I feel regarding my small part in producing it.
How did an isolated innocent man such as myself extract such a lovely thing from meaningless marks on a page? The plot and the characters and perhaps even some of the more felicitous turns of phrase I might conceivably have invented however unlikely the prospect. But the inwrought sensuality and the monstrously beautiful humanity of the play? Well it’s clear those were given as gifts. The sorts of things I am sure I could not have conjured on my own.
James W. Morris is a graduate of LaSalle University in Philadelphia, where he was awarded a scholarship for creative writing. He has published dozens of short stories, humor pieces, essays, and poems in various literary magazines, and worked for a time as a joke writer for Jay Leno. His first novel, RUDE BABY, was recently published, and is available worldwide. More info at www.jameswmorris.com.
Visitation, by Richard Stimac
Photo by Vicki Schofield on Unsplash
The cemetery had fallen into disrepair. Knee-high grass hide the flat veined-granite markers that tripped drunk teenagers at night. Someone had cracked open the skull of a concrete angel to expose the solid core beneath the chiseled locks of hair. The upright stone stump markers of the Woodsman of the World appeared healthier than the moribund oaks and maples. Here and there a small mausoleum or cenotaph attempted to stand upright, like an old veteran at the burial of a comrade. Rain streaks from oxidized copper ornaments marred their marble walls. At the gate, set on Ionic columns, harpies held watch, lest the ineligible enter, or depart.
But no one in the line of cars noticed any of this on their way to the St. Veronica’s basement. The funeral procession took thirty minutes longer than normal. The state was widening a length of interstate between the cemetery and the church.
Like tutelars, Delores and Trista waited on them. The two were the last of the Women’s Ancillary who prepared food for funerals. In the past, family and friends returned to the church with a feast waiting for them: fried chicken; roast beef; mashed potatoes; corn; green beans; two or three different salads. And homemade cakes and pies. Along with sweet lemonade and tea. Today, Delores and Trista stood behind a store-bought sheet cake and three-liter bottles of store-brand soda. The air conditioner was set high. They wrapped their shawls tightly around their shoulders like angels would their wings.
“That’s a nice cake you bought,” Delores said.
“They have discounts on Tuesdays,” Trista said. “Lucky the funeral is today.”
Maybe two dozen people, at the most, wandered into the church basement.
“Remember when funerals filled this hall?” Trista said.
“You’d see people you hadn’t seen in years,” Delores said. “Or the last funeral.”
“The funeral for what’s-his-name—”
“The rich man?”
“He’s the one. We had to set up tables in the breezeway for the kids.”
“Funerals used to be a real time of coming together.”
“People need to come together. Now, I don’t know.”
“You are a wise woman.”
Two old men, older than either Delores or Trista, stood before the table and examined the squares of sheet cake, each on its own halo-like white paper tea plate.
“Chocolate or white?” Delores said.
“You want a corner?” Trista said. “There’s more icing.”
One of the men grimaced.
“Too much goddamn sugar,” he said and hobbled away.
The other man seemed to be bending over the table, but, in fact, his spine wouldn’t straighten.
“Try this,” Delores said. She held a plate up to the man.
“Something to drink,” Trista said. She offered a Styrofoam cup of soda.
He took a piece of chocolate and of white from the table. He winked at Delores, then at Trista, as he stooped away.
By this time, the children, few that there were, settled in chairs at the far unlit end of the basement. Each one had a phone. The glow of the screen faded their faces to a pale embalmed hue.
“Fact is,” Delores said, “we’d have so much food left over Frank and me would eat it for nearly a week.”
“And that was after everyone else took a plate home.”
“You made the best coleslaw.”
“The trick was putting in both raisins and grapes.”
Trista rubbed her hands.
“The arthritis?” Delores said.
“Just thinking about cooking makes my hands hurt.”
Father descended the steps from the sacristy. Some people turned towards him. Some, a bit too obvious, continued their conversations. He spoke to the immediate family. They nodded. He blessed them. Positioned in the front of the hall, Father placed his palms together in front of his chest. Most bowed their heads. A few, again, a bit too obvious, looked at the floor with glances about the room, as if they expected to find one of the faithful cheating. When the priest finished, nearly everyone said, “Amen.”
“Father always does such a good job,” Trista said.
“I always liked him best of all,” Delores said.
The first of the guests began to leave. Delores and Trista plastic wrapped pieces of cake and forced them on those remaining who refused, but, in the end, submitted to the will of the old women.
Father came by the table.
“You two are saints,” Father said.
Delores and Trista blushed, hushed the man, waved him off.
“It’s true,” Father Frank said. “The Church would be at a loss without women like you.”
“The Church doesn’t need women like us,” Trista said.
“Oh,” Delores said. “Don’t.”
“It’s fine,” Father said. “Sincerely, thank you.”
Then he, too, went his way. Barely twenty minutes after the reception began, the basement of the church was empty.
“I hate to throw all this away,” Delores said.
“I’ll take some for the grandkids,” Trista said.
Delores drug a large gray plastic garbage can next to the table.
“There’s no lining,” Trista said.
“They don’t use linings for these things.”
“It must get filthy.”
“They wash it out.”
With that, the entire sheet cake smeared down the inside of the can.
“What about the soda?” Trista said.
“The cafeteria woman will do something with it.”
Trista began brushing crumbs into her hand.
“Leave that, too,” Delores said.
“I hate to leave a mess for others,” Trista said.
“We’ve got our work. Let others have theirs.”
Delores turned the lights off. In the near darkness, lit only by the soft red from the exit signs, the old woman moved like shadows, almost flitting to the door.
“Ride?” Trista said. She sat inside her thirty-year-old sedan.
“I still only live a few blocks away,” Delores said.
“I worry about you still living in this neighborhood.”
“It’s not safe.”
“I’ll be ok.”
“I’ll call you when I get home.”
Content, Delores smiled. Trista turned her car towards the newer part of town.
Each one went, alone, to their own home, and to their own private grief.
Richard Stimac has a full-length book of poetry Bricolage (Spartan Press), a forthcoming poetry chapbook Of Water and of Stone (Moonstone) and published over thirty poems in Burningword, Clackamas, december, The Examined Life Journal, Faultline, Havik (Third Place 2021 Poetry Contest), Michigan Quarterly Review, Mikrokosmos (Second Place 2022 Poetry Contest; A.E. Stallings, judge), New Plains Review, NOVUS, Penumbra, Plainsongs, Salmon Creek Journal, Talon Review, and Wraparound South. He published flash fiction in BarBar (2023 BarBe nominee), The Blue Mountain Review, Book of Matches, Bridge Eight, Bright Flash, Drunk Monkeys, Flash Fiction Magazine, The Good Life Review, Half and One, LEON, New Feathers, Paperbark, Prometheus Dreaming, Proud to Be (SEMO Press), On the Run, Scribble, Talon Review, The Typescript, The Wild Word, Your Impossible Voice, and Transitions Sydney Hammond Memorial Short Story Anthology (Hawkeye Press). He has also had an un-staged readings by the St. Louis Writers’ Group and Gulf Coast: Playwright’s Circle, plays published in The AutoEthnographer, Fresh Words and Hive Avenue Literary Journal, a screenplay in Qu, and an essay in The Midwest Quarterly. A screenplay of his is in pre-production. He is a poetry reader for Ariel Publishing, Clepsydra, and a fiction reader for The Maine Review.
Forfeit, by DL Shirey
The Rolling Stones fade to silence. I tap my earpiece to answer the call, "Yes."
"The Stooge is leaving the office." Client 352 has a raspy, smoker's voice.
Stooge is my word, not his. I insist on using it instead of target or mark when I'm not sure if the phone call is snooped. Which means I use the word constantly.
"Leaving his office or leaving the building?" I ask.
"The office. Second floor."
"Yes," 352 says, "and his car is on the top deck of the parking structure next door, 4242 South B Street."
I had scouted the locations. I knew the addresses. I knew the Stooge's reserved space was on P5. "Got it."
"And I'm supposed to wait by the phone for your call when it's over?"
"No. My handler should have been clear about this. You will be on the phone when the job takes place. During, not after."
"Yes. Right. I forgot." His voice wavers. "That is what Ellen told me."
"I'll call you when the Stooge is in view," I said. "You don't answer by the third ring, the job is forfeit."
A pause on the other end, then the snick sound of a cigarette lighter. "I'll be here." A coughing fit strangles his last word and the call ends.
My playlist kicks in again, but I turn off the music. No distractions now. From my vantage point on the adjacent rooftop I have an unobstructed view. It's late on a weeknight, most restaurants have closed, and just a scattering of cars are parked in the downtown office district. There are only two other cars on P5.
ETA six minutes. The Stooge will take the office stairs down, the carpark elevator up, and unlock his car as soon as he sees it. Subaru Forester, white, cargo box on roof rack.
I consider phoning Ellen concerning 352's confusion about his participation, but the question will answer itself if he doesn't pick up my call.
Client involvement is something I demand. I don't know how other freelancers work—it's not like we have union meetings or social clubs where notes are compared—but in my experience, shit and fan rarely meet when the client has skin in the game.
The Stooge I know from photos, but the client I do not. I've never met 352. That's Ellen's job. She's my middleman, I mean handler. Ellen hates the word middleman so I don't use it around her. I think misgendering Ellen's occupation should be the least of her concerns since she sets up assassinations and makes sure my clients are legit.
I screw up her pronouns too, but she gets twenty percent of my fee for putting up with stuff like that.
I like Ellen. We've worked together for a long time. She's usually rock-solid in terms of fielding clients, background checks and money transfers. She's been distracted by a family matter recently, so her ducks might not be perfectly rowed. We'll discuss it at the debrief and I'll get her impression of 352 after the fact. We already have half his payment, forfeit or not.
I redial 352. After one ring he picks up and speaks. "He's not up there yet. He's just getting on the elevator."
"You're following him?" I ask, almost a growl.
"Yeah, to make sure no one else is around. No one to get in the way or get hurt."
"Let me worry about that. You just back off." Another thing to talk to Ellen about. "Stay where you are and stay on the line; it's time to start the process."
"Process? What process? I already—"
"You and Ellen did the business part. This is the me part, where you convince me that you're serious about this assignment."
"This is a joke, right?" He sounds nervous.
"Ellen didn't tell you about this?"
"She did. But given the circumstances—"
"Whatever got you here is not my concern. The only thing that matters is how you answer my questions," I say. "Two questions. And if you don't answer by the time the Stooge gets to his car, the job is forfeit."
On the other end the phone muffles and clicks silent. I look at my phone to see if the call ended. Still connected. I hear the phone click on again.
"Did you just put me on hold?"
"Sorry," 352 says, "I wanted to make sure I was alone."
This job was starting to feel a little hinky, but I've gone through this before. Some clients are dead calm, some freak out. It's the very reason I ask them questions.
The elevator doors on P5 open and a man walks out. I pull the scope to my eye and verify the target. He's on the phone, so his face is half hidden. He's got a skinny build, like the photos, and the hair's right. Got to be the right guy because 352 watched him leave the office.
"He just exited the elevator," I say, "Time is short. Two questions."
"Go ahead," 352 replies.
"Number one, how long you know him?"
"The Stooge, how many years you know him?"
There's always a pause. Admittedly, it's a weird question to throw at a client at a time like this, but it accomplishes two things. First, it makes the client think about his relationship with the Stooge. Second, I'm curious if the pattern holds true; a longer pause usually means a longer relationship.
352 is quick with a response. Not with an answer, but with a question I hear more often than not, "What does that have to do with anything?"
"Means nothing to no one but me." The headlights flash on the Forester and I hear the distant beep. "He's unlocked the car. Answer the question."
I can hear 352 breathing: labored, nervous, wheezy. He still doesn't answer, which probably means a longer, more complex relationship. 352 might even be doing a little soul-search while he's counting back the years. But time's tight, the Stooge is halfway to his car.
"Answer or forfeit. He's almost there and I still have another question.
"Okay, okay. I've known him all my life."
Sounds sincere. All his life, could mean it's family. No wonder 352 is struggling. This is the very reason I ask these questions. I want clients to have second thoughts before I complete the contract. I want any feelings of guilt, remorse or regret to surface now. Festered emotion can lead to vengeance and payback. I look over my shoulder enough as it is.
"Question two." I usually pause for dramatic effect, but there's no time. "Do you still want the job completed?"
No pause. "Yes."
I still can't see the Stooge's face because of that damn phone. I wonder if he's making a business call, wrapping up loose ends on an upcoming deal. Or maybe it's a call home, letting the wife know he'll be stopping at the store. I'll give the Stooge two seconds to finish the call or I'll finish it for him. I target the phone's camera and the man's temple behind it.
"The next sound you hear is your completed contract," I tell the client. Without moving my trigger finger, I thumb the safety button off.
"Wait," came a reply. A different voice on my phone.
My aim does not vary but my concentration breaks. I'm confused, I never patched her in. The client must have done it. The Stooge reaches the car and opens the door.
"Russell, wait," Ellen says, "I'm here.
I pull away the scope and scan the rooftop. A woman emerges from the stairwell next to the elevator. The Stooge pivots around, looking for her, finding her.
"Where are you?" Russell asks.
I press the scope back to my eye. Ellen, all four-foot nine of her, is waving, fast walking on her tiny legs. Sweatsuit and tennies, quite a departure from the usual skirt and jacket. Her black hair is pulled back so I can see her earpiece. She taps it and disconnects from the call.
Ellen and Russell embrace. She pushes away, gripping his cardigan just below the shoulders. The Stooge drops his hands to Ellen's hips. He's still holding the phone and I hear it rub against her clothes. Their conversation is muffled, so I can't make out what they say. Russell looks up to the sky, tries to free himself from Ellen's grip, but she holds tight.
Finally, he nods and they embrace again. She steps back and he hands her his phone. Ellen turns around, walks two paces and pulls Russell's phone to her ear
"Go ahead," Ellen says to me, "Client 352 is now on the line as requested. Same Stooge, same contract."
"Ellen? What the hell."
"Please," she whispers, "My brother's dead in a few weeks anyway. He wants to go out on his terms, while he still has strength."
"This is not what I signed up for."
"Sure it is." Ellen pauses. "Here are the answers to your questions: I've known him since I was two, and I'm sure he wants to go now. To spare himself and the family from the next few, horrible weeks."
I hear a violent bout of coughing. I nudge the scope toward Russell; he is bent over, holding on to the Forester's door for support. The coughing continues for a few moments, then he stands up again, wiping his mouth and eyes with a handkerchief.
"Treat it as another job," she says, "as a favor to me."
I move the scope back to Ellen's profile, her back still toward her brother. She raises her head and straightens her spine.
"Please. Don't forfeit," she says, "Russell wants it this way and so do I."
Without hesitation, I put the scope back on target. Russell is facing me now, still leaning on the open door of the Forester. A sad smile crosses his face and he closes his eyes. My thumb slips up to the safety button but it's already off.
I take a breath and hold it.
DL Shirey lives in Portland, Oregon under skies the color of bruises. Occasionally he lightens up, but his dark fiction can be found in Confingo, Zetetic, Liquid Imagination and in anthologies from Truth Serum Press and Literary Hatchet. Short of listing them all, visit www.dlshirey.com and @dlshirey on Twitter.
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