BLOODBROTHERS, by Michael Vines
Growing up in a 1950's Southern California post-war housing neighborhood
It seemed there was never a shortage of metal roller skates laying around when you needed them. Or discarded wooden orange crates for that matter. The thick, hard-sided ones. Not those flimsy, lightweight crates you find today. And a good piece of one by six lumber appropriated for the day's skateboard project. It wasn't going to be a run-of-the-mill skateboard, but a super-deluxe bugger with a kid-riding crate on the front end. And if it works out, a rope-activated steering pivot for added maneuverability.
Santos Jr. and I had known each other since we were three when our parents moved to Fullerton, California in the early1950's. Our endeavors spanned the gambit of fort and skateboard manufacturing, to building exploration and hiking to the beach by ourselves on a hot summer day, which was a considerable task from the suburbs to the Pacific Coast Highway. It was like that back then. No fear. And our parents lived with complete confidence knowing we'd be back before suppertime. And we always were. It was a time of moral responsibility that was equally practiced by society as a whole. And we all depended on it. But we also had great role models such as John Wayne, Charlton Heston and Roy Rodgers. I loved Santos Sr. as much as my own father, and other nationalities eventually moved into the neighborhood who exemplified a solid patriotism, moral responsibility, dignity and love for America. The war had brought a fine gathering of the middle-class together in Southern California who happily lived, coexisted and treasured their moments by the celebration of God, family and country.
It wasn't until much later when we graduated to the solid, hard rubber roller-rink quality wheels for our creations, but that didn't stop our progress. First came the modification of Santos' sister's skates which required the easy removal of the shoe mounts, then the mounting to the board, which took several bent-over nail heads to affix them. With that accomplished we were ready for the final assembly of our prototype vehicle. After carefully eye-balling the center of the crate over the top of the skateboard, a couple ten-penny nails (nuts and bolts came a couple years later) were driven into the crate and through the skateboard. We knew better to hammer over the protruding nails underneath for safety purposes. With that accomplished, Santos eagerly crawled inside the orange crate while I took the helm. I awkwardly gripped the top of the orange crate with both hands and gleefully shoved off on our maiden voyage.
The only problem with growing up in Southern California is that everything is flat. Unless you wanted to traverse the roller-coaster roads of Hillcrest Park in downtown Fullerton, which was well within our radius of exploration, you'd have to make due with the neighborhood streets to road test your creations. Which was just as well since it wasn't long before one of those evil little stones, which have been tripping up kid's skateboards for generations, slipped under a metal skate wheel and caused us to tumble head over heels! Santos landed on top of his father's lush ivy bed from the weight of me crashing into, and bursting, the orange crate. We both shook our heads a couple of times, then took assessment of our wounds. I got stabbed in the side by a piece of the shattered orange crate and Santos ended up with a golf ball sized knot on his forehead. We had both sustained some pretty good scrapes and lacerations; a surprising amount of damage from such a minor fall. But it was kinda neat.
I looked at our sorrowful state and it dawned on me that now would be a good time to reenact that old Indian custom (we believed) of a blood oath. We were the best of friends, and what the heck, we were already bleeding, so now was as good a time as any. We pressed our punctured forearms together, then we both swore, “With this flow of blood we are now brothers!” A great deal of laughter followed.
We took a dip in his family's Doughboy pool to wash and sterilize our wounds, then we laid out, heads down, on a hot summer sidewalk to dry off. A therapeutic childhood ritual.
Dad put a stack of his Billy Vaughn records on the HiFi in the living room while BBQueing steaks outside on the patio to entertain family and friends. He slid open the glass double doors so the two alto saxophones singing, “Sail Along Silv'ry Moon” could be heard throughout the neighborhood!
Life was pretty good.
Michael Vines is a freelance writer who lives in South-Central Kentucky. His "Slice of Life" essays have been published in statewide newspapers and Amazon Kindle ("Ain't Life Peachy")
Roses, by Kurt Hohmann
Photo by Cătălina Jurat on Unsplash
He told her he loved her.
Looking back, his intentions had been transparent. So easy to see through the lies and between the lines. But back then, she'd wanted only to believe.
It hadn't been the first time Elisa had heard words of love. She knew not to be swept away by a smooth talker bearing a bouquet of gas-station-special roses.
Or so she'd thought.
He had wriggled through her defenses. Made a profound impression. Honest. Decent. Nothing like the others who purred into her ear, whispering honeyed words they were certain she wanted to hear.
Something about him had seemed downright pure.
Elisa barked a laugh at the thought, a cold and ugly sound that reverberated in the unfurnished room.
In the end, he'd been just another smooth talker.
Not like the bad boy in the old films, full of empty flattery. His was something more subtle. More polished.
More studious of his prey.
Words of love emerged, not in a steady stream, but in the manner of a man unused to expressing himself. A man lost in a world of newly-discovered emotions.
False naiveté had been his game. And she'd fallen victim to that strategy, to every calculated move he'd made.
In the end she'd discerned the truth. The damning evidence was well hidden, but not well enough.
Elisa focused on the roses he'd given her.
His shy smile emerges from behind the bouquet.
She'd hung them upside down from a string tacked to the ceiling. Once blood-red blooms had long since turned deathly black. A near match to the dried stains on the floor below them.
A slight breeze wafting across the room disturbed the desiccated flowers, and a single petal drifted to the floor. Elisa picked it up and cradled it in her palm, touched it with one outstretched fingertip. She held it close to her face, but its scent had passed.
She stroked the surface of the petal, her nail softly caressing its frailty.
One hand caresses his cheek as she holds his gaze. The other slips behind him.
Elisa stabbed her finger into the petal, twisting it into the hollow of her other hand, grinding it into tiny fragments.
The dagger plunges.
She envisioned his soul, dried and withered like the roses, drifting down in pieces to be crumbled into dust beneath her rage.
His eyes reflect shock, then acceptance. Then...nothing.
Roses. Such a strange thing to choose as a symbol of eternal love. Dead and desiccated after a week. Every bit as undying as the love he'd professed.
Every bit as dead as him.
At last she released the pressure, her hands aching. Black dust littered her palm, and she rubbed her hands together, washing them in the air. Trying to remove all that remained of him, all that still clung to her.
Elisa stared at the hanging bouquet, willing another petal to fall.
Kurt Hohmann (www.kurthohmann.com) tells stories, builds altars to pagan gods, drums 'round the bonfire, and crafts mad culinary experiments. His tales have been featured in Yellow Mama, Literally Stories, Inner Sins, Chantwood, Abstract Jam, Bookends Review, and Eternal Haunted Summer.
Riverwalk, by Kathleen McCluskey
Photo by Jan Tielens on Unsplash
Julia and Richard strolled arm in arm down the picturesque Riverwalk. The city always seemed to come to life for them when the warm lights of the shops began to reflect on the dark water. The Riverwalk was always so crowded during the day; for them, the night hours were more enjoyable. Julia and Richard stopped and leaned against the railing. They watched the small gondolas float down the calm water. The tourists were always easy to pinpoint. The laughter and excitement was palatable and the never ending presence of a camera or cell phone was a dead giveaway. The pair continued down the Riverwalk, looking into windows and people watching. Julia had the uncanny ability to notice when somebody felt out of sorts. She was able to infiltrate their mind and senses to bring them to Richard and herself. Richard never possessed that ability. He wasn’t envious just confused why he had to use brute force but Julia only had to smile.
They spotted a young man and woman sitting on a bench. The young woman seemed to be crying. Julia went straight to her. Without saying a word, Julia sat down and brushed the hair away from the woman’s face. The woman recoiled but as soon as her eyes met Julia’s all of her fears were pushed aside. The man began to protest but Julia looked him in the eyes and he settled. Richard stood behind the man with his hands on his shoulders. He lifted the man to his feet and walked with him to the darkened alley. Julia took the woman by the hand and they followed the two men.
Richard struck first. He grabbed the man by the back of the neck and spun him around. Richard hissed loudly at the man. That broke Julia’s mental hold on him. The man tried to scream but Richard sank his razor-sharp fangs into the man’s throat. Blood began to pulse out and seep out from between Richard’s lips. He raised his head and let out a guttural growl, “Blood always tastes sweeter when they are scared. Thank you, my love for releasing him just in time. Your timing is impeccable.” Julia smiled. She was a delicate creature and was almost timid in her approach, she lifted the woman’s wrist to her lips. She sank her sharp fangs into the woman; still holding onto her mind the woman let out a small sigh as her life drained out. Julia looked at Richard, “I enjoy it better when the blood is calm.”
Kathleen McCluskey is the novelist of THE LONG FALL trilogy. She has been featured in numerous magazines and compilation books both nationally (USA) and internationally.
Tsumi, by Sarah Hozumi
Photo by Nguyen TP Hai on Unsplash
While Kyoto seemed almost overrun by famous temples and shrines, Hakai Satoh managed to come across a shrine hidden in the mountains of the tourist-saturated Arashiyama mountains. Hakai was driven by a deep desire to be completely alone, and the paths leading up the mountain had offered nothing but an assortment of people complaining about the hike and randomly stopping to take photos. As the tourists plodded along the well-beaten trails, Hakai eased past them and let the call for silence guide him to paths that grew narrower and steeper. At last, he stumbled upon a path of stone that led to a series of old, neglected buildings dominated by clusters of hawk statues warily observing him.
He knew it was a shrine thanks to the black torii gate marking the entrance, but otherwise it could have been excused as a bazaar selling the statues. No two seemed alike, though all were made of some kind of gray stone. The shrine seemed too quiet and dark considering it was a bright afternoon, but Hakai felt himself drawn to the curious hawk statues littering the walkways and sides of the buildings. With crumbling buildings and broken statues, every corner of the shrine suggested it had been worn into the ground by time.
The entire shrine was buried in the statues, making it difficult for Hakai to find his way to the main area where visitors usually throw money into a box with a grated lid and pray.
Hakai was supposed to be meeting family friends on Arashiyama at the ridiculous monkey tourist site, but his desire for solitude had almost possessed him and pushed him to this altogether neglected shrine.
As Hakai tripped over the fallen figure of a hawk statue half buried in the ground and steadied his balance by using the head of a massive hawk statue next to him, he thought about how deeply he hated his mother for forcing him to meet people he didn’t even know, all because they had helped his family somehow in the past.
The family on his mother’s side had lived in Kyoto for centuries before his great-great-grandfather had fled to America long before World War II. Hardly anyone on his mother’s side spoke about their family’s history except to say they had been deeply wronged and driven out of the country.
Why, then, did his mother seem to have a profound love of Japan? She had forced Japanese lessons on him, dragged him across most of the country every summer since he had been 10, and now she had ordered he meet family friends he’d never even heard of on a mountain locals enjoyed avoiding.
Hakai planned on giving the little shrine some coins, praying for patience, then leaving. He also vaguely hoped he could run into someone at the shrine who could possibly guide him back to where the monkey tourist trap was. Considering he had no idea how he had gotten to the shrine, he knew it would take him hours to find his way back to the more touristy areas of the mountains if no one was around to help. The family friends would probably be long gone by then, and his mother would be furious.
He took his cell phone out of his pocket to check for any missed messages and stared at the blackened screen. Several attempts to push the power button were met with indifference. With a sigh, he stuffed the phone back into his pocket and took stock of his surroundings. Rows upon rows of hawk statues in varying states of decay greeted him, offering no suggestions as to where the main area of the shrine even was. It felt like a maze with its meandering stone pathways and walls of statues.
It was quiet enough that Hakai could easily make out footsteps approach him from his right. He turned and found a young woman in a white robe with red flowing pants traditional of priestesses slowly moving toward him, her arm stiffly held in front of her as she walked. Hakai took in only the brief look of annoyance on the woman’s face before he openly stared at the hawk resting on the woman’s forearm.
“Welcome to the Tsumi Shrine,” she said in Japanese. “May I give you a tour?”
Hakai’s mother had forced him to take Japanese lessons every weekend since he was five, and for the first time in his life, he was grateful for it.
“I’m trying to find where I pray here.” He held out his map of Arashiyama, which she briefly glanced at before returning to study his eyes. “I got lost, but I think I should pray before I go. Can you help me find my way back to the main path, too?”
“Are you American?” The hawk shifted restlessly on her forearm, drawing Hakai to openly stare at it again. Did she have no paddings on to protect herself from its talons? It looked like she had nothing but the single layer of the white robe. With a thrill of dread mixed with something akin to anticipation, he tried to indirectly focus on her forearm to look for signs of blood.
“I am. Is my accent that bad?”
The woman nodded at the map he was now stuffing back into his pocket.
“It’s in English. Either you’re British or American.”
Hakai held out his hand to shake hers. “I’m Hakai Satoh. It’s nice to meet you.”
She studied his hand but made no move to take it. Several uncomfortable seconds later, Hakai returned his hand to his side and took to staring at the statues. The woman followed his wandering gaze.
He gave an uncomfortable laugh. Everyone he met in Japan never stopped commenting on how his name, which sounded like the word for “destruction”, was ridiculous to them.
“My mom picked it out.”
The woman didn’t seem to hear him.
“This is a shrine dedicated to a tsumi from long ago,” she said.
Tsumi? Hakai struggled to remember what the word meant. Didn’t it mean “a crime”? He struggled to remember if the word meant anything else, nodding at the woman as he did so. Her long black hair was pulled back to fully reveal her face, but her eyes still seemed covered somehow. Reserved, perhaps. She was beautiful and quite possibly entirely alone in a neglected section of the mountain. It made him worry about her safety on her behalf, though she seemed entirely comfortable with statues for company and a hawk digging into her arm.
“What’s a tsumi?” he finally asked.
The woman held the hawk up to her eye-level, causing the bird of prey to flap its wings before settling into a new position on her arm.
“Perhaps I can give you a tour before you leave? This place has a fascinating story to tell.”
The sound of feet crunching against the gravel lining the stone walkways the shrine offered caused Hakai to turn around. A group of five college-age boys were walking in almost complete silence, their eyes careful to avoid the statues as they stared at the ground. Hakai tried to move closer to them.
“Hi, can you tell me how I get out of here?” Hakai went to reach for his map again, but the group of boys had passed him as if he hadn’t spoken. “Hello?”
The woman nodded at the boys, who nodded almost as one back at her before disappearing into the folds of the shrine.
“It really is an interesting shrine,” the woman said to Hakai. “I’d be happy to give you directions after a tour.”
The air felt too heavy in such a congested shrine so overpowered by broken statues. He felt seized by the urge to simply leave.
“I’d really rather just get directions. I’ll come back another time to pray.” He pulled out his map and tried to find Tsumi Shrine within Arashiyama. Nothing suggested there was anything worth visiting at all there beyond the monkey-feeding area carved out near the summit.
The woman began walking back into the depths of the shrine.
“Go back the way you came, and you’ll find the path again.”
Slightly incensed by the woman’s brisk sendoff and useless advice, Hakai watched her until she disappeared behind a corner of a decayed building. He was about to turn to leave, his eyes on the black torii gate in the distance, when he heard his own voice call out, “Hey, actually I’d love that tour.”
His hand went to his mouth, touching his lips. Why had he said that? No part of him had felt any inclination to stay any longer than he needed to at such a bizarre shrine.
The woman appeared from around the corner of another building, the hawk still on her arm. She attempted to offer him a smile, but the look of annoyance was clear in her eyes.
“Great, follow me.”
How could he tell her he had no idea why he’d called out to her like that? He silently followed behind her and hoped it would be a quick tour.
They meandered between rows and rows of buildings, all pale white with black roofs of stone. So many statues lay scattered enough across their path that Hakai took to looking down to avoiding falling over them.
“Long ago, there was a farming village near this mountain.” The woman continued her saunter along the path as the buildings on either side began to show increasing signs of decay, as if they were slowly traveling to the future on the pathway. Hakai nearly fell over several fallen hawk statues as he became mesmerized by the buildings. The pristine white of the first buildings had given way to charred stone, cracks running throughout the walls.
There’s no greenery anywhere, Hakai realized. This much decay usually was a call to plants to take over, but the shrine had only stone. Everything was a shade of black and white.
“They were a poor farming village,” she said, “but they were good. They did not deserve to be driven out.”
“Driven out?” Hakai realized the shrine was narrow yet unfathomably long. He was used to shrines in Kyoto that seemed to spread out like a blanket over a swath of the city. This felt more like someone had dug into the mountain with a shovel and left behind a scar of a shrine.
“The villagers were driven out by a wealthy man who wanted to make his grand home there. He tricked many of the villagers into selling their homes to him until he owned everything.”
Again, Hakai heard his voice despite having no inclination to speak.
“Hardly trickery if the villagers were well paid.”
The woman’s eyes briefly widened, and the hawk on her arm flapped its wings once in irritation. Her face became unreadable as she settled back into telling the story while continuing her slow walk around the shrine.
Hakai, for his part, wondered how he could suddenly speak such eloquent Japanese. He knew his accent was rough; he knew he could make only basic conversation. Where had such words come from? The shrine made him feel deeply unsettled.
His footsteps stilled, and the air was filled with silence save for the droning of the woman’s feet pushing against the stone path as she walked. Stopping like that felt like standing in the middle of a river swiftly gathering force to push itself off the edge of a waterfall. He tried to make himself back up, go back the way he came, but he could no longer see the black gate.
“I really should go,” he said. His voice grew small. “Please.”
Another look of deep irritation flickered across the woman’s face as she turned to face him. With her free hand, she reached out and took his.
“There’s something I need to show you.”
Hakai felt her pulling his hand, but somewhere in the far corners of his mind, he found the strength to pull back. Their hands broke, and using the momentum of resistance, Hakai turned and ran.
He had no idea which way to turn, and he fell too many times over broken statues littering the ground. His hands and knees scraped and bleeding, Hakai at last found the black gate ahead. Just beyond, he could make out a path with tourists on it, though no one seemed to even notice the torii gate. It took more strength than he thought was entirely needed to will his feet to take one step, then another, toward the way out. He could almost touch the gate.
The five boys seemed to appear from nowhere and stood in front of him, their heads down. Hakai leapt back with a cry. They paid him little attention as they walked past in almost uniform steps, and Hakai couldn’t help but stop and follow them with his eyes as they walked back into the shrine. They were the exact same boys from before. What were they doing?
Fighting the desperate plea from within to simply leave, Hakai couldn’t help but follow the boys back into the folds of the broken shrine. They never once acknowledged him walking a few steps behind them, nor did they seem to notice anything. Only when one of them stumbled over pieces of statue did Hakai recognize they must be somewhat conscious of what they were doing.
Following behind gave Hakai a chance to better study them. He noted their shoes were all worn to the point of falling off; he took in the scratches and scrapes on their legs and arms, the holes and stains on their clothing, the backpacks that seemed to be falling apart on their shoulders. For how long had they been there?
The five boys led Hakai to the heart of the shrine, the largest building where the woman sat on steps leading to a massive prayer-offering box. The boys went to the edge of the first step and kneeled, their heads bowed. The woman nodded at them, and the boys stood and disappeared into the shrine’s grounds.
Hakai alone remained as he reached for his cell phone again. Something about all of this was profoundly unnatural. His phone lacked any breath of life, and he shoved it back down into his pocket again in frustration.
“This is what I wanted to show you,” the woman said as she stood. The hawk was now perched on the roof, and it screeched as Hakai moved closer to the stairs.
Behind the box, covered in shadows within the interior of the massive building, Hakai could make out the outline of a massive hawk statue. Unlike the others, this one seemed to be in pristine condition as its eyes bore into Hakai’s.
The woman continued her story.
“One villager refused to sell his land.” Hakai pushed himself past the box blocking the entrance to the building, drawn to the statue. “He refused, so the wealthy man killed him. The villager’s wife tried to seek justice, but the wealthy man threatened to kill her.” The eyes of the statue seemed to be glowing, perhaps thanks to a stray ray of sunlight filtering through one of the holes in the roof above. “She went to the magistrate, who told her she was needlessly panicking. The magistrate threw her out of his building, and the wealthy man murdered her when she went home.”
The statue seemed almost familiar to Hakai. He saw his hand reach out without realizing he had ordered his hand to do anything.
“When the woman died, it is said a hawk circled her house for five days after. Then, a hawk circled the magistrate’s house. Five days later, members of his household died. Then, the hawk was spotted over the wealthy man’s house. All but one member of his house died shortly thereafter.”
Hakai’s skin touched the cold statue, and he felt himself smile without wanting to. In a rush of darkness, his mind seemed to slip into a great abyss within as he felt something pushing its way forward through his consciousness. Another form.
“So, you’re the cause of my suffering,” he murmured.
The woman touched his wrist and pulled his hand away from the statue. Their eyes met, and within the woman, he could see the ties she held with the pathetic villager’s wife who had so boldly dismissed her place in society.
“You must break it,” the woman said. She briefly looked at the statue, and fear crossed her eyes. He felt a rush of joy seeing the fear there. Fear always served him so well. He saw his hand reach out to touch her face, to relive that glorious moment once more.
“Break it, Hakai, please.”
His hand hesitated in the space between himself and the terror she so beautifully kept in her eyes.
Was that his name?
“Hakai, please.” Her voice sounded small, weak.
“I am well within my rights of exacting justice if you are the one who brought forth a ghostly sparrowhawk to murder my family,” he said. “Hiding in the form of your descendent offers you no protection from me.”
How should he kill her this time? Perhaps more slowly for having not helped him awaken in his own descendant’s body sooner.
The woman shook her head as she jerked her body away from him. “No, I’m me. I’m still me. Even if you trap me here, even if you trap every descendant from that woman here, I am still me. In all of this time, I have not lost sight of myself. Please, Hakai, please don’t fall to him. Please break this nightmare.”
Who is Hakai?
“What else could I do, woman? You cursed my family; you gave me five days. What did I have left but to use my last days alive finding a curse of my own? You brought this upon yourself.”
An enormous offering box blocked the woman’s chance of escaping him. The man studied the box, which he had erected so long ago here, and noted it was almost half full of gold coins.
What better way to appease a vengeful ghost than to build a shrine honoring it? He silently applauded himself for finding a way to appease the sparrowhawk ghost and to trap the descendants of that spiteful woman in the confines of the shrine. Everything to ensure his family line, which all stemmed from his youngest son miraculously surviving the woman’s supernatural wrath, would continue to survive.
Yet here stood one of the descendants of that reprehensible farmer’s wife, still in her right mind. The curse should have slowly decayed her senses to the point of oblivion, much like the other five children he had managed to trap at the shrine so many years ago.
Such an odd name, the man thought. Why would one of his descendants have given their offspring such a name?
The woman managed to push her way around the offering box and was running down the stairs just as the five boys continued their unending pilgrimage to the box to offer pieces of their sanity. On the roof, the sparrowhawk cried out before swooping down to land on the edge of the box, blocking the man from following the woman.
He frowned as the sparrowhawk spread its wings, temporarily shielding the woman from the man’s sight.
“I have no quarrel with you,” the man said. “I merely wish to make amends for the past wrongdoing.”
His eyes briefly studied the five boys as they knelt before the shrine, and he wondered if they, like the woman, were still secretly holding onto their consciousness somehow. Why had he allowed his soul to be devoured by such a curse if it didn’t properly work?
It had been his every intention to move past the sparrowhawk, around the box and hunt the woman down, but his mind found itself fixated on the name Hakai. It belonged to someone who was now screaming his way back to consciousness.
The man tried to suppress the flailing attempts of the child within, but he nevertheless found himself once more before the great statue of the hawk inside the building. In horror he watched his arms reach out and grab the statue’s head. His arms pulled, and with a heavy groan, the statue fell at his feet, breaking into several pieces.
He heard a single word ring out into the disturbed air around him.
The building began to shake as though the side of the mountain was collapsing, and the man was forced to his knees before the fallen statue. Despite his inner pleas to somehow fix the statue and appease the ghost of the sparrowhawk once more, his body seemed to no longer listen to his commands.
His body twisted itself back toward the box, where he saw the woman fighting to remain standing as buildings fell around her. The sparrowhawk had disappeared.
“Run!” His voice sounded entirely unnatural, entirely other.
The woman disappeared down the stairs and began running to the black torii gate now visible through the destroyed buildings and statues.
As the roof of the main building collapsed in on him, the last thoughts occupying the ancient man was stunned rage that a descendant of his could so deeply betray him.
Sarah Hozumi is a translator and rewriter who has lived near Tokyo for about 13 years. To see short stories she’s had published, and to read her blog mostly about all things Japan, please visit sarahhozumi.com. You can also follow her on Facebook at sarahjhozumi.
Photo by Evgeni Tcherkasski on Unsplash
Spread across the dining room table, the newspaper is dissected, absorbed, and devoured voraciously. This rag, running necklaces of dirty type that smudges fingertips, this dirty Herald, the only touchstone with the world outside Bloomsbury Square. Today the paper tantalizes with a headline on a comet streaking through the southern hemisphere; one slice of an onion-thin page and there it is, an artist’s sad rendering that accompanies the story of the Great Meteor shower of 1922, first seen in Cordoba, Argentina.
Over wire-rimmed glasses, Virginia Woolf peers down at the drawing, takes in the words, breathes in an imagined Argentinian starry sky.
By the 12th December—the paper informs her—the nucleus had all but disappeared but the long tail retained a bright viscosity that shot through the wintry sky near Princeton, New Jersey, its breathless magnitude an estimated 140,000,000 miles long and still visible to the naked eye. That said, the storywriter concludes spitefully, “It is very doubtful whether people generally would know anything about the occurrence until they read of it in the papers.”
If she were so inclined, she would track down the writer and slit his miserable throat just for that attitudinal prose alone. Fortunately, it is in her practical nature to reserve homicidal urges (imaginative, of course) for matters of a more pressing nature—most recently, an unknown and heinously boring writer had shunned the press after Leonard declined his manuscript, and thus, her imagination rushed him to an early grave – a razor blade to the throat perhaps, a body slumped in an unmarked grave wrapped in a Persian rug – perhaps the very rug she’d had Nelly send out for just the other day, which had been delivered two hours early, and she herself had had to see in the delivery men.
There is the chink of glass against glass, somebody is pouring her another drink, and Virginia reclines back in her chair, happy to allow the conversation to continue around her. She is back in the room, present again, a flurry of fire-lit faces that had not been aware that she had ever left. She sweeps a thumb across inky fingertips, and crowns a drawing of Tutankhamen on the opposite fold on the paper with her discarded glasses, which distort a thick spray of stars in a farsighted lens. She fixes her expression just over Leonard’s shoulder, to the window - she looks into the winter evening. All that is visible are shadows from the dim light of other buildings, other rooms, gaslights along the street, and beyond that, the eternal vault of the city that harbours so many of her dreams. For long hours the dreary, muddy, rainy winter stays encapsulated in darkness; winters are different here than they are in Rodmell. Even after everything that has happened, she still thinks of London as home. She still thinks of returning. But there is no undoing the past, no returning from Rodmell to here—the precarious edge of the world, where this strange city captures voices unknown to Mr. Bell’s invitation of a dinner party, where the abstraction of the waves of imagination always fit, painful and unerring, in the form of a novel, an essay, a word on the tip of her tongue – a story that takes flight mid stride down a street fuelled and chased by everybody else’s conversation.
How exciting other people were.
She had become lost again, a train of thought abruptly derailed by the door opening, a great oak of a door, creaking on its hinges, and she was back in the room for the second time, transfixed by the sudden entrance of another woman, the conversation, she realised, having taken a rather alarming turn, and Vanessa, blushing, was clutching Lytton’s arm in mock dismay.
“You can either become an actress or a whore,” Clive was saying, though the subject of conversation was lost on her. Then the damning line, aimed at Vanessa: “I’d say the latter, as your acting in the bedroom has always proved a mastery of your performance.”
Somehow, Virginia is neither shocked nor offended, neither does she look across at her sister, Vanessa, who she knows very well will be sinking herself into Duncan Grant’s shoulder, much to Lytton’s despair. She hears Clive’s usual demanding rap upon the table, following, what he thought was a comment of great hilarity, followed by the shoulder-hunched uxoriousness of his posture, as if in the time between the knock and the opening of the door he thinks better of his behaviour, and suddenly, once again, he is in love.
“Who is that?” It’s Dorothy that speaks after what appears to be a considerable amount of time, and Virginia wonderers if she had somehow seen the door open even before it had.
“Mrs Harold Nicholson”, “Lady Sackville-West”, “The Right Honorable…” Whispers pass between the glasses, and Clive stands, chair legs grating fiercely on the flagstone floor, and opens his arms to welcome the late guest.
She shines with a candle lit radiance, stalking on legs like beech trees, pink glowing, grape clustered, pearl hung. Lytton pulls a chair from the table with the lavish gesture of the half-drunk, and Roger Fry pours wine into her glass as she comments on the décor, touches the fine satin of the curtain, as marvellous as what lies between a woman’s legs, and says, “Virginia Woolf,” slowly, as though she were reading her name for the first time whilst tracing a finger along the spine of Mrs Dalloway, and finally Virginia sees her face in the light, plain, handsome, dark eyes burning as if she were coming out of a fevered dream. Virginia is no romantic, but she imagines her own eyes in response, the perihelion—the blazing comet at its closest point to the sun, so dazzlingly close to immolation—to be this elusive shade of blue, cool and hot at once.
And then, before Virginia can respond, Vita is caught up unexpectedly by E.M Forster, who, sitting to her left, encompasses Vita and her attention half way through a sentence. And then, seamlessly, she is laughing, charming, taking the floor, immediately the highlight of the evening, her being in short (what Virginia had never been) a real woman, and Virginia is left to push her wine glass half an inch further away, leaving a half-moon of condensation on the table, a puddle reflecting the fluttering caprices of the fires waxes and wanes. She feels heat rising within herself, not unlike the heat of the fire itself, only this heat is inside her, and she knows without looking up that Vita is watching her, in between conversational pauses, so, instead, she turns to her right, to Desmond MacCarthy, a man in mid-rant, who points dramatically at John Maynard-Keynes, dark eyes threaded with fine lines of bloodshot, an embroidery of failure and gin. “I trust you’ve made overtures to the fellow?” he inquires. “Suggest that he leave the premises?”
Desmond snorts a laugh through his nose and gestures with an empty glass. “Suggestions, overt, subtle, and all gradations in between, have been felicitously extended.” And John declares that he should be “throw him to the wolves,” which Virginia mishears as the waves, a thought which rolls in, and rolls back with the suddenness of yet more snorted derision from Desmond, and again, Virginia finds herself between half-heard conversation, and, whether deliberate or not, her gaze about the table wanders hand-in-hand with her mind, catches the rise of Vita’s fingers to her lips to conceal a smile that reveals, despite this glamour, grape clusters and pearl necklaces, that there is something loose fitting.
She reaches again for the wine glass, blurs the crescent moon of firelight on the table, and sips the warmth of it, and, like the waves of the sea, the wine consecrates the past in a dreamlike sheen, in memories blurred and comforting, the real and the imaginary indistinguishable in a fragmentary nocturne. For a moment she closes her eyes, imagines the bottom of the sea. Then, with a sigh, rouses herself.
Her imagination lifts up its skirts and tiptoes back to life: the clinking of glasses, the slapping of cards on the table, and the gentle murmur of a piano she had never realised was being played.
Influenced by David Bowie, Virginia Woolf and Sally Wainwright, Elinora Westfall is an Australian/British lesbian actress and writer of stage, screen, fiction, poetry and radio from the UK. Her novel, Everland has been selected for the Penguin and Random House WriteNow 2021 Editorial Programme, and her short films have been selected by Pinewood Studios & Lift-Off Sessions, Cannes Film Festival, Raindance Film Festival, Camden Fringe Festival and Edinburgh Fringe Festival, while her theatre shows have been performed in London's West End and on Broadway, where she won the award for Best Monologue. Elinora's full-length short story collection, The Art of Almost, and her full-length poetry collection, Life in the Dressing Room of the Theatre, are forthcoming with Vine Leaves Press.
419, by Fionn Murray
Ger sat at his desk in the office. It was 5:30 on a Saturday evening, and he was trying to work up the nerve to buy drugs.
It was October; the last time Ger had slept for eight consecutive hours had been mid-July. To fall asleep, he required a bare minimum of fifty-five minutes of uninterrupted silence: any sound above a given decibel threshold (the washing machine cheerfully beeping upon completing a cycle, the shutters descending on the garage around the corner, his son Conor hurling a racial slur down his headset while playing computer games) would reset the clock. He’d experimented with a couple of cans of Perlenbacher before retiring, or a mug of sweetened peppermint tea, or even (in desperation) guided meditation via a smartphone app: but even in combination, these could only shave off a few minutes at the best of times.
July was when the client had first contacted Ger’s boss, Ivor. Ger knew the client was an investment firm based in London, but the terms of the NDA were so stringent that even he only ever referred to them as “the client”. Ostensibly, the firm was merely “exploring” the possibility of relocating most their staff to Dublin, as part of a wide-ranging risk assessment. Unofficially, Ivor knew that the decision had been made and signed off less than two weeks after the June referendum: the upper management was only holding off on a public announcement until the logistics had been ironed out, at which point it would be too late for the shareholders to raise an outcry. So, as the most experienced QS in the company, it fell to Ger to plan for the construction of a new campus in the docklands, large enough to facilitate at least 700 full-time staff. Ivor had never undertaken a project of this scale before; if the company managed to complete it in time and under budget, a steady stream of big contracts would be nigh-guaranteed. It was a big “if”, though.
Thus did Ger’s “new normal” begin, in fits and starts. Eight-hour days became nine, then ten; five days in the office became six, sometimes seven; lunch hours vanished. After the first two weeks, Ger’s sleeping schedule and that of his wife Mags had become so skew that he’d started sleeping in the spare room. Within a month, the grey hairs on Ger’s scalp had doubled. His face somehow appeared gaunt and pasty from one angle, and bulging and choleric from another, while his brow settled into a perennial frown, hard and inflexible as granite. His weight boomeranged from fortnight to fortnight: there were week-long stretches in which all he could stomach was coffee and Nurofen, followed by ravenous mornings on which he’d devour three breakfast rolls in ten minutes. Interlocking matrices of tiny grazes covered his cheeks as a result of trying to shave while half-asleep.
To Ivor’s credit, he made every effort to be accommodating: opening Ger a personal expense account, keeping a taxi service on retainer if Ger was too tired to drive, circulating an office-wide memo urging staff to be considerate in the event that certain (unspecified) colleagues were not observing the usual standards of social grace or bodily hygiene. Every day, new design requests rolled in from the client, each more baroque and laden with notions than the last: specialised light fixtures to match the fluorescent characteristics of actual sunlight, motorized desks which could be used for sitting or standing as the user preferred, an in-house physiotherapy clinic so that staff would not need to leave the campus for their sessions.
“Exactly how much feckin physiotherapy do you actually need when your job is sitting at a desk all day selling shares,” Ger growled at no one in particular. “You’d think these lads had just come home from Afghanistan or something.” After nearly three months, Ger couldn’t remember the last time he’d dreamt of something other than mazes of copper wire, roll upon roll of reflective insulation, crates of responsive thermostats. He couldn’t simply leave his work in the office: even asleep, he was clocked in, on call. He’d barely seen Mags in weeks. He was buying so much paracetamol that the girl in the pharmacy had once slipped a Samaritans leaflet in the paper bag alongside his receipt. He was on first-name terms with all of the Polish security guards who had to take turns cajoling him out of the office at closing. He was having attacks of hypertension, his blood pressure was soaring, he didn’t even have time to check who was playing Anfield this weekend. Beer or red wine simply weren’t cutting the mustard to help him relax: he needed something stronger.
His first thought was going to the GP and seeing if he could wheedle a Valium prescription out of him, but Mags would be sure to find out and he didn’t fancy having that conversation. There was nothing for it but to go the illicit route. The problem was, in all his forty-eight years, Ger had never touched anything stronger than Bushmill’s (and only at Christmas). He had nothing but contempt for the spaced-out couples with prams he passed on Talbot Street, cadging coins for fictitious hostels, barely thirty teeth between them. He would read stories about “head shops” in the Sunday supplements, and tsk-tsk, and tell Mags it was “disgraceful” such loopholes could be so easily exploited. Conor might mock him for being unfamiliar with the concept of a “roach” or the “Mary Jane” double entendre, but he took a certain pride in his ignorance.
But now he found himself wanting to buy drugs, but having utterly no idea of how to go about doing so. Never mind not knowing who to ask; he didn’t even know what to ask for. Resting his elbows on a stack of printed ISO documentation, he covered his face with his hands and tried to think of the relevant terminology. “Dope”, “jenkem”, “smack”, “monkey’s eyebrow”, “elderflower extract” were the first few to come to mind. Valium was meant to help you relax, he wanted something like that; but some drugs, he was dimly aware, had the opposite effect; they made you excited, bouncing off the walls.
Well, those spaced-out couples on Talbot Street: perhaps they bought their supplies somewhere close to home? It was something to go on. He glanced at his phone: 5:40 p.m. Trying not to think about how ridiculously he was behaving, he stood up from his desk, marched hastily to the coat rack to don his blue windbreaker, and left the building. A security guard named Kostas, pushing forty with a greasy combover, was on the evening shift today, and looked positively startled to see Ger leaving before sunset.
Ger briskly made his way west along the quays, hanging a right just after George’s Dock, straining to ignore the sinewy surges in his guts: the faster he walked the less nervous he felt. Along the way, he walked past an endless parade of briefcases, greatcoats, pencil skirts, silk blouses – none of these people could help him, they looked far too decent. He might have had better luck with the occasional Brazilian student or Just Eat cyclist he crossed paths with, but decided against it: finding what he sought was going to be hard enough without trying to navigate a language barrier.
He walked up Amiens Street, then left onto Talbot Street. The understated solemnity of the Omagh monument contrasted grotesquely with the stomach-churning aromas emitting from the row of takeaway pizza shops across the road. Passing underneath the DART bridge, he noticed a woman sitting in front of the bookie’s. Her hair was matted and stringy, jagged cheekbones bulging out, skin scarcely distinguishable in tone or texture from the pavement beneath her, dried muck caked on the ends of her navy tracksuit bottoms. It was impossible to gauge whether she was twenty-three or forty-four; you’d have to cut her open and count the rings, he thought. She clasped a battered Insomnia cup in her hands. Ger approached her.
“Any spare change for a hostel pal,” she said. It wasn’t quite a question, it was devoid of any inflection at all, she was going through the motions without any expectation of a response. She didn’t even look at him, her sunken, glazed eyes fixed on a bichon frise tied to a bollard across the street, periodically barking without enthusiasm.
“Sorry love I’ve none on me,” Ger started, then stopped himself. He reached into his pocket and fished out a euro, and dropped it in her cup.
“Cheers pal, god bless,” she said in the same reedy monotone, still staring at the dog.
“You’re grand love, get some food into you,” Ger said, rubbing his wrist with his thumb. “Eh – would you mind if I asked you a question?”
“What,” she said.
“Ask you a question?”
“Would you happen to know, eh,” he began, glancing across the road and running a hand over the back of his head. “Would you happen to know anywhere I could buy some, em, some drugs.”
The word was a shibboleth, a trigger phrase finally prompting her to meet his gaze, furrowing her brow. “I don’t use drugs, I’ve never used drugs in my life, who d’you think you are casting aspersions on me, I know me rights I’ve never done anythin like that, you’re a bleedin tick-”
“No no no, c’mere, it’s not that love,” Ger said, hunkering down next to her, trying to ignore the shooting pains in his thighs. “I know you’re not on drugs, I’m only saying, as in, do you know where I could get some.”
She narrowed her eyes. “Are you a guard.”
“No I’m not,” he said, discreetly gesturing for her to lower her voice.
“You’re a bleedin copper you are, I’m not tick, I wasn’t born yesterday like. Gwan and feck off back to Store Street already-”
Abandoning the attempt, Ger shudderingly stood up. Her tirade continued as he resumed walking towards the Spire.
Half an hour later, Ger had walked all the way to Moore Street and had spent an additional six euro and thirty cents on three other panhandlers, but been met with essentially the same response from all of them. Did he really look that much like a policeman? Patchy stubble and bloodshot eyes notwithstanding, he simply looked too respectable and too old for his queries to be taken at face value: everyone heard his question and assumed there must be an angle. He could hardly blame them.
What on earth was he doing?
In a chain coffee shop, he ordered a cappuccino, then sat down on an overstuffed leather couch. He took a moment to wipe his brow on his sleeve, willing his armpits to stop sweating. His phone buzzed in his pocket, startling him so much he nearly knocked over his coffee. It was a message from Mags, asking if he could print off an essay for Conor in the office printer, as the home printer was out of toner.
He was short on time, and ideas. In resignation and feeling terribly foolish, he opened the browser on his phone and laboriously typed out “how to buy drugs” with his index finger. The search returned Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline, Cialis and Viagra. He frowned, and amended the search to “how to buy drugs dublin.”
Boots, McCabe’s, Adrian Dunne. He amended the search again to “how to buy illegal drugs dublin.” Finally, something promising: a website he’d never heard of called “Craigslist”, which featured dozens of posts full of alien terminology: “42O”, “Benz0$”, “Quaaludes”. Some were accompanied by photos of round clumps of some furry green substance; he suspected this might be dope, but wasn’t sure. He tapped on the first such post. The description advised him that a range of substances (“ec$tasy”, “premium Moroccan ku$h”, “#dublincocaine” and more besides) could be delivered anywhere in the city centre within two hours, and that he should contact the poster via an app called Kik. The poster’s username was xX_dota_powder_Xx.
After a full hour of embarrassment, Ger had reached his peak: the cold sweats had ceased, the palpitations gradually attenuating in intensity. At this point, no option remained but to barrel through the awkwardness to the other side. Signalling the barista for the same again, he downloaded Kik and set up a profile. When the app prompted him to fill in his personal details, he thoughtlessly entered his forename, but then stopped himself: presumably a degree of discretion would be advisable. He deleted “Ger” and replaced it with “drugbuyer2016”.
He found “xX_dota_powder_Xx” and, taking a deep breath, texted “Hello”.
Three tortuous minutes later, a response: “howiya pal what’s the story”
His right knee jiggling up and down, Ger replied, “How’s it going… I saw your ad… I want to buy some drugs”
“ha ha cool what do you need”
Ger hesitated: if this person became aware of just how ignorant Ger was, he was sure to be ripped off. Best to forestall that revelation as long as practicable. “What have you got on you?” he asked.
xX_dota_powder_Xx replied: “ive got everything pal
“got a few ounces of some banger hash in over the weekend
“few grams of ket, 30 quid a gram
“ive about 20 yokes with beamer stamps on them”
Ger was reminded of holidaying in France, arduously piecing his way through menus, looking for solitary words he recognized and hoping to infer the meaning from context, much too proud to ask the waiter for assistance. The word “hash” looked familiar – was that the same thing as dope? That sounded right. That was what people with cancer were after, to help them unwind after the chemo.
Okay, good, let’s try that.
He texted: “I see… how much for a hash?”
xX_dota_powder_Xx replied: “ha ha cool
“so the hash comes in 25 bags but the minimum order is 5 bags
“but if you buy 5 bags the fifth one is free
“so it’s a 100 quid for the whole lot pal”
Ger frowned. Was that a reasonable price? In the day job, Ger drove a hard bargain, but now found himself so far outside of his frame of reference that haggling would have been pointless. He’d had no idea drugs were so expensive: how could those spaced-out couples pushing prams afford a lifestyle this lavish?
“Okay grand, that seems fair… send me your bank details.”
xX_dota_powder_Xx replied: “ok so
“we only take payment in steam vouchers
“with bank transfers and paypal there’s a paper trail
“it’s too risky
“but they cant trace steam vouchers
“so its safer for you and me pal”
Of course, Ger thought, there was no way it could be that simple. He noticed the barista behind the counter periodically glancing over at him, apparently curious as to why he was hunched over so intently, gawping animatedly at his phone. She probably thought he was anxiously awaiting the results of an endoscopy, or disputing an insurance claim, or something similarly age-appropriate.
“Okay… sorry but where would I get a steam voucher?” he asked; surely this person was already guffawing at Ger’s ineptitude.
xX_dota_powder_Xx replied: “grand
“go to gamestop
“before you go in take out 100 quid from a cash machine
“ask them for a 100 euro steam voucher”
Ger didn’t appreciate being bossed about by this cocky dealer, most likely less than half his age; but there was no sense in objecting. Google Maps told him there was a GameStop just around the corner, but it was already closed: the nearest open branch was in the Stephen’s Green centre, and it was closing in half an hour. He tossed a tenner on the table and raced out of the coffee shop, hailing a taxi. Just a couple of minutes after 7, he had the voucher in hand. Professing his ignorance to the sales assistant, he gathered that “Steam” was a website on which one could buy computer games and download them to one’s PC, not unlike Netflix. He sat down on a marble bench in front of the Gaiety, the only such bench not covered with a sleeping bag, and allowed himself a prolonged series of sighs. He scratched his knee (his legs were itchy from all the walking), then withdrew his phone from his pocket and texted: “Okay I’ve got the voucher… what now?”
xX_dota_powder_Xx replied: “sound pal
“okay I can meet you in an hour
“you’ll see me in a white audi
“I know your not a timewaster but before I come out
“can you send me a pic of the card so I know you have it”
Ger dutifully took a photo of the voucher and sent it.
xX_dota_powder_Xx replied: “deadly
“on the back of the card there’s a bit of foil
“like on a scratch card
“can you scratch it off and send me a pic of that so I can verify it?"
Ger retrieved a fifty-cent coin from his pocket (the one bit of change he hadn’t wasted this evening) and scratched off the foil to reveal a fifteen-character code. He took a photo and sent it.
xX_dota_powder_Xx replied: “cheers pal
“let me verify that and I’ll get back to you in a minute”
A minute passed.
Ger didn’t want to seem pushy, but it had been a stressful evening, and he didn’t even know where he was supposed to be meeting this person. The music blaring from Sinnott’s bar was giving him a headache, and the two cappuccinos taken in quick succession were accelerating his heartbeat again. He unbuttoned the second button of his shirt (his armpits were positively saturated by this point), took a deep breath and then texted, “All good yeah?”
A minute passed without response.
Ger sent a couple more follow-up messages and heard nothing back.
It wasn’t until 7:30 that it dawned on him.
A quick Google search confirmed it: the fifteen-character code was all that was needed to redeem the voucher and claim the cash value.
He’d been had.
Ger growled. He punched his thigh, then the bench. He wanted to break something, dart across to the smoking area in Sinnott’s and smash a rake of empty pint glasses, but common sense prevailed. Frankly, his humiliation outweighed his fury. He’d really been so naïve as to trust a drug dealer called “xX_dota_powder_Xx”; been fool enough to entrust €100 to someone he’d never met, who for all he knew didn’t even have any drugs in their possession and was just waiting to spring traps on easy marks.
What a fabulous evening.
He was too tired to drive home, so instead he shambled over to Great George’s Street and hailed a second taxi, promising the driver a fiver if he didn’t say a word. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt this ashamed of himself, but be grateful for small mercies: at least it wasn’t a public humiliation. Mags would never learn of his gullibility; the only person who knew what an arse he’d made of himself was “xX_dota_powder_Xx.”
“You’re home early pet!” Mags exclaimed when he opened the front door at twenty past eight. “Something happen?”
“Oh yeah, nothing really like,” Ger said, carefully removing his windbreaker (his back was giving him hell). “Ivor said he’d been in touch with your man in London and they’re, well, they’re happy how it’s coming on, so he said I might as well take off.”
“That’s good,” she said, brushing her curls behind her ear; she thought he didn’t know she’d been dyeing her greys. “Did you eat? There’s coddle left. We can watch some telly if you’re not too tired.”
“Yeah thanks love, I’ll have it in a bit, just need a sit down first. Could you grab us a beer?”
They sat quietly on the leather couch in the living room, holding hands as he sipped his Perlenbacher, Mags’s beloved Einaudi wafting from the soundboard. The embarrassment was starting to recede.
“Oh pet,” Mags said, startling him such that he dribbled a little beer on his shirt. “Sorry to pester you, did you print out that essay for Con?”
“Feck, sorry love, slipped my mind. He won’t need it til Monday yeah? I’ll do it for him tomorrow.”
“Where is he anyway?”
“Oh, you know,” Mags said, rolling her eyes. “Comes home from school, says hello, straight to his room.”
“Where else?” Ger said, rolling his eyes in turn.
“Yeah. He mentioned earlier that he’d won a competition or something, he got a voucher to buy some new games with. Well for some, eh? Lucky sod.”
Ger blinked. He let go of Mags’s hand, leaned forward and set his beer down on the coffee table. His nostrils flared, bile rose in his stomach.
“Lucky sod is right.”
Fionn Murray is a published writer whose short fiction has appeared in The Sunday Business Post, The Honest Ulsterman, Headstuff and Anomaly. His novel Mayfear was highly commended in the 2022 edition of the Irish Writers' Centre Novel Fair
Samuel's Folder, by Mark Keane
Photo by Annemarie Grudën on Unsplash
Samuel leafed through the user manual while Carol set up the laptop for him. A retirement gift, after forty years in the civil service. Not an end but the beginning of a new chapter, or so he’d been told at his retirement party. He was to use the laptop to explore the endless possibilities awaiting him in this new chapter. “I’ve finished loading the photos,” Carol said. The files seemed to go on forever as she scrolled down the screen. “I’ll let you organize them into different folders. Ask if you need any help.”
When she’d gone, Samuel opened the first set of files. Pictures from his niece’s graduation, mostly people he didn’t know. One of Carol linking arms with him. He hated seeing himself in photographs. Moving the cursor along a row of folders, he came to one that didn’t have a title. It contained more files.
He placed the cursor over the first file. A small box popped up: Date created, 12/09/1956. His date of birth. That can’t be right, he thought. He clicked on the file, and his birth certificate appeared on the screen. Place of birth: Dublin. Father’s profession: plumber. Pristine, virgin white—not the yellowed and creased document he kept in a trunk in the attic. Carol never said anything about putting this on the laptop.
He went to the second file, dated 22/05/1958. A grainy black and white image. His mother in horn-rimmed glasses, hair short and curled, wearing a pencil skirt, blouse and cardigan. It was how he liked to remember her, as a young woman. He had seen similar photographs but not this one. She leaned forward with her arms outstretched, eyes gleaming, her face expressing such joy. “Samuel!” Carol called from downstairs.
He closed everything down and went to see what she wanted. He didn’t ask her about the folder, unsure what to ask and self-conscious about his ignorance of computers. She had already done enough, setting up the laptop. Not even a week into his retirement, he didn’t want to appear totally helpless.
Later that evening, he climbed into the attic and searched for his birth certificate but couldn’t find it. While he was there, he went through a box containing his old stamp album, Billy Bunter books and Meccano set. As he fiddled with the Meccano pieces, he recalled past Christmases and birthdays. He thought of the photograph of his mother, her kindness and gentleness.
The next time he turned on the laptop, the nameless folder was still there. Had the number of files increased? Possibly, but hard to tell. He clicked on one with the date 13/04/1959: a photograph of the house where he grew up. Number 34 Saint Lawrence Road, three storeys and a basement, cracked harlequin tiles leading to the front door. A woman stood at the gate, her head turned but Samuel recognized Mrs. Breen, the widow who had rented rooms on the top floor. He pictured her puffy face and the hairs that sprouted from moles on her chin.
Samuel closed the file and went to the next image. The garden of Number 32, a clothesline loaded with bed sheets. In the background, his black and white cat, Tom, sat outside the coal shed. Samuel recalled the disastrous day when he and Tom prospected for gold among the piles of coal. Tom jumped onto the sheets hanging from the line, leaving a track of black paw marks. There was no way to hide the evidence, and Samuel had endured hours of agony anticipating his punishment.
Another image, 26/06/1960: his two brothers in the lane behind the house. Robert, aged seven, sitting in a homemade cart built from a wooden crate with pram wheels and rudimentary steering using ropes. Standing behind the cart, Jack, the eldest, gave the thumbs up sign to the camera. Samuel felt a queer mixture of wonder and regret on seeing Jack. His easy-going brother, never offhand, always interested in what Samuel was doing. Jack had softened the worst of Robert’s bullying. Images from that summer coincided with Samuel’s earliest memories. Pictures of Jack and Robert exploring the abandoned manse at the end of the lane. Their mother with a neighbour, sitting in the living room, laughing at a shared joke. Tom stretched out on a sunlit patch of grass.
He opened a document, dated 09/06/1965: a school report. Geography, A; excellent. English, B; very good. Mathematics, B; very good. Religion, C; good. The headmaster’s summation read: A well-mannered boy but difficult to get to know. Progress is satisfactory.
Next, an icon that looked like a film reel. It took him to a white screen, then blurred monochrome as the picture came into focus. A page lined in squares on a sloping desk and a round hole containing a ceramic pot of ink. A hand holding a nibbed pen. The sleeve of a jumper and a satchel lying against a chair leg. The view switched to a figure in a dark suit, scrawny turkey neck and widow’s peak. Haddington, his primary school teacher. Samuel turned up the volume. “You sneaky, slimy snakes. I’ve had enough of you villainous snakes, you nest of vipers.” Haddington came closer. “Particularly you, Dunne, you sneaky adder.” He bent down, his face filling the screen, long nose and crazed eyes. It had been a misunderstanding, a mix-up over a broken metre stick. Samuel had done nothing wrong but Haddington wouldn’t listen and blamed him.
Samuel got up from his chair and paced the study, still seeing Haddington’s face and feeling the humiliation of that day. He went downstairs to make a cup of coffee. Carol was out, at lunch with friends. Haddington and his metre stick. When was the last time he’d thought about that monster? All that was buried in the past.
He returned to the laptop, and clicked on another film reel. Though the lighting was poor, he could make out the old range cooker in the kitchen of Number 34. A man walked on-screen, the camera trained on his legs. A voice, undeniably his father’s. “All I ask, boy, is some respect. A little bit of respect.” He approached the camera. A leather strap swayed in his fist. “You’ll learn to show respect.” The strap raised, a confusion of movement and noise, the whack of leather on bare skin. The film ended. The silence in the study magnified. Samuel held his breath. He was back in that kitchen, the fear as raw and crippling as fifty years ago. He shut down the laptop. Where had these films come from? Who had put them there?
A distraction, that’s what he needed, something practical and mechanical. There were plenty of jobs to do around the house, chores he had put off until retirement. He went from room to room, making a list of repairs. In the downstairs bathroom, he inspected the grouting but couldn’t concentrate, his brain flipping through images from the laptop. The films, Haddington just like he was at school, and the beating, exactly how Samuel remembered it.
The following day, he busied himself with paperwork relating to his pension, forms to fill, trips to the post office and bank. The laptop remained closed on his desk, its silver sheen unsettling. “How are you doing with the photos?” Carol asked. “Let me know if you need any help. ”He said nothing about the folder. The files felt private, for him alone. Seeing the old house and Jack induced a yearning, and with it a swell of tenderness for his childhood. Days spent playing with Tom or exploring mysterious cupboards, nooks under the stairs and the dark basement. Immersed in the past, questioning and wondering, he fought the temptation and gave in.
The folder waited at the end of the row. He opened pages from the school magazine, an account he had written of a teachers versus pupils football match. A puerile piece, toadying to the teachers and masquerading as irony. Pretentious juvenilia that summed him up as he was then. Images from 1973: schoolmates standing and sitting, not posing but looking away from the camera. Some he identified immediately. One who now ran a gift shop hadn’t changed, apart from the grey thatch of hair that once was black. Another he had met recently, the jowls and comb-over unimaginable in the smiling sixteen year old on the screen. At least three had died. Others he remembered imprecisely, different attributes coming to mind: generosity, spite, humour, vulgarity.
He lingered over an image of Jack on his motorbike, helmet dangling from his hand. Samuel relived the breath-whipping sensation on the back of the Kawasaki as it sped along country roads, dipping crazily to take corners, his awe at his brother’s control of the growling machine. He clicked on the film icon without checking the date. The video started with a view of a ceiling and a fluorescent light tube before cutting to a door with a window. His mother’s voice, “It’s time to go in.” She walked into frame with Robert, her hand on his shoulder. Samuel knew his father was also there. His mother pushed the door open. Inside, a chair with a folded newspaper on the seat. A window, Venetian blinds partially closed. The end of a bed. A slow pan along the covers, the shape of a body beneath. It was Jack’s room in the hospital. After his accident. The room where he died.
One afternoon, Carol called him in from the garden. “I’ve found more photos,” she said. She laid them out in rows on the kitchen table. All the photographs were of him. As a toddler, sitting on a blanket under billowing sheets. Standing between his mother and Mrs. Breen. Holding Tom in his arms. The images seemed dull and lifeless after what he’d seen on the laptop.
“Can you have an unnamed folder on a computer?” he asked. “The default setting is New Folder.” Carol gave him a quizzical look. “Why do you ask?” “No reason, just wondering.” He waited for her to say something about the folder. Instead, she gathered up the photographs. “I can put these on the laptop, if you like.”“No,” he said, “there’s no need for that.”
Samuel whiled away afternoons in cafés, observing the people around him.
The mother hissing at her two children—what was in her past that made her so angry?
And the businessman grimacing as he checked his phone—was he haunted by a shameful incident as a child, some cruelty or misunderstanding?
How much did anyone remember of their past?
Samuel had stopped questioning where the folder came from. It belonged to him, a record of his life. The past was not a dead thing for Samuel. His past was alive on the laptop.
The films lasted ten or twenty seconds, no more than a glimpse, the duration of a memory. One began with a view of a hand reaching for magazines arranged on a shelf. Then, hurried movement and the grim face of a security man. Samuel could feel the iron grip on his arm forty years after the act. Accused of shoplifting, he had brazened it out at the time but felt his shame all the more deeply now.
He had opened more than half the files. Better to take it slowly, and savour each recaptured moment.
Each visit to the laptop offered an element of the unexpected, not knowing exactly what was coming next.
His university years: half-empty lecture halls, and the maths professor who covered the blackboard with an illegible scrawl. Samuel was captivated by snapshots in the college bar of his coterie of friends. The excitement of Rag Week, dunkings in the canal, painted faces and laughter.
His brain tingled with anticipation, going through photos from a student party, scrutinising each face. In one, a group gathered around a plastic bin that must have held home-brewed beer or wine. His eyes led him along a line to Carol, standing with a cup in one hand, the other raised in the air.
Samuel had not forgotten that night. Tom Scanlon, who threw the party, told him that John Cazale had died. They toasted the genius actor.
Then, Samuel met Carol for the first time. Her animated face on the screen brought back those first tentative weeks and months. Captivated and intimidated, he had marvelled at her easy confidence. A time of flux. Constant movement. Forward, always going forward.
He paused whenever he came to a film, steadying himself before clicking on the icon.
A close-up of a clock, lettering on the face: William & Smith London. A familiar ticking, the sound that had announced the passage of time in Number 34.
His mother, leaning against a cupboard stacked with plates, a ball of shredded tissue held to her nose. She looked at him with raw accusing eyes.
“You won’t do this one thing, for me, if not for him.”
Her request that he attend his father’s funeral. A request he could not grant. She had begged him but he refused.
Samuel allowed himself one session on the laptop per day, and no more than five files per session. He studied every square inch of the computer screen. Afterwards, he went for long walks with no particular destination, walking to regulate his thoughts as he digested what he had seen. Going over every detail, re-experiencing his life.
He replayed the film from his wedding to make sure he hadn’t missed anything. The registry office seemed so austere. He was struck by the lack of occasion. The registrar had a birthmark covering much of her neck and cheek. He had forgotten that, as he had forgotten so many other things.
The folder contained images from their honeymoon in Lisbon. Not pictures as such, but impressions; arbitrary views of shops, monuments, sky, a distant horizon obscured in haze. The gaping mouths of fish in the Tagus. A table with a plate of chicken and a glass of wine. Graffiti emblazoned junction boxes. A dried fountain littered with cigarette butts.
He examined a photograph of Carol. She posed beside the statue of Pessao, hand raised to keep her straw hat in place. Samuel recalled the abrupt winds that passed through Lisbon. Her hesitant smile transported him to that time and place and to other places and times, half-formed plans and unacted intentions.
Samuel had kept a diary for six months in 1989. Pages from the diary appeared in the folder, filled with the minutiae of his life—meals he had eaten, films he had seen and books he had read.
An entry from week 5, February 2nd: Meeting with N. tomorrow, very nervous. He had no notion who N. was or what the meeting was about. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t remember.
Two months into retirement, Samuel still hadn’t made a start on the home repairs. There was no rush, nothing urgent required fixing. Nothing that couldn’t wait until the days got shorter.
Robert came to visit with his daughter, Lucy.
“So, how are you handling the void of retirement?” Robert asked.
“It’s not that bad.” Samuel laughed off the jibe, and turned his attention to Lucy. “I hear you’ll soon be starting a PhD. You must be excited.”
Lucy shrugged and looked away.
“She’s worked hard for it.” Robert gave Samuel one of his stern looks. “She’s not going for an easy option, like the civil service.”
Samuel let the remark pass. Carol took Lucy into the sitting room, leaving the two of them at the kitchen table.
“Do you ever think of Jack?” Samuel asked.
“Why? Has something come up?”
“It just crossed my mind, Jack and his motorbike.”
Robert drummed his fingers on the table. “Jack was the wild boy on his Kawasaki, stupid and reckless. A senseless way to go. It hit the old man hard.”
“Our old man was an abusive brute.”
Robert waved that away. “You got off lightly, you were too young. He had worn himself out by the time he got to you. Jack had the worst of it. That’s what the old man couldn’t live with, afterwards.”
They sat in silence. Samuel could feel his brother’s eyes on him.
“What’s prompted all this, asking about Jack?”
Samuel hesitated, then he said it. “It’s a strange folder on the laptop with pictures and films.”
“Really?” Robert pursed his lips. “Forget about that. You don’t know half of what goes on around you. All you see is what you want to see. Get off your arse and stop sniffing your old farts. Go out and live a little, make the most of retirement.”
Carol returned to the kitchen.
“Sam here has been digging around on his laptop,” Robert said.
She shook her head in exasperation. “Ever since retiring, he’s never off the thing.”
Robert turned to Samuel. “You need to pay more attention to your wife.”
“Chance would be a fine thing.” Carol raised her eyes to the ceiling.
“Come on, Sam. Take her on a holiday. Start spending some of that money you’re hoarding.”
Robert laughed, and Carol joined in.
“I’m going for a walk.”
Samuel stayed out until he was sure Robert had left. It was a mistake to have mentioned the laptop. Nothing had changed with his brother—still dismissive, still talking down to him. Maybe he should say something to Carol. But no, not after the way she’d laughed with Robert at his expense.
Samuel decided to take a break from the folder. He went back to planning the home repairs.
“You’re very quiet,” Carol remarked at breakfast. “Is something wrong?”
“No, why should there be anything wrong?”
“I’ve noticed you haven’t gone near the laptop in days.”
Carol had to know something about the folder. She had installed everything on the laptop.
He spent more time out of the house, sitting in cafés, rehashing events from his past. After a week, he was ready to dip back into the folder. But not at home, not with Carol around. He packed the laptop in the bag he had used for work.
“I’m taking this out with me.”
“It’s your laptop,” Carol said. “If the battery is fully charged, it should last you four hours.”
There was a Costa Coffee nearby, a characterless place but it had plenty of tables with space for the laptop. He sipped his coffee and looked around the room, not taking much notice of anything.
The difficult truth was that the folder no longer excited him. He found the entries from the 1990s and 2000s disappointing. Not as many files and longer stretches of time between them.
The images still seemed unplanned but were incidental and mundane. Soulless buildings, street corners and tram stops that defined his trips to and from work. Views of the supermarket car park where he shopped every Thursday.
Faces obscured because they were too close or smudged by movement. Neighbours, his doctor, the barman in his local, ancillary members of the cast of his life.
Pictures from his retirement party: people he never liked, standing awkwardly with slices of cake on paper plates. He shut the screen as the head of department began a trite speech about his years of service.
Everything had been so fresh and fascinating at the start, when Samuel first looked inside the folder—his school days, university, meeting Carol. There must have been a point in his life when the urgency waned and the future became a sterile present.
He kept up a routine of going to Costa and viewing two new files each time. Arriving late one afternoon, all the tables inside were occupied. No matter, the day was warm, an Indian summer forecasted. He took his iced tea to the furthest outside table and watched the cars sweeping by before starting the laptop.
The files to do with his brother’s visit bothered him. Not so much the images: Robert grinning as he delivered some put-down and Lucy looking bored. It was the film of the conversation between Carol and Robert in the kitchen.
“Have you said anything to Sam?”
Carol shook her head. “He’s so moody and preoccupied.”
“I tried to talk sense to him, but you know what he’s like.” Robert shrugged. “Passive but wanting more. Never satisfied but not doing anything about it. Sam has always been a victim.”
They had appeared exactly as Samuel pictured them in his mind’s eye. The derision on Robert’s face and Carol’s half-smile. He still hadn’t spoken to her about the laptop. Not yet. First, he would get to the last file and, then, begin again in reverse. Start at the end and trace his way to the beginning—see if that told him anything. When he’d completed the second cycle, he would talk to Carol.
The laptop came to life. He moved the cursor across the screen and clicked the mouse. The folder was almost empty, only one row of files. He opened a different folder, then went back to the unnamed folder. It made no difference. His body flooded with dread. What had he done? Could he have deleted the files by mistake and wiped out his precious past?
He clicked on the first file in the row. An image, today’s date. The café in the background, the laptop on the table, iced tea to one side. What about the other files? What was left? He clicked on the last file, the final entry, a film reel icon.
A white screen, cloudiness, then a car moving at speed, accelerating. He looked up and saw with his own eyes what was playing on the screen.
The car veered off course, coming towards him, seconds away.
The driver, hands on his chest and off the wheel, face contorted.
Samuel heard shrieking, sensed movement around him, tables scraping against the ground.
The screen went blank.
Mark Keane has taught for many years in universities in the UK and North America. Recent short story fiction has appeared in Granfalloon, Terror House, upstreet, A Thin Slice of Anxiety, Liquid Imagination, Superpresent, Into the Void, Firewords, Night Picnic, Dog and Vile Short Fiction, the Dark Lane and What Monsters Do for Love anthologies, and Best Indie Speculative Fiction 2021. He lives in Edinburgh (Scotland).
“Your dad smoked three packs of cigarettes and gave hisself the cancer,” said the old man stinking up my office with the cheap aftershave he’d been bathing in. “Know what that makes him? It makes him a dumbass.”
The kid in the chair shrugged. He didn’t smell much better than his uncle, but at least he knew when to keep his mouth shut. Taking the old man’s bait would have only made it that much longer before we got to the part where I told them how much I was going to cost them.
“What can I do for you gentlemen today,” I asked, my tongue tripping over the ‘gentlemen’ part.
“We want you to solve a crime,” said the uncle. “That is what you do ain’t it?”
“That’s what the police do, and they’re free,” I said. “If you have a crime, you need to talk to them about it.
“We did talk to them,” he replied, pounding his dirty paw on my desk. “They said to come talk to you.”
Somebody at PD had a sense of humor and I had a pretty good idea of who. I made a note to let his wife know he wasn’t with me the next time she called me at three in the morning looking for him.
“OK,” I said. “Tell me about this crime.”
The old man leaned forward and spread open his maw to give me a good view of his shrunken gums.
“Somebody stole my teeth!” he shouted. “I had ‘em in the dish on my nightstand when I went to bed. In the morning they was gone. Wasn’t nothing but the water I was soak’n ‘em in.”
“Who else lives in the house?” I asked. “Any grandkids who might have wanted to play monster with granddad’s fangs?”
“Lunkhead here is the only other person in the house,” he said, gesturing toward his nephew. “I got stuck with him when his dad died.”
My first thought was that ‘Lunkhead’ had flushed the old man’s choppers down the toilet. I know I would have. A cursory examination of the kid told me it wasn’t likely, though. As I watched him stare at the glob of wax he’d just dug out of his ear, I decided he didn’t have that much imagination.
“I charge fifty dollars an hour, plus expenses,” I said. “You could probably get a new set of teeth for less than what it will cost me to find your old ones.”
“That ain’t the point!” the uncle screamed, making me wonder if he had a setting for low volume. “I want the thief to pay for what he did! I expect justice!”
“Justice doesn’t come cheap, pops,” I said. “I need three hundred up front. After that the meter is running until I solve the case, or you call me off.”
“I can pay,” he said, taking it like a challenge. “How’s this sit with you?”
He tossed a brick of bills on the desk that would have made a dent if he’d put some force behind it. I gave it the finger test and found it was composed mostly of hundreds.
“When can I come by to conduct a search of the premises?” I asked, sliding the wad of green into the top drawer of the desk.
“I’ll expect you to be there at six sharp,” he said, using his cane to push himself up off the chair. He seemed taller than when he’d come in, like showing off his money had somehow inflated him. “We’re at 4423 Orchard Lane. There’ll be a red Buick in the driveway.”
I nodded, and he hobbled off, pausing to dress down Lunkhead for not being quick enough with the door. The money in my desk drawer smelled like the old man, but it would spend well enough.
I got to 4423 Orchard just in time to see a blonde in a red cashmere jacket feeling her way down the ice-covered steps of the front porch. She almost made it but slipped on the bottom step. Suddenly, she was a bowling ball and I was the pins. I cleared a path for her and she slid a few feet past me before running out of ice.
“I don’t know why they don’t at least put some salt down,” she said, staring up at me. She hadn’t been outside long enough for the cold to paint her cheeks red, but they were red all the same.
“You alright?” I asked, offering her a hand. She took it and pulled herself up my arm until we ended up hugging. Once I was sure she was steady, I let go and took a step back to take her in.
She was about five foot four, with blue eyes set just a tad too wide over an upturned nose. She wasn’t making the cover of Vogue, but there was something in the smile she gave me that had me thinking of white picket fences and Sunday barbecues. She could have been a Mata Hari for all I knew, but for the moment she was June Cleaver and nobody was telling me otherwise.
“If you’re here to see Mr. Pierce, you won’t find him very congenial,” she said, brushing the snow off her legs. “I just had to collect a blood sample from him, and got a piece of his mind in the process.”
“You don’t look like a vampire.”
“I work for the insurance agency,” she responded. “Mr. Pierce just took out a new policy and I was assigned to collect his samples.”
“Lucky you,” I said. “Don’t be surprised if his blood doesn’t come back ninety percent Old Spice.” The memories that conjured up made her wince.
“My nose is still burning. Why do you want to see him, if you don’t mind my asking.”
“I’m here for the sparkling conversation,” I said, picking a dead leaf out of her hair.
She wished me luck and we went our separate ways. Hers led to a BMW that made me wonder if I was in the wrong line of work. Mine led to a set of icy stairs and the doorway to crazy town. I would have much rather gone her way. By the time I reached the top of Pierce’s death trap, clinging to a wobbly railing that would have probably come with me if I’d slipped; he was glaring at me from the doorway.
“Hurry it up,” he snarled. “You’re making me let all the heat out.”
“Nice to see you too,” I said, stepping into a house that looked like a dump and smelled like a litter box. The furniture, if it existed, was it was buried under stacks of old newspapers and broken toys. A doorless green refrigerator stood in one corner of the room, its shelves stuffed with old record albums and paperback books. A radiator, from what I guessed was a truck, sat on top under a globe spray painted yellow. One corner of the room was full of headless baby dolls.
“I guess you’ll want to look around,” Pierce said leading me through the path to what should have been the kitchen. “I don’t like people going through my stuff, but I guess it can’t be helped.”
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I won’t steal anything.”
There was a table and three chairs, though one of them was full of what turned out to be old phone books. The table was piled high with junk in the middle, leaving just enough room around the edges to squeeze in a plate. The thought of anybody eating in the place made me queasy.
“Have a seat,” he commanded, kicking away some paint cans from behind one of the chairs so he could pull it out for me.
“I think I’ll stand,” I said, noting the crack in the seat.
“Suit yourself,” he said, taking the seat himself. He sat there for a minute, tapping dirty fingers on the table, and then said: “I think we should start in Irving’s room.”
“Why Irving’s room?” I asked. “Shouldn’t we start at the scene of the crime?”
“I didn’t want to say anything while he was sitting next to me,” he said, glancing toward the door and lowering his voice to what I assume he thought was a whisper, “but I suspect my nephew has something to do with this.”
“OK,” I said. “We start in Irving’s room.”
“Don’t ya even want to know why I suspect him?” he asked, disappointed I had given in so easily.
“Because he was the only other person in the house?”
“Because he hates me,” he said. “He blames me for his daddy’s death, always has. It’s all about revenge.”
“Why would he blame you for his father’s death?”
“We were both in love with a girl named Anabel, but she chose me,” he said. “This was, of course, after Irving’s mother had passed. Anyway, my brother was so distraught he killed hisself, leaving me to tend to the boy.”
“I thought you said he died of cancer,” I said.
“Yep. Suicide by cancer. He smoked hisself to death. The joke was on me though. Turns out he’d knocked up Anabel before kicking off. There was no way I was raising two of his children. I had to show her to the door.”
This had to be some kind of a set up, I thought. At any minute, somebody was going to pop out from around a corner and tell me I was on a prank show. Still, the money in my desk drawer was real enough. I decided to let it play out.
“I ran into the lady from the insurance agency on the way in,” I said. “Is Irving the beneficiary of the policy by any chance?”
“As a matter of fact he is,” Pierce said. “You don’t think that has anything to do with it, do you?”
“Not unless he thought stealing your dentures would cause you to starve to death,” I said.
I let him lead me down a hallway I had to walk sideways to get through because of the stacks of junk lining the walls. The room we ended up in smelled like stale sweat, but had obviously had a different decorator. Aside from the mattress on the floor and a dresser propped up on one side by a paperback romance novel, the room was empty. Pierce hobbled over to the mattress and lifted the corner just enough to reveal the spank mag hidden underneath.
“The boy’s a filthy pervert,” he said. “No tell’n what kind of depravity goes on in here. I wouldn’t be surprised if we found drugs.”
The old man was working hard to sell the nephew as a less than reputable character. It made me wonder what the payoff was. Maybe he just hated the kid, but more likely he hated everybody.
“What’s that doing here?” he asked, drawing my attention to a yellow box with a cartoon rat printed on the front. The big red letters near the top said whatever was in the box was supposed to kill rats and mice. Pierce snatched the box off the dresser and peered inside. From his expression I could tell he didn’t find that decoder ring he’d always wanted.
“That murdering bastard!” he exclaimed. “Take a look!”
He shoved the box at me so I could see the white and pink mixed in with the blue pellets.
“Looks like you found your dentures,” I said.
“Looks like I found a killer!” he shouted. “He was letting them absorb all that poison so he could pretend to find them later and kill me with ‘em.”
It was the stupidest thing I’d ever heard, but that didn’t necessarily mean he was wrong. Stupid killers make stupid plans. Still, it didn’t sit right with me. There was nothing subtle about the way the old man had led me right to the dentures.
“I guess I owe you some money back,” I said. “You didn’t need me after all. You can pick up your money, minus my retainer, at your convenience. Just give me a call to let me know you’re stopping by so I can make sure I’m at the office.”
“Keep it,” he said, waving me off. “I might need you if he tries something else.”
I left him there with his rat poison and his plastic teeth, and headed back to my apartment to see if I could wash the smell off. It wasn’t just the house that stank, it was the whole set up. It was obvious Pierce had planted those dentures in Irving’s room and put on the whole show for my benefit. He didn’t hire a detective; he hired a high-priced witness. Letting me keep the money was his way of ensuring I was in the right corner. Now I just had to wait for the end of the round to find out who else was on the ticket, and the value of the purse Pierce was going for.
I didn’t have to wait long. The very next morning the voice of Glenn Kraft was coming out of my phone, pulling me out of a dream involving a certain blonde reporter, to invite me down to police headquarters to share what I knew about Irving’s homicidal tendencies. Not ready to quit the dream just yet, I called up my reporter friend to see if she wanted in on the fun. Maybe she could make more sense out of it all than I could.
Maggie was waiting for me on the curb outside of her apartment when I pulled up. I got a big kiss on the cheek as soon as she climbed in, proving dreams do sometimes come true, and we headed for the police station, breaking the seat belt laws to take full advantage of the Nova’s bench seats.
“So, what’s this all about?” she asked, breathing it into my ear while she stirred my hair with her fingers.
“I’m pretty sure one of my clients is trying to set up his nephew and wants me to play a part in the scheme,” I said. “I just haven’t figured out why yet.”
“Sure your cop friends won’t mind me tagging along?” she asked.
“Glenn Kraft is running the case,” I said. “I’ve never known Glenn to run off female company.
“I swear to God, Doverman, if you brought me along just to keep your lecherous cop pals occupied while you collect clues I’m going to put all your dirty secrets on the front page of tomorrow’s paper, print and online editions,” Maggie said, scooting far enough away to punch me on the shoulder.
“All my dirty secrets?” I asked.
“Well, maybe not all of them,” she said, returning my grin.
Despite being the one with the invite, I suddenly turned invisible as soon as we walked into the office Glenn was borrowing for our little get-together. The way he ogled Maggie you would have thought she was the first woman he’d seen after doing a twenty-year stint in solitary. I wasn’t worried though, Maggie liked her men a lot less thick and a lot less married.
“So what’s the special occasion?” I asked, letting him know I was in the room.
“We have one of your clients in ICU over at Christ’s,” he said, gesturing to two uncomfortable looking slabs of wood. Maggie and I sat. Glenn sat too, but on the corner of the desk where he had the best chance of sneaking peeks down Maggie’s blouse.
“Let me guess,” I said. “The nephew tried to kill him.”
“That’s what he claims,” Glenn said, “and he has a stab wound in the belly to back it up. The knife missed all the important parts though. The guy will be in a regular room by dinner time. He said you might have some background info, some bull about an attempted poisoning.”
I could tell by the way Glenn laid it out he had doubts. Glenn was a good cop, despite being a lousy husband. If he wasn’t taking Pierce’s story seriously, it was probably because he’d already spotted the holes in it.
“The old guy paid me to attend a production he put on,” I said. “It had set up written all over it. I assume you have the nephew in custody. What’s he got to say?”
“He says he’s innocent,” Glenn said.
“You believe him?” I asked.
“The old guy suggested the kid did it in part to get some insurance money. That would only work out for him if somebody else killed the old man, and we didn’t see any attempt to stage a break in.”
“So it all hangs on the kid being an idiot,” I said. “Like the story about the dentures, it falls apart when you consider anybody with a brain could have been behind it.”
“The kid does come across as being on the slow side,” Glenn said, “You notice the Velcro shoes? I wouldn’t be surprised if it had something to do with him not being able to tie a knot.”
“If this guy is that dumb, wouldn’t you be able to tell if he is lying?” Maggie asked. “Could he pull off a believable denial?”
“He’s been pretty convincing,” Glenn said, discovering Maggie’s eyes for the first time. “The only thing making me wonder is the fiancée. She sounds pretty sharp.”
“Fiancée?” I asked. “What’s her story?”
“I haven’t seen her in person,” Glenn said. “She’s called several times to check on him, and hired him an attorney. Like I said, she seems pretty sharp. She asks all the right questions.”
“I’d like to meet this fiancée,” I said. “You got a name?”
“Tiffany Hughes,” Glen said, reading off a paper he picked up off the desk. She lives over in Terrace Park.
“What would a girl from Terrace Park be doing with a half wit living in a health code violation?” I said as Maggie slid up next to me in the Nova.
“I guess we’ll have to go ask her,” Maggie said. “I’m free for the rest of the day. We can make a party of it.”
“That’s the plan,” I answered, “but we have a few stops to make along the way.”
One of those stops was Christ’s hospital where Mr. Pierce had just been moved to a room on the second floor.”
“Did you tell them how he tried to kill me?” Pierce asked as soon as we were in the room. “We need to make sure he doesn’t get away with this.”
“Sure,” I said. “I told them all about it. They have a few questions though, little details they need to work out before they bring charges.”
“Like what?” Pierce roared, sitting up in the bed. “It’s a clear-cut case! Irving’s a killer!”
“He claims he was with his fiancée when you were attacked, and she’s backing him up. Is there anyway you might be mistaken about the identity of your attacker?”
“Fiancée? What fiancée?” he asked. “The only women Irving’s ever talked to are the ones in his porno magazines.”
“The boys down at PD say there is,” I said. “They say she even hired a lawyer to get him off.”
“That’s impossible!” he said, bolting up, groaning as the stitches in his gut objected to his gymnastics. He fell back onto his pillow and let out a long sigh.
“Better take it easy, Mr. Pierce,” I told him. “I’ll get to the bottom of it. Does the name Tiffany Hughes mean anything to you?”
He shook his head.
“Irving ever seem to have any extra money?” I asked. “He ever come home with new clothes or anything he shouldn’t have been able to afford?”
“All Irving’s money is in a trust fund left to him by his father,” Pierce said. “He can’t touch it.”
Maggie and I exchanged knowing glances. With Irving in jail, or possibly a mental institution, his guardian might be able to get his hands on that trust fund. Now I had a motive for the set up. Like all the rest of it, it wasn’t a good plan, but Pierce was operating on brain power just a few volts higher than his nephew’s, and he was crazy on top of it. We left him there and headed for the address in Terrace Park Glenn had provided.
The house was a Colonial style mansion. Maggie pushed some buttons on her phone and a picture of the house came up, along with the name of the owner, Roger Hughes; the date it was constructed, 1892; and its estimated value, $2,295,000. Whoever Rodger Hughes was, he had money. The groundskeeper arranging the strings of Christmas lights on the hedges out front was dressed better than I was. Parking my battered 1978 Nova in the red-brick circular drive seemed a little like littering. The grounds keeper looked up from his hedges to sneer at us like we were a couple of old rags blown onto the lawn after falling from a passing garbage truck, but he didn’t bother us. That was the job of the stern-faced giant who answered the chimes I’d set off when I pushed the gold button by the stained glass door. Red faced and stiff, he looked like a man who only breathed when he was sure nobody was looking. Maybe it was just the uniform. It couldn’t have been easy stretching the collar and bow tie around that neck.
“Can I help you?” he asked, looking down at us with an expression that said the only help he wanted to offer was directions off the property.
“Sorry to bother you,” I said, trying to sound sincere and only falling a little short. “We’d like to have a few words with Tiffany Hughes. I’m a private investigator employed by her fiancée.”
“I’m afraid you have the wrong residence,” he said. “The only Mrs. Hughes residing here is happily married to the owner of this house.”
“Maybe I have the name wrong,” I said. It wouldn’t have been the first time Glenn’s penmanship had failed me. “Do Mr. and Mrs. Hughes have a daughter?”
“I’m afraid not,” he said. “Good day.”
The door closed, leaving me alone with my unanswered questions. I’d turned to Maggie, ready to dazzle her with a witty quip, but she wasn’t there. It seemed she preferred the conversation of the gardener. I sulked back to the Nova and polluted my lungs with what turned out to be two cigarettes before she slid in next to me.
“Made a new friend?” I asked, putting the Nova into gear.
“I could see you weren’t getting anywhere with Lurch,” she said, taking the cigarette out of my mouth and grinding it out in the ash tray.
“The garden was my next stop,” I said. “I would have got something out of your friend.”
“You couldn’t have afforded him,” she responded. “He probably makes more than you.”
That stung a little, but I knew she was right. My wallet probably wasn’t going to open any doors for me at that place.
“So, what did your charms get us that my money wouldn’t?” I asked.
“Only that Mrs. Hughes is considerably younger than Mr. Hughes and possesses a very independent nature,” she said. “The people around there hardly ever see her. Oh, and you had the name right. It’s Tiffany.”
“That helps a little,” I said, but it doesn’t get us any closer to her.”
“He did mention she works for an insurance agency,” she said. “He couldn’t give me a name though.”
“Dial up Christ’s Hospital for me,” I said. “See if you can get Pierce on the phone.”
A few minutes later, after another unpleasant conversation with Pierce, I was having her look up the address for the Heartland Insurance Agency. It turned out they only had one office in the area, and it was right around the corner. If my hunch was right, we’d be meeting Mrs. Tiffany Hughes in about fifteen minutes.
We found her in the lobby, leaning against the front counter chatting with the receptionist. The smile she gave us did nothing to dispel my previous impression of her. She was still all puppy dogs and sunshine.
“Can I help you?” asked the woman behind the desk.
“We’re hear to speak with Mrs. Hughes,” I said, extending a hand toward everybody’s ideal housewife.
If me knowing her name rattled her, she didn’t show it. She gave my hand a polite squeeze and invited us back to her office where we settled into chairs a lot more comfortable than the ones Glenn had provided.
“What can I do for you?” she asked, showing no sign she remembered our encounter in front of Pierce’s place.
“I’d like to ask you about your fiancée,” I said. “I understand you’ve hired an attorney?”
The wholesome, good natured look faded as her blue eyes narrowed.
“How’d you find me?” She asked. “I paid the lawyer a lot of money to keep my name out of it.”
“Don’t cancel the check,” I said. “We haven’t talked to him. We didn’t need to. You probably shouldn’t have called the police station. That was sloppy.”
“I was concerned,” she said. “I needed to know Irving was alright.”
“Why?” I asked. “I know you’re not leaving your husband in Terrace Park to go live with the junk man’s nephew. Why the interest in Irving?”
“Because he’s my brother,” she said with a sigh. “Half-brother really.”
“Now it’s starting to make some sense,” I said, though from the look she gave me I’d say Maggie didn’t agree. “Your mother’s name wouldn’t happen to be Annabel would it?”
“It was,” Tiffany said. “She died when I was ten. She never got over what Pierce did to her.”
“And you decided to even the score for her,” I added. “You put the idea of framing your brother into Pierce’s head, and probably helped him set it up. I’m just not clear on what you were trying to accomplish.”
“She wanted Pierce to get caught,” Maggie said. “Pierce would get sent away, and Irving would be appointed a new guardian. Only she didn’t have enough faith in the intelligence of our boys in blue to produce the desired outcome, so she brought in the lawyer.”
“You should have had more faith in your own scheme,” I said. “Pierce’s story would have never held up. About the only flaw I can see is he could have implicated you, but that would involve admitting his guilt, and I can’t see a man like Pierce going that route.”
“He never knew my real name,” Tiffany said. “He doesn’t even know the name of this agency. All the forms he filled out were fakes.”
“Which would have meant he had no policy, and his claim Irving was out for the insurance money would fall flat. That bull about Irving wanting revenge because his dad died of cancer wasn’t going to get him anywhere to begin with.”
“So, what happens now,” Tiffany asked. “You turn me in?”
“I think we’ll just let it play out,” I said. “After all, Pierce is guilty. If for some reason it all falls apart and it looks like Irving’s going to take the fall, I’ll have to step in, but I can’t see that happening. You screwed up with that fiancée bit, but I think we can play that off.”
“I can’t thank you enough for this.” Tiffany said, reaching across the desk to grab my hand. “You probably think I’m crazy,”
“Maybe a little,” I said. “Just make sure you look after Irving. You’ve put him through hell, but I suppose it was no worse than the hell Pierce put him through on a daily basis.”
Maggie and I left her there to wonder who else might show up with questions she didn’t want to answer, and whether they’d be as understanding. The receptionist would probably be the first, judging from the way she’d asked if everything was alright as we were leaving, but Tiffany could handle her.
“So, how are you going to ‘play off’ the fiancée thing?” Maggie asked as we climbed into the Nova.
“I’ll tell Glenn she turned out to be a wealthy older woman who’d been having an affair with Irving and doesn’t want her name dragged into it. Glenn will sympathize with that. He’s been in plenty of spots like that before.”
“You made the right call,” Maggie said. “You got more heart than people give you credit for.”
“And I have enough sense to know it’s good to have friends with money. I just made one. Besides, I didn’t have time to deal with all the questions I’d have to answer if I turned her in. I have a hot date with my favorite reporter tonight.”
“Assuming that’s me,” she said. “I think that date should include dinner at Primavista’s”
Primavista’s was more upscale than the eateries I usually frequented, but I didn’t sweat it. I knew where there was a desk drawer full of money.
Lamont A. Turner's work has appeared in numerous online and print venues including Mystery Weekly, Mystery Tribune, Cosmic Horror Monthly, Dark Dossier, and other magazines, podcasts and anthologies. His short story collection, "Souls In A Blender" was released by St. Rooster Books in October 2021.
Escape From Morocco, by Lily Finch
Photo by Fernando Paredes Murillo on Unsplash
I was walking on tiptoe as I stealthily crept towards the exit. This escape on my mind for months now, and from the day I began plotting; ooh, I could just feel my endorphins and adrenaline rush and spike in my body. Well prepared for my escape, the high I felt was all related to my anticipation. Making my way to the exterior of the laundry area, I walked just a little further and boosted a bike that was conveniently parked outside one of the local taverns.
I spotted this all too comfortable and relaxed street scenario a few weeks prior during my first days moving laundry in and out of prison. Fortunately, I was one of the few trusted inmates because I didn’t get into trouble and spoke three languages fluently, which was valuable (acting as a translator to the guards). They had given me the work in the laundry at all hours of the day and night on different shifts as a sort of thanks for all the translating.
I got on the bike and rode it as fast as possible to the closest spot on the mainland between where I was and Spain. It meant one step closer to freedom for me. I knew I would have to swim for it and had carefully chosen only a few memorable things I wanted to take with me.
My swim training in high school and later in college would be of good service to me in facing my current situation. I had been a top-notch swimmer until my wrongful imprisonment in Morocco. Before my incarceration, I had looked into swimming this Strait with a group of swimmers, and we had trained a lot for swimming the Strait of Gibraltar. I felt as ready as I would ever be. The water would have to be a decent temperature since it was near the Tropic of Cancer and Spain's known as home to some class A1 hot spot locations. The swim across was about 4-5 hours long, including the time I would be dodging freighters in the Strait.
I had no sooner ditched the bike when I was dipping my toe into the surf. The air temperature was around 35 degrees, and the water temperature was slightly below that. I figured I would have no problems swimming since my adrenaline and endorphins were at their ultimate.
After the heat of my escape, the water’s temperature felt calming and almost comforting. Once I began my swim, I found my stride and kept on moving at a steady pace. I was determined and never gave failure a second thought. I swam with the dolphins and sometimes felt like I had become one of them. I was sure they were cheering me on to continue. Elated and in constant motion, I did not seem to lose any adrenaline. My strokes varied from freestyle to backstroke to breaststroke, butterfly and then back to freestyle. I was in a groove now.
As planned, I put my foot on the sandy beach of Spain four and a half hours after entering the waters off Morocco in the Strait of Gibraltar. My goal was complete; I was a free woman!
Celebrating freedom, I found a smooth rock that had washed up on shore and pocketed it. My first acquisition as a freed American woman!
Nervously I called the US Embassy. Once in contact with them, I explained my situation, and they sent a car to pick me up. They had a lovely hotel room ready for me. The service I received at this luxury hotel was exceptional, and the staff provided me with excellent personal care. I was supposed to fly home as soon as my official passport was issued. I was provided with a temporary one, valid only for land travel within Spain and given some pocket money.
It was unimaginable: being imprisoned in Morocco for not allowing a man to control me and my refusal of his advances. Who knew Moroccans punished women who were disobedient to men with imprisonment? My research indicated that they were more open-minded toward North American women tourists than in other northern African countries. I learned the hard way not to get involved with a local while on a tour of Morocco; let me tell 'ya!
My ordeal began when I was imprisoned for disobedience to the man I had been dating for the past six weeks. We had just been discussing my need to move on to another country. We began to argue because he wanted me to stay. I was unyielding and tried to end the relationship on a positive note. He would not stop arguing until I firmly told him the relationship was over.
I knew he was hurt and, worse, infuriated with me. He returned to his home, wrote a formal complaint and filed it as a Police report. The next day, I was taken from my temporary quarters while Hazem watched with a smug look. A trumped-up charge from an influential, wealthy man was no match for me.
I was an American woman who knew nothing and no one in Morocco. And that is how I landed in prison. Hazem probably kept tabs on me while I was there, and I imagined he had something to do with my laundry assignment, but who knows, that could've been just wishful thinking on my part. It was pretty evident that Hazem didn't care about me anymore since I landed in prison based on his complaint against me.
Being in prison did not stop me from making friends quickly. I was brilliant, and more importantly, I was resilient. I would not let them break me and always took what they handed me without wavering. I did my sit-ups and pushups at night when I was supposed to be sleeping (when I wasn't on the laundry shift) so that no one would know what I was up to. I ran on the spot while doing the laundry until I thought I would drop. All this was done with my master plan in mind. I had an end game.
The guards were lax and never ever dreamt anyone would attempt to flee. Ah, but I remember my grandmother saying that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Grandma was appealing to me tonight, giving me the courage I needed to take that chance. I was the essential risk taker tonight, with no choice but to go for it. It was my time! So I persevered. I let them believe that I was not in control of anything and that they were in charge.
The last call came “Lights Out, Ladies, in 5 minutes! Social time is over. Make your way back to your cells.” Always the same guard (Kamel) and always the same message over and over like a broken record. Oh, how I wanted to smash that record! But I had other records on my mind tonight. My record was going to be swimming across the Straight of Gibraltar.
Adjura and I hatched a plan; she would make sure I got out of this place come hell or high water! She had arranged for a friend to take my place in the laundry in my absence. It was risky, but there was no choice for me now. Making my way, we locked eyes, I said my goodbye, and the last words she said to me were, “get outta here, be free! You have your whole life to live, but it's not here in a Moroccan jail for something so frivolous. Don’t take this the wrong way, but I hope I never see you again!” Adjura smiled and went on her way to her cell. My heart began to thump, and there was no saliva in my mouth; it was pasty. This was it! This is why all that training is so important now!
My shift in the laundry was about to start, and I had to split. The guards all know me and allow me to move around the jail on my own, especially at times like these. I spoke, “Guard Aamara, Sir, I have laundry duty, sir. Can you please buzz me through? My tongue was so thick now I could barely get the words out. “Yeah, sure, hold on.” He radioed, “Inmate Smith needs to go to the laundry area, let her through. Thanks. OK, you are all set!” “Thanks,” I didn’t dare look at him as I thought what I was going to do was written all over my forehead.
I ducked my head low and started on my way. He must have been following me with his gaze because he asked, “Hey Smith, what’s wrong with you? Are you not feeling well? Maybe you should stop at the infirmaries?” He radioed again, “Ah, change of plans; Inmate Smith will first report to the infirmaries and then to laundry, let her through boys. Thanks.” Moving toward the infirmaries quickly now so that when I was out of sight of the guards, I moved like a jack rabbit as this stop was unexpected and might interfere with my plan.
At the infirmaries, there was a nurse and psychologist on duty. The nurse took my blood pressure and then asked why I was there. Despite my blood pressure being a little high, she said I was fine otherwise. I explained, “Guard Aamara wanted me to report here as he thought I needed medical attention.” She asked, “Well, how do you feel now? I can wait a bit and retake your blood pressure if you want?” I replied, “No thanks. I feel fine. I think my blood pressure is always high.” I hoped she would buy that and let me go to the laundry now. The psychologist observed that I was a bit frazzled and said, “Inmate Smith, I would like to schedule a psychological assessment with you on my next shift.” “OK,” I responded, my pulse beating so fast I thought my heart would jump out of my chest. “Can you take me to the laundry, please?” I heard myself ask. “Certainly,” she replied.
Walking to the laundry, I didn’t say a word; I wondered if my window of opportunity to escape was disappearing. Guard Hassan in the laundry barked, “you’re late, so you better have a– “ he froze and stopped talking when he saw Dr. Aloui. “The young lady was with me. Is that going to be a problem? Guard Hassan?” “No, no, ma'am Dr. Aloui. No problem at all!” Dr. Aloui had the right to ask for psychological evaluations of anyone at any time on staff: anything in that evaluation that was alarming would have to be reported, so most guards feared her. That was my cue to get to work. Hopefully, Adjura's friend, Jasmine, snuck out to pass for me tonight until morning came. She would show up in the laundry room after I was long gone with the key I had swiped from Dr. Aloui last month. I made my way to the back, where I would make my exit.
I never felt so great as when I spoke with my parents on the phone. They had been "worried about me since they had not spoken with me in about eight weeks or so," said my mom. I knew it was exactly 58 days since I was imprisoned; I was cut off from the rest of the world because of a fling I really should have never been involved in.
A week later, back on US soil, the timing was overdue for a visit with my grandmother. At her gravesite, I placed the freedom stone I had picked up in Spain onto her gravestone. After all, she was my inspiration for freedom and remains my rock; she provoked me into escaping when I needed it most.
Lily Finch is the pen name for an author, editor, and creative writing mentor. She lives South of Detroit in Windsor, Ontario, Canada. She is an emergent writer who works on short stories that depict real-life situations. She has one short story publication, “The Beauty is Watching.” The Literary Yard. Sep 20, 2022. And one flash fiction publication, “The Ruse.” Worthing Flash Fiction, Sep 24, 2022.
The Triads, by John Stechley
They were a small people, in number and in size, living on a suitably small planet. They had yet to have any contact with the inhabitants of other worlds. The people, who referred to themselves with their word meaning ‘Triads’, were unique in several ways. Primarily they were different from the inhabitants of other worlds in that they had three sexes, all of which were necessary for the reproduction of their species. For them, a ‘love triangle’ was a natural and normal phenomenon. Every child had three parents. And wedding ceremonies could be quite full of people, as there were three families attending. And 12 people walked down the aisle, the triad getting married, and the three parents of each one of them. The aisle was wide.
I was the first earthling to visit their planet. It wasn’t my original destination, as the planet was much smaller than the one I was aiming for. But I was glad I went there all the same.
I had something of a crash landing, and the Triads came quick to free me from my damaged inter-stellar flying machine.
Obviously, we could not speak to each other at first, but fortunately enough, one of their technicians figured out a way to make their translation devices and mine ‘speak’ to each other. For them to understand me and for me to understand them, we would just have to wear a specialized ear-bud.
The first words said to me that I could understand were strange, but not surprising given what I would soon learn about their three genders. It would help explain the times that I had already seen three people walking hand-in-hand-in hand.
“What is your tri-gender? We were wondering. There are no obvious signs of which one you are”
When I told them that we were bi-gendered, they gave me looks of wonder and surprise. Then I asked them in return. How can you tell what tri-gender someone is?
The person who had been speaking to me sighed, like a human would when talking to a particularly stunned child about sex. “Look at how many thumbs that a person has: one, two or three.” It would be quite some time before I felt confident enough in their friendship before I could ask them how their reproduction worked.
After living with the Triads for a couple of weeks (or their version of that), I had learned when one of them was happy or sad. Occasionally, I would see what I would call a great sadness on them when they spoke to each other. So I asked one who had become my friend, Garvix, whether there was anything wrong. He hesitated for a few seconds, and then let loose the cause of their sadness.
“We are beginning to starve. Our main source of food is not producing like it should. One of its triads is dying off, therefore the one that produces the fruit cannot do so”. I asked him to show me, as I was quite interested. I might spend the rest of my life here, so it was a concern to me that there would be food for all.
Another reason for my interest is that my first degree was in botany, and my honors thesis fourth year, one that earned me my only mark in the nineties, was on the reproduction of potatoes. The next year I took my minor in astronomy to the stars and a Master’s degree, and I became an astronaut.
When I looked at the plant in question with the problem, I could see that it was a lot like a potato, except that it required biological contributions from three genders. I told my friend about my research on the reproduction of a very similar plant, and he encouraged me to experiment. Soon enough some Triad scientists who had been working on the problem asked me to join them in their research. We worked on the problem for whatever passes for days on this planet. We had failure after failure, but I felt that we were getting closer to a solution, step by small step.
Then we had it! The third member of this plant’s Triad was no longer necessary. The potato-like plant could now reproduce with only two players instead of three. A lot on congratulations were passed my way. I was told that success could not have happened without my work. I should be the one to write up the results.
Not long afterwards, as I was writing up in English (which would be translated into Triad) what we had learned, my friend came up to me with a big smile on his/her/whatever’s face. Then he asked me: “I am guessing that you cannot leave our planet. Am I right?”
“You have the truth of it my friend. But I am beginning to really like living here. I won’t really mind if I spent the rest of my life here.”
“I was hoping that you would say that my friend.”
Then he snapped his finger, and in through the door came someone that I had often seen with my friend. I had seen them holding hands, but with no person as a third member.
“We were thinking that you could be our third. Not for reproduction, as we are not interested in having children, and we don’t think that you would like to be cut up like a potato.”
I answered not with words but with two outstretched hands that soon joined with those of my new partners. We were hand in hand in hand.
John Stechley has a book coming out next week, “Names of the Wyandot.” As an academic, he publishes articles and books based on 45 years work on the language, history and culture of the Wendat/Wyandot people.
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