A twelve-year-old girl straggles her feet one after the other. The edges of tree branches cut through her skin, and sharp objects hidden beneath the fallen leaves pierce under her feet. She rolls down a hill three times, and each time, her face strikes itself against a stone or a half stone.
When the young girl reaches the city, she sees a high-rise building and enters through the back. Second, after second, she crawls up the staircase leaving traces of blood behind. Her knees crumble on the edges of each step. Tears dry on her face. She pushes her weak body against the metallic door because it is too heavy to open. It flings open to the other side.
The wind tosses abandoned beer cans on the floor. The girl drags her feet again across the floor. Breathless, she climbs the ledge of the roof. Tears run down her cheeks, and she places her palms on her chest. She lets her tongue taste the air. Then she looks down the high-rise building to see cars and people racing the bright streets.
After a lingering moment of looking downward, she takes a deep breath and releases her hands weakly to her sides. Her short black hair waves to the night wind. On the ledge, bloodless and weightless, the cool breeze blows the pleats of her gown back and forth. The moonlight reflects a portion of itself on the girl’s bloody butterflies and the dirty marks on it. Lines of dry tears and scars paint themselves on her face while thick blood leaks from it.
The girl wallows for a while in the gaze of the sky. A sad sly smile sketches her face. She rocks her body, spreads her hands apart in the air, closes her eyes, and dives to her death. But a steady hand grabs her ankle before she hits the ground. The stranger’s chest rests on the ledge while one of his hands grabs it. He smacks his lips as he pulls the girl upward and back to the rooftop, using his strength. One of his knees leans on to the wall for support. With the girl’s eyes still closed, and her hands swinging downward. She inhales deeply before falling unconscious.
On one knee, the man who looks over fifty years old in distressed jeans, loose tees and black leather drawstring jacket brings and drops the girl’s body on the floor. He changes his stance to a sitting position with his knees flexed and palms resting on the dusty granite floor behind his back. He sighs deeply and strokes his almost bald head. Then he gazes momentarily at the dark moonlit sky before getting up to his feet and dusts off his jeans. For a little while, he looks at the young girl’s unmoving body before approaching it.
She looks dead from where he stands. So, he checks her body for a pulse and carries her from the dusty floor. He cups the back of her head onto his right shoulder. And holds onto her body with his hands around her knees and walks back into the building.
Gray cotton shaped clouds stretch themselves across the sky. Its hue soft and dark at the same time. A girl in denim short and flowered button-down shirt has her neck bound with a loose portion of a rope that holds an old wooden bridge to the structures of two rock mountain cliffs. Below is a brownish-green stream filled with different colored small rocks that have smooth surfaces, algae, and tiny green plants. One of her palms grips the body of the rope around her neck. While the other grabs a horizontal ledge of the bridge for support. Her right leg is stuck in a broken part of the bridge while the other leg swings mid-air. With a wheezy and wobbly voice, she screams for help.
She looks towards the right of the mountain top and sees a group of children around the same age as herself. They are laughing and talking. Two of the children kick tiny stones, lifting dust along with them. Pressing her palm down on the bridge while channeling her body weight for a few seconds, she calls out to the children in soft whispers, but they continue to walk towards the thin fog in front of them.
Taking deep breaths, her hands pull the rope around her neck. She calls out for help again. This time a little louder than before. She hears the faint sound of footsteps approaching her body near the right end of the bridge. It is getting closer. She sees a mahogany work boot, swallowed up by muddy soil with loose fringe shoelaces standing next to her. The girl grabs the body of the stranger’s boot. In between breaths, she asks the person to help untie the rope around her neck.
The stranger shakes her hands off his boot to get down on one knee. He places one hand on his bent knee and reaches out for the girl with his other caramel-colored hairy hand. His palm is as hard as a rock. The man pulls her up to let her sit on the bridge with the rope still around her neck. She coughs consecutively then lifts her head to see her savior. The first thing she sees is a gaunt face, which at an instant, she recognizes as the face of a monster–her father. The look on his face is stern, and his smile is cunning.
Upon seeing her father, she cowers, burying her face in her palms. She looks away from him and drags her bottom backward on the body of the bridge to create a distance between them. Beads of sweat run down the back of her neck, and the drip drip drop sound of morning dew can be heard for a moment. When she is inches away, she tries to steal glances of him; instead, their eyes meet and lock. He stares at her with a sneer then gets up, taking one long stride after the other and crosses over to where his daughter sits. The man chuckles softly before squatting beside his daughter, whose left cheek rests on her shoulder. He caresses her right hand, working his way to her face and brushes her hair aside.
The girl’s cracked lips break apart, and her eyes teary. Her father’s touch makes her shiver, but she does nothing. He dwindles his lips to the tiniest bit and pulls her face closer to his own. She holds onto the rope around her neck but still finds it difficult to breath. She tries to remove herself from her father’s grasp, but he presses down her right palm on the bridge with his knee. Relentless, she continues to fight her way out of his hold. This very act of forcefulness yanks her backward, causing the other strings of rope to be set free.
In a poorly lit room with Rod-pocket curtains, the young girl who hurled herself off the rooftop clenches the duvet between her thighs. On the duvet are marks of bloodstains spread across. They are dotted and mapped. On the top of a mini cupboard near the bed is a bowl of clean water with a cream hand towel in it. Tears crawl out from both edges of her eyes. Her small, fragile body curls and stretches as she moves from one end to the other of the bed like she battles an unseen force. And as though in a trance, her lips utter words that cannot be heard by the walls. Scars line themselves in different positions on her chestnut shaped face. She uncovers her eyes halfway through with teardrops hanging on her long black lashes. In a blur, she sees her savior’s figure on a wooden chair in front of the bed. She mutters some meaningless words in a disoriented and frantic state, closes her eyes back, opens it again with more clarity, and jerks off the bed. Her breath is shaky. So, she wraps her body with the duvet and shies away to a corner, where she sits on the hardwood and studies it with her knees folded up beneath her chin. Blood oozes out of the bandaged wounds on her knees and thighs and smears the long white round neck t-shirt she has on. While black stains are painted under her chewed fingernails.
She peeks with a palpitating heart and fluttering stomach at the man whose arms are folded on his chest. He observes her frightened movement with his mouth slowly curving into a crescent. Lines are etched around his mouth and eyes. He rubs his mouth and gapes at the damaged skin and tainted t-shirt of the young girl who seems to be hollowed out. He rests on his thighs and rubs his jeans, then stretches his legs outward, then asks in a soft yet interrogative tone, “Child what happened to you?”
The girl sits still with her finger stuck on the floor. She holds his gaze without a single word, aware only of her breath, of the air going into her body. A visceral memory returns; she remembers the cold taste of the breeze, the night she was up on the ledge of a roof.
Bibiana Ossai is the winner of the Equinox Journal 2019 Poetry Contest and a recipient of the Marilyn Boutwell Creative Writing Award from Long Island University’s Humanities Department. Her works appear in The River, The Book Smuggler’s Den, Refractions (iō literary online journal), and The Republic Journal. She holds a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing degree from LIU Brooklyn.
Daniel Kent Foley is a Navajo visual artist and writer based in Central Ohio. He works mostly in mixed media and photography, experimenting with processes and layering them to create odd subjects in strange environments that exist somewhere between representation and total abstraction. He aims to provoke critical thinking by presenting forms that vaguely echo reality in compositions that defy it; suggesting a narrative but allowing the audience to arrive at it themselves and in their own way.
Tom sat with the folded letter in his lap, staring at the old photograph in his hand. He reached across to his side and poured himself another glass of whiskey.
‘Rest in peace, Pa.’ He raised his glass in a mock salute and took a gulp. Even though he sat beside a small fire he shuddered as he looked once more down at his father’s grin in the picture. ‘You were a piece of shit, and I’m glad you’re gone. You were an angry, hateful bastard. Blaming everyone but your own damn self for your wasted years and the weak, thin blood that pumped through your veins. If there is a Heaven, I hope you don’t get in. And if there is a God willing to forgive you, then He’s a dumb, old son of a bitch.’
Tom leaned over with the photo in his hand and held it over the fire. The picture caught quickly and flamed up, curling at the sides. His father’s grin warped into a sickly grimace of pain. The image turned to ashes which floated down into the hearth, whilst the embers rose up against the blackness like stars racing through the firmament. He took another drink and picked up the letter.
It was from his mother. It told of his father’s passing from some cancer that had caught in his legs and worked upwards through his body. It told of how he had grown gentler, easy going almost, and lived his last months full of regrets. Of how he had been looking for Tom. How he had wished desperately to see his son one last time.
There came again the shudder curving up through Tom’s spine.
‘He had been looking for me?’ The thought filled him with unease. Memories of hiding in wardrobes and under tables as a boy, whilst his father stalked through the house with his belt, looking to work off some aggravations. ‘Fuck you again, Pa.’
He took another drink and looked down into the fire. The photograph was gone. His father was gone. But deep in his heart he felt a secret knowledge, that there was something out there now, on some other plane, that knew of his existence. Something that could not be run from, could not be hidden from. Something that was looking for him.
He shook his head at the thought, assuming the memories of a tortured childhood had put him into a fragile mindset. Tom put the letter to one side and rose from his chair. He told himself he was cold, that was why he was moving across the room to shut the door. The door that led to a dark and shadowed hall.
He paused at the window, looking out at the streetlights that streaked through the rain. Night after night, as a boy, he had stared out of his bedroom window and wished for all manner of worlds that could fit inside his child’s imagination. Both bright and uncertain worlds, but never was his father present. And yet, outside of his door, he knew his father drunkenly moved through the rooms of the house. He heard him stumble into walls, knocking tables down and yelling. Worse yet, he felt his father knew his secret thoughts, his dreams of escape.
‘Couldn’t stop me though, could you?’ He feigned detachment. He felt embarrassed for how uneasy these memories were making him, but also shameful that his father’s death would be anything more than cause for celebration in his house. There had been initial feelings of relief, and then guilt. There had been a small sadness and then came happiness. But now he felt cold. Anxious. He felt sick in his stomach just as he had whilst crying underneath the kitchen table, watching his father’s footsteps getting closer and closer.
Tom sat back down in his chair and took himself a big drink. It was only when he had gotten up that he realised how drunk he really was, but he had no plans for slowing down. He picked the letter back up and looked over his mother’s handwriting.
He thought of how, had his father not been around, they may have had a normal relationship. He believed that she loved him, and she had never behaved cruelly towards him. But she hadn’t saved him from cruelty either. He thought of her both as a victim and as an enabler. He knew that he pitied her now though. He believed it to be true amongst most that time heals all wounds, but only at the cost of memory in the mind and in the heart. His mother would glorify his father’s memory and forget the evil done.
‘Mean old bastard,’ he muttered, spitting at the fire.
Tom jumped at a sudden thud in the hallway. He lived in a duplex, and was used to his neighbours making noise, but this sounded like it had come from his own hallway. He sat, rigid, waiting for clarity. The room seemed darker. He felt more alone. The letter had slipped from his hand and lay on the floor. He strained his eyes towards the door and waited.
There was nothing else. Tom sighed and picked up the whiskey, allowing himself a long swallow. Then, again, but quietly, a thud. It sounded muted this time, and Tom felt confident it was simply his neighbours. He got up and walked to the door, pausing with his fingers around the handle. No sounds on the other side.
He opened the door quickly, swaying slightly, and he could see nothing in the hall. Just the darkness. He picked out a coatrack, a chest of drawers, just the normal shadows. Nothing unusual. He smiled humourlessly and pushed the door shut. As he turned back to the fire, he heard the soft thudding once more, and he froze.
It sounded like it was coming from the other end of the hall, very faintly. Tom leaned back against the door and braced himself against it. But again, the thud died down to silence and, when he looked, there was nothing outside.
‘It’s the neighbours.’ He walked back to his chair and sat down, taking up his glass and gratefully drinking. ‘Always is.’
Tom’s vision was blurred now, but he poured himself another whiskey, and greedily knocked it back.
‘Nothing out there.’ The small sounds of the night’s silence revealed themselves to him reassuringly. The rain pattering on the window. A dog barking somewhere down the street. There is no whispering on the breeze, he thought to himself. If someone speaks you do not mistake it for something else.
Tom slumped down in his chair, his eyes heavy. Sleep came over him dully.
In his dream he was in his father’s house, and his mother was sat beside him. She was stroking his hair as he cried. She was telling him that the world was a complicated place, and that a boy as young as he was could never hope to understand it. He thought that she was crying too. She told him that all of the beauty in the world served only to cover its secrets. When he asked what those secrets were, she just smiled at him. The secrets are whatever you wish. This is your history. She said that everything had a cost, and that he could accept his father’s past or he could lie about it to himself, but his father was now dead and he would have to make peace with his history. He started to cry again and said he would not. She just continued to smile. Even as a deep and desperate thudding began beyond the door into the hallway.
Tom awoke in his chair to the rapid, heavy pounding and sat frozen. His glass slipped from his sweating hand to the floor. He made to stand, but his legs failed him and he fell against the table to his side.
The heavy whiskey bottle fell but didn’t smash, and lying beside it was the letter from his mother. Through the clear glass of the bottle, the warm tones of the whiskey, Tom’s gaze fell on something else.
‘No…,’ he tried to speak but his mouth just soundlessly formed the word.
His shaking hands rolled the bottle aside and moved to pick up the old photograph. He felt it in his hands and turned it over. There, grinning up at him, was his father.
The hall door burst open and Tom turned on the floor. He tasted bile at the back of his throat and spat out vomit. He felt his groin grow warm.
Standing in the doorway was his father.
Nicholas Higginson is an English writer who studied Comparative Literature at the University of Kent, and is currently working on his first novel. His work has previously been published in The Garfield Lake Review, Red Earth Review, and Literally Stories. He has also worked on the Editorial Board for Beyond Words.
A few rays of the sunset shone through leafless trees, the shadows traveling along the sparse grass and outlining treetops on the back of a cabin. At the wood’s edge, Ethan drove his shovel into the ground and scraped rock. He heaved the bite onto the pile of earth and stone he had created, making the hole deeper, wider. It had to be deep enough. It wouldn’t be good for animals to dig it up later. Leaves rustled somewhere in the distance, and he paused, glancing through the trees. He wiped his forehead. As the sunlight faded, he dropped the shovel at his feet and fixed his eyes on the garbage bag next to the hole.
Two days earlier, Ethan had sat on the arm of his recliner, hands on his knees, watching green eyes stare at him from the floor. The two vertical slits didn’t move as they regarded him. Ethan grabbed a plaid tie from his chair, looked at the blank ceiling and walls, and tied the tie around his throat. The cat licked its paw.
Ethan seemed to hear Mia as if she were still standing across the room. I’m so tired of this.
As Ethan stood, he smoothed the front of his wrinkled, white shirt and tucked it into his slacks. He glanced at the cat sitting on the hardwood floor. The animal had moved on to cleaning the peculiar white spot on its chest, the only white among the patches of tan and black covering the rest of its fur.
I’ll be back for my stuff in a few days.
Ethan sat, this time in the seat, and slipped on his loafers. The cat hurried over to be petted. It rubbed against Ethan’s pant leg, purring.
You can keep the stupid cat.
Ethan nudged the cat away with his foot. “Get off,” he said, brushing the hair from his leg and glancing up at the clock. He cursed and ran to the bathroom, kicking a to-go box on the way. As he entered, he put his hands on the marble countertop, knocking off a few pieces of mail. He picked them up. They were some bills and an invitation to his ten-year high school reunion. He tossed it in the trash by the toilet.
Ethan looked himself over in the mirror. Even through his glasses, he could see the circles under his eyes. He turned on the tap. Water trickled into the porcelain sink, and he splashed his cheeks, rubbing the warm water into his eyes under the glasses. His stubble itched, but he glanced at his watch and sighed. He pulled the hair from his face and smoothed it back with a damp hand.
Ethan opened the mirror and pulled out an orange container. He popped a pill from it into his mouth, washed them down with a swallow of water, and turned off the tap. He left.
When he arrived at work, Ethan rode the elevator to his level. Row after row of identical gray cubicles lined the floor, each with space only for a chair and desk, each desk crowded with only a monitor, planner, and pencil holder. Workers scurried passed him as he crept to his cubicle, trying to remain unseen by his supervisor. He didn’t feel like being yelled at again for coming in late. Twice, he had to double-back to make it through the confused aisles. As he fell into his seat, he glanced around to see if anyone important had noticed him. Satisfied, he leaned back in his chair and began his morning routine of staring at the wall.
“Car trouble, Mr. Wilson?”
Ethan flinched. “No, sir. Just running a little late this morning.”
Mr. Stewart leaned against the outside of the cubicle wall facing Ethan. As always, the overweight man sipped from his coffee mug. The steam fogged his thick glasses as he brought the drink to his lips, and when he lowered it again, coffee coated the bottom of his black-and-gray mustache. A thick drop landed on his monochrome business suit.
He licked the liquid away before responding. “Maybe you could enlighten me, Mr. Wilson, as to when you are supposed to report here in the morning.”
“Eight o’clock, sir.”
Mr. Stewart grabbed Ethan’s arm and glanced at it. “Looks like your watch is right.” He paused. “Don’t let it happen again.”
He began to walk away but stopped. “Ethan, I haven’t received your report for last week. Do you have it?”
Ethan stared at his desk and answered through clenched teeth. “I’ll have it to you by the end of the day.”
“Good. You did get the memo about deadlines, right?” Ethan jerked the memo from a drawer in his desk as Stewart sipped his coffee. Ethan took a breath and relaxed his jaw, continuing to stare at the particleboard in front of him.
“Well, get it in today,” Stewart responded as he walked away.
Ethan crumbled the memo into a ball—smaller, tighter, harder. He closed his eyes, took several more deep breaths, and dropped the wad into his trash bin. Reluctantly, he turned on his computer and started to type.
Line by black and white line, he went through the software code. Whenever he found a date, he changed the year from a two-digit number to a four-digit one. East Tulsa Computing had received more contracts than any other firm in the region. The company kept him busy. They didn’t want the world to end. By lunch, Ethan saw white numbers even when looking away from the monitor. He clocked out and, with sack lunch in hand, walked to a park three blocks away.
The park was a large rectangle of nature enclosed by metal. A few deciduous trees and picnic tables spread out across it, while skyscrapers rose on all sides. In the center of the grassy field sat a circular playground of sand.
Ethan plopped onto the top of his usual table, his loafers on the splintered bench. A soft breeze carried newly fallen leaves across the lawn in front of him. He closed his eyes as it reached him, filling his lungs and bringing a smile to his face. He pulled out his ham sandwich and chips and began to eat.
Across the expanse, some fifty yards away, a few children played on the playground. A wiry-haired, blonde boy of about three laughed as his pudgy body slid down silver metal into his mother’s arms. Two young girls in flowery dresses gripped their knuckles white as their father spun them around faster and faster on the merry-go-round.
Ethan chewed and stared. He watched as their bare feet danced through the sand, as the mother helped her little one across the monkey bars, as the girls beamed up at the man’s smiling face. Ethan glanced down at what was left of his sandwich and tossed it in the trash barrel a few feet away. He lit a cigarette for his walk back to the office.
He returned to work five minutes late and began typing, more black and white lines, more 99’s into 1999’s. He didn’t bother to turn his report in to Stewart before he left at the end of the day. As he walked to his sedan, his cell phone rang.
“Ethan, are you off of work yet?”
He sighed. “Yeah, Mom. I was just leaving.”
“I was wondering if you would be a dear and take me to confession on your way home.”
He shook his head. “Mom, you know the church isn’t on my way home.” He stared at the sky.
“Well, I’m sorry for asking. I just gave birth to you and raised you. Totally wrecked my vagina, if you wanna know.” Click.
Ethan sighed, got in his car, and drove, irritated. It had only been two weeks since his last stint as cab driver.
When he had pulled into her driveway, she had been sitting on her front step, waiting, and she looked dressed more to tempt than confess. The neckline of her black blouse plunged a little too low, and she wore her blue jeans tighter than most other women in their fifties. Bright color covered much of her face—pink on her cheeks and lips, light blue above her eyes. She wore the same curls—stretching several inches from her head—that she had worn for the last twenty years, though they had been out of style for over a decade.
She hurried to the car, and the pair drove away. The silence in the car lasted only long enough for Ethan to light a cigarette and Jean Marie to get settled in her leather seat and gather her thoughts.
“So how are things?”
Ethan exhaled a puff of smoke. “Fine.” He glanced at her as he cracked the window and knocked the ashes from the end of his cigarette. She stared at the dash in front of her. “Just ask the question, Mom.”
“How is Mia? Have you popped the question, yet? What are you waiting for? Two years is long enough. You don’t need to let a girl like her get away.” She said, in one breath.
He took several puffs of his cigarette. “She left.”
“What? Why? What did you do?”
“Nothing.” Ethan knocked off some more ash. “I didn’t do anything. She got bored.” He took a few more puffs. “I think she was seeing somebody else.”
“Why that hussy!” Jean Marie threw her purse into the cluttered floorboard. “I always said that my baby was too good for her. Truthfully, Ethan, I don’t know what you ever saw in that woman.”
He crushed out his cigarette in the ashtray. “Yeah, me either.” He blew smoke at the windshield.
“I’ll tell you what you need to do, honey. You need to get back out there. Meet a nice girl…” She reached into her purse and pulled out a paper clipping. “…and stop that smoking, so she’ll actually want to be around you.” She extended the papers to him as he exited the freeway. “Here, I cut out this article on Big Tobacco I read in the paper.” He took the paper reluctantly, and she continued. “I really wish you’d quit.”
Ethan slowed to a stop in front of the church. The archaic gray pillars at the building’s four corners reached like outstretched arms towards the sky, and its roof came to a point between the pillars, topping the excessive designs in the brick. “We’re here.”
“You’re not coming in?”
“It’s been a long time since I was an altar boy, Mom.” He lit another cigarette. “I’ll wait in the car.”
Ethan had driven into the parking lot facing the front of the church to wait on her—like he did now. As he killed the ignition, a cab drove in front of the building and let her out. His eyes followed her until she entered the building.
As he sat in his car, he stared up at the circular stained-glass window covering much of the building’s front. The colored, triangular pieces of glass formed the image of a dove, olive leaf in tow, with a rainbow stretching across the window’s diameter in the background. On the ledge surrounding the window perched several pigeons, occasionally sending offerings to the cement below and likely the occasional church patron. Ethan watched as they cooed and bobbed their heads, their only apparent purpose being to huddle together and cause churchgoers to curse having just left the confessional. Agents of evil, they were.
In fact, Jean Marie had to dodge a watery bullet as she walked back through the heavy doors. She hurried back to her waiting cab and left. Ethan stared down the road even after the cab was out of sight.
He pulled into his driveway an hour later. His cabin in Okay lay far enough from civilization that his closest neighbors lived over a hundred yards away with nothing but trees between. The house was built top to bottom with horizontal logs, its only distinguishing feature an enclosed porch protruding in the front. Ethan wanted to eat dinner, watch some television, and then go to bed, so he could do it all again the next day.
He walked to the mailbox before unlocking the front door. As he entered the living room with his mail, he spotted the cat raking its claws across the arm of his couch. Scratches along the rest of it suggested that the cat had been busy.
Ethan marched to the couch and backhanded the animal from its perch. He cursed as the cat ran into the kitchen. Ethan fell into his leather recliner, across from the sofa. At least it wasn’t the recliner. A few minutes later, he stood and walked to the bathroom to read his mail.
After work the next day, Ethan drove straight home, but instead of eating ramen or watching television, he paced his living room. His feet moved him from the sofa to the recliner and back, over and over again. Finally, he paused, stared at the front door, and left.
He drove into the theater parking lot in Muskogee fifteen minutes before show time, his stomach growling. Multicolored neon lights and massive movie posters proclaimed the newest releases. Ethan took his place in the unusually long line and began scrutinizing his options. For a place that had over ten screens, there didn’t seem to be anything worth his time. He picked an independent film where one of the current A-listers tried to show acting ability.
Ethan walked through the glass doors and stood at the end of the concession line, feet away from the entrance. Ten minutes later, he paid several dollars more for his drink and popcorn than he had for his ticket.
As he walked briskly to his theater, a woman’s laugh made him falter. A second laugh erased his doubt. He was sure. He squinted toward the entrance. Some guy was holding her hand. She looked the same as she had before—same shoulder-length, blonde curls, same petite build—but something was different.
Ethan stared at the smile on her face. He had forgotten what it looked like, how it curved slightly upward, dimpling only her left cheek. He stood there staring even after the couple walked out of view. Finally, he dropped the refreshments in the trash next to the counter, lit a cigarette against the protests of a nearby attendant, and walked back to his car.
Ethan didn’t bother to check the mail when he arrived home. He walked straight through the living room and turned right into his bedroom. He wanted to get to his bed and sleep.
As he entered the room and stepped over a pile of dirty clothes, he noticed the cat lying curled up in the center of the queen bed. Ethan walked to the bedside and sat on its edge, intent on ignoring the animal. He removed his glasses, laid them on the nightstand, and dropped onto the bed. He immediately sat up and felt the side of his face and then the wet pillow.
Ethan picked up the creature by the back of the neck and pointed the animal’s face at the discolored circle on the pillow, which trailed into a bigger circle on the sheets.
“Bad!” He held the animal up and swatted it on the hindquarters before dropping it to the floor. It ran out of the room.
Ethan yanked the sheets from the mattress, threw them against the wall, and then added the pillow to the heap. He hurried to the bathroom to wash his face and then began to pace. He didn’t want it here. It was her cat. He’d given it to her. He’d tell her to come and pick it up. Yeah. He didn’t want to look at the damn thing, anymore. It was hers. He’d tell her what he thought of her. He didn’t need her. He could get along fine without her. He stormed out the door and drove toward her house.
Ethan switched off his car lights as he turned onto her street. He parked a couple houses away, against the curb opposite her house, and stared along the quiet neighborhood to her front yard. Darkness peered back at him through the windows of her suburban home. A nearby street lamp gave an eerie glow to the perfect sod and empty driveway. He cracked the window and pulled out a fresh pack of cigarettes.
Filter after filter fell outside his car door as he waited, creating a small pile of burnt paper and ash on the rough asphalt. Eventually, an SUV turned onto the street and into her drive. The man Ethan had seen at the theater exited from the driver’s-side door and started unlocking the house. Mia came up behind him and ran her arm along his waist.
Ethan crushed his cigarette in the ashtray, got out of his car, and began walking toward them. By the time he reached her yard, the couple had gone inside. He strode up the concrete walkway to their door. As he raised his fist to knock, a cool breeze blew across his face. He closed his eyes.
Ethan saw the two auburn-haired girls, white-knuckled, spinning on steel. The woman to his left had her back to him, helping the pudgy boy across the monkey bars. Ethan couldn’t see her face.
“Faster,” the girls yelled at him.
He opened his eyes. Two silhouettes sat just inside the window, kissing. Ethan lowered his hand and left.
When he reached his home, he walked straight to his bedroom. The cat lay on the bed again, asleep. Ethan tried to gently push the animal away, but it woke and bit his hand.
“God, what’s wrong with you?” He picked it up by the back of the neck. “You’re just mean.” He swatted it on the hindquarters. “You mess everything up. Everything.” He threw it across the room. “God, I hate you!”
The animal flew awkwardly into the wall. He lay dazed against the floor trim for a few seconds, gave a couple of pathetic meows, and limped out of sight. Ethan heaved a few breaths before falling onto his bed. After much tossing and turning, he fell asleep.
As he went around the house getting ready for work the next day, he glanced around for the cat. The animal wasn’t in sight—not on the window ledge, not hiding under the bed, not waiting by his food bowl as Ethan poured fresh kibble in the kitchen.
“Here, kitty, kitty.” Ethan waited by the cat food, but there was no other sound in the house. He glanced at his watch and went to work.
When Ethan returned home, he searched throughout the house for the animal. He found it sprawled in the back of his closet.
The sun had passed the horizon when Ethan placed the bag into the shallow hole. As his eyes adjusted, he stared into the black opening he had created. His breathing became heavier and more rapid as he knelt and began to drag dirt onto the bag with his bare hands. Slowly, his shoulders started to tremble. His fingernails dug into the fresh grave as he began to weep, his open mouth tasting the disturbed earth. Only the occasional chirp of a cricket and rustle of leaves accompanied his quiet sobs. He knelt there for a long time before going inside to sleep.
The next morning Ethan stood in front of his bathroom mirror. He could still see the circles under his eyes and the stubble on his jaw. As he stared at his reflection, his cell phone rang.
“Ethan, this is Mr. Stewart. I know it’s Saturday, but I need you to come in today to finish up your report and do some other work around the office.” He paused. “So, I’ll see you in about thirty minutes?” There was more silence.
Ethan squeezed his eyes shut. “I don’t think so.” Then, he felt himself smile, if only slightly. “In fact, I quit.”
Before Ethan snapped the phone closed, he heard Mr. Stewart choke on his coffee.
R.C. Neighbors is an Oklahoma expatriate who received a Ph.D. in Creative Writing from Texas A&M University and an M.F.A from Hollins University. He currently serves as a Lecturer at the Texas A&M Higher Education Center in McAllen, TX. He lives with his wife, four kids, two dogs, and a photo of himself with the head of hair and motorcycle he used to have. When possible, he enjoys sitting alone, doing nothing and not being bothered. His work has appeared in Tampa Review, Barely South Review, Found Poetry Review, and elsewhere.
You’re getting ready to go to the lake with your family. You’re 9 years old. It’s already a beautiful, warm day and it’s only 10 o’clock. Your mother is preparing the picnic – roast chicken, green salad with spring onions and cherry tomatoes. You ask her if you can bring along the sweets from your birthday, but she says no.
Your brother is next to you, buzzing with energy. He’s 6 years old and you adore him.
Your mother is always telling you: “He’s your responsibility.”
She says it so often that the rhythm is as familiar as your breathing, like a second pulse.
He follows you around everywhere like a shadow. When he’s not there, you have the impression that something is missing, like an arm or a leg.
Your father shouts from the car: “Jesus! Come on! What are you all doing in there?”
You stand at the door looking at him. He’s drumming his fingers on the steering wheel impatiently. He doesn’t understand that going to the lake takes a lot of time. Forget just one thing and you can ruin the whole day.
You’re already wearing your bathing suit – you don’t wear a bikini just yet. You will.
You check your bag for sun cream. You burn easily. Every summer your mother grumbles as she slathers aftersun on your cherry-red back, freshly roasted from the sun.
“Didn’t you feel yourself burning?” she asks.
You shake your head, enjoying the sensation of the cold cream on your back, even though it stings. Your mother puts the cream on roughly, like spreading inch-thick butter on a piece of burnt toast. You can feel the irritation in her hands. Your mother never hits you, but sometimes you can feel anger crackling off her, popping like the sparks of a fire.
In your bag, you have clean underwear for later, a book and a sun-hat.
Raphael joins you at the front door. He also has a small backpack with more or less the same contents, but with an orange ball replacing the book.
“I love the lake,” he says.
“Me too,” you reply.
He puts his arm around your waist and leans his head against you. In these small moments you always want the world to stop. These tiny moments of perfection you wish you could draw out: The anticipation of the lake, the warming smell of the sun on your skin, Raphael’s head against your ribs. You want to press pause, but even at 9 years old you know the world doesn’t work like that.
You finally all get into the car, close the doors and leave. Your father is driving a little recklessly. He’s annoyed. Are you late? Late for who? For what? The lake isn’t going anywhere and you’re not meeting anyone. He’s annoyed. That’s all.
At the roundabout, just before the lake, your father pulls over. The tyres crunch on the gravel and you look out of the window to see why you’re stopping. A man is parked with his van full of fruit. The van itself isn’t very tempting – the tyres look like they haven’t been changed in a long time and are half-flat. You could almost say the same thing about the fruit seller himself. He looks hot and sweaty, his half-deflated belly hanging over his trousers.
Your mother gets out to buy cherries.She smiles at the man and after a couple of seconds he’s laughing. You see him throw in a few extra ones after she’s paid.
Your father doesn’t look at her, but just starts the car and pulls away, the tyres spinning slightly on the gravel, spitting out the stones behind you as you all drive away.
“Look!” your mother says, turning back in her seat towards you and Raphael.
She hangs the cherries over her ears and starts dancing in her seat. Your father shakes his head, smiling. Your mother does this every time she buys cherries. She turns back to the front and pops a cherry in your father’s mouth.
You soon arrive on the winding road that leads down to the lake. Your father told you it used to be a quarry. He often came swimming here when he was a kid. The road to the lake is full of bends and he always drives around them slowly as Raphael feels sick if he goes too fast.
Once at the lake, you get out of the car and immediately start getting undressed.
The lake is waiting for you.
“Your brother!” says your mother. “Don’t forget your brother!”
You look at her, but your thoughts stay below the surface, like the weeds lying hidden in the lake. You turn towards your brother.
“Come on! Hurry up!” You help him take off his t-shirt where he’s managed to get both his arms stuck. He has on a pair of banana-yellow swimming shorts and his tanned skinny legs show no real difference between the thighs and the calves.
“Let’s go!” You pull on his orange armbands and quickly inflate them. You pull them into place and feel them sticking against his skin.
“Ow! Not too tight, Sarah,” he says, frowning.
“Is that better?” you ask, letting out a little air.
“Yes,” he says, wiggling his fingers.
You’re in a hurry. You’re hot. You want to be in the water.
You both go in the lake. You dive under and touch his feet.
“I’m a crocodile! Snap! Snap!” you say, sticking your head out from the water.
“No, no, no!” he shouts, swimming back towards the beach.
“Snap! Snap!” you shout after him. It’s a game you play each time you come here. He doesn’t like it much but it makes you laugh to see him trying to swim so fast.
He scrambles out onto the beach, puffing, and glaring at you.
You stay in the water. You float on your back. The sun is beautiful and you’re happy. You look towards the beach. Your parents have gone off somewhere. There are two or three other families enjoying the sunshine as well. Your brother starts playing around with his ball.
You let yourself sink under the blue-green water. You can’t see much. You float again. Your brother is stretched out on his towel. You go under again, enjoying the silence. You’re alone and it feels good. You come back to the surface and swim back to shore.
“Everything okay?” you ask.
Your brother nods.
“I don’t know.”
You wonder if you should go and look for them or not. Maybe they’ve run away, leaving you and your brother here at the lake with some roast chicken and cherries. It wouldn’t be such a bad thing.
Just then, your parents arrive. Your father looks less annoyed than before.
“Isn’t the lake lovely?” says your mother, her flushed cheeks matching her scarlet sundress.
You think your parents are stupid.
After lunch, they fall asleep in the sun.
“Can we go swimming, Sarah?” asks your brother, tugging on your arm. You fold over the corner of the page you were reading. You look at the lake and feel it calling you, like it always does.
“Sure, why not?” You glance over your parents, waiting for them to say yes, but your father is snoring and your mother seems to be sleeping too.
“Let’s go,” you say. Raphael grabs his ball and comes with you.
You both wade into the water. He’s holding your hand. You can feel his bony fingers holding your first two fingers. He never holds more than that.
“Don’t do the crocodile,” he says, squeezing your fingers.
“Promise?” You know he doesn’t believe you.
“Yes. I promise.” You give him a kiss on the head. He pushes you away but he’s smiling.
“I’m going to swim for a bit. You’ll be okay?” He nods.
“Don’t go too far,” he adds, throwing the ball up in the air.
You swim alone under the water for a moment, for a minute. The water slips across you. You can make out some things under the blue-green water, blurred images. You come back to the surface and glance around for your brother.
You can’t see him.
Maybe he’s hiding, trying to get you back for the crocodile. You look towards the beach. He isn’t there. Nor are your parents. You think that maybe they are all together. You hope they are.
“Raphael?” You say quietly. You don’t want to shout. “Raph!”
You look around you. The water glistens under the sun, holding secrets beneath its smooth surface, impenetrable. There’s no movement at all. It’s the first time the lake has scared you. All you want is to see your brother.
Then, quite far away, you see an orange armband, floating, alone. It’s bobbing lifelessly.
“Raphael!” you scream.
You swim towards the armband but you can’t find him. He’s gone.
Your screams catch the attention of the other families on the beach. Two fathers immediately plough into the water to help you.
“What’s his name, sweetheart?” asks one.
“Raphael.” You start crying. You still can’t see him. Nor can they.
“Raphael! Raphael!” Now everyone is shouting, the women on the beach are standing, tightly holding onto their own children. You wish your parents would come back.
Everyone starts looking for him, but the water stays as calm and silent as a graveyard.
And then they find him. The long grass under the water was holding onto his foot and he was floating just below the surface. Not so far away. For one brief second you think he’s alive, but it’s just the movement of the water. A father carries him out of the water, trying not to cry as he lays him on the sand.
Raphael is cold and white, one deflated armband clinging to his arm. He’s not moving.
“Sweetheart, where are your parents?” asks one of the mothers.
You can’t speak, but you point at their empty towels.
It’s the end of your childhood.
* * *
Your mother blames you. It’s easier than blaming herself, but you don’t understand that yet.
“He was your responsibility! How many times did I tell you that? How many times?” she says, over and over. Your father pulls her away.
At night, you hear them talking downstairs. Generally your mother is crying. Your father holds her, tells her that she needs time.
“I don’t need time,” she sobs. “I need my son.”
He reminds her that they still have you, and that you’ve lost your brother, but it makes no difference. Your mother never really sees you again – she just sees the watery shadow of your brother beside you.
* * * *
You don’t go to the lake for about five years, but you often speak with Raphael. You have the impression he’s still there, holding tightly onto your fingers and that reassures you. Sometimes you feel a ghostly hand tugging on your arm, but when you look down, he’s never there.
When you turn 14, a friend takes you to the lake.
“You have to do it,” she says.
She’s known you since primary school and she’s often right. You both cycle to the lake. By the time you arrive, the sun has burnt off the clouds and you can feel your skin starting to prickle. You understand when it’s burning now.
You can’t wait to get in the water. For a moment you forget about Raphael.
The lake is calm. It’s waiting for you. The trees are reflected quietly on the surface, shimmering gently under the sunlight. Nobody else is there – it’s too early. The families don’t arrive until later.
By now you’re wearing a bikini, even if your father doesn’t agree.
“You’re too young!” he growls.
“I’m 14!” There isn’t much to fill up the bikini but all of your friends are wearing them and you don’t want to be left out.
Your friend stays on the beach.
“The water’s too cold,” she says but really she knows you need some time alone.
You dive into the blue-green water. It’s like coming home. You see shadows of the long weeds which want to hold onto your feet. A sharp image of Raphael’s skinny legs gently moving in the water comes back to you. You burst through the surface. You can’t breathe.
“Everything okay?” shouts your friend, looking worried.
You force a “yes” from your throat and it frees you. You try to breathe more calmly. To breathe with the movement of the water, letting it soothe you.
You close your eyes and see Raphael again, smiling and laughing as you played in the lake. People kept telling you it would get easier. They were wrong. It just changed. The pain didn’t disappear, but constantly hummed beneath your skin. By now it was part of you, like the lake itself.
“Snap, snap,” you whisper.
You dive back under. The lake washes away your tears. It caresses you. You see more shadows of Raphael under the surface, but this time you try to touch them. You wonder if his soul stayed here, swimming every day, doing the crocodile. A part of you hopes it’s true. A part of you wishes you could join him.
You swim back towards the shore, get out and dry your face with your towel.
“Were we right to come?” your friend asks.
“You’re often right, you know?” You look over at her, stretched out on her towel, her eyes closed under the sun.
She smiles at you.
“I try to be.”
After that, you often come back to the lake, never saying anything to your parents. You sometimes come with your friends, but often alone.
You like to swim naked at night when everyone’s asleep. Your friends think you’re showing off but you’re not. The lake relaxes you and you love the water on your skin.
One weekend, a few years later, you go camping with friends. You go to bed slightly drunk, your skin still warm from the sun. You’re sharing your tent with a friend, Matthew, who is slim and almost delicate. He often makes you laugh and reminds you of Raphael. You know he wants to sleep with you but it’s impossible. You think you should be alone for the rest of your life, as a punishment. You can’t be trusted. After all, “Raphael is your responsibility.” Even now it’s still true. When your mother looks at you, all she sees is your brother. You spend as much time as possible out of the house. You spend a lot of time at the lake. You often speak with your brother.
You go to university and you meet Simon. You fall in love. After university, you move in together. You have the wedding, the flowers, the passionate nights. Everything goes well. He’s big and well-built. He plays rugby and couldn’t be more different from Raphael. You take him to the lake where you explain everything. He kisses you. He tells you it wasn’t your fault.
“It was an accident,” he says. “Your mother blames you because she can’t blame herself. No mother wants to lose a child.”
You nod, only half-believing him.
Simon is a good swimmer. Not like a fish, but more like a whale – he makes a lot of noise and you always know exactly where he is. He’s incapable of doing the crocodile and it’s better that way.
One day you spend the day at the lake with friends. In the evening, the others slowly drift home. You and Simon both drink a little too much wine and Simon suggests spending the night.
“We’ve got sleeping bags and a couple of blankets in the car,” he says. “It’s a warm night. Fancy a sleepover?”
You smile and remember why you love him.
You both fall asleep there, with the sound of the water gently lapping in the dark, collapsing onto itself. You go to sleep happy, under the protective glow of the stars.
The next morning you wake up early. You’re warm even though you’re naked under the blanket. The sun is just coming up. You slip quietly out of the sleeping bag and walk gingerly into the lake. The sun hasn’t yet had time to warm the water. You dive in and the cold takes your breath away, like swallowing shards of ice, but after a few moments you breathe more easily. You float on your back, the lake holding you gently. You watch the stars and the approaching dawn.
When you come out, you sit on the beach, a blanket wrapped around you, waiting for the ducks to wake up. When they do, they take off with frantic splashing and you hear the sound of their wings as they pass. You watch as they circle, getting into formation, then heading off.
Simon is still sleeping, looking like an exhausted gladiator.
Nine months later, your son arrives. You name him Raphael. You couldn’t possibly call him anything else.
Your baby is well-built, like Simon. He likes you carrying him and you have a constant backache, but you love it. Now when you speak to Raphael, you don’t quite know if you’re talking to your son or your brother. For you, it’s all the same. Either way, he’s your responsibility.
The summer arrives when your son will be celebrating his sixth birthday.
You want to go to the lake but Simon isn’t sure.
“It’ll be lovely, Simon.”
“It’s morbid. Maybe another birthday, but not this one.” He stands his ground, but you know he’ll give in eventually.
You’re not sleeping well and you keep having strange dreams: you’re under the water, you’re dying, but it’s so peaceful that you don’t fight it. You’re holding Raphael’s hand, but you don’t know if it’s your son or your brother. It feels like you’ve come home.
After several weeks, you manage to convince Simon that going to the lake is a good idea, that it’ll finish this story once and for all. You say nothing to him about the dreams. You convince him that you want this story to end.
“I want us both to have a clean slate, Simon. I’m fed up living with ghosts.”
The day of Raphael’s birthday arrives. You buy roast chicken and prepare a salad. On the way to the lake you stop to buy some cherries. Raphael smiles at you when you hang them on your ears and dance in your seat. He’s happy. Simon relaxes. The sky is blue and the sun is already burning your skin.
You put your towels on the ground, inflate your son’s armbands and you both go into the water. Simon stays on the beach but you know that he’s watching you and that reassures you. Nothing bad can happen.
You swim together, you and Raphael. The sun shines on the blue-green water. You pull on his feet from under the water and he laughs. You pull again, harder and his head passes under the surface. He bobs back up and looks at you, still laughing. Simon is lying on the beach. You think he’s looking at the sky.
You hold Raphael tightly in your arms.
“Raphael,” you say.
You glance back at Simon to see if he’s looking, but he isn’t, so you smile at Raphael, letting the air gently out of his armbands. The stream of air makes bubbles under the water and Raphael laughs.
“Snap! Snap!” you say. Raphael laughs again.
“Crocodile!” he says, smiling.
“That’s right,” you reply.
You wrap your arms around him and plunge under the water together. Raphael doesn’t react immediately. He thinks it’s a game, like before, but then he starts moving, first a little and then a lot. He’s strong, stronger than you imagined, but you manage to keep his head under the water. Your lungs start burning and Raphael won’t stop moving and kicking.
Suddenly someone grabs Raphael’s arm and one of your arms and pulls hard. It’s Simon. He’s hurting you.
“What the hell, Sarah? What the hell are you doing?” he shouts, taking his son in one arm, tightly holding your wrist with his spare hand. He looks furious and scared.
“Let me go,” you say, trying to get your breath back.
He lets go of your wrist. You rub it. It’s screaming red.
Raphael coughs a little, but he doesn’t cry. He’s watching you. You try to take him, but Simon shoves you away, back into the water.
“You’re out of your mind! I’m holding him.” Simon storms back to the beach, carving waves on either side of him. “What the hell were you thinking?” He wraps both arms around Raphael.
“I wanted to save him,” you shout to your husband and Raphael as they walk away. Raphael is looking at you over Simon’s shoulder. You wave at him and he waves back.
“Snap, snap,” you say to yourself quietly.
You let your fingers drift in the water and it feels like someone is holding onto them. You look down into the water, seeing nothing but ghosts.
You watch Simon and Raphael on the beach. Simon has taken off Raphael’s armbands and has wrapped him in a bright yellow towel. He’s holding him on his lap. He’s talking to him, reassuring him. Raphael is smiling. You smile at him, but he’s not watching you anymore.
You take a deep breath and turn back to the lake. You start swimming. The sounds from the beach drift away. You can no longer hear Simon. The lapping of the water starts to feel like breathing. You keep swimming. Your arms start to feel tired and you can hear your pulse. You turn your head briefly and look back at Raphael. You dive down into the water. The lake welcomes you, as it always has.
You never see your son again.
Tara Kenway is based in France. Her work has been featured in Toasted Cheese and in the collection ‘A Monster in the Closet’. Her story ‘We’re Not Common’ was nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the Million Writers Award. When not writing, she’s learning to longboard.
Samantha has been in love with poetry since she stole her mother’s old college textbook of English poetry from the bookshelf at age 10. Poetry speaks to her of the archaeology of the psyche, the strata of loneliness and desire inside all of us, and the equally strong ache to be fully seen. Samantha is a Northern California native, and her work has been featured in deLuge Literary Journal, Wild Roof Journal, and La Piccioletta Barca, among others.
Cristina DeSouza is a poet and physician born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, who lives and writes in Flagstaff, AZ. She earned an MFA in creative writing/poetry from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2016 and has had multiple poems published by several literary magazines and journals both in the US and in Brazil. Her book of poems ‘The Grammar of Senses’ came out in November 2019 by Main Street Rag. Her email address for contact is firstname.lastname@example.org.
There’s a shattered television outside on the curb. Pedestrians are starting to gather around it like pigeons. They look more confused than pigeons.
Why are people around here so shocked when I throw things out the window? I mean, I’ve done it three times already.
Scratch that, four times. Forgot about Satan’s toaster last week.
This apartment is a horrible little place that should be condemned, and I pay my rent. So what are they gonna do, evict me? I’m the only resident in this place who doesn’t cook meth in the kitchen.
The rituals that everyone hands out like candy that are supposed to calm me down only seem to agitate me further.
“Take deep breaths.” They said.
“Drink some tea.” They said.
Deep breaths get way too close to the area my heart used to be. I hate tea. I looked down at the street where an irritating man, barking orders to his kids, loaded the broken TV into the bed of his truck. People will take anything nowadays.
If the cops want to come by and give me a ticket for littering, let them. They should have other things to deal with in this neighborhood.
Looking at the sidewalk, I cold tell where the corner hit the pavement was going to retain a significant scratch.
I don’t want tea. I might want cookies.
I decide to make them from scratch.
I put an old vinyl on, to soundtrack the experience, still half expecting it to get interrupted halfway through by those sickening flashing lights outside.
Instead it got interrupted when the record hit a scratch.
I’m running out of things to pitch out the window. Maybe I’ll try to make cookies again tomorrow, this evening has been expensive enough on my electronics. Heaven knows what I’ll do to my laptop if the cookies turn out anything less than perfect. I get into bed and stare at the ceiling. I run my left hand along the space between the thumb and the index finger on my right hand. The spot she gripped so tight when they were taking her into emergency surgery.
Her fingernail left a scratch.
Sometimes scratches heal. But sometimes you don’t want them to.
Logan Cox is a young writer currently living in the south of Spain. He was raised by kind parents who showed him the world and the right way to live, also seeing to it that his education was supplemented by frequent travel. He can usually be found at the kitchen table, laughing until he cries with his family, and daydreaming excessively.
Jesus and Mary Magdalene walk through the spinning doors of the Airport Hotel in Jacksonville. Jesus’s sporting large, impenetrably dark sunglasses and holding a cup of coffee; he rubs his temples, stumbling.
Mary frowns, “Jesus, did you get drunk last night?”
“No, I’m not drunk!”
Her frown deepens. Jesus, swaying left to right, bumps into a cleaning cart, knocking it over.
“Oh, Jesus, you are drunk!”
Jesus gives Mary a dirty look, “leave me alone! I’m 2,019 years old, you can’t tell me what to do!” He pulls a joint from his pocket and sparks it with the snap of his fingers.
“Jesus, you can’t smoke that in here!”
“What’re they gonna do, crucify me?” He blows the smoke in the air.
An employee in a servile vest and clip-on bowtie comes scampering from behind. His hand is high and his finger wagging.
“Hey, sir, you can’t smoke in here! Hey!”
Jesus turns around, “eat it, bro! Do you know who I am?”
Unnamed Employee jerks to a halt and takes a few slow, cautious steps backward then turns and runs.
Jesus ashes the joint on the carpet, “that’s what I thought.”
Muted tears stream down Marys’ face, she opens the door to room 840, a small conference room, she turns back to Jesus, “come on, it’s in here.”
Walking through the doorway, taking off his glasses and looking around, Jesus says, “this blow better be as good as you say.”
F. Dick Paine gets up from his chair, smiling. He walks towards Jesus and extends his hand, “Hey, Jesus, I’m F. Dick Paine, I’m an interventionist, and I want you to know that everyone here loves you and wants you to get help.”
“Oh, what the fuck. Come on, man. So there are no drugs?” Jesus throws his coffee in surprise.
FDP looks sideways and squints, “no.”
Jesus turns and goes out the door, “no way, man; I’m too up for this.”
St. Patrick gets up from his chair, looking at everyone, “don’t worry, mates, I’ll go talk some sense into him.”
After fifteen minutes, Jesus and St. Patrick return. St. Patrick has his arm slung around Jesus—whose head is hurting, as if wearing a crown of thorns, from caffeine withdrawal. He waves over a Christmas Elf who brings him a cup of coffee. The Elf gives the coffee and turns but Jesus grabs the Elf by the back of the shirt and points at the coffee forcefully. Bashfully, the Elf pulls a flask from the breast pocket of his vest and pours the contents into the Jesus’. Jesus shoos off the Elf.
Christ takes a seat, Mother Mary to his left and the Father on the right. Currently, God is taking the form of a young orangutan. God hugs Jesus and slips him a banana. Jesus begins to cry slightly, dabs his eye with the banana, peels it, and begins eating. Mary takes her sons’ hand. Jesus wipes a tear away from her eye.
FDP coughs to gain attention, fixes his glasses and speaks, “thank you, Jesus, for coming back. We know this isn’t easy for you. There’re some refreshments behind me if you need a snack break.”
F. Dick Paine points behind him to a table with coffee, donuts, fruit salad with too much pineapple, ice water and two bowls of various flavored mini-quiches, “so, some of us here have written letters to you. Judas, would you like to begin?”
Judas, wiping sweat from his brow, stands up and unfolds his letter, “Jesus… I’m sorry I betrayed you with a kiss; that was totally lame. I didn’t realize how my actions would impact your sense of basic trust. I know I have hurt you, which has contributed to your current state, but, Jesus, it’s been over two thousand years; it’s time you face your addiction. You’re not the same person. You lie, you cheat; just last week I heard you went church to church under the guise of meeting the people when in reality all you did was drink red wine and get wasted,” Judas begins sobbing, he places a hand over his eyes, “I just—I just can’t watch you kill yourself anymore. It hurts; it hurts so much. You need help, Jesus; will you please just get help?”
Judas sits. The Tooth Fairy rubs his shoulder gently and gives him a quarter.
“Thank you, Judas. That was very touching. Ok, St. Patrick, would you like to go?”
“Ay, lad. Jesus, Even the best party must end, it’s time. I know I haven’t helped you like a friend should. Instead of talking to you about your problem with drugs and alcohol, I’ve been doing drugs and alcohol with you. I’ve been letting you down. It’s not too late for you, lad. I don’t want to take the attention off you, this day is solely about you, but I think my mistakes can help you learn,” St. Patrick sighs and hangs his head for a second, “Jesus, I have an inoperable, terminal, hepatocellular tumor. I have six months to live…”
Santa begins crying hysterically and runs out the room; Dracula gets up to corral him. Jesus, too, begins crying at typhoon level. After the initial shock dies down, St. Patrick starts up again:
“You’re still so young, Jesus. If you change your ways, you’ll live, at least, another few thousand years. I know your hurting, Jesus. I know you’ve been through a lot, have unreachable expectations on you, but I know this,” he waves his hands around the circle of chairs, “is something you can do. Get help, Jesus, not for any of us, but for you.”
“Thank you, St. Patrick. Santa was to read next but it would appear that Dracula hasn’t been able to convince him to come back…”
Dracula knocks on the door to the locked bathroom in Santa’s room, “Nick, come on out, buddy, St. Patrick and Jesus are gonna be ok.”
“No, I’m not coming out!” Santa cries, as he rocks back and forth, clutching his knees’.
“Well… I can at least come in and take a piss?”
“No!” Santa yells.
Dracula sighs, pisses into the trash can, grabs a glass, removes a pint of O-Negative from his pocket, grabs two small bottles of vodka from the mini-fridge and makes himself a Bloody Mary, “I’m gonna be here a while.”
A 15-minute break is mid-session in room 840. Jesus grabs one of the quiches.
“Spinach and feta, nice,” he says.
He devours it and grabs another, bacon and cheddar. God climbs about the room on the light fixtures and throws his shit at Satan.
“Oh, real mature, God,” Satan says, lowering his newspaper.
“Don’t you mean, ‘real manure,’ you piece of shit?”
The devil just squints and turns back to his newspaper.
St. Patrick furtively sneaks some Jameson and Bailey’s into his coffee. Superman walks up to him, “hey, what’re you doing, Pat?”
“Uh, nothing!” St. Patrick cries as he rushes off, leaving Superman nonplussed.
Mother Mary and Mary Magdalene talk about how they’re tired of being confused for one another on Tinder, and all the unsolicited dick pics, especially from Zeus—who looks over at them and winks. The Mary’s shudder.
F. Dick Paine is talking to St. Peter about what its like being Heavens’ bouncer: “It’s okay, I guess. Imagine the universes’ greatest party. Now imagine standing outside, the whole time, letting people in, but never getting in. The only peaks I get are while the door closes.”
“Well, that’s pretty… uh, unfortunate. You guys haven’t figured out, like, some sort of schedule, or shift system?”
“I keep putting that in the suggestion box, but I don’t think anyone’s checking.”
“Hmm, sounds like that job should be reserved for someone from hell, am I right?” F. Dick Paine chuckles.
“Yeah, well, maybe when you get there they’ll ship you right up,” St. Peter mumbles under his breath.
“I’m sorry, what?”
“Oh, my mistake. Alright, everybody, let us return to our seats. Still no sight of Santa and Dracula….”
“No! I should’ve helped them. I’ve been bad. I deserve a big chunk of coal.” Santa yells from behind the door.
“Oh, what, wow, look at that, I happen to have a big piece of coal with me. Care to see it, Nick? I can give it to you ahead of Christmas, thus nullifying your badness.”
The door creaks open.
“…We’ll continue. God, would you like to speak now?”
God drops down from the roof.
“Jesus, my only son, the savior of my usually-favorite creation, humans; I know I haven’t been the best father. I wasn’t there for you as a child, and I sentenced you to a horribly excruciating death, but believe me when I say, ‘I love you.’ I was so busy, before I knew it, you had lived and died and returned home. I know you think I’ve ‘forsaken’ you but I’ve always been in your corner. I’ve been trying so hard to reconnect with you since you’ve been back, but you just push me away. You’re always high or drunk. You’re not the perfect savior you were when you were younger; I want that Jesus back. I apologize, son; I’m not asking for forgiveness, but truly, from the bottom of my hearts, I’m sorry. I want you to get better, to be better; to be the guy who turns water to wine and not because he can’t afford alcohol, but because he’s expressing the Glory of the Lord. Please, son, get help.”
Jesus stands and begins to yell:
“Piss off, dad! Honestly. Save your sanctimonious bull for the birds. You think you can waltz back into my life after ending my one on Earth? I still have nightmares about that shit! Why do you think I’m on drugs in the first place? I have horrible PTSD,” Jesus begins to breakdown, “I’m hurting, I’m hurting so bad. I started to numb out the pain, but now, now, I just can’t stop, because if I stop, I get sick. As trite as it is; I’m so sick of being sick,” Jesus falls to his knees, head in hands, and cries.
Mother Mary goes to her son and holds him, “Oh, my baby, I love you so much! Will you get help?”
FDP chimes in, “Well, Jesus, what do you say? We have a car that’ll take you to the airport right now so you can go to the Betty Ford Center and get the help you need. Not only will they help medically with the withdrawal, but they’ll also help to treat the underlying issues that push you to using.”
Jesus sniffles and runs his finger along his nose, “yes, yes, I’ll go.”
Everyone rejoices and Tubthumping begins playing in the background.
Jesus hugs God, “I’m sorry I’ve been such a jerk, dad. I didn’t think it’d be hard for you too.”
“Fret not, my child, we have both strayed from the flock, but it’s our time to return.”
Santa and Dracula come back mid-celebration.
“Where did you get this piece of coal?” Santa says happily, rubbing a fairly large and impressive piece of coal.
“You know, it’s so weird. My grandfather gave it to me on his deathbed; I thought he had lost it. But he kept saying, ‘you’ll need this one day! you’ll need this one day!’ Guess he was right.”
Santa notices the intervention is over, “ah, fuck, we missed it!” Santa yells. He snaps the coal in half in anger.
Dracula notices and sheds a tear, “grandfather…” he runs up stairs to the bathroom.
“Turntables…” Santa says.
Jesus walks, holding the hands of his parents, to the minivan waiting in the parking lot. Inside waits Emma Apprentice—black hair, bangs, nurse practitioner—who’ll monitor Jesus on his trip to California. As Jesus gets into the car he turns to everyone:
“I got knocked down, but I’m getting up again… thanks to you all!”
“See you losers when I’m sober!”
The cheering intensifies as the holy rollers roll to the lobby bar to celebrate the successful intervention.
Inside the car, Jesus turns to Emma, “you look familiar, weren’t you on a TV show, or something?
Emma quickly looks right then left, “uh… no, no.”
“Oh my mistake. It’s just, you look exactly like federal agent—”
Before Jesus could finish his sentence, Emma stabs a syringe of potent tranquiller into Jesus’ jugular. Jesus falls into a stupor within seconds and begins drooling on himself.
As the car drives into the sunset, Emma throws her hands behind her head and crosses her feet, “Christ, it feels good to help people.”
“Oh, not you…”
Sean MacDonald is a Boston-based writer proudly published for the first time in the Button Eye Review. He has a complete manuscript of poetry and is midway through a novel manuscript. He can be reached at email@example.com.
I killed a man once. I said at the bar. I was lying, because I’m a woman.
Women lie. At least, we lie when we’re sleeping, we don’t sleep
I had a horse once. Deep in the fields I lost it, let go of its bridle and
there it goes so fast away from me
like other things.
They said I was pretty, after I
on the autopsy table, I heard them say I was pretty
pretty much dead
Well, if I’m dead I may as well go to the bar with my friends.
A horse walks into a bar.
Naomi Rhema Edwards graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2008, and earned an MFA in Poetry from the University of Pittsburgh in 2011. Her work has appeared in Tupelo Quarterly and Cathexis Northwest Press, among others. She lives and works in Pittsburgh.
East Tennessee native and mixed media artist Sara Barrett lives blissfully at the foothills of the Smokies with her husband of 12 years, their 11-year-old daughter and two cats. A full-time creative thinker, Barrett repurposes used and discarded materials of all types in her artwork. Scrap paper usually hogs the spotlight. Although she admires most all art forms, she is deeply inspired by music and the talent behind it. Artists including Billie Holiday, U2, Ray LaMontagne, Volbeat and dozens of others can be heard spinning on the turn table in her art room on any given evening. When not creating, Sara enjoys traveling to obscure locations with her family and documenting the experience with amateur photos. Enjoying chocolate, laughing loud and listening to classic rock are also priorities for her. Sara’s artwork has been seen locally at The Emporium in Knoxville and The District Gallery in Bearden. You can see more of her work on Instagram @freelance.muse.
It was February and the snow squeaked beneath my shoes.
My husband was refusing to pick me up after my evening shift at the job he insisted I take, to supplement the one I already had, so I could pay my “fair” half of the bills, be responsible, grow up. I imagined him two ways: one, sitting at his computer, conflicted, guilty, obsessed and resenting me for putting him in that position; the other, sleeping or engrossed in TV, having blissfully forgotten I even existed.
Projection: I was one half detached, a pious nun setting one numb foot in front of the other counting down the 1.6 miles, the 30 minutes, the minus 15 wind chill; the other swirling in fevered unbeloved panic. Besides my husband, my cats, my warm home and everything in it were waiting for me, but it was all fraught and contaminated.
Perhaps the cold would at least keep any muggers or rapists away?
I’d always liked to read true crime, still do. Serial killers, sure, but especially domestic crime, crime between supposed loved ones. Not for the physical gore of it. Partly for the Schadenfreude of it. But more like a mystery, but not a whodunit. No, the suspense of seeking the precise moment when they went from jointly happy and cute to separately murderer and murderee.
That seemed the inevitable endgame of my own psychic trajectory, nothing but trouble, any happiness I had ever felt a mirage born of a need for compensation.
So I killed her, my ego, that night, the first time. It was her or me. I would to do it again—I did do it again, and I will do it again, as many times as necessary.
Julie Benesh’s writing has been published in Tin House Magazine, Bestial Noise: The Tin House Fiction Reader, Crab Orchard Review, Florida Review, Gulf Stream, Berkeley Fiction Review, and other places.She has received an Illinois Arts Council Grant, earned an MFA in fiction from Warren Wilson College, lives in Chicago and is a professor and program director at a school of professional psychology.
George L Stein is a photographer in the New Jersey/NYC area focused on art, street, urban decay, surreal, and alt/portrait photography. He has previously been published in a number of literary magazines such as Beyond Words, Juste Milleiuzine, and NUNUM.