The Way We Hurt – Kelly Fitzharris Coody, Editor-in-Chief

At the moment I feel as though I’m going through an entirely unique brand of hurt. During my dysfunctional, bipolar second marriage, we lost three babies. One of which was really recent. So on top of all the lies, the stealing, the hurt, and the distrust, there were three separate pregnancies that all ended with a baby dying.

On top of that, I still have to deal with my ex-husband and our ridiculous custody arrangement for my other two children. Today my son did not want to leave my house to go with his dad. He was screaming, crying, and he was hysterical. (Our custody arrangement is split 50/50 – one of our children is 10 years old, the other is 6 years old. My six year old son is the one who is struggling with the arrangement.) His dad stood there, totally unemotional, unaffected, acting like I had somehow put my own son up to this. The reality is that my son is having a hard time and is having some very real emotions about everything. So when I had to tell him that he needed to leave, it ripped my heart out. I still feel sick over it and it happened over an hour ago. Where do I go from here? What do I do?

I was married (the second time) barely over a year. He already has a lawyer and is planning to just rake me over the coals even though he stole my things and pawned them and siphoned money out of my paychecks regularly; you can’t make a case for any of that since there is no technical “stealing” if you’re married, even if the other party is a drug addict with a documented history of theft.

And as far as the custody arrangement from my first marriage goes, my hands are just tied. I cannot afford a lawyer. I don’t have a family lawyer, nor is my dad a lawyer with lawyer friends who will do things for me for free.

I’m at the point where I just want to give up. People keep telling me how strong I am; is that just because I show up for work and put on a smile? Even though I’m dying inside? Even though I’ve had to just deal with the mountain of crap I’ve been given? I don’t feel strong anymore and I’m honestly so sick of trying. It hurts too bad to try.

Why do we have to cause each other so much pain and suffering? And how much is enough? When do I get to see some sort of light at the end of the tunnel, some sort of vindication?

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Hey, What if we Just Started Over? – Editor-in-Chief, Kelly Fitzharris Coody

Hear me out.  I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently.

I know I’ve (we’ve) had lots of “almost shutting down” forks in the road, submissions email changes, editorial staffing and contributor changes, and a lot of confusion about themes, no themes, what status your work is in at the moment, etc, etc, etc ….. And you can basically just continue that ellipsis until infinity. Some of that comes with the whole “online-indie-lit-mag” territory. I’m simplifying some really important points, then I will promptly move it to our submissions guidelines page and we will move forward from there.

Here are some guidelines-slash-pointers moving forward with the new SLM: 

  1. FORGET past submissions that you never heard back from me or any other editor about. Just put it on a metaphorical (or maybe an actual) shelf for now. Otherwise, we’re all going to be chasing our tails forever. No thanks.
  2. If you submit and you don’t hear back from me, dude, you’ve got to relax. Do not chase me down on Facebook, Twitter, insert other social media here, or send e-mails to my personal e-mail. It’s just NOT okay. I have children, i.e., a family, too, just like you. I am busy trying my damnedest to make their childhood great and I also work a full-time job so I can put food on the table.
  3. Most definitely don’t establish a great working relationship with me and then post disparaging comments about the web site and how SLM is suddenly “the worst.” Dude, guess what? It’s still literally just me. It is me who is approving that comment you wrote. And it sucks. Don’t do it. Write me an e-mail. And don’t be a jerk.
  4. Don’t take advantage of my openness and generosity. If you send me plagiarized work and I publish it, I WILL find out about it.
  5. Basically, let’s wipe the damn slate clean and start writing again.

One more really important thing that I must touch on before we get to the fun part: 

TIMELINE and GUIDELINES: 

  • I don’t know when I will get back to you after you submit your work. It could be that same day. It might be a month later. If a really, really long time has passed, it’s safe to assume that it didn’t quite work.
  • WE DO NOT publish books, book-length material, nor do we review books at this time.
  • We DO accept simultaneous submissions and reprinted material.

Now that that’s out of the way, here’s what I want from you and here’s where I want you to send it: 

  • I know, I know, yet another new email. Just think of it as an official way to wipe the slate clean: kmfitzharris@gmail.com
  • What do I want? I still want originality, I still want writing that is genuine, sincere, and writing that is specific to the genre of YOU (meaning write what you write, not what you think I want you to write).
  • What do I look for in your submissions email? Be yourself. Don’t try to pitch me your writing or sell it to me – you are good enough just as you are. Be candid and tell me what’s up and why you’re submitting your work to me. You can either put your submission in the body of your email or attach it as a word doc. Please, no PDFs.
  • Word count: Unless it’s a Gone-Girl caliber page-turning suspenseful roller-coaster ride, for the love of God and all things holy, don’t send me 30 pages. Honestly, don’t send 20! Unless I get lost reading your work and can’t even tell what page I’m on, which is awesome, those are way too long for an online literary magazine. And it takes time away from other submissions I could be reading.
  • Genre / type of work: Really, anything and everything. Poetry, fiction, prose-poetry, erasure poetry, abstract art, photography, fan art for this magazine, a series of cool old letters that you found in a drawer in your attic, an op-ed, a personal essay, non-fiction, LGBTQ, flash fiction, fan fiction.

Have fun writing and be sure to submit your work to me at kmfitzharris@gmail.com

Happy writing!

I will talk to you soon,

 

IMG_5716

Kelly Fitzharris Coody,

Editor-in-Chief

Life Has a Way of Drop-Kicking you. – Editor-in-Chief, Kelly Fitzharris Coody

I think you guys all remember the upheaval that my life has been under, right? That divorce from my children’s father, having to start over and try not to be bitter while all I wanted to do was scream after throwing away 12 years of hard work, good times, bad times, a love that I’d thought was there, and two malleable children who deserve the world. They are bright and wonderful people.

I got married again, on August 12th, 2017. I got married to a man with whom I thought I could share forever. At first things were good – well, actually, they were miraculous. I didn’t know how I deserved someone so loving and giving; someone who actually loved me for ME and wasn’t going to constantly throw my misgivings in my face. Someone who loved the kids and told me that he missed them when they were gone…

You know what they say about something that seems to good to be true, right? Well, it turns into a tornado of violence, manipulation, and blackmail. I’m 34 with a job and two children and it was not only the last thing I needed , but the last thing I’d ever expected from my new husband.

He and I lost a baby in December of 2017. I was probably 11-12 weeks along. The doctors did the DNA/ genetic / chromosome testing and found the baby we’d lost had had Trisomy 21, aka, Down syndrome. This past summer, we decided to give it one more go to see if we could have a baby. Now, this was the time that everything spiraled out of control. He’d stolen 71 pills from me the minute we found out I was pregnant. Before that, when I went back to work Feb. of 2018, right before my first day, I’d looked into a nearly empty bill bottle. So he had stolen pills from me for a long time and I guess I just wanted to make it work so badly that I couldn’t see how bad he was getting.

Flash forward with me. As the pregnancy went on, he could not control his anger. He became erratic, frightening, aggressive, and made my blood pressure rise to a place that it should never have to go. One night, after I’d begged him to just let me be and let me lie on the bed, he stormed into the bedroom and threw a steel cup that was full of water, all the way across the room, dousing everything and simultaneously skipping along the wall, damaging it as well. He punched an enormous hole in my wall that I’ll never be able to fix.

He started to get mean with my children too. He made them cry. There was a night that I was in the bathtub and he got mad about god knows what and started pounding his fists over and over again on the tile probably a foot away from where I was taking my bath.

Despite my better judgment, I kept trying to make it work. I tried so, so hard, but he just spiraled downward further.

As I looked through my bank transactions one day, I got sick to my stomach. I counted up everything he’d been doing for the past month; he’d siphoned 2000 out of my paychecks and used it to go buy drugs. There’s more than that 2000- I was too sickened to continue to look.

The last night that I was with him, he had agreed to pick my kids up from school because I was had worked a 12 hour day, on my feet, pregnant. I get home and my house had been RANSACKED. Purses, sunglasses, watches, glasses cases, were all gone. That’s what he was doing all day as I worked. All of the things he stole were either gifts, amazing finds in an antique store where they didn’t realize the item was designer and priced it low, or something I saved up for for a long time. And I’ll never get those things back. He even stole my 10 year old daughter’s saved up cash out my wallet while I was either asleep or in the bathroom or something.

Yes, I was pregnant again. I lost the baby last week and had surgery on Friday to remove the baby, which was about 14 weeks along.

Now that the new husband has moved out, he’s acting absolutely disgusting to me. He’d put our gas bill in his name because he said he would take care of all the bills. I can’t tell you how many times he’s threatened to turn our gas off. He’s not even having to pay the damn bill, I am. He’s only doing this to be mean. And I had to co-sign for him to buy me my engagement ring. Now that we’re splitting up, he’s trying to destroy my credit by not giving me the log-in information for me to set up automatic payments on my account. He’s deliberately trying to destroy me in any way that he can. Can he not understand that he was abusive? That my children were scared of him? That we want our lives back? Why is he withholding things that we need to move on?

I’m sure you guys can see why I haven’t had time to post in a while.

I’m up to my ears in to-do lists to try and get my life back on track, but it is a beast. I’m overwhelmed and frustrated. I feel like I just got hit by the abusive husband truck and am having to figure out everything on my own. I have familial support but at the same time, most, if not all, of what I need to do, is on my own.

I’m just depressed. God, I’d felt so trapped for so long. While I’d be getting ready for work, he’d sit to where his face was a few inches from mine and scream at me as I was trying to put on makeup for work. And if he wasn’t screaming, he was dead asleep. It was one extreme or another.

Then it progressed to him screaming at me while we were waiting to see the OB-GYN. The front desk staff even informed our doctor what was happening because they were getting scared for me.

I would say, “Please, stop, you’re making a scene,” as merely a whisper.

He would come back with, “You’re the one making a scene, if you would just stop.”

Then I stopped replying to him. I tried to move chairs to get away from him and he blocked it so that I couldn’t get up and kept getting louder and louder and louder.

That visit ended with him saying through gritted teeth, to where the entire lobby full of people could hear, “And wipe that scowl off your face.”

Kelly

 

Ramblings of a Mother – by Alina Senderzon

Saturday. I navigate the small streets of suburbia. My 12 year old is in the front seat next to me, intermittently staring out the window and at her phone. I’m talking at her, and she occasionally rewards me with monosyllabic grunts. She doesn’t dare meet my eye, might it be mistaken for faint interest.

Our elbows are eight inches apart, and she’s somewhere far beyond my reach. My realization is sudden and paralyzing — I’m losing her.

Sunday. I’m in elusive pursuit of spending time together. The opening credits of a respectably-entertaining, age-appropriate movie roll by, as I plead over my shoulder for her company. Fearing to seem desperate, I proceed to watch the movie alone. Follow-through being the parent’s punishment, she taunts me with distant laughs in her room.

Monday. She’s in throes of this week’s mid-school-life crisis, and as a parent, I can’t possibly understand her plight. I channel my best aloof-self, tossing her an occasional, “So what then?” while scrambling leftovers into a meal. She’s talking, which means that my performance deserves an Academy Award nod, or at least an Emmy.

I side glance at her in wonder. People say she looks like me. I don’t see it. She’s all tan-legs and giant-eyes, and I’m just pale. She asked me once if that’s a compliment, and I tried not to cry. But for the record, yes, it’s a compliment that people think I look like this gorgeous little human.

Tuesday. I wake up late, just in time to see her swoop past me with a cheerful, “Bye, mom.”

Wednesday. It’s dark when she gets home from dance class. I ask to see her routine, and she gladly obliges. I give her my undivided attention, and she counts herself in — five-six-seven-eight. She sweeps across the floor to music only she can hear, biting her lip. I tell her it’s great, she’s great. Except the lip-biting part.

Thursday. I come home after my dance workout and head straight to her room. Our eyes meet, and without a word, she counts me in — five-six-seven-eight. I flail and shuffle in concentration. “Wait, I forget this part…” She watches patiently, as I repeat my flailing, and gives me an only slightly dubious good-job.

I shower and find my mom’s eyes looking back at me from the fogged mirror. People say I look like her. I don’t see it, at least I haven’t until very very recently. It’s hard to believe that I look anything like that beautiful woman.

Friday. We’re having dinner with my parents. Mom is thrilled to see us—she always is, no matter how often we see each other. She’s unashamed and exaggerated in her excitement, and I wonder if that’s precisely how I’ll feel about sharing a meal with my daughter someday.

We chat about this and that. I disclose my parenting adventures of the week, with detail and color and, dare I say, occasional humor. We laugh heartily and toast to family, while kids banter in another room.

Mom asks about my day, my work. I recoil. I struggle to meet her eye and say anything beyond, “It’s fine.” I’m relieved when kids stomp back, asking about dessert.

Saturday. I’m reading on the couch. She comes over to ask me something and somehow I finagle her into sitting with me. She rests her head and lets me play with her hair. She lays with me, as I chant sweet nothings over her.

I commit this scene to memory — the weight of her head, the way her silky hair slides between my fingers. For a few moments I’m filled with hope.

# # #

AlinaSenderzon

Alina Senderzon is a dreamer and a maker. She’s a designer by day and an aspiring writer by an occasional night. She lives in Palo Alto, CA with her husband and two daughters.

THEY – by Chris Calcara

THEY changed everything that was important to us and to make us forget what THEY had done, THEY put something mysterious in the public water supply. And slowly, almost imperceptibly, people and places and objects that we’d lived with forever were given new names so that we’d no longer have connections to the old ones. By simply eliminating a letter or two and assigning a whole new meaning in Ikipedia, there was to be no association with the ast, only the future, no such sensation anymore as déjà vu (THEY’re just getting to the foreign vocabularies), no reason for emories because they were esterday and all that mattered was tomorrow. We came to know that when something changed, we were about to lose it.

We now occupied a planet called Eart. And not just Eart, but Eart Minor, THEY called it, because THEY’d found another livable planet that THEY named Eart Major. That was to be the next home for all of us once wed completely destroyed Eart Minor. And that day wasn’t far off, THEY told us. We were to blame for everything bad, they said, but THEY would fix it, no hard feelings.

We knew. Those of us for whom the water wasn’t enough knew all of us would not be going. There were at least two people in my building who knew. Me and Barbara. I met her in the basement laundry room, fortuitously alone together. THEY didn’t like any of us alone together but THEY had only so many spies to go around.

It was when she mentioned the color of the water filling the washing machines that I suspected. “Looks like the sea,” she reflected as I slid my trade paper into the pay slot and the cold cryptic liquid began to fill the tub. She emembered that water hadn’t always been this color, that it used to be clear, innocuous, not this Adriatic misty blue, how the ocea looked when the hot sun in the cool sky beat down on it, before it turned brown and became something else. Such a pristine, peaceful shade of blue that made you want to drink it by the gallons, bathe in it twice a day.

I didn’t dare let on that I thought she was different, like me. “Hi, I’m Peter,” I said, extending a hand which she studied warily but didn’t shake. “I’ve not seen you before.”

Her hazel eyes met mine. “I just moved here…” she claimed, eerily evenly. She tossed her load in the dryer and inserted her currency to start the noisy thing tumbling. “From Hiladelphia,” she said louder, to be heard over the rumble. Her hesitation between statements gave her away. She had to stop and think about the newfangled name of the place she came from before she could say it.

“Welcome,” I said, spotting a cute pair of her underpants that had fallen to the floor during the transfer from the washer to the dryer. They were lacy and red. She stooped to pick them up.

She was pretty, didn’t have that empty, emotionless expression so many of us wore when the water had done its erasure job. We got very good at lying, playing dumb, those of us who emembered how to. I imagined her age around my own, but age didn’t apply to people anymore. THEY said chronology didn’t matter since we’d all feel young and peppy again after a while on Eart Major.

She wasn’t wearing a edding ing so I wished she was single like me. People weren’t allowed to arry anymore, arriage being an outdated institution. If you had one, you could stay with a pouse until one of you died, in which case there was no re-arriage, and so symbolic jewelry became obsolete. Pairs of people were frowned upon, any hint of collaboration strongly but tactfully discouraged. Hence, THEIR need for spies. Everywhere.

“Is there anything I can do to help you get settled?” I asked her. “Cuppa sugar? Secret admirer?” I ventured that by displaying a genuine sense of humor, in short supply, she’d know I wasn’t just anybody.

She put it on thick. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Then she strolled out of the room with her empty yellow plastic basket and onto the elevator.

“If you’ll give me your apartment number,” I called after her, but the doors slid shut before she could hear me mutter, “I’d be glad to let you know when your laundry’s ready.” Bye.

Our landlady was one of THEIR spies and so it would have done me no good asking her about the recent tenant. There was only one uninhabited mailbox tag: 202. I didn’t want to seem like a total creeper so I let her go for a while, but that number orbited my brain like space debris for days.

#

You didn’t want to venture outside any more than you had to. The air was so glutinous with pollution and the constant odor of factory gases from the smelters and the plants that produced the chemicals for the water, the parts for the ships that soared to Eart Major, and all the provisions that were taken there in preparation for our arrival. Or so THEY told us.

These were the only industries on Eart Minor and if you worked, it was for one of them. Everything else was provided from storehouses of junk, cast-offs and recycles from those who’d already gone (or passed). Nothing was free because THEY didn’t want to strip the workers of self-esteem but everything was cheap. As for food and other commodities, there were places for those, too. Synthetic substitutes took the place of fresh vegetables and fruits, the soil so contaminated with toxic waste from the factories that nothing worth eating would grow in it. Consequently, no one was particularly healthy although workers usually got proper treatment and lived the longest.

I worked for the provision producers so I ate fairly well but had my sights set on space, specifically space travel. Being of somewhat sound mind still, I knew the only way I was going to get to Eart Major was if I were in the space program. An only child, my parents long dead, thank od, because I’d hate for them to see what’s become of this planet, I had no one to care about but myself. That’s how THEY wanted all of us, eventually, alone. And I wasn’t lucky enough to be rich. THOSE folks didn’t have a orry in the orld.

Speaking of od, whomever or whatever od was, it became a lesser being and wasn’t even capitalized when the name appeared in subversive print. No one was more important than THEY. All houses of worship were bulldozed, but despite THEIR vigorous attempts, it was very difficult for THEM to completely jettison od from the collective consciousness. Still, THEY never stopped trying.

I peered through the peephole of 202 and I heard a rustling through the gap at the floor, as if whatever was there was padding around in slippers. Tap t’ tap tap.

“Who’s there?” came the voice of the girl from the laundry room. I recognized it immediately because I still had emory. Memory.

“It’s me,” I whispered, “the laundry guy.”

She left me standing there.

“Are you going to let me in?” I asked.

“No. Go away,” she barked, the curiosity palpable in her voice. “I’m calling the landlord.”

Silence. Then I heard the chain slide on its track as a sliver of light spread between us. “What do you want?” she said, bracing the door tightly with her hands. I noticed her fingernails were polished. Nobody did that anymore. And they, too, were red.

I wedged my sturdy work boot into the fissure and flashed my flirty grin.

She slammed the door on my foot. “Cut the crap.” She had fire, this one, another red flag. With the ecosphere in its present mutant shape, nobody had much fire in their belly anymore, just jelly.

Suddenly, we heard landlady McCaskey downstairs. “Everything all right up there?” she brayed in that sickeningly saccharine tone of hers.

“Everything’s fine,” I said, calmly. “Just bringing mail that was delivered to my box by mistake.” Then I made heavy footfalls toward the elevator and pushed the up button. As the doors closed, I heard the hag retreat into her apartment.

“Please let me in. I won’t hurt you.”

She unshackled the door and opened it little by little. I saw her eyes first, more green than hazel, as if dealing with a madman turned them a shade different from what doing laundry did. And her hair, it was brown, like mine, but a dark, rich coffee color, shiny and clean. Hardly anything was clean and shiny these days. I started into her apartment and she stopped me with an outstretched arm. I smelled what used to be called perfume.

“I didn’t say you could come in,” she protested. “Tell me what you want and then promise me you’ll leave.” A promise was still a promise.

“I want to be your friend.”

Staring at me a moment, her pupils grew beneath flaring lids. Then her gaze darted to the empty hallway around me. “Come in,” she whispered. Her voice was different than it had been in the basement, almost riendly.

We sat across from each other at a little table in the kitchenette, far away from any windows. The blinds were drawn; there wasn’t much to look at on the street, no birds or trees or grass. We hadn’t seen a live flower for years. She asked if I wanted something to drink. I said I could do with a hiskey but she said THEY took her iquor away when she crossed the state line. Iquor wasn’t prohibited since they’d gotten rid of the real thing, closed all the iquor stores. But now it was associated only with iquorice, which didn’t mean much given that if anybody grew it or made it, it went to Eart Major. Besides, candy and sweets were being phased out.

“How did you know?” she asked me.

I didn’t have to answer. She tripped up by talking so openly to a stranger in the first place. “The problem with having memory is remembering what you miss,” I pined, like I was talking to a sychiatrist, “a sympathetic listener” (Ikipedia). “I miss books, history books. What do you miss?”

“I try not to think about those things. It just gets you into trouble, thinking.”

“But you must think about them. How could you not?”

“I miss not having to watch every word I say, of not being afraid of people, THEM,” she said, a look of disdain on her face.

“But we’re all working together to create a better place for ourselves,” I said sarcastically.

“So you don’t believe THEM either,” she accused, not as a question.

“Old lady McCaskey is one of THEM, you know.”

“I wonder if her usband knows.” At that we laughed. It felt good to laugh, especially after having been robotic for so long, pretending we hung on everything THEY said and accepted everything THEY did was for our own good.

“It scares me,” I began, “that we’ve forgotten so much. I haven’t used the water for years but there’s so much I can’t emember, remember.”

“I think I know what you mean,” she said gloomily, her head bowing toward the table, her elegant hands trembling there. I wanted to reach out and caress them but I didn’t, couldn’t, was accustomed to keeping a distance. I just nodded and smiled as warmly as I could, without counterfeiting it. She smiled back. She had a lovely mouth.

We talked quite a bit, and except for a few erstwhile words, comprehended each other. Then she said she had homework to do for her job, designing parts for the spaceship group, the one I wanted to work for. THEY recruited her.

#

My job for the provisioners involved fulfilling purchase orders in the warehouse. Virtually everything there ultimately made its way to the ships for transport to Eart Major. There were factories like Barbara’s and mine all over the country, and probably the orld, if the rest of it was still out there. THEY didn’t want us to be concerned with anything but ourselves and our jobs so we weren’t sure. Those of us who’d been converted didn’t care.

I longed to see Barbara again, but I worked nights and had to wait until the weekend. THEY were yet in the process of altering time perception and so it seemed like an eternity. I’d gone to her apartment and the laundry room but she wasn’t in either place so I sat outside on the steps and waited for her. Through the smog I saw her walking home carrying a bulging bag. Only those executives with the producers and the ship builders had cars. THEY told us cars were dangerous death traps and that we were lucky not to have to use them. There was safer public transportation for us. In truth, none of us could afford a car even if THEY let us have one.

Barbara and I said hello to each other, everybody was courteous, another side effect of the water. Happy-go-lucky Mr. McCaskey was in the lobby, replacing bulbs in the light fixtures. (They were the same brand as the ones my employer manufactured. By now, there was generally only one brand of every necessary thing.)  From atop the ladder he waved at us with his free hand and shot us a lecherous wink that seemed to hypothesize that Barbara and I were lovers. Nobody, not even THEM, had a problem with sex between consenting adults. It was the only selfish pleasure we had left, and THEY wanted to keep us contented, albeit not barefoot and regnant. Women couldn’t have babies anymore so regnation (i.e., overcrowding of Eart Major) wasn’t an issue.

She invited me into her apartment and offered me a hiskey. I wasn’t surprised that she had contraband. I had a refrigerator full of meat meant for space. But I wondered why she didn’t share it with me on my first visit.

“I didn’t trust you then,” she confided.

“And now you do?” I watched her take the staples from the sack and there wasn’t one decent edible among them. “You know what would go great with this hiskey?” I said. “Two choice T-bones.” Barbara’s eyes went green again and she licked her luscious lips.

That night we had dinner by candlelight. It wasn’t meant to be romantic, THEY imposed a universal curfew and an energy embargo – all lamps out after nine pm. Afterwards, we sat close together on the couch and talked quietly. At one point, Barbara began to cry. I put my arm around her and drew her cheek to my chest. Her hair smelled better than anything. I wanted to kiss her. It was months since I’d been with a woman and that was a girl from work, so daft with the water which she drank by the buckets that I didn’t enjoy her at all.

“What do you think’s going to happen to us?” Barbara said softly, wiping away her tears with the collar of my shirt. I didn’t want to tell her, yet, what I believed. “Who do you think’s behind it?”

“You can bet the one percent have their hands in it. Who else can afford it?” They were the only ones allowed to vote and come and go as they pleased. They couldn’t own cars either but they always got where they needed to go and not by subway, bus or beat-up bike.

I thought a regular date might cheer her up so I suggested we go to a movie. THEY didn’t take away the multiplexes (though they’d fallen into disrepair) and these only played apocalyptic films so we’d be entertained by the horrific destruction of other civilizations and not think we had it so bad. Everyone, it seemed, was in on the gag. They didn’t know what Barbara and I knew. And we wondered how many others like us there were and where would we find them. In the dark of the theater, we speculated about the people seated around us. The man across the aisle jumped out of his seat every time something blew up on the screen. We guessed he must be one of us because people just didn’t react strongly to things nowadays. In the dark, he was safe. I spotted a skinny woman not eating her popcorn. If you paid for it, you ate it. Food was something you didn’t waste. “Maybe she’s going to take it home to her kids,” Barbara conjectured. “Maybe,” I said, though true generosity and thoughtfulness had gone-by-the-wayside here on Eart Minor.

Love still existed. THEY didn’t seem to have a problem with love. But you loved THEM for what THEY did for you. And you had a feeling akin to love for other people, that came with the water, unless you found a person who displayed dubious traits, like the man and the woman in the theatre. You turned in people like them, like Barbara and me.

We made our way home through the dense murk and at her apartment door, Barbara let me kiss her. Both of us felt something we liked and understood and we wanted to take it further. I spent the night and she made breakfast for us in the morning. I’d brought her a half dozen eggs from my stash. The yolks were green but they still tasted like eggs. We took for granted THEY put stuff in our food, too, but we had to eat to stay alive. I’m positive THEY were working on a cut-rate replacement for food. I heard things on my job.

I know sex with Barbara was good but the emory of it didn’t linger, probably because of the eggs, which did linger in the form of indigestion. Sex was just something you savored in the moment. Thank od, there were still such moments to be had. You never knew what THEY were going to take away next. Through it all, however, was THEIR constant crowing, plastered on billboards, on all the transportation vehicles, everywhere: “Eart Major – SOON,” three words superimposed over spectacular terrestrial vistas such as we’d never seen. Nobody could wait to get there: “Eaven on Eart.”

And like I said, I didn’t think THEY were taking everybody. Even with all THEIR reduction methods, there probably were millions of us left. It just wasn’t logical. Barbara said her plant completed only two or three ships a year and they accommodated on average 30 or 40 people at best. Multiply those numbers by all the largest cities that fabricated spacecraft and only a fraction of us were covered. No, the ships were meant for THEM and what became of us was of no consequence. My theory made sense to Barbara but to her way of increasingly deluded thinking, there was nothing we could do about it and as long as THEY met our basic needs, why should we try? I became deeply concerned that Barbara was falling victim to THEIR conspiracy. She was a little more docile and dopey every day. I don’t know how she functioned at work but at home, she scared me.

“Eat only what I give you,” I warned her, “and stay away from the water.”

“But I’ve got to bathe,” she insisted.

Stop it,” I ordered.

She smiled, which really scared me. Usually, people, normal people, are taken aback when you yell at them. I took her by the shoulders and shook her, which caused her to be sick to her stomach. After vomiting, she was almost Barbara again.

“Don’t you want to be yourself?” I asked her.

“I’m not sure I know who that is anymore,” she said, welling up, which gave me hope. Where there’s doubt, there’s hope.

It took a few weeks but Barbara became more affectionate with me, even admitted she was falling in love. And it wasn’t THEIR kind of love. This delighted me because I’d already fallen for her that night at the movies. Finally, I felt completely at ease, enough to share my plan with her.

It was during dinner at my place. I’d scored a couple pork chops from the meat division. (We had no idea pigs were processed anywhere until we unloaded a ton of pork on the dock.) “Do you think you could get me on at the ship works?” I asked nonchalantly. I must have sounded like the sleepwalkers because everyone had that blasé way of speaking, even while life as we knew it was going to ell in a handbasket.

“What?” she twisted her head and mouth like a dog trying to cognize its master. (Pets were extinct but I had one as a child – The name Spot comes to mind, or it could have been Sport.) “Why on Eart would you want to do that?”

“If I worked there, I could observe how THEY do things, see if there’s a way we could get passage on one of the ships, before it’s too late.”

“Peter, you can’t be serious.” She stared intently at me for a second. “You are serious, aren’t you?”

“I’ve heard that people, people like us, have gotten themselves on the list. I’ve even heard of runaways.”

“I’ve heard those stories too, and that’s all they are, Peter, stories to frighten us, keep us in our place…There’s never a happy ending.”

I took her in my arms. “I’ve finally found someone I want to spend the rest of my life with. Don’t you feel that way about me, Barbara?”

She started to pull away but I held her tighter.

“Tell me you don’t feel that way too, and I’ll give up the idea.”

She was quiet, turned toward the window, to the sinister stillness outside, the building across the street obscured by the ever-present gritty haze, the dull gray sky exhausted of clouds. Where were THEY getting the water? “I’ll see what I can do,” she said.

#

My boss wasn’t keen to let me go but THEY wanted you to contribute where you were most useful to THEIR cause and he concurred I was wasted filling orders. Before THEY transferred me, I had to complete a written assessment of my intelligence, undergo a test of my motor skills, and sit through a lengthy interview that manipulated me into saying a heap of words and names that had been changed to determine the degree to which I’d been converted. One question asked me to clarify my relationship to Barbara, since she referred me, and another, why do you want to work here? If I were anybody else, I could not lie. (Whatever they put in the water, it included a truth serum.) “Barbara’s a neighbor of mine.” That wasn’t a lie, but it told only an element of truth. “I want to get to Eart Major.” That wasn’t a lie either. Everybody wanted that.

I also underwent a complete physical during which THEY analyzed my body fluids and circulatory system to make sure I’d ingested enough chemical blue water to be immobilized emotionally. I drank liters of the tasteless crap before the examination and then voided through every orifice afterwards. It took several days of fasting and consuming only those allegedly “pure” foods I’d stockpiled for the effects to wear off.

I was put on the night shift and the plan was that during a 45-minute break, I’d join Barbara at the empty front office. She had unlimited access to the building but, once inside, only to her work area. We decided to tackle finding “the list” first. We knew there was one because she had overheard her bosses discussing how outraged THEY were that an underling had made the list and was scheduled on an earlier flight to Eart Major than THEY were. And we thought if there were people we knew on the list, they could help us to get our names there.

As only part of the operation functioned at night, there were fewer supervisors on duty and THEY stuck close to THEIR operatives. Entry into the office was with fingerprint authorization through a biometric scanner. It was an antiquated system but less expensive than the more advanced alternatives. THEY assumed that we drones were frankly not capable of sabotaging THEIR methods, what with all the pre-screening and of course, the water. Even so, it wasn’t an easy scheme to fool. Fingerprints couldn’t be faked, guessed, misplaced or most importantly, forgotten.

And, of course, there was a security camera trained on the scanner which required a password to be keyed in conjunction with the fingerprint. The camera was less of a problem than the fingerprint, password and scanner so we began with the fingerprint. Barbara often worked with warm wax to create prototypes that her superiors handled to study. We took a clear print and coated it with silicon gel to get a textured impression that we could place over one of our own fingers.

Securing the password was a piece of ake for a woman of Barbara’s charms. And instead of disabling the camera, she distracted the security guard long enough to freeze its crude monitor image of the scanner when no one was around it.

Once in the office, we commandeered the mainframe. Barbara keyed her boss’s password that not only got us into the ship parts design and inventory systems (which Barbara had access to with her own credentials) but also into other components of the operation like budgeting, tabulations, provisioning and scheduling. We learned the next ship from our region was set to launch in a matter of weeks but had no clue as to who was chosen to be aboard. At this point, Barbara and I were we and everyone else was THEY.

We performed this same procedure on three non-consecutive nights and got nowhere. There were no paper files or trails to follow; THEY were too shrewd for that. And though we presumed there were others like us on the inside, we trusted no one enough to solicit their in- or output. Disheartened, we gave up our search for the list as a means of resolving our dilemma and focused on the ships themselves since between the two of us, we had entrée to every technical detail.

Meanwhile, our shared storehouse of unadulterated food was depleting. Water for industrial use wasn’t treated and I’d been draining the apartment building boilers for years. If caught, it would not be long before we’d be forced to swallow THEIR poison. Barbara had been cheating all along and it was showing in her behavior.

“I’m not so sure this isn’t a waste of time,” she said to me in a disturbingly lackadaisical timbre. “Even if they can’t take everybody, why would they not want us? We’re essential to the program.”

“We’re essential now,” I explained, “but think ahead, Barbara, when that last ship takes off with that last passenger. How essential are we then?”

“But THEY’ll need us in the new orld for their next journey.”

I was losing her again, could feel her slipping away. “There isn’t going to be another journey, Barbara. Without children, what would be the point?”

As the atmosphere and conditions grew more intolerable, THEY maintained THEIR cheerful attitude while people remained oblivious, grew even more self-assured and satisfied with the status quo. In place of her usual unctuous greeting whenever we crossed her path, our landlady began to sing to us, “It won’t be long now.” I wanted to grenade that perpetual smirk off her fat, ugly face.

With my ast experience in provisioning, and my excellent scores on THEIR math and geometry quizzes, I quickly advanced to a job in which I diagrammed the configurations of ship holds to contain whatever a particular rocket was built to carry without an inch of wasted storage space. It became my private plot to include an area for Barbara and me on a “perishables” ship slated for liftoff. It would carry foodstuffs and anything else that required a constant temperature, air and real water to survive the long trip.

Though we continued to have the occasional meal and agreeable sex together, Barbara and I saw less of each other during this time because I didn’t insinuate her into the latest intrigue. When the ship was completed and trucked off to its launching pad, she and I would disappear, along with a couple pressurized spacesuits. Beyond this strategy, my thinking was muddy. (I’d begun to eat the food Barbara bought, though we both continued to drink and wash only with the boiler water.)

I started itemizing all the other things we might need up there: a book or two would be nice when we grew bored with floating inter-galactically; music to lull us if the gravitational laws of physics made us ill; writing instruments and paper on which to journal our notable reflections (for whom and why I had no clue)…Until later, in more lucid moments, when the concept of cooperation dawned on me during shards of brainwaves, that the crew and passengers would not necessarily be riendly towards us, being stowaways and all. I suppose I never committed the word to emory because I didn’t see how it was possible. And with the current state of affairs, the urgency, you didn’t waste time or thought or ink on the impossible. So it faded, like other things began to fade. I no longer emembered my mother and father, if I had sisters or brothers. I lost the image of Pot (or Port) and didn’t ecall what it was that had the name (or other name).

Then the boiler water turned blue. I guessed that Mr. McCaskey was in on it after all.

# # #

face

Having lived in inspirational states with slogans like “Where America Goes to Die” and “Hook up for Free at One of Our Lovely Trailer Parks,” Chris Calcara currently writes from “Missouri: Loves Company!” To date, his short stories have been published by the Sandlapper Society, Ash & Bones and The Good Men Project. He’s authored full-length plays and novels, the latest of which tells the story of an impressionable Midwestern Catholic Italian choirboy who grows into a mob-worthy assassin in order to avenge two ‘70s high school nemeses ─ a bullying classmate and their abusive educator cleric ─ 30 years later. Squealer is a comedic YA/adult thriller seeking its antagonist (and a publisher).

This is Not for You – by Haley Z. Boston

This place might remind you of a newly deceased doe, pregnant, on the side of the road, bleeding out, neck snapped. Steaming. Dead eyes. Baby still alive inside, waiting to be muscle-contracted out into the hellscape, oozing, oozing with terror and inherited trauma. Trauma of headlights and wandering uncovered, dark, lonely, tufted, spawned, thrust. Baby’s still alive, little giblets racing. Fawn? A fawn? Doe, a deer, a female deer. Hum it. Now you’re humming it. That’s what this party is like.

What would you do if you witnessed a murder?

That’s a good opening line.

A guy comes up to Duke at the bar and asks her that.

It’s two forty-seven. In the morning. This warehouse is empty but full. Horny and pulsating. Spindly-armed and tone-deaf. A cavernous space, all beams and cement and windows painted white, painted shut, things that used to be doors now gluey in all their crevasses, history removed by sludgy toxins.

Duke’s ordering water. It’s four dollars. The guy who said the opening line looks like a cherry tree. But sweaty. Tall. Knotty. Not naughty. Knotty. He’s wearing a mesh shirt. He’s very thirsty. He stares at Duke’s water, sweating. Who’s sweating? Him, or the water? They’re both sweating. He wants to lick the plastic, oh, he wants to bite it, clear through, imbibe the water through puncture wounds.

He’s not really thinking this.

Duke is.

Duke is imagining Cherry Tree pricking her bottle with his teeth and scaling his tongue along the paper and desperately licking the condensation until it bursts into his mouth. Duke’s thirsty, too. She’s looking for someone to suck dry. She can tell by his eclipse eyes that he’s on something dangerous.

She stares at him. He blinks one time too many.

“So, uh, what would you do if you overheard a murder?”

“Join in.”

Duke walks away, out of the crowd, toward more crowd.

She notices a girl. The girl’s name is Grxce. It’s pronounced “Grace.” I’m sorry. That’s just how it is. Duke knows Grxce, but thinks her name is Lauren. She remembers her as Lauren. A fair-haired Lauren. A Lauren who was Good and Wholesome, who grew up in an adjacent suburb, whose family had more money, more worth, more kids, more sanctity, less inclination toward raves, less smudgy eye-shadow, fewer thoughts of stolen street signs, fewer C’s in Calculus, fewer flasks snuck into school dances. She didn’t look Good or Wholesome now. She looked stringy and lopsided. She looked like a black hole, but Duke was the black hole, prepared to entangle someone in her vortex, prepared to lick teeth, prepared to be all-consuming. Lauren is wearing a plastic crop-top and a clairvoyant expression. She looks like a painting.

Duke gets a text.

Oh. But. Not. Just. Any. Text!!!!

She has a burner phone because she’s lazy. And a drug dealer.

She gets a text. And because she has a burner phone because she’s lazy and a drug dealer, it’s like a stick of dynamite vibrating in between her pants and her hipbone. She gets a text and it shakes the whole goddamn building.

Oh, but not just any text.

A text from The One.

You know The One. The One whose cologne sometimes sneaks into your brain cavities, stabbing you in the insides, some French name, some lower-case cursive, a lick on your wrist from that Friday when you finally stole a spritz on your way out, that you’ll somehow never be able to wash off, so intrusive it only takes a stranger to walk past, and you’re in a grocery store aisle staring at the ground beef, the raw chicken, and suddenly it’s over, French-name, long hair, knife twist in the ribs. The One who left a holey tube sock in your bed one December and never came back for it. The One who once nose-bled on your white bathmat, and you didn’t even try to get the blood out, in fact, you rubbed it in deeper, and now you have this iron splotch on your bathmat and it reminds you of the time you saw your first dead body on a train track from your youth, it reminds you of the time your lover made you nectar margaritas and you sipped them on a pool deck in the dead of winter, and you think about getting a new bathmat, maybe this time not a white one, but you’ll keep finding reasons not to do that. You know The One. The One who reappears in dreams to undress, or say hello, but always ends up curb-stomping you outside your childhood home, splitting your jaw, cracking your teeth open.

You know The Ones that earth-shatter. The earth-shatter-ers.

The name buzzes four times on Duke’s phone.

DO NOT TEXT (4).

Duke has a burner phone, so it looks like this, unfortunately.

([Redacted] has an iPhone, so it’s also unfortunate for [Redacted] because her convo with Duke is vomit-inducing, status-rejecting, holy isolation green)

 

heard u were in la. 

i need T. 

800 Mercy. 

pay u bigtime

 

Duke doesn’t make house calls.

Well, she does.

Well.

She used to.

But not normally like this. Normally, in Bel Aire, normally in the Hollywoodland Hills, normally to those uppity bitchy witches with loose septums, model boys with bulimia, Beverley Hills houses with murdery histories, with things-we-don’t-ask, with boyfriends and girlfriends and sleazy happy rich dicks with sleazy happy trigger fingers.

Duke’s fucked up, also. That’s why she can’t think straight.

Her phone buzzes.

 

DO NOT TEXT (2).

do u still have a burner? hey.

FaceTime me dukey!!!!

 

Duke wants to puke.

Her heart also wants to tie a noose around itself. Her organs twitch. Her fingers jitter. Love says, isn’t this exciting! Isn’t this dope! Aren’t you addicted! Yes. Say it with me. YES. YES YES. You could quit anytime, though. So, for now, just this once, let love cum all over you. Sorry, come I meant come. Let the tar cum into your lungs. Tar is fun. Fun fun tar tar. It sucks you in and it traps you in the funhouse. The laugh palace. The madness.

Buzz. Buzz. Buzz. bUzZ. BuZz.

BUZZ.

 

you do still have a burner

loser

sorry i didn’t mean that

ur not a loser

just a drug dealer

am I allowed to say that

duke

i’m dying

ur in la tho right?

 

Oh, god, Duke thinks. This is the end of the world, actually.

Well, if she were other people maybe it wouldn’t be.

If she were people who listened to other people maybe it wouldn’t be.

But she’s not those people. She doesn’t listen and her thoughts are never end-stopped, and she’s blurry-eyed and just dying to slice a jugular open right out on the dance floor. Neck-snapped, oh, to be neck-snapped, twitching. Doe, a deer, a female deer.

She calls her ride-or-die, a girl named Trixie. Trixie is awake and says, hey, there’s a high-speed chase on channel seven. Duke says, do you remember Lauren? Lauren LeRoy. Lauren Loftus. Lauren Whats-Her-Face. I don’t remember. It doesn’t matter. I saw her earlier, wearing a clear crop-top and blowing a yellow lollipop.

Trixie says, no. She doesn’t remember a girl named Lauren LeRoy or Loftus or LeCroix or Whatever. She doesn’t remember a girl with self-cut bangs and boney wrists standing zombified in a corner with other translucent-skinned artsaints.

“Well, Lauren’s from Wisconsin and now she’s here, chewing Trident or Orbit or, hopefully, a piece of someone’s tendon.”

“Oh, I remember her.” Trixie remembers her now. Slutty and grotesque. She used to chase cherubic boys around the soccerfield at dawn.

Duke leaves one crowd of messy, sloppy, slackening people. People glistening. People shouldn’t glisten, Duke thinks. It makes them seem like they’re slathered in butter. Like they should be rolled in a dinner roll. They shouldn’t be hyped up on amphetamines. They should be licked until their skin is raw. Salty. She goes to another crowd of messy, sloppy, slackening people. It looks like the same crowd. Feels like the same crowd. You could keep doing that, Duke thinks. You could spend your whole life walking into new rooms that feel like old rooms.

Duke zeroes in on Lauren, all bones and legs, rattling around, looking like a human bodybag, dancing in a circle. Duke cocks her head to the side, sizes up Lauren’s muscles, counts her ribs, notes the rosy spots, the places where her skin thins, the beat of her pulse, superfast. She says, “but, I don’t think she’s slutty or grotesque.”

Trixie says, I said bloody. B-L-O-O-D-Y Bloody. Remember she used to get nosebleeds – Duke is thrown off, by the way, at the mere mention of nosebleeds, as if nosebleeds were not universal, as if only [Redacted] got them, sitting up in bed smoking something, bleeding and being apathetic, letting it come so close to falling on the white bedspread, and Duke would think, how how how could you not care, how could you sit like that and beg to be touched but then shift away, how could you wait until the last second, wait until the blood has pooled above your upper lip, wait until I lean in to lick it off, and then you reach your wrist up and wipe it, and you get up and you say, what? Why are you looking at me like that? – Coke habit? Diet coke? Coca Cola? Sniff sniff. Don’t tell me it’s dehydration. And, by the way, you do think she’s grotesque. You started that.

Duke’s like, oh, yeah. Hey, where are you?

Trixie’s sick of holding her phone and wants to hang up. “I told you. A Toyota Camry’s fucking some cruisers in the ass. Channel seven.”

Then she adds, “By the way. Lauren’s right-side-of-the-tracks, Dukie. She took her pills and crossed her eyes and dotted her ttttttttttt’s. She sucks dick and eats pizza like all those other frauds.”

Okay, Duke says. She’s hyperventilating now. She says, “Look. [Redacted] just texted me.”

Trixie says, J E S U S C H R I S T DUKE. Fuck me with a meatball sub, Duke!

Then, she says, send me a screenshot.

But Duke can’t. She has a flip phone.

Fine, Trixie says. Then verbalize me a screenshot.

Duke tells Trixie what [Redacted] texted.

“Don’t text back,” Trixie says. “Then you’ll fall down the spiral staircase again.”

But Duke needs T, and she needs to find a way to get T, and she needs much more than that, a hug, for instance, the lingering touch of manicured nails against her wrist, a ninety-nine cent Slurpee, a kiss from just-the-right-person, at just-the-right-time, in just-the-right-driveway, but mostly T, mostly that, and she’s going to have to get it the hard way.

Before you do that, Trixie says, turn around.

Trixie’s standing there.

Great.

Duke goes up to her and points at Lauren.

“I left my high speed chase for this?”

Duke responds to [Redacted]. She texts back, “hi.” Then, she throws her phone across the room. Down the spiral staircase, Trixie says. Off you go.

“You’re bad at this,” Trixie says as she snaps black surgical gloves over her ring-laden hands, “What drug dealer runs out of T? You know, everyone could avoid everything if they didn’t fuck that one person they shouldn’t have fucked. Look, you’re head-first in a garbage disposal with shards of glass at the bottom. The world would be butterflies. You know. Less of a trash-fire. Oh, look at your fingernails. They’re gross and long. Duke. Use protection.”

Well, yeah, trash-fires, Duke says, preferring not to wear surgical gloves. The rubber takes away from the feeling.

Of.

Manual strangulation.

But, Trixie points out, increases the chance of disease. So, what. Take me, disease me, I’m dying at an unimaginable rate anyway, okay, we all are. Jesus, don’t be so morbid.

#

It’s three-thirty-ish in the morning when Duke and Trixie drag Lauren’s body back to Trixie’s friend’s apartment. Trixie’s friend is named 425. That’s an area-code. Trixie doesn’t remember his name and he never says it outloud but that’s his phone number. 425 something something something. Duke prefers to call him Just Outside of Seattle. Jos. People who are from just outside of cities say they’re from the city. They’re not.

Lauren’s alive but not conscious.

Jos lets them in. He’s pale and skinny and, of all the people Duke knows, he tried the hardest to take his Gov-regulated pills during puberty. He’d spent a lot of time vomiting little blue tablets in boys’ bathrooms and forcing rare hamburger patties down his throat, and he tried to crave female lips and hips and pelvic bones. He still has the pills. He still sometimes takes them, when he’s too drunk to see straight. They make him nauseous, make him shutter, make him hot, then cold, then hot again. And, he used to rule the suburban Illinois underground scene. He was kingpin. Used to farm farm boys for parts. Used to manufacture the best T, sell the freshest heroin-laced blood, the best weed, extracted straight from stoner piss, and even milked a few sick LSD strains from teenaged spinal fluid.

He’s dating a junkie named Needle. Needle will assure you his name is because of Space, not hypodermic. He doesn’t go by Space because that’s dumb.

Jos and Needle drink homemade cocktails. He apologizes, he can’t offer any to the ladies. You know, three drunk guys died tonight in a high-speed chase. Lot of spilled blood. Wish we’d been there. Oh! Trixie says, hey. I watched that. Damn. She tuned out just before the concrete-smashing, skull-breaking part. But, that unconscious girl, uh, let’s crack her open. Duke has a special talent.

They lay Lauren down on the couch. Duke uses a safety-pin to puncture a hole in Lauren’s neck. Just a little. A tiny stream of blood spits out of the hole. Duke licks it, and then sucks out more. She feels Lauren’s slow pulse against her tongue. 0.25 BAC, she says. Give or take. Then, it hits her. Bitter, sour. Something else.

She checks Lauren’s arms. Track marks. Fresh. On both arms. Trixie dies laughing. Oh, Duke, you said you quit. Oh, Duke. Relapse in five, four, three, two.

One.

The earth shakes. Five tremors in rapid succession.

 

DO NOT TEXT (5).

Hey

How u?

T???????

i’ll do ANYTHING

😉

 

Duke backs off, stumbles a little. Her whole head hot, trapped, swampy. Trixie makes larger incisions in Lauren’s track marks and takes a greedy mouthful. Watch it, Duke says. You’ll kill her. Trixie flashes a smile, teeth stained red. Baby, she says, it’s like really nice. Top shelf. A hug for your poor poor heart. More, take more.

I just want the T, Duke says.

Trixie pouts. What a waste of a whole, beating-heart human. We thought she was Wholesome. Turns out, she’s a druggie. But isn’t that how it always goes, huh, Duke?

I wanted Wholesome, Duke says.

OH WHY DUKE?? Because [Redacted] prefers un-tainted T? Cavity-free? Calcium rich? Good-girl T. Baby T. Milky Milky. Duke. Promise me you.

Won’t.

Fall. Into.

The. Trap.

T O O

L A T E.

 

DO NOT TEXT (4).

I didn’t mean it like that

i meant I’ll TAKE anything

not DO

??? duke answer me srsly

 

Jos says he might have female T. Somewhere. But it’s old. He disappears to look for it. Needle eyes Lauren.

“You can’t even get good T that fresh. Needs to be dehydrated.”

“We know,” Duke fires back.

This is good, Trixie says. Give [Redacted] old T. Sell it for, uh, a lot. We can keep this girl to ourselves.

I think fresh T is still good, Duke says, and tenderly pushes Lauren’s lower lip down, running her finger along Lauren’s bottom teeth, silky, well-brushed, might not even bleed if you tried to floss them.

Needle shakes his head. Nah, that’s like a green banana.

Yeah, Duke, Trixie adds. Green banana. Hard and plant-like. Slimy. Gag. Not even good in a smoothie.

When’s the last time you had a banana.

Who cares, Duke. It was before.

Duke feels ill. Ill and shaky and jittery. Must be from the blood. Must be from the texts. Must be from the impending doom and ecstasy of seeing [Redacted] again after months of bone-souring nothingness. Sometimes she imagines how slippery, shiny, magical the taste of [Redacted]’s intraocular fluid would be – you could just stick a needle at the surface of the eye, don’t touch the baby blues, don’t blind her, just taste it, cross my heart and hope to die.

Jos has pliers. Trixie prefers to use a hammer. Duke doesn’t let her.

Duke moves Lauren so her head is hanging off the bed. She has a bump forming on the side of her skull, from where Trixie slammed her against the bathroom sink. Jesus. Duke had stood back, hands shaking, but not from the violence, no, from the hangnail-tearing feeling of being sucked back into [Redacted]’s all-consuming orbit. Trixie had let Lauren fall to the ground with a thump. Lauren blinked once before slipping away. Duke felt a rush, something almost orgasmic, from watching Lauren lose consciousness. There’s something tingly about it. You could get high off that alone. And Duke has been starving lately. She cramps herself between the foot of the couch and the coffee table, opens Lauren’s mouth and gets a good grip on her jaw.

Wait, Jos says. He disappears.

Duke doesn’t wait.

She grips a back molar, the richer kind, pulpier, better for swallowing, better for injecting. She slams her fist against the steady plier and the tooth tears from its socket. Careful, Needle says. You won’t get the root that way.

Fuck off, Trixie says. She knows what she’s doing. Trixie beats the head of her hammer against her palm. Duke, she says, I want to take a swing.

Duke keeps ripping teeth out, dropping them into a clean ashtray. “No,” she says. “You’ll smash them.”

Oh, precious. Precious T. Trixie drops the hammer, and she sidles up next to Lauren, swallowing more heroin-infused blood, listening to Lauren’s pulse and tapping the rhythm gently against her exposed ribcage. You know, Duke says, you can get sick from that.

Tell me about it, baby. Trixie keeps drinking.

Jos returns with safety goggles. Duke’s hand slips and the force knocks Lauren’s jaw sideways, a satisfying crunch, a snap of the tendons. Oh. Duke and Trixie both salivate. Fuck, Trixie says. Can’t we just kill her. I’m starving.

Duke drops the pliers, sets her hands firmly on either side of the hanging, floppy jaw. She snaps it back into place. There. She keeps going. Needle winces, massages his own jaw out of sympathy or something similar.

Okay, Jos says.

Okay, Needle says and slips down the hall, into the depths of the apartment, presumably toward a bedroom. Jos follows.

Bleach is under the sink. Don’t scuff my floors, Trix. Goodnight, morning, whatever.

Duke finishes extracting the teeth, sweating, nauseous, suddenly head-pulsing high. Aren’t you forgetting something? Trixie drops Lauren’s arm and re-positions her. She straddles the girl. Uh, scalpel.

What?

Scalpel. Trixie motions behind Duke. Duke hands her a Swiss Army knife. Trixie slices into Lauren’s gums.

Duke’s phone seizes on the coffee table, quaking the whole apartment, shaking Duke’s insides, all of them.

DO NOT TEXT 

is calling.

Duke gets up and stumble-sprints to what she thinks is a bathroom but really is a nursery. She vomits watery blood, but not her blood, Lauren’s blood, into the child’s room and Trixie laughs and Duke clutches the doorframe and tries not to make eye-contact with the toddler staring back at her.

“What the fuck. Your dealers have a baby?”

“What’s wrong with that, Duke?”

“Nothing, it’s just–”

She pukes again and Trixie rolls her eyes, appearing behind Duke, somehow always appearing behind Duke. She pokes Duke’s ribs. Duke, look. Duke. Duke heaves and Trixie shoves three sparkling, slick-with-spit, speckled with gum-bits wisdom teeth in Duke’s face. Take one, Dukie Duke. Take one.

Duke swallows a wisdom tooth and so does Trixie and she presses the third one into Duke’s palm and whispers, for [Redacted], even though I don’t support it, and Duke wipes her mouth with her shirt, and the baby just maintains a cold-faced stare, unfazed by the two strange women in its doorway.

“Cute,” Trixie says, motioning to the baby. “Duke, look at the baby. Hi, sweetie. Hi cutie.” Trixie waves at the thing.

Duke can’t look and she also can’t move. “You’re not supposed to look them in the eye.”

“That’s big dogs. Not babies.”

“I’m afraid of both.”

“Apologize to the baby, Duke.”

“I’m sorry.”

She closes the door and stumbles into the living room. Lauren’s heavily bleeding from the mouth, bloody spit pooling on the white leather couch. Duke’s phone continues to vibrate on the coffee table. DO NOT TEXT. DO NOT TEXT. DO NOT TEXT. If you don’t answer it, I will.

Duke answers it and hangs up. It stops buzzing. A second of silence. Then, she texts, “I’m coming.”

DO NOT TEXT (1).

cool.

Lauren starts choking on her own blood. Gurgles. Toothless mouth agape. Duke pulls Lauren onto her side, and a river of blood and saliva snakes down Lauren’s cheek, her perfectly-aligned jaw, her neck, some of it falling down her chest, her cleavage.

Duke washes and dries the teeth, then organizes them by kind – incisor, canine, premolar, molar. She separates them into their own baggies. They’ll have to be taken like pills. They’re not dry enough to crush and snort. You know, children’s teeth are the purest, most potent, least affected by caffeine and night-grinding and lockjaw.

Trixie scoots Lauren’s feet over and slides onto the couch, rocking the baby on her lap, looking for car chases on local news, petting the baby’s golden hair. Duke avoids eye-contact.

“I’m not gonna kill a baby, Duke. Besides. This baby hardly has teeth. It’s a joke, Duke. It’s a joke.”

“Ok, ok, I’m leaving.”

#

Duke somehow survives a winding drive through the Hollywoodland Hills and ends up stationed a few turns up the canyon from [Redacted]’s house. She’s been there for twenty-three minutes. She’s had fifteen and a half imaginary conversations with [Redacted] and most of them go like this:

 

DUKE: I think. There are worlds of people who wouldn’t notice you or care that you exist.

[REDACTED]: Okay.

DUKE: Anyway here are your drugs.

 

But this next one Duke thinks is the most poetic option:

 

DUKE: I’m running. And I’m running. And running. And you turn off the treadmill. And I slam into the little flashing numbers. And I don’t think it’s fair.

[REDACTED]: The numbers wouldn’t be flashing if it was turned off. Also when’s the last time you went running.

In this version [Redacted] takes a drag from her cigarette, which is hand-rolled, and it’s made from the cremated ashes of a girl who jumped off a cliff near Mullholland.

 

The next one Duke thinks is the most favorable option, the most romantic:

 

[REDACTED]: It’s not my fault that my mere existence hurdles you into an endless time-space continuum of pain and suffering, feelings of being lost in an unknown forest, feelings of organs ballroom dancing inside of you. You know. I’ve felt that way, too. But not about you.

DUKE: It would be so like you to say something like that.

In this version [Redacted] shrugs after Duke says that, and looks ugly.

DUKE: It would be so like you to do something like that.

 

The next one Duke doesn’t even imagine because it would be too bone-breaking, stomach-churning, hydrochloric-acid-in-the-eyes burning to even think about, but it’s necessary to include:

 

[REDACTED]: You yanked teeth out for me.

DUKE: Yes.

[REDACTED]: I love you.

 

Duke walks out of the car feeling like a newly born deer on jello legs. She rounds the bend feeling like a juggling stilt-walker with vertigo, and she goes up to [Redacted]’s front door feeling like a sixteen-year-old girl who just pierced her own bellybutton and now can’t really see or hear, some kind of darkness enclosing like marshmallow fluff, some kind of existential heatstroke. She forgot to check what she looked like in the rearview. Her mascara might be smudged, her eyes might be spidery, she might have dried blood on her chin, and she doesn’t know if that would turn [Redacted] on or disgust her.

The lights are on.

Duke texts [Redacted] and says, “I’m here,” and she waits four and a half minutes, but there’s no response. She presses on the door handle, feeling its grooves, like a language forgotten, a door handle that is foreign now, that could be any door handle on any door, in any home furnishing store, and not one that has a certain nick on the base, not one unseasonably warm, not one that makes Duke feel like hot lava is dripping down her back, her thighs, not one that brings with it a mad tingling behind the eyes. She turns the knob and goes inside.

Oh, god, this foyer. Duke takes a light step, her heart pounding, expecting [Redacted]’s blind dog to come lumbering, barking, narrowing its cataract eyes at Duke, the loved-one, Duke, the intruder. Duke, where have you been? You used to come here. But, the dog doesn’t lumber.

She starts up the spiral staircase, touches the icy metal, each step feeling further from the last, and yet, after one complete rotation, she can’t remember how she got there. When she looks back, it’s like a blackout. When she looks back, all she sees are more steps up, snaking around blind turns, curved like an isolated hipbone, a ribcage bulging, two fingers pressed together, motioning, come here, come here.

Duke reaches the top of the stairs. And then, there’s a laugh. A laugh that melts Duke’s skin off, cinches her veins, pulverizes her esophagus, jams an icepick through her neck, rips her nails right off her fingers. Heart seizes. Brain freezes. Everything goes dark and airy and she passes out violently, falling backward, head slamming against the metal stairs, body spiraling like a corpse down a water slide, crumpling to the ground with a depressing lack of grace.

A girl with well-conditioned hair appears at the base of the stairs. She stares at Duke. Duke’s nose bleeds. The girl is tall and skinny and would describe herself as “very L.A.” if anyone ever asked her. She calls out to [Redacted]. She says, “it’s for you.” Then she drifts off, weightless.

[Redacted] comes. She’s not what you’d expect.

Although unconscious, Duke can sense her presence, and her insides are vibrating, and she’s trying to get herself to wake up, wake up, wake up, smell the haunting perfume, let it ruin her enough to snap her out of this.

Duke’s mouth bleeds. [Redacted] crouches down. She slips her hands into Duke’s pockets. Duke’s unconscious self is giddy. She’s touching me. At least she’s touching me. Oh, but, it’s not like it was. She feels suddenly very isolated, very lonely, very molecular, as if experiencing the opposite of life-flashing-before-ones-eyes. She didn’t think she’d feel this way. [Redacted] keeps running her hands through Duke’s clothes, like a tourist on a roadmap, and of course its foreign, of course it’s hard to take, and not revitalizing, not hydrating, the opposite of what she’d thought, the opposite of how it should be, just the opposite, the opposite. [Redacted] doesn’t find anything, except old movie ticket stubs, a dollar bill, lint, a receipt, a ring, a cheap and busted ring, one that Duke used to wear on her thumb, that she once accidentally left on [Redacted]’s nightstand, and it lived there for a whole day, and Duke felt empty and [Redacted] felt powerful, and [Redacted] remembers it now but can’t access any sort of emotion to accompany it. But, you know, whatever.

Duke accidentally left the T in the car.

[Redacted] opens Duke’s mouth. One of her front teeth is gone. The other, cracked down the middle. Nothing but a jagged nub left. [Redacted] feels for more loose teeth. Duke’s right canine wiggles between [Redacted]’s fingers. She plucks it out. It comes, easily, like a ripe blackberry, careful, no thorns, just round and bursting. [Redacted] stands up, finds the missing front tooth on the third stair, shining like a full moon. She picks it up, rolls it around in her hand, rubs it clean on her shirt, and swallows it. Oh. It tastes like something familiar. I just don’t know what.

[Redacted] looks down at Duke.

[Redacted] thinks nothing more of it, and disappears back into the dark folds of the house, waiting for the high to hit, maybe fucking that girl with the soft hair, maybe eating her, digging into her skin, or doing whatever else she does that’s so magical, so world-stopping, so, godlike, so.

But, certainly – and you can be certain – what she’s not doing is

Thinking about you.

#

Lauren, the girl with the most unfortunate evening – depending on your definition of tragedy – she’s not dead. She woke up on a white leather couch, throat slick with blood, next to a sleeping girl with jet black hair, holding a soulless baby, knowing not to look it in the eyes, and now she’s stumbling the streets of LA, just wondering how someone could misplace all their teeth. You lose your keys, sure, you drop your ID, the coke falls in the toilet, okay, but, these bones were once stuck in my head. She’s not dead. She’s wondering what happened. She’s numb and toothless, wondering how things got to be this way, wondering if she’d moved to New York, would she have woken up with no teeth? If she’d stayed in Wisconsin, would she be less of a casualty? If she just hadn’t slept with that one boy she shouldn’t have slept with, if she’d just gone home that weekend? And she’s wondering if you’re aware of how painful it could be.

She decides that you have no idea how painful it could be.

#

Duke snaps back into consciousness while speeding through the valley. These turns, they feel warm, like they’d been pressed between someone’s thighs, a human-radiator. Some people are like that, they radiate things. Some people are cold always. Duke is cold always. She’d found herself a human-radiator. Then it broke.

Duke is running her tongue over the spongey holes where her teeth used to be. She can’t believe [Redacted] swallowed them. There. Now there’s something of mine dissolving inside of you. That means I either got what I wanted, or was forgotten. Duke can’t think about this too much. No one can. So she focuses on the warm curves, the tires gliding lightly, the feeling of soft touch, the feeling of I-am-never-coming-back-here, not in real life, not in my mind, and the sharpness of these turns will smooth, until this road no longer haunts, until eventually things don’t need to be crossed out. Instead they would be butterflies.

Duke’s car nearly slams into something. A deer. A belly-swollen, pregnant deer. She swerves to avoid it. She swerves off a cliff. Losing control. Spiraling, spiraling, spiraling down. Rock destroying metal. Metal crushing bone. Shards protruding through skin. Blood pouring from the nose. Isn’t that how it always goes.

Smooth, then, the opposite of smooth.

Now’s the time, Duke. Now’s the time for life-flashing.

I’m sorry it had to end this way, but aren’t you kind of glad? And, of course, the deer thinks nothing of it, and walks off, leaving you, leaving you to wonder.

# # #

hzboston

Haley Z. Boston is a writer from Portland, Oregon who begrudgingly resides in Los Angeles. In 2016, her short story Number 36 was published in Helicon Literary Magazine. This is her second publication. She is a big fan of fake gore, but is afraid of real needles. She can be found on twitter at @swampmonstr.

Southern Snow by Stacey Longenberger

“I ain’t ever seen anything like this in all my life.”

Billy stands at the window with his hands on his hips. His Churchill face conveys a look of utter disbelief and indignation. A stained, white apron strains over his large belly. A hair net protects the public from his blackened, slicked pompadour.

“This is South Carolina. This just don’t happen here.” Shaking his head and pursing his lips he looks to the heavens for answers.

“Daddy, what are we gonna do with all these people?”

Billy doesn’t answer. Just looks at his son and then back out the window. Normally he sees cars parked in the front lot of his diner, then the interstate, and then the red maples that grow along the other side. Instead, today it resembles an arctic desert. Parked cars are so completely covered in snow that they look more like small hills. The red maple branches are so heavy with snow they are hovering just above the ground and there’s no evidence a road even exists. And the snow keeps falling.

#

“Richard, we have to pull over. We can’t see anything! Are we even on a road?”

“Yes, we are on a road! Now be quiet and calm down. I’m trying to drive here.”

“Pull over!”

“And what? Be stranded on the side of the road with half a tank of gas and no food? Don’t think so, Barb. There’s gotta be a place around here where we can stop.”

Barbara bites her tongue and looks out the window at the blinding whiteness. Just then, the car swerves just a bit and she screams.

“We are going to die!” Feet up on the dashboard, Barbara grabs the oh-shit handle of their gold Plymouth Duster.

Richard quickly gets control of the car. “Relax! We are not going to die.” Richard rolls his eyes. He has both hands firmly on the wheel and he’s hunched forward as if the few inches will help improve the visibility.

“Holy shit,” he mutters to himself shaking his head. “Aah, we’re gonna die!” he imitates and laughs. Barbara is not amused. She gives him the evil eye instead.

“Look! Over there,” Barbara shouts and points. “Thank. You. God! Pull over, Richard!  Pull over!”

“I am, Barbara. I am.”

“I think it’s a diner.”

“Thank God. At least we can eat.”

#

“Here comes another one. The plates look yellow. Could be New York.” Pick stands beside his father at the window. His real name is Jackson, but earned his nickname because he’s a good foot taller than his father and skinny as a toothpick.

“Great. More Yankees,” Billy grumbles. “Go open the door for ‘em, Pick.”

Two dark figures make their way through the snow to the diner’s front door. They left their car in the middle of the parking lot. Billy can’t really blame them. You can’t see the spots and that Duster wouldn’t get through those drifts. Pick waits for the couple to get closer and then opens the door. Cold wind and snow burst through, sending Pick stumbling back. The couple walks in, stamping snow off their shoes. The man helps Pick close the door.

“Damn, are we happy to see you. Thank you.” The man shakes Pick’s hand.

“You’re welcome. Where are you folks coming from?”

“Florida. We’re driving back home to New York.”

Billy ambles over. “Not a great day for driving, now is it?” The man and woman laugh.

“No, it isn’t,” says the woman. “We really didn’t think it was going to be this bad.”

“None of us did. My name’s Billy. This here is my diner.” Billy spreads his arms. “And this is my son, Jackson.” He puts a hand on Pick’s shoulder. “But we call him Pick.”

“I’m Rich and this is my wife, Barbara. Thank you for letting us in.” Rich and Billy shake hands.

“No problem at all. Now you can find yourselves a seat wherever you’d like and just let us know if you’re hungry. There’s a couple over there from New Jersey. Maybe you’d like to sit with them.”

“Could we get some coffee?”

“Absolutely. Pick, go get these folks some coffee.”

#

“Look, Barb, there’s a booth right there. Take that one.”

Barbara and Richard sit down and both breathe sighs of relief. The air inside the diner is warm and the windows are fogged up. Snowflakes glisten in Barbara’s straight brown hair and her cheeks are rosy from the cold. Richard’s fair cheeks and Roman nose also show a blush and he rubs his hands together to warm up.

They look around at their surroundings. The diner itself looks clean and well maintained if not a little outdated. Large booths line the windows all along the front and sides of the room. A few four-top tables are scattered about the floor and there is a long counter with stools facing the kitchen beyond it. A jukebox stands against an outside kitchen wall beside the bathroom door.

It appears that most of the occupants of the diner are weary travelers just like them. On the other side of the diner, a family of four occupies a corner booth. The kids, both boys, look to be about five and seven years old. They wear matching striped sweaters and corduroy bell- bottoms. Barbara thinks it’s cute; Richard thinks it’s weird. In a nearby booth, a group of four heavy-set men with full beards, trucker caps, denim overalls and very serious expressions sit in silence. On Barbara and Richard’s side there are two other couples sitting in two separate booths. Both women are checking Barbara and Richard out, trying not to make it obvious, and failing miserably.

“Here you go, now,” says Pick, returning with two coffees.

“Thank you, Pick. It is Pick, right?”

“Yes, sir. Pick on account I’m as skinny as a toothpick.” Barbara and Richard laugh. Pick smiles and continues. “Just let us know if you want anything else. The menus are right there.”  He points towards the metal stand holding two plastic covered menus by the window and walks away.

Barbara and Richard add milk to their coffee and send a prayer that it’s good. They both take a tentative sip.

“Oh crap, it’s awful,” Barbara whispers.

“What is it that no one down here can make a decent cup of coffee?”

“Keep your voice down.”

“What?” Richard puts his hands up and shrugs. A look of innocence. Barbara just rolls her eyes and shakes her head. They continue to sip their crappy coffee and observe.

#

“Where do you suppose they’re from?”

Phil looks over his shoulder at the couple that just came in. “Not sure, darlin’, but my guess would be the Northeast. Maybe Boston or New York.”

“Handsome couple, aren’t they? Hm, he looks I-talian. Do you think he’s I-talian?”

“Don’t know, Marsha. Maybe.”

“Young, too. How old you suppose they are?”

“Don’t know, Marsha.”

Phil leans to the side, his elbow resting on the table and his head in his hand. He’s a clean-cut cowboy, tall and lean, who was born and raised in Texas but residing in North Carolina. Marsha looks like Farrah Fawcett if you squint your eyes. She’s a self-professed genuine southern belle. Phil professes she’s a genuine southern pain in the ass. I have to get away from her, he thinks. She’s going to drive me crazier than an outhouse rat. He squeezes his eyes shut. Maybe if I sit here real quiet-like with my eyes closed, she’ll go away.

“What’s wrong with you?”

No such luck. Phil sits up straight. He places his black Stetson on his head. “Nothing, Marsha. Nothing a’tall.” He stands up out of the booth. “I’m just going to stretch my legs for a bit, okay darlin’? I’ll be back in a few.”

“Alright but you hurry back, ‘ya hear? I don’t like sitting here all by myself.”

Phil just smiles and nods and walks away. He strolls around the counter and stops in front of the front door. He plants his feet wide and stretches his arms over his head. It feels good to move. He looks out at the blizzard. When the hell are we gonna get outta here?

#

Richard and Barbara quietly sip their coffee. They’ve both noticed the cowboy looking at the storm raging outside.

“What’cha thinkin’?”

“I like his boots.”

“I bet you do.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing. They just look like something you would like.”

“I do like them and someday I’m going to buy myself a pair.”

“Good for you.”

Richard sticks his tongue out at Barbara. Barbara laughs and sticks hers back out at him. Richard reaches across and takes Barbara’s hand in his. He kisses her knuckles.

“When do you think we’ll get out of here?” Barbara wonders.

“Hopefully the snow will at least calm down so they can plow the roads. Then we can head out again.”

“Yeah, but when will that be? Could be days.”

“Nah. Don’t worry, baby. We should be out of here by tomorrow the latest.”

They both look out the window beside their booth to see a wall of white. Flakes the size of snowballs fall sideways in droves, blown by the fierce wind. The sight drains any optimism from their faces.

#

“John! James! Both of you. Sit. Down. Right. Now.” Janet’s voice descends to an angry whisper by the end of her sentence. Her boys stop wrestling and look up at their mother. James, the seven-year-old, has John, the five-year-old, in a headlock. They seem to be deciphering just how serious she really is and whether they can get away with horsing around for a few more minutes. Experience tells them she’s not that serious yet. John twists and elbows James in the stomach.

“Jimmy! Do something!” Janet gestures towards the boys. Her husband reclines in the booth with his head against the wall and his eyes closed. His hands are clasped and resting on his bunny-hill belly.

Without opening his eyes, he says, “I’m resting and they’re bored. Leave us all alone.”

Tears well Janet’s eyes as she stares at her husband, willing him to open his eyes, to take an interest in her and the boys, to give two shits about their marriage and their family. The constant willing is killing her.

#

“Those boys are going to get hurt,” Barbara says. “Why don’t their parents stop them?”

“They’re probably bored, Barb. I don’t blame them. Ya wanna wrestle?”

“I’ll thumb wrestle you.”

“Sure.” They clasp hands. “One, two, three, four, I declare a thumb war.”

#

“Look, now they’re thumb wrestling. We should go talk to them. They said they’re from New York. We’re neighbors.”

Debbie cracks her gum and gives Ted a smile. Her red perm is particularly fluffy today and her blue eyeshadow is on so thick it will probably outlast the snow.

“They could be from Buffalo. That’s a long way from Newark, Deb.”

“Nah, I don’t think so. They look normal. Like us.”

“Fine. Let’s go be neighborly.”

Debbie and Ted stand up out of their booth, leaving their jackets behind. They walk over to the new couple. The woman leans halfway across the table, desperately trying to reach and bury the guy’s thumb with her own. The guy laughs at her persistence and lets her win, but she knows he let her and it annoys her. She sits back in the seat with her arms crossed in a huff.

“Excuse us,” Debbie says with a smile. “I couldn’t help overhearing that you’re from New York. We’re from New Jersey. We thought we would come over and introduce ourselves.”

“Oh hey, how are ya?” The men shake hands. “Yeah, we’re from Long Island. This is my wife, Barbara, and I’m Rich.”

Barbara and Debbie nod and smile at each other.

“I’m Ted, and this is my wife, Debbie.”

“Why don’t you join us? Scoot in, Rich.”

Barbara and Rich make room and Debbie and Ted sit down.

“So what part of Jersey are you from?”

#

If Marsha was a cartoon character, smoke would be shooting from her ears. She’s about to storm over to Phil by the front door and demand an explanation, when she remembers herself and who she is. I am Miss Harnett County 1970. I am a homecoming queen, and most importantly, I am a lady. She takes a compact from her purse, shakes out her blonde hair, checks her lipstick and smiles. Her reflection always calms her. She stands from the booth, smooths her clothes, and casually glances over at Phil. He appears to be in deep thought. How can he just ignore me? Marsha casually walks over to the jukebox and pretends to peruse the music titles while peripherally staring holes in Phil’s back.

#

“Jimmy! Please! Do something! They won’t listen to me.”

Janet pleads in anguished whispers. She runs her hands through her short, black hair and over her face. Her makeup has long worn off and she looks exhausted. The boys are still horsing around. They roll around on the floor. That fat, Elvis-wannabe, diner guy keeps throwing dirty looks their way from behind the counter. Finally, Jimmy opens his eyes and sits up with a look of exasperation on his face. Even with his little beer gut he’s still so handsome, thinks Janet. Too bad he’s such an asshole.

“They don’t listen to you because you are a nag. You nag about every little thing and after a while they just tune you out. Just like I do.” With that he stands up out of the booth.

“Boys! Get off the floor!” Both boys stand up immediately upon hearing their father’s voice. “Go sit at the counter. Let’s see if they have any ice cream.”

“Yes!” both boys shout with fists in the air and run after their father who walks to the opposite side where Janet can’t see them.

Janet wants to protest. She wants to say that rewarding them with ice cream for bad behavior is wrong. Instead she puts her head in her hands and silently cries.

#

“What will it be, boys?” Billy asks while tossing menus in front of each of them.

“What kind of ice cream do you have?” asks James.

“Vanilla.”

“That’s it?” asks John. “Do you have whipped cream at least?”

“Yes, we have whipped cream,” Billy answers with an eyeroll.

“Okay, we’ll have two big dishes of vanilla with whipped cream,” says James.

“Please,” adds John with a smile.

Billy looks to Jimmy for approval, but his gaze is elsewhere. Billy sighs, nods, and walks to the kitchen.

In the background, country music starts to play. The boys follow their father’s gaze to pretty lady dancing in front of the jukebox. The sight holds little interest for them, so they decide to see how big a hill they can make with all the sugar in the little packets. They only get through about six packets when Billy starts backing out of the kitchen with a big bowl of ice cream in each hand. They quickly sweep all the sugar to the floor.

Jimmy notices his sons have been served. “Uh, boys, eat your ice cream. I’ll be right back.”

He saunters on over to the jukebox. “Now what’s a pretty lady like you doing dancing all by yourself?”

Marsha smiles. Not the man she was trying to attract but he’ll do. He has an attractive face. Beautiful blue eyes. Thick, chocolate brown hair. A strong chin. A little soft around the middle but not too bad. “I have no one to dance with,” she says with a pout.

“Well, now you do.” He holds out a hand.

Marsha smiles and takes his hand. He pulls her into a close two-step and they dance around the tables.

“My name is Jimmy. What’s yours?”

“Marsha.”

“Well, Marsha. You just made getting snowed in here a whole lot better.”

Marsha laughs so loud that whoever didn’t notice them before turns.

#

Janet hears a loud feminine laugh and lifts her head from her hands. She wipes the tears from her eyes and hears the laugh again. Turning, she sees Jimmy across the diner dancing closely with an attractive woman. He smiles as he whispers in her ear. They both laugh and he starts leading her a little faster around the floor. Janet just stares calmly at the dancing couple while a white-hot fire of rage simmers in her core, born of existing sadness and hopelessness and now embarrassment and jealousy.

#

Phil hears a familiar laugh but doesn’t care. He figured the country music that came on two minutes before was her doing but he didn’t care. He knows she is just trying to get his attention. Ten minutes without her being the center of someone’s universe was just too much for her to bear. He continues to look out at the snow when he gets bumped from behind.

“Excuse us, Phil. We’re trying to dance here. At least one man here knows how to show a lady a good time.”

Phil turns around and watches the couple two-step towards the other side of the diner. They laugh the whole way. The guy’s back is to him, but Marsha’s smug face is looking right at him. He acknowledges her with a smile and tip of his hat then turns back to the snow.

#

“Isn’t she with him?” Debbie whispers while gesturing towards the cowboy.

“Not sure,” Barbara whispers back. “He’s been standing at the window for as long as I’ve noticed.”

“No, I’m pretty sure he was sitting with the blonde when we got here. I also think that man she’s dancing with has a wife sitting over there.” She gestures towards Janet with her head.

Barbara steals a glance across the diner. “If looks could kill, that man would be dead.”

#

Jimmy and the woman make their way to Janet’s side of the diner. They dance right past her booth, ignoring the daggers shooting from her eyes. Jimmy leads them around the space a second time, passing her booth again. He leans in close to the woman and whispers something in her ear. The whore laughs and throws her head back, sending waves through her long blonde hair.

“Oh, you are a wicked man, Jimmy! Just plain wicked!”

“I think you like a wicked man, Marsha.”

“Maybe I do.”

Jimmy leads Marsha back to the other side and right past the cowboy who’s still looking out the window. A new country song is playing. Tanya Tucker’s “Blood Red and Going Down.” Janet’s heard this song before. She’s listened to the words while in her kitchen cooking a dinner that Jimmy would never come home to eat. She thought about the husband’s pain and sympathized while cutting up the peppers for Jimmy’s favorite chili. She thought about the song again when Jimmy came home late and yelled at her when she demanded an explanation. “Stop nagging me,” he said, and he went out to the garage, leaving her alone and crying in the kitchen.

“The Georgia sun was blood red and going down,” Tanya croons in the background. Janet rises up from her booth, walks directly to the counter, and slips under it. The four men in the next booth who have sat stoically the whole afternoon simultaneously turn their heads to watch her. Pick is wiping the counter while singing along and doesn’t notice Janet slip into the kitchen. Inside the kitchen, Billy is washing dishes and singing, “Where did I go wrong, girl? Why would she leave us both this way?” and doesn’t catch Janet sneaking in and out.

#

“What do you think she’s doing?” asks Debbie. “Ted, are you watching this? Do you see what’s going on here? This is like Days of Our Lives for real. Barbara, do you watch Days?”

“I think we should mind our own business,” says Ted.

I work so I don’t get to watch it, but my mother loves it,” says Barbara.

“Yeah, let’s mind our own business,” says Rich. “Let’s order some food. I’m starving. Hopefully the food is better than the…”

Rich’s voice trails off when he sees Debbie and Barbara’s mouths drop open. He turns and sees the mother of the two boys marching around the counter and right towards her husband, who is still wrapped up in the blonde.

“Hi Mom!” shouts the younger of the boys, his face covered in ice cream. But his mother doesn’t answer. Instead she takes three more steps towards her husband and raises her left arm.

“Oh, shit!” Rich shouts. Barbara and Debbie scream. There is no time to react beyond that. The knife is already lodged in the husband’s throat. The blonde screams as blood spurts all over her face and clothes. The husband’s body shakes as he falls to the ground. His face appears to scream but he only gurgles and gasps.

“Daddy! Daddy! Mommy, why did you do that!” The boys have jumped from their stools and are on the floor with their father. One is trying to stop the bleeding with his hands while the other is trying to hug him to stop the convulsions. “Daddy! Daddy!”

All at once, the cowboy restrains the mother, while Debbie and Barbara run to the blonde woman. Ted stands in shock. Richard kneels beside the husband on the floor but there is nothing to be done. The body is still. A crimson puddle grows rapidly around him. The knees of Richard’s jeans are soaked before he realizes and stands.

“Look what you made me do!” Janet screams. “Look what you made me do, you son of a bitch! I hate you! I hate you!” Phil grips her elbows from behind as she thrusts her body towards her husband on the floor. Her knees buckle, and the cowboy wraps his arms around her to drag her away.

James jumps up.

“I hate you! Why did you do that, Mommy?! You always made him mad! I hate you!” He pummels her with his small bloody fists, but she doesn’t seem to notice him. Her eyes are tightly closed and she wails. Richard quickly walks to the boy and wraps him in his arms to calm him. John remains slumped over and hugging his father.

Phil just stands there with the crying murderer in his arms, not knowing what else to do, where else to put her.

Debbie and Barbara shakily guide a shocked Marsha to a chair and wipe the blood from her face with paper napkins from the dispenser on the counter. Her body shakes and her breaths are fast and short. She stares at the body of her dance partner on the floor. Billy and Pick don’t move from their places behind the counter. They watch, motionless.

The music stops. The only sounds remaining are the wails of the living victims. Nobody moves. The shock is raw. The group’s aura is thick with denial, with disbelief.

“Ahem.”

Everyone but Janet and her sons turn towards the sound of the voice. The four heavyset men stand in a line. They are all the same height and wearing the same navy blue coat. They remove their hats and place them above their hearts to reveal identical bald pates. They bow their heads and the last man on the left speaks.

“The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit. God of hope, we come to you in shock and grief and confusion of heart. Help us to find peace in the knowledge of your loving mercy to all your children, and give us light to guide us out of our darkness into the assurance of your love, in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

Silence follows until Barbara echoes with a thick, sorrowful, “Amen.”

“Amen,” repeats Richard and Phil, Billy and Pick, Ted and Debbie.

The four men cover their heads. “The snow has stopped,” says the man who recited the prayer. Heads turn toward the windows while a gust of cold air enters the room and blows bloody napkins across the floor. Outside, the four men move in a line towards a truck and start cleaning it off. When the door closes, Billy picks up the phone.

# # #

Sick Lit Photo

Stacey Longenberger is a south shore Long Island girl, born and bred.  She left a career in fashion to stay home with her three kids and doesn’t regret it one bit.  Stacey loves to read and when she’s not reading, she’s creating a story in her head.  Every now and then, she writes one down.