Welcome – by DON TASSONE

Welcome

 

 

The snow whipped at his eyes, nearly blinding him.  Frostbitten and exhausted, he could go no farther.

 

He’d been walking for two days.  That’s when the blizzard hit and he got separated and lost.

 

Now, in the distance, he saw a light.  Summoning all his remaining strength, he headed toward it.

 

The light came from the window of a stone hut.  He trudged to the door and fell against it.  Someone pulled it open.

 

“Heb-bar kaa-su-shu,” said a man in a maroon robe, helping the stranger inside.

 

The stranger did not know Tibetan.  Even so, he understood “Welcome.”

***

dontassone

 Don Tassone’s stories and essays have appeared in a range of literary magazines.  His debut short story collection, Get Back, was published by Golden Antelope Press in March 2017.  His debut novel, Drive, will be published in September 2017.
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Mrs. Underwood – by DANIEL C. ROCHE

 

MRS. UNDERWOOD

By

Daniel C. Roche

 

 

 

Mrs. Underwood lifts a cup of coffee toward her lips.  Black.  No cream or sugar allowed.  A woman of her advanced age can no longer afford such luxuries.  Doctors’ orders.  Her frail hands tremble as she blows the steam away from her perspiring lips.  She sips at the hot liquid, and of course, it’s delicious.  Throughout all these years she still worships the taste of coffee, just as she had all those years ago when she first tasted it.  Apparently coffee never grows old.

Too bad she can’t say the same for herself.

Warm sunshine pours in through the windows.  Mrs. Underwood loves the feeling she gets when the soft rays tickle her skin, causing goose-bumps to rise like bubbles in a pot of boiling water.  For this reason she is always up before dawn, waiting for the sun to arrive and welcome her to the new day.

She looks down upon her outfit (a long well-worn nightgown) and sighs.  She takes another sip of coffee and allows her mind to wander.  Her mind wanders back to a time when she actually had a reason to wear lovely dresses once in a while.  Dresses that showed off her long legs.  She recalls how good it felt when a young man would ask her to dance, or when a gentleman would step aside to hold a door open for her. She would turn around to thank him and catch him stealing a glance at her back side as she stepped though the doorway.

Happened every time.

No sense tormenting herself by thinking about those long gone days, but it’s hard not to think about her youth.  Those care-free days when she actually had something to live for.

She puts her coffee down and stares at her feet.  Her slippers are tattered and worn.  Maybe later on in the evening she will gather her knitting kit and make a new pair.  Some comfortable new slippers would be nice.  Just having something to do would be nice.

Her attention is suddenly stolen away from her slippers when she notices two  small figures out in the meadow on the far side of her lawn.  Disgusted at what she sees,        she approaches her window to get a better look.

“Oh for Pete’s sake,” she says.  “Now why on earth do those boys feel they have to meddle with those flowers?”

Through her window, out in the meadow, the two young boys from the house next door busy themselves by plucking away at some of the wildflowers that occupy the landscape.  From where Mrs. Underwood stands, she cannot see any rhyme or reason as to why those boys would feel the need to rid the neighborhood of such lovely flowers.

Dont they have anything better to do?

Maybe after ‘The Price is Right’ she will scurry next door and inform the boys parents of their misdoings.  She makes her way back to her seat, and to no one in particular she says, “Oh what’s the point?”  She tells herself that maybe the boys are already in trouble for something and are trying to make amends by picking some flowers for their mother.

Mrs. Underwood retrieves her coffee mug and takes another sip, but a lump appears in her throat, making it difficult to swallow.  She finds herself sobbing.  Seeing those two boys out there in the meadow reminds her of her own children.

For about a year after her husband passed away, her two sons and daughter would pop in every now and again for a visit.  They always brought the grandchildren with them, which she always appreciated, but after a while the visits grew less frequent, until finally her children stopped visiting completely.  Now-a-days it seems they only call her on her birthday or drop by to give her a card on Christmas.  It’s a hell of a way to treat their mother.  After all, she thinks.  Im the one who brought them into this world.

Thinking of her children always depresses her, and her depression has been so severe lately that she even took the trouble of gathering all of the family pictures in the house and putting them into a shoebox.  That shoebox now collects dust in her bedroom closet.

The lump in her throat increases and she cannot finish her coffee.  She decides to dump it into the kitchen sink.

Bracing herself over the sink, she allows her anguish to consume her.  She has a terrible decision to make – a decision she has been putting it off for a while now, but this sudden outburst draws attention to the severe importance of her situation.  Fresh tears flow freely down her wrinkled cheeks because for many months now she has been formulating a plan.  One last act that will end the misery that has become her life, and last weekend she had put all of the necessary items into place.  All she had to do now was wait until the time felt right.

Staring down into the wash basin, Mrs. Underwood realizes there is no better time than right now.

Gathering up her courage, Mrs. Underwood heaves herself away from the sink and heads towards her bedroom.

In her room, she sits upon her neatly made bed and stares at the closet door.  Tears no longer stand in her eyes, her hands no longer tremble and her sadness is down to a dull aching.  She knows that beyond the closet door the end of all her troubles awaits.  For Mrs. Underwood, her closet door may as well be the gates of heaven.  She takes a deep breath, stands up, and closes her hand around the door handle.  The moment of truth has arrived.

She opens the closet door.

Glorious emptiness fills her mind as her eyes fall upon a small stool.  Four and a half feet above the stool is a noose, the end of which is tied to a rafter in the opening of the ceiling.  It was hell climbing through the small opening into the attic, but now as she gazes upon the fruits of her efforts, she knows her pains were well worth it. Mrs. Underwood stands on the stool, and just as she is putting the noose around her neck, there is a knocking at her front door.

“Who could that be?” she mumbles.  It certainly couldn’t be one of her children.

Of all the times…  “Ah the hell with ‘em.”  She continues with the noose, but then she thinks, what if it is one of the kids?  Is this how I want them to find me?  As she is thinking this, another knocking can be heard from the front door, followed by the impatient ringing of the doorbell.

Mrs. Underwood groans.  “Hold your horses, I’m coming.”

She climbs down from the stool and makes her way down the hall towards the living room.  Once again the doorbell rings.  Feeling no need to rush, she shuffles along.  At her age, she rushes for no one.

Half expecting to be greeted by a salesman of some kind, she opens the door, but instead of being greeted by a seedy salesman, the two young boys from next door stand before her.  Up close, the boys look sweet and innocent.  Mrs. Underwood feels immediate remorse for harboring such negative thoughts about them earlier. Smiling brightly, the boys are wide eyed, proudly holding before them colorful displays of flowers they had picked and arranged all by themselves.

“Good morning Mrs. Underwood,” says Anthony, the older of the two.

Looking anxious the younger boy mimics his brother.  “Yeah.  Good morning Mrs. Underwood.”

Anthony says, “We picked these for you,” and held the flowers out for her.

Quickly, the younger boy does the same.

Mrs. Underwood is stunned and it takes her a moment before she can come up with a response.  “Why thank you, boys.  These are lovely.”

It had been so long since anyone had done something nice for her that she almost forgot to reach out and accept the flowers.  When she finally did, she brought them close and inhaled the deep fragrance.

“This is so very nice of you.”

The younger boy weaves back and forth like a balloon on the edge of bursting.  “Hey Mrs. Underwood,” he says.  “Do you have any candy?”

His older brother elbows him in the ribs.  “Shut up, Danny.”

Mrs. Underwood chuckles.  “Candy?  Well let me see.”  She finds it funny that these children only brought her the flowers in hopes of receiving candy.  Still, no one has given her flowers in years.

The lump in her throat returns.  “Let me go put these in some water and I’ll see if I can find some candy for you nice young men.”

Their little faces light up, and they eagerly wait on the front door step as the old woman rummages around in her kitchen.

Having poured some tap water into a vase, she arranges the flowers and displays them at the center of her kitchen table.  On her way back to the front door she stops in the den.  On the coffee table sits a small bowl filled with an assortment of hard candies.  There’s a bag of Hershey’s Kisses next to it.  She grabs two handfuls of each and returns to the front door.

Eagerly waiting for their prize, the boys smile wide and cup their hands in front of them.

“Here you go,” she says.

The children jump up and down, their eyes never leaving the candy.  “Thank you,”

they scream.  They then run across the yard.

“See you later, Mrs. Underwood,” calls Danny.

The old woman shuts the door and heads back into the kitchen.  Alone with her thoughts she stares out the window.  She looks to the meadow where the boys had gathered the flowers.  A strong yearning erupts in her chest and the lump in her throat swells.

“Oh,” she chokes.  “What is this?”  Her hand rises instinctively to her mouth and the tips of her fingers gently rub her lips.  She can’t remember the last time she smiled.  She didn’t even know she had it in her anymore.  She hurries into the bathroom and stares before the mirror.  Mrs. Underwood can’t believe her eyes.  Within the wrinkles of that drooping face she catches a glimpse of the blushing young woman she once was.  There’s no denying it.  She looks ten years younger.

She leaves the bathroom and re-enters the kitchen.  “Maybe I’ll make another cup of coffee,” she says.  “And I think I’ll take cream and sugar today.”  But before she begins boiling the water she bends over the kitchen table and smells the fresh wildflowers.  “And I think later on I might head out and buy some more candy.”

***

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Several of Daniel’s short stories have appeared in print through Tough Lit Magazine and Idea Gems Magazine.  Over 30 of his other stories, poems, articles and memoirs have been published in several online magazines, Including Ariel Chart (a signatory of Poets and Writers.)  If you like what you’ve read here, please browse his website: danielcraigroche.wordpress.com

PLEASE STAND CLEAR – by Brianna Fenty

PLEASE STAND CLEAR

 

 

I have mastered the art of being alone without succumbing to loneliness.

Anyone on the outside looking in through the tinted train windows might think such a statement a blatant manifestation of a woman deep in denial, drowning beneath roaring waves of solitude. But that simply is not the case.

There’s no one out there anyway.

Mine are the only pair of judgmental eyes left on this ravaged world—at least as far as I can tell.

I came to terms with my isolation long ago. My hatred for the train was a boiling, scalding thing in my youth, driving me to pound the doors, claw the viewports, tear cables from the ceiling panels in frustrated rage. These tantrums did nothing to slow the train. To this day, it speeds blindingly along the route preprogrammed into the ATO panel—sealed behind an impenetrable, bulletproof bulwark of a door—plodding its never-ending loop though sun-blasted plains, jagged mountains, and gloomy marshes. I fought the metal monster from the inside out for a great chunk of my adolescence until at last, one day, the futility of it all stilled my hand.

The passage of time has an uncanny way of softening the perspective, after all.

This train—the Aegis—is a fully automated, sleek beast of a machine, equipped with anything and everything a girl could ever want, need, or wish for. The greenhouse sustains me on a balanced diet of legumes, fruits, and vegetables. The ventilation room keeps the cars warm in the nuclear winters and cool in the apocalyptic summers. The infirmary’s medical automaton scans my body for sickness and injury every Tuesday afternoon, dispensing vitamins to keep me at the pinnacle of physical health. The vast library, fitness center, art studio, and music gallery maintain my sanity, offering a panacea for the boring tedium of years of seclusion.

Most vital of all was the media theater. Full to bursting with all manner of movies, television shows, documentaries, and grainy home-videos, it ensures that I don’t forget that, once upon a time, people existed. That they laughed and cried and loved; that they had passions and hatreds, conversations and arguments; that they chased their ideas and dreams with zeal and studied the mysteries of the world in which they once lived in a ceaseless pursuit of knowledge, of belonging, of purpose. I oftentimes find myself lugging stacks of books into the theater, losing myself simultaneously in artfully spun tales of life between the pages and moving images of humanity playing across the projector screen, unable to decide which medium deserved my attention more.

I became a master multitasker, reveling in the creations of generations long since turned to dust.

But I was never alone. Not truly.

The man who put me on the Aegis when I was thirteen, who plopped me inside this lavish metal leviathan and wiped my memory slate irreversibly clean, left me with a companion. A puppy, of all things. A baby. A tiny, pathetic creature, mewling for its mother, yellow fur barely dried in the aftermath of its birth.

I can still recall my first onboard memory with such clarity that I feel the smooth titanium of the floor beneath my palms as I push myself up, mind reeling. I reach for the puny creature, cuddling it delicately, coaxing my shaking fingers to stillness in the fear that the smallest movement might disturb him.

At the time, I thought it cruel.

To abandon an adolescent on a train promising her survival was one thing. But a puppy, fresh from the womb, denied the nourishment of its mother’s milk and bodily warmth? Alone, afraid, eyes sealed shut, trapped in a cold steel chrysalis with none but a preteen mess of a girl for company?

Cruel.

But as days, weeks, and months of solitude passed, I thanked my lucky stars for the puppy’s presence. I found kinship in its soft, mud-brown eyes and the unconditional love and trust sparkling within them.

I was young and frightened, as well I should’ve been. The train confused me. The devastated world beyond its walls terrified me. Savage expanses of empty, rolling hills flew by in a ceaseless, dizzying blur, day-in and day-out. The amnesia blackening all recollection of life before the Aegis worried me most.

The puppy was a beacon of solace in my otherwise senseless existence. As much as I cherished him, it took days to bestow upon him a proper name.

One midwinter afternoon, as the train plowed through snowdrifts and roared through clouds of blizzarding white, I read a story by William Sydney Porter. It was my sixth day of internment. Muscles limp and throat raw from a week of searching for escape, I’d reluctantly curled into the suede armchair in the library car. In an effort to calm his longing howls, I engulfed the sobbing pup in a plaid quilt I’d found. I cradled the weeping creature in my lap and read to him The Gift of the Magi. My voice trembled pathetically; my barely-pubescent hands shook and struggled to hold the tome of short stories aloft. But as I read, the dog relaxed, and so did I. By the time I uttered the tale’s final words, the pup was peacefully asleep.

I remember setting the book down on the rickety nightstand, its wooden legs trembling softly with the train’s rocking shudder. Studying the dusty book with sleepy eyes, I discovered Porter’s pen name.

  1. Henry.

The puny puppy, nuzzling his moist, black nose contentedly into my thigh, sniffling against the woolen blanket, at last had a worthy name.

The Aegis boasted many amenities. I was eternally thankful for each and every one. But none were so precious to me as Henry the golden retriever.

My name is Eden Marie Sinclair.

The train is my home, and the train provides.

I love my books. I love my garden. I love my dog.

Life is simple. Life is good.

But I can’t help but dwell on the life I might have lived, the family I might have known, the fate I might have fulfilled before the world collapsed.

~~~

The tin can cracks open, releasing a gassy exhale laced with a foul, pungent stench. I wrinkle my nose, grinding the can opener around the edge until the lid pops off and clatters into the farmhouse sink. The meaty sludge, equal parts unidentifiable lumps and greasy broth, grimaces up at me.

Thank God I’m not a dog.

“Henry!” I call. “Dinner!”

I spoon the can’s vile contents into a dish, setting it down on his placemat in the corner of the kitchen car. My own supper sizzles on the electric stove, filling the coach with the far more pleasant aromas of sautéed spinach, onion, and garlic.

“Dinner, Henry. C’mon boy!”

The shouting strains my vocals, forcing a dry cough from my lungs. I rub my chest. Clear my throat. Shake my head.

Dinner is Henry’s favorite word. It never takes him more than six seconds to pounce through the sensor-activated doors; after all, he never strays more than a few feet from my side and when he does, it isn’t usually for very long.

The delay is uncharacteristic.

With a sigh, I spare a fleeting glance to the wilting spinach and lower the heat. As I make my way to the door, another cough seizes me, this one harder, drier, rooting a stinging ache in my sternum. I pound my chest and take a deep breath but it’s constricted, like my esophagus has shrunk, crimping like an accordion. Must be the damn smoke. The range hood over the stovetop is probably glitching again. I roll my eyes at the thought of yet another afternoon tinkering with its messy electronic innards. I’m an artist with a screwdriver, but that doesn’t mean I enjoy playing repairwoman.

The tempered glass door clicks and opens automatically with a mechanical hiss. I step past the vestibule into the humid greenhouse coach. Flourishing peppers, tomatoes, lettuce, and other vegetable plants arrange themselves in tidy irrigated lines; sleeves of harvested garlic and drying herbs dangle from racks running the length of the car; hydroponic pools burst with watermelon, strawberries, blueberries, painting the room with a cacophony of color. Cool mist from the drip systems overhead dampen my face and hair. I walk down the aisle between rows of cucumber and potato, craning my neck to search the shaded corners where Henry, in his old age, sometimes naps in the comfort of the fresh air.

Not here either.

I exit the greenhouse and amble into the library car, a cozy, mahogany-and-plaid laden chamber trading windows for beautifully crowded shelves of books.

“Henry?”

I check the plush bed nestled behind the armchair. Nothing.

I cough.

A wave of dizziness sweeps over me. Crushing into my temples, wobbling my knees. I blink hard. Each time my eyes open my vision blurs and struggles to focus. The next time I call Henry’s name it’s a raspy whisper that burns the walls of my windpipe.

Faintly, from worlds away, I hear Henry’s alarmed bark.

When I hack again into my hand, red coats my palm.

My heart spikes.

My throat constricts.

My eyes tear.

I gasp in desperation for oxygen as my body turns against me, unable to form a clear thought.

What the hell is happening?

Another unsteady step toward the door of the next car is all it takes for my balance to fail. I crash to the ground, cheek mashing against the scratchy maroon carpet. Black patches distort my sight.

Henry!

My mouth opens to yell his name but nothing escapes my lips, chapped and splitting painfully in the absence of breath. I heave thick clots of blood onto the rug, forcing my arms forward. My muscles are weak and my hands are trembling, but I forge on, dragging my traitorous body toward the door.

The closer I get, the louder his bark.

I have to get to him.

He has to be okay.

Please be okay.

My upper body thumps to the ground in exhaustion before the glass door. I shiver. I choke. Fire blazes in my chest, scorching the inner walls of my lungs black. Blood dribbles down my chin. I smack my palm against the door. It thuds uselessly against the glass, leaving behind a ghostly imprint.

The door doesn’t open.

I hit it.

I pummel the glass again and again to no avail. I hammer my fist against it and I scream a silent, agonized scream, staring with bulging eyes at the horrified expression reflected back at me through the locked vestibule door.

AIRBORNE CONTAMINATION DETECTED IN CARS 11, 12, 13, AND 14.

A robotic female monotone blasts over the intercom, made eerie by static and mechanical distortion.

CONTAMINANT UNKNOWN. ASSESSING RISK. STAND BY.

My fading consciousness struggles to process the words. Contamination? What the fuck does that mean?

The blows I strike against the door grow weaker.

ASSESSMENT COMPLETE.

Hands numb.

Arms leaden.

Head a thousand kilos too heavy, throbbing as if my skull is cracking, impaling shards of bone into the fleshy bits of my brain.

PROGNOSIS DEEMED FATAL. SEALING DOORS FOR AUTOMATIC PURGE.

Henry’s panicked bark grows farther and farther away, heard from forty meters beneath a storming sea as my hearing fails.

Past the steel wool clogging my ears, a whooping siren screeches over the intercom, the telltale whoosh of air sucks backwards through vent ducts. The car is bathed in a bloody warning light, turning what was once my coveted literary haven into a nightmarish hellscape of red.

My periphery darkens. My fingers curl. My tongue turns to paper.

FIRE ALERT IN CAR 12: GREENHOUSE. COMMENCING BURNOUT PROCEDURES.

I wheeze and I sputter. Behind me, fire consumes the greenhouse, destroying in one fell sweep my only food source. The heat is oppressive, intensifying as it spreads. It leaps from plant to plant, evaporating water to hissing steam, blackening the skins of fruits and vegetables, crumbling leaves and stems and roots until nothing remains but clouds of soot and piles of ash. The door holds against the onslaught of the flames, wafting deathly smoke over the glass until all I see is hazy grey.

OXYGENATOR FAILURE IN CAR 14: VENTILATION. COMMENCING REROUTE. REPAIR PROSPECTS: UNKNOWN.

Henry’s bark is lost in the howl of the siren. In my mind’s eye I see his aged body wilting, his arthritic legs folding beneath him as the oxygen drains from the cars. I reach up with a final ounce of strength, motivated by the image of my frightened companion dying a slow death, and I yank down the scarlet lever built into the wall panel.

“Manual override,” I choke.

ACCESS DENIED.

“Aegis, manual override! Administrator code 55279EMS!”

ACCESS DENIED.

Helpless moans gurgle from my throat. My tongue lolls from my slackening mouth, eyes twitching, clouding over.

And then I see him.

Henry paws at the door in the next vestibule, tail tucked between his legs, pacing in distress.

He’ll die alone. Alone and afraid. Confused. Lost. Thinking I abandoned him. Thinking I did this to him.

No way in hell.

I swallow down one last gulp of the thinning air and use the lever as an anchor to pull myself up on shaking feet. I collapse against the wall. My fingers have just enough tension left to wrap around the carbide glass breaker. Shielding my face with one arm, I use the other to bash at the door, once, twice, three times, four—

SMASH!

My legs fail. I tumble through the opening into car ten. Spears of glass tear through my clothes, lacerating the skin of my face and hands. The titanium flooring of the bedroom car is far less forgiving than the library’s carpet, sending a shockwave of vertigo rocking through my temples when my head cracks against ground. The oxygen purge isn’t prioritized in the unaffected coaches, but now that the door is broken it won’t take long before the rest of the train is voided of air. I suck down a desperate heave and hold it in my lungs, making each and every molecule count.

I crawl and crawl, Henry’s heart-wrenching cries growing louder as I approach the next door.

“Get back, boy,” I pant. “I’m coming.”

The glass breaker collides with the door, showering down upon us a glittering rain of thick, murderously sharp shards. I ignore the way they slice into my knees and palms and scramble over the lip into the vestibule, hugging Henry to my chest. His silvery whiskers tickle my neck. His high-pitched whine is at once relieved and pained.

“It’s okay. I’m here.”

We need to get to the infirmary.

Just one more door.

One more door between us and salvation and sweet, sweet oxygen.

Henry may be old, but he is in no way light. My air-deprived muscles struggle to haul him over my shoulder—adrenaline does its work, pumping energy into my feeble arms and legs and launching me toward the medical bay.

I anchor my body to the side to protect Henry from the glass as the final door falls to the unyielding force of the carbide.

His eyes are fluttering. His body is limp. His whines soften.

“Hang on, buddy,” I beg. “We’re almost there.”

I lay him on the floor and dash into the med bay. Blood is pouring from my mouth now, mutating my racking coughs into moist, gargling sputters, but I’m too close to give up now.

There they are.

I snatch the oxygen mask from the med cabinet and secure it to my face. The rush of air is curative, a blessedly cooling gush of alpine wind eradicating the inferno roaring deep in my chest. I allow myself a half-second of pause before grabbing the second mask and rushing to Henry.

The train shudders violently around a sharp turn, hurtling through a tunnel.

The infirmary descends into darkness.

The tremor throws me to the ground.

Henry’s name becomes a desperate mantra on my lips, muffled behind the plastic mask. I pat the floor, feeling my way across the car.

“Where are you, buddy?”

My hand at last touches a swath of bristly fur. My heart kick-starts, a mixture of relief and anxiety so potent I can taste it like vinegar on my tongue. I use my fingers as a guide to find his snout and press the mask to his face, pulling taught the straps and cranking the wheel switch to open the airflow.

The Aegis emerges from the tunnel. Sunlight floods the med bay. The blinding rays are merciless against the sterile white of the infirmary.

SYSTEM PURGE COMPLETE.

I blink, eyes adjusting to the brightness.

“We did it, boy. We made it.”

I look down at Henry. Spatters of scarlet stain the inside of his mask.

“Henry?”

His tongue spills from his mouth, covered in pink froth.

“Henry, wake up.”

His eyes are rolled back into his head, his limbs are flaccid, and the familiar rise and fall of his chest is gone.

“Henry, c’mon boy. Wake up.”

The train barrels along the tracks at a sound-shattering speed, but the universe around me grinds slowly to a cold, silent, empty halt. It takes eons for my hands to reach out and caress his head. To lift it into my lap, heavy and lifeless. Dead weight.

“You’re okay,” I whisper.

My eyes roam the length of his body, grown frail with age, golden fur dulled grey by the passage of sixteen long and wonderful years.

“You’re okay.”

I release the straps securing the mask, pulling it away from his face. It falls to the floor.

“You’re okay.”

I gently tug him onto my lap, much like that midwinter afternoon sixteen years ago when I read to him my favorite story, bestowed upon him a name worthy of his jolly grin, invaluable companionship, and unwavering loyalty. The fur of his mane is thick and brittle yet somehow still soft as the day he was born. I nestle my face into the crook of his neck. Tears dampen his hair, staining the dim yellow a dark, mustardy brown.

“You’re okay, buddy.” My sob is quiet behind the barrier of the mask. I ache to take it off, to feel the tender kiss of his fur against my nose. “You’re okay.”

I cradle my best friend, my family, my oldest and only kin, hugging him tight and telling him he’s okay and hoping beyond hope that my love for him will be enough to restart his heart.

But it isn’t.

That’s not how life works.

Death is definite. Mean and final, without prejudice.

Oxygen levels critical, the automaton chimes cheerfully. Five minutes remaining.

I want to scream at that damned, cursed, blasted thing, to smash its screens and sever its wires so I don’t have to listen to its blind robotic optimism. But my body is done. Sapped of all motivation and purpose.

The air in my mask thins.

Three minutes remaining.

An agonized wail breaks free.

I don’t want to die. But I don’t want to live without Henry. I don’t want to be alone. I can’t.

I can’t imagine an existence without my faithful dog at my side, warming at night the foot of my bed, begging for scraps by the table at lunchtime, cocking his head as I read to him tales of mystery and adventure.

But I won’t have to.

I don’t know why, I don’t know how, but the Aegis is perishing—complete and total system failure—and when it dies, I will go with it.

One minute remaining.

Mellow sobs continue their quivering journey through my body, but a blanket of calm descends over me, too, draping across my shoulders a silken shroud of acceptance. I savor my final breaths, smacking my lips. They taste of copper and salt, moistened with blood and the tears that have managed to slip past the mask’s seal.

I close my eyes.

I whisper, “you’re okay.”

I’ll see him again soon. Somewhere bright, somewhere clean and happy, without pain.

And then something happens. Something that has never once occurred in all the time I’ve been trapped on this godforsaken train.

The Aegis slows.

The Aegis stops.

Nausea churns in my gut, spinning my head; my body revolts, unaccustomed to the alien sensation of not moving. My butt tingles in the absence of the ground’s familiar tremble.

Thirty seconds remaining.

The faintest and oddest of sounds brushes my ears. The ghastly drone of opening doors—but not the ones I’m used to hearing.

It’s not the mild hiss of the automatic inner doors.

It’s the rushing exhale of the single pair of outer doors in car one. The one and only exit point on the train.

The intercom crackles. The automated announcement is heavily distorted, warped into a mutated perversion of the human voice.

PLEASE STAND CLEAR OF THE CLOSING DOORS.

I take one last breath of air before the oxygen cuts off.

I stagger to my feet, carefully laying Henry down.

I stare in the direction of car one, pressing my final lungful of air deep into my chest.

For the first time in sixteen years, another passenger has boarded the Aegis.

~~~

The Aegis is moving again by the time my lungs are emptied of oxygen. The last thing I see before I collapse is the sign bolted above the door.

Car One

LOCOMOTIVE CONTROLS

It taunts me: close, but not close enough.

I feel my life, my hope, my one and only chance at freedom slipping through my fingers, an ironic mockery of the breath slipping from my body and damning me to death.

A shadow looms beyond the glass. Bulky and awkward, its silhouette is strange, and not just because my vision is darkening and swirling with dancing pinpricks of light. I’ve seen enough dystopian sci-fi flicks to know the outline of a hazmat suit; to recognize the cumbersome, cylindrical tanks connecting to what could only be a respirator. Hands shielded by thick, rubbery gloves seem to move in slow motion as they punch a code into the panel on the other side of the impenetrable barrier locking me out of the control cab.

The twitching in my limbs evolves into a violent seizure. Sharp spikes impale my ribcage, puncturing my lungs, deflating them like pierced balloons. I swear I can hear the helium whistling away.

I see less and less of the mysterious figure. Dropping beside it some hulking mass of equipment, it kneels, partly vanishing behind the impervious pneumatic seal that has kept those doors irrevocably shut for nearly two decades.

The seal releases its four locks. The steel bars retract from the glass, sheathing into the center console with a droning hiss one by one by one.

The console plunks to the ground.

The divine portal to the Aegis’s heart opens at last, gears squealing from an age of disuse as they part for the very first time.

From between the gates of heaven, a hellish monster emerges.

It steps over the vestibule lip into car two where I lay dying. Heavy durosteel boots clang against the titanium floor. An odd smell, a mixture of dust, iron, and bleach, wafts toward me, assaulting my senses with each languid stride it takes toward me. The crackling of radio static fills the coach. The monster speaks.

“The asset’s alive, but just barely. Beginning securement protocols. Prepping for transport.”

Not a monster, I realize.

A woman. A real, human woman, not some apathetic computerized parrot. An emblem of a stylized phoenix rising from a cracked egg decorates the shoulders of her suit. She kneels in front of me, releasing one of the tanks from her back, fiddling with tubes and cranks.

“Don’t worry, honey,” she says. “You’re safe now.”

Am I?

~~~

I wake slumped against the back of the conductor’s chair, on the floor. The respirator is tight on my face, a big, black cluster of synth-rubber and wires. That sixth-sense instinct—and the way the setting sun casts her shadow across the cab—tells me my savior is seated in the chair, and the constant clicking and clacking tells me she’d fiddling with the control panel, all its flashing buttons and rusty levers.

My skull throbs and my chest is twenty sizes too small for my lungs, but the steady flow of oxygen pumping through the ventilator eases the fog clouding my sensibilities. I think of Henry’s sloppy, pearly-toothed grin, an image from happier times, to keep my hand steady as it digs into my pocket. The note inside is old. Brittle against my fingers. I pull it out and unfold the fragile paper with about as much delicacy as a nuclear physicist arming an atom bomb, careful to be as silent as possible. The sixteen-year-old scrap scrunches in my hands. I reread the jagged scrawl for what feels like—what probably is—the billionth time, and my eyes drift closed at the rush of dread it instills.

“Ah. You’re awake. Excellent.”

The seat behind me creaks and I crumple the note hastily, flicking it to the corner of the room before the woman can see. She comes round to crouch before me. Something clicks. The penlight stings my retinas as she moves it back and forth from eye to eye.

“Pupillary response is good.”

She snaps her fingers in my right ear. My left. I flinch away both times.

“Good. Auditory response normal.”

She grabs one of my hands, examining my nails. I snatch it away. The smile she offers is placating.

“Any headaches, flashing lights? Are you feeling faint at all?”

“Who the fuck are you?” I spit.

The woman doesn’t seem perturbed by my venom. Her professionalism only intensifies my distrust. She rises from her squat and returns to the control array, giving me room to shimmy onto my hands and knees. I press myself up to stand, failing once, twice, three times before I finally stagger onto my lame feet.

“My name is Ahora. You probably don’t remember me. We were close, once.” She yanks back a brown lever. The train’s course shifts slightly, careening into the horizon bathed blindingly orange by the sinking sun. “No need to worry, I’m not here to harm you. I’m sorry it took us so long to find you, Eden.”

“Who’s us?

“Fertilitas Medical Technologies. We’ve been scouring the globe for you for quite some time, dear.” I take a measured step back, praying my ailing body doesn’t fail me, that my joints hold and muscles work. “I understand you must be disoriented after such a long period of isolation, Eden, but I assure you, all your questions will be answered in due—”

“What exactly is it you’re here to do?”

Her sigh is almost imperceptible, secreted under her breath.

“To break you out of this prison, of course.” She makes it sound matter-of-fact, but I’m not deaf to the undertone of exasperation hiding beneath her voice. “Why else? The bastard that trapped you here was a deranged madman.”

Another step back.

“We’re taking you home, Eden.”

Another.

“And where exactly would home be, Ahora?”

She turns around, spreading her arms out to lean against the control panel. I freeze my creeping retreat, close enough to the open doors that my boot heel brushes against the heavy pneumatic console lying broken on the floor. Ahora’s green eyes sparkle with a cunning glint that betrays her supposed good intentions. Blond waves of hair plaster to her sweaty forehead behind the suit visor. The resemblance between us is uncanny.

My guts churn.

“Did you do this to the Aegis?” I ask. “The poison, the fire, the vent malfunction? That was you?”

Her smile is sad, complete with a patronizing cock of the head.

“Again, I apologize, but hacking the Aegis’s primary operating systems was the only way to stop its course. As you can probably imagine, it’s no easy task to board a mag-lev running at 300 miles an hour.”

“And pushing me to the brink of death was your solution?” I lower my voice. “Don’t you think that’s a little risky, considering I’m the precious cargo they sent you here to snatch?”

Her eyes harden.

My hand drifts down to my lower abdomen, touching the skin just above my pelvis. My fingers brush the flesh over my uterus, my ovaries.

The last set of working female reproductive organs on a planet sterilized by nuclear and global biochemical warfare.

Fertilitatis would stop at nothing to cut them out of my body, the precious cargo, as my father had warned me when he left me on the Aegis.

My eyes flick to the note crushed in the corner of the cab. I’ve memorized the words by heart, having read it, over and over, every evening of my life.

A father can only protect his daughter in so many ways in this cruel new world. One day I pray you’ll forgive me. But the one thing matters now, my dearest Eden, is your safety.

Be brave. Be smart. And beware the phoenix and the egg.

“Honestly, I might’ve considered going with you. Sacrifice myself for the greater good, and all that.” All pretense of compassion on Ahora’s face is gone, replaced by an ugly, angry sneer. “But that was before you killed my dog.”

Ahora lunges at me over the chair but the space between us is too wide for her to close in time before I heft the pneumatic console from the floor. Every muscle in my arms, my wrists, my hands scream beneath the weight, but my raging anger galvanizes me enough to slam the hunk of metal down on Ahora’s skull. A spray of red splatters the inside of her visor. The sickening crack of bone snaps the silence in half. Her body crashes to the ground. I drop the bloodied console.

My hands do not shake.

My heart does not pound.

Exhausted, crippling apathy consumes any shred of remorse I should have felt after ending my mother’s life.

After murdering humanity’s last hope for a future.

~~~

I slump in the conductor’s seat, holding Henry’s listless body in my lap, wrapped in his wooly plaid blanket. I stroke the tender spot in the crook of his floppy left ear, the one that always made his leg bounce in pleasure. The sunset bleeds warm reds, purples, and oranges into the clouds. We’ve got the best seat in the house. The wrap-around windows of car one offer a sweeping panoramic view of the kaleidoscopic day’s end sky, in all its radiant glory. It’s enough to ignore the bludgeoned body lying dead on the ground behind us; the blinking light on the respirator tank indicating the very little oxygen left inside.

“You’re okay,” I sigh. “We’re okay.”

The Aegis’s familiar rumble rocks me to sleep.

It’s the best sleep I’ve ever had.

***

Author Photo

Brianna Fenty is a state maritime academy alumna hailing from New York’s wonderfully weird Long Island area. After spending a few months learning highland voodoo from Scotland’s resident fairies (AKA taking a gap year), she now keeps busy at home begrudgingly searching for a day job, writing strange stories, and forcing her very moody cat to read them. Brianna has been previously published in Aphotic Realm Magazine and Paragraph Planet, and specializes in writing bizarre speculative fiction, including horror, sci-fi, and dark fantasy.

Important Updates, Announcements, and More About Submissions! – Editor-in-Chief, Kelly Fitzharris Faulk

MAN, you guys are KILLING IT with these submissions – and I’m not exaggerating. The pieces I’ve been accepting are all SO DIFFERENT from one another, but they’re poignant, fresh, and remind me of the reason I started Sick Lit Magazine just about two years ago.

Nicole Ford Thomas has not “left the building” – she and I are still working closely together here at SLM. She’s now the Creative Director, where I let her spread her wings and expand her mind, allowing her ideas and her imagination to grow and flourish. This brings me to my next point: Nicole will be writing a regular column for SLM called Letters From Left Field. 

Along with that, we’re starting our own advice column called Ask The Redheads – When in Doubt? Bitch it out! All questions will be anonymous and will be posted on the site with both mine and Nicole’s input. Any advice questions should be sent to sicklitsubmissions@gmail.com with “Ask The Redheads” in the subject line. You’ll be notified if we pick your question to be featured and also (for a few, select scenarios) enlist a group of your peers help Nicole and myself in our advice to you.

So, now, along with fresh poetry and fiction, we’ll be providing even more fun content for you to delve into!

I’m going to start posting some of your pieces for our “New Beginnings” theme either tomorrow or over the long weekend, so you’ll have something exciting and new to read. I woke up earlier this week with two fairly painful infections (of course, right? Why wouldn’t I? Ha!); I’ve received antibiotics and am hoping to be on the mend by Saturday. If not, I’ll start posting your work on Sunday.  Don’t worry, guys. We’ll get everything up and running soon.

To some of you who haven’t received a response yet: bear with me. I will get to you, I promise.

Who’s excited?

Who’s ready to write again, and actually enjoy it this time? As I’ve said before, throw out that “literary agent jargon” that’s peddled as “Professional advice.”

If I’m being completely candid, I want you to forget EVERYTHING and write me a bold, passionate piece (and then of course, send it to sicklitsubmissions@gmail.com) and if nothing else, your enthusiasm and love for writing will shine through.

Be on the lookout for Nicole’s New Column, Our Advice Column, and some excellent prose and poetry.

Nicole and I sort of have an affinity for all things “fall.” We’re excited for these next few issues and what’s to come for all of us here at SLM!

 

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Cheers, guys! And good luck submitting!

Kelly

(Above: a photo of me ‘at the office’)

 

 

Feel Like Starting Over? Come Explore Our “New Beginnings” Theme – Editor-in-Chief, Kelly Fitzharris Faulk

It’s….September!

And that means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. It might mean back-to-school (either as a student yourself, a teacher, parent, or all three), meaning unchecked road rage in the form of crowded, bitchy carpool lanes; it could bring either a markedly busier or slower work pace for you, and September always serves as a lead-in to the holiday season and the harried, frantic conclusion to the year 2017.

*Side note about unchecked road rage- what in the name of Sam Hill is going on?! Not to sound like a disgruntled older woman, but I’m seriously alarmed at the amount of people just absolutely LOSING IT while in their cars. I saw some of the most God awful road rage, of all places, at the drive thru lane at Chik-Fil-A last week. One car cut another one off; sure, they shouldn’t have done that, but the reaction from the woman who was cut off was straight up disturbing. Her blood pressure had to have been close to heart attack level. It is NOT WORTH IT to engage ANYONE like that unless they’ve literally just snatched your newborn baby out of your vehicle. End of rant. *

Whether this year has been one of strife and struggle for you or one of success and triumph, time waits for no one. And the only direction it moves is forward.

Last night, my husband and I watched the movie “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World,” starring Steve Carell and Keira Knightley. Its humor has more of a subdued, subtle dryness to it, giving it the perfect opportunity to be in the background and serve as the perfect backdrop to a realistically funny look at what the world might look like right before it ended. Dean (my husband) kept trying to figure this movie out; he was determined to break it down and find its hidden meaning and intent. He kept guessing that the ending would take a drastic turn and the world wouldn’t end at all – that the asteroid might narrowly miss earth, giving the movie “meaning.”

“No, no, no,” was my rebuttal. “The point is that it doesn’t matter how much time we have here or what we think we’re supposed to be doing. If it takes the end of the world for you to ‘find your purpose’ or if you think you need to go backpacking across Brazil in order to find yourself, then you very well could be missing out on the greatness that’s already in your life. In the end, we’ve all got what we need right in front of us. We’ve had the right tools all along, we just didn’t know how to use them. Changing your scenery won’t change your problems and it won’t change you. Being with those who love you and loving yourself are the keys to fulfillment.” (Now, don’t throw that back at me when I’m super stressed out and complain about the annoyances of day-to-day life. Ha!)

All of that being said, each day is an opportunity for us to begin again, to try harder, to live our lives a little better and be a little kinder to one another. Just because you’ve messed up, fallen down, cried in front of your boss, reacted in situations with cowardice or malice as opposed to bravery and kindness, doesn’t mean that you have to live tomorrow that way. Messing up is part of the journey, guys. You’re supposed to do that. You are supposed to bump your head – a lot – in order to find your way. And you’ll keep messing up until the day you die. That’s just what life is. It’s about realizing who and what you are, knowing your shortcomings and your strengths, and using this knowledge to not only better yourself, but hopefully those around you.

That brings me to the reason why I’ve chosen the themes I have for this fall: All of these themes hit close to home for the vast majority of us. If you don’t have one instance where you have faced adversity, wanted to start over, or actually did start over, or witnessed or experienced a good versus evil battle, then maybe you need to get out of your comfort zone.

I’ve received a lot of wonderful submissions. If I don’t get back with you five minutes after you’ve sent me an email, remember that I’m only one person. And chill out.

Here is the official theme schedule:

September: New Beginnings

October: Good VS Evil

November: Strength in the Face of Adversity

Okay, guys, now do your thing and I’ll do mine. Until next time…..

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Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do. Or, hell, go ahead. 

Cheers, 

Kelly Fitzharris Faulk 

 

 

Calling All Writers! Step “Write” up and get yourself some SLM Announcements! – Kelly Fitzharris Faulk, Editor-in-Chief

Here’s to Life, Literature, and bringing the spirit of SLM back!

 

Sometimes, we’re trying so hard to open a figurative closed door in our lives that we fail to look behind us to see a brand-new, shining, glassed-in sun-room. Forget that old window analogy; this time after God has closed the door, he’s opened up the entire back of your house.

The past is done; it’s gone. We cannot change it, nor can we live there. This is why it’s so important to live in the here and the now and to do your best to see that rainbow while you’re stuck in the mud.

I’m sure you’ve noticed my name change up above – I’M MARRIED! And it is a happy time for me and my family. Soon, I’ll be Kelly Faulk.

Onto the magazine!

I will officially be re-opening shop so to speak for submissions starting NOW and staying open until the end of October of 2017 for short prose (just don’t send me 30 pages) and poetry.

I do have a few themes up my sleeve:

Good VS Evil

New Beginnings

Strength in the face of Adversity 

 

You may begin to submit to any or ALL of these themes as soon as you are ready to do so to: sicklitsubmissions@gmail.com

*Now, remember: When submitting your work to the magazine, please, please, PLEASE, write the genre and theme somewhere in or on your email, write to me as yourself, and be as frank or as candid as you’d like.

Reminder: I want YOUR work. Write as YOU; write what you write best and write the hell out of it.

My mission and my intent have never been to conform to the rest of the literary world; on the contrary, I want to serve as a guide, a mentor, a coach, and a voice of reason in a world filled with chaos and closed doors. Unless I suspect you *might* be a serial killer aside from your day job, I usually make every effort to email you back as soon as I can and to provide you with my enthusiastic feedback, critiques, praises, what have you.

I’m starting this fall with a clean slate and a fresh outlook. If you’ve sent in work before and it’s gone unnoticed and you feel that it’s good and fits one of the themes, send it again. This year has scrambled us all up a bit to say the least. So let’s just start over.

Here’s to new beginnings, a brighter tomorrow, and the freedom to express ourselves.

Cheers,

dkweddingggggggg

Kelly

I Want a Wife – by CONNIE BEDGOOD

I Want A Wife

By

Connie Bedgood

 

Men want wives.

As I mow my back yard, I, too, would like to have a wife.  Why do I want a wife?  She can help do the yard work.  In fact, while I go to the gym, she can put out the trash a couple of times a week

I want a wife who will work and send me to school.  Going back to school would give me a real break, and make me economically independent, able to support those dependent on me – like my two cats, Polka and Dot.

While I’m attending school, I want a wife to take care of my cats; to keep track of their medical appointments (mine, too); who makes sure they eat properly and are kept clean.

I want a wife who is a nurturing attendant to us; who insures the cats have an adequate social life with their peers, cleans out their poop-box, and keeps them in up-to-date flea collars.  I want a wife who arranges to be around when they need special care, because, of course, I can’t miss classes at school.

I want a wife who will wash, dry and hang up my clothes and press them if necessary.  I want to look good at work.  My wife must arrange to lose time at work and not lose the job.  It may mean a small cut in her income from time to time, but I guess I can endure that.

I want a wife who will take care of my physical needs, keep my house clean and dusted and pick up after me.  She will see to it that my personal things are kept in their proper place so I can find what I need, the minute I need it.  She will plan the menus, do the shopping, prepare the meals, serve them pleasantly, and clean up while I am studying.  She will care for me when I am sick and sympathize with my pain.

I want a wife who will not bother me with rambling complaints about her duties, but will listen to me when I feel the need to explain a difficult point in my studies.   I want a wife who will take care of the details of my social life.  When I want to entertain, my wife will prepare and serve a special meal and not interrupt when I talk about things that interest me.

After I graduate with a degree and I should find another person more suitable, I want the liberty to replace my present wife – who will take and be responsible for the cats, so I am left free for a fresh new life.

Now, who wouldn’t want a wife?

***

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Connie was published in Screamin Mamas, Conceit, and Good Old Days in 2016. Also Connie has written stories for The Penman Review, Nostalgia, Changing Times, Quail Bell, Section Eight and Indiana Voice online magazines. In 2017 she will be in The Sacred Cow, Screamin Mamas, The Dead Mule Magazines and in 2018 The Stray Branch will have one of her strange tales in it.

 

 

A Stranger Come Home – by HIRO TSUKINO

 

Stranger Come Home

by Hiro Tsukino

 

 

The guy with the window seat smiled and shaped his hand into a gun. He put the barrel against his neck and fired smoothly, gesticulating the glory of the blow out the other side onto the woman sleeper between us. He did this in slow motion and with grace (hand model or magician?). His fist mimed the unfurling violence—blood spray, tubular bits transmuted into globular muck from the heat and force of the bullet, neck bone fragments wild—in a gesture of sprawling digits and a snaky curl of the wrist.

The ten-hour flight from Tokyo to San Francisco would be painful, but not suicide. For me the opposite.

“Bitchin,’” the weirdo said, smiling. He showed teeth.

“Thank you.” I comprehended at last that he’d complimented my tattoo. The Death Star is tattooed on my neck, mid-detonation.

But writing this, months later, I am uncertain if the weirdo meant that his “bitchin’” explosion resembled my tattoo. He’d dropped his head back after the initial shot, then tapped his neck again with the barrel, and dropped his head back and performed this motion a third time (or have I rewritten in recalling?). Meaning (possibly): How bitchin’ would it be to shoot through all three of our necks so the bullet exits your tattoo and bursts into the center aisle to initiate further gore?(?)

It was a long flight. Even I was not myself.

The tattoo was done here, I confessed.

“In the air?” He wasn’t joking.

“In the U.S.—San Fran—” I said— “when I was fifteen.”

I am not the kind of person who chats with strangers on planes, yet I pushed through my introversion and spoke of my teenage rebellion, my hope that my father would not carry me back to Tokyo so irreverently marked. He did so and worse. Those were long days inside skyscrapers that blotted out the sun, and me lost under the lengthier shadow of my father. A matrix of shadow. Deep was his, and so un-there was I, that at night I seeped through the cracks of this steel trap into punk and electronic shows and the life underground. Never long—kidnapped at daybreak by heavy-handed limo drivers. My father being who he is, etcetera. Tokyo was a fun-house mirror and a charcoal suit I will not miss, I explained. I was returning to the U.S. for good, or maybe I would not stop wandering now, I told all this to the weirdo on the plane in not so many words.

I wanted to be a good listener, who I see myself as, so I asked, “What about you? Business or pleasure?”

“Exquisitely inseparable in my book,” he said.

I remember this is what he said because I’d never heard a person use the word “exquisitely.” I smirked in return.

“Talk—tell me about yourself,” he said, reaching into his jacket pocket. Three travel whiskeys lay in my lap (magician).

I began and, despite my introversion, could not stop. This was a cliff’s edge time for me, running on a new life. Not new—deep me, 24/7.

I did not speak of the patriarch. I told the weirdo a little about my music and much more about the zines I had written for and published. Conspiracy zines. With expats. The one I put most heart into was a meta zine on conspiracy and knowledge. Its title: Dietrologia.

“’Nothing you can believe … is not coming true,’” the guy said. He dipped his finger in the air at the word “not,” made squiggles in the air of the rest. I had not seen him drink. Though languid, his motions were precise.

This quote is from Don DeLillo’s Underworld in which he writes of the search for hidden motives. Exactly where I had stolen the title.

“People don’t want to hear it,” I said, meaning the truth, excited that we shared this language. I immediately became paranoid: A coincidence? Was he sent to interrogate me? By my father? The U.S. Government? I was one whiskey in, a lightweight.

“Too afraid?” he said.

“The opposite.” I said this much less excited. “The concept is not scary enough.”

I thought I would say no more.

The weirdo stared at the headrest of the seat in front of him with a crazed grin as if gazing through it, through the skull and brain of the person in front of him, and entertained by the picture show of his or her dreaming mind.

I then shared what I’d learned after years of working on zines. When I published about the secrets of space travel acquired from little gray men from outer space, locked in cells under the Pentagon, people bought. When I wrote about Cthulhu cultists performing virgin sacrifices in high power high-rises of Dubai, about the living city of Atlantis leading sensitives to its rediscovery through ESP, and about the death of American rappers linked to the Illuminati, people bought.

When I published about the immorality of the 1%, about political parties as pro-corporate puppets exploiting labor at home and internationally, about the zombie-ing effect of “present culture” (see titles of current “Top 100 Songs”) to prevent labor from seeing its disempowerment and capitalism’s future catastrophes as inevitable, about our inability to conceptualize the lasting effects of parties and politicians for more than five years forward or backward, about the inability to see that as a problem, about the underfunding of education globally so that the unprivileged are learning less in classrooms about how political and economic systems operate, about these schools serving only to conform us into spectators and not actors, about racism and sexism and classism as subversive tools that keep us blind and divided, about how we uphold these inequalities through fighting and not talking, and about why this is happening, about power securing power, stuffing bank accounts at the cost of human dignity, then no one bought.

“To sum it up—” I said in a sweat.

“Please,” he said.

“People want mystery. If they know what is happening in the world…” we looked to the window simultaneously—high altitude darkness circumscribed by a soft rectangle made of white plastic, “the interest is not there.”

“Suspense!” The guy rocked in his seat and patted the sleeper’s leg encouragingly. I am certain they did not know one another. “Suspension—the state of—disbelief,” he rambled.

“Something like that.” I wiped my eyes, bleary from an unexpected sadness, two whiskeys in. The lost and those not wanting to be found, acquaintances, awaited me in this country. I was not even awaited.

Most passengers were asleep or attempting to sleep at this time in the flight. We both became aware of it and talked in a lower volume.

“What does one do with truth?” he asked. “What do you do with it?”

“Avoid. For a long time. The truths about myself.” Was I still by running from Japan and my father? I didn’t know. I didn’t wholly want to.

“Ever open your eyes at night in bed? Try it sometime. Tonight!” the guy said. “One eye sees darker than the other. Close one, open the other. The rods and cones are different, each eye degenerating at different speeds. Eyeballs are hardware, you see? We are devices of input, and we compile one dark image, one lighter image into a single 3D illusion. So let me ask you: Which eye sees the world as it is?”

The question was very rhetorical because he continued before I understood his point (slow with drink). He’d skipped several logical points ahead as if missing a teleprompter.

“You compile your own—or so you think. Your own Meaning of Life. In you, for you. But what of outside you, now? Outside your little life with its little meaning—what’s the bigger fish, the system that you, we, as data, compile into?”

“I don’t know. Life?”

“Whose objective is?”

“There isn’t one?”

He raised a finger.

“Whatever we make of it?” I answered.

The finger went limp, and his smile sagged into distaste.

He told me to drink the last whiskey and, after, when I’d enjoyed my “brief escape” and sobered up, to get serious about the “red mountain in the room.”

He put in earbuds, and we did not talk for the remaining hours of the flight. My answer, or lack of one, had disappointed him. So I did not (yet) understand the hidden meaning of reality. I knew myself. Didn’t I? The sadness returned. I could not finish the drink. I expected we would shake hands at the gate. I became anxious over it, considering what I would say to make things right, as they had been. To make a friend.

Upon landing, he got up (no bags) and passed me the way one does not see a stranger.

***

Hiro Tsukino is an artist and activist living in San Francisco. He is the editor-in-chief at Future First Magazine and was born in Hiroshima, Japan.

Wild Dreams – by DON TASSONE

Wild Dreams

 

His alarm went off precisely at six.  So did his coffee maker and TV.

CNN was playing on the flatscreen in his kitchen.  He scanned email and FaceBook as he sipped his coffee and chewed on a breakfast bar.  He had two more friend requests overnight.  He accepted them both.

He grabbed his laptop and stepped down the hallway to his office, where he traded online all day.  He took a break just before noon to run on his treadmill and down a protein shake for lunch.

At five, he decided to chat on FaceBook with a handful of his 462, now 464, friends.  Then he ordered dinner from his favorite Chinese restaurant.  A young man delivered it to his door.  He took the bag from him and nodded.  He had already paid and left a tip online.

He enjoyed chicken lo mien, egg rolls and hot oolong tea as he watched a movie on Netflix, relaxing in his recliner.

He was in bed by ten.  He drifted off to sleep and dreamed, as usual, about living in the wild.

***

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Don Tassone lives in Loveland, Ohio and teaches public relations at Xavier University in Cincinnati.  His stories have appeared in a range of literary magazines.  They’re posted at http://dontassone.com

Through the Veil – by THOMAS ELSON

Through the Veil

by Thomas Elson

       

Katherine was born in an isolated section of an isolated state where creeks were called rivers and foothills called mountains, where the letter “r” held its rightful position in the word Washington, and the final syllables of the word Arkansas were pronounced exactly the same as the state in which she was born.  

She descended from generations that farmed winter-hardened soil, resisted Prussian kings, rebelled against Russian czars, and were lured to a land of flowing waters and fertile soil by handbills distributed by Santa Fe Railroad land agents who came to do good and did damn well. Katherine’s ancestors migrated through southern Europe, endured the Atlantic Ocean, forded untamed rivers, and found, not milk and honey, but homestead land with narrow streams and minimal access near a place they named Berdan America. They filed that name with the state, received approval from the railroad commission, then painted both names on the city water tower.

By 1884, her grandfather had built the house, the grocery store, and the lumberyard that her father inherited in 1916. Her mother died in the 1919 Spanish Flu Pandemic, and memories of the withered body inside a dark casket resting on a catafalque draped in black inside their small parlor still felt to Katherine, sixty-four years later, as if she had been locked inside the sepulcher on Good Friday.

After what seemed to be an eternity, her mother’s body was taken across the street to the limestone church. Burned beeswax candles, black vestments, dull chimes, and the cloying perfume of incense prolonged the dirge speed of the funeral mass. At the snow-covered graveside, the sound of dirt clods tossed by gravediggers onto the casket, followed by the whimpering of her brothers and sisters, when coupled with her father, who lived for years as though he had been shot in the chest, continued to invade Katherine’s dreams.

When her father remarried, Katherine rebelled and migrated to her grandmother’s house where she was ingrained with the value of women, the value of learning, and the value of hard work, which stood in stark contrast to the community’s norm that women should learn the value of hard work.

Her formal education began in a well-built hexagonal building in front of the boy’s military academy next door to her family home where, at the age of seventy-two, she lived alone surrounded by large-print books and such ancient texts as Irving’s Sketch Book and a biography entitled Das Leben George Washingtons written in High German – each volume bore the imprint of Marian Catholic Girl’s school. On the inside of the book covers, written in a schoolgirl’s hand, were the names of her older sisters, Josephine and Mary.

Over the years, Katherine built her life as if it were a vegetable garden surrounded by a protective moat. The only time a snake entered that garden was in the form of an untimely wartime marriage to a man she very quickly learned to dislike and avoid. Their four year armed truce ended with his death and resulted in her son, Gerald. She laughed seldom, smiled rarely, and acted as if life were designed solely for the execution of duty, but in her son’s presence, her eyes sparkled; nevertheless, she saw very early that her son walked too close to the barbed wire, and, each year she grew more determined to serve as his buffer to the world.

 

“Gerald will behave,” she told his grade school nuns, then added her trademark declaration, “If he doesn’t, you call me.” The few times they did call her, she dispensed the discipline learned from her grandmother – an admixture of love and German formation.

“At recess, they said I was fat,” Gerald blurted out one Friday evening when he was in the third grade. She spent the weekend instructing him how act assertive. When he told her of his fears when speaking in class, she enrolled him in elocution lessons.

As an adult, Gerald ate dinner with his mother every Sunday. On his way to her house one evening, there arose a memory from a time when there were only three entertainment centers in town – the football field, the church social hall and the city auditorium. When Gerald earned his Eagle Scout award, he was asked to give the keynote speech at the ceremony that would draw over one hundred attendees into the city auditorium.

Gerald wrote the speech, his mother edited it, and for weeks, he rehearsed it with the elocution teacher and his mother. He inhaled the comfortable mustiness of the teacher’s basement where she conducted her after-school classes, and felt the crisp corners of the alcohol-scented mimeographed pages.

That evening when Gerald heard his name called, he rose, adjusted his new Eagle Scout neckerchief slide, stood tall, and walked to the stage. As rehearsed, he placed the five-by-seven cards on the podium, looked at the audience and spoke for over twenty minutes – seemingly without notes, seemingly at ease – so well rehearsed that it appeared to be ad-libbed. He flourished on that lighted stage with the darkened hall in front of him – all of the audience seated, all of them waiting, most of them eager. It was that evening, when he lost all stage fright. The time when he was imprinted with preparation, rehearsal, and presentation.  

His early high school grades were A’s and B’s. The B’s were not good enough. “Help me understand this,” his mother said and pointed to the only grade below an A. By “understand,” she meant justify it to her.

During an out-of-state high school football game his senior year, Gerald caught a pass, ran fifteen yards, was tackled at the ankles, his body flipped one-hundred and eighty degrees, and with several bones cracked and protruding, lay on the field. He watched his mother run toward him, and then drive him to the nearest hospital.

In the emergency room, she flashed her employee badge as the Nursing Director of the neighboring state’s largest acute care hospital, demanded the best orthopedic surgeon in the city, accompanied her son into the surgery suite, then watched over him after surgery. He knew he was safe when, after he awoke, she walked toward him, and said, “Don’t worry; it will get easier. I love you.”

It was that day Gerald remembered, that moment when his mother stood between him and the world. He retreated to that memory often.   

As Gerald turned the corner onto her street, his mind opened to memories of his mother’s chairs. At her home – floral, green, dark brown, beige, gray, finally peach. At work – cheap rolling chairs progressed to the high-back leather chairs. Gerald remembered how she rose from her chair, smiled and – erect and quick or bent and slow – gravitated toward him. He saw her old photos on the wall – Registered Nurse, young mother, nursing administrator. Her strong, assertive stance, generations ahead of her time. Her current photos, those of an old woman with eyes that saw in both worlds.

During dinner, Gerald noticed his mother had not taken her heart medications. “I forgot.” He took her weekly pill organizer from the counter, opened it. Inside the individual compartments, he saw five days of pills untouched.   

Her house overheated and desert dry, eyesight failing, frightened to navigate inside her own home, and unable to drive on her own, she sat stranded – reliant on visitors for food and sanitation.

“Nana,” he said to his mother as she sat slumped and unfocused, “I am moving in with you.”

As if she had forgotten the events of the day, she reached to touch their life years earlier, and said, “Just like before.” Added, “It’s sure changed.” She revealed a weakness never witnessed by Gerald when, with eyes that had declared love and protection, but now whispered weakness and passivity, his mother looked at him and said, “I’m so scared.”

One evening, Gerald found his mother on the floor near her peach chair. “Nana. Are you able to stand?”

She stirred and nodded yes.

“I’ll help you up.”

Her hands motionless, her unregistered eyes milky. He fed her soup, yogurt, soft buttered toast. She chewed for long minutes. She nodded when she finished, then forgot to chew the next small bite. A wave of nausea hit him.

Just the week before she had eaten caldo de pollo at a Mexican restaurant, and two weeks earlier she was the guest of honor at the annual family reunion. As the oldest surviving relative whose youngest family members reminded her of long dead aunts and uncles, she presided at the head of the table. When the question was raised about the next gathering, she raised her head erect, scooted her chair back, and pointed to a group of young adults standing where as children they had stood only a few years earlier – young adults whose diapers she had changed, whose first communions she had attended – and said, “It’s their turn. Let their generation do it.”

Later that evening, as Gerald lifted his mother into her bed, she said in a barely audible voice,

“This is hard work.”

Without thinking, he said, “It will get easier.”

Thirty minutes later, -911, emergency medical technicians rushed into the house, jerked his mother from her bed, laid her on the floor beneath her photos, cut her nightclothes, then applied the paddles.

Loud voices, then even louder voices repeated, “Clear.”

A quick hit with the paddles. “She breathing; there’s a heartbeat.”

Followed by, “We lost it.”

The emergency medical techs applied electrical jolts to her chest. Gerald had observed his grandfather age, become disabled, and die during the twentieth century; he had long felt it was better to grow old in the twenty-first; and it may have been, but, on that night, dying was dying.

He watched as her veins served as a foundation for needles and tubes. A paramedic yelled, “We got a pulse-”

Gerald leaned against the wall, and slipped to the floor. He began to perspire and breathe rapidly, felt his heart accelerate, attempted to catch his breath, stopped. Raised his head as if to speak, then realized it was a wasted effort. The right side of his jaw felt unaccountably sore – as if hit by a baseball bat.

He attempted to move his legs, tried to close his eyes and touch his nose, wanted to raise his right hand across midline of his head. This will pass. This will pass.  Within seconds, on the floor near his mother’s photos, “No heartbeat. Try again.”

 

Another technician, louder voice, “Clear.” Repeated. “Try again; no pulse, do it.”

Silence. “No heartbeat. Again. Heartbeat. None. Pulse. None.”

“Do it again. What? Repeat, please.”

Then silence.  “Noted.”

Silence again.

Then, “Time of death…”

#

A veil of reddish brown-dust covered the cemetery entrance. Every sound entered the car, time and distance evaporated. One of the black-suited men said, “Slow down for the motorcycle.” The accelerator eased as the car coasted until the cyclist passed and waved them forward. They drove past manicured grass, trimmed trees, small structures near brick paths. Late arrivals acted as if they had run a gauntlet to get there, then stood frozen.

After a few minutes, Gerald was taken from the vehicle; additional blasts of wind caused the men on both sides of him to sway. On this day, the wind was scented, not with robust pine resin, nor with delicate flowers, but with dust. Familiar people sang familiar hymns; there were the lingering odors of incense and the sounds of chimes. Light surfed from right to left as the sun moved above the canopy and highlighted two photographs on the table next to the priest.

A white-gloved man in the black suit spoke sotto voce, “You’ll need to move it a little to the left, then lower it just a bit,” after which the flat surface slid near the vertical tunnel just above the four by ten foot opening, followed by the thud and echo of the casket as it struck the metal grave liner.

 

After the onlookers departed, and Gerald was alone, he heard a familiar voice, saw an iridescent image. Together, they relived walks in the vegetable garden, the magical appearance of bread and butter to make cucumber sandwiches. He felt warmth and protection. She leaned over, kissed his forehead, and said, “Thank you. I love you,” then placed a familiar hand on his shoulder.

“It’s sure changed.” He exhaled, then said, “This is hard work.”

“Don’t worry. It will get easier.” Then said, “I love you.” It was the voice of his mother.

–END–

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Thomas Elson lives in Northern California. His short stories, poetry, and flash fiction have been published in the United States, Ireland, England, India, and South Africa.