February 1, 2017 | ISSUE no 209
crack the spine
I am still not long out of it. My wife and I spent the last twelve months of our lives wrapped up in the finer details associated with building our dream home on the sandy south western edge of Western Australia. But our marriage fizzed and then smoke poured out of it. We tried, but the relationship could not be repaired, damage done and all that. You become ... what? Oh, I don't know... philosophical about it, I suppose. So I left. I arrived back in South Australia close to Christmas, shortly before our dream home was completed.
Neither my wife nor I could afford to keep the house separately, so we had to sell it. Real estate agents and the tax department began flying lazy circles over the property almost immediately. Perhaps they had the marriage counselor's office bugged, I dunno. At any rate, we sold our dream, our dream home quick, cut price.
I’m starting over. It’s not the first time. I have drastically reinvented myself more times than Madonna. I’ve been staying with my sister since I got back here. I am lucky to have her. She lives in a nice house on the side of a hill, surrounded by giant eucalypts. Now that summer is coming, bees come here to die. You can’t go outside without shoes because the patio is covered with these little sizzling creatures in their death throes. They will sting you if they can, even after they are dead, naturally spiteful.
The dog pays no mind to this. My sister’s border collie is obsessed with eating them. She chases them around and around and around the swimming pool as they come in on a wing and a prayer. She chases relentlessly, until the rough cement wears her pads bloody and raw. When she catches one she snaps it from the sky, shakes it and spits, snaps, shakes and spits, bites and swallows. She has a system.
My sister says the dog does this because they taste like honey. Yeah … like honey. I can’t see it. I think the dog does it just because the dog’s an idiot. I believe the bees would taste like blood, guts and a little sac of poison. We argue the toss, back and forth, my sister and I, neither of us prepared to put our pet theory to the ultimate taste test, while the dog plucks another Kamikaze from the air. Apart from the bees and all the death, my sister’s house really is lovely.
My wife recently faxed me the last of our house sale paperwork that required my signature. She emailed me the same day and told me that the new owners would be moving in the following weekend. Apparently they are very nice. Good for them. She also sent me over a dozen photos of our house; sorry, that should be the house, now that everything is completed: the flooring; window treatments; tiling; pergolas; gardens; the works. All the little features that we’d agonized over for months, like the outside shower, so that we could wash the sand off ourselves when we got home from the nearby beach.
The final product looked better than I had imagined, even better than I had dreamed. I had a burning in my eyes viewing those photographs; images of a dead friend; a stunning corpse, looking even happier and more handsome than in life. I had a hard lump in my throat viewing those photographs and I had the taste of bees in my mouth.
flash fiction by Lindsay McLeod
poetry by A.R. Dugan
What can you build
when all tools
leave only imprints?
If you shape a man,
what will he make?
Rock, he’d tell you, has veins
not lines, cracks,
because he does,
more thought now
Not what he touches,
but what touches him,
He's waited all this time
for your hand.
The Creation of Man
short fiction by Dan Klefstad
Congratulations. Out of hundreds of applications, yours stood out for your “unwavering persistence to get the job done.” Well put! No doubt, you will deserve the eight-figure salary and opulent benefits that come with this job. But I must warn you: The more you read, the more my employer will consider you a threat if you decline our offer. If you have no intentions of taking the job, delete this message now before reading further.
This is your final warning: Turn back if you’d rather not devote every day of your prime years to one employer who demands utter secrecy and loyalty. Take a moment to reflect on which is more important -- a career that allows for family and vacations, or a mogul’s retirement. To be sure, the job is not all work. Right now I’m enjoying a 1948 Graham’s port – a gift from my employer and one of the last such bottles in the world. I also have enough money to retire on my own Greek island. I hope you land in a similar place when your time comes. To get there, however, you’ll have to do more than drag your soul through the mud. Your hands will get dirty to the point where they’ll never get clean.
If you read to this point, the job is yours. So, Dear Trainee, it’s time to meet our employer who will give final approval. Wear a suit and tie next Thursday just before Midnight. Be courteous but not obsequious, and never say “That’s impossible” or “That goes against my beliefs.” Say this or something similar and everything will end -- abruptly.
I’d also advise you not to stare at her eyes, mouth or any part of her body. If all goes well, I’ll train you for two weeks. If you’re wondering if there’s a word for our profession, it’s Păzitor, Romanian for “guardian” or “caretaker.” The only other Romanian word you need to be aware of, but never say, is the peasant noun for your employer and her associates: Strigoi. I’m saying it here, once, for instructional purposes. Uttering this could expose your employer to those familiar with Balkan folklore. Moreover, it’s an insult equal to the worst human slurs. Say it and expect a cruel death.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but you must also never say “Undead,” “Nosferatu” (meaning “not dead”) or “Vampire.”
My first employer was two centuries old, living in the apartment next door. It’s 1986, my sophomore year at college. I haven’t met him yet, but see his “roommate” every night returning with a plastic cooler. Around 1:00 a.m., he walks by as I fold laundry downstairs. He never speaks but nods politely. Then one night, covered in blood, he asks when I’ll finish using the last available washer. “Someone tried to rob me but I fought him off. The blood is his,” he smiles. “I’m Ramon.”
Each night after, Ramon says Hi as he walks by. Until the night before my final exams. As usual, I study downstairs while doing my girlfriend’s laundry; she works the night shift at the hospital. But I hate studying. So I’m glad for the distraction when, an hour before dawn, a stranger enters the room. Wearing a tight vest and tie, he gazes at the period stain on one of Sarah’s panties. Then he hands me a cream-colored envelope that feels ancient. Inside is $300 plus a note and key. “Ramon’s dead. I need you to contact his family. Last name Valenzuela.”
I look up. “Why don’t you do it?”
He looks out the window. “If you don’t know the difference between Camus and Sartre by now, you never will. Am I right?”
“That depends. Are you a philosophy professor or dressed like one for Halloween?”
He looks like he’s about to rip my head off. Then he takes a deep breath and walks out. “You’re low on iron. Buy some red meat.”
I open the note:
Tell the funeral home to pick up Ramon tomorrow. You, and only you, will let them in. After they leave, lock the door behind you. I’ll collect the key tomorrow night. For this, I’ll pay five hundred. I might even offer full-time work so you can stop pretending to be a student..
The apartment is filled with dark furniture and portraits of nobles. I pull back heavy curtains and tie them to boar’s tusks jutting from the wall. The books on the shelf are leather-bound with gold titles. Most are about the onetime rulers of Carpathian Mountain kingdoms.
A knock on the door. I realize I don’t know which room is Ramon’s but then I see one of the bedrooms has a lock that bolts from the inside. The opposite door opens easily and I show the men in. Ramon lies on the bed, arms folded. The nightstand has black-and-white photos of his family.
“Next time, make sure you draw the curtains when you leave.” Soren hands me the promised $500.
“Does that mean I’m hired?”
“Once you take this job, there’s no quitting.”
“What is the job?”
“You clean the house, buy blood for me, and get two thousand dollars a month.”
The word “blood” would stop many people. Of course, Dear Trainee, you’ll know I focused on the money. “Where do I get this blood?”
“Hospitals mainly. Some are at least an hour away so you’ll take my car. There’s a pick-up schedule on the refrigerator.” Soren waves a bejeweled hand toward Ramon’s room. “You’ll sleep there.”
“I sleep with my girlfriend.”
“Sarah’s fucking a gynecologist. Believe me, you can’t compete with him.”
“How do you know?”
Soren frowns at me. I shift my weight to the other foot. “Standard week?”
“What days do I have off?”
He laughs and then glares at me. “I’ll tell you when I get a day off.”
Soren owns an ’81 Honda Accord which, at 250,000 miles, is nearing the end of its life. While good on gas, it’s far less glamorous than James Mason’s ‘63 Cadillac in Salem’s Lot. For me, Mason is the archetypal “caretaker” with his bowler hat, silver tipped cane and three-piece suit. He and his vampire, Kurt Barlow, buy and sell antiques, moving their shop to whatever hunting ground seems most promising: Barlow & Straker Fine Antiques – Opening Soon. It gives me chills every time I think about it. Not that I enjoyed the movie 100% because Straker gets killed while defending Barlow’s lair (sorry for the spoiler). In fact, every caretaker in every vampire movie dies violently. I think about each of them as I drive east to Chicago or north to Rockford. Soren never buys locally.
“Where’s Clarence?” I ask a stranger at Northwestern Memorial.
“Family emergency. I’m filling in for him.”
His lab coat seems legit but there’s no name or ID card. Clarence is supposed to page me when problems occur. “Who are you?”
“He said you’d be upset.” The stranger takes a case from the refrigerator and opens it. “Ten bags of O Negative. That’ll be 15 hundred.”
“No,” I straighten. “I said ten bags of A Positive for one thousand.”
“Fuck.” He looks at the bags. “She gets O Negative.”
“Never mind. Come back tomorrow.”
“There’s been a mix-up,” I announce as I enter the apartment.
“I know,” a woman replies. As the door opens, I see her relaxing while Soren empties the remains of last night’s dinner into her glass.
Soren sets the decanter down. “You’ll have to go out again. Call our man at Rockford Memorial.”
“He’s tired, look at him.” Fiona extends her hand as she approaches. I never shook Soren’s so I’m surprised by her icy fingers. She holds on as I try to withdraw. Finally, I relax and look at her – black hair and eyes, red lips, purple gown with a long slit, smooth thigh, black pearls resting above the palest breasts I’ve ever seen. “It’s okay. I’ll get coffee on the road.”
I can’t stop thinking about her which is how I miss the classic signs of a dead alternator. The headlights dim before the dials go black. Standing on the shoulder, halfway to Rockford, I’m ready to chuck it in:
“Fuck you, Soren. If you want some blood, fly out here and drain me. Here.” I tear open my collar and shout at the stars. “PUT ME OUT OF MY FUCKING MISERY.” A honk reminds me that I strayed into the road. I walk, zombie-like, toward the Amoco station a mile back. This truck stop is busy for a Monday night, with dozens of rigs parked in front.
“What’ll it be Honey?”
I stare at a menu, trying to look normal. “Just coffee.”
“I thought you might be here.” Fiona gathers her gown, exposing considerable leg as she slides in next to me. I look to see if anyone else saw her come in. Everyone ignores her, even the waitress who reaches in front of her to deliver my coffee. Suddenly I’m hyper-aware: Here’s the most beautiful woman east of Hollywood, dressed to the nines, and nobody is looking at her. My eyes are still scanning the room when I finally speak. “It’s not fair if only one of us is visible.”
“You can see me. You can also see my driver who sabotaged tonight’s order.”
“Aston Martin. Center window.”
I see a hulking sports coupe with the steering wheel on the wrong side and a shadow behind it. I put a dollar on the table. “I’ll speak to her.”
“No.” Fiona hands me a foot-long scabbard covered with jewels. I slide out a blade shaped like a boomerang. When I slide it back, Fiona is gone.
“Who the fuck are you?” The woman gets out on the right-hand side. “And what are you doing with my Gurkha knife?” She looks into the window. “Where’s Fiona?”
“Fiona says you deliberately screwed up tonight’s order. She’s done with you.”
“Done with me?” She takes out a revolver and taps it against her chest. “You know what I did? I got cancer. That’s why she’s getting rid of me.”
“No Tanya,” Fiona steps through the door. “You’re trying to starve me.”
“Wow, you’re losing weight already.” Tanya aims the gun. “Time to lose some more.” A second later, the gun falls to the ground with a hand attached. Tanya looks at her bloody stump. “What the fuck?”
I swing again, cutting through her neck. As her headless body collapses, I stare at the blade, trying to comprehend.
Fiona opens the left-side door. “Put her in the trunk and let’s go.”
“Watch your speed.”
I look at the dial. “It’s in kilometers.”
“88 and keep it there.” She turns toward the trunk and sniffs.
I hold up a flask. “I collected some.”
“She had cancer.”
“So you don’t…”
“You wouldn’t eat meat from a diseased cow, would you?”
“I’m not sure I’d know.” I shift into Third. “I didn’t even know there were others. I suspected, of course.”
Fiona watches the moon over the surrounding farm land. “Harvest moon.” She laughs softly. “Not much of a harvest tonight. That was some fancy knife work.”
“That was a real sharp blade.”
“This too?” I hold up the revolver.
“No. Open it.”
I release the cylinder and see it’s fully loaded. Fiona removes a bullet with her long nails. “Look.” She turns on a light and holds it in front of me.
“Is that wood?”
“Yep.” She tosses it in back.
“Does that… work?”
“I’m not going to find out. We have to ditch the car.”
“What year is this?”
“Now that’s a crime.” I ease off the highway while Fiona punches the cigarette lighter. We stop near a farm and she turns her back to me. “Unzip.” I do as she says, exposing a crocheted brassiere that looks a century old.
It takes a few minutes to loosen the laces. She pulls the garment away from her as she exits the car. Then she rolls it tight and stuffs it in the fuel port leaving a few inches sticking out. I use the cigarette lighter. As the material ignites, I glance at her large breasts with nipples that are dead-white. “Not what you expected, huh?”
I look away. “Sorry.”
“I meant me owning an Aston Martin.”
Fiona’s home has soft colors, curved furniture and silk pillows. But the floor plan is the same as Soren’s: two-bedrooms, one bath, small kitchen, large living room – all on the second floor. She stands at the edge of the hallway, wearing a pink kimono with a long-necked bird on one side. Her head rests on the wall.
I rise from the couch. “Do all of you own apartments?”
“We can’t maintain a yard and exterior.” She walks unsteadily toward the couch, accepting my outstretched hand. I sit next to her and notice wrinkles near her eyes and mouth. “How can I help?”
“You know the answer, Daniel.”
“Name the supplier and I’ll get it.”
“They’re not available, thanks to Tanya. We have to move.”
“First I need to eat. Now.”
“There’s a hospital in town.”
I pause. “Does it have to be human?”
She scolds me with a look. Chastened, I look at my right arm. “I could spare a pint. Maybe two.”
“I need ten.”
“I could…find a homeless person.”
She nods. “Park down the street when you’re ready.” Her voice is brittle. “I’ll come down.”
She looks up as I enter the tent village under the bridge. “Ten dollars will feed me and my baby. Can you spare it?”
I step closer. She looks forty but is probably half that. She rocks back and forth, scratching bruised, scabby forearms.
“Where’s your baby?”
“Sleeping. All it takes is twenty to feed a family.”
I point to her jacket. “Those look like Navy pins. Are they yours?”
“Fuck that supposed to mean? Of course they’re mine.”
I point to a patch on her shoulder. “Corpsman?”
Rocking back and forth. “USS Virginia. CGN-38.”
“See any action?”
“October 23rd, 1983.”
“October 23rd, 1983. Lebanon.”
“The bombing of the Marine barracks.” I pause. “You went ashore for the wounded?”
Rocking back and forth.
“YEAH I WENT ASHORE.” She continues rocking: “Tried to save one life and lost three.”
"Guy with rebar in his throat was a goner. Shoulda gave him morphine and moved on.”
“DO YOU HAVE TWENTY-FIVE OR DON’T YOU?”
I crouch down. “I’ll give you fifty if you take a ride with me.”
Her eyes narrow. “Where?”
“You’re not a serial killer are you?”
I shake my head.
“What do you want?”
“What any man wants but can’t get at home.”
She glances at my left hand, noting the absence of a wedding ring, and I can see her struggle. I offer her m other hand, but she bats it away. “Well, good night.” I start walking back.
“Fine. But no rough shit.”
The stolen car is in a secluded lot. During our walk a battle rages in my mind:
“Killing her is a mercy because she’s a hopeless addict.”
“Killing a veteran – a homeless veteran -- is the worst thing you could do, except killing a child.”
“She said she had a child. She’s lying to get more sympathy.”
“If you don’t kill this woman Fiona could die.”
“She’s an addict who’ll never get clean, no matter how much society spends on her.”
“This woman gave her all for your freedom and now you want to take her life?”
“IF YOU DON’T KILL HER FIONA WILL DIE.”
“STOP IT!” I put my hands to my ears.
“You’re freaking me out.” She stands a few paces behind me, arms crossed, silhouetted against the setting sun.
I manage a smile as I open the door. “What’s your name again?”
“I didn’t say. What’s yours?”
The previous month, I read about human dentistry to see if we’re that different from vampires. Not much, it turns out. If you start with the upper jaw, the first tooth right of center is the Right Maxillary Central Incisor, followed by the Right Maxillary Lateral Incisor, followed by the Right Maxillary Cuspid (or Right Fang in vampires). Then the Right Maxillary 1st and 2nd Bicuspids.
When she takes me in her mouth, I can tell which ones are missing. She hums a tune which I find comforting as I pull the twine slowly from my right sleeve. With my left hand, I wind the string above her head. I stop when it’s about three feet long.
She stops too. “Is this going anywhere? I haven’t got all night.”
“Look at me.”
“I am but there ain’t much to look at here.”
“Look up here.”
Earlier, under the bridge, her eyes were cold and hard as flint. They’re softer now as she puts on a pout. “What’s a matter, baby?”
My left hand swoops twice around her neck before I pull the rope tight. She gasps as one hand scratches my face and the other scrapes the door. I turn to protect my eyes as she kicks toward the other door, feet reaching for the window. The twine digs deeper and deeper and I think her skin might break. The rope does instead.
The door opens and she spills out, coughing. She tries to scream, only croaks. As she stumbles away, I start the car and put it in reverse. Two seconds later I feel the impact. When I get out I see her crawling on her elbows, dragging her useless legs. “Son of a bitch,” she coughs. “You sick motherfucking son of a bitch.”
I stop next to her. “I’m sorry.”
She spits on my shoe but I’m focused on something she said. “Were you telling the truth about the baby?”
She stays put, elbows sticking in the gravel. “That’s something you’ll never know.”
I sigh. She doesn’t say or do anything else as I straddle her back and wrap a fresh length of twine around her. She doesn’t even take one last breath of cool air before I pull it tight.
The adrenaline shakes my body as I drive back with Fiona’s dinner. I’m also starving. If an animal crossed my path I’d chase it down and eat it with my Gurkha. When I imagine this, I realize I experienced for the first time something Fiona hasn’t felt in years: the thrill of the kill. You probably don’t know this feeling. When it happens, you’ll understand what’s in Fiona’s dreams. The panicked breathing. The breaking skin. The hot, human blood gushing. It’s a distant memory for her, one she gave up at the dawn of modern policing. Your job, Dear Trainee, is to keep those longings in her past with a donated supply that never ends. If there’s a break in the chain, you’ll have to be the predator. It’s a guilt that’s not impossible to overcome. At least I hope so. Perhaps the Ionian Sea will wash away the blood of all my victims. Perhaps the sun will blind others to the monster among them. And maybe the wine will make me forget. This vision kept me going for all those years of work. You’d do well to find your own and cling to it.
I wish you well.
microfiction by Kyle Sundby
We take anything we can carry. It all has some value somewhere, to someone. This is our second house this month. Any more and we’ll head outside the neighborhood, but I’m afraid this place is starting to grow on her.
We make sure to wait until they go to work before we start jiggling sliding doors and windows, but we can’t always be sure. We know our neighbors’ routines, but sometimes, they’ve been warned about ours. Sometimes, locks change. Sometimes, we chicken out. Sometimes, we hurt too bad and someday, she’ll get clean and there’ll be no us.
poetry by Robert Detman
Pewter light over purple hills
Fire drawing steady
a bulwark against morning’s icy brace
the firs shift from pale to black
and reverse the sky from dusk
to dawn twin siblings with
an erotic disposition
enjoined by polarity
towhees trill tumbling like locks
against the turn of seasons
Pacific’s roar a rushing foment
not unlike the city’s I’ve escaped
renewed after even poor sleep
on high thread count sheets
through a skylight my screen
to the day from the night
from frustrations I’ve earned
the inclination to rive and burn
at break of the new morning
all pronouncements made at night
become subsumed at turn of day
and will be promptly reversed
flash fiction by Natalia Fernández
“Tea?” the woman with the yellow smile asked.
Despite the endless afternoons spent at the piano with Miss Olaf watching over her shoulder, it took Margaret a moment to recognize her old teacher.
“You look surprised to see me,” Miss Olaf said. “Did you think I was dead or something?”
“No,” Margaret rushed to say, though the real answer was yes. She took the cup of tea, noticing her teacher’s thinning hair was just like she remembered it.
“Your poor mother,” Miss Olaf started, “I was sad to hear.”
The frozen ground had delayed Margaret’s mother’s burial until the spring thaw and kept her in her childhood home longer than intended. Now Miss Olaf was there unannounced.
“Hope I’m not intruding,” her teacher said.
Before Margaret could speak again, a lanky guy in shorts and a Spartans hoodie joined them.
“Tom? Is that you?” Margaret asked.
“I’ve missed you too,” he joked.
Tom Walker had been her first love, a lifetime ago, but on seeing him it all came back. He pulled her close and hugged her. The next she knew they were smoking on the porch.
“Sorry about your mom, Plummy. Long life though.”
The sound of her old pet name shocked her. She hated it.
“I’m not sure that counts for much,” she said.
“Always so dark. It brings me back.”
Margaret’s jaw tightened in disgust. Run, she thought, but didn’t.
Shaken, she went to bed early only to find her ex-husband Paul already there. Without a word said, she lay beside him. Nesting in his arms, her last waking thought was one of pleasure.
She awoke the next morning in a slight panic and found Paul reading the paper in the kitchen.
“You’re up early,” she said. “Did you sleep well?”
“Rather,” he said.
He had taken over the kitchen table so Margaret had her coffee standing up. Behind her back, she heard someone else join Paul. She turned just in time to see her estranged father sitting down.
“What are you doing here?” she asked.
Unkempt and overweight, he looked the same as in their last encounter years before. A flushed, porcine face, a bulging ring finger wrapped in a tacky wedding band, token of his marriage to his new secretary.
She asked him to leave. When he refused, she asked him again.
“You don’t mind that” her father said.
She was speechless.
“You’ve never been very assertive, Maggie.”
“I would agree with that,” Paul chimed in. “You can be a bit wishy-washy, Em.”
“Take it from us,” her father said. “We are the people that know you best.”
When Tom and Miss Olaf entered, her father led the group to the dining room.
Margaret could hear them in the next room, shuffling chairs and arranging silverware, talking and laughing, their voices as clear as day. There was nothing she could do. They were there to stay.
Robert Detman is the author of the novel “Impossible Lives of Basher Thomas”(Figureground Press, 2014). “The Survivor’s Guide,” short stories, was a semi-finalist for the 2013 Hudson Prize from Black Lawrence Press. His fiction and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in the Antioch Review, Akashic Books, Fjords Review, Newfound, The Southeast Review, and dozens of other literary journals. He has also contributed to blogs at Superstition Review, Draft Journal, and elsewhere.
A. R. Dugan is a MFA candidate in creative writing at Emerson College. His poetry can be seen or is forthcoming in a number of literary magazine and reviews, most recently The Merrimack Review. Recently, his poem “The Creation of a Man” was nominated for AWP’s Intro Journal Awards Project. He taught high school English in southeastern Massachusetts for nine years. With a passion for writing, A. R. reads poetry for Redivider and Ploughshares. He currently teaches English at several Boston-area colleges.
Natalia Fernández is a writer from Uruguay, currently living in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Bamboo Ridge Press, Dislocate, and Futures Trading, among others. Her story “The Big One” received an Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train’s Story Award for New Writers.
Dan Klefstad has been waking NPR listeners in northern Illinois for nearly two decades as the host of WNIJ’s Morning Edition. In recent years, he started the “Read With Me” book series, interviewing regional authors and organizing writing contests. In April, he released his first novel on a traditional contract, “Shepherd & the Professor.” He lives in DeKalb with one wife and one cat. You’re welcome to guess which is the loving partner and which is the selfish and cruel master.
Lindsay McLeod trips over the horizon every morning. He has won some prizes and awards and stuff for poetry and short fiction. He currently writes on the sandy Southern edge of the world, where he watches the sea and the sky wrestle for supremacy at his letterbox. He prefers to support the underdog. It is presently an each way bet.
Kyle Sundby is a copywriter who runs daily in and around Vancouver, WA.
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