JANUARY 23, 2019| ISSUE no 248
crack the spine
Jeffrey James Higgins
Mick Ó Seasnáin
Libertad Ansola Palazuelos
short fiction by Jacob Weber
Seth was counting children’s toys to pass the time on a Wednesday. The perfect red wagon in front of the Craftsman on Chester Avenue made four. There wasn’t a chip or dent anywhere on it, and as Seth rolled it to the back of the truck to throw it in, none of the wheels stuck. A lot of the other garbage haulers ran a good side business fixing up the best of what people left out at the curb to be hauled away, then re-selling it on the Internet. Seth didn’t like to repurpose trash that way. It seemed impolite to derive profit or pleasure from something that had ceased to be useful to someone else. When a person, for whatever reason, came to a place in life where they couldn’t imagine salvaging something and only wanted to be rid of it, Seth didn’t think it was his place to decide that the thing still had something left to offer.
The wagon, however, made Seth hesitate before offering it up to the crusher. The house didn’t seem like the sort of place owned by people too rich to be bothered to sell something or give it away. It was an older house, probably built in the fifties, Seth guessed. That was when most of the houses around Chester had been built, in the decade after the gasket factory opened. There was a window unit air conditioner on the second floor that had what looked like an entire roll of duct tape keeping cardboard in place around it. Any house on this street would have sold the wagon in a garage sale or given it to Goodwill if the kids had outgrown it. What was it doing out on the curb?
“What’s the matter, Seth?” Antony asked him. Antony was lithe and wiry, but surprisingly strong. He chucked two bags in the bag and leapt to his station. Antony was counting senior citizen items that day to counter-balance Seth: walkers, wheelchairs, canes, that kind of thing. Antony sometimes counted items that Seth wasn’t sure really fit. Someone left a metal guardrail lying by their trash cans, and Antony, assuming it had been in a shower to prevent slips for an older parent living in the house, had counted it. Seth didn’t think it should count if you had to make assumptions or invent a story to go with it, but he didn’t say anything. It wasn’t a competition. The person with the most at the end of the day didn’t win anything. It was just a game to make the day go faster.
Seth tossed the wagon into the back and hopped up onto the riding step. He grabbed the riding handle with one hand and signaled thumbs up to Rob, the driver. As the packer blade swallowed the wagon into the hopper, Seth wondered if some sudden tragedy explained the wagon, and then found himself thinking about the girl with Down syndrome for the second time that day.
The way the worst thing that ever happened to Seth was this: he had been in New York on vacation. He’d wanted to go to the beach. He only had two weeks of vacation a year, and he’d wanted to do something that had a low risk of not working out. New York required careful planning and some amount of luck with traffic and tickets. But Reina had always wanted to go to New York, and she had a friend who worked as an intern on The Daily Show who could get them tickets. Seth and Reina had just come out of a delicatessen Reina wanted to try because she’d read it had the best corned beef sandwiches in the city.
Seth was standing by the road while Reina was looking at a map deciding whether they should take a cab or the subway to the show. The cargo pocket to his khakis was unbuttoned, because he’d just taken the map out of it to hand to her. Reina had read that cargo pants were not grown-up enough for a man his age, but she was glad to use his pocket to stash things on the go in New York. He was trying to keep from admitting to himself that he was bored and a little angry with Reina. They’d spent more money than he’d wanted. He was hung over from two straight nights out at clubs Reina said they had to try, but where Seth had felt the staff was hipper than he was. Seth tried to focus on how they were young and in New York and headed to see Jon Stewart. He tried to be happy he wasn’t hauling garbage that day, but suddenly realized he’d rather be with Antony than with Reina. Then the girl with Down syndrome ran right past him and into the street. Seth started after her, then hesitated, then watched as a beverage delivery truck crushed her body.
Antony tapped Seth on the shoulder when Seth didn’t realize they had stopped at the next pickup site. His fingers were long and Seth felt them long after they’d left him. Antony knew all about the worst thing that ever happened to Seth. A lot of people did, actually. The security camera of the delicatessen had captured the whole thing: Seth scowling, cargo pockets open, tapping one foot after another on the pavement to shake out the soreness from walking all day. Then there was the blur of the girl in her purple jump suit. Seth turned his head to follow her, and when he did, his confused expression disappeared from the camera. The twenty-two million people who’d watched the video on YouTube couldn’t see his face as he started, stopped, then planted both hands on top of his unwashed tourist hair, one on top of the other, and uselessly stood by as the truck plowed into the girl.
Seth tried to pick up more trash than he could handle to make up for having been slow to get started. He dropped a garbage can that had, as if the owners had known this would happen, been crammed full of packing peanuts at the top. They now spilled all over the road and the customer’s front yard as Seth scurried to pick them up. Seth hadn’t even noticed a wind that day, but it seemed to pick up at exactly that instant to blow the Styrofoam bits into little whirling tornadoes around his head.
“Just leave it,” Antony said.
“What if they complain?”
“Fuck ‘em. We’ll just say the lid was off the top when we got here, and they blew out on their own. Who the fuck jams that many packing peanuts loose at the top of a garbage can? It’s like they wanted that shit to happen.”
Seth followed Antony’s advice. He didn’t have much choice. Cleaning up the whole mess would have taken fifteen minutes to finish, and that would have put them behind. Seth and Antony needed to be out on time. They were going to try to squeeze in a trip to the home improvement store and then attempt, based only on what they’d learned from watching YouTube, to fix the shower at Antony’s place. It was leaking somewhere and water dripped from the top level of the house, through the sub-floor, and into the kitchen below. Nobody had been able to shower in two days. There were seven people living in Antony’s house.
The twenty-two million people who watched the video of the girl and the truck couldn’t agree on what they had seen. Seth had made a quick lunge for the girl, then stopped, then jumped back up on the curb and seemed to freeze before clasping his hands together on top of his head. From behind him, the video’s perspective showed his head push his neck down while his shoulders rolled up, a cringe that some said looked like a turtle tucking into its shell. “The dude’s reaction says it all,” said about fifty-three thousand people. Seth wondered what “it all” was that his reaction had said.
The thousands of comments, which Seth read for hours even though he knew the value of comments on the Internet, could be grouped into three theories:
1: Seth tried to save the girl, realized he couldn’t, and sensibly jumped out of the way to save himself. It was sad, but it was better that he had saved himself to prevent two tragedies.
2: Seth could have saved her, but wimped out because he was a coward.
3: The conspiracy-minded thought Seth could have saved her, but didn’t because she had Down Syndrome and Seth thought she wasn’t worth saving.
Most people agreed with theory number one. Seth’s horrified reaction, unmistakable even from behind him, was his best defense. That kept him from being a public enemy. But he also had missed his chance to be a hero, the scrappy, small-town working man who’d come through in a pinch. The most important moment in his life had come and gone without announcing it had ever even been there.
As usually happened, nothing went as smoothly with the shower project as the videos had made them hope it would. Seth had carefully written down the names of all the pieces they’d need: what kind of gasket, what kind of spacer, what kind of decorative top. He’d written down both plumber’s putty and Teflon tape, because some videos had called to use one and some to use another. When they went to the store, Seth started carefully looking for each item, but Antony found the first employee he could run down and asked where to look. Whenever Seth asked anyone for help, they tended to look bored and bothered, but Antony was a charmer. The employee handed them a tub drain repair kit with nine parts wrapped up in hard plastic. Without inspecting it to see if it was right, Antony grabbed it and headed for the register. Seth also picked up the kit next to it, because it looked like it had different parts, and he didn’t want to make a second trip.
Back at Antony’s house, nothing in the drain in his bathtub matched any of the videos they’d seen. The house was at least a hundred years old. It probably had parts inside it from each of the decades since the First World War, as previous owners had made their fixes over the years. Seth felt a shock of admiration for all the people who had repaired the house over the years with no videos to teach them. The men who’d fought in wars back then had been expected to be able to figure out what to do when a situation arose. It wasn’t Seth’s house, but he felt he was letting down everyone who’d maintained the house over the years.
In the end, unable to get all the pieces to fit together right, they’d crammed the hole full of putty and silicone. They decided to wait until the next day for the silicone to dry before testing it. In the meantime, Seth and Antony loaded up Antony’s mother, younger brother and sister, cousin, cousin’s boyfriend, and friend who was staying with them after getting out of prison, and took them all to Seth’s house for showers. They huddled together in his living room on his tiny couch and two chairs as each waited their turn. They studied the television closely as a woman with the most dramatic voice Seth had ever heard told the real-life story of a woman who had murdered her husband. Seth was usually quietly proud of his Spartan conditions, but now it seemed selfish of him to have never thought he might need nice things for the sake of hospitality.
It was late when Seth and Antony finally got all the people from Antony’s house back home, then Seth at last returned alone, took his own shower and got in bed. Four-thirty came early, but Seth couldn’t sleep. He suddenly remembered the wagon on Chester. Putting a wagon like that onto the curb, without a single chip in the paint, seemed like a cry for help.
The girl’s name was Gretchen. Her parents had told the police that she thought she saw Justin Bieber and ran to get his autograph. They’d been in New York two days, and she’d thought she’d seen Justin Bieber about a hundred times, they’d said. Seth wished that Justin Bieber could share some of the blame with him.
Seth’s parents had never allowed their kids to wallow in self-pity. His dad never quoted the Bible or Shakespeare or Roman orators or American Presidents, but he did like to quote an aphorism, which he attributed to Captain Kangaroo:
As you go through life, make this your goal:
Watch the donut, not the hole.
After Gretchen and YouTube, Seth couldn’t stop feeling like all he had was a hole. He calculated and re-calculated the scene, each time imagining he’d reacted differently. He should have realized before the girl even went into the street what was happening. He should have committed fully to reaching her, and if he had, there would have been enough time. It was his doubt that killed her. He should have yelled for her to stop. He could have tripped her as she ran past. He could have jumped into the street and waved his arms for the truck to stop. He should have carried a lasso for emergencies like that one with him and used it to snatch the girl out of harm’s way.
In spite of the Internet’s many conspiracy theories about what happened, Seth thought there was a simpler and less interesting reason he’d failed to act. He’d been aware that the girl’s parents were nearby. Something in him had told him not to grab the girl, that her parents would be angry at him for putting his hands on her. He assumed he’d misunderstood something, that what the girl was doing made perfect sense, and he was just overreacting and getting in the way. When the truck hit her, he was still trying to fit it into a story that made sense.
Seth scanned the house on Chester for clues every week when the truck went past. It was summer, but no children were out playing. The old air conditioner sat in the same second-floor window, stuffed on the sides with the same cardboard and duct tape, but it was never running. There were no signs of movement in the house.
The leak in Antony’s tub wasn’t completely fixed, but it did slow down enough that the family could politely ignore the few drops that came through the kitchen ceiling. They’d tried to fix it, and the family would honor the attempt until it became impossible to ignore the fact that they hadn’t really gotten the job done.
Summer drew on, with Seth and Antony on the back of the truck together, counting things and comparing. Seth loved his job, he realized one day when the heat wasn’t too intense. He’d taken it with the intent to save up for college, then realized he already made a decent wage, had no college loans to pay off, and spent all day with his best friend. Together, he and Antony hauled off the things people wanted to get rid of to a place where they’d never be bothered by them again.
But the house on Chester haunted Seth more and more. He tried searching the house number online, looking for links to police reports on incidents at the house. He looked for accidents involving children in his town. Nothing fit. Seth stayed awake late at night, picturing the house. He saw images of Gretchen rolling down the hill in the front yard in the wagon he’d hauled away. She was rolling out of control toward the street. She was screaming, but he couldn’t tell if she was screaming with terror or delight. Should he stop her or let her have fun?
On the two-year anniversary of the day Gretchen died, Seth found himself after work parked on the street in front of the house on Chester. There was an SUV in the driveway. The same instinct that had kept him from diving after Gretchen now kept him from walking up to the front door of the house. There was probably a reasonable explanation for the wagon. Maybe the house didn’t even have kids. Maybe someone had been using it to haul things around the yard, then finally had gone and gotten a proper wheelbarrow and decided they didn’t need it anymore.
Knocking on the door seemed like a terrible line to cross. Seth’s job was to haul off what people wanted to get rid of, and as long as it wasn’t too bulky or too hazardous, the assumption was that he would haul those things off, no questions asked. To show up at the door would be like having a priest bring up something you’d mentioned at confession when you ran into him at the grocery store. Seth looked at the small hill in the front yard, saw what he’d been picturing in his mind night after night, pushed aside his doubts and got out of the car.
When he rang the bell, he heard a child’s voice yell “Mom, the door!” The cry was then repeated by what sounded like a younger voice. The two voices alternated, each time shouting louder than the time before, until at last Seth heard steps on stairs and the door start to open.
A woman barely coming up to Seth’s shoulders, even standing a step above him inside the doorway, looked him over. The first thing Seth wanted to do was make it clear he was not a salesman.
“Hi. I’m your garbage man,” he said, then wondered if he should have said “collector” or “hauler,” so he didn’t seem like he thought everyone who hauled garbage had to be a man.
“I know this seems strange,” he said, feeling suddenly that this qualifier didn’t tell the half of it. “I picked up a wagon from your house a few weeks ago, and I can’t stop thinking about it.”
The woman’s face showed recognition, but she waited for Seth to continue.
“It’s just that there was nothing wrong with it,” he said. Still, she waited for him to finish. “So, I wondered…I don’t know how to say this…if there was something wrong?”
She didn’t answer him, but turned and shouted to the children who had been shouting at her. “Devyn! Come here!”
One child had been called, but both peaked their heads from around the end of the hallway where they’d been lurking together. She turned to face the boys.
“You remember when your wagon went missing a while ago after you left it out at night, and we thought someone had stolen it?”
“Well, where outside did you leave it?”
He’d been hauling their garbage with it, playing at Seth’s grown-up job, then left a bag of trash on top of the wagon by the curb, which made it look to Seth and Antony like it was meant to be thrown out.
Seth half expected her to be angry with him for misunderstanding and trashing it. He realized in that moment that he was afraid of short women, as if he thought for some reason they’d always overcompensate for their lack of size with fierceness. Instead, she directed her words at Devyn, and she was laughing as she said them.
“Well, Dev, the good news is that nobody stole your wagon, but that’s why I tell you not to leave your things out in the yard at night.”
Devyn thought about this. He had ringlets of blond hair that would probably turn darker as he got older. His faced was smeared with something sticky and he had a wide, orange mark on his cheek that looked like someone had colored on him with a magic marker. Suddenly, the boy began to cry. He’d forgotten about the wagon weeks ago and it would have soon been gone from his mind forever if Seth hadn’t come to the house and reminded him of it.
His mother picked him up and cradled him. His legs hung nearly to the ground. She kissed him on the head, trying not to laugh.
“Oh, that age,” she said. “The worst things can happen and you’re oblivious to it, but if you suddenly remember a wagon you lost a long time ago, it’s the end of the world.” The child continued heaving in her arms.
“Thanks for coming to check on it. I’m sure it’s one of those things where it didn’t seem right, but you just couldn’t figure out why until it was too late.”
The boy slowed down crying, letting out one more long sob that seemed a little forced.
“I suppose it is kind of sad,” she said, “to think of something like a child’s wagon going into the back of a dump truck, getting all smashed up like that. It’s not like the truck knows the difference between something precious and garbage, does it?”
“No, ma’am,” Seth said. He’d almost forgotten he was present, had felt for a moment that he was watching the scene from somewhere outside of it.
“Well, it was nice of you to come by anyway. It would have been easy for you to do nothing. At least this way, he gets some closure.”
Seth wondered whether a four-year-old needed closure.
“Would you like to stay for supper?” she asked him. “It’s just fish sticks and mashed potatoes. I don’t know why I even bother. The boys eat so much junk at day care, they’re never really hungry when they get home. They just pick at dinner, then they beg me for cereal half an hour after time for bed.”
Somehow, Seth knew there was no father living in the house. There was no telling why, though Seth thought suddenly of the “worst things” that happen to you the mother had referred to. There was a hole in their lives Seth might fit.
Seth hadn’t been in a relationship since Reina. They said the best way to know if you were compatible with someone was to travel with them; Seth had pretty much realized in New York he wasn’t compatible with her, even before Gretchen. She’d wanted to still make it to The Daily Show after the accident. Moreover, she’d looked at him with an eyebrow raised, saying nothing, when he needed to call Antony after the accident so he could calm down. She actually broke up with him, which Seth found was a relief.
He’d stayed out of relationships for a while because he didn’t feel ready and because he wanted to wait until the world had forgotten about him. He called it the Harambe rule of dating. It was clear this woman didn’t know who he was, other than the guy who hauled her garbage.
But he was supposed to be at Antony’s that night. They were going to try to either see if they could keep the dishwasher from backing up and spilling onto the floor or they would go get a used one and try to figure out how to install it. There would be hot dogs and baked beans. Seth liked to put the baked beans on top of the hot dog and then put ketchup over both.
Being due at Antony’s gave Seth his reason to back out of fish sticks and mashed potatoes on Chester Avenue. He left without learning the mother’s name. He’d tried, when giving his excuses, to sound like he hadn’t understood there was anything more than dinner being offered. He’d then felt like he’d stood there in the doorway for too long after saying no, feeling the need to apologize, feeling the need to explain, feeling—what? The need to give her closure on why he’d said no?
Antony would probably give him hell for turning her down. She’d been cute. He tried, on the drive to Antony’s, to recall her, but he could only recall that she had a vaguely pleasant face. He could try later to go back and talk to her again, but the moment was probably lost. An offer for fish sticks and mashed potatoes isn’t the kind of thing you can turn down once and then ask for a raincheck on after the fact. He’d been too slow to realize it was a chance he ought to have taken. But he’d be able to tell Antony that he’d gotten closer this time than he had before. He’d get there sooner or later.
Monsé ironed her husband’s work trousers, gliding the iron on both sides, following the lines of the seams. She folded and stacked them together. The basket was full of wrinkled clothes but Tomás hadn’t asked whether she needed help. He was eating at the table, wearing only his striped underwear underneath a wide open robe. The TV was blaring with the news of an accident.
“How much do you think it hurts to die, Tomás?”
“I don’t know dear; what a ridiculous thing to ask.”
The iron slid over a new pair of navy blue trousers, erasing the wrinkles on the fabric. The hot steam made her think about the pain she would feel if her finger so much as brushed the steel. With each turn, she thought about touching it. How much could it hurt? She brought her hand close to the iron and pulled it away before reaching it. Clothes don’t whine. No pain is apparent, she thought, on inanimate objects.
On the TV, a news reporter was standing at the place of the accident, pointing to the remnants of a car and a bended guardrail. The van was fine, it was strong and had withstood the impact. The van driver was fine; he had sat inside the van waiting for the emergency services to arrive after the car driver had collided with its front. It was the car that had metamorphosed into crumpled irons and wires, she informed.
“The man for sure was traumatized. The boy was in pieces.” Said Tomás. He wiped the plate clean with bread and licked his greasy fingertips. “These kids, they don’t understand danger.”
“What happened to that car?” said Monsé.
“It’s at the junkyard now, what did you think?”
The reporter continued giving the details about the accident. Monsé held the iron in the air. It released innocent puffs of steam.
“Where do you think we go after we die, Tomás?”
“How would I know that, Monsé? Things like this happen every day. There’s no need to get worked up.”
The iron landed on the board like a paddle steamer gliding through another pair of trousers. Monsé touched the fabric after ironing it. The tingle wasn’t as rewarding as the pain her fingers would feel if she decided to burn them.
Some neighbour appeared on the screen:
“A tragedy! What a tragedy! He was only in his twenties!”
“Were you an acquaintance of the deceased?” the reporter asked the lady.
“The family was famous for their pig slaughtering in the village”, said the old lady shaking her wooden cane to the camera. “The boy had his head over his shoulders. He was in the village’s football team, a hardworking lad.”
“So young and so dedicated to work,” confirmed the young reporter to the camera with a sad smile.
The reporter announced the delivery batch was undamaged, hundreds of boxes of fruit. It was ready to make delivery rounds again a few days after the accident. The young man’s body had splashed like a watermelon against the window of the van and whatever remains could be found had been incinerated. The family held a ceremony in his memory. Monsé placed the last pair of trousers at the top of the pile. She took one of her skirts from the laundry bag and ironed it following the pattern of each pleat. The news reporter was standing in front of a honeycomb now, talking about a beehive incident at a neighbouring village.
flash fiction by Libertad Ansola Palazuelos
poetry by Donna James
You commit; I waver.
I pledge you my life; you remain in thrall
to a childhood demon.
You dispel her; I wait
for a set date to assemble our tribe
for the sacrament.
We make a thousand proposals,
all accepted, none brought to consummation.
“It will happen when the time is right,”
This contract is old.
It is recorded in a lost corner of the Akashic records
where it would take some cosmic clerk
searching months or millennia
to retrieve the original document,
written in archaic script,
whose current translation is penned as our flesh
by an archangel’s quill.
I wear blue, your favorite color;
you are wrapped in white linen.
Flowers of early spring, narcissus and golden daffodil,
nestle among the evergreen boughs of your bouquet.
Sacred jazz extols, “The Creator Has a Masterplan.”
Our friends and families gather to witness
as I give your body away
to the earth, espouse
your transmigration to another life,
and carry myself across a threshold.
Instead of a bang, an old melancholy melody served as the world’s death rattle. Next came car alarms, dogs barking, kids crying, and then nothing.
The world’s remote control permanently stuck on mute.
Thought I was the only one left until I saw her.
Sleek, shiny, black as oblivion.
I’d begged for gerbils, kittens, puppies. Mama always said no.
The apocalypse killed my dreams, but it granted my wish.
Weak with illness, I couldn’t throw balls or praise gifts of murdered mice.
Her innocent nibble became a bite.
Only starving dogs eat their owners. Cats? They just gotta be bored.
micro fiction by Serena Jayne
Even if you knew me you wouldn’t recognize me. If you saw me at all. I barely exist - even on the fringes of your perception. Your gaze passes over me.
I am imperceptible.
I was once like you, like most everyone else in this city. One of the world’s beautiful capital cities – Ottawa, Canada. I live in an unimaginably large country whose population clings to a narrow ribbon along its border with the United States. Seeking warmth, perhaps. Or protection. Or maybe just standing very still in that corpulent shadow, surreptitiously eating crumbs from their table.
Like my countrymen, I too exist on a thin border – in the shadows - living on the detritus of others.
And I’ll tell you why.
Believe it or not, my gradual invisibility began with a service charge. Not even a big one - three dollars and ninety-five cents. That number burns in a purpose-built firebox deep in my mind. Three dollars and ninety-five cents. It’s not much on its own, but repeating itself twelve times down the left hand column of a bank statement that bottoms out at zero gives it great significance.
It was our year end statement for the joint chequing account. Admittedly, when monthly account fees negate your balance; you hadn’t much to begin with; nevertheless, it was the final forty-seven dollars and forty cents decimated on that day that was the tipping point.
See, the joint chequing account was mine and Sandy’s, my wife of only two short years, now deceased. Cancer came hard and fast and stole her breath away in three dreadful months. Her final moments were monumental struggle to pull even the tiniest amount of air into her ravaged lungs. The end was upon her, but I was unable to let her go - needing her to be with me even one breath longer – so I gave her the only thing I could, the only thing I had left in me to give – my breath. But I forced her to take too much, I pushed too hard, frantic to keep her with me a few seconds longer. Strong nurses wrestled me away, away from Sandy’s lips, away from her wide, terrified eyes.
I hate that her last inhalation was my scream. My desperation, my fear, my anguish. I’d intended to imbue everything good - my soul, my life force, my very being - into that single mighty breath. But I failed. It was the last deep breath I have taken. She died then - just then - choking on my breath, my pain, leaving me with nothing.
No, that’s not completely true; I was left with - unbearable grief and a vast, dark emptiness.
We all wear death differently.
I wore it like black armor that night as I went on a mindless rampage through the hospital hunting for the doctors who had treated my Sandy. A double tap from a police taser eventually calmed me down.
I am not a stupid man. Though I sometimes regret having settled for a trade over the pursuit of higher learning, it was a choice I made at that time with eyes wide open and my heart set on making something of myself. I had dreams of owning my own construction company, being my own man, standing on my own two feet. Sadly, it was not to be. I have tried to convince myself that I failed because I lacked the business acumen, but truthfully, it was the darkness inside of me. A gaping chasm – tantalizing, tempting, whispering. Come down. Sandy knew all about the dark invitations of the black hole, yet Sandy loved me and Sandy helped me, and then she was gone. And I was alone with the darkness.
I’d been jobbing construction on haphazard days and pumping gas part-time nights before she got sick. Both jobs fell by the wayside as I spent more and more time at the hospital with her and, after the funeral, immobilized, I forgot completely about work, and welcomed the invitations from the deep.
We’d moved to Ottawa for Sandy’s work. Not even time to know our neighbours when everything crashed down. And now that I was alone, I imagined people smelled wrongness about me. With no friends or family, I shunned even the half-hearted overtures from the over burdened hospital - appointed grief counselors. I stopped answering my phone. Soon, it fell silent.
Weeks passed in a grey haze. Then came that day. The day I opened the envelope from the bank. Running low on cash, it seemed a good idea to at least make an effort to see what funds I had remaining. But service charges brought the balance to zero.
Our house - a tiny bungalow we’d paid for in cash - wouldn’t sell. The market’s in a slump – but predictions indicate an upturn in the next quarter! The For Sale sign, already faded, was pushed down by teens and left where it fell. As the yard grew wild, I lurked unseen behind weather streaked windows.
Smelly days, not bothering to wash. Days in bed, unable to rouse myself from the unfathomable depths of depression. Twice I ventured from the house, getting no further than the corner store with my last few dollars. People gave me a wide berth. Out of cash, my daytime forays ended. I began taking some comfort in the anonymity of the night, and began wandering aimlessly in the dark. Ranging farther and farther from home, never knowing where I’d end up, or indeed, if I would find my way back, I became a rain dog – caught in a storm, unable to track my scent back to myself. I was hungry and lost.
Late one night, I passed a pizza joint. The aroma wafting from the open door made me swoon. I caught my gaunt reflection in the window. Skeletal. I was actually starving. I turned sideways to see if I could disappear. No luck. Inside, I asked the man if I could have a slice now and pay later, on the off-chance he might recognize me – I’d eaten plenty of his pizzas, particularly while Sandy was sick - but I looked different. He refused. I pressed him, becoming agitated. He became unpleasant when I climbed over the counter in an attempt to liberate a slice. Hustled back out into the night, I was propelled down the sidewalk, chased by threats and epithets.
I was a bum.
Circling back behind the pizza place I found garbage bins – maybe there would be crusts - but they were locked behind a high fence. The pizza smell became unnerving. If I did not eat soon I would die. I discovered that the back door was unlocked, but the cook was working the ovens not ten feet away. I faded back into the shadows to regroup. Could I mug the delivery guy? I needed a plan. Unsteady, I lowered myself to the curb and spotted a dime glinting on the black asphalt. It was like someone else’s thin grubby fingers picked up the tiny coin.
I knew what to do.
I opened the back door just enough to lodge the dime in the strike plate so the lock cylinder couldn’t seat itself. I figured when they closed, I would return later to fill my belly with pizza. I fumbled the coin and there was a shout from inside the kitchen. I spun and ran as fast as I could, around the corner, stumbling and tumbling behind a hedge near the High School. I was spent. I lay there, breathing fast and shallow, sobbing.
If nothing else, I had married well – Sandy was well educated and rocketing up the company ladder when she was struck down. She’d just been named head of training in the investments division and was Lear-jetting back and forth across the country staying in five star hotels and flashing corporate credit cards. It was only after she died that her shopping addiction came to light. When they cleared out her corner office, every single drawer and cabinet contained designer clothes and accessories, all purchased using those corporate cards. Another full locker was discovered at her gym. And another at the community center where she took spin classes. There may still be others but I wouldn’t know where to look. Her company was angry. They kept everything - even trying to send me a bill for a list of other outrageous expenses, but Sandy’s lawyer took care of that. I soon learned that everything in our little house had been bought on payments. Appliances. Furniture. TV. Even the dishware and cutlery. Within ninety days of Sandy’s death, everything had been re-possessed. No exceptions.
I despaired. Who can be prepared for such catastrophic change? How could it happen - in this great country, in this civil city, in this day and age? My house was empty so it’s no small wonder I lost my way – I had no signposts, no benchmarks.
One day, I discovered some musty camping equipment in the garage loft that the repo men had somehow missed. Sleeping bag, air mattress, camp stove and a cooler. I may have smiled as I curled up in the bag. I slept a long time before hunger drove me to my feet. I smelled so bad I couldn’t believe it was me, but the water had been shut off. Non-payment, like everything else. Cupboards were bare. As I stood in the living room, dizzy and hollow, someone came to the front door and dropped a flyer and a community newspaper on the porch. I opened the door. The only work in the Help Wanted section was flyer delivery.
My power was cut off.
The night I spent in those bushes by the High School, I slept, missing the transition from dark night to grey dawn. I found myself stumbling back to the pizza joint in the soupy morning. No traffic. It was very quiet. I tried the back door but the dime trick had failed, it was locked up tight. On my hands and knees, I searched for the coin on the greasy pavement. And wept. Then, curling up against the greasy steel door, I slept some more.
A harsh sound I couldn’t identify pulled me out of a thin dream. Three people came into view shuffling down the nearby sidewalk, one person in the rear pulling a large green wagon filled with flyers and community newspapers, the sound of its plastic wheels hollow on gritty pavement. It was obvious that two of the people were disabled in some way and the third was in charge. A social worker. He spoke in low tones, the others paid close attention. Curious, I followed and watched from a discreet distance as they took turns bringing a rolled-up community newspaper and a colourful cardboard flyer to each front door along the street. The paper went on the porch and the flyer was hung on the door handle.
I was fascinated. I had an epiphany.
Two things. First – these people were invisible. Sure, the residents knew that disadvantaged people distributed flyers and papers in the area, but once seen, they didn’t warrant a second glance. These three people moved about invisibly – in plain sight. Second – every time they came to a door that still had a flyer on the door handle and a paper on the porch - I assumed from their previous visit – they replaced them. It became clear to me that the residents of those homes were away.
And there would be food.
I decided I’d go after that food. Not all of it – it wouldn’t do to be greedy – just enough so it wouldn’t be missed. If I could get in and out of those houses without being noticed, leaving little or no trace, I’d have an inexhaustible supply of food. And maybe not just food I thought, hobbling home - floating home, plans swirling in my brain- what else would go unnoticed? I started a mental list.
Socks from the bottom of the drawer. The sweater at the back of the closet. Duplicate tools. Honey, have you seen my other hammer? The forgotten can of creamed corn on the top shelf of the pantry. The third tin of tuna. Random items too - a paperback, a light bulb, a disposable lighter from the kitchen junk drawer. Tea bags. An old toiletry item from the under sink cabinet. A roll of toilet paper.
As the list got longer, my steps became lighter. I smelled the air. The sun came out and I felt something new.
Suddenly, I had a plan. A mission. Ignoring my hunger, I forced myself to focus. There was an old garden hose in the weeds along the inside of the back yard hedge and I connected it to the outside faucet of the house next door and ran it through my basement window and into the shower stall. I washed in cold water. I found old work clothes – my old orange high visibility jacket was still hanging in the garage. In my old orange work coat with a few tools deep in my pockets, I went back to where the flyers remained on the doors and rang doorbells. If someone answered, I told them there was to be work to be done on the nearby hydro poles soon and someone would be coming in a few days with details. Just a courtesy visit! If nobody answered, I used my years of knowledge as a construction worker and broke into the house without leaving any trace.
From the very first house I took a packet of dry soup mix, a tin of devilled ham and a no-name cola.
I walked home on adrenaline – seen, but not seen.
My success resulted in a feast for both body and soul.
Now, invisible in my high visibility jacket, I keep to neighbourhoods where the affluent are accustomed to the presence of workers who serve their many needs. I am no longer in the real world. I exist along the borders, in the shadows, invisible in plain sight. I take only what I need from those who have more than they know.
Rest assured, no one need to worry, I am harmless. I always knock and ring the bell. I will never take you by surprise. You won’t even see me. And even if you do, you won’t. Not really.
So I am clothed, clean, well fed and free. I have lately devised methods of accessing water through the winter and will soon tap into the power grid to use only what little I need. My tiny house is warm. My pantry is varied. I plan to never become visible again because, slowly, almost imperceptibly, I am becoming happy.
short fiction by Robert Bockstael
I hitched a ride on the back of a crocodile that was meandering downstream. When it noticed something trying to wriggle out of a crevice in the riverbed, it dove. At first, it was difficult to breathe, but then I was a turtle. Lounging in the mud next to the water, I saw a crocodile surfacing with a drowned dragonfly on its back.
An ape found me and held me up to its face, my limbs flailing for purchase. It lost interest soon and tossed me in the water. I pulled my limbs in and effectively sank like a rock, busting my shell open on some bones at the bottom. In the jungle with no way to defend myself, death was imminent. But before the crocodile closed its jaws on me, I was a squirrel, trying to cross the river on the branches above.
Before I made the leap, I checked below to make sure the way was clear from those troublesome leaping fish that had taken so many of us. Something happened. The water rippled… there were bubbles and a red cloud was following something downstream. I leaped across and grabbed hold of two long leaves, dropping to the vines directly below. As I made my way to my stash in a termite-chewed hole in a tree, I was struck by a feeling of deja vu.
There used to be something here. Yes… I could smell it! Hot dogs, car exhaust, cologne. There were tall buildings and underground tunnels, flashing screens, traffic crawling, a chorus of honks, shouting, people in suits, tourists. It was hard to tell if these memories were real, that maybe I was remembering a dream. I raised my nose to the air, tuned out all the other smells, and followed the mysterious lingering scents.
Near a mess of branches and moss was a familiar stench. There could be no mistaking it: the sewers had been here, smelled like they still were here, in small pockets where the old drains had been. Yes, it was all right here! But instead of rumbling cars and towering buildings, there were only buzzing insects and towering trees.
And then I remembered. I remembered when the last human died, an old hermit in the mountains, and how his soul transferred to the nearest living thing, an ant at the top of an anthill. That ant became a snake right before the ant was squished by an oblivious orangutan. That snake became a beetle, and on and on the process went until a million years later it became a dragonfly, a turtle, and now a squirrel. The city I remembered and all who lived in it were long gone. Nature had erased us at last.
In a million years, following a warming period and torrential rains from coast to coast on every continent, the jungle ran rampant over the planet, consuming the desert and creeping up the snowy peaks. Everything still came and went, lived and died as it always had. Nobody cared that the dominant species had gone extinct, except a lonely squirrel, the only one who remembered.
After I finished stuffing my cheeks with seeds, I jumped down into the bushes. Something dropped from above. I froze in mid-step. When its yellow eyes parted the bush, it stopped. I remained frozen. Usually about now, the squirrel would be abandoned. But when the anaconda lunged at me and pierced through my body with its fangs, I cringed.
flash fiction by Jon Kalantjakos
A poem unread
subsists on wanting,
a near-constant flux
shut into darkness,
awaits in suffocation
for an opening,
for devouring eyes,
goosebumps from fingertips
across its page,
for the resuscitative whisper
of its reading
back to life,
at page’s turn.
A Poem's Mostly Death
poetry by Jason Hackett
The sailboat’s white hull reflected the sun—the bleached fiberglass glowing atop the murky waters of the Potomac River—offering the ancient promise of escape, relaxation, and adventure. Behind me, the Washington Monument towered over the heart of western civilization and the venue of my responsibilities, yet the currents before me flowed downriver to the Chesapeake Bay, to sensations of water and wind, to the unknown. This sailboat would deliver me to nature and remind me of the fragility of life and what it means to be human.
Thus began my first sailing lesson in almost forty years.
Last year, I retired after twenty-five years of law enforcement and more than a decade investigating narco-terrorism around the world. It was a career where I wrestled a suicide bomber, battled terrorists, and was targeted with rockets, bullets, and hatred. I had returned to my roots as a writer, but the pressures of deadlines and rejection brought their own stress. Most jobs don’t involve life and death decisions, but all carry the tensions of modern life leaving everyone in need of a respite.
The sailing school in Alexandria, Virginia provided a basic sailing course where adults were certified in one weekend. Certifications by either the American Sailing Association or US Sailing allowed students to rent sailboats at most marinas across the country, providing sailors a chance to revert to a pre-modern time when maritime exploration was powered by the wind. Students learned on Flying Scots—nineteen-foot sailboats with a main mast, jib sail, and room for four inside a small cockpit.
I traveled in a motorized skiff with my fellow student—Ali—and our instructor—Peter—to our sailboat moored just offshore. A minute later, I grabbed the Flying Scot’s wire forestay with one hand and stepped onto the bow, causing the boat to dip under my weight. The fiberglass deck was firm, but the hull bobbed in water and my world balanced between solid and liquid matter. I shuffled aft, stepped into the cockpit, and felt the river lapping the deck below my feet.
Sailing was a world of water and wind.
Ali and I unfurled the mainsail and pulled the foot of the sail along the boom. We tightened the tension with the outhaul and then ran the luff edge of the sail up the mast, pulling the halyard until the sail head reached the top. We hanked the smaller jib sail to the forestay with small brass clips then cleated the lines to keep them in place. The stays, shrouds, sheets, and halyards were all part of the rigging. Just saying “rigging” made me feel nautical. The arcane sailing jargon came back to me like the lost language of childhood and I hoped I would remember the basic physics and techniques as well. Sailing required equal parts art and science to capture the wind and convert it to power.
It was fifty-seven degrees and sunny, with a four mile-per-hour wind blowing out of the Southeast. Wind speed and direction suddenly became critical after having gone unnoticed for most of my life. Ali took control of the tiller and we fell off the wind forty-five degrees onto a starboard tack, an angle known as “close hauled.” Our speed increased immediately beneath the taught sails and we headed downriver, not fast, but under sail nonetheless. I felt an instant connection to my ancestors—Viking and Phoenician mariners—who once rode the winds around the world.
Sailing was tradition.
Soon it was my turn to switch with Ali and take the helm. I tacked back and forth, guiding the tiller with my right hand and pulling the sheet to trim the mainsail with my left. There is a perfect angle in sailing, where the sails aren’t too loose to luff or overly taught, and constant attention is required to maintain it—a process of pleasurable, tactile sensations and soulful joy. The wind picked up and our boat heeled over as it accelerated. We came about, jibing away from the wind into a broad reach, then ran with the sails all the way out. The sun warmed me, damp air cooled my face, and my stress melted away. Sailing was work and leisure, relaxation and danger, concentration and detachment. It was meditation through concentration.
Sailing was happiness.
The shore grew in my vision as we approached the marina, our sails full of wind and our hull seamlessly cutting through the water. We passed a channel marker named “Bob” (sailors have unique humor) and our Peter took the tiller, expertly steering us around moored boats. We came about, pointing the bow into the wind to cut our speed, and glided up to the wooden dock. We dropped the sails and I felt like a child putting my toys away before bedtime. I stepped onto the dock and the firmness of land snapped me out of my reverie, but I was halfway to my certification.
The next morning was cloudy and cool, with northwest winds gusting over thirty miles-per-hour. I checked the nautical forecast and saw a small craft advisory, but a message from the marina said the lesson was still planned. I needed to practice man-overboard and docking drills to complete my certification, so I went. At the marina I stood onshore and watched whitecaps flickering on the crests of waves. At least sunburn wouldn’t be a problem.
Ali and I had a new instructor, Scott, who joked the boat was named after him (more nautical humor) He drilled us on the parts of the boat: batten, daggerboard, leech, backstay, gooseneck, boom vang—the new jargon seemed unending. Learning to sail was to adopt a foreign language and a nautical culture peppered with rules for etiquette and survival. We hauled up a smaller mainsail than we used the previous day to reduce the power of the wind. The canvas flapped angrily in the swirling air currents, yanking the boom back and forth, like the boat wanted us to get off.
Scott guided us out through the marina then gave the tiller to Ali. We executed quick up and back movements aiming for channel markers and moorings, but the wind changed direction repeatedly—northeast, then northwest, then west, and back to north. We could see the gusts coming across the water, scrambling the surface as they approached then violently pushing our sails and heeling the boat. I gave Ali a look that said we were crazy to be out here.
Sailing was excitement.
“Which sail would you use if he came out here by yourself on a day like today?” Scott asked.
“I wouldn’t go out on the water on a day like today,” I said.
After forty-five minutes of fighting the elements, I saw the other boats with instructors and students heading back to the dock. They were having a tough time making it back against thirty-three mile-per-hour gusts and I watched one of the boats seek refuge beside a slip near the dock.
“This is nuts,” I said.
Scott agreed and took the helm to navigate back to the dock. He tacked back and forth, narrowly missing boats in the marina, battling to get us to safety. The wind changed direction and Scott aborted our approach to the dock. We came about, moving away from the wind, but a moored sailboat was in our path and Scott turned into a beam reach to avoid it. A strong gust blew across our port side and filled our mainsail. Our boat heeled radically to starboard at an unrecoverable angle and I looked down at the water.
“Oh, shit,” Scott said.
Our Flying Scott rolled over past ninety degrees and I stood up, grabbed the gunwale with left hand, and watched the sails splash into the river. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Ali and Scott flying through the air and into the brown water. My momentum carried me forward and I stepped onto the sail, soaking my feet, but I kept hold of the gunwale and pulled myself back into the boat. Ali and our instructor splashed in the frigid water behind me. I tossed life preservers to them and waited for help from the dock. This man-overboard drill was more realistic than I’d anticipated.
Within minutes, a marina employee plucked them from the water and together, we righted the Flying Scot and were towed back to the dock. Cold and shivering, we called it a day and decided to reschedule the last session of our certification.
Sailing was unpredictable.
I returned the following week to finish my docking drills with George, the Marina owner. It was a beautiful, seventy-five degree morning, with nine to twelve mile-per-hour winds blowing out of the South—the perfect conditions for a sail. Two high school students joined me for the lesson and we took turns practicing approaches to a floating dock, timing our tacks and luffing at the last minute to cut our speed. Our instructor hopped off onto the dock and we each made our first solo runs, sailing without instruction.
When we finished, I took the helm again and sailed back to the marina to dock the boat—the hardest part of a sail. I navigated through the moored boats, turned to avoid shore, and sailed a close reach to within ten yards of the dock. I turned radically to starboard and faced the wind, putting the boat into irons. The sails luffed, decreasing our speed, and we coasted to the dock. It wasn’t perfect, but I did it. I was officially a sailor.
I disembarked and walked toward the office, back to the land of mortgage payments, alarm clocks, and commitments. I stopped for a moment and looked out at the water, so close to the city, but another world—one of pleasure, risk, and self-determination. I turned away and headed back to my daily routine and the stress of modern life—at least until my next sail.
creative non-fiction by Jeffrey James Higgins
Robert Bockstael is a Canadian actor and director, and has written for theatre, television, and short films. He has recently had a short story, “Alma,” published in Rosette Maleficarum and is currently shopping his first novel, “Into Each Life.”
Jason Hackett’s poems have appeared in The Journal of American Poetry, Slippery Elm Literary Journal, Scarlet Leaf Review, Cholla Needles and Crack the Spine.
Jeffrey James Higgins
Jeffrey James Higgins is a former reporter, elected official, and retired supervisory special agent. He now writes creative nonfiction, essays, and novels. Jeffrey is represented by the Inkwell Management Literary Agency and his recent nonfiction book, “The Narco-Terrorist,” is out for submission. Jeffrey just finished writing “Unseen,” his first mystery thriller. Jeffrey was a finalist in the 2018 Adelaide Literary Award for Best Essay. He has been published in The Writing Disorder Literary Journal, Adelaide Literary Magazine, American Conservative, Trail Runner Magazine, The Washington Times, American Thinker, Police Magazine, and other publications. Find Jeffrey’s recent articles and media appearances at JeffreyJamesHiggins.com.
Donna has a PhD in clinical psychology from The Fielding Graduate Institute, and an MA in English literature from the University of Washington. She has been in private practice as a psychotherapist for thirty-five years. Her free time is spent with friends, visiting art museums and galleries, learning about different cultures, cooking, and reading—She is often in the middle of five books at once.
Serena Jayne received her MFA in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University, and is a member of Romance Writers of America and Sisters in Crime. She’s worked as a research scientist, a fish stick slinger, a chat wrangler, and a race horse narc. When she isn’t trolling art museums for works that move her, she enjoys writing in multiple fiction genres. While her first love is all things paranormal, the mundane world provides plenty of story ideas.
Born in Greece but a naturalized US citizen, Jon has been actively writing for ten years, as well as reading anything dating from Homer to JK Rowling. He lives in Nebraska, is an avid sports fan and video game enthusiast, and plans to spend his entire life improving his craft.
Libertad Ansola Palazuelos
Libertad Ansola Palazuelos was born in Cantabria, Spain. After graduating in English literature, she moved to Scotland and started her studies on creative writing at the university of Aberdeen. She enjoys experimental writing and likes writing in Spanish and English.
Mick Ó Seasnáin
Mick Ó Seasnáin has continually attempted to farm his quarter acre lot in the small town of Wooster, Ohio while catering to the diverse and often unanticipated needs of his tripod-ish dog and three rowdy children. His wife tolerates his creative habits and occasionally enables his binges of writing and photography. Find more of his work at MickOSeasnain.
Jacob Weber is a translator living in Maryland. He has published fiction in Bartleby Snopes, The Baltimore Review, The Green Hills Literary Lantern, and the Potomac Review. He won the Washington Writers’ Publishing House fiction contest in 2016, and the winning book, “Don’t Wait to Be Called,” was published in fall of 2017.
Short Fiction Editors
Laura Huey Chamberlain
Creative Non-Fiction Editor
Kerri Farrell Foley
Flash Fiction Editor
Preston Taylor Stone
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