March 15, 2017 | ISSUE no 211
crack the spine
Charlie Monte Verde
Julia Porter Howe
short fiction by David Hammond
Yuri led an ordered life. He woke up at 7 am, and his breakfast always included half a grapefruit eaten with a serrated spoon. It took him 12½ minutes to bike to his job as a network security consultant and 13½ minutes to bike back (he lived uphill). The hour before bedtime was spent reading on the couch in his living room. At 11 pm he went to bed, and, because he slept soundly and didn't dream, the time until 7 am the following morning didn't exist for him.
Then Yuri got a cat, a Siamese he named Bartleby. Like the Melville character, Bartleby was disinclined to do anything he was asked to do, which was, of course, hardly unusual for a cat but which introduced a measure of unpredictability into Yuri's life.
At night Bartleby roamed Yuri's apartment, discovering every nook and crevice. When he found something that interested him, a box of tissues for instance, he would bat it with his paw to see its reaction. Most of the time the object would have nothing to say, and Bartleby would move on. One night he came across a picture frame on Yuri's desk. He swiped at it, and the picture frame toppled over.
Yuri woke to see his cat's eyes flash from across the room. "Oh, Bartleby..." he groaned, but he was surprised to realize that he had been awakened from a dream. In the dream he had been bounding across a strange milky landscape. He jumped so high into the black, featureless sky that each time he fell he was seized with visceral terror and excitement.
It had been so long since he had experienced a dream that he had begun to doubt their existence, or at least their profundity. Sure, people talked about the strange dreams they had, but Yuri suspected they were embellishing, or confusing dreams with the sort of fanciful notions that he sometimes experienced in moments of boredom.
But this dream was familiar, and like discovering a faded photograph in an old shoebox, he recalled a dream from his childhood in which he had reveled in jumping higher than humanly possible. Then it had only been a few feet off the ground. His dream-self had made progress, it seemed.
The following day at work, Yuri scanned through network logs looking for suspicious activity. A client's web server had been subjected to a series of hacking attempts. This was not unusual, and Yuri was not particularly concerned. The hacking attempts were unsophisticated and, by all appearances, unsuccessful.
It was always possible, however, that the server had already been compromised, that a clever hacker had installed a rootkit and was quietly collecting valuable data. It got Yuri thinking about his dream. Was it really his first since childhood? On reflection, that seemed unlikely. Maybe the only thing special about this dream was that he had been awakened in the middle of it. The other dreams had simply been forgotten.
This was a bracing revelation. What had dream-Yuri been up to all this time between the hours of 11 pm and 7 am, besides learning how to jump ever higher? Did Yuri have a rootkit of sorts humming along in his brain at night?
Bartleby's meow crackled when Yuri got home, and Yuri gave him a can of food. Bartleby had napped most of the day. His favorite spot was by the window which let in the afternoon sun, and sometimes between naps he would try to catch the glittering dust motes that swirled lazily in the apartment when Yuri was not around. As quarry, though, the motes were unsatisfactory, and Bartleby looked forward to the night's hunt. He licked himself thoroughly and dug his claws into the side of the couch. Yuri suggested he might prefer to scratch the carpeted post that Yuri had bought for that purpose, but Bartleby declined.
That night, dream-Yuri directed a rage-filled, spit-flecked diatribe at his father. The old man, frailer than ever, literally crumpled under the onslaught, but dream-Yuri showed no mercy and only stopped when Bartleby jumped on Yuri's bed and woke him up. Yuri choked with residual anger for a moment and then could only wonder what had gotten dream-Yuri so worked up. He had no anger towards his father that he was aware of.
Over the next couple weeks Yuri's sleeping became more and more irregular, and he started to compile a disturbing dossier on dream-Yuri and his many crimes. He was guilty of murder, rape and many counts of public urination. Dream-Yuri himself seemed by turns horrified and gleeful, deeply embarrassed and defiant.
Yuri often ate lunch with his colleagues Stephen and Purabi, and he was usually quiet at these meetings, especially when Stephen and Purabi got deep into a discussion of their mutual passion, anime. The day after a particularly puzzling dream, however, Yuri was eager to tell his friends about it. He waited patiently, periodically rubbing his itchy eyes, while they talked Miyazaki.
"The catbus is awesome, you have to admit," said Purabi.
"Yeah, but for pure visceral impact, I still prefer Spirited Away." Stephen noticed Yuri following their conversation with greater than usual interest. "Have you seen it, Yuri?"
"Totoro To-to-ro!" sang Purabi defiantly.
"I'm afraid I haven't."
"Tsk, dude, Netflix it."
Yuri rubbed his eyes again. "You okay, man?" asked Stephen. "You look haggard."
"I'm okay. My cat keeps waking me up at night."
"They're nocturnal, cats are," said Purabi.
They were all quiet for a beat. "I had the weirdest dream last night," said Yuri, seizing his chance, but then Stephen stood up and Purabi sighed, "Back to the salt mines." Yuri realized that nobody wanted to hear about his dream, and he didn't blame them. He had almost forgotten how tedious it was to listen to people recount pointless dreams.
As they returned to their desks Purabi asked Yuri, "How is Bartleby, anyway?"
As it happened, Bartleby was having a dream of his own at the time. He was chasing a creature of some sort, but he could not catch it. At first, the creature was slow, but Bartleby was slower. Then Bartleby was fast, but the creature was faster. Bartleby's paws twitched as the box of light from the window moved ploddingly across the floor.
Life in Yuri's apartment had just about used up all its charm. Bartleby wanted to kill something. He wanted to bite down hard on a struggling life and feel its frantic movements slow until they stopped. He wanted blood.
Not that he really knew that's what he wanted. He had known only two lives, one in a metal cage, and one in Yuri's apartment, and he had never had the opportunity to catch and kill anything. So when Yuri came home he ate his dinner, and he sharpened his claws. When Yuri sat on the couch after dinner to watch TV, Bartleby got on the couch next to him and allowed Yuri to scratch behind his ears. When he had had enough of that he swiped at Yuri's hand.
"Ouch," said Yuri. He eyed Bartleby resentfully. He had started closing his bedroom door a week ago, but Bartleby still managed to wake him at night by scratching at the door or pushing coins off the kitchen counter one by one. "You're driving me crazy, Bartleby."
The apartment had a small storage room where Bartleby's litter box was kept. That night before bed Yuri carried Bartleby to the room, set him down by the litter box, said goodnight and pulled the door closed as he left the room.
"Sorry, Bartleby," he said.
Yuri slipped in and out of consciousness all night, the pathetic meowing of Bartleby growing and waning, dream-Yuri wielding a scythe at one point with which he trimmed a field of undulating Siamese cat tails. It was awful. Each tail snapped like a stalk of celery but would not separate cleanly. Dream-Yuri tugged on furry, squirming snakes.
"Enough!" Yuri aborted the dream. He woke and pushed the covers off his sweat-slick body. He let Bartleby out of the storage room and went to the kitchen to make a pot of coffee. It was 4 am. Bartleby glared at him with lowered tail.
That day at work Yuri logged in to his client's web server. He clicked at random through directories on the server until he came across a file that he thought shouldn't have been there. It had not been flagged by any security scan, but when he examined its code, he determined that it was indeed a rootkit. He panicked and searched the logs again. The rootkit code made it easy to see how it worked, and if it had been used the traces should have been easy to find now that he knew what he was looking for, but for three hours he searched and found nothing. How long had it been there? A hacker may have left it there and lost track of it, or a security patch somewhere along the line may have rendered it useless.
Yuri deleted the file and drafted an email to his boss about it.
"You look haggard, man," said Stephen.
"I didn't sleep at all last night."
"Brutal. Well, see ya tomorrow."
Yuri was afraid that his boss would make too much of the rogue file. He would tell the clients, who would get in a tizzy, and he would be angry that Yuri had removed it without having a senior engineer look at it first. Yuri deleted the email to his boss and turned off his monitor.
15 minutes later he opened the door to his apartment, and Bartleby dashed out. The cat paused at the top of the stairs to flash Yuri a disdainful look.
Bartleby continued down the stairs as Yuri, cowardly and meek, entered his apartment and shut the door. Outside the apartment, the sense of space was exhilarating. Just by chance when Bartleby got to the front door someone was coming in, and he slipped through their legs out into the street.
Bartleby never came back to Yuri's apartment. He slinked among bushes and garbage cans. He lost five inches from the end of his tail when it got caught between the slats of a fence. He ate moths and slugs and chased chipmunks with the pleasure and fury of a demon from hell. And when he caught a mouse he crunched its little bones. He slept in a nook, filthy and happy.
Meanwhile dream-Yuri flew over a silvery river. Often his flight was bothered by annoying glitches, such as the inability to accelerate or to turn, or the gradual loss of altitude. But sometimes he felt in complete control. He swerved around spires and treetops, winked at storks and sat nonchalantly on the wings of airplanes. And like a line of chalk in the rain his path was erased behind him, disregarded, unrecorded and unremarked by Yuri's waking mind.
Yuri's life was back on track.
It was never an accident slipping through the fence into the rock quarry. We’d gone since we were kids, and it’s all we knew, afternoons devoted to jogs across jagged paths under a sweltering sun. We would stay until that sun kissed the horizon goodnight, waving goodbye in a kaleidoscope of phantasmal colors, ones we always saw as perfect. Reds. Purples. Blue.
Across dehydrated fields, past starving canyons, we journeyed miles into a world of dynamite that carved itself deeper into the earth’s crust with every passing day. The people who worked there, they never saw us and we never saw them, but they were there, cockroaches crawling along tree trunks, camouflaged flesh against flesh. One day though, this day was different. When we climbed into a field freshly planted with red sparklers and yards-long fuses, we discovered the core of the dynamite community.
Miles into the wild thicket of our secret place, we found a shed. It had peeling blue paint and a boarded roof. We were in a horror movie, and it was funny. You go, we taunted. You go into it, and then we went into it together, dreaming of monsters with a dozen arms but no face, of coyotes and snakes longer than fuses coiled around treasure. We went into it together, and we found a deer carcass ripped in half, bones protruding like Popsicle sticks. We found torn flesh tossed around the room like wrapping paper as blood spatters marked the landing of confetti. We found it, a mutilated display of colors, ones we always saw as deceptive. Reds and purples and blue.
What do you do in a situation like this, we asked, because it wasn’t human, but it still felt like murder. We left the shed, and then we saw them, a group, eyes illuminated by the dying light of the sun. They told us to run, and we did, galloping through the longest graveyard we had ever seen, swearing every turn had another skeleton. We slipped through a gap in the fence that seemed to seal itself behind us. We never went back again.
flash fiction by Katherine Hill
poetry by Peter Grandbois
I wake and I am an un-knowing,
two people at once each un-reconciled.
Will I un-done be swallowed by mad song
fearful of birds and the way they shake fire
off their wings at dawn? Or, un-stitched by rain
will I bloom to sky like a trout leaping
through un-bidden air? Will I un-thought
dissolve into ground a derelict holding
in his fat belly hunkering down
until un-sought by medusa night?
Or, un-handed by my life’s splintered wood
is it possible to float far above
this axe-hacked weather? It’s un-clear what skin
binds us to this darkened field and why only
with an un-lit candle can we even dream.
of walking across.
There is No One
to Write This
microfiction by Lucia Damacela
Looking the same to her treated eyes, Reena took the untreated umbrella by mistake. Enveloped by the silence of the early morning, before rush hour hit the sidewalk, she headed North towards a nondescript undisclosed location. When she found out about the umbrella, it was raining too hard for her to care. The few pedestrians around wondered where that lonely midair-suspended umbrella was going.
In the back of the limousine Brevon played a game by himself. He pretended he was a prince on his way to the theater, or perhaps his summer palace. Was the car a carriage? A coach? A chariot? He tapped the play button on his screen. Chariot was best, though probably wrong. He pictured horses galloping, gold plated armor, and nowhere to sit. Snug in the back of the limo Brevon accepted carriage and stared at the back of Ander’s head. The driver wore a uniform, which Brevon liked. The word livery popped into his head and made Brevon smile.
The traffic was especially heavy today. Already an hour had passed since Ander had picked him up from school and they still had not reached the freeway that would speed them to Brevon’s home in Haven Estates. Summer palace, he reminded himself. Like summer palaces everywhere, there would be nothing to do once they got there. His parents (meaning the king and queen) would be absent, and by order of the monarchs his screen would be taken from him. He would be told to play, but make believe was harder at home than anywhere else.
The carriage crept along the road like a boat caught in an eddy. Brevon had been on the screen a long time, and it was nearly out of battery. It had not been charged the night before, and Brevon wondered whose fault that was. The queen, his mother, often did this for him, but it couldn’t be her fault. It must be a servant that was to blame, a chambermaid. Chandra’s face appeared in his mind, and Brevon wrinkled his nose. He didn’t like Chandra. If he blamed her she was likely to put her hands on her hips and tell him to charge the screen himself. She would not play her part in any of his games, and Brevon avoided her when he could.
From experience Brevon knew the screen would die soon. Ander could charge it in the front seat, but then he would have nothing to play with. Brevon was thinking this sad thought when the screen went dark. He sighed and kicked the back of the driver’s seat in frustration. “Ander,” he said, “Charge this.”
Ander did not reply or turn his head. He reached back with one huge hand and took the device. Brevon was in awe of Ander. The man did what he was told, and in that way he played Brevon’s games without knowing. But Ander was big and strong and possibly a knight, and Brevon didn’t know all that he was capable of.
They were nearly under the highway overpass now. The on-ramp was only a few hundred yards ahead. Cars were not moving, and there was no telling how long it would take to reach the ramp, or if traffic on the freeway was any better than this. The screen had died only a minute ago and already Brevon was bored. He stared out the window and watched the people on the crowded roadside. The scene made for a good game, Brevon decided. A woman wrapped from head to toe in purple cloth sold beer and soda from a shopping cart. People gave her coins and she slipped them into a purse hidden in the folds of her dress. He decided the drinks were potions, something to give players extra life. With the tokens she gathered, the woman was preparing to advance to the next level.
Closer to the bridge two boys played, or maybe fought. They were bigger than Brevon, but only by a little. They were squires, training to be knights. One brandished a splintered board and the other lashed at him with a coil of rubber hose. The one with the board was the hero, Brevon decided. His friend had betrayed him and now must die. He hit the betrayer with his broken sword and a trickle of blood dripped down the other boy’s arm.
The car inched forward. Light fell on the overpass and cut an acute angle into the space beneath. Brevon could not see anything in the dark, but in the light men had begun to run, some toward and some away from the shadow. Brevon decided there was a monster there, and that villagers were running away from it and warriors were running toward it. The warriors would conquer it in battle and protect the villagers. The carriage was moving so slowly Brevon had time to imagine the monster, a red-winged beast that crouched on the shoulder, its three heads swaying on snake-like necks, eating anything that tried to pass. It ripped open cars on their way to the exit ramp, devouring the people inside.
When they at last crossed the line from light to shadow Brevon could see what was happening. He had his face pressed to the glass, half expecting the monster. A crowd had gathered around a man whose arms were bound with garden hose. He writhed, trying to free himself, but he was standing in an empty oil drum, held there by others, and he could not use his legs to help himself. Overhead, the crowd passed gasoline canisters, and the ones who stood closest to the captive poured the fuel over his head. Brevon knew what would happen next. Someone was going to set the man on fire.
“Don’t you look at that,” Ander said. He had turned around, taking his eyes off the road, where nothing moved. “You’ll go blind if you look at that.”
Brevon had never seen Ander’s eyes like this before. They were bright with fury and fear. He did not know if those feelings were about him, or about what was happening outside. Brevon curled himself into a tight ball in the back seat, in case Ander tried to reach him with his hand. “He’s an evil wizard,” Brevon whispered, starting a new story.
Suddenly, in the darkness under the bridge, a bright light flamed. They had set the man on fire. He twisted in the flames, his mouth an open scream. Two men on either side pushed at the victim with lengths of pipe to keep him upright while the flames consumed him.
Ander reached for Brevon. He had to put the car in park and lean over the back seat. Brevon expected a slap, though Ander had never hit him before. Instead the driver hoisted him by the arm and pulled him into the front seat. He held Brevon down and pressed the boy’s head against his thigh with one enormous hand.
Brevon had seen the man begin to melt. Or was it the hose? He had seen his hair explode in a fiery halo the moment the flames touched it. There were a few seconds at the start of the immolation when the flames were so bright he couldn’t see what was burning. Like paper thrown on a fire, the man’s clothing burned brightly for a moment and then disappeared. It took longer for the flesh to ignite, and in the seconds before Ander was able to tear him away, Brevon watched the man’s skin as it caught fire. His flesh broke open, melted, turned to a black slurry of combustion.
Beneath his cheek he felt Ander’s thigh quiver, the muscles twitching as if he were sprinting across a hot plain. Brevon was a prince and Ander, his magical guardian, had spirited him away from a dangerous wizard. Now Brevon understood why he had always been in awe of Ander; the knight had the power of changing. Ander had become a great black steed, a winged stallion as big as a house. Brevon forgot that the car was not moving, that Ander’s hand continued to press him down. Far away, the wizard vanished in a veil of thick black smoke. Evil incantations carried sooty particles aloft, and the prince, his face pressed to the muscled withers of his Pegasus, felt the wicked tendrils of the wizard, searching for him. The tunnel under the bridge filled with smoke and the smell of burning filled the car. Brevon buried his nose in the collar of his shirt and tried not to smell the toxic fumes of rubber, wood, and flesh smoldering a few feet away. He closed his eyes as tight as he could and let Ander bear him higher and farther into the starry sky.
When at last they reached the freeway the road was empty and Ander rolled down the windows to clear the air. Like smoke from a campfire, the smell had settled in their clothes and the fabric of the car seats. Ander took his hand from Brevon’s head. He didn’t move; Brevon didn’t want to upset the power of his story. Ander nudged him. “Sit up,” he said. “Put your seatbelt on.”
Brevon did as he was told. Wordlessly, Ander handed him the screen. It wasn’t fully charged, but because it was still tethered to the cord, that didn’t matter; Brevon could play as long as he liked. They could drive all across the world, and as long as the engine was running the battery would never die and Brevon could play and play. It wasn’t the same as being a prince on a flying horse, but it was easier. Brevon opened a game called Hidden Gems, a baby game he played when he was little but still liked. He knew all the hiding spots and he clicked on them one after another. Pink and gold and emerald jewels appeared on the screen.
When they arrived home, at the summer palace, Ander parked the car and got out. Brevon was supposed to get out too, but today he was sitting in the front seat and he didn’t care. He was a prince, a dark wizard had chased him, and he would do as he pleased. Brevon clicked on gem after gem and stayed where he was. Ander went to the door where Chandra met him. They talked, and all the time she looked over Ander’s shoulder at Brevon.
Chandra came and opened the car door. She looked down at Brevon with a strange expression. He wondered if she might play his game at last, but he did not expect so. “Time to get out of the car,” Chandra said. “You need a bath. Come.” She held out her hand in a way Brevon didn’t know how to refuse.
Brevon could not hold the screen in the bath, and he missed it. There were toys in the tub, rubber sharks and frogs, and he pushed them with his fingertips and watched them bob aimlessly on the surface. Below, his legs rippled from the effect of the wavelets. It reminded him of the burning man, how the air around him rippled as it grew hot. He thought of the man’s legs standing in the barrel. They were like his, except instead of being surrounded by water, they were surrounded by fire. Brevon slid down in the tub until his head was under water. He held his breath as long as he could and stared up through the surface, where everything on the other side appeared tiny and far away.
Chandra took him from the bath and dried him with a towel. She dressed him in cotton shorts and a tee shirt – sleeping clothes. It felt good being in Chandra’s hands because she knew what she was doing and was never unsure, but there was little kindness in her touch. He wanted his mother to come home, and his father too. They were away and they wouldn’t be home until long past Brevon’s bedtime. Except Ander had called and told them what happened and Chandra said they would be home as soon as they could. She told Brevon to be a good boy and she would make him supper.
She didn’t give him his screen, though. All he wanted was a game, even a baby game like the alphabet ducks you had to line up to make words. But Chandra said, “Enough of that. Those games won’t do you any good. It’s time you start to think for yourself.” She took the screen with her and left him alone.
Brevon remembered that he was a prince. He took the blanket from his bed and draped it over his shoulders like a cape. Then he marched in a regal manner down the hall to his parents’ bedroom. Their closet was his favorite place, and Brevon liked to pretend his bed was under his mother’s dresses, the hems fluttering like curtains just overhead. He played office on his daddy’s side, perched on a suitcase, surrounded by the business smell of shoes. Light filtered in from the bedroom and Brevon looked at himself in the full-length mirror: a skinny white boy with tussled wet hair, almost eight years old. No, he reminded himself: he was a prince. A prince in hiding. He sat on the floor and draped the blanket over himself, like a little mound of dirty laundry in the middle of his parents’ spotless closet.
He was enjoying his prince-ness. He stayed under the blanket and counted his breaths, the moist warmth of his exhalations tingling his cheek. He mustn’t move or make a sound. If the enemy discovered him he would be tortured, possibly burned alive. When he heard footsteps on the stairs, his heart pounded with real fear. He reminded himself he was playing a game. Beneath the blanket Brevon grinned; the games he played were rarely this much fun.
His parents came in the room. They were talking. The queen said, “I just want to leave. I hate this place. That Brev should see something like that…”
“Hold on. Don’t tell me you hate it here. Last week you were telling me how much you liked it – a private beach, a tennis club, your own driver. There is nowhere else in the world we could live like this.”
“But we live in a cage. I can’t take a step outside the Haven or the places Ander drives me without being mugged or raped or killed.”
“Why would you want to step outside? You know what’s out there. Anyway, it’s not that bad. Don’t exaggerate.”
“Don’t exaggerate? My son saw a man burned alive today.”
“I know, that was horrible, but it was between locals. That guy probably cheated someone, or slept with someone’s wife. It was retribution. Nothing like that could happen to us.”
Brevon liked that his parents were talking about him. He even liked that they were talking about what he’d seen under the bridge. Retribution – he said the word silently, holding it in his mouth. He did not know what it meant, but he liked it.
“All I’m saying,” the king continued, “is that if we can hold on for two more years we’ll be able to write our own ticket. Two more years and we’ll go. Then you and I will be able to do whatever we want and Brevon will have the best of everything.”
“Oh!” the queen exclaimed. She had opened the door to the closet and discovered the mound in the middle of the floor that was Brevon under a blanket. “Sweetie,” she said, “What are you doing here? Let mommy and daddy finish getting dressed. Go to the kitchen and Chandra will give you something to eat. We’ll be down in a minute.”
Suddenly Brevon realized how hungry he was. He left the closet without complaint and made his way to the kitchen. Chandra was at the stove, her back to him, and he slid silently onto a chair. She knew he was there; there was no sneaking around Chandra. She looked over her shoulder and said, “Are you hungry?”
Chandra put a bowl of rice topped with chicken and vegetables in front of him. It was her country food, what she made for herself and Ander and the other servants. Brevon had never tasted it before. He blew on the spoon until the stew was cool enough. The flavor of Chandra’s food exploded in his mouth. It had spices Brevon had never known, but mostly what he tasted was the hot pepper. His eyes and ears and nose began to weep, and his tongue felt pricked with needles. He took another bite and tasted something earthy and sweet behind the heat. Brevon wiggled his toes with pleasure. He finished what was in the bowl and Chandra looked at him with something that might have been approval. “You want more?” she asked.
Before Chandra could give him more of the stew, his parents came in. “Don’t feed him that,” the queen said. “It will give him diarrhea.”
“Prince Brevon,” his daddy said, playing the game, “let’s walk down to the beach and watch the sun set.”
The streets in Haven Estates curved gently, as if following natural features of the land. It was a pleasing illusion. Brevon lived on Drake Street. Where it intersected with Livingstone they turned left toward the ocean, just three blocks away. He walked between his parents and took each of them by the hand. This pleased them, as Brevon had known it would.
Livingstone Street ended at the promenade, a short boardwalk of changing stalls and showers. At either end of the promenade the cinderblock walls that enclosed Haven Estates extended across the sand and out into the ocean another twenty yards. Brevon had come to the beach many times, but always early in the day for swimming, when a lifeguard was on the stand, keeping an eye out for rip currents and sharks. The lifeguard was gone, but the security guard remained, sitting in his little booth in the center of the promenade. Months ago when Brevon had first decided to be a prince, his father had explained that the guard’s job was to make sure no one from outside the Estates tried to slip past the sea wall. Brevon was skeptical; with a machine gun cradled in his arms and grenades tied to his belt, it made more sense that the man was here to protect them from monsters.
Brevon and his parents stood on the sand and watched the last red finger of the sun slip beneath the horizon. The sky was a riot of pink and orange. “Red sky at night, a sailor’s delight,” The queen murmured. Brevon had heard her say these words before. She loved pretty things. In the red light the faces of the waves were purple-black. Brevon searched the dark water for the fins of sharks, the humped scales of serpents.
“Brev, do you want to talk about what happened today?” the king asked.
Brevon shook his head.
“That’s okay. We don’t need to talk. Let’s just stand here and enjoy the sunset.”
They stood there a long time, until all the bright colors left the sky. Brevon’s parents began to talk of things. They talked of the party they would host next weekend, what they would serve. They talked of where to go on vacation over the holidays. They talked quietly over Brevon’s head, and he concentrated on the darkening sky.
He loved this time of day, when the last light of the setting sun lit the horizon in a band of translucent green, almost blue, but not quite. It lasted only the briefest moment, and Brevon suspected it was full of magic. Perhaps if he made a wish while the sky was green the wish would come true. With his arms raised aloft, still holding his parents’ hands, he felt like a bird, or a kite. He wished he could fly up into the air, over the ocean waves. He would look down on the Haven and the highways and the rage. He would turn his back on all of it and follow the sun, follow it across the world as it spun away. He would follow it and follow it until the world became the way he wished. Brevon closed his eyes, squeezed his parents’ hands, and imagined what he wanted.
short fiction by Jennifer Lee
flash fiction by Jeff Fleischer
“The Flahertys have more than us,” we often complained. Their house was conspicuously bigger than ours. They had a boat and four cars. They regularly asked us to watch the house while they took elaborate vacations. True, they had more than us, but at least our child was still alive.
How the Other Half Lives
I'll sleep when I'm dead
Cuz’ I'll still have my white noise machine
To give me sweet dreams
Over the noise of the harps
Or the screams of the damned
And I was never a good poet
Per my Wikipedia page.
poetry by Charlie Monte Verde
No Good Deed Goes Unpunished
short fiction by Lenny Levine
It was a bottle of Dom Perignon in a gift box, with a thank-you note attached. As soon as George Frazier saw it on his doorstep, he knew who had left it. Katherine McGill, the elderly woman in the condo unit next door.
Yesterday morning he’d happened to look out the window, and he saw her standing in the driveway next to her Toyota. She was distraught and wringing her hands, looking at the right front tire, which was as flat as a proverbial pancake.
He’d opened his window and called out to her. “Do you need any help? Do you want me to call AAA for you?”
“I don’t have AAA,” she said, practically in tears. “And I’m late for a doctor’s appointment.”
Well, he certainly didn’t have anything better to do, did he? So, he went out there and changed the tire for her. And now, this.
Of course, she didn’t realize what she’d done. In the six months he’d been living there, they’d exchanged only neighborly pleasantries. She knew nothing about him.
He carefully lifted the bottle out of its box, aware of the quality of the champagne, imagining its smoothness as it glided down, warming his insides. He could almost feel the glow that would envelop him, devour him.
He knew he had to pour it down the sink right now. Or call Frank, his sponsor. Or both. But he could do neither.
He put it in the refrigerator, then stared at the closed door. If he was going to ruin two years of sobriety, it sure wouldn’t be with warm champagne.
Is that what he was about to do?
It would take around twenty minutes before the bottle was chilled. He hadn’t drunk it yet, had he? Damn right, he hadn’t!
Then why couldn’t he stop staring at the refrigerator?
He tore his eyes away, stumbled into the bedroom and threw himself onto the bed. “Sylvia,” he moaned, clutching the pillow, “I miss you so much. What am I going to do?”
It had been three years (three years, two months, and five days, to be exact) since she died. He hardly remembered the first year. Too many blackouts. He did remember his son and daughter, telling him that if he didn’t get help, they were through with him.
Then one day, he woke up in an alley, badly beaten, his wallet gone, and that’s what did it.
After a year of Alcoholics Anonymous, several meetings a day, he’d found a sponsor in Frank Cutler, a fellow middle-aged widower. He’d never relapsed, not a single time.
Again, he considered calling Frank. He also remembered the noon meeting at St. Mary’s, just a block away. But he couldn’t move. All he could think of was that bottle in the refrigerator. How long had it been since he put it in there? Maybe he should lower the temperature so it would chill faster.
A sob burst from his throat. He pushed himself off the bed and staggered back into the kitchen. Screw it! Screw it! Screw it! his mind screamed, like a mantra.
He tore open the refrigerator, pulled out the bottle, and popped the cork. The bubbly liquid spewed out, running down his arm onto the floor as, with a final sob, he raised the bottle to his lips.
Then the doorbell rang.
Frank Cutler settled into the chair, mindful of the cast on his left arm, and looked sheepishly at his therapist.
“Don’t ask,” he said to her.
“Well, you know I have to,” said Dr. Clara Weinstock.
“It was such a stupid accident.”
“They always are. Why don’t you tell me about it?”
Frank sighed. “This morning I was on my way to an A.A. meeting, and I decided to check in on the guy I sponsor to see if he wanted to come with me. I’m not going to tell you his name.”
“That’s all right, you don’t have to.”
“He’d been sober for two years, but something made me think he was in trouble; I get feelings like that sometimes. So, I rang his doorbell.”
Frank adjusted the position of his arm and winced.
“As soon as he opened the door, I knew something wasn’t right. He looked like he’d been crying, and I thought I smelled champagne, just a whiff. I asked him what was going on, and he said, ‘Nothing.’ He told me he was just about to leave for the meeting.
“I said that was bullshit and went into the kitchen. The champagne smell was stronger in there. In fact, there was a puddle of it on the floor.
“So, I opened the refrigerator, and there’s the bottle. And that’s when he really lost it. ‘Get out!’ he started yelling at me. ‘Get the hell out of here! Leave me alone!’
“Well, there’s no way that was going to happen. I pulled the bottle out of the refrigerator and started emptying it in the sink.
“Then everything seemed to go out of him. He sat down at the table and buried his head in his hands. He said, ‘We used to drink Dom Perignon every New Year’s Eve.’
“I asked him if he’d had any yet, and he said no, because the doorbell rang. But he would’ve drained the bottle for sure if I hadn’t shown up just at that moment. ‘God, Frank,’ he said, ‘you saved my life!’ Then he jumped up and gave me a huge bear hug.
“I wasn’t ready for it. It knocked me backward, and we both went lurching across the kitchen. I almost regained my balance, but my foot slipped in that stupid puddle of champagne on the floor and I went down hard, with him on top of me. He was okay, but I landed smack on my elbow.”
He gave Dr. Weinstock another sheepish look. “All part of being a sponsor, I suppose.”
She nodded sympathetically.
At the end of the session, he gave her a check for $800, payment for the past month. “Would you do me a favor?” he asked. “I’m right on the edge of my checking balance, and this could bounce, unless you wait three days to deposit it. Would you do that? I know I shouldn’t ask, I’m sorry.”
“No, no, don’t worry about it,” Clara Weinstock said. “It’s no problem at all.”
The next morning, as she combined the checks and filled out a deposit slip, Clara’s mind was elsewhere. One of her patients had made specific threats against his ex-wife during a session yesterday, and it bothered her. She had to decide if the situation was serious enough to violate confidentiality and call the police.
Andy Weinstock, her husband of twenty-three years, came into the room and gave her a peck on the cheek. “Do you want me to deposit those for you?” he offered. “I’m going right past the bank.”
“Yes, would you?” she said distractedly, still agonizing over her patient’s ex-wife and whether or not she was in danger.
It wasn’t until he was out the door that she remembered Frank Cutler’s check. “Shit!” she exclaimed, picking up her cell phone to call Andy and tell him not to make the deposit.
But, once again, he’d forgotten his phone. She could hear it ringing in the next room.
“Shit!” she exclaimed again, getting up from her desk and bolting from the apartment. He’d just left. Maybe she could catch him.
One of the two elevators was right there, fortunately, and in less than a minute, she was hustling through the lobby, past the doorman, and out onto Central Park West. The subway entrance was across the street. She caught a glimpse of her husband, just as he was about to go down the steps.
“Andy, wait!” she cried as she stepped off the curb, not hearing the squeal of tires until it was too late.
Rodrigo Gonzalez, the building’s doorman, was at his concierge station. He had his wallet open and was checking to see if he could change a twenty for Mr. Avadon from 4F, when Dr. Weinstock from 7C rushed by him and out onto the street. Immediately, he heard the squealing sound followed by a sickening thud.
“Dios mio!” he cried out, dropping his wallet on the concierge stand and rushing outside, closely followed by Mr. Avadon.
Clara lay on her back just a few feet from the taxi that hit her. Rodrigo had his cell phone out even before he got to her.
“Stay still, Dr. Weinstock,” he told her as she looked up at him dazedly. “I’m calling 911 right now.”
“My leg,” she moaned.
“It’s okay, it’s okay,” he said as he took off his doorman’s cap and placed it beneath her head like a pillow. He gave the 911 operator the address and details as Andy, who’d seen the whole thing from across the street, was anxiously arriving.
“Clara,” he said as he bent down and took her hand, “what happened?”
“Don’t worry, the ambulance is on its way,” Rodrigo told them.
“I think my leg is broken.”
“I’m here,” Andy said. “Just stay calm.”
“This is so ridiculous.”
“Shh. Try not to move.”
A small crowd was gathering on the sidewalk. From a block away, a siren could be heard.
“There’s the ambulance now,” said Mr. Avadon, over Andy’s shoulder.
A few minutes later, as the EMS workers loaded Clara inside with Andy about to ride along, he wanted to thank Rodrigo.
“You were great,” he told him. “We owe you so much.”
“Not at all. The important thing is for Dr. Weinstock to be okay.”
“Well, we thank you,” Andy said, climbing into the ambulance.
“No need to,” Rodrigo called after him as he turned back to the lobby.
At his concierge stand he discovered that the wallet he’d dropped there had been stolen.
Twelve-year-old Judy Terwilliger and her fifteen-year-old brother Chris lived in Apartment 1B, just off the lobby. Both their parents routinely left early for work, so the kids were on their own as far as making breakfast and getting off to school. Chris usually left about ten minutes before his sister.
He’d just gone, and Judy was busily getting her books together, when the door opened and Chris burst back into the apartment.
“What’s the matter?” she asked.
“I just need to put something in my room.”
“What are you talking about?”
She noticed he was carrying what looked like a wallet.
“Where did you get that? Whose is it?” She followed him down the hallway.
“I think it’s Rodrigo’s. I saw it lying on his stand. There was some sort of accident in front of the building and everyone was outside. He must have left it there.”
“So, you just stole it?”
“No, I just borrowed it. If we wait a couple of days, I’ll bet there’ll be a reward. Especially if we return it with the cash still inside.” He opened the wallet and took a look, letting out a low whistle. “Boy, there must be a couple hundred bucks in here. Maybe we should just keep it.”
“Are you nuts?”
“I’ve gotta get to school.” He slipped the wallet under his mattress. “You’d better not tell anyone, Judy, or I swear I’ll kill you.”
With that, he left the apartment.
All day in class, she couldn’t get it out of her mind. This wasn’t just a stupid prank, this was robbery. Chris could go to jail! Well, maybe juvenile prison because he was fifteen, but still, jail! He’d have a criminal record!
She had to do something. Luckily, her school was letting out early today because of a teachers’ conference, so this was one of the rare times when she’d get home before he did. She was going to return that wallet. She didn’t care how pissed off Chris would be. Sometimes she felt like she was the older sibling, certainly the more mature one.
As she rode home on the subway, Judy thought about the story she’d have to concoct. She’d say she found it on the street someplace. She was such a poor liar; she didn’t know if she could carry it off.
Her mind in a whirl, she arrived at the building. Rodrigo was no longer on duty, replaced by Dominic, the afternoon doorman. This didn’t make it any easier for her. Rodrigo had always been friendly; Dominic was more formal and reserved. He was at his concierge station, talking to Peter McGill, their next-door neighbor from 1A.
This also didn’t make it any easier. Peter McGill was a grouch. He was always complaining about how he could hear their TV through the wall, how Chris’s music was too loud, how he’d once almost tripped over Judy’s skates when she’d left them in the hall for a minute.
She hustled past them into the apartment. In Chris’s room she pulled out the wallet from beneath the mattress. Then she took several deep breaths and stepped back out into the lobby.
“I hope my mother’s okay,” Peter McGill was saying to Dominic. “She’s ten minutes late.”
“She’s probably stuck in traffic,” Dominic offered.
“Well, she’s getting on in years, so I worry.”
“Excuse me,” said Judy, holding out the wallet to Dominic. “I found this on the street. I think it belongs to Rodrigo.”
Peter McGill looked at her like she was a specimen on a slide.
“Really,” he said, glowering through his rimless glasses. “We were just wondering what kind of person would steal a man’s wallet while he was helping someone, and now here you are.”
“No, no!” It was so unexpected, it made her gasp. “I didn’t steal it. I found it in the street, just now.” Her voice was trembling. She realized how lame she sounded.
“Where did you find it?” asked Dominic as he took it from her.
“It was under a car,” she said, trying to remember what she’d decided to say. “I was on my way home from school, and I was just around the corner, when a car pulled out of a parking spot and I saw it in the gutter next to the curb.”
“Is that so?” Peter McGill’s eyes narrowed. “Then why didn’t you give it to Dominic as soon as you came in? Why did you rush past us and go inside your apartment?”
“I…uh…had to go to the bathroom,” she stammered.
He gave one of the cruelest chuckles she’d ever heard. “Yeah, I’ll bet. You’re a little thief, that’s what I think you are. You lost your nerve after you stole it, and now you’re trying to lie your way out of it.”
"No, no!” She was starting to cry now. “I found it in the street. That’s the truth!”
“I don’t think so, missy. I think you’re in big trouble.”
“What’s going on here?”
An elderly woman had appeared in the doorway. Peter McGill pulled his death-ray stare from Judy and went over to her, taking her by the hands.
“Mother,” he said, “you’re late. I was worried about you.”
“Why is that girl crying?” Mrs. McGill asked, looking past him.
“They said I stole a wallet!” Judy sobbed. “But I didn’t! I found it! Look inside, the money is still there!”
“Is it?” said Mrs. McGill.
Dominic opened the wallet and checked. “Seems to be.”
“Well, even if she had a guilty conscience and returned the money,” Peter McGill said, “she still could’ve stolen it.”
“Peter!” his mother admonished him. She bent down and looked Judy in the eye. “Did you steal this wallet?”
Judy’s gaze never wavered because, now, she was telling the truth.
“No, I didn’t,” she said firmly.
Mrs. McGill looked at her for another moment, then straightened up. “Well, I believe you,” she said. She gave her son a stern look.
“This girl should be thanked for her honesty, not accused of being a criminal. One thing about you, Peter, you’ve always doubted the goodness in human nature. I don’t know who you got it from, but certainly not me.”
“Okay, Mother, that’s fine,” he said, trying to lead her away toward his apartment.
“Why, just the other day,” she said, pausing, “I had a flat tire on my car and I was late for a doctor’s appointment. I was frantic. My next-door neighbor, who hardly knew me at all, saw that I was in trouble and interrupted his breakfast, just to come downstairs and help me. If he hadn’t changed that tire, I don’t know what would have happened.”
“See, Mother?” Peter said, again trying to move her in the direction of the apartment, “I always told you to get AAA.”
“No, Peter, that’s not the point.”
She stopped again as Judy stared at this woman, her guardian angel, almost with reverence.
“The point is that people are naturally good inside, if you give them the chance. And one good turn deserves another. I left an expensive bottle of champagne on his doorstep to show my gratitude.”
“Oh, Mother, you didn’t! You know you can’t afford—”
“It doesn’t matter. It makes me feel good to know he’s enjoying that bottle of champagne.” She turned, on her own this time, toward her son’s apartment.
“So, let that be the end of it.”
“Sugar plum! What are your birthday wishes?!”
“What’s the matter? You want to talk?”
“Please, kill Julia.”
“Dad isn’t here if you want to call.”
Before I answered I had to Google whether I was bemused with myself of amused with myself. Turns out I was both. I stared at the ceiling and sang “bemused, befuddled, and bewildereeeeedddd,” while putting my hand directly in front of the places my cat was cleaning so he would hit my skin instead of his tummy. “I’m fine. I just hate my job and my brain. I don’t know what I want for my birthday. I haven’t thought about it enough. I am interested in Kung Fu, but I know I won’t go and it will be a waste of your money. I only have one pair of shoes left. I would like someone to tear down both my kitchen and my bathroom and build new ones.The ceiling is collapsing, the toilet is broken, every cabinet door has fallen to the ground. I would like to take one year off of work. I know I’ve been asking for that one a long time now. Actually, Will you buy my story for $60,000 non tax deductible dollars? I would like my legs to look less like a meth addicts legs. Is this enough?”
“Shoes are so important! I am all for good shoes!”
It’s true about my legs. It started as eczema or contact dermitius, the same thing that plagued my face, my beautiful face, a few years back. Unable to find to my insurance card, I opted for just scratching to shit out of my shins. Now they look like I have been eaten alive by bed bugs. I appreciate it though, because I often want people to mistake me for a zombie. My boyfriend is gone for the night. Visiting family Upstate. I am left alone to stare at the pictures he left up of him and his old girlfriends on Facebook. I have to. Otherwise, the pain in my chest would no longer be attributed to anything tangible, which means it is nebulous, which means I just suffer, which means the problem isn’t everyone else. You ever feel like you would just do anything to release the thoughts your brain relies on to make you feel any sort of anything every day? I picture, sometimes, sliding a philips head directly into my right temple.
Self Care: Avoid alcohol; reduce caffeine; increase exercise; quit smoking; meditate; manage your stress.
Or: Xanax, Clonopin, Ativan, Serax, bla bla bla. Quit smoking, quit drinking, take these. Kill Julia. I can’t sleep without him here. I’ve slept alone for years, but this place is different. It is still foreign, even though it is my home. I know there are still things that are hiding from me here. Like being in your parent’s room; it’s a part your home, but you’re not allowed to look too deeply. She is here. I know she is. And so is the other one. They live in photos and t-shirts, DVD’s, CD’s, journal entries, and books. Mine didn’t come with me. They never came close. There is always a song stuck in my head and Kallana asks me to share it with her every afternoon. One day I could hear it, but when I started to pay attention to what it was, the song disappeared. We sat eating our lunch with the rest of the office while I tried so hard to find the title, using my left hand to draw on her palm; an action she suggested I try to reduce my anxiety. She is the only person I want to make happy, because I am so terrified that she will never be. And I don’t want anyone to end up like me. The office was bright and everyone was talking at once. The self importance sticky in the air. I used to try and fight it when I thought perhaps my words made a difference until I realized that thinking my words made a difference made me the same person as the people I hate. Kill Julia.
At 3 p.m. the couch has claimed me for the day. I pour my wine and watch as the wind pushes leaves through our living room window. My hands smell like a homeless person’s underpants, but to wash them will be to let go of something and I don’t ever do that. Not until I figure out where the smell came from. I’m not sure if the pills are working, but the cream is and my legs are breathing for the first time. Healing from the outside in. The bar was warm, but I felt cagey. Self protection in my every step, my body is strapped with explosives. They were talking as I sat down at the bar, but it didn’t take him long to notice me there. “Who’s the blonde?”
“Some girl. It’s her birthday!”
I watched as the country burned and my fear and disappointment set in as Trump’s numbers soared. In the corner of my eye I could see them, but my pain was distracted. I watched as she called out his name, as she pawed at his shoulders, as he turned and hugged her again and again. I sat and I watched. The world started a war with me when I was born and I haven’t won a battle yet. But still, it won’t let me go. It won’t just kill Julia.
creative non-fiction by Julia Porter Howe
Lucía Damacela’s work has appeared in venues such as Erbacce, Slippery Elm, Into the Void, and Duende. One of her poems won first prize at the Wisehouse International Poetry Award 2016. Born in Ecuador, Lucía currently lives in Singapore with her family, blogs at notesfromlucia and tweets as @lucyda.
Jeff Fleischer is a Chicago-based author, journalist and editor. His fiction has appeared in more than a dozen publications including the Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row Journal, Shenandoah, the Saturday Evening Post, Steam Ticket, Pioneertown and Crossborder Journal. He is also the author of non-fiction books including “Votes of Confidence: A Young Person’s Guide to American Elections” (Zest Books, 2016), “Rockin’ the Boat: 50 Iconic Revolutionaries” (Zest Books, 2015), and “The Latest Craze: A Short History of Mass Hysterias” (Fall River Press, 2011). He is a veteran journalist published in Mother Jones, the New Republic, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Magazine, Mental_Floss, National Geographic Traveler and dozens of other local, national and international publications.
Peter Grandbois is the author of seven previous books, the most recent of which is, “The Girl on the Swing” (Wordcraft of Oregon, 2015). His poems, stories, and essays have previously appeared in such journals as, The Kenyon Review, The Gettysburg Review, The Denver Quarterly, and Prairie Schooner, among others, and have been shortlisted for both Best American Essays and the Pushcart Prize. His plays have been performed in St. Louis, Columbus, Los Angeles, and New York. He is senior editor at Boulevard magazine and teaches at Denison University in Ohio.
David Hammond lives and dreams in Virginia with his wife and two daughters. His short stories have appeared in Bartleby Snopes, Gravel, Icebox Journal and Vine Leaves Literary Journal. More of his writing can be found at oldshoepress.com.
Katherine Hill is a student at the University of Houston studying Creative Writing.
Julia Porter Howe
Julia Porter Howe is a writer, actress, and musician originally from Long Island, but a happy city dweller for well over a decade. She was the first place recipient of the Sidney Harman Fiction Writing Award in 2013 and has dabbled in screen writing for films Carter and Louise and her Lover, in which she also starred. She has degrees in English and Journalism from Baruch College. One day she will open a café by the sea.
Jennifer Lee is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins MA Writing Program and an editor at the Baltimore Review. Her work has appeared in JMWW, New South, the Bellevue Literary Review, The Greensboro Review, Monkeybicycle, and elsewhere. Her work has won the Maryland Writers’ Association short fiction prize and has been nominated for a Pushcart Award. She is currently hard at work on a looming science fiction project, among other things. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland, where she teaches middle school math and pursues her interests.
Lenny Levine attended Brooklyn College, graduating in 1962 with a BA in Speech and Theater. Immediately thereafter, he forgot about all of that and became a folk singer, then a folk-rock singer and songwriter, and finally a studio singer and composer of many successful jingles, including McDonald’s, Lipton Tea, and Jeep. He has composed songs and sung backup for Billy Joel, Neil Diamond, Peggy Lee, Diana Ross, Barry Manilow, the Pointer Sisters, Carly Simon, and others. In addition, Lenny performed for a number of years with the improvisational comedy group War Babies. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Amarillo Bay, Bitter Oleander, Cairn, The Dirty Goat, Diverse Voices Quarterly, Eleven Eleven, Forge, The Griffin, Hobo Pancakes, The Jabberwock Review, Lowestoft Chronicle, Penmen Review, Rio Grande Review, riverSedge, Rougarou, Verdad, Westview, and Wild Violet. He received a 2011 Pushcart Prize nomination for short fiction.
Charlie Monte Verde
Charlie Monte Verde always wanted to live in one of the ‘big three’ cities, and darn if he didn’t land in the best one. Charlie was raised in Upstate New York before his current five years in Chicago, and honed his writing skills in Mrs. Bonar’s AP English class before he was bumped down to the regular English class. As CultofAmericana.com founder, Charlie cultivates original American art forms. He willingly and fully disappears into art, often at the expense of his reality. He’s currently working on his first based-on-a-true-story novel, The Great Hate, which will be available…hopefully someday. Charlie is also a board member of the Chicago Writers Association, and an associate editor of CWA’s official publication, Write City Magazine.
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