by William L. Alton
TIMES WERE that we would run off to the woods below the house and play in the dump next to the creek. Old refrigerators toppled against dead mattresses. Mason jars and naked tin cans, sharp-edged and wind-polished, pulled holes in our jeans and legs. Blood from the lot of us mixed with the ashes from the burn barrel, chrism to anoint an afternoon’s recklessness.
When heat bled the day white, we found graves back in the woods. On the other side of the creek. Wrapped in brambles thick with berries. Small tombstones rose out of the rotting leaves. Rough concrete squares with odd names, hidden in the shadows of the woods. Faded with weather and age. Rough hewn.
I made up stories of their lives: They killed Pierson Bear because he wouldn’t say sir; Lily Mankiller bled out birthing a son; Joseph Raintree, influenza fell him. More and more. Bird Freeman only lived three years. I imagined they lived close to the land, when there were no roads. I imagined the lives of the folks buried here. I imagined they loved one another. I imagined they didn’t hit each other or yell when the peanut butter ran out.
William L. Alton started writing in the Eighties. Since then his work has appeared in Main Channel Voices, World Audience and Breadcrumb Scabs among others. In 2010, he was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He has published several books. One collection of flash fiction, Girls, two collections of poetry titled Heroes of Silence and Heat Washes Through, a memoir titled My Name is Bill and three novels: Flesh and Bone, Comfortable Madness, and The Tragedy of Being Happy. He earned both his BA and MFA in Creative Writing from Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon.
The Hockey Puck
by Jim Bates
YOU’D THINK after being something cool like a Roman gladiator, or majestic like a golden eagle, shape shifting into a hockey puck would have been a letdown and you might not have been far from wrong. But we shape shifters don’t get to call the shots. Nope, we take what we get and this time I was a hockey puck and that was that, an inanimate object with no heart or soul. It was one of the weirdest experiences I ever had. And one of the best.
It all began when I shifted from my previous life as a blue damsel dragonfly (long story) into a dark space where my first thought was, Man does it ever stink in here! Turned out I was in an equipment bag for the Indianapolis Cougars, a strange name for a hockey team, especially, since to the best of my knowledge, there’d never been a cougar sighted in the state of Indiana ever, and I should know, I’ve been around a long time.
Anyway, I was among a bunch of round rubber discs and asked the one next to me, “What the hell is this?” I was immediately surprised at my vitriol. I’m considered a pretty mellow dude in the shape shifting community and not one ordinarily given to swearing, let alone displays of emotional outbursts. Maybe it was the company I was with.
“You’re a hockey puck in a damn bag, buddy. What? You an idiot?”
I felt a tidal wave of anger surge through me. “Screw you!” I wanted to pound to the puck next to me but couldn’t since I didn’t have any arms. Where was this sudden rage coming from?
Well, I found out pretty quick. Hockey was a rough, pugilistic sport filled with rough, pugilistic players and we hockey pucks were no different. I soon found myself swearing and arguing and trash talking with the rest of the dozen or so pucks in the bag. Not my forte given my usual peace-loving nature, but when in Rome…or an equipment bag full of macho hockey pucks, anyway…you do what you have to do.
So, I adjusted. All the way until the final game of the season, when the rubber met the road, so to speak.
Before that last game I was in a pretty good mood looking forward to the off season, when one of the senior pucks questioned me, “Hey pal. What’s up with you?”
“Why, what’s wrong?”
“Don’t you know?”
He laughed, “You idiot. When the game is over, it’s all over for us, too.”
“What do you mean? Don’t we get a break until the next season?” I was looking forward to some serious down time.
“No, you wingnut. We get hauled off and melted down. Turned into tires or something.”
“What?” I was shocked.
“Yeah, look at yourself.”
I did and saw what he was getting at. I was a chipped up, scared hunk of hard rubber who’d obviously seen better days.
One of the more friendly pucks chimed in, “Yep. Next stop, make-over city.”
It looked like I was going to go out of existence. Man, I wasn’t ready for this. I liked being a hockey puck, aside from getting smacked around and slammed into the boards with what they called a slap-shot, it was kind of fun, and exciting in its own way.
“Can’t we do anything to stop it from happening?”
Suddenly, the bag was picked up and we were being hauled into the arena.
“Nothing. We can’t do anything, just hope for the best,” my friendly companion said.
“It’s show time,” someone else spoke up. “Good luck to everyone.”
Good luck? I didn’t want luck., I just didn’t want to get melted down.
Toward the end of the game I was given to the referee. He dropped me to the ice at what they called a face-off and the players used their sticks to hit me. A guy stepped on me with his skate and cut a deep gash in my already scared body. I really just wanted it all to end, but then thought, Wait a minute. If it ends, then I’m through. I’ll be melted down, and then what’ll become of me?
And that’s when it happened, one of those serendipitous events that we shape shifters can only dream about. I was thinking about what it’d be like to be melted down and not liking what I was thinking about one bit, when a burley guy on our team nicked named “Bear” struck me hard with his stick and I rocketed toward the net at over a hundred miles an hour. The goalie blocked me and I ricocheted off the goal pipe and flew through the air above the protective glass surrounding the rink, spinning over and over and over so much I thought I was going to be sick.
I must have passed out because the next thing I remember was being picked up, and a young boy’s excited voice saying, “Look, Dad, I got it! I got the puck. Cool isn’t it?”
“It’s just a damn hockey puck, stupid,” the father said, and not in a very nice way either to my way of thinking.
“Can I keep it?”
“Sure, why not? We paid enough for tickets.” He took a drink of beer, belched and looked at his watch. “Anyway, let’s go. I gotta get you home to your mom.”
Charming, I thought to myself. Nice role model for your son.
The young boy was holding me in his mittened hands and gently caressing me which I have to say felt pretty good after getting bashed around like I had been lately.
“Okay. But, what’s the matter? Don’t you like hockey anymore, Dad? You used to play for these guys, didn’t you?”
“Yeah, kid, but that was a long time ago.” He stood up, and belched again. “Come on. Let’s hit the road.”
A few days later found me contemplating how oddly interesting life could be. One moment I’d been playing in my final game, expecting it to be my last day in my current form before being melted down, but that didn’t happen. I’m still here and now a firm believer that life works in mysterious ways. I live in the boy’s room. His name is Newton. He’s kind of a geek who loves hockey. But he loves his father more. He’s got me in a place of honor on a shelf in his bedroom right next to a framed picture of his dad back when he used to be hockey player.
I like this kid a lot. He’s polite and gentle, a far cry from the macho hockey pucks I used to hang around with. I’m way more comfortable with him, even at night when he does the strangest thing. He takes me down from the shelf and holds me to his skinny chest and then falls asleep silently weeping. Pretty sad, but I don’t mind. It feels good to be with him, like he needs me or something. It’s nice to be needed. I hope I can stay forever.
Jim Bates lives in a small town twenty miles west of Minneapolis, Minnesota. His stories and poems have appeared in many online and print publications. His collection of short stories, Resilience, is scheduled to be published in 2020 by Bridge House Publishing. All of his stories can be found on his blog: www.theviewfromlonglake.wordpress.com.
by Richard Bland
THE MAN WORKED his way out of the tangle of boards. The house had been totally destroyed. Hearing a whimper, he remembered that his dog was with him when he had gone down into the cellar after hearing the storm-warning siren. Now everything he could see was flat. There were no longer standing trees or buildings. Everything was demolished…or simply gone. He extricated his dog from the rubble and began to look for something, anything…a person, a building... He and the dog set off down the street toward the center of town. He knew…he thought…that if there were any help it would be there. He had a vague sense that he needed help, but exactly what kind of help was not a fully formed concept. He stumbled over debris as he walked along.
As he came over the low rise from which the center of town would be visible, he was astonished. The stumps of brick buildings and flattened wooden structures were all that remained. He had first felt a great sense of relief when he emerged from his wrecked home. He was alive. But now he was beginning to shake. Some kind of shock, no doubt. He could see no one anywhere. Nothing. He and the dog wandered among the ruins. What to do? What to do? Suddenly he heard a ring. At least someone was alive, somewhere. He scrambled toward the sound. Just as he located the phone, the ringing stopped, and there was no green Answer to push. He went to "recents," but there was no new caller number showing. He sat down by the phone, hoping, waiting for it to ring again, his dog sniffing through the debris. He tried calling 911 and then 0 and then some of his contacts. The phone chirped obediently with each number he touched, but none of the calls would go out. The battery showed 40%, so that wasn't the problem. He was in a quandry as to whether to stay and wait for emergency responders…surely they'd be on the way by now…or go look for someone when he heard another phone ring in the distance. He jumped up and ran toward the sound. But the ringing stopped before he could get there. The dog had followed him and now he couldn’t remember where in the rubble the first phone had been. In shock and trembling more violently now, unable to decide what to do, he walked slowly away from downtown.
As he was nearing the last line of the remains and foundations he heard quite close by another phone ring. He scrambled quickly through the debris, falling, found the phone, and frantically answered with “Hello” in time to hear, “This is Amanda. How are you today? We would like to help you save hundreds of dollars on your credit card. Please press 1 now.”
Richard L. Bland (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a retired archaeologist with an interest in the American Northwest, Alaska, and extreme Northeast Asia. Presently a Courtesy Research Associate at the Museum of Natural and Cultural History (University of Oregon, Eugene), he has translated a number of works on Russian America, e.g., Russian Colonization of Alaska (University of Nebraska Press, 2020). "The Phone" will be his first published piece of fiction.
I Can See My End
by David Farran
THEY SAY I was a tree. I don't know which part of the tree I was. It couldn't have been a big part. Maybe I was a twig? My memory only goes as far back as the stationary shop, where I lived in a tray amongst others of my kind. We wore plastic wrappers so it was difficult to understand each other; you had to shout! Still, we got along well, we got on well.
Every so often fingers picked one of us from the bunch for no reason we could agree over. Some believed that positioning one's body at a certain angle guaranteed a choice. Somebody I knew (who happened to be chosen in a matter of days) claimed that the selection came down to how many natural blemishes you had, the fewer the better. It couldn't be helped.
For whatever reason—perhaps it was just bad luck?—generations passed, while I remained. It was humiliating, and for a long time I believed I'd never leave the stationary shop. I told myself that it had to be somebody. Why shouldn't it be me?
But, my time did come, without me doing anything special. There is no way of saying why I was picked on that particular day. A woman with bony knuckles and long, painted nails plucked me from the tray. I was so relieved that I didn't give any thought to where I would end up. One of my sisters said: "Good luck!" as I was placed on the counter.
This woman then gave me to her son.
The boy tore my plastic. I was embarrassed to be naked. He looked down my length and rolled me between his wet palms. That was the first time I felt skin. He put my head into a red prism, and twisted my body. Serrated metal sheared the paint from my sides. Because my head was in the box, the boy didn’t hear me asking him to stop. I’d never speak again. My wood was sharpened to a point. He blew the shavings from my mutilated length. He rubbed my sharpened end into the back of a sheet of paper, dragging my entrails into loops and squiggles. The paper begged the boy to stop, but since his face was pressed against the desktop, he wasn’t heard either.
For weeks the boy did this. Between sessions with nameless sheets I was put into a sack with others like me. Their heads were tapered, some blunt, others acute. Their rears were gnawed, as mine would be. I squeezed looks at them before the sack was closed. Dark hours commenced. As I said, we couldn’t speak because our heads were mangled in the red prism.
At first I understood the markings across the pages as expressions of cruelty. As I wore though I noticed that the markings were repeated again and again, in different formations. The formations seemed to follow a set of rules, and it was obvious they were symbolising something. It became clear to me that the symbols represented speech when the boy was on the phone with a friend. When the friend spoke, the boy jotted shapes on the page. When it was the boy's turn to speak his hand relaxed, and sometimes I even rolled from his fingers. Understanding this was humiliating: even when I turned to shavings and dust, and my torture was finally over, I'd live on through the boy's scrawl.
After that I devoted myself to learning the symbols. With so much time to myself in the pencil case I learnt in a few weeks just through connecting spoken words with what was written.
I began to read the boring words the boy put down; I thought about what a waste my life was (I was more and more aware of my shortening length). This was why, in the middle of his sentences, I interjected words and phrases of my own. I suppose I wanted to sabotage the boy's projects. It took a long time for the boy to notice my contributions. It might have been after that friend of his read over a page and asked why HELP was plonked in the middle of a sentence that he finally paid attention. I doubt he ever put it down to me.
I let slip these unrelated comments at random points throughout the pages. Sometimes he threw me across the room in frustration. I let the boy have free days, without any tampering, only to let rip with even more energy the days after that. The torture got to him, and he spent less and less time writing. We overheard him discussing the option of finding professional help. I thought of myself as a hero.
But it's also true, with the boy spending less time writing, the other pencils and I whiled longer hours in the darkness of the pencil case. This torture was even worse than having our innards smeared onto paper. The thought of things never ending was hard to accept. I promised myself I wouldn't annoy the boy too much after that, with the risk of an eternity unable to speak, immobilised, in darkness.
As I write this I see how strange it is that while I don't want to die for such a pointless reason, the idea of living forever is unbearable. The tortures themselves—the graze of the red box, having my head warn away against the paper—I've gotten used to these. My tolerance for them has grown.
Thankfully the boy got back to writing. I don't know if he forgot about my additions, or if he stopped caring about them. Perhaps he saw a doctor? The words I did add were subtle and unnoticeable from then on, Easter eggs in the grass. That was, of course, before I started writing this. I know he'll read these words, but I don't think he will care very much. I'm not worried. He will put it down to his imagination leading his hand without conscious effort as he's noticed happening sometimes. He will claim them as his own.
My life has been a strange continuum of pain relieved by short moments of happiness. Nobody has explained to me why I was created, but it seems like I was intended to write sentences, nothing more. While you might imagine this clear purpose could give me comfort, the one who wields me has never followed through. His words are clumsy and forgettable. Most of his pages are scrunched into balls, lobbed into bins.
Still, with all this said, I'm proud to tell you that despite my tortures (perhaps even because of them?) I've discovered how to get the most out of this strange life in which we find ourselves. How lucky to fall into such a secret! Unfortunately, I can see my end. I'm a stub you see. That explanation will take more time than I have, and nothing should be left unfinished.
I am a short story writer out of Adelaide, Australia, previously published the magazine Voiceworks. I am passionate about literature and am a big fan of The Zodiac Review.
by Richard Risemberg
THE SAXOPHONIST woke up early every morning in his downtown room. He dressed carefully: not too ragged, not too fly. Balance was everything. The worn fedora would shade his face from the light that would glare onto his corner till afternoon, and the faded vest would cover the holes in his shirt but not make him look too well off. The old saying was wrong, he thought. Beggars have to be choosers. The choices you make determine the take. He didn’t like being a busker, but he wasn't good enough for studio work, good as he was. Dyslexia made it hard to read sheet music. The band he played for had fallen apart, as they all did after two or three hard years. It had been a good one too. Great bassist, who went on to better things, leaving them behind. The pianist found himself a bar gig, and would drink himself down to the streets soon enough. The saxophonist looked in the mirror and adjusted the hat. Getting thrown out of his little room was not part of his plans.
He hefted the sax in its case, took the elevator down, and walked the five blocks to the music store where he rented a practice room for two hours every morning. He set himself up, blew ten minutes of long tones for his embouchure, and then played all the scales bottom to top and back, fast first and then slowly. Then he played them in thirds, fourths, and fifths, hopping up and down the scales like a frantic dancer. After that it was time to work on a new song.
He learned a new song, either a standard or something current, every week. Folks dropped more coins, maybe even a bill, if they could suddenly recognize a tune in his improvised noodlings. And besides, that's what he lived for: to mix the old with the new, the outside world with whatever it was that swirled in his chest trying to get out when he jammed. He knew he wasn't great, but he also knew that he was pretty good. Too bad he lived in a town filled with great. Pretty good ended up on the streetcorner, blowing his soul into the smog. There was another guy, an alto player, who blew on the corner by the subway station a few blocks off. He was pretty good too. They should have a jam session some day. But the guy wouldn't talk to him. He was, in fact, crazy. At least I'm not crazy yet, he told himself. It was a small comfort. Like his room. He lived a life of small uncertain comforts. Maybe it helped the music. Maybe it was the music that helped.
He walked to his corner downtown. It was on the block occupied by the stately old central library, and surrounded by expensive hotels and soaring glass office towers. There were also eateries everywhere on the ground floors of the commercial buildings, so there was plenty of foot traffic around lunch hour. He felt comfortable with the old-school stepped grandeur of the library behind him. He'd play on the street corner from eleven to a little after three, find someplace cheap to eat, then walk back to the music store, where he'd wangled a three-hour shift at the counter four days a week. It came with a discount on reeds, repairs, and sheet music. If he went at it slowly, he could read the sheet music well enough to piece out a new tune. Everything helped.
He took the sax out of its case and left the case open at his feet to catch donations. He gulped a mouthful of traffic fumes and began a slow version of "Stardust." He always began with "Stardust"; it was a tune that most people could recognize. One of his regulars, an older fellow who worked in the library, called him "Stardust" now. He accepted the name and hoped it would spread.
After playing through the theme, he started the real work, improvising on the melody, pushing the feel of midnight sorrow up and up until it circled the whole sky, a gentle tornado spinning all the lost loves and forlorn wakings of his life round and round above the grinding traffic, while the suits and dresses strutted past. A few people slowed down as they passed, and two actually stopped to stand and listen, and each dropped sweet green sustenance into the case at his feet. A cop on a bicycle who spoke to him now and then, but never hassled him, nodded as he pedaled by. An older woman, well-dressed, smiled beatifically at him, but walked off when he finished without leaving a tip. Two young women applauded him. He bowed to the bills they put in the case, and began the next melody. He closed his eyes; the traffic disappeared from his mind, and he saw the view from the window of his little room, with the lonely drunk who staggered past in the street underneath every night after last call. He played to the drunk and his loneliness….
The administrator pushed his chair back from the computer screen and the neat stacks of paper. Time for a break, he said to himself. He grabbed his camera from a drawer and walked out the door to the little terrace outside his office. He leaned on the parapet two stories above the streetcorner. The shabby man he called Stardust was playing in the street below, as he'd hoped, the music barely audible above the clamor of traffic. This would make a great shot for his exhibit. His flirting with the curator of the visual arts collection had paid off with a show in one of the library's tiny galleries. He framed Stardust in the expensive camera's viewfinder and waited for an especially thick knot of traffic to wind itself around him. "'Stardust melody,'" he hummed, as the shutter made its dry little click. "Good title for the picture…."
Richard Risemberg was born to a mixed and mixed-up family in Argentina, and dragged to LA as a child to escape the fascist regime. He's spent the next few decades exploring the darker corners of the America Dream and blithering on about it with keyboard or his own big mouth.
He has published widely in the last few years, mostly short fiction in literary journals; you want to see proof? Go to http://crowtreebooks.com/richard-risemberg-publications/
by Jane Snyder
I WAS IN the sixth grade when we moved to Omaha. I had a hard time at school. The girls were subtle, but the boys made a show of holding their noses, flinched when I approached, wouldn’t stand next to me in line. Cooties, they said. Black death, gangrene, failed Nazi experiments.
One of them called me the epitome of ugly, looked confused when the teacher said that wasn’t nice.
“I was practicing my vocabulary words,” he told her, “using them in a sentence.”
John Nelson didn’t do these things. He sought me out, asked me the same question. Did I have bacon for breakfast, because I sure smelled like bacon.
That’s strange, I’d say, because we didn’t have bacon this morning.
This could go on for a long time, him smiling brightly and wondering if I could have eaten some bacon and forgotten about it.
I’d smile too, say no, no bacon today.
He’d do it even when he didn’t have an audience, in the school kitchen, when we were on the dish crew together. This was a privilege for sixth graders. Free lunch and you missed an hour of class.
We’d be putting canned peach halves into little bowls for dessert and he’d move in close, sniff. “Nope, the bacon smell never goes away.”
One of the cooks had just dumped boiled cabbage into a section of the steam table behind us. You couldn’t smell anything else.
John might be any size now. When we lived in Omaha he was a head shorter than I was, with a small boy’s stick thin arms. After Christmas, the other boys showed off the watches they’d gotten for presents, demonstrated how even if you dropped them on the floor or into water they’d still run. John, they said, didn’t have one because no watch could be found small enough to fit his wrist.
At parent-teacher conferences in January my parents learned I was a liar, that I’d say I’d done my work when I hadn’t, played the fool.
At dinner when my father asked what was wrong with me, I’d shove food into my mouth so I wouldn’t have to speak. I hoped he’d get so wound up he’d forget he’d asked, nothing I’d say would be adequate anyway, but he’d wait with elaborate courtesy for me to answer, and I’d swallow hard.
Sometimes my father wasn’t angry and seemed interested in what I had to say. It was at one of those times I offered John as an example of my problems at school. It’s weird, I said, he says I smell like bacon, but I don’t.
On TV a child might indicate distress by running from the room, and perhaps a parent would go after them, offer comfort, but I stayed in my seat and listened to my father tell me if a boy said that to you it was because he knew what kind of girl you are.
“She’s eleven,” my mother said. “It can’t be like that.”
“Can’t it? Then why does she just take it, like he’s got every right in the world?”
That year my mother had begun telling me I should never start a fight, “but if they start it you finish it,” she’d say.
Before, when we lived in Fargo, my parents said girls musn’t fight. My father said boys don’t like tough girls.
“May I please be excused?”
“When I’m done,” my father said. “Why would you tell me something like that? Are you proud of it?”
I didn’t tell them about the line of questioning John had introduced that day, asking me if I was wearing a bra.
Well, he just wondered, he said, when I told him it was none of his business. Because he didn’t think I could be, I flopped so much. The way I swung from side to side reminded him of a cow’s udders.
He was small, as I’ve said. I could have knocked him down, wiped his little monkey face on the school kitchen floor.
Jane Snyder’s stories have appeared in Rue Scribe, Bended Genres, and X-Ray Lit. She lives in Spokane.
by Don Tassone
I FELL INTO A COMA after my accident in 1972. A few days ago, I woke up.
How I’ve managed to stay alive, I don’t know. For nearly 50 years, as I lay in bed, I wasn’t able to see or speak or move. But I heard everything, and I followed what was happening in the world.
When I awoke, I asked my nurse why she wasn’t wearing a mask.
“A mask?” she said.
I tried to explain, but she seemed oblivious. Maybe it was the shock of me waking up.
Over the next two days, I talked to a slew of doctors. They quizzed me about what I claimed I’d heard while I was unconscious.
I told them everything. I told them about Watergate and two presidential impeachments, the Internet and cell phones, 9/11 and Covid-19.
They seemed not to know about any of these things. They seemed skeptical of everything I said.
I wished someone would come to my aid. I wished my parents were still around. It still made me sad that I’d missed their funerals. It made me sad that my friends stopped coming by to see me decades ago. I’ve been alone a long time.
I heard voices in the hallway outside my door. I heard my name. Finally, a doctor came in and told me they’d decided to send me away for observation and “proper treatment.”
My new room is nearly bare. There’s a calendar on my wall. I stare at it a lot. It’s for the year 1972. It looks new.
Don Tassone is the author of a novel, Drive, and four short story collections: New Twists, Sampler, Small Bites and Get Back. Don lives in Loveland, Ohio. Visit him at https://www.dontassone.com.
by Don Tassone
JACOB WAS a popular fifth grader at Whitman Elementary, so it wasn’t surprising when many of his friends texted him to say they were sorry when he wasn’t in school after his mother passed away.
Jacob appreciated their messages, but he still felt empty. He felt detached. He had always been a “momma’s boy.” His mother had been with him since his beginning, and he had been with her until her end. Now she was gone and, for the first time in his life, Jacob felt incomplete.
One day after school, Chloe, his childhood friend, came over to his house. She lived a few doors down.
“Jake!” his father called upstairs. “Chloe’s here for you.”
She was standing in the foyer when he came down. He was happy to see her.
“Hi,” she said.
“Hi,” he said.
Neither of them knew quite what else to say and, at 11, hugging seemed too awkward.
“Swings?” she said.
She followed him out the patio door into his backyard. They walked through the grass to his swing set and slipped into the yellow rubber swings, as they had countless times growing up. When they were small, their mothers pushed them on these swings.
“Higher!” they would scream with laughter, hanging on tight.
Now they said nothing. They just glided through the air, back and forth. Jacob felt as though he were suspended between two worlds, the one he had known and some other world where he would never feel his mother’s loving touch again.
After a little while, he slowed to a stop and she did too. He stood up, shading his eyes from the late afternoon sun and hiding his tears.
A mourning dove flew in low overhead. It landed softly on the peak of the swing set and perched there.
“I love you” was the last thing his mother had said to him. She was looking at him, but as soon as she whispered those words, she closed her eyes, and she never opened them again. Jacob wondered if her words might still be in the air, hovering like a spirit above her bed.
“I need to go in,” he said.
“Okay,” Chloe said.
Jacob started walking back to his house. Chloe followed him, then veered toward the side of the house to let herself out through a gate in the fence, as she had many times before.
Jacob stopped at his patio door and looked over at her.
“Thanks,” he said.
“Take care,” she said.
With this story and his "Crazy" (above) Don becomes one of Zodiac's single issue Double Plays. See his excellent "Alone" in our Fall 2020 Issue and "Unplugged" in our Summer/Fall 2015 Issue.
The Flights of Psyche
by Mary Tharin
ON A GREY STONE ISLE surrounded by sapphire sea, young Psyche lived with her mother in a white cottage among olive trees. The dark-eyed child had a bright spirit and her mind blazed with presence and imagination. She climbed trees and chased sheep. She led her small band of friends in countless adventures to the slopes of Olympus and shores of Troy. Each day held a new discovery and each night she fell heavily into sleep, exhausted and content.
But childhood proved fleeting, and as it slipped away, her mind began to cloud. Instead of passing instantly from one mood to the next, feelings lingered and mutated, taking strange shapes. Psyche spent less time running and more gazing solemnly at her reflection in the well. Her mother urged her to go out, to walk to the shore with her friends, but increasingly she stayed in. The world around her became less and less enchanting, more and more threatening.
One morning Psyche woke up with a throbbing headache. She huddled in her bed, trying to will the pain away, but it only grew worse. She felt as if her mind were being cleaved in two, again and again. The pain pulsed then fragmented until it seemed to be all around her, she inside it.
And then, just when she could bear it no longer, a ghostly wisp of darkness emerged from her ear. She watched in horror as the smoke wound through the air and gathered into a dense cloud. It swirled and shuddered, then solidified into the form of a dreadful yellow-eyed bird.
The vulture cackled and flapped around her, hitting its wings against her face. Then, from the same ear, came another. And then three more. Soon her room was filled with them, scratching at the walls and shedding plumage all over her bed.
Psyche ran into the study where her mother was reading.
“Mother, help me! Get these horrible things away from me!”
Her mother calmly picked up a feather that had landed in the seam of her book and looked at her frazzled daughter.
“You must name them,” she said.
“How am I supposed to name them? I can’t even tell them apart!”
It was true. The birds were now moving so fast that their forms blurred together like a monstrous winged tornado.
“Go outside and sit beneath the oak tree. Close your eyes and calm yourself.”
“Calm myself?” It seemed impossible.
“It is the only way. Remember that they cannot hurt you.”
Skeptical though she was, Psyche was an obedient daughter. She went outside to the old oak that cast shade over their home, sat cross-legged underneath it, and closed her eyes. Still she heard the squawking and flapping all around her. Feathers brushed against her shoulders. But she sat up straight and remembered her mother’s words.
They cannot hurt you.
She repeated these words over and over, until all other sounds and sensations receded. All she heard was the voice in her mind. She lost track of time, of where she was. It wasn’t until she heard her mother’s voice—outside her this time—that she opened her eyes.
Her mother was smiling. She pointed up at the lowest branch of the tree. On it, five birds sat sedately. They still looked ghastly, but they hardly moved. Only their heads twitched from side to side, eyeing her where she sat on the dusty ground.
“Now, name them.”
Psyche took a deep breath and locked eyes with the bird sitting closest on the branch. It glided down and landed in front of her. In a sudden burst of clarity, she spoke its name.
The bird trembled and let out a final squawk before it transformed into a bright yellow canary. It hopped over and perched on her outstretched finger, then turned its dark eye toward her and chirped a tune that vibrated with life.
Psyche laughed. Her mother smiled.
Two more vultures flew down before her.
Instantly they became a pair of lovebirds, one painted green and the other blue. Together, they fluttered back up into the tree.
Down came the fourth.
The vulture shrank and reformed into a dark brown swift, wings curved like a sliver of moon. It darted toward the horizon where it flew in dizzying circles, never to touch the ground.
Finally, the last of the vultures came before Psyche.
“You are the most fearsome of all,” she said. The bird bowed its head. “Love.”
Black feathers dissolved into smoke, and out of the cloud emerged a dove. Psyche took it in two hands and held it to her chest.
Every day from then forward, Psyche sat under the tree and watched the birds dart and sing and squabble. No longer tormenters, but companions. And when it came time to leave home for good, they flew with her, ducking and soaring, making beauty from the uneven winds.
# # #
Mary Tharin currently lives in Italy, where she teaches English and writes fiction. Previously, she worked as an environmental attorney in California.
Sudden Disaster in the Hotdog Line
by Mason Yates
by John Dorroh
THEIR CULT is serious and sassy, armed with dead bolts and do-nuts, lines of killer tree frogs whose venom can propel your heart into tachycardia with no warning whatsoever. There are prayers left at broken-down merry-go-rounds when the missionaries came to convert them into better people.
The echoes of new relationships with Jesus and the Saints ping the cell tower, sliding down its scratchy girdle of steel into the ground. All living things end up here in the black space, this rock-inhabited abyss.
I like meal times best – the frenzied activity of cannibals never having had real food, the kind eaten with a knife and fork, the kind that calls for napkins and manners. There are prayers before prayers, the food watching you watching it, everyone waits for the perfect moment when the pastor says, “Thank You, Jesus, for this food, which our bodies accept wholeheartedly for the nourishment of souls, spirit, and flesh. Amen.
Bleeding hearts hang on every wall as the same ole cross deviates very little, no imaginative interpretation. Rituals required for everything, homages to acknowledge. Children understand the nuance of calibration, whether the spirit leans too much to the left, or a bit too heavy to the right, and the fury of ocean water beating sand makes prayer so difficult to endure.
Whether John Dorroh taught any secondary science is still being discussed. He did manage, however, to show up at 6:45 every morning with at least three lesson plans and a thermos of robust Colombian. His poetry has appeared in about 80-85 journals, including Dime Show Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Os Pressan, Feral, Selcouth Station, and Red Dirt Forum/Press. He also writes short fiction and the occasional rant.
Turn of Events
by Francis Fernandez
My mother, back before she was my mother, used to
be in love with Leonard Bernstein. But she ended up
marrying my father instead. My father hadn't yet
gathered up the courage to ask his future father-in-law
for his daughter's hand when he and my mother went
on date to that famous concert at Carnegie Hall
where Mr. Bernstein basically shot himself in the foot
as far as my mother was concerned, making an
uncommon pre-concert speech in which he bluntly
disassociated himself from the soloist's
interpretation of the Brahms they were about
to swim inside together. The pianist in question
was Glenn Gould, who actually didn't seem
to mind at all being left on the edge of the cliff—
or being pushed over for that matter.
But my mother minded. She thought it rather
unbecoming of the otherwise bold
and gracious maestro. And she resented
all those boorish season-ticket holders
who upon hearing this unfamiliar Brahms
showed their displeasure—as well as
their complacency, as she whispered
to my father—by making rude sounds for all
to hear. My father, for his part, had a big grin
on his face. Not necessarily because the game
had tilted in his favour (which it definitely had),
but as it happened he was an admirer of Gould's,
and not for the obvious showmanship reasons
that everyone else had latched onto; rather
he too was a man of principle and believed
that your purpose when on stage is to illuminate
a great work by revealing something true about it,
as opposed to simply showing off your wondrous
dexterity. Walking my mother home after the
stunning evening, my father couldn't stop gushing
about the music his ears had just witnessed. From
that moment on my mother knew without an inkling
of a doubt who it was she really wanted.
Francis Fernandes grew up in the US and
Canada. He studied in Montréal and has
a degree in Mathematics. He currently lives
in Germany where he writes and teaches.
END OF PROSE POETRY
HOW COULD you raise your child like that?”
The gravely voice came at me over my shoulder while I was standing in line with my son to grab a bite to eat at a baseball game—a happy day for him, his sixth birthday. I looked around to see if the words had really been directed at me. The speaker was a small woman, neatly dressed in what seemed like business clothes. Curly brown hair, but older. She looked somewht familiar. Her hard green eyes stared at me with disgust and then lowered to my son Liam, who bounced around, waving a small wooden stick—a magic wand. A chocolate ring encompassed his mouth. The woman looked back at me.
“How could you raise your child to be so filthy!" she said. "So damn filthy!”
I turned away from the woman and glanced at Liam, all smiles and excitement. We were at a baseball stadium, home to our local baseball team, independent league…a pretty exciting venue for my little guy. I looked him over, looked past the chocolate ring, scanning for anything that could conceivably be called filth. I suppressed an urge to say some pretty bad things to the snarly woman. I freely admit to such an impulse. But I realized, of course, that she could be suffering from any number of disorders. But here we were, my little cherub and I, and our cheerful outing was being violated. After all, it was a place where Liam could enjoy snacks and drinks he normally couldn’t have. He only turned six once. He had the right to enjoy himself, and if enjoying the day involved indulging in chocolate and making a little mess, then so be it. I felt my anger rising again when the woman fired off another shot. Or was it really she who was saying these things? My head spun, thinking of something from earlier in the day…
“Did you hear me, miss?” she said. “You should clean him up!”
I turned away from my happy child and stared deeply into the stranger’s eyes—two green abysses.
“Excuse me?” I said, my lesser angels starting to gain control.
Liam stopped swinging his the wand stared at me as I started to shout. I'm sure I said some terrible things. Where did all of my anger come from?
A blindingly white light interrupted me, and the stadium started to melt.
* * *
You stand in line for a hotdog at the baseball stadium, a magic wand in your hand and a chocolate ring around your mouth. Earlier, about an hour ago, your mom bought you a chocolate ice cream cone and soda to help cool off from the hot day, but now you’re hungry. Turning six means you get whatever you want. And you can drag your mom to the hotdog stand. As you wait, you play with your favorite magic wand—because you want to be a magician someday—and you dance around, not caring what people think of you.
A mean sounding voice says something, but you don’t pay any attention. The only thoughts that swarm your head are of getting a hotdog and seeing the rest of the baseball game.
Then, after a few seconds, you hear your mom say something in a voice that doesn’t seem normal. Usually, she’s calm and nice with everybody. Seems that way to me, anyway. What do I know, I'm only six. Now she sounds really different. I feel scared.
You stop dancing with your magic wand and let your arms dangle. Instead of dancing, your eyes are filled with the image of your mother yelling at some lady. You don’t understand what’s happening, but it seems like it must be about you. Sometimes at home mommy and daddy…
What did I do? you ask yourself.
Your mother’s yelling gets louder. The other woman is shouting, too, and now grabbing your mom by the shoulders and shaking her. Your birthday falls apart. You raise your wand and wish the two of them away.
* * *
Ruby heard the voice but chose to ignore it. Maybe, she thought, if she didn’t answer, the woman would stop. But, no, the woman persisted.
Instead of looking at the woman, she stared at her son Liam, a great boy full of energy and love. He was the only thing she had ever truly loved.
She watched as he swished his magic wand around. She noticed his cute chocolate ring around his mouth. He seemed so full of life. His eyes sparkled. His smile could cure anyone’s depression. He was so beautiful, so alive, so innocent.
“Did you hear me, miss?” the woman beside her said. “You should clean him up!”
She couldn’t take it anymore. She turned to the stranger.
Behind her, Ruby noticed that Liam stopped swishing his wand.
“Mind your own goddamn business!” Ruby shouted. And then she said some other things. She felt so hot. She saw her husband's face as they had said goodbye that morning. What had he meant when he said…?
A sudden bright light—something only an act of magic could create—swarmed the inside of the stadium. An immense heat followed. Screaming. Shouting. The walls—everything—started to melt. A thundering erupted out of nowhere. The woman in front of Ruby disintegrated before her. She managed to twist around to see Liam. He stood there with his wand in front of him.
Mason Yates Mason Yates lives in Arizona where he is studying creative writing at Arizona State University. He has had short stories published in Dark Dossier, Schlock!, The CreativityWebzine, and The Theme of Absence. He is from a small town in the Midwest.