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—The staff of The Zodiac Review
Ten Items Or Less, by Don Dewey
Coal Tipple, by Charles Hayes
The King, by Charles Hayes
Purple, by Emily Larkin
Locker Room Banter, by Charles Rammelkamp
The Change, by Jeffrey Winter
I Love My Wife, by Anna Downes
My Only One, by Betty Krasnik
Mektig, by Olivia Lowenberg
Faux-Gilt, by Keith Vaughn
The Rockabilly Sin, by Amber Wilson
STORIES FROM OUR ALUMS
Ten Items Or Less
by Don Dewey
Dalton pulled a cart from the metal chrysalis of them in front of the supermarket. The wheels obeyed, all four of them turning smoothly. The electronic eye on the street door worked; so did the one on the inner door. He thought it smart of the store to display the fruits and vegetables right inside the entrance. Their aromas made for instant sensations—of hungers, of cool refreshment, reminding him he wasn’t there as a passerby.
He parked in front of the tangelos. They were so impeccably colored he wondered if they had undergone some special orange dye processing. Their nubbed heads were also too perfect, suggesting baby bottle nipples and subliminal messages gone unsubtle. He chanced it, choosing three as a compromise between getting home to discover that the one he had bought was exquisite or that he had been duped into taking a sack of tasteless rocks.
He moved on to the peppers. Their military alignment argued for one of each—green, yellow, and red. But he was wise to the sets game. What the produce arrangers didn’t know was that he had never been unsettled by less than complete sets, when necessary even playing solitaire at home with a deck of 50 cards. He took two green peppers without feeling in the least incomplete for leaving the reds and yellows where they were.
Not in the mood for cooking, he inspected the rotisserie shelves closely. He had no idea what was so Italian about the chicken breasts with the red speckles. He had a rule against eating anything but cookies with red speckles, and it had been years since he had eaten cookies. He chose the Cornish hens. They looked substantial enough, and there were two of them for two suppers.
The deli counter scolded him for having been hasty about the hens. The salads seemed to come in every color and substance, the pates didn’t have their usual mound of sludge look. He could imagine sitting down to the meatballs, sausages, and sardines, too. There was an air of people to it all. People unwrapping the paper. People pulling down plates from a kitchen cabinet. People asking other people if they wanted soda, water, or tea.
The hens felt appropriate for him, after all.
He pushed on to the aisle with the cat food. He always seemed to forget which it was—Aisle Three or Aisle Four. He remembered his mnemonic of Fancy Feast Four when he was already in front of the endless array of the chipped and the minced and the roasted. He swept a few of each into his cart. As Dalton headed for the Express checkout, he liked the idea of surprising Sandy for supper.
Donald Dewey has published 30 books of fiction, non-fiction, and drama, as well as had some 30 plays staged in the United States and Europe. He has also contributed scores of stories to magazines and other periodicals.
by Charles Hayes
Derelict now for more than 25 years, the grime covered coal tipple rises from the coal dust and slate like some kind of huge tin man from the Wizard of Oz. Shrouded in the hollow’s misty light as the sun breaks the ridge, the old mine takes on an almost magical quality. And it is quiet. A time when the night has retired and the day is only beginning to stretch.' Perched here on the porch of my hillside shack above it all, I watch the black hole beyond the tipple. It is time.
Looking like black sticks, their hard hats blazing carbide, Biff and Spike emerge from the hole bearing a makeshift stretcher. On it, wrapped in the canvas cover of a mining machine, lies a dead miner. Switching off their lights but not pausing to rest, they trudge along the track and pass under the tipple. There, seemingly fueled by an inexhaustible strength, they leave the track and disappear into the green hillside below my shack. I can hear them talking between gasps of air as they wind their way up the path.
“I ain’t never seen nobody cut up like this before,” Biff says. “What we gonna tell his wife, Spike?”
“God damn it,” Spike replies. “Just shut up and haul. My boy was worse than this. The jaws of that thing got a taste of us with him. Jesus God, they’ll want me to operate that thing next.”
My wife, Jenny, having heard their voices, joins me on the porch. “Oh Lord, Joe. Are they headed up this way again?”
Knowing the ways a bit better from my side, I try to instill in Jenny a calm that doesn’t come easy. “Fraid so darling. Just like clock work ain’t it?”
Not one for two ways about something, Jenny lays it out pretty clear.“Well Joe, just pretend that they ain’t here. Let 'em come every morn if'en they want. We’ll just not see 'em. And they can’t make us.”
The stretcher at their feet for the first time, Biff and Spike, hats in hand, look up at Jenny with white socketed eyes, black faces ashine with sweat. Spike, thinking how it was with his boy, says, “I’m sorry…….”
“I don’t see you and I don’t hear you Spike,” interrupts Jenny. “Same goes for you Biff.”
Looking down at the canvas lump, Biff does the unusual and actually speaks during this visit. “But this here’s Joe, Jenny. Don’t you want to take care of him?”
“I don’t see you.” Jenny replies. Looking to the empty chair at her side, she continues. “You see or hear anything, Joe?
“Just another quiet morn above a dead mine,” I say. “Just go on back inside, Jenny.”
This old soiled tipple of yesteryear at a very special time. I figure many out there would find it spooky and unclean. But out there is clearly beyond the pale, no doubt here. Besides into these reaches can not be seen. I can watch out there come and go across their flat tableaus. Yet if our eyes meet, nary a connection will be made. Like one way mirrors, I can look out but they can not look in.
Charles is an American who lives part time in the Philippines and part time in Seattle with his wife. His writing interests centers on the stripped down stories of those recognized as on the fringe of their culture. Asian culture, its unique facets, and its intersection with general American culture is of particular interest. As are the mountain cultures of Appalachia.
by Charles Hayes
Drifting on the water, turning like a tardy second hand on a mirrored sky of cirrus, we park our canoe paddles and watch the steep timber slowly spin. Silver Maples flash waves of white brilliance as a blow rustles their coats. A furtive beaver pops a tail, sending shore birds aflutter, and a whisper of far current plays a wash as pollen swims, sweetening the aroma of muddy banks.
Beth dangles a hand in the water, her smooth brow a plain of calm as she reads the maple signs. Flipping a line toward an ivy covered log, no slack to contemplate, a sharp tug I feel and set the hook, watching in excited awe as a Bass breaks the water, exploding sprays of color from its manic dance. Bringing in the king of the hole, its mouth gasping large, I remove the hook and drop it back. Snapping me with a terrified eye, it winks a glossy flank and disappears, a tiny ripple of glass and pungent hands its only print. Beth frowns and says, “You must like potted meat and peanut butter.”
Thinking that though she be right, I’ll never tell the heart that she has captured. “I’m sorry babe,” I say. “I just couldn’t keep the king of the hole.” Turning back to fore, Beth hands her paddle and rights our tack, the call of froth not far. “That’s OK,” she says. “I’ll get us one when we pitch for eve. That one was a beaut, though probably tough.” I choke a burst of mirth and look to see, Beth, her eyebrows high and lips a tinge of smile, looking back at me. My leg no longer curled, I smile and say, “You got me.”
Moving faster now, a sparkling ribbon, topped with furrowed lace, sucks us in. Slapping faces and blurring eyes, our ride has its own way. Beth digs her paddle down, I drag mine behind, the chute to find and steady on. Sometimes with only air to pull, we squeal and laugh, and let the river lay our track. But through luck and the strength of pearly years, we burst from the rapids to slip into the lee of a wider pass, our thumping hearts telling how small we are. Beth, her hair undone and plastered to her face, turns to me and stills. Her look, a second star with so much to say, touches me to lead the way. “I bet you haven’t done that before.” Shimmering with delight, she screams and catches breath while my heart swells. “Oh my God, Peter,” she finally says. “I had no idea it could be so much fun! This is worth it to miss the sheets and kitchen fare.” In a surrender closely held, happy to the core, I see a flame in her eye, one that I have lit. Trying to calm, lest I burst my chest, I stroke on. “You bet, love. It belongs to us.”
A finger over the ridge, our bright star cools and begins to set. Looking now for lee that will last the night, I point our craft to the sandy strip beneath the Sycamores, their dappled trunks and broad lime green our décor of choice. Pulling the canoe up high we unload and pitch our tent. “I am really hungry,” Beth says, as she pops the peanut butter and gathers bread. “Fix me one too,” I say. “I’ll make a fire for later on.”
Crickets chirp and June Bugs light the air as the sizzle of green sticks with dogs on end make our juices ache. Black before they can swell, our dogs split the dough and catch a strip of yellow spice. On a palm with chips at hand our dinnerware is curt. But after three or four our cheeks deflate with canteen sips to wash them down.
After several chunks of drift, the fire all yellow gone, is but a cherry glow. June Bugs no longer fly their blink, lanterns dark by now. Sun cured faces with pools of ember glow, gaze to the celestial lights beyond. The moon, a happy face that clicks across the sky, winks as we say goodnight, its cheeks a rouge of blush as we zip the tent.
A flat smack breaks the quiet of night when all is well and truths have all been told. Sleepily Beth feathers my ear with a query of common yore. “What was that?”
Smiling deep within I am tempted to boogieman a yarn but instead reply, “A beaver tail I suppose.”
Her breath still soft upon my ear, she says, “I don’t think so.”
Enjoying this sleepy repartee, I finger dance along her skin and say, “What was it then?”
With a little giggle that wafts like music around our nest, she says, “The king.”
Charles is an American who lives part time in the Philippines and part time in Seattle with his wife. His writing interests centers on the stripped down stories of those recognized as on the fringe of their culture. Asian culture, its unique facets, and its intersection with general American culture is of particular interest. As are the mountain cultures of Appalachia.
by Emily Larkin
You know that purple must exist because others talk about it – but you've never seen it, yourself. You hear all sorts of things about purple, and its thousand shades:
"Purple's a real bitch," someone says. "Purple will screw up your life, hard."
"I never thought I'd find purple," another person says. "But when I did, it made life beautiful. Changed the way I looked at everything else."
"Purple leaves a sour taste in your mouth. Steer clear, if you can."
"It'll make you vulnerable, purple will. But giving in to it is more liberating than anything else."
You're not colour-blind or anything; your life is full of beautiful shades. Summer blues, fresh greens, sunlit pinks, and yellows that give you warmth. You're not sure that purple is such a big deal, although some people assure you it is.
You try to explain that your life is full. Purple is not the key to success or happiness. And pink is practically the same as purple, anyway. Your brother smiles at your naivety.
"They're not the same thing," he says. "Trust me."
And then purple comes streaking into your life, barrelling other colours out of the way, and leaving a comet's tail of destruction in its wake. Purple tunnels through your ears and seeps through your mouth until your brain is soaked in it. You feel purple trickling down your throat, until you know it's in your circulation. Your blood's so full of the stuff it must have changed colour. You didn't expect something so violent, consuming.
Purple splashes over your vision, recolouring your landscape. The old tones of your life seem dull by comparison. Now that you've experienced purple, purple is everywhere. You wonder how you missed it before, because you can't stop seeing purple.
Purple is a deep craving. Rich tones of mauve call to you. You go chasing sweet-smelling lilac, although it can't sustain you for long. Plum is to be savoured. Heather is mixed with undertones of melancholy, but you breathe it in all the same.
You're full to the brim of purple, but you want more. You go stalking sangria shadows by night. The need is so urgent all you can think is, Gotta get me some purple…
You dodge calls from the family because hunting hues is more pressing than discussing gardening or your old school teachers. But, finally, you agree to have dinner with your parents and brother. Saying "yes" will get them off your back for a month or two.
Leaving Mum to finish preparing dinner in the kitchen, you slump into a recliner in the living room. You brother follows and sinks into the chair beside you.
"What are you doing?" he asks. "There's more to life than purple, you know."
Not much more, you think, but choke back this response.
"You used to go after other stuff. There's a whole spectrum of colours out there." He appraises you and sighs. "If you want purple – fine. Most of us do, I get that. But you should do what makes you happy. Really happy, not just a temporary fix. Find a shade that means something. One that'll last."
Again, you say nothing. His experience is meaningless compared to yours. He hasn't had purple in so long he's probably forgotten what it's like.
"You're gonna be alright," he says.
"I'm fine now."
"No, you're not," he says, and you hate the pity in his expression. "You just can't see it at the moment. But you will."
You check your phone. No messages, which is too bad. You had hopes for a fresh shot of purple tonight.
"I'm glad that you made it home this time. Mum's kinda missed you."
Rain drums on the roof and you think about how, in another hour or two, this torture will be over. You will eat your mother's overcooked steak and beans, and add more pepper to the mashed potato. You'll dry a few dishes while your brother washes up, and then walk out the front door. After shaking your father's hand, you will hug your mother, and then drive back to your flat in the city. Or maybe out to a pub.
"And I'm glad you're here," he continues, "because I wanted to introduce you to my girlfriend. She'll be here any minute now. Said she'd come straight after work."
"Girlfriend? That's new."
"It was new, three months ago. Like I said, you've been hard to reach." The doorbell rings, and the sappiest smile slips over his face. "That'll be her."
Opening the door, you see a slim girl, shivering in pale blue jeans and a rain-drenched cardigan. The white tips of her ears poke out from a mane of dripping hair, which falls in frizzy waves on either side of her face. Her lips are pink, her eyes, wide; she looks like a fragile creature, about to be blown over as the storm builds.
Her apprehensive expression melts into joy as she looks past you. Your brother crosses the threshold and sweeps the girl into a hug. You realise that he's getting wet. He doesn't care. After a long moment, he stops hugging her – only to take her hand and turn her towards you. "I'd like you to meet my family."
"Hi," she says, with a shy smile. "I'm Violet."
I am a 22-year-old Australian writer, and completed a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in creative writing last year (graduating with Class 1, Division 1). This year I have begun a Doctor of Creative Arts at the University of the Sunshine Coast, and I hope to write and lecture at universities for a living. I am fascinated by the magic of storytelling, and the transportive power of words. I admire The Zodiac Review for its commitment to emerging writers, and for supporting unconventional writing.
Locker Room Banter
by Charles Rammelkamp
It was just after the Access Hollywood tape of Donald Trump boasting about groping women and then dismissing his behavior as “locker room banter.” All across the nation athletes objected that this was not how they talked in locker rooms.
In the locker room at the gym I go to for a swim every morning, I mentioned to Art Durling, a hand surgeon at University Hospital, that my daughter, a third-year medical student, was in the middle of her surgery rotation.
“Tell her to stop by Room 21 and introduce herself,” Art invited. “Room twenty-one. Easy to remember.”
“It’s the age of the girls Durling dates,” Nick Bates quipped. Nick was another morning regular at the gym.
Art, a confirmed bachelor in his forties, laughed obligingly. “At that age they’re still girls,” he said when the laughter died down. “They don’t really become women until they’re about twenty-six.”
My daughter Cleo was twenty-six, I reflected. The idea that Art might hit on her had not crossed my mind.
Marcus Landry, another guy in his forties, jumped in. “I used to date a college girl after my marriage fell apart. My son Jacob was a toddler and I was in my thirties.”
“Twenty-one,” I said. I could see where the conversation might be going. “I’ll remember that number for sure now.”
Suddenly Marcus, Nick and Art became self-conscious, and I felt like a scold. It was just locker room banter, right?
“But I’m telling you,” Marcus said after a pause. “She was all right. Young, but she was all right. We had a good time for a while.”
Art, Marcus and Nick, all about twenty years younger than I, suddenly seemed to me like the Three Musketeers, or the Three Stooges, guys on the same page. Should I tell Cleo to introduce herself to Art? Good to have professional references, even if surgery didn’t appeal to her. It’s not like she was a starry-eyed kid who’d let some authority figure seduce her. And where did I even get that thought about Art Durling? An honorable guy, as serious professional, even if his bachelor exploits were a staple of the “locker room banter” at the gym. It seemed like he was always dating or pursuing some new woman.
* * *
When I told Cleo my friend Art During asked me to ask her to stop by and introduce herself, she said she’d do it, when she had the time. She knew exactly where Room 21 was. I thought about mentioning something about his bachelor reputation but I thought no, it’s just locker room banter. I shouldn’t sully the guy’s reputation. You can’t un-do gossip. I just said he was a friend from the gym.
Back in the locker room the next week, Marcus and Nick chattered away about the blond news anchor on the television, how much they’d like to you know; words fail. Imagination and desire hold hands.
“My man Art!” Marcus suddenly bellowed, a large river mammal wallowing in the mud. I turned to see sweat-soaked Art enter the locker room from his rigorous morning workout, fist-bumping Marcus and Nick.
“What’s happening?” Art cried, likewise more animal noise than question. I was already headed for the shower, sick with my mistakes. Is it because I am a poet and I have an over-active imagination? What did I suspect Art Durling of doing?
I saw Art a few days later. He was just leaving when I was arriving at the gym.
“Art!” I cried, but he went out the door, distracted, and I couldn’t help but get the impression he was fleeing, avoiding me.
* * *
Our daughter Cleo came by for dinner a few days later.
“So, Cleo,” I asked, eaten up by my curiosity, “did you talk to Art Durling?”
“Oh yeah! Nice man!” she said, her face brightening. “I walked into the operating room last week. He was with the anesthesiologist and a patient, and he looked up and said, ‘Who are you?’ and when I told him Cleo, he broke into this great big smile. Stopped whatever he was doing and came over and shook my hand.
“He said, ‘Your dad’s my gym buddy!’ Then he started praising your writing.”
“My writing?” I didn’t remember showing Art anything I’d written, but I won’t say I hadn’t. “He did?” Shame washed over me like a warm cleansing rinse. How had I doubted him? My gym buddy!
“Doctor Durling especially liked that poem you wrote about the African-American man the police killed even though he was innocent. All that unwarranted suspicion, all that stereotyping. All that jumping to conclusions. He said it really spoke to him.”
For once I was speechless, my imagination numb.
Charles Rammelkamp’s collection of poems involving missionaries in a leper colony in Vietnam during the War, FUSEN BAKUDAN (“Balloon Bombs” in Japanese), has just been published by Time Being Books. He edits The Potomac, an online literary journal: www.thepotomacjournal.com. (See Charles' other fine stories published in Zodiac's Spring '13, Fall '14 and Spring '15 Issues.)
by Jeffrey Winter
I was at a party, being heaved up into the air by a trampoline constructed of interlocked fingers and forearms, when the call came that my sister had been in an accident. My shirt was drenched with vodka; I walked barefoot across the flagstone patio to pick up the phone. There was a boy there whose mullet could not camouflage his poet’s soul and I had gone there just on the off-chance that I might at some point find myself alone in some small space with him.
That’s not true. I would have been there anyway. I was always at a party in those days. It was my defining characteristic; it was how everyone knew me. I was seventeen, I had long slender fingers, I could fit half a beer can in my mouth and I was at every party that would have me, even if they were thrown by snobs or bitches I’d rather have had nothing to do with (this was often the case).
I was being thrown up into the air; it was cold and the wind ran up my neck and into my hair like fingers and someone I can’t remember came out to tell me that my mother was on the phone, that my sister had been in an accident. This is where the best moment of my life ends and the rest begins. My shirt was drenched with vodka; we’d splashed it all over each other as the sun set, and now the fabric slapped against my stomach and stuck to my back as I walked across the flagstones, around the deck chairs and the table and the dog looking for a handout. I went in through the sliding glass door and picked up the phone.
My sister had been in an accident. My mother told me what she knew and wept and I wrung my shirt out on the carpet and the whole place smelled of vodka and the music was low. The dog licked at the sliding door and trotted off to look for food and I told my mother I’d be there, I was coming. My heart was still pounding from being thrown up in the air; I’d felt like a queen and now I couldn’t remember how to live. That was the best moment of my life, that last party before my sister and before the change.
And I took my keys from where I’d left them earlier, beside the can I’d inserted halfway into my mouth with my long slender fingers while they all cheered for me, and I walked to the door without saying goodbye, without anyone asking me was everything alright or was she okay.
And just as I was about to walk out, he came in through the sliding door, nudging the whining dog away with his leg. And just as I was about to tell him what happened he invited me up to a small space, a place where we’d be alone together. And just as I was about to say no he took my wrist in his gentle fist and pulled me along and up to the small space and it felt like that last moment before the call, the way he lifted me like I was nothing, like I was just a wet shirt bleeding alcohol, lifted me into the night like a queen and I couldn’t remember why I should ever leave except that I knew I would and that this was it, the end of the last best moment, the last party of them all.
By the time I padded out through the open sliding glass door and past the sleeping dog, two hours later, the phone was ringing again and I was no longer barefoot and the change was already upon me.
Jeffrey Winter currently resides in Fredericksburg, VA with his wife and two small children. He recently graduated with a Bachelors of Arts in English from University of Mary Washington. He will be pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing this fall. Jeffrey spends his free time writing poetry, reading, and wrestling with his kids. And occasionally with his wife. He has been published in Pif Magazine, Denver Syntax, and Black Heart Magazine.
STORIES FROM OUR NEW SUBMITTERS
I Love My Wife
by Anna Downes
The man sitting next to Ray was a talker.
It was hit or miss in these places. Either you managed to sit quietly with your thoughts and sink a bourbon or five in peace. Or you wound up next to the kind of misery that loved company.
Most of the time these guys were harmless and if you could tune out and let their muttering fade into the background then everyone was happy. But this particular guy seemed to need more. He was wrangling for a conversation like a dog with a bone.
Judging from the drivel pouring out of the man’s mouth, Ray’s best guess was that his wife had recently left him or he’d just found her screwing his best mate, or some other clichéd bullshit. The guy asked if Ray was married and Ray told him he was. The man had then threw out a few ugly comments about the worthlessness of women and slapped Ray on the back like a co-conspirator.
But he had misjudged his audience. Ray had straightened his spine and said, “I love my wife. She’s the centre of my universe.” And that had shut him up.
From that point on, however, Ray had kept quiet. The guy was unshaven, unkempt and about eight single malt’s deep. Ray decided to avoid a fight by saying little, drinking a lot and then making a swift exit. He had his first two objectives firmly under his belt and was about to put the third into action when the man pointed up at the television set above the bar.
“Isn’t that the most depressing shit you’ve ever heard?” he said.
Ray couldn’t imagine that it was, but he lifted his head anyway. There was a news story on, something about a dead body found near a river. The images were of a muddy bank, a taped off crime scene and a white transit van. A reporter stood in front of a body of water, her face solemn.
“Hey barman. Turn that up?” the man called. He turned to Ray. “That’s gotta be the fucking worst, am I right?”
The volume increased. Words tumbled out of the reporter’s mouth. Tragedy. Missing since. Last seen. White van. Snatched. Buried. Woods.
“I said, am I right?” the man persevered.
Ray sighed, watching the screen. “What happened?”
“They dug up a kid. Someone buried a fucking kid in a forest.”
A picture flashed up of a boy aged around 5 years old. Big grin, sandy hair, brown eyes.
“Someone grabbed him in his own front yard. I cannot imagine anything worse. Can you, man? I mean, think of the parents. Imagine getting that call.”
To Ray’s horror, the man started to cry. His big shoulders shook and wet sounds came out of his mouth. Ray watched him for a moment and then turned back to the TV screen.
“Who does shit like that?” said the man, through his tears.
Ray drained his glass then dropped a few notes onto the bar. He slid off his stool, heading for the daylight.
* * *
Outside, he pulled his phone from his pocket.
Ellen answered on the seventh ring. “Not a good time, Ray.”
“Should I call back?”
“It’s ok. Can’t be long, though. Dinnertime.”
Ray could hear running water and the clank of saucepans.
“So how are things going?” he asked.
“Everything’s fine,” she replied.
There was a long pause. She wasn’t going to make it easy for him, but when had she ever?
“It’s been six weeks, Ray,” she said, at last.
Ray was aware how long it had been. He’d meant to go home. He’d booked flights every weekend but always cancelled them at the last minute.
“I’m sorry, work has been –”
“Six weeks. You should’ve come back. You should be here.”
“I know, and I’m sorry.” Ray swallowed, his throat tight. “I saw something on the news. They found a kid.”
The sound of running water stopped. Ray pictured his wife by the sink, soap suds dripping off her hands .
“Yes, the dead boy. I saw it, too. Terrible.”
“It made me miss you. All of you. I hate being away from you. I’ve been thinking more about making some changes to my schedule. Delegate, take more of a back seat.”
“I’ve heard that before,” Ellen said.
Ray nodded silently. “I could do a week at home every month. Potentially.”
“Yeah. Play it again, Sam.”
Ellen was silent for a moment. “Honey, there’s no need.”
“But it’s so isolated out there.”
“It is, but I manage. And I’ve got my girls.”
Ray hesitated, reaching for his next words. “And how are they? The girls?”
“Oh, you know. The new one is still… adjusting.”
“But Stephanie has had a good week. She was outside almost all day today.”
“Outside?” Ray was shocked. “Are you sure that’s…”
“It’s fine, Ray. There’s no one for miles.”
“But what if…”
“I said its fine. Trust me.”
Ray let out a jagged breath. “Sorry. That news story just got to me.”
“Oh, calm down,” she chided. “I’m not about to go burying a body in the woods, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“No, of course not.”
When she next spoke, Ellen’s voice was a razor blade hidden in a cream puff. “Ray. What we’re doing here… it’s watertight, remember? There’s nothing to worry about. Be thankful. We finally have everything we’ve ever wanted. We have each other, we have our dream home, and now we have our dream family.”
He was comforted by her confidence. She really was the most brilliant person her had ever known in his life. She could do anything, make anything work. And she was the most spectacular mother, just like she always said she would be.
There was a rattle of crockery and glass. The trolley, he thought. She was pushing it down the path towards the shed.
“You’re doing a wonderful job providing for us, honey. So you stick to what you do best and I’ll take care of everything else.”
He knew she would, she always had. Anything they needed, anything they wished for, she’d always gone the extra mile to make sure they had it. He made the money, sure, but she… well, she made their dreams come true.
He heard the familiar slide of a dead bolt. The bang of a heavy door. The bolt again, and then brisk footsteps. The sound had changed now, everything hollow and echoey. He shifted his weight around, passed the phone to his other ear, waiting for her to finish.
Another dead bolt. The rattle of keys. A bang, and the snap of a padlock.
He shuddered, involuntarily.
“I really have to go now, Ray.” Ellen’s voice bounced off cold metal walls.
“Ok. I’ll leave you to it.”
“I’ll see you soon,” she said.
He really should let her go, this part was always tricky. You always needed both hands. He could already hear a disturbance; muffled voices, a few dull thuds.
A sigh. “Yes, Ray?”
I’ll come next weekend. I promise.”
“Whatever you say.”
“I love you,” he said into the handset, but Ellen had already gone.
Anna Downes lives in Long Jetty on the Central Coast of Australia with her husband and two children, aged 1 and 3. She was born and grew up in the north of England but moved to Australia in 2011 after meeting her husband at the top of a French mountain. She trained to be an actor at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London and worked professionally for four years before deciding the lifestyle was not for her. She now works as a massage therapist while raising her children by the ocean. She also writes a lot of stories.
My Only One
by Betty Krasnik
I saw you from afar, sitting amongst a sea of bodies. You stood out, like a bright emerald in a sea of tarnished jewels.
My eyes met yours before I looked away, feeling my heart rise in my throat, desperate for its escape, as if knowing this was a war it would lose again—knowing it would shatter into pieces so small there would be no way of fitting it all together.
Old emotions began to flood back. Memories of us together and apart. I released a forced breath. I didn’t want to think of you. Not after struggling to put it behind me for the last seven years.
I sought a distraction. It didn’t take long for my eyes to settle on a bothered woman behind the information desk. She was gesturing, pointing right and then left as an elderly man bobbed his head hesitantly, struggling to decipher her instructions. Even then, I felt the presence of your eyes on me. Those eyes that were so sharp they could peel back all my layers until I stood bare to the core.
And that’s when I remembered our first date. You invited me to spend the day at The Village. It was a small resort—beach shops, local jewelry stores, ice cream bars, and restaurants lined two blocks of what was known as downtown Green-Hill.
We walked around Green-Hill before finding a nesting spot not too far from Norman Beach. You laid down the towel, and we both sat together, staring into each other’s eyes. We talked about everything—from our family to the crooked politicians who governed our country to the philosophers of the 20th century. The sun was shining, and the wind was blowing—it was the perfect date. When it came late evening, you drove me home and kissed me goodnight at the doorstep like a real gentleman. And from there, my love grew stronger, manifesting from deep inside me.
From cooking French crepes to reading old American novellas, you were there. You never let me down; I was lucky. You never put a halt to our plans and there was not a single argument or misunderstanding. It was smooth sailing.
From the beginning to the end.
I blame myself for the end of our journey. It was no one’s fault except mine. For the first five years my love for you did not waver. But as more time went on, we grew distant. I began to question everything. Who were you? What did I really know about you? More of the same questions began to circle my mind until they clouded my head entirely. Deep in my heart, as much as I thought I knew, in reality I knew nothing.
Still, my heart flutters as I remember the first day I laid eyes on you. I was taking dance lessons uptown at a little studio above the Chateau De Chappelle. Young and old alike paid the premium to receive lessons from Jamir Ricotta—a well renowned Italian ball room dancer—who pirouetted his way across Europe, winning countless medals for his seamless and delicate dance.
After a humid Sunday evening seven summers ago, I had made my way out of the studio and down the steps to the first floor, all the way to the Chateau De Chappelle entrance. I stepped outside only to be greeted by the summer air, and a beautiful man’s eyes on me. It was you, my love. You were dressed in a black Georgiou Flamencci suit, polished dress shoes, and a cigarette between your fingers. Even now, heat spreads through my body as I remember your eyes staring into mine for the very first time. This was different. I knew it and you did too. I had turned away, just as I did now, registering your squinted eyes, your shaped jaw, your bright smile, and charisma that could make any women fall madly in love.
My heart skips a beat as I remember the final moments of our encounter. I had called it my greatest mistake.
I waited no more than a few seconds to look at you again. This time your eyes were smiling, reaching their way into my heart. Feeling intimidated, I looked down to my shoes and rushed in the other direction.
Every day, I regretted that decision. Every day. For this is why you have only been a part of my memories, a figment of my own imagination. As time grew, your image sailed away into the horizon until it completely disappeared and all I saw was a sky meeting a bright blue ocean. Once there was nothing more to grasp onto...I started to move on.
But now I see you again for the very first time in seven years and it is all coming back again. The feelings, the memories—all of it. Why did you have to return? Why did you have to put me through this again?
I close my eyes, fighting the will to open them, to look at you again. I can’t. You were my past—I can’t bear to face yet another emotional battle I already know I will lose. I am just not strong enough.
I start towards the nearest exit, a few feet from the information desk. The old man is gone.
But as I continue walking, I see the old man again, hesitantly wandering towards the exit—unsure, but still approaching it.
I slow my steps, feeling the same hesitance in my bones. I am just like him—unsurely back stepping into the backdrop of life.
Betty Krasnik has published work in Calliope, Red Shoes Review, and Black Fox literary magazine. Currently, she is writing short stories, writer’s blogs, and is finalizing her first dystopian novel. In addition to pursuing writing, she is also studying Accounting at University of Illinois at Chicago. She completed an audit internship with PricewaterhouseCoopers and is planning to finish her Bachelors degree this winter. Follow her on Instagram @betty_krasnik for pictures of her illustrations, cute pictures of her Norwegian Forest cat, and updates on future publications.
by Olivia Lowenberg
The circus troupe arrives with spiders that cling to the ringmaster’s hands. Spiders this big haven’t come to the valley in twenty years. Children from the village swarm Ivan, the ringmaster, and dart away, frightened by his long hair. Elephants, slick with sweat, shift their weight, dung sticking to the pads of their feet. A tiger lifts its head and blinks its eyes, lazily calculating the distance to my throat.
“We’ve got a fantastic show today,” Ivan says. “Flying spiders. Elephants taller than any man. And a boxing bear.”
Spiders swarm out from Ivan’s coat sleeves and spread across his open palms. A bear roars in the tent behind him, and you can sense the uneasiness among the villagers; the spiders have not yet satisfied them. Ivan raises a hand for silence and makes a low, trumpeting call.
A bull elephant enters the ring, guided by a boy no bigger than one tusk. He struggles with the rope binding its neck, and the elephant finally sits, painfully flapping its ears. They are studded with piercings that spell out a name: Mektig. Mighty. Ivan climbs Mektig’s trunk. He opens his mouth, as if to rouse the crowd, but he doesn’t need to say anything more. The spiders are already unfurling, spinning; there are so many of them that they form an undulating cloud against Mektig’s head. They bathe him in silk. He rises on his back feet and bellows, calling for his boy, who appears with a pail of water. Babies cry; a man faints; the bear roars again.
Whispers worm through the crowd, wondering what might happen tomorrow: will there be a carousel of live horses with multicolored manes? Candies that taste like spring and make the eater fly? Or, more ominously, a duel between the boxing bear and his trainer, a series of punches, jabs, and kicks that leaves no winner? My mother believes the spiders are an omen that will bring my sister, Alice, back to life. I know better.
Ivan climbs down and claps his hands. I begin the walk up the hill towards home. A dragonfly hums past my ear. Faint sounds drift up from the valley: the tiger’s heavy footfalls; a coil of rope going slack; knuckles on a drum. Ivan calls my name, but I ignore him. He was sixteen when Alice died, old enough to be blamed but not old enough to be guilty.
Olivia Lowenberg is a graduate student at MF Norwegian School of Theology in Oslo, Norway. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Argot Magazine and Cat on a Leash Review.
by Keith Vaughn
Reunited too late with the arm to re-attach it, Vanessa kept it in a desk drawer nevertheless. She had already thrown away the stump of the trophy. Doing homework she would occasionally unearth the arm and wonder why she kept it. The question was answered on her fourteenth birthday when she, Jennie and two guys from the Beverly Hills High team used it to do coke in her bedroom. “This shit is great.” “It’s my dad’s.” Somebody changed the tape from Prince to Wang Chung. “Deena’s mom’s boyfriend has a Ferrari.” “He is so bitchin.’”
Vanessa started carrying the arm in her purse. Two inches long from broken shoulder to racquet, it was perfect for its new purpose. Not only that, the story of its discovery fascinated kids who were high. People were always happy to see the little golden arm.
* * *
Four years earlier, home from the 8th Annual Spring Junior Open, Vanessa dropped her participation trophy in the driveway. The outstretched arm of the faux-gilt girl in mid-serve snapped off and vanished. It was another insult in a day full of them. She got off her knees and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand.
She dropped her tennis bag in the entry hall. Her parents’ voices jostled against the current of the television that was always on in her father’s office. “I thought I could make it,” he said. “I wanted to. Look, my sunglasses are in my pocket. I was on my way when he called. I had to take it. I have to deal with the Peruvians on their schedule, such as it is. They’re so touchy and easily offended.”
“So is Vanessa,” said her mother.
“What am I supposed to do? Tell him to call back?”
“Why in the world did you promise you’d be there in the first place? Short of actually showing up, which we both know you weren’t going to do, you had nowhere to go but down. Never over-promise. Under-promise and make it seem like over-promising. It’s just like dealing with Matt or the Peruvians.” A promo for Make a Killing filled the pause. “She was absolutely crushed that you weren’t there.”
Vanessa backed her cupped ear away from the door and scowled. She hadn’t been crushed or even a little bit surprised. In the kitchen, she opened a can of Dr. Pepper and turned on the black-and-white TV on the counter. A promo for Far Horizons was on. “How can I trust you?” said Matt Rivera as Colt Raines. Matt was her mom’s biggest client. Vanessa changed the channel. A news report was on about the girl who was murdered in the Valley.
High heels clicked on the tile. “Your father feels terrible,” said her mother. The camera panned across the empty parking lot where the girl’s arm was found. “Go show him your trophy. He’s sorry he didn’t see you win it.”
“No he’s not and I didn’t win it.”
“We talked about this. Start learning now how to leverage guilt.” She winked.
“One second,” said her father. There was shuffling, drawers opening and closing. “Come in.”
Vanessa went half the distance to his desk. Christina was playing with Legos on the floor in front of T.J. Hooker. “Why does she get to be in here?”
“Congratulations. Bring your trophy over here. Let me see it.” He sniffed, pinched the end of his nose, and came around the front of his desk. “I’m sorry I didn’t make it to the club, I got a phone call from this guy in South America I’m trying to make a deal with and he’s breaking my balls—”
“It’s okay.” Vanessa was looking over her shoulder at the television.
“This is the third place trophy?” He took it from her. “What happened to it?”
“Fourth place. I dropped it.”
“Well, that’s no big deal.” He ran his fingers through his hair, grinning and sniffing. “That’s an easy fix. Where’s the arm? We’ll glue it back on.”
“I don’t know.” T.J. Hooker was chasing a killer.
“Your mom says you played great. She said you—”
“She wasn’t even there. If she had been, she could have brought me home like ten hours ago. I didn’t make it past the first round and I had to be there all day. She didn’t even pick me up until way after the whole thing was over. Everybody got one of those.” She nodded at the trophy. “It was mom’s idea to say I came in fourth place.”
“Of course it was.” He shook his head. “She thinks she’s teaching you to protect yourself.”
“Loss. Disappointment. Pain. Things that are inevitable regardless of how prepared you think you are.” He handed the trophy back.
“She’s a liar.”
He gave a short laugh through his nose. “Knowing how to bullshit is incredibly important, especially in your mom’s business, in all business really. Most people want to be told what they’re looking at and what they’re experiencing and how they should feel about it, and they’ll pay a lot for answers they like. They trust voices from outside more than they trust the one inside. That’s why they’re easy to exploit. But in this case,” he touched Vanessa’s hair, sandy blond like her mother’s, like his, “you don’t need bullshit. Not everything needs to be relatable. Not everything has to mean something. Some things can just be yours.”
Christina charged across the office and stood between Vanessa and her father squealing and babbling.
“Not right now, sweetie. I’m talking to your big sister.”
“She’s not my sister,” said Vanessa.
“Of course she is.”
“No she’s not. Not really. I heard you and mom talking. If she’s not yours why did you keep her?” Christina giggled and twirled in the middle of the room, her long dark hair fanned out in a circle, an umbrella to protect the innocent. Vanessa squeezed the mutilated trophy like a hammer.
* * *
When Vanessa got home from her first day of sixth grade, Juana gave her el brazo de oro pequeño. She said she found it dusting the mantle. Neither she nor Vanessa’s parents knew how it got there. Either way, Vanessa was happy to see it.
I am a writer and artist with an MFA from the Cranbrook Academy of Art. I have exhibited internationally and published art criticism in , the Contemporary Art Review Los Angeles. I live and work in Alameda, California.
The Rockabilly Sin
by Amber Wilson
Dust gathered around the wheels of my Pontiac. The wind spat out Kit Kat wrappers and grime in a dishwash drain motion headed straight for my ankles. The sandstone church stood high and cold as the era it was built in, like a schoolmarm warning me to be on my best behaviour. But when it came to matters like this, I didn’t need reminding.
Campbell Town: a place where all-woman motorbike gangs stopped in for their cinnamon scrolls and chai lattes. A pit stop, an urgent loo break, a town full of $4 percolator coffee. It was midday and the sun bleached into my capillaries and reminded me I was no longer in my 20s, while the frenetic breeze punched my hair into straggly knots. Nevertheless, I was determined to make this experience as film noir as possible. I was determined for this to be sexy.
I’d kicked off my sneakers to make way for the red patent leather, and as I slid into the heels I remembered the unsteady sensation. I should have practiced. I wanted to look steadfast, slick and uncompromising. I wanted to look professional.
It was all in place. My hair – coiffed and bobby-pinned. The twin set jumper and cardigan. The flouncy black skirt. He wanted a pinup, and a pinup he’d get. And for later, for when the shadows faded on the grass beside that sandstone tower, for when the commuters quieted and the cicadas began their endless drone, there was the corset. A ruffled emerald glinty thing, bones throughout giving painful structure; a taxidermied mermaid.
A sweet old country church – it was the perfect place to light up. I leaned against my long American car and lifted one heeled foot behind me – an attempted Rita Hayworth silhouette. I stretched out my gloved hands in an imaginary embrace of the building in front of me – even the smallest, poorest towns have beautiful churches. Pounds flooded in, back in the old days, to build exquisite, sometimes massive structures, while the women and their daughters slogged their beauty away early down drains, in laundries and over hot stoves. My left hand remained on the side of my car, a simulated caress, while my right hand returned the cigarette to my sanguine mouth. I inhaled deeply and yanked the cigarette away, enjoying the look of my red lipstick on the paper.
I could see a small group of young men standing in front of the café, smoking too, looking at me, so I attempted more dramatic movements – a wider sway of my hip, a more thylacine arch of my back, eyelashes fluttering so rapid that they could break an Einsteinian equation. And I pretended they were looking at me because I was beautiful.
One of them smirked and looked away, pausing for a moment to cough up and spit on the ground. A small action deserving of a small reaction. But it was a shunt, regardless, a dismissal, a “no”. A small action that created a well, a large, spiralling emptiness in me. I squeezed it inside and tried to turn it into a speck of dust. They were brainless country kids anyway; they weren’t enlightened enough to appreciate voluptuous women.
I glanced down at my cleavage to steady my nerves. There they were – my E-cup armour. It didn’t matter how pretty or how thin other women were, I had breasts that everyone wanted. For heaven’s sake, people paid tens of thousands for weaponry like this.
Walking into that church was like walking into an antique shop – not one that sold things of mahogany and ivory, but one of those cheap knick knack n’ crap stores that tried to flog old toys and sandwich press machines off as “vintage” or “retro”. It wasn’t nice; I felt a little dirty. The air was stale, the mood was dusty. Decades of desperation and ill-fated redemption had taken place here, and now all that was left was some shoddily-drawn Stations of the Cross by some unknown 70s artist.
The voice was old, and it belonged to an old person. I could see, even at our distance – me at the pews and he at the altar – that he had hair long gone grey, and wrinkled skin that had long lost its shape.
I didn’t let his age deter me. I was a professional. This man, wizened and feeble as he was, deserved this as much as any other. As I swayed up the aisle, loosely touching the pews in mock reverence and genuflection, I swore, on the inside, that I would turn this man into a red-blooded beholder of the grace and power of Woman Flesh. I sunk deeper into the red carpet lining the aisle, exaggerating the sway of my side.
As I neared him, a light pant left my mouth.
What transpired in those next few minutes should never be repeated. He said little; I said much. My foibles, my flaws, came spilling from my mouth like a chain of praying mantis woven together by sin. Tears came and my face flustered as I poured my passion into this confession, this performance.
And then, the moment. His face puckered as he looked down toward me, his skin loose from the skull, his eyebrows long and white. He took my head gently, careful not to ruin my bouffant do. I reached back in my chair and I stared, wide-eyed, in mock fear as he pulled me back, examining my eyes and the spaces above my eyes.
I felt it then, wet on my forehead, a surprise. I closed my eyes and felt it trickle down through my hair.
The water had doused me, and now I was wet from the forehead down – reflective, glowing, transcendent.
My online ad attracted all sorts of weirdos. Guys wanted to do all sorts of questionable things to women like me, women who painted themselves and dressed up their insecurities and self-loathing in velvet and Chantilly lace.
But I’d never had one before that wanted to baptise me.
Amber Wilson recently made the transition from wine to whisky, which in itself says a lot. But her first passion is writing. Of a day, she's a news hound in Melbourne's CBD, covering major court cases for Australia's news wire service, AAP. Of a night, she makes films, performs poetry, and writes absurdist fiction. Amber is also the proud mother of a gorgeous, loving and somewhat aggressive ginger kitten named Dave. You can find Amber online here: www.ambervwilson.com