Small Dr. Pepper by Ken Wheatcroft-Pardue

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Through the tinny, staticky speaker came the single order, “Small Dr. Pepper.”

When I repeated it back, I couldn’t help but wonder why anyone would get in a line that reached all the way to the street for just one small DP? Must be one thirsty dude, I thought. Spotted him in my rectangular drive-thru mirror, some skinny punk on his little rinky-dink 90cc Suzuki, who for some reason had to end his day with Texas’ own carbonated prune juice.

I hadn’t much time to cogitate on it. As the only employee at the Jack-in-the-Box on Edgebrook Drive, I was too busy running my butt off–chucking frozen patties from the freezer to the grill, shaking fries and rings out of hot grease, stuffing crackling hot tacos with their American cheese and damp lettuce fixings, popping tops on a gazillion carbonated beverages, taking orders, getting money. In short: doing every damn thing because I was it, the sole employee at Jack-in-the-Box #233. 

It was Sunday before Labor Day and my manager Max had only scheduled me, one person after 10, not figuring that a whole crowd would be out having a great time on a Sunday night because of the holiday, and then all of them end up getting munchies and craving at exactly the same moment some of Jack’s greasy, fattening fare.

“Twenty-six cents,” I announced to my DP-loving customer as he puttered up to the window.

“Forget about it,” he said.

“Huh?” I studied how his tinted visor hid his face. At 11 o’clock at night? What the hell?

Then he said, like he’d been practicing the phrase all day, “I want all your money.”

“Huh?” I repeated.

“I-said-I-want-all-your-money,” he repeated extra specially slow, as if as a baby who had been dropped on the head.

“Are you serious?” I finally managed to get out. Then my voice cracked, betraying me, interrupting the Robert Stack bass I’d been cultivating, to replace it with the worst voice ever for a teenage boy, a Jerry Lewis falsetto. “This some kind of joke?”

“Dead serious,” he said, making his voice sound deeper to contrast with mine, while at the same time putting his left hand into his coat pocket, like he was packing heat and was more than ready to use it.

I slowly backed away from the window. It’s not that I had a plan exactly. Sure, beaucoups of thoughts were caroming around my cerebral cortex at that particular moment. A big old butcher knife to cut onions was near the sink in the back. Or, maybe, I could scrounge around for one of those cups we had for the brave few who could stomach Jack coffee. Then if I found one, I could fill it up with some boiling grease, and throw it at him, but all I could think to do was to keep backing up, till I ended up next to the milkshake machine, a good 12 feet from the motorcycle want-to-be robber.

“Hey, man, don’t worry about it,” Mr. Motorcycle Guy said, tons of pseudo-empathy oozing.

“Huh?” I repeated. By this time, he must’ve thought he was talking to a future rocket scientist.

“Look, it ain’t your money, is it? It’s Jack’s money, right, and hell, dont’cha think Jack has planned ahead and has insurance in case of robbery?”

I leaned against the milk shake machine and chewed on this interesting factoid. “Hmm, guess you might have something there.”

“You bet, hoss. Believe me, the money in that register─no matter how much it is─ain’t worth risking your young life over. And, you know, these things happen fairly often these days. Some think it’s because we’ve banned prayers in school, while others believe it’s because we’re living in the end times. Not a theory I personally ascribe to, but I think the biblical evidence is, let us say, somewhat intriguing.”

So, I was being robbed on the Sunday before Labor Day by a motorcycle riding fundamentalist. What was next? After the robbery, were we going to bow our heads in prayer?

After checking the register, I realized I had a bigger problem than a Jesus Freak who wasn’t clear on the eighth commandment. Max our manager had drilled into us that we were neve to have more than $50 in the register after 10p.m. Now because of the rush, I had at minimum 10 times that, so yours truly was now stuffing at least $500 in cash into a Jack sack for a Jesus-freak stick-up man.

Making it up as I went along, I decided to put all the loose coins and even some coin rolls in the bag. After that I pounded those coins into the bottom of the sack, thinking that maybe, just maybe, the bag would burst open as the motorcycle robber’s mass times velocity would equal─oh, something. Least-wise, I was hoping.

Then as I handed him the Jack bag crammed full of cash and coins, I, much to my eternal shame, reverted into a total Jack-in-the-Box automaton, “Thank you. Have a nice day. Come back,” I droned.

Mr. Robber didn’t respond with “you’re welcome,” or even bust a gut laughing, as he had the perfect right to. He just grabbed the Jack bag and sped off. 

I tried to get a look at his license plate, but wouldn’t you know, he’d tied a rag to cover it. The next car in line cruised to the window with a car packed full of hungry young dudes,all with cheeks dotted with infected zits and long greasy hair. I shouted over their 8-track stereo blastingout Eric Burdon singing Cisco Kid was a friend of mine, “Sorry man, I’m closed. I just got robbed!”

“Shit, let’s go get him,” shouted the driver. Then he peeled out of the drive-thru, fishtailing when he hit the street. He sped down Edgebrook, chasing after the fundamentalist motorcycle robber.

***

The first thing out of my manager’s mouth was, “Let me guess, some bro from the Fifth Ward paid us a little visit tonight so he could supplement his monthly welfare check, right?” He was busy opening the safe, getting enough change and bills into the cash register so I could reopen.

“No, Max, I hate to disappoint you, and while I didn’t see much of his skin, I saw enough to know he was definitely a member of the Caucasian persuasion. Can’t say whether he was supplementing his welfare check or not. I was kinda busy, so I forgot to ask.”

“Did he have a gun?”

“Well.”

“Well, what?”

“I don’t know, Max.”

“What do you mean you don’t know? What are you saying? You’d give money to anyone who’d ask for it? Jack, I’d like a Jumbo Jack extra cheese with all your cash. And you’d respond, Do you want a large fry or apple pie with that?”

Sometimes, well, most of the time, Max was a smart ass, which usually endeared him to his employees, smart ass teenagers, in the main. But tonight he was a little worse than usual. I guess getting him up out of bed with the Mrs. at midnight had really spoiled his day.

“Listen, Max, maybe, he had a gun, acted like he did any ways, like he had something in his coat pocket, but I didn’t ask him to show it to me. I didn’t say, Excuse me, Mr. Robber Dude, I need to see your gun and how big it is before I can give you any money. My manager said so‘ Then risk getting my ass shot for Jack.”

“Yeah, well, I guess, maybe, you did right,” Max responded absently as he was counting out money for the register. He was trying to sound positive, but I could tell his heart just wasn’t in it anymore.

“So I presume you told the cops all you told me?” Max asked.

“Yeah, and I gave them a good description of the bike, too. Hope they find that skinny bastard.”

“Me, too. And I hope they get all that cash back.” Max whistled, showing me he’d already figured out how much cash I handed out.

I felt my face getting hot. I wanted to jump in, defend myself, but I didn’t a clue one what to say.

“So you want to stay till 3,” Max fortuitously changing the subject, “like you were scheduled or do you want to go home? I remember the first time I got robbed, and I know it can wipe your ass out, so whatever you want to do is fine by me.”

“I’ll stay, Max. It’s okay. I want to clean up.”

He nodded. He stood there with his back to me, his big body slouching over the cash register, a thick sheen of sweat on the back of his fat neck, his wide shoulders sagging.

A powerful pang of sorrow hit me. Poor guy. He looked so exhausted, so totally put upon.

Then it occurred to me that the way he was standing would make a great statue, like Rodin’s The Thinker, we’d been studying about in my Western Civ class. Except Max would represent something different, not philosophy or great learning, more like the total futility of managing a bunch of teenagers at a Jack-in-the-Box.

***

Jesse poured the clear liquid out of the pint bottle. It spread a yard-wide puddle on the bright

orange tiles. Then nonchalantly he lit a match and flicked it on the spill. Immediately it flamed, a bright blue fire in the middle of Jack’s dining area. Then just as quickly the flame went out.

“Cool,” I said.

“Yeah, imagine if it’s this flammable, hell, flammable as gas, what it’s doing to our insides right now?”

I nodded thoughtfully.

“So you want more vodka in your Coke?”

“Hell, yeah.”

He poured some in both our cups. Then took a toke of his Marlboro and flicked the ashes onto the gold color cheap-ass ashtrays emblazoned with the Jack logo. Normally, when we got bored, we used them as Frisbees.

“So you got robbed? Cool.”

“Yeah, I guess. Hadn’t thought so till you mentioned it, but I guess it is pretty cool. I didn’t think so at the time, though. Also, I’m kinda worried. I think Max might fire me. I had way too much cash in the register.”

Jesse squinted at me through his usual-half-closed, stoner lids. “Listen, don’t worry about Max. Sure, he fired my ass for coming to work stoned once, but I always thought Max was pretty fair as Jack managers go. And, anyway, the extra cash you had in the till is his fault when you think about it. Who was the idiot that only scheduled one person after 10 on the Sunday before Labor Day? Did he really think nobody was going to be going out?”

“I guess you’re right,” I said, more than a bit relieved, but maybe it was the vodka finally

kicking in.

“Well, I’ll tell you, life sure is shit sometimes.”

“Yep,” I nonchalantly answered, trying to sound as grown-up as possible. “Tell me about it.”

“People die. Bad things happen. Sometimes Jack-in-the-Boxes gets robbed. Hell, my old man ran off last year, and since then my mom spends most of her time drinking when she isn’t hitting on any guy with 2 legs and a dick. Shit, I’ll be damned if I know what to do about it.”

“Really?” I checking out Jesse’s face, pinched with anger. I’d never heard him speak of any of that before. “Man, that sucks.”

“Gotcha!” Jesse chuckled. “I just made all that shit up. It ain’t true. None of it.”

“Oh, shit. That’s almost as bad as being told ‘gullible’ isn’t in the dictionary and believing it.”

“Man, you should’ve seen your face.

After that, Jesse and I sat in silence, sipping our Cokes with dashes of vodka, the fluorescent lights abuzz over our heads. We looked out at the mostly dark 2 a.m. Edgebrook Drive. Our neighborhood’s main drag, our teenage fastfood heaven, was now quiet and almost totally deserted.

What a night. I had worked my ass off, got robbed by some fundamentalist punk on a dinky Suzuki, got yelled at by my racist boss, and now the vodka was beginning to erode any edge the past few hours had slapped on me. Maybe this was life boiled down to its essence? If that’s what it was, it didn’t seem too bad. I’d had my doubts before, but just maybe this life thing was something I could manage.

Maybe?

“Hey man, you want me to light the vodka again?”

“Sure, Jesse. Why the hell not?”

East of Durango by Harrison Kim

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“You know, I could drive out in the desert here, and put a bullet through your head,” says the stocky, brown shirted man who claims he’s a Mexican Federale. “No one would ever find you.”

I’m riding with him through the warm January desert, a hundred kilometres east of Durango, Mexico.

This morning, I woke up in my camping place behind some high sage with the hard clay under me. On top of my sleeping bag I felt a slithering. A long moving weight. I stayed still. To move, to startle, could mean that creature coming into the bag. I convinced myself it was something else. Perhaps a sleepy non venomous king snake. And the sliding thing went away. 

I backed out of the bag and stood watching the rising sun. Nothing round but low brush and dusty ground. If that was a rattlesnake, any panic moves would have encouraged a bite. Believing that it was something benign calmed me, changed the situation. I stayed in control, unscathed.

I needed to move. Sun too bright, circling birds overhead. I hiked along the nearby railway track, thoughts drifting as I moved along a long straight stretch above a creek bank.

Will I wake up one day to find myself back at home in Canada? I wondered. Only if this was a dream. 

I made a choice to leave my old life behind. Now it was always the desert. I stared down at the tracks and the ties. Behind me, I heard wheels screech along the steel line. Three workers drove up on a railway speeder. 

“Need a ride?” A rough whiskered guy wearing a tattered straw hat held out a cola. 

“Sure,” I said, and his crew drove me along to a crossroad.

“You shouldn’t walk on the tracks,” he said. “There’s nothing to eat or drink for thirty kilometres. Take the road here.”

 I followed his direction, hitchhiking at the few vehicles passing. Then the Federale picked me up. Some kind of officer. Wide nose, soft, thin hands, deep brown neck.

He turned and said, “Do you speak Castilian?”

I nodded enthusiastically. “Yes. I’m fairly fluent in Spanish, actually.” 

His spoke with a high-class accent, easy to understand. He reached back and prodded my packsack while driving with his other hand. “What are you doing up here?” 

I eyed his gun, in a black holster attached to a wide black belt, poking into his side.

He gestured to the hills. “There’s nothing up here,” he said. “Why would a young man such as yourself come to see nothing?”

Black chest hair pushed out of the top of his clean brown shirt. His voice was very articulate, calm. He must have been in his early forties. Nothing shiny on his uniform, like medals or stars. I had to believe he was who he appeared to be.

Anyone can behave like someone they’re not. It depends if he or she is real about it. Then that person can assimilate into someone new.

In Mexico, I was not my usual self. I spoke another language. That alone sent me to a different zone. The whole thought process was different en español. And with the low brown hills, the villages with their crumbling brick buildings, the woman who crossed herself as I sidled by her door, put my mind in a dream. That’s where I wanted to be. Dreaming, and forgetting, and changing what I believed.

The day before, outside a few square brick huts, a boy followed me. A skinny, sallow faced teen with a torn green shirt and ragged pants, asking the same question as the Federale. “What are you doing up here?”

“Just checking out the scenery,” I told him then, and the Federale today. 

And they both replied, “There’s no scenery here. Nothing to see.”

They’re right. I’m here for the nothing. I came to experience, in a place where all seems illusion and mirage, to find a change to bring me out of emptiness. 

I attended a University back in Canada, and had directed myself into a place where my union with a woman became the only meaning, the only reason I existed. Studies became a long second next to the physical connection with Gillian. To touch her, to bond. I created exclusive singularity with my own imagination. 

Once it became real, I couldn’t think my way out of it. I needed to spend all my time with her. Without this connection I had no reason to be. For two months I existed in paradise, for a man of 22, in a heaven sex love dream.

But after the New Year, Gillian presented me with a somber lecture, “You act too serious. Too intense. Too clingy. You’re always calling me, always round the apartment, paying attention. You’re always wondering where I am. What I’m doing.”

She wanted freedom, she wanted to have fun. I boxed her in, she needed a break. “Just a break,” she pleaded. 

I waited outside her door, watched her as she went to class. Sat behind her in the student lounge. Walked behind her down the University concourse, pacing around and around the block where she lived. 

Two choices arrived.

One: to reappear each day as a pitiful stalker, every moment possessed by the places Gillian and I knew─the memories of what we did together. The more she pushed me away, the more I insisted on closer. Each day I was rejected. 

Two: to run away from everything. The conclusion came easy. I couldn’t stand living another day in my stalker persona. I stopped attending school, threw some clothes in my pack, jumped on the bus to Mexico. I studied for a degree in Spanish literature, and I was fluent in the language. Maybe Mexico would give me an escape, relief from obsession.

I spent long days staring out the bus window at passing trees and towns, nowhere to get out, because to get out meant to think again. The technicolor land screened by as I sped south, away from the frozen Canadian winter.

I called Gillian in California andshe told me, “You’re acting out. You’re selfish and sick. You scare me. You say you love me but you only love yourself. If you loved me, you’d come back. You’re manipulating me with guilt. Please, if you love me, give me what I want.”

What she wanted was to be left alone, so what I wanted could not be. “I’m trying to do what you asked, to disappear,” I told her. “I won’t call again.”

I imagined relating all this to the Federale, telling him that his strange offer to shoot me was welcome. The moment would be over fast. No more pressure, no more awakenings. No one would know of my death. I’d vanish forever. I pictured the Federale burying me under the hard desert ground. 

Would that bring satisfaction? After the shot, would I wake up again back home? Back in time, before I met Gillian, back in my parent’s place? 

I overheard my Mom saying, “He’s always wandering, will he ever settle down?” and my Dad crying in the bed, “I don’t know! I don’t know!” 

Or would I be resurrected, born again to start everything once more? And when the time came to meet Gillian again, would I have learned my lesson, and turn away?

“The power of a brand-new dream,” I repeated to myself, over and over. 

“I don’t believe you are a tourist,” said the Federale. He drove by some tall trees, over a bridge, below it a dried-up riverbed. “You must have some kind of secret.”

At a crossroads, he stopped and raised himself right over the seat, opened my packsack and looked in. “Tell me. What are you doing up here? The real reason.” He sat back, turned off a side road. The vehicle lurched over some ruts.

“Where are we going?” I asked. It was becoming a bit more real, this vanishing into the desert.

“Like I said,” the man’s voice grew stronger. “You could disappear. And no one will know.”

I glanced across at the Federale. He was totally correct. I made it here by impulse. Told no one. My parents still thought I was attending classes. To my professors, I was only another missing number. Gillian… I imagined her sleepless, shocked by all that I was doing because of her. Or more likely, and what I perceived from that California phone call, living free and getting on with her life.

“You’re like a child,” she said then. “You always have to be with me, like I’m your Mommy.”

I recalled our wild life. At first she seemed insatiable, a wicked teacher. Before her, I’d never even kissed anyone. We were one. She was not my Mommy.

But now I asked myself “What’s with all this drama? Am I doing it for real, or acting it out? And is there a difference?”

I glanced out the car window at the low, black trees and wondered, “What is my purpose here?”

The hills looked real. The Federale looked real, eagle eyes scanning the road ahead, maybe figuring out where to plant me. A bit too much reality. I smelled car exhaust, caught a glimpse of the dust blowing behind us. I checked my hands, they trembled. I breathed harder, felt my thoughts burning. The inside of the car began to tilt. I needed to calm down. Or I’d be dead.

I concentrated, picturing the Federale as my friend. I imagined his name was Mendez and he was familiar with my imaginary Uncle who lived in Durango. My hypothetical Uncle Joel, the Mennonite. There were many Mennonites farming in the area. I saw them in Durango market itself. Blonde, tall, and bearded, delivering produce early in the morning.

I volunteered myself as the director of this scene. I directed myself along the railway tracks, through the hills, and into the Federale’s vehicle. From here, I could direct myself to be killed and left in the desert. It was very much within my power. Just leap from the car when the man slowed for a corner, and pretend to run. He’d shoot me then, as I stumbled through the dust. 

There was only a short distance to go now, to whatever place my mind chose. I began to talk to the Federale. He could decide what to do after that. 

“I’m here because my girlfriend broke up with me,” I told him. “I wanted to go somewhere to take my mind off her. I’m staying with my uncle in Durango. He’s well known in the Mennonite community. He knows I’m up here.”

“Mendez” regarded me from the corners of his eyes, as if to say “How do I know that’s true?” but after a long pause he nodded. “That’s a long way to travel for a woman.” He slowed the car and we bounced over some more bumps.

“Do you speak low German?” he asked. “That’s the Mennonite tongue.”

“Not really,” I told him. “I’m not religious actually. But my Uncle is. We sort of split apart when he moved down here a few years ago. But we’re back to being friendly now.”

“Why did you lie before?” Mendez asked.

“It wasn’t a lie. I’m a photographer. I like to take bird pictures, and there are many birds up here, the turkey vulture, the raven and magpie.” This was true. I’m a big fan of all animals. They can’t hurt you like people. Many are photogenic.

“We’re just about at the Corrales railway station,” he said. “I want you to board the next train. It comes in four hours.” He turned. 

I noticed a small tattoo on the back of his neck. Some kind of eagle. 

“It is dangerous country up here for a gringo.”

“Yes” I nodded quite a few times. “You are totally correct.”

He turned the wheel round a large puddle and smiled, revealing his big wide white toothed mouth. He threw his head back and laughed. “Did I scare you before?”

 “Yes. You scared me. I was very scared, actually.”

He leaned forward again. “You will find other women. But not around here. You should’ve stayed in Durango. I know some places…”

Ahead the road dropped down to another river and on the other side a small village. My confidence rose. I chatted in the guise of my new Mennonite family persona, telling Mendez about romance, hopelessness, needing an escape, and busing it all the way from Canada. 

He kept driving silently. After a while he turned his head and said, “You better be absolutely sure there’s no marijuana in that pack.”

“I’m absolutely certain,” I said. “Marijuana makes me paranoid; I don’t touch the stuff.”  

The Federale motored up to a small building at the side of the tracks. He opened his window. I caught a whiff of sage.

“Get out of here,” he said. “And don’t return. It’s not safe. There are very bad people in this area.”

“Yes, sir,” I pulled my pack out. “Thanks for the ride down.”

He shrugged, one hand on the wheel. “When I come back tonight, I want you gone.” He raised his hand, half a wave. “I’m trying to help you, gringo.”

As I walked towards the tracks, he pulled away. I stood in the shade of the tiny station. A slight breeze blew across the platform, rustling a paper cup. The sun drifted imperceptibly around the pure blue sky. I moved myself to new shade as the shadows turned. 

After a couple of hours, a girl approached the station. Oval faced, long black hair, dressed in tight blue pants, a shiny white blouse, dust on her grey running shoes. She carried a heavy burlap bag, and when she saw me, she waved with her other hand.

“Hey, what’s in there?” I asked

“It’s an iguana.” She lifted the bag higher. “I’m taking it to my house for supper.”

“Can I see?”

“If you like.” She walked over and opened the bag. I looked in. Indeed, a grey reptile lay blinking there. Swarthy fellow with a string around its jaws. It appeared claustrophobic, eyes gazing up at me. Its feet tried to grasp the bottom of the bag.

“Can I buy him off you?” I asked.

“Are you going to eat it?” The girl grinned and tied the burlap closed. She mimed eating a slab of meat, hands up around her pretty mouth.

“I don’t think so,” I said. “I’m a vegetarian”

“Well,” said the girl, “You’ll have to give me double what I paid for it. My parents will be angry if I sell for less than a good profit.”

“Okay. I’ll pay whatever you ask. Just cut the string from around his mouth.”

“Okay. That’ll be two hundred. But he bites.”

“No deal unless his jaws are free.”

“Okay. You are very brave.” She smiled again. 

I handed over the money in 50-peso increments. The girl pulled a knife out of her jacket, crouched down, and opened the bag. She reached in, pulling out the iguana to snip the string. Then she quickly shoved it back in and tied the bag shut. I could see the iguana bumping around inside. The girl stood up, waved the fifty-peso bills at me, “adios,” and jogged down the railway tracks, stuffing the money in her tight pants pockets.

After a while, I carefully turned the bag sideways and very quickly untied the loop knotted string. The iguana poked its head out, looked both ways. It opened and closed its mouth a few times, then walked around the train platform. It turned to face me. Then it walked away. 

The platform had a view across the tracks to the sage and stunted pines beyond. The iguana stopped, stared at the desert. I watched it peer over the platform edge, where the wood jutted out. It hopped off the platform. Its grey scaled tail followed last, as it disappeared into the sage.

I waited another hour for the train, hopped on and rode all the way to Durango. I stood between the train cars. They shook and jostled along the tracks, and I watched the desert hills roll by. I didn’t think of Gillian more than once, and that, only in passing. I was alive, and free, and that was enough.

Image of a Mother by Yash Seyedbagheri

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I lay out cards with images. Try to match them.

I need two mothers.

Two apples. Two squirrels.

I can’t find either of the mothers with the sly smiles, tender pride in their eyes.

I keep those cards close at night. We love you, Nicky, the mothers whisper. We truly love you.

The mothers have been with me since I was ten. They listened to me, question why people lie. Leave.

I find two houses, two fathers. Ransack closets, sofas.

Have these mothers left? Was I too inquisitive? Did they also find me sensitive?

I lose the other cards.

What’s next?

The Dome by Katherine Mezzacappa

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Norfolk, England

The Dome is not a building, nor even a specific place. It was months before I realised they called it that because the word really means house, a corruption of domus. Later, much later, I hazarded asking where the Dome was. My companion waved an arm in the general direction of the derelict church through the minibus window.

“It’s here, everywhere.”

Let me try to explain.

The only women of the Dome I was allowed to see were those aged fifty and above, and the eldest living girl not more than ten years old. Their young men I first saw harvesting corn with long scythes in large, silent teams, dressed in old “good” clothes: suit trousers gone shiny and long parted from their jackets, palely striped collarless shirts with the sleeves rolled up. Dressed this way and using hand-tools, they resemble Amish, but they have not eschewed other benefits of modern life, like, for instance, travelling by minibus.

Should you pause to watch these men at work, they’ll stop, one by one, and watch you. Then, one will detach himself from the group and come and ask you what you’re doing there. In my case I just said it was because I was interested in their community. This is how it always starts, they respond to interest shown. Unlike other cults they don’t go canvassing members.

“There was a wedding here yesterday,” one of them told me.

Like the others, he was fitter and stronger than me. I’m taller than most men but slenderer. My wife once said, when she still loved me, that I don’t quite know what to do with my long, spindly limbs.

“Hilda, your mother’s cousin” he added.

Hilda, I hadn’t seen for years. How old would she be now? I did a rough calculation─at least sixty-seven. I wondered about her bridegroom. Her first husband had been packed into Norfolk clay at least twenty years ago. I cannot remember him.

“Go and have a look.” He pointed to the little church standing in its graveyard two fields away, muffled by yew.

I thanked him and walked off in its direction, being careful to skirt the corn, feeling their eyes on my back.

On reaching the little flint-built church I saw that it was really not much more than a chapel or oratory, the sort you might find in a city cemetery. Oddly, its entrance was not at ground level but up a row of four or five steps, crumbling and overgrown. Couldn’t someone at least have sprayed some weed killer over them, in honour of this elderly bride’s poor stumbling feet?

The panels of the door were bleached and warped as timber long tossed by the tide, greenish rot encroaching at its foot. I pushed it open, expecting despite this unpromising exterior the usual English church mixture of mustiness and polish: a Victorian tiled floor perhaps, some damaged brasses, poppyheaded pews, kneelers, neat piles of hymnals and a flyblown display of photographs of smiling Africans, members of a sister parish that they would never meet. Instead, a scene of utter desolation: crumbling masonry, a denuded altar table covered in bird-shit, crevices of light in the roof, some broken stacking chairs against the walls, and whatever was strewn across the floor crunching under my feet.

I fled. Knowing I looked ridiculous, I nevertheless kept a field’s breadth between them and me, struggling over barbed wire fences that plucked at my clothes, tumbling into mud, whilst they swivelled and followed my haphazard progress. I saw them do this out of the corner of my eye, for I didn’t dare give them any indication by the tilt of my head that I noticed them.

By the time I reached my car I was sweating, though the September afternoon was mild. There was a panicky moment in which I couldn’t find my car keys, my dancing desperation observed from three fields away.

Finally my frantic fumblings produced a faint rattle. My jacket pocket had given way (my wife had always complained that I stuffed too much into pockets. I think, absurd as it sounds, that this was one of those minor irritations that led her to kill our marriage). Almost weeping with relief I winched the keys out from where they lay within the lining of the jacket.

There was another cold moment when I couldn’t manage to turn the ignition. For some long seconds I convinced myself the battery was dead.

***

At my lodgings in Aylsham my landlady looked searchingly at me but contented herself with, “It’s a messy business this bird-watching.”

I smiled briefly, saying nothing, and fled to my room as soon as I’d eaten, and rang my mother.

“I didn’t hear from Hilda at Christmas,” she told me. “She was on her own, of course. Her daughter moved up to Ilford about ten years ago. We’d thought she’d never leave her Mum, but what’s there to do down there? You can have her address if you like…” She eyed me with a slight frown. “I still don’t understand what you’re doing there.”

“Doctor’s orders,” I said.

Afterwards, I looked up the church in my Pevsner for North-East Norfolk and Norwich: Emmington. St. Wilgefortis. Village disappeared at Black Death. Late Norman nave, one S window with a just-pointed head but a round-headed rere-arch.

Chancel of C13 with one lancet in each wall. W bell-turret on the ridge, timber substructure medieval. Restored almost to extinction 1866. Monument: John Chittleborough + 1714.

Wilgefortis?

A massive Catholic database in Sacramento, California, provided this explanation.

The curious story of Wilgefortis, (Uncumber;Liberata), who never existed, is simply an erroneous explanation of the crucifixes of the C12 and earlier which depicted Christ fully clothed and bearded…according to legend, Wilgefortis was daughter to a pagan king of Portugal. Her father wanted her to marry the king of Sicily, but she had taken a vow of virginity (some sources suggest Wilgefortis is a corruption of vierge forte). She prayed to become unattractive and miraculously grew a beard and her suitor withdrew. Her father had her crucified. On the cross she prayed that all those who remembered her should be liberated from all encumbrances and troubles. Images of her were to be found at Worstead, Norwich and Boxford (Norfolk), despoiled in the reign of Edward VI…there then followed a characteristically pithy comment from Thomas More concerning the custom of offering oats at her image: ‘Whereof I cannot perceive the reason, but if it be because she should provide a horse for an evil husband to ride to the devil upon, for that is the thing that she is sought for, insomuch that women have therefore changed her name and instead of St. Wilgeforte call her St. Uncumber, because they reckon that for a peck of oats, she will not fail to uncumber them of their husbands’.

Nowhere, I think is more desolate than a seaside town out of season. I know though why Mundesley had appealed to Hilda, it was the scene of so many childhood holidays, and the chance to exchange a terraced house in crowded Tottenham (next door’s radio audible through the sitting-room wall) for life in a bungalow.

16 Clunch Road was one of a string of lonely squat houses, huddled down against the elements, spattered along this coastal road without plan or design. Glass porches or verandas had erupted on most of their façades, providing places to sit when going out into the naked strips of garden seemed too exposing, too public. In Hilda’s porch I saw a flurry of unopened envelopes, mainly junk mail, and several issues of Reader’s Digest magazine. A pair of dusty Wellington boots lay on their sides and I remembered Hilda saying to my seven year-old self, :that way if the mice get in, they’ll be able to get out again.”

I couldn’t see much else. Hilda had net curtains. They even hung across the French windows. The back of the house gave onto a cracked, overgrown patio, some tangled, sprawling rose-bushes, and a green-house where bloated, split and mildewed tomatoes weighed heavy on their stalks.

Next door the woman in sweatshirt and trainers with the tangled hair looked at me unsmilingly. A smell of Brussels sprouts and elderly meat clung about her. “Hilda? Not seen her for ages. My Leanne saw her go with her sons. They wouldn’t speak to her. Just looked through her when she said hello.”

“I wouldn’t have thought Hilda would have brought them up to have no manners. She was always so polite. When was this, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“Who wants to know? You family?”

“Well, yes, but not close. Hilda’s a sort of aunt.”

“You’d best come in then.”

Her front room was as disorderly as I remembered Hilda’s to be neat. She nudged a pile of newspapers to one side on a fake leather settee. I sat on its edge.

“Cuppa tea?”

I said yes automatically, and then wished I hadn’t.

“No milk, thank you.” I normally take it, but thought I’d better minimise the risks. In the flotsam on the chair opposite a half eaten sandwich was stiffening on a plate. The rays of sun that lay across the carpet highlighted a fine mesh of hairs, dust and crumbs. The dark brocade curtains looked as though they were seldom moved. They sagged where their hooks were missing.

I stared into my oily tea. It wasn’t warm. It felt viscous on my tongue.

She talked without stop, “It would need a lot doing to it of course. Can’t have been touched since she moved in. Needs rewiring, then central heating put in. Those metal window frames are getting rusty─they were never much good so close to the sea. She didn’t have much stuff, of course, but Leanne’s boyfriend knows someone who’ll take it away for free. He’s like that, likes to do favours for people. Anyway, it’d be like keeping it in the family, wouldn’t it? I mean, Hilda knew Leanne from when she was a baby. You wouldn’t need to bother about solicitor’s fees and all that, would you?’

On my feet, the half-drunk tea on the floor, I said sharply “My aunt’s not dead yet,” and stormed out.

I knew Leanne’s mother would be watching me from the mildewed kitchen window, but that she’d only see the top of my head over the listing fence panels. In Tottenham there’d always been a spare key in the toolbox in the hut in the back yard.

I gave the door of Hilda’s garden shed a shove and a rusted hinge gave way. Inside were some faded plastic children’s toys─perhaps Hilda really had befriended Leanne.

They didn’t look quite old enough to have been her daughter’s. A rusting bicycle with flaccid tyres was propped against one wall, alongside trays of daffodil bulbs which had sprouted palely and uselessly in the half dark. There was also a blue metal toolbox. I found the keys lying in a tray of nails.

The house smelt damp. It had new occupants. I found their droppings first on the nibbled copy of the Daily Mail on the silly occasional table in the sitting room, a Saturday edition from the previous May. Beside it sat a tea cup in its saucer, flowering with mould.

In the bathroom the doll in the knitted crinoline covering the spare toilet roll put her plastic arms out to me imploringly. The mice had laid waste to her skirts and their contents. One of them lay in the bath, its flesh dry and split. The products on the glass shelf testified to an inescapably elderly toilette: hair rinses, shrink-wrapped lavender soaps, a third-used bottle of Eau de Cologne, denture cleaning solution.

I pocketed a brown bottle of capsules prescribed in April. The Camberwick bedspread had been pulled straight and smooth. I traced my finger a moment along the velveteen grooves of its pink surface. I think this is something I may have done as a child. The sheets underneath felt damp, the intervening blankets synthetically harsh. A slight indent on the pillow contained one grey hair.

Empty suitcases were piled on top of the wardrobe. Inside was what my mother would call “a good winter coat,” some beige polyester blouses, checked skirts with elasticated waistbands. Her two hairbrushes lay face to face in a chaste missionary position on top of the chest of drawers. Her smalls, along with her surgically pinkish-brown tights in little bags, lay undisturbed inside, kept faintly fragrant with lavender bags.

I thought, No one else was meant to see these things. Yet the bureau downstairs had been arranged as though Hilda anticipated someone else settling her affairs. The sweeping copper-plate of her birth and marriage certificates lay alongside the daisy-wheel printed card that identified Hilda’s right to whatever resources the National Health Service could offer her, via her access to a GP.

***

“They all look a bit like that round here,” said the Asian boy at the newsagents-cum-grocer’s. He wasn’t discourteous, just bored and uninterested. How, anyway, do you describe a woman you have’t seen in decades, of whom you don’t have a photograph?

I had to wait two days before I could get to see her doctor. The first time I couldn’t get past an officious receptionist. “Doctor cannot possibly discuss confidential patient matters with anyone other than notified next of kin.”

The queue behind me was growing restive. I was conscious of a mother with a struggling baby behind me, repeating to the child, “Just be patient, it’ll only be a minute.”

I hate a scene, so I left. The next day I saw a different receptionist, and feigned illness to get an appointment.

“I’ll put you in with Dr. Munday at 11.”

“No, not Dr. Munday. It has to be Dr. Wilson. I like the name,” I smiled madly at her.

She looked away quickly, back to her screen. “3:30.” She refused to look up.

“These are for blood pressure,” said Wilson. “But haven’t you checked her whereabouts with the rest of her family?”

“She’s gone to the Dome,” I said.

The skin of the doctor’s face seemed to tighten and become shiny, as though someone were pulling all the loose flesh together at the back of his head. “Do you work, Mr…?”

“Doctor,” I said, a mite facetiously (I enjoy such exchanges.) “My PhD is in Restoration comedy.”

“I see.” He sneered. “And what kind of employment is there in Restoration comedy?”

“I work in a call centre. That is to say I did. Before that I worked in a bank, until they re-engineered.”

He stretched his lips, then stood up. “Your aunt will turn up. Try to enjoy the rest of your holiday.”

***

I wanted to observe them first so parked some distance away. They were dots in the field when I raised the binoculars.

They were looking at me.

As I climbed over the first stile the one who had told me of my aunt’s marriage stepped out from behind the hedgerow. He motioned to me to go back.

“But I need to speak to you!”

“You will. I’m coming with you.” His directions took us to a sprawling former council estate on the outskirts of Norwich. 17 Wensum Gardens had retained its local authority appearance when others all around had been “improved” and thus looked more original, more solidly designed, than all its neighbours. My companion led me through to the spartan kitchen.

“Sit down.” He nodded at the formica-topped table.

“Where’s my aunt?”

“She’s married, I told you.”

“Who on earth is her husband then?”

He smiled patiently. “She has no husband. There are no husbands among us, and no wives either. Those who come to us married abandon such ties. Hilda has sworn herself to us, to love us, to honour us, to obey us, and to endow the Deity with all her worldly goods. Our solicitor is drawing up her will.”

“Who are you?”

He shrugged. “We’re all kinds…farmers, teachers, bankers, council workers─we have a doctor. He’s particularly helpful to those who falter at the rigour of our rule. We’re happy to take from science whatever will help us in our life.”

“This Deity, then…is this some sort of cult?”

He paused. “Our Deity precedes all cults. She looked on as Mithras killed the bull. She heard the mothers’ shrieks in Nazareth when the soldiers came. She poured oils on Akenhaten’s bandages. She sang amongst the stones at Callanish. The Christians took her as theirs, but then they disowned her. They never really understood her. Christians accept pain, suffering and disappointment as though these are virtues. She frees us from all that. She accepts only what is her due in return.”

He stood up. “Your room is upstairs, the one above the front door. You’ll be able to live alone after a while, but you aren’t ready yet. There is everything you need here’. He nodded in the direction of the small fridge, the microwave on the worktop, tins on a shelf.”

After her left me, I watched him drive off in my car. I looked for my telephone and found he’d taken that too. Looking for a way out, I found there wasn’t one. They’d changed every pane of glass. They seemed to be made of the same stuff as the windows of high speed trains.

Much later, two more of them came. I’d already crept into the bed I found ready along with two ragged but clean towels laid out for my use. I saw the shadows of their movements in the sliver of light under the door, and heard them murmuring.

I don’t know what time it was when the light came on. A tight-skinned face came between me and the naked bulb, followed by a sharp pain in my upper arm. W ilson smiled, the light went out, and I dreamed of scything, my arm moving back and forth to ease the stiffness.

They woke me just before daylight, leaving me other clothes to wear─like theirs. Overnight my own things had gone. Breakfast awaited me on the formica table: two slices of buttered bread, a mug of weak tea.

They stood in the door whilst I ate, watching me.

***

“Time to go.” The door of the minibus swung sideways, and I felt a hand in the small of my back.

There was something the same about my six or seven companions. I don’t know a better way to describe it. They didn’t resemble each other as do relatives, because what stands out there is what distinguishes one brother from the other, what makes him different. A shared, silent, intentness was what linked them, a deliberation in their movements.

There was another oddity. They were smooth, as though their limbs and faces were formed of hairless wax, or latex. They were like images of locally venerated saints you find in southern European churches, bland effigies.

They put me to bundling the corn into sheaves, three laid against each other and tied round, to let the air in. I was slow. My bones enervated, my muscles slack as though they still slept. You might ask why I accepted this.

Understand that if you have some purpose in life, even if it is not enough to have you bouncing off your mattress at dawn or scribbling feverishly far into the night, then you can shrug off many things. You can affectively not notice the man asking for “any spare change” because you can look as though you’re going somewhere in a hurry, or are so deep in thought that you are beyond distractions.

If instead you live in a bedsit where muffled music thumps around you much of the night, where other tenants must talk loudly whatever time they come in at─if instead you took revenge on your patronising ‘pod-leader’ (and how are we today, Doctor?) by signing up every poor purchaser of bread-and-circuses that morning to the adult channels (with the exception of those that wanted them─I gave them Nickelodeon instead)─if instead your wife left you for the man who fired you from the Bank after giving you an assignment he knew was bound to fail (Set ye Uriah in the forefront of the hottest battle, and retire ye from him, that he may be smitten, and die)─if instead, even your own mother thinks you can’t ‘frame’ yourself, and in any case you want to leave her in peace with her new husband after she has endured years of your father’s infidelities, well, they found it easy to make me one of them.

I could believe this was my home. Ah, the freedom of not having to make any more decisions. It wasn’t as if I was giving up anything for this… or was I?

Dr. Wilson repeated his home visit two nights later, and in the same manner. The morning afterwards I realised that one of the few companions to my solitary life had deserted me.

I had no erection, my poor, hopeful, optimistic erection that nudged me most mornings of my newly single life, was gone, and could not be revived. I tried unsuccessfully to summon interest by recalling the few pornographic images I have seen. 

I’ve never been a highly energetic person, but as Wilson’s injections continued (for they did, although I was never able to predict his visits) a creeping lassitude took hold of me. In the fields I walked as though on the sea-bed, with feet of lead. Every action pushed against the weight of water. I watched my companions, their every move seemed to be studied, measured, timed, with that slow deliberateness of a Tai-Chi class I once stumbled upon in a church hall (I was looking for a second-hand book fair, but had got the wrong church).

With the coming of winter, I was brought to work in a vast barn where we sat at greasy trestles scraping the flesh and fat from sheepskins and cow-hides with flints, before these were then cured above the great fire that heated the place. Where I am now they brought me a pork pie for lunch once. I first separated the clear, solid jelly from around the meat, then tried futilely to pick out the pieces of fat. In the end I ate none of it. Clip-board man wrote notes about this.

Then one morning I was taken back to the church.

You too will have read those accounts of pyjama clad prisoners having to dig the pits they are to be thrown into. When life is lived at that extremity, then all that matters is that it is someone else you throw in the pit. 

We dug on the side farthest from the road, shielded from view by the yews. I believe yews can be very ancient indeed, and these had been plentifully nourished. Here the pestilence that had laid waste to Emmington had been folded into the earth, bones tangled indiscriminately. We dug deep, but not tidily, the clay sticking to our shovels.

“Come,” said my companion. I never knew his name. I never knew any of their names, and they didn’t use mine.

He held the church door open for me. The high stone lip of the threshold held in the stalks strewn all over the floor, crunching under our feet as I was nudged towards the chancel arch.

He caught me by the upper arms at my first shriek, and held me hard, laughing. The bruises where his fingers pressed stayed for days/ Clip-board man continues to ask me about self-harm.

“It’s not for you,” he kept saying, “It’s not for you.”

I believed him, because I wanted to. Peel back our acquired layers of civilisation, of values, of compassion, of courage, even, and we are revealed as naked, snarling beasts. Do you think that the priest who once ministered in this church resisted when the iconoclasts came and tore down the statues and smashed the stained glass? 

Threatened with a partial throttling, eviration, and the dragging out of his reeking bowels, do you think he backed against his altar and clutched the monstrance in his arms?

Of course not.

Yet when I thought they’d come for me that night in front of Wensum Gardens, I fought back. I wrestled in the darkness of the dusty blanket that engulfed me, but my arms felt as weak as sparrow-bones in the other man’s grip. I wept for their betrayal, the way they had brought me back to the place I had to think of as home, a place where I had begun to feel safe, even in the expectation of Dr. Wilson’s needle, only then to grab me from behind, throw a blanket over me and then to fling me into a deeper roaring darkness, the boot of a moving car.

When the noise stopped, I became aware of a babble of voices. I couldn’t make out words, just that peculiarly complaining cadence of the Norwich accent. Some of the voices I heard were female, young I thought. There was a rattle of keys, the sigh of the door lifting upwards.

“He don’t look too good.”

Their features loomed at me. Fleshy faces, stubbly faces, one olive-dark face, disgusted faces, kind faces. Hands reached for me. Then the swish of the automatic doors, the swivel of heads as all turned to look, the duty sergeant’s pen poised over his book.

A thin bearded man patted my shoulder. “Sorry to have given you such a fright, mate. When Leanne gets an idea in her head, there’s no persuading her otherwise─is there, my woman?”

Leanne smiled at me. I gaped at her mutely. When you’ve not seen an unfeigned, a real smile in months you want to reach out and touch it, to understand how the muscles move under the skin.

“Your aunt Hilda was always very kind to me,” she said.

This room where I am now is decorated to soothe: dove grey walls, a white cornice and ceiling, a pale mint green cover on the bed. I wonder if the man with the clip-board will come again today. I don’t want to have to tell him my story again. Clip-board man keeps asking me where I got the androgen blockers, though he’s said that chemical castration is reversible. I’ve told him already about Wilson, and he’s told me about my rescue, how Leanne had always insisted that Hilda had no sons, and that when I she heard I’d been to talk to her mother she decided to act.

I repeat to him what I saw in that church, but with every telling, it becomes somehow less believable though never less vivid. That vast rough-hewn cross propped against the chancel arch, the sheaves of corn piled around its base, the rents and gouges caused by the driving in, and the pulling out, of nails.

Blood glistening on wood, shining like varnish, those great dried brown-red gouts, layer upon layer, built up until it could be chipped away. My companion becomes technical. He explains that the nails must go through the wrists because if they were to go through the palms they’d would simply tear through the hands with the weight of the body. Those are the nails that bring death, that cause lifeblood to gush. The others are there only to still the kicking and trembling.

He urges me to look at the blackening wounds in those contorted feet, the sagging face beneath the hair hanging forward matted and stiff with blood. He explains what an honour this is, that the girl vied for this, hoping all year that she would be the one chosen to join the Deity. She must be the most beautiful, but to make sure that she remains unsullied, he and his companions submit willingly to Dr. Wilson’s ministrations. He asks me if I enjoy the freedom this has brought me too.

My binoculars have reappeared overnight. I climb down from the bed and go over to the window. It’s quite high up, so my shoulders are on a level with the window frame. I’ve tried moving the chair beside the bed over to the window, but it’s been screwed down, like the rest of the furniture.

I’m in Chittleborough Villa. Looking out, I can see three other villas dotted about, all built of Victorian patterned brick. On a veranda I see a man on a bench rocking back and forth, striking his knees, standing up, then sitting down and starting the whole process again. I train the binoculars on him; his eyes are closed and he appears to be talking.

Someone is wailing, but nobody takes any notice. I knock gently on the glass, not because I want to attract attention, but to hear what noise it makes, a dull sound, as of some kind of tough plastic, like that in Wensum Gardens. So if anyone throws a stone at my window, it’ll probably just bounce back again.

 I’m pleased about this, just as I’m pleased the door to my room does not open. This might sound odd given where I was before, but it makes me feel safe.

I see three figures on the path. One of them is in a uniform. He is just ahead of two women. The older one leans quite heavily on the other’s arm, and she shuffles. In her outer hand is a stick. Despite her slowed pace, I recognize something in the carriage of the other, in the tilt of her head, and then I see it is my mother.

Katherine Mezzacappa is an Irish writer living in Tuscany. Writing as Katie Hutton, her historical novel, The Gypsy Bride, was published by Zaffre in 2020, with a sequel to follow in 2021. As Kate Zarrelli she is the author of Tuscan Enchantment (2019) and The Casanova Papers (2020), published by eXtasy Books. Her short fiction has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. Katherine reviews for the Historical Novel Society. She holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Canterbury Christ Church University in addition to an MLitt in Eng Lit from Durham and a first degree in Art History from UEA.

Drowning by Marie McCloskey

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I stumbled to the porch swing cradling a bottle of pinot noir. The wind blew a salty kiss on my face but stung my pride. I sacrificed everything.

A lone seagull perched on the fence post. It mocked me.

“Go!” I threw my glass at it and brought the bottle to my lips. I grumbled at my life of working to appease clean cut American corporations waiting for me to become a stereotype. Even when following their rules, I still wasn’t good enough. I will never be what they want.

I stared at the sparkle of ripples shimmering under the surf. I glared at the rolling waves, but softened at the tug of the Gulf calling to me.

An urge to reach the cool rush compelled me to jump up and rip off my flower print sundress. I tossed the light fabric onto the sand and jogged toward the cleansing roar. Regaining a spark of my childhood self, I met the current with a giggle.

It had been years since I escaped to the beach. My parents took me every year as a child, but I worked myself boring trying to “climb the ladder.”

I kicked out into the water, arms chopping through the waves. A splash of energy renewed my smile at the memories. They can’t stop me.

I turned onto my back to tread water. The air danced with seagulls. I spread my arms and legs out straight and relaxed floating. Images of swimming until land became a memory flooded my mind. I longed to let the water carry me forever.

The memory of my father washed over me with hope. He could swim all day and never grew tired. His job as a swim coach fit him but never suited me. I preferred the pulsing rhythm of natural bodies of water, hated the confines of indoor pools.

Fresh spray coated my skin, healed inner wounds that numbed the unfairness of life. My anger washed away and my father’s thick accent rattled in my ears like a dream, “Don’t let them change you. Don’t let them take away who you are, Mija.

I shifted forward, sinking underwater for a moment. When I resurfaced, I rubbed my eyes and kicked hard.

“Mine-Mine-Mine.” A gull dipped low.

My eye-lashes grew heavy.

“Mine…”

The calls reminded me that I belonged to myself.

“Mine…”

The sound shook me.

“Mine…”

I would have what I earned.

I swam to the beach with a new goal. It was so easy. All I had to do was run up the sand.

Granules stuck to my feet like spilled sugar. I bounded up the porch steps, grabbed my towel, and wrapped it around my body. The warm breeze offered new strength. I wrung out my hair and grabbed my phone off the wicker table sitting beside the classic porch swing. I clutched it tight, drew my arm back and threw it into the shallows. And that was when I became my own boss.

Marie McCloskey likes to let her work speak for itself.

The Albino Kangaroo by Steve Carr

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Perhaps I should have known from the beginning how it was going to end. Perhaps.

My mouth was as dry as the arid scrublands that the highway cut through like a surgical incision. Dust devils of brown soil whirled across the barren landscape, skimmed across the pavement as if purposely dashing from one side to the other. Even with all the windows rolled up, grit invaded the inside of the car, finding its way between my teeth where it settled; an irritant that I lacked the spittle to expel. The glaring sunlight that cooked the earth formed watery pond-like mirages on the highway that vanished just before they were reached.

The only indication that there was life in the region, other than the infrequent truck stops, roadhouses and ramshackle motels or motor lodges was the images of kangaroos, wombats and camels painted on the yellow signs that stood along the roadside. Occasionally, a land train with several semi-trailers pulled by a prime mover sped by, heading east. They were like huge, terrifying, roaring metal beasts. Their tires stirred up clouds of dirt and tossed rocks like solid raindrops against my windshield.   

My sister, June, had fallen asleep in the seat beside me soon after we departed Port Augusta. She curled up in the seat and remained motionless with her windbreaker pulled over her. She slept silently and motionless, inert like a pile of laundry. I fought the urge to shake her awake and remind her that it was her idea that we drive the 1,700 miles west, taking the Eyre Highway to see this stretch of the outback, the Nullarbor Plain and the Great Australian Bight. She had placed the cost for renting the car on her credit card, so there was that at least.

In the rear view mirror I glimpsed the Volkswagen van following behind. It kept the same distance from my car from the moment it suddenly appeared out of nowhere fifty miles back. It was a 1980s model, blue, but in need of a paint job. Its front grill was dented and one of the headlights was missing. I tried to check out the person driving it, but sunlight reflected from the van’s windshield and hid his face. He was male. That’s all I could tell. There was no one in the passenger seat.

For many miles, the scenery rarely changed. There weren’t abandoned structures or remnants of farms, silos, or ghost towns reminiscent of many highways in the American west. Unlike the plains of the United States, the vast space wasn’t broken up by miles of fencing. There were no road turnoffs.

It was apparent from the onset that the Eyre Highway would live up to its billing as the longest stretch of straight road on the planet. Looking ahead was mesmerizing, hypnotic, like staring into a never-ending tunnel filled with light. Miles of seeing nothing but the beige landscape sporadically dotted with a patches of saltbush and bluebush scrub produced the same effect I once experienced when becoming snowblind while trekking in the Alps; I lost my range of vision.

I might have missed the rest stop altogether had June not awoken in time to sit up in her seat and call out when she saw its entrance fifty yards ahead.

***

The heat was all-enveloping, so oppressive it made breathing difficult. It felt as if my lungs were being seared with every breath. Sitting on a picnic table bench in the shade under a corrugated tin awning I watched the visible waves of heat rise up from the pavement in the rest stop. Unlike back home in Seattle where there was always the feel of moisture in the air, on that stretch of the Eyre Highway, there wasn’t the slightest hint of it. The breeze came from the north carrying the scent of baked earth.

I guzzled a full bottle of water and was halfway through another as sweat ran down my back in rivulets. June stood at a map of the area pinned on a corkboard under a sheet of plastic near a row of soda and snack machines. She slowly traced the single black line that marked the highway with her finger as if unable to accept that the line never veered from its two-directional course.

Her hair was pulled back into a ponytail held together with a bright yellow scrunchie. She tilted her head from side-to-side, as if listening to music. Her hair swept across her upper back like the pendulum of a metronome.

It was moments like that I forgot she was only a few years younger than me and we were no longer children. At twenty-nine she had retained many of the same movements and gestures she had when she was a girl of six or seven.

An orange-colored dingo wandered into the rest stop, and she turned to watch it─entranced the entire time the wild canine sniffed about the trash cans and around the doors of the restrooms. June had taken time off from finishing her courses to become a veterinarian to take this trip, so animals of any kind were of special interest to her. When it ran off, returning to the open scrubland, she went into the women’s restroom.

I shifted on the bench to get a better look at the Volkswagen van that had sat parked in the driveway leading into the rest stop, arriving there within minutes after we did. The driver of the van didn’t get out. He sat hidden in the shadows inside the vehicle.

I was considering talking to the driver of the van when June came out of the restroom. She called out to me. “How far to go until we reach The Bight?”

“Another hour or so,” I replied. I looked to the west, uncertain even after looking at the map of Southern Australia a dozen times, where the Nullarbor Plain began and ended, and if we had entered it. The name alone conjured up in my imagination fantasies of places that seemed other-worldly, like the Sahara Desert and Machu Picchu.

June sat on the bench on the other side of the table. She rubbed her shoulder and winced.

“You shouldn’t still be feeling pain there,” I said.

“It’s not actual pain,” she replied. “It’s psychological.” She hesitated before asking, “Does anyone ever get over being shot?”

I looked to where the van had been sitting. It was gone. “I don’t know,” I answered her.

***

I stood on the edge of a sheer cliff holding binoculars to my eyes and looking out over the turquoise waters of The Great Australian Bight. A large pod of Southern Right whales breached the surface, shooting fountains from their blowholes. At the base of the cliffs, small waves washed up onto the narrow strip of beach that extended along the coastline. Seagulls circled and swooped above the white-capped currents. Far out, the white sails of a large yacht gleamed in the late afternoon sunlight.

June sat on the ground near me, her legs dangling over the edge of the cliff. Bits of grass she tossed into the air fluttered above her head like wounded butterflies before being blown inland or sucked into the ocean breeze and pulled seaward.

After a long silence between us, she said flatly, “I miss Patty and Mom.” The suddenness of the statement took me out of the moment and hurled me back to Seattle the year before.

I had just returned from a trip to Iceland and was sitting at the kitchen table in our mother’s condominium drinking a glass of iced tea. She leaned back against the sink stirring a cup of coffee. The sliding glass doors that led out to the balcony that looked out on the Puget Sound were open and a fish-scented breeze blew in. She gave birth to June and I when she was young and as she gazed at me it struck me that she could have passed for a woman in her early thirties. There wasn’t a single wrinkle on her face.

“Even when you were a toddler, I couldn’t hold on to you. You always wanted to run off and explore,” she said.

June came into the kitchen at that moment, her arm draped around the shoulders of her girlfriend, Patty. They were giggling like adolescent schoolgirls, which suited June’s bubbly personality at that time, but was unusual for Patty who was usually sober and restrained. They had flown in from Chicago the evening before to join me at Mom’s to celebrate our mother earning her masters in social work.

“What are the two of you so happy about?” Mom asked.

June kissed Patty on the cheek and with a huge smile on her face, said, “Patty and I have decided to get married.”

Just as quickly I was brought back from Seattle to that cliff when I realized June was sobbing. I let the binoculars drop against my chest and hang there by its strap and sat on the ground next to her. I put my arm around her and pulled her against me. She rested her head on my shoulder as we sat there staring out at the whales until they disappeared from sight.

When we stood up I turned and saw that the Volkswagen van was parked not far from where I had left our car. It pulled away and returned to the highway as we began walking toward our car.

***

Twilight saw the spread of bands of purple and gold across the darkening sky. The Nullarbor Plain stretched out beyond the opposite side of the highway like an endless dirt carpet, looking as if it had been bulldozed. I stopped the car a few times so that we could watch troops of kangaroos crossing the plain, the first large number of them we had seen, which was surprising given that their images were on every sign and their remains littered the highway. The landscape didn’t seem to offer much in the way of vegetation for them to eat.

June got out of the car each time we spotted a troop and took dozens of pictures, then got back in breathless with excitement as she chattered on about them. When we were children it was she who had pet dogs, cats, rabbits, hamsters, canaries and fish. I was still inside the car when I heard her shout, “An albino kangaroo!”

I got out of the car and standing by her side saw an entirely white kangaroo hopping along with the troop. To me it resembled a large white mouse.

“Do you have any idea how rare an albino kangaroo is?” June asked as she took pictures of it.

“I think an albino anything is kinda rare,” I replied.

Minutes later I realized she was holding her camera up to her eye, with the lens pointed at the albino kangaroo, without snapping anymore pictures. “As rare as I used to think it was to be shot by a mass murderer’s bullet.” She put the camera back in its case and got back into the car.

I watched the albino kangaroo for a few more minutes before returning and opened the map. I spread it across the steering wheel. I had the town of Cocklebiddy circled in red ink. It was about a half hour away.

June rolled up her window and rested against the glass. Her eyes were closed.

“Are you okay?” I asked her.

She sighed, expelling breath like a punctured tire. “Now that I think about, maybe coming on this trip wasn’t such a good idea after all.”

“You got to see an albino kangaroo and you said they’re rare.”

“Yes, they’re rare.”

In the ambient light of night I could see the Volkswagen van following us, maintaining the same distance and always at the same speed.

***

Countless stars glittered in the night sky, distracting me from what would have been an otherwise very boring trip from the time we saw the albino kangaroo until we reached Cocklebiddy. June said only a few words during the long stretch of darkness, keeping her eyes closed during most of it, although I could tell from her breathing that she was awake.

I tried to entertain her with anecdotes from my travels, but after twenty minutes of not getting a response from her, I drove the rest of the way to Cocklebiddy in silence. Upon approaching and entering the small town I had the uncharacteristic response of feeling happy to see lights, my preference being to travel where there was less civilization.

There was a roadhouse in the town for those just passing through and a small motel where I had pre-booked two rooms for us before leaving Port Augustus. When I pulled up to the curb in front of the motel June opened her eyes and gently placed her hand on my arm.

“What happened will be with us for the rest of our lives,” she said, despondently.

“I know.”

***

The Italian restaurant in the Capitol Hill area of Seattle catered to a gay clientele which is why June and Patty chose it to celebrate Mom’s achievement and their plans to get married. Although it was Mom’s car we used to go to the restaurant, June drove and Patty sat in the front passenger seat. Mom and I sat in the back seat. Along the way, Mom pointed out everything that had changed en route to the restaurant since it had been three years since I had last been in Seattle, which was to attend my father’s funeral. The trees that lined the curb in front of the restaurant were strung with white lights and two large rainbow flags hung from its facade.

We parked a block away and walked to the restaurant, merrily chatting and laughing the entire way. The restaurant wasn’t as crowded as we thought it would be, so we managed to get a table by the front window. Before I sat down I looked out and saw a blue Volkswagen van park across the street from the restaurant. I sat next to June. Patty and Mom sat across from us.

We were almost done eating when I saw a man get out of the van and cross the street, but gave it little thought and didn’t see what he was carrying, until he walked into the restaurant, raised a gun and started shooting.

In a moment of disconnect, I thought it was firecrackers I was hearing and not gunshots, and then I saw Mom get hit in the back and Patty shot in the head. June was struck in the shoulder before I had the presence of mind to react. I shoved her from her chair and threw my body on top of hers. The shooting, the killing, seemed to last forever. It was only later that I learned the shooter had been tackled and pinned down by an off-duty policeman until help arrived. The killer owned the Volkswagen van.

***

The motel in Cocklebiddy had a sign in front of it with an image of a young kangaroo peeking out from its mother’s pouch. The name of the motel was Joey’s Motel. The woman at the check-in counter was gregarious and talked non-stop while I checked us in. When she paused long enough for me to answer her numerous questions, I explained that it was June who had decided on the trip across Southern Australia. I didn’t explain anything further. June had remained at the motel office door, staring out at the street as if lost in thought. When we got to the doors of our rooms that were next to one another, June opened her door and went in without saying anything, and shut the door.

My room was nondescript with hardly a suggestion that it was Australian. I threw my backpack on the bed, laid down next to it, and without intending to, I quickly fell asleep. I awoke with a start a few hours later overcome with a sense of dread. I bolted from my room, ran to June’s and pounded on the door. When June didn’t answer back, I turned the doorknob and it opened.

Moments later I found June lying in a pool of blood on the bathroom floor, dead. She had slashed her wrists.

I’ve not seen the blue Volkswagen van since then.

Keep Calm and Carry On by James Mulhern

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My grandmother sat on the toilet seat. I was on the floor just in front of her. She brushed my brown curly hair until my scalp hurt. 

“You got your grandfather’s hair. Stand up. Look at yourself in the mirror. That’s much better, don’t you think?” 

I touched my scalp. “It hurts.” 

“You gotta toughen up, Aiden. Weak people get nowhere in this world. Your grandfather was weak. Addicted to the bottle. Your mother has an impaired mind. Now she’s in a nuthouse. And your father, he just couldn’t handle the responsibility of a child. People gotta be strong. Do you understand me?” She bent down and stared into my face. Her hazel eyes seemed enormous.  

I smelled coffee on her breath. There were blackheads on her nose. She pinched my cheeks. 

I reflexively pushed her hands away. 

“Life is full of pain, sweetheart. And I don’t mean just the physical kind.” She took a cigarette from her case on the back of the toilet, lit it, and inhaled. “You’ll be hurt a lot, but you got to carry on. You know what the British people used to say when the Germans bombed London during World War II?” 

“No.” 

“Keep calm and carry on.” She hit my backside. “Now run along and put some clothes on.” I was wearing just my underwear and t-shirt. “We have a busy day.” 

I dressed in the blue jeans and a yellow short-sleeve shirt she had bought me. She stood in front of the mirror by the front door of the living room, holding a picture of my mother. She kissed the glass and placed it on the end table next to the couch. Then she looked at herself in the mirror and arranged her pearl necklace, put on bright red lipstick, and fingered her gray hair, trying to hide a thinning spot at the top of her forehead.  

She turned and smoothed her green cotton dress, glancing at herself from behind. “Not bad for an old broad.” She looked me over. “Come here.” She tucked my shirt in, licked her hand, and smoothed my hair. “You’d think I never brushed it.” 

Just as she opened the front door she said, “Hold on,” and went to the kitchen counter to put her hand in a glass jar full of bills. She took out what must have been at least thirty single dollar bills. 

“Here. Give this money to the kiddos next door.” 

When we were outside, she pushed me towards their house. They were playing on their swing set in the fenced-in yard. In front of the broken-down house was a yard of weeds. A rusted bicycle with no wheels lay on the ground. The young pale girl with stringy hair looked at me suspiciously as I approached the fence. Her brother stood, arms folded, in the background. He had a mean look on his face and spit. 

“This is for you,” I said, shoving the money through the chain links. The girl reached out to grab it, but most of the bills fell onto the dirt. 

“Thank you,” she said. 

As I walked away, her brother yelled, “We don’t need no charity from you.” 

I opened the door of my grandmother’s blue Plymouth; she had the air conditioning blasting and it was already full of cigarette smoke. 

She crossed herself. “Say it with me. ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’ ” 

I repeated the words with her and we drove to her friend Margie’s house, not more than ten minutes away. Margie was a smelly fat lady with a big white cat that hissed at me. She always wore the same navy-blue sweater, and was constantly picking white cat hairs off her clothes, while talking about the latest sermon, God, or the devil.  

Nanna told me when they were young girls, their classmates made fun of her. 

“Stinky” they called her. And she did smell. Like urine, and cats, and mothballs. 

“Don’t let him get out,” Margie yelled, as the cat pounced from behind the open door. “Arnold, don’t you dare run away!” She bent over to grab his tail and groaned at the same time. “My back!” 

“Don’t worry. I got him.” I had my arms wrapped around the white monster. He hissed. 

“Why don’t you put him in the closet when you open the front door? We go through this every time.” My grandmother pushed past her towards the kitchen in the back of the house. “I gotta sit down. It’s hot as hell out there.” 

Margie placed a tray of ham sandwiches, along with cheese and crackers on the round grey Formica table. I liked her wallpaper—white with the red outlines of trains. Her husband had been a conductor. He died when he got squished between two train cars. 

“I don’t know how I feel about all those miracles Father Tom was going on about.” Margie placed a sandwich on a plate for me with some chips. “What ya want to drink, Aiden? I got nice lemonade.” Her two front teeth were red from where her lipstick had smudged. And as usual she had white cat hairs all over her blue sweater, especially the ledge of her belly where the cat sat all the time. 

“That sounds good.” 

She smiled. “Always such a nice boy. Polite. You’ll never have any trouble with this one. Not like you did with Lorraine.” 

“I hate when you call her that.” 

“That’s her name ain’t it?” She poured my grandmother and me lemonade and sat down with a huff. 

“That was my mother’s name, her formal name. I’ve told you a thousand times to call her Laura.” 

“What the hell difference does it make?” Margie bit into her sandwich and rolled her eyes at me. 

“Makes a lot of difference. My mother was a crackpot. I named my daughter Lorraine to be nice.” 

“Well, Laura is . . .” I knew Margie was going to say that my mother was a crackpot, too. 

“Laura is what?” My grandmother put her sandwich down and leaned into Margie. 

“Is a nice girl. She’s got problems, but don’t we all.” She reached out and clasped my hand. “Right, Aiden?” 

“Yes, Margie.” 

My grandmother rubbed her neck and spoke softly. “Nobody’s perfect. Laura’s getting better. She’s just got a few psychological issues. And the new meds they have her on seem to be doing her good. She’s a beautiful human being. And that’s what’s most important. Besides, who’s to say what’s normal? My Laura has always been different. One of the happiest people I ever met.”  

Her eyes were shiny and her face flushed. Her bottom lip trembled. She looked at me. “Don’t you gotta use the bathroom?” She raised her eyebrows. That was her signal. 

“Yes, I gotta pee.” 

“Well, you don’t have to get so detailed,” she said. “Just go.” 

Margie laughed hard and farted.  

I made my exit just in time, creeping up the gray stairs. The old banister was dusty. The rug in the upstairs hall was full of Arnold’s hair. I bent down and picked one up to examine it, then rubbed my pants.  

Nanna said Margie’s room was the last one on the left. Her jewelry case was on top of her dresser. I took the diamond earrings and opal bracelet Nanna had told me about. There was also a couple of pretty rings—one a large red stone, the other a blue one. These and a gold necklace with a cross I shoved into my pockets. Then I walked to the bathroom and flushed the toilet. I messed up the towel a bit so it looked like I dried my hands in it. 

 
When I entered the kitchen they were still talking about miracles. 

My grandmother passed our plates to Margie who had filled the sink with sudsy water. 

“Of course there was raising Lazarus from the dead,” Margie said. “And then the healing of the deaf and dumb men. Oh, and the blind man, too,” she said raising her hand and splashing my grandmother. 

“Let’s not forget about the fish. And the water into wine,” my grandmother said. 

Margie shook her head. “I don’t know Catherine.” She looked down. “It’s hard to believe that Jesus could have done all that. Why aren’t there miracles today?”  

I imagined a fish jumping into her face from the water in the sink. 

My grandmother smiled at me. “Of course there are miracles today. As a matter of fact, I’m taking Aiden to that priest at Mission church. A charismatic healer is what they call him. Aiden’s gonna be cured, aren’t you, honey?” 

“Cured of what?” Margie said. 

“Oh he’s got a little something wrong with his blood is all. Too many white cells. Leukemia. But this priest is gonna take care of all that.” 

“Leukemia! Catherine, that’s serious.” Margie tried to smile at me, but I could tell she was upset. “Sit down, honey.” She motioned for me to go to the table. “We’re almost done here.” 

“You gotta take him to a good doctor,” she whispered to my grandmother, as if I couldn’t hear. 

“I know that. I’m not dumb. God will take care of everything.” 

We said our goodbyes and when we were in the car, my grandmother said, “Let me see what you got.” I pulled the goods out of my pockets while she unclasped her black plastic pocketbook. Her eyes lit up. 

“Perfect. She isn’t lookin’, is she?”  

I glanced at the house. Margie was nowhere in sight. Probably sitting on her rocking chair with Arnold in her lap. 

“Now put those in here.” She nodded towards her bag, and I did. 

When we were about to turn onto Tremont Street where the church was, I remembered the gold necklace and cross. I pulled it out of my back pocket and my grandmother took it from me, running a red light. “This would look beautiful on Laura.”  

In a moment, there was a police car pulling us over. 

“Don’t say anything,” my grandmother said, as we moved to the side of the road. She looked in the rearview mirror and put her window down. 

“Ma’am, you just ran a red light.” The policeman was tall with a hooked nose and dark brown close-set eyes. 

“I know officer. I was just saying a prayer with my grandson. He gave me this gold cross. I got distracted. I’m very sorry.” 

He leaned into the car.  

I smiled. 

“Is that a birthday gift for your grandmother?” 

“Yes. I wanted to surprise her.” 

“And he certainly did.” She patted my knee and smiling at the police officer. 

“It’s a good thing no cars were coming. You could have been hurt,” he said. “That’s a beautiful cross,” he added. 

My grandmother began to cry. “Isn’t it though?” She sniffled. 

The officer placed his hand firmly on the edge of the window. “Consider this a warning. You can go. I’d put that cross away.” 

“Of course. Of course.” She turned to me. “Here, Aiden. Put it back in your pocket.” 

The police officer waited for us to drive away. I turned and looked. He waved. 

“Are you sad, Nanna?” 

“Don’t be silly.” She waved her hand. “That was just an act.” 

I laughed and she did, too. 

We parked. “I need to get that chalice, Aiden. I read an article in The Boston Globe that said some people believe it has incredible curing powers. It’s a replica of a chalice from long ago, over 100-years old, with lots of pretty stones on it. Experts say it’s priceless. I’m thinking if I have your mother drink from it, she’ll get better and come home to us. Won’t that be nice?” She rubbed my head gently and smiled at me. 

I looked away, towards the church where an old man was helping a lady in a wheelchair up a ramp. “Won’t God be mad?” 

“Aiden, I’m going to return it. We’re just borrowing it for a little while to help your mother. I think God will understand. Don’t you worry, sweetheart.” 

We entered Mission church. It smelled of shellac, incense, perfume, and old people. It was hard to see in the musty darkness. Bright light shone through the stained-glass windows where Jesus was depicted in the twelve or so Stations of the Cross. 

“Let’s move to the front.” My grandmother pulled me out of the line and cut in front of an old lady, who looked bewildered.  

“Shouldn’t you go to the end of the line?” she whispered kindly, smiling down at me. Her hair was sweaty and her fat freckled bicep jiggled when she tapped my grandmother’s shoulder. The freckles reminded me of the asteroid belt. 

“I’m sorry. We’re in a hurry. We have to help a sick neighbor after this. I just want my grandson to get a cure.” 

“What’s wrong?” she whispered. We were four people away from the priest, who was standing at the altar. He prayed over people then lightly touched them. They fell backwards into the arms of two old men with maroon suit jackets and blue ties. 

“Aiden has leukemia.” 

The woman’s eyes teared up. “I’m sorry.” She patted my forearm. “You’ll be cured, sweetie.” Again her flabby bicep jiggled and the asteroids bounced. 

When it was our turn, my grandmother said, “Father, please cure him. And can you say a prayer for my daughter, too?” 

“Of course.” The white-haired, red-faced priest bent down. I smelled alcohol on his breath. “What ails you young man?” 

I was confused. 

“He’s asking you about your illness, Aiden.” 

“I have leukemia,” I said proudly. 

The priest chanted some mumbo-jumbo prayer and pushed my chest.  

I knew I was supposed to fall back but was afraid the old geezers wouldn’t catch me. 

“Fall,” my grandmother whispered irritably. Then she said extra softly, “Remember our plan.” 

I fell hard, shoving myself against the old guy. He toppled over as well. People gasped. His friend and the priest began to pick us up. I pretended to be hurt bad. “Ow. My head is killing me.”  

Several people gathered around us.  

My grandmother yelled “Oh my God” and stepped onto the altar, kneeling in front of a giant Jesus on the cross. “Dear Jesus,” she said loudly, “I don’t know how many more tribulations I can take.” Then she crossed herself, hurried across the altar, swiping the gold chalice and putting it in her handbag while everyone was distracted by my moaning and fake crying. 

“He’ll be okay.” She put her arm under mine and helped the others pull me up.  

When I was standing, she said to the priest, “You certainly have the power of the Holy Spirit in you. It came out of you like the water that gushed from the rock at Rephidim and Kadesh.” 

“Let’s get out of here before there’s a flood.” She laughed.  

The priest stared in confusion.  

The old lady who let us cut in line eyed my grandmother’s handbag and shook her head as we passed. 

When we were in front of Rita’s house, our last stop before home, I asked my grandmother what “tribulation” meant. And where were “Repapah” and “Kadiddle.” 

She laughed. “You pronounced those places wrong, but it doesn’t matter. Your mother used to do the same thing whenever I quoted that Bible passage.” She opened the car door. “I don’t know where the hell those places are. Somewhere in the Middle East… And a tribulation is a problem.” 

“Oh.” 

After ringing the doorbell a couple times we opened the door. We found Rita passed out on the couch. 

My grandmother took an ice cube from the freezer and held it against her forehead.  

Rita sat bolt upright. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. You scared the bejeezus out of me.” She was wearing a yellow nightgown and her auburn hair was set in curlers. “Oh, Aiden. I didn’t see you there.” She got up and kissed my cheek. For the second time that day I smelled alcohol. 

“So do you think you can help me out?” my grandmother asked. Rita looked at me. 

“Of course I can.” 

“Just pull me up and I’ll get my checkbook.” I suddenly realized all my grandmother’s friends were fat. 

At the kitchen table, Rita said, “Should I make it out to the hospital?” 

“Oh, no. Make it out to me. I’ve opened a bank account to pay for his medical expenses.” 

“Will five thousand do for now?” Rita was rich. Her husband was a “real estate tycoon” my grandmother was always saying. He dropped dead shoveling snow a few years back. 

“That’s so generous of you.” My grandmother cried again. More fake tears, I thought. 

We had tea and chocolate chip cookies. Rita asked how my mother was doing. My grandmother said “fine” and looked away, wringing her hands. Then she started talking about the soap operas that they watched. My grandmother loved Erica from All My Children. Said she was a woman who knew how to get what she wanted and admired that very much. Rita said she thought Erica was a bitch. 

When we were home, listening to talk radio in the living room, I asked my grandmother if she believed in miracles, like the ones she talked about earlier in the day with Margie. 

“Sure, sure,” she said, not looking up. She was taking the jewelry and chalice out of her bag and examining them in the light. I saw bits of dust in the sunlight streaming through the bay window.  

“You’re not listening to me, Nanna.” 

She put the items back in her handbag and stared at me. “Of course I am.” 

“Well do you think I’ll have a miracle and be cured of leukemia?” 

“Aiden.” She laughed. “You haven’t got leukemia. You’re as healthy as a horse, silly.” 

“But you told everybody I was sick.” 

“Sweetheart. That was just to evoke pity.” 

“What does that mean?” 

“Make people feel bad so we can get things from them. I need money to take care of you, Aiden.” She spoke hesitantly and looked down, like she was ashamed. “I’m broke. Your grandfather left me with nothing and I gotta pay for your mother’s medical expenses. If Margie notices her jewelry gone, maybe she’ll think you took it to help your Nanna. I told her I was having a problem paying your hospital bills. 

“Sorta like a tribulation, right?” 

“Exactly, sweetheart.” 

“Is my mother a tribulation?” 

This time my grandmother’s tears were real. They gushed like water from that rock in the Middle East. I knelt before her and put my head in her lap. She hugged me, bent down and kissed my face several times. Then she looked out the window. It seemed the tears would never stop. 

“Don’t worry, Nanna. I believe in miracles, too. Someday Mom will come home from the hospital.” 

And we stayed like that until the sunbeams dimmed and the dust disappeared and her tears stopped.  

In the quiet of the room, she whispered, “Keep calm and carry on” to me or to herself. Or to both of us. 

James Mulhern has published fiction, nonfiction, and poetry in literary journals and anthologies over seventy times. In 2013, he was a Finalist for the Tuscany Prize in Catholic Fiction. In 2015, Mr. Mulhern was awarded a fully paid writing fellowship to Oxford University in the United Kingdom. That same year, a story was longlisted for the Fish Short Story Prize. In 2017, he was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. His writing (novels and short story collection) earned favorable critiques from Kirkus Reviews,including a Kirkus Star. His most recent novel, Give Them Unquiet Dreams, is a Readers’ Favorite Book Award winner, a Notable Best Indie Book of 2019, anda Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2019. He is a college professor and high school teacher in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

 

A Distinguished Fellow By Kevin Finnerty

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I’m a law professor. I teach law classes to law students. I write articles on various legal issues that are published in law reviews. I have a number of books on the shelves in my office that list my name as author. I hold the title of Alexander Q. Thomas Professor of Law.   

Some would say I spend my days in an ivory tower, but my office resides in a blue rotunda in an area of the school reserved for distinguished faculty. It overlooks the lake that borders campus. When students arrive in late summer, a gentle breeze soothes the heated newcomers. In winter, the wind pelts those same students with a cold fury. Every semester, it halts a number of them in their tracks, and the students’ legs churn without making progress until the gusts relent.  

Some faculty have been known to gather in a conference room on the days with the largest gales, which inevitably occur the week before final exams or the days immediately before grades are released early in the second semester, to watch who will be attacked, who will battle through, and who will be turned away. Sometimes dollars have been known to change hands as bets are placed to keep things interesting.

When you’ve been a law professor as long as I have, you have to look forward to the good times.

I was not happy last Fall. One of the reasons for that was Dean required me to teach the very undistinguished class of Civil Procedure because Less Distinguished Faculty member chose to give birth in late August and take maternity leave during the Fall semester. L.D.F.’s planning or lack thereof aside, I was annoyed that Dean, a magna cum laude graduate of an even more distinguished law school than the one over which he presides and I teach, was somehow unable to calculate the likely birthdate and resulting leave request in time to procure Adjunct to teach L.D.F.’s class. Apparently, Dean only realized the impact on the upcoming semester’s teaching load in July, when he came to my office while I was reviewing the proofs for my latest book on the federal courts and told me I would be teaching 1Ls.

“Why’s that?”

“Because you’ve taught it before and because you practiced before becoming a professor.”

Dean stood in the doorway with his arms stretched across as if he thought I might try to bolt past him. He is tall and thin and looks ten years younger than me even though he’s actually a year older. It’s probably how he ended up as Dean and why I give him a hard time. That and the fact that he wouldn’t even be among the most distinguished faculty here were he not Dean.

“I know why I could teach it but why do you need me to teach it?”

“L.D.F. is pregnant.”

“You just realized that today?”

“I guess we didn’t focus on it in time.”

“You have a science degree from an Ivy, right? Seems you might have been able to figure it out a little sooner.”    

Dean smiled the smile of one who knew he had options: he could play along and match wits to kill time or he could rely on power for a quicker and more certain victory. “Guess you should dust off and update your curriculum.”

“Am I still teaching…”

“Yep, you’ll get a reduced load in the Spring.”

So I was unhappy because I had to teach a class I didn’t want to teach, because this was the result of the failure of others to plan, and because I had to adjust the professional and personal plans I’d made. They were tentative, sure, but I’d secretly been hoping my book would be well received and I might be invited to speak at various venues throughout the semester.          

Instead, I was assigned to teach a class that met on Monday morning at 9:00 on the first day of the semester. I knew going in what I’d find─a class of 50 students only ten of whom had spent their lives dreaming of becoming lawyers while 40 others were delaying their entry into the non-academic portion of their lives, fulfilling a wish of their parents, hoping to find a partner, or secretly telling themselves spending $200,000 over the course of three years was a worthwhile investment, regardless of any economic return. 

I entered at 8:59, cognizant this was not my target audience at this point in my career. Although it hadn’t been my intention to commence the semester in this manner, when I looked about the room I found myself recalling a story my own Civ Pro professor had imparted early during my experience as a 1L decades earlier.

“Enjoy these last few weeks,” the confident, statuesque woman, who was one of the few female tenured faculty members at the time, said. “This is the last period of your life when you won’t think like a lawyer. Soon enough that will be gone, never to come back.”

After I repeated the story, I offered the 1Ls my take, based on experience, “I agree with my former professor, in part. If we do our jobs, soon you’ll never again think like a non-lawyer. But while my professor implied something had been lost, I contend we are giving you something invaluable. The ability to think like a lawyer, to use logic, to persuade and argue based on facts and the law, rather than relying on emotion and force, is the greatest ability any human can possess. I would expect when all’s said and done those of you who succeed will thank your distinguished faculty for this gift and will not consider yourselves to have lost anything of value.”

***

I don’t hold a title like Alexander Q. Thomas Professor of Law in my home.  I hardly hold a title at all. Sometimes I’m referred to as “Dad.” Less often as, “Dear.” Mostly, it’s just, “You.”

And much of the time I feel like I’m being visited by Dean in the doorways and non-doorways of my home.

“You are going to do this.”

“Why are You doing that?”

“What are You going to do about that?”

Usually a verbal response is not necessary, just performance of some act I wish there were no need to take.

I have two Children who are not completing their teen years with distinction. I have Wife whom I thought was going to be an achiever when I met and dated her but who, somewhere along the line, placed her career down ballot. Worse, she appears to judge me as if I’d made a similar choice. I suppose I could tell her I did no such thing and that at least on a percentage basis I’ve done a better job accomplishing the goals I’d set than she. 

Come to think of it, I probably have told Wife that once or twice. I seem to remember her responding by telling me I couldn’t absolve myself as a partner and parent because I’d chosen to assume those roles too, while we drove home after meeting with Son’s principal a few years ago.

“I know and I’m not absolving myself but…”

“Ah, the yes, but defense.”

You see, Wife is certainly smart enough to have achieved more in her career, or even have a career instead of just a job. She remembered one of the few things I’d learned during my two years practicing law before I transitioned to become a faculty member─first Assistant Professor, then Associate Professor, then Professor, before finally becoming Alexander Q. Thomas Professor of Law.

Partner at the firm where I’d worked came into my office late one night when this Junior Associate was typing a memorandum for our Client. He asked to see the draft and placed his feet on my desk while he read it.

“It’s not finished,” I said as Partner dropped page after page over his shoulder after seemingly only skimming each one.

“Understood.  What else have you got to say?”

“I think we have a couple more defenses we could raise.”

Partner tossed the last few pages to the floor en masse.  “Sure defense numbers six, seven and eight.  I’m sure they’ll help.  What about the overall?”

“Overall, everything is defensible.”

“That’s true.  But at the end of the day it’s all ‘yes, but.’”

He must have seen the quizzical J.A. stare numerous times before, so he continued, “Did you do A? Yes, but we had a reason? How about B? Yes, but another reason. And C, D, and E? Sure, but…’ You see, when the trier of fact, be it the court or a jury, gets to reason number three, they just roll their eyes. That’s all they can take.”

So when Wife referenced my tale decades later and somewhat analogously applied it in another context, I was both proud and disappointed: proud because I’d chosen one so capable, disappointed because she never even tried for distinction. She chose to put Kids first, and Marriage and Career suffered. And Kids didn’t turn out great anyway, so what was the point? Why didn’t she cut her losses when she still had time to succeed in other realms? As smart as Wife is, she had to realize that was what she should have done.

I don’t blame Wife for Kids. They are wholly and completely responsible for their own status. Wife and I gave them more than either of us had when we grew up in middle class (She) or lower middle class (Me) families. We gave them opportunities; we didn’t force them to fulfill any unmet expectation either of us had about life; we never denied them any reasonable request they made; we let them try private and public school and then private again.

And yet there we were: Son on his second leave from his university to spend time at a rehabilitation facility. The only positive about that was that at least I knew it wasn’t the same drug because the first time he couldn’t sleep at all and during round two that was all he wanted to do.  Before he could never sit still, he was always moving about, his eyes bulging white. Now, he could barely keep his eyes open and his head slowly descended until it crashed onto the dinner table, prompting Wife and I to look at each other, wondering whether we should lift it and if we would see blood if we did.  

Daughter had just told us (or Me, at least) she was pregnant. I did the math and knew it was going to be a photo finish whether the child or high school diploma arrived first, if either arrived at all. It’s a little hard for me to admit this but from a pure intellectual capacity perspective Daughter probably has everyone in Family beat. She did long division when she was three; read and thoroughly discussed young adult books by the age of five; and spoke authoritatively about theoretical concepts before she entered third grade. And yet she still managed to have unprotected sex with Inferior, a future criminal she didn’t even love. How smart is that?

Maybe it’s my fault. My contribution as Parent when they were younger was to instill competition. Against each other, against classmates, primarily against themselves. I thought it would teach them to excel, to achieve, to distinguish themselves. In the end, it appears they only competed to see who could fuck up worse.

“What about You?”

Daughter’s words snapped me out of one of my frequent dinner daydreams. Her hair was blue. The month prior it was green. Before that, red. None of it was natural.

I said, “What about You?”

I knew she was naturally the most naturally intelligent but doubted she could actually read my mind. 

Daughter asked what You thought she should do about Baby?

I looked at Wife for guidance but did not detect any forthcoming. She apparently wanted me to tackle this one alone. In my experience when one is unprepared it’s usually best to say little, especially when it comes to family matters, lest You say something that would only make things worse. In response to the silence, Daughter sprang to her feet and pushed the table away, which caused Son’s head to fall, then snap back to life. 

“See, You’re only concerned about Yourself. Just as it’s always been. Got something to tell You, we should all wish the worst thing going on in Family was Your having to teach two whole classes in one semester.”

“Dad’s okay,” Son said when Daughter darted towards her room. “He’s got problems too but they’re not as bad as ours and we had advantages he never did.”

Amazed he could speak at all, let alone coherently, I couldn’t tell if Son was being sarcastic or sincere. He was so gaunt, so gray, I genuinely wondered if he’d make it through the night.

“I’m going to bed.”

“All right,” Wife said, “I’ll get up early and pack your things and then wake you and take you to the center before going to work.”

“As busy as you are, you might want to take some of his old drugs if you can find any.”

“Yeah, or You could help out without being asked.”

“Or told.”

Wife opened her mouth as if she had a response ready for my last retort or at least as if she didn’t want to leave me with the last word.  I’m not sure why but she chose not to deliver it.  After half a minute, she got up and left me alone to wonder why she spared me.    

***

My work Neighbor is the second (or third, depending whether I count Myself and whether I’m feeling humble) most distinguished faculty member at the law school. He’s also my best friend, even though we view the world, or at least the legal world, almost diametrically opposed to one another. So I had to share the news.

“It really happened, I got ‘em.”

He had his back to me and was looking out the window but turned around and winced. “The dreaded 1Ls?”

“Guess I should have prepared myself for the inevitable.”

“If you’re looking for a positive, on the whole, 1Ls probably care about their classes the most.” Neighbor was right. 1Ls knew the least and so worried the most and paid the most heed to their professors. 2Ls were too busy interviewing and focused on their future careers to concerns themselves much with classwork. 3Ls didn’t care about anything, except getting through the year so they could get on with their lives. “And it still beats practicing, right?”

Neighbor and I are forever linked. We both came to the law school after practicing as attorneys for two years; we both published frequently following our arrivals; and we both achieved a measure of national recognition in the academic world. Our employer so considered us equals, mirror images, the basis for my receiving a slightly more desirable office due to its position along the curve of the rotunda was simply due to the fact that I appeared on campus a day before him. Of course, that wouldn’t have mattered had the undisputed most distinguished faculty member of our school not declined it when it was first offered to him. Top Dog claimed he wouldn’t fully take advantage of it because he traveled so often, but Neighbor and I believed he declined the honor just so he could make a point of bestowing it upon whomever might be considered the second most distinguished faculty member. 

Top Dog joined the law school directly after clerking for a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Both before and after receiving tenure, he’d had multiple offers to leave our distinguished law school for even more prestigious ones. While we both presumed this was done with ulterior motives, Top Dog’s choice to stay prevented Neighbor and me from ever needing to compete against one another. There was no point. No one wants to hear anyone shout, “I’m number two!”

“Did you ever tell me if there was a particular case that brought you here?” I asked.

“Six or seven times. Securities fraud, remember?”

Fact was I didn’t give a hoot about securities fraud or stories about securities fraud, but I did sort of remember Neighbor telling me that was the one and only area he’d asked his firm not to assign him a case, so more than anything, the firm’s decision to do so taught him how much he could trust his employer. He quit three months later.

“I remember. You got out without having to acknowledge substantive incompetence.”

“It was a preemptive move to avoid malpractice.”

My departure from Firm had not been as preordained as his. I’d handled a variety of cases for more than a year before taking on an antitrust case. I thought I’d be able to tackle that one as well, but when I stood at the podium before the federal judge on the first motion I realized for the first time I was merely bluffing. Words spilled out of my mouth, but I wasn’t really sure what they meant. I feared being made the fool, or worse, that opposing counsel and the judge already knew I was one. I fled to the academic world where I thought I’d be better able to control my fate.

***

I’m a small “c” conservative. I believe in a federal government of limited, enumerated powers, and a system of government that was meant to be difficult to change. I do not believe there should be wild swings after one of the political parties obtains 53% of the vote from the 50% of the population who decided to cast a ballot in a given year. 

I believe the states exist as places for experimentation─for good and bad─and I’m true to this position regardless of whomever controls Washington. A party shouldn’t invoke states’ rights when out of power and then seek to impose its will upon them once it has the ability to do so. That’s intellectually dishonest.

Because I wish to remain true to my beliefs, not party allegiance, I do not consider myself Republican or Democratic. At least I don’t do so per se or all of the time. The parties may change their positions on issues based on their perception of voters, but I don’t change mine. I’d rather be right than popular.

Neighbor’s a liberal or progressive. I forget what he calls himself these days. Either way, he’s a smart fellow. He listens to arguments presented and attacks them rather than the person who makes them. If I had to pick on him for something─other than his entire belief system─I’d say he can be a little too outcome-oriented at times. I think sometimes he determines the result he wants on a particular matter and then work backwards, using his intellect, logic, and reasoning to determine the arguments to put forth to reach that end.

Neighbor’s not the only person with legal training to do that sort of thing.  Most practicing lawyers and judges operate that way.  But I don’t think a distinguished law professor should. 

Dean required me to teach my Federal Jurisdiction class in addition to Civ Pro. Most of my students are busy 2Ls but some 3Ls will slip in. Usually students who only decided late in the day to become litigators or those who didn’t want to take the course─which they correctly heard is difficult─during the semester they were flying around the country to interview for summer associate positions.     

I teach the class in a lecture format because there’s a lot of material to cover and that’s what works best for me, but there’s always one student who has something to say. This semester it was Mousey who was always raising her hand to challenge me or at least my words in front of the class. I don’t know if her actions annoyed her classmates or not, whether they wanted her to speak to break the monotony of solely hearing my voice or if they preferred her high pitch not waken them from their slumber. 

I figured she must have taken Neighbor’s Con Law class the previous Spring because he engages with his students more than I. He likes to hear them make arguments contrary to his own and then joust with them. I have no time and little tolerance for that, and I don’t see the need to showboat. I know I’m right without the need to prove it to a bunch of 20-somethings. So I’d just let Mousey have her say before continuing. The only time I even paid attention was the first time she spoke so I could evaluate her. 

I cover the principle of sovereign immunity early in the semester because I like starting the class by showing students the types of cases that do not belong in federal court, which are courts of limited jurisdiction and not intended to be venues for all the complaints a person may have.     

“I can’t believe how wrong the Court’s been on this issue for more than 100 years. It seems ridiculous to rely on some old English maxim that the King can do no wrong when we’re not England, we’ve never had a king, and our Founders─however much they even debated the principle of sovereign immunity─chose, for whatever reason, not to include it in the text of the constitution. And whatever one thinks of the Chisholm decision, a constitutional amendment was enacted. Arguing that it was ratified so quickly wouldn’t seem to support a broad interpretation but a narrow one. Everyone agreed with the simple, straightforward text, so the Hans court had no business going off on its own and expanding the reach of the Eleventh Amendment. And a hundred years later the Court just kept pushing a theory it wanted adopted, the text of the amendment be dammed. What’s left after Alden? Congress can pass laws and say they apply to states but can’t permit people to sue them in federal court or require the states to be sued in their own courts? What’s the point? The Court shouldn’t have excluded the avenues for relief Congress provided solely on its own judicially invented concept. That’s the sort of judicial activism those justices supposedly oppose.”     

I waited for anyone else to chime in, knowing they wouldn’t, before setting the class back on track. “Thank you. You stated your position quite well. In fact, I know someone who occupies the office next to mine who would heartily agree with everything you just said. I, however, disagree for all the reasons I previously stated.”

***

As disruptive as Mousey could be, I wish my discussions at home were as reasoned as hers. Thoughtful discourse is a rarity at our dinner table. When I learned Daughter might be reconsidering her decision, I believed I had an obligation to speak, to tell her she might not want to keep Baby. 

“You have multiple options.” That was probably the wrong approach. I should have let her get there on her own instead of suggesting it because any opinions I had, had to be wrong by the very fact that they were mine. 

“I don’t want to hear them. I know I’m going to have it and am going to love it.”

“That might be true if you had it and kept it but you don’t have to.”

“You don’t know what I’m feeling. You can’t. You’ve never been a mother.”

“That’s stating the obvious.”

“I can still do other things.”

“That may be true but you’re going to be making things much, much harder on yourself than they need to be.”

Daughter got to her feet. I stared more than I should have because I wanted to know if others would know her secret already. I couldn’t tell. “You,” she said, shaking her head before she left the room. 

Walking away is never the best way to win an argument.

“But it might be the only way to do what you know is right.”

Had I said my last thought aloud or had Wife read my mind? She remained at the table following Daughter’s departure. 

“They don’t know what’s right,” I said. “They just do what they feel is right. There’s a difference.”

“Right and humans act on both.”

“Do you really think doing whatever you feel like, including unprotected sex and drugs, is the way to go?”

“No, but we’re past that now.”

“You’re the parent. You’re stopped them from doing whatever they felt like when they were Babies, when they were Children.”

“And now they’re not. You can’t parent the same way.”

“I can’t tell them they’re wrong?”

“You can tell them. You can’t make them do what You want them to do or not do. And, in any case, You have to deal with what’s happened, whether You wanted it or not.”

I thought Wife was abdicating her role at the same time she was minimizing mine. I got to my feet and carried my dishes to the dishwasher. She was still seated when I came back for round two. I met her eyes. She met mine. I tried to see if I had the same ability as she after all these years together but I couldn’t read her thoughts.

“All right, we’ll do it your way.”

I didn’t hear her sneak behind me, but there she was when I bent up after placing a second load in the rack.

“Don’t You know I wish I could be like You?” I thought for a moment she meant be successful, but it became clear that was not the case when she continued. “Don’t you know I’d like to get away permanently or temporarily as well?”

I looked at her and thought I could read her better this time.

“Okay, not permanently. But I certainly could use a break from all of you every once in a while.”

***

I’ve known Neighbor’s wife almost as long as I’ve known Neighbor, and his kids as long as they’ve been alive. We don’t live very close to one another and don’t socialize that frequently, but we get together at some faculty or social event two or three times each year. Maybe Neighbor and I have stayed above the fray all around us because we’ve shared so much with one another over the years. Still, I think I have a better understanding of his relationship with his kids than with his wife. 

We share all our kids’ achievements and problems. Lately, it’s been his kids’ achievements and my Kids’ problems. But I know his youngest son is on the autism spectrum, and Neighbor worries about him long term, even when he seems to be faring well at the moment. 

We talk about what our spouses are doing but we don’t tell each other how often we fight or have sex or the types of fights and sex we have with our wives. Maybe it’s because it doesn’t seem like the sort of thing distinguished professors of law should share. Or maybe it’s because that would reveal too much about ourselves, even if couched as revelations about our spouses. 

It seems safer to discuss our children. They just landed at our feet; we had no choice as to the type of humans we’d get. But who knows, maybe Neighbor thinks I’m a bad parent because of what I reveal about Son and Daughter. Or maybe he worries I believe he has bad sperm, given his own son’s challenges.

It used to be safe ground to discuss the law, the profession, and politics. It was like a game of chess, intellectually challenging but ultimately just sport. Not so anymore. Tribalism in society has infected our distinguished law school. Neighbor and I might be the last members of the competing tribes to actually hold pleasant conversations with one another. This works more to my benefit since numerically he has many more affiliates than I.

After the election, I probably erred in telling him I’d noticed the change around us. I certainly did by doing so while he was editing. It was a Friday, so I should have recognized he wouldn’t even have been at the office if he didn’t have serious work to do, but I popped in nonetheless. I guess I needed someone. “I’m starting to feel lonely around here.”

“Why’s that?”  He was typing on his laptop.

“There are fewer and fewer people who will talk to me.”

Neighbor looked up and stared, offering me one last chance to excuse myself. When I didn’t, he said, “Maybe you guys should go back to battling on the basis of the merits of your ideas.”

“What’s that?”

“If Republican ideas are so great, why do they spend so much of their effort trying to limit who can vote and supporting anti-democratic gerrymandering efforts? You would think they would have faith that the majority would support their positions if they were truly superior. It’s because they know that’s not the case that they seek to win elections through other methods. And you wouldn’t think there would be a need to discredit the media or prevent research concerning gun violence if they weren’t afraid of objective reporting and studies.”   

“I’m not a Republican.”

Neighbor chuckled at my response and when I stared with what I considered appropriate seriousness, he broke into loud laughter.  

“Do I really have to ask who you voted for?”

“Just because I’ve voted for them doesn’t make me one.”

“Is that how your conscience stays clean?”

“I mainly voted that way for the judges.”

“And as a result you’ve pretended facts and science don’t matter. That’s not worthy of the profession. You’ve bought it all, Bill, not just the judges.”

Neighbor and I had openly matched wits on numerous occasions in the past, but it had never seemed so personal. This one did and I felt unprepared to continue so I retreated to my office, using Neighbor’s work as an excuse for my abrupt departure. 

Some less secure person might say that was when a lightbulb went off in his head and he abruptly changed course. That’s not me and it wouldn’t be intellectually honest. Fact is, long before Neighbor uncharacteristically spoke to me the way he did, I’d been evaluating my political alignment. The Republican Party has moved further and further away from my belief system─no longer expressing genuine concern about moral leadership, fiscal responsibility, or true foreign threats around the world. 

I’ve been reluctant to switch my affiliation for a couple of reasons. First, I had hope (now fading)  that the Republican elite would re-assert their leadership of the conservative movement. At the same time, I’ve had a fear (growing) that the elite Democrats will lose control to their activist wing and soon no one will represent a true conservative position.   

I wish there were a third choice. That said, I understand that at some point one party can become so intolerable that if there is only one other viable option, you go with that, even if you find its philosophy somewhat repellant.

***

When I arrived on campus the following Monday, I found Neighbor in the hallway outside his office speaking with Mousey. They both waved, then followed me. 

“Bill, this is Megan. She was one of the stars of my class last Spring. She was telling me how much she enjoys your class.”

“She’s probably the only one.”

“That’s not true.” Megan’s tone was different than Mousey’s. In my office, it was lighter, more personable, than the one she displayed in the classroom, which I found to be more than a little strident. “You know how it is. Most of those who disagree with you are afraid if they speak up, they’ll get shot down in front of their peers, and those who agree with you don’t want to appear like they’re sucking up.”

“Those things don’t appear to bother you.”

“I love talking in all my classes.” She pointed out my window. “Out there lots of people try to shut me up, put me down. Here, for the most part, people listen, even when they disagree. Like you. And you and Professor Brennan and just about everyone else here are helping me acquire the skills I’ll need for out there.”

Neighbor looked down at Megan but only because she failed to reach his shoulders in physical stature. “I’m glad we’re helping, but I always think I get as much from my students, especially students like you, as I give to them. Would you mind if I speak to Professor Buckley now?”

After Megan excused herself, Neighbor waited until I’d taken a seat and closed my door. We’re essentially the same age, but he still has a full head of hair. It’s long, wild, and gray. I lost most of mine and cut the rest close enough that it looks shaved from a distance. That said, anyone meeting either of us for the first time probably would peg our age within a year or two. “I want to apologize.”

“No need.”

“Yeah, there is We’ve always been friends first.”

“Still are as far as I’m concerned.”

“Me too. That’s why I came to tell you something, though you’ll have to promise not to share it until the announcement’s made public.”

“Sure.” I expected him to tell me he was taking a position at another law school.

“You’re going to be recognized as the Distinguished Law Professor of the Year. I submitted your name and was given a heads-up.”

I jumped to my feet, and, at the same time, my cell phone rang. I ignored it and allowed it to go to voicemail.

“When did this happen?”

“I learned this morning. I submitted your name after reading your book.”

My office phone rang next and I ignored it as well.

“What will your buddies out there think?”

“Doesn’t matter. To me, great is great.”

I answered my cell when it rang again, figuring I’d just tell one of the members of Family that I’d call back in a bit. A voice I didn’t recognize and whose name I didn’t catch told me I needed to go to the local hospital.

“Because of Son?”

“Yes, but not just him.”

“Daughter too?”

“Yes, but not just her.”

“Who else?”

“Wife.”

“Wife?”

“Yes, she’s been in a car accident.”

Neighbor drove me to the hospital, where I made the rounds. Son had overdosed and was recovering. Daughter had miscarried and was sobbing. Wife had suffered a concussion and was disorienting.

***

As Neighbor had promised, I was soon notified that I’d receive an award for apparently being a distinguished law professor. Upon delivery, I used my momentary standing above even Top Dog to tell Dean I intended to take my sabbatical one semester earlier than had been scheduled. Neighbor told Dean he’d cover my class in the Spring if Dean couldn’t find anyone else. I subsequently told Dean he needed to hire someone.  Because I knew he wouldn’t solely on account of my request or Neighbor’s schedule, I appealed to Dean’s politics.  Like me, he leans towards conservativism. I reminded Dean Neighbor surely would teach a course called The Fourteenth Amendment differently than he or I.  

“And wouldn’t it be better if…”

I didn’t have to finish. Dean knew where I was headed and nodded in agreement. It wasn’t much of a repayment, but I thought it was the least I could do, given Neighbor’s role in getting me the award. 

I chose not to attend the faculty gathering for the gusts at the end of the Fall semester. I was no longer interested in seeing students battle against strong forces and feared such a gathering these days might devolve into a Survivor episode instead of good ol’ fashioned gambling on the abilities and perseverance of our students.

Once the semester ended, I scrapped my plan for traveling and writing during my sabbatical. I realized I’d reached a peak in my professional career and my next advancement needed to occur in other realms.

***

Davis is doing well. He and I both understand addiction much better. It’s a disease he’ll live with the rest of his life, but he now recognizes he wants a life and that to have one he needs to fight. So far he’s battling hard. I think he recognizes if he beats back his foe he will accomplish something far greater than Dad ever did or could.

I think the miscarriage was best for Caryn and that although she won’t say so (at least to Me) she might feel the same way. She’ll be a great mother someday. At the right time with the right partner. And I have no doubt either before, after, or both she will offer the world something with her phenomenal mind I cannot yet comprehend. 

Judy still suffers from post-concussion syndrome. She cries for no reason when she never did even though she had lots of reasons to do so before. She forgets things. She worries. Her doctor tell us she will improve with time, but I wish she would be more specific and wish we saw more progress.

I’m better now too. I know I made mistakes. Lots of them. It was easy to see the errors others made and were making and to tell them how they should correct them, correct themselves. Maybe I didn’t think I was immune, but I didn’t really see mine before. I didn’t want to recognize them; I didn’t want to acknowledge their breadth and scope. Maybe that’s not so unusual. But it is necessary.

Perhaps simply acknowledging all the things one has done wrong is insufficient to warrant distinction. But doing so when appropriate would seem to demonstrate a level of emotional and intellectual honesty that had previously eluded me. I hope it’s a start anyway.

Kevin Finnerty lives in Minneapolis with his wife and a pug named Shakespeare.  His stories have appeared in The Manhattanville Review, Newfound, Portage Magazine, Red Earth Review, The Westchester Review, and other journals.

Surrounded By Lilies by Jacob Schornak

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“I’m saying it happens, mi hijo. It happens more than people talk about. The news certainly isn’t. What about those planes that crashed after taking off and then they grounded all of them? You don’t hear about them anymore, do you?”

I pinch at the bridge of my nose as my father rattles on, trying to keep a headache─that is turning from a yelp to a bark to a roar─at bay.

My dad perks up and glanced around the cabin of the plane. Flight attendants wander up and down the center aisle, closing the overhead bins as they fill with passengers’ overstuffed carry-ons. They tell the same passengers to fasten their seatbelts and ensure their tray tables and seats are in the secure and upright position. A woman two rows in front of me pushes the call button and demands a bottle of seltzer water. The flight attendant acknowledges her request, but continues her process of preparing the cabin for takeoff.

“Do you know what kind of plane this is? Do you think this is the kind that will crash?”

“Dad, you can’t say stuff like that. Not here.”

I look at the man sitting in the aisle seat across from me. He glances up from his phone. I flash him a meek smile, hoping he will not be alarmed by my father’s comments, but he smiles, then returns to scrolling through the feed on his phone.

“Do you smell lilies?” my father asks as a wave of relief washes over me.

“It’s probably just someone’s perfume.” I sniff. “I don’t smell anything.”

“I’ve always loved lilies. When I’m buried, that’s what I want around me. Lilies.”

“Okay, Dad. That won’t be for a while, though.”

My father rummages through the side pockets of his tweet jacket. He does this often now. Random moments of urgency causing searches through his jacket. I wonder if he’s looking for something that might save his life in a moment of need, like a parachute.

Within a flourish, like a knight drawing his sword from its sheath, my father lifts a medical mask from his side jacket pocket. I have seen the same kind mask worn by vulnerable patients in hospitals.

“What are you doing, Dad?”

My father pulls the looped straps of the mask behind his ears. “You know that the air on airplanes cause cancer. See, there’s another thing no one is talking about, but we all know it’s true.” He points at the mask now covering his nose and mouth.

“Jesus Christ, Dad,” I whisper. I scan the people in earshot of us. “None of that is true.”

My father raises his eyebrows followed by a glare I know well. Without warning─though I know it is coming─my father thwaps me in the back of the head with the palm of his broad hand.

“Miguel, no uses el nombre del Señor en vano.” My dad brings his hands together, allowing only a molecule to keep them apart. He turns his gaze to the ceiling of the airplane, though I know his attention is pressing beyond the confines of the metal tube with wings.

“Por favor, perdona a mi hijo, todavía tengo mucho que enseñarle.” He speaks to God as though he is talking with an old friend.

I feel my stomach twist at the sight. I have come to resent God in recent months, seeing him as a vile and vindictive being. My father, on the other hand, worships him daily. Each morning and night, he will kneel before his bed and give thanks, even the days when it was difficult for him to get out of bed.

My father finishes his prayer, then turns his attention back to me. A look of calm stretches across his face, like he knows that God has already forgiven me, and he has nothing to worry about.

“When are you and Julie giving your mother and I grandbabies, Miguel?” My father’s voice is muffled under his medical mask.

“Probably when God tells us to.” I wonder if he will get the sarcasm in my tone. My guess is no.

“I feel like I am going to die of old age before I become an abuelo.”

I sigh. “Honestly, dad, I don’t even know if I want any.”

“No digas eso.”

Don’t say that.

My phone vibrates against my leg. I might be saved from answering more of the questions both of my parents have been pressing since Julie and I started dating three years ago. I rummage through my pockets, struggling to free my phone trapped between the denim fabric and my thigh. I pull my phone free.

The round face of my mother, radiating with joy illuminates the screen.

I draw in a deep breath before answering. “Hi mom…No, I’m on the plane…No, it hasn’t left yet, but we’re getting ready to take off.”

A flight attendant scans one row of passengers and then the other. I lift my gaze from the back of the seat in front of me and our eyes connect.

“Sir, you need to turn off the phone or switch it to airplane mode,” she says.

I nod. “Mom, I really have to go…No, the flight is only three and a half hours…No, I’m flying out of Philly. They don’t have any flights out of Pittsburg today, I have to go…The funeral isn’t until tomorrow, right?…Okay, so why are you worried about me missing it?…No, mom, I’m sorry, I know you have a lot going on. I—What?…Yeah, I think that would be nice. Dad said he always talked about being surrounded by lilies at his funeral.”

Jacob Schornak is a writer from St. Paul, Minnesota. He attended the University of Minnesota Duluth for his undergraduate program, receiving a degree in Professional Writing Studies. Most recently, he earned his Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Augsburg University. He is kept sane thanks to his wife, Morgan, and dog, Tolkien. When he is not writing, Jacob enjoys traveling the world with his wife, seeing the sites and drinking all the beer.

An All-Nighter by S. Kearing

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Marta—achingly beautiful, worrisome, and stubborn as hell—refuses to let me drive her to the airport.

“You really should stay off that ankle, John,” she says. “Let it heal properly.”

I accept her disappointingly chaste kiss and settle back into my recliner. Marta wheels her luggage out the front door and over the narrow walk that separates my floor-to-ceiling windows from my lawn. She brings her face to the glass and canopies her eyes with her hands, peering from the muggy darkness into the air-conditioned glow of the living room. She grins affectionately.

Seconds later, we hear the choppy bleat of her taxi. We wave goodbye and she hurries off, leaving a tiny smudge where her nose was.

The next day I’m hobbling around my backyard, picking up dog shit and cooking under the relentless sun, when I come across four broken branches at the base of my favorite tree. My tree is pretty squat compared to the towering palms native to Port St. Lucie, but that’s why I love it. To see that it’s been damaged makes my blood boil.

“Son of a bitch.” I stare up through my tree’s network of robust arms and thick greenery. “God damn neighborhood kids act like they don’t have their own yards to play in…. Hey, Tootsie!” I call to my old bloodhound. “Any kids hiding up there?”

Tootsie trots over, throws her nose heavenward for a casual whiff, then snorts dismissively. Well, that settles it. The girl’s sense of smell has never failed me. If she says there’s no one up there, then there’s no one up there.

I spend the rest of the morning in my recliner, flipping between a few different news channels. Since the T.V. is positioned right in front of the windows, I notice when the mailman comes, when the sprinkler goes on, and even when Kimber walks by in those workout pants that make her ass look good enough to eat. But I don’t stare, and I don’t go out there. I’m faithful to Marta, despite what she thinks.

When I finally limp out front to get the mail, I’m shocked to see muddy footprints on the walk in front of my windows. The prints aren’t completely dried, and in this heat, that means they’ve been there less than five minutes. Who the hell could’ve done this without me seeing them?

There’s not a soul in sight. I even circle around to the back to see if the culprit’s hiding there. Nope. Finally, I hose down the walk and go inside.

When Marta calls, I speculate about the day’s one interesting event.

“Are you sure it was kids? I mean, where the footprints small?” Before I can answer, she says, “I’m booking a return flight.”

“You’ll do no such thing. It’s just little kids causing trouble. I think I can handle it.”

After I hang up, I probe my memories for one that reveals the size of the footprints. I find nothing. I just can’t help but think that if the prints were miniature, I’d remember them clearly.

On Thursday morning, my buddy Joe pulls up behind my garage, whistles his way through my sprawling backyard, and raps on my door. I let him in.

“Still letting Tootsie shit up the whole yard, I see.”

“As long as she goes outside.”

Joe flicks his head toward the door. “Why was that thing locked?”

“Oh, it’s these damn neighborhood kids. Yesterday they got pretty ballsy, messing around on my tree and running in front of my windows even though I was sitting right there. I can’t have those little fuckers coming in here.”

Joe’s mouth twists impishly. “No, you sure can’t.” He tosses some worn bills on the counter.

“Why, Joe Olson. I thought you quit.”

“I can’t sleep, man. If I don’t get some shuteye tonight, I’m gonna kill someone. I just need to get back on track.”

I tousle the money. “You just need to get back on track, huh? You brought enough cash for an ounce.”

My pal chortles and rakes his fingers through his thinning hair.

“Tell you what.” I slide some bills back in his direction. “Let’s start out with a half-ounce.”

“Yeah, okay.” Joe shifts his weight. “Sativa.”

“Nope. All outta stock. But don’t worry; I got something perfect for you.” I pour him some decaf and leave him to sort out his cream and sugar.

I lock myself in my temperature and humidity controlled basement. I fetch some Indica, which is far better suited to induce sleep than what Joe requested. I have no idea why he’s buying again, but his order sounded pretty damn recreational to me. I really hope he’s not off to the Keys for another party week with his twenty-year-old “girlfriend.” Dear Joe is too hopeful to realize that he isn’t so much as a shadow in that girl’s peripheral vision (unless he comes bearing illicit gifts).

Before I go back upstairs, I stuff a little baggie of Sativa in my pocket. I deserve to have a little fun, with Marta gone and all.

After Joe leaves, I roll a joint and settle into my chair. At first, I’m euphoric but alert, piqued by the national news. I keep my eyes peeled for sneaky tots in muddy shoes, but after a few hours, my eyelids drop leadenly. Disgruntled, I float off into a sleep that will no doubt be tainted by the Sativa’s unique influence.

I dream of Marta on top of me… of us walking Toots at dusk… of Marta, mistaking my natural friendliness for me flirting with another woman, throwing every tumbler in my kitchen. The sound of shattering glass bleeds into real life, and I’m startled awake. Tootsie is right at my side, eager to go investigate. She leads me out to the garage and bellows up at the roof.

“Hey,” I shout. “Whoever’s up there better come down right now!” I expect to see two grade school boys with dirty faces and bruised limbs peer over the edge, all sheepish apologies. But then my eyes settle on the garage window. “Welp, girl, we’re too late. They broke the window swinging their legs down, and now they’re long gone.”

Tootsie only bays louder.

“What, you think one ran away and one’s still up there?”

The bloodhound barks her assent.

I step back about ten feet and shield my eyes against the sun, but I still can’t locate any trespassers. I circle the garage, my ankle throbbing. “I really don’t think—”

My dog howls furiously.

Sweat sprouts from every inch of my body as I set up my ladder and gingerly maneuver up its aluminum rungs. When I get to the top, I don’t see anyone. I suppose they could’ve escaped down the other side, but Tootsie would’ve heard them if they did. I sigh and pull myself onto the rough tiles. I work my way to the opposite end of the roof and find that it’s completely deserted.

“I checked everywhere, girl,” I say as I struggle down the ladder. “There’s no one up there.”

My bloodhound unleashes a torrent of impatient sounds.

“Knock it off, Toots. There’s no reason to be acting a fool.”

She huffs arrogantly and sits.

“You don’t believe me, do you? Well, if you wanna stay here all damn day waiting for someone to come down, be my guest.”

Tootsie averts her gaze.

Minutes later, I dip one of my keys into the “sugar” jar and take a bump. No more nagging pain, and no more naps. I really need to catch whoever’s been treating my grounds like their own personal amusement park.

I sit on one stool, put my foot up on another, and lower an icepack onto my ankle. Then something occurs to me. It’s the middle of a school day. And yesterday, when I found the branches and footprints, it was during school hours as well. I’m not so sure anymore that it’s kids tearing up my property. Of course, I know that most adults are at work right now, but I think it’s more likely for grownups to be running around at this time than children. Hell, I’m an adult, and my schedule’s wide open.

I fire up my laptop and scour the local news sites for reports of vandalism in my neighborhood. All I find are bulletins about grocery store produce that’s contaminated with E. coli, human interest stories about local veterans starting their own social groups, and warnings about over-treating dogs for fleas. I scoff. I don’t know if Tootsie’s ever been clear of fleas for more than a week at a time. That’s just how it is down here. I take another bump and fix myself a gin and tonic.

Marta checks in. I tell her about the new developments.

“And Tootsie’s still out there?”

“Sure is,” I cluck.

“Oh.”

“Look, I don’t mean to worry you, honey. Actually, I’m glad you’re not here for all this. God only knows what’s going on. But I need to put an end to it before you get back, so don’t go booking any plane tickets. And don’t worry about Toots. My ankle’s actually feeling a little better, and I’m about to head out there with her water bowl.”

“John, you’re rambling. Are you on something?”

I emit a startled croak.

“I knew it. I just knew that as soon as I left, you’d throw all the positive changes we’ve made right out the window. You promised me we’d party on Saturday nights only, John.”

“Baby, relax, I’m just having a little Bombay and—”

“Oh, I already know exactly what you’re up to. First, it’s ‘just a drink.’ But in a few hours, you’ll be downstairs helping yourself to some pot. Then you’ll be blasting through the coke like there’s no tomorrow. You have no idea what the word ‘moderation’ means.”

I can’t help but laugh. My angry girlfriend’s got the sequence of events all wrong. I’m pretty sure I started out with pot, then I got into the coke, and I brought up the rear with booze.

Marta hangs up.

I stare at my phone incredulously. But I’m not mad. I bring my dog some water, then return to the kitchen and top off my drink with gin and lime juice. Five minutes later, Tootsie’s frantic barking sends me clambering outside. When I get to her, her front paws are up on the back gate. Apparently, someone’s jumped off the far side of the garage. And I can hear them. I can hear their feet pounding across the sunbaked ground behind my property. Yet I see nothing.

I squint in the blazing sun, mouth agape. “What in the fucking fuck?” My words are completely inaudible due to the racket of my bloodhound straining against the fence, sounding off in spectacular fashion.

Eventually, we go back in the house. I clean and oil my favorite guns: an AR-15 (overkill, I know, but you can never be too intimidating) and an HK VP9 (yeah, it pinches sometimes, but that’s only when I forget to mind my grip). I thread the U of the lock back through my gun locker, but I don’t click it shut. I may need quick access to my steel babies.

Nightfall brings with it Joe Olson.

“What happened, man? I thought you were gonna turn in early and make up for lost sleep.”

“I was, but… I need more weed.”

“What? What happened to the half-ounce I gave you?”

“I gave it to Rory. She really needed it for spring break with her friends.”

I laugh. “Joe. It’s late May. Spring break for the college kids was two months ago.”

My pal looks down at the floor.

“Hey, man. Don’t worry about it. Have a seat. I’m pulling an all-nighter in case these fucks come back.”

“What fucks?”

I tell Joe what’s been going on.

“What do you mean, you didn’t see who was running? Didn’t you say it was still light out when this happened?”

“Yeah, I heard feet hitting the ground, but there was no one there.”

“Hmm.” Joe smirks and plops down on a stool. “Shit, man, I’ll stay up with you. Put my insomnia to good use.”

I get out the Red Bull and vodka, which I’m hoping will play nice with the joint I made using the remains of my baggie from yesterday. Joe and I shoot the shit just like we used to. Tootsie watches over us with judgement in her eyes. When my ankle starts bothering me again, I make us some coffee with plenty of “sugar.”

“I gotta thank you for the coffee this morning, John. I took mine pretty, uh, sweet.”

We erupt into drunken laughter.

“Here I was, making you decaf so you wouldn’t be up all night, but then I went and gave you the ‘sugar’ jar. That fucking jar’s a big joke around here, cuz me and Marta don’t use cane sugar at all.”

“Why not?”

“It’s bad for you, man.”

Suddenly, my dog lunges at the screen door.

Joe starts, sloshing some of my special brew down the front of his t-shirt. “Holy shit, They’re here!”

“I told you I wasn’t imagining it, man.” I rush into my room for my pistol, then Joe and I follow Tootsie out into the foreboding night.

She goes straight to the garage and bays with urgency. When I finally get her to shut up, I can hear a rustling coming from inside.

Joe tries the door. “Why’s it locked?”

“You know I got two really nice cars in there, man.”

“Christ, so that’s what all this is about. Someone’s after your cars. I bet they’ve been casing the place all week. Then when you finally coulda caught them, you were so fucked up you couldn’t see straight.”

“I was not fucked up.”

Suddenly, we’re awash in the jolting glare of the house’s floodlights. Joe and I turn to behold my girlfriend swiftly approaching us.

Marta?”

“Who else?” she replies tightly.

“I told you not to come.”

“Yup, you sure did. And now I can see exactly why. Just look at you two!” Marta turns her icy gaze to my friend. “Hello, Joe. The kitchen looks like a time machine to five years ago. There’re cans of Red Bull and rolling papers all over the place, and the sugar jar’s damn near empty.” She looks back at me. “God help you, John, if you two had that prepubescent whore and her friends in there.”

“Rory’s a legal adult,” Joe says dumbly.

“Me and Joe were just waiting for the trespassers to come back, honey.” I drop my voice to a whisper, “They’re in the garage right now. Must’ve slithered in through the broken window.”

Without a word, Marta sifts through her keys and unlocks the door. I step in front of her, gun in hand, and flip on the lights. Tootsie nudges past me and bellows up at two raccoons that are cowering in a shelving unit.

Marta turns on her heel and storms back into the house. Inside, I find her standing at the sink with her back toward me.

“Marta, please, baby. There were no girls in here, okay? It was just me and Joe.”

“Just you and Joe, partying so goddamn hard that you got to being paranoid that someone broke into the garage. Who knows if anything you’ve been telling me the last few days is even true.”

“Look, I know the raccoon thing is making this look a certain way, but, Marta, I was sober as a judge when all this started.”

“I’m exhausted. I’m going to bed. When Tootsie comes back inside, she can sleep with me. But not you.”

I pass out on the couch until about noon, when I’m jarred awake by the loud crash of the metal garbage cans that I keep in the yard for Tootsie’s poop and my grill ashes. I totter out back as fast as my tender ankle will take me. The cans and their contents are splayed across my manicured grass.

“Son of a—”

The flow of my outrage is stopped by the most bizarre sight. There’s a hole in the shape of a hand in one of the cans. When I touch it, I discover that it’s not a hole at all. The garbage can is perfectly intact, though it’s been stamped with some sort of paint. I inspect my fingers, which, astoundingly, look like they’ve been cut off.

I rush back into the house to show Marta the proof that something crazy really is going on, but I can’t find her anywhere. She probably left before I got up.

I call Joe and we spend forty-five minutes marveling at the handprint and my invisible digits. Tootsie sniffs around diligently. Afternoon rain drives us all back indoors. Joe and I make ourselves drinks and wait at the window, revitalized in our efforts. Now we know exactly what to look out for: branches moving, grass flattening, mysterious “holes,” and footprints that appear as if by magic.

“This is some crazy shit.” The ice in Joe’s glass rattles as he speaks excitedly. “Whoever has access to paint like this means business. They’re probably after every last thing you got. The cars, the drugs, the money. We better get strapped.”

This is when I discover that my HK VP9, as well as all my other guns, are gone.

“You think maybe Marta hid them?” Joe asks. “As a revenge thing? She sure was angry last night.”

“Marta hates guns and wouldn’t touch one, let alone move them all. No, it’s obvious that those invisible fucks were in here.” I kick my dresser. “God damn it. God damn it. They know I can’t go to the police.”

“Hey, man. I’ll go back to my place and get my gun. It’s just an old rifle, but it’s better than nothing.”

“Barely,” I quip, but I guess he’s right.

I spend the next half hour spooked that now—when I’m totally alone and unarmed—is the time they’ll strike, using my own firepower against me. I nearly jump out of my skin when the doorbell rings. I peek out the window and see a man who’s a little older than I am waiting patiently.

Tootsie’s going ballistic, so I put her in my bedroom. I open the front door, and when the man moves, I can tell that he’s carrying something in his hand. It’s clearly been painted with the same substance that I’d found on the garbage can. It has an iridescent sheen that gives away its shape: a long duffle bag.

“Hello, sir.” The stranger shakes my hand. “Name’s Jasper Wade. I believe I have something that belongs to you.”

I step aside and allow Jasper in. He lowers his burden to the floor, and a metallic thud reveals what the bag contains.

“My guns.”

“Yep. You really should keep them locked up.”

“I usually do, but… I needed to be able to get at them quickly. There’s been a prowler around here. Actually, I think it’s two prowlers working together.”

“It’s a group.” Jasper sighs wearily, takes a wide stance, and crosses his arms. “I got home early from work just now and found ’em all in my bathrooms, trying to get cleaned up so I wouldn’t know they were in my equipment again.”

“They’ve been in your house, too? Multiple times? What equipment? You say there’re more than two.”

“It’s my son and his friends. They use my cloaking spray for their little hide-and-seek games. Too bad one of ’em was dumb enough to bring the spray can out for touch-ups, then didn’t wait for it to dry…. He’s the genius that made a telltale mess on your trashcan. Yeah, they told me the whole story. It was like they were proud. God damn millennials, man. They live at home, they don’t have jobs, and before you know it, they’re criminals and they can’t even admit it to themselves.” Jasper looks at me like we’re old buddies. “They wanna feel like soldiers, you know? Dangerous and stealth. They wanna play at being hot shit, like me and the other dads were, but they don’t wanna actually enlist. Don’t wanna serve their country. They just wanna waltz into people’s homes and steal shit.”

“What do you mean, hot shit like you and the other dads?”

“We’re vets. Went on tour and lived to tell about it,” Jasper explains. “We started a group, you know, so we can stay connected. We do stuff to improve the community. We have barbeques where all our families get together. But I’ll be honest: Those barbeques are the worst thing we ever did. My son became fast friends with the other guys’ sons, and this is what the fuckers decide to do with their time.”

“So you have spray that… makes things invisible?”

“Not invisible. But damn near. They call it ‘cloaked.’ It bends the light around you or something like that. I don’t know. It’s a whole thing.”

“Interesting.” I couldn’t care less about Jasper’s delinquent son and what the kid’s put me through the last few days. Instead, my mind races with the opportunities that I could create for myself if I had cloaking spray. “Well, thanks for bringing my guns back, man. A lot of people wouldn’t’ve done that. The least I can do is set you up with a cold one.”

“Well, it’s a little early for that, but hell, why not? It’s been a rough day.”

Jasper and I sit at the island with frosty bottles of beer. I won’t offer him a joint or my special brew until we know each other a little better.

When Joe bangs through the back door, I’m surprised that I’d left it unlocked. Jasper doesn’t bat an eye at the tired rifle in Joe’s hands. I can tell that we’re all gonna be good, good friends.