“You Are All A Spoiled Generation” by Jake Shore

 

I mean I think I was like totally affected by 9/11. For sure. One way I was fucked up by it was a few weeks after it happened I was sitting on my parent’s couch in the living room watching TV and they used to live in this house right near the water that had a view of the river and their living room was all windows and I was just like watching something stupid on TV and I heard this roar from an airplane outside. It was night and dark and lights were on in the house, lamps and stuff, but I remember it being like pretty dark and I heard this really plane sounding noise from outside and to be honest I don’t really remember reacting to the plane’s noise with me telling myself what to do. It was more like I just reacted without knowing what I was doing and as the plane’s roar got louder and louder I got fucking petrified and I remember not knowing what to do like there was something I was supposed to do but couldn’t remember how to do it. I remember just like bolting the fuck out of the living room and through the house and down the stairs and the crazy loud noise from the plane got nuts and I don’t know, I mean, for some reason I thought the plane was gonna crash into my house. I remember like running down the stairs and my dad was in his office working or something and he didn’t ask me what was wrong ‘cause he didn’t notice anything but it was once I saw him sitting in his office and the noise passed that I realized that like, what I was doing was totally fucking stupid. Who was gonna fly a plane into our house? But I guess it was like, I might’ve been thinking of the plane that crashed into that field or the one into the Pentagon and maybe, like, in this moment I was just having a weird like panic attack thinking that something was gonna happen when it really wasn’t at all. I remember standing down on the first floor and my dad just like sitting in his desk chair and turning around and seeing me and just turning his head back to his work. Then I went back upstairs and kept watching TV.

It for sure wouldn’t have been the first time I reacted real weird to a situation like that, I mean, after Columbine happened I was at a sleepover with some of my friends from middle school and it was the first sleepover that I’d really ever been to with a bunch of kids and they all wanted to stay up like way past bedtime and even wanted to wait up until the sun came up and I remember being all for it ‘cause I wasn’t a bad kid but I had like older cousins and shit that had showed me porn pictures on like the internet and stuff so I wanted to look at that stuff and told my friends about it at the sleepover but it seemed like they didn’t know what I was talking about and they just wanted to watch South Park but then one of the kids there, I mean, I can’t remember who was there, and on account of what happened next I wanted to block out what happened at the sleepover really bad all through the rest of middle school and into high school, too, but I mean, I remember it was Chris who had the sleepover. It might’ve been his idea to watch Titanic just so we could see that chick’s tits. I mean, I still fucking remember that. I’d never seen a woman’s tits before. Not like that. I mean, my cousin had shown me a website with like, some porn stuff on it but I don’t even remember what the hell that shit was. I dunno if I totally processed it or, I mean, I knew that people were… I knew that a lady was in a weird outfit and I might’ve even seen a nipple or something but it wasn’t until that night watching Titanic that it was like I really saw tits.

But anyway, yeah, I mean I remember everyone wanting to stay up all night and we were but then I remember putting my head down on a pillow just to rest and I do think the sun was already up when this happened but the next thing I knew I was breaking through a glass basement window and sprinting across Chris’ lawn in my underwear and a t-shirt. I didn’t know why I was running or what the hell was going on and it was like I was just watching myself do all this shit and then I was at the neighbor’s door and like, the neighbor opens the door and it’s this woman I knew. She used to live near my parents and I told her that I was staying at Chris’ house and one of the kids there had a gun. I dunno why I said this or did this but that’s what happened. I knew this woman, the neighbor, ‘cause I used to pal around with her two boys, Craig and Henry. Then I remember waiting for my dad to get there and Craig and Henry and I played Goldeneye, that game where you go around and shoot everyone. I was watching Craig play and I remember telling him that I didn’t want to play and this was all wrong. He thought I meant about me watching him play a video game where you shoot people after I’d just broken out of Chris’ house ‘cause one of the kids at the sleepover had a gun but, I don’t think that’s like what I was talking about. I think I was saying something about what I’d said about the gun being wrong.

My parents didn’t know what to make of it. I remember being on their couch, the same one in that room overlooking the river and them asking me about it and me not knowing how to answer. I told them I thought I saw a gun so I broke out of Chris’ basement. I told them I thought a video game controller was a gun ‘cause I was so lack of sleep. Truth was, I started to remember why I’d broken out of that house. I had a dream when my head hit that pillow. A dream that Chris’ family dog, Benny, had a gun. That’s what my dream was about. I still remember like, the dream and I was up on Chris’ first floor and their dog had a gun. The dog was wagging its tail and had a gun in its mouth holding it like a bone.  

Later on I’d be told like that it was like a night terror, but that was much later. I was also told it was most likely because of what happened at Columbine because it was so close to that happening and I heard about it and was told and it affected me so much that I had this like dream that a dog had a gun at my friend’s sleepover and I broke through the glass of a basement window. When I was running away from Chris’ house I was really running away from the dream. I was really running away from those fucking kids that shot up Columbine. They weren’t there chasing me when I was running away from like that sleepover but they were in a way, those stupid motherfuckers. They chased me and humiliated me at fucking school where I had to show up with all cuts on my hands and forearms ‘cause they were cut up from the window glass I’d broken and climbed through to my freedom. I got made fun of for that into submission, what the fuck I did at that sleepover. Followed me around most of high school even. That’s the kid who jumped out Chris’ window? Yeah, that’s him, that crazy fuck.

So, yeah, I mean, I didn’t have anyone die in 9/11, right? But I watched my dad when he was glued to the TV. I had my grandfather explain to me what happened as a kid, and then when I was just fucking watching TV one night and heard the growl from an airplane passing my house I jumped up and ran from it out of fear. I heard what happened at Columbine and then went to school and then fucking did all this fucked up shit as a result, I mean, I still got those scars on my forearm from that basement glass window. So when you wonder why the fuck it is that it seems like I’ve had my head split open, pried open, and it’s like someone put a live wire from the guts of an old TV or something right into it, well, you don’t have to wonder for another second about why it seems like that.

 

Jake Shore’s short stories have been published by Litro, Halfway Down the Stairs, The Pitkin Review, Calico Tiger and others. In October 2017, he read at the College of Southern Maryland’s Connections Literary Series. In August of 2016, The Flea Theater in Manhattan presented his play entitled Holy Moly and its tandem novel, A Country for Fibbing. Broadwayworld states “it marks the first time a play with a correlating novel have been simultaneously released in the United States.” His play The Devil is on the Loose with an Axe in Marshalltown was listed in Playbill’s “13 Shows Not to Miss Off-Broadway August 1-16.”

Shore is currently an adjunct professor and the Director of the Academic Advisement Center at St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn, and earned his MFA in Creative Writing at Goddard College, where he studied with Ryan Boudinot and John McManus.

“Recipe for a Pornographic Carrot Bread” by Meeah Williams

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I was writing a porn story for money and interrupted myself to bake a loaf of carrot bread.

I preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Many people think that poetry has no practical purpose but I want this one poem at least to prove them wrong.

I prepare a medium loaf pan by spraying it with Pam.

I grate two cups of carrots and set them aside.

In my porn story, the woman is waiting for her lover in a park after dark.

She is standing inside a jungle gym and reflects how it is the iron parody of a gilded bird cage.

“This is where children play,” she thinks to herself, deliciously ashamed.

She feels her high heels sinking into the soft sand.

She has been told to dress like a streetwalker.

There is un-PC element of male dominance in this story and I am unapologetic about it.

You shouldn’t lie, at very least not to yourself, about what gives you pleasure.

“Art is like ham,” Diego Rivera said. “It nourishes people.”

I mix together one and a half cups of flour, a half teaspoon each of salt and baking powder, a quarter teaspoon of baking soda, and a half cup of sugar, although you can use up to a cup of sugar if you like it sweeter.

Finally I add a lot more cinnamon than the recipe suggests, which is only two teaspoons.

Those are the dry ingredients.

I want this poem, in some way, to nourish people.

I think porn stories get a bad rap; after all, they give people the most intense physical pleasure possible, with the possible exception, perhaps, of eating, and they do it using only words.

In a separate bowl, I beat two eggs, then mix in a quarter cup of milk, two-thirds cup melted butter (or vegetable oil),  and a teaspoon of vanilla extract.

These are the wet ingredients.

Sometimes I come to a shuddering climax reading a porn story that was written a hundred years ago by an author long dead.

I think, isn’t that amazing?

That someone dead can make me come, can touch me like that from beyond the grave?

Isn’t that real magic?

Isn’t that a kind of proof of life after death?

I mix the wet ingredients into the dry, add the carrots and three-quarters of a cup of chopped walnuts.

Where I left off in the porn story, my lover steps out of the dark and orders me to turn around and bend over.

With one hand, he grabs me by the long hair and yanks my head back.

I feel like a lamb about to be slaughtered. 

This is important.

I’m suddenly staring at a small patch of stars visible between the trees which have already begun shedding leaves.

It is early October.

He reaches under my plaid schoolgirl skirt and yanks down my panties.

I’m wearing fishnet stockings with garters so there’s no need to pull off anything else.

I feel the chill air on my naked flesh.

He spits in his palm.

You pour the batter into the already greased loaf pan.

You bake it on the top shelf of the oven for 45 to 50 minutes.

He enters me roughly from behind.

He pumps and pumps and my knuckles on the bar of the jungle gym rub painfully into the flesh of my cheek but I don’t move.

There is, obviously, a strong masochistic element to this poem for which I also make no apology.

I close my eyes and open them when he comes and through the tears the stars inside me are somehow joined to the stars in the sky.

It’s as if I’m seeing semen spread across the heavens.

You check for doneness with a toothpick inserted in the middle of the loaf.

If it comes out clean, it’s done.

You remove the loaf from the pan and let it cool.

You eat it warm and you enjoy.

 

Meeah Williams’s  work appears in lots of places, most recently in  Otoliths, Uut, The Ginger Collect, Former Cactus, Anti-Heroin Chic, Barren, Vulture Bones, Burning House, and Ex/Pat.  She has work forthcoming in Okay Donkey, Neon Mariposa, and Philosophical Idiot. She lives in Seattle and tweets at @pussy_nagaski

“The Final Frontier” by Doug Hawley

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Sally got home from her nature guide conference after being gone for a week.  She was surprised to see an envelope with her name on it in Duke’s handwriting propped up on the phone.  He used to send her little love notes, but with his recent problems, he had dropped the habit. Could he finally have some good news?

“Sally, there is no way to make this easy.  I’ll be dead when you get this.”

After the first line, Sally sat down and started to cry.  It was five minutes before she could resume reading while still sniffling.

“I didn’t tell you how painful and humiliating the first dialysis was.  You may think that I had some hope of getting a kidney transplant. I was able to keep other health problems from you that ensured that I wouldn’t be around long.  I also have liver cancer. No idea why I bothered with dialysis, I won’t be around long, so why keep hurting when the end is near?”

“You were too good to tell me ‘I told you so’, but I certainly deserved it.  Every time you tried to keep me from smoking, drinking and overeating, I fought you.  The hacking and coughing, the blood in the urine, there was nothing that I wouldn’t ignore.  It is all on me.”

“Besides trying to protect me from myself, you were so good to me in so many ways.  When the DMV wanted to pull my driver’s license, you went to bat for me to keep my license.  When I wanted to invest half of our money in my crazy brother-in-law’s get rich scheme, you talked me out of it.   You saved me from having the crap beat out of me by the neighbor that hated the loud music I played in the backyard.  Eddie forgave a lot for your scrumptious apple pie.”

“If you knew how dire my situation was, you probably would have wanted a few more weeks together, but you know what a whining baby I am.  I would have been miserable, and I would have made your life miserable. That is why I’ve been on my best behavior the last few weeks. No whining about your hair or the time you spend on the phone.  Finally, I’m acting as I should have all the time that we have been married, so I hope that I get a few points.”

“You shouldn’t have to deal with the grim details.  I will take a bus out to the Gorge and get off somewhere, and then climb up, avoiding trails as much as possible.  Do you remember I wondered if there was any place in Oregon no one had ever set foot? I hope to find such a place where I’ll never be found.  I was able to get enough fentanyl to kill me. Remember how much better I felt at emergency when I got it in the IV? I hope that and the brandy I’m taking will get me a feel-good passage to oblivion.”

“I loved you since we met.  You deserved better than me.”     

 

The author is a little old man who lives with his editor Sharon and cat Kitzhaber in Lake Oswego, Oregon USA.  He spends his time hibernating until spring, but sometimes emerges to do volunteer things and hike.  His hundred or so publications vary by size – under 100 words to around 20,000 and by subject – memoir, essay, science fiction, crime, horror, drama.  Major publishers (besides Cartel) include Story Shack, Fiction On The Web, Yellow Mama, Short Humour, Dirty Pool and Literally Stories.

“Cosmic Micros” part 4, by Neil Clark

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Spaghettified Rope

I found a black hole in my house.

I tied a rope to a table leg and abseiled down, thinking the rope would keep me safe.

But the rope became the black hole.

And black holes are too hard to grasp.

So my grasp became time itself.

And time slipped through my fingers…

 

 

Nae Atmosphere

When I emigrated to space, I was determined not to lose my angry Scottish accent.

But it didnae matter, because in space, naeb’dy kin hear ye screamin’.

 

 

Grounded

I passed up the opportunity to become an astronaut. Chose office work instead.

It’s an honest living, not too demanding. Still, I often work late, tell my colleagues I have loads of emails to get through.

Really, I just sit in the dark on my computer, running my fingers over the space bar.

 

 

Last Orders

At the end of the black hole, a tavern awaits.

They brew planets there. Serve them by the pint.

That’s how we became extinct.

Somebody ordered a pint of Earth and downed it in one. Burped up 4.5 billion years of history. Pissed out the rest.

Didn’t even leave a tip.

 


Neil Clark is a writer from Edinburgh, The Universe and everywhere between and beyond. His work is published in Okay Donkey, The Molotov Cocktail, Five:2:One and other cool places. Find him at neilclarkwrites.wordpress.com or on Twitter, where he posts a new micro fiction most days @NeilRClark

“Cosmic Micros” part three, by Neil Clark

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Anniversary

We first kissed on our minus-one-hundredth wedding anniversary.

You were a duckling, I was a fish. We went in for the same crumb at the same time, as our future selves sat in our garden, throwing bread into the lake and discussing reincarnation and rifts in the space-time continuum.

Written in the Stars

My tinder profile said, “Know what pulchritude means (no looking it up)? Get in touch.”

No response for 27 billion years.

Then a black hole ate Earth. Spat out our dating profiles as new stars.

That’s how we met. You gazed at mine in the night sky and said, “Beauty.”

The Perils of Dating

On my dating app, I put my location as Neptune.

You asked if you could visit me via Myanus. I said at least buy me dinner first.

We agreed to meet on Saturn. You joked about putting a ring on it.

Then we both died en route, of old age.

Saturn is very far.

Dating is hard.

 

Neil Clark is a writer from Edinburgh, The Universe and everywhere between and beyond. His work is published in Okay Donkey, The Molotov Cocktail, Five:2:One and other cool places. Find him at neilclarkwrites.wordpress.com or on Twitter, where he posts a new micro fiction most days @NeilRClark

“The Children” by T. J. Butler

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The light is flickering, and now it’s out. The insignificant intonations of an occupied dwelling are disappearing, and now silence. Now comes the smell in a tipping of the scales as darkness falls and odor rises, acrid and bilious but faint enough where you’re standing to ignore at this moment.

You’re listening to the gasps and giggles of the children in the rooms along the hall. Now silence falls in the rooms, the hall where you’re standing is inky black, and you’re wondering how many children you can hold in your arms as you leave.

Your own breathing is the loudest sound in your universe, and you realize its time to go. Your first step brings an indistinct pop, a lightbulb being crushed under a mattress, but you feel nothing underfoot. “It’s time,” you’re thinking. “It’s time to go.”

You enter the hall and you remember counting open doors, children’s rooms, before the lights went out. There were three. The dim light filtering in from a lone streetlight down the block serves only to distort shapes, but not to guide, or to assist you in counting. You’re deciding which room to walk past with your eyes straight ahead, which child to leave, and you’re wondering how you can possibly play God to two tiny lives who will leave in your arms and one tiny life you’ll leave to the wolves. How can you be the one to decide this fate, but how can you choose not to decide? The crushing gravity of forward motion is making the decision for you, and now there are only two.

“There’s two,” you’re saying out loud, breathing audibly, too much volume for the silence. You’re choosing your words carefully because you know what is safe to say out loud and what will, quite literally, bring down the house. “There’s two,” you repeat because you’ve agreed with yourself that there are only as many children as you can carry. You’re confirming this number by turning one of the doors into a mistake, or a closet, or maybe the third door was the room you were standing near when the lights went out. Maybe your memory was only a trick of the light, but the lights have gone out, so which trick is this? “There’s two,” you’re repeating like a child’s rote prayer. Some other child’s, but not these two.

You’re entering the first room, stepping through a noxious draft, and inhaling through your mouth. You’re scooping up a child, tucking it under your arm, settling it on your hip. You’re entering the second room, exhaling as another acrid gust washes over you, and again you’re scooping, and tucking, and settling this child on your other hip. You’re walking past the third room with your eyes ahead, barely seeing in the murky gloom, the heaviest of weights balanced under each arm. You hear a tiny tone as you pass the third open door, hardly audible above the murmur of the child who is shifting on your hip. This single intonation blends into the child’s breathy and indistinct susurration, and now the tones are one and the same. The child is whispering, you think, but you do not say this aloud because you do not want to speak as you pass the open door.

The light is too weak to cast three shadows on the wall as you carry the children down the hall. Instead, the dim is transforming the dated paisley wallpaper into colossal, pulsing vines with poison-tipped leaves and circular tendrils that will clutch and grab hungrily if you dare to pause for a moment on the carpet with the children on your hips. You’re passing these vines safely, glancing at the sinewy shapes transforming even now into a thousand slithering tentacles that will surely extend from the wall and slip around your wrists if you look too closely.

You’re beset by the burgeoning odor, and by the silence. You can only control one of the two, so you break the silence by softly crooning to the children on each hip. You’re distracting the three of you, and you have authored a fact; there’s no third child because you have no extra place on your body to scoop, and tuck, and settle it. Now it is also written that there never was a third child’s room; you cannot conceive of a third child in a room you walked past because you did not enter, because you did not save it. And so there are two. They are real, and you have them both. The top of each head smells milky and warm, and you’re breathing in the scent of life, two, and breathing out the scent of life, two.

You’re saying the word out loud like a mantra as you walk down the darkened hall with vines, and tentacles, and the children on your hips. You’re bending first to the perfectly pink, seashell ear on the left, and then to the other pink, seashell ear on the right. You’re audibly establishing the facts with everyone, only two in the first place because that door was a closet or a mistake. Surely the infinitesimal tone you heard as you passed the open door with your eyes ahead was your foot against the carpet, the shifting child on your hip, or your own breath in an exhale against the gust. One of these choices, you are already beginning to believe as you exit.

You saved them both, and now you’re leaving with two on your hips and the odor of the house on your clothing. It’s going to be okay because you’re walking out, the air is fresh, and soon the clinging scent will fade into the stratosphere. The children are breathing deeply. It’s okay because the house is still dark. There is no one behind you, and none of you are looking back.

If they ever ask you about a third child, if anyone brings it up when the lights in the house have come on, and the air is sweet once again, and the children have grown too large to scoop, and tuck, and settle, you’ll tell them you searched every room. Even at this moment, you’re starting to believe you searched every room and there were only two, and you saved them both. You will never mention the smell.

“Do not forget this,” you’re telling your future self, because you searched every room. The third open door must have been a mistake.

T. J. Butler lives on a sailboat with her husband and dog. She writes short fiction that is not all fun and games. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee and a regular contributor to Tiny House Magazine. Her work has been or is forthcoming in Flash Fiction Magazine, Anti-Heroine Chic, Quail Bell, The Moon, SisterShip, Pen in Hand, and others.

“Roadkill” by David Estringel

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(previously published by Expat press)

      Sitting and swiveling, lazily, in my broken leatherette desk chair, I looked around my office, searching its contents for some sense of purpose for being there, but much to no avail.  Brown bookcases lined the walls, squeezed tightly together in uniform fashion. The shelves were concaved, virtually choking on artifacts collected (hoarded, really) over my three-year tenure at the university.  A great deal of my interests adopted since graduate school were also sufficiently represented: old English textbooks, manuals on psychotherapy, stacks of literature–mostly of the poetry and “dirty realism” ilk–and guides that promised to convey all one could ever want to know about qualitative research methods and their ethical applications. They were more distractions and dalliances than anything, really, that–in lieu of slowing things down and actually reflecting on my life for a change–occupied my mind and most of my free time. Despite the random bursts of clutter that, strategically, were left untouched so as to add a sense of “busyness” to the room, it was a pleasant space to be in with its dark laminate wood furniture (in their varieties of almost-matching hues) and motley knick-knacks that, while decorative, gave visitors little to no information about the inner-workings of my head, leaving them a bit disturbed and slightly off-kilter. The main culprits were a gold-leaf Ganesh statue that doubled as a paperweight; a plaster skull that served as a makeshift bookend; a worn copy of the Zohar on the console table by the door; a metal dachshund on a wooden base, peeing on a fire hydrant; an earmarked book of daily reflections on stoicism; and a vintage toaster from the 1950s that sat atop the bookcase near the office’s rear window that immediately pulled one’s attention towards the back wall, where multiple degrees were mounted like stuffed deer heads but with no sense of pride or accomplishment attached to them. Stopping mid-swivel, I eyed the few shelves dedicated to the field that I not only currently taught, as a full-time assistant professor, but had dedicated a good portion of my adult life to, social work.   

Many titles rang familiar, as I had immersed myself in the profession (clinical practice to be exact) for more years than I cared to admit, hitting heights in my career that even I had never anticipated.  I smiled and nodded to myself, as I scanned book spines for titles I was particularly fond of and found most useful. Most of them centered around cognitive-behavioral therapies and developmental theories: the subjects that had lent greatly to my success as a therapist and college instructor.  Other titles were observed, however, inserted willy-nilly amongst the familiar, that fell upon my consciousness with a dismally lackluster thud.  I had no recollection of where they came from or even why I bought them in the first place.  Their subject matters were relevant enough, spanning everything from family therapy to mindfulness-based practice to the “science of compassion” (whatever that was), but I had certainly never handled any of them nor flipped a single page between any of their crease-free, paperback covers.   Must have been bought last year when I still gave a shit…or at least tried to, I thought to myself, disturbingly unmoved by the assumption. 

Truth be told, I was no stranger to orchestrating a life based on what I “should” do, though the origin of that narrative really was never quite clear to me. The pursuit of upward mobility and goal attainment had become second-nature, making alternate options tantamount to failure or—at the very least—proof that all the things I had been trying to convince myself that I wasn’t were, indeed–after all–true.  To ponder too long upon such thoughts was unacceptable.  “We don’t do that”, my father used to say to me (when we were still speaking, anyway), after any suggestion of doubt or surrender was made audibly known, as if he were speaking to one of the many faceless football players he had coached during his long, acclaimed high-school teaching career. The radio silence between the old man and me should have made things easier for me to find a way out of my current sojourn into limbo, but it didn’t.  Some specters follow you no matter how much time has passed.  No matter how many skins you’ve shed and brushed under dusty carpets, they stick like birthdays or the need to breathe.  No, those thoughts just didn’t do.  They were weak.  Dangerous.  After all, what would chucking it all have meant in retrospect?  All those years of graduate school. The years of training.  The late nights and weekends working in the ER until sun-up.  My private practice.  The systematic sacrificing of what little personal life I had had.  All wasted?  No.  That wasn’t an option.  From a practical standpoint, it made absolutely no sense to shift gears this late in the game—much less, start over from scratch. That meant giving up everything I had talked himself into thinking was important and that couldn’t happen, even though I—more than anything—wished it could.   

As the silence of my office began to stab at my ears, I was overcome with the urge to feel tethered to something—anything. The groundlessness of what seemed like a constant free-fall was beginning to wear on me.  I was always in my head, and when I was lucky enough to be present—really present—I felt pressed by the weight of it all—my life==and hyper-conscious of the meat that burdened my leaden bones.   

My work had brought me a decent amount of security over the years, opening enough doors to help me coast through life. Up until a few months prior, that had been the most important thing in my small world, but—more and more—the prospect of more years of automaton-like productivity had begun to grate on me, gradually tearing away at the illusion of my career and its once-held platinum-card appeal.  Maybe it was because I never really wanted to become a social worker—and clinician—in the first place. After all, it was just a means to an end: a way to prove something, though I wasn’t sure to whom.  Maybe that was what came from expecting too much, or too little, or nothing at all.  Maybe it was what came from forcing a purpose in life and not letting one just unfold before me. To have expected a different outcome seemed silly. In truth, the glamour had faded and, ultimately, I was left navigating a cold world of hard edges and empty space.   

Leaning my head back onto the cracked leather of my chair’s headrest, thoughts pulled me back to the summer of 1977 when I drowned in my apartment complex’s swimming pool; I always went there when I found myself walking that thin line between depression and numbness.  School was out, so my sister and I had gone down to the pool to let off some steam and cut the boredom of the day.  I remembered my father was there, reading a newspaper on a nearby bench with his usual cup of black coffee.  My sister, Lisa, a pretty and slightly chubby girl, was laying on her stomach in a black Woolworth’s one-piece with sash-like fuscia and turquoise stripes that wrapped around her thick waist, flipping through a–then current–issue of Tiger Beat magazine with John Travolta on the cover. I aimlessly dog-paddled about the shallow end of the pool, enjoying the warmth of the sun on my back and the silky coolness of the water that glided around my legs.  After a while, a boy about my age—probably from another unit in the complex—entered the pool gate and headed to patch of grass near the water. While close to the same height, the boy was much bigger than me.  He threw his towel in the grass and dove in, surfacing close to where I was treading water.  It wasn’t long before a friendly exchange took place, and both of us shot-the-shit, chatting about everything from Legos to what pains-in-the-ass sisters were.  Eventually, a game of tag ensued, and we flopped about, darting to-and-fro, launching ourselves from the rough-surfaced pool walls in relentless, individual efforts to make the other ‘it.”  I remembered one of my ankles being grabbed and then being pulled down, hard, but not before an excited laugh escaped my lips: a moment of true, unadulterated happiness.  I remembered being underwater for a long time, not being able to breathe or rise above the surface.  There was thrashing and kicking. The pulling didn’t stop.  I remembered the play of shimmering webs of sunlight on pool walls around me.  I remembered the distorted world above the surface that seemed miles from where I was.  I remembered panic and the color light blue.  Then black.   

When my eyes opened, I was on my back; the silhouette of Lisa’s head looming over me, as the noon sun beat down in a relentless assault.  Instinctively, my eyes searched around for my father, but he was gone.  It was just Lisa and me. She had given me CPR and saved my life: a fortuitous perk of her working part-time, as a lifeguard, at the city pool that summer.   

“Oh, my God, Jacob!  Are you ok?  Are you ok?” Tears filled her eyes. 

I was disoriented and had taken in a lot of water.  I was too busy coughing up what seemed to be an endless supply of it to answer her.  Each cough set off a fire in my chest, as small trickles of warm liquid splashed upon the concrete under my left cheek.  “Where is dad?  I want dad!” I cried.  

“He’s getting help.  You stopped breathing, Jacob.  We—I couldn’t find a pulse.  Oh, my God! You scared us to death!  Are you ok?”  Barely navigating her way through the too many emotions she was having, she pulled up my limp body from the ground and hugged me, tightly: something that had never happened before.  “That fucking asshole!  Was he trying to kill you?” 

“What?  Who?”  I asked, laying back down on the warm, wet concrete, finding its hardness soothing. 

“That kid.  That asshole you were playing with!  He pulled you down and wouldn’t let go.”  Lisa began to cry, stifling her sobs, as she continued.  “I—we didn’t notice what was happening until…We saw you under the water.  You weren’t moving!” 

Lisa moved away to give me some air, leaving me even more muddled and blinded by the sun. I asked, “What happened to him?” 

Lisa looked confused.  “What are you talking about, Jacob?” 

“The boy. Where is he?” 

“I dove in and tried to pull you away from him, but he just wouldn’t let go.  He wouldn’t stop. Asshole!  That fucking asshole!” 

“So, how did you—” 

“I kicked the fucker in the stomach! Hard! That’s how!  He wouldn’t let you go!  I snatched you away and he took off, crying.   I don’t know where.  I pulled you out and…you weren’t breathing.  You weren’t breathing!”  she sobbed, wiping hot tears from her cheeks.  “I checked after I got you out.  You didn’t have a… Are you ok?” I had never seen her look at me with such care before.  For a moment, it felt nice. 

About a minute passed before I could speak, as I clutched the hard ground beneath me, waiting for the world to stop spinning, as if I could be flung off into the blackness of space at any minute.  “I think so,” I said, still in shock, shivering.  I raised myself onto my elbows, slowly, with my eyes—like my chest—burning with chlorine.  “Where is dad?  I want dad!  Where was he?  Did he see?” I asked, wishing it had been him who had saved me.  Looking over my shoulder, I saw the bench where he had been sitting: a newspaper was neatly folded on its surface and his coffee cup was gone. 

I rarely thought of that summer day: it, essentially, remained wiped from my memory, except for when things got low–really low–which happened every so often, but still more than I cared for.  I chuckled to myself at the irony of being saved only to live a life that didn’t seem like mine anymore.  Guess God wasn’t done with the show yet. At times I felt like maybe things were so hard because I did come back, almost as if I wasn’t supposed to be here, anymore, and the world let me know that at every turn.  Or maybe I didn’t come back all the way—a jumble of remnants that couldn’t quite be properly pieced together, again. It was all so tiring, but that is what happens when you live life on a dare: the words “want” and “can’t” just don’t exist, so there is no choice but to keep moving and trying until the day you just don’t anymore.  Truth be told, I longed for that day, sometimes, but that wasn’t up to me.   

I could hear the custodian cleaning the office next door: he would be in my office soon.  It was almost six in the evening, according to the clock on the computer.  I let out a long, drawn-out exhale and gathered a stack of ungraded papers from under my keyboard and stuffed them into my satchel, powered down the computer, and prepared to lock up for the night.  I turned off the lights and took one last look around the space for anything I may have missed.  Turning to leave, I slightly hesitated, noticing how peaceful the room was without the electric hums of fluorescents and a running computer.  It was time to go, though.  Papers to grade.  Dogs to feed.  Sleep. 

The drive home was calming.  The lulling, rhythmic kisses of rubber treads on the road. The random selections of my iTunes on low.  The stale smell of cigarettes and sweat in my car that reminded me of my grandfather, who died forty years ago too soon, and his old, white Ford pick-up.  I took the backroads home, as I always did, which took a little longer, but they were rarely used that late in the day, so I could take my time driving when the inclination hit me. I didn’t mind.  I liked to drive, especially when the quiet in my life threatened to overtake me, granting license to thoughts and memories to rouse and scramble, looking for hints of light that seeped in through doors, opened ajar, hungry for recognition.  I reached my right hand over towards the passenger’s seat, threw back the flap of my satchel, and dug into its contents for a Marlboro, fumbling through the sharp edges of papers and uncapped pens with determined purpose.  Keeping vigilant, my eyes were fixed on the road, ahead, when I felt the edge of a cardboard box graze my fingertips.  I pulled out the pack and with my thumb flipped open the top, bringing it to my lips, where I proceeded to pull out a lone cigarette with my teeth.  I lit it with the lighter I had purchased that morning at 7-11: one more to add to the slew that I had, progressively, stockpiled at home in errant drawers, leather bags, and even the bathroom, where I ritualistically had my first smoke of the day, after dragging myself out of bed.  I always forgot them when I left the house—too many thoughts, too early.  I took a long, crackling drag and held it in my lungs for a while, exhaled, and then wrested my wrist on top of the steering wheel. As the cigarette dangled between me and the speedometer, I eyed the yellow-grey smoke, as it streamed from its flaming cherry, lost in how it rippled and curled like a fine silk ribbon.  I admired the graceful poetry of it and thought it a shame to turn it to shreds with another exhale.  

A loud ruckus suddenly broke my reverie, as the car and everything in it shook and shifted.  Shit! Did I hit something?  My eyes darted forward and found nothing but open road, then I quickly looked into the rear-view mirror, noticing nothing but a blackening sky that slowly melting into asphalt that was divided by intermittent dashes of vibrant yellow.  Pulling my attention back to the world outside the windshield, I noticed a shock of red among the dark hues that flooded the rear-view.  I squinted and focused, intently, into the mirror, noticing a band of red that stretched in tandem along the road’s surface, while my tires intermittently jarred and sounded, as if driving over stones and wet, rolled-up newspapers.  Confused, I clutched the steering wheel with my other hand—so hard I pumped the blood out of my knuckles—and scanned the road before me, noticing the same ruddy hue extending off into the distance.  Clumps of black speckled the highway, disappearing into the periphery, as quickly as my tires propelled me home. Intermittent bumps and pops from the road, below, reverberated within the cabin.  What?  I tossed my cigarette out of the cracked, driver-side window.  Something got run over.  I checked the rear-view, again, and saw no cars behind me, then decelerated to better see what was going on straight-ahead.  It’s blood…and fur.  Given the distance that the length of gore had stretched and the amount of carrion on the road, it appeared as if some poor animal had been hit and dragged along for quite some time.  As if in an automatic response, I turned the wheel, slightly, to adjust the position of the car within the lane, centering it directly over the deathly strip.  Off to my right in the distance, I spied a motionless black mass by the side of the highway, much larger than what had then been feeding the road and my tires.  I drove on and followed my “guide” until it minimized into sporadic smears and splatters that trailed off onto the side of the road, where the still thing lay.  Veering off, I parked just ahead of it, turned off the ignition, and just sat there, staring at it in the rear-view. 

A quiver possessed my legs, as I noticed my hands were still grasping the steering wheel.  I released them, my right hand instinctively searching for another cigarette.  Damn! Stopping myself, I remembered I had just smoked the last one.  It’s gotta be dead.  No way he could survive that.  I wondered why I had stopped.  What could I do?  It didn’t make sense, but something inside me knew I had to stop and take a look. Bracing myself, I released the seatbelt and opened the door.  The air that night was cooler the usual—chilly, almost.  I poked my head out into the dimmed light of evening and looked to the right, then left.  Still no cars. I—we—were alone.  I got out, closed the door, and took a deep breath.  I looked ahead of me at a field of cotton that flanked the left-side of the highway.  The stalks looked black against the evening sky with a peppering of stark white that punctuated the—seemingly–lifeless expanse’s absence of color. It seemed colder all of a sudden–the air more humid and nipping than before. 

I turned to my left and walked towards the heap, the crunching of gravel and clods of dried mud beneath my feet.  With every step, splatters of crimson and bits of meat and fur marred the path ahead of me. I finally came upon it.  The headless tangle of broken limbs—a dog, likely—had thick, black, wooly fur, that was stickily matted with congealing blood and gore.  It was sprawled out in an almost apologetic fashion, seeming to want to edge its way towards the shallow canal just beyond its reach, past a patch of chaparral trees some forty feet away from where I stood. Looking down upon the sad lump, safely distanced from it (though safe from what I didn’t know), I stood in silence and inspected my “summoner.”  Shards of bone and bloody, gray innards crept out of peeks of torn flesh.  Flies and ants had already started to feast.  Doesn’t take long, does it?   The smell of carnage hung in the moist air like the odor pennies that had been held in a sweaty fist for too long.  I thought of how much it must have suffered.  How long it must have taken to die.  All alone…out here.  I wondered if he belonged to anyone.  If he was missed.  If anyone even cared…or would.  No answers came.  Just the whispering of the wind through the chaparrals and black stalks of cotton, beyond. 

I wanted to feel sad but didn’t…couldn’t.  Something stirred within my chest: a burning.  I thought about what I would have done if I had found the animal alive.  I would have tried to save it–if I could.  Stayed with it–if all was lost–so he wouldn’t have to die alone: a prospect that made the fire in my chest rage even more.  I imagined it alive and what it might have looked like: a pair of pleading, brown eyes, looking up at me for comfort; a tail, furiously wagging.  In my head, I heard it whining and whimpering from fear and pain.  “We don’t do that,” escaped my lips before my consciousness could ground me in the bloody place where I stood. My eyes began to sting and moisten, but no tears came. Silent and fatigued, I hung my head, as if in prayer, and watched the fading sun glistening off dampened, black fur and red-tinted bones, finding my thoughts pulling me towards the comforts of home and six dogs that were very much alive.  

Before I got back into my car to leave, I pulled off the college ring I had bought myself years ago, after graduation, and tossed it onto the carcass, as if to show any passers-by that he—maybe me— wasn’t alone.

David Estringel is an avid reader, poet, and writer of fiction, creative non-fiction, & essays. His work has been accepted and/or published by Specter Magazine, Literary Juice, Foliate Oak Magazine, Indiana Review, Expat Press, 50 Haikus, littledeathlit, Down in the Dirt Magazine, Route 7, Setu Bilingual Journal, Paper Trains, The Elixir Magazine, and The Good Men Project. He is currently a Contributing Editor (fiction) at Red Fez, editor/columnist at The Good Men Project, and an editor/writer at The Elixir Magazine. David Estringel can be found on Twitter (@The_Booky_Man) and his blog “The Booky Man” at thebookyman.wordpress.com.