‘Crumbling Castles’, ‘Testimony to My Paltriness’, and ‘ My Last Poem’ by Aahna Jain

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CRUMBLING CASTLES

As the wind carries with it sandcastles of hopes,
As crumbling walls finally give way,
As fires burning from aeons extinguish,
As years of life fade into oblivion,

The child in me gets terrified,
Of change brought too soon,
Of times forgotten and never reminisced,
Of losing the old in the thirst for new,
Of moving on before letting go.

THE TESTIMONY TO MY PALTRINESS

I hate the stars.

They rave of their freedom.
Of the space that they claim
Of the endless expanse
That they call home.

They rave of my eternal enchainment.
Of my teeny tiny territory
Of the gravity that pulls me down
The reasons I can’t explore what’s beyond.

They rave of their immortality
Of the undying fire within them
Of the generations of mortals
That they have seen perish.

They rave of my fugacious soul
Of the minuscule time between my dawn and dusk
Of the truth that I’ll be forgotten
Lost in the shadows of history.

I hate them not because of what they symbolize,
I hate them because I’m jealous
Because they speak the truth
The truth that I’m too scared to say.

MY LAST POEM

Before dusk:

I was too broken and too wrecked
To complete the list of things.
Things to do in your lifetime.
So much as glance at it.

Under the pitch black starless sky
I did what I do best.
My only activity for years.
I wrote.

But this time I wrote
Not about your perfection or absence or the fact that you smell like home though I never know where
you are.
A suprise-I didn’t write about my ex
Whose forgiveness I seeked,
Warmth I could never forget.

It was not a tale of hunger and greed,
How one leads to another,
Then eventually to destruction.
Didn’t concern the mountains or the sunset or the raindrop that touched my lips yesterday.

I swear I didn’t write about my dead grandma.
Wasn’t in regard to God,the hypothetical being who failed to bring me hope when I needed it the most.
‘What did you write about then?’
You must wonder.
Surely the feeling of despair as you slipped into the void,never to return?
No.

I was never written about, captured of course,
In pixels and polaroids.
But they call it capturing for a reason,
For it binds your body in a 5”×7″ sheet.
Your soul caught between reality and illusion.
Writing?It liberates.

So under the yellow tinged sky ,
I wrote of myself.
Of the little miracle I was(read:had been).
Unknown to the world,never written about

I wrote my eulogy too,
Suprised there was so much to say.
You’ll call it selfish
To end my life with my thoughts.
Maybe selfish was all I ever needed.

With the sky decorated in hues of orange and purple,
And my pen automatically working its way on the paper,
I realized that you weren’t so perfect
and my ex not so chaste.

As sun rays pinched my eyes,
I knew the time.The exact one.
Their dawn.My dusk.

After dusk:

Aahna Jain is a 14 year old Indian girl whose hobbies include reading and writing. An introvert,she sesses over the ideas of freedom and her ephemerality.She seeks to immortalize herself through her words and leave a permanent mark on the world.

‘A Letter to My Partner’ and ‘Another One on Memories’ by Lynne Schmidt

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A Letter to My Partner

You were who I was looking for when I was fifteen,
The one whose hands clumsily touched my body,
Whose nose pushes against mine,
Whose teeth clink when we’ve had too much to drink.

You were who I looked for the night he slid his hands down the front of my pants,
Pausing briefly because I asked,
“Have you done this before?”
To which he answered, “This is the farthest I’ve gone.”
So I let him touch me.
Let the darkness of the room feel like safety rather than a prison cell.
Only to find that there was someone else.
And she’d gone farther.

And so we are fifteen years and several partners later now.
And here you stand,
Like a seventeen year old
You giggle when I reach for your hand,
Because you don’t have to tuck your love into a drawer to be pulled out later.
You don’t have a combination on your heart that I don’t have the code for.
You are right here,
In front of me,
Asking if I want to be more than friends.

And I look at my hands,
My legs,
My body,
My brain.
I look at what he’s taken from me,
What the rest have said and stolen, too.

You are who I’ve waited for my entire life.
And now,
I think
I might be too broken for you.

Another One on Memories

Some days, I am too present.
Too aware of the situation at hand,
Your fingers laced through mine,
The cloud placement in the sky,
The exact placement in the parking lot where my phone rang,
Where I answered it three steps away,
When my sister asked, “Why would this happen?”

Some days, my brain retains these memories
Stores them like files in a cabnent
So that when I see you again
Or I stand in this exact spot,
The memories flip through,
A slide show of everything we have experienced together,
Until the film catches flame
And my hands drop to my sides.

Because these things are just memories.
And you are standing in front of me.

And we look through each other

And keep walking.

Lynne Schmidt (she/her) is a mental health professional in Maine. Her memoir, The Right to Live: A Memoir of Abortion was the Maine Nonfiction Award Winner and a PNWA Literary Contest finalist and her poetry has received the Honorable Mention from Joy of the Pen. Her work has appeared in Royal Rose Literary, Sixty-Four Best Poets of 2018, 2018 Emerging Poets, Frost Meadow Review, Poets of Maine, Poets of New England, Maine Dog Magazine, Alyss Literary, UNE Magazine, Her Kind Vida, and others. Lynne is the founder of AbortionChat, and has been and continues to be a featured poet at events throughout Maine. She prefers the company of her three dogs and one cat to humans.

Twitter: @LynneSchmidt

“Paradise Etc” by Geoffrey Heptonstall

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One day I walked out of paradise. It was something that I did on a hot July day when the horizon shimmered as if the earth were burning. Then there was a sudden change.  

It was noon beneath a cloudless sky when I felt the unexpected, unaccountable chill of a wind blow across my face so that I shivered even in the sunlight. I can feel that tremor now.

I was walking in a public garden, botanical with unusual trees, and I reached a high wall with a gate that opened by the sudden wind. What could I do but walk through the gate? My curiosity overtook my caution. I thought I’d nothing to fear. Looking back, I could see the gate. I carefully marked the exact location, expecting to return.

There was a feeling in the air. It was about something I had yet to discover. Now came the clouds that darkened the sky. The gust of chill wind had been the first sign. Something was happening very fast. Time was accelerating. It had been noon a moment ago, now it was three. A moment later it was dusk. There was a bright moon and a panorama of bright stars across the sky.

A clock struck midnight in the deep resonance of its bell. I could see no clock tower, but the chimes were clear to my ears. As each chime of the hour sounded the earth shook. I heard the sound of crockery breaking, of stones falling. I heard screams and sirens.

Someone gestured to me to run for cover. There were searchlights casting their beams over the area. Sporadic gunfire could be heard. ‘Don’t you know there’s a war on?’ the helmeted warden asked of me angrily. Someone offered me a cigarette in the bomb shelter. ‘Thanks,’ I said. ‘That’s all right, son,’ the sergeant said. ‘These trenches can be a frightening place at times.’ I looked down at the others in khaki uniform. ‘Which war is this?’ I asked. ‘Why, it’s the war to end wars, of course,’ the sergeant said.

Then the firing stopped as the snow fell. And we all played football to the background hum of Silent Night. The music faded as I made my way through the mist, looking for the others. There were fallen comrades. There was smoke blending with the mist so that I choked my stumbling way entirely alone in the desolate place at sunrise.

There was no-one else to be seen. There was nothing except miles of sand as far as the horizon that seemed to be the end of the earth. Another hot July had risen suddenly.

I woke about nine, remembering my dream. I had dreamed of peace and of war. ‘It wasn’t a dream, was it, Sarge?’ I said. ‘And you’re dead, aren’t you? But I’m not.’ That was my one certainty, that I was alive. Whatever was happening, I was alive. If I held on to that certainty I knew that I could survive.

I looked round, but the sergeant had gone. I was alone in an empty room. There was no window. There was no door. With neither entrance nor exit I was entombed. So I was not alive. But I knew I was, no matter what they were trying to make me believe.

There was a window, after all. It was a very small and in a corner by the ceiling I couldn’t reach. There was a door of sorts, barely perceptible, no more than a hole through which one could crawl. But the hole was blocked with a heavy stone I could not move.

The room was cold, very cold. I began to shiver. And as I shivered the walls began to shake. I put my hand to the stone, only to discover it was not stone at all. It was mist again, as before when the battle raged.

The battle had not ceased. The redcoats were charging past, bayonets before them. Someone pushed me down so that I would not be seen. There was a glow of fire in the distance. The redcoats were burning everything in sight. There was so much brutal noise and the confusion of violence and panic. I feared for my life.

Yet I found I was able to walk through the chaos unnoticed and unharmed. I was not here. It was as if I were a ghost. I saw people I knew well who were passing by without a hint of recognition. And when I spoke they looked away. Here we were on the street of my home town in daylight on a summer’s day. And nobody knew who I was. Nobody saw me.

Nobody saw me because I was the only living presence on that street. When I reached out to touch my hand passed through. And yet they believed it was I who was dead even though I was flesh and blood while everything else was insubstantial and subject to sudden change.

And who was making these changes? I was the one responsible for all that I saw and heard and felt. It was happening to me. It was happening because of me. Once I understood that I saw how I could change things. Everything could go back to the way it was.

It was a hot July day when the horizon shimmered as if the earth were alight. I looked at my watch. It was noon. The clock struck the hour. But it failed to stop at twelve. It did not stop. I could not make it do what I wished. I was no longer in control. Perhaps I was no longer alive?

Was that why the mourners passed in their sombre expressions and dark clothing? They were singing a psalm in plain chant. Tears flowed from everyone’s eyes. They watered the flowers which were scattered on the floor of the vault where the body was laid to rest.

No, that was not how it was to be. The body was to be burned. They were preparing a pyre. Nothing less than a sacrifice would do to appease the anger within the hearts of the mourners. They sought vengeance and retribution. They sought to dismember me limb from limb and feed me to the rats that scurried across the floor of the vault.

They were not rats. They were people, but not people as you and I know people. They were speaking in a strange language that was akin to animal sounds, like the chatter of chimpanzees, like the cawing of ravens, like the growling of tigers, like the swish of trees in the wind.

 

 

‘Tempting isn’t it?’ a voice says. Looking round I see someone uniformed. He has been watching me, observing everything I do. ‘The botanical gardens,’ he says as if to explain. ‘There’s a back way if you know about it. Tempting to go in that way and not have to pay.’

There is laughter as he speaks. The laughter is in the air. The uniformed official has disappeared. The laughter is fading. Dust falls on the stone floor at my feet. Looking upward I see darkness where there is stars. It is a moonless night when the only light is the candle that flickers and splutters, throwing shadows on the wall.

The shadows are not shadows. They are spaces in the wall. I can walk in so easily now. But the other side of the wall is not a garden.  There is only an empty space, an arid land of cracked earth and withered grass. I walk on shards of glass among the scattered concrete blocks. This is not what I expected of paradise. That left me no choice but to walk away.

One day I walked out of paradise.

 

Geoffrey Heptonstall is the author of a novel, Heaven’s invention [Black Wolf 2017]. Recent publications include fiction for Adelaide Literary Magazine, Between the Lines and Black Dandy.

“Galaxy Forgotten” by Stephen Ground

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Ever feel like you’re vanishing?

What?

Vanishing.

One second. Let me send this text.

I sigh, slurp my beer.

Sorry, Nick says. What’re you saying?

He’s still staring at his phone.

Nothing. It’s not important.

He’s down another rabbit hole – email, Tinder, gambling on lumberjack competitions. Slack-jawed, he flicks a nimble thumb. I gulp the rest of my beer and stand.

Where you going? he grunts.

The pisser. Do you mind?

I step into the washroom when my phone buzzes in my pocket. I fumble it out and it slips, splashing in the toilet. I slam the lid.

Did you get my text?

My phone, I say. It’s wasted.

Yeah bro, let’s get wasted. He chugs without raising his eyes. I grab my jacket and a beer for the road.

Going to the phone store, I say. Probably already missing messages, tweets, breaking news bulletins. Can’t afford to fall behind.

I’m out the door before he responds. There’s a Cell-o-Phone near our place, and I hurry, crushing the beer crossing the empty lot towards the shell of a shopfront – neon OPEN sign dark. I rush the door and yank wildly, escaping a haunted house – a siren blips and I spin. An old security guard leans on her car.

What you doing there?

I need…a phone.

They shut all those Cell-o-Phones down last month, she says. Brick and mortar can’t compete. They’ve gone di-gi-tal.

I sprint home. He doesn’t notice when I barge in.

I need your help, I say.

What?

I need you to order me a phone.

He chuckles vacantly.

Nick.

What?

Can I use your phone? Mine’s wrecked, and if I don’t get one I won’t be able to check the weather, my bank balance, or work schedule. You know how it is.

Use your laptop.

Don’t have one, I say. Come on, man. Help a brother out?
He’s gone – YouTube, tuned out.

I thread the sidewalk, past swarms locked into screens, magic watches, step-counters – eyes down, lips murmuring or slack, meandering like first-time walkers; dodging mailboxes, trashcans, chained-up bikes and bus shelters, never glancing from their handheld miracles. A video chatter collides with my shoulder, lurching me but continues unaware. It’s simple to fall into the wind-up rhythm of the procession, to weave like a mouse through the walls of a crooked manse, unseen – I slip into a shop near home and snag a Red Bull, pepperoni stick, gum. Paul, the owner, is engrossed in the tv behind him – someone leapt off their balcony in a condo near the Dome. I drop my goods and patter a flourish on plastic-cased scratchers, but he doesn’t turn – the cordless phone he’s clutching falls, arms limp at his sides. I drop a five and scoop my snacks, sit outside and chug my drink, belch loudly and grin at the woman next to me – she doesn’t glance from her e-Reader. I inhale my pepperoni, stuff the plastic in the can, wave a hand in her face then slide my trash in her purse. I pop six sticks of gum in my mouth and wander, stuffing the wrappers in some guy’s backpack then crossing the street. I poach a slice of pizza from a child lost in Pokémon GO!, bum a smoke off a Snapchatting cook down an alley, then, bored, head home – Nick is stretched across the couch, headset on, the dark room blued by his FPS.

Hey, I say. Can we talk?


No answer.

Nick. Can you please pause the game?

Nothing. I leap between him and the tube.

Can you pause it one fucking second?

He’s off the couch like a mama grizzly, the tube her favourite cub – grabs my shoulders, lifts, slams me through the coffee table. I possum in the rubble, and Nick returns to the couch, slides on his headset and grunts something to his team, then plays. I crawl to the hall, searching for a sane person, uninfected; struggle next door, knock, the door cracks – my neighbour, baby on hip, framing the three of us with a selfie-stick.

Rachel, I wheeze. Help.

She snaps a burst, slams the door. I stand and lumber next door, and the next – behind each parasites, leeching from their hosts. I shake them, shout in their faces, but not one looks up.

I’m catching my breath in the lobby when it hits me.
I approach a teen, madly tapping his touchscreen – I can tell by screen proportion, multiple lenses, and casing that it’s the newest model, the one I desperately need but can’t source. I hover, wait for my moment, then lunge – try ripping it away but he fights, small but vicious, snarling, swiping at my face. I raise my fists, but he calmly returns to typing like a supercomputer.

I skulk home, ignoring Nick, into my room to the balcony that costs an extra two seventy-five a month for the privilege. I lean, listen – my city roars like a distant army, cache of millions impossibly out of reach. I step on the ledge, brace on the wall, peer into a pit of twinkling flashes – LED whitewash of a world that no longer knows the dark. I dangle a foot over nineteen stories between me and the sidewalk, just to see if it fits; breathe deeply, bend, wobble, prepare to release when I hear a voice from the lip of the void.

Rob.

I turn – Nick, drinking a juice pouch, holds a small box.

What’s that?

Just came, he says. Courier.

I clamber off the ledge and take it; he ambles to the couch without another word. Whatever it is, someone bought it online and had it shipped to me – zero human interaction. I tear it open – inside, a note: Happy early birthday, Sweetie. Love, Mom.
Something better than all the gold in the federal reserve – the newest model. My hands shake as I undress it – clutch my prize, saviour, charger in hand.

 

Stephen Ground’s work has appeared in Dark Ink Magazine, Temenos Journal, and Flumes, among others, and is forthcoming from The Flexible Persona, The Sunlight Press, and Flash Fiction Magazine. A graduate of York University’s Theatre and Community Arts programs, he has migrated back to his hometown of Milton, Ontario after a seven-year retreat – first in Canada’s far North in a remote, fly-in community, then the prairies.

www.twitter.com/stephengroundw1

‘III Poems’ by Mike Andrelczyk

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Buried 66 feet beneath the backyard swimming pool is the biggest deposit of dinosaur bones that civilization will never see

Losing all my money on an eight-legged horse I turn instead to be hypnotized by the woman with the rose on her neck and the Minotaur in her hair. There’s a cloud leopard out her kitchen window. Y stands for walking in the sky and the dogs are barking at the rain. Her eyes are like the clenched fist meme as she waits at the bus stop on the Scottish moor and everything is backwards so that’s her room. I have nothing to pay her with. But she doesn’t seem to mind. We

are always walking above undiscovered treasure. She throws a lasso and disappears. The 8 Ward bus pulls up, hissing and I get in, still broke.

Bunny

I ran over a bunny

with my dad’s lawn

mower. broke its legs

I cut the engine.

grabbed the shovel.

made a shadow

over the bunny.

But I couldn’t

smash its brains out

and end

its suffering.

I just went back to mowing my dad’s lawn

and feeling

like a worthless asshole

A Beginning

I pressed the button to turn on the tv

Then it was on

We sat on the worn-out blue recliners

The smoke hung blue in the ping-pong room

The rusted blue refrigerator on the porch was broken

The screen on the door was torn and the spring broken

And it was spring

And it was blue

And broken

Too

And the tv was on

And I could feel in the place where my other hand used to be

I remember

A lion roared.

“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.

“Prominence” by Mike Lee

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I do not belong here.

I check my compact, and see my lips are too red.

I slip it back in my clutch.

My hands, folded, rest on my periwinkle sheath dress with the lace bodice. My legs are closed. The dress is too tight. My knees sweat. I sweat when I lie.

I am like my father. But when we speak truth, the silences between the spoken is where the prevarications nestles comfortably, curled up undisturbed until suddenly roused with an unexpected follow-up question.

Everyone takes your word until they don’t. My father did all right until one silence between words betrayed him. They tied him to the back of a wooden chair and shredded him through his tan cashmere overcoat.

Through tears I learned: no false moves. When you talk your way into a situation, know exactly what to say to walk it back. Nothing is a full circle, just a high wire strung.

Do all these things, and you will die old. With what I intend to do today, this will not be my fate.

I slowly grow nervous. I shift weight, pulling my legs behind me like a child in class, ankles crossed. I went over the script in my head, visualizing the scene playing out as it was planned—and how I want it to happen.

Then the door opens, bringing forth a rush of wind with color and light splayed out around me. Through the light I see forms take shape to human, before becoming clear in my mind’s eye. From this formlessness I see fingers, knuckles, nails, and the palm gestures with an underhanded twist, fingers in unified motion. Fingertips elegantly turn inward to the person, an aging press officer with a sharp, straight hairline forming a short military haircut.

He looks like Albert Camus with acne scars.

My impression of him is he’s the type that brags in bars that he is a press secretary. He isn’t: a press officer is an underling used for passing messages, writing memos and working on first drafts of talking points. Also a sacrificial lamb when things go terribly wrong. Press officers are thrown down stairwells and machine-gunned for the cameras. Quite the Baader-Meinhof, but that was a long time ago.

Father remembered. Told me stories. He kept reminding me that he did not live them, only read and watched on television when he was an inspired child.

Eventually he joined the resistance with fanatic enthusiasm, pressing his luck until no more.

I hear a sting quartet playing in the distance. It’s music that conjures Mama. This provided the key to open the cipher—I never knew her. Shortly after my second birthday she was picked up in Peru and died in jail before I turned 7.

The permanent revolution is an eternal war. Generations pass ideas as grenades from one to another.

I feel a sense of disassociation when I greet the press officer, whose name escapes me. I forget everything, names, places, everything except the mission. This drives me further, encourages. Distance from existence focuses my attention on the goal.

He leads me into the large museum gallery. The strings reach for the crescendo.

Everything unfolds as I expect. I am calm to the point of deadness. I make eye contact, smile, and nod in pretend recognition. I hold my clutch close to my stomach. My message to the world is within.

We meet. He is a middle-aged man with tousled wavy hair, and an ageless face. His hazel eyes, however, betray a sad, weary expression.

I smile, inch closer to him and press hard with both hands on my clutch.

Suddenly, I’m thrust into the Gnostic divine. I reach to grasp the light.

Dad. Mom. Achieve dialectical synthesis.

 

Mike Lee is an editor, photographer and reporter for a trade union newspaper in New York City. His fiction is published in Soft Cartel, Ghost Parachute, Reservoir, The Alexandria Quarterly and others. Website: www.mleephotoart.com. He also blogs for the photography website Focus on the Story.