“One day in Mykines” by Judy Wang

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Maia stumbled as she stepped off the boat. She caught an old wooden post just in time and pulled herself up onto the concrete dock.

“You OK?” Josh asked.

He was standing a few feet away on the dock and scrolling through his iPhone.

“Yeah,” Maia said, wiping dirt off her gloves. “That was a close one.”

“Mmm,” Josh said, his eyes still glued to his phone.

How did he even have service out here? Stupidly, Maia had assumed that for once he would be forced to leave Instagram alone. But Josh, of course, found a way, even as far away as the Faroe Islands.

The dozen other tourists who had traveled with them in the tour boat were gathering on a patch of gravel further up the beach. Maia nudged Josh and they made their way over.

“Welcome to Mykines island,” their young tour guide said to the group in her strange half-German-half-Irish-sounding Faroese accent. “We will have about four hours to explore and see all the birds before the boat goes back to Sørvágur.”

As the guide pointed to the direction they would hike to see the puffins, Maia noticed Josh was scrolling through pictures of his friends from Vassar. Mostly women. Mostly attractive. She forced herself to look away and focus on what the guide was saying.

“Before we go up, I want to remind everyone again to please stick together, follow the markers, and stay away from the gannet, swallow, and skua nests—especially the skuas because they’re hard to spot and those birds can be vicious,” she said before waving them up the stone steps and into the grassy hills above.

Maia started following them up before Josh tapped her shoulder.

“Hey, want to grab some selfies first?” he asked eagerly. “Everyone’s gone, so it’ll look like we’re in the middle of nowhere.”

“But the tour’s leaving,” Maia said. “And we are in the middle of nowhere.”

It had taken them two flights, a long drive, and a once-a-day ferry to get to the remotest of these remote islands. Maia didn’t want to miss any part of this trip.

“It’ll only take a few minutes,” Josh said before flipping around his phone and grinning into the camera lens.

“How else are people going to know we were here?” he added as he whipped around and took a photo of them together with their backs against the green hills.

♦♦♦

Áki woke up to the sound of his chicks clucking softly. He opened his eyes and saw them and their mother bundled up in the nest below.

He got up and slowly turned his head from side to side. That damn crick in his neck was acting up again. It had started a few days ago when his ass of a brother Áron challenged him to a diving competition.

Áki never should have accepted. Áron was a far better flyer and had won easily, dropping like a boulder and then gracefully skimming the ocean waves before lifting up in a perfect arc. When it was his turn, Áki hesitated and then dove awkwardly, nearly gashing himself on jagged rocks by the bay.

Áron had cawed mockingly and somersaulted in the air before flying away. That cocky jerk liked to stage little competitions like this every now and then to prove that Billa should have chosen him instead. Áki was too proud to admit it, but deep down, he knew that his brother was right. Billa should have chosen Áron.

Billa was now looking up at him sleepily through the blue haze of the early morning. Áki flew down and landed at her side. He grazed his wing along her neck and felt that her feathers were cold. Billa had been weak since the birth.

“They are hungry,” Billa clucked gently to Áki, motioning to their chicks, Tóti and Týrur.

They were just ten days old. It would be another 30 before they were ready to fly and hunt for themselves. And Billa was too frail to share the burden right now, which was a shame because she was the better hunter. Áki nodded and gave Billa what he hoped was a reassuring look before lifting off.

It was a cool, damp morning and the clouds were hanging low in the sky. Sometimes, Áki wished he could glide into them and disappear. He cared deeply for his family, but more and more these days, he felt that it was all too much. As he flew past the east end of the island, he wondered where he would end up if he just kept flying.

But today was not the day to find out. Áki turned around and began flying up the southern ridge. Hunting was his least favorite thing to do. He was also terrible at it. He hated getting wet, and he hated competing with the swallows, gannets, and other skuas. Most of all, he hated the days when the fish seemed to disappear from the waters and he was forced to attack kittiwakes and gulls instead. Not surprisingly, Áron loved those days and went after the other birds with gusto. But Áki found it barbaric. The only ones Áki didn’t mind hunting as much were the puffins. The puffins were the biggest idiots he had ever seen, the way they gadded about in the western cliffs in big clumps, just waiting for someone to snatch them up. You’d think they’d learn.

Áki swooped down and scanned the icy blue waves. His heart leapt as he thought he spied glimmers of silver under a rising crest. He looked around and saw that Áron and the others were still circling around the western end of the island and hadn’t seen what he had seen. Maybe today was not going to be such a bad day after all.

♦♦♦

Maia had wanted to visit the Faroe Islands ever since she was a little girl. Her parents used to drop her off at the Teaneck library when they fought, which was all the time, so Maia blew through the entire children’s section in less than a month. A few weeks after her eleventh birthday, she wandered over to the geography section, where she found a book about a tiny string of islands halfway between Iceland and Norway. It was a travel book from the 1970s, the kind with glossy, cream-colored pages and more writing than pictures. Maia read it four times.

The Faroes drifted around the back of her mind for the next two decades. After a spate of disappointing dates in her twenties, she finally found a travel companion in Josh, a 32-year-old video game designer who shared her love of musical theater, international travel, and Ethiopian food, but disagreed with her on most everything else. Given the household she had grown up in, Maia had never expected a fairy tale romance. Instead, she took a more practical approach to love: all she wanted was someone to do interesting things with.

Maia and Josh’s one-and-a-half-year partnership had been rocky, but the sex was good and they had some interesting debates about religion (her family was agnostic and he had grown up conservative Jewish). Maia found that their relationship worked fine if they stayed out of each other’s way and drank a lot of whiskey in the evenings. In truth, if not for her fixation on this trip, they might have broken up months ago.

But now, while staring down at the crags breaking through the lush green coastline as a cool breeze gently blew up the edges of her jacket, Maia felt disappointed. But not because the vista wasn’t stunning, for it was. The problem was that while she should’ve been listening to the waves crashing into rocks below, the wind whistling through the lime-green weeds, or the gentle clucking of birds whizzing past, all she could hear was the sound of someone fidgeting with his phone.

“Hey, are we going the right way?” Josh asked again from somewhere behind her.

Maia turned around. He was standing on a pile of mossy rocks and holding his phone up over his head, looking for the signal he lost a few minutes ago. With growing regret, Maia wondered if she had made the fatal mistake of letting an intruder inside her Never-never land.

It was only when Josh’s eyes widened in surprise that Maia realized she was glaring at him.

“I don’t know,” she said, facing the water again. “I thought we would’ve caught up with the group by now.”

She heard Josh jumping off the rocks and walking up behind her.

“Does this mean we’re in worse shape than those old Danish people?” he asked while wrapping his arms around her.

She shimmied away and walked up to the edge of the bluff. She wondered vaguely if she wasn’t being fair to him. This whole thing was, after all, her idea.

She held up her hand to block the dipping sun and squinted at the western tip of the island.

“Shit,” she said. “We were supposed to go the other way.”

She could barely make out tiny figures walking in single file through a narrow pass far on the other side of the island. They seemed to be heading back to the dock.

“We need to start going back,” she said. “We’ve gone too far.”

“Fuck, are we going to make it?” Josh asked, starting to panic. “That’s the only ferry.”

“I think so,” Maia said, looking down. “But we’ll have to cut through that valley. And we need to go now.”

When she turned around, Josh was frantically waving his phone over his head again, desperate to find a signal, as if he could as if he could summon a flying Uber if he did.  

♦♦♦

 Áki was feeling pleased with himself. The sun was hanging low in the sky and he was heading back to the nest with his third beak-full of herring. The chicks were happy and fed, and this last batch would be just for him and Billa.

It was days like this that made all the others seem less mundane. He had never wanted to become a father, but what was he supposed to do? There weren’t any other options, and Billa was so graceful, kind, and brave when he met her that he felt everything was going to be alright. He was lucky, really. It was all he could do to puff himself up and do his best not to let anyone down. And today he hadn’t.

He did a little twirl in the air as he glided back to the south end of the island. But as he approached the nesting field, he saw something that nearly made his heart stop. There were two dark figures darting through the valley below. They were moving fast and getting terrifyingly close to the nesting field.

Áron suddenly appeared on his wing and cawed loudly at him. It was only then that Áki realized he had dropped all the fish. Down they fluttered like silvery leaves.

Áron was gaping at him in disbelief. Áki motioned with his wing to the valley. Áron took one look and understood immediately. The two looming figures were now getting closer and closer to where Billa and the chicks were nestled. Áki had seen these large, gangly creatures before. But they usually stayed on the other side of the island with the puffins. For the few that ventured this far east, well, there was only one thing to do.

With a sick feeling in his belly, Áki girded his torso and dove straight down. As he dropped faster and faster, he kept his eyes trained on the two moving figures. But all around him he could hear whistling sounds, which meant Áron and a few others must be alongside him.

Good. At least he wasn’t alone.

♦♦♦

Every muscle in Maia’s body was screaming out in pain. They had been running for nearly an hour. She called out to Josh, who was about 15 feet down the slope, and motioned at him to stop. Maia had been a track star in high school, but that was more than ten years ago, and she was in no such shape now. She bent over and gripped her knees, panting. She watched as Josh stopped, glanced up at the sky above her, and then started waving at her frantically.

Wham.

Something heavy whacked her across the top of her head. Maia fell to the ground, more out of surprise than pain. She crouched in the grass with her hands over her head, not daring to look up. She saw Josh’s hiking boots running toward her.

“Holy shit!” Josh said as he dropped his backpack and hunkered down next to her. “That huge bird just dive-bombed you.”

“That was a bird?”

“That was a fucking bird!”

Maia slowly turned her head skyward. About half a dozen huge, eagle-like birds with white-tipped wings were circling directly above her. They were flying low in the sky and squawking loudly.

“What the fuck is going on?” Josh said. “Why are they attacking us?”

Maia looked around and realized, with a sinking feeling, that the small patches of land surrounding them that she assumed were dried grass were actually birds’ nests. She pointed them out to Josh, who gaped and then shook his head

“I didn’t think they’d be in the ground,” he said.

“It’s because there aren’t any trees here,” Maia said.

She hadn’t realized it until she said it out loud. Feeling like an idiot, she looked up at the sky again and wondered who was more scared.

“I wish there were some way we could tell them we’re not here to hurt their babies,” she said.

“But what should we do?” Josh asked anxiously. “Should we lay low until they leave?”

Maia raised her eyebrows at him.

“They’re not going anywhere, so we don’t have a choice,” she said. “We’ll miss the ferry unless we run for it.”

“Right,” Josh said.

He got very quiet and stared at the ground for several seconds before looking up at Maia again.  

“You go first,” he said.

“Are you kidding me?”

“I mean, well, I dunno, they already got you once, so you sort of know what you’re in for,” he said. “And I just want to see what the birds are going to do before I…”

He trailed off.

Maia got off her hands and knees and slowly stood up. She could hear the birds above her squawking louder but she didn’t care. Her fear was subsiding. She suddenly felt like she’d rather take on a whole battalion of birds than spend another second with this whimpering idiot lying in the weeds. She wished she could think of a perfect Hollywood line to spit at him, but when nothing came to mind, she just glared at him one more time before lifting her parka hood up over her head, securing her backpack, and starting to run.

“Come at me, you fucking birds,” she muttered as she picked up speed.

She could hear them flying after her and see their shadows criss-crossing the sun-dappled ground. But she was feeling fast and powerful, a force of nature just like they were. They had the aerial advantage, but she was bigger, stronger, and incensed. Her reflexes hadn’t felt this sharp since she ran the anchor leg of the 4×400 relay race at the New Jersey state finals. She had been so focused that she could almost see the girl running the third leg coming up behind her and knew the exact moment to stick out her arm to grasp the sweaty baton.

That was how she felt the bird tearing through the air behind her long before it arrived. At just the right moment, she used her momentum to swing her right arm backward as hard as she could. She felt the bird crash straight into the outer edge of her arm and flutter away. She kept running and didn’t look back to see. Only much later would she find out that the split-second encounter had given her a hairline fracture in her arm.

Ten minutes later, Maia reached the top of the stone steps leading down to the beach. Through the rivulets of sweat streaming down her face, she saw the ferry lowering its little drawbridge and the other tourists, looking calm and refreshed, forming a line to board.

She looked behind her. The hills were blocking her view and she couldn’t see what, if anything, was happening in the valley that lay beyond. She wondered if Josh had followed her and then realized, as callous as it was, that she didn’t really care.

Realizing how tired she was, Maia dropped her backpack into her left hand and gripped the iron handrail with her right. She descended the stairs slowly, gazing out onto the water all the while and thinking vaguely about how the islands in the emerald green archipelago looked like giant sea beasts frozen in time.

♦♦♦

Áki fell to the ground softly. He landed in a clump of weeds and lay there without moving. It was surprisingly comfortable. He lay for what seemed like hours and watched as the sky turned from dusty blue to a shimmering violet.

His left wing was hurt. The gangly creature had struck him so fiercely. The wing was likely broken, and he could very well never fly again. He wasn’t sure. It didn’t seem to matter. Not now, anyway. It would when he woke up. If he woke up. Only then would he worry about what would happen to Billa and the chicks, and whether he could count on Áron and the others to care for them. But he wouldn’t think about that now. Now, he just wanted to rest.

Áki watched the horizon and waited for the darkening skies and tide to merge into one before finally closing his eyes.

Judy Wang writes fiction while nourishing her inconvenient love for exploring some of the strangest and remotest regions of the world. Find more of her stories plus her musings about travel, art, food, and literature at www.judy-wang.com.

“I WILL ALWAYS BE THE FOOL” by Sheena Carroll

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I’d never seen a tarot deck like this before. I was convinced that it wasn’t one at all, because in no way did the names correspond to any cards I’d seen before. This wasn’t a difference between Coins and Pentacles; these were Rocket Ship and Fursona and D-O-L-L-Y-P-A-R-T-O-N (spelled just like that). The illustrations were quite literal, from a cartoonish rocket ship to a silhouette of a country music legend with hair taller than the card could fully display. I was greatly troubled.

My tarot reader was new – or rather, new to me. I dumped my previous reader after she blamed her inaccuracies on me, claiming that I needed to be more open with the deck. Bullshit. I found this new lady on Craigslist and she agreed to meet with me at a tiny coffeeshop located smack between both of our neighborhoods.

“I am tired,” she said.

“I’m sorry,” I replied. “Should we reschedule?” I thought 2 PM on a Saturday was reasonable, but maybe she didn’t. Tarot readers follow their own flow and whatever.

“No,” she replied. “That’s what I see in you. Your aura is screaming, ‘I AM TIRED.’”

She wasn’t wrong; life hasn’t been kind to me recently. That’s why I get readings; they’re the closest I have to spirituality, and faith has always benefited my mental health. However, when she pulled out her strange deck I grew concerned. She laid out a three-card spread: Past, Present, Future. The first card she flipped was the Past one, with an illustration of someone in a Japanese sailor school uniform vomiting on a city sidewalk.

Alcoholic Cosplayer,” she said. “That’s a powerful card.”

I frowned.

“I know,” she replied. “Not a lot of people like to admit they’re cosplaying alcoholics, but sometimes after a long day, you need a few beers and a marathon of Sailor Moon on Hulu.”

I frowned.

“I’ve been there myself. As this represents the past, I see that you recognized your most significant vice and separated yourself from it. Tell me this vice.”

“Peter.” I shocked myself with how easily his name poured from my mouth.

“How long since you last saw him?”

“If you mean saw in the literal sense, just last week.” He’s a folk singer-songwriter who frequents open mics. “If you mean in the sexual sense, about two months ago.”

She nodded and I knew that this was the correct answer. I stopped frowning. She flipped the next card, the one that represented the Present. On it was a familiar diva with flowing, raven hair.

“Ah,” she said. “Cher. This suggests that you have been haunted by either a cryptid or by a code that you do not understand. What’s troubling you?”

This one took a while; I’d read some strange books lately. But then it hit me. Cryptid.

“Cryptids,” I said. “That’s like Nessie and Big Foot, right?’

She nodded.

A gust of swirling wind hit the window by our table; I shivered. “Peter.”

“He was a cryptid?”

“Well, he is unusually hairy, but I meant his pet cat. What he said was a cat. Fresno Nightcrawler was her name.” Her eyes widened. “If you’re, uh, not familiar, that’s also the name of an alleged cryptid. Kinda looks like a head attached to a long pair of pants on stilts. The cat looks like that, too.”

“And he claimed she was a cat.”

“Yes.”

“That’s fucked up. Thankfully, as the Alcoholic Cosplayer card shows, you extricated yourself from this problematic situation. How?”

“Oh, I didn’t do anything,” I replied. “He started hooking up with some girl ten years younger than both of us. We hung out together at open mics.”

“You’re a singer?”

“A painter,” I replied. “But I like open mic culture.”

“I see,” she said. I sensed an odd, telepathic wave of judgement and blushed.

“Now onto your Future,” she replied, and I frowned because this was an unusually quick reading. I was used to getting pseudo-therapy sessions. But then she turned over the final card.

She gasped.

The Fool.”

“What?”

This was the only traditional card I’d seen in her deck. It looked nothing like the rest of her strange collection; it was a sunny yellow card in the familiar design of my former reader’s Rider-Waite deck.

“Your journey is about to begin – one that will define your life and leave a mark on this world long after both of us are dead. This is incredibly significant.” She reshuffled her deck, and then placed her palms on top of the stack. She closed her eyes and blew a kiss into the air.

“The next card,” she whispered, “will show the path that you must take.” Making direct eye-contact, her desperation almost frightening. “You MUST take this path. Your fate and the fates of the stars and the Great Beyond depend upon it.”

I shifted eye contact from her to the deck; her hot, wet fingers reached for my clammy ones and gripped tightly. “I will not flip this card unless you promise to take this path.”

I felt my heart tighten, my cold fingers quaking in her humid ones. I dug my nails into her skin. She didn’t flinch.

“I promise.”

We loosened our grips and she solemnly nodded. She deftly picked up the card, flipping it over as she brought it down onto the table. I recognized the illustration immediately.

Sparkling Heart Emoji,” she said, and now it was my turn to nod.

She did not need to explain. Peter and Fresno Nightcrawler be damned. My heart be damned. My past life and fears and loves were irrelevant. I felt so sure that my bones and my teeth ached. My own sparkling heart was ready to explode and cover the whole coffeeshop in glitter and gore.

I rose from my seat and placed her reading fee on the table.

“Thank you,” I said. “I must go. I have some work to do.”

 

Sheena Carroll (a.k.a. miss macross) is a Pittsburgh-based writer, witch, and painter. She is influenced by spacecraft, witchcraft, and personal experiences with trauma. Her first chapbook, MISS MACROSS VS. BATMAN, was published in 2018 by CWP Collective Press. You can find her on Twitter @missmacross.

“Play Army” by Mike Sharlow

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I loved war, particularly WWII.

I loved war movies like The Battle of the Bulge, TV shows like Combat!, documentaries like The World at War, and any books and comics about war. Billy, my best friend, also loved war.

It was after supper and time to play army with BB guns. There was only one rule: no shooting at someone’s head. This wasn’t like playing army with toy guns, where you could dispute a kill. “Bam! Bam! You’re dead!” often received the response, “No, I’m not! There’s no way you could shoot me from there!” Or it was, “I shot you first!” “No, I shot you first!”

With BB guns there was no debate. You knew it when you got hit, and you usually knew when you shot someone. A yelp, scream, or curse was an obvious sign. This was often followed by a snicker or laughter from the shooter. Inflicting pain wasn’t necessarily funny, but someone’s reaction to the surprise of being shot was. One moment you were being stealthy, the tension was astronomical, and then there’s a hard-hurting sting, surprising the hell out of you. If this was a bullet, you might have died before you had a chance to be surprised.

Tonight’s battle took place in fall of 1972. Billy, Eddie, and me were on one side. Jimmy Babb, Rob, Greg, and my brother Tim were on the other side. We took Eddie on our team, because he would be impatient and stupid and draw attention to himself, thus drawing attention away from us.

The late October Southern California nights were cool. I had on a t-shirt, my army shirt, which I always wore, and a light jacket. I would probably get too warm once the fighting began, but I felt some security having three layers of clothing.  Everyone else was wearing at least a light jacket, except for Greg. He was only wearing a black t-shirt. He was bigger, older, and more physically mature. I think he was fourteen. His dark hair always seemed a bit greasy, and his face was slick and shiny and peppered with pimples. A cloud of spicy BO surrounded him. He didn’t talk much, and he laughed nervously about everything.

We had just enough BB guns to go around. I had my Daisy lever action with a wood stock. It was very basic. There was no engraving on the wood, and there weren’t even any sights on it. Still, I became a pretty good shot by looking down the barrel. Billy had his lever action Daisy with a plastic stock. Rob had a Daisy Red Ryder lever action with an engraved wood stock. Rob’s Dad had it as a kid. It was in good condition and still shot with decent power, but it had a louder Pop! when fired. You knew when Rob fired.

We congregated in the concrete alley behind the apartments. The whole block, and it was a long block, consisted of separate but identical eight unit apartment complexes with identical two-bedroom apartments. I had been in Eddie’s, Billy’s and Rob’s apartment. The kitchen, living room, bathroom, and bedrooms were in the same place exact same, but they looked much different.

Rob’s parents were divorced, and he lived with his petite, pale, thin mom, who kept their apartment dark, tidy, and clean. It always smelled kind of new. The courtyard in their complex was an arboretum. There was no room for kids to play, nor were they allowed to.  

Billy’s apartment smelled like a combination of Mexican food and flowery perfume. Strangely, it went together. It was a bit messy, but not dirty. Billy lived with his mom and two older sisters. Billy slept in the living room on the couch.

Eddie’s apartment was close to squalor, and the one time, not long ago, I was in there and saw Eddie’s mom splayed out on the couch passed out and half naked in a shiny blue jumpsuit with the zipper undone to her dark crotch. The apartment had a foreign, funky, but inspiring scent, which excited me.

My mom kept our apartment clean and tidy, even with five in our family: my mom, dad, and two brothers. Our courtyard was landscaped with bushes, a couple of small trees, and grass. There was a fenced play area with swings, a slide, and a small playhouse for the little kids.

The entire block couldn’t be our battlefield, so we decided to narrow it down to the complex where Billy, Greg, and Eddie lived. Their complex wasn’t very well maintained. The buildings hadn’t been painted in a long time. Storm doors swung wildly with broken springs and hinges, and some had the glass broken. Many windows had torn or missing screens. The courtyard looked like a desert with patches of grass. The people who lived in this complex weren’t the kind of people who easily complained. They were the people other people complained about. This was the worst apartment complex on the block and the best place to have our BB gun fight.

We split into ours groups and went in opposite directions. There were not a lot of places to hide. Billy, Eddie, and I ducked behind one of the apartment buildings in the small alley between the complexes. These alleys were filled with small rocks, which made it impossible to be completely quiet walking through them. Billy told Eddie to go to the other end of the building. “I don’t want to. Somebody might shoot me.”

“If you don’t go, I will shoot you,” Billy said. “Go.”

Eddie ran indiscriminately through the rocks in his dirty tattered tennis shoes, making a racket that echoed off the opposing buildings like in a canyon. He was wearing a ratty white long-sleeved sweatshirt turned gray from age, and his jeans were too small.  Eddie was made squirrelly, neurotic, and fragile from his mother’s neglect. Eddie was going to get shot, probably more than once.

Billy and I ducked behind a dumpster and waited quietly, until we heard Eddie. “Ouch! Ouch! Ouch!” Eddie tore through the rocks back towards us, as Pop! Pop! Pop! went off in the distance behind him. He turned the corner and dashed into his apartment, and as the screen door slammed behind him, a BB blew a hole in the bottom aluminum panel and stuck in the wood door. From the sound of this Billy and I knew it was a shot from Greg. He had a pump BB gun that also shot pellets. He wasn’t supposed to use pellets, and he wasn’t supposed to pump more than five times, which we thought was equal to the power of our guns. He must have pumped fifteen or twenty times with that shot.

“I’m going to get on the roof. Cover me.” At thirteen, I was wiry and athletic, so I climbed on the dumpster, and from there I slid my gun on the flat carport roof and quickly pulled myself up. Billy stayed behind, because at twelve years old he still wasn’t strong enough to pull up his short stocky body onto the roof.  

The carport roof was a few feet away from the shallow pitched apartment roof. I took a running start and leaped across. I walked the length of the roof as quietly as possible. All the roofs on the entire block were covered with a layer of gravel. My dad said it was to protect from the hot California sun.

I walked to the other end of the roof where I thought the enemy was. I stood at the edge of the roof, and I noticed that the streetlights had come on. It was getting dark, and I was feeling afraid of getting shot. I laid down and peaked my head over the edge of the roof. Rob saw me before I saw him, and he shot at my head but missed. I jumped back and immediately grabbed a fistful of gravel and threw it at him. Through the dim light I watched it pepper his face like a shotgun blast.

“Ow! What the heck!” Rob squealed.

“You shot at my head!” I would have punched him, if I was on the ground.

“Can’t throw rocks!” Teary eyed, Rob glared at me, and he walked away quickly on the long straight sidewalk home. Rob was a pasty white boy with a little belly of privilege who walked like he had a stick up his ass. He went to private school, and he acted like playing with us was slumming.

“Big Baby!” I yelled. My heart was still pounding.

Then Greg appeared from around the corner pumping his gun like a madman.

I moved back on the roof and got on my hands and knees. I wanted to yell at Greg for pumping his gun so much, but I didn’t. It would have drawn more attention to me. I made my way back to the carport roof and climbed down on the dumpster. Billy was gone.

I circled around to the front by going through the adjoining complex. This was outside our battlefield, but it was the safest way. It also provided an element of surprise, because I came up right behind my brother, Tim. I told him to put his gun down and raise his arms. This seemed like a good idea, but thirty seconds later I realized that my prisoner was going to be a hardship to move around with. I couldn’t just let him go. There had to be consequences for getting captured. “I’ll give you a five second head start before I shoot. One, two. . .”

Without thinking about, my brother took off through the rocks behind the apartments. I shot him in the back at “Three.” I was afraid he was going to get away. He yelled out and fell face first and began to cry. When I shot him, he was halfway down the alley, so I didn’t think it would hurt that much.

“I’m going home!  You shot me in the back!” he bellowed.

“Time Out! Time Out!” I yelled.

Billy and Jimmy Babb came running from different directions and ended up at me at about the same time. “What’s happening?” Billy asked.

“He shot me in the back,” Tim blubbered.

Billy didn’t care. He was my best friend, and Tim was my little brother. “Where’s Rob?”

“He went home.” I didn’t feel like telling him the rest of the story. “You can shoot me.” I tried to hand Tim my gun, cocked and ready.

“I’m going home.” Tim started to leave.

“Shoot me.” I couldn’t have him go home without evening things up. If he shot me, I had something to hold against him if he told on me. I pointed the barrel at my stomach. “Pull the trigger,” I told Tim.

“That’s gonna hurt, Mick.” Billy said, as he squinted, anticipating the pain.

“Pull the trigger,” Jimmy Babb encouraged.

Tim placed his finger on the trigger without touching the rest of the gun. My arms were getting tired holding it up by the barrel. Then he pulled the trigger, and I instantly dropped the gun. I heard a WHAP! then felt a deep sting. The pain instantly made me mad, and although it didn’t hurt enough to make me cry, I still wanted to punch Tim, but I didn’t.

Tim was satisfied, and he walked home with Jimmy Babb.

There was only Billy and me against Greg, where ever Greg was, and I got scared. “Greg’s pumping his gun too many times.”

“Let’s quit,” Billy said. He was scared too.

Then we yelled for Greg, and we found him standing in the middle of the alley like a psycho pumping his gun. It made a hair-raising Clack! Clack! Clack! Because we knew what was next. He pointed and fired at us. Billy ran behind a dumpster, and I ducked behind a car in the carport. Greg continued to stand in the middle of the alley pumping his gun for his next shot, which he aimed at Billy. The BB made a PANG! off the dumpster that was loud enough to make me jump from where I was hiding, so I was sure it scared the shit out of Billy.

“Only five pumps!” Billy yelled. Greg laughed and continued to pump his gun. Then I saw Billy aim and fire at Greg, so I cocked my gun and shot. Billy cocked and fired again, and so did I. We shot one more time, before Greg was done pumping. He fired at Billy again and hit the dumpster a second time. As Greg pumped his gun for his fourth shot at us, we took the opportunity to continue to fire back. Greg never said “ouch” or even winced, when I knew my shots were hitting him. Billy was closer to him than I was.

We shot Greg about fifteen times, as he laughed and laughed like he was being tickled. It was freaky.

He deserved to get shot in the head for trying to kill us. I had heard that pumping a gun twenty times was equal to a .22 rifle.

I didn’t aim at his head, but I did shoot at his bare arms. I got his attention, and he fired his next shot in my direction. I dropped out of sight behind a car, and then Greg fired. His shot hit the rear window with a loud POP! and the glass turned into a 10,000-piece jigsaw puzzle. That noise was an alarm that told us to get the hell out here.  

Greg had already vanished, when Billy and I met by the dumpster.

“Greg shot the window.” I’m sure Billy saw, but I still needed to say it.

“I’m not taking the blame,” Billy breathed heavily.

“Me either. I’m going,” I said.

“We weren’t even here. We were at my house playing with my army guys,” Billy said and waved good-bye, as he took off.

“See you tomorrow.” I disappeared into the shadows of the carport and headed home.

 

Make Sharlow lives in La Crosse, Wisconsin, a small city on the banks of the Mississippi River. To live, he works in Special Education and is an Employment Trainer for adults with disabilities, although he’s done everything from structural design to working in a cemetery. You can read his available work here: www.mikesharlowwriter.com

“Decathexis: Prologue” by Manuel Marrero

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Trigger Warning: contains a graphic depiction of predatory language from a character being influenced by Evil. It should go without saying that we do not condone this behavior or thought process in any way. 

To my agents in the field, my operatives in place; angels of light, demons of terror— I’ve traveled by Silk Roads to deliver this missive, dove deep to recover this pearl at great risk of spiritual harm. I am in Millennium City. The oil country fires torch the sky, suffusing the carnivorous dustbowl a pale aureate, the full moon face enormous and wan, a resplendence to toast the affluent lepers and zealots dining in their skyscrapers. First the Bahamians, then the Bohemians. This place used to be for artists. Now plucked from the salt of the earth root and stem, priced out of nativity, dislocated to bombed out exurbs… the condemned industrial castles of the Rust Belt levitating, flying past us in the event horizon from my windshield. The year unknown, though close enough to Second Ruction, perhaps a decade in retrograde. For a timelord well within earshot of its irregular reverberations twisting misshapen ghosts in the rearview. My chronotype at odds with this vacuum’s noumenon. My optic nerve twitches, retinopathy sets in, and the nostalgia of a nosebleed trickles down my lips. These are the injuries, the sequelae of past lives we suffer and carry heedlessly forth, ’til the inkwell runs dry mirror on mirror, abominations we are. A twinge of violent sensation, autonomy for my pet limbs. The chauffeur’s vacant thousand-mile stare, pupils stuttering with blood and cerebrospinal fluid pooling in its seat and crotch. Its software, recognizing me, autocannibalizing to thwart me on behalf of its unmaker. The flag semaphores undulate on distal runways like skeined arabesques, its cracked lineaments mosaics, with faint, nearly imperceptible scrawls that oscillate.

Kill for God. Kill God for Me.  

Who am I? Where am I? Identity eludes me so easily these days. I have come unstuck in time— Oh… Agent Rx, native son of Altamont, favored antihero and right arm, refugee of original sin and the great viral schism, servant of the rightful deity and steward of order Marduk, apostate, first of my name, last of my line, quintessentially unreliable narrator, and this must be some kind of Hell. Wending down this ribbon of highway through these rutted roads, feeling the heft of amort beings, eternal forms, their high diction virtually inutile, yet understood at soul-level. And when we speak of the soul, we look to vessels and corporeal lodgings, discarnate anons, alts and disembodied avis, the avatars of modernity fulminant, pullulating in an ashen sweep across the nebulous expanse of diaphanous billboards evaporating gauzy and opaque in methodical pointillist ricochet. This is aged equipment they’re working with, putting us somewhere in the late Holocene— ubiquity’s paradox; that we should bear no remorse for our ahistorical leanings, and dance with demons so rarefied and arcane. Pax Americana in freefall, a great opiatic nightmare ushering the species toward its great moment. Pick apart your blessings; these responsibilities, careers, families and patchwork communities you hold dear, for I’ve seen things that stain and spoil them. Should the terror find me weak, the neuron blight would shred my nerves to tafetta ribbons, or peace of mind forbid, echopollution render me inert. A good thing to do is practice being afraid all the time.

Wired, voided entrails crash the automated server as I grip the steering wheel, rotate the axis and decouple the sidecar. I won’t twist your arm, but tell me, How deep is your love? I must break into waves. The devil breathes glib taunts. How many obligations have you reneged on without getting so much as a kernel of shit from me? Don’t be a doofus. I’m pregnant. I can’t miscarry. I must deliver waves of calumny to saw the legs, tip the scales. Why? They’d call us Antigods. Antideath. Their abortive singularity I won’t dignify with existence. Anti is the new pro, don’tcha know? Indeed I was lost to the narrative of @Madness, the Passion Giver. I was a greyseer, and the Grey Nineteen my collective amanuensis to the spirit realm, urging me to turn back, but I was resolute. No aberration would intercept me. A swift kick disposes of the chauffeur and an agile maneuver places me in the driver’s seat. I watch the decrepit model careening, a contrail of sparks in the rearview. The road virtually empty save for throngs of vandals and vigilantes, commuters turned into their corporate dwellings. I ease into the right lane, hugging the shoulder, pulling over to exit the vehicle and catch my first clear view of the hellscape.

Tongue-tied I throw my weight around. Tunnel-visioned flare up, sclera on fire, saturnine. It’s as though an empty soundstage had supplanted any semblance of humane architecture. Gd or G-d. HaShem & Shekhinah. I stumble forward onto the railing and brace to avert seizure, forearm shielding against the tungsten bulbs, my favorite people cycling in the ether. The light of God smears my eyes. We lost our country. The rear guard snapping lockstep shut. Skin the rat fucks and hang ‘em by their tails. The left behind scamper drunk through the mist, thirsty for a fix, hungry for a shakedown, hunted by all and none. The camps are rows of military installations gumming up God’s radiator teeth.

I fall backwards on my weight and lift the trunk. The information queen, li’l tattooed Quantico princess, doper field agent, hermeneuticist, rogue element inessential personnel, security clearance revoked, pedigreed in the image of Rilke’s avenging angels. The one who named herself, the one called Mal. Mandated empathy had set in like a virus, but abuse being the love language of fiends, I knew better. I untied her hands. Struggled with the ball gag. She was docile but her serial eyes read plenty feisty to me.

If I untie your legs, you can’t run away.

Where’m I gonna run? Lousy glitch bitch.

Stern, I watched her. Like that, I saw what Jordan saw. Kill all sexual desire. Focus on the task, the ties that bind.

Look Jack, you got me. Stockholm Syndrome, full stop. I ain’t goin’ nowhere baby. Feds done left me for dead. What do you want?

Your cryptokey. I need access to the concordance. All of the classified documents on the triplicate. The quantic rift. Second Ruction. The viral schism. All of it. I need to upload it to the Grey Nineteen. A diplomatic envoy…

I’ll stop you right there, man. The delegation failed. Look around you. The future prolapsed. The hideous abortion rite has already begun. It greets you grinning, grinding. Rough sex. Double speak. We’re all just flailing. Surrender yourself to the arms of the mother and spurn this vicious lie.

I serve a higher authority.

Oh? You think that counts… I’ll give you what I have, but it’s too late. We’re too far removed. Jordan saw to that.

That derpy, gimpy fuck. I answered the buzzer and heard his voice. Dick Laurent is dead. The memories were no longer indexical. Morosely I considered the miasmic gyre forming in my head.

We were meant to leave this ghetto. Leave Jordan’s trespasses behind.

Untying her legs, I said this to her. She shifted the small of her back against the hood of the car. She reached over and touched my cheek.

Jack, your skin is freezing. You keep drinking dick first from the fount of mishap, at this rate your dick gonna fall off.

You know, I still check your feed first when I login. You’ve been scarce.

A smile stretches dimple to divot, and I almost feel human again.

Oh, Agent. Romance died on that server a New York minute ago. Is it something you can recall? No? You don’t have to. It’s in the collective transactional history.

But how fucking dare he? That tonsured turncoat. Pock-marked harelipped sleeper assassin. Cameltoe cowlicks. How dare he put that there. A gaggle of toothless snowbunnies with perfect, jailbait tight pussies and pink titties, perky nipples taut. The nerve. I stare. Or, I’m hard-pressed to look away. Jordan’s vision was uncompromising, an overpowering hostility and bottomless contempt for audience, a misanthropy so absolute that by declining to ogle his eldritch saturnalia you were merely proving his point. It was the signature of his grand forgery, that he called God malevolent, rejected virtue and heroism borne of hardship.

You wanted to wake from your nightmare, Jack. We paid with their lives. Jane, Jordan. Do no harm, Coma Blood. My coral lips…

No one’s called me by that handle in the irl. Or have they before. Pots to piss in, emotional collect calls from the ether. It’s eerie there, you don’t really feel anything so you can think clearly. With moral clarity and purpose renewed. And this is what happened. Before anyone could blow the whistle, almost overnight, the dystopia had arrived on bended knees and brokered settlements, exposing the gutless maw to the demonisms of demiurge, social media a diorama of adults screaming into pillows, a new MK.

I slump into her shoulderblade. She purrs. My ears bristle. Planting pecks at the corners of my lips. A kiss of dopamine for the war. Serviceable, I thought. Imhullu blows.

I need a secure line out. This one’s been compromised.

What’s wrong?

Given to seductive excess, she hikes up her skirt, flashing me her bare pudendum.

I could get you hard. We could stay awhile, yinno.

Not lookin’ to be your sympathy fuck, Mal. I’m not well.

On the far side of things, we’re transhuman. But in the finite, material realm, I ain’t built for comfort like Mal. I’ve been through the wages of fear, in flight from isometric ions and their attendant distresses, I’m a crystallized sentience capable of projection, but my parts are clustered spent. My dysfunction is a cough that burrows deeper, and my piece deepens the wound. My body is a temple ravaged, forsook. Brain stem a buried lead detached. How fucking romantic. I’d trace the nocks on her spine with my fingertips, crick in my neck, svelte leggy batty broad with pendulous tits. Make lurid poetry. I’m reading a conflictual resonance. The polity was meant to be a kingdom, to serve the children of God genuflecting, but they turned away from comity thus paradise, indulging their rapturous crescendos, narcocum alive. Weak knobby knees and weak hands folded. The trial Robin Hood command economy failed. Kleptocracy emerged from the detritus. Wait long by the river proud and humbled. Canaries in coal mines pecked to death. The bodies of your enemies float by. A circular pecking order. Fine-fingered multidirectional axis consciousness, blighted axons, stern admonitions chase the pain away. The devil don’t suffer fools lightly. Interns and spam wars. This all happened on the internet, and it had to. On the internet, we were tulpas, heteronyms, nailed to higher crosses, a quatrinity. We made love and lore and romance in the liquid age, our pet names bore the mark of the beast, apocrypha suited the fall. Waterloo, the ides of march, nuclear winter, avenging angels became you. No one could outfox Mal except Janie the Vulpine, sciatic nerve twitching, agnate and aquiline. Adrenaline junkie, alkaline juiced. An ongoing affront, lacunae profundis, a whole host of afflictions. Cocks stutter lightly. If this all seems like bizarre banter to you, have you seen the bugs with avian wingspans? The angelic ones? A finger of scotch may deflect this confection, Mal the bemused call girl. Am I getting through to you? I’m a romantic. Poetry is for the listener. Will you? Listen?

Wait, Jack. Wives leave writers. It happens. You can’t lament your way out of this. It is law. What do you think you get for all your trouble? A valise with remnants of an unhappy fucking alliance.

Promontory Point. Box Elder county, Utah, in the flats where Sid would be waiting for me. Tugging at my abdomen. Manicured Sentience a corporate strategic consultancy firm in the desert where Karina Sais Quois had been job creating in the gig economy, affording her plenty of off the clock black glove time. In a given calendar year, her firm yielded increasingly record breaking profits, which she poured into a sprawling Xanadu and city in the desert, where she would preside as land baroness someday. Awed by your Rochambeau resilience, an ongoing affront to the aboriginal populations of Utah. The promised land hijacked, the Star of David a hexagram, apologia of song and dance reckoning with the heart of genocide.

The passion giver’s a headhunter, as in heads will roll.

depopulation

Two Americas, Two Sigils. One Wall Street, where the model is fraud and there are no innocents. Periods are good. Don’t stanch the menstrual blood, let it flow down meridians. Infertility and impotence were at an acme. One land of opportunity, one a chain gang extolling the work ethic of virtual prostitution. Bots. The neosexual models. Their predecessors were peak pussy time in America, downy hair defrocked, but the experimental models currently in production were said to be existentially weightless. As we collectively dithered on whether it was spiritually healthy, even bearable, the answers snapped back like mortise and tenon, a dovetail endogenously accorded by the mark of the beast, borne only in waves on the backs of the Great Grey Nineteen. O the chain gangs, the ad hoc art gangs, the breathless bonds we clutched, salvaged the cotton candy cult, we phased out the solicitous grin of authority, the presence of the lumpen prole, the authoritarian not preserved. Blue balls tied, Valhallan decadence, stringent hardline draconian anticap legislation muzzled the masters. Touchstones of the gig economy. A force of nature, augmentation and automation fell to knaves during the Fall. You can have it all my dearie.

I lock eyes with Mal. Her body’s been through hell, and the cracks have found their way to eye-level. I don’t fear @Madness. His volatile reputation preceded him. But, as bibles would say, he’s one of the Nineteen, so we are bound.

Mal tells me things I don’t need to know.

The guy never had a name. They call him the passion giver because the only thing he can do is inspirit you with the sensation of holding her. That’s it. You’ll feel every bit as empty, if anything he’ll whittle you to a cartoon of your own misery. If you’re saying we were meant to leave this behind, then lemme tell you it doesn’t matter because you won’t survive this meeting.

She’s right. I’ve sensed death around the corners of her. It is written. The ink is dry. These are the last days of my mission, and instead of alarm I feel immense relief.

You know, I would go with you.

I know. You’ve given me everything I need. You oughta phone home before this vacuum collapses.

I won’t be able to find you without my cryptokey. I won’t be able to thank you should you triumph.

I’ve made no sacrifices and require no thanks.

The dial tone bubbles like burning plastic, and her body goes limp and stiff in one unstudied fall.

I’m at the gates of delirium. Moorhead. Halogen bulbs festoon the megalithic obelisk. The gravity of each moment unbearable. Time’s velocity so close to inertia near this pelagic realm that I can feel the aqueous air corroding my lungs, pressing on my throat, constricting the airways and nasal passages, breathing on my neck. I inhale labor. I login.

@Madness

I have it. I had to pull someone out of the ground, but it’s all here. I checked.

The great dirt.

@Madness

He doesn’t say anything. His gaze is fixed intently on the contents of the payload.

Seek sanctuary.

…I’ve been excommunicated.

Your preterition was no accident. It was codified by a seraph. And hey, we’re over here having a private conversation at peak suggestiveness hour, where everyone can hear you. Exhibitionism is voluntary, but you stand before the gods in plain sight, naked as sin.

Shake the chains. The crown of love. That’s what bibles said. And the thing about bibles is bibles was not accountable. Moor me to the prow. Stasis nauseates me.

What’s amazing to me is that Jordan was likeable, but you? You’re a shadow creature. Constant fight or flight and persecution will not redeem you. The path to the godhead is proven.

So what would you have me do?

These angels fly above reproach. The ones that fly low, you wouldn’t see them ’til they were on you, cutting you down. If the high order’s got an APB out on you, it won’t be long before they find me too.

Unfuck your criteria, for chrissakes.

Take the savior’s name out of your mouth. Okay, listen well. You’re marked. Accept your fate, step one. Step two, go with Hecate. If you can do anything else, do that instead but if you do this, it’s the only thing you can do.

And you?

Friendo, my credenza, your credenza now. To be reviled in this case is cause for celebration. Harden yourself to all earthly aspersions and adversity. Unthink and unfeel. Let your words collide with mine. Wholesome inn’t it. Feel old.

And blades of light lifted from the ground personifying grace, and we were thus pursued by it.

 

♦♦♦

“Decathexis: Prologue” is the first chapter of NOT YET, Manuel Marrero’s second novel, coming soon to a Neutral Spaces portal and in print via Expat Press. Set in the fourth and final cycle of creation and rebirth, the age of quarrel and strife, NOT YET concerns two celestial factions locked in a desperate struggle for existence— the Angels of Provenance, a hierarchy of pelagic insects, crustaceans and mollusks vying to return humanity to the primordial sea, and the Peking Doves, a cosmic band of time outlaws who may be an army of one. Through multiple stream of consciousness perspectives, Marrero’s vision of America is violent and chaotic, where history meets hallucination and science fiction collides with theology and myth. A portrait of a world on the brink of upheaval, opioid-decimated and beset by arcane terrors, natural disasters, and perpetual warfare, in which youth come of age in a technological dystopia, internal disorder intersects with the zeitgeist, automation and augmentation have advanced to a singularity, and the burnout generation scramble for opportunity and meaningful connection in the gig economy. It is a liquid age love story, a romance for the new iron age, a paranoid cloak-and-dagger neonoir featuring agents, hackers, users and dealers, lurid spirits, genocidal potentates and insubordinate radicals, a cyberpunk suicide dream, a poetic abstraction erotic and obscene. Standby.

 

 

Manuel Marrero is the founder and editor-in-chief of Expat Press, always seeking new adventurous content (expatpress.com). He wrote and self-published his debut novel “Thousands of Lies” in 2015, and has published in a few other venues. He was born in Miami, Florida.

 

“Manifesting” by Anthony Dragonetti

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I’m texting her back to tell her that I think the interview went well, but who really knows with these things. She immediately responds asking if I think I got the job. If it went that well. I think it did, but I can’t say that. That would jinx it. I’m allowed to be so sure that I believe, but it must remain deep and hidden in here. I can’t put it out into the universe. That’s how you invite the jinx. I need this job. So, I tell her that it’s out of my hands and we’ll see in a week. She asks again if I think it went that well and adds she’s sure I got it. I can’t do this right now.

I miss my street because I’m texting and thinking about everything I said during the interview that could have come off as stupid. I should have had more questions for him. I should have asked about the company culture. Idiot, idiot. I turn around and walk back a block towards St. Mark’s. Now I’m embarrassed that I’m backtracking in New York City. That’s tourist shit. Someone on this block is judging me. They probably think I’m looking at Google Maps on my phone. I want to yell that I’m actually texting with my girlfriend, a successful painter. She was in a group show.

I’m walking up to the Cube and I hear skateboards and honking horns coming up from behind me.  A group of about a dozen skaters are coming up from Broadway towards the intersection. They’re weaving between cars, jamming them up. I don’t want to stop and stare, giving them what they want. I walk more slowly, watching them in my peripheral vision while others stop completely to film with their phones. One older woman is filming the skateboarders with an iPad. A deep annoyance is flooding my brain. These people have places to be. Some are trying to get to work, I’m sure. These kids don’t care. They think they’re cool. We’re all at the mercy of a bunch of idiots. Grow up. You’ll be in the backseat of one of those honking taxis one day.

It’s a pack of teenage boys. I’m drawn to one of them. He’s at the back and his face is telling a story. He’s afraid and he doesn’t want to be doing this. The details start filling in the more I watch him. His features are sensitive. His form is unsteady. His skin has become milk from fear. The boy is me. I see that now. I want to take him into my arms and whisper in his ear that I have come from the future and it ends up ok. He passes by me and his eyes meet mine.

Now, I see the other boy. I can read him, too. I can always read the ones like him. He’s taunting young me, slapping at him and calling him a pussy. He’s telling him to keep up with the group and he’s making everyone else look bad. I’m reading his lips even after I can no longer see them. The milk skinned boy is losing his balance. He’s panicking. The cars aren’t stopping.

I can’t explain it, I can only feel it. There’s that psalm about hating with a perfect hatred. I look at the kid still yelling at the panicking boy with a perfect hatred. Every single cell is burning. I’m thinking it, which is okay, but I lose myself and say the words out loud. I say them and it feels good and as soon as I finish saying the words a wheel comes off the kid’s board. His insults become a clipped scream as he tumbles off his skateboard and disappears under the wheels of a bus.

The woman filming with her iPad says oh god over and over. The people who aren’t yelling are running over to the bus. I walk quickly past the scene, allowing myself one glimpse at the kid under the wheels. The nervous boy sits down on the curb and vomits while the skaters at the front of the group make their way back yelling the kid’s name.

I break into a run. Maybe they think I’m going for help. I am not going for help. That kid has a family. The police will call his mother. She’ll dread this date on the calendar for the rest of her life. There will be a void. An unnatural horror.

I get to the bar I always go to and sit down. I’m sweating and I’m trying not to cry. The bartender comes over to me with a smile that quickly fades when he asks me what’s wrong. I instinctively shove my hand into my inner jacket pocket and finger my rosary.

I’ve done a terrible thing. I have done an unspeakably terrible thing.

My phone vibrates in my pocket. It’s another text from my girlfriend that says she’s positive I got the job because I always get what I set my mind to.

 

Anthony Dragonetti tells people he writes fiction. His work has most recently been featured in Expat Press.
Twitter @dragoneddied

“One or the Other” by Fernando Schekaiban

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(the following work was translated by Toshiya Kamei)

The angel flapped his wings stirring gusts. A blast of air ripped up trees and hurled stones on the path of the man passing on it. The storm made a nest on the path of the mortal, who shielded his face with trembling hands in a vain attempt to protect his tired eyes, not caring if his provisions were lost in confusion. As the human advanced, the sand formed waves beneath his feet: small and constant to tire him out, large and sporadic to force him to retreat. Meanwhile, the salt water seeped into his wounds caused by thousands of sharp splinters.

When the man couldn’t take it anymore, he knelt and put his hands together.

“My angel, protector of the destitute, I’m asking you to watch over me on this journey because my strength deserted me. I don’t know if a demon prevents me from reaching the fire of my dwelling.”

The wind ceased blowing. The sand remained perfectly still. The waves stopped licking his wounds, almost purulent.

“Thank you,” the man sobbed. “Only your mediation could save me from a horrible fate. Now I can continue on my way, with a look of happiness on my face and the anecdote of your protection.”

The man resumed his walk, and as he promised, he spread his remarkable story.

One turn of the sun before reaching his destination, he spotted a couple of bags full of food on the ground. He approached with caution, moving his head toward the four spots where the wind is born. He checked among the trees and shrubs to find out if it was a trick. But the only thing that confronted him was the aroma of freshly baked bread. More carefully, he passed by.

When he could rest, he clenched his fists and extended them toward the ground.

“Damn you, demon. You wanted to make me fall for those provisions that were arranged in my own satchel, lost in the storm you caused. That was some trickery you played on me. From slowly working poison to an ambush with a vertiginous end. Don’t give up your desire to feed on souls. Go away. Run to your bedchamber and let me reach mine, unless you want to face my guardian angel.”

The man took a deep breath as he felt tired for having hurled so many insults. He sought shade under a leafless tree off the main road, closed his eyes, and clasped his hands.

“My path has been long and full of danger,” he exclaimed in a low voice. “Please protect me while I rest my body.” He finished his prayer and fell into a deep sleep.

“You wretched man,” said a voice that intermingled with his nightmare. The sound of the words, despite the insult, brought him peace. “You don’t know that we do good, with the certainty that you will deny our gifts, while the angels strike their hopes and then give a hug with scented ointments. And I’ll tell you one thing that will turn into a memory of dust. While you sleep, your protector cleans his feathers with the prayers you have given him and forgets about the murderers who are upon you. There are angels and demons, but it depends on you whether we will turn into one or the other.”

 


Fernando Schekaiban (b. 1985) is a Mexican writer who lives in San Luis Potosí. His fiction has appeared in Revista Portalcienciayficcion. His flash piece “Refill” is available to read in X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine

“Give The Mother Some” by Jennifer Benningfield

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         When her only son moved out into the world, Sharon’s excitement surpassed her sorrow by several dozen paces. When her only son told her she’d be a grandmother, serenity settled over her like a homemade quilt of austere texture. Life was all about one foot in front of the other foot, one breath at a time. The magic number, then and now and always, no matter the actual number of people tagging along on the journey, and Jim Ridenhour understood, and Dana Hirschberg understood, so Sharon was pleased.

       She fancied a lack of soft bones in her skeleton, thanks to an acute awareness of Earth’s ways that came with several decades of living actively in it, with it, recognizing the roles that natural ability and applied labor played while only rarely, faintly recalling the times that serendipity strolled onstage to steal the show. Was she to blame for seeing only one direction on the road, for neglecting to peek up at the rear-view mirror and see how horror tailgates bliss the entire trip, disdainful of stops for rest and fuel? Perhaps she had been mentally lax in allowing herself to be lulled by the vision ahead and the rumble underneath.

       Friends and family worried about Sharon. Fewer figures are cut more tragically than the grieving mother. Phones were lifted, buttons were pushed. Visits were paid, flesh was pressed. Sharon was most appreciative of those who spoke sparingly, remembering her childhood, how her parents stressed that an abundance of crops did not necessarily require an abundance of seed.

       Sharon returned to her spot behind the front desk at Allegheny Dental Care after one week’s leave, only to hear her boss insist, as the lunch hour approached, that she work only half-days for a week more. Sympathetic eyes, a warm tongue, and a vulnerable posture conspired to weaken her resolve.

       Well-meaning solicitude proved a minor inconvenience. Not everyone understood the myriad of ways that grief could attack a person, the variety of coping mechanisms that a person had at their disposal, or the emotional process which helped them determine the best management plan.

       More bothersome were the odd little incidents. By her own unreliable count, Sharon had been witness to a half-dozen perhaps inexplicable occurrences since her son’s death. The car radio showed signs of impatience; the bedroom television lost itself in fits of whimsy. The familiar whispers in otherwise silent rooms. All remained secrets. She was afraid of them, but more afraid for them.

       Her mind wrestled with the sinewy reality: her son had given the world the best he ever would by the age of nineteen, when he allowed himself to become the second-most important person in his own life. Even if permitted additional years, even if the majority of the days comprising those years had been spent as a family man who changed the world in sweetly stealthy ways, what more could Jim Ridenhour have accomplished?

       Perhaps the apex was just a point on an unobservable map and the ideal was just a fairy tale dreamed up by bitter-hearted overseers who wanted to create a generation of people scared to go to sleep without a story to influence their subconscious.     

    

♦♦♦♦♦

 

       In the foyer sat the three boxes retrieved from Jim Ridenhour’s storage unit that didn’t contain X-rated VHS tapes. They instead contained paraphernalia featuring and celebrating the favorite son of Baltimore, a tall walker and big stick-carrier beloved by Jim since childhood. Items that Sharon trusted to help with the immediate care of the little girl he left behind.

       A little girl who would be arriving in just a few hours to spend the night at Grandma’s.

       “Tracy! I need help here!” Sharon kept her gaze low as the footfalls went from faint to frantic, raising it only when her daughter was inches away, arms full of the Dr. Seuss books she’d devoured as a child, precious memories she refused to let see the inside of a bin.

       “Do you think Kayla’s too young for Seuss? Or is that the dumbest thing I’ll say all day?”

       Sharon considered the first question. “She’s over a year old…hmm…start slow. Hop on Pop. That’s a good one. You have to ease her into such a magical world.”

       Tracy gave the books an adoring twice-over. “This is practically a complete collection. All the classics, some overlooked gems. You know what’s missing? Oh, the Places You’ll Go! A friend of mine got a copy of that for a graduation gift. Ech. I want to thank you, Mom.”

       “Hmm?”

       “Thank you.”

       “For?”

       “For not giving me a copy of Oh, the Places You’ll Go! for a graduation gift. You’ve never believed in lying to your children. I appreciate that.”

       “Are you coming down with a cold?”

       “I hope not. I don’t want to give it to the rugrat. I’ll chug some Day-Quil to make sure.”

       Sharon’s nose crinkled. “There’s some Schnapps under the sink, in case you want to really make sure. While I’m out, do you think you can remember to get the space heaters out of the attic?”

       “Sure. Is anyone coming today to look at the furnace?”

       “Tomorrow,” Sharon muttered.

       The young girl sprinted to the living room to hastily deposit the books onto the couch, to the kitchen to snatch her coat, and back to the foyer, where her mother awaited, having not moved even a half-step in either direction.

       “Tracy, you’ll exhaust yourself before half the day is over.”

       “Those boxes don’t look all that heavy, Mom.”

       “They aren’t. But I want to get them all out in one trip. One of us can take two, and one of us can take the other one. But just one of us can’t take all three.”

       “Ah. Got’cha.” Tracy bent over and picked up a single box. “See ya outside!”

 

♦♦♦♦♦

 

          Concerning sports, Sharon hated them, all of them, for encouraging misguided aggression and monumental corruption. Yet, she didn’t deny her son his own athletic experiences. Said experiences never extended beyond middle- and high-school softball, which made it easier for his mother to stomach. That and how, win or lose, Jim always had a smile on his face come competition’s end.

       She knew Jim rooted for the Baltimore Orioles. His collection, however, missed her radar. Surprise did not cause conflict or a sudden burst of sentimentality.  Sharon agonized zero seconds over the what to do with the boxes once informed of their existence. To assure she would not be hustled, Sharon consulted the sports-savvy husband of a friend, the same man who in the last year also saved her several hundred dollars in superfluous auto repair. He’d examined the goods and insisted that Sharon not exit any sports collectible shop with less than four hundred dollars. He further explained what the true treasures were, so no slick talker could snake scaly words around Sharon’s mind, no delusional entrepreneur-in-dreaming could use her grief as a stepping stone, no self-styled sports maven could deny her an iota of justice.

       She would not be fighting alone. With her, packed inside cardboard, was Cal Ripken, Jr. Despite Sharon’s distaste for athletes and athletics, she knew Cal Ripken, Jr. Anyone who lived in the state of Maryland knew Cal Ripken, Jr. Since his debut on a Major League Baseball diamond in 1981, he’d been a perennial All-Star, racking up the sort of statistics and cultivating the type of reputation that created a local legend. He’d cracked into the national consciousness the way so many eventually do–in relentless pursuit of history. September 6, 1995 (just nineteen days before the inside of Jim Ridenhour’s head exploded), Ripken played in his 2,131st consecutive major league game, breaking a record that had stood for fifty-six years, and had long been considered by fans and media as unbreakable.  

       An embodiment of old-school baseball and old-fashioned American values–show up, shut up, do your job–Ripken was beloved nationwide. A humble, hardworking millionaire, he didn’t bash 450 ft. long home runs on a regular basis. Nor was he a Tasmanian Devil on the base paths. His fielding ability, however, was best described with superlatives, especially considering that at 6′ 4″ and 200 pounds, Ripken was regarded as “large” for the position of shortstop.

       Sharon, if pressed, would admit to finding him somewhat cute.  

       West End Collectibles stood in the middle of a three-store strip on the 1200 block of Washington Street. All of the businesses had been open for over an hour by the time Sharon arrived, yet hers was the only vehicle in the parking lot.  

       She killed the engine and went over, once more, the words she would say once inside. Or, rather, how she would say them. A quick glance into the rear-view mirror confirmed the top-notch camouflage job.

       She smoothed out the front and sides of her flowery V-neck, then placed the first two fingers of her right hand at the pulse point of right wrist. Within seconds, Sharon’s vision lost focus as her breaths became shallower. In one minute, she had synchronized her beats with her breaths.

 

♦♦♦♦♦

 

         Autographed “action shots” of sports stars livened up raw pine walls. Horizontal display cases constructed of gleaming wood and glass ran along the sides of the shop, filled with trading cards of certain vintage and significant value. Two tables at the rear offered up “game balls,” commemorative coins, and sundry promotional items from the past three decades of high-stakes competition: baseball, football, basketball, ice hockey, and NASCAR.

       The woman who set bells off with a simple push saw 2500 square feet of guy stuff. A man with tight curls atop his head and loose skin hanging from his face stepped from behind the cash register. A bright red shirt stretched valiantly over his gut. His legs seemed to be the rightful property of a thinner man.  

       Clearly unused to a feminine presence within the walls, the man licked his lips and continued speaking at an unseemly volume.  

      “May I help you?”

       “Yes, I have a few boxes in the trunk of my car. They’re not very heavy, but they contain some items that might interest you.”

       His smile sent ants scurrying along the skin of her arms. She smothered a cough and followed the jolly sports-guy outside. Once back indoors, she followed him behind the display cases.  

       Sharon stood, legs stiff, arms crossed tightly below her breasts. The ants had relocated to the back of her neck. Not once since she’d popped the trunk had the employee looked directly at her or even spoken to her. She decided to accept his incessant eyebrow-raising and jaw-clenching while examining the goods as positive signs. Dollar signs.

       He grunted and rose to his full height. He walked over to the cash register and returned with a calculator. Sharon adjusted her own stance, resting her back against the display case, arms hanging at her sides, fingers tentatively touching the glass behind her. Maybe he’d take note and request she respect the merchandise. But who would dare speak so callously to a grieving mother?

       So Sharon told the unsuspecting merchant the circumstances leading to her presence in his shop on a suspiciously lovely Sunday in October. Her recitation was dry and terse and drained the man’s face an alabaster hue.

       “Oh. My condolences, ma’am. Your son certainly had some very interesting items of, uh, interest.”

       One step forward was all Sharon could take, so she took it, standing so close to the man she could feel the waves of discomfort pulsating from him. She watched as he opened the smaller boxes contained within a larger one, examining sheathed trading cards, considering conditions.

       Sharon couldn’t help her curiosity, speaking up several times. His vague replies were nowhere near as frustrating as his sudden switch in demeanor was gratifying. She imagined that while the man likely dealt with people bringing in the goods of loved ones, those people (men and women both) were content to be steamrolled by the expertise of someone who had the keys to the front and back doors of a shop.

       “Okay. We have Orioles teams collections, Topps brand trading cards, from the years 1983 to 1992. Ten in all. Kept in cardboard boxes. Very good to near mint. Eight dollars each, eighty dollars total.

       “One issue of Sports Illustrated, dated 5/5/95, Cal Ripken cover. Five dollars. One issue of Sports Illustrated, dated 9/11/95, Cal Ripken cover. Five dollars. Unopened box of Wheaties brand cereal, featuring Cal Ripken. Ten dollars.

       “Donruss brand rookie card, Topps brand rookie card, Fleer brand rookie card. All kept in screw-downs. Near mint. Thirty dollars each card, ninety dollars total for all three.

       “Topps brand ‘Traded’ rookie card. Now, this one’s rarer than the other Topps Ripken rookie. You see that there are actually three players featured on this card?”

       Sharon stared, wondering why such a thing should be so scarce. “Who were Bob Bonner and Jeff Schroeder?”

       “No one knows.”

       “They never amounted to much?”

       He smiled and tapped calculator keys. “Protected. Near mint. One hundred and eighty dollars. Which brings us to a total of four hundred and twenty dollars for everything you’ve brought me today.”

       “All right.”

       “It’s a good market for Ripken collectibles,” he continued. “He’s a hot name. The O’s didn’t make the playoffs, but he was the biggest story of the year. It was a real feel-good moment for baseball after what happened last year.”

       “What happened last year?”

       “The season was cut short due to a strike. There was no World Series champion for the first time ever. Fans were down on the sport, the media guys were down on the sport, all the greed. Ripken stepped up and showed everyone what’s so great about the national pastime. He made people proud to be baseball fans again.”

       “Oh. I think he’s kind of cute.”

 

♦♦♦♦♦

        Hitting all three red lights on the drive back home could not quell Sharon’s glee. The house on Nottingham Road that used a Confederate flag in lieu of curtains was unable to kill her joy. Pesky thoughts intent on spiking her blood with vinegar proved ineffectual. She felt completion. She felt the arms of her son. She thought of life and death and love and dinner.

       Somehow a surplus of canned ravioli accumulated in her kitchen cabinets…that would be for Kayla, as much as she wanted. Sharon and Tracy would pick up a pie.

       Hundreds of dollars for…pictures of an overpaid player of silly games. Sharon wouldn’t have bothered to try and make sense of it even if she had the time.

       Two turns from West Side Avenue, the car radio began its Sydenham’s shimmy. From commercial to guitar solo to commercial to drum break. At last, it stopped, on “Layla.” As the agonized cries of the lustful, guilt-ridden antihero filled the inside of her car, another sound sputtered forth, a sound that Sharon could never remember making at any other time in her life, a half-laugh half-sob that seemed to feed on itself.

 

Jennifer Benningfield’s stories have appeared in several publications,
including Black Dandy, The Sonder Review, Vagabonds and Fiction On the
Web. A lifelong Marylander who has been in the (mostly) benevolent
thrall of words since receiving “Green Eggs and Ham” as a birthday
present, her writings can also be found online at
www.trapperjennmd.blogspot.com.