Some Way Out of Here

By Parrish

Mother says grace isn’t given; you fight for it. Charley smiles in the mirror as she drives. Ah, Mother, grace takes many forms.  Jimi, for instance, or Kristin. Definitely Blue. She’s otherworldly. You’d admit that. Then there’s Kat. What about Charley? Hmm. Definitely not Charlotte. That bitch is dead and won’t survive the second coming.  Sorry, Mom. Grace is a heaven of my own. 

Along I-75, the sun sinks into the sea redder than blood. Creation bleeding at the edges, and Jimi occupies her car speakers like a godly messenger from a lost world. He’s singing the way through. At 90 mph, she looks for that new sky and new earth that will come when the sea gives up its dead, and the copulators and murderers gather outside the new golden city to be damned. She’ll be among them if Mother doesn’t drag her through the gates to the golden city herself. Better turn up Jimi. Grace infected his guitar, and maybe it’s contagious. 

Graduation was tomorrow; unless it’s today, everything is always happening again. If she were eighteen, she’d wear a tattoo. Mother says no. She thinks any day now is Judgment Day when the dead will bury the dead before grace everlasting. Don’t defile your flesh, she says. As for girls, be one, don’t kiss one. She says together we’ll fight the beast until it’s cast into the fiery lake. But what if I’m the beast? May as well wear that black lipstick Mother hates. She sighs again. 

She quit her job today. She was going to try for the kingdom if she can. She wasn’t going to spend eternity cleaning comes. Fuck that asshole and his low rent peep show he calls a bookstore. And fuck his twenty bucks an hour and putting his hands on me, like Mother said he would. It’s happening now, Mother says. From Sarasota to Pensacola, people rehearsing the Rapture. Houses being built for the banks to fail, the insides stripped for materials, bathtubs stinking from shit.  Shells corroding in the sun occupied by the warlords of the Apocalypse mixing medicine to sell to zombie children. The coastline beckons in skywriting like ancient prophecy. 

BE ALL YOU CAN BE IN THE ARMY! 

ESCORTS NEEDED NOW! 

Jimi, what’s a girl to do? Soldier or whore? The fucking future. It’s been overtaking her every second since before she was born. Blue stopped time, but she’s not Blue. Mother thinks she’s my watch and I’m her minutes. 

In the mirror, Mother supervises her driving. Her reflection turns up everywhere. Her purse was not to mention random windows; puddles generally worked, and sometimes free-floating in space in her room. No mirror in the world—she has checked them all—can distinguish her eyes from her eyes forever watching her, forever talking to her, inescapable, behind everything, forever eating her through her own eyes. 

Jimi, there must be some way out of here, right? You found the exit ramp. 

Jimi never answers; he just plays on repeat since he took over her playlist. Blue was the one who put him there that day in the bathroom. 

And you were a soldier too, like my brother. Luke traded dealing drugs for the army. Didn’t listen to Mother. Why go to Afghanistan, she says, when Jesus needs warriors. No sign up needed for the Final Battle. The future’s here, Charlotte, and it’s murder.  

But Mama, I don’t want to be a soldier; I don’t want to die. Her hands gripping the wheel are clenched fists.

You’re already a soldier, Mother says, in the army of the Lord.  

   Jimi, you hear that? Mother Dearest! She’d eat everybody living and dead to save me.  Who’s eating Luke? 

Hush, sweet Charlotte. Luke’s ok.  He’ll live while others will die, and there’s always a lesson in that. Never forget we live in the Truth. Yes, it’s a burden to live among these billions of bodies waiting to be burned. And more being born each second! They multiply through vice so that Satan may lead them to the slaughter. Such a conflagration! I can smell it from here to Miami!

No point adjusting the mirror. Mother installed it inside her head before she could speak, and Charley can’t escape its reflection. Charlotte did. That’s because Charley killed Charlotte, so Mother wouldn’t. It was surprisingly simple. She let Kristin kiss her on the beach, surf licking their ears. Somehow, Mother knew. Mother’s the lover that’s hard to quit.

Before you were born, she says, I knew you. In the womb, I encircled you. Upon birth, the circle widened. Its circumference encompasses all of time and creation, arcing from the sizzling pits of hell to the misty azure of heaven.  She’s been grounded half of the calendar weekends since she turned fourteen. In Mother, she’s safe—from drugs, from other girls’ mouths, from marking her body with the tattooed ink Zombie-Goats wear in Satan’s army of the dead.

“Mother’s eyes bore into Charley’s skull; they share them, they share everything, one way or another.”

She’s been to six classmates’ funerals— three by hanging, two by overdose, one by car. The future really is murder. Ask Blue. She graduated herself. Charley met her one day hanging in the school bathroom. Blue Angel. Her face looked almost pretty in the mirror hanging from the ceiling. Charley rubbed her bare feet, and they discussed what was to come. She knew their friendship was fate.  Sometimes she sees the future in the present. It’s a gift from Mother. Blue knew Charley too—she spoke without saying hello. The afterlife is no different from this one. When the rent-a-cop came to cut her down, Charley clasped Blue’s knees and cried to keep her close. She wasn’t bothering anybody. They took her body but not her face in the mirror. Sometimes she can almost kiss it.  

Since Blue found her bedroom mirror, things are better. Her friend Kat comes too. Blue must have shown her the way. Blue’s great. She says the craziest things, except they’re not crazy. Like, time can’t cease, and grace won’t come until male and female become a single being and male won’t be male and female won’t be female, so kiss whoever the fuck you want. It’s hard not to laugh when Blue talks like that, but she doesn’t want Mother to see. And Jimi in her ears with his forever song. Blue was broadcasting it when they met. She heard it from the stall calling her. She removed the buds from Blue’s ears so Jimi might bloom in hers.  It’s almost as if Jimi brought them together, though Charley prefers to credit Blue’s generosity. Blue came to bring her Jimi’s good news, and that has made all the difference. The earphones, too, Mother is always tossing hers.  

Hush, sweet Charlotte, Charley says, so Mother won’t. Keep your body clean. Patience now, or you’ll die forever. The day ending all days is near. Until then, live among these dead as best you can. Grace awaits. 

Charley’s face pales like death. It’s her. But I killed her with that kiss.  No, she lives in Mother’s eyes, looking straight at Charley, dating proper boys and keeping her body pure of graven images.

I’m Charley now, she says, barely moving her lips so Mother won’t see, like a ventriloquist she saw once. She was concentrating on Jimi in her ears, praying, save me, let Charlotte have Mother’s afterlife, and letting me have grace like that time with Kristin on the beach, away from her voice. A voice that was falling over her like lava on Pompeii those words were bubbling and gurgling, saying, graduation’s soon, sure, but time is short. The form of this world is passing away. Better stay home with Mother. It’s more dangerous than Afghanistan out there. The drones are within— schools breeding zombies. Masks won’t save them. I’m a nurse, I know, I see the wires attached to their heads streaming filth. Dead to the world, dead to everything, dead dead dead. And the junk they read! Game of Thrones gobbledygook. Harry Potter prattle. Goat books for goat people. The living dream of being dead, and well they should. Men were marrying men; women were marrying women. Fire fodder. But not you, baby girl, never you, not if you stay close to Mother.

She’d turn up Jimi, but Blue already has. He gets louder when Mother gets closer. Her arm tingles so wildly she believes may be her tat’s coming now.  In dreams, she’s seen it, written in red letters she can’t remember. She wishes she could borrow the stars pressed on Blue’s eyelids. Charley had seen them in the morgue when she pretended to be her sister. Kristin wanted stars like that, but she spent all her money on heroin.  Look, Mother. Aren’t they pretty? Blue says if the spirit comes into being because of the body, it’s a marvel of marvels. That’s me when I get my tattoo. You’ll see.   

And if you’re worried about my life after graduation, Kat has ideas.  She’s not a whore, Mother; it’s called sex work. Not like the bookstore. Kat copyrighted her fine little ass! She used to work in a bike shop, but the men were such assholes. It’s a little-acknowledged fact, Kat says, Charley says, men go into heat worse than women. Existence for them is a mechanism cruder than a bike. A gear that runs all the other gears is always running them. It’s like what you told that new mom at church, how baby girls are better than baby boys because changing their diapers, boys get tiny erections shoot pee in your face. 

Never ends, Kat says. 

Master, the penis, master the man, Mother says.

Better off with girls, Kat says. Like you and Kristin.

I was her nurse, Charley says. She’s messed up.  

Girls are tricky, Mother says. You must watch them until they’re grown. And even then. 

Mothers, Kat says. I wouldn’t unblock mine from my phone for a thousand bucks—the price of an ass fuck.

Charley giggles. She loves it when Kat talks like that, even if she has to move her lips to make it happen. Mother isn’t giggling, though.  

Charley, I told you, Charley says, it’s not your job to clean Kristin’s bones in this life.

I know, we’re splitting up. 

Kat looks confused, so Charley puts the side of her hand next to her mouth and whispers words only she can hear. 

Mother says Kristin is a lesbian. My body is a temple, and L is Satan’s middle initial, and if Kristin pillages my temple, Jehovah will mark my forehead with Satan’s name. But that asshole’s not touching me. No way. If Mother doesn’t like it, she can suck my bones in the afterlife. 

Charley laughs since Charlotte never says such things. In the mirror, Charley’s lips move like Kat’s.

Speaking of money, that job you had . . . second hand come is not terrible. At least you didn’t have to watch them jerk off and clean your face. I’m almost sorry you didn’t get real hands-on experience. Sex work isn’t terrible if you work hard and have goals. Show up. Maintain your appearance. And carry a gun. If a client asks for your number, call that day’s number and tell whoever answers what happened, so you never see him again. That’s the benefit of working for a corporation. Beats the army. The clients are disgusting, but it’s not about you, Kat says, Charley says, while Mother frowns over her shoulder. The worst part is they talk when they finish. I’d rather put their dick in my mouth again than listen to their bullshit.  

Mother’s eyes bore into Charley’s skull; they share them, they share everything, one way or another, like roommates in the same cell. She closes her eyes and hears not Jimi but Mother calling from downstairs. 

Knock knock. Charley? You there? 

Sorry, she says, Mother wanted something. 

I quit talking to mine after I put my dad in jail. 

Charley’s mouth opens so wide she sees Blue peeking from behind her tonsils.  

“Mother stares, waiting for an answer. The L on Kat’s head pulsates like a neon sign.”

He molested me.  Aren’t words stupid?  Dad RAPED me. I couldn’t count the times. When I was sixteen, I quit trying.  I called 911. The funny thing is he had just given me that cell phone, the eternal asshole. The cops and the emergency techs found me bloody—it was my period—with evidence of his miserable need. I felt like I was the criminal turning him in. Crazy, right?  I don’t know how I did it. Jesus, maybe, but I don’t believe in Jesus, so I don’t see why he would care about me. 

Actually, Jesus—the words don’t come. The ferocity of Kat’s expression prevents Charley from mentioning that Mother says Armageddon is here and Jesus could be on her side.

He did my older sister too.

It brought you together, I guess. 

Sure it did. Big Sis was my first pimp! She was blackmailing him with me. Mom knew. Mom taught her the business. Mom had been extorting him for doing Sis. They begged me to withdraw the charges—said they’d cut me in. They said if Dad went to jail, we’d have no income. Sis said she’d have to hook. Fuck me! 

Charley gasped—not at Kat’s words, which she had repeated many times before, but at Mother’s absence. Usually, she drives Kat away now. 

Mom won, though. I caved. The prosecutor read my statements to me in court, and I said they were lies.  I lied about telling the truth.  I testified against myself! How sick is that? Thanks, Mom. Thanks, Dad. Kisses, Sis, you stupid cow-cunt!” 

Charley reaches to stroke Kat’s face, but the mirror’s words push back her hand. 

You’d never do that, would you?

What?

Lie against yourself?

And there’s Mother, a little off cue, standing behind Kat like a deep focus shot from Citizen Kane. She moves toward Kat! That’s never happened before! She nears, arms open, whether to hug Kat or break through the glass; Charley doesn’t want to know. She closes her eyes and dreams of graduation; it’s tomorrow unless it was yesterday. She’s back in the second row, wearing her blue gown, tasselled cap on head, waiting with hands crossed to be called. Above loom shadowy figures in black robes reading names. Behind her, everyone else. The theatre so vastly exceeds the limits of human endurance, but for Jimi’s singing her war song like a lullaby. Her head bobs; she’s falling asleep again. Charley! The voice jerks her awake inside of her dream. Come forward and receive your reward.  On the dais, she turns to face the others who have vanished like names erased. Among the countless empty seats, one rises. Mother, her sword tapping “All Along the Watchtower” on the metal chairs . . . 

Yo, Charley! You there? 

The bleary mirror blinks into focus. Mother, is that you?

I’m telling you, in court, everybody wanted to believe my lies.  Who wants to think Dad the hot shit lawyer is a serial rapist growing his own victims?  The judge ruled against my testimony. He must know lawyers are paid, liars. Dad went to the state prison, and I bolted the Mom-prison. Charley jumps back and sees Mother hiding behind Kat, a nearly perfect silhouette. 

Charley looks as deep into those eyes as she dares. When I die, she thinks, you’ll bring me back, and everything will happen again. 

In the Resurrection, everyone must come forward to receive their share of grace, Mother says over Kat’s shoulder. Fighting will be required. 

Oh, the fight’s on, Charley says through her ventriloquist’s lips. Kat would be an excellent ally, especially if Blue doesn’t make it.

I moved out, Kat says, to a friend’s house. Her dad was nice. He treated me like a family member. I tried to do him once, just because he was so nice he’d never ask; his wife was a total bitch. He turned me away, which is weird. Maybe he knew I’m a lesbian. 

In the mirror, Kat’s face freezes, arrested by Charley’s frightened face, which makes little sense since Kat can’t see what Charley sees, which is Mother’s L on Kat’s forehead, the one that caused Charlotte to use the word, Charley. In her panic, she wants to kiss Kat right now, to make that look disappear, but there’s Mother’s face, looking so much like her own, Adam’s apple bobbing because some words are as hard to swallow as they are to say. 

You’re a lesbian?

Haven’t we been through this? 

I forget.

I’m like you— or are you bi? 

Mother stares, waiting for an answer. The L on Kat’s head pulsates like a neon sign. 

Mother says I am. 

What do you say? 

It’s just that we talk a lot, every day practically: about the future, and other things. When I don’t, she talks to me from my mirror.

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A laugh that sounds like a sob, and she wishes Jimi would play louder, but it’s that silent moment before it repeats, and she doesn’t see her lips move when she speaks. She’s afraid Mother is going to answer her. 

Finding your mother in the mirror every day talking to you! I can’t think of anything more frightening. I’d have to break my mirrors and live like a vampire. 

She wants me to see a therapist.

Kat’s eyes narrow, and her face becomes comically prim.  You’re not skipping school to fuck your dad, are you? I wouldn’t want to call the attendance officer, young lady. 

Charley’s face cracks—into a smile. It’s so spontaneous, beautiful, she doesn’t recognize it or her own teeth, which she imagines belong to Kat. She’s licking them. Mother’s image seems to dissolve in the glass.

School’s ok. It’s just that Mother thinks I shouldn’t date girls. She says L is Satan’s middle initial, and Jehovah will tattoo it on my forehead for all eternity, or until Jesus tosses me in the flames on Judgement Day.

Girl, I don’t see it. 

Charley leans close to touch noses. She doesn’t see it either.  

Well, I’m not one. The voice sounds strange in her own ears—it sounds so much like Charlotte, who sounds so much like Mother. 

What about you and Kristin? 

That’s different.

I saw you making out at the mall. Looked pretty hot.  

She’s generally too stoned to get hot.

But you fuck?

I’m not—what Mother says.  

So what’s the problem? 

She didn’t know. 

Dump Kristin. She’s not good enough for you. 

Behind Kat, Mother nods her head. 

Any other girls you want to try?

Blue.

Do her.

I tried—but she found grace. She left me behind. 

Found Grace? Seriously? Do you believe in that shit? Well, you’re looking at grace, baby. No joke. Clients choose names for you. One called me Grace. The way he shouted that word when he came to my face, I almost believed I was it.  The last time I saw him, though, was terrible. His daughter had just died. He couldn’t get it up. He cried so much he couldn’t function. Pushing around his limp dick, I could almost imagine what it was like to have a parent who truly loved you, who’d mourn your absence. I would’ve let him talk, but I had another client soon. So I whispered, Grace is here, Daddy, come unto me. His dick became lifelike enough to screw, though he kept crying and mumbling her name. As he got harder inside me, I had a terrible realization. Grace was his daughter’s name! I couldn’t help it; I puked in his face. Then he hit me and came. After he left, I called the number. Fucking grace.

Charley grimaces like a punch to the gut. Grace isn’t a name or even a name for a name, she wants to say, you’re grace, she wants to say but can’t because she can’t breathe with Charlotte now looking at her so triumphant and . . . and Jimi getting louder playing new notes in new combinations because Blue’s speaking through the guitar, saying never lie to yourself, Charley, don’t do what you hate, all things are disclosed before heaven, and she exhales because Kat’s there, not Charlotte.  

You date dudes?

Some. I liked meth and ate bath salts and tried to eat his skin and another girl’s skin, but he was always nice to me. I was sorry he died. 

“Oh, to exchange that face for the one she had before Mother encircled her.”

Men are dicey. Better to stay away.

How do you stand it? 

Stand what?

Sleeping with them. 

Learning I didn’t have to fuck them was the hard part. It’s a job. I’m getting my GED, saving for college. Then law school so I can sue assholes like Dad. They’re everywhere, like cash machines. 

Talk of the future brings to mind graduation, which she almost remembers remembering, though, for the life of her, she can’t fathom Mother’s sword. 

Watch out for therapists; the court assigned me mine. I call him The-Rapist. At first, he was my dream friend—the one that listens to whatever you say and understands you no matter how fucked up you are.  And he was so typical—like my friend’s dad, I thought, except a fucking professional normal person. I started lingering after the sessions thinking some might rub off on me. It began with him making tea. And then he started telling me his problems. Who knew normal people have problems? It made me feel; I don’t know, smart or something. I didn’t get that he was telling me that he wasn’t who I thought he was. I thought maybe he was in love with me. 

It happens, right? Charley asked hopefully. 

You’re sweet, but who was I to him? I was pretty, and I was hurt, and I was fuckable. My parents fucked me! Therefore, I could be fucked by anybody.  That’s what my life said— the facts on my résumé and The-Rapist knew that. When I realized he was using his impressive framed diplomas to get himself next to what made him hot, I dumped the asshole. Sex work is my therapy. I’m the one getting paid. The firm has me in training for their B & D division. Apparently, I’m a natural. I have that something extra.

In the mirror, Charley blinked her through her crying eyes like an actress receiving the Academy Award. 

Thanks, everyone! Parental units? You watching? I owe everything to you! Hey Sis! Fuck yourself for once! Special shout-out to my therapist! Bruuuuuuce! Kisses, baby! Oh, you want a speech? I don’t have anything prepared, but . . . ok, here’s what every real-life actress knows. Once everything has already happened to you, anything goes! You can fake anything just to get through. I got there early. Just lucky, I guess.

The words, which Charley remembers perfectly, she was crying the first time Kat said them, leak from her lungs, her heart, her brain like she’s been punctured by someone else’s memories. Charlotte’s a bitch to play. Leaning across her childhood dresser, she wants to touch her hand, kiss her mouth, make her feel better somehow. She leans closer, lips ready to kiss. Kat turns aside as Charley talks out of the side of her mouth. 

I already have a girlfriend, girlfriend.  

The eyes in the mirror are vacant, from another world, one where Mother isn’t. Blue’s face replaces Kat’s like radio signals converging, and she doesn’t notice the earbuds fallen around her neck like a noose. 

What if you walked out of this reflection and gave no forwarding address? 

Mother will find you, a distant voice taunts. 

Who said that? Charlotte, are you there?  

If you know what’s in front of your face, Blue says, everything hidden from you will be disclosed.  

Charley slaps her cheek twice, hard, to unshape its mouth and to unmake its eyes. Oh, to exchange that face for the one she had before Mother encircled her.

Through the mirror, Blue returns the pods to her ears. Listen, girl, listen this time, please. Blessed is she who came into being before coming into being. Her words soar like Jimi’s guitar. 

Charley’s eyes flash, burning holes through the glass and penetrate the world behind the world. For a moment, just long enough, she can’t see anyone, not even herself, since the mirror is perfectly blank, but for the strange gravitational force pulling her forward into the black tunnels her eyes have made. 

“In her armour of light, she kneels, not in supplication, but to issue a command.”

In her armour of light, she kneels, not in supplication, but to issue a command.  

A rolling roar, a buzzing in her brain. School counsellors’ words, Luke’s letters from Afghanistan, dead bodies in the bathrooms were reading newspapers aloud. It’s not strange to have gone through the mirror, not at all. 

She expects light overwhelming but sees only her, broken glass embedded in that face like diamonds, eyes streaming red globs of blood like bleary mascara, motioning her forward with her sword. She looks for a place to run and recognizes the auditorium from her dream. Graduation night! This place is ginormous. Look at all these . . . at all these . . . people? A multitude whose number she couldn’t count, from every nation and tribe and tongue.  Most look like they’re dead. She wonders if everything exists just for her.

Throughout the theatre, Jimi’s guitar reverberates. Still, only she hears it, his wah-wah whispering, this way, Charley, you can make it, but Mother is greeting her with the promised sacred kiss and putting that sword in her hand, except now it’s a pocket mirror, saying, nice work, honey, but look at yourself, on this day of all days, can’t you just fix your face? Her eyes are sockets black and bruised above strips of hanging flesh. N,o doubt about it, she looks beat-up, emptied out, but wearing that black lipstick Mother hates. It looks cute. Her lips pucker as the lights go out like they had never been a light from within allows her to see her robe is white, not blue, and smeared with blood. Mother’s robe is white like hers but sparkling as if freshly washed. You can change later, she whispers. 

As she grows accustomed to the darkness, she discerns classmates naked but for the scars on their battered bodies. Her bloody eyes fix upon the robed figures on the stage. One sits upon a throne above the others. Around him are four animals teeming with eyes in front and back. A lion, a calf, an eagle, and a dog with a human face that Charley recognizes as Blue by the way it winks at her. He’s giving slips of paper to those whose names are called. Jesus, it’s going to take forever and a day to get through this thing. Her name rings out, but she hears only Jimi, while Blue seems to be barking and wagging her tail.  

Mother pushes her forward, whispering, it’s ok, baby, the dead are not alive, and the living will not die. Charley can’t hear, and anyway, she’s watching her arm where a feather quill writes upon it from inkpots filled with blood. A glowing graven image was raising up like goosebumps. She can’t believe it.  Mother said it would happen over her dead body. The letters emerging from her skin seem to be moving the quill until the pot disappears into the air. The quill, free-floating, drips blood on her bare feet and then goes where the pen went. The letters light up her eyes. G R A C E runs one direction and C H A R L E Y the other.  They intersect at the A.  It looks like a sideways cross.

In the second row among the chosen, Mother has returned with her diploma, cooing; you’ve earned it, baby.  I will choose you as one from a thousand and as two from ten thousand, and you will stand as a single one. Before she can ask its meaning, the paper starts to burn. Fire shoots through her fingers and into every strand of her hair as the throne rises heavenward. Fight your ass off, the ascending one yells, but Jimi drowns him out. The doggy Blue dissipates into the smoke. Only then does the terrible smell infuse her, the auditorium turning into the ashes from the burning flesh of women and men and the world darkening at the edges as its light disappears through the gap where the throne ascended.

On the beach, two remain. One holds two swords, the other none above neither sun nor moon. Still, the view seems familiar despite I-75 being gone. That’s ok. She won’t be needing her car anymore. In the sand, she notices shards of stars fallen like unripe fruit from a tree. The sea had been a bottomless pit, and the wind sounds like a buzzing of locusts. Her ear pods are gone. Mother’s voice pierces through the noise. 

You ready? They’re about to rise up. We’ll have to fight them again. 

Where’s Jimi? 

Here’s your sword.

Keep it. 

Don’t make me fight you. I’ll cut your arm off to save you. 

Through her arm’s muscle, the tattoo flexes like a taunt. Mother can’t help herself. The sword severs the arm at the A, and the A shatters the sword. Charley doesn’t blink. She has never seen Mother cry before. 

It’s ok, Mom. You have another one.  

In her armour of light, she kneels, not in supplication, but to issue a command.  

Mother, Charlotte cleft your body to enter this world. She now cleft me so that Charley can return. She bows her head. 

Jesus, in the name of Blue, she says, grace shall reign over me.  

As the sword comes down, the music swells in place of the disappeared sea. By her two ears and her one arm, Jimi carries her to that world where she meets the face she wore before the world was made, and they were one. 


Parrish is a Pushcart Prize-nominated writer and critic living somewhere in California and teaching. His debut chapbook, I Close My Eyes, and I Almost Remember, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press.

THE FILTHY HOUSE

By Stephen Phillip Lupkin

Carl had just begun chewing the last bite of his sandwich when there was a knock at the door. 

“Jesus Christ,” he mumbled through cheap bread stuck to the roof of his mouth. “Who is it?” he yelled.  

“It’s Andy; open the door!” 

“What are you doing here? You didn’t say you were coming over!” 

“Who cares? I’m here; let me in.” 

“Well, hold on just a minute! Why didn’t you call first? Jesus!” Carl still did not open the door. A visitor at almost ten o’clock at night? 

“What the hell’s wrong with you? Just open the door!” Andy shouted. 

Carl could not let Andy in because his tiny, cluttered house was a filthy embarrassment. He shot intense glances around the living room, spotting several dirty dishes on the coffee table, two pairs of soiled socks on the floor near the stained couch, and the carpet had not been vacuumed in over two months. The foul smell of unwashed dishes soaking in ancient cold water had found its way from the kitchen to the front room, though Carl had not noticed this until faced with the obligation of letting someone into the house. 

“You’re just gonna have to wait a few minutes!” Carl shouted back. “Just shut up out there, stop yelling, you’re gonna piss off the neighbours! Give me five minutes!”

“You gotta be kidding me,” Andy said from the other side of the door, but he found a seat on a nasty old lawn chair. 

Carl raced and fumbled through the house, cursing quietly and then sometimes loudly, trying his best to clean as if he were competing on a television game show. Why the hell didn’t Andy call first? What was he even doing here? Who just shows up at someone’s house unannounced? Both men were thirty years old and had been best friends since their freshman year of high school, though they didn’t see each other as much as they once did. But since neither had found a better friend over the subsequent years, they were still best friends. 

Carl dumped the dishes from the coffee table into the sink with the others in hopes that Andy would have no reason to enter the kitchen. He ferociously ran the vacuum over random areas of the floor, pouring lavender-scented powder onto the carpet as he went. Covered in beads of sweat, both on his pale but reddened face and under his thin white T-shirt, he shoved the vacuum back into the closet, ran his fingers through his unwashed black hair, and opened the front door. 

“What the hell is wrong with you?” Andy asked. “What are you doing in there?” 

“You didn’t tell me you were coming over. Why couldn’t you just call first? Jesus.” Carl’s breathing was heavy, his heart was racing, and he hoped Andy didn’t notice the shiny sweat on his face. 

The two men entered the house, Andy subtly eyeing his surroundings. He looked far tidier than Carl, in a clean black polo and blue jeans. He was a fairly handsome man with a slight tan and dark blond hair—a catch near the cornfields of Indiana. 

“Were you cleaning?” Andy asked. “I thought I heard the vacuum.”

“Okay, seriously, what’s that smell? It smells rotten.”

“It was a little messy in here. I don’t have to keep my house spotless when no one’s here. I would have cleaned before if you had called. That’s your fault.” Carl glared at Andy, daring him to say anything more about it. 

“Well, hey buddy, I’m happy to see you!” Andy grinned, wrapping his arms around Carl in an exaggerated but authentic embrace. Carl returned the hug, his face and mind softening at last. Then Andy licked the inside of his ear. 

“Don’t do that! You know I don’t like that crap!” Carl yelled, wiping his ear out with his shirt sleeve. 

“Oh, you did once or twice, if I remember.”

“Jesus, shut up about that, just let it go,” Carl said, trying not to smile. “How have you been? I haven’t seen you in a couple months.” 

They each cordially found a seat on the brown microfiber couch, leaving one cushion between them. Carl subtly inhaled, hoping he hadn’t used too much lavender powder on the carpet. 

“Doing good, staying busy with work, work’s going really well, just got another raise.” 

“From your dad?” Carl asked. 

“Go to hell. Yes, from my dad. It’s his company, dipshit. I’m not gonna do landscaping forever, so whatever. Might as well milk it.” 

“I’m sure that’s what your dad said when he took over the biz for his paw-paw.”

“What stinks in here?” Andy asked suddenly. 

Carl’s eyes bulged, and he quickly looked down at the floor. The socks. How did he forget the socks? He looked right at them earlier. He clumsily gathered the two forgotten pairs of dirty socks in his hands and stood to expel them from the room. 

“Goddamn, Carl. Don’t you have a hamper? But I don’t think that was it. It smells like something else, worse. What the hell is that?” 

“Don’t worry about it,” Carl said, returning from the hallway. “So, how’s the wife and kids these days?” 

“They’re good,” Andy said, almost questioning. “You should come by sometime; they’d love to see you again.” 

“Maybe I will. I’d love to hang out with the wifey.” 

“Okay, seriously, what’s that smell? It smells rotten,” Andy scowled. He then shot up from the couch and went straight for the kitchen. 

“Hey, get the hell out of there!” Carl yelled, smacking his shin hard against the coffee table as he tried to chase after him. “What are you doing? Get out!” There was a whimper in his voice as he tried to shout. He was now angry at both Andy and the sharp, tingling pain in his leg. 

“The two men broke free from each other but stood only a few inches apart in the kitchen.”

“Christ! Don’t you ever clean this place?” Andy asked, suppressing an unwelcome laugh. Aside from the filthy and stinking dishes that were the cause of the horrid odour. The trash was nearly overflowing, and food crumbs were scattered about the sticky linoleum floor. An untied loaf of generic white bread lay resting on the counter next to a small silver can of something mysterious, slimy, and foul. “Were you eating when I got here? What in God’s shit is that stuff? It smells like crap.” 

“Deviled ham. Did you eat already?” Carl asked. Now that they were actually standing in the room he had hoped to avoid, the crippling fear and embarrassment had nearly dissolved, leaving Carl now with only an obligation of hospitality. 

“If that’s what you’re offering, then yes, I’ve already eaten. Why the hell are you eating cat food for dinner? Jesus, Carl.” 

“It’s not cat food, it’s cheap, and it fills me up. If you don’t want it, don’t eat it.” 

“Speaking of filling up, you got quite the little gut on you, honey. Maybe lay off the devil’s ham for a while.”  

Carl reflexively clutched at his belly and tugged the hem of his T-shirt downward as if the fat was spilling out offensively, needing to be covered at once. 

“Why are you being so shitty?” Carl asked. 

“I’m sorry, I know, that was a shitty thing to say.” Andy moved in and once again opened his arms and embraced his friend; his left ear pressed firmly against Carl’s right ear. Carl hesitated for a moment but eventually returned the gesture. They stood hugging in the kitchen for almost a full minute, breathing in the familiar scent of each other. The same scent each man had known for the past sixteen years. Riding in cars together, sitting in movie theatres together, lying naked in bed together for the first time at twenty-two.

But Andy’s nostrils flared at the stench of the salty cat-food slop in a can that sat on the counter within arm’s reach. He wanted Carl to live a different life, to eat different food. He wanted him to find a new job, a better job than that of a grocery store manager. He wanted Carl to live in a cleaner house, a bigger house. He wanted Carl to be proud of his life, to stop being so angry all the time. Having these things would help him; they would make Carl a happier person, a better person, Andy knew. 

In high school, Carl had been an annoyance to everyone he came in contact with or even passed in the hall. He had a temper, a temper like his father had. He had a mouth on him. If something upset him, there was no forgetting it and moving on; he needed to ensure that every person in the immediate vicinity knew that he was upset and why. Students called him trailer trash, mostly because he indeed lived in a trailer, and they continued because he appeared to embrace the title. He didn’t live in a nice or well-kept trailer, but a dilapidated eyesore of a structure that was once baby blue but had since turned a heart-rending shade of gray. Andy only knew it had been blue because Carl’s alcoholic mother never shut the hell up about the state of the “mobile home.” 

Andy visited Carl’s high school home only a handful of times. It was always a gross and uncomfortable mess, and he understood that Carl never wanted him there. Instead, they regularly lounged in the giant family room at Andy’s house: a two-story, five-bedroom, four-bathroom brick beauty, with bold black shutters and a huge purple front door. They ate greasy pizza in that room, played video games, and watched movies. Andy once let Carl pick the movie. He chose a dark film about a prostitute who murdered her clients for a living. As soon as Andy’s mother entered the kitchen, which was an open extension of the family room, a startlingly loud scene in which the main character was covered in blood and bludgeoning a man to death had begun. “That doesn’t sound like a very nice movie, boys,” Cynthia had said. Andy gave a side-glance toward Carl, who was trying to cover a subtle but warm—almost appreciative—smile with his hand. “Sorry, Cynthia,” Carl mumbled. Andy then shut the movie off. 

The two men broke free from each other but stood only a few inches apart in the kitchen. It finally occurred to Carl that his dinner did, in fact look and smell like cat food, though he would still eat the remainder of the can the next day. Carl stared at Andy, and Andy stared at Carl, seemingly too long. Too long to stare at someone for nothing to happen afterward. Would something happen if they stared long enough? They had been here before. Things had happened afterward. Things they both wanted, had wanted likely since their junior year of high school, maybe before. If either man made a move, the other would give in without hesitation. If Andy decided to kiss Carl in that moment, Carl would open his mouth and welcome it. Kissing would then lead to caressing, which would lead to groping and then growing. 

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But in the brief seconds Carl was considering these possibilities; he realized he couldn’t take Andy into his bedroom. The sheets had not been washed in weeks and smelled of sweat and dirt, Carl was sure. Not to mention the dirty socks and underwear that lay exposed in uncovered laundry baskets or on the floor. He suddenly felt ashamed. How had his life come to the point at which a person he wanted passionately was standing directly in front of him, in his house, their faces inches apart, and yet he couldn’t take this person to his bedroom because it was a pigsty. A place where pigs would thrive would squeal as they enthusiastically rolled around in the filth they love by nature. 

What’s wrong with me? he thought. 

“No, no. No, no, no. We’re not doing this again,” Andy said, providing some relief to Carl. “We can’t do this again.” 

“I know, I know. You and that happy little family of yours,” Carl teased, waving his fingers in Andy’s face. 

“We are happy,” Andy corrected with no smirk and no sympathetic eyes. Only an indication that a joke like that should never be made again. 

Carl decided to move past the hiccup as if it had not occurred, moving back a few steps as a gesture. “So, do you want some coffee?” he asked. 

“Sure, why not. We have some catching up to do anyway. And can you please put that goddamn food away? Maybe in the trash? Christ.” 

Once back on the couch, still one cushion between them, they sipped black coffee in mismatched cups and began talking about their years in high school. Carl hated talking about high school, but Andy seemed to enjoy it for some reason. So, he indulged his friend. 

“Did you hear about Jesse Benton having cancer?” Andy asked. 

“Oh yeah? Hm.” 

“That’s it? Hm?”  

“What? I haven’t seen that guy since high school,” Carl said. 

“Yeah, well, they say he’s dying,” Andy continued. 

“They do, huh? Hm.” 

“Now that’s shitty.” 

“What’s shitty? I’m not happy he’s sick; I just don’t really know him. We went to high school together, and he was always a piece of shit. Calling me all sorts of names, making my life hell. I don’t want him to die, but I’m not gonna pretend like he’s someone special to me.” Carl took a breath and a sip of coffee. “What did he ever do for you, anyway?” 

Andy closed his eyes and shook his head in exhaustion and frustration. Mostly frustration. He had always been frustrated by Carl. Carl was a very frustrating person. But still, Andy came around to visit, not too often lately, but he came around. Carl was a part of him, like a wrist or an ankle. A sprained ankle was bruised, swollen, and throbbing. 

“While everything else in the room was caked with dirt, spilled pop, and general neglect, the picture frame’s glass appeared spotless.”

“So what’s going on? Why are you living like this?” Andy asked.

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“Look at this place; it’s gross! It smells like crap, and you’re basically eating cat food. There’s dirt on everything. And I don’t even want to know what your bedroom is like right now.”

Carl knew this was somehow Andy’s method of inviting himself into the bedroom. But Carl would not give in so easily. He may have been feeling something in the kitchen only minutes ago, but not now. Definitely not now.  

“Jesus! Who the hell do you think you are? Coming into my goddamn house, drinking my goddamn coffee, and telling me that my life isn’t good enough, for who, you? Why don’t you just get the hell out of here then?” 

With that, Carl threw the rest of his coffee back in a single gulp, and the liquid was too hot for him to have done that. It burned his tongue and his throat. The inside of his mouth felt raw; it felt red. He tried not to reveal this with his face, but he winced involuntarily. Like a stupid little bitch, Jesse Benton would have said. 

“I know, I’m sorry. I don’t know why I said that. I’m sure your room is fine. Why don’t we head back there?” Andy reached over and gently squeezed Carl’s knee.

“Holy Christ, are you kidding me? Why would I wanna do that? We’re not going anywhere. No one’s going in my room. We’re gonna sit right here.” 

Andy sensed there was a pressing reason for Carl avoiding the bedroom. He began to wonder about the current state of the room, assuming it could be no better than what he had already seen throughout the rest of the house. Would it stink as bad? Would piss-stained underwear be lying about? Would there be hardened food stuck to plates piled on the nightstand? Pizza boxes? Empty cans of spreadable mystery meat? He didn’t want to know, but he also needed to know. He suddenly sprang to his feet and shot toward the hallway and to the bedroom, the last door on the right. Carl was coming after him, mumbling something or another, maybe shouting, but Andy didn’t care. He needed to see Carl’s life. He swung the door open. 

“Get the hell out of my room, you bastard!” Carl was near hysterical in his defensiveness, a state in which Andy had seen him far too many times to be afflicted by it. 

The room was not much unlike Andy had imagined. On the dreary gray bedsheets were large, darkened areas where Carl lay at night—oil from his body—especially on the pillowcases, from his greasy hair. Only one dirty plate sat on the nightstand, but three empty cans of pop—two Dr. Pepper and one Mountain Dew—accompanied it. The beige carpet was badly stained as if it had never been cleaned or even vacuumed. And the smell, oh god, the smell. It smelled of every smell of the human body you never want to smell, combined with many other unidentifiable smells. 

But on the second dusty nightstand, he noticed a familiar photo, one he had not seen in many years and had nearly forgotten. It was of the two of them grinning with their cheeks pressed together at the reservoir about forty miles from where they lived, the summer before their senior year. They had driven there together in Andy’s red Pontiac Grand Am (purchased by his parents) and spent the Saturday fishing, eating potato chips and pork rinds, and drinking pop from a cooler. The sun was hot that day, and they both had taken their shirts off, a sight each pretended not to notice. Andy pulled Carl in to take an ironic photo together with a disposable camera. The sight of the picture inside the frame suddenly made Andy ill. While everything else in the room was caked with dirt, spilled pop, and general neglect, the picture frame’s glass appeared spotless, seemingly wiped clean that day. What a thing to notice, and maybe it was his imagination, but he noticed it anyway. Why had he been so cruel to Carl? So Carl had a temper, so he talked too much, so he ate things no human should eat. So he hadn’t bothered to clean his house in what looked like a year. He was still Carl, the man who was once the boy that Andy loved when he was a boy. He supposed he still loved him, but a different love, a love tinged with sympathy. Or perhaps it was mostly sympathy Andy now felt. It is one thing to be an inconvenient teenager—people remain hopeful that one will “grow out of it”—but an inconvenient adult is just an inconvenience, a person who their closest friends avoid for months at a time. 

“Carl…” Andy suddenly burst into a sob, uncontrollable. It was the state of the room; it was the photo; it was the thought of going home to his wife after being here. It was knowing that any foolish fantasies in which he had indulged were nothing more than fantasies. 

“You said you didn’t want anything earlier, god damnit. I don’t have much here, but you’re welcome to what I got.”

“You said you didn’t want anything earlier, god dammit. I don’t have much here, but you’re welcome to what I got. ”

“Andy, it’s not as bad as it looks! You just got me when I wasn’t expecting company. Come on; you know how stuff gets! It’s not easy keeping up with a house and all. It’s just a lot, and I get tired. I promise I’ll clean up tomorrow. I’ll invite you back over, and you’ll see. I’ll make dinner and everything.” Carl rested a hand on the back of Andy’s neck, hoping to comfort him some. 

But Andy just stood hunched with a red face, crying like a child, tears flowing, nose running. He looked a mess, sloppy. He knew he looked sloppy, but he didn’t care. He needed to be comforted. He wanted Carl to take advantage of him right then, to grab his face and begin kissing him, the way he did that night when they were twenty-two. Instead, Carl came around in front of him and hugged him tightly. It shocked Andy, and he let out a soft whimper, about which he felt strangely embarrassed. It was a very different hug from the one in the kitchen only twenty minutes earlier. That hug was gentle, loving, and homosexual in every sense of the word. This new hug, this unfamiliar and frightening hug, was full of love, but it was not gentle, and it was not homosexual. Andy regretted his sobbing, regretted nearly everything he had said to Carl that night so far, but it was done. Everything Carl did now was a direct response to what Andy had said or done. It could not be changed. 

The tears dried, and Andy blew his nose in the bathroom. He came back into the bedroom to find Carl sitting on the bed, his white-socked feet dangling a few inches from the floor. 

“Can I lay with you for a bit?” Andy asked. 

“You wanna lay here, on this bed? On my dirty ass sheets? You’re something else.” Carl tried to suppress a smile, but he failed. 

“Move over. Lay with me.” 

Carl did as he was told. Andy decided he didn’t mind resting his head on the oil-stained pillowcase. It smelled like a stale or even expired version of Carl, but still Carl. Andy could handle that for the next while. 

“Do you remember the first time you wanted us to kiss?” Andy asked suddenly. 

“No. I wish I did, but I don’t. I remember the first time I wanted us to do more than that, though. It was that day at the reservoir. You acted like you were taking that picture of us as a joke, but I knew it wasn’t. You wanted that picture because you didn’t know if anything would ever actually happen. I didn’t know either, but I knew I wanted it. I almost told you that day, but then I didn’t. I don’t know why. When you pulled my face against yours and smiled, that was when I knew. Then I guess it never really went away. Now I don’t know what the hell’s wrong with me.”

In the sixteen years they had known each other, Andy had never heard Carl speak this way. Calm, somewhat elegant, and far away. He was always so present, alert, and pissed about something. In this change, Andy found hope. And horror. 

As if he hadn’t heard a word Carl had just confessed, Andy said, “I’m really hungry.” 

“You said you didn’t want anything earlier, goddammit. I don’t have much here, but you’re welcome to what I got. “

Andy had no intention of eating the contents of the can in the kitchen, so instead, he lay in the soiled sheets thinking of what to say next.


Stephen Phillip Lupkin is a writer and editor living in Phoenix, Arizona, with his two Shelties. He completed an internship with Arizona State University’s literary magazine, Superstition Review, during which he developed a strong passion for short fiction. When he is not working or reading a new book, he is busy crafting an original story of his own. You can find Stephen on Instagram @stephen_phillip_lupkin and Twitter @StephenPLupkin.

Hunger

By Christina Rosso

On my third birthday, my mother told me she had a special treat for me. She placed a dome-shaped cake the colour of smashed berries in front of me; a flaming candle stuck in the tip of the arch. “Today, you begin your transformation,” she said, smiling. “Today, you discover hunger.” The lines by her eyes and mouth reminded me of the tracks birds left in the dirt. I beamed up at her, showing my jagged grin of baby teeth and gaps of pink gums. I blew out the candle, wishing she’d stay this happy, and then she cut me a large piece, the insides oozing crimson onto the plate.

The hunger increased steadily until the monthly bleeding began. I was thirteen. My limbs stretched, my body blooming just as my mother’s had. I was her double, twenty years removed. She said she could smell it on me, the blood. She nodded, saying it was time for me to hunt on my own. She told me to use the blood on my mouth. “Men can’t resist women with blood-red lips,” she said. “It reminds them of your cunt.”

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A man lies at my feet, cracked ribs and gutted organs displayed. Dark brown blood stains my bare toes; I wiggle them in the syrupy liquid; I hold the man’s heart in my palms. It pumps softly, fluttering, unaware that it’s left its body. I remember biting into that cake on my third birthday, the shredded heart chewy and a little slippery. The taste was hearty, like steak, but better. Now that I have been hunting for over a decade, I know each heart tastes different, reflecting the man it comes from. The women in my family subsist on men. Our kind has existed for centuries, adapting to technology and popular culture and beauty standards. We use the male gaze, shaping our appearance, to lure and trap our prey. 

Hunger is the one thing that doesn’t change.

I raise the heart to my mouth, jaw stretching, fangs extending to deadly points. I salivate at the thought of what this man’s heart will taste like. Sweet? Tangy? Chocolatey? I press a finger into one of his heart’s flexing valves and dress my lips in purple blood, a hot appetizer. My mouth opens, my fangs tear into the heart with a crunch. I grin. I remember the words my mother told me all those years ago. A fresh, beating heart is the best. The blood dripping from it the sweetest.


Christina Rosso is a writer and bookstore owner living in South Philadelphia with her bearded husband and rescue pup. She is the author of SHE IS A BEAST (APEP Publications, 2020), a chapbook of feminist fairy tales. Her first full-length collection CREOLE CONJURE is forthcoming from Maudlin House. Her writing has been nominated for Best of the Net, Best Small Fictions, and the Pushcart Prize. For more information, visit christina-rosso.com or find her on Twitter.

Persephone of the Valley

By Dani Herrera

I was found unconscious in my little house on stilts over the sea.

There were claw marks on the windows. The chimney’s bricks were ripped off their foundation. The pipes were burst, and long strands of hair were caught on the jagged steel edges. 

That part I remember.

The dripping water, the yowls as those strands were ripped off the scalps, the slapping and the splashing of bare feet on their way to me.

I wish the water had smelled like rain or warm showers. 

All the past versions of me clawed their way up the stilts and into the house. They did everything I said I would never do.

So as they held me down and the water went up my nose and burned my sinuses, all I smelled was pain,

I wondered who they really were. 

The next morning I’m in the hospital, calling for nurses, doctors, other patients.

Please, could someone tell me what happened, someone that isn’t him.

Because, of course, Vincent was the one who found me. And he’s the one who sits on my bed, telling me what happened while I put my hands over my ears and hum. I hum so loud my teeth chatter. That’s what I tell myself, that I hum that loud. But really, I’m still cold. 

I never want to hear bad news from people I love. 

It’s the softness that kills. 

Vincent says,

I found you halfway out your window. Your head was upside down, and your eyes,

your eyes looked just like the moon.

I think that’s enough water. I think it’s time to bring you down from the peaks,

the peaks of thin air and clouds of your neighbours’ smoke.

Please let me carry you down to the valley,

where your feet can touch the floor. 

Once he told me what happened, I can’t remember anything else.

Right when I get to the end of the memory, me with my head resting on the sill, out the open window, right when it’s time to close my eyes and rest, it all restarts.

I saw the me’s swimming in the water under my house, clawing their way up the beams. I couldn’t hear what they said. Their words were garbled, so used to being underwater, their voices sunk in the air. 

They carried my limp body to the window, their seaweed skin slipping around me. 

I could hear Vincent calling for me as headlights shone through the front window.

No

I can hear Vincent calling me as doctors shine their flashlights into my eyes.

I’m getting stuck in this memory so often the water that drowned me is slipping out of my ears, mouth, and nose.

Vincent asks what’s on my mind. I’m afraid that if I tell him, he’ll drown too. 

As the water starts to seep out into the hallway, a woman comes in. 

She says,

Tell me what you can feel with your fingers, tell me what you hear, tell me what you smell; Ground yourself.

I feel the paper sheets, the rough cotton of blankets. I can smell sharp antiseptic; I can hear the beeping of machines and swishes of fabric. My skin tightens where the IV is, and my pulse pushes against my hospital bracelet. 

And there is so much beeping and screaming and tubes and claws.

I don’t know which place is worse.

The same woman comes in in the evening. 

I apologize for the murky water that is flooding my hospital room. I see her glancing down at my strands of hair that wave in the water.

She tells me to do the same exercise as earlier, but this time Vincent leans forward.

I smell lemons and mint and sweat. I see sea glass, his sea glass eyes; I skim my fingers over the roughness of his beard, the roundness of his knuckles. 

“I was in those shining buildings.”

For the first time, the memory ends.

And now there is the after:

Vincent yelling for me, 

Dragging me inside,

Carrying me to the car.

Playing my limp fingers like a piano.

When Vincent takes me back home, my body is fighting me. My ears are popping. My lungs are gasping; when we’re almost there, my nose bleeds.

He tells me,

It’s the elevation.

You don’t have to get used to it, or you’ll tell yourself you can stay. 

Stop climbing higher; you are not a bird.

Don’t you dare dive; you are not a fish. 

The floors are slippery with undried water and sea moss. The carpet is soggy. 

I can see fish swimming in the puddles of warped ground. Sea anemones latch onto the baseboards throughout my old tiny home. 

There is a wind rushing, and I can’t tell if it’s the ocean or the highway. 

And that salt air. It’s sharp; it stings, but it’s not dry enough to let me live.

Vincent packs up my clothes because I can’t bear to go to my room.

When I step out on the patio, I cough up all the water from inside. I gag and spit out the salt. 

This is the thin air I’m used to. 

My house is on stilts but is still shorter than my neighbours’. I can see the smoke from their cigarettes billowing down to me, and I try to pick out shapes. 

I look up, not down.

Down is where the sea of hands and feet are. 

I hear the door open as Vincent steps out.

I say,

I used to wave good morning to the me’s of translucent winter glow

and toss kisses goodnight to the me’s of laughing summer tans. 

I guess it wasn’t enough.

I thought it was better to live in the neighbour’s clouds than in those swimming shadows down below. 

He takes me away from the edge and out the door to the packed car.

All my things are so heavy they push the car down the winding roads faster and faster. 

Vincent says,

I know what it’s like, 

breathing in those clouds.

Across the way, over the water,

I was in those shining buildings. 

I was there long before I met you.

Wouldn’t it be nice,

to meet on the ground floor without sunburned skin and thinning air?

“I know the sun isn’t right outside the window, but I hope it feels like home.”

A place without bare, bending trees;

no dirt or dead grass;

no splintering sandalwood. 

So that’s where he takes me.

With the speeding car and boxes of clothes and drying and smudged books,

He carries me down to the valley, and with that drive, it feels like my first summer. 

Being so high up, the sun rushes to rise, and by noon is already stumbling to set.

I used to run up my neighbourhood, trying to get more sun, more time. I was told I would be closer to the sun, but it always seemed to be running from my grasp. I was supposed to be given more time. I was supposed to be given a time with sun kisses instead of shadows. 

Vincent takes me to his house, and we unpack my things into the entrance hallway. 

All day, I glance at the pile that is supposed to be my life. 

Vincent nudges me, saying, 

El que nace pa maceta, no pasa del corredor.

So we unpack, we rest on his front lawn, and I can’t help but roll around. I feel the gnats and spiders weaving through my scalp, and I shiver. 

I take off my shoes and socks and spread my toes, looking at the bottoms of my scarred feet from running on blistering sand and gravel. 

I get ready for the day to end as I am spread out like the angel I always dreamed of being, but he tells me it’s only 2 pm.

We eat lunch and move my books into sunlit spare spaces and fold my clothes into his dresser. 

I run through his neighbourhood even though I don’t need to chase the sun. I go further and further, pushing my lungs, waiting for them to quit, but they never do.

I am dripping in sweat; my face is red and beating. 

I am my sun, sizzling on the sidewalk, watching the sky grow dark. 

The day was hot, but the night is apologetic.

I can feel the dust and grime and sun kisses that coat my skin. I am cooled and crystallized.

I sit in the new living room, with its wind-blown curtains.

Vincent wraps his arms around me, putting his lips to my temple, says,

Look at the wind, 

asking not to be forgotten. 

It’s twirling the trees just for you, 

sending those flower petals into flurries just for you,

his singsong voice halts, “I know the sun isn’t right outside the window, but I hope it feels like home.”

We lay side by side in bed, and I close my eyes.

There is a low whimpering— a test of a whimper.

I want to sit up, but it’s not time yet.

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Light taps come from the living room. They make their way down the walls of the outside of the house.

Living room, hallway, bathroom, my room.

I’m on the other side, scratching on the window, asking for help.

I am dripping and blue, asking to be let in. And when I don’t respond, I smash the window. 

Other me’s come pouring in, picking up my fighting body and throwing me into the sea.

I think,

I should wake up now, now, now is when I will wake up.

Rocks are jutting out from the water under my falling body. Big jagged rocks and I tuck in my arms and legs, so I don’t get hurt.

I think,

I’ll just curl up so I won’t hit the bottom, so I won’t break.

I wake up, and I’m not in my house at all. I am at sea level, maybe below sea level now, but there is no water crowding over or around me. 

It’s morning. I go outside to smell fresh-cut grass. 

I sink my feet into the grass and let my body get lost in the morning glory vines along the fence. I whisper to the plants,

Please, take me in. 

Ground me. 

My voice cracks and I start to cry, and I hope my tears don’t poison the plants, “Let the leftover water in my lungs nourish you because it’s been killing me. Keep me.”

Then I look back at Vincent standing in the doorway. 

“Can you check the pipes?” I ask him, “I think they’re coming back for me.”

I pace the backyard.

It’s nice to step, to walk, to travel at my speed.

I think back to the car ride here. The car was speeding, everything of me so heavy I was sure we were leaving a path on the road.

Claw marks, really.

Long, unbreaking claw marks and I was being dragged down. 

Vincent comes back. 

He guides me inside and shows me how small the pipes are. Of course, they can’t fit through. 

Later, when I’ve wrapped my arms around myself, he leans in and whispers in my ear, “I know it’s scary. We’re taught, climb higher and higher. Crush the sky!” Then, when he has my attention, he says, “But we’re not meant for such pressure. Our bodies will explode. Same for being down in the depths of the sea.”

I interrupt him, saying, “So not a bird, not a fish.”

He whispers back, “Maybe just a snake. Maybe a lizard.”

I frown, and he laughs.

Vincent says, “There are worse things to be.”

And I can’t help but think of the me on the other side in my dream, in my memory.

I spent five years balancing in that house of stilts. I saw the water teeming with every possible version of me that was or could be, everything I loved and was afraid of.

But not once did they ever tell me to jump, to join them in that water. They never asked until they did. 

So I could be worse things,

Like the me’s that finally made it up that climb and dragged me out of bed, they’re drowning me and bringing me to the edge. 

That evening Vincent grips my shoulders and walks behind me down the hallway.

I give a short laugh when I see the tub filled.

“They waved to me and hooted, telling me to jump.”

He mentions how I haven’t showered since coming here.

I think of being in the ocean, the real ocean, not that sea of sharp smiles and gnashing teeth.

How I used to let the waves hit me, and there was never any fear in that. 

Because I would stand or drive or jump. And if I missed, the tide always brought me back. 

So I sit in the tub now.

And my boyfriend, my lifeguard, pushes mini waves of bubbles toward my curled up body till I laugh and let my arms and legs go loose because I will not hit the bottom, I will not break. 

He sets a wind-up turtle toy in the water, and it bobs along till it hits my shoulder. 

I’m standing on the ocean floor. 

My hair is floating above me. A black halo must mean death.

I see myself twirling toward me. 

The twirling me has nails so long they curve back into her palms, and when I see me, I cry and say,

Come back to me, my love. 

I turn, ever so slowly in the water current, and end up in my old kitchen. 

The other me is curled up in the living room. There are no doors, no windows. 

I hear a whisper saying,

Don’t you miss me?

And as I’m looking at myself, I realize that I am not me. 

I am some other person, dragged to the bottom, pulled so far into the water that the world turned upside down, and I was back on land. 

When I wake up, I tell Vincent.

I tell him the story before the story.

The beginning long before the beginning; he knows. 

Because there is always another start. Before him and me, there was me, and before me, there were millions of others.

The longer I stay in this valley with him, the more I extend my origin. I’m sure that one day I will tell my end before I finish my very beginning. 

We sit cross-legged, on the bed facing each other. I play with the tassels on the duvet and tell him how I got here, to be in this bed with him in this valley where its peaks are something I can look up to instead of being afraid of falling and spearing myself with their tips. 

And I finally start, “The sun had grown blistering hot. It grew hotter than anyone had ever told me it would be. I was delirious from the elevation, spinning on my house of stilts that I had climbed so long to get. 

I went outside on the patio. And as I looked down, I saw all those versions of myself swimming. They squirted water between the small gap in their front teeth. They spun and splashed. 

Most of all, they weren’t sunburned and gasping like I was.

They waved to me and hooted, telling me to jump. I’ve never gotten this invitation before.

My arms shook as I pulled myself onto the patio railing.

“You will rain back down till you sink into the soil of the valley.”

It felt so good, so refreshing, as the wind flew through my sweating strands. I hit the water.

I smiled underwater and at all my reflections. And now they didn’t smile or wave or hoot. They dug themselves into my flaking flesh. 

I swam to the surface, kicking away their claws. I climbed up the stilts, letting the old splinters anchor my hands and toes in place. 

I coughed up water the whole day. 

And at night, when I finally fell asleep, I heard them. They took the trail I left and found me.”

Vincent says I can pick the music as we drive back up those hills and mountains.

It’s not morning, but with these long days and nights of the valley, I’m not sure I can wait weeks till the sun rises. 

“Vincent, I wasn’t always unhappy there. In my defence, I first loved the sun that sat so close it burned my skin. See, I had been cold my whole life. It was magical to overlook the water, to peer over it and to see millions of my reflections. But every beat of the sun was an hour, and I grew so dizzy, so dizzy that I would lie on the deck and I was convinced I could feel the rotation of the earth; do you know how terrifying it is—to feel the seconds of your life evaporating yet there is no way to catch up possibly; it’s a panic of being on a house of stilts but still not being able to climb over it all, but underneath, underneath those reflections came to life and I saw so much of myself and I couldn’t abandon them as they called for me, begged for me, and most of all, promised me that if I just jumped—and I only had to jump once— that I would be okay. The funny thing is, Vincent, I never saw any older versions of me in those laps and waves.”

I look around to make sure that speaking of them did not attract them. But there is no water around. No pipes. No stilts.

I remind myself that they will not find me because I’m on my way to find them. 

I know we’re getting close to my old house because I said all that, and it seems like a week has passed. 

Vincent parks in front of my house, turning his tires in and putting on the emergency brake.

I’m panting by the time we reach the doorway.

Everything inside has been sundried; no more ocean residue, no water damage. Everything has been seared away. 

I’m waiting for something to come running out. I can see the pictures of dreams drawing themself into this moment. My eyes are searching for all the places I saw them.

Vincent goes out to the patio and waits for me.

I hear screams and howls, and I brace myself.

But it’s just the wind.

“Look down, “ he tells me, gripping my hand, “ They’re not there anymore. And I say they because they were just you in a single moment; it’s just that sometimes those moments add up, and there can be mobs and swarms.”

I think,

oh no, please. 

And I think that but I’m the first to jump, and he falls after me.

I use my right hand to plug my nose because I’m not sure if, at this point, I can survive with more of this water filtering through my lungs. 

We swim deeper and deeper and float, so the water settles, and there, right there, are all the bones of those reflections of me.

Their hair has planted itself into the sand, and now it’s just seaweed, just water reeds, and their teeth have become covered by their gums and turned into a coral reef. 

We kick and swim and flounder till we reach the surface, and I’m gasping.

We float on our backs and let the waves take us till we latch onto the stilts and use the claw marks as grooves to get back up. I take off my soaking clothes and leave them in the house. My trail will end here, just in case they ever come back and look for me. 

Back in my summer valley, 

Our car is flying through the streets.

And it’s so green here. Ivy is dripping off the houses and fences, trees are erupting through grass, flowers are spilling over sidewalks, and even weeds are winding through the cracks in the street. 

Our windows are down, it’s barely dawn, the sun is drying my hair into curls, and he looks over to me at a red light.

There are no other cars out, but we still stop.

Vincent says, “Maybe,  years and years from now—after a lifetime with me—you will step out into that howling wind and be carried to the clouds again. You will rain back down till you sink into the soil of the valley. Right there in midair, you will start over again. In hurricanes and tornadoes, earthquakes and eruptions, tsunamis and monsoons.”

And the thought of starting over again, even as rain or ivy,

I almost can’t bear the thought of it because I worry about those years down the line. Catching a reflection and it is me, with windblown hair, sprinting downward toward my valley.

So I smile wide and laugh so it will echo till I find this me again, in mirrors and oceans, in car windows and dreams. 


Dani Herrera writes her magical realism from the simmering Central Valley of California. She is currently a fiction candidate at St. Mary’s College of California and always strives to include her Hispanic heritage in her writing. Dani has been previously published at Crack the Spine. You can follow her on Instagram @dani.herreraa to see pockets of her life and her beloved border collie, Blu.

YVONNE

By Bill Vernon

Although the biggest elephant in the world is loose in the building, I voluntarily check-in at the reception desk. A wall clock insists it is exactly 7:17, which I write down by my name then enter the lobby where about 20 residents are present. Some wear street clothes, a few bathrobes, two moves with walkers, the others are stationary, sitting, three crowded onto a love seat facing a large glass cage in which brightly coloured birds flit back and forth. The bird chatter carries clearly to me, but I think it must be amplified from such a distance away.

Four hallways spoke off this circular room, this hub, to other sections of the “Home.” I veer right toward the hall where bedridden 75-year-old Jane lives in SW113. The white paper gift bag I carry, with bright red, blue and yellow balloon designs, is for her.

When a television erupts with rapturous cries from people winning money on a game show, it distracts me enough to bump a wheelchair accidentally. I apologize, “Excuse me,” but the person in the chair doesn’t hear. She’s propped up with pillows; waist belted onto the chair’s frame so that she can bend over her lap without falling to the floor. I step forward to go on, but the woman’s profile stops me. 

The shape of her head. Can it be?

“Spittle runs from a corner of her mouth; her lips flutter but release no sound.”

“Yvonne? Is that you? Yvonne?!” No reaction. I repeat the name and touch her shoulder.

She slowly straightens up, unfolding in sections, her head finally coming up and back so that her eyes open upon me. My God, it is Yvonne! 

She stares at me blankly, though perhaps half asleep, not yet fully awake after dozing. 

I say, “Bonjour. C’est moi, Bill,” which I try to pronounce the French way, Belle, as she always said it.

I audited four semesters of her French classes 15 years ago. We were colleagues for 30 years, attended faculty meetings, served on committees together, and chatted many times. I expect my pronunciation to evoke her beautiful smile, her perky sense of humour, her easy laugh, and it’s all that remains in my mind. 

Spittle runs from a corner of her mouth; her lips flutter but release no sound. Something like a crusty dab of mashed potatoes is on one cheek.

I go down on a knee, so we’re level. “Ca va?” 

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Her eyes stare without recognition. Did she have a stroke? Wouldn’t I have heard? No. I’ve heard from none of our mutual friends in a decade. Maybe she’s drugged. I’ve seen many people humped over as she was because of that in other facilities. 

I babble about people we both know, things we’ve done in the past, how the school has changed since we taught there. That goes on for several minutes, stimulating no response. I finally pat her clasped hands, tell her it was great to see her and return to the reception desk, which of course, refuses to tell me much. 

I’m not on its list of Yvonne’s visitors, not a relative, and an unnamed daughter is the facility’s contact person. I can leave a note for the daughter if I want to. I decide no, not today. I don’t know Yvonne’s children; I don’t want to intrude. I’m also afraid to learn how bad off she is.

My purpose for being here takes me to Jane. She opens my gift, thanks me, eats a “fancy” chocolate from the box inside, says yum, then asks who I am. I’ve been asking that myself. 

I say, “Bill, your husband of 50 years,” and chat with Jane without much connection. When her eyelids begin drooping, I kiss her cheek and go; almost run, in fact. 

“The idiotic escape in my old Honda hasn’t emptied Yvonne from my mind.”

Yvonne is slumped over, probably asleep, when I hurry back through the lobby. To work in a place like this would be difficult. I couldn’t do it. To live here, to be a resident? I don’t want to think about it.

From the parking lot, agitation directs me to the nearby interstate highway where the snow has melted, clearing the asphalt for rubber tires. I ramp down onto it, race along its nearly empty three lanes, reach over 80 mph at one point, cover six miles in minutes, then take the first exit. It’s not a fugue. I know I’m doing it. I’ve chosen to do it, and I’ve chosen to quit doing it. I also know driving that way is dangerous and stupid, I could have wrecked and hurt other people, so I feel guilty.

Keeping active guards me from dwelling morosely on negative matters. I daily walk five to eight miles and lift weights. Action is my habit but an antidote to nothing. It does produce a centrifugal force, a spinning center that throws loose things like dilemmas out to the edges and off. Its Coriolis effect deflects approaching problems away from the outer edge of my spinning. 

Deflecting and expelling work most of the time, but not now. The idiotic escape in my old Honda hasn’t emptied Yvonne from my mind. Nor Jane. Anything seems better than sitting around, listening to the clock tick. 

In my garage, I turn off the engine and lights, sit in the dark, and imagine driving Route I-75 to its end, taking Canadian roads as far north as I can get, then hiking into the bush, sitting down, and letting the Arctic winter have its way. 


Bill Vernon studied English literature, then taught it in Dayton, Ohio. Writing is his therapy, along with exercising outdoors and doing international folk dances. Five Star Mysteries published his novel OLD TOWN, and his poems, stories and nonfiction occasionally appear in a variety of magazines and anthologies.

Gigolo

By Don E. Noel

Jennie and the orchestra were belting out Cole Porter. Quick-quick, slow: When they beginthe beguineit brings back a night

“He has a pigeon,” Sasha whispered as she passed Rita at the swinging kitchen doors. “Same woman, three numbers now. On the far side, where I’m serving.”

Sasha was Rita’s best friend at the Paradise Inn. She’d helped her get the job and more recently volunteered to help manage Roberto, Rita’s boyfriend. Manage, meaning get him back into line.

From the tables Rita was serving, he stood out: a young man dancing with an older woman. A few open steps, in perfect time with the music, then wheel. Nice variations. She knew Roberto was a great dancer; they’d met in a dance hall. Medium-tall, guapo handsome, hair ebony. A weightlifter’s chest, emphasized by his short brocaded tuxedo, almost like a toreador’s chaquetilla jacket, that he’d found in a second-hand store when all this began.

What mattered was how close they were dancing.

Rita cleared the dinner dishes, left the tray on a rack and threaded through the tables to the dance floor. Roberto’s back was to her. This was an older crowd: the Unionville Class of 1983 Reunion. The woman hadn’t lost her figure or at least wore enough Spandex to still look good. She had shoulder-length coppery hair, which was surely a dye job. Her eyes were closed; his right hand was not at her waist but in the small of her back.

Very close.

Finally, they turned. Roberto’s eyes were open, watching for other dancers. He saw Rita, gave her a smile and wink. She glared, he wheeled away. She shouldered the tray back to the kitchen.

On the carving counter was a short boning blade, thin and razor-sharp. On impulse, she grabbed it with a dishtowel and put it on a tray of dessert puddings. Hoisting the tray, she paused at the full-length mirror just inside the outbound door. Management encouraged them to look good. More than good, she thought. A Columbiana, she was built at least as well as that ageing Spandexed fake redhead on the floor; she danced better too. Her black hair was as long, although tucked into a net when she worked. She frowned at her reflection, making fierce black eyes.

Sasha, coming in the other door, caught her. “Pretty good, babe!”

A compliment from Sasha meant something because she was, herself, a blonde bombshell. Ukrainian by birth, but a citizen now, lucky lady, with a husband and two kids. She thought everyone should enjoy domestic bliss.

“Thanks.”  Rita tried to smile at her in the mirror.

“Enough woman for any man,” Sasha persisted.

“Wouldn’t you think?” Rita said, heading out to serve the pudding.

Sasha hadn’t noticed the knife.

Rita had been a waitress for three years. Although a motel, The Paradise was mostly a banquet hall: The wait staff brought course after course to crowded tables and cleared the rubble.

If the group was male with an open bar, it could become a gauntlet of gropes as the evening wore on. High school reunions, on the other hand, high school reunions were a joy. The women often dressed in school colours matched by crepe-paper streamers; older, not rowdy, only a few drinking too much. Many said ‘thank you’ when you set a plate down— most men with wives. Always a surplus of women, though, divorced or widowed.

This Class of ’83 had wine for happy hour. Rita and Sasha and all the waitresses carried hors d’oeuvres as people renewed acquaintances, talked about how far they’d come, showed off pictures of grandchildren. Their name tags had yearbook photos, which prompted polite lies about how little they’d changed.

In fact, the men were gray-haired, if not bald, and most had varying protrusions of paunch. The women – thanks to hairdressers, facials, yoga, uplifting bras, maybe a facelift or lipo – didn’t show their age as much.

They took a class picture while rolls and salads were put on the tables. Tony James and His Orchestra began; people table-hopped and danced between courses. Most of Tony’s players were as old as the reunion people, so oldies came naturally. Some guests sang along, or mouthed words, or asked each other who recorded that song. The dancing was mostly shuffling back and forth to the music. Even the men who could lead were a bit age-stooped.

So Roberto stood out. A man should dance head back and chest out, playing with his partner how a toreador plays a bull, first at a distance with the big cape, admiring, then closer in with the muleta.

Rita was ready to teach him about the short sword hidden in that little cape.

She set the tray on the rack again and slipped out to the lobby where Tommy, the desk clerk, played computer solitaire. “There’s a redhead in a long black dress, Tommy. Stacked well enough that you would have noticed her. Is she staying here tonight?”

“A single on the second floor. You want me to ring her? Let you leave a voicemail?”

“No thanks,” she said. “My message isn’t for her. But thanks.” She hurried back to work, biding her time.

“You were late again.”

Roberto had discovered these reunions two years ago. He arrived early to pick her up after work one night and saw those single women looking lonely. He was dressed plainly but asked one to dance, then another, then a third before Tony played Good Night Ladies.

Rita waited until they got back to their third-floor walk-up so he wouldn’t miss the fire in her eye. “What was all that dancing about?”

“That was amateur night, chica. I can make money doing that.”

“What?”

“Tips, baby. I’ll bet some of those women will pay to dance with me.”

“I’m not enough for you?”

“You’re plenty for me,” he said, patting her culo. “I’m talking about just dancing. We can put the money away to start our family.”

He, of course, knew that would soften her up, but she didn’t let him off the hook. “I don’t want my boyfriend to be a . . . isn’t there a word?”

Roberto was a boricuatwo-century but had left Puerto Rico young enough to get a good New York education. “Gigolo,” he said.

“You don’t just jiggle when you dance.”

“No, no. Gigoló. A dancing partner. Perfectly respectable. I’ll dance with reunion ladies, and we’ll put the money in our nest egg.”

She relented. Still, she went to the library to look it up. Male dancer, yes. But also ‘a younger man supported by an older woman in return for his sexual attentions.’

His new sideline was at first as squeaky-clean as he promised. He took Rita to The Paradise, and if he found it was a reunion crowd, he went home for a shower and shave, dressed up and came back to stroll among the tables. After a time, he’d start inviting single women to dance. Rita never heard the invitation, of course, but he bragged about his technique as he drove her home.

“Hello there,” was his line, “I wonder if you can help me?  My name is Roberto. I’m a ballet student, but just now can’t afford to keep up classes. I need to keep practicing, though. I wonder if you would do me the honour of taking a turn on the dance floor?”

He wasn’t a ballet student; he drove a bus. But with his looks, they believed him and loved how he helped them cut a fine figure their classmates would admire. When he escorted them back to their tables, they invariably slipped him some cash to help resume his supposed ballet classes.

He bragged about his performance on the way home but always handed over the money, more than a hundred dollars most nights.

She let the money stifle her jealousy. She opened a savings account at a neighbourhood bank, and their start-a-family savings began to grow.

Then one night, Roberto sought out Sasha. He told her he had to leave early and asked her to give Rita a lift home. He was dragged into their apartment at four in the morning.

She was still awake. “Qué diablos! Where have you been?”

“I gave a guy a ride home.”

“Sure. A guy. In your bus, I suppose.”

“No, really; he was too drunk to drive himself. He offered me $200 to take him home.”  He pulled two century notes out of his shirt pocket. “Here, for our family fund.”

Too tired to argue, she went to sleep, turning her back, so she barely felt him crawl into bed.

She felt him next morning, though, hard as a rock at ten o’clock, wanting to make love. “You’re supposed to be at work!”

“I called the dispatcher. Said I was sick. I want to be sure we’re still okay, you and me.”

Roberto wasn’t only a good dancer; he was a wonderful lover. She wanted to believe him. He promised she’d never need a ride home from Sasha again. They made love without a condom.

When her period didn’t come the next week, Rita got a test kit at the drugstore. Pregnant. Which made a difference the next time he had “a man who needed a ride home.”

In Sasha’s car, she cried most of the way to the apartment. Sasha turned the engine off. “You don’t have to put up with this,” she said. “There are other men. Throw the bastard out.”

“I can’t; I’m pregnant.”

“Oh, God! Does he know?”

“Not yet.”

“Rita, you gotta tell him. He’s going to be a father; he’s got to be responsible. I’ll have Ted find him at the depot, talk to him.” Ted was her husband.

“Thank you.”

“And tell him I’m keeping an eye on him. I do the tables nearest the dance floor.”

“Thank you, Sasha.”

Rita didn’t tell him right away, though, and Ted may not have spoken to him before it happened again.

“Does he know yet about the baby?” Sasha asked as Rita wept again on the way home.”

“No.”

“You’ve got to tell him. And tell him you don’t believe his giving-rides-home stuff. Don’t tell him tonight, though, in the morning. Be all sweetness and light, and then lay it on him over breakfast when he’s not expecting it. When he’s vulnerable.”

So Rita didn’t wait up and pretended not to hear him tiptoe in. In the morning, she woke him without a kiss and got breakfast. They couldn’t afford eggs often, but Roberto always wanted them after they had sex – “restored his resources,” he said – and she put eggs over-easy in front of him.

If he got the signal, he didn’t show it. She pressed the point.

“You were late again.”

“Another guy who’d had too much.”

“And where did he live?”

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He took just a moment too long. “West Newbury.” He embroidered it. “Someday, we’ll live in a town like that. Nice neighbourhood, two-car garages. His wife hadn’t come last night. She’ll bring him this morning to get his car.”

Maybe I should write down the numbers from the car’s speedometer to get the truth out of him, Rita thought. No, hardly necessary. She ignored the lie and did what Sasha urged. “We’re going to have a baby,” she dropped on him.

There was no joy on his face. “Oh, my.”

“Yes,” she said.

“When?”

“October.”

“That’s sooner than we’d planned,” he said and managed to add, “but it’s wonderful! We should get married.”

Be tough, Sasha had urged. “I’m only interested in a faithful husband,” Rita said.

He got it and gave her a lengthy apology. “I don’t mean these things to happen. The devil puts temptations in my path.”

“So I should give you five Hail Marys, and all is forgiven?” Rita said. “Go see a priest.”

He actually wept; it would never happen again.

“You’ll give up the dancing?”

“We’ll need the money for the baby.”

She relented, he promised, they made love.

“Never mind that. Where the hell have you been?”

Two months went by; more dancing, more money in the bank, no funny stuff. Until this night with the Spandexed redhead.

“Did he see you watching?” Sasha asked.

“Yes.”

“And he didn’t right away take her back to her table? Bad sign.”

“I’ve had it,” Rita said. She let Sasha see the knife. “It’s time this toreador got gored.”

“Oh my God! You can’t do that. You’ll go to prison and then get deported. Your baby will be put up for adoption. Why ruin your life?”

“I don’t care; he’s already ruined my life.”

“Let me think,” she said. “Go tend your tables. And give me that knife.”

Rita let her take it.

Ten minutes later, in the kitchen, Sasha had another plan. “You’re barely showing. Picking up a man for the night is entirely credible.”

“What?”

She explained her plan: Turn the tables on him. It was time to teach him his lesson.

And then throw him out, Sasha insisted. It wouldn’t be easy, living alone on waitress earnings. But the new baby bank account was in her name, so she had a cushion. She could find a smaller apartment. Maybe think about abortion; she’d be unlikely to find a new man willing to disregard a swelling belly left by another man. In any case, show him the door.

Okay, Rita said, let’s do it. So she told the kitchen boss she was sick and took a taxi home. Sasha would catch Roberto toward the end of the evening, between dances. “Have you seen Rita?” she would ask. “She said not to wait for her tonight. One of the guests is drunk and needs her to drive him home.” And, she would add naively: “Does that make any sense to you?”

Roberto dropped the redhead like a bomb and stormed out to the lobby to ask Tommy if he’d seen Rita. “No,” Tommy said truthfully. Rita got all this later, of course. Roberto strode out to ask Vincenzo, the doorman if she’d left with anyone. He hung around until the guests had gone home and staff had cleaned up. Sasha waved goodnight to him.

Meanwhile, at home, Rita packed his belongings. Everything. They only owned one suitcase each, and she didn’t want to lose hers, so most of his stuff went into plastic garbage bags.  Then she took a bath and went to bed. Maybe he dozed but was quickly wide awake when he came home at two.

“You’re late again,” she said, playing innocent. “Someone else needed a ride home?”

“Never mind that. Where the hell have you been?”

“Right here, sweetheart. Didn’t Sasha tell you I came home early because I wasn’t feeling well?”

“That’s not what she told me.”

“Maybe you misunderstood. I had morning sickness.”

“In the middle of the night?”

“The doctor said it could come at any time.” She was cool. “What did you think?”

That stopped him. He didn’t want to say what he’d been worrying about all evening.

She let him stew for a minute before asking the question that was the punch line of Sasha’s plan. “How did you feel about our marriage the last few hours?”

It was a pleasure to watch him; she told Sasha later. He frowned, trying to figure out what she meant. Then his eyes opened wide as he got it. He started to scowl, angry at being duped. Finally, his face softened into a smile, like a little boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I guess I deserved that.” He looked around and saw all his stuff on the floor. “Are those things mine? What’s that about?”

This was the moment. Pick ‘em up, you gigoló deceiver, she was ready to say, and get out!

But first, be sure he knew what he was going to miss. Let him spend the rest of his life regretting what he’d let slip away, wishing he was still with her, helping bring up a man-child.

“If you put your ear on my stomach, you can hear the heartbeat,” she said. “The doctor says it’s a boy.”


Don Noel is retired from four decades’ prizewinning print and broadcast journalism in Hartford, CT. He took his MFA in Creative Writing from Fairfield University in 2013. You can visit Don at www.doneonoel.com.