Category Archives: Fiction


By Nancy Schumann

I woke up and wanted to die. My back was one big area of pain. I remembered that joke one of my work-mates once made: When you’re 50, and you wake up with your back hurting and your head hurting and stiff joints, you know you’re still alive. So I got up with a felt age of 56 by my estimation. I shuffled to the bathroom with my eyes still closed for a wake-up wash and other morning necessities. A base level of alertness achieved, I proceeded to coffee-making to complete my daily mini-evolution. As I sat staring into the hot magic potion, the pain lessened, and the ability to form coherent thoughts asserted itself with one firm realization: The mattress has had it. It’s time to invest in a new one because I am definitely not old enough to establish my status of being alive by the presence of back pain. As a result of that decision, much of my day was spent researching the options available to purchase a new mattress, get it delivered, and the old one picked up for recycling, preferably all in one go. By dinner time, I was ready and placed an order. It was with a sense of smug loathing that I went to bed that evening, knowing the nights of uncomfortableness were numbered.

Four dreamless nights later, the arrival of my replacement mattress was announced. I got up extra early to strip the bed of all its content, laying bare the offending old mattress. The doorbell rang moments after I was ready, and my shiny new mattress was wheeled in by a friendly delivery guy. He picked up the old mattress effortlessly. I waved him and it goodbye at the door. It’s been real, time to move on. I was disproportionally excited, freeing my new acquisition from its plastic wrappings. It unrolled itself, seemingly breathing a sigh of relief as it stretched out in its new home. I smiled and then wrinkled my nose at the new mattress smell. No matter, an open window day would take care of that before I went to sleep that evening. The ninth floor wasn’t particularly prone to window-based break-ins.

So that evening, I got home and made my bed, a breeze of fresh air around me. It was too cold to keep the window open overnight. I closed it just before going to bed. My nose detected a fainter but still noticeable smell in the room. It was bearable, but I still hoped it’d go soon. The smell was a small disappointment. Fourteen hours of fresh air ought to be enough for the wrapped-in-plastic odour to dissipate. Then again, I was too tired to dwell on the thought. My new mattress virtually hugged me when I laid down. It was surprisingly firm but very comfortable. I felt wrapped in homeliness and security as I fell asleep. I slept without waking through the night, but it was no easy sleep. Nightmare after nightmare flashed scenes of horror through my sleeping head. As soon as I escaped one unpleasant scenario, a new one started up. Yet I could not wake up, as if those nightmares kept me trapped inside the dark side of the night. My alarm eventually rescued me. There was no sign of pain in my back, a fact I appreciated and celebrated with an unusual level of alertness that first morning. Somewhat unfortunate because the next thing I noticed was the smell again. Still there. Another open window day.

Physically my felt age has dropped considerably. Mentally, however, I must have turned 80. That’s the only valid explanation for the level of obsession dedicated to thoughts about an everyday item like a mattress. I was significantly more excited than I ought to have been about the effect of a comfortable mattress, and that completely erased the nightmares. Anybody who asked would be told I had a marvellous night’s sleep. No mention of disturbing scenarios in my head. I all but skipped home, looking forward to bedtime. Outside, a storm started brewing as I got ready for bed. Definitely had to close that window now, or it would blow off its hinges. The fresh air held out a moment longer than the smell re-conquered the room. At this point, that’s becoming annoying. It couldn’t possibly take more than two full days of airing. It’s been several years since I purchased a mattress, but I do not recall the smell issue being a long-lasting one. Maybe I forgot, much like the nightmares from the previous night.

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Hugged by my mattress, the smell lingering, I fell asleep and returned to a land of nightmares. Nightmares I couldn’t wake up from. Nightmares I couldn’t quite remember after waking up. Still, like the smell, they linger inside the room, inside me, with a sense of uneasiness. The day outside seemed to match me with its greyness, its rain, its wind. Not a day to open the window, unfortunately. I felt just a little disheartened by it all. My wonderful, comfy new mattress and the painless sleeps overshadowed by a bad smell and unpleasant dreams I couldn’t seem to banish.

I slowly went about my day as if still dreaming. I wondered why something couldn’t just be good without a damper for a change. When I got home that night, I almost felt like crying. The weather still prevented any longer-term window opening, and the smell gained in intensity. I vaguely even considered sleeping on the sofa, but that would be ridiculous. There was a perfectly good, brand-new mattress on my bed after all, and the smell was just annoying, not unbearable. So, once again, I fell asleep with a smell in my nose that I wished hard would go away. Falling asleep wasn’t the issue, though. I was exhausted enough to fall asleep swiftly. And then I was wrapped in a sense of dread that I couldn’t escape. I tried hard to wake up. I tried hard to remember. But there was no content to the nightmare. It just felt like a continuous scream. Silent and frightening. I could not grasp the nightmare to get over it. It held me but refused to reveal itself.

So with each night of uninterrupted sleep, I grew wearier, more sluggish, yet more restless. And more annoyed with the silly, bad smell that refused to leave as much as the nightmares did. Wasn’t it possible to design a packaging system that wouldn’t cause a bad smell when you unwrap the item you actually want to use? Fair enough, a new t-shirt you just wash and the smell is gone, but a new mattress? Nothing I or anybody else could do but wait. Impatience grew to the point of regretting the old mattress was gone and became my default state. The storm passed, and it got warm enough to keep the window open through the night. That helped with the smell. It didn’t help with the nightmares. I was sure they would pass eventually. Maybe they were even an unconscious reaction to the smell. I was sure the smell would go as well. I was sure it would be gone by the time the temperature dropped to demand closed windows again. I was sure reality would chase the lingering dread away.

Yet not sure enough to refrain from sniffing the mattress. The smell hadn’t gotten worse, but it also never got any better. The first big stench left, but it never got replaced by fresh, odourless air. Every time the window was closed, the smell was there. Coming out of the mattress, into the room, into my nose, into my every thought. After plain air had failed, I moved on to air fresheners. Every time I lowered my head to the bed, the scented air left my nostrils, and I breathed in the smell coming out of the mattress. Exasperated, I fell asleep disappointed yet again. Mentally exhausted, I woke up again after yet another faceless fear haunted my dreams. After air fresheners, I sprayed the mattress with some supposed upholstery cleaner. I put fresh bedding on. I went to bed, smelling the smell. I wondered if my nose got damaged. I hired a cleaner under the guise of a deep, seasonal clean. She commented on the smell and asked if the bed was new. Not the bed, just the mattress, I said, defeated. My mind lost track of time, of how long it’d been.

I lay in bed. Awake. Annoyed about the smell that didn’t go away. Afraid of the nightmares that do not stop. Out of ideas. Out of solutions. Stuck in helplessness. I drifted away to sleep and felt the dread grabbing hold of me. I refused to let it. I would not sleep if sleep is not safe. I focussed on the smell that annoyed me that only went away when I slept. So tired. Half asleep even. Yet, still conscious. Still smelling the bad smell, not frightened by nightmares. I almost felt physical hands reaching out as the nightmare tried to lure me into sleep. Claws reached out to my subconscious and told me to forget the smell. To rest. A sensation like falling. Soft and gentle at first. Then I felt engulfed by fear again. I wanted to scream. I didn’t. It’s more of a sharp intake of breath, but this time it was not soundless. It was real. It pulled me back into the world. Awake and surrounded by the annoying smell. I opened my eyes to see nothing but darkness. My heart was pounding. I breathed in. Slowly. Deliberately. Willing myself to calm. To stay awake.

I stretched out my arms and legs. I stroked the mattress all around me. A token of the real world. I turned and buried my face into the soft mattress. Instantly my nose was assaulted by the smell. How can it still come out of the mattress? It’s been forever. My hands stroked the surface. I moved. I smelled different parts of the mattress. The bad smell is the mattress. All of it. Like a dog, I pawed and sniffed all that is beneath me. The smell entered my head. It got worse and worse. I could not stop myself. I tried each corner of the bed. It all smelled.

I sat on my knees, disgusted by the smell, still stroking the surface. Then I felt it. A bump. Right in the middle of the middle. My soft, new mattress had a hard bump in it. I tried and tried again. It’s most definitely there. I kept clawing at the hard spot as if to smooth it out. It remained. I did not stop clawing until finally, the fabric ripped. My eyes were adjusted enough to the darkness to make out something bright and hard in front of me. Something that did not belong into the inner makings of a mattress. A sense of panic rose from my stomach to my mind that may have been lost. I kept clawing at the edges of the ripped fabric. It never occurred to me to get any tools. It never occurred to me to switch on the light. The thing in front of me grew out of the mattress as I ripped the fabric away. I moved inch by inch further down to the foot of the bed. The bright mass did not stop. There was more and more of it while there was less and less of mattress that once encased it. My eyes saw enough. My mind refused to process the information. Bit by bit, I slid down the bed, ripping apart the mattress, exposing something within. Finally, I ran out of bed. I had to step down from it to tear the last bit of mattress away.
I stepped back, my hand touched the wall behind me. In front of me was the distorted figure of a man. Trapped in silent screams of agony. Rotting away in my mattress. My breath comes in sharp, desperate gulps. Rooted on the spot at the foot of my bed, I was unable to move. Then I screamed, and there was nothing but darkness.

Nancy Schumann is a German writer based in London who writes poetry, short stories and novels on various topics in both English and German. Her works have been published in both languages. Nancy’s particular interest, in fiction and academically, is female vampires. Nancy’s masters’ thesis on female vampires through the ages formed the basis to Take A Bite, which traces female vampire characters in folklore and literature. For further information, see 


By Kelly Ann Gonzales

Kiki’s mother warned her to be careful when she was pregnant because the aswang was watching from the trees in the jungle. All Filipinos knew that the scariest creatures lived deep in the jungle where no one ever went, and then they walked out looking like one of us. They were shapeshifters who ate the flesh of fetuses. Kiki rolled her eyes and promised that she would say her prayers, wear black and add more garlic to her chicken adobo to ward off the aswang that wasn’t native to New York City.

Kiki met her husband, Georgi, on a Tuesday night at a Chelsea café. As a professional matchmaker, she saw the irony of needing to go on dating apps for her own dating life. She could help 40-year-old White American divorcees, and the odd 29-year-old with gout find the loves of their lives. Still, there she was on another lonely weeknight at a café instead of a bar because the guy wanted to get coffee instead of an extra dirty martini.

“Here’s your matcha latte.” He handed her a warm, recyclable medium-sized brown cup of foaming green bliss.

“Thanks,” Kiki smiled, “I love matcha.”

“Is it because you’re Asian?”

She sighed. She thought because he was a foreigner that he would understand the subtleties of race in America. She wondered if he got away with being so clueless because he was foreign. She wondered how many people assumed he was actually White American because he was tall, handsome, and pale in that acceptable way.

Kiki knew that she had an easy choice of finding an array of men—some desirable, most were not—on dating apps. She was a hot, young, single Asian woman. Although most decent-looking, youngish, single men in her area called themselves liberal and progressive, they succumbed to everything from cheap pickup lines (can you love me a long time?) to, “but where are you really from?” FROM MY MOTHER’S VAGINA, YOU MILK SOPPING, OVERGROWN BOY.

She was used to years of brushing off casual racism. The comments were subtle. She knew how to wipe off their comments like she was a towel, and their words were only droplets of water. Kiki knew that men like Georgi didn’t mean any harm. They didn’t know any better. She straddled between feelings of an obligation to educate him and to chalk it up to dating as a young Asian-American woman.

Their wedding was on a Saturday afternoon on the elevated High Line, a freight rail line that became a public park. The onlookers gawked at them as Kiki and Georgi huddled in a semi-private corner of the High Line that should have been of no interest to these tourists. The corners were filled with old grass and uninteresting buildings that had changed from a hip restaurant to a clothing boutique to a bodega over the past few years.

Kiki didn’t mind the stares of the 60-year-old Midwestern couple and their detached 14-year-old hobbling along, trying not to walk into other tourists. She didn’t mind the stares until they kept staring, looking her up and down as if she was the tourist attraction. Looking at her against the city backdrop next to her European husband, trying to figure out which of them didn’t belong here. Kiki figured she and Georgi deserved the stares because they chose to have a wedding in a public venue and if they wanted privacy, well, couldn’t they have just had it in the privacy of their one-bedroom 750 square foot apartment?

The Midwestern wife from the crowds holding a DSLR camera piped up, “Are you almost done?”

Kiki and Georgi’s officiant whipped her head back and glared at the stranger, “They’re in the middle of getting married. The one picture you’re going to take of this very NYC bodega and never look at again can wait another ten minutes until we’re done here.” She smiled apologetically at the bride and groom and quietly mouthed, “Sorry.”

Kiki smiled awkwardly because she didn’t know what to say. Was she supposed to get mad? Was she supposed to laugh it off?

She was pregnant a few months after their wedding. It was a Sunday, January morning, before her weekly brunch date with her mother. It was the January, a few months before the pandemic came.

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Her family was sheltered in place for months. They took safe haven in their home partially because they wanted to protect themselves from the virus and because they wanted to protect themselves from the uneasy public’s reaction to the people who embodied the virus. To the average onlooker, people that looked like Kiki looked like they were from Wuhan. Because of that, Kiki and anyone who looked like Kiki were to blame for social distancing, loneliness, and disease.

She was already taking precautions as a woman. She didn’t walk down dark alleyways. She looked behind her periodically when she walked. She carried her car keys wedged in her hand like she was Wolverine to swipe at any grabby man.

As much as Kiki wanted her whole big and loud Filipino family with her in the birthing room, due to COVID-19 restrictions, she had Georgi by her side and napping periodically on a red vinyl sleeper chair. She was one of the lucky ones when some other women had to be completely alone at the beginning of the pandemic. At the very least, she had her husband running on coffee and nerves, pacing back and forth around the room.

He held her hand when she gave birth. She sweated and screamed through her N95 mask. When she pushed, he pushed too. He wanted to commiserate with her. She appreciated his gesture, although he’d never fully understand. He could be an ally, and he could sympathize, but he never really understood.

She still thought about the one bad date she had during her single New Yorker years. She met a guy at a networking event, and he asked for her business card, and since she worked at home and worked for herself, her business phone was just her cell phone. So the guy had her number, and he wanted to meet her on a Friday night after office hours for a pair of old fashioneds.

“Extra ripe cherry.” He winked at her as he handed her a cold glass with one of those abnormally large square ice cubes.

“Thanks,” Kiki smiled, “These abnormally large square ice cubes always wigged me out, but there’s something calming about just looking at the cherry in this brown liquid.”

“I feel like this drink represents you.” He raised his glass. “Cheers, y’know, because you’re like this little cherry in the brown.”


Before she could say another word and before he could explain any further, he leaned in to kiss her. She put up her hand. She blushed, shaking her head, “No, I can’t. We can’t.”

“Why not?”

“I…I just started dating someone.” She was three weeks into dating Georgi at the time.

“And who is he?”

“I met him on Bumble. He’s nice.”

“You met him on Bumble? But aren’t you a Matchmaker? Like you can’t find a nice brown guy on your own?”

She furrowed her eyebrows, “What makes you think I’m dating someone brown?”

He rubbed his eyebrows and adjusted his glasses. “Please don’t tell me he’s White.”

“Yeah. He is. Not White American, but yeah, he’s White.”

“Like from Europe? Wow, so he’s REALLY not going to understand you.”

She wanted to throw her drink at this guy. “Why not?”

He put down his glass and started waving at the bartender for the check. “Because he’s not like you and me. You’re an Asian woman. I’m Black. I can understand you in a way that he NEVER will.”

“That’s not true.”

He kept his eyes down on the check as he signed the check. “You’ll see.”

When she laid awake at night with her hand on her pregnant belly, she wondered how she was being a good POC ally to the Black Lives Matter movement. What would happen when the news cycle decided it was no longer important? Were people really going to change?

A few months into motherhood, after her young half-Asian, half-White daughter was brought into the world, #StopAsianHate bubbled to the surface. It was all over Facebook, Instagram, and her family group text messages. She wondered if her daughter was going to have to worry about this a decade from now. She wondered if her daughter would “pass” for White enough in this country or if her almond-shaped eyes were the dead giveaway for being spat at.

Kiki couldn’t be sure which was safer: walking to the pediatrician appointments twenty blocks away from their apartment, taking the subway five stops away, or spending $60 both ways to hop into an Uber/Lyft/Via and hope she didn’t get raped. Or catch COVID. Did she need to invest in getting a car? What was the point of being a city girl if she needed a car?

Whichever option she chose each time, and she switched up her options each time to not leave behind a trail of breadcrumbs for a potential stalker/assailant/Asian hater, she had to be hypervigilant. It wasn’t just herself she was looking after. She was looking after a defenceless child. Then what if she and baby Bisera Del Rosario Dachkov were hurt? Who would cook Georgi’s dinner? And all that hospital and insurance paperwork. He was no good at all of that. Her husband needed her.

But then, even when her family was in a different state and their friends hadn’t seen them in months (last she heard, her best friend from college grew a philosopher’s bread), somehow she found relief in the distance. Having the time apart to drown out the noise from others’ opinions and cautionary tales of danger, real like on the news and imaginary (sorry, Mom) like the aswang, allowed Kiki the space to form her own opinions. She was one person in a city of millions.

If something happened to her, they’d call her the 28-year-old Asian-American mother and professional matchmaker because she wouldn’t just be a 28-year-old American businesswoman and mother. The world, for better or worse, would have needed to know she was an Asian mom.

All Kiki felt was fear. Some days the fear weighed down on her like a brick being thrown into her glass window. She couldn’t replace fear with hope, love, and determination, but she could make room for those sentiments.

She took a breath when she remembered to breathe. She thought that because her parents were the ones who were foreigners and because she was born and bred on US soil that she was one of us. Race in America continued to be a taut, tight rope we walked across.

Kiki wondered if she could get away with being so admittedly sad. Kiki wondered if she could get away with navel-gazing for so long until she had to do something other than feeling so sad, so lonely, so angry all the goddamn time. Kiki had to do something because she was here, and she was alive, and she was just brave enough to do something. Even if that something was small.

Even if she only started expanding her matchmaker business to include other women, other AAPI women on the fringes who didn’t just want to be doctors, lawyers, or engineers. Even if she only started volunteering on boards and asking to be a part of their diversity and inclusion program to see more women who looked like her and more women who didn’t. Kiki had a mouth to speak, and if it were only a few words she would say that would fall upon a few choice ears, it was better said aloud than not said at all.

Kiki dreamed of a world where her daughter wouldn’t become numb to years of remaining unseen. While Kiki’s mother warned her of creatures that didn’t exist, Kiki imagined warning Bisera of the real dangers. Because all minorities in America knew that the scariest creatures were the ones who told them they loved their clothing and their food and their people of caramel persuasion to push a pin into a country they never actually planned to visit. They were coworkers who went to lunch with us at Panda Cottage and asked us if the beef with broccoli or the sweet & sour pork was better. They were friends who showed us off as their token brown friend.

Kiki wasn’t going to keep rolling her eyes and saying her prayers, hoping people would change. She needed to change. She needed to say to whoever was going to listen that she had enough, that it wasn’t enough for people to love her food but hate her. When she still didn’t feel the courage to push through, she looked down at Bisera with her long eyelashes and eager coos, so she could be the Asian mom she always wanted to be. Free to love, laugh, and be angry, taking up space in their corner of our world.

Kelly Ann Gonzales is an Executive Matchmaker and Dating Consultant. Her published works include short fiction publications featured in Penultimate Peanut, Write Launch, Rigorous, Change Seven, and elsewhere.


By Isabel Wolfe-Frischman

Naomi had planned to stop for a date shake that morning, at the turnoff to the high desert, before she journeyed on in the hope of adventure or a hamburger and a couple of beers, whichever came first. Still, she got sidetracked by the hand-painted sign: CAHUILLA GIFT SHOPPE – SOUVENIRS. A blood-red arrow pointed toward the San Gabriel Mountains. Naomi turned left abruptly and zipped past a stand of sage bushes with blue-purple flowers. She stained the blacktop with rubber tread marks.

A couple of miles down the road, a large tumbleweed rolled in front of her car; she veered to miss it and nearly hit a rabbit. Naomi slowed down fifty feet from the shop, a small faded pink stucco house. She parked her car on gritty dirt and went inside. She was greeted by a middle-aged Indian woman, dressed in jeans and a denim work shirt, a white streak tinged with vestiges of green dye shooting through her black hair. The woman wore three gold chains, one of which sported the name Linda, written in script. 

The woman paused the old episode of Cheers she had been watching.

“May I help you?” she asked, smiling.

“I’m just looking,” Naomi said. There wasn’t much to look at — a few geodes, dust covering the amethysts and topaz and quartz, and some beaded bangle bracelets, a good supply of Concord grape-coloured bandanas, a couple of packaged tee shirts, also grape-coloured, and a reach-in refrigerated case filled with soda, beer, bottled water, and snack products. Naomi picked up a tee-shirt.

“Linda?” Naomi said, “Can I open this?” Naomi asked. 

Linda, who had resumed watching her episode, looked down at her necklace and back up at Naomi. She waved her hand, sure, and turned back to her screen. It took Naomi two minutes and a broken fingernail to open the tightly-secured shrink-wrapped package. 

“Shit,” she said, putting her finger in her mouth and biting off the rest of the nail. The Indian woman turned around.

“That’s a good colour for you with that yellow hair,” she said, pointing at the half-opened shirt package.

“Yeah, I just — Naomi stopped speaking as she shook the shirt out to view it. “Ooh. That’s pretty,” she said. “A dream catcher, right?”

Linda nodded. “It’s good luck,” she said, and she turned up the television.

Naomi pulled a credit card out from the depths of her Forever 21 plastic purse.

“Cash only,” Linda said.

“But I need the cash for — ” Naomi began. “Good luck?”

A few minutes later, Naomi walked out of the Cahuilla Gift Shoppe wearing her new tee shirt and three bangle bracelets and carrying two bottles of Budweiser and no cash. She had thought about the bologna and cheese snacks and the bottled water, but the bracelets were great, and she could buy food later, with her nearly maxed credit card. Besides, a drive like this one, an adventure, deserved some beer. She looked at the bracelets on her wrist and sighed with satisfaction.

Naomi drove on until she saw another sign: NO TRESPASSING. Since there was no immediate place to turn around, she ventured farther, hoping the used Toyota her folks gave her for her twentieth last year was up for the task. When the highway narrowed, and the shoulder disappeared, Naomi’s upper lip began to sweat, and she bit down hard on the lower one. Her back stiffened as the paved road ended without warning — now, there was no way to turn around without the risk of spinning her wheels in the desert sand. Naomi found herself driving over an almost barren field, fording a surprisingly robust stream — she was getting scared and feeling dizzy with the bounce of the ride. She hoped the Toyota wouldn’t roll over or get stuck. Then. Cows. Right there. Sweat-like bee stings in her eyes as she drove around them, as they ignored her, perhaps miraculously. Finally, a road, and it seemed to circle back in the right direction.

Just a couple more miles, she told herself. She picked up her phone to get the GPS happening, but there was no reception. How long had she been driving? She knew it was past noon because the sun had been high and seemed to be on the ebb. If only she had paid more attention at Girl Scout camp. Orienteering, they called it.

I need to calm down, she thought. Naomi pulled over to the side of the road. She put her head down on the wheel and counted to sixty before she twisted the cap off of the first bottle of beer.

“Oh god, what is that?”

The light was getting dusky, the sun going down. The beers had helped her nerves and given her the confidence to continue on. Still, after a half-hour of passing nothing but a couple of empty houses and an old Chevy parked by the side of the road, Naomi was shaking with anxiety. When she finally saw living, breathing people standing behind a two-foot-high stone wall, next to what appeared to be a church, she gasped with relief at the thought of help. As she pulled up next to the building, Naomi heard a drumbeat and chanting. She shut off the engine and got out of the car, faint with hunger and a vague need to pee. She took a step forward toward the gathering of people — maybe there were twenty — and lurched slightly to the side. She leaned against the car for a minute to get her equilibrium. When her breathing became steadier, and her eyes were able to focus through what she realized were tears, she saw one of the men in the group place a shovelful of dirt on the ground. No. On a grave. Naomi gasped, and her hand flew to her mouth to cover her shock, the bracelets adding to her distress with their jangling.

She put her hand on the door handle of the Toyota, ready to get back in and drive away, to take a chance on finding a way out of this maze.

The drumbeat stopped, the chanting stopped. The man with the shovel looked up, shielding his eyes from the glare of the setting sun. An old woman with fire in her eyes said something to him, visibly spraying spit. The man handed the shovel to the woman and took long strides to the cemetery gate. He opened it and continued over to where the little car was parked.

Naomi closed her eyes and bowed her head — the dream catcher appeared on the inside of her lids.

The man spoke in a soft voice. “Do you know what it is you are interrupting?” he asked. 

Naomi shook her head no without lifting her eyes. She could see the cuffs of the man’s black church suit and his polished black shoes. 

“Yes,” she said.

The man said nothing.

“I — I am lost,” she said, too quietly for him to hear.

As the man looked over at the group, Naomi raised her head and looked at them, too, the mourners. The women wore circular skirts and turquoise jewelry. The man with the drum wore feathers and beads.

“It was my grandfather,” the man said. He spoke in a near whisper. “He was respected. The old woman looked up, displaying a face carved with lines of grief and anger. “That’s my grandma,” the man said, gesturing with a nod toward the woman, who was exhaling storm clouds. He turned to face Naomi directly. 

Naomi let out a single sob, a sound that had been jailed and came limping, strangling, to freedom. 

Before she could think of what to say, a simple question, how do I get away from here? The man pulled Naomi’s passenger door open.

“Get in,” he said.

She did, a numb reflex, and before she could logic together that she was no longer in charge here, the man got in on the driver’s side, revved up the engine and sped off. 

“Where are we going?” Naomi asked. 

“I’m getting you out of here.” 

The tears slowed, and Naomi hiccupped for breath. The fears of the day washed over her. She had wanted an adventure. She hadn’t wanted to die. She took a ragged breath and turned to her new chauffeur.

“Thank you,” she said, with adrenalin-fueled self-assurance.

The man said nothing.

Naomi remembered the Swiss army knife she carried at all times, the knife she used to show her friends how cool she was, how prepared she was — she had learned that much in Girl Scouts — how she could always cut open a package or open a bottle of wine. Especially that, open a bottle of wine. She was so thirsty.

“I’m going to get a cigarette out of my purse,” Naomi said to the man. She was sure he didn’t want any false moves, that he wanted to see her hands at all times.

“I thought it smelled a little smoky in here,” the man said. He laughed. “May I have one too?”

There was only one Marlborough Light left, and she knew it. Naomi dug in her bag and found the cigarette pack and the knife, pulled them out together, palming the knife so that her captor couldn’t see it. “Oh,” she said, “there’s only one. I guess you could have it.” 

“That’s okay,” he said. “I’m Red Feather. You smoke it.”

“Naomi?” she said, with a little girl question mark.

Naomi looked at Red Feather’s face, only turning her eyes. He had large, sharp features and a deep dimple on his chin. She couldn’t read his expression. “I’ll put my window down,” she said, and as she searched for her Bic lighter, she thought about dropping the knife back into her bag. She didn’t, though — she kept it palmed as she pulled the lighter out. She lifted up one butt cheek and put the Swiss Army knife beneath her thigh, lit the cigarette. At the first inhale, she had a little coughing fit.

“You good?” Red Feather asked.

Naomi nodded through her cough, and when it subsided, she said, “Yeah,” and she tried again. “Where are we going?”

Red Feather didn’t say anything for a good minute. They were still on dirt, no pavement to be seen ahead, and as they went over a bump and the knife dug into Naomi’s buttock, Red Feather said, “My Grandpappy.” He shook his head. “He would have liked you.”

Naomi didn’t know how to take that. “I’m thirsty,” she said. 

Red Feather laughed. “When we get to Yucaipa, I’ll buy you a Coke.”

 “Oh, that’s not necessary,” she said, sitting up straighter. She could feel the oblong knife shape. “How far is it?” she asked.

“Coupla miles,” he said.

Naomi licked dry lips. “But where? Where are you taking me?”

“Away from the Rez,” he said. Nothing more. 

Naomi snuffed out her cigarette in the car’s ashtray. Neither Red Feather nor Naomi said anything else until they got to a small white aluminum-sided building with gas pumps out front and a sign that said EAT/TRY OUR FAMOUS PEANUT BUTTER PIE. Red Feather pulled the car up in front of the pumps. “You’re out of gas,” he said, turning around and walking into the building. 

Naomi climbed over the divider and got in the driver’s seat, the knife falling to the floor. She turned the key and hit the gas, then looked at the empty gauge. She turned the car off and got out, grabbed her credit card and inserted the nozzle into the neck of the gas tank. The tank was full when Red Feather came out of the place, carrying a can of Coca-Cola.  

“Here,” he said, “Now get in your car and go back to L.A.”

Naomi raised her eyebrows. “San Diego.”

“I was close, wasn’t I?”

“Off by a hundred miles and a lot of bullshit,” she said.

 Naomi turned the key, and the car started. They looked at each other again. She turned the key the other way.

Red Feather and Naomi walked into a bar. 

The white building was a truck stop, really, not a bar, no alcohol served — The Trading Post, it was called, and it was frequented by both locals and tourists. 

 “I’ve been coming here since I was a kid,” Red Feather said. He waved to the waitress and a skinny old man sitting at the counter and led Naomi to a booth.

She didn’t sit down.

“Where’s the —‘’

The waitress pointed to the back of the place, and Naomi walked quickly to the restroom and went inside. I’m crazy, she thought, but she was really hungry and really thirsty, and here she was. She peed, washed her hands, and checked a pale image in the warped metal that served as a mirror. When she came out, Red Feather and the waitress were talking.

“It’s a crying shame he’s gone,” the waitress said, and she wiped a tear.

Red Feather nodded. He turned to look at Naomi.

“Naomi, right?” he said. “This is Little Pammy.” Little Pammy was not little. “I’ve known her since was little.”

“And since was,” Little Pammy said, and she laughed, her chin like Jello.

“I think you’re beautiful,” Red Feather said.

Little Pammy snorted. She looked Naomi in the eye and said, “He didn’t think that when he and his drunken buddies raised hell in here last week,” she said. “I told them to go back to their government-owned land.”

“That was harsh,” Red Feather said. 

“You know we don’t allow no booze in here,” Pammy said. She winked and walked away.

Red Feather called out to her back, “Two peanut butter pies, please.”

Pammy turned and eyeballed Red Feather, dressed in his funeral suit, raised one of her pencilled eyebrows and blew a rusty red corkscrew of a curl from in front of her face up to her hairline, where it somehow managed to stay. Red Feather shifted in his seat, took off his tie, shrugged small, mouth twitching to smile. 

Naomi dug into that pie the second she got it, a hungry wolf pup. She had gulped half the piece before Red Feather picked up his napkin and dabbed at the corner of his mouth, eyebrows raised to indicate that there was something at the corner of her mouth – Naomi lifted her napkin and wiped pie goop away, and some whipped cream. She crumpled the napkin and threw it down on her pie slice.

“This place doesn’t even sell beer?” she said to Red Feather.

Red Feather stood up, seeming to wrestle with his demons. “Wait here,” he said and went out the door. Naomi watched him talking on his cell phone, not sure what to do. She took out her wallet — she would pay for the pie and get out of here. She looked up and saw what seemed to be her destiny — a CASH ONLY sign; she was beginning to rummage in the plastic purse for loose change when Red Feather took the phone away from his ear and came back inside.

“Um, this is awkward,” Naomi said to him, “but I can’t pay for anything. I don’t have any cash. I call myself ‘cashless wonder.’ I don’t carry it because when I have it, I spend it, but I better go, I better get back home, I better — ‘’

“I can pay for your pie, don’t worry,” Red Feather said. “My — he raised his hands and made air quotes — drunken buddies gave me a bunch of cash this morning because I let them borrow my truck.”

“I owe you,” Naomi said. “I feel like I owe you.” She screwed up her mouth.

 As they spoke, a young guy in a Lakers jersey and baggy pants placed a white paper bag on the lunch counter next to a toothpick holder, turned and smiled at nobody in particular, and left. Red Feather strolled over casually, took a toothpick, put the little stick in his mouth and picked up the paper bag with his other hand. 

“You’re not in my debt,” Red Feather said, back at the table and opening the bag. He pulled Styrofoam soda cups, lidded and full of beer, out of the sack. “I was thirsty too.”

“Oh god, what is that?” Naomi said, feeling the saliva come into her mouth, like one of Pavlov’s dogs. 

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Another paper bag came a half-hour later, and then another.

“I’m gonna call you Little Paper Poppy, ” said Red Feather. “Because you don’t have money, like those kids that sell those poppies.”

“No, seriously,” said Naomi, “I cry when I get those, you know, those little beaded things in the mail. And the pictures of the kids, the poor kids who don’t get enough to eat, the — ” She stopped, blew her nose on a napkin.

“Like I said a few minutes ago. It’s not your fault. And for the hundredth time, the ceremony was almost over. Grandpappy is okay with us having pie.”

The last few sips of beer had taken Naomi visibly over the line into wasted drunk territory. She moved her foot under the table, so it touched Red Feather’s foot.

“Whoa, I’ve got to use the facilities,” he said, getting up so fast he knocked over a ketchup bottle.

When he returned, Little Pammy was sitting at the table, holding Naomi’s hand. Naomi was crying. Little Pammy looked at Red Feather. “Did you want your check?”

Red Feather stood up. “Yes,” he said. “Please.”

“At least let me —” Naomi reached for her bag, then remembered the no-money thing.

Red Feather put his finger to his lips. “Shhhh,” he said.

She wanted to kiss him, she wanted to — she wasn’t sure what.

Red Feather threw a twenty on the table, put an arm around Naomi, and guided her outside, lifted her into the car.

Naomi passed out as soon as they started moving, and when they got to the reservation, Red Feather parked the Toyota in his truck’s space — and left the kid in her stupor. He covered her with a blanket, dropped her knife into her plastic purse, which he placed on the other seat, and cracked a window.

“It stalled, then restarted and jerked to speed.”

“Little Poppy.” Red Feather was shaking Naomi awake. It was almost dawn. She lay under a blanket in the passenger seat of her car. A light rain was falling, rare in this part of the world. “You had best get your sweet self out of here.” Red Feather fished her keys out of the crevice between the car seats.

Naomi felt a cosmic disconnect as she took the car keys out of his hand. Her brain was packed in bubble wrap, and she was afraid if she made the wrong move, the bubbles would begin popping and cause her head to explode. Naomi once again climbed into the driver’s seat in a trance, pushing the purse to the side, and started her car. Red Feather pointed. “That way,” he said, “straight, all the way. Up over that hill.”

She saw where he was pointing and understood his urgency, although the reasons did not come to mind. She smelled beer; her stomach was slush. Her bladder felt like a football. Vomit rose like lava – she gulped it back. Head pounding, vision skewed, Naomi tried to speak. Thank you? Is that what was required? Words did not come.  

Naomi started the car. It stalled, then restarted and jerked to speed. She straightened the wheel just short of driving off the shoulder and lurched away. She tried to lift her leaden hand to wave. Body not working. She made a peace sign on her thigh, where nobody saw it. When Naomi crested the hill, Red Feather turned around and walked home. 

“Her hands were slippery, sweaty, and she had trouble steering.”

In a parallel universe, Redfeather’s drunken buddies had been matching Naomi’s beer consumption. One of them, Big Al, had been ranting most of the night about the blonde that fucked up Red Feather’s grandpappy’s funeral. When they saw the little Toyota, Big Al revved up the engine of Red Feather’s truck, skidded and squealed out after it. Dogs began to bark.

When Naomi heard the truck roaring behind her, the barking, when she glimpsed the men in the truck in her rearview, when she heard them shouting and laughing, her cobwebbed brain became a little clearer. She pressed her foot down on the gas pedal, and the little Japanese car jumped and began to go as fast as it could — the speedometer read ninety. 

“White WOMAN!” one of the guys shouted. “Get your white ass off my land!”  

“Gonna rip you up, honey!” someone else yelled. Laughing. 

She squinted to keep from seeing it double, the sign up ahead — CAHUILLA GIFT SHOPPE – SOUVENIRS. Linda. Linda had been so nice. Another minute to get there, and then to the main road. Her hands were slippery, sweaty, and she had trouble steering. Fear had her right where it wanted her. Maybe she didn’t deserve to get to the road. Maybe she had to pay for the sin of trespassing. And for interrupting the sacred — Jesus, God. 

Naomi’s mouth was dry; her lips were stuck together; her tongue was thick and covered with moss; bile rose in her throat; she was about to wet her pants. She said a prayer, not even sure what prayer it was, maybe the one the alcoholics say, the serenity one. She fingered the dream catcher on the front of her shirt. It was for luck, good luck, perhaps the thing she had started out to find.

She was so thirsty.

Isabel Wolfe-Frischman’s fiction has been published in The Listening Eye, Paterson Review, and others. Her photographs have appeared in Trajectory and Olentangy Review. She has fiction upcoming in the fall issue of Fugue and a personal essay in a winter edition of Streetlight.

Lead Butterflies

By H.R. Parker

She crawls into my waiting mouth while I sleep. She comes on silent wings from the dark side of uncertainty and sneaks past my parted lips. Dream-whispers creep past and float in the air, disappearing forever. She crawls down, down, down, spindly legs at awkward angles, down the tunnel of my traumatized trachea. Into my belly to lay her eggs. She does this nightly, and I can’t stop her. I try so hard but to no avail. When I wake, the eggs have hatched, metamorphosed. I can feel them inside of me, leaden butterflies. Every morning, scraping gashes into my belly.

Sometimes I can ignore the lead butterflies, but they start making new slices and scrapes into my fibrous flesh when I do. They rise up sometimes, up and up and into my throat, abraded by their mother the night before. Then they begin to pull, dragging my breath down, down, down. I begin to fold back into myself and retreat. I fold in at the corners to collapse into myself. A tiny square. I’ve refolded so many times the paper is tissue-thin, like a butterfly’s wings, powdery and torn slightly around the edges.

When I fall into a fitful sleep, the lead butterflies rise back up, this time stopping in my lungs. They wrap their sticky dream threads around them, hijacking my breath. I awake, at the edge of panic, frenzied dreams still dripping from my eyelids. My heart is in my throat, a bass drum pounding out an erratic, desperate rhythm. I fight to retake my breath from these invaders, but the more I fight, the weaker I get. They flutter suddenly, all over, invading. My throat, lungs, stomach, their leg-knives digging in. The fear rushes up, up, up, from dark places and spreads.

We wrestle the lead butterflies and I. I wrestle for my breath, closing my eyes to will away these unwanted visitors. With each breath, I push them down, down, down, once again. To die in the darkness. I win, momentarily.

But in the night, she comes again. She crawls into my waiting mouth while I sleep. She comes on silent wings from the dark side of uncertainty and sneaks past my parted lips. And I can feel them inside of me, leaden butterflies. Every morning, scraping gashes into my belly.

Heather R. Parker is a freelance writer, editor, and poet from Georgia. Her work has been published by Nightingale & Sparrow Magazine, Goats Milk Magazine, Analog Submissions Press, Between Shadows Press, Friday Flash Fiction, Clover & Bee Magazine, 365 Tomorrows, and others. In her spare time, you can find her doing yoga, taking long walks in the woods, birdwatching, or picking flowers in sun-dappled meadows. You can follow Heather’s writing on Instagram and Fictionate.Me.

The Muralists

By Aimee Brooks

I showed up early with a few suitcases of paint-splattered clothes, feeling more like a sojourner than ever. The church was unlocked, so I left my things near the entrance and followed the labyrinth of hallways to the sanctuary. My feet squished into the dark red carpet, and fragments of stained glass filtered light danced all around me and over my body. I took my seat at one of the wooden pews and briefly examined the cloth covers of the red King James Bible and black hymnal.

My body conjured up a powerful hollow sensation against my wishes, the intermingling of anxiety and longing that often pierces my chest when I exist in wide-open spaces. I tried to lean into it, to remember that feeling and hold it tight as if it were some sort of physical object.

Soft footsteps left the tile from the hallways that led into the sanctuary, and goosebumps prickled my arms.

“Isla?” A voice called my name.

When I looked up at the person coming towards me, I came to the realization that I would be spending the summer with my ex-boyfriend.

“Javier,” I said his name back, unsure how to respond. It felt inappropriate to hug him after our skin had not touched in so long.

He took a seat several pews up from me. I felt even smaller with the two of us in the vast room.

“How have you been?” I could see something cross over his eyes — pain, maybe confusion. He was trying not to make too much eye contact.

“Fine.” My answer was hollow. It always was. Empty words describing an empty person. He knew that already.

“And you?”

“It’s been okay. I’m making it.”

His profound honesty struck me. There I was, in disguise in plain sight.

They say ‘take her swimming on the first date,’ — the nasty men that are in the business of sizing women up like a piece of meat at the butcher’s. You wouldn’t want to get a bad one, someone who doesn’t live up to the narrow expectations of what it means to be beautiful.

Javier had taken me swimming. Not on the first date or ever, really to my recollection. But he saw my makeup melt off of my face, mascara drip from my lashes. My foundation flaked away, revealing acne-scarred cheeks and dark circles under my eyes. He had seen my body as it dove into the water, the bit of pudge that my swimsuit couldn’t hide, the cellulite on my thighs.

Take me swimming.

‘Take me swimming,’ I wanted to say.

Reveal me. I’ll strip myself down before you can do it with your eyes. I would have taken a sponge to my face right there. Because I wasn’t afraid of showing what was already apparent — what clothes, or powder, or even a false sense of confidence couldn’t hide, but of what I could not show on the first date or the last.

Before I could embarrass myself, the pastor entered the room, introduced himself, and began explaining our first tasks as the muralists.

The internship application promised that it would be a summer full of networking with other artists while doing good for the community, painting large-scale works that all could enjoy. As the pastor droned on about the next two and half months, I became increasingly aware that all of the networking had already been done.

I rode in the back seat to the rec center owned by the church, staring down the dusty streets with colourful houses. I leaned my head against the window, looking up at the sky. The clouds chased each other as the wind blew them parallel to where I sat. That small moment of peace felt like a consolation prize for being stuck in one of those towns where my nationality was a slur.

The pastor explained to us that we would be preparing the wall of the center facing the highway so that cars passing by could see and planning another near the basketball courts for kids to take pictures in front of.
I began to sweat upon arrival. My hair became hot to the touch, and I tried not to make it obvious that I was checking its temperature every few minutes just in case it were to spontaneously combust.

He told us that all of the supplies and water bottles that we would need were in the gym and that he would be back to bring us lunch.

“I don’t know about you,” I said, staring forward at the grayish wall, side by side with Javier. “But I already think I have regrets.”

“No kidding. Let’s go inside and get some water right now. We need a game-plan.”

Our calculations showed us that our best schedule would follow the sun, rotating between both murals to avoid overexposure, not that it was completely preventable in that barren wasteland.

We sat with our damp backs to the cool inside of the gym, keeping our distance while we took small sips from ice-cold water bottles. A group of kids was playing basketball. Shouting voices, the distinct squeak of rubber on vinyl, and the sting of each dribble echoed off of the walls. No one seemed to notice us. It was not our frontier, though I assumed we would be spending quite a bit of time in there until we finished.

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After scrubbing the dried mould and other potentially harmful scuff marks off the gym’s stucco wall, Javier informed me that we would need to prime the surface before we started with any kind of paint. I could tell that this was more of a process than I had imagined.

“I can’t believe that guy left us here.” He let out an exaggerated sigh and wiped the sweat from his hairline that was threatening to run over his sharp brow and into his eyes.

“Did you bring your car? We can take mine tomorrow if you want.”

He didn’t bring his. A city boy at heart, he hadn’t thought much about the lack of transportation in the rural south. We both agreed that it was the best course of action to take my car the next morning.

There I was, already giving in to temptation. Or was I simply being nice? I had the sun, my ruthless interrogator, to force me to grapple with this for the rest of the day.

By the time the pastor came to pick us up at the end of the day, we were fairly war-torn looking for artists. Our skin was that reddish hue that pointed towards damage later down the line, and our clothes were stiff and salty. Neither of us said much on the car ride to the little apartment complex that the church had put us up in.

I said my goodbyes and walked upstairs, not even bothering to shower before lying across the plastic mattress and falling asleep.

In the middle of the night, I woke up and stood under the lukewarm shower, unable to move. It served as my sensory deprivation chamber and allowed me to wrestle with my thoughts while water dribbled over my body.

If I were to spend the rest of these sixty or so days with Javier, we were going to have to talk things through. We were the only people our age in this entire town. Our days were going to be spent alone together with the scorching sun beating down on our backs and faces. We were going to see each other and all of our ugliness, so we better make the most of it. As our bodies wore down, got sore from the labour, blistered our cheeks and cracked our thirsty lips, the conversations to come were all we had.

“How did you find out about this internship?” I asked early the next morning. We had gotten out before the sun was fully up to avoid the most powerful rays.

“If I’m being honest, my mom found it for me.” He did not look at me, just kept priming the wall. “I think she thinks I’m some kind of burnout or something and that I’m never going to do anything with my life. You know.”

I did.

There were many reasons why we cut ties. The constant comparisons got to him. His parents adored me and my conventional style of fine art while trashing his illustrations, telling him that he wouldn’t make it in the art world and that he needed me. He needed to seal the deal with me while he still had the chance. Javier had an aversion to settling down, and I liked being idolized as a concept more than respected as a whole human being. That was just the beginning of it. It’s hard to love when you feel dead inside.

The day was long, and by the time one of the ladies from the congregation dropped off a casserole for us, my body throbbed my sunburn started to peel. I sat at Javier’s desk chair and picked through my flavourless ground beef and beans. He sat with his back to the bed, knees up on the floor, slightly wide-eyed at the amount of visible grease pooling at the bottom of the clear plastic.

“Would you want to get pizza?” He suggested.

“That sounds great.” I was relieved that I didn’t have to ask first.

We walked to the local place right around the corner. We then sat on some of the splintery picnic benches outside to enjoy an only slightly less concerning dinner.

This became the beginning of our rituals that summer — walking to the pizza place, driving around after a quick trip to the drugstore and just listening to music. We formed a secret society, just the two of us, outliers in a town that seemed all too much the same.

Sometimes Javier wanted to drive my car, so I would let him and lean my head against the window on the passenger side, feeling like a stranger in my own mode of transportation. It was best when it was night, and I could see the stars at a standstill even in my motion. I felt small and began to crave that feeling, the first sips of summer air.

Towards the end of the rec center murals, we started to get sloppy. Filling in some of those finer details felt useless and tedious when they couldn’t be seen from the road. I knew Javier was thinking it too, but he was too prideful to ever speak it out loud.

I took more breaks, sometimes drinking long slow sips of the steamy water from my bottle so I could at least pretend like it was part of the process. Still, Javier got faster, looser, messier. His brushstrokes became inconsistent with any previous blocking that we had done. But I liked it. It felt like him.

One afternoon, in the hottest hour of the day, I sat watching him. He was up on a ladder, his face and arms bronzed, the ripple of his muscles through his shirt.

I crouched in a duck pose, popping both of my knees in the process, knowing that I wouldn’t want to get up if I sat down. The feet of the ladder rocked, and my eyes darted back over to Javier.

He was reaching his brush so far out that he only had one foot on the wrung where he should have been firmly planted. I wanted to call out to him and tell him that he should take his time or just be careful, but I didn’t want to micromanage him.

The incident happened before I could even inhale to shout — the ladder slipping out from underneath him, the clatter of metal against concrete, his body falling and the sharp crack that coincided with the impact. He lay crumpled on the ground, the stillness hanging heavy in the air before the fibres in my muscles frozen to stone eased, allowing me to move towards him.

For those brief moments with that heavy dose of adrenaline coursing through my stiff veins, I was not myself in my own body, unable to move, powerless to breathe. It felt like too long before I was at his side.

Javier was flat on his back, his eyes fluttering to stay open, unequal pupil sizes. However, I only remembered this in retrospect.

“Are you okay to sit up?” I asked with full knowledge that we needed to get to the tiny hospital as soon as possible, briefly wondering if they could even treat him there.

“Yeah,” he said but didn’t move.“It’s okay. Just give me a second.”
He started to maneuver very slowly into a position where he could sit up, and that’s when I noticed that his arm was clearly broken.

“Wait.” I panicked in forceful voice. “Let me help you.”

I knew he wouldn’t want it, but there was no other choice. Looking back, I guess there were other options, like EMTs stabilizing his neck and making sure the bones in his arm did not move around too much. Again, I was not thinking as clearly as I could have been.

Pushing from behind, I helped him come up to a sitting position, careful to make sure that he didn’t put any weight onto his arm, which he has since noticed and was staring at intensely.

“Does it hurt?”

“I can’t feel it.”

“Okay, we can hurry and get you to the hospital.” From what I remembered about anything medical, the shock of events like that could wear off all of a sudden, and the pain comes on quickly.

He stood slowly. I grabbed his other hand and helped pull him to his feet, trying both to be gentle and to use all of my body weight.

The ride to the hospital was mostly silent. His pain had begun to grow severe from the look on his face.

I was driving like a maniac. Every time we took a sharp turn, I would whisper, ‘sorry.’ He wouldn’t respond. His eyes were closes, and his head tilted back against the rest. He held his broken arm around the back of his tricep to help keep it still, close to his body.

After he checked in and I filled out his forms for him, we waited in the emergency room lobby for what felt like an eternity. I know that ER’s are not known for their speed, but it seemed ridiculous how long we waited, with almost no one else in the waiting area.

The transition from the boiling outside to the sterile interior of the hospital made my arms prick with chill bumps, and I tried to run my hands over my arms to warm them. The sweat on my back was ice cold. But it felt wrong to comment on it, even if I voiced it as an observation and not a complaint.

“Good luck,” I said when they called his name after what seemed like ages. I contemplated following him, but I didn’t want to overstep my bounds.

He hesitated, opened his mouth a little, but said nothing and followed the nurse back through the double doors.

I started to cry, just a few warm tears on my cool skin. I had too much dignity to let myself fall into one of those deep shudders meant to be practiced alone. My eyes fixed on the white baseboards closest to my row of plastic chairs so that if someone did happen to notice, I wouldn’t have to meet their gaze.

I think my shock had worn off, not just from this event which was undoubtedly traumatic, but from months of suppressing emotions that came rushing in all at once.

Instead of wailing in the shower and eating tubs of ice cream for a few days until I could muster up the strength to hit the gym to get my revenge body, I carried on like Javier, and I had never broken up. I didn’t even tell anyone unless they asked. But my pain was waiting for me, never processed, an untreated wound festering somewhere deep within my flesh that I could not see. Part of me believed that those kinds of things go away with time, but this public display of weakness proved otherwise.
Half of me wanted to steel myself, harden my heart and lessen my capacity for love for then and forever. It would be the same as it had always been. I was an emotional hermit crab, and no one could pry me from my shell.

The other part of me wanted to embrace Javi as soon as he walked back through those double doors and gingerly kiss each finger poking out from his cast and read to him out loud while he closed his eyes and recovered from his concussion.

I assumed that the church would send him home from the internship with his dominant arm broken. Still, I visualized us running through the church like children and kissing in the sanctuary when no one was around. God, I missed those lips.

I waited for hours alone in the lobby with nothing but my thoughts, weighing my options and calculating my risks, making promises to myself that I didn’t know if I could follow through with.

“Take care of him.” The nurse told me as he opened the door for Javier, ushering him into the lobby with his hot pink cast reflecting a warm glow onto the bleached walls. We locked eyes, and though a little weaker than usual, a small smile graced his face.

Aimee Brooks is a twenty-something pseudo-hippie living in Texas. She spends her time coffee shop hopping, eating Koren breakfast foods, and wandering the local college campus searching for Andy Warhol prints. Sadly she’s not from Canada but has visited and found it quite an enchanting place. Follow her on Instagram


By John Banning

Our friend Daniel always comes out. He does not initiate outings, and in this was doubtless said something about his want to be wanted, and his want that we should not know that he wanted to see us.

I have known Daniel for some years now, and most of us have. So it surprises us no longer when at some early or late stage of the evening, dependent on his progress through the line of drinks he will consume (and which I too slip through with far too much ease, because it is far too much like that: progress, that a glass or a bottle should not be empty purely because that is no longer getting you anywhere, that the physical act of pressing the glass edge to your mouth must continue, that the pursuit must not stop because there is some something at the end of the line, some final miracle at the final drink that will make disquiet living come to an end, though this miracle will not be reached because before it is intestinal and mental sickness, and the dreaming blackout in which you meander through scenes to be unrecollected, mumbling sleepy incomprehensible things to others also in their alcohol dreams. I am old enough that I should not know inebriation with such a naive simpleness. What this miracle is at the finale of night and when the very last sap of spirit has been supped, I can have no idea, and will not ever. However, I can remain utterly induced with the conviction that other people reached the mystic zenith before going home or after. At my own finale, at the end of each night of outing, I will sit in a brown dim-lit bedroom with no other thought than this: that I have lost.), Daniel pulls up his ironed shirt to reveal the scar with which we are all familiar. It might once have been alarming, but it is no longer. He will pull apart the seam; the stitches will pull into the flesh. Some of us will keep on talking, keep on smiling, and he will too. And when the grin across his belly has been fully forced apart, our friend will pull out a pile of his intestines and deposit them on the table in front of him. The table, or the bar, or he will drape them over a chair, or he will stand there with them in his hands, looking like someone with too much to carry, or a doorman holding coats, if you were holding a party for people who did not wear coats, but wore necklaces of butchers’ things.

Now, as far as I have been told, and have pieced together, Daniel in his adolescence, without the aid of a procession of drinks, tore open his belly and withdrew his innards and would have them out most of the time; some years later this hole was stitched by parties unknown, and bled not at all, though shortly before our coming to know him he began picking at the wound, and has since then reopened it entirely, returning to his previous habits yet now aided by inadvisable inebriation.

Daniel will vary in the displays of his insides. Sometimes the guts will be released surreptitiously, not spoken of directly, but noticed by those around the place who choose to notice them. At other, rarer times (though not less rare when we first came to know him), Daniel will not take out any of his inner functioning and will converse jovially with the occasional rubbing or picking of his stomach. I have yet to decipher any correlations amongst Daniel’s behaviours, as there can be a lot of drinking and a lot of guts or a lot of drinking and no guts. There will tend to be a lot of drinking, whatever the case.

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More recently, there tends to be a lot of alcohol and a lot of Daniel’s insides all over the place. This past March, he removed his guts and made very many jokes about them. Everybody enjoyed them, and everybody laughed, and everybody got on with Daniel very well. Two weeks after this, he removed his guts but made no jokes about them at all and instead turned very poisonous, so much so that it was a surprise his guts were not themselves discoloured. The fleshy tubing lay in a great mess across more tables than our group occupied. He spoke very loudly about how it must be very horrible to have his innards all over the place and for everybody to have to look at them. Most agreed but did not find it helpful to say so, and instead, all became quite awkward and were less worried about Daniel than they were hoping he would soon go home. So, lamentably, there is no grace to his sadness. Nor is there to mine such as it comes upon me; I do not visualize these emotions as shining beacons begging great sympathies, but now as very muddy and unwarranting of condolence.

Perhaps this all would not have been so dire if the procession of drinks could not be obtained, but as I have said, I saw the need for the progression and could not damn my friend for it. It was not only the drinking that I saw tilted towards some imagined pinnacle, either; I needed the idea of the progression of everything else, of life towards some goal, of everything towards an impossible perfection; the progression of my body even, towards the ultimate betterment of it through the removal of calluses and invisible errant facial hairs and the correction of tooth order and colour and the resurrection of hair thickness. It was a good thing I looked selfishly inward in this way, as I knew that when I scrubbed this body to perfection, I would collapse in terror as I took on the world itself as an extension of this frame and never stopped grouting the walls of everywhere.

As such, I did pity Daniel as I saw a part of myself in him, though for this very reason, I could tire of him too, as I had very much tired of myself and all my parts.

Once the night degenerated into early morning drinking at a club where the music was obviously loud, and the people were obviously semi-conscious. The only thing that was not obvious was how terrible I felt. Daniel was wild that night and brought horror to us all, even if we knew his past eccentric theatrics. He pulled his scar open wide, he gave maniac laughs, and he jumped about the place spinning his guts in the air like a sickly lasso. He passed the point of smiles and got us all to frowns and scowls. I told him he might want to go home, but he would not. People from outside our group and within it jumped as their faces were suddenly slapped by liquid droplets flown off of the whipping entrails. Without a sign of stopping, the rodeo went on. Daniel shouted and laughed angrily. I could only imagine that he would hitch himself on to some crazed bull and that the pair of them would go surging off into a nightmare.

That has been the extremity of its outlandishness. It has not been the extremity of Daniel’s feeling. Four days ago, I squatted next to him outside a pub. A man at a right angle farther along was being sick. Our shadows did not occur in the strip of beer-coloured light that fell on us, came tumbling out of the awful nighttime in which the shade of cloud became the same as a streetlight on the pavement.

He looked up at me with a smile that surely ached.

‘More than anything else, it’s easy to get pity in this world. Might as well go all out.’

John Banning lives in London, England. His work has appeared in Maudlin HouseRejection LettersLigeiaDream Journal, the Bear Creek Gazette and The Daily Drunk. He is also J. F. Gleeson, and at some time, soon will appear under such in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Do take a look.

The Complete Works of Min-Ju Kim

Previously published in Blank Spaces Magazine

By Tristan Marajh

Sunlight streaked gently into the darkroom through the blinds and settled on the blanket that covered Min-Ju’s curled-up form beneath. She turned sluggishly, raised a piece of the fabric off her head and peered at the clock. 11:04 A.M. Late, by all human standards. Which was the real her, really? This… creature, awakening with the heavy hopelessness that seemed to be the unspoken condition of existence, or the one who could get up and carry on despite it, even if doing so felt like pretentious fakery, a sad theatre? Even the furniture, in their neutrality of presence, seemed to mock her. She drew the blanket over her head again, pulled herself into fetal and squeezed her eyes shut, but sleep didn’t return. Instead, the jagged, disturbing knowledge of the accumulating wasted mornings bore down on her like boulders rolling down a mountain slope.

She could hear Hyejin moving about upstairs; her sister’s disoriented footsteps moving from the bed, evolving into more determined ones as she went through the business of starting the day: the teeth-brushing, gargle and spit, no-nonsense shower, breaking-bite off an apple’s flesh in the kitchen. “Miiiinn,” Hyejin implored, putting on her heels by the doorway.

“Uhhhnghh?” Min-Ju responded from beneath the covers, hair over her face, some in her mouth.

“Get up. Have breakfast. Go for a run, take your iPod with you. Go see a comedy film. Take a walk after. Rinse the green beans, and we’ll stir-fry them for dinner.”

“Uhngh-huhngh,” the creature beneath the covers mumbled. Hyejin wondered which task this was a response to.

“I’ll see you later. Get up.”

Another murmur from her sister and Hyejin, shaking her head, left the condo. Min-Ju heard the door close and the lock turn. She was alone. The furniture, in their neutrality of presence, seemed to mock her.

 Hyejin’s exhortations were her personalized version of the same thing Dr. Chung recommended Min-Ju create: structure. She thought about trying Hyejin’s proposed version, but she couldn’t bear the manufactured artifice of it. It felt fake, ritualistic and business-like; like some manufacturing process from How It’s Made, end product a shiny new human being. Didn’t Dr. Chung, MD – especially PsyD – hear of the saying all structures are unstable?

The other option, though, was the abyss. There was still yet that other option too, unspeakable yet ever frequent in her mind, but Min-Ju didn’t think she could go through with that either. It would be like killing her Appa too, who wanted nothing more than to garden, see his daughters and read. A curious sight Mr. Kim was now, sitting cross-legged and bespectacled in the library, with his dense beard and Blue Jays’ cap; a man in quiet forgiveness and acceptance that his younger years could have been more wisely spent learning. “How is your writing coming, my jagiya?” he would ask Min-Ju, as if it were something inevitable and supposed to happen, a matter of fact as sure as springtime. Min-Ju knew this was formed from a belief in and a love for her that she couldn’t fathom, and even if she tried to, she could picture herself collapsing from within. She too was, after all, a structure, able to be brought down by silent, invisible forces.

It was only when Min-Ju felt like her body was feeding on itself that she got up from the sofa. She went over to the glass doors that led to the balcony, parted the blinds and peered outside, a recent, solitary tendency she didn’t quite know the reason for. What she knew now, though, was that her childhood suburbia was a prison. This prostitute of a city was all about money, and people were malleable monkeys, perpetuating the precepts of the tribes they formed; pushing strollers, walking the malls and clustering in communities, not seeming to have much to do with tribes that weren’t theirs, and not seeming to care.

Min-Ju heard the door lock turn and the door creak open. A light switch was flicked on, and a swash of light flowed into the living room. “You remember Min-Ju, right?” she heard Hyejin say in Korean. Min-Ju looked toward the doorway, bewildered.

A girl, a teenager of about sixteen, was standing near Hyejin as they both pushed off their shoes. Min-Ju squinted, trying to figure out who this was. The girl was the effortless and envy-inducing slimness of youth, with porcelain-smooth skin and soft, acquiescent hair tied back in a sensible ponytail. “Ye,” the girl said, smiling enthusiastically, causing the word radiant to form in Min-Ju’s mind. Min-Ju, suddenly aware that her own hair was a wild, tangled mess and that she was wearing sweats and sweat, decided that she would shake the hand of this girl, who evidently knew of her, instead of approaching her to offer a smelly hug. She rose, walked toward Hyejin and the girl and offered her hand.

“Hello,” she said.

Anyoung hashimnikka,” the girl said, bowing as she took Min-Ju’s hand. For a moment, Min-Ju was startled. Oh right; she remembered: ‘respect.’ Multiculturalism policy talked about Respecting Each Other’s Differences. What the hell was respect, anyway?

And now Min-Ju had a new responsibility: show Song Yi, the sisters’ new guest and cousin visiting from Seoul, around their city. Song Yi would be staying for three weeks. As they sat around the coffee table near the sofa, eating the pineapple pizza Song Yi’d eagerly requested on the way from the airport, Min-Ju discovered that she would have to show Song Yi the city, and not so much her city.

And so a gloomy Min-Ju and an excited Song Yi zoomed up the CN Tower then dipped flatbread at an Ethiopian restaurant. They sailed to the Toronto islands then noodled at Jatujak Thai. After wandering through the U of T’s sprawling Gothicism and the ROM and Ryerson’s quirky modernism, they walked down Bloor to Fresh Vegetarian Restaurant. They had biryani at a Pakistani joint before trekking at Bluffer’s Park. And all the while, as a spirited Song Yi oohed in wonderment, camera-flashing at architecture, markets, Earth formations and colourful cultural festivals – even jamming with subway musicians – Min-Ju was in tumult. Outwardly she was the patient guide standing by, presenting herself and the city’s attractions dutifully to Song Yi, but capital-P Present she wasn’t.

On the second night of the second week of Song Yi’s stay, Min-Ju couldn’t bring herself to finish the warm, tzatziki-dipped pitas that she and her cousin had taken out. She was disgusted with herself, even as she had taken the first two bites and tried to maintain some semblance of Presence with Song Yi. It was the incident at the bus stop earlier. To ESL-hampered Song Yi, it initially looked like a man quarrelling with a woman. The latter accepted it with a sheepish what-am-I-going-to-do-with-him smile. The man’s words, though, became so ugly and abusive that Min-Ju herself felt wounded. Song Yi had edged closer to Min-Ju, locking her arm in her cousin’s as thoughts of speaking up clenched in Min-Ju’s mind, but just as suddenly – and almost simultaneously – a thought of the man’s violent reaction flashed in Min-Ju’s mind, causing her to freeze. His shaven, tattooed head and bulging forearm veins didn’t help either. A streetcar pulled up with an oblivious, melodic chime, and the man and woman entered it. It wasn’t the car the cousins were waiting for. Still, they may as well have entered it too because the whole scene stayed with Min-Ju for the rest of the day, upsetting her even more because she realized how pathetic she’d become. Now, back at the condo, comforting carbohydrates was an indulgence she couldn’t let herself continue with. Putting the pita down and leaving Song Yi dozing on the sofa, she went up to her room, opened a drawer and pulled out a stack of paper: that discontinued novel Appa always asked her about. In frustration, on the blank side of one page, Min-Ju wrote:

“You did not say anything to that man, Min-Ju. You should have.”

At the end of each day out in the city with Song Yi, Min-Ju continued to write to herself things she knew she could have done or said in response to the injustices of the day. It is the little things that kill, and this was self-survival now: either she acts with courage when courage was called for or continues on in a fearful state, rotting away. She wouldn’t let herself live with the prospect that silence in injustice is the same as siding with it.

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At the airport on the day of Song Yi’s departure, Min-Ju held back tears as her cousin dissolved through the doors to the departure gates, waving back at the sisters. Their cousin had embodied a free, exuberant spirit and a genuine liking of Min-Ju’s company, unwavering even when Min-Ju thought her own depression was obvious and affecting. Some days later, as the sisters were having dinner, Min-Ju commented that Song Yi was one of her favourite people. Hyejin, slurping soon tofu soup, smiled to herself, happy her sister now had favourite people – and that Min-Ju was now venturing out of the condo.

But if Song-Yi had put bandages with kisses on Min-Ju’s wounds, her leaving peeled them off. Those wounds, still hosting maggots of Min-Ju’s troubles, regressed her into her depression; some days, she’d sit on her bedside, chin propped in her palm and continuously thinking nothing makes sense. Multiculturalism masqueraded as meritorious; malevolence masked as benevolence. Standing in a crowded streetcar, bleary-eyed and holding onto a pole, Min-Ju thought that if anyone had been observing her, they would gauge her as a sorry, sad, lonesome woman. What a shitty state this place was; the power and the people mutually masturbating for money. A man coughed absently into a handkerchief; another person as-absently rustled a newspaper. Min-Ju wondered if passengers would object inwardly to her being on the streetcar because you-can’t-trust-those-melancholy-mental-types. At least my hair’s alright, she thought. Out of an obligation to appear somewhat transit-normal, Min-Ju raised the folded newspaper she was holding and looked at what was on it. A few paragraphs into the piece, she was struck with a realization: not only was she reading, but she was also understanding – even experiencing, mentally, what was on the page. Pointedly noticeable, it was to her because focusing was something she struggled to do while heavy with depression and anxiety. The article was about finding a skeleton of a Neanderthal and that of a human in what was theorized to be an embrace of mutual acceptance.

Later that night:

“Min-Ju: Humanity supports you; at least, the idea of them watching you. It adds quality to your composure and actions, and it will heal you. 

Live as if humanity is watching, Min-Ju. It will lift you up (because you are very much identified with despair). It will help you to recognize beauty as well, e.g., with the musicians today.”

Earlier, whilst making her way through Finch station, Min-Ju had heard the sound of two subway musicians: a cellist and a violinist playing together. The music was the raw, aching beauty of humanity itself, rousing and moving inside her something strong and pure, a deep longing for everyone to live according to such a sound. She suddenly felt her senses crack open by an abrupt awareness of subway commuters around her. Awestruck, she watched the moving flesh, limbs and noisy, colourful Earthiness of the limber and fragile human forms before her; the pristine, shining Present. Min-Ju stood that way for a while before straightening up and approaching the musicians to place change inside the open cello case. She smiled at the men. “Thank you,” she said before walking away. Hell may be other people, she thought, but so is Hope.

With urgent, tunnelling need, Min-Ju continued writing herself into moving, functioning life; intelligent design and evolution now married. The personalities of the employment days were now unfamiliar to her: Sunday’s loveliness, the concrete Mondays, the quietly despairing Tuesdays and Wednesdays, Thursday’s hindering irrelevance, Friday’s cheerful triumph, the unshackled Saturdays. Min-Ju wrote down ways she could have better acted throughout those days; she wrote down all her mistakes then and those that she could remember since childhood. She wrote down and owned her misdeeds – small and big –, her unkindnesses and inconsiderations. One by one, in humility, she forgave herself for them. She wrote down the names of those who wronged her and what they did and forgave them, forgiving herself, too, for her complicity. She called those writings The Forgiveness Files.

And according to what she wrote, learned in settings both social and solitary, Min-Ju started to do. Washed in suffering and now scrubbed anew by her writings, every movement in each moment felt intimate and new, a discovery in the doing. She straightened her posture after two years of existing in slumped mode. She helped laden commuters carry their grocery bags and smiled happily with the drivers of streetcars and buses, chatting on occasion with them. More than one driver insisted she ride for free. She formed friendships with seniors and schoolchildren at the community gym, and she helped students with homework at the library. She ate consciously, savouring fruit in a pure, essential way like she hadn’t before, and she groomed herself without indecisive pretension. And likewise, so Min-Ju carried on. In the trains, she found that looking away from the young men whose eyes she met hurt her more than it probably did them – it hurt humanity. So one morning, on her way to an interview, Min-Ju smiled then winked at one young man, who broke out in a shy grin before looking down at the floor. Looking up again, he winked back, grinning. The subway car was almost full, but just the two of them were Present. Whatever ill a boy did to a girl, and a girl did to a boy, it was all forgiven.

At the interview in the ESL center, the school’s principal held up Min-Ju’s application, peering down at it through thick-rimmed glasses. “There is a three-year gap on your résumé,” she pointed out, looking at Min-Ju, waiting.

 “That,” Min-Ju said carefully, drawing a breath in before a wide grin broke out across her face, “that was when I did the greatest work of my life.”

Tristan Marajh is the 1st-Prize Winner of The Stratford Writing Competition and a Winner in The William Faulkner Literary Competition. Their work appears in Existere: A Journal of Arts & Literature, The Bombay Review, Ricepaper Magazine, Solstice: A Magazine of Diverse Voices, The New Quarterly and others. They reside in Toronto.

The Best Man’s Speech

By Anita Haas


Ping. Pam, hair wrapped cold and wet on her head, fumbled in her bag for the cell phone. It was not an easy task. She was sitting in the salon where she came to get her hair done every Wednesday before meeting Ted. 

It was a message and friend request from someone called “the best man.” 

Hi Pam. Stewart Wallace, here. You may remember me from one of Ted’s parties. I suppose you know he is marrying Noreen, our boss’s daughter. He asked me to be his best man. As Ted and I have not worked together long, I thought I’d ask some of his old friends for anecdotes or funny stories I could incorporate into my speech. It’s my first time as best man! I ask that you keep this a secret, as I want this to be a surprise for Ted. Thanks in advance for any assistance.

Shock waves washed through Pam’s body. Ted marrying Noreen? He hadn’t told her that. They met every Wednesday, and the whole time he had his own plans! 

Should she not go? Should she confront him?

“Pam …” the hairdresser’s sing-song voice called her back to the present. 

“Oh, sorry, Romi, Yeah, go ahead, do it the usual way. Looks great.”

Forty minutes later, Pam was in her white sports car, the one her husband Curtis had given her for her last birthday, just after she had started asking him about a certain woman named Rita. She checked her make-up in the mirror and drove off to the law firm where Ted worked. He never wanted to meet there, insisting on a restaurant or his place. Now she understood why; his fiancée Noreen worked there too. 

Shaking, she waited a moment. She imagined herself storming into his office. He would just laugh at her angry face. Maybe she should act cold and dignified. He would see through that, too. 

“What’s all this about?” he asked, irritated as she presented herself at his door. “I thought I told you not to come here. We were meeting at Clanetti’s for lunch.”

Pam felt her willpower failing, but she had to go on. “What’s this about you getting married?”

“Oh, you got the invitation already? Noreen just sent them out yesterday. That was quick.”

“You never mentioned it to me.”

He was reclining in his chair, his long, lean body stretched out, and chuckled, “Well, a man doesn’t talk about certain things when he’s … are you sure I never mentioned it?”

Pam collapsed on the chair opposite him. Her anger had lost its steam. How did other women do it? The ones who marched around demanding explanations? 

“It’s just that I thought maybe someday we’d ….”

“Come now. You’re perfectly fine married to Curtis. He’s too busy with work to notice. He buys you everything you want, and you have the time and money to stay beautiful. And you are beautiful.” He stood up and strode around the desk. He placed his hands on her shoulders, pulled her long tresses back and started kissing her neck. “We can go on as we are. I’m only marrying Noreen so that one day the company will be mine. Oliver Wendell likes me. He thinks his daughter is too naive to run the business, even though she is a lawyer too. He has her working here as a receptionist because he doesn’t trust her!” Ted chuckled. “That’s where yours truly comes in.”

Pam squirmed, making a timid show at pushing him away. He insisted. “Well, since you’re here now, we can get to the good stuff before lunch.”

This had happened before; in fact, every time, they disagreed. He just had to touch her, and she would give in.

She gasped as his hands slid down into her bra and cupped her breasts. He pulled her up gently and guided her towards the table. 

“Your colleagues?”

“Out for lunch.” She leaned forward over the table. He held her down with his left hand and undid his belt with his right. 

Pam was still furious, but she would think about that later. For the moment, she pushed her new lace thong down and arched her back.

He smacked her butt and groaned. “Knew you wouldn’t stay mad for long. Wish all women were so easy to tame.”

When they finished, he sent her off, saying he didn’t have time for lunch in the end, too much work. “I wonder if Curtis knows what a slut he has for a wife.”

Pam shivered. She pulled her sweater closed and turned her face away when he tried to kiss her goodbye. He smirked. “Okay. Go be dignified. See you next week.” 

That night Curtis came home late, as usual. He was surprised not to find Pam watching TV and keeping dinner warm. She was at her computer instead, clad in a tracksuit, no make-up, hair in a ponytail and glasses on. Her dog, Midgy, given to her when she started talking about kids, snoozed on her lap.

“What’s this?” he barked. “You look like crap.”

“Oh,” she removed her glasses and turned to him. “Sorry. What time is it?”

“Ten o’clock. Who’ve you been chatting to?”

“Just Romi. She’s having problems at work.”

“Well, tell her you to have to sign off. Your husband is home. God, next thing I know, you’ll be fat and wearing huge flowered house-dresses with your hair in a bun.”

Pam got up and slipped past him into the kitchen. She avoided his eyes but could not avoid the reek of whisky. She opened the fridge, “There’s some leftover chicken. Or a frozen pizza?”

“Should have picked something up somewhere. Yeah, okay, chicken.”

The kitchen chair creaked as Curtis sank into it and started leafing through the mail. 

“Hey, guess what? Ted’s getting married again.”

Pam, her back to him, opened the micro-wave and shoved in the chicken. “Oh?”

“Yeah, and what a guy! Didn’t even tell me himself. I got this weird message from … do you remember that dude we met at a party once? I think that’s him. Someone Ted works with named Stewart. Says he’s going to be the best man.”

“Strange he didn’t ask you again. You are his best friend.” 

“Naw, I don’t care about that stuff. Better this other guy.”

Pam heard the waver in his voice. Why did he have to put on the act? And for her?

“What does this Stewart guy want?”

The microwave dinged, and she withdrew the dish.

“Something about funny stories. You know how the best man has to make a funny speech.” He hooted too loud. “That’s probably why Ted doesn’t want me to be the best man again. Remember the last time?”

She did remember. It had been pathetic. Curtis had been so nervous he got pissed drunk beforehand and then embarked on a slew of dirty jokes and tall tales. 

She brought the steaming plate over to the table. “So, I guess he’s marrying that girl from the party too. What was her name?”

“Can’t remember. Not much to look at. Then again, neither was Paula. Ted sure has bad taste in women. Not like me.” He leaned forward and tweaked her cheek. “Hey, sorry about what I said before, kid. You will never get fat.”

Her plate was empty, as usual. She watched him eat dutifully.

Pam remembered how they used to laugh about Paula. Dark, short, tubby, with heavy eyebrows and a faint moustache, while Ted was so tall and attractive. Now, she wasn’t sure there was so much to laugh about. Paula had recovered from the divorce, she was a success in her job, and the last time Pam ran into her in the mall, she looked radiant. Maybe not tall, tanned and gym-toned like herself, but radiant.

“What are you going to tell him?”

“The truth, of course!” Curtis snorted, his mouth full. “Going to tell him what a bastard his new friend is!” He raised his beer glass to her, “Hey, aren’t you eating?”

“Not hungry.” She hadn’t eaten since breakfast. 

“Better. Nothing worse than a fat wife.”

What would you like me to tell you? she had asked Stewart on chat earlier that evening.

Tell me how you met.

Here at Somerleigh University. Ted and my husband were best friends. Well, best friends and worst enemies.


You know, rivalry. Both are tall, good-looking, smart, competitive. Both are successful in their careers.

I see.

I’m younger than they are. They played basketball. My girlfriends and I would go and cheer them on. God, how silly that sounds now.

Before she knew it, Pam was telling Stewart intimate details she hadn’t even shared with her closest friend. She told him about her marriage and about her various failed attempts at developing her own interests; the shoe boutique, the design studio, even a stint at selling cosmetics. 

She was on the point of disclosing her affair with Ted when Curtis arrived. She was grateful for the interruption. It cooled her head. How could she possibly tell a perfect stranger about that? But when she heard Curtis snore, she felt drawn to the computer. Would Stewart still be there? There was something in his distant yet understanding way of “listening” to her … 


The next night Curtis lingered at his desk. It was past quitting time, and he had had a gruelling day. He considered going for a drink but was too exhausted, and at home, he would have to chat with Pam. 

He thought about writing this Stewart guy to reminisce about the good old days. It was strange writing personal things to someone you didn’t know. It reminded him of something that had happened in his office a while back; he and a couple of other guys on the floor had played a joke on Russell, a shy, nerdy type, by inventing a girlfriend for him on Facebook. 

But this was different. This was a real person, and he’d actually met him at least once. But it seemed a bit unmasculine to hide behind a social media page. Couldn’t he just call? Or better yet, meet for a few beers?

He opened the chat. 

Hello Stewart? You wrote me yesterday about Ted.

Hi Curtis. Thanks for responding. Hate to bother you. It’s just, I’d like to know some odd things about Ted. Nothing too serious or personal. Maybe just tell me how you met.


Curtis had poured himself a whiskey. 

We met during the first year of university. Both top of the class, good at sports, good with the girls. LOL.

LOL. I can believe that!

But I was better at that last one than he was.

Interesting! Tell me more!

Don’t get me started, LOL! My wife, for one. We both ogled her. He started going out with her, but she dropped him like a hat when she met me! LOL, That really pissed him off.

I’m sure it did!

Curtis took a sip of whiskey.

So, he started going out with this ugly chick named Paula. What a dog! Smart though, gotta hand it to her. Maybe too smart for Ted.


Curtis took a swig this time.

You know. Both lawyers. She got better grades, got a job before he did. 

What happened to her?

They got married around the time we did.

Curtis reached for his glass, realized it was empty and poured some more.

But that isn’t funny anecdotes. Wait till I tell you about the camping trip!


Curtis took another swig and paused as his eyes readjusted to the screen. He was feeling a bit foggy.

We used to go camping.


LOL, you know how us guys are!

I’ve been on my share of camping trips, yes.

’Course you have. There was that time when …

Curtis paused. His face was red and sweating. 

Curtis, still there?

Yup, still here.

The camping trip?

There were these girls.

What girls?

Just some girls. Came along in a canoe. We were partying with some other guys.

Curtis paused again, glanced at his empty glass, and rubbed his eyes. He wondered if he should continue. It had been so long since he had thought about that trip. Maybe he had never really thought about it at all. Why was he telling this to some complete stranger when he had never confided it to anyone, not even his wife? In fact, he and Ted had never mentioned it again. Why hadn’t they? It would spoil the fun. He felt the sudden need to share it now. He looked at the whiskey bottle but didn’t pour himself another glass.

We were too drunk to think straight. Young. 19, 20, can’t remember.


Yes? Yes? What are you, a psychiatrist? Didn’t you say you’d been on your share of camping trips? Can’t you imagine what happened?

You raped one of the girls.

Curtis stared at the screen. The words imprinted themselves on his retina.

Is that what happened, Curtis?

Curtis suddenly remembered he was chatting with a lawyer. How could he have been so stupid? What had come over him? He decided to change his tune. He poured more whiskey for assistance and forced a big belly laugh, all alone in his empty office.

Oh, now, I wouldn’t call it rape! Those girls came in their boat knowing what they were getting into. They were looking for a good time!

Were they drunk?

Drunk and high. We had a good supply with us.

Who went first?

Ted. It was his idea.

You held her arms and covered her mouth.

Ted covered her mouth. 

And, when it was your turn?

Curtis stared at the screen. He had done it again. Damn lawyers! Well, this one had no proof, no names, nothing.

Look, what are you fishing for? Do you plan to use this in your speech?

No, sorry. Didn’t mean to pry. Just seemed like you wanted to get it off your chest.

My chest is fine. And I have said enough!

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Gabriel headed to the ChitChat Café at 8a.m., as usual. Wendy and her mom arrived earlier to start baking and get the coffee perking. Some students would already be there. 

Lately, his role in the business was taking a backseat, although he had been the one who opened it years ago, barely out of university. 

Gabriel was a Spanish immigrant on a student visa then. It would have been difficult for him to start a business with no one to back him. Still, his friends, Ted and Nick, were geniuses in acquiring money and getting around the law. Both were too slimy for his liking, and now he was married to an honest, hard-working girl who would be shocked if she discovered the tricks he had been involved in. 

Ted and Nick needed Gabriel’s computer skills, creating an army of false identities to promote their businesses, cloning sites, hacking, email scams, industrial espionage and more. He had helped reluctantly but dutifully, knowing he owed them. Nick was already in jail, and he wouldn’t be surprised if Ted would soon be on his way. Gabriel wanted to have as little to do with either of these characters as possible.

When he opened the cyber-café, it was at the heyday of computer technology. Students came to write their essays and make long-distance calls. Now, everyone had tablets and called home using Skype, Messenger or FaceTime. The only customers he had lately were older people who came to his workshops in the backroom to learn how to use their devices. 

Thankfully, his resourceful wife had turned the place into one of the trendiest cafés in town. Soft music played, and coffee brewed as the warming smell of cookies, muffins, and squares wafted from the tiny kitchen. Patrons sat in comfy wicker chairs, either in the reading corner, surrounded by magazines racks and small potted trees, or out on the sidewalk, under the big awning which stretched all the way to the street. Sheers flitted in the breeze, and the walls were always decorated with the exhibitions of some local artist or other, who would celebrate their openings there. Every day of the week was booked; a writer’s group, a book club, language exchanges, children’s hour, even a knitting circle. 

He knew he was fortunate with his in-laws too. Wendy, being an only child, her well-off parents had accepted her marrying a dirt-poor foreign student, investing both time and money in the business. 

Gabriel’s duties were limited to the technical side. He had to ensure the phones, computers and photocopier were working, and give his classes.

He hadn’t thought about Nick or Ted in a while, but this morning on his way to work, he heard the Messenger ping on his phone. It was a message and friend request from someone named Stewart, explaining that he was going to be Ted’s best man. Gabriel shook his head. Ted getting married again after what he had done to that poor girl, Paula. Stewart said he wanted some funny stories to use in his speech. 

After several hours in the backroom doctoring a sick laptop, he wandered to the counter where Wendy and his mother-in-law, Joanne, were attending the regulars. 

“Can I help?” 

“No!” They answered in unison. Joanne stuffed a peanut butter cookie in his mouth and shooed him away, “This is woman’s work.” But he knew better. It was because he was a clutz; he kept dropping things, spilling coffee on customers … it was embarrassing. 

There were no workshops today, so he thought he’d busy himself by looking up some new programs, but he’d quickly check his email and social media accounts. He saw Stewart’s message again. Well, it wouldn’t be polite not to answer. May as well get it out of the way. But what funny anecdotes could he tell?

Stewart? Gabriel here. Got your message this morning. I don’t know how much of a help I can be.

Gabriel! Thanks for responding. Maybe just tell me how you and Ted met.

Well, I’m from Madrid. I came to study Computer Science here in Ontario. I met Ted and his friend Nick through some Spanish students here. Nick was going out with one of them.

And Ted?

Gabriel hesitated. There were so few good things he could say about Ted.

Ted was going out with a girl named Paula.

Yes, I know, but …

You know Ted better than you say you do! LOL Yes, he was seeing one … at least one … of the Spanish girls, too.

How had he let that loose? He could feel the anger well up again after all these years. A mixture of jealousy and protectiveness. He thought of Angeles. It’s not that he had wanted to go out with her exactly, but he envied the awe Ted inspired in women, especially because he knew how he treated them. 

LOL, Good ole Ted. I wouldn’t have expected any less of him☺ 

It was so long ago, and we haven’t kept in touch.

Ted mentioned you run an internet café.

Yes. With my wife.

You and Ted must have given each other a hand sometimes. Professionally, I mean.

This question seemed a bit impertinent to Gabriel. 

Occasionally. I thought you wanted anecdotes. Do you intend to talk about work stuff at the wedding?

You’re right. Sorry for prying. If you can think of anything else …

Suddenly Gabriel felt a rush of remorse. 

Ted helped me a lot. I am very grateful for what he and his contacts did when I needed help starting my business.

There. That was the manly thing to do, wasn’t it? Credit where credit was due, even if to a bastard.


“Mommy! Mommy!” Five-year-old Adéle hopped up and down to get Paula’s attention. “Remember you have to pick me up from ballet today!”

“Yes, sweetie. Don’t worry. And if I can’t, Daddy will be there.” Paula glanced up at Justin to be sure he was okay with it.

Justin smiled back at her. Everything was okay with him, but she liked him to know she wasn’t just taking it for granted.

“Okay, we gotta go now, princess.” he was saying, as Paula heard a ping in her phone, “Don’t wanna be late.”

Maybe it was Jan from the office. A bit early for messages. She would check after Justin took Adéle to school.

She kissed them both goodbye. Paula had some meetings today, so she was going into the office a bit later. She pulled out her phone. It was a message from Stewart. She remembered him. He worked with her ex-husband, Ted.

As she read, old emotions flooded back. Ted was getting married again. She couldn’t care less. The divorce was the best thing that had happened to her. She was a million times happier with Justin. How could two men be so different? She was so lucky not to have fallen into the same trap as so many others, repeating negative relationship patterns. It hadn’t been easy, of course. She had needed two years of therapy. 

Stewart wanted funny anecdotes to tell at the wedding! 

That poor girl he was marrying, so shy and naive. Ted would eat her alive!

She would think about it later. As she moved through her day, Paula’s mind kept pulling back to the request. That had always been her problem; putting other people’s needs first, never being able to say no. An unanswered email would nag at her until she sat down and answered it, even if it was only to say she would get back to them later.

So, by the time Adéle was in bed that evening, and Justin was busy grading papers, she sat at her computer and stared at the message. Snippets of memory had been snaking through her thoughts all day. 

She began typing. 

Hi Stewart! Nice to hear from you. Of course, I remember you. Love to help, but as you know, haha, Ted and I divorced. Not sure there are many funny things I can tell you. And I don’t want to be a bore and rant like a disgruntled ex-wife. LOL.

There was an immediate answer. 

Thanks for responding, Paula. I suppose it is strange to ask the ex-wife for info. LOL. But you know him better than anyone! Maybe just tell me how you met.

In kindergarten! We are both from a tiny farming village in Northern Ontario.

No! What was Ted like as a kid?

LOL, you won’t believe it. He was the shyest kid in the class.


Yes! I felt sorry for him. I adopted him like a little brother. The other boys wouldn’t play with him, and he was really hurt by that.

I would never have imagined.

He doesn’t want anyone to know that, so please don’t mention it.

No, no. I’m glad you are showing me a different side of him. His family?

God, horrible! Father was a brute. Belonged to some weird sect. Super-strict. Mother left, but Ted stayed with dad and grandmother, who was just like the father. They turned him against his mother. When she tried to get him back, he wouldn’t go. Now he tells everyone she was a whore and abandoned him.

Yes, I think I heard him say something like that once.

Came to our house a lot. Better atmosphere.

Is he in touch with his family now?

The grandmother died, the father is in a home with Alzheimer’s, won’t talk about his mother. Flew into a rage if I mentioned her.

Wow. So, you were sweethearts as kids already!

Oh, no! I always took care of him, sure. But later, he got more confident. That loud, tyrannical confidence his father had. He grew tall, smart, good-looking. Soon, girls noticed him, and boys respected him. I was like a sister. In university, he was with pretty Pam. Don’t know if he was in love or if it was a status thing. All the guys envied him.

Pam? The woman married to his friend Curtis?

Right. Ted and Curtis met in first year. They became great friends, well, you know. Who said that “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer”? That kind of friendship. LOL

So …

Suddenly Paula realized she was revealing a lot of personal information. She certainly didn’t owe Ted any loyalty, but what if he found out and retaliated? 

Stewart, I shouldn’t be telling you this.

No. Sorry. I just wanted to know how you met.

Paula felt terrible. It was true. He had only asked her that. What was it about this Stewart that made her feel she could trust him so? 

No, I’m sorry. You weren’t nosy. See, Ted was kind of the leader among his friends. They admired and hated him. Pam ended up with Curtis. I think that was the most courageous thing she has ever done because of abandoning Ted … but the poor thing went from the frying pan to the fire because Curtis is cut from the same cloth.

What is Pam like?

She’s changed. When I first met her, she was a typical empty-headed bimbo, only thinking about make-up, clothes and marrying money.

And now?

She still worries about those things, but I think she realizes she has missed out. But she’s not sure on what or how to find it. I saw her a while ago in the mall. She seemed drained. Beautiful, thin and perfectly made-up with great hair, but sad. I felt sorry for her for the first time.

So, how did you and Ted end up getting married?

I guess you could say I fell for it.


I always loved Ted. Somehow, I always thought we would end up together. It would just take time. I kept him in line, helped him study, was the one he confided in. I even wrote his papers for him. God, what an idiot I was! Of course, I am not the kind of girl who attracts those kinds of guys. After Pam left him, he came to me. Told me he always loved me, how blind he had been, etc. Later I realized it was because I had a job, could help him, and also Curtis and Pam had announced their wedding. Imagine! Ted being upstaged like that! Of course, he acted like he didn’t care. He sang my praises to everyone, and I must admit, I loved it. He insisted we get married the week before they did. Just because. I was thrilled. I didn’t want to see reality. Tell you the truth, I think Curtis only snatched Pam away to show off. So, there we were, LOL, two happily married couples!

I’m sorry.

She had gone and done it again. Why was it that once you were on a roll, it was so hard to stop? Was that what confession was like? 

How long were you married?

Two years. I got him a job where I worked, but that backfired immediately.


Ted has these underhanded ways. I told him I didn’t want trouble. My first job as a lawyer, and I wanted to make a good start. He got us both fired.


But he had other deals going on. Wanted to get me involved, and at first, to avoid fights, I did.


It’s complicated. Real estate gimmicks, false companies they got people to invest in. Terrible. And other things. Stopped telling me about them. I finally got a job in an NGO, the kind of thing I love. Still there. He laughed at me, called me a martyr, a goody-two-shoes, all that. Haha! Maybe you can use that in your speech! But he knew how to wiggle his way out. He and his friends Nick and Curtis. Then Curtis got a job in a company. Good for him. Pretty above-board now, more out of fear than honesty. Not as reckless as Ted. And Nick is in jail. Ted should be there with him. Now, he has this Wendell family fooled. I wish I could warn them. 

Thanks for writing. And sorry if it stirred up bad memories.

I am happy now. What bothers me is the memory of that vulnerable little boy. How I took care of him. Always did. Until we divorced. My question will always be; Was he a good little boy who turned bad because of his hurtful circumstances, or was he always a bad little boy, afraid to show it until he had the confidence to?

The Wedding

Oliver and Cecilia Wendell forced smiles as the guests’ cars meandered up their long driveway. Oliver glanced at his watch. “What the hell is going on?” he grumbled to his wife without losing his smile. 

“Don’t know.” Her smile was as stiff as her golden hair. 

“Well, I know she wanted a small wedding, but this is ridiculous!”

It was almost four o’clock, and so far, the dozen or so guests present were his employees and some friends of his daughter. Where were his business associates?  

He peered at his wife. “Did you send out all the invitations?” Cecilia had been known to show vengefulness over the years, but this would be going too far.

“Noreen insisted on sending them.” Cecilia waved to an incoming vehicle. “Look, here come the Wallaces. Jake! Fiona! Stewart! Hello!” Then, she murmured, “Fiona told me Stewart has been kind of depressed lately. Hope he gives a nice speech!”

“Send them herself? How could you trust her with a responsibility like that? It’s a good thing I found her a husband who will take care of things.” He was annoyed that his wife was taking this all too lightly. “Stewart depressed? He has been a bit quiet lately. To think that before Ted came along, I thought that he and Noreen might … well, thank God Ted came along!” He spotted his daughter greeting some musicians pulling instruments out of their trunk. 

His irritation softened at the sight of her. Tiny and thin with wispy light brown hair and pale, freckled skin, she was his nymph, his fairy. More like airy-fairy! She was wearing a satin wedding dress and a delicate wreathe of lilies. 

Although she had been a good student, he did not intend for her to work as a lawyer. She should be a lady, like her mother, taken care of by a strong man, while she occupied herself with things like home decoration and entertaining. Although she hadn’t done so well in that department this time around! His irritation returned, “Noreen!”

She waved to him, “Not now, Dad! I’m getting the musicians organized.” 

Oliver’s jaw set. Not now, Dad? Who did she think she was? 

Cecilia slipped her arm through his, “Come on, dear. It’s time.” No more cars snaked up the drive. They followed the flagstone path to the back garden with resigned smiles, where several rows of folding chairs had been set up near the swimming pool, facing a podium under Cecilia’s rose arbour. A violinist and solo singer squeezed in between the arbour and a hedge. 

Oliver and Cecilia looked around. Everything was lovely, but very small scale. Noreen skipped towards them with a young minister. “Mom, Dad. I know you must be surprised. But you’ll understand later. I really couldn’t have a big, showy wedding.”

“My little girl.” Oliver touched his daughter’s hair. He had lost the irritation again. “You know you are going to have to overcome this shyness of yours sometime. I was hoping that would be today.” How could she ever have considered being a lawyer if she couldn’t bear being the centre of attention? 

“Oh, Dad. Forgive me. Let me celebrate this day my way. Mom, Dad. This is Reverend Beasley.”

“But Reverend Carlson has always officiated at the services in this family!”

“I’m afraid he is not feeling well today.”

“We’ll see about that! I’m going to call him right ….”

“Oliver!” Cecilia took his arm. “Let’s not make a scene. Thank you for coming in his place, Reverend Beasley.”

Noreen flitted off to greet Ted, who had just arrived. Ted looked as perplexed at the attendance as Oliver, but Noreen ushered him to his place. “Quickly, now, Reverend Beasely has a funeral in an hour!”

The ceremony took exactly fifteen minutes, after which Noreen shooed everyone to the other side of the house, where some tables had been arranged around a make-shift dance floor. A three-piece band had just finished setting up.

Oliver felt faint and leaned on his wife for support, “A finger-food buffet!” he wheezed as he observed the table offering potato chips, olives and other scant snacks. 

“Come on, Dad!” Noreen bounced towards him as the band started up, “Let’s waltz!” She already had a champagne glass in her hand. Ted led Cecilia onto the floor to the cheers of the guests toasting glasses. No one had ever seen Noreen so lively. 

After two waltzes, the musicians fell silent, and the bridal couple took their places at the head table. The moment for speeches had arrived.

The guests took their seats and eyed each other nervously. Pam recognized Gabriel and Wendy, the couple from the cyber-café. She also recognized Rita Clanetti and her new husband, Eddie. And there was Paula and her husband! Did Noreen and Ted have no other friends?

Pam’s stomach twitched when Stewart got to his feet. What if he mentioned something she had said? What if he alluded to her? Curtis poured himself another glass of champagne and began clearing his throat. She knew he was nervous. She glanced over at Gabriel. He was shifting in his seat. Rita Clanetti stared fixedly at Stewart’s face, and Paula didn’t stop fanning herself and wiping her brow.

But Stewart’s speech was nothing more than a mundane list of office anecdotes – poking fun at Ted for little foibles like using the ladies’ room the first day at work and having mistaken his own future bride for a cleaning lady, followed by a tribute to Noreen’s virtues, “I will close now by congratulating my rival (haha), Ted, and by asking him to please care for her and honour her as she deserves. You are a lucky man!”

The guests burst into a round of applause and cheers, as much for the touching speech as for the great wave of relief that washed over them. As Oliver stood up to sing his son-in-law’s praises, Pam could feel the collective release of tension. 

Then Ted stood up to praise his father-in-law, and by the time Noreen opened her mouth, everyone was chatting and checking their cell phones. 

But people started paying attention when they heard their names mentioned. 

“I would like to say thank you to everyone here for helping me put my speech together.” She raised her champagne glass. “Pam, Curtis, Gabriel, Paula, Rita …” 

The chatter stopped, and the phones were put aside. What was she talking about?


Noreen felt scared. Noreen almost always felt scared. When she met new people, she was afraid they would find her boring or stupid. Before some new challenge, she lay awake at night, fearing the worst. 

She had been scared in university, always feeling like an imposter. 

And at work, where colleagues waited for the boss’s daughter to screw up. 

And with men. Especially Ted. After he discovered she was not the cleaner, Ted’s attitude toward her took a dramatic turn. It acquired an intensity that both flattered and terrified her. 

The giggly airhead mask had served her as a child when a wide-eyed smile pacified an impatient father and from behind which, she could observe others, like Ted, in the moments when his own mask slipped. She often wished she could exchange it for another, but this was the one she believed she was stuck with. 

And today, Noreen was so spectacularly scared she felt giddy. Risking everything gave her a heady liberation. She found herself in that wonderful moment when you realize it is too late to stop what you have started, like jumping off a cliff. Just close your eyes and hope you land in a better place than where you jumped from. 

Noreen had always allowed herself to be pushed into corners. This time, she had literally smiled and giggled herself into one. It seemed easier to go along with things than to fight back, and there was always the chance that people would stop pushing. But the more she surrendered, the more was demanded until she feared for her own breath. This particular corner – marriage to Ted – was worse than being disowned, ridiculed, or left to fend for herself. 

But what could she do? Couldn’t just run away or stand at the altar and cry!

But crying was just what she had been doing that day not long ago, right here in this very garden, when her mother found her …

Noreen giggled at the surprised faces. “You see, I haven’t known my husband long, and I wanted to find out more about him before I took the plunge.” The group was silent. She had their attention. This had never happened before. It was seductive. 

And that day in the garden, Noreen confided her terror to Cecilia.

“My father wanted me to marry Ted because he was sure I wasn’t capable of running the firm.” She was sure of it too, but where had that certainty come from? Every day at the office, she was relieved when colleagues were entrusted with tasks she found overwhelming. And yet, they floundered too. Often, she would timidly point out a problem or offer a solution, but when she took Oliver or Ted aside to propose her ideas, they hardly listened. Now they all were! She spoke rapidly, so they wouldn’t lose interest and pull out their phones again.

And that day in the garden, she and her mother came up with a plan. Some daring ideas popped into Noreen’s head. And as Oliver well knew, his wife was known to be vengeful at times.

 “Well, Dad, I have done some investigating. You shall be the judge!”

Oliver stood up, “Noreen! You’ve had too much champagne!”

Ted tried to lead her into the house. The guests shifted and murmured. 

Curtis took a gulp of his drink and raised his hand. “Umm. Can I say something”

Noreen ignored him. “Our guests have obliged me well by confiding in our best man, Stewart.”

Stewart got to his feet, “What?”

“Thanks to Stewart’s emails, WhatsApp and chats, he discovered all sorts of fascinating information!”

“Noreen, I never … I don’t even like social media. How could I ….”

“Of course, you didn’t. I did! You don’t think they would tell me the truth, do you?” Stewart sat back down, his face a mix of admiration and fear. 

Noreen reached into her handbag for a roll of paper tied with a white ribbon and handed it to her father.

 Among other things, she had found Ted guilty of rape, wife abuse, and fraud. Once given the opportunity, everyone had spilled so much more information than she had hoped for, like they needed to cleanse themselves of everything Ted. 

“Thank you all.” Was this how the rest of the world experienced life? No worries about offending others or sounding pompous? Like a euphoric actress after a performance, she smiled and curtseyed. 

“I have found Theodore Falk to be guilty of a lot of things, but mainly just of being a jerk.” 

“Noreen! You’re drunk.” Ted shouted, white-faced. “Do something, Oliver!”

But Oliver was squinting at the pages. He raised an eyebrow at Ted.

“Let me see that!” Ted got up and tried to snatch the pages from him.

“Oh no, you don’t! Stewart, my boy, come take a look at this.”

The tension among the guests buzzed. Noreen, delicate fairy gone mad, reassured them, “This is, of course, a kangaroo court, the purpose of which was to show my father that he had made two mistakes.” She looked over at Oliver, expecting his wrath. He looked up from the pages, expectant.

“One, about my husband’s credibility, and two, about my professional abilities.”

Oliver chuckled and shook his head. “I sure underestimated my little girl.” He handed the pages to Stewart and gazed at Ted.

Ted glared at Oliver, then at Noreen. “If all of this was a farce to implicate me, why did you marry me?”

Noreen giggled. “I didn’t! Beasley is no reverend. He is an actor friend of mine. Thanks, Bease!” she waved. Everyone turned. No one had noticed Beasley behind them, now dressed as a waiter. Beasley had been her confidant since university when she had tried theatre to overcome her shyness. Beasley and his boyfriend, Sheldon, the violinist and caterer, had assisted with all the arrangements. 

Car doors slammed at the front of the house, and Bosco, the family dog, barked. Ted, Curtis, and several others tensed. “Oh!” Noreen trilled. “It’s five o’clock. That must be Reverend Carlson and the other wedding guests.” 

The guests gasped and murmured. 

Noreen had successfully shamed Ted. She had won the respect of her father. The last and most daring risk of the evening had arrived. If she screwed up here, all would be lost. But she had momentum on her side. That, and the encouraging smiles of Cecilia, Fiona, Beasley, Sheldon and Candy, her maid of honour. They had helped. With both weddings. The small one here in the side garden, and the larger one behind the pool. 

There was one more close friend whose face she sought out. 

Cecilia Wendell and Fiona Wallace had met in the ChitChat Café’s Thursday night book club. The two families soon became inseparable. They vacationed together, and Oliver had even given Stewart his first job. Noreen and Stewart acted like siblings. Although neither of them made a move, their parents wondered if the friendship might develop into romance. Of course, there had been one or two alcohol-induced indulgences the parents knew nothing about. Still, embarrassment caused the young people to feign forgetfulness.

All that changed when Ted appeared and blinded Oliver with his self-confidence. Who could compete with such charisma? 

And just about the time that Noreen confided in her mother, Stewart confided in his. And so, the final, most important touch was added to their plan.

 What a spectacular way to teach Oliver and Ted, those two puffed-up bull-frogs, a lesson!

Noreen took a deep breath, squeezed her eyes shut and blurted like a child on a dare, “Stewart Wallace, will you marry me?”

Anita Haas is a differently-abled Canadian writer and teacher based in Madrid, Spain. She has published books on film and music, two novelettes, a short story collection, articles, poems, and fiction in English and Spanish. Her fiction has appeared in some publications, including Falling Star Magazine, The Tulane Review, Literary Brushstrokes, The Zodiac Review, River Poets Journal, Scarlet Leaf Review, Terror House Magazine, Wink and Adelaide Magazine. She spends her free time watching films and enjoying tapas and flamenco with her writer husband and two cats.

Bon Appetit

By Gary Wosk

[In 1995, a prominent Los Angeles restauranteur disappeared. The following classified information was provided to the author of this story by a Los Angeles Police Department detective who requested to remain anonymous. To this day the case has remained unsolved. I have pieced together the following series of events. It is strictly conjecture on my part, but all signs point in this direction. I have also changed the names of the characters mentioned in the story to protect me from any possible lawsuits.]

“Undercooked!” blurted out Charles, the conceited owner of Restaurant Ombrelle, after spitting a half-chewed morsel of chicken onto his linen napkin at his employee’s home.

His host, Paul, a very well-known French chef who had served the dish, was stunned. He usually bit his lip when Charles complained, which was often, but he had crossed the red line this time. This was the ultimate insult as far as he was concerned.

Undercooked? Paul blared out incredulously. “What?”

“You heard me,” said Charles, a rotund man with an oily complexion and a bad comb-over. His nose became even upturned when his feathers were ruffled.

“This chicken is not completely cooked. Are you trying to make me sick?”

“C’este impossible. Comment tu m’unsult!” said Paul, a much slimmer man who wore a razor-thin mustache that rested just above his lip.

“Spare me zee French words,” said Charles mockingly.

“First, you impugn my reputation, and then you criticize my language,” said Paul accusingly. “How dare you.”

The ponytailed Paul wanted to slap his guest silly. Before he could raise his hand, however, he thought better of it. He didn’t want to spoil his new surprise dinner plans. Instead, he meekly asked for an apology even though rage simmered under his skin like a bowl of bouillabaisse.

“I believe you owe me an apology,” said Paul.

“Apologize. Ha. You should beg for my forgiveness for possibly infecting me with salmonella!”

The chef retorted, “For your information, the supermarket chicken is not undercooked. It has been cooked to perfection. And it cost only seven dollars and fifty-nine cents, plus tax, for a two-pound bird that looks like a small turkey. A bargain. There’s enough chicken to here to last a week, so you’re welcome to come back.”

“Supermarket chicken!” erupted Charles. “How dare you serve me this inferior poultry, you fool!” He worried that the ingredients that he had just regurgitated were impure and would cause permanent damage to his delicate gastrological system. “You idiot!”

“I wish you would not address me in that manner,” said Paul. He wanted to call him a gluttonous baboon but refrained; otherwise, the outburst could ruin everything.

“I’ll use any words I want. Remember, it was I who rescued you from the pancake house when you first came to America and only made minimum wage as a short-order cook. I put you through a French cooking school. I took a big chance on you. And this is how you repay me? With this rotgut? My God, I may have to go to urgent care.”

“Yes, my dear friend. I have never forgotten how you save me,” said Paul. He also hadn’t forgotten how Charles would make him work on his days off and dock his pay if diners were not one hundred percent satisfied with their meals or would go into a tirade if he served one morsel too much of food or if he was a few minutes late. And then there were the little digs. The slights that Paul that put up with.

“Obviously, you need a refresher course on how to thoroughly cook chicken,” Charles said in his typical condescending tone.

And back and forth, they went like a fencing match. One on offence, the other on defence. And this is how it usually went when Charles and Paul met before the order was restored by their level-headed wives. Fortunately, their spouses were out of town, thought Paul. Perfect timing. He had an axe to grind.

“Please, Charles. Calm down. Let’s stop the arguing,” said Paul, extending an insincere olive branch.

Instead of agreeing to a ceasefire, however, Charles lobbed another verbal grenade. “This is, how should I say, so bourgeoisie of you. I had expected your famous beef bourguignon, my favourite; however, you chose to serve me this commoner’s meal.”

“Remember, I told you I would be serving something different.”

“I did not expect this gamey abomination of a dish!”

“Everyone I know loves supermarket rotisserie chicken except you, it seems,” said Paul, infuriating his guest even more. You behave as if you are royalty, but you are not. And you know what I’m talking about.”

“Supermarket rotisserie chicken indeed! Was this prepared in a supermarket? Disgusting,” said Charles. You must be kidding. Wait to tell everyone I know about the great French chef who works at my restaurant. And how dare you threaten me.”

Paul decided not to back down.

“You expect to be treated like a gourmand, but you are not. You eat the pancake house, for God’s sake, on a regular basis. Wait, I tell everyone I know that your favourite meal is buttermilk pancakes drenched with butter and maple syrup. You are not the king of the finest cuisine. Touché.”

“Ah-ha, I see you are finally standing up to me,” said Charles, who was just as overly sensitive to criticism as Paul. “Perhaps you are not so meek after all. Good for you. Go ahead, get it all off your chest. It does not matter. You are finished. Or in your case, fini.”

Paul tried to dial it down a notch. He didn’t want Charles to storm out of the house, not now. He took a step back.

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“If you like, I can cook the chicken for another five minutes. And I will not ruin our reputation.”

“Five minutes? Try thirty minutes. One hour would even be better. Nice and crisp.” He proceeded to split open a leg with his knife and fork to reveal the pinkish meat. “You knew I prefer my chicken well done. You are an ignoramus.”

“I followed instructions on the plastic lid of the chicken,” insisted Paul. “Reheat for fifteen minutes.”

“I repeat. You are a fool. I meant it the first time, and I mean it now.”
Paul’s face turned red. “Absurd! How dare you come into my house and tell me the chicken I served is undercooked. You then tell me how long I should reheat it. And then this constant barrage of insults.”

“So, what are you going to do about it?” challenged Charles. “Unload on me again? Like I just said, you are finished. I must be on my way. I will mail you your final check.”

“I only said you were not the king of cuisine. Remember, we met at the pancake house. It wasn’t a royal house. You were eating there too and liking it.”

“Stop it already. You keep bringing that up.”

Paul realized the evening he had envisioned could suddenly end if he kept it up.

“I am very sorry that I offended your pallet,” he said. If you’d like, I can whip up a quick souffle.”

“That is quite all right. I have suddenly lost my appetite. Supermarket chicken!” Charles muttered as he stood up from the dinner table and walked toward the front door.

“Wait, Charles. Why don’t we retire to my wine cellar and talk this over? We’ll have a toast.”

“A toast to what?”

“The renewal of our friendship and working together,” said Paul in a fawning voice.

“I suppose now you’re about to cry.”

“Please, Charles. A drink. Let bygones be bygones. Like we always do.”

“I’m not sure about that. You nearly poisoned me and criticized and threatened me; however, if you insist, so be it. One last drink with a former friend and employee.”

“Ah, you have found some forgiveness in your heart,” said Paul, gently brushing his mustache with his thumb and index finger.

“Who said anything about forgiveness?” said the surely Charles.

“Now, if you please, follow me. In a while, you will forget about all of this senseless quibbling.”

“How, by numbing our senses with alcohol?”

“Something like that,” laughed Paul.
After descending the stairs, Paul flipped on the wall switch. Before them, in the middle of the wine cellar, was a long wooden table and benches surrounded by wooden wine casks and racks of bottled wine that reached nearly to the ceiling.

“Here, my friend,” said Paul. “Please, sit down and relax. I will find a rare, vintage wine, something suitable to your refined palate.”

“Perhaps I was too rash upstairs,” said Charles, rethinking what had seemed to be an unretractable stance. “How comical that we should argue over supermarket chicken.”

“But, Charles, everyone knows that you often fly off the handle. You have no filter, but that is quite all right; I am used to it. Again, all is forgotten, and I mean it.”

“Ah, again, taking a swipe at me, but maybe you are right.”

“I owe you an apology, my friend,” said Paul, in another gesture of goodwill. “The chicken was awful. I wouldn’t even feed it to my dog. He deserves better.”

Paul reached into the right-hand side pocket of his dinner jacket and delicately pulled out a small leather cigar holder. “I would like to offer you one of Cuba’s finest cigars. He opened the case. The Montecristo. Enjoy it.”

“I’m starting to like you again,” said Charles. “If you will do me the honour, please light my cigar.”

“I am honoured that you are beginning to like me again.”

Paul retrieved an old-fashioned silver lighter from the other pocket of his dinner jacket, pressed down on the lighter’s spark wheel. He then extended the tiny flame to the tip of Charles’ cigar.

“Ah, excellent,” said Charles after inhaling the tobacco. “Will you have one, too?”

“Yes, in a moment, but first, I will find the rare vintage wine that I keep locked away for special occasions like this.”

As Paul began walking down a long, dank corridor, he turned his head and smiled at his friend. “Oh, I see you have some company.” A humungous Swiss mountain dog weighing nearly one hundred forty pounds sat in front of Charles. Man and beast stared at one another.

“Charles, meet my friend, Geoffrey.”

The heavily built black, brown and red shaded dog whimpered and began to brush up against Charles, sniffing about and licked the shins that were not covered by socks.

“Damn it! Tell your dog to stop licking me,” demanded Charles as he wiped away at the thick layer of pasty slobber that was left behind by the drooling dog.

“That’s a sign that he likes you. Geoffrey, leave my friend alone. If you’re good, I’ll bring you a nice treat. I’ll be back soon.”

“Hurry,” grunted Charles.

After what seemed like an eternity to Charles because of the unwelcome attention he was receiving from the dog, Paul finally reappeared.

“I hope Geoffrey has been a good boy,” he said as he tossed an oversized milk bone to the dog. “Here’s your appetizer. I will feed you more soon. Don’t worry, my little baby.”

“Yeah, he’s been a good boy all right, passing his germs on to me. And his constant staring is quite unnerving.”

“He likes to stare. That means he’s sizing you up.”

“For what?”

“To decide if he wants seconds.”


“To taste more of you.”

“That is just preposterous,” rejoined Charles. “You and your dog are nuts.”

Paul looked at his dog and issued a command in a calm voice, and pointed. “Go sit over there and be a good boy. He began filling two crystal goblets with wine.

“Cabernet Sauvignon, Bordeaux, 1962, only the best for you, Charles. There, please tell me what you think.”

Charles swished the dark liquid around his glass, placed his nose on the rim, then took a small professional sip. “This is exquisite. More please.”

“Yes, yes, as much as you’d like. Don’t be shy. We’re here to celebrate us.”

Charles and Paul lifted and clinked their glasses.

“Keep drinking, my friend,” Paul said encouragingly.

“Yes, fill my glass again.”

“I’m hungry. What’s for dinner?” said Charles in a slurred voice as inebriation and incoherency settled in. “Oh, yeah, we just ate. Supermarket rotisserie chicken. It was delicious. I love my meat raw now.”

“Have some more wine, Charles.”

“You’re the best friend and chef in the world. I’m going to give you a big raise.”

“Respect would have been good enough.”

“Respect. I respect you. Why would you say something like that?”

“You treat me like a greasy spoon fast-food cook.”

“Ah, you are so sensitive, my French cook. Okay. Okay. No more insults ever again. I promise,” said Charles before the glass slid from his hand and shattered on the concrete slab floor.

“Promises, promises,” said Paul to Charles, whose eyes were now completely closed.

“It’s too late.”

Just to make sure Charles stayed asleep permanently, Paul gave him a lethal injection he had concocted. When his body was completely limp, Paul laid him out on the table. He began removing Charles’ clothes so he could begin the process of marinating, which included such ingredients as the tomato-based Provencale sauce, garlic, shallot, butter, olive oil and dry white wine.

It took some doing, but Paul managed to lift Charles onto a gurney which he rolled toward his downstairs test kitchen. He turned to his dog. “Not yet, Geoffrey. Dinner will be served in about one hour. Braised short ribs, just the way you like it. Medium rare. Bon Appetit.”

{Paul bought Restaurant Ombrelle from Charles’ wife in 1998. He closed the restaurant in 2010 and turned it into an El Pollo Loco restaurant, where he occasionally helps out in the kitchen. As far as I know, no one has ever complained of undercooked chicken.}

Gary Wosk was raised in the Bronx and Los Angeles. Since graduating from California State University, Northridge, with a journalism degree, he has been a newspaper reporter, organization spokesperson and media relations manager. My Gym, They Are Here, Bezillgo Versus the Allerton Theatre, Bubbe to the Rescue, Flameout, On the Cover of the Rolling Stones, The Violation, Best Intentions, Sugar, Full Bladder, Typecast, Adrenalin Rush, Big Frank, Infirmary 909, Pearl, The Recliner, The Cabbie, Trini, The Raid, Executive Material, Tick-Tock, Scare Tactics and many of his other short stories have been featured in anthologies. Gary is a member of the California Writers Club. He lives in North Hills, California, with his wife, Mina, and an Australian Cattle Dog named Shelley. 

Our Kingdom Come

By David Leonard

Thankfully the privacy curtain blocked his daughter’s view of her hospital room’s doorway. Dave knew his wife had called her Priest; she was very active in the church and knew him well. Their daughter was not expected to live through the afternoon. In a fog of excruciating grief, he reluctantly arose from beside his only child’s bedside. He prevented the Priest from entering her hospital room. He knew the Priest was just doing his job offering prayers of salvation in their time of sorrow, but Dave didn’t share their faith, and he’d be damned if the Priest would administer Last Rites while she still breathed. No one was going to rob him of one minute of her life, which still remained. Just as the Priest was about to speak, Dave put his hand, open-palmed, directly in his concerned face. 

“Don’t say a single word, please. If you attempt to enter her room while she still breathes, I will throw you out and lock the door. It matters not to me that you are a Catholic Priest, for I do not believe you possess the only path to Heaven.” 

Both stared at each other for several agonizingly, long seconds before the Priest crossed himself, opened his Bible and softly prayed for them all.

Dave’s head was spinning from lack of sleep; why in the name of God was this happening to his beautiful teenage daughter, whom a mere three days ago was so full of life and energy she radiated happiness, lifting the spirits of everyone she came in contact with? This isn’t God’s will. God has nothing to do with life or death anymore. If he did, God would never allow children to be taken. Colleen called, snapping him back to the sorrow at hand. Heartbroken, he hurried back to his daughter, sliding his chair as close to her hospital bed as space allowed grasping her right hand in both of his. Her skin was cold, very cold, and though he briskly rubbed her hand and arm, it failed to warm in the least bit, as if life had already receded from her outer extremities.

         “Daddy, I’m scared,” his daughter cried, her eyes searching for help and hope in his.

         “Hey Dot,” he replied softly. It was the nickname he’d given her at birth from a big red spot pressed onto her forehead, the result of her trying to enter this world sideways in the birth canal. After 24 hours of labour, their doctor finally delivered her by “C” section. The operating room nurse quickly cleaned, then wrapped a small blanket around their daughter, showed her to Colleen, then handed him their tiny bundle of joy while the doctor finished with her mother. Dave gazed into his newly born daughter’s beautiful blue eyes as the nurse cut and tied her umbilical cord; without a whimper from the newborn child. Her little eyes locked on his for minute upon minute, as if in recognition. To Dave, she looked more like a miniature adult than a baby; her eyes conveyed intelligence and understanding. By then, the red spot on her head had faded, but the nickname stuck. “Dot, do you remember when we got Banjo, or more like when you picked Banjo out?” Banjo was the Golden Retriever puppy they took her to buy for her fifth birthday. “There were three puppies in a small pen. Two were jumping all-around your legs saying, pick me, pick me, and the third cowered in the corner of the pen, obviously scared and tormented by the other two. Of course, you picked him and didn’t let go until we got home. You two were inseparable from day one.”

She smiled at the thought; it was good to see his daughter smile again. “ I remember, Banjo was waiting for me. He needed me, Dad; Banjo was the best dog ever.” Dot said this with moist eyes; just the thought of her golden retriever filled their hearts with love. Her tears were drops of joyful memories.

“You know Dot, I’ll never forget the day your training wheels came off your bike,” Dave continued. “I watched as you rode down the driveway. I was also throwing the tennis ball to Banjo; big mistake. I threw the ball high so it would bounce high. You know how much he loved to jump up to catch the ball in the air. You came wobbling up the drive just as the ball came down right in front of your bike, when here comes Banjo flying through the air going straight for the tennis ball. BAMMM, you hit him as he flew by, throwing you over the handlebars into his side, and you both tumbled across the asphalt together. It was a miracle that neither one of you was seriously injured,” Dave said, smiling and shaking his head. Even though they had told and re-told this same story many times, they never tired of telling it or hearing it again. 

“I sure remember hitting Banjo and falling. I didn’t know it was you that set the collision in motion, Daaaad!” she replied. They both laughed. Only a story and memory of that loveable dog could make a dying child laugh, but it ended quickly.

“Why did Banjo have to die? Why Dad?” A tumour near his heart had killed Banjo last year, after eight wonderful years. 

“Why do I have to die, Dad? Why me? I don’t want to die. I’m scared, Dad,” Dot asked with the fear of fate returning to her eyes.

“Dot,” Dave asked his daughter. “What is ‘dog’ spelled backwards?”

It took her a few seconds, but she answered, “God, dog spelled backwards is God.”

“That’s right,” he said. “Banjo is waiting for us right now. And what’s our favourite thing to do together, you, me, and Banjo?” 

This she answered without hesitation. “Hike through Fatman’s Squeeze on our way up the bluff at Devil’s Lake State Park and eat lunch.”

“Well, we’re going there this afternoon. You just wait and see,” Dave said. “When the time comes, I’ll be there for you. We’re doing this together, Dot.” She laid there with her hair spread across the pillow, appearing angelic, in perfect peace. As they gazed into each other’s eyes, the room and everything in it seemed to disappear, their love radiating from each to the other. The sad thing was his daughter seemed to be growing more distant as if passing at this moment. “Mr. Lennon, can I have a word with you?” the Doctor interrupted as if time meant nothing. 

He hadn’t even heard the useless bastard enter, but at this moment, he never felt like hitting someone more, Dave disliked the Priest, but he hated the Doctor. It was only three days ago that they’d rushed their daughter into the hospital’s emergency room. She’d been running a very high fever that came out of nowhere, suddenly, in less than a day after returning from a free admission day at the Dell’s Best Waterpark. An immigrant from Liberia working in the Wisconsin Dells on a J-1 Visa, who was also an unwitting carrier of Meningitis, just happened to cough in his daughter’s face infecting her. But he blamed the doctor, who did almost nothing for the first, most critical 24 hours.

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“Mr. Lennon, you shouldn’t be filling her head with promises you can’t keep or fulfill,” he spoke softly as Dave walked up to him.

 Colleen came over as well; she had barely said a word to their daughter all day. For a mother, she didn’t handle pressure well. When their daughter needed her most, she couldn’t comfort her; there would be no tomorrow. 

“Listen, Doctor, I’m only going to tell you once, shut up and leave us alone, I mean it. When you have to watch your child die because some incompetent idiot did nothing but give her an IV of saline solution as a treatment for a serious contagious disease, you might have a far different opinion. If you so much as cough while standing here, I’m going to hit you so hard you’ll be opening the door to Heaven for my daughter, got it? After she passes, you and the other useless guy in the hallway can do what you wish; I’ll be puking in the bathroom.”

 Colleen grabbed his upper arm tightly to get his full attention. “Dave, control yourself, please, not here, not now, think of our daughter. They came to help,” she said, trying to diffuse the situation.

 Dave was upset with them all, the Priest, the doctor, and his wife. He felt betrayed by all three. He jabbed his finger at the inept Doctor and said, “He’s no help. When we needed him to be on his toes and play his best game, he failed miserably, doing as little as possible. No review of her symptoms, no testing, or even conferring with his colleagues. And the Priest is here to administer Last Rights. If he was truly here to help, he would be praying for a miracle cure.” Pointing at his wife, he said, “And if you DON’T agree with me, DON’T take sides, especially theirs.”  

With that said, he hurried back to his daughter’s side. What gives them the right to interfere negatively in someone else’s final moment? The useless doctor can replace a person’s heart but isn’t smart enough to know how not to injure one. The useless priest who can pray for and save your soul but can’t pray himself out of his own moral vacuum. The key to Heaven is this: The door’s not locked; it’s within reach of every one of us. You just need to know which way to turn. Of course, the entrance to Hell is also; they both use the same door; for one, you go in, the other out.

Colleen needs more comfort than their daughter Dave thought. She can’t handle their daughter dying so instead of giving her all the love she could, sharing their last minutes together, Colleen turned to the living for comfort, pathetic. 

Dave spoke softly to his daughter. He could see she was fading, her eyes were open wide, but she couldn’t see, her vision was looking in, Dot was moving on, glimpsing the afterlife. “Look for Banjo Dot. He’ll be there, darling, and wait for me.”

 Colleen cried in the doctor’s arms, not her family’s, but what did it matter. The smell of death permeated the room as Dot’s bladder released and tears trickled down both of her cheeks.

 “Daddy, where are you?” Dot cried softly as she slowly expelled her last breath. 

Dave hugged her body one last time, long and hard, as only a father could. He had to be strong now, stronger than he’d ever been before.

 “Hold on, Dot, wait for me and look for Banjo; he’ll be there,” Dave said, standing, his own tears streaked down his face as he looked at his wife for the last time. She stood there crying with her face cupped in her trembling hands. The Doctor closed Dot’s eyelids and shut her mouth; he also straightened her arms and legs so it would be easier to conduct an autopsy without having to break bones. The clueless moron could have at least waited until they were out of the room. The Priest had come into the room and stood on the opposite side of the bed from the doctor to give their daughter Last Rights. “I’m going to be sick,” Dave mumbled as he walked into the bathroom and gently shut the door behind him.

KERRR BAMMM!!!!! The gunshot sounded more like an explosion in the confines of the small, tiled bathroom as it echoed down the hospital’s hallways. Colleen screamed as the Doctor yanked open the bathroom door, and they both rushed in with the Priest close behind. Dave sat on the tiled, ceramic floor of the walk-in shower, his back rested against a plastic seat patients would use to sit on while washing. Behind his head, he had put towels to limit the gore and mess, then leaned his head back, put the gun in his mouth and blew the back of his skull and most of his brains against the shower wall. His blood and life slowly circled the drain between his legs on its final, dark descent.

“Why Dave, why?” Colleen cried, “We still had each other!” She was wracked in heaving, uncontrollable sobs and let the doctor lead her out of the bathroom. 

“Maybe we should move into the hall while I call for some orderlies,” the Doctor said softly, barely audible over the pious prayers of the Priest. Who spoke as if he had to say them quickly before Dave’s soul was dragged down the drain, beyond earshot, on his final descent to Hell.

Woof, woof, woof,” the excited bark of an extremely happy dog along with the click, click, click of nails on prancing paws could be heard coming down the hospital corridor towards Dot’s room.

 “What the Hell?” the Doctor said, looking about. “Dogs aren’t allowed in Intensive Care.”

 “Banjo,” Colleen sobbed in surprise. “That was Banjo, our daughter’s dog that passed away last year.” 

“OH MY GOD!” she cried out as she stared wide-eyed at her daughter, “Doctor, look!”

The doctor stared in disbelief as he slowly approached Dot’s bed, shaking his head back and forth. “This can’t be! I shut her eyes and mouth myself. She was dead; she is dead.” But there Dot lay, eyes wide open, crinkled at the corners with a large, full tooth grin upon her face.

Woof, woof, woof,” the dog barked again from inside their hospital room. The Priest hurried out of the bathroom where he had been giving Dave his Last Rights.

 “You shouldn’t have a dog in here; what’s going on?” he asked as he glanced around the room, not seeing one. His eyes then focussed on Dot laying in bed, and he crossed himself again. “Lord, why do you test my faith? Is not the door to Heaven opened by one’s belief in your only son Jesus Christ, not by the barking of some animal?” he questioned out loud.

 “No,” Colleen replied. “Just look at our daughter. It’s a miracle, oh my God, it’s a miracle!” There was genuine happiness in her voice, “Something wonderful is happening here, Father. “She stepped back into the bathroom to check out her husband’s expression and started to laugh through her tears. Dave’s eyes were wide open, and he was smiling broadly. If the back half of his head wasn’t missing, he could pass as someone who’d just won the lottery. Colleen couldn’t believe what was happening, something extraordinary. No, it really was a miracle if the priest believed it or not. She came back to her daughter’s bed wiping happy tears of love and fond memories from her cheek where the doctor was trying unsuccessfully to close their daughter’s eyes again. Colleen reached up and lightly touched his upper arm. “Please let her be Doctor. My daughter is most definitely in a better place. If you don’t think so, go look at her father in the bathroom, he couldn’t be happier.” 

“Hey,” Colleen cried, “Banjo just licked my hand. I knew he was here; that’s why Dot is smiling so broadly.” 

The Priest just couldn’t let that go. “That’s not possible; dogs don’t go to Heaven or return as Angels. The door to Heaven is opened through belief and faith in Jesus Christ. Your husband wouldn’t even let me pray for your daughter. Colleen looked closely at her Priest and saw a different man than the one she thought she knew. It was he who was having a question of faith.

 “Father,” Colleen said, “My husband DID NOT prevent you from praying for our daughter. He stopped you from giving her Last Rights while she still lived. He felt you should be praying for a miracle cure. You know Jesus can’t be the only key to Heaven’s door. What about the six billion non-Christians? Where do they go? And no animals in Heaven, I don’t believe it. God sent the only Angel a little girl would trust, her beloved dog. I think everybody deserving` go to their own Heaven; there are many doors, and love is the key, the Kingdom of God is within us all,” she scolded.

The Priest was muttering a silent prayer, but he answered Colleen quick enough. “Mrs. Lennon, they’re dead. They can’t go to Heaven on their terms; that’s out of the question,” he said. 

Today was tragic enough, but Colleen was convinced they were witnesses to a miracle. “Father, you can’t possibly mean that. Their smiling faces should tell you they are together with her dog Banjo. Who came today to accompany them to their Heaven. A Heaven they’ll share and be together in to do all their favourite activities. What’s happening here is special, something very special, and it’s happening before your very eyes,” she replied. 

The Priest seemed to think about what Colleen had just said, but he was just shaking his head slowly back and forth when he looked down at his hands. “What in the world?” he questioned, somewhat taken aback. “A dog just licked my palm; it’s actually wet.”

 “What did you just say?” the Doctor asked; his hand had been licked a moment before. 

 “Woof, woof, woof,” the dog barked again from just outside the hospital room door in the hall. The three of them just stared as the elevator button was pushed and its doors opened. 

“Woof, woof, woof,” as they closed, a dog barked one last time from inside the empty elevator.

 The priest mumbled: “For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, as I am today. Whoever humbles himself will be exalted, as they just were.” 

David Leonard is a new, recently published author in Literary Yard with his story: Watchmen Of Perdition. He has written other short stories and a soon-to-be-completed novel.