Tag Archives: Short story


By Stephen Phillip Lupkin

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

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

“It’s Andy; open the door!” 

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

“Who cares? I’m here; let me in.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“From your dad?” Carl asked. 

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

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

“What stinks in here?” Andy asked suddenly. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s wrong with me? he thought. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh yeah? Hm.” 

“That’s it? Hm?”  

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

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

“They do, huh? Hm.” 

“Now that’s shitty.” 

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

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

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

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

“What the hell are you talking about?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Move over. Lay with me.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


By Bill Vernon

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

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

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

The shape of her head. Can it be?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


By Christina Rosso

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

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

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

Hunger is the one thing that doesn’t change.

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

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

Lip Blam

By Leah Sackett

Lips are gross if you watch them in motion wet, dry, rough, soft, flaky, luscious, spittle, and bad breath. Harlow had asked for her tube of lip balm from Orderly Roberts. 

“Can I have my lip blam?” Harlow asked. “You see, my lips are so chapped,” she said with a pout. 

“Okay, give me a minute. I have to give out meds,” Orderly Roberts said. 

“Here you go,” he said and handed over the little tube of Orange Crush chapstick. Roberts didn’t think her lips looked chapped. He figured it was just something to do when stuck on the ward and watched as she applied it to her pale lips. He fantasized about what those lips would look like with a bold, red color like his sister wore. Roberts was just an orderly, but he felt some of the patients were misplaced and mismanaged. In his mind, Harlow was one of them. If it weren’t for the morning and evening rounds of meds, Roberts would not indicate Harlow’s condition. She was Bi Polar and went off her meds from time to time, and every time she landed in the hospital. But she straightened out pretty much by the time she reached the main population ward where Roberts worked. He was jerked out of his reverie by an outburst from Oliver. This guy had been in much longer than insurance customarily allowed. He had nowhere else to go. No family, no place to stay, the social workers had promised him he would be released three days ago, and this quiet guy who shuffled the floors like an old man, which belied his 23 years, was frustrated. The Nurses’ station housed Cafe and De-Cafe urns of coffee along with Styrofoam cups and little packets of sugar. The objects were now being hurled at the nurses. Roberts embraced Oliver in a stifling hug and worked him to the floor. Another Orderly joined the struggle armed with a syringe of Midazolam. Together Roberts and Orderly Harrison muscled Oliver back to his room, where he could sleep his anger off. When Roberts regained the floor, the other inmates were whispering and wide-eyed. Harlow approached him and released the chapstick in Robert’s hand. 

“Here’s the lip blam,” she said. 

“You know it’s balm, right?” 

“What?” she said shrinking from Roberts. 

“It’s lip balm, not blam,” Roberts said gently. 

“Oh, right. I get confused,” Harlow said. 

Roberts felt wrong for correcting her. He didn’t want to scare Harlow off. He only had her for three more days, and then she was getting out. 

“Orderly Harrison fastened the restraints.”

He couldn’t ask for her phone number. It was an impossible relationship. Roberts palmed the lip balm back in her hand. 

“Keep it. Just be discrete,” he said. He gave himself the same advice. 

Roberts wasn’t working when Harlow was released. He resigned himself to the inevitable. His purpose was to help those short term cases get back on the right path. It started as rewarding, but some of these people just seemed to be arrested on the fringe of society, not a danger to it. Of course, he was no doctor. He was the muscle. 

Time inside an asylum sucks the staff and the patients into a warped fabric of reality, and the days run a cycle of drama and drool. Roberts began to wonder who was really incarcerated in this place, him or the patients? Charlotte slinked up the hall and cornered him up against the wall, mumbling, ” Do you identify as a hero? Do you identify as a hero? Do you identify…” Charlotte’s repetition of this question was maddening, and it got inside Roberts’s head like an earworm. He would ask himself the question on break and off shift. Was he a hero or a medical thug? His time in the asylum was tortured and terminal. Who was really trapped in this place? 

A new patient, James, was obsessed with his missing shoes, and tension was high in his demeanor. He shouted out threats to the unknown persons that had his shoes. 

“Where’re my kicks?” James pleaded.

“You can’t have your shoes here. You got the gripper socks,” Roberts said. 

“Man, I don’t want no gripper socks. I want my kicks. Then I’ll kick your ass,” James shouted. 

“I need you to keep it down and stop the threats,” Roberts said. 

“You telling me what to do? I don’t think so, Bitch,” James said and pushed Roberts back. 

Roberts got him in a prone floor hold. Orderly Harrison fastened the restraints. Hopped up on adrenaline, the Orderlies lifted the man and strapped him to the table in the solitary room. The rest of the inmates made a reticent scatter to their rooms. 

It was the end of the summer, Roberts had a much needed three day weekend. He and his buddies, Marc and Lucas, were meeting up at Milo’s for some beers and bocce ball. And to be honest, they were hoping to hook-up with some babes. Marc fetched the first round of beers, while Lucas and Roberts wrestled up the bocce balls and chalk to mark the score. Marc returned with a trio of girls, and introductions were made. 

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“So, what do you do?” the strawberry blonde Twiggy asked Roberts. “Oh, stay away from him. He’ll lock you up,” Marc said.

“What are you some kind of cop?” 

“Naw, he’s an orderly over at the mental hospital. Spends all day with the loonies,” Marc said. 

After the last pitch of the bocce ball, the ladies begged-off and went in pursuit of less creepy conversation. 

The guys were still quarreling over who was responsible for scaring the ladies off when they entered a greasy spoon, the Midnight Owl. 

Roberts did not like owls. He got a plush owl on his 8th birthday. Since then, every birthday and Christmas, he was gifted another owl. Things had really gotten out of hand when his grandma got him a set of owl salt and pepper shakers when he was 14. This diner’s name had kept him away, but tonight the dining victory went to Marc and Lucas. Roberts kept his head down in the menu, avoiding the Owl clocks, toys, and taxidermy on the walls. The waitress smelling of bacon was rattling off specials. She started to recite the Midnight Owl special when Roberts looked up into her face. No introduction was needed. It was a greasy Harlow with her hair up and thick eyeliner. It was Harlow right in front of him. But she didn’t let on that she knew him. Roberts assumed, correctly, that Harlow didn’t want to be identified. But this understood anonymity did not stop her from zoning in on Roberts and flirting aggressively. 

Roberts excused himself for the bathroom. In the narrow back hall, Harlow stood in his way, “It’s so nice to see you,” she said.

Roberts was unsettled. What were the odds of them meeting like this? He ate up her attention, and his fantasies about her came crowding back in his head and cluttered his judgment. 

“Let’s go somewhere more private,” she said. 

“Ah, yes,” he said with bated breath. 

After a greasy meal of eggs, onions, and hash, the guys made their good-byes. Roberts settled into his black 1967 Chevy Impala and waited. Roberts was racking his brain for a private place. There was a Red Roof Inn four miles down the road, but they never made it there. Harlow unbuckled her seatbelt and leaned dangerously close to Roberts’s face, for starters. 

“Hey, hey, you need to put your seatbelt back on,” Roberts said. 

But she was busy fishing for something in her purse. It was a tube of Orange Crush chapstick. 

“Here’s some lip blam for you,” she said, smearing it across his open mouth and chin. 

“A second squad car arrived…”

A clump stuck on his bottom teeth. Roberts wiped and at it with the cuff of his sleeve, while Harlow redoubled her attack and swung her right leg over Roberts. Saddling him, Harlow began to grind. 

“Harlow, I can’t see. Get off,” he said.

“I thought you liked me?” she said. “You’re no fun.” 

Harlow was pouting and leaning against her door with angst that scared Roberts. Just then, he saw the lights in his rearview mirror, and it was backed by the siren. Roberts pulled over on the shoulder of the road. This was a busy road during the day, but at night the businesses were all shut down, and the four-lane road was a vast playground for drunk drivers on the way home. 

“What’s going on here?” Officer Manners asked. 

His flashlight illuminated the half-dressed Harlow slumped along the window. 

“Do you want to have a good time, Officer,” Harlow said, climbing back over Roberts. Roberts was glad to have the policeman’s assistance. Harlow was out of control. 

“Step out of the car,” Officer Manners said to Roberts. 

“Me? What about her?” 

With that, Harlow stepped from the car and planted a handstand on the side of the road. Her waitress uniform fell around her waist. She was naked waist down. Roberts looked to see her panties draped from his rearview mirror. He had no idea when that happened.

Officer Manners made Roberts take a breathalyzer test, which he failed, and found himself cuffed in the backseat of the squad car. A second squad car arrived to take the loud and hard to handle Harlow to the psych ward. She’d been wearing her medical ID bracelet. 

Roberts’ car had been impounded, and he was unable to release it until Tuesday. He drove straight from the impound yard to work. He told his supervisor that he would need time off for his court date. Roberts thought this was the height of his embarrassment, but he was wrong. 

“Hey, there lip blam man,” Harlow said in a scratchy voice. 

She moved in close, not too close, just close enough so only he could hear her when she dropped her voice. 

“How much trouble did you get into?” 

“Plenty. But you need to stay away from me.” Roberts said. 

“Awww. Don’t you like me when I’m manic? Admit it, I’m much more fun.” 

“No, I don’t. We can’t act like that in here.” 

“You mean you can’t act like that in here. I can do whatever I want. I rather thought I got that point across this weekend,” Harlow said. “It’s not about you.”

Roberts stared into those big brown eyes. But he stopped seeing what he wanted to see. He saw a woman that needed help, stability. And what had he done but take her for a joy ride? He felt like a misogynistic ass. Harlow slipped off like a discarded garment and curled up in a green faux leather chair. Roberts watched her sitting there, talking to herself. A patient approached Roberts from the left. It was Charlotte. She was to be transferred to a long term facility that day. Charlotte stopped to rub the top of Harlow’s tussled hair. 

“Do you identify as a hero?” she asked Roberts. “Do you?”

Leah Sackett is an adjunct lecturer in the English department and the Communication & Media department at the University of Missouri – St. Louis. This is where she earned her B.A. and M.F.A. Her short stories explore journeys toward autonomy and the boundaries placed on the individual by society, family, and self. Learn about her published fiction at LeahHolbrookSackett.website.

The Coffee Maker

By Dominic Loise

The machine in the lobby was placed as a nicety. Something warm and inviting offered visitors like yourself. It maintained the body heat of their initial handshakes. A first attempt to show the corporation cared to learn about others too by offering, “How do you like your coffee?” 

Your ceramic mug held the first sip of truth. A streamlined, sigil logo on the exterior contained the burnt out and bitter from spilling over. What artificial sweetener and 

dry powder pampering combination could you bring to the organization? 

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Current employees tried all the corporate kitchen counter alchemy fixes of ingredients bought for an extended boxed in shelf life. Are you a green, six months, resume hopper giving the cauldron a quick burst of youthful energy before tipping it over to start again? Are you a freshly cut vital organ from another competitor? Or will you stay the long haul wishing back to this day?

The coffee maker bubbled bottom charring residue. The burner is not turned off in time. As you waited in the closed-off lobby, being told it should only just yet be another twenty minutes. Contracts were being reviewed. Magical laws wiped continuing their conversion into legal rhetoric.

You get up and walked out placing the empty mug by the glossy brochures. The cycle had been broken. Time weaved and waved back towards you. Saving yourself time for one last cup of coffee. 

Dominic Loise lives in Chicago, Illinois. He is open about and advocates for mental health awareness. His work has appeared on Alchemic Gold Poetry Society, Analogies & Allegories, Calm Down, Raven Review, Refresh & Short Editions and in Collective Realms & Emotional Alchemy.

Up in Smoke

By William Cass

Rosa felt flattered and appreciative when Jenny invited her to join a few other housekeepers and resort staff for a TGIF. She’d only been working there a couple of weeks and hadn’t yet made any friends. The truth was Rosa had no one she was close to outside of work either; she passed this off as due to her being overweight, acne-scarred, and the shy, reserved nature that had been a restraint for her for as long as she could remember. 

Their group met at an outdoor bar on the boardwalk not far from the resort and included three other housekeepers, a grounds guy, and a well-built bellhop. They’d each changed out of their work uniforms and were all in their early to mid-twenties. They sat at a table away from the Calypso band playing in a corner, ordered Happy Hour drinks and appetizers, and conversed over the sound of the music and the soft tumble of waves beyond the boardwalk. It was early spring, pleasantly cool, and as the late afternoon fell, the sky took on the color of a bruise. 

Rosa was last to arrive. Jenny gestured her over to the empty seat next to her, made introductions, then engaged her in conversation. Jenny was twenty-four, two years older than Rosa, and had been working at the resort since shortly after she graduated high school, had a baby girl and got married. She told Rosa she had taken sporadic online courses through a technical college but was having a hard time finding meaningful time for that. 

Rosa asked, “What does your husband do?” 

Jenny’s lips pursed and she rolled her eyes. “Warehouse security guard. Overnight shift.” 

“How do you handle things with your daughter?” 

“Well, he mostly sleeps while she’s at school and I’m at work, then takes care of her until I get back. We have dinner, and he catches another quick nap before he heads to the warehouse.” She shrugged, “We manage, How about you?” 

“I need a favor,” she said.

Rosa mimicked her shrug. “I live with my grandfather. He and my grandmother raised me before she died when I was in high school. Now I kind of care for him…he’s pretty frail, forgetful.” She smiled, “I call him ‘mi abuelito’.” 

Jenny nodded. “That’s nice. Then you probably can’t stay too long this evening, either.” 

Rosa shook her head. 

Phillip, the bellhop, raised his glass and called for a toast. Rosa regarded his tanned skin, his flop of bleach-blonde hair, his self-assured surfer vibe; in spite of the stereotype, she felt a tickle of attraction. He toasted Happy Hours, he toasted poorly paid workers everywhere, he toasted beauty. As he uttered those last words, he gestured at the setting around them, the ocean, the sky, the music, but when he finished, his eyes rested on Jenny. 

 Jenny began joining Rosa often for lunch in the staff room, which Rosa also appreciated. Unlike most pretty girls she’d known, Jenny didn’t appear smug or aloof, and Rosa didn’t mind that Jenny did most of the talking while they ate. Rosa learned that Jenny’s marriage had been one born mostly of obligation, that her husband’s name was Carl and her daughter was Audrey, and that the little girl loved glitter, ponies, the color pink, and preferred dressing in tutus and plastic tiaras. When she spoke about Audrey, Jenny’s eyes softened as much as they went dull when the talk turned to Carl. He wasn’t a bad guy, Jenny told Rosa, just kind of a doofus; a high school jock gone to seed. He worked weekends, and she didn’t, so with their schedules, they saw little of each other. Jenny gave a kind of smirk when she said that was fine with her. Rosa watched her grow silent afterward, gazing at something, it seemed, on the opposite wall. 

The two of them had the same shifts during the week, so when Jenny told her their car had broken down and would take several days to be repaired, Rosa offered to pick her up and drop her off until it was ready. Their apartment was in a low, cinder-block building on a busy street in a rundown section of town. When she arrived that first morning, Rosa knocked on an open door with a tattered screen, and a man’s voice called for her to come in. Rosa entered a small living room that was separated from an equally cramped kitchen by a Formica table and chairs. Carl stood at the kitchen counter arranging items in a lunch box that had a unicorn on its lid. He was a big man with a soft belly and prematurely thinning hair, but kind eyes. 

He gave her a sheepish grin and said, “Jen will be right out, sit if you want.” 

“Jenny would simply call Rosa’s name softly”

Rosa lowered herself into a chair across the table from Audrey who didn’t look up from the coloring book she was scribbling in. Both rooms were cluttered with toys, piles of laundry, dishes, and strewn papers. A television played an animated children’s program against one wall of the living room. The smell of fried bacon and toasted waffles lingered in the air; a partially eaten plate of both was pushed aside next to Audrey, a puddle of syrup ringing its edge. A red ribbon perched next to the crooked tiara on her curly head.

During the next few moments, Rosa watched Carl write what appeared to a note with a heart at the bottom and fold it into the lunch box before closing the lid. Then Jenny burst into the room buttoning her uniform top. She quickly gathered her purse and pecked Audrey’s cheek. 

“Hey, there,” she said to Rosa. “We better go or we’ll be late.”

As Rosa followed her to the door, Carl called, “See you later. Love you, babe.” 

“You, too,” Jenny muttered, pushing through the door, the tear in it flapping behind her. 

They each had different morning and afternoon breaks, and Rosa often saw Jenny spending hers down behind the resort’s dumpsters smoking cigarettes with Phillip; sometimes another staff member or two was with them. When the two of them were alone, they sat close together on a makeshift bench there. Rosa felt her eyebrows knit the first time she saw them exchange a quick kiss when they parted. Each time that happened afterward, she stood very still and tried to chase away thoughts of crooked tiaras, love notes in unicorn lunch boxes, and farewell calls of endearment. 

At the TGIF’s that continued every month or so, Rosa only saw Jenny and Phillip chance occasional furtive glances. But on the one occasion that a group of them met on a lark later at a club, she did see them push their way into the crowd on the dance floor during a slow song and stroke each other’s backs while they moved closer together. Jenny’s eyes met hers through the throng, and Rosa looked quickly away. When she glanced back, Jenny’s eyes remained on Rosa’s, and she did not attempt to hide the fingertips that continued to caress Phillip’s back. 

So, Rosa was startled, but not entirely surprised, when Jenny appeared beside her cart in an upstairs hallway during one of her breaks shortly afterward cradling a set of clean sheets and pillowcases. Jenny fixed her with a gaze that held a combination of things, yearning, and determination among them. 

“I need a favor,” she said. “I need to use one of your rooms. Just for a little bit, but I need you to keep an eye out for the supervisor. Knock if she comes by.” 

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Rosa felt herself blinking, but Jenny’s gaze remained steady and unyielding until she said, “I checked the registry, and there’s no one in 402. We’ll change the bed when we’re done.” 

Rosa watched her march quickly down to the end of the hall and nod into the stairwell there. Phillip came out of its cavity, waited while Jenny used her pass key to open the guest room door closest to them, then followed her inside it. Rosa winced as the door clicked quietly behind them. She set the towel she was holding on top of the cart and didn’t reach down to pick it up when it fell to the floor. It was early afternoon, the hours between the end of guest check out and the beginning of check-in, so no one else was around. The only sounds were the screech of seagulls outside mingling with laughter and splashing from the pool four stories below. 

At home, Rosa’s grandfather had begun to fade further. Even though she measured his meds out into clearly labeled sections in a plastic dispenser, he often forgot to take them when she wasn’t there. Rosa started calling him during her breaks and at lunch to remind him and to check upon him. When she got home to their bungalow, he was often still dressed in his pajamas sitting where she’d left him that morning and staring at the same channel on the television that was usually muted. She tried getting him outside for some exercise before dinner, but he could barely make it to the end of their block with his walker. She brought out old photo albums and flipped through the pages with him to jog his memory, but he sometimes struggled to even recognize his wife. Rosa lingered over the photographs of her grandparents alone together in which they always held hands, even while blowing out the candles on the cake she’d baked them for their forty-eighth anniversary just before her grandmother’s death. 

The brief afternoon trysts between Jenny and Phillip continued at work every week or two. But unlike the first time, Jenny would simply call Rosa’s name softly from the end of the hall, and when their eyes met, gesture with her head towards the guest room in front of her. Rosa gave no acknowledgment, but a moment later, Jenny would juggle the change of bedding in her arms, make the same gesture into the stairwell, and Phillip would appear and follow her into the room. He never glanced Rosa’s way, and Rosa always made certain to leave her cart in the hallway, but not be there herself when they dropped bedding into its dirty-laundry sack and returned to the stairwell. 

Rosa normally had her grandfather sponge-bathed, diapered, and in bed by eight each night. She usually channel-surfed on the television afterward but began spending time on her laptop looking at online dating websites. She felt a sheepish excitement as she did. She concentrated on those that advertised matching potential couples by personality and valued characteristics. It took her nearly a month to gather the nerve to join one. She kept her personal description brief, using words and phrases like, “Loyal, enjoys simple things, quiet, and giving.” When prompted to describe the sorts of traits she was looking for in a match, she used similar descriptions, but included, “Integrity, honesty, and faithful.” She posted only three photos, all profiles in shadows from the waist up which she’d staged awkwardly with the self-timer on her grandmother’s old camera. Rosa hesitated for a long time, her finger poised over, “Enter,” on the keyboard, before finally blowing out a breath and finalizing her membership on the site. 

As soon as she did, her grandfather groaned from his bedroom. She hurried into the room and knew immediately by the smell that he’d soiled himself. He stayed asleep while she cleaned him up and changed his diaper. Her eyes widened when she returned to her laptop because a flashing icon on it indicated that she already had her first potential match. Her heart hammered as she skimmed through his profile and photos. He was a few years older than her, appeared a bit overweight, too, and his personal descriptions seemed to be reasonably close to her own: nothing to dissuade her from pursuing the match. 

“Silently, Rosa set the bag of trash down…”

Rosa looked at the framed black-and-white photo of her grandparents on the desk next to the laptop. In it, they were about her age, newlyweds, and had just immigrated to the United States from Cuba. They’d grown up there in the same village and had been childhood sweethearts. A sudden flush spread through her. Rosa shook her head, looked back to the laptop where her photo smiled back at her in a blouse Jenny had told her was, “Slimming,” and with a couple of quick taps, deleted her membership on the dating site. She closed the lid, sat back in the hard chair, and listened to her grandfather’s soft snores from the next room. 

Several mornings later, she carried her cart’s full plastic bag of trash to the dumpsters. She smelled cigarette smoke as she approached them and stopped still in her tracks when she heard Jenny’s voice from the other side say, “You mean Rosa? Are you kidding me? We’ve got nothing to worry about there.” 

Phillip’s voice followed. “How can you be so sure?” 

“All that cow cares about is fitting in somewhere,” Jenny said. “We keep asking her to a TG every now and then, and we’re good as gold.” 

Rosa heard Phillip guffaw, then two clouds of exhaled smoke rose above the dumpsters. She felt her throat tighten and burning behind her eyes. Children shouted happily to one another in the nearby pool, and dishes clattered into a sink in the restaurant’s kitchen a handful of yards away. Silently, Rosa set the bag of trash down in front of the dumpsters and somehow found her way back to where she’d left her cart. 

Rosa didn’t sleep much that night. For a long time, she just lay thinking, vaguely aware of her grandfather’s snores and the occasional vehicle passing in the street. She allowed her feelings to tumble over themselves. She thought about her loneliness and what her life would be like when her grandfather was gone. She thought about how safe and cared for her grandparents had always made her feel. She thought about Jenny’s gaze beside her cart before the first tryst with Phillip and realized the look in her eyes held something beyond yearning and determination: it held to scorn. Rosa felt her eyes narrow, and a small snort escaped her. An image of cigarette smoke drifting over the dumpster kept invading her attempts to quiet her mind. She finally dozed briefly as the first birds began tittering, woke up at full dawn, and immediately called in sick at the resort. 

“Shouldn’t you be at work?”

She lingered over breakfast with her grandfather, then took him for a long walk in his wheelchair through their neighborhood with her jaw set hard. She eventually got him settled in his recliner in front of the television at about nine and drove off. She’d waited until then to be sure that Audrey would be at school. When she got to their apartment, she turned off the engine and sat staring at their screen door for a long time before heaving another snort, climbing out, and knocking on it. 

Rosa rubbed her damp palms together as she waited. It took three more knocks and before Carl emerged rubbing sleep from his eyes on the other side of the torn screen. He wore plaid sleeping pants with a ratty T-shirt that rode up over his stomach. They regarded each other until his eyebrows knit into a frown. 

He asked, “Shouldn’t you be at work?” 

Rosa cleared her throat. “There’s something I need to tell you.” The same breakfast smells came from inside. “Something you need to know.” 

She watched him rub his disheveled hair, his frown deepening. “All right,” he said. “Tell me.” 

William Cass has had over 200 short stories accepted for publication in a variety of literary magazines such as J Journal, December, Briar Cliff Review, and Zone 3. He was a finalist in short fiction and novella competitions at Glimmer Train and Black Hill Press. He received three Pushcart nominations and won writing contests at Terrain.org and The Examined Life Journal. His short story collection, Something Like Hope & Other Stories, is scheduled for release by Wising Up Press in late 2020.

Lake 22

By Cecilia Kennedy

Part 1 

Among the rocky outcroppings and narrow trails, I find my footing. Smaller rocks slide out from underneath the larger ones; I wobble on my left foot but come down stronger on my right to counterbalance. Each step along the Lake 22 mountain pass takes me upwards and out—along a ledge, but I’m not afraid. It’s the highest point I can imagine at this time. 

In the clearing, the lake is a dark turquoise and the surface calls to me to break it, but I won’t. At the bottom of many lakes are the broken bits and pieces of dismembered bodies—mostly of the young—who dove in headfirst. The most I’ll do is kick off my shoes and slide my feet into the water. 

At the edge of the lake, I sit and tentatively lower my toes, then my arches, and then my ankles into the icy water, which feels smooth and clear. I can see straight to the bottom, and it holds jagged edges of rocks, the limbs of trees, and small plants. Occasionally, I think I see the body of a tiny fish flash before my eyes, but it’s rare, I believe, to see much else. At least, I’ve never noticed much else before. 

My eyes trace the edges of the rocks over and over again. The same lines and shapes, under the cool turquoise water, become familiar, but something else seems to be tangled up in the lines. Something that moves. At first, I think it’s just some kind of leafy plant, trapped between the rocks, but it’s iridescent— as if it had scales—and is more fish-like than plant-like. It moves quickly, darting in between the rocks, trying to catch my attention. The form is unfamiliar and not quite as graceful as I’ve come to expect aquatic life to be. 

“In a trance, I bring the rock down hard…”

Carefully, I lower myself into the water, still wearing my jeans shorts and a sports bra. I expect to feel the sharpness of rocks on the soles of my feet, but they’re far below me. I reach out my hand, under the surface of the water to see if I can feel the plant/fish creature I expect to be there—and something smooth glides underneath the palm of my hand. Out of the corner of my eye, I think I catch a gleam, a sparkle, or a glimmer of something I’ve never seen before and that now, I want to see more than ever. I swim out towards the middle of the lake—following the path I think it’s taking—chasing ripples and bubbles that sometimes surface—swimming for what seems like hours until I reach the shore on the other side. 

It takes some effort to pull myself onto the bank and look out at the water. Every ripple and glimmer on the lake turns my head. Then, about five feet in front of me, the surface bubbles in a most unusual way, as the top of something rises. I recognize the shape of a head that seems more human than fish- or plant-like in form. The head is smooth and dark green like moss. It glistens, slick with algae. Its eyes are open and gaping wide, as a sorrowful expression spreads upon its face—and it wails as if it were a human child— shrieking so desperately, I feel as if my heart will break if I don’t help. The teeth inside the mouth are brown and rotten, and the crying is so desperate that I’m consumed with pity that’s instantly crushed by repulsion. Brown, greenish warts, studded about its face at intervals, twist and pull themselves into grotesque shapes as the crying and shrieking continue. I tell myself it only wants solace, comfort, but I just want to make the noise go away and I’m sorry that I ever followed it here—or gave it any hope. As it climbs from the depths of the lake, it stretches its sorrowful arms outward as if it were asking me to hold it—to make it stop crying, but menacing, reptilian claws are attached to those hands, and I wonder if this is its purpose: to pull me in and devour me. Fully emerged from the water, it’s only the size of a toddler, and I start to remember stories. Horrid stories of newborns locked in rooms without any love or human contact. They develop into wretched, hopeless monsters. This creature, submerged and forgotten—undiscovered and unloved—is someone else’s monster. Not mine. It’s not mine. 

Now, it steps out onto the bank, with sharp claws for feet, which match the hands. I inch backward, closer to the tree line behind me, and stumble upon a rock. I tower over this creature, but it has an advantage if it intends to seek its revenge—to act out on the unfair circumstances it has been given. 

My heart can’t take any more. Picking up the rock, I slam it down hard over the top of the creature’s head. Its face shows confusion, betrayal—and it begins to choke and struggle and shriek some more. In a trance, I bring the rock down hard in a steady rhythm until I hear the cracking of bones, piercing of flesh, and the screaming stops. I tell myself it’s a mercy killing. The underside of the rock is thick with blood; the skull is broken—and then I bury it, face-up, in the sand. I tell myself I’ve done the right thing, but even now, I think I hear someone calling my name when no one else is around and the wind starts to blow. 

Part 2 

This summer is particularly difficult for the headstrong, yet the sensitive woman I believe my daughter to be. Perhaps I clung too tightly or expected too much. Reams of computer paper—freshly printed with essay prompts and short answer blanks piled up on my office desk—and I was willing to help her with each one. Day-by-day, the deadlines would pass, and I’d worry about her future and remind her of how smart and talented she is and how she shouldn’t waste her gifts. Then, I let her know how disappointed I was to realize that she would be the only one in the family to have not gone to college. 

“Mom, I don’t know what I want to be or do. How can I apply to college if I don’t know?” she asked. 

“You just pick something, Nora—anything. Then, you can change your mind, but only once—” 

“I want to explore the world.” 

“There are plenty of study-abroad programs, and I have college applications for you in other countries—like Ireland or England or British Columbia—all of them wonderful places.” 

“All of them are safe places. I want to live, Mom—really live—out there, in the world.” 

“I don’t understand.” 

“I want to take a break and travel. I’ve never seen . . . I’ve never seen Syria, for instance, Mom. Syria is in such need of humanitarian aid. I could help! I would go to Lebanon and teach the Syrian refugee children games and art —and I’ve been learning Arabic.” 

“Look, I don’t mind if you travel—even to more risky places, but I’d like for you to go with a group or something—someone who knows the area well. I have lots of contacts and I could set you up—for a week or two or something. Any longer than that and you’d need a real degree anyway—to be more useful.” 

“Mom—I’ll be fine—and I’m going. I’ve decided.” 

In a tear-filled rage, I told her how disappointed I was in her and that she couldn’t possibly be my daughter. In a tear-filled rage of her own, she left. So, I let her go. What choice did I have? 

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In her absence, I clung to fantasies of joining clubs and activities like synchronized swimming and dragon boat racing—and I’d show up once or twice, feeling the back of my throat well up with the salt of tears, and I’d realize I had nothing in common with the absolute joy others seemed to have—just stretching from their fingertips. I’d grow tired, listless, and bored. Somewhere in the world, I had a daughter, but I let her go. 

The first letter came three months later. She told me she had made it to Lebanon and was teaching sports and games as a kind of recess director. She alluded to some stories regarding the disappearance of volunteers—but no one from her group. She was being careful and learning a lot. Three months after that, she told me that although she was learning a lot, there was more she could do, and now, she realized she needed a college degree and perhaps a graduate degree. She expected to be home by the end of the year and was working on applications on her own. I told her I loved her and that I was proud of her—and that maybe she knew better than I did what she needed all along. 

Three months later, no more letters were sent, so I wrote one of my own. Nothing came in return. I contacted the school in Lebanon, and they told me she hadn’t shown up for work. Not for several weeks. Now, the U.S. Embassy is doing, “all it can,” and suggests that she’s been taken—and here’s where they stop—where they let me imagine the rest: a daughter of mine, locked away alive—or maybe not—and I wonder how much longer I can wait until I know the end. 

The scrabbles of rock, bleached in the sun, are the same as they’ve always been on the Lake 22 trail, but I haven’t been here in quite some time. The rocks have always felt unsteady beneath my feet, but now I’m more aware of the spread of my hips—the shifting of weight—the height at which I take this trail. How, in my youth, could I have felt so steady up here alone? Today, taking this path again—after more than 20 years—I feel a hollow disconnect between my limbs and my heart. On the back of a breeze, I think I hear, “Mom!” in Nora’s voice and I turn around, but no one is there. The voice is real and clear and so incredibly, distinctively Nora’s, but when I turn, I’m only left with sadness and a view of thick pines looming tall and large ahead of me. 

“I dig ruthlessly as if trying to fill the space between my limbs and heart with some kind of useful work.”

When I reach the lake, I hear her voice again, so I jump into the water to drown out the sound—to let out a long, steady scream, blowing out as a stream of bubbles below the depths. And I swim—swimming from the sadness. On the other side of the lake, I touch land, but I imagine it’s the edge of the summer of the in-between years when I was alone and didn’t have a daughter or responsibilities. . . And then I remember. I remember something I’d tried not to think about all of this time. When I climb out of the lake, I walk towards the tree line. There’s nothing here to indicate the place where I’d once buried the hideous creature that called out to me, but I have a pretty good idea of where it might be.

Bending down, I begin to dig into the sand with my hands—scraping and pulling at the earth—digging deeper. I know what I’m looking for and what I’ve put out of my mind for so many years. The wide, hopeful eyes and desperate shrieks of a child/monster—not mine but somehow my responsibility—are no longer easy to forget. In Nora’s absence, I can’t forget. Memories are cruel that way. So are silence, the empty room, the piles of letters, and a hair ribbon of hers I found in a drawer.

I dig ruthlessly as if trying to fill the space between my limbs and heart with some kind of useful work—as if I had to prove my memory is correct: This did happen. I got rid of something and brought my daughter into this world and she lives, somewhere between life and death. I can taste the salt on my face as I tear into the ground, toiling under the hot sun until I hit something soft, but scaly.

More gently, I brush away the remaining bits of sand and find a greenish-brown mound that resembles the belly of a human being in form and shape. When I touch it lightly with my finger, it moves—pulsing and breathing—after all of these years. It’s still alive—and Nora’s voice, coming in on the wind is crying, screaming for her mother—and my heart sinks. At the edge of the lake, I find a sharp rock, which I run back over to the pulsing, breathing mound. I slice through the creature’s belly to make the pain stop—to quiet the voice. And when I think the breathing has stopped and the wind has died down, I scoop the body I’ve never forgotten into my arms, and I rock it to sleep. 

Cecilia Kennedy taught Spanish and English for many years in Ohio before moving to the Greater Seattle area to write horror stories. Her first book is a collection of 13 dark tales: The Places We Haunt (on Amazon), and she has words in Headway Quarterly, The Daily Drunk, Coffin Bell, Open Minds Quarterly, Gathering Storm, and The Writing Disorder. She also keeps a humorous blog of her attempts at cooking and home repair: Fixin’ Leaks and Leeks.

Arranged Space

By Yash Seyedbagheri 

Mother comes back after two years in San Francisco. Nick is fourteen. It is 1969. 

She rents an apartment for them, asks Nick to arrange things as they were. But this is a new apartment with white walls and beige stucco outside. The living room, kitchen, and two bedrooms hold the weight of constraint as if it were meant for monks. Besides, Nick can’t recall how she arranged her Yates, Cheever, and Salinger. By title? Emotional mood? And what of her pants, her blouses? Were they arranged by colors? Lavender to light blue? And her Beatles records? His mind does cartwheels, always landing on itself.

Mother says the city moved too fast. After a year, she never knew the shape of things before her. New ideas took over. New ideas became old. Her rights and dignity were drowned by drugs and despair. A man walked on the moon, she says, but Nixon’s walked into consciousness. 

She’s missed Nick, wants to pick up again. Now she’s been able to write, create, send her work into the world. She’s taken that away from San Francisco if nothing else. She’s created material labeled not by relationships to men, but by her name. Elizabeth Botkin. 

“You think so? How do you know?” 

“Do you know what that feels like?” she says. “To have someone pronounce your name. There’s a power to it, Nick.” 

She’s been tortured by his absence in the nights, she says, had dreams about leaving even. But she couldn’t be a mother then. She felt as if the world kept loading, loading, loading. Nick wants to believe these words, but he cannot imagine. He thinks she loved him, but not like movie mothers who weep every ten minutes when their children fall off their bikes or run into villains.

Nick’s father left when he was five and he has no memories of him, save for a fleeting baritone laugh, a mustache. But even he’s not certain whether this is true, or an image his mind has conjured. While Mother was gone, he stayed with several friends, moving from one to the next by choice, even though each one assured he was, “Welcome.” There was Christophe Dubois with his petite French mother, Marie (who made the word happiness sound happy, sans the h). There was something too tender in her litany of hugs, the beatific smiles she wore, perhaps a little too beatific. Nick was overwhelmed by the attention she showered upon him, asking if he was hungry, if he was happy, or if he needed to talk. Nick lasted less than three months, trying to conceal a rising hatred for Christophe and a desire for things he couldn’t have, things beyond the grasp of logic. 

Then there was Henry O’Toole whose mother drank White Russians copiously, a sort of brutal reminder that perhaps Nick’s own mother was doing likewise. She’d drink and ruminate about Existentialism, socialism, and a litany of other isms. Lastly, there was Tony DiCenzo, whose mother was a pianist and played arias from Puccini on the piano with heartbreaking fervency.

“I know I’ve lost my temper,” Mother says over dinner one night. “But it’s different when you have space. You can look down on yourself, see who you were.”

“Are you happy now?” he asks.

Nick tries not to think of that night, two years ago, a slammed door, Chevy Bel-Air engulfed by moonlight shadows. He remembers the severe, wobbling smile she wore, her once-confident gait a slouch. She used to work at her Corona Zephyr typewriter, moving from kitchen to living room, looking for the right space. She often surveyed Nick as if he were an alien, said he needed too much. He was all about I, I, I. Sometimes she cried, lilting, desperate cries as if she were in the darkest chambers in a war and no one would come.

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“I’d like to think so, Nicky,” she says, slurping her noodles, laughing. “This place is a shithole, but it’s a start.” 

“You think so? How do you know?” 

Mother inhales. Smiles. She still has that sharp, crooked smile, still wears the same flipped bob. She still smells of sweat and Chesterfields. But there’s something off about all this. Maybe it’s like trying to remake a movie and following the exact same rules. 

“I think so, Nicky. It’s hard to really know. But that life was a waystation, a temporary point. I was just swamped. It’s not that I didn’t want to be your mother. I couldn’t, Nick. I couldn’t think, really.” 

Nick doesn’t know what he expected to be different. She’d be older and happier? But he doesn’t know what it means to be happier. Mother still loses her temper, although she apologizes more. She comes in late at night, smokes cigarettes, calls him his old nicknames Nicky, Sunbeam, her husky voice echoing across walls with desperation. But there’s still something missing in this arrangement. In his arrangements too. 

The typewriter needs to be right under the window. Doesn’t he remember? He can’t combine Yates and Nabokov. That’s like combining grapefruit with an onion. It’s about an arrangement of ideas, Mother says, a logical progression of things. 

“I’m sorry,” is all Nick can say. 

“It just has to be right,” Mother says. “I had it right in San Francisco. At the start anyway.” 

“I don’t know that,” Nick says. 

She frowns, inhales. 

“You’re right,” she says. “You can’t know how I arrange everything. I was always a perfectionist. In high school, they said I’d be likeliest to be the best housewife and mother. Isn’t that something?” 

“They didn’t rate you likeliest to walk away?” 

Her face crumples as if another being has consumed her soul. 

“Some spaces won’t be filled. “

“I came back,” she says. “Or am I a permanent sinner? I could have stayed. I could have changed my name and disappeared. I know people who did it. But I needed something familiar.” 

Mother keeps criticizing the placement of items. She tries to arrange things herself, starts spending more time away, late nights filled with growing emptiness. Some nights, she doesn’t come home at all. This is temporary anyway, she promises. Nick knows it. Maybe this time she’ll leave a note, tell him a week, a month in advance. Maybe she’ll take him this time. 

He keeps trying to arrange things. But there are still gaps, the books aren’t pleasant aesthetically. Her wardrobe clashes colorwise and Mother complains she needs something less domestic. 

Nick goes into Mother’s bedroom one evening when she’s out. He removes her books from the shelves, the jeans and dresses, and blouses from the closets. He packs them into her suitcases, feels the release of items and their weight, feels the whirl she must have felt, the future. Something is thrilling in this removal of things. Nick imagines that Mother has arrived somewhere new, excited by these arrangements before her. There is a new life, something all her own. So it seems. 

But the items will have to be unpacked, rearranged. And just arranged. 

Some spaces won’t be filled. 

Yash Seyedbagheri is a graduate of Colorado State University’s MFA program in fiction. A native of Idaho, Yash’s work is forthcoming or has been published in West ward Quarterly, Café Lit, and Ariel Chart, among others.