Thousand Deaths Plus One

a flash fiction piece by Zinta Aistars
[email]zaistars [at] kzoo [dot] edu[/email]

“Don’t shut me out,” she whispers to the back of his head. “Would die a thousand deaths for you, know I would, know I would, you know it,” she whispers with her lips right up against the rough short growth of his hair. Her hands reach around to touch his face, turned away from her, his body turned away from her, his eyes turned away from her. Light fuzz, bit of rough, cool cheeks, she smoothes her palms over his face and contours her fingers to the shape she has created. From one micro-magical cell deep in her body, eighteen years ago, she created this face.

She is perched like Mama Bird on the high back of the couch and her legs are up against either side of his shoulders. He didn’t move when she perched behind him. She could talk and talk, her knees pressed into his shoulders, and he would not even flinch. Only the occasional tilt of his head would hint at some listening, random catching of a word.

Her fingers spread through his cropped hair. She loves this rough stuff, this short scrub, on no one else but him. This isn’t just for him, this touching. It’s her food, too. Her spirit leans into the touch, drinks of it, breaks its bread, and inhales. Heel of her palm stroking the length of his skull, fingertips down to the base of his neck, tracing the cords, tensing and releasing of his muscles. He wants to resist, she senses that he does, but her warm hands turn him inside out. His head drops back lightly into the cup of her hands.

“Miss me when I’m gone,” she croons, singing her heartache for him to hear, “but erase me when I’m here, what the hell is that?”

His head tips, then rests, tips, neck tensing, rests again.

“Think I don’t know, think I don’t understand, but oh baby,” she hums, “oh baby. Oh…”

She scrapes nail tips across his skull, his hair snapping to attention. Presses her thumb pads into the valley at the base of his neck until she feels the knot give. Circles at his temples, ever so, ever so soft. His shoulders droop.

“You give me hell,” she hisses, “and I’ll catch it. Kick, scream, tear, doesn’t matter, I’m not letting you go into your own hell without me.” She lays her cheek against his warm skull. The scent of his skin, of his hair, makes her weep. Just like the first time. Eighteen years, eighteen minutes, no difference. She’d rock this baby until he was seventy three. Then she’d be gone. But her wings would whisper soft as her voice now in his dreams. Never let go.

Now her fingers trace the curl of his ears, cool to the touch, like intricate shells. If only she could make him hear. Patter of the rain on the roof, splash of a foaming wave, chatter of a pesky squirrel, sigh of a lullaby. If only she could make him hear.

She lets the silence sit a moment longer, then hums, then sings, ever so, ever so softly a lullaby from those long ago years… of little bears, and dancing sheep, and sleep, sweet child’s sleep, and the promise of so many bright blue mornings to come…

There is a tremor in his shoulders. She stops. Instead, presses her lips to the curve of his skull. Closing her eyes, prays to all good and protecting spirits: spread your wings across my child, spread them wide and hold him close.

“Don’t shut me out,” she says once more, so he won’t forget, but it does not matter. She will stay by the closed door. She will wait.

He gets up slowly, letting her hands drop between her knees, stands for a moment, still, then leaves.

A Letter From Ben

a short story by Joan Horrigan
([email]joanhorrigan [at] msn [dot] com[/email])

Now that I got your attention and you got the privilege of my generosity, I’m gonna make you a deal. This ain’t no car dealer’s deal. This here’s a genuwine way to make some dough.

Just to show my honest regards to you, I’ll let you in on what happened and why this here’s gonna work. Now, I ain’t no good at writing, so you gotta bear with me in this letter cause I talk out loud as I write.

What started the whole thing was Charlie got sick. Now Charlie is the only friend I got in here at Statesville. So I couldn’t let him down when he asked a favor of me.

Trudy was coming to visit him, but Charlie wasn’t up to no visiting cause he wasn’t even up to getting outta bed. He didn’t want to let her down, getting sick and all, cause she’s the only one who ever came out to this hell hole to see Charlie. He was afraid if she took that long trip on the bus and then found out it was all for nothing, well, he was afraid she’d get mad and never come again. Then where would he be?

He’d still be in here in this prison hell like the rest of us jerks who screwed up and got caught. That’s where he’d be, but he sure didn’t want to go and lose Trudy. Charlie had plans to start a business when we got outta here. It was maybe even gonna be legal, if we could pull it off. Otherwise, Trudy’d have another one of her fits cause she’s temperamental as hell says Charlie. I’m gonna get in on it with him cause I’m the only one Charlie trusts, and believe you me, he can. I ain’t no fool. If you don’t have trust, you don’t have nothing in my book.

So’s the day Trudy came, I was supposed to go and tell her about Charlie and try to make her see that it was the damn truth that Charlie was not in the hole for anything bad or avoiding her or nothing like that, and she ain’t got nothing to fear or get mad at. As soon as she saw me coming to sit in Charlie’s seat at the cage window, I could tell she was suspicious by the look on her face. It was all fulla question marks and them big blue eyes of hers were getting bigger and bigger and her sugar mouth was getting all pouty-like. So’s I sat down and told her hello for Charlie, but she didn’t let me get a word in edgewise cause she said, “You can’t fool me, Benny Boy, I know you and Charlie are up to something now if he sent you. If you two don’t quit scheming this minute, I’m quitting him. You can tell him so because I can’t take no more worrying about Charlie being in here and me trying to hold things together till he gets out just so’s the two of you can turn around and go pull some deal and get yourselves put back in here. That just ain’t going to work this time, or no time ever, if that’s what y’all got in mind.”

“Calm down, Trudy,” I said, trying to make it sound real nice. In fact, I took on one of them psychologist’s techniques of making the other person feel good, just to show her it was the goddam truth. I had read up on psychology in here. Hell, I could even spell the word now cause I’ve been educating myself when I had the chance. Even old Tom who always stood watch on Thursdays could see that I was truly getting smarter and smarter. He even told Thurgood about it and they started giving me Mondays in the library too so’s I could get educated even more. Then I could get outta here quicker. Hell, if I got a high school diploma by March, like they said, I could cut probably five years off my sentence. That meant I could quit this place by September, if I played my cards right and passed that there diploma test that they made you take. Hell, that was gonna be a cinch for me cause reading was my thing now. It was better’n even going to chow sometimes, and that’s saying a lot.

“Trudy,” I tried explaining to her, “Charlie has nothing but your best interests at heart, and he ain’t pulling no deal. It’s just that he’s so sick he can’t even get outta bed and that’s the truth. He said to tell you to keep your chin up and don’t give up on him, cause he’ll be fine soon and will see you next time you come. He told me to tell you he even has a special message to tell you then, that only he can say to you himself.”

“Oh, yeah, I just bet he does!” she said back to me in that independent tone. It was obvious she was not buying this, so I went on.

“Trudy, I think that special message is supposed to say [i]I love you[/i] cause you’re all he talks about in here.” I was lying at this point cause I was using psychology on her, and that’s what them psychologist guys do. They even make money at it, even up to a hundred smackers an hour. They even say fifty minutes is an hour cause I read a book called that and it was in plain sight on the cover, called [i]The Fifty Minute Hour,[/i] right here in the Statesville Library, and they don’t have nothing here that is supposed to corrupt no criminals. They like to call us that, but we ain’t no criminals. We’re just guys who gotta bad break and everyone gets them sometimes. So’s the way I got it figured, if them psychologists make money like that, and they ain’t called no criminals, and they are even looked up to in society, and they say fifty minutes is an hour right to your face, then that ain’t supposed to be lying. But personally I think it is cause I got more scruples than that, and I’m in here. What I told her was a damn lie, but I was trying to let her down easy so she wouldn’t get mad at Charlie and not come again.

“Did he really say that, Benny? Really?” Trudy started asking it so sweet-like and all that I even had to tell her more, so’s she’d be sure and believe me.

“Of course, he said that. Why even yesterday, he was telling me about how beautiful you were and how kind and how you always made it a point to bother to come out to this godforsaken place and how that showed you had a good heart and how lucky he was to have a gal like you.” Hell, I was even using better English just talking to her like that. Thurgood told me that would help me get a job faster, if I started saying stuff like ‘are not’ instead of ‘ain’t’ and talking more positively about things. So I’ve been practicing it, but it sure don’t seem to make no difference in here to me. But at least it’s something I can practice on, and these guys in here don’t even notice when I’m doing it. But Thurgood said he noticed, and he was putting it in my record so’s I could get outta, oops, out of here by September, and it’s already February.

It must’ve been working because Trudy said, “Why, Benny that is the nicest thing to say to me! I want you to know that I really appreciate it and I am going to be back next week, just to check with you about how Charlie is doing. Uh oh, the guard says I have to leave now, but you remember that I will be back to see you. Tell Charlie hello and I hope he gets better. Bye now!” That there was the start of it. And she did come back every week while Charlie was sick. We would talk about all sorts of things. I told her about all the books I was reading and about what they said. She told me about how she had started fixing up the house she had and how she had got a better job now that was only eight hours a day. She thought it was so beautiful out, what with the trees starting to turn different colors like yellow, red, gold and brown. She said that soon it would be September. She claimed she was so proud of me. She was even looking forward to me getting out of here and finding a good job and making something of myself. Trudy thought I had potential and said only a guy with potential was the kind she would ever be interested in.

I would tell Charlie, when I got to visit him after every time she came, about all the stuff she told me so’s he’d start feeling better hearing about Trudy’s job and house and the trees and all, but he seemed to be getting worse because now he looked like he weighed only a hundred and forty pounds. He used to be over two hundred and all muscle at that, but Charlie couldn’t even pick up the glass now to get a drink. I knew he was losing his muscles too by the way the skin was hanging on his arms and how pale he was getting, so I was careful now not to say anything that would get him upset, because he had to start getting well real soon or he would be a goner, and then where would Trudy be.

Well, to make a long story short, I got my diploma in March and now it’s September, so I’m getting out of here tomorrow. I even got my stuff packed up and a job waiting for me, and Trudy is coming to pick me up at nine in the morning. Now Thurgood just walked in and told me about Charlie.

So that’s why I’m finishing writing this here letter to you and offering you my deal about how you can make some dough, or at least make something better happen with your dough. It’s a legal way too cause I read up on it. Charlie and me were gonna try something like this ourselves. All I’m asking of you is to send ten dollars or a hundred dollars or whatever you can to this here Statesville Prison to build a new library cause I’ve read over half the books in it. If some poor stiff comes in here to spend more time than me, especially a lot more time than me, well, he’ll just be out of luck. Then when he gets out, he’s gonna be really mad and mean, not like me, cause I’ve learned a lot reading in that library.

Anyways you can get a tax write-off and save yourself some dough cause I know that from a book here too, which to my way of thinking is making money, and the more you send, the more you make it happen. If you gotta pay it anyway, put it somewheres where it’s really needed.

I would also like to ask your help with burying Charlie and helping to take care of Trudy, since she was depending on him so much. That too will make even more money for your write-off.

I’m signing off now, but I can’t mail this letter or send it by email till I get out of here tomorrow. I’m still an inmate and can’t mail it from here, but they sure need the money for here. If you want to help Trudy, her address is at the bottom.

Signed, your friend, Benjamin Worthington

[i]New York[/i]: Mary, will you look at this! Now here’s a way we can save some money. What do you say? Read this letter from a Mr. Worthington and tell me if we shouldn’t send that ten thousand dollars we’re supposed to pay to Uncle Sam to Statesville instead, as a contribution, and then we might pay less taxes.

[i]Los Angeles[/i]: Alex, what if we sent twenty or thirty thousand to Statesville so we can get the write-off?

[i]Houston[/i]: I am definitely going to give my charity donation to Statesville for the write-off after reading this.

On and on it went with people all over the country sending money to Statesville, and within three years, the new library was built and officially opened.

As for Ben and me, well, you know the rest of the story. However, we were really surprised when we got enough to send Ben on to college where he got his degrees and license. With a lot of planning and scrimping, we still had enough left to set up and open his psychology practice last Spring, which now is doing remarkably well. That library was the key to the whole thing, but that’s not the end of the story.

Yesterday, Thurgood called Ben and told him they had decided to rename the Statesville Library to the Worthington Library in honor of Ben. Then they asked if he would write another letter for a new gym.

Foster Care

a short story by Felicia Sullivan
([email]felsull [at] hotmail [dot] com[/email])

One Tuesday morning, Claire Foster’s mother died. There had been rumors. Sam Johnson, who delivered the early edition of the Daily News, would see her stumble in heels too high, white vinyl skirt creeping up her thighs, edges ripped, snagging on fishnets — coming off the Eastbound 5:51AM train from Manhattan. Kate Taylor, during her morning jog, would spurt past Diana Foster and pause, “Are you okay?” Kate squeaked, out of breath in her pink parachute-jogging suit, matching fanny pack and stereo headphones. Scratching her arms, skin gathering under jagged fingernails, Diana would mutter a drunken “Uh-huh” and then trip and fall onto her lawn. “There were definitely needle marks,” Kate speculated to cashiers at the local supermarket. People in my town loved a good story. “I didn’t want to help her up,” Kate had whispered to Betty Samson while they were nestled under a scalding hot dryer, hair tightly rolled in sky-blue plastic curlers. “You just never know!” My mother delivered these stories to my father every evening like the late edition of the news.

Claire and I lived next door to another. My mother said we once crawled across our lawns to another other. I do not remember this. My mother continued in a lower voice — Claire poked me in the eye with a chubby forefinger and giggled. My father told me that the sight of a fleshy toddler wailing, tears and snot spilling to form a mask around my mouth caused my mother to careen across the grass. Her heels were submerged in soil; her white linen pedal pushers became sullied with grass stains after she kneeled down and hoisted me up and over her right shoulder. My father chuckled loudly as he retold the story, dabbing the corner of his eyes with the cuffs of his shirt. “Your mother picked you up like a sack of potatoes and shoved you into the crib. I said, ‘Be careful Ellen, careful!'” My mother was distracted by the grass stains on her newly purchased pants; she stood half-naked in front of the sink, scrubbing the soaked trousers with cleanser, with her nails dug deep into the fabric. My father said he closed his mouth, shook his head and sat down on the couch, the morning paper shielding half of his body.

I felt that Claire and I were friends by default since we didn’t enjoy one another’s company and the only thing we ever had in common was the fact we lived next door to each other, her lawn spurting weeds while my mother’s petunias and other gaudy suburban flowers decorated ours. Throughout our early years in grade school, Claire used to speak for me, “Susan wants vanilla!” she would bark on the cafeteria lunch line, spit flying and settling in Betty Samson’s hairnet. Peeling off the wrapping paper, my fingers sticky with cream, my tongue roved the ice cream cautiously. Personally, I preferred strawberry.

My mother loved Claire because my mother thrived on a charity case. When I was eight, one evening after my mother had wiped the dinner plates dry, she sat down next to my father on the couch and flipped through the television channels while my father licked ink stained fingers, turning pages. A commercial spot aired, featuring malnourished children, their spines forming half crescents as they clutched their stomachs, roaming the streets. I could imagine my mother feverishly scribbling 800 numbers with her lead number two pencil. Her obsession festered and continued with bake sales, donation checks to overseas addresses and letters to our local congressman. I have since understood that Claire Foster was her chance to “Save the Children” — she would be my mother’s personal telethon. That night, I handed my mother a letter from my principal, which she quickly unfolded. I had earned the highest reading and math scores in the state. I had surpassed the sixth grade reading level and I was only eight. My mother had patted me on my shoulder as the paper glided to the floor, “Nice work dear.” I picked up the letter with its large cursive script and crumpled it in my palm as I walked out of the room.

At night, my mother would whispered stories to my father in a frantic rushed tone and grew angry if she forgot any details. Outside street lamps buzzed and flickered, burning moth wings; their scorched tips trickled to the pavement in a light drizzle. Raccoons rustled through the dense shrubbery leading to our backyard, curved razor claws slicing through plastic, ravaging my untouched supper. My rear grew numb from sitting on the floor of my mother’s closet listening to her recount her trip to the Fosters. Diana Foster had disappeared for days. That afternoon my mother entered their home, uninvited. She forced windows open, shook Carpet Fresh on the ground, and quietly placed empty gin bottles in their proper recycling receptacles, their clangs reverberating throughout the still home. The only remnants of Diana’s presence were the mixture of Chanel No. 5 and stale beer that hung heavy in the air. A ten-year old Claire had pounced on my mother, her small oval mouth scowling, “She just went to the store, she’ll be right back!” Claire had insisted. “Yes, I know dear,” my mother replied, shoving Claire’s head under the sink, dousing her hair in strawberry smelling shampoo.

“And Claire had tried to run away! Why would a little girl want to traipse around the neighborhood with dirty hair?” my mother said to my father. She had raked her fingers about Claire’s scalp, making her clean. Claire snapped her head up and sudsy water sprayed and stung my mother’s eyes. While my mother retold these events, I knew my mother wanted to shout, “Who are you trying to kid? We all know about your mother”. But my mother would never say that aloud. She would have considered it rather impolite.

“And the state of Diana! Jacob, that woman is absolutely shameless! That poor, poor Claire! Susan should know she has it so good!” She lamented over my father’s snorts that marked his slumber. My father never paid attention, but I did. After an hour of heavy sighs, I heard her lean over the bed and flick the light. The room echoed the sounds of my father snoring, my mother’s restful breath and my own choked cries. When I crawled into bed that evening, the sheets felt a touch too cold to my skin; the edges ironed so flat, the smell too clean. I lay awake for hours listening for the scraping of the raccoons and the shaky patter of Diana Foster’s heels inevitably coming home.

At 5:30 AM, I rose and slipped downstairs to the kitchen. I peered through the kitchen window and saw Claire sitting on her porch, shoulders quivering under her purple cardigan, waiting for her mother to come home. She held a yellow flashlight that blared over the pages of long division homework that we all had to hand in the next day, eyes squinting over fractions through oval spectacles. When Diana finally came home, she lifted her daughter up off the porch and twirled her around; Claire’s sleeve fell to the crook of her elbow. “Ohhh, my little girl all grown up waiting for her Momma!” she had squealed loudly. Diana never noticed her daughter’s homework; pencil marks smudged, quadratic equations silenced by fresh footprints. I imagined our roses frowning in a collective condescension, fireflies’ darkened wings covered over wide eyes and my mother jolting upright in her bed. I could hear Claire’s eyeglasses crunch under Diana’s white stilettos.

Claire did not appear to mind. I imagined that she would sit in the front row of class tomorrow so she would be able to see the board. I wondered if she had wanted to feel warm, smothered by her mother’s sweat. That evening, I scampered back into my house and climbed up the stairs, jumping two at a time to my mother’s bedroom. I crawled under the comforter, my nose nuzzling under her armpit. She shoved me off the bed while she slept, swatting me away like an annoying gnat. Once, she led me to my room, “Claire, don’t be so childish,” she hissed, half-asleep. “Susan! Mom, its Susan!” I cried. But the door had already closed behind her cotton nightgown.

“OWWWW!” I howled one afternoon in fifth grade as my legs buckled and I fell to the ground. I felt lilacs crush and stick to my legs, purple petals and my blood mixed in with the dirt. My knees were covered in soil. Gravel, twigs and small rocks snagged my knee-highs. My books scattered all over the ground. My fingers searched the ground, palms faced down, feeling around for my glasses.

“Don’t talk about my mother, EVER!” Claire had yelled and shoved her hand, clenched into a ball, right under my nose. Her hands smelled like tuna. She didn’t hit me but she let her fist linger there — just long enough for me to start to tremble. This pleased her. My shoulders caved in, my white button down oxford shirt creased and wrinkled. I bit my upper lip; two chipped front teeth from the fall peeled chapped skin off my mouth. Tiny flakes dusted my chin. I stared at her plump belly falling over her skirt’s waistband like a smooth skinned fruit that would inevitably sour and rot. I held one hand over my stomach, over my pleated flannel blue and green skirt. I thought I might be sick. My whole body started to shake and I cried.

Claire hovered over me, crouched down — her broad shoulders blocked the sunlight. Strands of shiny clean hair dangled in front of my nose. It smelled a mix of rotten fish left aside like garbage and strawberry shampoo. I wondered how she got her hair to smell like that. Her mouth opened wide and I imagined tiny fish flapping their fins on her tongue. “You’re weak,” she whispered. I ran home and told my mother, but she had only scolded me. “You should only be so lucky,” she had hissed. Lucky about what?

Claire stopped leaving her house after school in junior high. She closed the blinds, and dead-bolted the door whenever my mother came over. One day, Claire’s mother raced outside and started dancing. Frail hips undulated. Fingers snapped. Her legs were covered with large purple bruises; her skin draped over her skeleton like a thin film of grime. Claire dutifully filed out like a soldier — steps quick, body erect and tight. She covered Diana with a Strawberry Shortcake blanket. She glared at me as I watched from our lawn. Once her mother was safely secured in the house, she returned carrying a black plastic bag and dumped it in the garbage can. After, my mother brought a tray of left over biscuits wrapped in foil to the Foster’s home. My mother knocked then pounded on the door for several minutes. Defeated, she left the biscuits on the doorstep. Ants scurried for the buttery bread as soon as she turned her back; they tapped on the aluminum. From my porch, I sat angry, stomach growling. Where were my biscuits? Why did I have to wait until dinner? I scurried over to Claire’s house, grabbed the bag and brought it safely to our backyard. I savagely ripped the plastic. Hundreds of tissues with dried blood turned putrid brown and green phlegm, torn permission slips, dozens upon dozens of tan empty prescription bottles, cold strands of spaghetti, torn sheets of paper with the smooth script of Diana Foster’s name repeated on each line scattered about the grass. I sat on the ground of our backyard. Who cared about empty bottles and pasta when I made honor roll every single semester and my mother simply filed the awards in our den? She barely acknowledged them with a nod, “Good job Susan. Can you take out the garbage?” I wanted to tear up all the awards and throw the shredded pieces at my mother.

At school, Claire ignored me. In eighth grade our lockers had been next to one another and she would always scotch tape every inch of moss-green metal with pin-ups from Bop magazine — she would align them neatly, straight and perfect. She frowned at my display of pin-up pictures all slanted, gummy fun-tack residue on the insides of my locker. “You’re so disorganized,” she mouthed in disgust. Furious, I slammed my locker door and stomped to homeroom, the sharp clang of my ankle boots echoing long after the first period bell. In ninth grade, her locker was on another floor. I joined all the other girls that whispered about Claire’s mother in homeroom, inventing stories, exaggerating others. Our furiously moving lips would come to a collective halt once she entered the room. Bonnie Taylor drew sketches of a mop with blond colored hair and cheap heels giving a blowjob to the principal. Folding it neatly in four, I slid it in her desk, shoved it in her locker, or sometimes Bonnie would tape it on her back. I never summoned enough nerve to touch Claire. But Bonnie was bolder. If Claire ever noticed, ever flinched, ever unfolded the countless drawings, we would never know. But she came to school every day, turning in typed book reports on bond paper, realigned her protractor, and licked a tissue to polish her silver ruler. Sometimes I would catch her tracing over the indented lines of the metal: �, 1/3, �, and one, precise, complete whole. She kept sharpened pencils in a neat metal case that read, “You CAN succeed!” Claire always got straight A’s. I made Varsity cheerleading and was president of student council. She never noticed. My mother didn’t either. My father read the paper cover to cover, including the ads.

My mother lay awake most nights, drumming her fingers on an unfinished book, often wondering who braided Claire’s hair, who had given her money for school clothes and shampoo. She put out feelers around town, made inquiries. “Lust money,” my father said. I knew that Claire braided her own hair. In the morning my mother hovered over the stove, oil shot sparks from the pan. My mother set my plate of thin strips of fatty bacon and eggs whose yellow eyes seemed to burn right through me. “Susan, you know, I was thinking. You should invite Claire over more often.” “Why?” I asked, defiant. She ignored me, “Maybe today after school or perhaps tonight for dinner. I’m making that salmon your father likes.” “If you want her over so badly, why don’t you call her yourself?” I shouted. “Don’t be FRESH!” My mother yelled and lowered her voice to a thin, biting tone. “I’m going over to Bonnie’s tonight, I detest fish!” I stood up, shoved my chair under the table and ran out the door.

The day her mother died, I came home from Varsity cheerleading practice to find Claire fidgeting on our leather couch. It was unusually warm for spring and she continuously peeled one thigh, then another off the seat. I thought about vanilla ice cream in grade school that day. She was silent, a pile of books on her one side, my mother on the other. Her arm draped over Claire’s shoulder, fingers massaging smooth skin. My mother never held me that way. Claire winced in pain at my mother’s touch. They looked every bit the dysfunctional family portrait. “Susan, Claire will be staying with us for a while,” she beamed. I stood in the center of the livingroom, facing the two of them and I suddenly felt dizzy. I ran upstairs and slammed the door behind me. Curled up on top of my bedspread, I saw two duffel bags stuffed in the corner of my closet, a ratty Strawberry Shortcake doll resting on the larger of the two, one arm appeared to have been ripped off, chunks of cotton dangled from the socket. I wanted to fling the whole lot of it out the window and watch the doll roll on the grass. What did it matter that I made captain when Claire’s mother died?

Claire hadn’t bothered to knock when she entered. She pushed the door aside, the screeching creak severed through the tension in the room like a dull butter knife. She sat on the edge of my bed while my body was scrunched against the bedpost.

“Why are all of your posters slanted?” She asked, pointing to the Kirk Camerons on the wall.

“Who cares?” I snapped, rolling my eyes. She regarded me like milk that had gone sour.

“It looks funny, it’s weird,” she said.

“No, you’re weird,” I replied and felt a sense of relief as the words fell off my tongue and onto the bedspread like an unwelcome gift.

“Oh yeah, and I suppose me being here, your mother scoring charity points — you call that normal?” Claire said. “Like I’m some damned charity case that fits neatly on a tax form. ‘Oh that Diana Foster’s girl, remember the biscuits? Now we can remodel the kitchen. CHECK!'” Claire said bitterly, her hand making an exaggerated check mark in the air. Then I remembered Claire in grade school, her long greasy hair, wearing the same outfit for days at a time and now, years later, she sat confident in a short, clean bob and denim jeans that smelt of fabric softener. I wanted to kick her off my bed.

“Get out!” I screamed. My feet started kicking the bed. My hands pulled at the bedspread that she was now sprawled across. Claire stood up, smiling and walked over towards my wall and tore my Kirk Cameron poster down. His cr�me chinos, his mint-green blazer and curly locks all torn in half. With half the rolled up poster nestled under her arm, she turned to me. “You’re all crooked,” she said and closed the door behind her.

* * *

I had not seen Claire for ten years. I flew home in November for my mother’s funeral. My father had called and the message on the machine grunted, “Your mother died. I thought you ought to know. Bring a jacket, it gets chilly in the evenings, you know.” At La Guardia, I watched my bag move past me at baggage claim and stood there, letting it circle the ramp. I watched as passengers accidentally lifted my duffel for a moment and then abruptly drop it when they read the tag “Property of Susan Sullivan” with the address of my law firm. I watched it swerve on the carousel. Finally, I picked it up and slung it over my shoulder, my black crepe suit slightly wrinkling. While pushing through the revolving door, I dialed for car service. The air outside Terminal D was not cool and crisp, but dank and humid for November. I stuck my tongue out and swore I could taste the air, swallow it whole. Pages from newspapers, torn boarding passes and taxi cab receipts were momentarily lifted by a slight breeze, a slight shift and movement of the air but then fell tired and weak.

When the car stopped in front of my house, waves of dread filled me to a point where I felt I would burst. I promised myself that I would only attend the service, and immediately fly home; that was as much as I could possibly bear. When I had left for college, I told my mother that I hated her. I hated her for never paying me any attention, for caring only about Claire. My mother’s eyes had narrowed to slits. “Ungrateful!” she said. “You don’t get it do you? But I guess you never will,” I said, and slammed the door behind me. My father’s car pulled into the driveway. When he opened the door and saw my face streaked with tears, he opened his mouth but said nothing. I shook my head and ran down the street to the train station.

My heels clicking on the sidewalk quickly fell silent as I stepped on my mother’s flowerbed — petunias and roses turned brown, their petals peeled down in a frown. I turned and looked over at Claire’s house, now inhabited by a new family. Two small toddlers played tag on the lawn. “You’re IT!” one of them shouted. I stared at the flowerpots on the porch where I had secretly viewed Claire and Diana all those years. For years, I had wondered about Claire and not really known or understood why — that I just did. When I walked up the steps, I saw a tray of biscuits in front of the door. The fluorescent yellow seemed to glow in daylight. I bent down and a small white slip of paper was nestled under the pan. “From Claire,” it read. I swirled my head around, eyes darting at the street, other lawns and fell before a car that had replaced my taxi. The window rolled down and a blonde bob peeked out. “My turn”. She said and rolled the window up.

[b]Author’s Note:[/b] Felicia Sullivan is a New York based writer attending Columbia University’s MFA program. She is the Founder and EIC of an online literary journal, Small Spiral Notebook and is a fiction editor at the Adirondack Review. Felicia has work upcoming in The Oklahoma Review, The Adirondack Review, In Posse Review and Salt River Review, among other publications. A self-professed yoga junkie and culinary goddess, she loves French pastries and wearing down the jackets of her favorite novels.

Sleepless Night

a short story by Carolyn Morris
([email]amethyzt213 [at] yahoo [dot] com[/email])

The rain beat softly on the pavement outside. It carried the scent of the ocean and the flowers in the bluffs it had crossed to get to the girl’s window. But she did not notice it. Her senses, once attuned to the sights and sounds of the world around her, had grown dulled. Perhaps it was age that had done it, closing her eyes to the brilliance she used to see in everything. More likely it was the man lying sprawled out beside her in bed, as usual taking up as much room as possible, as if even in sleep he wanted to consume and stifle her. She had grown dead to the pain, the aching, the horrible nothingness. Feeling nothing was worse than feeling something. She had found this out over the course of the years, slowly, gradually, and without realizing that her life and soul were being diminished.

Then one night she awoke to the sound of the rain and lie staring at the ceiling. Despite the darkness, she could see well enough to count the few remaining stars attached to it. They had once been constellations but they had fallen one by one, the old adhesive losing the battle with the powdery white plaster. Looking at the sad, sparse bits of glowing green, she was struck by the memory of real stars. She supposed they must still be there, right outside her window if she cared to look. But look she hadn’t. Not for quite some time. The bits of light that used to be her friends, her guide, her twinkling lovers, had gone unnoticed in recent years. The eyes once open to the world had glossed over, veiled by a mist of foggy indifference bred of … who knows.

The worst thing about the nothingness was that she did not know from whence it came or how to make it go back. In a simple world, people long for things, acknowledge the desire, and do their best to satisfy it. In a simple world, there are no choices. In this world, people sometimes create their own barriers to fulfillment. The biggest obstacles are those we painstakingly build for ourselves, stone by massive, cold, solid stone. They are at once the easiest and the hardest to tear down, because the fight is against oneself.

The girl glanced at the warm figure next to her, appreciating the heat because it protected against the chill from without, while grimly knowing that the real coldness lied within. He looked so innocent sleeping there, the poor child. In sleep she could almost forgive him. She could almost remember how they came to be there in the first place. Almost. Looking at him, she tried one last time to summon the feeling she once knew — the quickening of the heart, the warm chill down her spine, the irresistible urge to smile.

But those things were long gone, vanished into the wind after one too many insults or cold shoulders or demands or … so many things. Too hard to explain, too depressing to recall. In movies and in books writers portray love as an unquenchable passion, a soul-shaking experience, a lovely sickness. The girl, cynical by nature, was tempted to brush these off as merely the whims of fancy, brought into being by writers as lonely as herself.

But she knew better. Her spirit had not always been dead. It had once danced to a music too beautiful to comprehend. Her eyes had once shone with the light that painters have tried to capture and failed. She had known times when the world really did stand still or melted away, or whatever poetic term one prefers, and all that was left was herself and another. She knew that real love existed out there, and that people were in it, and that it was beyond words.

The rain fell, and her eyes slowly closed. It was too late for such dreams and recollections. Memories are useless. Her shy spirit retreated again and she cuddled up to the warmth of the boy she no longer loved, and never really had. The glorious stars, wind, and flowers would have to wait until a more convenient time. God forbid she should be late to work in the morning.

Previous publications: Literary Brothel (under pen name “Aine Brigit”)


What if we daisy-cut
Bin Laden to bloody mush
And stuff his corpse
Into the deepest cave in
The White Mountains
And bulldoze it into
A place so secret that
Even we can’t find it

What if we smash Al Qaeda
Into pieces so small
That Brownian motion
Will be enough to prevent
Even the hope of
Them ever talking to
Or even smelling
Each other

What if we cruise missle
The Taliban so precisely
That any possibility of
The consequences of the
Slightest act of defiance
Against us
On their part
Is so far beyond their
Comprehension that they
Can only hunker down
And go insane

What if we wage war
So technologically clever
That in three months the
Relative body count
(from enemy action only,
Mind you, not Friendly Fire)
Is Us ten thousand, Them zero
(Not counting Alliance
Casualties, of course)
And the couch potatoes
Back home
Can keep score cards via
Satellite phone and CNN
Like it was a football game
Or Desert Storm

What if they dream up a plan
So simple and beautiful
That with a thousand dollars
They massacre a couple
Of million of us with Weapons of
Mass Destruction
Sarin or Ebola or Ricin
Or a Parcel of dirty nukes
Aboard a holiday Boeing 757
Cruising over Manhattan

What if we devise
A Weapon of Mass Destruction
So diabolically complex
As to strip
From them
For our own use
Every non-renewable resource
Tucked by God into
the bowels of their desert
And preserved
For the hope of a future
That their nomadic
Stone-age little minds
Don’t even yet know exists –

What if they smack us
With a Pearl Harbor
So devastating
That our leaders are
Instantly smitten
With a perspicacity
Never possessed
By any such august body
Before or
Since Vietnam,
And will probably never

Here we go

For John Swenning on the Occasion of His Retirement

They say that to be a poet, or even to read poetry, one must be slightly insane.
Which is not to say that the poet, or the reader of poetry, is to blame
For his or her own circumstance, predicament, or condition
Because it is really a matter of fruition.

Many a man or woman have I fervently but distantly esteemed
For the cut of his or her jib or the mire of his/her mud or the bite of her/his spleen
But whose poetic facility ranks right up there with The Best of Dick and Jane
Or Who’s Who in the World of Business, or a matchless tract on how to explain

The inner workings of ovaries or some other obscure but highly important organ,
And to listen to their patter for longer than 0.5 minutes I consider to be very borgan.
But, ah! The others, those rare bards peeking shyly out from behind their little tin shields
Who are equally at home yelling, “Grab a hunk of curb, asshole!” or yodeling odes about Elysian Fields.

There is no doubt that you are one of those not-so-closet poets that color the midst of us mortals,
And you are blest or cursed with a rare perception of what is right and good perhaps more than you ortal.
The fact that you choose to spill it all over everybody’s personal landscape, and make a few pea pickers of our acquaintance a tad disconcerted,
Doesn’t make your lyrical notions wrong or unwelcome in the minds of those of us with whom you have poetically flirted.

For it is plain as the nose above that cookie duster you call a mustache,
That poets, like everyone else, like to make a splache.
Fruition, you see. The favored friends you have carefully chosen to share the wit and wisdom of your sonnet
Are no less burdened to the task than is your ode-spreading head with the powerful urge to create laid onnet.

In other words, Screw it!
You’re constitutionally compelled to do it.
And those of us, who that one little fact doth realize and comprehend,
Consume your canticles with gusto, even if them we don’t always fully understand.

Disparaging trolls may piffle at what they consider the mawkish cutes you and I artlessly dispense,
But we sagacious souls turn our gaze to the stars and away from fools sitting on a mud fence.
If simple minded gherkins call us banal,
The are welcome to osculate the bitter end of my alimentary canal.

I like your stuff as much as you like mine, and if there is one thing I will always treasure
It is watching a man who unquestionably and wholeheartedly thrives on the pleasure
Of expressing his entire ethic in verse so that planet earth may as a place be a little bit better.
Even if he thinks it is ok to say farewell by means of a form letter.

(This poem was written in 1998 and presented to John the day after I received his form letter announcing his retirement)

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