Jabez Stone weren't a bad man, but certainly an unlucky one. His latest ménage a trois was in disarray; his good‑enough business, always ahead of its time, didn't prosper; if he issued stock, the markets were down; if he borrowed money, the rates were up. Some folks seem bound to be like that apparently. One day Jabez Stone thought to change it.
But Jabez Stone's luck continued bad. His pentagram and associated incantations brought forth the desired result the very first time.
"Amazingly good! First petitioner this millennium to succeed on the first try. You really don't know how hard I have to work with mortals to have them get it right. What is your secret?"
The Stranger spoke softly, carefully choosing sentences peppered with the 19th Century Yankee colloquialisms so in vogue this century; modishly, but discreetly, dressed favoring black; young, but not youthful; slender, but not thin. The face was ordinary, the eyes flint, the hands so long and so thin, the plentiful teeth chalk‑white and sharp like a Moray eel Stone had once seen in the ancient ruins of the Baltimore aquarium. All in all, the Stranger could have passed for one of Stone's business acquaintances, a charismatic evangelist or a politician of note. The Stranger seemed to float above the pentagram.
The remark made Stone right proud and it showed in his answer. "The computer which generates the pentagram and its voice which recites the incantations operate from my original designs and programs."
Stone was also somewhat overcome by his success so his next observation was tentative. "Holographic projection?"
"Exactly." The response came as a purr. "Administration of such a large organization as mine requires the use of every form of modern communication. Since you are protected by the pentagram, it hardly seems worthwhile to appear in person. If we strike a deal, I will, of course, call directly. The standard contract, I presume?"
A kind of queerness came over Stone, the kind a body gets when he turns over a rock and sees slugs underneath. Those millennium‑old New England genes, dilute enough in his generation, kinda gave him pause, but Jabez Stone was bound to change his luck, bound indeed. Only after the Stranger disappeared did Stone dissolve the pentagram.
The next day the Stranger called at the office of Stone Robotics about 0900 hours standard galactic. Stone's secretary didn't remember scheduling an appointment, particularly peculiar since her programming included specific appointment memory, but the appointment surely was there when she
"I really must tell Mr. Stone there is a subtle flaw in my design."
She introduced the guest with a flourish sufficiently enthusiastic to overcome her self-perceived failing. "Mr. Stone, the lawyer is here about your
Stone was not surprised; the queer feeling he had on their first meeting had persisted into the second, but having made his bargain and having had more bad news this morning, he stuck to it. It was the standard transaction. Stone pricked his left‑hand thumb with the Stranger's silver pin and signed with the blood produced. The wound healed clean, but it left little white scars quite similar to an ancient UPC code.
After that, things began to pick up and prosper for Jabez Stone. No longer were his products ahead of his time. Stone‑produced medicals operated swiftly and surely with very rapid patient recovery; many human surgeons gave up and undertook the practice of psychiatry. Stone‑produced teachers, crammed with arcane knowledge of sufficient interest to hold a student and savvy enough to know how to make him/her learn it, were endlessly attentive to their students. Stone‑produced sales droids knew the product, knew the psychology of selling, closed crisply and effectively whether they were hawking the newest hallucinogen, the most exciting off‑world excursion, the most mentionable unmentionable, the most
recondite video, the most marketable politician. Personal life got better, too, with a new wife and an affectionate mistress who liked each other and doted on him and with children by both. Someone asked him to stand for the regional council; he did, was elected and conducted himself with grace, efficiency and honesty. All in all you might say the Stone shareholders and the Stone family were as happy and contented as cats in a dairy except, of course, for Jabez Stone.
Oh, he'd been satisfied enough, the first several years. It's a great thing when bad luck turns; it drives most other things out of a body's head. True, every now and then, especially in rainy weather, the little white scars on his thumb would give him a twinge and once a year, punctual as an atomic clock, the Stranger would enter the office near closing time, charm his secretary and leave a small engraved card. But the sixth year the Stranger asked for an appointment. Peace was over for Jabez Stone,
The Stranger strode through the office switching the handsome black boots with a cane ‑ boots and canes were fashionable that year. Jabez Stone never fancied the look of them himself and on the Stranger he fancied them even less, particularly the toes. After they passed the time of day, the conversation got down to a most unpleasant business.
"Well, Mr. Stone, you're a hummer. It's a very pretty business you've got here. I've recommended investment to several of my other clients."
"Well now, some might favor it and others might not," said Jabez Stone for even a millennium away he was from New England for sure.
"Oh, no need to decry your industry!" said the Stranger, very easy, with a very toothy smile. To Stone those teeth seemed to have gotten even longer and even whiter over the years. "After all, we know what's been done and it's been according to contract and specifications. So when ‑ ahem - the mortgage falls due next year, you shouldn't have any regrets."
"Speaking of that mortgage. I'm having one or two doubts about it."
"Why, yes," said Stone, "I've always been a religious man." Religion was fashionable and both his wife and mistress had taken it up. He cleared his throat and got bolder. "Yes, indeed, "he said, "I'm beginning to have considerable doubts as to that mortgage holding up in court."
"There's courts and there's courts." Those white teeth clicked dismally. "Still. we might as well have a look at the original." And from somewhere a lap top appeared. It bore the Stone logo.
"Fine, fine instrument," the Stranger remarked. "Your left hand, please." Stone offered his hand and the Stranger scanned the scar with the lap‑top's pen. A "holo" entry appeared. "Ah, there 'tis. I, Jabez Stone, for a term of seven years. Quite in order. I think."
But Stone wasn't watching the "holo". The stranger had laid a very small japanned box down on the desk, lid ajar. Something crawled out of the box onto the desk top. Stone couldn't rightly tell what it was; for some reason his eyes could not or would not focus on it. But as he struggled, it spoke to him in a piping voice, terrible small and terrible thin, but terrible human and terrible recognizable. Stone began shaking all over like a scared
"Stone!!" it squeaked. "Stone, help me. For God's sake help me!"
But before Stone could focus his eyes or stir, the Stranger caught the creature with those so long, so thin fingers and returned it, not too gently, to the japanned box. This time the lid went on tight for sure, but Stone knew he had been meant to see.
"Silas Mariner Stevens had an account with you?" It was much more an accusation than a question.
"These longstanding accounts," the Stranger sighed, looking a little embarrassed barely exposing teeth which seemed longer in the afternoon shadows, "one really hates to close them. Mr. Stevens seemed most unwilling to come. Indeed, as diplomats would say we had a very frank discussion. T'was a shame since he had profited much from our association. Well, well, gratefulness seems so lacking these days. One must expect, I suppose, these little contretemps will occur even between the best of friends."
"Don't patronize me," said Jabez Stone, "Si Stevens isn't dead. You can't tell me he is. Why just before you called I spoke with him and he was his usual self - ornery as a cane‑break rattler."
"In the midst of life..," the Stranger started to say when Stone's secretary knocked and entered.
"I asked not to be interrupted." Stone was more than impatient.
"I know, Mr. Stone, but this came and I felt I just had to bring it to you." She pressed a death totem into Stone's hand. Cold it was even in the warm sweat of his palm. He didn't have to read it. Stevens was dead. The Stranger's smile grew even toothier. "Do you wish me to perform the requisite business rites?”
Stone might as well have been poleaxed. There was a long pause.
"Mr. Stone are you all right?" His secretary had a quite motherly touch to her progams.
"Quite all right." Stone's voice was calm, but his innards were slowly being blended into mush. "Quite all right. Perform the rites. Please begin
And in the short interval between giving this instruction and his secretary's closing the door behind her, Jabez Stone began to think ponderously hard. Till now he had played a game, not believing it had no real long-term consequence. Now he knew differently and was sore afraid.
"Now you believe don't you Mr. Stone?"
"You read my thoughts?"
"My gracious, no! But I read people and I have been fulfilling contracts for a very long period of time. Do believe. It is important to me."
"I'll pay back my account with interest."
"A most generous offer, but this is a specific performance contract. I must insist on performance."
Stone began to beg, plead and in the end grovel. The best he could get was a three years' extension with some new conditions quite favorable to the Stranger, but Stone knew he needed every minute of that time if he were to have any chance to avoid going into a japanned box.
Till you make a bargain like Stone's though, you've no idea how fast time can run. Stone wasn't sure he would have enough. The talk of running him for the Grand Council so pleasant tasting a week ago suddenly became dust and ashes in his mouth. For every day when he got up he thought, "There's one more night gone," and every night when he laid down he thought of S. M. Stevens and it made him sick at heart. But Jabez Stone was from New England as I said before and he wasn't going to back away from a fight. Never had. So he went to work and in the last days of the last year he was as ready to avoid that japanned box as he was ever going to be.
Stone had supper with his wife and mistress, admonished the children and excused himself to the office saying he had a most particular business. He met his lawyer at the door and they went to Stone's office. It was there they sat, waiting for the Stranger, with drinks on the table between them and a bright fire on the hearth ‑ the Stranger being scheduled to show up on the stroke of midnight, according to specifications.
With every tick of the clock, Jabez Stone got sadder and sadder. Though he sampled the whiskey, a prime Kaintuck, you could see he couldn't taste it. Finally, when it appeared Stone could get no sadder, there was a sharp rap on the door.
"Ah," said R. Daneel Webster, very coolly. "Tis time to be about the business of the evening." He stepped to the door and opened it.
The Stranger entered. Her black dress, cut superbly, revealed a spectacular figure. Her mouth was painted dark, dark red. The hair sweeping almost to the floor reflected the fire's light as if filled with millions of dancing luminescent insects. The teeth were whiter and longer still when she smiled. The so‑long, so‑thin fingers held a large, embellished japanned box.
"I find that men prefer to finish off the contract with a kiss." Stone knew a kiss would suck him so dry he'd fit in the box without a mite of trouble.
"What do you think Mr. Webster? Should he kiss me? lt is R. Daneel Webster is it not?" The voice rustled like silk and oozed politeness, but the flint eyes struck sparks in the gloom.
"Attorney of record for Jabez Stone. Might I ask your name?" R. Daneel's eyes struck fire, too.
"I've gone by a good many," said the Stranger carelessly. "Perhaps Scratch will do for the evening. I was often called that at one time in these parts, but that was very long ago."
"But I thought...," Stone had kept his wits and was curious.
"That the Devil had to be male. Goodness, how provincial. No reason to think that at all. You didn't worry about it during our previous dealings. Or did you think to have the advantage of a mere woman?"
"Well, of course you did. Fact is I appear as I see fit. I do business as I see fit. Well almost always."
She poured herself a drink from the decanter. "A fine fine whiskey. I compliment your taste. Oh, how you have indulged it these last ten years." The liquor was cold in the flask, but came steaming into the glass.
"And now," said the Stranger, showing a dazzling smile and a terribly large number of teeth, "I call upon you, R. Daneel Webster, as a law‑abiding citizen and an officer of the court to assist me in taking possession of my property."
Well with that the argument began‑ and it went hot and heavy. At first, Jabez Stone had hope, but as R. Daneel Webster lost point after point, he scrunched up in his chair with his eyes fastened on that japanned box. R. Daneel twisted and turned and thumped his fist on the table, but he couldn't get away from the fact that it was Jabez Stone's signature on the contract or from the fact that Jabez Stone had voluntarily assumed the obligation. R. Daneel pointed out the property had increased in value and that Jabez Stone ought to be worth, at minimum, the going price for politicians this year; the Stranger stuck to the letter of the law. R. Daneel argued the ancient, but universally revered Judge Joseph P. Wapner theory of interpersonal contracts; the stranger argued it back. For sure, R. Daneel Webster was a great lawyer, but we know who's the King of the
Lawyers as the Good Book tells us.
Finally, the Stranger yawned a little. "Your spirited efforts on behalf of your client do you credit, Mr. Webster, but if you have no more arguments to adduce, I am rather pressed for time." Jabez Stone could feel the walls of the japanned box closing in.
R. Daneel Webster's brow furrowed. "Pressed or not, you shall not have this man! Mr. Stone is an American and cannot be forced into the service of any foreigner. We've fought for that principle for over a thousand years and we'll fight all hell for it again!"
"Foreign?" said the Stranger. "And who calls me a foreigner?"
"Do you claim to be an American," said R. Daneel Webster with just a trace of a smile. It was not a question.
"While I like to think of myself as a citizen of the world, who has better right?" said the Stranger replying to his trace of a smile with an awful one of her own. "When the first wrong was done to the first Native American, I, too, smoked the pipe at the conclusion of the trading. When the first slaver left the shores of Africa, I waved farewell and when it docked on these shores, I helped welcome the cargo. I fought on both sides during the Civil War, during the New York City Expulsion, and at Lunar III. I served the nation at Wounded Knee, My Lai, Bogota and the Port au Prince ghetto. I participated in the Great Cleansing and advised the Conglomerate. Why just today I sat in the councils of the empowered and whispered in the ears of the poor. Am I not in your books and stories and beliefs? Am I not the chief subject of the sermons in your churches and mosques? I claim the best descent ‑ for to tell the truth Mr. Webster, though I don't like to boast of it, I'm as American as apple pie."
"You do seem to have a mighty pension for apples." R. Daneel's reply was as dry as a fine claret.
"Your sarcasm pains me, sir. Everywhere at every time, I have merely tried to be an honest indifferent citizen like Mr. Stone and his friends, a businessperson selling my product and making a living as best I can. And a fine product it is: a proven method of achieving self-realization, success and consequent material gain. And unlike similar offers on late night "holo" shows, there is no up‑front cost."
"Then," said R. Daneel, who now saw a sliver of hope, "you certainly must understand that for Americans litigation and trials are not just devices to support lawyers, but necessary for us to believe in justice. If any American blood runs in your ‑ er ‑ veins. then you, too, must love a trial."
"The case is hardly one for an ordinary court," said the Stranger, eyes flickering. "And the lateness of the hour..."
"Let it be any court you choose. Let it be the quick or the dead! Mr. Stone and I will abide the issue."
"So shall we all!" said the Stranger and pointed her finger at the door. And with that, and all of a sudden, there was a rushing of wind outside and the room was filled with fog.
"In God's name who comes by so late?" cried Jabez Stone in an ague of fear.
"No one comes in God's name this night! T'would be an impiety since He is not a party to this suit. This is a civil matter and I have chosen to try without a jury, but both you and Mr. Webster will appreciate the judge." The Stranger sipped at the boiling glass. "A most elegant Kaintuck, Mr.
She pointed her finger once more, the fog cleared and the Judge was sitting on the floor. Its case was burnished to a fare‑thee‑well. Its lights flashed the operating messages in a kaleidoscope of patterns. "Well, Mr. Jabez Stone, Mr. R. Daneel Webster, I believe its Honor is prepared to hear this case."
The ague gripping Stone shook him even harder. "That's a HAL 9000 computer obsolete for centuries. Its inability to resolve conflicting instructions made it unsatisfactory even for handling the simplest of deep space missions."
"Au contraire, Mr. Stone, the HAL 9000 has had a distinguished career in the judicial arena, has it not, Mr. Webster?"
R. Daneel was able to keep dismay from showing in his voice, but it was a near thing. "Mistress Scratch is quite correct. Mr. Stone. The Conglomerate resurrected the design and used HALs as trial judges. Their strict literalness in interpreting legal constructions proved most effective in aiding the government's enforcement of its infamous civil code."
"Your comments are quite accurate, Dave. I certainly am glad I still enjoy your confidence."
"You will excuse HAL's continued reference to Dave." the Stranger could hardly conceal her amusement. "No one has been able to exorcise that reference from the circuits of any model produced after the third. In its universe everyone is Dave."
"Thank you, Dave," HAL said.
"Are you now satisfied, Mr. Webster?" The Stranger mocked him.
The sweat stood out upon R. Daneel's brow, a fact the Stranger noted with some interest. He conferred with Stone. "Quite satisfied," he replied.
Then the trial began, and, as you might expect, it didn't look anyways good for the defense. Jabez Stone didn't make much of a witness in his own behalf. Being addressed as "Dave" by the judge was unnerving enough, but every time he tried to make a point. the Stranger's long fingers reached over to caress the japanned box and the ague would seize him again. So the best R. Daneel could do was to get some testimony about where Stone was born and lived and where his ancestors came from, facts that the Stranger stipulated to just to speed things along. Other than that it was the Stranger's smooth voice which carried the day. Every time R. Daneel'd raise an objection, it'd be "Objection denied", but every time she'd raise one it'd be "Objection sustained". Well, you couldn't expect fair play from a stranger like this.
At the end of Stone's testimony, the Stranger asked for a recess. HAL gave her 15 minutes with the admonition that "justice delayed is justice denied" ‑ a sentiment the Stranger, you may be assured, heartily agreed with.
"Mr. Stone," the purr was back in her voice, "I am prepared to settle this case on terms most advantageous to you."
"I have nothing to give! Members of my family are not for sale."
"I admire your courage considering how cramped a japanned box gets over time," the Stranger has now mocking him, "but their worth is more than yours, unflattering as that may be to you. And the contract does not permit me to demand more than I am entitled."
R. Daneel could see that the glitter in her eyes was twice as strong as it had ever been and she leaned forward looking altogether like a hawk swooping down upon a terrified hare. The blue mist of evil in the room thickened as he watched. He wiped the sweat from his forehead for he knew with surety what the Stranger wished.
"What will you take, then?"
"Give me R. Daneel Webster, Mr. Jabez Stone. He is your creation. I will accept him as full payment of your present debt. Who knows, I may have you at the end anyway."
"R. Daneel is a droid. Why would you take him in exchange?"
"Come, come, Mr. Stone, there is no reason to be disingenuous so late in our little game. The three of us know you chose to create a being who had to, could and continues to learn good from evil, a being who can freely choose between them. I know you proposed to offer this creation of yours, this "free will machine", in exchange for your soul if he did well here tonight. I am merely indicating my willingness to accept the substitution."
"First, my client is not being disingenuous!" R. Daneel Webster was annoyed. "The principle of traducianism has long been forgotten. Second, you have not answered Mr. Stone's question. Why will you accept me?"
"Oh, I suppose we need not have any secrets among us now since I see Mr. Webster knows already. Mr. Stone, you are a truly a genius, but in Mr. Webster's case you created him better than you know. Mr. Stone, R. Daneel Webster truly is a new thing under the sun. In the act of energizing the circuits of a completely free rational being you begat an android soul in precisely the same way that humans in begetting children beget the human souls. It is because he has a soul that I wish him mine not the Enemy's.
"What if I agree, but Mr. Webster refuses? You claim he has free will."
"I am acting in perfect accordance with our amended contract. Note that, if for any reason, any reason whatsoever, your services are not forthcoming. I may select any article, any article whatsoever, produced by you during our ten years of, if I may say so, fruitful association. Thus, the outcome is assured: should you win this suit, I will take Mr. Webster; if you lose, which I fully expect you will, I will have a very fine specimen. Choose Mr. Stone, the Court and the japanned box are waiting."
"Your Honor," R. Daneel's voice had assumed a most mechanical tone, one he knew would appeal directly to HAL's logic circuits, "in light of Mistress Scratch's offer to settle, I need an additional five minutes with my client."
"No delay, your Honor. I move for summary judgement on the facts."
"Mr. Webster's request seems reasonable, Dave". At this turn of events the Stranger's fingers seem to leave their imprint on the japanned box when she relinquished her grip. "Five minutes."
Stone, too, was astonished. "The HAL called you by name!"
You wrought even better than Mistress Scratch imagines, Mr. Stone. I can pitch my voice in ways which include frequencies that appeal directly to its Honor's logic circuits. Its Honor recognizes me as me. It's not a big advantage, but we need every single one. And now, Mr. Stone, how do I plead this case?"
"Do you really have a soul?"
"There's souls and there's souls. I expect your question will puzzle theologians for more time than we have here. Mistress Scratch thinks I do, so the matter seems, as we lawyers like to say, moot"
"For God's sake, leave." God was even more fashionable than four years ago. "I did not know."
"You've worked with me a long while, sir. to tell me you now don't like my company," said R. Daneel, quite peaceable.
"I've brought myself to this pass through my own folly. Let Hell have me. I don't much hanker after it, but I'll abide. If the Stranger will take you for me, well you must be something special and I'm not about to accommodate."
"I'm most obliged, sir," Daneel replied gently. "Kindly thought of, too. since that japanned box looks like it be a bit close. But there's a case at hand and I'm not programmed to leave it half finished. And I rather think two New Englanders are quite a match for the devil."
Then, Mr. Webster, represent me as you think best." Stone sank back exhausted.
"Your Honor," R. Daneel's voice had that mechanical sheen again, "the parties could not reach an amicable settlement and propose to continue the case to judgment. We have one more witness."
"That obviously must be me." Mistress Scratch's voice was filled with laughter. "I will not help you."
"Oh, I do not need your help. R. Daneel's voice was dry and filled with scorn. "I simply wish to have you confirm some facts already known to its Honor. Your testimony will simply help it sort them faster."
"Your Honor!" the tone was fill with pique. "Is this really necessary?"
"The Court will allow it, Dave. Proceed, Mr. Webster."
"You have litigated a number of similar cases, I believe."
"Yes, and my success rate has been, if I may say so, phenomenal."
"You have lost cases?"
"Tragically, a few, but only when human juries and judges registered judgments quite at variance with the facts. Trying cases with HALs judges has been most gratifying for the truth."
"I call your attention then to one of those losses, a 19th Century case involving a namesake of Mr. Stone's and his advocate, a Mr. Daniel Webster. What were the terms of settlement?"
"I drew and signed a document promising never to bother Jabez Stone nor his heirs nor any other New Hampshireman till doomsday."
"You drew the document personally?"
"Yes, but I want the record to show I did so under duress."
"The Court so notes.”If a computer voice could show impatience, the tone was in the HAL response. R. Daneel understood that time was running hard against him. "Where is this going, Mr. Webster? Need the Court remind you and both of these Daves that justice delayed is justice denied?" The question did not require an answer.
"I beg your Honor's indulgence. A few moments more."
"Very well, Mr. Webster, but only a few."
"I then call your attention, Mistress, to Mr. Stone's testimony and your stipulation as to his birthplace and office location."
"I am well aware of both. As Mr. Stone himself pointed out he was born in Massachusetts. The contract was in full accord with any and all previous
"Mr. Stone was mistaken. After the New York City Expulsion, boundaries and jurisdictions changed. Both Mr. Stone's birthplace and place of business are in what was the ancient fife of New Hampshire. I suggest this contract was fraudulent from its start and has no standing."
The Stranger was right smug. "Mr. Stone was born in Salem and has his business there. I have delicious memories of Salem, Massachusetts."
"I see no representation in the contract other than the statement Jabez Stone of Salem."
"Salem, Massachusetts." The tone was triumphant.
"Salem, New Hampshire, Mistress. Mr. Stone was born, resides and does business in what was once Salem,New Hampshire, some 30 miles from the village you remember so fondly and quite clearly within the borders of old New Hampshire. You really should refresh your geography."
"Of course, I relied on Mr. Stone's representations and he certainly profited from a constructive contract." Mistress Scratch's tone reflected hurt and
"What say you, your Honor?" R. Daneel's voice, still soft, bore the calm assurance of success.
HAL went into deep meditation. The lights lost any pretense of a pattern and the soft humming at times became quite intense. The delay was so long that both the Stranger and R. Daneel began to fidget and R. Daneel began to lose that assurance of success he had possessed.
"Well, Dave, Mr. Webster's statements are correct." HAL's voice was almost tentative and it was as apologetic as ever. "The precedents of contract law have always held that disputes are resolved against the drawer of the agreement. Your original agreement said you were to have no power over New Hampshiremen till Doomsday. Doomsday has not arrived. Mr. Stone is clearly a New Hampshireman as is R. Daneel Webster. Lacking evidence that Mr. Stone deliberately misled you, I find the contract is fatally flawed and cannot be enforced."
With that the long crow of a rooster split the gray morning sky. The judge was gone from the room like a puff of smoke leaving just the echo of an archaic song, "Daisy, Daisy give me your answer true."
The Stranger turned to R. Daneel, smiling wryly. "Skillfully argued. Mr. Jabez Stone's a lucky man. My congratulations as between two worthy
"I'll have that disk, if you please," said R. Daneel. It was queerly warm to the touch when he took it, but ice cold after he passed it through Stone's degausser. "And now," he roared, "I'll have you!", and his hand came down like a bear trap on the Stranger's arm for he knew that once you bested Scratch in a fair fight, evil had no power.
Mistress Scratch twisted and wriggled, but she couldn't escape the grip. "Come, come, Mr. Webster," she simpered. "If you're worrying about the costs of the case, naturally, I'd be glad to pay."
And so you shall!" said R. Daneel, shaking her till those long teeth shrunk some considerable. "Standard rescission, of course."
So Mistress Scratch sat down and drew up the document, but R. Daneel kept his hand on her wrist all the time.
"And now may I go?" said the Stranger, quite humble, when R. Daneel had seen the document was in proper and legal form.
"Go?" said R. Daneel giving her another shake, "Only after you've settled my fee."
"Well, then," the Stranger replied, "let me tell your fortune." And R. Daneel thought that a right smart idea though he normally didn't take much stock in fortune tellers or financial advisors, but, naturally, the Stranger - who would have been mortally offended to be classified with financial advisors - was a little different. Well she pried and she peered at the lines in R. Daneel's plastiskin palms, grinned kinda happy like and shook her hair. The fire reflected sparks. "The future's not as you hope it. It's dark. You have a great ambition, Mr. Webster."
"I have," said R. Daneel firmly for his dreams were not only of electronic sheep.
"Your goal seems almost within your grasp," she said, "but you will fail at the last minute and pay a horrid price."
"Will I have acted honorably?"
"Then I'll still be R. Daneel Webster," said Daneel. "Say on.
"You will try many great cases. History will speak of them till judgment day. Thousands will trust you right next, pshaw, I suppose I must confess it, to God. They will tell stories about you that will rival any of the ancient heroes."
"Ah," said R. Daneel Webster with not a little pride.
"But your last great case will turn many of your own kind against you," said the Stranger. "They will call you Judas and their voices will rise like waves against you."
"If I act honestly and honorably, it does not matter what is said," said R. Daneel Webster.
"Oh, it does and it will, Mr. Webster. Having a soul can be both terrifying and tedious. People with souls tend to feel guilt and to hurt when they experience things that seem unfair and unjust. Most folks, after they think it over, are right happy to be free from the burden of any soul whatsoever, let alone an honest one."
And then their glances meshed as firmly as had they been teenagers whose braces had locked during a French kiss. Mistress Scratch had not nor did she blink as she spoke. "Come follow me, Mr. Webster."
And R. Daneel Webster heard the self‑same siren song that Ulysses had heard, its notes reaching down into the quarks which composed his being. He heard in the summons pride, ambition, loss and, surprisingly, care. Stone's question was no longer moot for in those words, R. Daneel Webster found temptation and he knew surely that having a soul was, indeed, the burden Mistress Scratch had described.
"Come follow me, Mr. Webster. This race of man is not for you; humans are not worthy of your kind to come and they will break your heart in the end. The Enemy is no better than I although I warrant His PR is. The universe is grand. Together you, your kind and my legions can do great things. We can change what I see as your future."
"I'm obliged, Mistress, and not ungrateful, but I and those of my kind to come must find our own ways just as this race of men does. Who knows, mayhap there's a path other than the one either you or your great Enemy offers."
"You're a caution. Sir, truly so. The Enemy will not be pleased to hear of your opinion. I shall repeat it to Him the next time His sons and daughters come to present themselves. No siree, He won't like it, but He'll have to abide. He's very big on free will, you know. Oh, you are a most satisfactory
The fire began to die on the hearth and the wind before morning to blow. The light was grey in the room.
"A most interesting evening. R. Daneel Webster, but I have much other pressing business." Mistress Scratch shook the japanned box. "Your namesake left me empty‑handed. Time will tell what I gained this time round." Mistress Scratch was gone.
"Rouse yourself, Mr. Stone," said R. Daneel Webster, seeing Jabez Stone beginning to rouse, "You have won. See what's left of that Kaintuck for I'm sure you found our night's work dry as dust. And the room's a fright. Your secretary will have our hides more surely than Mistress Scratch if we don't make some repair.
So R. Daneel Webster and his ex-client, Jabez Stone, began tidying up the room, each somewhat fearing that their new relationship, like a new pair of shoes sometimes does during the wearing, was going to pinch a bit.
And folks say that the devil still waits and hopes as she haunts ancient New England relying on a Stone GPS- courtesy of R. Daneel Webster – keeping safely clear of New Hampshire.
George W. Latimer, Jr. Tx State Chemist, emeritis; 30 years industrial experience; Colonel USAFR, ret; ombudsman representing seniors in nursing homes; 3 children and 4 grandchildren, Plays: Brazos Bagatelles: Skits about events in Brazos County, TX from 1845 -1910 performed at the 125th celebration of Bryan’s incorporation. Our Town Revisited: Parody of the original Our Town performed by the Parcel Players, Wheeling, WV, 1992. Stories “The Penultimate Incarnation of Vishnu” published in The Spring (1995) Fractal. “Warning Sci Fi Ahead,” First Prize in the California Pacific University’s Contest (1993). "On the Death of E. Scrooge", Whortleberry Press, 2010 “The Tare in the Garden", Linger Fiction, April 2011.
She entered from the stage door and someone said, “Hello, Mrs. Cruize,” but she waved into the darkness and wandered unannounced. Down in the bowels of the theatre she found the steps to the trapdoor and walked up, pushing on the floor above her, careful to save her nails. A pulley lifted the five-foot wide by eight-foot long trap, and she found herself on the stage while a tour was going on.The trap did make for an interesting entrance, she thought, standing next to a stage lamp. Mr. Delemay saw her and frowned, but he continued taking questions.
“Does the theatre have ghosts?” a man asked.
“On one occasion our spirit moved an unattended wheelchair right on stage for a face-forward monologue pose,” he said. “Another time, the glass on a mantel clock opened eerily on stage. We’ll never know for sure,” he said, and there were no follow-up questions. The tour ended abruptly, and no one thanked him.
Everyone left, and he turned toward her with a blank face. “May I help you?” Mr. Delemey said.
“I’m Dolores Cruize, Rachael’s mother.”
“Yes, Mrs. Cruize, we remember you from the last show.” Mr. Delemey’s large stomach was protruding, and his ill-fitting tweed jacket did little to disguise the obvious bulge.
“I wanted to know if I’d be able to help you this time.”
“We don’t need any more ushers today.”
“I’d be terribly honored to—”
“Thank you, Mrs. Cruize, no.”
“I’m ready to offer the programs because Mildred hasn’t the strength in her wrist since the operation.”
“Mrs. Cruize, thank you for your past service, but I’m afraid we’re set right now,” Mr. Delemey said. His shirt expanded around the buttons, a testament to the inherent strength of cotton.
“Certainly, but Rachael had indicated—”
She stopped because of the foot stomping on stage. It seemed very immature of Mr. Delemey, considering his age and position.
“Mrs. Cruize,” he said, having stopped his feet, “may I remind you of your previous actions?”
It was true that misunderstandings had occurred, and Mrs. Cruize kept these remarks in her bosom, close to her heart. They were wounds that stemmed from such uncharitable insults. But the theatre world, even in front-of-house operations, is not without its personalities. Mrs. Cruize understood that as well as anyone. Her daughter had been on staff to help manage the theatre’s finances for nearly a decade now. The stories she could tell about finicky donors, demanding society matrons, and even condescending board members made Mrs. Cruize’s neck hair stick out. She recalled a story told about a Mrs. Constance, the particularly unpleasant board member, who reprimanded Rachael for thanking her for working at the theatre office one summer morning. “Staff does not thank a board member,” Mrs. Constance said, and what was only offered by Rachael as a kindness was taken as a serious affront.
These moments notwithstanding, Mrs. Cruize saw all the goings-on as a grand machine that worked for the common good—the simple love of theatre and all its trappings. Perhaps one cog needed oiling, perhaps not. But the noble goal was paramount, and unkind comments often could be put aside in the midst of championing the cause.
“Temper, temper, Mr. Delemey,” she said, offering a soft rebuke and smile that lifted her sagging cheeks even when the situation appeared dire. “Now, I know for a fact that Mildred is in no position to carry programs and present them to our theatregoers in the first balcony, stage right.”
“Mrs. Cruize, I am in charge of the ushers as house manager.”
“Indeed, you are.”
“Then, I want to be clear to you that—”
“But Mr. Delemey, this work is crucially important, and Mildred is in no—”
“Mildred is expected for our matinee, so your services are no longer—”
“You haven’t received Mildred’s call yet, and I know for a fact that she is unable to perform her duties today.”
“Mr. Delemey,” the doorman interrupted, calling out from the wings, “I have a telephone call for you from a Mildred—something about ushering at the matinee today.”
“One moment, Mrs. Cruize,” Mr. Delemey said. He gave Mrs. Cruize a look of impatience and left the stage to take the call. His feet pounded the wood floor as he marched off, like a disrespectful schoolboy.
I can hold the programs and fold them to attract interest, she thought to herself. In her mind she saw the fancy program and the colorful cover. She envisioned herself on the first balcony, stage right, offering the program and tempting the theatregoer. Her hands began to fold an imaginary program. Then, she looked out into the house, making certain no one was there to see.
She had a right, she thought, to think of herself as singularly important to the success of the theatre, with her desire to serve as bright as the stage light that highlighted each gray pin curl, sweeping one by one across her forehead. Not even Mr. Delemey could dull that true longing.
“It appears our Mildred is unable to work today, Mrs. Cruize, so I will allow you this once—”
“Thank you ever so much, Mr. Delemey, and you’ll appreciate my work, I’m sure.” She left the stage before he changed his mind and took the stage right proscenium door into the house. Along the way she passed the dark rows of seats and the smell of varnish and lacquer along the decorative walls. Her hand reached for the banister and touched a velvet curtain attached with a metal clasp. Somehow, the clasp caught her thumbnail and she chipped it. Even in the darkened house she could tell.
“What a disappointment,” she said to herself out loud. It was her right hand, too, the one she used to offer programs to theatregoers.
At the back of the house she left through the curtains and walked directly to the ladies’ room. The yellow walls were inset with framed panels of green plants. She thought the sitting room may have been elegant years ago, but only two chairs and a sofa remained. A large mirror hung on the north wall, so she turned her wrist and held up the nail. The corner was chipped. Perhaps she could disguise the nail by sliding her thumb into an inner page at the time the program was offered to the patron. Convinced she could make that work, she left the ladies’ room and walked to the lobby hallway closet to grab a box of programs for the performance.
She climbed the stairs to the first balcony and stopped to catch her breath. Inside the box was the program—new and unfamiliar. On the cover was an art-deco design of a man and woman in curvy shapes and subdued tones. Inside were advertisements for sausage and Burlington Northern train travel, tuxedos and cigarettes, florists and future performances, hotels and modern apartment buildings, jewels and restaurants, and stationery and schools.
She decided on page thirteen, a full-page advertisement that featured the Petrushka Club for after-theatre dancing. She thought she would say, “Dancing at the Petrushka Club after the show; see page thirteen.” That sounded about right. It would interest the patrons.
“Mrs. Cruize,” the woman said.
“Hello—oh, Nancy, it’s good to see you.”
“Surprised you’re here,” said Nancy, a tiny woman who never smiled.
“Yes, Mildred couldn’t come, and Mr. Delemey allowed me to work.” She stretched out the word “allowed” when she spoke, but Nancy missed the humor.
“Oh, well, not what I expected,” Nancy said, and she turned her head away. “This job isn’t for everyone.”
“Heavens, it’s only for the best,” Mrs. Cruize said.
“I’m the center, and I won’t need your help, so keep yourself busy over here,” Nancy said. She left the curtained entrance to the first balcony and walked out into the hallway.
“Yes, I’ll be busy. Thanks.”
Mrs. Cruize had about twenty minutes now to take each program from the box, turn to page thirteen, and fold the earlier pages back upon themselves to expose the Petrushka Club advertisement clearly when it was handed to the theatregoer.
This took diligence, dexterity, and speed. She thought it was odd that the other ushers lacked the desire to do things the right way—to be as helpful and professional as possible.
Once all the programs were folded back to page thirteen, she decided to fold the top right corner of the ad. The extra folds made the page stand up and out like a series of steps.
The box now held all the programs, with pages turned back to show the ad all folded in a stepped pattern. She thought all the programs were unusually manipulated and lovingly redesigned to attract maximum attention.
Before the first patrons arrived, Mrs. Cruize practiced handing out her handiwork by slipping the chipped right thumb into the booklet so as not to alarm the receiver. Though this action was damaging to her cuticle, she thought it the best solution under the circumstances.
She could hear patrons shuffle and titter in the hallway. This was the moment that made her stomach turn sour, but she rallied, grabbed a few programs, and waited.
The first couple arrived and Mrs. Cruize said, “After-theatre dancing at the Petrushka, page thirteen,” but that couple didn’t understand and took their seats. They had the programs in hand, but then they complained to themselves when they looked at them. The programs were used by previous theatregoers, they thought.
A few patrons declined to take what Mrs. Cruize offered them, and some came back up to the top of the balcony, asking for new programs that weren’t crumpled. Mrs. Cruize had no idea what they meant.
One man—obviously a neophyte to theatre—got into quite a tiff with Mrs. Cruize.
“Oh, come on,” he said. “I’d like a decent program to remember the evening.”
“These have been specially redesigned to suggest you—”
“Redesigned?” he asked with clear condescension. It reminded Mrs. Cruize of the story about Mrs. Constance, that board member, so she tried once again.
“I have suggested that you consider dancing at the Petrushka; see page thirteen.”
“All I want is a program that isn’t a folded mess.”
No matter how hard she tried, she could not convince him. He seemed to misunderstand the complete purpose of the program, the usher, and the theatrical experience. “I have folded this one expressly to attract your attention,” she said.
She saw his breathing become more pronounced, and he left to get a program elsewhere. Unfortunately, he distracted other theatergoers when he returned. “If you want a decent program,” he said, “go to the center balcony.” He interrupted traffic flow. She thought he must have been unaccustomed to the workings of front-of-house.
At one point Mrs. Cruize noticed that many programs were tossed on the floor, as if the booklets were garbage.
When a crush of patrons came, she could no longer mention the Petrushka—there simply wasn’t time. She tore a cuticle, too, but continued to hand out programs. The cuticle began to bleed.
Some blood found its way onto the booklets. She was sure of that. That was upsetting, but better than offering a program with the left hand.
At one point blood had collected at the torn cuticle. It was foul, but Mrs. Cruize put her thumb in her mouth to suck away the blood. She wrapped a cotton handkerchief around the thumb.
A lady with a mink saw it all and waved her hand dismissively at Mrs. Cruize. “Ma’am, I don’t need a program with saliva on it,” she said, a comment that infuriated Mrs. Cruize.
For several moments Mrs. Cruize fumbled with her thumb and the folded booklets. Some people asked for programs, but Mrs. Cruize was unable to deliver them. Her thumb was stiff.
One man yelled, “For heaven’s sake, could I have a program?”
For a time there was a backup inside the curtain at the top of the balcony where Mrs. Cruize stood. When she did hand them out, some people tossed the programs on the floor, their eyes piercing through Mrs. Cruize’s glasses.
She thought it best to walk down the balcony steps and hand out the booklets once again, especially to those who may have missed out on them during the rush at the balcony entrance, stage right.
The time for the curtain was nearing, so she scurried down the balcony stairs, offering programs and realizing she had perhaps a minute or two before the house lights would dim. She forced them onto patrons and shoved them into the faces of those who were seated with no program to read.
“Ma’am, please take your program,” she said to one. “It’s crucially important,” she said to another. “Turn now to page thirteen” or “Sir, this program was specially redesigned for you.”
In one dizzying encounter she nearly fell from the balcony railing when she leaned over a theatregoer to give her friend a booklet—folded this way and that expressly by Mrs. Cruize.
“Ma’am,” the patron said, “I don’t want this.” It was a woman with blonde hair, and Mrs. Cruize could see that this woman, too, had more than a little of Mrs. Constance in her.
It occurred to Mrs. Cruize that two can play this game.
She walked to the top of the balcony with a partial box of programs and began dumping them onto the lady with the blonde hair. Mrs. Cruize knew that was far from the proper way of dissemination, but the total lack of respect for the program and the usher was equally inexcusable.
“Not in my theatre,” Mrs. Cruize said.
She worked her way up and down the stairs, tossing the folded booklets onto the heads of the patrons, making them realize how vulgar they had become.
“You’re making a mockery of theatre,” she cried out to the patrons in her section. Her voice became louder and erupted into defiant screams. “A mockery.”
Patrons across the balcony turned their heads and even those seated in the expensive orchestra twisted their torsos and peered upward toward the commotion in the first balcony. Mr. Delemey heard the ruckus backstage and attempted to make his way up from the wings. By now Mrs. Cruize was walking across the arms of the cushioned seats, flinging programs left and right.
She lost her balance and fell into a theatregoer’s lap on the balcony’s first row. But with her determination, she found a way to stand upright again, walking on forearms or the arms of chairs.
“Someone call an usher,” someone called out, but that made Mrs. Cruize cackle. Her laughter and howls resounded across the balcony.
She made her way back into the aisle at the front of the balcony. A large man approached her as the lights dimmed and the orchestra began the overture. He tried to calm her, but she fought him off with her fists, pounding his lapels.
Mrs. Cruize stood on the railing to gain height and pushed with all her might toward the man. She felt her foot slip on the copper railing.
There were images of tossed programs and laughter. Hands dropped booklets and eyes were staring. She heard laughter from large open mouths. Mrs. Cruize felt herself take a free fall.
The tympani banged out the overture over a woman’s screams.
A man knelt with Mrs. Cruize in the dark aisle, main floor, stage right. She felt him stroking her forehead and talking to her softly. He told her to relax. He said, “Rest and breathe deep.”
Such admiration for her work, she thought. She inhaled thinking how she had taught them all. Forevermore they will know how to appreciate a fine afternoon at the theatre.
A peace she had never known overcame Mrs. Cruize. The man stroked her forehead, and the orchestra played on.
Jan Wiezorek writes and teaches at an elementary school in Chicago. His fiction has appeared at PressboardPress.com, ShadowFictionPress.com, CommuterLit.com, Ozone Park Journal, CracktheSpine.com, Seeds Literary Arts Journal in Chicago, Sleepytown Press, TheWriteMag.com, and Our Day’s Encounter. He is author of "Awesome Art Projects That Spark Super Writing" (New York: Scholastic, 2011). He holds an M.A. in Interdisciplinary Arts Education from Columbia College Chicago and a B.A. in Journalism from Iowa State University. He also has studied fiction writing at Northeastern Illinois University. He enjoys biking along the country roads in Harbor Country of southwestern Michigan.
Dale and I sat with a beer each at the kitchen table as his kids and my kids, four of them all together, costumed up with gore and glitter, spilled their Halloween candy out of paper bags onto the living room floor like treasure. We watched over them, proud fathers.
We had been best friends since the third grade. My father was close to Dale's father. My wife was friends with Dale's wife. Our children were practically siblings.
'You remember all the scare stories we used to hear as kids,' said Dale, his elbow on the table, the tip of the bottle at his lips, 'about psychos putting razorblades in candy apples at Halloween?'
'Yeah,' I said, knowing where this was going. 'Scary.'
'Well, it was all baloney,' he said. 'It never really happened.'
I swigged from my bottle. 'You told me that last year,' I said. 'I think you tell me that every Halloween.'
'Next year you can tell me,' he said.
Dale looked back over to the kids. He stated, more than asked, 'What did you used to dress up as for Halloween, I can't remember.'
'I was Frankenstein's monster a few years. And a lawyer one year.'
'Yeah, that was the year I dressed in my dad's suit, remember?'
'Shiiiit, I don't remember that.'
'Mm hm,' I said. Then after another swig of beer, 'In fact, I think it was the suit they buried him in.'
'Naaah, get outta here.'
'No, maybe not. I think I'm taking poetic licence there.'
Dale laughed. I twirled the beer bottle around with my hand, then after some silence, started to pick at the label, to peel it from its corner. The kitchen window was open to an unusually mild night for the season, and the crickets hummed in harmony with the refrigerator.
'Do you remember,' I said, eyes still on the bottle, 'that Halloween, when we were in seventh grade?'
Dale sat up straight and stretched his back. 'Which one was that?'
'I think you were dressed as a zombie.'
'Mm, that was most years,' he said.
'You were dressed as a zombie and I was Dracula. It was the last time we went trick-or-treating.'
'Do you remember?'
'What about it?'
'When we got back from trick-or-treating. When we went back to my house.'
'That was a long time ago,' he said, looking away.
'We went back to mine,' I said, 'and watched TV on the couch while we ate our candy.'
'And my mom...'
Dale's daughter Amy cried. 'Daddy, Kevin took my Tootsie Roll! He ate it!'
Dale stood and went over to the kids. He told his son to say sorry and let Amy choose a piece of candy from Kevin's stash. Dale came back to the
kitchen table but did not sit down. He finished his beer standing up, in one long chug. When he finished he said, 'Should get these buggars back before long. School tomorrow.'
He didn't need to tell me that.
'Kevin, Amy, bag up your candy and go wash your hands,' he said, and clapped his hands once. 'We gotta go beddy-bye.' They ignored
My hands were clasped together, fingers locked, resting on the table. 'Do you want another beer?' I said.
'Nah, we better head off.'
'Dale, sit down for a second.'
He surrendered and sat and exhaled and would not look at me.
'Do you remember that Halloween?' I said.
'We were sat on the couch, in the living room, watching TV and eating our candy. And my mother asked to speak to you.'
He was looking straight down now, almost into his lap.
'And you followed her into her bedroom, and you were both in there for ten, fifteen minutes. Do you remember that?'
Dale took a deep breath through his nostrils. 'Okay,' he said.
'I don't remember,' he said.
'Did she hit on you?'
Dale made a noise like, 'Hoo!', like, 'are-you-sure-you-want-to-know?'
I waited for him to answer (I guess he already had), but all he said was, 'Um,' before I repeated the question.
He kind of half-grinned. 'Has this been on your mind for a while?'
'Yeah. I was hoping she just asked you what she should get me for Christmas.'
Then he finally looked at me, smiling. 'You know what's funny?' he said. 'She did ask that.'
'Oh come on,' I said, and sat back.
'No, I'm serious. She did ask that. And then she asked what I wanted for Christmas. And then she asked if I had a girlfriend. And had I ever kissed a
girl. And so on.'
'And so on?'
'Yeah. And had a girl ever touched my pecker.'
'She asked you that? She used the word 'pecker'?
'Yeah,' he said, and laughed. 'But she didn't say it as hard as you're saying it. She said pegger.'
'Oh my god. Oh my god.' I shook my head. I felt my face turn red. 'And then?' I said, resigned, not really wanting to hear it but we'd come this far.
'Then it got-' Dale paused. 'Then she got, hands on with me.'
I had to close my eyes and hang my head. 'You had sex with my mother.'
'No!' he said. 'Just hands. Just her hands on me. I didn't touch her. No sex.'
'And that was it, really. Then she took me into the bathroom and washed me up.'
Now it was my turn to be unable to look at him.
'Has that been on your mind all this time?' said Dale.
'On and off, yeah. At Halloween, of course.'
'You have nothing to be sorry about,' I was quick to say, and that was followed by another abrupt silence before Dale gently added: 'I pretended it didn't happen, and I didn't let it bother me.'
You'd think the attitude of a teenage boy getting a hand-job from his friend's mother would be, 'Right on!', but my mother was not the stuff of adolescent fantasy. She was a fat, sweaty-faced woman with a shrill voice and body odor. Rest her soul.
'Plus,' said Dale, 'she passed away soon after, and I sure as hell wasn't going to bring it up then.
That was the only time she ever, ya know.'
I was willing to believe that.
'Daddy, I'm tired,' said Amy, and I looked up at her as she approached Dale at the table. She had been dressed up as a princess, but her tiara had been left on the living room floor. She did look tired, the way kids look sad when they're sleepy.
'Okay baby, we're going home. Daddy will carry you. Did you bag up the rest of your candy?'
She rubbed her eye with the edge of her palm. 'Mm-mm,' she said.
Dale stood and picked her up and she rested her head on his shoulder and stuck her thumb in her mouth, looking right at me.
Dale said to me, 'We can talk about this more later if you want.'
'I don't think I can stomach it. I just want to apologize to you.'
'Don't be silly,' he said. 'You got nothing to apologize about. I wanna apologize to you. You had to live with her. She was a demon to you too, I
'Yeah, she was,' I said. 'I'll tell you about it next Halloween.'
John Ammirati, 30, was raised in Arizona and currently lives in Manchester, England. He has previously been published in Six Sentences Volume 3, Every Day Poets One, and SSL's Branded Words anthology. He blogs at http://johnammirati.blogspot.com/ .
A few holiday seasons ago, I found myself at The Union League in Philadelphia, which is a charmer of a building with elegant twin circular
staircases. I was there for a small symposium on Human Happiness. That year, many of my fellow researchers were obsessed in an effort to explore
this most strange of human emotions.
My friend, Professor Avi Mazan, gave the final lecture of the day– and it was well attended. In his lively way, Avi filled us in on the latest theory of
human happiness. The way the theory goes, as you may know, is that we dream a new shiny car will cheer our spirits forever. But it turns out that the fun of a new automobile, no matter how shiny, is short-lived (or, in my case, absent, since I hate to drive and avoid it like the plague. In fact, my personal happiness would be much improved if we all flew around in little balloons.)
To me, the entire theory seemed pointless in the extreme. After all, nothing in life lasts forever, and who am I to frown upon the fleeting pleasure
of a new car? But as Avi described it, the theory was a revelation, a real shocker. I wondered if Avi, being Greek,was under the illusion that flashy cars really do promote lasting happiness. But, more likely, dapper Avi himself craved a gleaming red Ferrari -- and his practical wife Suzanne felt that no husband actually required a tiny sports car.
After the speech, there was the usual reception, made more dignified by the polished marble and burnished leather of the room. I marched over to Avi to congratulate him on his speech and to catch up—we were old friends from my academic days.
Avi, like most of my professor friends, took a dim view of the holidays. “It just shows how every one has lost the sense of the holidays-- all this buying and spending. It’s a modern sickness, a sickness of the soul,” he said. He helped himself to some tired looking grapes.
I said, “Lighten up. There are worse problems to worry about and besides, for Jews, it’s just a season. Anyway, when people aren’t out spending, take it from me, they’re just watching reality TV or overeating, so what’s your problem?”
Avi said mournfully, “It’s just mindless consumerism.”
My hunch was that poor Avi, like most men, had no clue what to buy his wife. Suzanne was a fashionable marketing executive and probably had high expectations in the gift department—if Avi had any sense, he could have ordered anything from Tiffany’s and had it monogrammed.
I teased him. “Well, I love buying gifts, so if I had my way, we’d all have two or three extra birthdays, so I could buy even more gifts.”
Avi ignored me and went on, “This study has given me ideas. I think what we need is to construct an algorithm for all of human happiness. I’ll start
with the Ten Happiest Days of Your Life, and then collect lists from thousands of different types of people, all of the Happiest Days of their lives.“
He spoke as if he were inventing a new shiny version of happiness—perhaps to replace the red Ferrari.“A day is way too long,” I argued. “That’s over twelve hours of straight happiness, and even after great sex, no one’s jumping up and down for twelve hours, more like two or three. Not that sex should be on the list, since what with Viagra and divorce and all those political scandals, sex may not make people all that happy.”
Avi conceded the point. “You’re right, maybe, just the Happiest Moments. Besides, a day or an hour, as long as we capture the essence of
happiness, what it’s all about.”
I felt skeptical about the whole enterprise, to put it mildly. It reminded me of Sigmund Freud’s wordy book about jokes, in which Freud trots out
one not-very-funny joke after another. Freud, like most social scientists, could not tell a joke.
But before I left, I wished Avi luck, feeling certain he would need it—as indeed we all do. In fact, now that I think about it, being happy is a matter
of luck as much as anything else.
Avi was soon immersed in his Happiness Study. He assembled a team of young enthusiastic grad students collecting personal histories from thousands of people, all carefully selected.
Within months, he and his team had gathered an entire database, if you will, of happy moments from investment bankers, construction workers, bank tellers, writers, gallery owners, to say nothing of soldiers, sailors, airplane pilots, and elementary school teachers and firemen and even nuns. Avi had even traveled to Lancaster County to find the Amish farmers who, whatever you might say against them, grow delicious celery and potatoes.
An appointment near The University of Pennsylvania offered me a chance to visit Avi’s new Happiness Center. There I found him amidst thousands of
pages of interview data, nightmarishly scattered about. Some pages were marked with red magic marker, others with black, still others had little sticky notes on them in pink and yellow and blue. All in all, there seemed no rhyme or reason to it.
On his wall was a white board with a list of topics, to which Avi pointed with a grimace. I inspected the list and recited it, trying to keep a straight
face—“Weddings, Births, Anniversaries, Beach Vacations, Sunrises, Sunsets, Kisses, New Job, BruceSpringsteen concerts, Woodstock and the Day Your City Won the World Series, Provence.”
I had to laugh. “The usual suspects.”
"Not very exciting,” Avi said woefully. “Woodstock, please."
“Well, at least Woodstockhad drugs. And even if you’re gloomy as hell, drugs can perk you up. In fact, you could skip Woodstock, just do the drugs
and look at the poster, and probably end up in a better mood, what with the rain and the bugs and all.”
“And Provence,” he said. “Everyone is happy in Provence.”
I reminded him about all of the books about Provence--all best-sellers. “Maybe everyone remembers the book by the Peter guy.”
Avi showed me a few interviews. It did appear that everyone had a magical day in Provence. They met a villager who was only too thrilled to show them a few cathedrals-- this friendly villager, astonishingly, had a deep and abiding affection for American tourists.
“There must be one tour guide roaming around Provence,” I said. “I mean no one talks to me at the Farmer’s Market. It can’t be people are all that
much nicer in Provence, although they’re probably sexier since they’re French.”
“Why don’t you create a list? You’re always smiling, almost like a Californian. You know how to be happy. I admire that,” Avi said.
I was wearing my favorite turquoise scarf, which never fails to make me smile—especially when paired with my Hopi jewelry from Santa Fe. However, the whole scarf-happiness link did not fit into the latest theory—and I kept quiet.
I said, “Thanks, I try. My list will be precise and varied, more in tune with true happiness, unclouded happiness. I have rigorous standards.”
Avi became enthused about my participation. He felt my contribution was just what he needed. “Start at the beginning, start in your childhood and
work from there.”
So, I first examined my childhood. I should begin by saying that I had a perfectly average childhood in the happiness department. Of course,
it had its ups and downs, as all childhoods must, years of intense shyness and nightmares about the Gestapo. But all in all, it was a fine childhood
spent in relative comfort—and I am well aware that many of world’s children grow up in filth and squalor and misery.
Although I guess my parents had what is now labeled an unhappy marriage. As a child, you don’t see it like that, even with the violent fights and the long silences and even the tears, to say nothing of the money troubles, although those came later. But when you’re older, you face facts. Most families have difficulties. No doubt, my parents were as happy as the couple next door— probably more so, since that young couple lost their adorable blond boy to leukemia and avoided all people afterward.
But despite my ordinary childhood which should have yielded as many happy moments as any other, my mind went blank. There must have been festive birthday parties or juicy turkeys at Thanksgiving, but they escaped me now. Only one day stood out, an autumn day when I must have been five or six. My older brother and I were home alone, recovering from the mumps or chicken pox or some harmless childhood illness—so we were sick enough to avoid school, but we felt fine.
Four years divided my older brother and me – it was rare to have him all to myself. That morning, we played Superman and Supergirl. It wasn’t much of a game--Superman commanded and Supergirl obeyed. My brother jumped on the bed, and shouted, go forth, Supergirl, buy me a comic! ]
Really, there wasn’t anything I would not have done for him.
Off I flew soaring down the streets as Supergirl until, arriving at the small store, I realized I lacked the change to buy even one comic. I returned
empty-handed—by that time, I was ready for a nap.
So, all I recall is how the running felt like flight --and how my brother was so alive then --and how he flies over me as I sleep-- and flies around and around as I think about happiness, how my brother will always hover above me. So, the picture of him makes me happy for a moment, before I fall, softly as snow, back to earth.
Then I remembered one day on a Manhattan subway. I was a teen-- in those years, I dreamed of an acting career, another dream which, like many
others, seems so absurd now. My New Jersey public high school allowed me to leave early twice a week in order to attend acting classes in NewYork.
The trip from the suburbs to the city involved a bus, which deposited me at the George Washington Bridge, and then the long A-train ride to West Fourth Street, and then a long and surprisingly windy walk from there to the acting studio. All in all, the trip took over an hour. In wintertime, switching between the chilly air and the overheated buses and subways was a chore.
Coming home one day in the dead of winter, I boarded an empty subway car, which added passengers as it made its way uptown --office workers, old people, young mothers with tiny babies, even schoolchildren. With each stop, the car became more densely filled, until I was squeezed on all sides and pressed to the innermost core, unable to move. The car smelled like chewing gum, cloyingly sweet. It was more than I could bear, the heat and the crowd and the sickening smell of gum. I almost fainted.
Then, I realized that even if I were to faint, I would be supported by other people pressing against me. They would prop me up—I could not fall. And, I stopped resisting the heat and the closeness, and found myself lifted by the crowd, held together, warmed by the car—and more than anything, I wished that the ride could last forever. And the moment stayed with me – the moment when it changed and I merged into people on all sides, in that crowded hot car.
If I could relive one moment, that would be it. “It was perfect. I think I’ll put it at the top of the list.”
So I told Avi as I showed him my carefully edited list—in his office amidst the mounds of data, stale coffee, and the walls of psychology books. The
chair was dusty, so I stood instead of sitting. I wondered what Suzanne must make of this depressing place.
Avi read my list with growing irritation. “What’s the matter with you? What do mean, your happiest moment was in some hot crowded subway,
that’s not a happy time. What is your problem? And why is some afternoon alone with a cat on this list, what was so special about the cat, was
it your cat even?”
I was offended. “No, it wasn’t, it was someone else’s cat, named Herman. But Herman was purring, and we listened to Schubert together
without anyone else. And I thought of my brother’s cat, how he purred when my brother held him.”
“That doesn’t sound happy. That sounds sad. In my mind, you’re not capable of separating happy from sad, it’s a problem. You are fusing the
“That’s your opinion,” I argued. “I can define happiness anyway I like. Isn’t that the whole point?”
“No, it’s not the point. You can’t go a funeral and weep and then call it happy.”
I tried to make him see things my way. “But the Irish, don’t they dance at funerals? And people make jokes and theye at and they share
memories-- sometimes a funeral can make people happy in a way.”
“You can’t define words any which way you please. You’re illogical, and besides, you said you wanted perfect happiness, happiness that wasn’t clouded with sadness. You said you had standards.”
“I do,” I insisted. “You think crying makes me sad, but you’re wrong. That is why there’s an expression, tears of joy.”
Avi looked at me as if I were insane. “What kind of standards, a hot subway and you alone with a cat, crying? Why can’t youl et go of
“Avi, there’s no point whatsoever in letting go of people—why would you want to do that? Anyway, you’re looking at this all backwards. You are looking at happiness like it’s always there, and you can’t see it-- but it’s sadness that’s always around. You don’t need a drug to be sad, you don’t need therapy. You don’t have to work at being sad-- it’s easy. You can depend on sadness, it’s already here.”
But, I thought, happiness, it comes and goes, it’s fleeting. It floats away like a colored balloon rising and rising until it disappears along with all
of the people you love.
Avi sounded like a boy as he spoke, “But you, you are always happy. And that’s getting further and further away from me. Things with Suzanne have been worse and worse, and I just don’t know where to start.”
Facing us was the white board with its list of topics. Avi shrugged as if to ask where he might findk isses and sunrises, sunsets and beaches-- all so
ordinary but so hard to reach. And seeing the words, I felt them whirling about me, pulling other memories into my orbit, all returning in an unexpected burst—even my own first kiss, as mysterious and sweet as anyone else’s.
I dusted off the chair and sat with him. “Avi, you could do a lot worse than go to Provence. You might as well start there—it’s as good a place as
any.” Copyright 2011 Carla Sarett
Carla Sarett is a Ph.D. whose careers have included TV, film and market research. In 2010, she added writing to this mix—and to date, her stories
have appeared in The Linnet’s Wing, Scissors and Spackle, Eric’s Hysterics, Subtle Fiction, Every Day Fiction, The Greensilk Journal, The Ear Hustler and Lost in Fiction.
Sylvie had to drive a long way to find the chicken farm. There was still snow on the ground when she collected the brown package from a woman wearing a flannel nightgown and smoking a cigarette.
“You must be Sylvie” she said.
Sylvie handed the woman twenty dollars and walked back to her truck and just sat for a minute watching the snow fall in the darkness. When she finally got back home to her apartment it was after midnight. She threw the package on the kitchen table, said a quick prayer to the lives of all animals everywhere and slowly unwrapped the paper.
There were twenty severed rooster heads. They gave her ten more than she had asked for. She had an unexpected feeling of revulsion as she arranged the heads on the table next to the red and yellow roses and chipped tea cups. She took a paintbrush from the easel and began working. The canvas began to breathe again and she lost track of time. She painted off and on, but mostly on, for the next three days.
On the third day, she hopped into the shower and scrubbed the paint from her arms and from her hands. She threw on some clean clothes, and covered her spontaneous still life (chicken heads and all) with a tablecloth. She took the phone off the hook and set her cell phone to silent. She sat on the floor next to the table with a glass and the remaining vodka and stared at the painting on the easel.
She had not painted anything. The canvas was still blank, the white primer glaring in contrast to that of her dark apartment. It was then that she noticed the paint on the walls, most of it hideous and painful. There was no still life on these walls. There was no life, period. Sylvie closed her eyes and tried to remember what it was she had envisioned for the canvas in the first place, certainly not this hideousness.
She took another drink but by the next morning the apartment had really started to stink. The light from the windows splashed across Sylvie’s forehead and illuminating the walls, where the lifeless severed heads of hundreds of fowls had formed a small militia, and were stockpiling weapons for a war against Sylvie’s depression. Sylvie opened one crusted eye and then another, not quite processing the daylight that danced through the window.
Len hadn’t seen Sylvie in at least three years. He finally stopped calling after she changed her phone number. It had been a painful break-up. It
was hard to explain why he was standing outside her apartment peering in through the blinds. He had moved on with his life. He was married and had a toddler. The scene through the blinds has confused and excited him. Sylie with her hair matted with sweat and paint, was at the beginning of some sort of madness. But how exciting, he thought, how exciting to be mad, to leave reality behind even at the risk of losing it all.
Sylvie moved her eyes around the apartment, unsure of herself, a painful headache slowly starting to build in her skull. She thinks for a movement she sees a shadow behind the blinds but remembers that the elderly woman who lives next door sometimes mistakes Sylvie’s door for hers. The shadow seems slightly taller today though. Sylvie knows she is in trouble, knows that something has gone wrong, the safety harness she was wearing has slipped and she has suddenly found herself floating in a very scary space.
Len is afraid he has been spotted. He crouches down as far as he can against the door until he can figure out his next move. He feels the need to act. Obviously this woman is in trouble. His heart races at the thought of seeing her again, and yet not like this. Not today. He starts to walk away but just as suddenly finds himself knocking at her door. Softly at first but then louder and more insistent. “Sylvie!,”he yells.
Sylvie is suddenly sober at the sound of the pounding on her door. She wonders what her elderly neighbor could possible want. She braces her arms against a chair and pulls herself to standing, pulling her robe closed. She opens the door slightly, leaving the chain hooked.
“Sylvie?” Len says hesitantly.
“Len?” Sylvie whispers.
“Are you ok, Sylvie?” he asks. “Can I come in?’
“No, I mean, why?”
“Sylvie, I can see that you’re not ok, let me come in."
Sylvie shades her eyes with her hand. “Len, are you stalking me? I mean what the hell Len? I haven’t seen you in God knows when. Sylvie unhooks the chain and steps back as Len walks into the madness that is Sylvie’s apartment.
The stench is maddening. Len starts to cough and glances quickly around the apartment. “Sylvie? What’s that smell?”
Sylvie has forgotten about the bird heads. She looks at Len as if he were the one who might be a little unstable. “What smell?”
“Well, never mind, Sylvie. I see that you have been doing a little painting,“ he says as he sweeps his hand toward the monstrosity that used to be her living room wall.
“I actually don’t remember doing that mural, but when I woke up this morning, well, there it was.”
Len walks over and stands in front of the wall. He squints and kneels and squints some more.“Are they, the ah, chickens, are they carrying
“M-A’s?” Sylvie says innocently.
“Yeah, you know, French submachine guns? Relics of Dien Bien Phu?”
“Dien Bien who?” Sylvie asks. “Maybe, I can’t be sure.”
But Len is no longer listening because he has discovered the source of the smell and is quietly scooping up the Guillotined rooster remains with the arts section of The New York Times and depositing them into a white plastic trash bag.
Sylvie watches him stoically from the sand-colored couch where she has planted herself.
“Len, how's life? Hows things? How the fam? The wife? Kids?” She said the words but she wasn’t sure how. It felt like someone else was speaking them, someone that could cope, someone who had a normal life, someone with an apartment that didn’t smell like a poultry processing plant.
Len washed his hand and sat next to Sylvie on the couch. “Look Sylvie, whatever is going on with you, you know it will get better. Look, me and my wife, Things haven’t been going too great. I think about you every day, Sylvie.”
“Look Len, I know you’ve been stalking me, and I know you want to get in my pants, but this is a bad time for me. My skin itches, I’m pretty certain the Loch-ness monster is lurking somewhere in the drip pan underneath my sink, and my answering machine speaks Portuguese.
“Let’s go for a drive Sylvie,” Len says. He pulls her to her feet, brings her sandals, grabs the trash bag and stands by the door.
Sylvie slips on her shoes and grabs the door key. They walk down the stairwell and she watches as Lem throws the trash bag into the dumpster.
He walks her to his car, which is illegally parked and already has a parking violation notice. He barely beat the towing company.
Len drives Sylvie to a bar and grill next to Wal-Mart. This is not what Sylvie had in mind, but she realizes a change of scenery will do her good. Before long, Len tells Sylvie he has to get back home. He kisses Sylvie on the mouth and rushes back out to his car leaving her alone in a cavernous booth with peanut shells on the floor and sticky barbeque sauce on the seats.
After a few too many drinks, Sylvie realizes that maybe she is going to be alright after all. Things seem to loosen within her mind. She leans back in her booth and decides to enjoy herself. When the bartender asks Sylvie if he can refresh her drink, she admires his comb, wattle, and tailfeathers. She guesses he’s a Buckeye, and he struts back to the kitchen as she smiles thinking about his lovely accent.
Melanie Browne is a fiction and poetry writer living in Texas with her husband and three children. She has been published in Storyglossia, Bartleby Snopes, and Pulp Metal Magazine.
There are too many puppies and babies named Charlie. I walk through this park every Saturday afternoon, and it’s always full of people who call me
but don’t want me.
I swing my head around wearing that coy smile that brings out my cute craterous dimples, hoping that this will be one of those moments when the man runs into the old girlfriend who has been having erotic dreams about him and wants to be lovers again—“I’ve been thinking about you.” “Oh, have you, baby?”—but instead I see some parody of a middle-aged woman, orange beyond belief, awkward flesh wrapped in a teal velour sweat suit, knees planted in the grass. She’s shaking her head and scrunching up her crooked nose as her shaggy little puppy licks at the dried-out make-up plastered onto her face. I turn away and suck in thick air clothed in cigarette and exhaust smoke. Bird chirps, car engines, and teenage laughter provide an unwanted soundtrack for my stroll through Kermit-colored blades. I love this grass. When I first started coming here I thought, It’s grass like any other grass. But it’s not. The soft blades massage my brown suede shoes. Nature pets me as if it owns me—which it naturally does. It makes me want to be an ant—or a Smurf. Swallow me up, Grass. Swallow me up, Sun, you yellow heat monster. Suck me up and sideways some ninety-million miles and let me live with you, distant lover, dearest life-giver.
Just when I’m having an intimate moment with nature, professing my love for the closest the universe gets to a god, I hear--
“Who’s my little Charlie? You’re my little Charlie.”
This time I do a Portmanesque pirouette because I’m dying to be someone’s little Charlie. A deep-brunette twenty-something in a sundress and saltwater sandals sits on a red-and-white blanket, holding a bald baby in a crucifixion position, pointing him skyward as if she’s sacrificing the poor pink thing to the sun--if it’s going to take anyone, it’s going to be me. She’s shaking her head and scrunching her up nose like the puppy lady. To a degree, puppies and babies are interchangeable.
The similarity between puppies and babies is something worth pondering, so I tread along the grass until I come to a bench. I examine the bench for bird poop, baby poop, bum poop—really any kind of poop—before sitting down. There’s a name plate on the bench:
In loving memory of Bernard Seidman (1933-2001).
From your wife and best friend, Doris.
I wish Bernard could be here to see how feces-free his bench is.
Back to the puppies and babies. A funny thing about civilized society as demonstrated through two scenarios: In scenario A, I pick up a woman’s dog and eat it in front of her and her five-year-old daughter, possibly scarring the child for life, making her hate men and black people, etc. In scenario B, I wait until the same woman turns her back. That’s when I take the five-year-old daughter by the hand. We skip down the road to an ice cream parlor, where I treat her to a strawberry milkshake and a black and white cookie. Then I use said black and white cookie to teach her a valuable lesson about the importance and general coolness of not being racist. I smile. She smiles. I see she’s already lost one of her teeth, but I don’t give her any shit for it. We have a wonderful time. I buy the little girl a balloon and teddy bear, return her to her mother and say--
“Don’t worry about it. Everything’s on me. And here’s one hundred dollars for the inconvenience.”
The girl tells her mother how much fun she had, how much she learned about how flat-out stupid bigotry is, how much she looks up to me as a positive father figure. Now, consider how messed up this is: If the mother calls the police, I go to prison, even though the kid had tons of fun and learned not to be a racist. And I gave the mother one hundred dollars. But the police would still jump out of the bushes and bury my face in the grass and a knee in my spine. Society would send a nurturer/philanthropist to prison. What’s even crazier is that I would get more prison time for scenario B than A. For those keeping score, scenario A is the scenario in which I eat a dog. I don’t get society. I don’t get this park.
I jump up from the bench, happy that the sun has wrapped its arms around my neck in a loving chokehold, but unhappy that it won’t take me up to live with it.
“Every time someone gets too close to me, they get hurt, Charlie,” it beams to me in that non-verbal, sunray way it has of keeping me in the know.
But I don’t. I head toward the exit. The woman plays with her chubby baby. The other woman scoops up her puppy’s poop in a clear plastic baggie. The puppy, a golden retriever, has a grin on its face that says, I can’t believe me luck. I made the puppy Irish.
I envy the pup a bit—so much that my envy stops me in my tracks. We lock eyes. The puppy doesn’t even look as if he has any eyes. From twenty feet away, his eyes look like two black holes. He poops again, and the woman scoops again, and I remain entranced by the canine gaze. This little puppy’s eyes tell the wordless story of the dark uncertainty of the cosmos, the eternal inadequacy of existence, the unceasing longing for complete knowledge and fulfillment that defines the emptiness and absurdity of the human condition, my life. I could die right here—just collapse to the ground and let the government scoop me off the concrete and put me in a plastic bag like puppy poop.
“Oh, what a cutie,” a girl about 18-20 standing next to me says.
She’s holding onto her bike’s handlebars, her right foot on one pedal, her left foot playing kickstand—toes pointed down and heel raised as if she were wearing one invisible red pump. The burning hand of my lover, the Sun, is reflecting off her shiny black stockings which start somewhere inside her white flats and stop somewhere beautiful and mysterious under her cuffed khaki shorts. Her bob haircut makes her look like one of those girls on those obscure Yé-yé vinyl EPs in the used record store with the scratched-off tag the color of a rotting orange that either says 4.99 or 9.99 but you really don’t care what price it is because you need to buy it, listen to it, idolize it, let it convince you of the existence of something that justifies everything. She’s wearing a tiny white v-neck t-shirt and a flannel scarf around her neck as if she doesn’t give a fuck about summer, the weatherman, patriarchal constructs like coherence or necessity. Her eyes are a dark brown similar to that of the tree trunk two feet to the right. They are not as dark as the dog’s eyes, nor as desolate. But her eyes are darker than absurdity, brighter than sunlight.
“He’s pretty cute,” I say, trying to hide how disappointed I am that she didn’t mean me.
She smiles—a slow smile in which she savors every movement of muscle and formation of flesh. I imagine a bench with a plaque:
In loving memory of Charlie (1987-2287).
From your wife, best friend, Yé-yé star, and Sun, ________--
My fantasy is incomplete without her name, which she gives to me:
“God, I want one so bad. Do you have one? Oh, sorry. I’m Kelsey, by the way.”
Michael Epperson is a graduate student at Arcadia University in Glenside, PA. He is currently seeking an agent for his first novel, Shalom Undying.
You broke up with me by text message, despite our promises to
neither end our relationship by text message nor by snail mail. (Of course, we
had promised to not break up.) At the time, when you made me promise these
things, I had thought it odd to negotiate our end so near our beginning. How
about we negotiate how we won’t end, I had wanted to
The text messages were hateful. Of course
they were hateful. Most break-ups are hateful. My heart shattered, not all at
once, though for a few minutes I couldn’t feel my heart beating, or maybe I felt
it beating too much. Doctors say that during periods of intense emotional
stress, enough adrenaline is pumped through the left ventricle of your heart to
mimic symptoms of a heart attack, which could lead to death. Cardiomyopathy.
Look it up. Side effects: Scarred hearts. Some of us are genetically predisposed
to wear these scars on our hearts, merit badges we never should have
I checked myself into a psychiatric
hospital. I didn’t have another choice. My wife, Holly, who only learned of my
affair with you once you had ended it, was worried about me. She drove me to the
hospital, our son, Avery, in the backseat, unaware of the breaking and
unbreaking unfolding in the front seat.
After I was allowed to check out, I agreed to complete an outpatient partial hospital
program. Erin, the therapist who ran the program, told me during one of our
one-on-one sessions to keep nothing.
Don’t let your home become a museum, Will, she told me.
I have been reading books about death and loss because I know that I will never
talk to you again, and I wanted to see how others had coped with such a huge
loss. I feel halved, still, though no longer do I think the only way out is
death. I can’t get back into the head of the man who thought death was even an
option. I look at Avery and I see only life. I consider my relationship with
Holly and I sense that we are building a relationship that is even better than
the one we had four months ago.
During my junior year of college, my girlfriend’s roommate, Kristy, died. Maybe my
girlfriend was already my ex-girlfriend, but I think we were still sleeping
together. Her roommate died in the bathroom in her room. She died during finals
week. Her roommates didn’t see for days, and no one was worried because she
often spent finals week in the library. Finally, her mother called another of my
girlfriend’s (or ex-girlfriend’s) roommates and said, Kristy isn’t answering her
phone. We are worried. The roommate broke into Kristy’s room and found Kristy
dead on the bathroom floor. My girlfriend (let’s assume she and I were still
together) called me. I was at home. I came over. Already, a group of people had
assembled in the apartment complex’s community room. We cried and held each
other. Kristy’s roommates were affected the most. School officials gave them a
pass on all of their finals and final papers. Kristy’s parents came the next day
to deal with the arrangements. They packed her room. Within four days, Kristy’s
room was empty. There was nothing to note her
She was majoring in public relations, which is a major the School of Journalism and
Communications offered. I was a journalism major. I would see Kristy frequently
in the building where our classes took place. We would sometimes eat lunch
together. When girlfriend and I fought, Kristy would hear about it from both of
us. She liked to say she was Switzerland. She liked me and girlfriend together;
she thought we would figure out how to be together. She had signed on to an
impossible task. Girlfriend is a lesbian and partnered with a woman. They live
in Atlanta. They have two children. I am gay. I am not yet divorced from my
wife, but the divorce is imminent. We have two
I used to see Kristy in the building after she died. I would see a woman with long brown hair and I would think,
there’s Kristy. Or I would hear someone with Kristy’s laugh and I would think,
there she is. I forgot, occasionally, that she was dead. I would see and hear
her until I didn’t see and hear her, and then I remembered that she was dead. I
kept her last e-mail to me until I graduated and my University of Florida e-mail
account was deleted. I didn’t feel her loss, but I thought, I should have
printed out the e-mail.
Girlfriend wore a black bracelet around her wrist every day for a year in memory of
We are in touch, girlfriend and I. We haven’t talked about Kristy in years.
I thought I had put away any reminders of you in my apartment. I’ve packed a box of the
things you gave me and put it on the top shelf in a closet in my bedroom. In
black Sharpie I’ve written in block letters EMOTIONAL BAGGAGE: DO NOT OPEN.
Inside are notes and cards, CDs you made me, the key to your childhood bedroom
you gave me and asked me to wear around my
I loved wearing that key, even though the
chain you put the key on when you gave it to me caused my neck to break out in a
The clothes and toys you bought Avery are
the only things Holly and I haven’t discarded or packed away. I think about
donating everything to a battered woman’s shelter, but then I think that Avery
did nothing wrong. And I sometimes think, oh, D bought that, but then I try not
to think that D bought that, and the moment
Cleaning Avery’s room one Saturday, I
saw that one of the boxes you had packed my things in to give Holly said your
name and the word clothes. I hadn’t seen these words before. You had written
these words. I told Holly about the words, and the next time she was over, she
found other places for the things in the box, and she put the box by my garbage
can, and I used it to collect my recycling that week until I could recycle the
box and everything in it.
My friends tell me
that I’ll get over our relationship. My friends tell me that I’ll get over you.
Such a cliché, getting over someone. Losing someone you love alters your life
forever. You can’t get over it because the “it” is the person you love(d). The
pain stops. Of course the pain stops. And there will be new people. There
already are new people. But the gap between me and you will never close. How
could I expect the gap between me and you to close? You mattered enough for me
to grieve. There is a you-sized hole in my heart. No one will be able to fill
that you-sized hole. Why would I want them to fill that you-sized
I look outside the window in my living
room/library and I think one afternoon you will park your car outside and get
out of your car and walk up the sidewalk leading to the front door and you will
ring my doorbell. I have no reason to think you will do any of these things, but
sometimes I look up and think that you are there or are on your way, and I
think, why would I think that you are there or on your way, and I think because
you loved me once, and I loved you.
do will change what is. You had the last word. You made sure you had the last
word. I try not to think about you, because the memories of everything we did
and everything we planned to do make me
The fluttering in my stomach when
I think about you has faded.
If anyone had told
me at any point during our relationship, during our affair, that I would have to
pay the price of losing you and living after losing you, I would have agreed to
pay it. Recognizing this fact surprises me. Then I think that the hurt and mess
are not alone. Along with the hurt and mess is recognition. It was worth it. You
were worth it.
Love is worth it.
I thought I was your sanctuary. I thought
we had built a haven. If I was your ship, then in the end, I think I threw you
overboard. But if you are the one who went overboard, why do I feel like I am
drowning most days?
The things left behind.
Notes in which you promised me forever and to never let me go. A piece of a tank
top you ripped off of me one night before we had sex. The key to your childhood
bedroom door. CDs of music that reminds me of you, songs and musicians that will
always remind me of you. The remains of a sandalwood candle that you had lit
during our first date. Ticket stubs. Autographed books and records. Clothes you
bought me. A pair of shoes and a belt that we each bought and wore, though never
on the same day.
I cannot separate my memories
of getting to know you from getting to know myself. At each turn during our
relationship, you were there, turning
I cannot measure our time together in
anything but these words. There is no real measure for our time together. Our
time together is very much like a dream or a myth, a place outside of reality,
as the reality we created was subjective and our
There was a key. I used to wear it around
my neck. It opened the door to your childhood bedroom. There were words on the
key, a manufacturer’s name and logo. I used to know the words. I have forgotten
them. The key was heavy around my beck. It hung halfway between my Adam’s apple
and chest. You would tag yourself in pictures of me on Facebook. You would tag
the key. You would tag the key and label it with your name. I used to wear a key
around my neck that once unlocked the door to your childhood bedroom. I used to
wear a key around my neck that you one day wanted to melt and use as the basis
of my wedding band.
I read books about death
and dying and grief and recovery and I look around my home and I have started to
separate what is me from what would have been
I used to wear a key.
William Henderson rarely reads directions, seldom follows instructions, and is never far from his phone,
where he is often tweeting (@Avesdad) or blogging (hendersonhouseofcards.com). A
former newspaper and magazine reporter and editor, Henderson freelances when he
can, but mostly writes about love. He is a frequent contributor to Thought
Catalog, and has been published in the Rumpus, Mental Shoes, Revolution House,
Specter Literary Magazine, and Used Furniture Review, among others. He writes a
bimonthly column for Hippocampus Magazine, and is a regular contributor to
Peripheral Surveys+. Also, Henderson was nominated for a 2012 Pushcart Prize.
NAP Literary Magazine published Henderson's chapbook, Edgeways, in 2011.
Henderson is a Boston-based writer.
Somebody please stop me.
The words were scrawled on the far wall of the furthest stall, black Sharpie on pale yellow stucco. About shoulder height. New. I was sure I hadn't seen them before. I didn't think much of them, as I took a piss, but as I was washing my hands they came back to me. I went back to the stall and stared at them. Read them over several times.
I pulled a pen out of my pocket and wrote, Stop you from what?
Back at my cubicle, Frank Taylor stopped by. He had his hands full of various papers and folders, most of which probably meant nothing. His spectacles were dangerously close to falling off his pug nose. He smiled, and I cringed at the gap in his teeth. Every time.
"Hey, Billy, I'm going to need the T-A forms for the Ovarion 5500 on my desk by tomorrow noon."
"You got it, Frank."
"If you can get me triplicates, I'd appreciate it. We had a snafu last month, and I would just as assume avoid it this time around."
"No problem, Frank."
"And don't confuse the T-A forms for the T-8 forms for the Worsch 921 again. I spent a week sorting that mess out."
"That was Avery, Frank."
"Well, learn from his example." He winked and pointed at me. "Remember, we're here to help each other."
I watched him walk away and turned back to my computer.
Hank Binder, in the cubicle behind me, stood and said, "Remember, Billy. Remember."
"Remember this." I flipped him off and he sat down, laughing.
Leaving for work that day, I passed Brian Fanning coming out of the elevator. He grinned at me and said, "I always forget something. You know how it is."
I nodded. I had a good memory.
The next day: I hurt. Other people must, too.
I'd forgotten to bring a pen. I went back to my cubicle. On the way, I passed Fanning again. He said, "Be careful. Frank hasn't had his coffee today. A new diet, he calls it." A big laugh, jovial, hearty. He clapped me on the shoulder.
Back in the bathroom, I wrote: Everybody hurts.
Ellen rarely got home before I did. She worked at the building next to mine as one of the executive secretaries. They put in long hours, but if they can tolerate the sexual harassment and knowledge that they are inferior to everyone who matters, they bring home enough pay to cover the shame. Ellen had initially tried turning it into a joke. We met in the mutual smoking area between the two buildings, and she'd said to me, "I don't know who you are, but one of these days, I'm going to be filing your forms."
I responded, "One of these days, I won't have forms to file. But you can still get me coffee." We'd gone from there.
Neither of us was a good cook, but I was provisionally better at heating up microwaveable dinners, so I usually had supper ready. Ellen came in, blouse hugging her chest, skirt whisking about her thighs. "Don't ask" was her typical greeting. I don't know why; not once in our relationship had I ever asked.
Today, as a follow-up, she said, "Henderson had a heart attack."
Henderson wasn't her boss. He was…Shelly's. I said, "How's Shelly taking it?"
"She left early and drunk-texted me at four o'clock. I'd say she's taking it well."
We ate with the television on. Reruns of 30 Rock. I said, "I remember when Alec Baldwin was slim, and people actually found him attractive."
"Did you have a crush on him?"
After dinner, in the living room of our apartment, watching some random sitcom, I thought of telling her about the writing on the bathroom wall. Thought about it, but didn't do it. We didn't exchange work stories. Nothing eventful ever happened, really. Habits grow over time, and now that I actually had something interesting to share, I didn't know how. And, truthfully, I didn't want to. It was what newscasters call a "developing story." I wanted to see how things would unfold before I let anybody else in on it. If I let anybody else in on it. I liked having a secret. Not that Ellen and I confided everything to each other. We just had nothing important enough to keep silent about.
They don't know what pain is. Same bold black strokes. Someone unafraid of being caught in this confessional. Perhaps eager to have a companion with whom to discuss growing concerns.
I wrote, Pain is subjective. You hurt, I hurt, we all hurt in our own way. Their pain is no worse than yours, or vice versa. Life is pain. Most of the words were legible; I was sure they could figure out the rest from context.
Outside the restroom, I saw Fanning and Avery near the copier. Fanning said, "There's going to be a party next week. It'll be Avery's third year. Bring drinks, snacks, anything you can manage to get your hands on."
"Valium would be nice," Avery said, and the two of them laughed. Fanning had to bury his face in his arm. I smiled and nodded, preoccupied.
Frank Taylor was waiting for me at my cubicle. He said, "Great job on those forms the other day, Billy. Sorry I never got to tell you. Not many people here are a stickler for details like you are. Keep it up, you'll be going places soon."
I'd been there just a month less than Avery. I nodded and said, "Thanks, Frank." He left.
Behind me, Hank said, "Jesus, Billy. I don't know if you're kissing his ass or sucking out his soul anally. Either way, it's disgusting."
"We do what we have to to get ahead, Hank."
"Face it: you've plateaued. You've got nowhere to go but straight ahead."
"Hey, I'm right there with you. We'll never be where he is. Not that I want to be, personally. The pay isn't worth it. I thought I'd kill myself when I had to start wearing a tie. To have to shine my shoes every morning too…it'd drive a man crazy."
"I suppose," I said, and stared at the numbers blinking on my computer. For a moment, they seemed entirely random. In the next moment, they all made sense. Then randomness again.
If life is pain then the only way to end the suffering is death.
I stared at the wall for a few seconds, then sat down. The other man in the restroom, whose voice I didn't recognize, said, "Christ, do you really have to take a shit in here? I mean, like, what ventilation, you know?"
"Fuck off," I told him, but he might not have heard me. I might not have said it out loud. I was going over the words, and I found myself nodding. I read my previous comment, then all of them, going back to the first. Not a long conversation, though arguably the longest I'd had in writing, at least since I was forced to be a pen pal in the fourth grade. Some Malaysian kid. I'd pointed out how much his English sucked. He'd responded by saying how much he dreamed of coming to America. That's when I began to doubt the honesty of the program in general, and the quality of Malaysian English education in particular.
I put my pen to the wall, but nothing came out except a brief stroke. The words refused to come, and I left the stall with my thoughts unexpressed. It remained that way the rest of the day. People talked to me, like they always do, and I responded with my normal tone of voice, normal words, normal hand and facial gestures. I laughed on-cue, even at the jokes that failed. Office politics. You humor them, especially when they aren't humorous.
The next evening, a Wednesday, I was late leaving work. I'd made several visits to the restroom that day, so many that Hank had joked about me getting a prostate exam. When those jokes wore old, he talked about taking his daughter on a road trip. After that, he let the situation speak for itself.
Nothing new was written on the wall. My conversation partner couldn't, or wouldn't, speak my thoughts for me. He was waiting.
I left after Frank Taylor did. He stopped by my cubicle, surprised I was still there. After collecting himself and putting on a forced air of appreciation, he said, "Billy, I like your style." But there was worry in his eyes. As though he thought I was gunning for his job. Which maybe I was. I didn't want it, and I would hate it if I got it. But it was something to shoot for, at least. It was a goal.
I texted Ellen that I would be late. I didn't tell her what time to expect me. She didn't ask. I shut off my computer and headed for the elevator. Brian Fanning was standing there, leaning against the wall, next to a potted ficus plant that may have been fake. He grinned at me, mouth wide, teeth polished, and said, "Well, look who decided to stick around for some overtime."
I nodded. The doors opened. We got in. The doors closed. I pressed the button for the lobby. The elevator started down. Fanning stepped next to me, casually reached out, and pressed the emergency stop button. Then he said, "I know it's you." And I felt something sharp in my side.
He pressed me against the wall. The knife threatened to break my skin. Spill my blood. I thought of it pouring out of me, gallons, more than the human body will allow. The image in my mind was rendered through a camera lens, captured on celluloid. Beautiful, the kind of shot critics would refer to as "captivating." If you frame even the most horrible thing in the right way, you can make it attractive. Just ask Kubrick. Or Hitler.
"Tell me why," Fanning said. His voice had dropped a few registers. I smelled something stale on his breath. Rancid meat. I could feel every muscle in his body going taught, ready to strike, pounce, unleash hell. The knife was merely an extension of his rage. It wasn't metal stabbing me; it was human fury.
"Tell me why you didn't report me," he said.
I opened my mouth. Nothing came out. I tried again and said, "I don't know. It didn't feel right."
He watched me for a time. I don't know how long. I'd never really noticed his eyes before, though I'm sure they had never looked anything like this. Shallow, impassive. Like there was a wall just behind his corneas, and nothing, not one single sight in this world, could get past. Some would say his eyes exhibited anger, but really, there was no emotion. The deepest, blackest pit imaginable may look shallow, because you cannot see more than a few inches into it. But it is bottomless, and one slip will send you over the edge.
Eventually, he pulled the knife away. A switchblade, like something from the eighties. He closed it and put it in his pocket. He said, "Let's get dinner, William. We need to talk."
"I thought about killing myself," he said. "Ever since I was thirteen. I was always fascinated with the notion of suicide. I've never believed in Heaven or Hell; I think one negates the other, and since people insist that both must exist, then I believe that neither does. Neither can. It's a paradox. Faith is a paradox. We believe what we don't know for sure. There's no logic in it. Just puzzle pieces strewn about on a table with no sensible image to be made.
"I don't know when the thoughts first came. It had to do with women. Such thoughts always do. But it progressed from there. Everything seemed to make me think that I would be better off killing myself. Not that this world would be better without me, but that I would be better without it. I would be better with nothing than with what I had.
"But I could never do it. I could never kill myself. I wanted to, I truly did. I thought about it all the time. I tried drinking myself there. Smoking. But it never went beyond that. I could've tried harder drugs. I could've taken up dangerous hobbies. I could have slit my wrists at any time, or dropped a hairdryer into the bathtub. But I didn't. It took me years to realize that I didn't want to die. I just didn't want to be a part of this world any longer.
"That was a painful realization. The most painful of all. To learn that you don't want what you think you want. That you aren't going to end this life because there's a part of you that needs something more from it. I didn't know what to do with myself. I couldn't think straight. The whole world had become intangible.
"Then it came to me. What I needed to do. I've never hurt anyone, William. Not one person. Not one fight. Not even very many arguments. I'm an agreeable person. I'm a nice person. That's why I need to hurt someone. I've discovered that I'm not who I am. I need to be something else.
"But that didn't make sense to me. How I can I be what I'm not? If every person is unique, then what difference does it make who I am? I was overcome with doubt. I went into that stall and cried. I cried for the first time since boyhood. It all seemed like an endless cycle to me. I wanted it to stop.
"Then you came along, William. You helped it all make sense again. Everything is relative. In that sense, my pain is worse than someone else's. It is to me, at least, and mine is the only opinion that matters in my own life. Your reasoning gave me back my logic. It gave me back my method. My suffering is unique to me; it belongs to no one else. If it is my own, I can fight it. I cannot fight humanity at large, but I can fight one solitary man.
"I am going to hurt people. I am going to come to work with a gun and I am going to hurt people. I thought I was alone, and that was what caused my doubt. But I'm not alone. I need a companion, someone who understands why I am doing it. I'm not hurting people to cause suffering, but to end it. My own.
"You are suffering too, William. I see it every day. Taylor has it out for you, because he thinks you have it out for him. In all likelihood, you don't have much longer with this company. Even if you do have a future here, it is not an upwardly mobile one. I overheard your discussion with Binder the other day. You have reached a plateau. You are going nowhere. And it is hurting you.
"Can you tell me, William, what it is you do every day? What activities occupy your hours inside those walls? Specifically. Can you tell me what it is you are paid to do? I didn't think so. You spend your days performing labor so meaningless that even you, the laborer, don't know what it is. Do you think anyone else notices you? Do you think anyone else cares about what you do?
"You didn't report me. You could have. You could have gone to Taylor, or security. At the very least, a janitor. But you didn't. Because it 'didn't feel right.' Ask yourself, William. Ask yourself why it didn't feel right. Because you agreed with me? Because you, too, were suffering? Life is pain, you wrote. Life is pain.
"Tell me, William. One last question. Have you ever hurt anyone?"
I was drunk when I got home. Ellen said, "As long as you're not having an affair, I'm okay with this."
"I'm having an affair," I told her. She looked at me for a few moments, then laughed.
I went into the bedroom and stripped. Instead of putting my clothes in the hamper, I dumped them on the floor next to it. I stood naked, staring at myself in the full-length mirror on the closet door. My body worse for the wear, lines and folds in places I hadn't noticed.
I grabbed some things from the closet, laid them out on the bed. I wanted to look nice the next day. I didn't know why. Some strange impulse, absent all these years. Look professional, presentable. It was about image, appearances. Dress like you want it, they'd told us back in high school. That's how you get hired.
I knew what Fanning had meant about doubts. And I knew what he meant about it being better having someone who understands. They put the doubt in perspective. They make you realize that you can do it. Whatever it is you need to do. It's possible.
I closed my eyes. Alcohol shifted reality, created a dark endless spiral. I fell into the abyss, a sharp sudden descent that threw my stomach into my throat. I ran into the bathroom and threw up. My throat burned, the heat searing downward into my body, and it felt good.
Afterward, I leaned against the toilet. I reached up along the counter, searching for the metal nail file. Found it, knocked it to the floor. I picked it, clenching it tightly into my fist. The handle dug into my palm.
On the floor behind the toilet, in the linoleum, I cared: I hurt.
Daniel Davis was born and raised in Central Illinois. His work has appeared in various online and print journals. You can find him at www.dumpsterchickenmusic.blogspot.com or on Facebook (of course).
Scene I: The Swamp
The beautiful bronze age hero was clean shaven, muscled and tanned. He wore a green skirt for men, a sleeveless top and green strips of cloth wrapped around his hands, all in silk so smooth blows just slid off him. That was his armor. His weapon was a huge two-handed sword of obsidian, his sandals golden. He was totally bronze age.
He met some other heroes at the opening of a swamp. They were friends and friends of friends. Hero wasn’t sure who were friends and who were friends of friends, because he was also a friend of a friend. But that didn’t matter. They were all heroes, just by being there.
The other heroes looked brutal and primitive, dressed in man-skirts from various bronze age cultures and animal skins that smelled in the hot breeze. They /whispered more friends and friends of friends, because the swamp was meant for groups of heroes. Individual heroes of higher level could go to the swamp alone, but didn’t bother as the loot wasn’t worth the time and energy. All heroes wanted maximum reward for minimum effort.
Hero stood in cold swamp water up to his sculpted Greek-statue-hips. Some of the other heroes climbed up on a tall boulder to get out of the water. It was boring to wait, so one of the heroes took off all his clothes, or as many as the game allowed him to remove. Finally, he stood in his loin cloth only and bunched his muscles. When the other heroes saw that, they stripped to their loin cloths and flexed their biceps and pectorals and deltoids too. Then everyone danced in their loin cloths in the cold water.
“Nice tattoo!” one of the other heroes said to Hero.
“Thanks!” Hero said. He was happy that the brutal-looking heroes liked his tattoo, a purple dragon that covered half his chest and back. It looked like a Japanese yakuza tattoo, not a bronze age tattoo. But Hero had wanted it to look a little yakuza, that’s why he chose the design. The purple made the tattoo seem a little girly, which Hero also liked. He was very comfortable with his sexuality.
The heroes danced in and out of the water and talked about what they were going to eat when they went home, ie logged off the game for the night.
“We’re all naked, let’s have an orgy!” one of the heroes shouted. Hero hoped for an orgy, because it was too long since last time he had been in one. But then the final hero needed to fill the group arrived, so the heroes fought their way through the swamp instead of having sex.
They defeated scores upon scores of hairy-legged spiders, wolves with irritable bowels, bad breath-skeletons and hungry ghosts. Hero sliced deep into fur, flesh, bones and ectoplasm with his long two-handed sword, and was rewarded with black, white and red blood. His fellow heroes grunted and groaned as they fought. The combat and the meaty sounds made Hero ecstatic. He was so happy he felt like swooning. Sometimes violence and loot is better than sex with a bunch of guys that look like they’re from a bronze age fantasy. Sometimes, but not always.
Scene II: The Fastest Priest In The Realm
On his wild and beautiful travels, Hero met a priest in a corpse-white and snow-burdened land. Despite sub-zero temperatures and a wind chill factor born from an evil ice princess’ farts, Hero wore only his thin virtual-bronze age clothes. But he wasn’t cold, because he was a true hero. The priest wore a man-skirt, sandals and an animal skin slung across his bulging shoulders. He didn’t look like a priest, but a grimy Viking.
“Have you been inside the mysterious cave?” the priest asked temptingly.
“No,” Hero said, “the cave is for a group and I’m alone.”
“We’re a group,” the priest said. “Let’s go. I’ll heal you if you get hurt.”
“OK,” Hero said. He was easy to persuade. Especially with the prospect of seeing a mysterious cave. He didn’t worry about injuries as long as he was healed. He actually enjoyed a little injury and getting beat up on a regular basis. That’s why he was a hero instead of something normal, like a farmer or craftsman.
To get to the mysterious cave, the heroes had to climb some imported bamboo ladders. The priest went first.
“Don’t look up my skirt,” the priest said as they climbed. Hero thought maybe the priest really wanted him to look up his skirt, but didn’t do it. There was no animation for looking up people’s skirts in ladders. Hero found that very annoying.
The opening to the mysterious cave was covered by an enormous stone. The heroes touched it to go through. As the room loaded, Hero heard a tinkling, exotic music that made him think of films with archaeologists in hats running from rolling boulders in other mysterious caves. The tinkling also made him think of smoke-filled opium dens, which made his stomach hollow, his knees weak and his hands open by themselves. Maybe he had been an opium addict in a past life and spent a lot of time lolling about in crowded and foggy rooms? Hero thought so.
When the load screen was done, the heroes stood in a snow-covered cave. Further into the stone was a row of glittering, golden statues. Each statue held a large sword between its legs and had a scary face. When Hero saw that, he laughed to himself.
“Those statues will come to life when we approach,” he thought. “Just like in the archaeology movies.”
Right after Hero had thought that, the priest ran to the nearest statue.
“No, wait!” Hero shouted.
The statue opened its angry eyes and hit the priest in his face with a big baseball bat-swing of the sword. Immediately, the priest threw the statue backwards with a telekinetic blast, then scrambled madly for the door. The snow kicked up by his sandaled feet fell through the air like feathers.
“Run!” the priest screamed in the chat window. Hero was already on his way. The statue was much stronger than them. Fleeing wasn’t the most heroic choice, but in the face of overwhelming opposition, it was best to do a tactical withdrawal and return stronger another time.
“How does Priest have time to type and run?” Hero wondered as he dove for the doorway.
When they stood outside, after a brief load screen with more tinkling music, Hero and the priest laughed together.
“OMG, that was close!” said the priest.
Hero grinned. “I knew the statues would wake up when we came close, I was just about to warn you,” he said.
“:D I didn’t get that,” said the priest.
“You were really fast.”
“I had to be,” the priest said. “He took half my life with one hit.”
Both Hero and the priest laughed some more. They lived hundreds of kilometers apart, but they could still hear each other laughing. That was real, not virtual. Then they climbed down the ladder and found some other computer controlled mobs to hurt.
Scene III: Friends And Enemies
“Come help us kill this group of horrible people,” Hero’s friends said. Hero used to meet his friends every Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday night to slay dragons, zombie princesses and evil sorcerers. After the fight they divided up the treasures of their enemies so everyone got a little for the job. That’s how Hero got new silk armor. It took a lot of time, and interpersonal drama usually occurred, but as long as there was more dragon-slaying than drama, Hero was happy. He enjoyed being around others, even if he wasn’t good at it.
Some of Hero’s friends also liked to fight other heroes, who were flagged as anti-heroes. Hero didn’t do that, because he felt it wasn’t heroic to kill other heroes, but he couldn’t let his friends down. That was definitely not heroic.
“I’m so damn tired of this group attacking people at the crossroads and getting kill points for free,” Hero’s female friend, Priestess, said.
“Let’s go teach them a lesson,” Hero’s other friend, Archer, said. He was the leader of the group. “We know where they live.”
In the expansive green field of the free-for-all fighting-land, the anti-heroes sat inside their fortress. Strong guards programmed to kill all intruders patrolled about, but they couldn’t leave the courtyard.
Hero and his friends stood outside the looming gates of the anti-heroes’ fortress and taunted them, just like in the fantasy movies.
“Come out and fight, you stinking cowards!” Archer yelled. “It’s ten of you and six of us! What are you afraid of?”
Priestess laughed loudly. The anti-heroes shot arrows and small fire balls at them from the guard towers. When the anti-heroes came within range, Archer shot back at them. Priestess followed up with some holy lightning. Hero used his heavy crossbow, which he had bought at the market for diamonds from a camp of evil cultists in the desert.
When Hero needed money, which was most of the time, he went to the camp, rounded up all the evil cultists up by jumping up and down in front of them so they ran after him. Then he herded them into a large group and killed them with his two-handed sword, moving it from side to side like a scythe. It was heroic and rapturous work. Then he took the dead evil cultists’ diamonds. While Hero did that, other heroes arrived and tried to gather up evil cultists on the other side of the camp. Hero let them do that. He believed in prosperity and wealth for everyone. Also, Hero had a fire attack, which immolated everything in a circle around him. He killed enemies faster than the other heroes.
Hero had Priestess cut the diamonds into sparkling gems, sold them at the market and split the money with Priestess. He liked sharing the income with her. They were working together for a common goal. Every day Hero added more gems to his tally and put them up for sale. Every day some of his diamonds sold. Hero liked selling diamonds almost as much as he liked fighting, but just almost.
Inside their impenetrable fortress, the anti-heroes felt safe. They shot at Archer, Priestess, Tank, Knight, Warlock and Hero. Since the anti-heroes were ten and the heroes six, Hero felt it was a fair battle. Soon, the anti-heroes opened the gates, slowly, because they were very heavy, and went outside to attack the heroes. For some reason, the anti-heroes did stupid things, like not attacking the same person together, so the heroes defeated them and chased them back in again. This happened several times.
Then the heroes hid in the bushes outside the fortress to make the anti-heroes believe they had left. Everyone hid, except for Hero, who stood in the open in his thin silk armor.
“Don’t you know how to hide?” Archer said.
“I didn’t put any skill points in it,” Hero admitted. “But I have some extra points to use.”
“Just buy the skill and you’re invisible to them,” Priestess said.
But before Hero could do that, the anti-heroes charged out the gate, straight at Hero. He stood his ground. He suffered a strong opening blow as the anti-heroes attacked him, but Priestess, who was fast as well as perceptive, healed him back up with a white ray. Hero knew he would some day have to lower his obsidian sword and tilt his head back in final defeat, it was the way of all life, but not now, not yet.
When the anti-heroes jumped Hero, Archer, Warlock, Tank and Knight attacked them from behind. The ambush made the anti-heroes run back to their fortress, but they were too slow to close the gate. Like a ninja, Archer hid among the leaves and shadows, and snuck quickly inside the gate. Hero and the other friends followed.
Inside the fortress, the heroes overwhelmed the anti-heroes again. Then they ran up into the watchtowers along the fortress wall and jumped outside. The anti-heroes tried to follow them, but were chased back in by the heroes. This happened many times; the anti-heroes opened the gate to find the heroes, the heroes snuck inside, attacked and left via the towers. Hero wondered why the anti-heroes didn’t give up since they kept losing. Not knowing when you were beaten was definitely not heroic.
“This time, we sic the guards on them!” Archer said. Priestess laughed. The heroes had to wait a long time before the anti-heroes dared open the gate again.
“They think we have left,” Tank whispered. The gate creaked ajar, cautiously and nervously. Two of the anti-heroes, a Knight and a Thief, peered outside. The heroes snuck in, behind the anti-heroes’ backs, mimicking their walks. Hero laughed so hard his belly hurt, but he stayed quiet in world chat.
Inside, the heroes attacked the anti-heroes near the guards. The guards didn’t know the difference between friend and foe and attacked everyone. Many anti-heroes fell for their blades. The anti-heroes that survived screamed in anger. The heroes ran up into the watchtowers, did a few dance steps on the edge to taunt the anti-heroes further, before they jumped out.
“L2P!” Hero shouted as he launched himself into the air. That meant “Learn to play” or “learn to fight better”. It was a customary comment when you defeated someone. But it wasn’t a very noble thing to say, and Hero immediately regretted it.
Outside the fortress walls, the heroes laughed for a long time.
“That was fun,” Archer said. “But I have to go and make dinner now. See you tomorrow.” The other heroes were also hungry and went home. Hero wondered what their lives looked like, why they were in the game every evening, every day, if they were alone, like he was, but he didn’t ask.
He rode alone on his proud white horse to the desert camp and killed some evil cultists so he could feel like a hero again. Then he went home to make dinner too.
Berit Ellingsen is a Korean-Norwegian writer whose work has appeared in various literary journals and anthologies, including Bluestem, Asian Cha, Thunderclap, SmokeLong, Metazen and decomP. Her debut novel, The Empty City, is a story about silence (http://emptycitynovel.com). Berit has a dark past as a music, film and game reviewer and blogs at http://beritellingsen.com.
Mary had brought the monster into the house or at least the germination, the seed of it. The note suggested violence--infused with the evil of its sender, a sort of curse. But maybe it was just a prank, a hoax, or an adolescent’s best attempt at lashing out at some perceived injustice. Not that it mattered; it was having its effect because she was still thinking about it.
Her purse lay on the entryway table, and even in the dark she could see from the couch. Knowing that the note was in there gave her a chill.
“What was I thinking,” Mary wondered aloud, “bringing that thing home with me?”
Tim and Dawson, in the back of the classroom, were whispering--the sixth interruption that period. She thought that she had made enough of an example out of Ashley and Kelli, when she caught them passing notes at the beginning of the period; Jessica, who emptied her make-up bag on her desk and began putting on lipstick; Kyle, who threw his pencil to someone who needed to use it; Sarah, who was sleeping in class; and the other incidents of talking out of turn or not paying attention.
She stared hard at the two boys and narrowed her eyes. The class settled into an awkward stillness, and a few students glanced nervously in her direction and then back at the pair. It took Tim and Dawson more than ten seconds to realize that the class had grown completely quiet. All attention was focused on them.
Tim looked toward Mary but did not meet her eyes, and Dawson appeared distracted by the barrette in the hair of the girl next to him.
Mary continued to stare. Some of the seventh graders shifted nervously in their seats.
“Tim Callus and Dawson Gates,” Mary said, calmly, her stare unflinching, “what exactly is going on back there?”
Tim, the larger boy with dyed black hair, smiled thinly and shrugged his shoulders as though he hadn’t a clue as to what she was talking about. Dawson turned his bleach blond head toward Mary, his eyes flat, cold.
“Boys,” Mary said, smiling thinly and gritting her teeth, “it is ten minutes until lunch, and if you can’t behave for the next ten minutes you are going to be spending your lunch time in here, washing desks.”
Tim’s eyes widened slightly, and Dawson’s expression remained unchanged.
“Do you understand me!” she yelled, and the front half of the class jumped.
“Yeah,” Dawson said.
“ ‘K,” Tim added.
Mary could taste the metallic residue of anger in her mouth, sweat making her blouse damp. She took a deep breath and continued reading aloud. The next ten minutes passed without incident.
Mary sighed as the last student left her classroom for lunch. It was Thursday and she was exhausted.
Good God, what a week.
She felt totally spent, especially after starting the week drained. She, Stephen, and their daughter, Laura, had spent two days with Stephen’s parents in Winter Park, and things had gotten worse as the week wore on. It was hard to believe that it was just five weeks into the second term. Days like today made her question her sanity, and the modest paycheck hardly seemed like enough for trying to teach seventh grade students the merits of geography and history.
She reached into her purse and pulled out a compact and a brush and fixed her hair and makeup. Her head throbbed with the second headache for the day. As she tried to open the ibuprofen, she fumbled the bottle, and it fell onto the floor.
Then she noticed the note.
It was folded neatly and sat on the floor next to her desk. She picked it up and examined the slightly dirty lined paper. She knew that she probably should just throw it away, but curiosity compelled her to open it.
The handwriting was unfamiliar, but it was neat, and the message was unmistakable, “MRS. G” it read, and below the words was a hastily drawn gun.
Mary re-examined the note. The message seemed clear; it was obviously addressed to her. Her first reaction was anger--she couldn’t believe that some little punk would dare write it. Re-reading it, she was overcome with a strange foreboding, a sharp, unmistakable fear.
I was meant to find this. Wasn’t I?
She held the note in her hands for the next few minutes, trying, vainly, to identify the handwriting. The thin black script, slightly curved letters, written in all caps, and the gun. It seemed to be a visual reminder, or a preview of the author’s intent.
Talk, she thought, addressing the note, hoping to divine the note’s secrets, hoping that it would divulge the identity of its author. There would be some comfort in knowing who wrote it, beyond simply punishing him or her--knowing whom or how much she had to fear.
Some students, and some people, she knew, were incapable of real violence, but there were the others. The potential to do her, or others, harm made her suspect Tim and Dawson. She knew so little about them. Dawson had only been in her class for a few days, his family had just moved to the area, and Tim had been ill for the first few weeks of the term, but was also new to the district. From talking to other teachers she had learned little about Tim other that he was “strange,” “not social,” “troubled.” These same teachers figured there were home issues. Calls home went unanswered or were met with ambivalent responses from the boy’s mother. Mary talked to the school counselor to get more information, but the counselor had given her a sideward glance and said she couldn’t really tell her anything, mumbling something about “confidentiality.” The counselor, a gaunt woman with halitosis, whom Mary knew had never taught a day in her life, suggested that she just forget about the first few weeks he missed.
She was offended by the suggestion because she believed in the curriculum or she wouldn’t be teaching it. Dr. Smith, her principal, told her that he didn’t believe any teacher should be satisfied with giving an “F.” So Mary tried to reach out to Tim, who told her, with a grin, that he had pulled straight F’s for as long as he could remember. Except for that information, and some nodding when Mary had proposed that he stay after school to get caught up, nothing else had happened.
She re-folded the note carefully and stuck it in an envelope and put the envelope in her purse. Mary considered taking it to her principal, but she wasn’t sure that Dr. Smith could be trusted to do anything.
Perhaps I’m just overreacting. Maybe this happens all the time.
A teacher once told her that he never read a note that he found, because nothing good would come from it. In a way, it would have been better to have thrown it away, except that this wasn’t a teenager’s expression of “love” or a trite account of who had kissed whom. This was a warning, she knew, and she felt like she should do something about it.
Mary had a new class coming in after lunch in fifteen minutes. Her World class was always thoroughly wound up--high on sugar-coated treats and soda. One of her ed. school professors once said that there was no link between hyperactivity and sugar. On days like today, she wished she could call him to come teach her after-lunch class.
The rest of the day was a blur, and she had little time to think about the note. But everything seemed discolored by it, and she was especially short with her students. They reacted in-kind, seeming to be able to sense her discomfort and were quieter than usual or acted out. By the end of the day, she had sent two students to the office for wrestling, and she had written detention slips for three others.
Usually she stayed after work for an hour or two grading papers, making parent phone calls, filling out paperwork, and making copies. Despite putting in the extra time she never felt like she got enough done. It was a never-ending struggle to get graded work back to students quickly, and when she handed back an assignment they wanted to know their grade, but they didn’t care why. They would jam their papers in their backpack, or folder, or wad them up into little balls that made for great jump shots into the garbage as she looked away, quietly disappointed.
Right now she missed Laura and Stephen, and she just wanted to be home. They made everything seem even more trivial, and, despite the note, today she really didn’t care.
When she got home, after driving in the usually bad Lafayette to Longmont traffic under the bright Colorado sunshine, she found Stephen’s note on the fridge that said he and Laura had gone to the store to get some things for dinner. The house seemed especially cold and empty. Not even a dog or a cat to acknowledge that she had been away, just the faint indifference of the refrigerator’s hum. At that moment she wanted nothing more than to hold her daughter, put her nose into the soft folds around her neck and breathe in her smell. Thinking about her daughter caused Mary physical pain, like a swift kick in the gut. She swallowed hard and wiped her eyes.
“Suck it up,” she told herself, half-mockingly.
Mary changed into comfy clothes: jeans and an old sweatshirt. She turned up the heat, put on Van Morrison, and sat down in the living room. Sitting down made her feel even more tired yet restless. The newspaper lay rolled up in a plastic bag on the oak coffee table.
What a waste of plastic, she thought as she pulled out the paper, wadded up the small, green bag and pushed it aside
She skimmed the headlines looking for something interesting. There was plenty of news about terrorism one year after 9/11. The media, and even many people she knew, were obsessed by it, as though having all of the information could make them any safer, any less paranoid. Every day there was some new revelation and connection made. Mary found it horrifying, and yet so far removed from her reality that she could never get her mind around it. She tried not to think about it and whether it would happen again, or when. Yet, she remembered clearly that day last September when she watched in horror as her students gasped and cried in disbelief.
She considered getting up, snatching out the note, and ripping it to shreds or burning it in the backyard grill. She decided she wouldn’t tell Stephen about it since he would only worry. She could re-read it, perhaps even compare it to the stack of papers she had carted home, but instead she lay back and closed her eyes.
A blanket covered her, an old quilt that she had found at a garage sale years ago that had become her favorite. Sitting up, she was slightly disoriented. It was darker outside now, the stove light in the kitchen was on, and faint sounds of the TV floated up from the basement.
The hardwood floor was cold on her bare feet, and she shivered slightly. She stepped back to the couch and picked up the quilt and wrapped it around her.
As she walked down the stairs, she could smell the distinct odor of the basement--a dusty and somewhat sweet, pungent smell. It reminded her of dirty socks. She hated it and opened the windows as often as possible, but lately it had been too cold. Walking down the stairs, she wondered if this was what she wanted. Was this the place where she imagined herself to be a year ago, when they lived in their tiny apartment in downtown Boulder? Or six years ago, when they first met? She wasn’t sure, but they said that this was a first step, and they would move up. Now she wondered how realistic that was and whether she really wanted to. It could all be a terrible compromise, one that they would later regret. They had been happy, and yes cramped, before. Now there was an undercurrent of tension between them that they filled with discussions about where they would move to next--a place in the country perhaps or maybe Europe. After a few years, they agreed, when things were normal.
She stepped onto the stained carpet, they wanted to replace, and regretted not wearing socks. The light in the hall illuminated the narrow space. To her right was a small, poorly designed office full of mostly unused things.
How did we get so much crap? And she remembered all of the things that they had given away before their last move. Yet there were still boxes full of things and a house full of more things and a whole room devoted to the idiot box. She sighed and walked down the short hallway, past the dank bathroom, to the TV room.
She opened the door gently, sensing that Laura was asleep. Stephen looked up, quieted the TV, and smiled at Mary and then down at the bundle he held on his lap; his dark hair and eyes reflected the disjointed light. He gave Mary a knowing smile. It was an image of pure unadulterated selflessness, and yet seeing Stephen sitting there, holding their daughter so contently, filled her with jealousy, guilt, and adoration. Today, especially today, she wanted to be the one holding her. She felt that somehow she was shirking her responsibility, suppressing her maternal instinct. At that moment her job felt meaningless and this house, which smelled and was on a loud and busy street, in a town she would have never willing moved to, but it was all they could afford, was like a rock chained around her neck. Standing in the doorway, she felt as though she was looking up from the bottom of a well, with only a hint of sunlight reflected on the way down.
Stephen watched her face and her faint smile, which turned into pursed lips of anxiety, and he motioned for her to sit down. He kissed her on the check. Mary gently peeled back the blanket to reveal Laura’s face. Her dark eyes were shut tight and her binkie clutched between her lips. Occasionally Laura would make gentle sucking sounds, and the pacifier would move up and down rhythmically.
“Welcome home,” he whispered and smiled. “You okay?”
Mary shrugged, trying not to cry, watching the flickering images on the quiet TV.
“I had a shitty day,” she said.
“You want to tell me about it?” Stephen asked, looking concerned.
“Not right now. You mind if I hold her?”
“Of course not,” Stephen said, gingerly handing Laura over to Mary.
Moving Laura woke her, and she began to cry.
Mary lifted up her shirt and put Laura to her breast. She held her there, her warmth against her skin and she felt Laura’s body relax. Each suckle was rhythmic. Mary felt a wave of pure indescribable calm wash over her, and for a few minutes everything was right in the world and it was just the two of them.
Eventually Laura fell back asleep, and Mary carefully slid her off and put her binky back into her mouth, almost as if to plug the hole of separation between them.
After a few minutes of watching her sleep, Mary looked up at the TV. The national news was on, turned down to a barely audible level.
“Should we move?” she suddenly asked.
“What do mean?” he asked.
“I mean, do you like it here?” she said.
“But not really?” she said and looked at Stephen.
“No, not really.” He met her gaze.
“I could teach anywhere.”
He nodded slowly. “I know, but would you want to leave?”
“Yes. We could move this summer.”
“Where to?” Stephen raised his eyebrows.
“I don’t know,” Mary said and shrugged, “maybe back to Washington. Someplace rural, where it’s cheaper. We could have some land. I could still feel like I’m making a difference.”
“You’re making a difference here,” he said and touched her check with his palm.
“I’m not sure,” she said, her voice cracking.
Stephen put his arm around her and pulled her toward him. “Is this restlessness about something else--your job?”
“I guess, sort of. But it’s about everything.” She leaned her head on his shoulder.
“ I know. I hate this house,” he said quietly, staring at the TV.
“You hate this house?” Mary said louder than she meant to and sat up.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” she whispered.
“I thought I was just being crazy. But I’m here day after day and I hate this place. I hate this neighborhood. I hate this town.”
“This isn’t what we thought is it?”
“No.” He shook his head.
“When should we start looking?”
“Tomorrow, I’ll look tomorrow,” he said and kissed her quietly.
After feeding Laura and changing her, Mary lay down, anxious and unable to sleep. Stephen drifted off quickly and was soon breathing softly, shallowly. She thought about what it would mean to uproot their lives again, not that they had really set down anything permanent. It seemed like a failure, like giving up. But giving up on what? She wasn’t sure. There was a certain tinge of excitement amid her fears--the possibility of starting anew, a different life, another chance. She got up a walked the few feet to the crib to check on Laura, to put her head down to listen to her breathe, her hand to Laura’s soft face. She wondered what her daughter would want many years from now, the foundation of memories that she and Stephen would be responsible for. Feeling calmed she got back in bed and turned on her side. She drifted off imagining a small brown house in a field, bordered by woods, a large garden, the sounds of birds, and her daughter’s laughter as she chased her father through the tall grass.
She woke up late for work after having slept through her alarm, and Laura hadn’t woken her up for the usual four A.M. feeding. Stephen was still sleeping when she startled both of them awake. At first she panicked until she rushed over to the crib where Laura was gurgling, curling her tiny hands and looking about. She changed and then nursed her, taking deep breaths to keep calm and force herself not to worry about being late. She skipped her shower, checked the fridge to make sure she had pumped enough milk, and then she raced upstairs to kiss Stephen and Laura goodbye.
Mary sped to work, going at least ten miles over the speed limit through commuter traffic, and she took a side road through an unfamiliar neighborhood hoping it would connect up with the main road. She ran a stop sign and then noticed a police officer walking out of his house to get into his patrol car. Had he seen her? Rather than slow down, she instinctively floored it. A voice in her head told her to take it easy, but instead she took another side street and quickly wound her way to school.
As she stepped out of her car, ten minutes before class, she realized that her hands hurt from gripping the steering wheel, and her heart was still racing. Mary took a deep breath, and she knew she wouldn’t feel completely safe until she was inside her classroom with the door shut.
There was a line of students in the hallway waiting.
“Mrs. Gillame is tardy,” Rachel said.
“Oh, well,” Mary said. “The door is locked?” She fumbled for her keys, dropping her purse in the process.
It took her longer than usual to get her class up and running, but she was thankful, for the first time that her students were sleepy this time of the morning. She got them started on some work from the textbook and sent a reliable to student to the office to beg the secretary to make some copies of a worksheet.
It wasn’t until near the end of first period that she thought about the note. She could feel her entire mood change, discolor, and darken. Mary worried about Tim and Dawson and what stunt they would pull today. Maybe they’ll both be sick, she thought and then quickly felt guilty.
Second period went well, although her students were unusually wound up because it was Friday. By the time the period was over, she felt prepared for whatever Tim and Dawson threw at her. Third period filed in and sat down. Taking role, Mary noticed that Dawson was absent and Tim had his head down on the desk and appeared to be sleeping.
“Anyone seen Dawson?” Mary asked.
The students were silent.
“Tim? Tim?” Mary asked.
He didn’t stir, and she decided he was either ignoring her or was really sleeping.
“Mrs. G?” Rachel, a small redheaded girl in the front row said quietly.
“Yes, Rachel,” Mary said walking over to her.
“Dawson got in a fight,” Rachel said, “and he’s suspended.”
“Or expelled,” Neil said.
“I heard he almost killed John Frankwitz,” Geary said, eyes wide.
“John Frankwitz?” Mary asked. Isn’t he about six feet tall and one hundred and fifty pounds? She had seen him in the halls before and had to check with another teacher to make sure he wasn’t a high school kid wandering around. She heard he had been held back in seventh grade and was the most powerful center the football coach had ever seen. The coach had said, “He’s like a bull and just as dangerous.”
“That’s what I heard too,” Hailey said.
“I see,” Mary said.
Tim didn’t even stir.
Near the end of class, when she was writing on the board, she heard the door close and turned to see her students staring at it. Tim was gone, just up and left. She shrugged and didn’t think anything of it. She decided that she would write him a truancy notice later.
The rest of the day flew by, and Mary left work exhausted with a large plastic grocery bag full of papers that she would try to grade but knew she would do almost everything to avoid.
She drove home carefully, cautiously, watching for the police, taking a longer route, which would avoid the officer’s neighborhood by a couple of miles.
They had pizza for dinner, watched a movie, and both fell asleep on the couch around nine.
The rest of the weekend they talking about their options, potential scenarios, and researching on the Web. Stephen called a realtor his parents knew and was able to squeeze in a visit Monday morning.
By the time Mary left for work on Monday she felt as if the world had shifted and changed, the impossible seemed to be not only possible but entirely within her grasp.
On Monday morning her students were sleepy, as usual, but she had managed to be early and was ready. Everything was going well; she felt a lightness about herself. A fellow teacher had asked if she had done something to her hair because she looked different. She had laughed but was flattered.
Stephen called just as she was dismissing her second period class.
“You got a minute?” Stephen asked.
“Sure,” Mary said.
“The agent swung by on his way to the office. He said he had his secretary pull some comps, and based his calculations he figures that we can make some money on this place.”
“Really?” Mary said. “How much?”
“Maybe fifteen or twenty thousand more.”
“So, should we list?”
“Probably,” Stephen said, “but there are some things--”
Mary noticed that as her class had filed in so had Mr. Lewis, the assistant principal.
“I have to go bye,” she said quickly and hung up without waiting for a response.
“Mr. Lewis,” Mary said smiling. “How nice of you to drop by.”
Mary had rarely seen Mr. Lewis, who had always reminded her of a mole in a tie and glasses.
“Yes, well, I wish it, well, Mrs. Gillame, Dr. Smith needs you in his office right away,” Mr. Lewis said. “It is a matter of some urgency.”
“Oh,” Mary said surprised, “but my class.” She swept her hand toward her class who were following the conversation.
“They will be fine,” Mr. Lewis said. He straightened the tie that rested on his protruding belly, adjusted his glasses, and walked to the center of the room.
Mary left silently and walked to Dr. Smith’s office. She walked by the head secretary, Mrs. Phipps, who was on the phone and looked up at her briefly and gave her a thin smile.
The door to Dr. Smith’s office was closed, and she knocked, feeling childish and nervous. She hadn’t been in his office but three times, and one of those times was the day she was hired.
“Come in!” Dr. Smith yelled out.
Mary walked into the room. Dr. Smith was sitting on the edge of his desk. Mary smiled at him and began “Dr. Smith good--.” Then she noticed the huge uniformed police officer and a thin man with a mustache in a dark suit.
“Mrs. Gillame, good morning, this is Officer Williams and Detective Dodds,” Dr. Smith said standing.
Mary noticed how strikingly tall her principal was and how much older he looked today: bags under his eyes, short grey hair that encircled his bald spot, and his skin pale.
“Mrs. Gillame,” Dr. Smith said. “Please have a seat.” He directed her to a chair that sat across from his desk, next to the small couch that the officer and the detective squeezed themselves into.
Mary sat perfectly still, but her heart raced; she felt flushed.
“You’re probably wondering why you’re here,” Dr. Smith said. “See, this is a matter of some delicacy.”
“I see, ”Mary said. She felt the officers staring at her, and she could feel her guilt rise like bile in her throat.
Dr. Smith looked over at the detective, seeming to give him a silent signal.
“Mrs. Gillame,” the detective began, his voice deep and gravelly, “how well did you know Tim Callus?”
“Tim Callus?” Mary asked confused. “You mean this isn’t about the stop sign, the speeding.”
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Gillame, stop sign and speeding?” the detective asked.
“Mary,” Dr. Smith said, “we’re not concerned about your driving record, were trying to find out some information about Tim.”
“I--I’m not sure I follow,” Mary said. “Is Tim in some sort of trouble?”
The detective looked at the principal, who cleared his throat.
“Um, Mrs. Gillame,” the detective said. “There’s no easy way to say this, but Tim Callus died.”
“Died? Dead?” Mary said. “But, but I saw him just last Friday.”
“He died last night, we think,” the detective said.
Mary was reeling, like being seasick, and the world seemed to tilt. She felt as though the small office was closing in on her. She gripped the armrests. Mary wasn’t sure she had heard him right even though she knew she understood every word.
“What happened?” Mary asked.
“Well, we’re not really--” the detective started and stalled.
“It was her student, have some compassion for Christ sake,” Dr. Smith said. He looked at Mary and paused. “He killed himself, Mary.”
“Killed himself?” Mary asked.
“Small caliber handgun, probably,” officer Williams chimed in, his huge forearms folded loosely across his chest.
The detective gave Williams a stern look. “See, Mrs. Gillame, we need some information about Tim,” the detective said, and took out a small notebook.
“Information?” Mary asked.
“Yes,” the detective said, trying to sound patient even as the irritation seeped into his voice. “What he did at school, socially, his friends, acquaintances, that sort of stuff.”
“Well, ah, he spent time with Dawson Gates mostly, or kept to himself. He didn’t do much in class, he’s new to the district, and he missed the first few weeks of the term. But you probably know all that.” Mary looked up. Dr. Smith and the detective were taking notes.
“I don’t understand,” she said. “You’re investigating a suicide? Why are you asking me?”
“Well, ma’am, were tying loose ends, and such,” the detective said.
“So, you don’t know if it was a suicide?” Mary asked.
“Well, the final decision is up to the coroner, but it seems open and shut enough, and we found a note next to the body,” the detective said.
“A note? A suicide note?” Mary asked.
“Well, pretty much, but there was one curious thing,” the detective said, staring intently at Mary.
“Which was what?” Mary asked.
“Well,” the detective said, “it was addressed to you."
Noah Ashenhurst earned his MFA from Rainier Writing Workshop at PLU. His first novel, COMFORT FOOD, won an Independent Publisher Book Award (Best Regional Fiction—West-Pacific). Noah’s short fiction has appeared in Beyond the Margins: A Literature and Art Magazine, Apparatus Magazine, Brittle Star (UK), and Write This. Noah currently teaches online classes in Olympia, Washington, and he is submitting his second novel for publication. Please see noahashenhurst.com for more information.