Monthly Archives: March 2014

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“Faster than I Could Follow” – Anna Scotti

At the end of summer the year I was seven, my Aunt Elizabeth came to visit and I fell in love. Elizabeth was my mother’s sister but you wouldn’t have known it to look at her. She had a rope of thick, glossy black hair she’d twist around and around her hand while she was talking. When she got done talking she’d twist the rope up on top of her head and let it go, fluffing it out with her fingers as it fell to make it wild and big like a go-go dancer’s.

Elizabeth had a tiny small waist hardly bigger than mine, and small breasts that poked straight out, separate from one another. You could see that if she took her clothes off her breasts would look the same, pointed and distinct, not like my mother’s, which flopped into a wide low cushion beneath her robe at night. When I told my mother I was in love with Aunt Elizabeth, she looked sort of surprised and irritated and said, “You’re not in love with her, you just love her, same as you do me and Daddy and your brother Scott.”

“No, ma’am,” I contradicted. “It’s not the same.”

My mother squeezed out a tight little laugh but I could tell she was aggravated. “You can’t be in love with her, Amanda, because you’re blood relations, and anyway you’re both girls. And I don’t want to hear another word about it.”

I think Scotty was a little bit in love with Aunt Elizabeth, too, and I know my dad was. The first night she was with us she came to dinner with all her makeup on, red lipstick and a red dress, too, and a red scarf around her white neck. My dad looked up when she came into the dining room and said well, in a funny voice. Well, well, Elizabeth.

When my mom came in with a plate of pork chops she said the same thing, but she said it in the voice she used on me when I did something dumb that she thought was kind of cute all the same. Scott and I both wanted to sit next to Elizabeth but I got to, and I watched the way she ate and tried to do the same. When she finished she put her fork down face first at the edge of the plate, instead of tines up at the top of the plate. I did the same, and my dad shot me a look, but he didn’t correct me.

“Well,” Elizabeth said, pushing back from the table, “time to dance some of that off.”

“Honey, it’s too late to go out now,” my mother began. “We’ve got to get up early in the morning.”

Elizabeth pulled her hair up into a coil and looked at me and winked. She winked like nobody else, without crinkling her face at all. She just closed one eye and let the thick black fringe of her lashes rest against her white cheek.

“Not me,” she contradicted. “Isn’t this my vacation? Just give me a key and I won’t make a sound when I let myself in, promise.”

Mama wanted to argue but my Dad interrupted. “Elizabeth is grown, Billie, and she can take care of herself. Let her go on if she wants to.”

I tried to wait up for her, but when I woke up, there she was beside me, curled up with the covers around her like a cocoon, hair spread across the white pillow. A silky scarlet robe was thrown over the foot of the bed, and a matching strap peeked out from beneath the twisted sheets. I touched Elizabeth’s hair as lightly as I could but her green eyes opened and smiled at me. “Hey, snaggle tooth.” Her breath was stale with sleep but I didn’t mind. She had the whitest teeth and her eyebrows were like brown feathers across her forehead.

When I went into the kitchen Mama was at the stove turning bacon with a fork. She had on her blue robe with the stitches pulled out. I thought of Aunt Elizabeth’s silky gown and my cheeks got hot.

“I don’t want any,” I said. Mama put down the fork and wiped her hands on her apron front. “Well, of course you do,” she said. “It’s Saturday, isn’t it?”

My mother was right, eggs with bacon was a special weekend treat. But I didn’t want to sit down at our battered old table with her in that faded robe with her big shelf bosom and morning smell and my father more than likely in his underwear. “Well, I don’t want it,” I said again. “Auntie said she’d take me out to eat.”

I regretted the lie as soon as I heard it. But my mother looked pleased and when my father came in a moment later, not in his underwear after all, but with his chin still stubbled and his hair uncombed, she told him.

“Liz is a sweet girl,” Mama said, and my father nodded.

“She’s your sister, ain’t she?”

When Scott came in he was dressed too, so my mother was the only one still in her nightclothes when Elizabeth wandered in, pretty and fresh in jeans and a clean white shirt.

She smiled around the table as she reached for the juice. My mother warned, “Now, don’t fill up. Remember your promise to the little one.”

Elizabeth looked confused but she must have gathered something from my undoubtedly miserable expression. “I told them you’re taking me out to eat,” I said carefully, leaving her an out if she chose to deny me, but I was leaving the way open for her to rescue me, too.“Just me, not Scotty.”

“How come—” Scotty began, outraged, but before Elizabeth could answer, my mother broke in.

“Because you and I have planning to do, young man,” she said sternly. Her voice didn’t fool us. She was talking about his sleepover birthday party the next Friday night. He was inviting four friends, and not one of them was me.

“Well,” Elizabeth said brightly. She stood up and tugged on my pony tail. “Did you pick a spot yet?”

Gratitude washed over me.

“Never mind, Mandy. We’ll just drive around and see what we like.”

Aunt Elizabeth’s car was the same shade as her lipstick, a scarlet two-seater with a white top that folded back, and a white leather steering wheel and dash. It was exactly like Barbie’s convertible and I would have ridden in that curved bucket seat forever, with the wind burning my sun-chapped face and the black road narrowing to a point along the horizon, watching Elizabeth whistle soundlessly as her hair streamed out from beneath a nylon checkered scarf.

We ended up at the Cozy Corner on Decatur Street eating pigs in a blanket and Danish pastry, laughing out loud as much as we wanted, even when the other diners, gray looking people like my parents, turned their tired eyes to us—disapprovingly, I hoped.

“Are you going to live with us from now on?”

I knew she wasn’t. I understood about vacations, but I asked her because it was the only way I knew to tell her how much I wanted her to stay. The bitter little smile that twisted up the corners of Elizabeth’s red ripe mouth caught me by surprise. “Maybe I ought to,” she said vaguely.

Hope turned in my stomach like a half-chewed meal. “You could,” I told her. “You could share my room, I wouldn’t mind. And—”

Aunt Elizabeth grinned. “Now, you know I can’t do that, Amanda. What about your Uncle Bobby? Who’d look after him?”

I felt my face grow blank. This was the first I’d heard about an Uncle Bobby. Did my mother have a brother they’d never told me about?

“Your Uncle Bobby,” Elizabeth insisted. “My husband.” She put her coffee down and touched her mouth with the corner of her napkin. “Well, husband-to-be.”

Jealousy made my heart beat fast. Still, I saw the possibilities. Husband meant wedding and wedding meant flower girls and bridesmaids, a new white dress and patent leather shoes for me. Maybe a crown of rosebuds or a wicker basket of creamy pink rose petals to carry over my arm.

I wanted to ask about the wedding but Elizabeth was in a strange mood. She leaned across the table toward me, talking low and serious, as if I were an adult. “I wouldn’t leave old Bobby,” she said, her eyes fastened to mine. “Not forever. But don’t think I’m not tempted.”

She looked up then, over my head, and gave somebody a brilliant smile. I turned around to see, but it was just old Mr. Andrews behind the counter. He lifted up his hand and wiggled his fingers at Elizabeth till he caught me looking. Then he blushed and turned away. I looked at Elizabeth and a laugh bubbled up out of me and spilled out between us.

“Come on,” Elizabeth said, tapping the salt shaker with one curved red nail. “Show me the sights in this old cow town.”

Every night Elizabeth went out in her red convertible and every morning she was there when I woke up, with her hair spread out over the pillow smelling of peaches and cigarette smoke. School started up and I had to go despite all my pleading. The fear that I’d come home and find her gone sat in my belly like a knot of dough. But day after day I’d hurry inside and find her waiting. We’d spend our afternoons watching television or driving around in her car sipping soda pop. Then after dinner she’d get up and go.

One night at dinner the phone rang. My mother answered and called to Elizabeth, but she bent over her fruit salad and pretended not to hear. Scotty and I stared at one another, clean amazed. You had to answer when spoken to. Least ways, we kids did. Adults, you just expected them to, without being told.

My mother called twice and then she came into the room and looked at my father, at Elizabeth. “You ought to take it, honey,” she said gently, but Elizabeth shook her head.

“You ask him if he’s got the house cleaned up yet,” Elizabeth said defiantly. “You tell him I’ll come home then, when he’s got the window fixed and the door put back on its hinges. You tell him I’ll come home when, when I can blink my eyes without seeing stars!”

Elizabeth shouted that last part and my mother stared at her, shocked, then put her fingers over her mouth and pursed her lips. “Little pitchers, Elizabeth,” she said finally, and left the room. Elizabeth stood up and brushed imaginary crumbs off her lap. “I’m sorry,” she said to my father, and he shrugged.

“You know, Liz,” he said, “you don’t have to go back. You could find a job here, or go back to school. It’s not like you and Bobby have children to be concerned about.”

“Children,” Elizabeth said harshly, as if children were some kind of disease, a parasite, something yellow and crusted you find stuck in your teeth or in the corner of your eye after an afternoon nightmare. “Children!” Then she looked at me and Scotty and her face went soft.

My father got up and went into the other room where my mother was, and after a while they both came back. We finished our dinner and didn’t speak of it again.

Scotty ended up letting me come to the party after all, when the boys had finished eating. They’d had pizza and potato chips and sodas and bowls and bowls of salted peanuts, Scotty’s favorite, but I wasn’t feeling too sorry for myself in the kitchen with my parents and Aunt Elizabeth. We had a pizza of our own, and Elizabeth was telling about her job selling makeup in a big department store. She said husbands would come over while their wives were shopping and fall in love with her, and then the ladies wouldn’t buy anything. My mother kept interrupting and shushing but she was laughing as hard as we were. My father watched us with a funny, puzzled smile that made me feel, for the first time, like it wasn’t always kids against adults. Sometimes it was boys against girls.

Oh, I wanted that. Remembering, I want it still, to be a grown up girl in a tight pretty dress teasing the husbands and making them fall in love with me. I would have given up all the years of childhood still owed me just to be there in that cool bright store, bare-armed beneath the lights, laughing with Elizabeth and trading lipsticks and flirting with the husbands, knotting my hair up on top of my head and letting it go, letting it go.

I didn’t and did know both, the way kids do, that by the time I got there to where Elizabeth was, she’d be somewhere else altogether. I’d be the slim bare-armed laughing girl and she—the wife frowning sour-faced from the shadows? The dry-lipped woman testing hand creams at the bargain counter?

There was something there in that kitchen, moving away from me faster than I could follow after, and I wanted desperately to catch it in my two hands. I wanted to hug Elizabeth and my mom and dad all at once, and make us all promise not to change, to sit there every night laughing together, one girl, two ladies and a man, but all friends together trading stories and laughing. I was still laughing but I could feel myself about to cry, and my Mom looked over at me and was about to say something. But then Scotty came in for sodas and when he handed them out of the fridge to me he said, “Here, you can carry these in,” and that’s how I got invited to the party after all.

I liked sitting with the boys even though they were two years older and usually ignored me. There were two I especially liked, Michael Ray and Michael Patterson, and they both used to tease me, but in sort of a nice way. I pretended not to like it but I didn’t mind. After a while my parents came in and said they were going out to a movie and that Aunt Elizabeth would be in charge. The boys were having a gross-out contest, everybody telling the most disgusting thing they could think of. Then Michael Patterson told about a séance his sister went to where they called up a spirit from the other side and it moved an ashtray clear across a tabletop.

“That’s nothing,” Michael Ray said contemptuously, and then he told about the roller coaster at Thrill World that’s haunted by the spirit of a soldier who stood up on it and got his head cut off.

When Aunt Elizabeth came into the dining room all the boys looked at her and some of them got that sad, dumb look my dad had in the kitchen. But Michael Ray kept talking and their attention swung back to him. I’d heard his story before but it was making me kind of jittery anyway.

When Michael Ray finished everyone looked around, trying to think of something even scarier to tell. Aunt Elizabeth put her elbows on the table and lit a cigarette. “Did you kids ever hear about the boy and girl on Lovers’ Lane?” she asked, exhaling a stream of smoke through her nose.

“Is that the one where the guy’s fingernails scratch the roof of the car?”

Aunt Elizabeth shook her head impatiently. A strand of black hair flew onto Tommy Jergen’s face and he pretended he didn’t know it was there, but I knew he knew.

“That? That’s not a true story,” Elizabeth said. “This is a true story. It happened to a girl I knew back east.”

The boys watched her expectantly but she took her time, tapping her cigarette against the paper plate in front of her. “Mandy,” she said quietly. “Turn out the light. We have enough light from the kitchen, don’t we?” The way she said it was all spooky but I got up and turned the lights out anyway.

“A boy and girl went to Lovers’ Lane in the boy’s car,” Elizabeth began. She took a puff of her cigarette and looked around at us, and her eyes were big and frightened in the half-light. “They went up there to kiss.”

Michael Ray began to laugh but Scotty shushed him.

Elizabeth put out her cigarette and stared at Michael Ray. “They weren’t supposed to be up there,” she said quietly. “They knew there was a maniac loose in the woods. They knew.”

The way she said it, you knew something was going to happen to them, and that it would sort of be their own fault.

“When they got ready to leave, the car wouldn’t start.” Elizabeth laughed bitterly. “The boy had forgotten to get gas and they’d run out! So he decided to walk to the gas station, through the woods. He warned the girl to keep the doors locked until he came back. He told her don’t you open that door no matter what!”

Elizabeth touched her lips with the tip of her tongue and looked at me. “Do you think she did what he said?”

“Yes,” I answered quickly. “Yes, she did.”

Elizabeth nodded. “Yes, she did,” she agreed. “But then she fell asleep.”

Stupid girl! But I knew it was possible. I’d lain in my own room more than once, paralyzed by a creak on the stairs or a sigh from the closet, and awakened with the morning sun streaming through the curtains.

“When she woke up,” Elizabeth said slowly, “there was a light shining right in her eyes, right through the window. ‘Open the door,’ a voice said.”

“It was the police,” Michael Patterson shouted. “They told her to look right into the light and not look away. The boy’s head, it was on the—”

I couldn’t help it. The dining room window was behind me and I could feel things out there, policemen and maniacs and rustling, whispering things. Even the boys around the table looked scary, with their hollowed-out eyes shadowed in the half-light. Elizabeth’s face was pale and bloodless as a fish, and I couldn’t bear for her to say another word in that spooky, frightened way. I began to cry.

“No, no, no, Baby,” Elizabeth said in her own voice then. “Someone turn on the light.” She pulled me up onto her lap and pushed my face against her shoulder, hiding my face from the gang of boys.

“That’s not what happened at all,” Elizabeth said in a loud voice. “At first the girl was scared, but then she realized it was her own boyfriend come to take her home. He’d bought a gallon of gas and the man at the gas station had given him a flashlight to use in the woods. That’s all. He drove the girl home and the next day they read in the newspaper that the maniac had gone back to the insane asylum on his own. Just walked right in and put on his own straight jacket.”

“Oh, brother,” Tommy Jurgen said, but Scotty told him hush.

After a while I felt better and Elizabeth put me down. “Come on,” she said. “Let’s let these boys tell their scary stories. We’ll go in the living room and look at TV.”

Aunt Elizabeth didn’t sneak away while I was at school the way I’d feared.

I came home one afternoon and there was a strange car parked in the driveway, a big blue square-nosed Chevy with a chrome bumper. I went inside and there was Elizabeth curled up on the sofa with her shoes off, a beefy sort of good-looking guy next to her with his arm around her. I could tell she’d been crying because her eyes were all red and there were raccoon circles beneath them. But she looked happy and the guy looked pretty happy, too.

They hardly looked up when I came in, and I would have gone on upstairs to do my homework, but Elizabeth beckoned me to come over so I did. “I’ve been waiting for you, Amanda,” she said quietly. “I want you to meet my Bobby, and I wanted to say goodbye.”

“Goodbye,” I told her. I felt like asking if she’d stopped seeing stars yet, but I didn’t. Bobby looked like the boyfriend in the story, the one who’d got his head cut off.

Aunt Elizabeth started rattling off a whole bunch of messages for me to pass along to my mom and dad and Scotty. I tried to remember them all, but later I couldn’t. I just remembered her fresh, soapy smell when she bent over to kiss the top of my head, and her hair falling over my shoulders, her scarlet nail polish and the jangle of her bracelets, and I remembered the way her red convertible looked following the Chevy down the drive and out onto the road: smaller, and tamed, somehow, like a bad dog that had been forgiven and was following its master home. Even when the Chevy was out of sight and I could just make out the taillights of Elizabeth’s car, about to disappear around Buckeye Circle and be gone forever, I was remembering her knocking that red convertible right into gear, me beside her in the front bucket seat, laughing with my hair blowing back in the wind, and somehow Bobby beside her too, his big hand on her white leg, real and not real, there and not there, big hands on her, big hands on me.

_

Thank you to Anna Scotti for sharing the complete text of her story “Faster than I Could Follow ” for free on the web.  The complete book, Best of Ohio Short Stories: Volume 1, features seventeen additional stories.  Click here to find the book on Amazon.  E-books are also available from all major digital retailers, click here for links.

Anna Scotti is a writer and teacher living in Southern California. Scotti’s poetry has been awarded numerous prizes, and appears frequently in literary journals including Comstock Review, Chautauqua, Crab Creek Review, Extract(s) and Yemassee. Her fiction and poetry can be accessed at www.annakscotti.com. Scotti—then Anna Coates—earned a degree in psychology from Antioch College, Yellow Springs, years before that illustrious institution’s closure and recent phoenix-like rebirth. She holds an M.F.A. from Antioch University, Los Angeles, and is currently working on a collection of poetry and a young adult novel, DUCKS LIKE ME. Before settling down and accepting her penurious destiny as poet and schoolteacher, Scotti was a nationally-known journalist and a columnist for InStyle and for the late, great, Buzz: the Talk of Los Angeles.

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“Off the Record” – Lin Rice

I was hunched over my kitchen table, rolling cigarettes, when the Help Wanted ad shouted up at me. ‘Experienced Interviewer Needed IMMEDIATELY.’

I picked off the shreds of stale pipe tobacco stuck to my nail polish and took a closer look. The ad was out of place in my hometown paper. I’d been absently scanning the ‘Your Right to Know’ section, taking in the names of old classmates who were getting married (or had been busted for domestic abuse) and was surprised to see something of genuine interest. “Interviewer needed IMMEDIATELY in the Southeastern Ohio region to conduct and record interviews. English speakers only. Must have Internet connection and own transportation. $1K per completed interview; half up front. Send inquiries to Jodi@haveubeenabducted.org.”

I blinked at the number following the dollar sign. These too-good-to-be-true offers were a dime a dozen, but it was unusual to see one in actual newsprint. And for there to be a concrete payment amount, instead of the typical ‘Massive earning potential!’ hook.

How quaint.

I glanced at my old clunker of a laptop, hating myself for even considering it. The computer was nestled among a growing pile of neatly stacked, unopened bills. I might not have been able to pay them, but I could sure as hell organize the things.

“Rube,” I said, and reached for the laptop.

I lit one of the home-rolled smokes while waiting for the computer to cough to life. The cigarette tasted like something you’d find in last year’s winter coat, but at least it did the trick, and a whole bag of the generic pipe tobacco cost less than a single pack of cowboy killers. I’d save more money if I just stopped altogether, but my mama didn’t raise me to be a quitter.

A quick scan of the ad’s website did little to encourage me. Staring back at me was a mish-mash of topics you’d hear about on one of those late night, tin-foil-hat radio shows: Bigfoot, out-of-body experiences, men in black, some creepy article on the phenomenon of black-eyed kids, and even a handful of low-res photos claiming to be evidence of lizard people. Whoever had shot the pictures had at least angled the camera so the zippers wouldn’t show.

The words “Have You Been ABDUCTED???” were scrawled across the top of the page in a quivery font. I took another drag and clicked through, ending up on a stylized map of the U.S., digital thumbtacks poked into dozens of small towns around the country, with smaller print describing the details of various UFO abduction cases.

I could see where this was going. But short of editing a few library newsletters and a disastrous tutoring session with some rich brat who was flunking English, my billable hours had dried up.

I pulled up my email. Aside from a few offers that made it through my spam filter and yet another dinner invite from my old co-worker, Paul, the box was empty. I fired off an email to the address listed on Jodi’s site, resumé attached, and leaned back to think depressing thoughts.

A response pinged my inbox before my back touched the chair.

Thanks so much for your interest, the message stated in Papyrus font, the letters hunter green. Could we please speak ‘in person?’ I’m a terribly wretched typist. Best, Jodi

A link followed the message; it must have been an auto-reply.

I clicked on the URL, expecting a long wait as my old laptop limped into action. To my surprise, a video conferencing window popped up immediately. Staring at me through the screen was a hoot owl of a woman, her magnified eyes confused behind a pair of coke-bottle glasses.

I yelped and slammed the screen shut. I shot out of my chair and ran to the bedroom for a bra, pulling my hair back as I went.

Settling back into my chair, I peeked under the laptop screen. The woman was still there, eyes larger than before.

“Sorry about that,” I said, fastening my shirt’s top button. “You caught me getting ready for bed. It’s almost three in the morning here.”

“Oh that’s quite alright, dear, nothing I haven’t seen before.” The woman’s voice had a soft lilt to it, something that made me think of the grown-ups on Sesame Street.

Her face leaned in to fill my screen, eyes blinking rapidly. “I was just expecting Mr. Mitchell, is all. Would he be available?”

“I’m Anderson Mitchell,” I said, going into the routine for the millionth time. “You can call me Anse. Don’t worry; it happens a lot. All of the firstborns in the family end up with it.”

“Oh, but I love it!” she said, the audio crackling in my speakers. “You’re an old soul, I can see it already.”

I fought the urge to roll my eyes.

“I saw your ad in the paper. You’re Jodi, I assume?”

The woman cocked her head to the side, as if she was listening to something off camera. I tapped the volume button on the keyboard and made to repeat myself, but she spoke first.

“Yes, of course,” she said. “I’m Jodi McTaggert, from the Sacred Constellation Project. You’ve heard of the SCP, I assume?”

If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.

Jodi tapped her thin lips with a lacquered nail. “That’s alright, I suppose,” she said. “Objectivity is what I’m after, and your resume is quite impressive. My apologies for taking so long to respond, by the way—I don’t keep clocks in my house. They stifle the soul, as I’m sure you know.”

I frowned. I’d noticed her ad in the paper less than five minutes ago, and she was apologizing for being slow to reply? I wasn’t sure precisely how this woman was medicated, but her idea of time seemed somewhat skewed.

“What sort of services do you need?” I said. “Your ad didn’t go into much detail.”

Jodi tittered, her glasses sliding off her nose. “Right to the point, that’s good, dear. It’s a simple task, really, but I’ve got a number of irons in the fire, and my hay fever is simply atrocious this time of—”

“And that’s where I come in?” This was starting to feel familiar. People looking for free work tend to bury the lede.

Jodi didn’t break stride.

“Precisely,” she said, pushing her glasses back. “I’m putting together a new compendium of abduction cases. Missing time, sub-dermal implants, mental suggestions…it’s all quite exciting. It simply kills me to miss the Ohio Valley, I have so many theories on the Grassman, and don’t get me started on Point Pleasant.”

“Look Jodi, I don’t know if—”

“In any event, I need a local, someone who speaks the language, as it were. Someone who can sit down with potential sources, get them talking, and record the whole thing for me. Once you’re done you’ll send the file to me, and I’ll take care of the wordsmithing. I have the contact information and the list of questions all ready to send you. Oh, and your name will appear in the book’s acknowledgments, of course.”

There it was. “Your ad mentioned a set price, with half up front.”

Jodi frowned. “Well of course dear, I told you I’m with the SCP. We’re a serious operation. Check your email, you’ll see.”

I switched windows. A new message waited in my inbox, the address an ungodly long string of numbers and symbols. My hand paused over the mouse.

“Go ahead, it won’t bite,” Jodi said. I clicked the link. Again the old clunker jumped to light speed, and a command prompt window blinked open. A program kicked in, and green numbers flowed down the screen like something out of a Wachowskis flick. The command prompt closed, and my browser opened to my Paypal account.

Including the impressive funds already in my possession, there was exactly $514.72 in the account.

I’d worry about how Jodi pulled that stunt later. For now, money on the barrel was good enough for me. Clicking, I filled the laptop’s window with Jodi’s beautiful face.

“Lady, you’ve got yourself a reporter.”

I slammed the screen shut before she could reply. I pushed myself away from the table, and gloated at the stack of bills.

It was time to work.

I dialed the number for Mrs. Jenkins, the first interview subject, on the drive to Columbus. When I’d signed for the package delivered at my door that morning and ripped open the heavy cardboard, I’d been less than pleased to discover a nearly three-hour drive waiting for me. Still, the money was worth it, so I’d completely topped off my old pickup’s gas tank for the first time in months, and headed toward the big city.

“Hello, Mrs. Jenkins? I was hoping we could sit down and I could ask you a few questions about your abduction,” I said into the phone.

A sleepy voice answered. “It’s so early. Can’t we do this in the afternoon?”

“Don’t worry, ma’am, I’ve got a long drive ahead of me. I won’t be there until the afternoon anyway.”

I heard some dishes rattle in the background, and Mrs. Jenkins passed me some groggy instructions on how to pass the gate of her home owners’ association.

“Sounds good. I’ll see you at three.”

I hung up the phone and squeezed the steering wheel until my knuckles hurt. I’d left the city to get away from this exact thing—interviewing entitled suburbanites who couldn’t make it through a conversation without invoking the sacred words property values at least a dozen times. If she was on the damned zoning commission I was turning straight around—screw the extra five hundred.

I barreled along the straight shot of Interstate 70, and eventually the Columbus cityscape materialized on the hazy summer horizon. I followed the outer belt toward Mrs. Jenkins’s suburb, flipping off my old company’s shiny new glass building as I passed it. Exiting on the north side and working my way through a maze of cul-de-sacs and roundabouts, I had to check my directions three times before I ended up at the right neighborhood. For as much time as I’d spent in the suburbs, I still got turned around every time I ventured into them.

The surveillance camera at the wrought-iron gate to Mrs. Jenkins’s neighborhood eyed my four-wheel-drive suspiciously, but I had the password, baby.

I cruised around until I found the right address, and pulled into the driveway of a spacious Cape Cod, complete with white picket fence and meticulous landscaping. I rang the bell, and a tall, middle-aged woman in a silk house robe greeted me, a small pack of those designer mixed-breed dogs yipping around her ankles.

We exchanged pleasantries, and she ushered me into the house. “Please excuse my mess,” she said, leading me into a study. “Frank’s been gone, and he’s always such a dear about cleaning up after the little ones.”

I dropped my bag onto a couch and marveled at my surroundings. It was like someone had transplanted the entire Area 51 gift shop from Roswell to Central Ohio.

An entire army of little green men salt shakers mustered on one mantel, next to a plastic statue of a classic flying saucer beaming up a dairy cow. A drawing pad sat open on the coffee table, displaying a clumsy effort at capturing a bug-eyed alien’s likeness. In a frame on the wall was a copy of Mulder’s “I Want to Believe” poster from The X-Files.

Oh boy.

Mrs. Jenkins shooed the dogs from the room, and sat opposite from me in an oversized armchair. She pulled one of those days-of-the-week pill carriers from the table drawer next to her, and tapped out a handful.

“It’s so nice of you to come and see me,” she said, pouring a glass of water from a pitcher on the table. “Most people think I’m some kind of a kook. Can you believe it?”

“The SCP is a serious operation,” I said, pulling straight from the script. I pulled out my digital recorder and placed it on the table. Hopefully I could finish this up fast, before I was beamed up myself.

Mrs. Jenkins tossed back her pills and sat back in her chair with a contented sigh. I could actually see her pupils dilate.

“Oh don’t mind me,” she said. “It’s my prescriptions. I used to have dreadful seizures, but the pills keep them in check. And I won’t complain that they seem to make everything just a little more fabulous. But don’t worry, I won’t wig out on you!” She laughed, a hand covering her mouth.

“That’s quite alright,” I said. “But why don’t we get started? First off, could you describe the nature of your abduction?”

Mrs. Jenkins nodded, leaning in. “It was all thanks to Dr. Aubuchon. Lovely young woman—she’s the best psychologist in France, I’m told. Well, after she helped me get over my seizures, the psychic barriers in my mind were finally lowered. That’s when the grays first began their communication.”

I bet they did. I moved on.

“And how did they communicate with you?”

Mrs. Jenkins tapped her jaw. “It was quite simple. They’ve got people everywhere, you really wouldn’t believe it. My dentist adjusted my partials, and I began picking up their signal from out in space. It was all quite exciting. They needed more of us to help pave the way for first contact, you see. To let the human race know that they’re our friends, and that they’re going to save our planet. It’s so wonderful!”

“I’m sure it was,” I said, eyes staying on my checklist. I felt my initial disdain for Mrs. Jenkins slip away. This woman wasn’t trying to scam anyone. Meds could do all sorts of strange things to a person’s mind. I’m sure Mrs. Jenkins received her fair share of derision, and there was no need for me to jump on top of the pile.

I mustered as friendly a smile as I could manage. “Have you been contacted by any representatives of the government?”

Mrs. Jenkins frowned, a finger on her chin. “Well, the postman seems kind of suspicious. He gives me the strangest looks whenever I sign for a package. But I’ve followed my orders—we’re not to speak with the government about the grays’ plans. They’re afraid of intergalactic war, you see.”

“Third question—have you told any family or friends about your experience?”

“Well, just the folks on the message boards, of course. There’s quite a growing community on the Internet,” she said. “And Frank’s up there with them right now.”

I paused. “Excuse me?”

She gave me an indulgent smile. “Yes, for about a week now. He went to Dr. Aubuchon’s to pick up my prescriptions—he’s always been such a dear about that, swinging by her office day or night to save me the trip. I never even have to ask him! Anyway, they beamed him up right there in her parking lot. Dr. Aubuchon told me the whole thing over the phone—I could hear the wind rushing in the background and everything. It was all very exciting.”

I didn’t have the heart to tell her it was more likely that Frank was shacked up in a cheap motel with the good doctor. If that was the case, she was better off without him.

Only one question left. I stared down at the paper, confused. Some kind of typo? It’s your money, Jodi, I thought, and went ahead.

“Tell me, Mrs. Jenkins—what’s the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug?”

She looked at me quizzically. “Excuse me?”

I repeated the question.

“Well, I guess a few million volts, dear.” She began to laugh.

Jodi never said that the answers to her questions had to be good. The checklist complete, I packed up my gear, thanked Mrs. Jenkins for her time, and headed for the door.

“Won’t you stay?” she asked behind me. “Frank’s supposed to be back any time now. I’m sure he’s had an amazing experience.”

“I’m certain he has,” I said, nudging one of her yapping dogs out of the way. Mrs. Jenkins waved from the doorway as I slammed the pick-up into gear and got the hell out of suburbia.

My phone buzzed on the way back. I’d uploaded the audio at a coffee shop around the corner from the True Believer’s house, and half expected the message to be an alert of the remaining funds being dumped into my account. No such luck.

“How’s it going, JT,” I said into the receiver.

“Where are you, sis?” the voice drawled from the other end. “I stopped by your place, but you weren’t home.”

“Big city for the day. Picked up a new gig. Quick and easy.”

JT perked up. “That’s great, Anse. You should pick me up one of those Hound Dog’s pizzas on your way.”

I smiled. “Too late, I’m halfway back. What’s up?”

He paused. “Same as before. The appeal’s been held up, and Larry needs more money. You know how it is.”

“You’re sure he needs more money? He’s not just saying that?”

“Come on, Anse—Larry’s a good guy. You said so yourself.”

JT had a good heart, but he’d never met a snake oil salesman he didn’t like. His last ‘lawyer’ had nearly bankrupted him.

“What happened to the last check I gave you?” I said, juggling the receiver. “That should have covered it.”

There was a pause from the other end. When JT finally spoke, the playful tone had evaporated from his voice.

“Peggy’s car needed new brakes,” he said. “A new window, too, after that time she went off the road. Nearly cleaned me out.”

I could feel the bile rising in my stomach. “Why the hell did you have to pay for it? That drunk bitch needs to—”

“She ain’t gonna take care of it herself, you know as well as I do,” JT said. “And I’m not letting her drive Ava around in a car that’s not safe.”

I let out a sigh; I wouldn’t argue with JT on that one, at least.

“I know you’ve had it tough lately, I just have to win this case, is all…Ava needs to be with me,” JT said.

“I hear you. Turns out this new gig might just help with that.”

You would have thought it was Christmas. “You’re my hero, Anse,” JT said. “Ava’s, too.”

“Love you, too.” I hung up, and at the next red light, I checked my Paypal account.

Nothing.

The balance was the same when I got home, and three glasses of wine didn’t seem to have an effect on it, either. It wouldn’t have been a big deal for any other client, but considering how fast Jodi had been with the advance, I was getting twitchy.

I poured another glass, then fired off a short email. Nothing mean, mind you, or desperate. Just something to remind her I was still kicking.

Just like before, the reply pinged back almost instantly. I clicked the link, and like clockwork, Jodi’s squinting face filled my screen.

“Hello dear,” she said, her voice crackling with static. A bandage was visible on her cheek, wrapping under her glasses to cover one eye.

“Are you alright?” I asked. Jodi touched her face and flinched at the contact.

“No need to worry about me, dear. As they say, occupational hazard.” Jodi raised a steaming mug and sipped gingerly. “How may I help you?”

I paused, not sure what to say.

“Well I was just wondering if you’d had a chance to listen to the interview.”

Jodi set the mug down. When the china touched her coffee table, the hiss of feedback crackled through my speakers and the screen blurred into a cloud of pixels.

“I’m afraid I have,” she said when the image cleared. “I thought I had been clear on what was required, dear. I don’t believe I can compensate you for what you handed over.”

Pinot noir shot out of my nose.“What do you mean? I drove halfway across the state, and I asked every question from the list. Even the ones that didn’t make sense.”

“Yes dear, but don’t you remember what I asked for?” Jodi paused to sip at her mug.

“Someone who speaks the language, as it were. I need you to get the sources to really open up to you.”

“And I did just that,” I said. “Did you not hear her telling me about her husband? That was most decidedly off-script.”

“SCP already knew all about that,” Jodi said. “I need you to go deeper, to get me more. I’m sure you understand.”

I wanted to stick my hands through the screen and wring Jodi’s chubby neck. Instead I thought about my niece, and bit my tongue.

“Give me another shot at it,” I said. “Now that I’ve got one under my belt, I know exactly what you need.”

Jodi examined me with her good eye.

“Do you think you’re up to it, dear? The SCP is—”

“A serious operation. I know. So am I. I’ll do exactly what you ask, but we need to be clear on payment this time.”

The screen pixelated again, and Jodi’s voice sounded like a robot through the feedback.

“Alright then. I’ll have another assignment ready for you tomorrow. But you really need to knock this one out of the park, dear—I’ve tried this abductee already, and he didn’t seem all that friendly. Finish this assignment, and you’ll be paid in full, including the remaining five hundred from the first one.”

I hesitated, but went ahead with the question that had been eating at me.

“Jodi, there’s something else,” I said. “Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate how quickly you’ve been responding to me, but wow. You’ve even got my computer perking up. What’s the deal?”

Jodi laughed. “You’ve noticed that, I see. Well, the SCP places a lot of importance on making sure our technology is bleeding edge. We’ve got to keep up appearances for anyone who might be listening in, don’t we?”

She raised her eyebrows and jabbed a finger toward the sky.

“Don’t let it concern you,” she continued. “Our network is mostly automated at this point. And as you can tell, I like to remain reachable at all times. We’ve got a very important mission. Anyway, must run. Good luck!”

The image faded to black, and my computer went through the crawl of symbols again. I pulled up my Paypal account to see a new deposit of $47.13—the exact amount I’d spent on gas getting to Columbus and back.

Jodi’s hacker tricks were starting to concern me, but for the moment I didn’t have any ideas. JT needed money fast, and it’s not like my phone was ringing off the hook otherwise. She’d better not have put any weird alien spyware crap on my hard drive.

“You’d better be worth it, cat lady,” I said out loud, and finished my glass of wine.

Waiting on Jodi’s package the next morning, I killed time with a little research of my own. I called up my former co-worker Paul, a young business reporter with some impressive computer skills. I asked him to dig up whatever he could find on the Sacred Constellation Project. He promised to have a full profile for me by the end of the day, in exchange for drinks next weekend. What the hell—a little social interaction wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, and I felt bad about ignoring his emails.

It was late afternoon before the package arrived, and I ripped it open with determination. Inside was a black and white picture of an older man in a Carhartt jacket who bore a surprising resemblance to Neil Young. The picture had obviously been taken with a telephoto lens. Printed along the bottom of the photo was the name Karl Donegan. Beneath the picture was a topographical map, a red circle scrawled in one corner.

This guy really was off the beaten path, and that’s coming from someone who grew up in Appalachia.

I grabbed my shoulder bag and checked to make sure my Ruger SP101 was easy to reach. I didn’t expect to need it, but the solid heft of the .357 Magnum made me a little more comfortable at the thought of pestering a good old boy on his own property.

I headed down Route 78, winding through parts of the national forest as I moved toward the spot marked on my map. Asphalt turned to gravel, which turned to dirt. Eventually I was coaxing the pick-up down a road just wide enough for it, with branches clicking off the side mirrors. Grass grew in a strip as high as the bumper between the two wheel ruts.

After a while I turned off the radio, and just listened as the whine of the highway faded into the drone of cicadas and the squeaks of evening bats. Sometimes I missed the life I’d left in the city—but not on evenings like this.

The path ended at the edge of a broad clearing. The field rose gently into a small hill, with an old but well-kept trailer on top. A small outbuilding stood to the left of the trailer, and I could just see a pair of goats milling around inside it.

A length of cable, spray-painted blaze orange, marked the boundary between forest and field. Secured to two large oaks on either side of the path, a neatly printed sign hung from the middle of the cable—No Trespassing.

I killed the engine and made a show of slamming the door when I climbed out. If he was home, I had no doubt that Mr. Donegan had heard me coming up the road—no need to make it seem I was sneaking up on him.

A tall figure emerged from the trailer, the screen door swinging shut behind him. He stood in silence on the porch, arms crossed.

“Mister Donegan?” I called. “May I come up?”

“I told you, them goats aren’t for sale.” His voice was a deep baritone, but it had some quiver in it. “Not unless you want to come up and mow the yard your own damned self.”

“I’m not here about the goats,” I said. “I was hoping we could talk for a little while. About your abduction.”

I could see him flinch from across the field. Before I could say anything else, he turned and stalked back inside the trailer, slamming the door behind him.

Well shit.

I leaned on my truck’s front bumper and lit up a home-rolled smoke. It wasn’t the first time someone slammed the door when I’d asked for an interview, but the goat thing was a first. I smoked in silence, trying to come up with a Plan B and listening to the first evening crickets.

I crushed out the cigarette and tossed the butt in the truck bed. I turned around to see Mr. Donegan stalking down the hill toward me. He wasn’t moving in a hurry. But a 12-gauge pump hung at his side, the gun balanced by its slide in the cup of his hand.

Without making any sudden moves, I made sure my pistol was resting in the top of my bag.

Mr. Donegan stopped at the gate, staring at my license plate.

“Thought I recognized your truck,” he said.

“You might have seen it around town,” I said carefully. “I’ve lived here most of my life.”

He nodded and looked up at me. His eyes were rheumy, but there was a clarity in them that bored into me.

“I figured I’d walk down and make sure I hadn’t heard you wrong,” he said slowly. “Most folks know better than to come around here lookin’ for a freak show.”

“That’s not what I’m about, Mister Donegan,” I said. “I got hired by a woman to record some interviews for her. Simple as that. I’m not looking to take advantage.”

His face clouded, and I almost pulled the pistol when he switched the shotgun from one hand to the other.

“What, for one of them alien books? The ones that take people like me, and make us out to be toothless hillbillies? Who sleep with our cousins, and chase little green men? If you don’t think that’s taking advantage, miss, then you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I’m not that kind of writer,” I said.

He examined me in the fading light. “If you’re helping someone use what happened to my family to turn a dime, then you sure as hell are.”

I didn’t have a comeback for that one. How many times had I railed about this kind of reporting when I still worked at the paper? How was this any different than sticking a camera in the face of a murder victim’s family for the evening news? This was the exact reason I’d left newspaper work in the first place.

If it bleeds, it leads.

I felt a knot growing in my stomach. I was going to make sure JT had what he needed to keep Ava, but not like this.

“I’m sorry for bothering you, Mister Donegan,” I said. “You’re right. I don’t know what I’m talking about.”

I tossed my bag through the truck’s open window and started to climb in.

“You’re Sam Mitchell’s granddaughter, ain’t ya,” Mr. Donegan said.

I paused. He had the shotgun cradled in the crook of his arm now, barrel pointed away from me. I nodded.

“I knew your grandpa,” he said. “Come on, I might as well offer you a cup of coffee, for his sake.”

He turned and headed toward the house. I slipped my phone and pistol into the pocket of my hooded sweatshirt, but left the digital recorder and notepad in the truck.

Mr. Donegan’s trailer was small, but well kept. A small television and one lamp provided most of the illumination in the living room, the flickering light of the TV reflecting off dozens of framed photos hanging on the walls. The majority of the frames were filled with photos of an attractive woman and a boy with curly blonde hair, their clothing and haircuts straight out of the seventies. The others were grainy photos of men in Army green, posing next to artillery pieces.

Mr. Donegan emerged from the kitchen, a steaming mug in each hand. I took one and nodded my thanks before sitting on the couch.

“I forgot to introduce myself,” I said.

“If you’re Sam’s granddaughter, I imagine your name’s Anse,” he said.

I smiled. “Word gets around, doesn’t it?”

“Seems to be the case,” he said. “It’s been a while since anyone came back here asking what you asked. I’d hoped most people had forgot. Not too many around left to remember, anyway.”

I set my mug on the coffee table next to me, next to a vase filled with lilacs. Their light scent almost masked the couch’s mustiness.

“My wife’s favorite,” he said.

“They’re lovely. Look, Mister Donegan, I’m sorry about earlier. You made me realize what I was doing, and that’s not the kind of person I am.”

I meant it.

“Call me Donny,” he said. “And I figured as much. I could see it in your face. You don’t look like one of those UFO chasers, anyway.”

“I’m starting to wonder,” I said. “It was just a job. No offense.”

He took a sip from his cup. “You should write a book on them, instead. See how they like it. Who hired you, anyway?”

“They’re called the Sacred Constellation Project…”

He snorted. “Oh yeah, I remember them. The ‘serious operation,’ as they like to say. They’ve pestered me a few times. I’ve always just fed ‘em a line of bull.”

He leaned forward, the mug cupped in his gnarled hands.

“They’re the real problem, and folks like them. Tell me—where do you stand on the whole thing?”

“Well, I’m a reporter, and I deal in facts,” I said. “I’ve never seen anything personally that I couldn’t explain. But the official story is rarely the full story, in my experience. I don’t know—I guess I haven’t thought about it much.”

He nodded. “That’s a good way to approach it. Problem is, just because there’s a thousand folks out there crying wolf, doesn’t mean that one of ‘em hasn’t seen one. It’s a pretty good way to discredit the honest ones, if you ask me—just have all the crazies start saying the same thing, and no one listens. Works in politics all the time.”

I laughed. That wasn’t very far from the truth.

“So you’ve seen a wolf, then?” I asked.

Mr. Donegan looked away, his lips pursed. “I didn’t say that. Never have. People believe what they want to believe.”

“But something had to have happened, if people like the SCP keep bothering you,” I said.
He set his mug down, hard. “I never said it was any damned aliens.”

We sat in silence for several minutes. I was too afraid to prompt him. But when I started to thank him for the coffee and leave, he began to speak softly, staring off.

“I still have no idea what happened. It’s been thirty-five years, and…I was out back, on the other side of the hill. It was summer time, just starting to get dark. Sue was on the back porch, yelling for us to come inside. This was back when we had the house, before I had this piece of crap hauled up here.

“Ronnie was little, but he was big enough to ride the pony I’d gotten him for his birthday. Sweet-tempered thing, that pony—didn’t mind him pulling on her ears, or anything like that. I was leading her around the yard with Ronnie riding, him laughing up a storm the whole time.”

“Sounds nice,” I said quietly.

He nodded. “It was. I don’t know how long we were at it, but I remember that it was getting hard to see. Just when I went to lift him off, the pony shied away from me, like something had spooked her. Like I said, she was usually a real mild pony. About the same time, Gracie started whining something terrible from the shed.”

“Your dog?”

“German Shepherd. That was strange too—she was always a real quiet dog. Never growled, hardly ever barked. But by the sounds she was making…you see animals act like that, you think they’re hearing or smelling something you can’t. Now that happens sometimes, especially if you live out here, and it’s nothing to make a thing out of. I just scooped up Ronnie and put him on my shoulders, and headed toward the house.”

“What about the pony?” I said. “Wouldn’t she have run away?”

He looked at me with one eye, a hint of a smile showing.

“You don’t have kids, do you.” It wasn’t a question. I shrugged.

“Anyway, I was almost to the house when this loud noise started up.

You ever heard a jet plane decelerate when it’s getting close to the airport? How all of a sudden, it slows down enough for the sound to catch up, and it’s like the plane’s right on top of you?”

I nodded.

“Imagine that, times ten. I remember Ronnie squealing in my ear, and his little hands nearly pulling my hair out. He…”

Mr. Donegan sat for a moment, rolling the empty mug in his hands. I rose and gently took it from him. I found the little pot on the kitchen counter and filled it, and brought it back to him. He nodded, but didn’t look up.

“I remember there being a light. Just soft at first, but it got bright real fast. So bright you could see the trees on the north ridgeline. For a moment it felt like the air was thicker, pressing down on me. Kind of like when you’re in an elevator. And that’s all I remember.”

I frowned. “Where was the light coming from?”

He shrugged.

“I don’t know. Everywhere. But it was just like that.” He snapped his fingers. “The next thing I remember was laying in the grass, down by the trees. I remember it was the flies that woke me up—they were buzzing all around my face, and the sun was at high noon. Couldn’t tell you how long I’d been laying there, but I felt like I had the worst hangover of my life. There was blood on my collar and crust in my nose—that’s what the flies were after.”

“How long had you been out?” I said.

He shook his head. “I don’t know. I was pretty thirsty. I…I made my way up to the house, to see if Sue and Ronnie were okay.”

I would have understood perfectly if Mr. Donegan had choked up at that point. I’d been a writer long enough to have an idea that the story didn’t have a happy ending. What I didn’t expect was the anger that began to fill his face, a slow burning rage that the years had failed to diminish.

“Before I made it to the house, I saw the pony in the back yard. For a second I was terrified that it was Ronnie—it had been tore up so bad that you could barely tell what it used to be. I ran in the house and yelled for them, but they weren’t there. Both of them…just gone. Gracie, too.

“I climbed over every inch of these woods, calling their names until it got dark. When I couldn’t see any more, I called up the Sheriff and we got a whole search party out here, probably three dozen guys with flashlights and dogs. We searched these hills for three goddamned days and nights. Nothing.”

I examined him from across the room. I’d interviewed a lot of people, and I could tell when someone was trying to fleece me. Everything Mr. Donegan was telling me was the truth as he saw it. A chill crawled up my back.

“There wasn’t any sign of them at all?” I said, carefully. “The dogs didn’t find anything?”

He shook his head. “A couple times we thought they’d found a trail. They’d follow it for a mile or so, and then just sit down and whine. Couldn’t get them to go any farther.

“I’ve never stopped looking. I called everyone I ever knew from when I was in the Army, guys in the FBI. Nothing. And once people like that SCP group of yours finally heard about it and started asking if I’d been beamed up, stuff like that, nobody official ever took me seriously again. I’ve never once made any claims other than what I’ve told you. It was them, not me.”

“What do you think happened?” I asked quietly.

“I lost my family, that’s what happened!

I cringed at the fury in his words. Donegan’s mug slipped from his trembling hands, and I flinched when it shattered on the floor.

“I’m—I’m sorry,” I said, moving to pick up the broken pieces.

Mr. Donegan held his face in his hands, shoulders shaking. I hesitantly put a hand on his arm.

“I believe you,” I said.

He looked up, reading my face. Finally he nodded.

“So is that what your Sacred Constellation Project wanted to know?” he said. “It’s not much of a fairy tale, I’ll tell you that.”

I went back to my place on the couch. “Something like that,” I said. “They gave me a list of questions to ask. Sort of leading questions, like how the aliens contacted you. And one that didn’t make any sense at all.”

He raised his eyebrows. “Like what?”

“Like, what’s the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug?”
Mr. Donegan grew very still as the words came out of my mouth.

His jaw went slack, and the rheumy eyes that had stared at me moments earlier went vacant.

“Mr. Donegan?” I said, rising.

The old man slowly got to his feet. He took a few steps toward the hall to my left, and began taking his clothes off.

He left his shirt, pants and shoes behind him as he walked down the hall. I started to follow, until I heard the squeak of a shower nozzle and the spray of water start in his bathroom. The temperature in the trailer rose noticeably after a few minutes, and I could hear the familiar sounds of someone showering.

I was too shocked to move. I pulled out my phone, deciding who to call. No signal.
The water turned off, and Mr. Donegan walked out of the bathroom. The same vacant look gripped his face, and the old man was pink and naked as the day he was born. Walking past me as if I wasn’t there, he opened the front door and stepped out into the night.

Not knowing what else to do, I followed him. I didn’t have to go far. I found the old man sitting cross-legged in the grass behind the trailer, hands on his knees, and staring up at the stars. He was mumbling under his breath, some words I couldn’t make out.

“Donny, are you okay?” I placed a hand on his shoulder, but he didn’t seem to register my presence. I shook him a time or two, and he finally looked up at me.

“It’s alright, I’ll bring him in when we’re done riding,” he said. “I think Ronnie likes his present.”

My throat tightened. Whatever had happened to Mr. Donegan thirty-five years ago, somehow Jodi’s question had put him in some sort of hypnotic state. If she had known that would happen, we were going to have words. More than words, actually.

I hurried back inside and returned with a blanket. Throwing it around Mr. Donegan, I did my best to get him to his feet and help him back inside. He didn’t fight me, but the old man never came out of his fantasy world. I turned down the quilts on the bed in his cramped bedroom, and helped him in. His head had barely touched the pillow before he began snoring.

I ran down the hill and fired up my truck, plowing over the underbrush as I turned it around on the narrow road. Whatever had been done to Mr. Donegan, odds were he needed a doctor. And if Jodi and her precious SCP had used me as their instrument to cause what had happened—so would she.

My phone finally picked up a signal when I pulled back onto the highway. Before I could dial the number for the local Sheriff, it started buzzing in my hand.

“Make it quick, Paul, I’m in a bit of a hurry,” I said into the receiver.

“Hey Anse, sorry to call so late.” His voice sounded tinny and far away. “Everything alright?”

“Right as rain,” I said, doing my best to avoid pot holes at top speed.

“This Sacred Constellation Project you put me on is one strange group,” he said. “I mean, they’re a legit publisher, with a couple dozen paranormal titles.”

“Apparently there’s a market for it,” I said. “What’s so strange, other than that?”

“Well, I started to dig into their financials that are on public record. I found out that they’re a subsidiary of that big government contractor you ran a story on last year. Know what I’m talking about?”

“Of course I do. What’s the connection?”

He paused. “I’m not sure. Believe it or not, no sooner had I pulled up their damn web site, my phone started ringing. It was a lawyer giving me the whole ‘cease and desist’ spiel. How the hell does that even—”

His voice dissolved into a series of clicks and scratches. Cursing, I pulled off the road to see what the problem was. I fiddled with the phone for a minute, then tried calling back.
“Paul?” I said when the line connected.

“This is Gregor Smith with the SCP, Ms. Mitchell,” a thin voice said. “Am I interrupting you?”

My jaw dropped. “I—how did you get on this line?”

“I believe you called me, Ms. Mitchell. Is there a problem?” His voice had almost no inflection.

I could feel my cheeks flush. “You bet your ass there’s a problem,” I said. “Where’s Jodi? I need to speak with her. Right now.”

“Ms. McTaggert is unavailable. Her instructions for you, shall I say, overstepped our parameters. I will be handling this account from now on. Are you ready for a new assignment? Your deliverable from Mr. Donegan was quite satisfactory.”

I nearly dropped the phone.

“What the hell are you talking about?” I shouted. “I didn’t record anything. And now the man’s possibly had some kind of a mental break, thanks to you. Is that what you were hoping for?”

“The microphone on your mobile device proved sufficient to capture the needed audio. Do not worry. Mr. Donegan will be properly taken care of.”

“If you touch him, you’ll pay for it.” The phone shook in my hand. “I don’t know what it is you’re doing, but I’ll find out. And so will every major news outlet in the country.”

There was a pause. “That would put you in breach of contract, Ms. Mitchell. I’m sure you wouldn’t want that.”

I flinched away as a high-pitched squeal burst from the phone. The line went dead.

The man’s words rang in my head. Mr. Donegan will be properly taken care of.

I slammed the truck in reverse and sped back onto the gravel road. I tried calling Paul back before I lost the signal.

“The number you have dialed is no longer in service,” the automated voice told me.

That wasn’t good. I tried 911.

“The number you have dialed…”

I shoved the phone back in my pocket, and reached for my pistol. Try to disconnect that.

I turned a corner in the narrow road, and my headlights broke into Mr. Donegan’s field. The knot rose in my throat again—the orange cable that had blocked the road was nowhere to be seen.

I didn’t slow down. Instead, I coaxed the truck straight up the hill to the trailer, bouncing in my seat the entire way. I stopped with the headlights trained on the front door, and left them on. Pistol in one hand, I jumped out of the truck, climbed the porch and threw open the door.

The trailer was empty.

I don’t mean there wasn’t anyone there—it was empty. All of Mr. Donegan’s furniture was gone, along with all of the photos and other mementos that had been on the walls. No curtains, no carpet. Nothing.

I went down the narrow hall, gun held in front of me. I called for Mr. Donegan, and was greeted by my own echo. His room was as bare as the rest of the trailer.

How could this be possible? I’d barely been gone an hour. I would have thought I was hallucinating, if it weren’t for the faint smell of lilacs. This was indeed Mr. Donegan’s trailer—at least, it had been.

Something moved through the beams of my headlights, throwing a long shadow on the wall.

“Hey!” I stepped hesitantly back into the living room, trying to keep my anger from losing its battle with the fear rising in my gut. The pistol shook in my hands. I peered out the door, blinking at the harsh headlights.

A boy stood on the porch. His hands were shoved in his pockets, and the hood of his sweatshirt was pulled up.

“What are you doing here?” The gun shook in my hands.

The boy looked up. He had rosy cheeks and a dimple in his chin like a million other little boys, but his eyes were completely black, just like the drawings in Mrs. Jenkins’ sketchpad.

“Can I come in?” the boy asked, his voice saccharine-sweet. “I’d really like to come in. Please?” I slammed the door as hard as I could. My feet tangled and I went down. I shoved myself across the floor as far from the door as I could, panting as the fear took control.

This couldn’t be happening.

The little boy’s face appeared in the window beside the door. He grinned, his mouth stretching unnaturally wide, and pale blonde curls slipped out from under his hood. Another silhouette came to stand beside him. Then another.

Pounding boomed through the room, and the flimsy trailer door rocked on its hinges.

My phone rang.

I tried to pull it out of my pocket with numb fingers, and dropped it just as the door splintered. The headlights cut through the room, blinding me.

The phone hit the ground and turned on, its screen illuminating the terrible faces as they descended on me.

My phone was ringing.

I frowned at the half-rolled cigarette in my hands. The stale shreds of tobacco were dead and dull in the afternoon sunlight that streamed through the window and over my kitchen table. I must have nodded off—my throat was dry as hell.

I guess it didn’t matter—the check for five hundred grand on the table meant I could damn well take a day off. Funny—it was more money than I’d earned in my entire life. This job had been…it had been…I was having trouble remembering exactly what it was that I had been paid to do.

The buzzing phone was making it hard to focus. I scooped it up and thumbed it on.

I couldn’t place it, but the cheery voice on the other end sounded familiar.

“Hello, Mrs. Mitchell?” she asked. “I was hoping I could ask you a few questions about your abduction.”

_

Thank you to Lin Rice for sharing the complete text of his story “Off the Record” for free on the web.  The complete book, Best of Ohio Short Stories: Volume 1, features seventeen additional stories.  Click here to find the book on Amazon.  E-books are also available from all major digital retailers, click here for links.

Lin Rice is a freelance writer and editor. A life-long Ohioan, Lin grew up in Monroe County before making his way to Columbus, by way of Athens. A recovering journalist, Lin is now trying his luck in the world of fiction—his first novel, The Remembering Glass, is currently in its second round of edits. He also posts the occasional rant at LinRice.com. Lin now lives in Central Ohio with his wife, their new son and a pack of half-feral cats.

“Fallen Timbers” – S.E. White

In the eighties, my father sold insurance, protection against those rainy days, but it wasn’t raining the night he came home from work four hours late. That night had been clear and dry. He didn’t speak for two full days. His suit that night (the blue pinstripe his father had wanted to be buried in but Grandma claimed had too much wear left) wasn’t even wrinkled when he seemingly strolled up the sidewalk to the back step, gingerly seated himself and pulled a baby bird from his breast pocket. He cradled the bird, closed his hands as if to pray, and sobbed until my mother opened the screen door and hugged his shoulders. I stayed inside the house and watched my father through the glass window—his body distorted by a flaw in the panes. The sight of him is as clear to me now, a woman in her late thirties, as when I held my breath and watched my insurance salesman father weep over a baby bird who’d fallen from its nest.

Before that night and our eventual move to Oregon, my father built model ships in the room at the top of the stairs. He would close the door, hunch over the bench where he sat walled in by maritime books, X-Acto knives and long tweezers, and slip bits of wood through the narrow neck of empty bottles of Southern Comfort. The wind chimes outside the window played a tune I’ve stopped dead in traffic remembering.

“People are like ships in bottles,” he said once, scolding me for touching things in his hallowed room. He pushed up his wire-rim glasses and looked me squarely in the eyes. “The most beautiful part is what you can see but can never quite touch.” He held one of the bottles up to the window and whispered, “They’re too fragile to be touched.”

That night, after my father gave the bird to my mother as if it were as fragile as one of those model ships, he wandered up the stairs and smashed every ship in a bottle he’d ever built. Splinters of glass sprayed the walls, ships floated on glistening shards, crunched beneath his leather wing-tip shoes. He grabbed one after the other by the neck and shattered them. Hulls, masts, decks no larger than a thumbnail sprinkled onto his desk. I stood at the base of the stairs. My mother was halfway up. She ran her fingers through her short, black hair, fumbled with the buttons on her business suit. She didn’t look down at me. I didn’t look past her. We both stood staring at the shadows flashing on the white, white ceiling of the room at the top of the stairs.

Two months later, we packed up our lives and drove from Ohio to Oregon where my father with the pale, smooth hands got a job as a logger. The beard he spent days growing was as full and black as the bruise on his right cheek. The only words he ever offered on that crescent slice were, “You should’ve seen the other guy.” I never cared what happened to “the other guy;” all I wanted to know is what happened to my father, the man I’d known.

I was too young at the time, ten years old, to realize what my father might’ve been going through, and nobody in the early eighties would have considered the idea of “rape,” much less of a tryst gone bad. The official statement my mother issued on the subject was that my father had been mugged.

“If anyone asks,” she told me at breakfast the next morning, “your father was mugged.”

Nobody asked. But the people I told at school believed me, or seemed to. I could tell a good lie when I knew it wasn’t the truth. The way my mother told me, stern faced, hands wrapped around a steaming mug of coffee, made me think there was more to know. We moved to Oregon two months later. My father stopped selling insurance, stopped building model ships, and simply stopped being the man he was before. My mother grew her short, black hair long, long enough to braid, long enough for my father to touch and lose his hands in. She wore more dresses, quit her job working in a bank, and spent her days at home. From time to time, she would peer out the glass windows and rub her hands against the panes.

We sit, my father and I, on a bench, staring at a piece of land protected and preserved to commemorate a battle that took place across the road. A statue of three men stares off with us. Those men, enemies in the flesh, now stand as brothers in stone. A pioneer with a straggly beard, a muscular native, General “Mad” Anthony Wayne: each looking properly grim. My father is old. Blue and violet veins are pronounced on his pale, scarred hands, each winding around cartilage and bone like the glimpse of a river we see flickering in the distance, beyond a snatch of road and a field overgrown and weedy and not the place where the Battle of Fallen Timber was fought. But this is where it is remembered.

Ten years ago, my son Dane and I moved back to Ohio, brought my father with us. His beard is gone, shaved like it was before he was mugged. His chin juts; neck seems unnaturally long and vulnerable. He has little to say to the question I just asked him. Why did he want to stop here before he and Dane went fishing?

My father rubs his chin. “Let’s just fish.”

Dane sits in the parking lot, barely visible beyond the distant glare of the car’s windshield; the boat is attached to the back of the car, poles in the backseat. He won’t come out of the car to sit with us on the bench. I know he didn’t want me to come on this fishing trip. Ever since he was charged with identity theft—using a fake ID, using other people’s credit cards—he keeps his distance from me. But, I knew that he would want to fish with his grandfather, so I had to come.

Slowly, I turn my head and stare at my father’s crescent scar, listening to sparrows and starlings chirp to one another. Songs of warning.

“Then, let’s fish,” I reply. He only has a few hours before I have to take him back to the nursing home for dinner.

The muddy, undulating Maumee is close by. It is the river where Wayne’s forces camped before the Battle of Fallen Timbers. Rumors claim that Tecumseh had been there. Indians and soldiers fought each other in a grove where the trees had been felled by a tornado. The bark gnarled, scarred: the spot is scenic in a weather-beaten way. Sitting here all these years later, centuries now, that bloodshed feels senseless: bravery or greed? They fought for land that only truly belongs to itself—the weaving of earthworms, tunneling of ants. These trees wait here, as if to outlast us all.

The walk to the car feels like a long one for a man as seemingly fragile as my father. We pass Turkey Foot Rock where Little Turtle stood to rally his troops. Gourds and a few shucks of corn have been placed there as an offering to their memory.

“I proposed to your mother here,” my father mumbles through his cracked lips.

I look at him. “I didn’t know that, Dad.” That’s not the story my mother told.

My father nods.

“I thought you popped the question in the middle of a dance floor on New Year’s Eve.”

His eyes cloud over. He grunts. We come to the parking lot, and he scratches at the crescent on his cheek.

I help my father into the car, allow my fingertips to graze his shoulder blade. I don’t know when I ever touched my father—a hug, a peck on the cheek, a random brush of his arm. The last time I touched any man was ten years ago.

My ex-husband had been abusive to our son Dane. He left one night after he slapped Dane, and I finally hit him back. He whipped his belt from its loops, smacked it against the refrigerator. Dane rushed into the kitchen when he heard me tumble into the dishes and drop to the floor. The black leather tip of Danny’s belt licked Dane across the face. I balled my fist until the nails bit my palm, and swung. My knuckles cracked, and his crooked front teeth ground across the bone. He blinked, staggering a step or two, then wiped the blood—both his and mine—from his lips.

“Fuck me,” the words dripped from his bottom lip.

He grimaced, stared at me like I’d done more than punched him.

That night, he packed his things and left—the screen door softly bumping closed. His golden blonde hair glowed down the sidewalk until he disappeared.

Now, Dane sits with my father in that old red fishing boat. The water is shallow enough at this time of year to almost walk across. I tied my father into a lifejacket despite his grumbling. His calloused hands take hold of one of the poles, and he slips a minnow onto a hook before he drops it through the Maumee’s muddy, beige surface. My son watches him, looks at his grandfather to provide a model of manhood for him. He has never said that, nor would he ever say it. But it’s in his eyes, the way they follow my father’s every move.

My son Dane is almost sixteen, well beyond the age of listening to his mother and well within the age of battling any man in order to prove his own strength to himself. His earring. His tattoo. All of the anger in his face. These things I see reflect what he feels inside, I’m sure. But I can’t reach inside him, can’t touch what he holds so deeply in those clear, blue eyes. But, with my father, he listens, sits passive, studies.

Together, they drift in a boat, while I dip a pole into the shallow water along the banks. They don’t speak to one another. The rippling of the Maumee rushing downstream speaks enough to justify their silence. Dane shifts, runs the back of his hand across his mouth—his father’s nervous gesture—but stares hard into the river and clenches his jaw.

Each ripple of the river flashes in the sun like bits of shattered glass. The boat continues to drift downstream. My father looks old, delicate; the sagging skin on his face resembles tissue paper. Trees overhang the boat the farther my father and son float away from me; the leaves cradle flocks of invisible birds, and with each gust of wind, I hear the soft rustling of a lore I can only witness. I realize that the silence between my father and my son is their way of communicating—this is a language I cannot speak, cannot hear.

The gnarled bark of the trees reminds me of Oregon, of my father with the tan, rough fingers, full bushy beard. I hear him. I feel the coolness of his shadow beside me, and I peer upwards into his bearded face as it blocks the sun. He takes my ten-year-old hand, and we stroll together through the Oregon woods.

“Trees are like any other crop,” he tells me. “Sometimes they need to be harvested.”

He touches the bark, looks down at me and winks.

“Mother Nature doesn’t always have the best hygiene,” he puffs his chest. “Loggers are like surgeons. You’ve got to amputate before the limbs get too rotten and useless.”

Here in Oregon, he wears every piece of stereotypical flannel his money can buy, leather boots with a bull emblazoned on the tongues. When he comes home at night, he has chips of wood, sprinkles of the insides of these trees on his shoulders, in his beard, on his clothes. He has mud, and occasionally feathers, caked to the soles of his boots—a tree himself.

He drives the Rock Caterpillar, laughs when the other men who work with him call him “Doc,” especially when they see him around town after they’ve spent the night drinking beers and whatever else they did after-hours. In Oregon, he comes home late, later than that night he was mugged. Mom waits up for him less and less. At least, she lets him know less and less about how she waits up for him.

I remember the night she sat on the couch, in the dark, wrapped in the seaweed green afghan her mother spent nights knitting years before, the moonlight drenching her shoulders and the black hair she cut that afternoon. My father wanted her to grow it long before the move, so she did. But, that afternoon, she had cut it short, shorter than his own hair.

I see her silhouette through the rungs in the stairway railing—both of us drowning in the darkness.

When the door slams, we both jump. My father has been drinking, still swigs from a bottle of Jack Daniels. His eyes are glassy.

“I don’t need you waiting up for me,” he says.

“I was worried,” she answers.

His hand strokes his full, bushy beard. “I can take care of myself.”

She sits silent, tilts her face downward in that “all-knowing” way of hers, in that way I still miss.

“I get home when I get home,” he says. “I’m the man of this house.”

He stumbles over the coffee table.

“I’m a goddamn logger,” he slurs. “If I can handle a saw, I can handle being out after dark. I don’t need my wife waiting up for me.”

This man is not my father. My father, who sold insurance, with the pale, smooth fingers, never raised his voice. He wore suits, wing-tipped shoes. He built model ships, enjoyed working in his garden. He wouldn’t have moved us to Oregon, or worn flannel, let alone handled a saw. This man is tan, rough, falling, falling towards something he’s afraid he’ll hit but can’t stop himself from reaching out for.

He sits down and starts laughing, pulls out a cigarette, flicks his lighter and laughs some more.

“They hired a woman foreman today,” he says.

I cling tighter to the railing. My heart throbs. I cannot breathe.

“What in the hell did you do?” he demands. “What the hell did you do to your hair? You look like a damn man. Why didn’t you ask me first?”

“I got a job today, too,” she answers, her words measured, voice low.

“You don’t need to work.”

“I need to get out.”

He runs his hand over his face, pulls at his beard. He knocks his boots together in front of his outstretched legs.

“You’ll quit,” he says.

She looks at him and says, “No.”

He twists the wedding ring on his finger, laughs.

“You’ll do what I feel is best.”

“I moved out here with you because I love you,” she says, unwrapping herself, rising to her feet.

He stands, too, stuffs one hand into the front pocket of his tight Levis, the other he hooks onto his belt. He squares himself, leans as if he might uncoil and slap her. I feel trapped behind the rungs.

“And?” he asks.

She lets the afghan fall to the floor. The moonlight catches the white of her eyes as she glances over to where I sit. I crouch down but know it’s too late.

“Go to bed,” she tells me. Her voice sounds tired, firm. She walks up the stairs and closes the door to their bedroom.

My father stands alone in the living room. He heads for the front door, then stops, turns towards where I’m still crouching on the staircase. He extends his hand to me. I am in my nightgown. My feet feel cold but I go with him—outside the door, outside into the crisp night air, outside the safety of our house.

I walk with him. The sidewalk feels bumpy and cool beneath my feet. He doesn’t say anything. I don’t expect him to. He simply holds my hand, loosely, swallows hard, his eyes wide, searching the darkness for something I’m sure he sees but isn’t there. I look into his face, into his eyes, but I can’t see past the fear, glimpse behind the reflection of myself in his wide stare.

“Scary at night, isn’t it?” he finally speaks. “So many eyes could be watching you. You’re so vulnerable walking at night.”

I struggle to keep up with him.

“Listen,” he whispers. “Listen to the trees. How they rustle. Any one of those trunks could be someone.”

He picks me up, holds me against his flannel. He smells of layers of sweat and dead skin, the faintest hint of sawdust. The street is quiet. No cars. Neighbors shut up safely in their homes.

“You’re my best girl, aren’t you?” he asks. “You’re Daddy’s girl. You always will be.” He clings tighter to me. “Right?”

“Yes,” I mumble. I want to go back home. It’s too dark outside. I don’t like having to answer his questions. I don’t like not having a choice. He’s my father.

We meander our way down to the gas station on the corner. A woman and her children fill their minivan. An old man glares at us, then streaks a squeegee across his windshield. My father puts me down, lets my cold feet touch the even colder pavement. He reaches into the pocket of his pants, and together, we walk through the glass doors.

The young girl behind the counter has copper red hair, dark eye shadow and her nose pierced. She barely acknowledges my father at the counter. I hold his hand, shift my feet to keep them warm.

“A carton of cigarettes,” he says.

“Merit, Pall Mall, Marlboro?” she drones.

My father scratches at the crescent on his cheek. “Marlboro,” he answers, giving my hand a reflexive squeeze.

She slides a carton out from behind the counter. She doesn’t look at either of us. Doesn’t smile. All but rolls her eyes at being expected to do what she gets paid for. My father sets the crumpled bills onto the counter. She presses hard on the cash register buttons, then hands him his change.

“This is wrong,” my father says.

She blinks, looks him over, then at the register.

“You hear me?” he asks.

I tense.

“It’s the price that comes up in the system,” she replies.

“It’s wrong.”

“I don’t set the prices.”

“Yeah,” my father answers. I stand on one foot, then the other. “I’m not leaving here until you give me the correct change.”

“I gave you the correct change.”

“Listen,” my father grits his teeth, points his forefinger into her face.

Her hands disappear beneath the counter, and she leans forward, stares hard into my father’s eyes. “I just work here,” she says. “Complain to the manager. I don’t have the time to argue. I don’t have the time for any trouble, so you can just turn around and walk your ass out of here.”

My father’s jaw shifts. I expect him to blow up, to let loose with a string of profanities, to tell her that she’s ignorant, that women shouldn’t handle money, but he stays perfectly still, blinking fast, as though he is suddenly caught in something shrinking around him.

“Take it,” he says, his voice quivers. “You just take it. Keep the change.”

He reaches into his pockets and pulls out a few more crumpled dollars, tosses them onto the counter. When I look up, his face is red, eyes bloodshot, tears trickling down his nose. He swallows back a sob.

He might’ve stood there, sobbing in front of that girl, in front of those people, if I hadn’t taken him by the hand and led him back out the glass doors. He’s drunk. Through his sobs, he wipes the back of his hand across his eyes and mutters, “stupid bitch” to himself. “Everybody wants something.”

I watch him now. He and my son drift downstream. They aren’t anchored. I can hear Dane’s voice. I wring my hands.

Before she passed away from ovarian cancer, my mother told me what she thought happened the night my father was mugged. She told me the story my father doesn’t seem to have the words for anymore. We were wrapped together in her seaweed green afghan. I was twenty-one, pregnant with Dane. She was forty-six; her face ashen, lips violet. My father still drove the Rock Caterpillar, came home from work in time for dinner, still smelled of sawdust and earth. He rarely spoke, except to bitch about the cost of things and how the country was “going to hell in a hand basket.”

“He was mugged,” she said, stroking the hair from my eyes as I leaned against her.

We flipped through a photo album of when we lived in Ohio. Our memories framed by the camera’s gaze: my father in his insurance salesman suit knelt in his garden—my eight-year-old self a sundress blur.

“What did they take?” I asked.

“Whatever muggers usually take,” she answered.

“What else happened to him?” I asked, lifting the photo album to inspect a picture of my father in his treasured room at the top of the stairs.

“Something else?”

“Else?” She took a deep breath.

I folded my arms and shrugged. “You know,” I said.

“No,” she snapped. “I don’t know.”

My mother stopped stroking my forehead.

“Why did he change so much?” I asked.

She flipped another page in the album.

“He didn’t really change all that much,” she answered.

I almost laughed. “Well,” I said with a sarcasm I couldn’t suppress, “did they ever catch the guy?”

My mother shifted her weight and coughed.

“The guy just got away?” I asked.

“I don’t even know where it happened.” She ran her hand over her face.

“And?”

“And,” Mom replied sharply. “Some man stuck a gun in his face, your father got scared, and he was mugged.”

“Mugged?” I asked. “I thought maybe he was—” The words caught in my throat; just then, Dane kicked.

My mother closed the photo album, patted my belly. “End of story.”

I didn’t believe her. Even now, sitting on the banks of the Maumee, I don’t entirely believe her. The boat continues to drift. I want to hear the truth about my father. I want to know all that happened to my father that night—from him. I want him to explain to me what happened that night. I have to know, especially now, staring at my own boy on the verge of becoming a man—I have to know what that means.

I signal to Dane to steer the boat back. He obeys, dips an oar into the flickering surface and paddles back towards the banks.

My father stumbles onto the shore. I catch an arm. Dane catches the other.

“Time to go back, Dad,” I say. “Dinner’s in an hour.”

“I didn’t catch any fish,” he grumbles.

I lead him up the narrow moss covered steps, exchange a look with my son. “The fish weren’t biting.”

At the nursing home, I guide my father through the double glass doors, past the gathering of old, gray-haired women cuddling dolls as though infants, towards his room near the back hallway. Dane follows behind.

The trees outside rustle but we cannot hear them in my father’s room. He sits down slowly on the edge of his bed. He has Polaroids on his bulletin board of when he had a beard, when he looked strong, virile. On the stand next to his bed sits a ship in a bottle that my son made for him. An empty, green bottle of buckeye ale, the ship inside one of those that probably drowned under the currents of Lake Erie, something he found in one of his grandfather’s books, I’m sure.

“I want to know what happened to you, Dad,” I say, surprised at my own boldness. “What gave you that scar?”

He scratches at his cheek, at the crescent. “I don’t know what you mean,” he mumbles.
I hear my son shift his feet behind me.

“I want to know, Dad.”

He stares out the window—his pale face stretched taut across his cheekbones. A cardinal sits on the windowsill. A female: brown wings, only the faintest hint of red on her breast. She’s chirping.

“We always misunderstand birds,” my father says. “She’s not singing. She’s calling.” He holds his hands together, like he did that night when he removed the baby bird from his breast pocket. “Probably looking for one of her babies. Or something like that. Years of working in the woods teaches you the difference.”

“Tell me, Dad,” I press.

He clears his throat. “I was driving home and found a little bird in the middle of the road. It was still alive. Still calling out. So I stopped and placed it in my pocket. To keep it warm.” His eyes begin to water. “Didn’t work. I couldn’t protect it, could I? Not even inside my pocket.” He laughs a little. “Mother Nature is cruel, did you know that?”

I want to ask if he was really mugged that night, if that was all that happened to him, if that could actually be all that happened to him. I hear Dane cough, and I stop the words.

“That’s what happened that night,” my father says. “I was late because I stopped to save a bird that died in my pocket.” He sighs, wipes his eyes. “End of story.”

I stare at him, grit my teeth, rush forward and grab his arms.

He meets his eyes to mine. “End of story,” he whispers.

This is a challenge.

“What happened to you, Dad?” I ask in a low voice.

“I already told you,” he answers, his eyes darkening. “End of story.”

This is the moment, I know it is. There are only so many moments in life when people have the chance for truth, to push through the layers of silence and lies. I feel like if I let him go, I will never know the man my father is.

“Come on, Mom,” Dane says. His voice startles me.

My eyes stay focused on my father’s downcast face.

“Dinner is almost ready,” my father mumbles. “Spam and potatoes again.”

And the moment goes as quickly as it came.

We give him our goodbyes, and I force myself down the hallway, back out those double glass doors. I turn around once we are in the parking lot and I see my father standing by his window, watching us, on the other side of those panes, too far away to hear the words the wind and rustling trees would steal from me even if I called them out to him.

“It’s okay,” I hear my son tell me, gently touching a hand to my shoulder.

I stop walking and hold him, tightly, as tightly as my arms will press him against me; I hold onto him. There are words I would say to him but none of those will do, so I hold him against me, hoping the beating of all that I have inside can communicate to him what it’s too late to say.

“I think I know what happened to him,” Dane says.

“What did he tell you?” I ask, my heart beating faster.

Dane pauses, sets his chin on my shoulder. “It was what he didn’t tell me.” Dane sighs. “He stared at Fallen Timbers, cried a little, I think.”

Dane tightens his embrace.

“I think your grandfather was raped, Dane,” I say. “All those years ago.”

“Raped?” Dane asks.

“Or was hurt somehow, affected somehow,” I answer, shaking my head. “He changed after that night, like he was afraid of something.”

“Why didn’t you ask him before?” Dane asks.

I move to shrug my shoulders, to tell him that I don’t know, but I don’t, I stop the impulse to dismiss this moment, this moment my father can no longer provide me, and I look my son square in the eyes. I see fear. I see past my own reflection in his eyes and see a little boy crouched inside, still vulnerable, still so fragile, and I answer, uncertain of what my eyes are showing him, “Because I was too afraid to know the answer.”

He nods, looks back towards the nursing home. He gives my arm a little squeeze, and together, we walk back to the car. We won’t speak anymore of this moment, I’m sure, but for the first time, we touched each other, not as mother and son, but as human beings, not too tall, not beyond reach, just two people with our guards down, doing our best to get through life without hurting each other or ourselves.

_

Thank you to S.E. White for sharing the complete text of her story “Fallen Timbers” for free on the web.  The complete book, Best of Ohio Short Stories: Volume 1, features seventeen additional stories.  Click here to find the book on Amazon.  E-books are also available from all major digital retailers, click here for links.

S.E. White is a native of Bowling Green, Ohio, who earned her B.F.A. from Bowling Green State University, her M.A. from Iowa State University, and her M.F.A. from Purdue University. She has taught English at the college level since 2000. Her short fiction has been published in various venues. Her novella A Murder of Crows is available in paperback and Kindle. She also authors ANovelWeblog.com which often discusses growing up in Northwestern Ohio.

“Chrysalis” – Heather Sinclair Shaw

I’m not a native of the city but I try to act like one. I miss the wildlife mostly. You can walk from the meatpacking district all the way to St. John the Divine and never see a sparrow. At home we mark the change of the seasons by the birds at the feeder―mockingbirds in the spring, red-winged blackbirds in summer, warblers in the fall, and juncos in winter, before the first snow. Here they use the shop windows. And they slap a giant park in the middle of it all like an eloquent apology.

Today I found a caterpillar on the 79th St. transverse through the park. I was on my way to work and the rain was picking up, so I set my bag down under the overpass to pull up my hood. The caterpillar lay fat and sluggish on the wet cement, ready to pupate, its tail-end attached to a smooth twig that had been plucked by a thoughtless child, or the wind, or who knows. Some ignoble mixture of charity and curiosity made me thrust it in my pocket and keep walking.

David got me a job a while back at a little market called The Whole Shebang. It’s one of those neighborhood food co-ops that’s out to save the earth, and I’ve been oozing with guilt since I hooked up with that place.

They have an annual 5K called the Tofu Trot to raise money for LGBTQA awareness, and they also have these local simple-living chapters to help you rid your home of plastic and chemicals of every stripe. I’ve come to tolerate the smell―a strange mix of exotic bulk grains, coffee grounds and nag champa, which is inexplicable because I’ve never seen any burning incense in the store, but I kind of suspect the cashiers of burning the stuff after-hours to cover up the smell of marijuana and sex. The place is poorly-lit, and the aisles are a little too narrow so you’re always bumping into some kind of homeopathic end-cap. Or a clerk with a bull-ring and vegan shoes, like David.

I am an INTJ, a brilliant sub-group of Meyers-Briggs testers who represent only 1.5% of the population. I have a hard time believing that, because no one ever accused me of being brilliant until I took that test online. David is an ENTJ, which I think means that he would make an excellent world leader. My point: if Meyers-Briggs could recommend a grocery store for me I’m pretty sure it would be the opposite of The Whole Shebang. But, I keep working there because I am trying to save the world. That’s the short answer. A slightly longer answer is that I love David, and David is trying to save the world. An even longer answer: local economies, pesticide run-off, Big Organic, the ozone layer (Do people talk about that anymore?), fair-trade, banana republics, BPA, child labor, personal responsibility. I could go on but willful ignorance is powerful. Big box stores are destroying the world because they make the world’s most powerful influence, the American Consumer, believe that she is not personally responsible for her purchases other than to swipe her credit card and load up her trunk—here is your receipt please do not think about the poor orphans who picked your bananas.

I learned all this, perhaps too quickly, from David. Most people experience gradual enlightenment―they stumble upon some new truth, and they’ve got a little time to adjust to a lifestyle change before they discover the next thing. But David spews enlightenment like a leaky faucet; before I know it I have enlightenment pooling around my ankles like floodwater. And then it’s too late―I can’t pretend I don’t know. With great knowledge comes great responsibility and all that.

It’s helpful to know that David was raised on millet and dried figs, and he’s studying entomology to become a professional beekeeper. I studied theater and I was raised on peanut butter and banana sandwiches. The kind with the deliciously creamy peanut butter that can only be achieved with the use of chemical stabilizers, on the white bread that can only be achieved with the use of bleached and bromated white flour. Neither of us could’ve predicted what an impediment this would be.

The day I found the caterpillar, a new girl came into The Whole Shebang in a dress that looked like it might have been made for Laura Ingalls when she was five, black tights and work boots remarkably similar to a pair that languished in the mudroom at my childhood home. She wore an unflappable expression and vintage jewelry. Her too-short dress made her arms seem unnaturally long, like a praying mantis.

“Can I help you?” I said, which was not what I was trained to say. I was trained to say “Shalom,” or “Namaste,” or “Blessings,” or some equally mystical greeting that I can never manage with the same level of subtle irony that my coworkers―and David―find effortless.

“Is David here?” she said.

“What do you want with David?” I said.

I didn’t really say that. I said, “I don’t think so,” like an idiot. And she looked at me like the idiot I was verifying myself to be, raising her eyebrows to the level of her blunt-cut bangs.

“He isn’t,” I added. “I’m meeting him at the Met later.” And I answered the phone, and turned my back to her. It all felt perfect―subtly affirming my relationship to David and shunning her at the same time. Then I pulled a pencil out of my pocket to take down a number, and both I and the unflappable girl gasped in unison.

There, on the tip of my pencil that was not a pencil but the stick I had forgotten, the caterpillar was gyrating spasmodically. Its skin was peeled back away from its body and a tender, glistening chrysalis was slowly revealing itself.

Recognition, then disproportionate horror, flashed across her face. “Oh my God, why is that in your pocket?” she cried, with the emphasis on “pocket,” as though mine might be full of parasitic wasps. Her arms extended forward in a lightning-quick motion as she lunged toward the pupa.

“What are you doing?” I said, jerking backward.

She sidestepped, and for a moment I thought she might try to jump over the counter. “You can’t carry a pupating monarch around in your pocket!” She was leaning over the cash register. “Where did you get it? Why didn’t you take it to safety?”

“I thought I had,” I managed. How did she know it was a monarch?

“Please give it to me.” She was very still now, with her hands folded in front of her, predatory. Then it hit me.

“Oh God. You’re studying entomology with David, aren’t you.” I said. She tucked her hair behind one ear, and I tried in vain to read her expression. My confidence faltered, and, as is customary for me in moments of self-doubt, I started to think about bananas.

Bananas have no place in the sustainable lifestyle. They require too many transport resources, and there’s too much corruption within the market. I used to dream of flying to South America for a banana vacation in which I would find banana trees growing wild on the sides of the road and I would eat them until I could no longer walk. After I met David, I didn’t eat a single banana for two years. Then I had a little episode.

I passed a supermarket and saw them in the window―an exotic yellow hill in the produce section―and I was paralyzed. I forced myself to think about little children with brown faces, picking bananas in the hot sunshine, sweating and being sworn at by an invisible taskmaster. I thought about an evil Banana Republic gunning down some small plantation owner in an invisible South American village. About a giant diesel truck, spewing black smoke, driving a load of bananas from Mexico through the midwest, its grill awash with dead butterflies.

Then I thought of my childhood kitchen table. A green melamine plate bedecked by a tower of soft white sandwich bread, creamy peanut butter and glorious bananas. I thought about chocolate milk, and I snapped. At the supermarket I bought eight bananas, a jar of creamy peanut butter, a loaf of white sandwich bread, a can of powdered chocolate milk mix, a half-gallon of conventional milk from cows leading a wretched life of confinement, and a bag of Cheetos. And soft toilet paper, not the recycled kind. The cashier was so annoyed trying to stuff everything into my floppy hemp bags that she finally gave up and bagged everything else in plastic. By then I was feeling that strange mixture of elation and shame which comes to people who knowingly break the rules they have set for themselves. It feels like winning and losing at the same time.

When David came home I was halfway through my second sandwich. Plastic grocery bags were strewn over the countertop. “Cheetos?” was all he said. I licked my teeth clean behind pursed lips.

The unflappable girl was still sanding there, motionless―waiting for me to make the first move, I could tell. There was something on the tip of my tongue about the folly of ridiculing attempts at goodness that fall short of perfection, about the integrity of the small gesture. Who said that? And who was this girl? In my head, I was feeling INTJ brilliance. I was ranting against elitism, championing the cause of sincerity. It was all happening, in my head.

I said, “I’ll leave the chrysalis in the park after my shift.”

“Try to find a flowering bush or, if you can, one that will flower in a couple of weeks,” she said. “Just don’t leave it in your pocket.”

Trying to do everything right is so goddamn difficult, like trying to memorize the train schedule. Just when you think you have it figured out, you don’t.

I frequently meet David at the Pandora, because that’s where we first met. People think it takes a lot to bond two people together, but sometimes you just need one thing. Redon’s painting of Pandora is the only thing we agree on at the museum and most other places. When we first met he told me that inside her box there were governments and corporations and pesticides and guns. I don’t think he makes much distinction between them. He said hope remained in the box so we could fight. I said if she wanted us to fight, why didn’t she let hope out of the box so it could do us some good, and he smiled the Mona Lisa smile of someone who knows everything and gets handed an angle they hadn’t considered. We’ve been meeting at the Pandora ever since. We stand side by side staring at the first woman looking down on her ineffable box while we catch up on the more effable moments of our week.

I kept the chrysalis in my pocket and went on to meet David. He settled into his contemplative stance, and made sure I was doing the same before he spoke. He never looks at me during this strange ritual we’ve created. Or, he looks at me by looking at the painting. I wonder in these moments what pulls him back to the Pandora over and over again―if it’s the closed box, the evil that will escape, the hope that will remain, or me.

“Have you heard of butterfly butter?” he asked finally.

“Butterflies make butter? Wait―please tell me this isn’t something we eat.”

“No, no, no.”

I cast a glance in his direction and followed the line of his unkempt beard, which shifted slightly when he smiled.

“Butterfly butter is what happens inside the chrysalis,” he said. “People think caterpillars just hang out in there and sprout wings and a proboscis. But the truth is crazier: they dissolve. Entomologists don’t have a name for it so they call it ‘butterfly butter’.”

I turned toward him, but he continued to stare ahead. I didn’t tell him about the chrysalis, because I don’t like the way he smirks at me when I make even the most subtle references to fate, synchronicity, karma, whatever.

“Its caterpillar cells break down into a stem cell ooze,” he continued, “then reform into butterfly cells―wings, legs, antennae, proboscis, body. Everything is new. But its all programmed in there somehow. The cells know what they’re supposed to become.”

I reached into my pocket and felt the cool, toughened skin of the chrysalis. I stared ahead and tried to imagine it, translucent and green, hanging from the tree behind Pandora. I imagined it until I saw it, until I could hold it in my vision, and I considered my words. There may have been five minutes of silence between us but to me it was a fullness, an era, the Age of the Caterpillar.

“A girl came looking for you at work today,” I said.

David turned to look at me, and I tried in vain to read his expression. I tried to imagine them together at a lab table, her unnaturally long arms brushing his. I thought, they deserve each other. She’ll bite his head off.

I went back to the park and walked around until I found a large bush in bud. I pulled the twig from my pocket and squatted down in the dirt, thrusting my hands into the wet foliage. There was no good way to attach the twig to the bush, so I nestled it as best I could between two forked limbs, then I took off my coat and sat down in the wet grass. Now I stare. The chrysalis dangles precariously amid the budding branches. I stare at it like David and I stare at the Pandora. I stare until my coat and skirt are soaked through with rain. I stare until I see it, until I can hold it in my vision, and I wait.

_

Thank you to Heather Sinclair Shaw for sharing the complete text of her story “Chrysalis” for free on the web.  The complete book, Best of Ohio Short Stories: Volume 1, features seventeen additional stories.  Click here to find the book on Amazon.  E-books are also available from all major digital retailers, click here for links.

Heather Sinclair Shaw was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, but now writes on her small family farm in Newark under the watchful eye of several cows, chickens, a dog and three somewhat-domesticated children. She came to the farm to raise food for people and stayed for the peace and quiet. She would like to become a saint, but writing will suffice for now.

“Saint Vinny and the Devil’s Brother” – Kevin Duffy

I’ve got seven monitors in front of me. The max. Status symbol. Information is king. Broker on my Bluetooth is bearish on the buck for ’09. I don’t agree. No trade. I shrug, take the guy on my landline off hold and do a deal with him. Two monitors to the right I see that the Yen has moved up three since the last time I looked. I see on the Bloomberg crawler that the Bank of Japan has scheduled a special meeting next week. They’ll take another action. Will it work? No. I go long on July Yen.

The Nerf football that’s always flyin’ around the trading floor is headed toward Jabba the Hut at the desk next to mine. My left hand’s busy doing the trade, but I reach up with my right and deflect it to the row of desks in front of us. Fat nerd with the coke bottle glasses woulda’ muffed it anyway. Hell of a trader, though, always neck and neck with me for the highest PnL in our group.

Jabba and me are definitely the studs on this corner of the floor. We’ve got the stingiest lead trader in the whole damn company and I still pulled down six hundred K last year. I think Jabba was just a little behind me. That might sound like a lot, but it’s chicken shit compared to what the partners make. I’m in my third year here, and my goal is to make partner in a year or so. Pretty quick, but it’s been done.

I make a few more trades before close, then shut down my book and wait for the day’s PnL. While we’re waiting, I start to rag Jabba. This is our time to bullshit, ‘cause we’re too busy making money the rest of the day.

I’m like: “Jabba, have you ever actually been with a girl?”

Jabba puts on a big grin. “Saint,” he says, “you’d be surprised how much a high six-figure income improves your looks.”

I’m like: “Yeah, yeah. Admit it. You got to buy it.”

“Don’t we all?” he says without losing his grin.

I change the subject to one of our favorite games. “Jabba, who’s dumber? Government regulators or ratings analysts?” We’ve started at the bottom of the food chain, except for “the muppets”—the clients.

Jabba says the analysts win, hands down. I play Devil’s advocate, “I don’t know. The regulators have an office right here in the building and they still don’t have a clue what’s going on in the company.”

“The analysts are still dumber,” Jabba says. “Think about it. There’s this dude in my apartment building, one floor down. He’s unemployed. Used to be a bus driver.”

“So what,” I say.

“Well, he just bought a co-op on the Lower East Side. The bank not only lent him the money, they lent him the down payment. They’ll lend money to anybody. What do they care? They just sell the mortgage to somebody who bundles a bunch of these shaky loans up into bonds. And the analysts are saying these are safe investments. The safest—triple-A.”

“You’re right, the analysts are dumber,” I concede.

Jabba gets serious and tells me the smart money is betting against these crappy bonds. “I’m putting my own jack in it. I hope you are.”

“Yeah,” I lie, “as much as my lifestyle permits.”

All of us prop traders like to brag about how we’re at the top of the pecking order.

I tell Jabba, “About a month ago I’m talkin’ to this distant cousin at a family wedding. He’s from Ohio or Iowa or some damn place like that, and is in B school out there. He’s all impressed that I work on Wall Street. He says he’s gonna get an MBA and try to come out here. I tell him prop trading is where it’s at and they don’t recruit from the B schools. It’s mostly engineering and math majors like you and me. MBA gets you some lame ass job like analyst, agency trader or broker. But I tell him they don’t take your average engineer who wants to sit in a cubicle and design rocket engines. They want somebody who can think on his feet, do complicated math problems in his head and is super aggressive and a risk taker.”

Jabba’s like: “So what’d he say?”

“Well, he pretended that he got it, but to be honest, I think he recognizes that he’s not cut out for this. Not many are.”

At about seven, I go over to Smith and Wolly’s, where some of the guys in our group are at the usual table. Spiky Mikey is already there, Al Kada, and a few others. Toxic Tanya is sitting at the corner of the table sippin’ on a Pickleback—Jameson’s and pickle juice.

“Hey Toxic!” I yell, “Show more cleavage!”

“Not for you losers,” she fires back. She’s one of the few chicks on the floor, and they’re all tough bitches like her. Not anyone you’d want to date. They’d cut your balls off—which is why they’re good traders.

The table has already polished off a bottle of Poligny Montachets, and they’re starting on another. They’ll be poundin’ down a whole bunch of appetizers, steak and lobster and a lot more two hundred dollar bottles of wine before the night’s over—buncha young guys with more money than they know what to do with. I order a club soda and a light seafood pasta dish. I’m like: “You assholes are gonna come in hung over again tomorrow and I’ll smoke your asses, as usual.”

“Sure, Saint,” says Mikey. “Listen to Mr. Healthy Lifestyle.” He puts two fingers up to his nose and makes sniffing sounds.

“Hey.” I say. “Alcohol puts you to sleep. Blow keeps my mind racing, like I want it to.”

And so goes the juicer versus doper debate. Both sides are right. We’re all pissin’ away our money and wreckin’ our health. The only smart one is Jabba. Every night he gets take-out Chinese and goes back to his apartment to play Call of Duty.

I cruise over to the bar area, where I see my main man’s gold chain before I see him.

I call out, “Sergei! Zdrasvatye, Bro!”

Zdasvetye, Tovarisch,” he says with a big smile.

Having exhausted my knowledge of Russian, we get down to business. We go outside, get in his Carrerra and take a little ride. I leave ten sleeves on his lap and he leaves ten grams of high-grade blow on mine. Back at the restaurant, I go in the men’s room and do a line, and then I’m back at the table.

About nine o’clock I get a text from Amy: “Whr RU?”

She’s this chick I’ve been dating about a month. Lives all the way out in Queens. I get my Beemer Z5 from the valet, head out through the Midtown Tunnel and get on the L.I.E. I’m makin’ good time until I get stuck behind some blue-haired fossil in a granny wagon—maroon Crown Vic. I’m ridin’ her ass and laying on the horn, but she’s not speeding up. Probably can’t hear me. I see a small opening on the right and cut off a soccer mom in an SUV. She flips me the bird. I flip her back.

But I’m around the old coot, and the lane ahead is wide open. I gun it.

I glance in my rear view mirror. Flashing lights about a mile back.

Nothing unusual. I glance back again. They’re getting closer! My throat tightens. Is he after me? He moves into my lane. I lighten up on the pedal. Maybe he hasn’t clocked me. No such luck. He’s crowding in on me. If he finds my stash I’m in deep shit…

My heart is pounding like a snare drum. Easy—coolness under pressure. That’s what makes me good at what I do and that’s what I need now. I ease over onto the berm and crunch to a stop. I switch off the CD player, snap on my never-used seat belt, fish five crisp sleeves out of the center console and put ‘em in my wallet next to where I keep my registration. I put my wallet away. I make as little movement as I can while I’m doing all this.

The cop sits in his car for what seems like forever, but he finally comes over to me. He shines his flashlight around the front seat area of my car for a few seconds.

“Take those fancy sunglasses off!” he barks.

A detail I forgot. I slide off my Louis Vuitons.

“License!”

I hand him my license and he studies it for about a minute. “You’re a Wall Street trader, right?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Figured as much. Twenty four year old kid with a car like this either has a rich daddy, or he’s a trader or drug dealer. You’re not preppy enough to be Ritchie Rich and if you were a drug dealer, you’d be wearin’ sweats and sneakers instead of that designer shirt and fag-ass Italian loafers.”

Good, I’m thinking. This guy’s no straight arrow. He just might go for the C-notes.

“Registration!”

I hold my wallet up near the window and fish around for the registration. “It’s in here somewhere,” I say. Meanwhile, the sleeves are sticking out.

He snatches the bills and stuffs them in his shirt pocket.

“Do you know you were doing ninety in a sixty-five zone?” he asks.

“No officer, I had a lot on my mind and just lost track of my speed.”

“Well, Mr. Vincent Santamaria,” he says, “you better slow it down. You just might kill yourself and some innocent people.”

“Yes, sir,” I say in my best ass-kissing voice.

He starts to turn like he’s leaving, then he says, “Just one more thing.”

He leans his head forward and crooks his index finger a couple of inches in front of his mouth and wiggles it, like he wants to whisper a secret in my ear. I lean my head toward him, and in a flash he wheels around and smashes his elbow into the left side of my face. Bright lights flash in my head and I feel an explosion of pain. In spite of myself, tears are rollin’ out of my eyes. I cringe, waiting for another smack, but it doesn’t come. I open my eyes and in the side-view mirror I see his fat ass waddling away, radio on his left hip and gun on his right. Without turning his head, he yells, “Something to remember me by, you little prick!”

I’m shaking from shock and red with rage at the sadistic bastard. My jaw feels like it’s on fire and blood is dripping from my mouth. I reach in and find one of my upper teeth loose. Another comes out in my hand. Goddamn! To get my head right, I get out my hand mirror, roll up a bill and do a line. After a while, I realize I better get back on the road, or I’ll draw another cop. I text Amy: “B L8. Xplain L8r.”

Back on the freeway, I start thinking a little more philosophically. What made him do that? Was he dishin’ out his own punishment? Is he jealous of some little prick who makes ten times his salary? Whatever, I got off with a sock in the jaw and a five hundred dollar donation. I could be on my way to prison.

By the time I reach Amy’s apartment, I’m back in a good mood. I sprint up the back stairs and knock. Through the window I see her and Raj, her roommate’s boyfriend, at the dinette playing some board game.

Amy has red hair, supermodel looks and an awesome python tat that runs across her back from her left shoulder to her right butt cheek. When she opens the door she says “Omigod! Vinny! What happened to you?”

“I got smacked by a cop,” I tell her. My jaw is swollen the size of a softball and a little blood is still trickling from my mouth. I hold out the missing tooth in my left hand.

She’s like: “EEEW! Smacked by a cop? Why?”

“He stopped me for speeding and I guess I rubbed him the wrong way.”

“You should file a complaint against him,” she says. “Did you get his badge number?”

I start giggling. I can’t help it. I manage to choke out, “I’m goin’ to file a complaint against some crooked, sadist cop who already knows my name, address, the car I drive and license number?”

Amy furrows her brow. “Why do you say he’s crooked?”

I say, “Well, because he hit me.” Not that great, but she buys it.

Amy is a nurse, and has lots of meds at home, so she gets to work. She cleans the blood out of my mouth and swabs it with Novocain, then some sticky stuff to stop the bleeding. She’s got some super-duper prescription Tylenol and I take a couple.

After everybody gets over the cop story, we’re sitting around the dinette and I take a closer look at the board game Amy and Raj were playing. It’s cardboard, but looks like old weathered wood. It’s got the alphabet written in old-fashioned letters, and below that the numbers zero through nine. In the upper left corner there’s a full moon and the word “Yes” and in the right corner a crescent moon and star and the word “No.” Under the numbers it says “Good Bye.” There’s a little yellow plastic thing shaped like a heart, with legs and a round clear plastic window in the middle.

“Is that a Weegie Board?” I ask. I’ve got some memories of nerds playing this at college.

“Actually, it’s a Wee-ja Board,” says Raj. He points to the top of the board where it says “OUIJA” “‘Oui’, as in French for ‘yes’, and ‘Ja’, as in German for ‘yes,’” he explains.

When Raj talks, I listen. He’s Indian, second generation, and he knows everything. Dude should totally go on Jeopardy. He’d clean up. He’s got his Masters in advanced math, and is as good at it as I am, but he also knows all the other stuff—languages, literature, you name it. He just got his Ph.D in Classical Studies from Queens College. He’s a graduate assistant over there, but figures he’ll be getting tenure soon, ‘cause he’s a friggin’ genius.

“How do you play?” I ask. I’m not familiar with any game that isn’t electronic.

Amy shows me. She puts the heart thing in the middle of the board, and puts the fingers of her right hand on it, then asks me to do the same. “Touch it very lightly,” she instructs me. “Now we ask it questions.”

She asks the Ouija, “Does Vinny have other girlfriends?”

The yellow heart thing kind of floats over to “No,” which happens to be true at the time.

I’m like: “You were pushing it!”

“No, I wasn’t. Were you?”

“No,” I tell her. “I swear I wasn’t.”

She’s like: “That’s how it works. It just moves! I didn’t think I believed in spirits, but now I’m not so sure.”

“It’s psychophysiological,” says Raj, “the ideomotor effect. Body movements can be independent of conscious thoughts or emotions, you know. It’s very well documented.”

The dude knows everything.

Amy’s like: “Anyway, I’m glad you don’t have other girlfriends.”

Now she asks it to spell out an answer. “When is Raj going to get tenure?” Yellow heart moves around from letter to letter spelling A-U-G-U-S-T.

Raj tells us that’s when the committee votes. This impresses me, since neither Amy nor I knew that. I’m getting some respect for this Ouija, whatever it is.

She asks it a few more romance questions, like whether Raj is going to ask her roommate Suzie to marry him. Ouija says, Yes. Raj is like: “Don’t tell her.”

After a while, I say, “Let’s try this. Should I go long or short on ’09 Euros?” Damn thing spells out S-H-O-R-T.

I try again, “I went long on July Yen today. Was I right?” Ouija says, Yes.

I’m getting some more good intelligence from the spirit when Suzie walks in.

“Hah, guys, whatch y’all doin?” she asks. Suzie is a real trip. She’s a hick from Tennessee or Georgia or some damn place, and she’s a sure-enough fundamentalist Christian. No drugs, liquor, tobacco, nothin’. The only thing her religion doesn’t seem to forbid is acrobatic sex with Raj and two or three other guys she’s got on the line. Raj knows about the other dudes and is cool with it—a real open-minded guy.

Suzie comes over to the table and her eyes get as big as saucers. She starts flapping her hands up and down and screaming, “That’s a Ouija board! It’s the Divil! Git it out of here!”
Raj tries to calm her down, but it doesn’t work. She runs into her room and slams the door.

Raj goes over and tries the door, but it’s locked. “C’mon, baby!” he pleads. “It’s just a toy!”

“Go away, you Godless heathen!” Suzie screams through the door, “I’m not coming out ‘till you get that outta’ here!”

It’s true. Raj is an Atheist. His mom’s a Buddhist and dad’s a Hindu. How he got hooked up with Suzie is a mystery.

Amy seems a little weirded out. “Do you really think it’s the Devil?” she asks.

I’m like: “Beats me. Let’s ask it.” So we ask Ouija straight out, “Are you the Devil?” It immediately floats over to No.

This seems to calm Amy down, but I’m not so sure. Would the Devil tell the truth about whether he’s the Devil? We ask, “Who are you?”

It spells out W-I-L-L-I-A-M-F-U-L-D.

Raj is still trying to sweet talk Amy out of her room. I yell for him to come over.

“Ouija says he’s William Fuld. Who the hell is that?” I ask.

Raj is like: “He’s the father of the Ouija. He popularized it and marketed it in the early twentieth century. By the way, that’s a common Ouija answer.”

I’m like: “Never heard of him.” Then, thinking out loud, I say, “We’ve got a Fuld on Wall Street.”

“Yes,” says Raj, “Richard Fuld, CEO of Lehmann Brothers.” Again, I’m impressed. I couldn’t tell you who the president of Queens College is.

Raj says, “I’m afraid I’m going to have to get rid of this thing if I want to see Suzie tonight.” He yells that he’s throwing the Ouija away.

Suzie yells, “Not innywhere around here! You maght as well leave now and dump it somewhere on your way home. I really don’t feel lahk seein’ you any more tonaght.”

Raj rolls his eyes. He boxes up the board and tucks it under his arm. I’m sure he has no intention of dumping it. “Can I call you tomorrow?” he shouts.

A long pause. “Maybe,” she calls in a pouty voice. That’s good enough for Raj, and he splits.

Amy brings out a pillow and blanket and makes up a little bed for me on the couch. She sits down on the floor and starts gently brushing my hair away from my forehead and saying “Poor Vinny.” So, neither Raj or me is gettin’ any tonight. He’s in the doghouse and I’m an invalid. I flip on the Yankees game and start watching it, but my eyes are getting heavy. Super Tylenol is working. I crash early, about midnight.

It’s been a few months since the cop incident. Got the tooth fixed, and Ouija is doing wonders for my PnL, but Wall Street as a whole has gone to shit. Every day another big company whose idiot managers have loaded up on subprime bonds is going down the tubes. We got our own set of idiots. Rumors are flying around the floor that we’re all gonna get canned.

Sure enough, here’s the e-mail. Meeting in the convo center at ten. Juniors only. High rollers have their own. Everybody’s shouting, even louder than usual. Trading stops, which is unheard of.

At ten, we all file into the convo center and take the seats up front. There’s two suits up on the stage—one from Legal and one from HR. Some assistants are passing out a one-page printout.

Legal Dude talks first. “Today at eleven o’clock, the company will announce that we will no longer be in the business of proprietary trading.” He’s reading from the same paper we all have. “That means, unfortunately, that it will be necessary for us to terminate your employment.” A loud hum comes up from the audience. He goes on reading, “The reasons for this decision are as follows…”

It’s spelled out on the paper, in corporate speak. The company is “on the verge of insolvency,” they’re talking with “high government officials” and “other financial institutions” to “explore solutions.” There’s a “perception” among these officials and “others” that proprietary trading that may take actions that are “inconsistent with the core business” is a “conflict of interest.” “We don’t agree, but…” blah, blah, blah.

I can’t take it anymore. I yell out, “Why don’t you cut all the bullshit and tell it like it is. You’re cavin’ to a bunch of bureaucrats who can’t find their asses with both hands, and you’re throwin’ us under the bus!”

Legal Dude is not amused. What do I care? What are they gonna do, fire me?

Dude is like: “What’s your name?”

“Vincent Santamaria.”

He’s like: “Floor name!”

“Saint Vinny or just Saint.”

“How long you been here?”

“Three years.”

He’s like: “Well, Saint, I was a trader for ten years before I joined the legal department, and I’m not talkin’ some half-assed Junior. So let me put this in language you’ll understand: The company is fucked if we don’t get some help from the feds. The feds think we shouldn’t do prop trading. Connect the dots. You’re history, asshole!”

HR Dude looks like he’s gonna’ have a stroke, and all the traders start shouting at once. Toxic yells out over all the others, “What about our bonuses?”

This shuts everybody up, and Legal Dude lapses back into lawspeak. Basically, he says that if there’s a bankruptcy, it’ll be a long time before we see “some or all” of the money they owe us. Even if there’s no bankruptcy, there still may be a problem. Something about bonuses being a “controversial political issue.”

This sends the traders into a frenzy. Everybody’s pissed off and yelling. Everybody, that is, except Jabba. He’s sitting back smiling like he just scored a date with Gisele Bundchen.

See, Jabba used all his savings, plus every nickel he could borrow, to short the subprime mortgage bond market. He found a hedge firm that was loading up on credit default swaps, bought into it, and cashed out of them at just the right time. Then he started shorting financial stocks. Basically, he was betting that the housing bubble would burst, and sink everybody who was loaded up on that crap, which was basically everybody on Wall Street. Course, he wasn’t the only one who saw the crash coming, and some of us made a few bucks on it, but nobody put as much dough into it or managed the timing like Jabba. Plus he was real careful about not using insider information. So Jabba could care less that he’s being fired. He’s a very rich man.

It’s been about a month since they canned me. Haven’t done much about trying to get another job. Some of the guys talked about going into business together, but it wouldn’t work. We’d kill each other.

I’m laying around Megan’s apartment. She’s my latest squeeze. Amy caught me snortin’ and gave me a bad time about it, so I dumped her.

I’m doing way too much coke and burning through what dough I have left at a record pace. But today I’m having fun. I’m watching cable news, and they’re covering the Senate hearings on the Crash. It’s funnier than Ron White and Louie CK rolled together.

Today Dick Fuld from Lehmann is up. This Senator is grilling him, real indignant like. I’m yelling at the TV.

“Yeah, you pompous hypocrite! How much money did you get from Wall Street?”

Hypocrite lowers his voice. He’s like: “Since 2000, you’ve been paid more than five hundred million dollars by Lehmann Brothers. Is that correct?”

I’m like: “Five…Hundred…Million…Dollars! I get beat up by a cop ‘cause I make what this moron loses in the seat cushions every night.”

I’ve seen this kind of testimony before. Pretty soon he’ll say what they always say—he didn’t know what was going on in his company. Please! Obviously these guys are either lying or incredibly stupid. How’s that for a defense: “I’m not a crook, I’m an idiot!”

Course, everybody thinks they’re lying, because, well, they couldn’t possibly be that stupid, could they? But what people don’t know, and what’s really scary, is yes, they’re really that stupid… They’re dumber than manatees. They’re dumber than stones. You know those people on that show American Greed who put all their life savings into bonds, because a crooked preacher tells them they’re gonna earn two hundred percent? They’re dumber than those people!

“Hey Fuld,” I yell, “buy low, sell high! Don’t borrow more than you can pay back! Didja miss those classes at B school?”

I text Jabba: “Ultimate Who’s Dumber – Wall Street CEOs or the boards that pay em hundreds of millions?”

Comes up: “Delivery failure.”

I try his cell. “No longer in service.”

Figures. Knowin’ Jabba, he’s on some South Sea Island playing video games nonstop with topless chicks in grass skirts bringing him root beer floats.

Now they’re showing protestors outside the Lehmann building. Raggedy bunch. There’s an Asian dude who’s a little better dressed than the rest. He’s with a tall chick in Daisy Dukes and a halter-top. Camera pans in and damned if it isn’t Raj and Suzie.

I’m like: “Give ‘em hell, guys!”

They interview a protester. Dude has purple hair, gauges in his ears and lightning bolt tats going up his neck. Red-rimmed eyes—he’s been hittin’ the reefer real hard. Dude says all the Wall Street CEOs should be in prison.

I’m thinking, hey, right now this dude and I have the same occupation—layin’ around doin’ drugs all day. And he’s absolutely right! Assholes should all be in jail—one, for tryin’ to steal my bonus; two, for felony stupidity…oh, yeah, and for rippin’ off the muppets and wreckin’ the economy.

Camera zooms out and you can see the signs they’re carrying. One chick has a sign that says RICHARD FULD IS THE DEVIL.

I’m like: “Naaah…he’s not the Devil. He’s the Devil’s brother.”

_

Thank you to Kevin Duffy for sharing the complete text of his story “Saint Vinny and the Devil’s Brother” for free on the web.  The complete book book, Best of Ohio Short Stories: Volume 1, features seventeen additional stories.  Click here to find the book on Amazon.  E-books are also available from all major digital retailers, click here for links.

Kevin Duffy is a recovering lawyer. He and his lovely wife Mary Ann are enjoying retirement in Columbus, with their three wonderful children and five grandchildren living nearby. For a sample of Kevin’s poetry, see Columbus Creative Cooperative’s The Ides of March: An Anthology of Ohio Poets.

“Monsters” – Sara Ross Witt

Right now, my sisters, Anne and Cass, are trying to take a picture of one of the twins naked. They know he is embarrassed and his trauma is funny to them. I think this is strange, though I am staring at them as I stare at the TV on Saturday mornings, in a cartoon coma.

I will be ten at the end of the summer. My four older half-siblings—twin brothers and two sisters—will be gone by then. They will go home, a three-hour drive south of here, to live in their big house, retreating into their large individual bedrooms. They don’t have to share. Their father and stepmother will excitedly greet them. (I know because I’ve watched their reunion from Mom’s car.)

Confused? Yeah. Me too. Let me explain: my mother married her first husband and had those four older kids I just mentioned, my half-siblings who visit us for a few weeks every summer and for certain holidays. Mom divorced their dad, married my dad, had Jonathan and I, then divorced my dad. I am the youngest of six kids. We’re the poor ones.

After their visit it will just be Jonathan and me. I’ll have a quiet birthday with him, my mother, Granny and Dad. Dad will be apologetic for avoiding us for the last half of summer. He doesn’t like our older half-siblings, the leftovers from mother’s first marriage. That’s what he calls them.

Jonathan and I like them, I think. They are dangerous and sometimes mean; they enjoy embarrassing each other, playing pranks on one another, and picking on our neighbors. They are without mercy. We now have a feud going with the kid living two houses down. One of the twins, I cannot remember which one, threw a mud patty at him. He cried. My siblings found this very funny, except Jonathan, who hung back from the group and forced a smile. He was doing that for show, I knew, because if he didn’t they’d tease him, call him fatty.

Like me, Jonathan knows that we aren’t the popular kids in our school and we have to be at the bus stop in the fall with that boy. We live in a run-down duplex, we wear hand-me-downs (do you know how traumatic it is for me, a little girl, to wear her brother’s oversized old clothes?), our mother works two jobs “just to feed us,” and we receive donated gifts for Christmas.

Anne and Cass have Jamie cornered in the bathroom; the other twin, Will, as always is trying to defend his brother. The girls are pushing the bathroom door in; the boys are holding it closed. Hinges groan from their abuse. Anne and Cass are cackling because Jamie is screaming high-pitched and girly.

I am sitting on my hands. Grandma told me that is what she had to do while growing up. “Children were seen and not heard,” she said. I don’t know how sitting on her hands made her quiet.

“Okay, Jamie. We give up,” Cass calls. She shoves the camera into the waistband of her white and red shorts. Anne has a matching pair because my mother likes dressing all four of her children alike—the girls in matching outfits as well as the twins. Jonathan and I sit shabby next to them. We don’t have a matching anything.

“Give me my clothes,” Jamie yells. Anne throws them at the door, the belt buckle smacking the hollow wood, a dull thud. Jonathan jumps at the sound.

“Come on, guys. Leave Jamie alone,” he says.

“Quiet, Johnny or I’ll give you another titty twister,” Cass tells him. He drops the Atari controller and covers his chest with his arms.

The bathroom door opens a crack, Jamie’s hand darts out feeling along the carpet for the crumpled clothes. The girls rush the door, crashing into it. There’s a loud noise, the splitting of wood. We all start screaming.

Through our screams, we hear it: the sound of the garage door lifting, a car engine shutting off. It’s late and dark. Our mother is home from work.

Now the six of us huddle in the bedroom Jonathan and I share. He is hiding beneath his blue E.T. covers trying to cry without notice. Anne and Cass are squished together on my twin bed. They aren’t crying but I can tell Cass wants to. Her eyelids blink rapidly. Will and Jamie are stretched skinny beside each other on the floor, lips in stiff straight lines. I am standing by the door, fingering the edge of my nightgown, a faded pink lace. I have been wearing it for three years, it is too short really to be an appropriate nightgown—Lori Denson told me so when I wore it to my one and only slumber party last year. A pity invite for the poor girl.

There’s no space for me. They never make space for me even though it’s my room, my bed. As the youngest, I’m automatically pushed out. I’m pretty sure Cass, or maybe it was Anne, said I shouldn’t own anything anyway. They don’t trust me.

I open the door. “Going to tattle, Chrissy?” Anne asks.

“No,” I say as I slam the door.

“Do not slam doors in this house!” Mother screams from her bedroom. Her door is also closed.

“Sorry,” I mumble into it. “Can I come in?”

I press my ear against the door. I listen for movement. I tap the wood again with my tiny fist. “Please?”

My stomach knots a hundred times before she opens it. Even though her eyes are puffy, red and rubbed raw from her tears, she is beautiful. Her hair is white blonde and curled daintily against her chin. Her teeth are capped pearly-whites; she flashes them often, especially when she laughs. She has a deep belly laugh that bursts forth from her wide-open mouth and travels around her shiny perfect teeth. People recognize her laugh. It is an infectious laugh. Her eyes are lawn bright green. My eyes are brown and my hair is an even lazier shade of brown.

People tell me I look like Anne but Anne looks like Mom, and I know I am not pretty like she is. Jonathan and I are dark like our Dad; dark hair and dark eyes, with soft edges and puffy cheeks.

I sit next to her on the bed as she cries fresh tears. “My children are monsters.”

She lumps me with them. I want to say that I was being good, that even Jonathan was trying to calm those four. We did not break the door. But that would be tattling, and she wouldn’t believe me anyway.

“I’m going to send them home. I’ll call their father in the morning.”

“Please don’t,” I say.

“Why not?” She is furious that I contradict her, I defend them, but I know this is what she wants, what she expects. This routine happens every visit—trouble ensues, mother yells, tells them she will send them home to their father, I talk her out of it, and the next day she is all smiles for them. She cooks them breakfast, bacon and eggs with buttery toast. They will snicker at me and call me a traitor, even though I saved them, and Mother won’t come to my defense because she hates me a little bit too. Jonathan and I are her mistakes.

She has told me she never loved my dad. God, that hurts. Why tell me? I was eight, I think, when she first said that. See, Mom thinks it’s okay to say these things to me because, as she says, I have psychic talent. According to her, I can tell how people are feeling, what they are thinking, and what will happen to them in the future. She believes this about me because that’s what her psychic friend Dolores told her. That my spirit is blue or something, and now I have to hear things that hurt.

“Because they’re good. They’re having fun,” I say. “They love you.”

“They love their father. They don’t even know me.”

“No. They hate him, they told me. He drinks.”

Mother nods, “I know. He’s an alcoholic. He’s no good for them. The courts gave him custody because his parents have money.” This story I have heard many times before.

“Cass’s crying,” I tell her.

“Really?” Mom asks. “She doesn’t want me to send her home?”

I shake my head.

“That door is going to cost a lot to replace. How am I going to afford that? I can’t tell the landlord, either. He’d kick us out for sure. I’m making friends here, Christine. We need this.” Then, tucking herself into bed she says, “I’ll think about it. I’ll call Dolores in the morning.” She turns off the light. “Go to bed, Chrissy.”

I maneuver out of her dark room. There is nowhere for me to sleep in my room; Jonathan and the four having fallen asleep despite their fears. I walk in the dark downstairs and curl into a ball on the couch.

I wake up cold, curled in the same tight ball. The twins at the end of the couch are playing Atari. Jonathan is watching, giving commands they shrug off. I unfold from my cramped position, mumbling “ow.”

“Should’ve used a blanket,” Will says. His eyes never leave the TV.

I want to say There weren’t any extra blankets, asshole. Mother calls  us that when she’s upset, “her asshole children.” But I keep my mouth shut and walk past the duct taped bathroom door into the kitchen. Cass is helping with breakfast, carefully breaking the eggs over the hot skillet. Mother, her arm around Anne’s shoulder, is singing along to the radio as she presses bacon into the pan.

Every morning I eat breakfast of bitter oatmeal. I hate oatmeal, always have. Mother never comes to Parent’s Day at my school. She gave my snail away to that fat snob Bryan McBibb! I think all of this as I watch their happy little scene and I want to throw myself onto the ground, have a good childish tantrum, the kind I’ve only ever witnessed at the mall. Instead, I stick out my tongue at their cute little scene and march to my room.

It is empty. And quiet.

I’m still cold so I tug on jeans and a sweatshirt. I pick up the phone to call Dad and complain. I dial the first three digits: eight–nine–zero. By the time the dial completes the rotation from zero, I hang up. If he answered, he would tell me to have fun and not to worry. He would say I will be okay. I want to tell him it will never be “okay,” even after my half-siblings have gone home. I have a fear of the future, of my whole life being lived in this cramped, noisy, moldy house, never escaping. My chest starts beating quickly. I feel my breath coming out funny. I sit down on my bed and rest my head on my knees. Nobody knows I get like this—freaked out.

My sheets smell of the sisters’ perfume, bubblegummy sickly sweet. I pull my pink blankie from under my bed, shoved there when they arrived two weeks ago, and wrap it around my head. It smells of me. I feel calmer with each inhale. I pull my book from under the bed, too. Bridge to Terabithia feels warm in my hand, and I read until my eyelids droop, then I put it next to my blanketed face and fall asleep.

I’m hanging from a rope over a black gulf. The edge that I must have jumped from has disappeared. The other edge that I was jumping towards has also disappeared. My dream world is fading. There’s a black noise that’s eating it.

There it is again. I hear it more fully. It’s not just a noise: it’s several voices. I cannot keep pretending my dream hasn’t been interrupted by the outside world. My eyelids flick open and I scan the room for Jonathan’s digital clock. 8:00 p.m. How did I sleep through the entire day?

I dangle my one arm and one leg out of bed. Moving feels like a chore. Staying in bed and finishing my book is appealing, but those aren’t just loud voices, they’re sharp yells. Then I hear Cassie’s scream, it’s really scary and animal, and I’m on my feet and hopping down the stairs cricket-quick, blinded because every light in the house is on. The sound is chaotic, I can’t understand a word of the accusations, but my eye catches the shoe in Cass’s hand and I feel in my stomach that this is not going to end well. Cass punches hard like a boy. She once beat the crap out of some girl in a bathroom for poking fun at Anne.

It’s one of the twins she’s aiming at now. “Watch out!” I yell to Jamie. He ducks as the shoe blasts out of her hand. It sounds like someone hammering a rock when it hits the wall; it goes right into the wall, it just digs in.

“Damn,” Jamie wails. Of course they’ve all forgotten themselves, because there’s Mom, fuming, her jaw clinched, her brow furrowed. I feel like I can see every bone and vein in her face. Why, or how, did she let them get so out of hand? She stalks over to the shoe buried in the wall; glares at it, like her stare will make it go away.

Jonathan walks over and pops the shoe out of the wall. I can see splintered wood and crackling drywall and cotton candy insulation. He drops the shoe in front of the hole, wipes his hands on his jeans, like touching it will mean he did it. Jamie’s on the verge of tears, and of course Will is pissed; pretty soon he’ll be shouting and throwing his fists. I’m still not sure why Cass wanted to hurt Jamie so bad.

I look back at Cass. She’s just shaking, sort of how the tree in our front yard moves during a storm, like it might snap. I watch sort of hoping that it will snap. Cass is looking at Mom. Mom is looking at the wall. Anne has her arms crossed, her hip cocked to the side, her toe tapping. Her face is calm, like this happens all the time, and with those four I imagine that it does, and there’s a tug on her mouth, she might laugh.

God. Please don’t laugh. Please don’t laugh.

Mom is quiet. We’re waiting for the eruption, for the screaming, for the threats. For the hitting. I wasn’t here. I don’t know what happened but I’d better think of something quick, something that will soothe the situation.

She’s still not speaking—the angry hum of the appliances filling the space. Mom grabs her car keys from the hook by the door, walks into the garage, and leaves the door to the house wide open. She never does that. She never does this; no talking, just walking away. I look at Anne, who raises her eyebrows and shrugs. She follows Mom. I go too, closing the door behind me, and get in the backseat of the car, just as Mom backs down the driveway. I hope Jonathan is okay with Cass and the twins. They were about to kill each other but this—being in the car with Mom and Anne—feels much scarier.

I close my eyes for the entire drive, which isn’t very long. I don’t want to see how we’re getting to wherever we’re going because that feels safer. Anne hasn’t said anything, which is a relief because she tends to say things that piss Mom off. Everything pisses Mom off. But this quiet is killing me.

I peek out the window. It’s not pitch black yet. Just a summer dark that starts gray, goes to purple, and then finally races to black. Right now we’re in purple and I can see curved headstones and shadowy statues.

We’re in the middle of Blendon Cemetery. Mom turns off the car, gets out and picks her way amongst the graves. Then suddenly she’s on her knees near a grave in the dark.

“This is creepy,” Anne says. “What the hell’s she doing?”

Getting out of the car, I follow Mom’s path. I don’t know what she’s doing, but I feel like I can’t sit in the car with Anne. There’s a sense of adventure, and also, separation, the need to pull away from Anne, Cass, and the twins, to take back my summer.

Sliding along the grass, careful to avoid walking over graves, I find Mom kneeling by a new plot—just a metal marker bearing a name I can’t read in the darkness and a mound of soil. Her hands are in the dirt, she’s looking up at the sky, waiting. I’m used to this, Mom’s bizarre meditative moments: Indian dances, séances, taking a day off school to drive two states west to have her aura cleansed. Trying to trance so she can have an out-of-body experience. Writing fake checks to herself and hiding them for good fortune. This is almost a normal Saturday night for me.

“What are you doing?” Anne asks, finding us as the sky turns all black and I finally notice the moon. It seems to hang low, a pendant.

“I’m gathering dirt,” Mom says.

“What the hell for?”

“For a curse.”

I get on my hands and knees to help her remove dirt from the fresh grave. The soil feels like cookie dough in my hand, wet, as though it has recently rained. It hasn’t rained here in weeks. If he was buried today, could the tears have soaked the ground or is it juice from the dead? I’ve never been to a funeral and have only visited cemeteries during daylight. Every horror movie I’ve ever watched is playing through my brain. I shudder.

Stop it, brain.

“Mom, this is fucked up.” Anne says. She must get away with cursing at her dad’s home. Mom usually never allows it but she doesn’t stop shoveling handfuls of dirt into a little brown paper bag. “This is crazy,” she says. I hear how frightened Anne is. There’s a tremble in her voice. “Dad’s right. You’re nuts.”

She walks toward the cemetery gate. “Where are you going?” Mom asks.

“Home!” Anne yells back. “To Dad!”

I’m guessing Anne can make the walk back to our house easily; we’ve ridden our bikes to the cemetery many times.

“Christine, we’re going to spread this on Chuck’s welcome mat,” Mom says. “We’re going to leave a message to all who enter his home that he is a false man.”

“You mean a liar?”

“A false man.”

I don’t really understand what she means. I’ve met Chuck once; I know he is a real man. I also know he is married but he told my mother he loved her. The one time he came over to our house, he told Mom that he was going to leave his wife. She and Chuck held hands and kissed. I was upstairs in my room but I could hear their talking and their laughter and imagined how they embraced, then they called me downstairs and I saw that my imaginings were true. “Tell her, Chuck,” Mom encouraged. “Tell her.”

“I’m going to marry your mom. I’m going to live with you, be like your dad. ‘Kay?”

“Okay,” I said, though I knew no one would be like my dad. My dad is quiet and sweet and silly and teaches me new words from the dictionary. Words like ennui because I am always telling him I’m bored, even when I’m not. Chuck was loud and had no sense of humor. He pretended to like us. I suspected like my father he would have a hard time with “other people’s children.”

Chuck went home the next morning to “get his stuff.” He and his wife made up so he broke it off with Mom. That was a year ago. Since then, if a car pulls into our driveway and then backs out, she goes to the window and wonders if it was Chuck thinking about coming back to her. Or if the phone rings but no one is on the line, she thinks it was Chuck checking on her.

Now we’re driving the voodoo dirt to Chuck’s home. My hands are definitely being sat upon. I peer at the grave dirt in the back seat. Every time I look back I expect to find the ghost sitting there, the owner of that sacred dirt, and he’ll be mad because we stole something from him. We stole his peace. He just wanted to pull the dirt over him like a heavy quilt, we took it away. I worry he’ll haunt us for the rest of our lives.

She turns off the headlights as we enter Chuck’s cul-de-sac. We park near the entrance of the street, darting our eyes from lit window to window. There’s an upstairs light on at Chuck’s house, she tells me. She opens her door, I get out too. I stand there, in eighty-degree heat, the heat from the sidewalk pushing up against my legs, crawling on my skin like spiders, yet I shiver. I’m holding the bag of dirt, it’s damp, and I feel cold to my bones. Mom cuts through yards to avoid the street lights and sidles up against his house. I mimic her every movement, though I am shaking and the bag feels heavy, feels a ton. I have never lifted anything so heavy. My arms ache.

She whispers in my ear, “Christine, you’ve got to do it. I can’t walk past his house. I’ll be seen through the window.”

“No one’s downstairs. The lights are off,” I say.

“You never know.”

“You could crawl.”

“I don’t think—”

I cut her off. This is probably a defining moment that will be recounted to her psychic friends for the next ten years, but I don’t give a damn. I am not cursing Chuck. “If I do it, the curse won’t take. I’m not the one he upset, it was you. You definitely have to do it. But I’ll…I’ll help you.”

In the darkness I can’t see her face but I know she’s giving me the same look she gives me when I predict her future the way she wants to hear it. “You’re right. You’re absolutely right,” she finally says.

We crawl between his bushes through mulch, our knees pierced by the wood, splinters in our hands. We shake the bag over his front porch and really push the grave dirt into the cement. The whole time I tell myself not to think a single bad thought about Chuck or anyone.

We crawl back to the side of his house, stand up and start running. The ghost is behind us. I can feel its breath on my shoulders and if I look back, he will swallow me taking me straight to Hell. I wrench open the car door and jump on the seat with my eyes closed. I don’t open them again until we’re out of his neighborhood.

“I’m afraid to look in my rearview mirror,” Mom says.

“I was afraid to open my eyes when we were running,” I say. “I didn’t fall. I thought I would trip and fall.”

“No, you didn’t fall.” She says. Then she laughs her deep belly laugh, and I turn to look at her fully, see the glint of her white teeth. “Do you think Anne walked all the way to her Dad’s?”

I’m supposed to say I’m sure she’s waiting for us at the house. I don’t. She’s their mother; she should want them to stay. I shouldn’t have to convince her and I shouldn’t have to curse her ex-boyfriends. But I did. And I would do it again. Maybe my siblings are the normal ones and I’m crazy? I don’t care. I didn’t have one of my “attacks” and I can run. I can run without looking back.

“I think they want to go home,” Mom says. “They aren’t having any fun. I never realized how different they’ve become. They’re not like us, Chrissy.”

Thank you to Sara Ross Witt for sharing the complete text of her story “Monsters” for free on the web.  The complete book book, Best of Ohio Short Stories: Volume 1, features seventeen additional stories.  Click here to find the book on Amazon.  E-books are also available from all major digital retailers, click here for links.

Sara Ross Witt, a native of Columbus, is a graduate of the New School University M.F.A. program. She authored Pregphobic and Pregnant, a blog about pregnancy and motherhood. Her writing has appeared in Arch City Chronicles and Parent to Parent. She lives in Chicago.