Category Archives: Best of Ohio Short Stories

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Best of Ohio Short Stories is a compilation of 18 fantastic stories by 18 talented Ohio Best of Ohio Short Storiesauthors.

While many of the stories are up on the website for free, purchasing a book is a great way to show your support for local literature.

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We accepted submissions for Best of Ohio Short Stories from writers around the state at all experience levels. Columbus Creative Cooperative then hand-picked the best of those stories to literally bring you the best of Ohio.

This book is more than just a great read. It represents the hard work of local authors doing their best to get that work on the map. Best of Ohio Short Stories features the work of these Ohio authors: David Armstrong, Mark D. Baumgartner, Joseph Downing, Kevin Duffy, Ann Brimacombe Elliot, Scott Geisel, Justin Hanson, Maria Hummer, Brenda Layman, Kelsey Lynne, Alice G. Otto, Brad Pauquette, Brooks Rexroat, Lin Rice, Anna Scotti, Heather Sinclair Shaw, S.E. White and Sara Ross Witt.

Whether you’re coming across the book for the first time, or you’ve already read a few of the stories, we hope you’ll  choose to support the authors behind this phenomenal book and purchase a copy. We know you’ll enjoy it.

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“A Test of Faith” – Alice G. Otto

Charles and Maggie lived deep in the hills of Kentucky. They had an old tractor and an orange ATV and a cellar stocked with smoked meats and canned vegetables, so they rarely worried about the distance to town—a gas pump, a country kitchen and a church.

The snows, though, could be a cause for worry. The county-run plow wouldn’t risk the four-mile dirt and gravel drive ascending from their cabin to the mountain pass, which took another twelve miles to meander into town. Charles rigged a corrugated metal roofing panel to the front of the tractor and strapped chains on its tires, and that rudimentary plow served well when God was kind for the winter. But, though the people of the hollers were kind to God, in prayer and services, He didn’t often return that kindness in the cold months, when ice draped the trees and snow piled thick in the valleys.

As Maggie’s pregnancy became apparent, the December sky roiled and heaved into slivers of steel, and winter’s first blanket settled itself early. Maggie washed pots with a rag by the kitchen window and, with a small, calm smile, watched the menace building outside. She trusted her body as she trusted God. She felt wonderful, beautiful, and since spring, when  Maggie’s church friends first learned she and Charles were trying for a baby, they had passed along vitamins and onesies and bottles, nursing pads and rattles, a crib and a Johnny Jump Up, a portable food masher and little jars, booties and bibs and books. Their home was ready, and Maggie was ready, but Charles desperately wanted her to see the town doctor before the weather got any worse. He wanted the reassurance of facts, of medicine, but he only had the timeline for comfort—Maggie being three months along in December meant a June birth, most likely, which meant most any potential crises would fall outside winter’s grasp.

The clouds murmured, dusted themselves, and by the second week of December began to salt the earth in earnest. At first, Charles spun out his makeshift snow plow once a day, then twice a day. He’d chopped wood all through September and October, stacking logs high in the den, piling them on the porch, along the outer walls, in pyramids between the shed and the cabin.

There was nothing Charles could do when the snow won, as it did for at least a short while every winter. Later, normally. January or February. The third week of December unfolded, and he awoke one morning to a bright white square where the sky and spruce trees typically showed through the window. He squeezed Maggie’s arm.

Peeking over the down comforter, she said, “Mercy.” The light was strange and muffled, as if the house were sunk in cotton batting.

“I don’t imagine the tractor’s gonna do a lick of good against that,” Charles said. He pulled Maggie close, relishing her heat, the soft curve of her belly.

“How much of that was just the wind, do you think?”

“A fair portion, I’m sure.” Charles looked at the window, like an oversized note card—so white! “But a draft that high, just on this one side, well…that still has to be a few feet all around, I imagine.”

“My. Guess this means Christmas alone?”

“Just the two of us,” Charles agreed. “Three of us, that is.”

“Mmm…good.”

Any thoughts of productivity laid to rest, the couple slept three more hours, happy to be warm, abandoned on their quiet homestead.

Charles heated handfuls of rags to press along the front door’s edges, and jimmied and plied the door until it finally pulled open—to reveal another wall of whiteness.

“Mags. Come look at this.”

She padded around the corner in her slippers and thick bathrobe, her long black hair in tangles and knots. “Well I’ll be. How deep? Is it just another draft pushed up?”

Charles grabbed the broom by the fireplace and, holding the bristled end, drove the handle into the wall of snow. They peeked down the narrow tunnel: no sky, sun, or trees. Charles tried driving the handle up high, at an angle: no light came down.

“We’re buried. I don’t believe it, but we’re buried.”

“But the chimney?”

Charles nodded, “It’d be bad if the fire wasn’t going all night. I mean, I have to think the snow couldn’t go that high…but I don’t know what to think, I just know it’s good we had it going, ‘cause even if the whole cabin’s under, the heat kept that passage open. We’d be dead of carbon monoxide by now if it hadn’t.”

“That’s very comforting, dear. Do you want potatoes?” Maggie asked.

They ate potatoes by lamplight, then read by the fire, taking turns feeding logs to its crackling orange tongues. They passed their sleepy days that way, aware of time only in that it had to be passing, and the grandfather clock clicked away the hours and nights in place of the sun.

Charles was checking the smoked ham hock in its pot on the fire, ladling the meat’s juices over the potatoes to tenderize them, to make something like a holiday meal. It was Christmas Eve.

He heard a whimper behind him, and the sound mounted to a scream of instant, furious pain—“Charles!” He dropped the ladle and sprinted into the bedroom.

“Mags—Maggie!” he shouted when he reached her. “Oh, God. Oh God, it’s gonna be okay, Mags, hold on.”

Blood soaked through her nightgown and stained the sheet beneath her thighs, an inky maroon puddle in the oil lamp’s glow. Maggie’s eyes were wet, the nightgown clung to her skin and she clutched at the blankets with bloody fingers.

“Charles, I’m sorry, I’m sorry—help me I’m sorry, what’s happening—”

He grasped Maggie’s shoulders and pressed her forehead to his lips, kissed her cheeks, guided her hair behind her ears, off her shoulders, off her face. “It’s okay. I’m here, Mags, we’re fine. I’ll be right back, okay, I’ll be right back, we’re fine.”

Charles tore through the cabin. He pulled the ham hock off the fire and grabbed a large pot from the kitchen. He opened the front door and piled snow into the pot with his bare hands and shoved it directly into the fire to let the snow melt, then boil, and he grabbed a lantern and held it to the bathroom medicine cabinet, pushing bottles aside with shaky fingers, his mind stumbling to keep up with its instincts and reason. Maggie was in pain. Aspirin. Aspirin thins blood, she’s bleeding, she’ll bleed out—bleed out? Jesus, bleed out. No aspirin. A muscle relaxant. Wasn’t a miscarriage something to do with contractions, with muscles—miscarriage. Miscarriage. Charles dug his shaky thumb into the cap of the muscle relaxants, fighting the childproof top. The pills scattered across the sink. He picked up one. Two. To the kitchen, poured a cup of water from the pitcher they’d been keeping on the counter, back to Maggie.

She looked sallow and desperate and primal in the unstable light. Charles put one hand behind her neck, craning her head up, and eased the two pills into her mouth, grabbed the cup and held it to her mouth to drink. The water dribbled between Maggie’s lips and down her chin. She sobbed.

“It hurts. Charles I’m scared it hurts, it hurts, it hurts—”

Dizziness threatened his knees and heart. Charles told her to keep pressure on the wound, knowing that made no sense but having no idea what else to say, and ran to grab dishtowels from the kitchen and drop them into the water simmering in the hearth. The cloth squares bubbled and undulated in the pot like sacs of fish eggs ready to pop. Maggie moaned in the bedroom. Charles looked over at the pot on the floor with the ham hock and potatoes. A thin layer of fat was congealing on the broth’s surface. He leapt up and squirted dish soap onto his hands in the kitchen, scrubbed it into his calluses. He picked at the permanent oily stains about his short nails, plunged his hands into the water pitcher and shook them furiously until they rinsed as clean as they could be. He pinched the dishtowels from the boiling water and barely registered the pain.

Time slowed for a moment, looking down at his beautiful wife, his wife, lost and suffering in a fortress of snow. It slowed for a moment. Sanitized rags were for childbirth, weren’t they. They weren’t for child deaths. Charles had no idea what to do: surely and calmly, he realized this. He peeled Maggie’s nightgown away from her thighs. He pulled down her panties. He’d first done that ten years before. They were wet then, too; she was nineteen, had waited nineteen years for him, and she was beyond ready. He’d waited twenty for her, and when he first saw it—saw her, glistening, pink—it nearly sent him over the edge before they could consummate the marriage.

Now, there was nothing of that pinkness; all the colors ran red and black. Since it was the only coaching Charles could remember, he commanded, “Push.” And Maggie did, and it was messy. Charles pressed the moist, boiled dishtowels against her inner thighs, around that opening from which this hell was springing.

“Push.” What in God’s name was he saying?

“Push.” Push what, blood until she dies?

“Push.” And Maggie was screaming again.

“Push.” And Maggie was quiet.

Charles said, “Push,” and there was something in his hands that wasn’t blood.

She pushed one final time, without his guidance.

Charles looked at what lay partially cradled in his hands. The dizziness was back. Maggie was out: eyes shut, inert. That was best. He looked down again, and what he saw wasn’t the bare beginnings of a baby.

It was puppies.

Charles gathered the puppies in his arms and set them before the fire in the den. They squirmed and gargled. He walked to the laundry room and opened the pantry which had been the baby closet since spring. He picked up a small knitted blanket. Charles returned to the hearth, knelt, arranged the yellow blanket into a nest, and transferred the puppies to the blanket-nest individually. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Five puppies. Their eyes were sealed and they wriggled atop and between one another, their little mouths parting and closing in search of milk.

Charles walked back to the bedroom, where Maggie lay motionless, her legs still splayed. He gently cleaned her thighs with a wet dishtowel. He placed another towel between her legs and straightened them, then pulled down her nightgown and tucked the comforter around her chest. Her breaths were even. Charles kissed her forehead and extinguished the lamp.

He grabbed the washcloths from the bathroom and tossed them into the pot on the fire; the water was still boiling. The wind blew outside. It transferred through the snow-insulated cabin as a low thrum. Charles crossed the den to the bookshelf and picked a selection from the shelf Maggie had labeled “MOMMY’S CORNER” in blue glitter-glue on a piece of pink construction paper cut in the shape of a stork. He flipped to “D” in the index. “Daddy’s Checklist. Decorating the Nursery. Delivery Options. Diaper Changing Essentials.” He flipped to “P” in the index. “Packing for the Hospital. Pelvic Pressure. Pet and Animal Safety.” Charles flipped to that. It turned out dogs could carry bacteria such as campylobacter and salmonella, which a pregnant woman ought to avoid, and that it was wise to accustom a dog to a newborn by bringing back a blanket carrying the baby’s scent from the hospital. Boundaries had to be set for the dog once the newborn was home in the nursery. Charles returned to “P.” “Placenta, Preeclampsia, Premature Birth.” Charles flipped to that. Useless. Preemies were prone to underdeveloped lungs and feeding troubles, but according to the book, they were not prone to being puppies.

Charles replaced the book and returned to the fire. He wrung the boiled washcloths out on the rug and shook them to dissipate the heat. The puppies appeared to have fallen asleep. He picked up the least entangled puppy and wiped its face, its belly, its little legs and tail, cleansing the blood and mucus from its fur. It suckled the air and whined until he put it back in the nest. Charles carefully pulled another puppy from the pile and wiped it off. It was dappled gray, with white feet. He put it back in the nest. He cleaned the last three puppies, changing washcloths as they soiled, and watched the fire as the quivering pile of puppies fell into a quiet slumber.

The grandfather clock chimed. It was Christmas. Charles put the ham hock and potatoes back on the rack. He stirred the broth, now and then, and stared into the bricks of the hearth.

When Charles awoke, the fire was weak, just an intermittent flame and the ashen glow of logs carrying their last heat. His back crackled from sleeping on the hard floor. It was too dim to read the grandfather clock, but Charles saw two dark shapes about a foot away from the blanket-nest on opposite sides, and he grabbed them, terrified to feel how cool the puppies were. He realized they were crawling into the darkness in search of their mother. Charles edged closer to the fire, stoked it, and tucked the two puppies under his sweater, atop his belly. He hunched over and pushed slow, hot breaths through the sweater, massaging the puppies through the yarn. A tiny haunch extended, a little head shook side to side: they were okay. The other puppies voiced aggravation as Charles lifted them to tuck the voyagers at the warm bottom of the mass, but they settled quickly, and he fed some kindling and a hearty log to the fire.

Charles lit the lamp by the bookshelf and turned to the grandfather clock: quarter past five, in the morning, he assumed. Grabbing two washcloths from the floor, he pulled out the crusty, burnt Christmas Eve meal. A mewling from the nest. Charles jabbed the charred ham hock with his thumb, licked it. Definitely ruined. More mewling. He grabbed the lamp and crossed to the bedroom door.

Maggie was still buried beneath the comforter on her back, arms atop the blanket with her pale palms upturned. Her head fell to one side on the pillow, her lips barely parted; she would have looked peaceful, if she had ever been the type to sleep on her back, but she always slept on her belly with her elbows hitched out at awkward angles that threatened to oust Charles from the bed. He thought she looked clinical, exposed. Dead. Charles touched her lips. She rustled.

“Charles…”

“Shush. It’s okay. You’re okay.” He rubbed her shoulder and stroked her arm. “You’re okay, Maggie. How do you feel?”

“I feel awful. Is our baby okay?” Maggie opened her eyes and her mouth danced a quavering line between hope and desolation. “Can you tell? There was so much blood.”

Charles stared at the comforter. Maggie was much better at getting stains out of the wash than he was. He wasn’t sure if it was okay to put a down comforter in the washing machine. The machine wasn’t working, but never mind that, was it okay to soak a blanket filled with feathers?

Maggie touched his arm. “I lost the baby, didn’t I?”

“There isn’t a baby. Get some rest, honey. You rest up. I love you.” Charles fetched another muscle relaxant from the bathroom for Maggie, tucked her in. When her eyes shut, he closed the bedroom door.

His hand rested on the cool knob; blood crusted his nails. It would be different if Maggie had agreed to see the doctor when Charles first asked. And he hadn’t just asked. He had begged her to go, but she replied that her body was the dominion of her husband and God alone. Humbled by Maggie’s pure convictions, flattered by those words, Charles had backed down, but he now understood how weak he had been. He hadn’t protected his wife.

And what now? A pillow pressed deep into the blanket-nest until nothing moved beneath his weight? A systematic wringing of soft little necks? Charles couldn’t back down this time, couldn’t fail as the protector and provider, so when he turned to the growing fire, and the five fuzzy shapes within the nest, he thought: food, clothing, shelter.

Charles scooped more snow into the water pot and set it above the flames. The mewling was louder. He pulled two pink onesies from the baby closet and some scissors from Maggie’s craft box and cut off the leg and arm sleeves at the shoulders and thighs. He folded the remaining torso sections of the tiny outfits and laid them in the craft box. Charles fetched bottles and nipples from the baby closet and hesitated by the simmering water, fairly certain he was meant to sterilize them first but aware of a yipping near his right foot. He dropped the bottles in the pot and stepped over the nest to search the laundry room pantry for powdered formula, where he found that the box provided detailed instructions for mixing formula according to human nutritional standards, but lacked a conversion chart for his current needs.

The omission seemed negligent—but why on God’s green earth does that seem so, Charles stopped to think, and into this pause slipped a memory. When Charles was a boy he had a little beagle mix named Bratwurst who survived on table scraps alone and never ate a kibble, and he was the happiest, healthiest dog—

And Charles stopped thinking just as quickly. He stirred the powder into a jug of water and grabbed the five cutoff sleeves. The puppies’ faces were tiny pink things, eyes glued shut, ears just miniscule flaps. They squeezed and looped into one another like fuzzy gray and white intestines, with one pup jet black. Charles picked that one up first. It was the runt—he carefully turned it in his palm—she was the runt. He guided her into one of the pink sleeves and set her in the nest. The next puppy had a smushed face and steely coloration about his head and tail, and he arched his back and cried and cried as Charles slid him into another sleeve. He rubbed the puppy’s tummy as the others began to cry. The water was boiling. Charles fitted the rest of the puppies into their sleeves.

Their mouths wouldn’t open wide enough to take the bottles’ nipples in fully, so Charles had to cradle each puppy on its back in his hand and let the milk dribble past their thin lips. The meal quieted them, and they drowsed together in a warm pink lump.

Charles pried open the front door. Snow. He tore back the curtains in every room. Snow. He thought about dousing the fire and wriggling to the rooftop but the passage wasn’t wide enough; he would only lodge himself and suffocate, and assuming he snapped his skeleton apart to fit through the chimney and somehow came out operable on the other side, the ATV and tractor would still be buried in that thick, ungodly pallet of snow, with no way to locate them or get them to the surface. He opened the front door one more time. Snow.

He remembered playing outside during winter breaks as a child, digging deep in the snow and channeling through the compressed powder, carving intricate webs of frosted passages invisible to anyone on the surface, and how his mother used to call him back inside each day to peel away his wet, frigid clothing and warm his hands around bowls of soup or chili. And now, Charles saw the impenetrable white wall beyond the doors, the windows, envisioned the four-mile journey to the pass and the twelve-mile stretch to town, and there was no one, there would be no one, to call him to the surface.

“What are these?”

Charles had been on a vigil, feeding the puppies every couple hours, kneading them into releasing themselves atop open cloth diapers he’d spread in a mat on the floor. He had plucked a scant meal of burnt potatoes for himself and fallen asleep on the rug. He moved to stoke the fire.

“Charles—what are these?” Maggie stood in the middle of the room, her hair limp with sweat, the gray nightgown stiffened into wrinkles around her bloody groin. She wrung one hand about the opposite wrist and curled and uncurled her toes, awakening into her numbed body’s sensations.

“They’re puppies.”

“Well…okay. Good.” Maggie struggled to open the front door. Her hands were weak. She stared, and the snow glared back, as concrete and impassable as before save the laughable dents made by Charles to boil up water. “Well…” Maggie scratched the corner of her eye. She glanced at the puppies, swaddled in their nest and makeshift cozies. “They’re cute. They’re little, aren’t they? Look like newborns. So you got the back open.”

As Maggie walked to the kitchen, Charles stood and said, “No, Maggie,” but she continued to the back door and tugged it open: white.

“You crawled out a window? What were in those pills, anyway?” Maggie returned to the den and carefully lay down by the fire, wincing and pressing a hand to her abdomen. She took a deep breath and reached out to stroke the black puppy’s neck. “Puppies on Christmas. You’re amazing.” She smiled.

Charles sat by Maggie and put a hand on her knee. “They’re not strong. We only got that powdered formula, and I don’t know that it sits well.” He paused. “I’ve been up with them most of the night. They’re hungry little guys.”

Maggie turned to Charles and asked, “Where’s their mom?”

Charles shook his head.

“Well she got in somehow and she got out somehow, where’d you burrow out? The bathroom? Is there a way out the laundry room? Did you get to the ATV?”

“Snow’s got us piled in. We’re buried. There’s no way out.”

“But—” she waved a hand at the puppies, “there’s a way in! Way out, way in.”

Charles closed his eyes. “It’s only been you and me, Maggie. It’s only been a day.” And he looked at the puppies. He looked at her stomach. “No way in or out.”

Maggie stood, steadied herself against the wall, and clapped her hands. “C’mere girl.” She whistled. “C’mere girl.” She weaved window to window to door to window, just as Charles had done. She looked under the couch and bed and in the dryer and oven and even the toilet tank. “Where’s the dog?” Maggie dug her nails into Charles’s shoulders. “Where?”

“There’s no dog. I didn’t know how to tell you when it happened—”

“Charles.”

“—And you were scared and all that blood, I couldn’t tell you when they,” he motioned weakly to her hips, “well, when they came out.”

“You’re not saying that.”

“It’s gonna be okay.” He paused. “It’s like you say, when God gives we receive, and we love. He works in mysterious ways, and He gave you these to give to us, and…they’re healthy. I love you, it’ll be all right.”

Maggie clenched her nightgown in her hands and released it and touched her belly and snapped her hands back and then held them away like a poison. “I lost our baby not my mind. Oh God I lost our baby—” Maggie sobbed.

Charles picked up the dappled puppy and held it out, “But you didn’t. You didn’t lose our babies.”

When Maggie collapsed, Charles carried her to the bed and put a glass of water on the nightstand.

As the grandfather clock ticked away the final hours of Christmas, Charles constructed the bassinet by the fire. It had been dissembled into slats and legs, stored by the dryer to save space until the baby came. He tried to nail the pieces together quietly, shaking the bassinet to test its sturdiness before lining it with yarn blankets and depositing the swaddled puppies. They looked content in there—they wriggled less. Charles fiddled with an old fishing vest and, between awkwardly stabbing himself with a needle and stopping to reassess the logistics, succeeded in jerry-rigging a nursing vest. The malleable bottle liners dropped into the vest’s many pockets to attach to sewn-in nipples poking through holes in the pockets’ bottoms. With the puppies in a pile on the rug, he could lie on his side and guide them to the nipples. Their little paws kneaded the pockets and dinner was served.

They looked so fragile in the orange glow—their soft bellies, their tiny awkward legs, their blind, squirming movements. Charles had to make sure that the smallest, the black one, had her fill of milk each time. She tended to get jostled away from the teats. The puppies were back in the bassinet and Charles was just unbuttoning his vest when the bedroom door opened.

Hollow-eyed, Maggie looked at the bassinet, but Charles wasn’t sure she really saw it. She had changed into her pink bathrobe.

“Maggie, you’re up.”

She walked to the kitchen, picked up one of the pitchers of cold water—Charles had been melting containers of snow throughout the day—and turned into the bathroom. Charles heard the water splash into the tub. She brought a kettle of water to the tub, then a mixing bowl of water.

Charles touched her arm as she returned for another pitcher. “Let me warm you up some bath water, Mags. Just a few minutes, let me get you a warm bath ready, that’s all cold.”

She put the pitcher down and returned to the bathroom. Uncertain, Charles put two big pots of water into the fire and checked the puppies, whose chests rose and fell in slow unison. He finally took a deep breath, picked up the lantern and went into the hall. He felt Maggie’s bathrobe under his feet as he stepped into the dark, chilly bathroom. There were only a couple of inches of water in the tub; she sat there naked, knees pulled to her breasts. Her skin looked shiny, her hair gooey. Charles saw an empty body wash bottle cast aside on the tile and realized Maggie had poured its entire contents on her head. She rubbed the gel up and down her arms, up and down, up and down. She hadn’t wet her skin first. The gel spread around like jam.

Charles knelt by the tub with a cup from the sink and dunked it in the shallow bath. He tilted Maggie’s head back and carefully poured water along her scalp line, letting it run through her hair. “Come on, help me rinse this. You got too much soap here.” He poured cups and cups over her head and tried to massage the soap out with his other hand, but the water quickly turned to pure lather and her body was still sticky all over. “You’re freezing, this ain’t working, I’m getting the pots off the fire, you stay here.”

As Charles wrapped towels around his hands and reached in to grab the first pot, he heard laughter. It was almost like the laugh she had when she looked out the window in spring and the fat squirrels were clinging to the chickadee feeder, rocking it around, shaking seeds to the ground to fatten themselves up even more. She’d laugh and say “Poor chickadees,” but what could be done? And it was kind of like the laugh she had the time she was knitting a cardigan for an older lady in her church group who’d fallen ill and she got through nearly the whole sweater and realized she had somehow counted ten more stitches per row into the left sleeve than the right sleeve, and Charles assured her you couldn’t tell—you really couldn’t tell—but Maggie kept imagining that poor old woman tugging and picking at the smaller sleeve wondering why she felt so lopsided, and on top of being sick? Maggie had no choice but to laugh as stitch by stitch and row by row she undid the entire sleeve, winding the yarn back into a ball as she tugged her work loose. It was almost like those laughs.

But it wasn’t. It wasn’t those laughs, and the difference iced Charles’s blood even with his hands plunged into the fire. Naked, legs dripping, the soap crusting on her breasts in white scabs, Maggie laughed and laughed as she returned to the bedroom, pills rattling in her hand.

On New Year’s Eve, one by one, the puppies opened their eyes.

The dappled gray girl with the white feet was first. “Well look at you,” Charles whispered. He was sitting in a rocker beside the bassinet with a bowl of stew in his lap, chewing hunks of beef and cabbage. He rubbed her ears with his thumb as she looked around with quiet cries. “A lot to see. Those are your brothers and sisters.” Charles held up a spoonful of stew. “This is cow. It’s good, but you can’t have cow just yet. You’ll like cow. And who are you?”

Charles knew Maggie had to have left the bedroom during the past week, but he never saw her. She had to be sneaking out when he was asleep on the couch. There would be a pitcher of water missing from the kitchen, or a box of crackers. Sometimes he heard laughter, but not often. He was grateful for that. Other times, if he pressed his ear to the door, he heard her voice, low and rapid, but he couldn’t make out her words. The relentless rhythm could be prayer, it could be nonsense, or madness: he didn’t know. As the days passed he grew thirsty for contact in the buried cabin, and he hadn’t named the puppies he was mothering through the hours. He tried to think of them in abstract terms but that wasn’t working in the slightest as he cradled them and mixed formula and revolved about them in his isolation, so when that dappled puppy finally opened her eyes and blinked as Charles licked his stew spoon, a deep piece of his gut seemed to snap, and he was able to say, “You’re Addison.”

A few minutes later, one of the boy’s eyes peeled open. “Welcome to the party, bud.” His pewter fur gave way to a creamy face and belly. “Lot quieter than Addie. Sister’s got a lot to say. What about you?” Charles set his bowl on the floor and put the puppy in his lap. “Little guy, you seem like a Fred. Wanna be Fred? Yeah, you’ll be Fred.” Charles picked up the boy with the steel-colored tail and head. “You’re Raoul. Raoul? What kinda name is that?” Charles laughed. “You’ll grow into it. And you,” he said, wiggling the paw of the girl with muted gray and brown stripes across her back, “you are Lindsey. Lindsey’s a pretty name. Pretty name for a pretty girl.”

That left only the black runt to name. Charles grimaced to think of her as the runt, but she was: so weak compared to her brothers and sisters. Charles ached watching her shiver when she accidentally rolled away from the others. She worried him. He nursed the puppies on the rug—Raoul opened his eyes. A couple of hours later, Lindsey followed suit.
Fresh logs crackling in the hearth, Charles checked the grandfather clock: ten ‘til twelve. He couldn’t be certain, hidden from the sun, locked in the lantern-light, but he thought it was about to become a new year. He waited five more minutes and knocked on the bedroom door.

“Maggie? I might’ve lost track, but,” Charles swiped at a tear rolling down his cheek, “but, it’s New Year’s, I think.”

He closed his eyes and flattened a palm against the door. Four years ago on this night Charles and Maggie had plans to go to a New Year’s “black tie” gala in the village, but the truck’s engine wouldn’t turn. Charles had known how silly the event was going to be—the same handful of folks from church who always put on potlucks and bingos, most likely wearing the same dresses and jackets they put on for services each Sunday and just calling it “black tie.” Maybe some streamers and punch. But Charles fidgeted and fussed with the truck engine for twenty full minutes in the freezing wind, willing it to kick over, because Maggie was inside and she’d had her hair in rollers the whole day so it would lay in soft, dark curls around the shoulders of the dress she’d bought just for New Year’s. It was deep emerald, a velvety material that showed her curves. Charles thought she looked so sophisticated. The one thing he’d always thanked God for was giving him such a wonderful wife, and her beauty that night made him realize the whole Bible’s worth of praises couldn’t capture how lucky he was.

He gave up on the truck when he looked down and saw a gash on his finger, bleeding heartily; his hands had grown so numb that he hadn’t realized he’d sliced himself against part of the engine, likely against the exhaust manifold bolts, long rusted.

“I tried, baby. Truck’s not going anywhere tonight.”

Maggie had shut the door behind him and said, “I figured as much. Good thing we got a bottle of wine and some records right here, huh?” She handed him a glass and said, “Let’s dance.”

And they danced. They rarely drank: a glass of wine on Thanksgiving, a drink at New Year’s, so as the bottle emptied their desires grew warmer until they stripped off the fancy clothes and touched and licked and caressed one another on the rug by the fire like a couple married for six hours as opposed to six years. They had stumbled to bed naked and talked and giggled for an hour until they fell asleep, well before midnight.

Charles rubbed his palm against the door. One of the puppies whimpered. He thought it was Raoul.

“Did you hear me? It’s New Year’s. We got about three minutes to midnight.” Charles wanted to sob. He wanted to scream. But he spoke quietly, evenly. “Maggie, you have to talk to me. You’ve gotta come out. Come on out, now, and have New Year’s with me.”

It was muffled, but she responded.

“Wh—Mags, what was that? What’d you say?”

“When he brings darkness, it becomes night, and all the beasts of the forest prowl.”

“Maggie?” Charles pounded on the door. “Open this. Right now!”

“Test the spirits.”

“Right now, Maggie!”

The door opened. She had properly cleaned herself: Charles knew because she stood completely nude before him. She grinned. “Many false prophets have gone out into the world, Charles.”

Trembling, Charles picked up Maggie’s bathrobe and draped it over her shoulders, trying to tuck her arms into the sleeves. “It’s freezing in here.”

Maggie struggled out of his arms and closed her eyes. “My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place.”

“Stop it.”

“When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body.”

Stop it.”

Maggie fell back on the bed and grabbed one of her breasts, slowly running a finger between her legs. “She said to herself, ‘I am the one! And there is none besides me!’” The grandfather clock chimed midnight and Maggie moaned, then laughed. “What a ruin she has become, a lair for wild beasts!”

Charles yanked her hand from between her legs and pressed the bathrobe over her body.

She lashed at his face and screamed, “All who pass by her scoff and shake their fists!”

His lungs froze and he slapped her. He slapped her right across the face, and when the madness didn’t leave her eyes, he slapped her harder.

Maggie looked up at Charles, crouched atop her, and whispered, “It’s cold, Charles. It’s really cold.”

“Come on under the blankets.” He pushed a bag of oyster crackers off the comforter, and, with a moment’s hesitation, shoved Maggie’s Bible to the floor as well. “There you go, snuggle in. Warmer?”

Maggie nodded, clutching at her shoulders with trembling hands. “Did you make a resolution?”

Charles shook his head. His blood was exhaustion. His skin was exhaustion. There were no words. When Maggie pulled back the corner of the blanket and patted the mattress, her eyes were wet and scared and something closer to normal. He pulled off his jeans and sweater and climbed in beside her. His eyelids felt magnetically compelled to close; he knew he’d have to be up in a few hours to check on the puppies, but the fire was strong, and he was so tired. His wife was warm, and close, and he was so tired.

Maggie kissed his cheek, murmured “Happy new year,” and Charles was gone.

It was dark when Charles opened his eyes. That didn’t tell him anything. It was always dark. For weeks the world had been shadow and fire and lantern-light. Maggie wasn’t in bed. He kicked off the blankets and felt his skin tighten in the frosted air, pulled on his clothes and crept to the door.

The fire was almost dead, just glowing coals across the den. Charles heard scraping in the kitchen and turned the corner to find Maggie furiously working at the wall of snow blocking the back exit. She wore a puffy coat over an old pair of overalls and scraped and pawed at the snow as high as she could reach, madly diving into it with her mittened hands, pulling chunks to the floor where a puddle was spreading around her feet.

“You’re gonna ruin the floor,” Charles said. Maggie didn’t stop to acknowledge him. Charles returned to the den to rebuild the fire and tend to the puppies, who were loud with hunger. He strapped on the nursing vest and plopped the puppies on the rug, taking care to ensure the runt got her fill, as always. Cradling the little black puppy, Charles decided to name her Dora. It was the name Maggie planned to give their first daughter, after her great-aunt Dorothy, who meant a great deal to her, but also because the name meant “gift.” He heard Maggie grunt as she fought against the snow. Dora hadn’t opened her eyes yet.

Charles took off the vest and left the puppies on the rug. He stood behind Maggie in the kitchen. “What are you trying to do?”

Maggie pawed out a few more handfuls of snow before laughing and saying, “To do? What’s it look like I’m trying to do, Charles?” He could see her wrists between the coat and mittens each time she reached up; the skin was red and raw.

“It looks like you’re trying to escape.”

“That’s a good word for it.”

“Suicide’s a good word, too. That’s all it is. You get out there, how you planning to get anywhere? You think someone’s waiting for you up there? Think you’re a rabbit, just gonna hop across the snow and up to town? You’re just making it damp and awful for us in here, can’t you hear them crying? They were starving. Didn’t you hear them?”

Maggie panted, “I heard them,” and kicked the snow. She sank into the icy puddle at her feet. “Hear them all the time. I feel them.”

Charles crouched. “It’s two boys, and three girls.” He paused to gauge Maggie’s reaction, but her face was blank. “There’s Addie. Fred. There’s, she’s beautiful, with these stripes…she’s Lindsey. Will you please come meet them? Please?”

“I always said, I always thought, that no bad could come our way ‘cause you’d beat it off with a shovel or run it over with a tractor or something.” Maggie smiled. “I believed it, I really did, that Beelzebub himself could come knocking and you, your goodness, would make it so he couldn’t step in the door.” Maggie pulled off her mittens. “But, it’s been told, we can’t give the devil a foothold. We can’t give him that.”

Charles had trouble speaking. “I don’t understand.”

Maggie looked him in the eye. “He warned Jerusalem. Did we miss it? Did He warn us?”

Charles pulled Maggie out of the doorway and latched the exit. “You need to get by the fire.” He nodded at her overalls. “You’ll catch a cold in those.”

Maggie stayed crumpled on the ground. She said, “He shoots with deadly and destructive arrows of famine. He shoots to destroy.” She stretched out, extending her arms, pointing her feet. “Dogs surround me. A pack of villains encircles me. They pierce my hands and my feet.”

She pulled in her legs, clutching them to her chest. As Charles dragged Maggie to the bedroom to strip her, drug her, and put her to bed, she began to cry. Her words were too soft to hear, but Charles caught enough to know the verse plaguing her mind.

I will send famine and wild beasts against you, and they will leave you childless.

The grandfather clock had chimed three more days when Dora finally opened her eyes. It had chimed perhaps twelve more days, or twenty, when the puppies began to walk. They’d doubled in size, and their ears were open. The muscles grew in their legs, and in their throats: they learned to love the sounds of their voices barking in high pitches. Charles set up the playpen to give them room to romp. A detachable bracket suspended a mobile of colorful smiley faces above the playpen. Charles would wind up the mobile, and as the red and blue and yellow faces began to circle in time to the tinkling music, Raoul, Addie, Lindsey and Fred darted about, yapping at the faces and clawing at the sides of the pen. Dora stood in the middle, teetering uncertainly on her tiny legs before plopping down time and again. Again, and again, Charles wound the mobile, delighted as the puppies ran and ran and ran in dizzy puppy circles before falling into woozy naps. Smiley faces. Smiley puppies. Smiley Charles.

Charles started soaking kibbles of hard cat food in saucers of formula to transition the puppies into eating solids. He apologized each time he fed them, feeling like a failure because cat food was the best he could do.

Maggie always had a soft spot for the strays that hung out by the shed, so they’d kept a bucket of cat kibble in the house for years. He’d never cared for the cats. Mangy, whining, flea-bitten things, not that it was their fault.

But he was so proud of his puppies: only one month old, and already walking!

When the puppies tired themselves out, Charles often took the opportunity to nap. Other times, though, he lit a cigar and sat down to read about parenting. Unlike Maggie’s friends, who passed along the onesies and bottles and books when they started trying for a baby, his friends had passed along a box of cigars and some old Playboy magazines, assuring him that once the children arrived, his wife would never put out again. Charles and Maggie had a good laugh over those skin mags; Maggie was beet red when he first showed her, but it only took some kissing and compliments to convince her to strike a few poses for him to enjoy. She didn’t let him take pictures, of course, but he cherished the memory.

Now he sat reading about the unique challenges of raising multiples: feeding regimens, sleeping schedules, travel safety. Charles glanced at the plates of soggy kibble littering the floor, and the puppies drowsing in a comatose lump in the playpen. He tried to picture the world above the snow: was a smoke-belching hole, where the chimney poked through, the only indication that he existed? That they were all alive? He turned back to the book. The individualized attention bit concerned him. All of the experts recommended finding ways to spend one-on-one time with each multiple in order to develop their unique personalities, and to form a stronger parental bond. Charles had been homogenous in his fathering thus far, but he could work on that. Maybe walk Fred while the others ate, or read to Addie while her siblings napped. He would figure it out.

Cigar perched between his lips, Charles took the book into the bathroom to do his business. The plumbing had been frozen since the blizzard hit, so Charles had worked the bathroom window open, scooped out some snow, and poured hot water down the side of the cabin to melt a chute where he could dump the contents of the chamber pot, which wasn’t a chamber pot at all but a regular cooking pot that he relished the thought of someday destroying. Charles squatted and read a “Helpful Hint” enclosed in a little box: “Don’t be ashamed if you can’t tell your multiples apart at first—this is normal! Put a small dab of nail polish on each baby’s toe and create a color key so you know who’s ‘Aqua Blue’ and who’s ‘Sassy Silver’!”

Charles ashed his cigar in the sink with a self-satisfied flourish; he knew how to tell all five of his apart from day one. He never had to paint them. Who paints their kids? He took his time finishing the cigar and flipping through chapters, making a mental note to revisit the selections on teething and circumcision. As Charles jimmied the window open, he heard a squeaky yip: Lindsey. A throatier bark followed: that had to be Raoul. And then nervous whining, frantic yelps, and Charles forgot about the chamber pot and raced out of the bathroom, nearly stumbling over Addie in the hallway. He quickly snatched her up and hugged her, put a finger to his lips and shut her in the laundry room. From the hallway, he saw Lindsey cowering in the kitchen, a shivering ball of soft stripes with big brown eyes, and then he was in the den.

Maggie rocked on her knees before the fire, naked, her arms submerged to the elbows in the cat kibble bucket; the kibble was strewn all about the room, lodged in the floorboards, dotting the rug. Maggie’s hair ran in long, black waves down her back. Her face was pale, and her blank eyes fixed to the bottom of the bucket, to the bottom of the water lapping her forearms, lapping as she rocked and whispered frantically.

“Even from birth the wicked go astray, even from the womb they are wayward and speak lies, and women will be saved through childbearing, if we do not give the devil a foothold, if we watch for those evildoers and mutilators of the flesh—”

Charles leapt on Maggie, slamming her head into the brick hearth. The bucket toppled, and the water washed across the floor. Charles gently turned the bucket and reached in. The body was sodden and dense, and her legs dangled inert, paws limp. Her little square head lolled as he laid her near the flames. He rubbed her side with two fingers, and water trickled from her lips. The tiny black chest didn’t rise. She was soaking, freezing, dead.

Charles looked away from Dora’s drowned body to the playpen. The netting. The other puppies had been able to climb the playpen’s netted sides and jump out when Maggie reached in to grab one of them, but Dora wasn’t strong enough to run yet. She hadn’t learned to walk.

And she hadn’t known to close her eyes.

Maggie didn’t scream when she woke up tied to the rocking chair, her wrists and ankles bound to the armrests and glider posts, duct tape wound thick across her stomach. Charles had expected her to scream. He’d wanted her to scream.

For the next week he let the puppies run amok. Raoul tore the heads from pastel stuffed animals. Addie loved rattles. She’d toss them in the air and whip them back and forth, shake shake shake, until she was too tired to move, and then she’d wake up and shake shake shake some more. Lindsey and Fred were wrestlers, intent to gnaw each other’s napes and growl and pounce all throughout the blended days and nights. Charles lounged on the couch reading fairy tales aloud, or he sprawled on the floor and let the puppies dance across his chest and face.

He gave Maggie water and fed her potatoes. She started whimpering on the second day, when she couldn’t hold her waste in anymore. Charles didn’t untie her. Maggie soaked in her mess, and Charles lit more cigars to amend the den’s thick odor.

On the third day, Charles pressed the puppies’ paws in finger paint from Maggie’s craft box and guided them across sheets of paper. He pasted the sheets into the baby memory book he found on the “MOMMY’S CORNER” shelf, and held the book close to Maggie’s face so she could see each of their little paw prints.

On the fourth day, Maggie begged for the Lord to intervene. Charles duct-taped her mouth.

On the fifth day, Charles boiled gallons of water and took a long, luxurious bath.

On the sixth day, Charles removed the tape from Maggie’s mouth and let her have a sip of water. He replaced the tape.

On the seventh day, he moved the puppies to the bedroom, and when the grandfather clock struck twelve, Charles cut Maggie free. He wielded the butcher knife with a light, loose touch.

“Charles—”

He pressed the broad side of the blade to Maggie’s lips and shook his head.

Charles stepped into the bedroom and latched the door. He doused the lantern, and in the darkness, he tried to remember his wife in an apron scrambling eggs, knitting scarves in the passenger seat of the truck, meticulously sorting coupons from the Sunday circular, but he couldn’t overcome that vision of a ghoulish woman sticky with the residues of tape and vacated bowels, her hair a den of greasy black snakes shielding a face that Charles no longer recognized.

The government didn’t finalize the death count until early summer. All told, they said, the blizzard claimed eleven thousand lives. The elderly and the poor crowded in the unheated apartments of the tri-state’s big cities made up a small slice. Carbon monoxide poisoning peacefully swept away some suburban families as they slept. Would-be heroes died in attempts to rescue stranded motorists. But the bulk of the corpses came from deep in the Kentucky hills, from the forgotten Appalachian villages, the inaccessible hollers. It was a winter catastrophe the likes of which the States had never seen. The cities were chaos; resources couldn’t be wasted on the scattered, hidden populations of the hills.

Charles found Maggie’s body in mid-March, frozen and partially submerged in the last two feet of snow. She’d made it a quarter mile from the cabin. The tunnel she dug had collapsed before Charles awoke on the day of her escape, and he had closed the back door against the crumbling white chunks and latched the deadbolt. He reported her passing as a stir-crazy accidental suicide, and the sheriff nodded, and the coroner jotted “hypothermia” on yet another death certificate before signing off to have Maggie dumped in an icy plot beside the hundreds of other corpses pouring in from the surrounding hills.

Charles felt the years, their definition and passing, evolve with the breadth of his family’s sorrows and joys—the outrage when Addie became pregnant just past her second birthday, and the complete dissipation of that anger when Charles greeted his dappled grandpuppies; the unrelenting heartache of losing Raoul before he turned ten, but the wonder of watching Raoul’s own grandpuppies flourish, then his great-grandpuppies, darting about the yard with drool flying from their tiny, smushed faces.

It wasn’t a bad life. If he couldn’t speak of it, couldn’t rationalize it, then that only proved the folly of words, he reasoned.

When Charles turned ninety and the succession of years began to erode his mind’s inhibitions, he told the nurses in the home about the winter the snow fell so thick that it erased the cabins in the valleys, erased thegravestones and the churches. He held a dog close to his side, the dog the staff allowed him to keep as a therapy pet, stroking her jet-black ears as he silently prayed for his memories to survive, praying the love he felt and miracles he remembered wouldn’t be lost to the insurmountable whiteness just over the horizon. Charles hugged the dog, and he told the nurses of a storm so vicious that God Himself was blinded, the winter so cold that God broke the rules of His creation and sent forth His precious creatures to be born in new ways, hopeful for His children, testing the faith of the little human creatures spiraling smoke and prayers unto the heavens.

_

Thank you to Alice G. Otto for sharing the complete text of her story “A Test of Faith” 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.

Alice G. Otto lived in Bethel, Ohio, a small town outside Cincinnati, until graduating from high school. She is currently pursuing her M.F.A. at the University of Arkansas, where she has received the Walton Family Fellowship in Fiction and the Carolyn F. Walton Cole Fellowship in Poetry. She holds a B.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Evansville. Alice’s work has appeared in publications including Harpur Palate, RiverLit and Yalobusha Review.

 

“Blood Off Rusted Steel” – Brooks Rexroat

It’s awful as hell to see a set of flashing lights off in the distance and know immediately that they’re coming for someone who shares your last name. I was barely even out of the driveway, on the way to school just before dawn broke when I saw them: red and blue flickers off in the distance but moving fast, and I wondered what it was he’d done this time, which of those poor creatures had got loose. Instead of heading straight down Birch Pond Road, I took a left onto the state route because lights moving that fast toward his place meant school would be canceled without question. I figured I ought to go over and see what the damage was this time.

I was steamed, too, as I drove, because we had a game that night against Clear Valley. That game had been circled on my calendar for months; they hadn’t won in two years, so it was almost dead certain I’d finally get to play varsity. The night before, Coach even let me practice with the offense instead of playing dummy defense like I had every practice for three years. I’d been working on my three-point shot in the driveway, ready to impress Dacie Lindt—ready to play some string music if the ball found my hands, ready to prove I existed, even if my heroics came during garbage minutes at the end of a blow-out.

I had it all planned out in my mind: I nail a few pretty shots, enjoy the concept of having some sweat from my own palm involved in the handshake line, then clean up and bolt toward the cafeteria and the post-game dance where Dacie would stand at the center of a crowd, still in her pleated orange and black skirt, and I’d walk up to her and ask her out. I didn’t bother to daydream her portion of it—the result was her business. But I knew my part and I was ready.

Of course, whenever school got canceled, whether it was for snow or flooding along the river or one of my uncle’s animal escapades, it meant games were canceled. And meaningless three-pointers at the buzzer. And dances. And daydreams.

I took the turns too hard that morning, my old Ford swaying side-to-side as I fumed about how Uncle James found a way to ruin things one more time. I turned the radio to something fast and loud, cranked it up to keep from thinking hateful things about him.

When I pulled around the bend and saw all those lights, all those cars, saw the distant pinpricks of light coming from the ends of shotguns, my gut curled up into a ball.

Again and again, the pinpricks came, some in isolated flashes, others in the small bursts of an automatic. The sun was starting to rise in earnest, but it was still dim enough that each flash was shocking. Each flick, I knew, was another one of those poor, ridiculous creatures catching its end. The first one I saw was right at the edge of the property, before I even got the truck stopped. A Bengal tiger, endangered as hell, and there he was with his head in the ditchwater and a dozen red pockmarks staining his belly. I swallowed back a gag then took a deep breath to pull myself together because the guns were still popping and I figured I was about to see a lot worse.

Sheriff Martin stood in the middle of the road with his hands up.

Even in that small of a town, most people my age only knew the look of him from his reelection posters, except maybe the serious delinquents. I brought the truck to a stop and he came to my window, pointed a flashlight at me. “Morning, Davis,” he said. “You can pull on through, but I have to tell you it’s ugly. Your aunt’s over by the first barn with some of your folks. You need to go see them first, you understand?”

“It’s not just the animals, is it?”

“Like I said, son. You need to go speak with your kin.”

I parked between two of the satellite trucks—there were dozens lining the road, which was a new thing. An escaped bear or two usually fetched just the local newspaper and a couple of cops—guys I knew from school, a few of them classmates of mine who dropped out and took the GED so they could get on with becoming a cop before someone else beat them to the open job. If you didn’t get on with the force and wanted to stay in town, your best options were trash collector, fast food cook or car salesman. Being a cop was the dream gig for a lot of the guys I knew: walk around with a loaded gun and a uniform, look tough, and occasionally shoot at one of my crazy uncle’s animal herd—maybe even get your picture in the paper standing hero-like over a lion or two.

That day, they all got their pictures taken. And even though they tried to act later like it had been a solemn and regrettable occasion, I knew better. Those boys made like they were on safari and blew away everything they could, whether it was legitimately dangerous or not. All those animals were just deer-in-season for them, and Sheriff Martin was handing out licenses. They hit everything that moved, even a couple rabbits, a squirrel and Aunt Linda’s cat.

That morning, all those boy-deputies got their moment of glory, got a big story to exaggerate for their eventual grandkids and newspaper clippings to validate it. I can just picture one of them retelling the story to some dumb kids, turning a sweet-tempered tabby named Princess into a vicious panther, coiled and ready to pounce.

Before I got to the barn where my family was gathering I saw mixed in with the cop cars and ambulances a black sedan with white letters on the side: County Coroner. I decided to skip the chat with Aunt Linda, decided I’d seen enough of the whole mess. I got back in my truck and drove fast toward home, those little flashes following me in the rearview mirror the whole way.

It stinks like hell burying the week-old corpse of a tiger, a monkey, a leopard, a bear, a tabby, a horse. Each body has its own tint of rotten and when the sun does its work on a six-acre killing field, it’s the embodiment of foul with different stinks blending from different directions. By the third day of work, I could pick apart whether I was near a cat or a monkey without even looking. I got stuck with the bulk of the cleanup duty when I proved to be the least skilled at evacuating. The professionals did it first, put their trucks into gear as soon as they could and hit the interstate. Sure, the cameras hung around for a few days. The reporters with their thick make-up got real practiced at saying the word tragedy and talking about how this small Ohio community will be forever changed, as if they knew a damn thing about what it was like before. They should’ve asked me. Instead of wilting on cue and talking about how I never imagined something like this happening here, I would’ve said the truth: this place is and always has been weird, whether it’s dead animals or live people. Nothing’s going to change that.

When the humane society people came in a day later, they shook their heads a lot and said Oh, how terrible, but couldn’t figure out anything productive to do. In the end, their best guess was to spray paint a big black X on each bloated body to prove the animals were actually deceased, then they tacked an embossed license on Aunt Linda’s front door that showed we had permission to bury the bodies.

The county engineer’s office sent out a couple men and a backhoe to dig a pit, and the state Environmental Protection Agency showed up long enough to line the pit with thick black plastic so the decomposing tigers didn’t foul up anyone’s drinking water. Then, the important people left with their equipment and their rules.

“I’m afraid you’ll have to take it from here,” one of the EPA workers told Aunt Linda, who nodded and evacuated into her house. Everyone else in the family claimed they were busy preparing for his funeral—one the rest of the town was thinking up reasons to avoid. Dad said everybody was really more worried about protesters at the cemetery than they were about proper grieving. My folks would’ve helped, I suppose, if I’d really pushed it. But they were three weeks behind getting ready for spring planting on our own farm, and I wasn’t about to beg them away from that.

I asked a couple guys from the team, and in the cafeteria they thought the project sounded cool—but I guess once they told their parents where they were going it all got shot down, because no one showed and there I was, left alone with the mess. Just me and the shovel, some lime dust, a saw, a straw baling hook and my poor old truck.

I could describe the whole operation, but let’s leave it at this: animals of that size can’t be moved in one piece. There were tools and a strained elbow, two days of coughing afterward from the lime, a couple of mistaken steps that led to regret and a pair of perfectly good hoops shoes getting burned off in a wood pile.

It’s irritating as hell when nobody wants to talk to you anymore, except about one thing. Take Billy Thiggens. He’d been in my math class all the way through school (even though he was supposed to be two years ahead of me). Now, Billy strikes me as the sort who would cower in a corner if a white bunny rabbit got too rambunctious within five yards of him. But he was one of the first ones on the scene that night, and to hear him tell it he was fierce as Rambo out there. He may well have been, too: with those night-vision goggles on, it must’ve seemed like one big, hilarious video game.

He used to be an okay guy—a little goofy, but the type you’d be okay talking with now and then if you passed each other on the sidewalk or something. Now, though, all he ever does to try and start a conversation is shape his hand into a fake pistol and point it at me, then wink. I guess it’s his moment of glory and I should let him live it. But what really irks me is this: just about everyone else at least has the level of decency to start off their recollection with something about how awful it had been, how sad that the man unlatched each and every one of those cages before he turned a gun on himself. Everyone else had some empathy about it. But Billy just used misery to turn himself into a hero, and every time he points his index finger my direction, I want to snap it at the first knuckle. Instead, I’ve gotten good and practiced at nodding and giving a fat, fake smile that says, “Yeah, Billy, you’re real clever, and I’m just going to keep smiling so you don’t follow me around looking for excuses to write me a ticket.”

My teachers weren’t any better than Billy, writing “Okay” next to answers that were clearly wrong so my test scores got bumped up.

“Let me know it there’s anything I can do for you,” Miss Henderson said in passing at least once a week. She said this because she was a freshman science teacher, and there was absolutely nothing she could possibly do for me. Coach Thornton didn’t give me any playing time, but he took to patting my shoulder a lot at practice. Mr. Anderson, the guidance counselor, pretended to check his watch every time he passed me in the hall. I guess he was afraid that if we ever made eye contact, I’d ask him for an appointment so I could spill my guts. Thing is, I’ve never seen the man actually wear a watch. These were the people in charge of my future, and they couldn’t even be bothered to let me finish high school without treating me like I was as broken as that poor tiger in the ditch.

It’s hard as hell to scrub blood off the rusted steel of an eighty-four Ford pickup. I know: it sounds useless, scrubbing blood off rust. One of them’s no better than the other. In fact, you’d have to be strangely attentive or maybe a little deranged to even notice the difference. I would’ve left it there, except for that one spot, that one splatter on the top of the left sidewall, positioned just so that I couldn’t help staring right at it every time I looked in the rearview mirror, as if the crazy cook and all his animal mess was chasing me around.

I doubt people will ever stop asking me to tell the story, so within a couple days, the reality set in that my uncle’s final streak of madness will always follow me around. But I didn’t want it actually following me, especially that weekend. And so I scrubbed at that truck, scrubbed until my shoulder and elbow were numb, tried to rid myself of every trace of it. Tried to make myself as normal as possible.

By the time things calmed down, I lost my shot with Dacie. They never rescheduled the game—both teams were so bad it didn’t really matter. Consequently, I never made it off the bench, never had my moment of glory except the last home game when all the seniors got to start, and then as soon as somebody caught the tip-off, coach called time-out and people clapped and our parents took pictures while the senior benchwarmers trotted back to our rightful places and the skillful sophomores took back the court for the remainder of the game.

Even if that moment had produced equal parts glory as it had embarrassment (at least Mom let it rest with the camera once I took a seat and put back on my nylon pullover), it wouldn’t have been worthwhile to bother with Dacie. By then, she was already seeing one of the senior wrestlers, a squat little muscle-bound guy named Logan whose senior year was just a big countdown to the army. I guess Dacie had her sights on escaping the town and seeing the world one base at a time, so she latched onto him hard, and from the start it had the look of something permanent, hand-holding in the hallways and the exchange of various stuffed animals and so forth. I was busted up about it for a couple days after I heard, but that’s the sort of thing you can’t let weigh you down too long. In a town this size, if you don’t go off to college or find someone to marry by the end of high school, chances are you’ll have to wait a good four or five years before the first round of divorces kick in, and even then you’re stuck dealing with someone else’s brats and you’re probably handling four or five years’ worth of pent-up bitter—anger you didn’t put there, but that you’ve got to live with every day.

So I took after Abbie Greenway. She wasn’t blonde with big, pouty lips like Dacie, but she had cute brunette ringlets and she was the sort of kind, quiet girl you can see yourself getting along with for a good long while, the sort you don’t imagine ever having to pick up from the bar at two in the morning because she’s taken off all her clothes and started swinging her stiletto heels at the bouncer.

I pressed and scrubbed with Brillo and Scotch-Brite pads and torn-up t-shirts and even a little heel of sponge. I tried solvents and detergents and vinegar and that orange smelling stuff with lava rocks in it—I tried everything I could to erase that spot and to remove it from my rearview, to put it as far out of site as all those poor decaying beasts. I scrubbed until my shoulder and elbow went numb, then I switched arms and scrubbed some more until Mom came out and shouted, “Shouldn’t you be getting ready?” and I looked up to see the sun had already slipped halfway below the horizon.

It was time to shower—to clean myself instead of my truck. I stopped before I pulled open the screen door, though, and looked at the deepening tone of the sky, a sky that within the course of moments had turned itself from clear and pristine to deep and foreboding red. Like rust, like blood. The things that surrounded me, encapsulated in that sky. For a moment, I considered calling Abbie Greenway and thinking up the kindest way to tell her to forget it. But I did what I do—what we do around here—I shrugged it off and pushed forward, showered and dressed, and looked around the basement for an umbrella big enough for a pair. I picked up her corsage from the Kroger on the way to her place, even bought a couple of sodas while I was there, since I figured we’d be facing a solid wait at the Olive Garden.

I waited for her to say something about the truck, about how clean it was maybe, but I guess it was too dark by then for her to notice. As we drove and the drops started to fall and the wipers started to swish she just wanted to know things like what I thought might be on the geometry test and where we might work once school finished for good.

She didn’t ask me why we took the roundabout way to the prom, the three-mile detour that had become habit in the three months between. Abbie just kept up the conversation through the ride and through dinner. On the last stretch before we got to the school she reached with her left hand and held onto mine. The purple-dyed carnations that circled her wrist tickled my arm and I told her it felt nice. We reached the parking lot, full already of SUVs and pickups and a couple of rented limousines. After the dance, there would be new and important things to consider, large things not easily undone. But for a moment we sat quietly, said and did nothing. It’s comforting as hell to sit next to someone who can ignore what your last name means to the rest of town. Who doesn’t see the difference between blood and rusted steel. I peeked briefly into the rearview and saw nothing important.

“Ready?” she asked.

I nodded and got out to open her door, to help her down onto the asphalt in those precarious heels of hers. I lifted the umbrella over her head and as we walked past the truck bed and toward the doors of the gymnasium, all I saw was rust.

_

Thank you to Brooks Rexroat for sharing the complete text of his story “Blood Off Rusted Steel” 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.

Brooks Rexroat writes and teaches in Cincinnati, Ohio. He holds an M.F.A. in creative writing from Southern Illinois University and a B.A. in print journalism from Morehead State University. His stories have been published in more than twenty journals and magazines including Weave Magazine, Midwestern Gothic, Revolution House, The Montreal Review and The Telegraph Newspaper’s (London) 2012 International Story Competition. Visit him online at www.brooksrexroat.com.

 

“Twilight of the Revolution” – Justin Hanson

I’m on the phone with Henri, his Gallic voice strangled with emotion, and his news strikes me like ice water on naked flesh.

“It’s Grant,” Henri says to me. “He’s slipping in and out. The doctors can’t be sure about anything. Godammit, Herb, I can barely get a straight answer out of them.”

He keeps talking like this, dispensing theories and analyses, perambulations of speech meant more for him than for me. Henri is just doing what so many do, dealing with the specter of death in his own way, and his way is talking. I don’t mind though. I haven’t really been listening since I answered the phone and heard Henri telling me that Grant Peterson, his lover for the past fifteen years, my first love, is at death’s door.

I hear Henri as if from a distance, like his voice is a scream’s last echo. I mostly hear the tap dancing sound of the rain pirouetting in a kind of dark whimsy, its footsteps resounding throughout my cavernous flat in Union Square, which seems ancient and empty in its loneliness. I observe the artwork that adorns my apartment—paintings and sculptures I bought but never understood. Now I am their only witness, like the last living acolyte in an undiscovered Egyptian tomb.

Henri repeats the things he’s heard from doctors and nurses, things like “we’ll know more when the blood work gets back” and “there’s no way we can be sure until we’ve narrowed down all the possibilities.” Clinicians words these, calculated words. I’ve heard them many times before, words crafted for their precise ambiguity.

“Herb, can you hear me? Herb?”

I’m coming back now, back to reality.

“Yes, Henri. I’m here.”

“Well,” stammers Henri, and I can almost see him thrusting his hand through his hair as he speaks, “if you want to see him again, Herb, you shouldn’t wait. That’s what they’re saying. Some others I’ve spoken to will be coming by soon. We’re hoping to time it right for when he’s awake. Mornings have been best.”

I hesitate slightly, thinking of all the times I’ve been offered such an invitation, all the times I made some excuse to avoid seeing another friend wasting away into nothing. Every older gay man in New York knows this feeling, and I, at sixty-two, remember the worst of phone calls like this.

“Yes,” I hear myself say.

“You’ll come?”

“Of course,” I say, collecting my thoughts. “I’ll be in as soon as I can, perhaps not right tomorrow but Thursday if possible. I’ll have to check flights. Summer usually isn’t bad to get to Toronto.”

I hear Henri’s muffled speech in the hospital. No doubt he has pressed his cell phone against his shirt for the sake of propriety. I wait.

“Herb, that’s wonderful. I know you and Grant haven’t seen much of each other the past few years, but he talked about you all the time, always spoke with such fondness for you.”

I notice the change in tenses but make no comment.

“That’s good, Henri. That is very good to know.”

“Have you thought of where you’ll stay?” Henri asks. “I’m sure you’ll be fine. There are plenty who can put you up. I would offer myself, but—”

“Yes,” I say. “But mentioning that, I should be off—so much to plan for and pack for.”

Henri has muffled his phone again. I wait.

“Of course, Herb. It will be good to see all of us, I think,” he adds, tentatively, as if wondering if it’s an appropriate thing to say, “all things considered.”

“Sure,” I say.

Henri is crying again. I think of crying too but don’t.

I arrive in Toronto the next day. I take a cab into the city, noticing that here, like on all things, time has done its work. I see the neighborhoods that were once slums have been gentrified. Yongue Street, once the pillar of vice and impropriety, a playground for Sodomites, has been warped and twisted, transformed by Coke and Pepsi, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Taco Bell. It reminds me of Times Square. But that’s the way of things—the heroic rise of civilization.

Toronto was a very different place when Grant whisked me here, away from the gloomy town I called home. I’ll forever owe Grant and Toronto an enormous debt for that. In Columbus, Ohio, where I grew up, it was hopeless to be queer. Until the age of twenty-one, that was all I had, the despair of my plight, to have desire without possibility, my body and mind in thrall to invisible forces. Sometimes, under the courageous influence of whiskey or wine, I would travel to the town’s only gay bar, Larry’s. I can scarcely remember seeing more than twenty men in there at once. They always had fugitive looks about them, suspicious eyes that raked the bar and each other, massaging the finger they’d freed of their wedding bands, somehow tumescent in their terror. No one would enter through the front door. Speech within was subdued. Larry’s allowed my first clumsy forays into sex, surreptitious affairs usually resigned to the backseats of cars and hurried, embarrassed acts of fellatio. It was an unhappy time.

That all changed when Grant—with three friends down from Toronto, a vague spot of geography to me then—charged into Larry’s one night in October of 1970, riotous and cheerful as a group of post-victory athletes, and began buying drinks for the entire bar and singing show tunes. Grant spied me nursing a drink and made his way toward me, smiling the whole time. Never before or since have I been so struck with a look, so engulfed by the sight of another that, for a moment, I forgot to breathe. I think I fell in love right then.

Grant was a radical, speaking at length of politics and revolution. His words, to me, contained the sweetness of fine candy, words that worked magic passion on my young mind. We ended the night in a clasp of lips that seemed an hour in length. He left for Toronto, promising to write and return. For days my heart convulsed in wild acrobatics with every thought of Grant. I privately relived that first night a thousand times, sometimes during conversation with my family over dinner, other times while I taught my high school course on democracy, allowing Grant’s words of revolution to slip into my lectures, lectures that then became powerful orations which shocked and intrigued my students.

Grant did come back, and he took me to Toronto, where he was putting together a gay rights magazine called Brave Queer World, which would later become a hit periodical. I made limited explanation to my parents—my father a stone mason, my mother a housewife and piano teacher—who, in their aloof ways, allowed themselves to be politely puzzled by their son’s disappearance with a young man to another country.

Today Toronto drinks in sunlight, and my nostrils taste the clean, chilled air swept in from Lake Ontario. It seems impossible to think of death. I arrive on the doorstep of Al Cynthe’s place off Queen St. in Brockton Village. Al is an old friend from the seventies. He wasn’t much of an activist, him not being terribly social. Al was, and remains, an eccentric: an oddball who consistently maintains, against all established medical opinion but with an extraordinary knowledge of archaic medicine, that HIV is a mutation of syphilis rather than a new epidemic.

“Why if it isn’t Herbert Roth,” Al says, greeting me in his grand way and approaching for a hug.

I direct myself into his path for fear he might miss me. We embrace.

“How is old honest Al?” I ask.

“Surviving one winter at a time,” he says. “And how is Handsome Herb, best-looking guy in New York?”

Despite my age, I blush at this, modesty still being an affectation of mine.

“Old and feeble, losing my charm and looks with every day.”

“Not you,” says Al, leading me to his car. “I suppose we should get going right away then. I’ll set your things inside and we can be off to St. James.”

Al spends the drive trying to distract me with a lengthy monologue about the history of his automobile, its fuel economy and performance in various climates. I appreciate this tactic, but it is of little use. I dread hospitals. My visits to them have always been brief affairs, with a ready-made excuse to leave just as soon as I can. It’s the feel of the place, the mood: the lingering scent of bleach, the fluorescent lighting, the paper gowns patients are made to wear. An audition chamber for death.

Al and I enter the hospital and proceed to the third floor. We navigate the hallways and approach Grant’s room. I try to compose myself.

Henri is here, standing outside the room looking weary and biting his fist as he scrolls through his cell phone, oblivious to the goings-on of the ward around him. He’s wearing something predictably outrageous, a shirt adorned with a tiger set against a yellow background whose brightness rivals a halogen bulb. Henri is modestly handsome, though: very neat and trim, a runner, and quick with a smile and his signature high laugh. Still, I always told Grant—in whispers after a few drinks—that he could do better.

“Henri,” I say, quietly because this seems appropriate.

“Oh, Herb—thank goodness,” Henri says, in his characteristic melodrama, and throws his arms around my body. I’m taken aback a bit—I’ve never been much at comforting—but I recover and allow Henri his hug. When we break I see that my presence has reduced Henri to sniffles.

“Grant’s awake,” Henri says. “He’s in with a few people now; some of the old gang has been dropping by. Gerry’s in there, Sammy too. Others have been coming and going, but Grant sleeps a lot, so most of the time people just sit around and talk.”

I sneak a look around the door frame. Inside, I can see two figures standing over a hospital bed, Gerald Douglas and Sam Perfidon, both writers and managing editors for Brave Queer World that I once lived and worked with, fighting and writing side-by-side in the revolution.

“It’s been testy in there,” Henri explains. “Even in here, in his condition, Grant won’t let up on poor Sammy about the parade thing. I keep telling Grant to let it go for a bit and save his strength, but as soon as Sammy walked in it was all politics and what-not for Grant.”

“That sounds like Grant,” I say.

Over the past few months, trouble had been brewing in the Toronto queer community regarding the annual Toronto Pride parade, one of the year’s largest and most lavish events. A certain group demanded to protest Israel during the parade, but the commission overseeing Toronto Pride denied the group’s request for a permit. This opened the floodgate of criticism towards the parade commissary. Charges of censorship were hurled, editorials written defaming the Pride Commission and The Other World, the offspring of Brave Queer World, operated within a gay media conglomerate run by Sam Perfidon. Grant, of course, was in the thick of it from the beginning, writing furious bits of calumny against Sam, The Other World, the Pride Commission, and the corporate interests in the revenue and advertising that Pride Toronto produced. Grant had phoned me a couple months back about it giddy as a schoolboy, just like in the seventies, with an injustice to fight and a cause to champion. Who would have ever thought, back then, that it would be each other we’d be fighting in our dreary senescence with talk of rights and revolution?

Listening outside the room, I hear my Grant’s voice ring out in perfect outrage—

“Well,” I say, “perhaps now is as good a time as any.”

I enter the room and Sam and Gerry look up. Grant is the last to notice me, turning his head after he sees that Gerry and Sam have ceased listening to his indignation.

“Herb,” says Gerry, bespeckled and still sporting the same mustache he’s had for three decades.

“Hello all,” I say.

I embrace Sam and Gerry, big hugs from both and kisses on each cheek.

“It’s so good to see you again, Herb,” says Gerry, beaming and stepping back to have a look at me. “And still the handsomest of the lot,” he says, laughing.

“Only to eyes as bad as yours,” I reply.

I turn and look to Sam. He’s held up well, a little pudgy, but then again we’re in our sixties. He’s still got a head of fuzzy hair, now gone white, and he wears pointy, stylish glasses that suit him.

“Sammy you look wonderful. How’s the paper doing?”

“It’s still my mistress,” he says, grinning. “Business is good. We’ve been growing every year, trying to do as much online as possible—you know, like everyone else, everyone in the mainstream, that is.”

“That’s grand,” I say, doing my best to sound enthusiastic.

“Yes, indeed,” Sam says, beaming. “Should come by the new space some time, Herb. We’ve got new offices now, very modern, and we’re preparing a special layout for the anniversary.”

“Anniversary?” I say.

“Come on now, Herb,” says Gerry. “Time doesn’t move any differently in New York. It’s the fortieth anniversary of Brave Queer World at the end of the month, two weeks away.”

“Oh,” I say, nodding now, recalling that summer I came to Toronto in 1971 with Grant, who, two weeks later, took me to the first secret meetings that would spawn Brave Queer World, Toronto’s first and arguably most influential gay magazine, a feat that I consistently forgot belonged on my resumé.

“That’s right,” said Sam. “And Other World will be putting on quite the spectacle, and a special edition to commemorate it. Come by the offices this week, Herb. We must work you in somehow. Who knows, maybe we’ll even throw you on the cover again.”

“Again?” I say, genuinely perplexed.

“My God,” says Gerry. “You really have sailed off into the waters of dotage, haven’t you? You were on the cover of—of—“

“Nineteen-seventy-six, June edition,” I hear Grant murmur, a sound that needles my heart. I haven’t looked over at the bed yet, avoiding it like it contains a light that might blind me.

“Right before he sailed off to New York, actually,” Grant adds.

I feel Sam and Gerry melt away from my sides, leaving me, and the hospital room comes into better focus. With the blinds half drawn, sunlight slips into the room in a wan glow, the pearl-white walls and floors reflecting the illumination. To the left of the room, a few feet from the entrance, Grant lies in his bed. I move closer to him, barely aware of my footsteps propelling me forward as I finally look into his face.

Nothing quite prepares you for this, though I’ve seen it many times: the cruelty of the disease upon living flesh. Grant, once an Adonis himself, looks emaciated and withered as a dried plant. His complexion, always a deep manila, has turned pale, almost translucent in the sweat that bathes his face. I see his arms have lost their vitality, limp as unformed dough, their strength and life expended. I fear going near him to learn how he might smell, for I always cherished pulling him close to me and burying my nose in his black curls. These have remained intact. Yet his body doesn’t belong to the man I knew, a body inching towards expiration.

“You still look good, Herb,” Grant says. “Even now, you still have something of your old self.”

“How…are—Grant?” I feel my throat tighten just to look at him, and I fear my eyes might bubble past my control.

“Come on now, Herb,” says Grant. “You were always such a tough-guy.”

I rush forward, my fear of hospital germs evaporating, and envelop him. Grant holds me closely too and I hear him sigh. I wrap my arms around him, caring, perhaps too little, for his comfort. I smell his hair. It smells the way I remember it: a deep mix of soil and coffee. Grant smells like home.

“Come on now, you lug,” he continues. “How have you been?”

“Me?” I say, almost hysterically. “To hell with me, Grant. Tell me about you.”

“Well, hell,” he says, and within moments Grant launches into politics, into Sammy’s refusal to make a deal about Pride and the censorship thing, about how the community is on a downward spiral and the old ideals are leaving us. I listen to it all and nod, reassuring him that it’s not all doom-and-gloom like he says. He doesn’t mention the disease. To Grant, it’s as though we’re having the conversation in a cafe on Church Street, sipping afternoon tea, enjoying the sunlight, unburying all the old politics and wondering at intervals where we might take supper.

“Honestly, Herb,” Grant says towards the end of a speech, “what might come next once our own community leaders have censored us? Hell the mainstream media and society used to do that, and now it’s the gays that are silencing the gays. Who’d have thought we’d live to see the day?”

“Yes,” I say, doing my best not to sound parental. But it’s nothing doing: Grant senses this.

“Don’t do that, Herb—don’t trivialize things the way you do.”

“Well,” I say, “it’s a pretty sensitive subject, and I can understand Sammy being in a tight spot.”

“No,” says Grant, closing his eyes and shaking his head from side to side. “Sam’s doing what he’s doing for business. He doesn’t want anything to upset the millions Pride makes for those friends of his.”

“Well, they’re gay businesses, aren’t they?”

“Christ, Herb,” Grant says, looking exasperated in a way I haven’t seen him look yet. “I know you stopped being political a while ago, but can’t you hear yourself? Can’t you hear how that goes against everything we believe?”

“Use to,” I say. “People change.” I slide off the corner of Grant’s bed.

“Yes,” he says, looking up and into the lamp above him. “You changed, of course. I never understood why you stopped being political, Herb. You were so damned good at it—the articles you used to write, the speeches you would give at meetings. When you went for New York, we were all happy to see you do well in business. Lord knows we treated your apartment like a private hotel. But, secretly, I always wished you hadn’t.”

My heart rolls at this. I glance and see Henri in the doorway, eavesdropping.

“Well,” I say. “I loved the movement, but I left for me.”

“I know,” Grant says. “I don’t blame you. I guess, for a while, I thought it would be the two of us, taking on the world, changing things, trying to build something. It’s easy to think like that when you’re young.”

“Time has its way with dreams,” I say and kiss him on the forehead, allowing myself a moment’s pause.

“I’ll be back soon,” I say.

“Okay,” says Grant. “And Herb,” he calls as I walk towards the door. “If you talk to Sam, see if you can get him to come around and print something bloody critical for a change.”

“No promises.”

Later that evening, back at Al’s, I peruse some old copies of Brave Queer World that Al, perhaps a bit too suggestively, has left out. I thumb through old issues and smirk at the articles, whose topics now appear horribly abstruse. We wrote against the suburbs, the State, corporations, medicine, psychiatry and especially the nuclear family and marriage. Fresh from university with Humanities degrees in hand, our minds aswim with Leftist dogma, we took for our muses Marx and Engels, Trotsky and Che. We even lauded that crackpot Laing and the hack Marcuse, trumpeting any idea that contributed to our Revolution.

Grant was a demon about politics and philosophy, always musing about the root causes of oppression, of how things might get better. Grant nurtured Brave Queer World from the start. From an original few dozen issues of the first edition, the magazine ballooned with a readership in the thousands. We became the gay voice in Toronto, and the community looked to us for leadership. Brave Queer World even made its way to Europe and across the urban gay circles all over the States. It was how we communicated then with no email or cell phones. Brave Queer World wasn’t simply the voice of one or two editors—everyone had a say and a vote on what went into the paper.

When I came to Toronto, I moved in with Grant straightaway. He found me a job teaching English as a Second Language, a task that I was horribly ill-prepared for but enjoyed nonetheless. Grant took his time with me, not wanting to traumatize me with too strong a push towards sex and professions of love. Our relationship progressed slowly, perhaps gracefully in comparison with my future affairs: reading Housman and Auden in a park during the day, dining on North African food in the evening, seeing the latest Truffaut by night. When, at last, we made love, Grant was gentle and loving.

For the next few years Grant and I could hardly be separated. We lived together throughout, often with the company of friends or temporary boarders, who always considered us the model couple. I took odd jobs, taught or worked in retail, while Grant manned the helm at the magazine, eventually bringing on Sammy to help professionalize things. We talked movement politics at all hours, always developing the next strategy or article series. I can scarcely remember Grant being in a bad mood, such was his animation for his work. Even the magazine’s frequent financial worries only exhilarated him further. For Grant, no task was too small, every difficulty a welcome challenge.

Five years into the relationship, when Brave Queer World was at its zenith, two things occurred: at twenty-seven, I began to feel the terror of age, and I found my eye wandering. I had also, for quite some time, found solace in the gym. In exercise, I found meditation, a place of worship, and the workshop where I could craft the essential tool of my life—my body. I took to the bodybuilding life like a zealot, a Spartan, training twenty hours a week and devouring proteins, examining myself in the mirror to see if I resembled the men in magazines.

I also noticed other’s eyes, men and women both, sweep over my body with lust or envy. I felt the thrill of being beautiful when all I had ever felt back home was common, everyday, ordinary.

Grant barely noticed this. How could he have, being so wrapped up with changing the world? By then, late in the relationship, around 1977, I had taken to frequenting Manhattan, occasionally for weeks at a time. Something about the city ignited my spirit. Here was possibility in every form: every lust could find its object, every fantasy its reality and every dream its fruition.

I planned my flight carefully, began putting my finances together and attempting to find the right words to tell Grant. Timing with these matters, I’ve always known, is crucial.

Grant came home late one night from working on the paper, which was the norm rather the exception. He registered only mild surprise to find me waiting for him at our kitchen table.

“Grant,” I said. “Can we speak?”

“Sure, sure,” he said, unloading his valise, which was packed with papers, and walking into the kitchen. Grant made his way towards me, looking worn but happy, expectant at whatever I had to say, perhaps anticipating me to yank him out the door for an impromptu night out.

“I don’t feel happy here anymore,” I said. “I feel like I’m missing something big, something important, and I need to follow it.” I remember sighing, shrugging, wiping my hand over my mouth before, “Grant, I’m moving to New York.”

I noticed then, perhaps for the first time, Grant frown, his eyes drop, and saw him rub his face with both hands and bend over at the waist.

“It’s just—” Grant stammered, “I thought you were happy here, Herb. I thought we were happy, that you enjoyed yourself here, and your work on the paper and your teaching. I just—”

It went on like that for a bit, I reassuring Grant that there was no simple explanation, no cause to boil down to, no great way to explain it, just that I was moving on. He took it well and cried a bit. For the sake of being the put-together one, I didn’t cry, clinching up my eyes when necessary. A few weeks later I was off for a vast and thrilling new life.

I awake early the next morning, in part due to Al’s calling from the kitchen, “Herb, Herb, I’ve got breakfast.” Reluctantly I pull myself from bed, don a robe, and proceed downstairs to quell Al’s calls. Unlike many my age, I’m still a very late sleeper, but Al always rose early, even as a young man, much to the displeasure of his housemates.

Ecce Homo,” I say to Al, settling into the dining nook of the house’s open and flush kitchen. Located at the back of the old Victorian, the kitchen opens into a screened-in patio that abuts a plush garden that Al and his partner have nurtured into a pastoral wonderland. The Lake Ontario wind whistles through the screen and into the kitchen, filling the place with the smell of sage and rosemary, mint and pepper. For a moment I feel a great calm.

Al places before me a plate arranged with an omelet, toast drizzled with honey, wedges of melon and slices of banana, and a cup of coffee. Like most that possess a mind and hands for craftsmanship, Al is a wonderful cook, and I enjoy my repast as Al settles opposite me.

“Sammy called asking for you,” says Al.

“Oh,” I say. “What of it?”

“He said you should come by the offices downtown today.”

“Oh,” I say again, sipping my coffee. “What do you suppose he wants?”

“He probably just wants to show you around, maybe show off a bit is more like it, and I think he wants to take your picture and get you to say a few charming things about Brave Queer World for the memorial edition coming up.”

I consider this and allow myself a small upsurge of excitement. It’s been a while since I’ve been featured anywhere, on a posting or in a magazine. Aside from the one cover issue of Brave Queer World, I’d been featured in a few advertisements and queer mags in New York. I’d never attempted or cared to be a model, but a few friends in the media business asked me to lend my face and physique to their cause. Flattered, I obliged, but that was a long time ago.

“Okay,” I say.

Al, appearing a bit startled at hearing me speak as he pored over his morning edition of the Toronto Star, looks up at me and asks, “Okay what?”

I arrive on Church Street late that afternoon at the offices of The Other World. The offices reside in a lean, historic building in the gay district of Toronto. The facade is a deep, rusty brick, lending an aura of history to the place, as though it might be some kind of proletariat factory.

I enter the building and ascend the stairs to the second floor office. There’s a foyer, contemporary and official looking, complete with plasma televisions and cushy furniture, abutted by tables groaning with magazines, copies of The Other World and various pornographic issues whose titles I don’t recognize. Left of the room, situated before large glass doors that lead to the main offices, rests a desk with a muscled youth in a bright yellow Other World t-shirt, who sits in complete unawareness of my presence as he blankly negotiates his cell phone and bites his lip. I approach, somewhat awkwardly, and voice my presence.

“Excuse me,” I say.

The boy looks up. He has bleach-blonde hair combed straight up and studs in his ears. He looks like a child to me, a muscled, bewigged toddler.

“Yes,” he says.

“I have an appointment with Sam Perfidon.”

The bemused expression on the youth’s face shows no affection. He lays down his cell phone, gazing at it with a pained expression as though it was an amputated limb. Next, the boy punches a few keys into the office phone and says, “I have a Mister…” He looks up at me here, expectantly.

“I’m Herb,” I say. I’ve always been useless in official-type conversation.

He nods knowingly and continues, “A Mister Herb here to see Mister Perfidon.” He nods again, the receiver moving up-and-down along with his head. “Okay,” he says, and hangs up.

“Mister Sam will be right out to see you,” he says. “Please have a seat.”

No sooner have I done so then Sam comes bouncing through the glass doors with a wide grin on his face, beckoning me inward, saying, “Herb, Herb, come on in,” coaxing me as one does a pet kitten.

“And Tyler,” Sammy says, placing his hand on my back and gingerly patting me like a piece of memorabilia, “we never keep Brave Queer World royalty waiting—Herb was a founding member.”

Tyler’s eyes widen theatrically in reverence, paying his due to the antique visitor, this queer fossil, and he returns to his cell phone, this time biting his tongue.

Sam leads me back through the offices, describing me with similar auspicious introductions to the hurrying writers, web technicians and editors who each express the same mild, polite interest in my involvement with their vaunted antecedent. Next, Sam leads me through a maze of cubicles back to his office in a secluded corner of the place. The aesthetics of the office strike me as decidedly dull: a pale desk centers the room, adorned with a computer, and behind it is Sammy’s chair. A few books occupy the grooved, in-wall shelves behind Sam’s desk, and a rather perfunctory fern languishes in the corner, yearning for the few strips of sunlight available to it. It provides the only hint of color in this chamber of gray.

“Herb,” says Sam, as though seeing me for the first time in this visit, “I’m glad you could stop by.”

“Yes,” I say. “I don’t seem to make it back here much, and people don’t come to New York quite as often as they used to, but it’s good to be back.”

“All a part of age, Herb,” says Sam, adopting an air of wisdom I’d never heard from him when I knew him in our twenties. Back then, Sam was a hard-line Marxist, moving to Toronto after studying history at Cornell eager to get high, get laid and change the world. And now here he is, a Chief Executive Officer.

“You get older and you get wrapped up in business or new people that you don’t care for but have to pay attention to. It’s that spiral downward, you know?” He sighs here, satisfied with this dissection of middle age and its social workings.

“Something like that,” I say. “But seems to be doing well here.”

“We’re booming,” Sam exclaims. “The Other World is just the tip of the iceberg, Herb. We’re online now, and that’s where the future is for everything. We only keep printing paper copies of Other World because old fogies like us still buy them. They’ll be gone in twenty years. Kaput.”

“And to think,” I say, “it all started in a basement in Kensington Market with us begging the lefties at UT to use their printing press.”

Sammy nods and forces a laugh. While Sammy is the reigning CEO of Other World and a healthy chunk of queer media in Toronto, Grant always maintained that Sammy feels ashamed he missed the first rough-and-tumble years of Brave Queer World, that he skipped the war and arrived for the peace treaty.

“Well,” Sammy says, slapping the table as though time is imminent, “let’s get you downstairs and take a few photos of that famous face of yours, you prince of New York, and we’ll have you on your way.”

This occurs, much to my embarrassment, as I spend the next two hours having my body arranged and manipulated by a pair of hissing photographers, who twist and shape my figure into poses as if I was a storeroom mannequin, giving such intermittent advice like, “More natural,” “now be serious,” and simply, “contemplate.” I silently give thanks to the small mercy that allowed me to remain clothed for this bodily parade, my physique not being what it once was.

Afterwards, Sam leads me through the foyer to walk me out. We stop in the entranceway as I make to leave.

“Well,” says Sam, “that’s that. Photos will be fabulous. You have no idea what our guys can do with computers these days. They can take ten years off you like that,” he says, snapping his fingers.

“If I write you a big check can they take off thirty?”

Sam laughs at this, somewhat too loud and forced. I see him raise his foot a bit, as though about to stamp it to add some percussion to his mirth.

“Anything for you, Herb,” Sam says. “Now there’s just one more thing, the editors will have a little bio of you as a headliner, boilerplate stuff—who, what, when, where—that kind of thing, but we’ll need a few reflections from you to add some personality. Let’s say three hundred to five hundred words.”

Sam rummages in his pocket for something and produces a business card.

“You can email it to this guy, one of our associate editors,” he says, handing me the card.

“About what?” I ask, almost too forcefully, putting quite a bit of breath into the what.

“Oh,” says Sam, looking a touch startled by the question himself. “About anything, really. Whatever you like. Most people opt for the ‘way it was when I was a young queen’ and the like. You were big in movement stuff and Brave Queer World at the beginning, Herb. Jog the memory a bit—write what you know.”

Later that night I think about Grant, about my leaving. I arrived in New York early in 1977. The city churned with life, drugs and sex that could be found anywhere. This was before the great cleanup, before Times Square became Disneyland, before porn shops and best clubs folded, a time when you could go out for groceries or a pack of smokes and get laid once on the way there and once on the way back.

I got myself another retail job at a bookstore. The pay was livable, and my only expense was myself. I hit the docks and bars with regularity. At the docks you could walk into a carrier crate, screw, and be on your way. At the bars you could be more discriminating: survey the crop and take your pick of the litter.

I learned, very quickly, the hierarchy of the gay world. In this world, beauty was the only currency, and it was accepted everywhere, in every language, regardless of politics or religion. I saw that beauty made you powerful, made it acceptable to enter rooms thought to be exclusive, clubs whose guest lists did not contain your name, and private parties where you were but a distant acquaintance.

I found men easily. Sometimes, I could go for several weeks sharing my bed with a new person every night. I’d only quit if I was near exhaustion, taking a few days off to recharge myself for the next adventure. At one point, I went with an older man whose business was real estate. We became business associates, and I acquired some properties and became moneyed. I stopped doing anything professional whatsoever, allowing hours at the spa or salon, the cinema or the bookshop, the cafe or strolling in the park to fill my day.

I made friends, perhaps a few hundred, as I became a star in New York, a jewel in the coterie of desirable men. Nights I spent at the clubs. The Anvil. The Peppermint. I was one of the originals at Studio 54, convening with Steve and Ian, bearing witness to Travolta and Donna Summer, even shared a drink with Roy Cohn. Finally, I felt that I had arrived.

The crowd from Toronto visited often. For a while, I was the golden boy of the old circle, the apple of their eyes, the one who had got off to the real big city. Grant came when work would allow. I noticed Grant grew handsomer with time, obviously committing himself to his own fitness regimen. We always slept together when he came to New York. Afterward, I would wrap my arms around him, resting my head on his chest, and listen to him breathe while he stroked my hair in odd circles. We never spoke much of it.

I did, from time-to-time, take a regular lover, a boyfriend. Such instances punctuated my wild lifestyle only occasionally, providing all the depth and sustenance of cheap candy. At such moments I would select a man—always young, and practically at random from my harem at the time—to go steady with for a while: going to dinner and the like, introducing him to friends at parties. Such dalliances never lasted long and always ended poorly, sometimes becoming the seeds for Midtown gossip. After a while I would grow bored with the state of things, find the affair monotonous, reeking of pallid domesticity, and lacking in the excitement that accompanied my evening trips to the bars. Thus, I would end the relationships with some tired, ambiguous excuse (“I’m feeling trapped,” “I think we’re going in different directions”). They were always hurt, these men. They would, on occasion, take the opportunity to stab at my psyche in grand soliloquies describing my various flaws, striking like miners for psychological gold. I offered no rebuttal, always nodding my head and making no argument, which I’d learned was the best way to bring such events to a close, allowing my adversary to create and verify whatever story suited him best and leave.

Things progressed like this, more or less, for many years. Then came the eighties, that chiaroscuro of a decade, a time that my memory inveterately assigns the colors grey and black, its fashion that of funeral suits, veils covering stony faces. All too well I remember how it began. It was at Fire Island, the closest thing to gay paradise, that we first noticed something was wrong. It began with whispers, rumors of unexplained deaths of hale young men, their lives just in bloom. The prettiest ones went first, their beauty betraying them, proving itself a curse, and only later would we understand why.

Soon, bit by bit, our knowledge evolved. It was a sickness born from love, from loving too much, from love gone awry. Quickly, like winter night falling, fear descended on the city. Where we used to appreciate the passing glance, the too-long stare, we now grew wary, frightened of our own desire, of what might be churning through our veins, infecting us, making us creatures of illness.

I lost three out of every four friends I had, slowly, torturously over twenty years. I came to dread the sound of the phone ringing, of the door knocking, of any friend’s voice even, because of the words that might enter my mind and, for the freshest time, lay siege to my very soul.

Yet despite all the warnings, despite Larry telling us to give up sex for good, despite the pure common sense of the matter—I couldn’t stop. I acted as though nothing was afoot, as though no reality lurked in every blowjob, in every screw. For years I carried on, hitting the same clubs, the same bars, picking up strangers without discussion of a condom. I can’t explain myself for it. Even now that behavior shames me. I thought that, perhaps, if I could die, all of it would be so much easier. It would be others who would visit me, burdened with keeping the gallant face for a dying friend. No more pain, no more misery, the burden of health relinquished.

But it never came for me. I remember sitting one night at home in the fall of 1997, getting the call from Grant. By then, such fears had become manageable. Grant made chit-chat, talked politics in his usual way, and then he told me the news. As I recall it, I feel myself nodding along with whatever I must have said at the time, assuring him that things would be “all right” and “okay,” that what was needed was a positive outlook, a strong constitution and the wherewithal to endure. I made a joke or two, I knew he’d like that, something about at least he had a health care system instead of a syndicate. A proper Canadian, he loved to hear an American bash his own. When we hung up, I wrapped myself in blankets and wept.

By then just about everything in my life had changed. I had just celebrated my fiftieth birthday in a sumptuous festival at my flat. And yet, while I routinely heard that I could still pass for thirty-five, I began to observe the menace of advancing age. First I saw it in my friends, many of whom had settled in a committed relationship and sedentary lives, allowing their muscles to soften, their bellies to grow slack. I still kept at my routine, trying my best to keep age at bay. But time gnaws away at you like the tide upon rock. It begins with something minor, a sore shoulder or knee, infirmities that become advanced, keeping you out of the gym for weeks at a time. Wrinkles appear where there were none before. There’s a procedure. A second procedure. But how many more?

These facts come home at last, and no rage can alter it. Rage at the feeling that the best is passed, that the final act of life is about to play, the curtain soon to fall. Friends and family enter hospitals en masse, this time from natural causes. The body’s various ailments anchor conversation, reminders of the mutual journey to the grave. Sex becomes a memory, and though the desire is still present, the act seems now a chore, and former flames give no solace in the here-and-now. People begin to die from simple things, a flu or a short fall. Friends and relatives slip away almost imperceptibly, with only dim memories to prove they were alive at all. “They are not long,” a poet said, “the days of wine and roses.” All that’s left are the noiseless hours and small distractions as the candle burns down—until, at last, you take the final sleep.

Several days pass by unnoticed and without purpose, as imperceptible as the turning earth. Al gets the call early on the second to last Thursday in June, one week before the Pride ceremony, that Grant is barely holding on, not expected to last much longer.

“Herb,” Al says. “It’s time.”

Al and I race to the hospital. The drive is silent, our faces contorted into an image of quiet and determined solemnity. Grant’s room is filled with friends and a few relatives. The volume of the room has been brought low, the occupants communicating in hushed drones of information. Grant is very weak. He has an oxygen mask fitted around his face. His color has faded to parchment, his body has compressed to the size of a child’s doll. People approach Grant, bending down on their knees to whisper a few words, to make our last peace as we’ve been instructed to do. I’ve been in this position before as well, usually resorting to platitudes so cheap I could barely spit them out.

Henri approaches me, rests his hand lightly on my shoulder and pulls my ear to his face.

“Herb,” Henri says, “Grant would like a word with you. People are going to step outside for a few moments, okay?”

I stare at Henri blankly, hoping my face betrays no terror. Henri, who seems uncharacteristically composed, anticipates some action, and I comply with a single nod. I stand and wait as the people file out, some giving me half-smiles of encouragement.

I will my limbs to carry me forward, to sit down at Grant’s side and take his hand in mine. He has removed his oxygen mask and speaks in a quiet, cracked voice.

“I’m at the end, Herb,” Grant says.

“Yes,” I say.

“Herb—are you happy?”

I cry now. Great, effusive tears slide down my face, and my voice erupts in sobs and chortled words. I notice, through his ashen face, Grant’s surprise.

“Don’t cry,” Grant says.

I can’t help myself now. The indifferent plainness of it all rushes upon me: my only love dying, my wasted life, the way he thought to phrase it like he did and how it lacerates me so.

“I’m sorry,” I manage to say, those two horrible words, full of vagueness and elusion. “I’m sorry for leaving. I’m sorry for thinking you weren’t enough. I’m sorry for turning my back on the best thing. I’m sorry for being such a disappointment.”

Grant does his best to console me, and what power he has left he uses to grip my hand. I see tears froth in Grant’s eyes and feel ashamed. I’ve asked a dying man to comfort me.

“You didn’t disappoint me,” Grant says. “I was hurt, but then I realized you were going to New York to be happy. I want you to be happy.

That’s all I ever wanted for you.”

Grant looks away from me now. His eyes move up. I want him now more than ever. His every word has become treasure. I want to ask him how to be happy, why it has evaded me for so long. I want him to give me some truth.

“Grant?” I say.

“That’s all.”

Grant dies late that night after most of us have left, leaving only Henri and Grant’s sister at his side. I skip the funeral, citing business in New York. The truth is far more cowardly. Since I left Grant in the hospital room, I can scarcely stand to breathe, my every thought an artwork of my ignominy. It is a feeling beyond tears, beyond tremors, beyond all the poetry of old men and soldiers fresh from hell. Grant is gone, and so is another life I might have led. I live with that every moment, and will for the rest of my life.

Back in New York, I stay in my flat and listen to old records, go for long walks if I suspect my phone will ring, or take a copy of the Times to a coffee shop, sit down and gape at the issue without taking in a word. I do this today, a few days after the funeral, and when I check my mail I see a package postmarked from Toronto. It’s square and brown, about the size of a cutting board. Inside, I open the package and find a large frame containing a photograph featuring myself with Grant on my side, and a copy of the first edition of Brave Queer World on the other. Beneath the pictures, at the bottom of the frame, there is a tiny sterling placard, etched with spindly words that read: Long Live the Revolutionaries.

Staring at the placard with the odd sensation of my memory working new mechanics, I notice that the package also contains a brief note from Henri:

Herb,

Grant wanted you to have this photo. I think he meant to give it to you a while back, but he must have forgotten to bring it on his last trip to New York. We found it buried underneath a pile of his papers at his desk. You remember how clumsy he was with those things. Again, sorry you missed the service. It was quite moving. Grant’s nephew read Whitman. Anyway, I’m off to Paris for a few weeks—I need to shake free my mind for a bit, take in the sight of Montmartre once more while I still can. All the best to you, Herb. My door is always open if you find yourself in Toronto again.

Cheers,
Henri.

P.S., Sammy mentioned that you still hadn’t sent in your anniversary bio. You might want to do so quickly to avoid Sammy inserting his own version, which might be what he was counting on all along.

Without really thinking much of what I am doing, I walk directly into my study, sit down at my computer, and write the following:

In the early 1970s, I was, in the practical meaning of the term, a founder of Brave Queer World, the predecessor to this magazine and one of the first and finest sources of queer media in Canada. Those were grand times, times when love, sex and the struggle for justice comingled in a thousand ways, and the entire world seemed ready for the remaking of revolution. But I won’t wax poetic, for we all know the truth of the thing: gains have been made, but the spirit has been lost, our community having grown to admire expedience rather than struggle, the material rather than what’s true. But I cannot claim righteousness. It was I, a founder of such a pioneering magazine, who was the first to make the trade, exchanging happiness for pleasure. But there are those, both then and now, who remain true to the original ideals of the great era of change: equality; justice; freedom from fear, tyranny, and exploitation; but above all the freedom to question, to focus the lens of critique upon anything that could threaten our essential liberties, even if the lens focuses upon ourselves.

Grant Peterson—my truest friend—continued to voice these ideals until he died, observing that our very own Pride Committee has become the new censors. There’s an irony here, I’m sure, but also the old feeling of discomfort. The Other World would not print Grant’s objections, even though it was his tireless work that allowed Brave Queer World the lifetime and eminence it maintained. I encourage you to read his blog to view those objections, and ask that Mr. Sam Perfidon, managing editor of The Other World, include them in a future issue and on his website.

I remember once, sometime during the 1990s, when I’d expressed to Grant, quite cynically, that our old beliefs were dead and buried, that commercialism and materiality were all that remained. It was then that he reminded me of Sartre’s old definition of the difference between rebels and revolutionaries: rebels preached the good word, but they couldn’t stomach actual change, for then there would be nothing to complain about. Revolutionaries, on the other hand, would endure and continue, struggle and promote the vision for a truly New World as not just a matter of nominalism, but because they meant it.

I think it high time we ask ourselves in which group we should be counted, lest the revolution slumber too long in the graves of people like Grant. My time is at an end; it is too late for this old queen to take up the cause again. I look now, with optimistic eyes, to the young, in the hopes that they might continue where Grant left off, and succeed where I have failed.

I do a quick edit, and without changing much, I send those lines off to the junior editor Sam had indicated to me previously. I walk out into my living room, observing some of the artwork that I acquired in the eighties but never studied nor contemplated. I tear it all down, every effete piece of nothing I bought on a whim and pile it on the floor. I pick up the frame Grant has sent me and feel light, energized in a way I haven’t in a long time, and hang it in the center of the wall. I leave the flat, walking down Park Avenue, thinking vaguely of stopping into some bar and having a glass of Cabernet, tossing wistful glances towards the door in expectation of some wonderful stranger I might meet. That thought, which would have seemed silly and probably sad just a few hours prior, I now find promising.

Walking through town, with the sun just setting behind the Hudson, I feel my old love of New York, the thrill of adventure, the endless dance of possibility, of the movement of never-ceasing life. I stop at the corner of Park and 32nd and, feeling the wind at my back, start moving west. Held up at a cross, I spy across the street, in front of a small old church, a young man, mid-thirties and handsome, eyeing me with what appears to be some intensity. I find myself startled. Could he be giving me one of those looks? Could I really still have something?

The look holds, and, feeling a boldness quite forgotten, I cross the street and approach him.

“Good Evening,” I say. “Beautiful evening, in fact.”

“Yes,” he says, looking down, sheepishly, nervous. I see now that he can’t be much older than thirty or thirty-one. His complexion, which from a distance I thought merely tan, reveals Latin descent, possibly Puerto Rican or Cuban. He has an accent that tickles and chills, one filled with the flavor of Spanish wine.

“I’m Herb,” I say, and extend my hand.

“Javier,” he says, clasping mine. “Are you here for the meeting?”

“I could be,” I say, not wanting to appear foolish. “What meeting?”

He regards me oddly for a moment, as though suspicious.

“It’s a support meeting,” he says, “for people that are trying to come out.”

“Oh,” I say, somewhat surprised, looking back at the church with new understanding. “We used to have those all the time in my day. I wouldn’t think that many would be around now, especially in New York of all places. I thought that’s why people come to New York—to come out.”

Javier appears almost scandalized: his eyebrows arch almost all the way up to his dark, pomaded hair and he appears to stifle his contempt.

“Of course there are still meetings like this. You wouldn’t believe how many people show up confused and scared, looking for answers or just someone to talk to. Our members are old and young, and we have all peoples: gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender and intersex people, and sometimes straight people come in just to listen.”

“I see,” I say, genuinely amazed. “I had no idea. I’ve been out a long time. I guess I sort of forgot what the first step is like.”

He continues to give me a hard look of appraisal.

“Why don’t you come in?” he says. “You can meet some new people, see what’s going on these days.”

“No one will mind?”

“Of course not,” Javier says. “And first timers have the option to share or not share, to tell us about themselves or not.”

As he says this, Javier places his hand upon my elbow and begins to lead me down the stairs to the church activity rooms. I’ve missed people, and I can’t remember the last time a stranger has taken my arm in friendship.

“Why don’t you come in and tell your story,” Javier says.

I tell him that I’d like that very much.

_

Thank you to Justin Hanson for sharing the complete text of his story “Twilight of the Revolution” 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.

Justin Hanson was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio. He attended The Honors College of The Ohio State University and graduated with a degree in English in 2011. At Ohio State, Justin studied with authors Manuel Martinez and Lee K. Abbott. Currently, Justin is completing a Master’s degree in English at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Following this, Justin plans on working and continuing writing stories and eventually attempting a novel.

“Harvest” – Ann Brimacombe Elliot

We are bringing in the wheat. In the more remote areas of southwest England, it is still some years before the advent of the combine harvester. The rust-mottled red tractor chugs slowly around the perimeter of the field, puffing clouds of pungent blue exhaust and dust. The old binder rattles behind it. Its turning vanes chop off the stalks at stubble level and steer the ripened grain into the machine’s maw, where it is swallowed and regurgitated as neatly bound sheaves. We children—five or six of us—and a bevy of uncles follow, stacking them into what my Devonshire relatives call stooks—round dozens of sheaves forming miniature wigwams.

It is August and hot by English standards. I am eight years old—more or less—and tired, sweaty, thirsty. My hands are sore from the stalks of the grain, the harsh binder twine, and the thistles that inevitably hide within the sheaves. My exposed skin prickles with sunburn. I am from the town but I am determined to keep up with my bronzed and toughened country cousins.

In addition, if I work hard, Uncle Fred has promised me a ride on the broad back of Violet, the bay Shire draft horse who, with the younger mare, Jessie, drowses in the meager shade of a hawthorn tree. The horses are fully harnessed, ready to take over if the tractor fails, as it so often does.

Above the tractor’s steady chug and drone, a skylark spills its endless cascade of sweet song. It is a sound that I forever and perversely still associate with the scent of my uncles—a heady masculine perfume compounded of cows, dried sweat, mud and manure. The uncles goad and tease me with rough affection. My face grows hotter and redder and I trot and stack, stack and trot.

At noon the aunts arrive with our lunch wrapped in checkered cloths and carried in wicker baskets. Among them, Auntie Win—distilled kindness, tall and ample with arms like fleshy hams; Auntie Frances—birdlike, tiny and neat, quietly energetic; Aunt Phyllis—a witch if ever there was one, skinny, sour and scolding. I avoid her and her acid gaze if humanly possible.

A boisterous group, we sit in whatever shade we can find, fidgeting in our attempts to find comfortable places on the prickly stubble. The food is unwrapped: generous slices of Devon pasty burst with potatoes laced with nutmeg, parsley and bacon fat; spicy homemade sausages wrapped in more heavy tough pastry; hard-boiled eggs; raisin-stuffed rock cakes. I eat and eat. The uncles laugh and urge me toward yet one more slice of pasty. I am famous for my capacity, but the sun is so hot that the food is making me slightly queasy, and I must disappoint them. The men drink rough cider and mugs of strong milky tea. For us children, there is scalded milk, whose taste and floating gobs of congealed cream I cannot bear; or we are offered bottles of carbonated liquid in virulent shades of red, green or yellow. The cousins consume this poisonous pop with glee. I try to follow their example but I have difficulty with such sweetness, and the bubbles tickle my soft palate, rise up the back of my nose, and cause me to choke and splutter. I long in vain for a glass of plain cold water.

After lunch, the standing grain is much reduced. The tractor puffs in ever-decreasing circles. One by one, the dogs arrive. Collies, terriers, and other mixed and motley canines from surrounding farms congregate around the field. They pant and gaze with fierce intensity at the shrinking circle of wheat. I pat a sheepdog named Sam, a usually responsive multicolored mutt, but he does little more than twitch a burr-studded tail, and does not take his eyes off the diminishing island of grain. The dogs are waiting. Some of the cousins have given up stacking, and have taken up stout sticks. They too wait.

The first rabbit appears; it streaks for the hedgerow, frantic white cottontail bobbing. A black dog is onto it in a trice. A thin high scream, and the rabbit lies disemboweled and bloody, the dog tearing at its corpse. More rabbits and an occasional rat break out, dogs, cousins and uncles in hot pursuit. Swiftly the air becomes heavy with the rusty smell of blood and spilled intestines. For a few minutes I find myself swept up in the frenzy. I have no weapon, but I yell wordlessly, and run this way and that. The circle of grain shrinks and shrinks. Animals and humans dart in every direction. The tractor chugs steadily. When a veritable flood of desperate creatures bursts forth, safety in numbers is briefly afforded. A few make it to the hedgerow, some disappear beneath the wheels of the binder.

A very young rabbit careens toward me and halts at my feet. Its black eyes bulge with panic, its small sides heave in terror. With a rush, the last of my excitement vanishes. I bend to snatch up the little animal and save it—but a cousin is there. With one savage blow, he cudgels it into oblivion.

I turn away and walk over to the horses. Tears of loss and sadness spill down my cheeks. I bury my nose in Violet’s warm, sweet-smelling hide and cover my ears to block the sounds: the barks, the pitiful shrieks, the thuds and yells. Violet chomps lazily at a nosebag of grain, ignoring me, my sobs and the mayhem in the field.

The sound of the tractor suddenly ceases. I turn around, wiping my eyes with a grubby fist. It has driven to the edge of the field and stopped. The uncle who has driven it is clambering stiffly down from its metal seat. It is over. The field is nothing now but stubble and stooks, blood and fur, dogs squabbling over small corpses. Cousins and uncles laugh and shout; they slap each other on the back in collective triumph and exultation.

Unnoticed, I pass through the gate out into the lane. The lark is still bursting with song. I am alone. I am from the town.

_

Thank you to Ann Brimacombe Elliot for sharing the complete text of her story “Harvest” 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.

Ann Brimacombe Elliot, originally from Britain, and her geologist husband have lived in Columbus since 1967. They have three out-of-town offspring and five exemplary grandsons. After fifteen years in medical research Ann started writing and editing medical literature. Her “creative” writing netted small successes in poetry and fiction, but she is most comfortable with creative nonfiction for which she has won several regional awards, including two Nonfiction Columbus Literary Awards and an Ohio Arts Council Individual Artist Award. In 2000, Kent State published Charming the Bones, her biography of restoration artist, Margaret Colbert. Ann is working on another biography. Music is a passion—she plays viola—and also enjoys gardening, hiking, skiing and photography

“Let Me Know” – David Armstrong

The paranormal investigators arrived at our house the same day I was scheduled for an abortion at the East Columbus Planned Parenthood. Two of them were men and one was a woman with a purple birthmark near her right ear that looked like a burn. The heavyset man wore a digital recorder with a purse-strap. He kept touching the small gray knobs and repositioning his headphones. When he asked for quiet, the only thing I could hear was the whir of the refrigerator and the shrill whistle of air moving in and out through his nostrils.

They were making a documentary about their investigation. The director was a man named Charles Everett. He said to call him Charlie.

He shook my hand and looked at me funny when we met in the kitchen.

“How old are you?” he asked.

“Fifteen,” I said.

“You’re going to be a heartbreaker.”

Mom and Dad were all smiles.

Charlie continued, “So what we need is some background. Maybe about the house, the area. Is there a history here?”

My dad swiped some crumbs off the countertop. “You know more than I do.”

“Fair enough, but for the documentary we want to get some footage from the horse’s mouth.”

“I got it,” said Dad. “You want me or Karen?”

“Probably all three.” Charlie was maybe thirty, with an elongated, childish face. He pushed his hair off his forehead, and it all fell back into his eyes.

Mom pulled a trashbag out of the can like a magician with a rabbit.

“Sorry about the mess,” she said. “We just finished breakfast.”

My mother is shy and pretty, and Charlie smiled at her differently than he did at my Dad. I don’t think this meant anything except that Mom and Dad are different people.

“Can we fix you anything, Charlie?”

“We’re fine. Mostly we’ll shoot in the den. But we’ll set up some other shots at the door to the attic. And maybe for Amy’s interview we’ll film in her room, if that’s okay with you.”

“Seems reasonable,” said Dad.

They positioned the lights in the den and got some close-ups of Dad’s signed Ernie Banks baseball and his collection of Appalachian Trail books. They also recorded room tone with the wheezy sound of Justin, the sound man, in the background.

Lydia, the gaffer, cracked jokes when the sound wasn’t rolling. She plunked a dime in Justin’s crack when he was crawling on all fours searching for the “hum” that turned out to be from our computer’s power strip. He rose up and smacked his head on an end table, and it made me shoot orange juice out of my nose. From then on me and Lydia were tight. She showed me how to tilt the LED panel to make the shot “ominous” and how to sandbag the tripod. I stopped thinking about going to the doctor for a while.

When it was my turn for the interview, Charlie positioned a few of my old stuffed animals on the bed behind me and pulled the curtains. Lydia put a dense black canvas over the window and placed a rectangular bank of flourescent bulbs in front of it. These were supposed to give the impression of cool sunlight seeping in. Lydia said fake light was better than sunshine any day. She put a translucent blue “gel” inside my lampshade, and the whole room got spooky and hot. Charlie said to try not to sweat, so I stood out in the hall when we weren’t shooting.

For filming I sat on my bed and Charlie asked the questions.

“Just look at me, and forget about the camera,” he said. “When did you hear the noise first?”

“Seven weeks ago.”

“Remember the date?”

“February. It was in February.”

I remembered the exact date, but I pretended not to. It was February fifteenth, which is the first time I ever had sex, and it was with Joseph Salzberg in our attic. I remember because it was the day after Valentine’s, and Mom said she was bummed because she thought it would be more romantic if the Ballroom Winter Festival at NorthPointe had been one day earlier. Then my parents left and Joey came over and we climbed up into the attic where I’d put down a few quilts and laid out some flower petals that I’d ripped off some daisies in the foyer. The petals looked a little sad and uncomfortable and lonely in the moonlight through the circle window with its beam like a target right where we did it.

We didn’t talk much. And right after is when Mom and Dad came home and started yelling for me, which is when Joey and I ran to my room. To lead Mom and Dad away from Joey, I told them I heard something in the attic. We all went up. They found the quilts up there, and the flower petals that hadn’t really gone anywhere, and at first Mom thought a squatter had been in our attic. But then Dad found some old boxes, which were the same boxes where I’d found the quilts, and there were black-and-white pictures of faded people in there who were sitting on that same quilt in a field of daisies, and they were smiling, and I felt my stomach kind of flip, then I threw up.

Everything happened fast after that. Dad and Mom got hooked on the ghost angle. They tried to find out who the previous inhabitants were. To keep them going I said sometimes I heard movement over the thin set of stairs that rose to the attic, and it was always at night, and my father checked every evening before we went to bed so that it couldn’t be anything but supernatural, or at least a trick of the house.

“Like two people laughing. Like they love each other,” I said. “That’s the sound.”

“And that’s all?” Charlie said.

“Maybe kissing.” I thought of Joey.

“Kissing?”

My neck suddenly felt hot and itchy.

“Can we take a break?”

“Sure.”

Lydia handed me a cold bottle of water from a little cooler my mom had supplied.

Then Mom called everyone for lunch, and Justin and Lydia turned off the lights and went downstairs, and when I walked back into my room Charlie was near my dresser with an off-white thing he called an EVP listener that looked like a baby monitor in his hand, and he was waving it around like he was checking for radiation, and in his other hand he had my fake license that said I was eighteen and the papers that the abortion counselor gave me before I signed the medical forms.

“It says you have an appointment today,” he said.

The little detector hissed in his hand and squealed. The sound was very quiet, like a newborn puppy.

At first I couldn’t think of what to do. I thought about running downstairs and lying, telling everybody Charlie touched me, but I didn’t.

Then he did touch me. He crossed the room and put a finger on my belly, just lightly, for half a second.

“How far along are you?”

I wanted to lie about that, too. But again I didn’t.

“Seven weeks.”

I looked at my feet. I was wearing purple ankle socks that day and didn’t remember putting them on.

“So, since—”

I was about to nod when the detector crackled. Through its pinhole speakers we heard a baby crying. Very small. Very far away.

Charlie stepped back.

The crying stopped. Charlie reached out and put the detector near my stomach. The crying started again.

Baby and I have turned the detector into a little game.

I say something like, “Hello, baby,” and then I put the detector up to my stomach and sometimes it makes a little giggle because it heard me. Very faint. Sometimes I read my brochures about bodily health and a woman’s rights under federal law just to see what baby thinks. Mostly baby is quiet.

It’s been a week since the paranormal investigators interviewed us, and they’re scheduled to come back tonight. Charlie said I could keep the detector if I promised not to go to Planned Parenthood. He gave me back the carbon copies of the papers that I signed with the counselor, but he kept my fake license.

The crew is in the driveway now. My mouth is as close to my stomach as I can get, and I am humming a lullaby about the mockingbird, but I don’t know the words, so mostly I just hum, and sometimes out pops a “heard” or “word.” I straighten up when my Dad opens the door to my room.

“Hey, pumpkin. Want to say hello to the crew?”

Somehow I feel like if I get up I’ll leave baby in this room here in the chair, and we’re getting along so well.

“No thanks, Dad. I’ll wait.”

I hear them downstairs, and the first one up is Charlie.

“Did you decide?”

I feel bad because I’ve been using his detector all this time, but I say no, I haven’t decided. Plus, he has my fake ID.

“You think this is a game?” He’s angry. He’s pointing a finger at my stomach. “That’s a baby in there. And we can hear it. Do you want me to tell your parents?”

I put the detector up to my stomach, and the baby makes a new sound. Smacking tiny lips in amber liquid that make a syrupy hiccup. And then another, and then a hard sound like a bubble bursting in tar.

“You see,” says Charlie. “She’s trying to talk.”

“I don’t see how you know it’s a girl.” But I think he’s right. The voice is like glass bells.

The detector clears its staticky throat, and then there it is, my baby’s tiny voice gurgling, but also stringing sounds together, and then, zip, just like that, a word: Beb-beb. Or maybe peb-beb.

“What? What’s she saying?” Charlie’s on his knees, sliding across the floor to my feet. “She’s saying words.”

Peb-beb. Behhb-ppppppp.

“Pebble?” Charlie says.

“Bed, maybe.”

“Have you been getting enough rest?”

“This is stupid,” I say. I throw the detector across the room. It doesn’t break because it hits the bed and falls off with a soft whump onto the carpet.

Now Charlie is very angry, and he shakes that finger. The crease between his eyes is off-center, and I can’t help wanting to roll it over to make a symmetry of his face.

“I’ll tell your parents if I have to,” he says.

“They’ll probably want me to get rid of it,” I say, though this isn’t true.

I want things to go back to the way they were so I can stop worrying about having a baby or not having a baby. Somehow the question—yes or no—feels like it’s changed everything already. Sometimes I wish I could fall down the stairs and I would lose the baby, and then it wouldn’t be my fault, and I wouldn’t have to make the decision, and I could also go back to doing whatever I want.

Charlie goes and picks up the detector off the floor. He hands it to me and says, “Just tell me if she says anything.”

I take the detector, but I only look at his knees.

Lydia and I have a great time again. She makes me forget there’s a baby inside me trying to say something through a ghost detector.

When Justin, the sound guy, tries to record the groaning I told everyone I heard on the stairs, Lydia hides her phone under some blankets near the attic door. Last night she downloaded fart sounds off the internet and made a playlist and plays it on the phone’s tiny speakers under the blanket. You can’t hear it over everyone talking. Then Justin tells us to leave the house so he can listen for ghosts. This is at six in the evening, and everyone  is feeling a little spooky because it’s getting dark and the ghosts might be moving around. We sit on the back patio in the dark and drink lemonade in quiet sips and whisper.

It’s a little cool, and my father builds a fire in the fire pit, and Lydia and I sit next to it, joking and trying not to laugh at the idea of Justin tracking the farts. But then the fire makes us somber. The air feels dry and humorless with woodsmoke. Lydia stares into the coals and I suddenly know. She’s the one I want to talk to. About this.

“Have you ever had a baby?” I ask.

She has a hard time looking away from the fire. She puts on a smile.

“I got pregnant once. Do you want to have kids someday?”

“What did you do?”

“You mean, did I keep it?”

I nod.

“I kept it. I wanted to. But he didn’t stick around.” She shrugs kind of comically by raising her elbows off the chair.

“Did you fall down some stairs or something?”

“No. Nothing like that. It just wasn’t a good time. I had low iron. That may have had something to do with it. Maybe not. Sometimes little babies just aren’t meant to make it. One in five, or something like that.”

She looks very sad to me now.

I want to tell her I’m pregnant. But just then Justin opens the window of the second story bathroom and yells at us. His head floats between moving streamers of smoke from the fire.

“Very funny,” he says. “Very funny, Lydia.” He holds up her phone. It’s still farting, and we can all hear it now.

Lydia turns in her chair and makes a half smile, but the fire is keeping her sad. The smoke won’t let her lips rise all the way.

“And by very funny,” Justin says, “I mean not funny at all.”

He throws her phone down onto the stone sidewalk my father built two summers ago. The plastic pieces bounce and roll, and I wonder which parts are the case, which are the phone, and which are its guts popping free and wobbling into the grass. Everyone is quiet. Justin shuts the window.

Lydia doesn’t get up, and my dad walks over and picks up the pieces in the dark.

Lydia whispers to me.

“Justin was the dad.”

Then my father brings the pieces of the phone to her and says he’s sorry. We’re all trying to keep the blank expressions that people keep when two people are fighting between themselves.

There are no noises other than the farts on the digital sound recording. Justin says that our house is a bust, very loudly, in the hallway so we’re sure to hear. My Mom and Dad look ashamed that their ghosts didn’t perform well.

Charlie hands me a bright green Gideon’s bible before he leaves. It is small. Smaller than my smallest notebook. He whispers in my ear, “I’ll let you off the hook. Those detectors pick up baby monitor frequencies. That’s what you’re hearing. Your neighbors probably have one in their kid’s room.”

He smiles and tilts his head like, forgive me, it was harmless. Then he taps the bible. “Read it,” he says. “Hope you make the right choice.” Then he’s out the door.

Lydia flips up my pony tail so it hits me in the forehead. She says, “Stay funny.”

Then they’re all out the door and Mom and Dad are in the kitchen washing up the lemonade glasses.

Back in my room I see that Charlie put my fake license in the bible. I put both things in my sweater drawer and turn on the detector.

I feel like my baby was sitting in this chair waiting for me to get back.

I hunch over and whisper.

“What do you think, baby? You a keeper or a go-er?”

The static is a tiny gray ocean on a marble-sized planet.

“What about it, baby? Speak up or forever hold your peace.”

Then I hear it. Babbling at first, but then making words. Whole sentences. Spelled out in whispers as light as corn silk.

_

Thank you to David Armstrong for sharing the complete text of his story “Let Me Know” 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.

David Armstrong’s story collection, Going Anywhere, won Leapfrog Press’s Fiction Contest and will be published in fall of 2014. His individual stories have won the Mississippi Review Prize, the New South Writing Contest, Jabberwock Review’s Prize for Fiction and Bear Deluxe Magazine’s Doug Fir Fiction Award, among others. His latest stories appear in The Baltimore Review, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Potomac Review, Mississippi Review, and elsewhere. A Ph.D candidate in fiction at UNLV, he’s fiction editor of Witness Magazine and recipient of the Black Mountain Institute Fellowship. He lives in Las Vegas with his wife, Melinda, and their dog, Prynne. More information is available at davidarmstrongfiction.com.

“Resetting” – Kelsey Lynne

Dying, by itself, wasn’t particularly inconvenient. The amnesia that went with it, however, was. It was precise, like the memories had been cut away with a knife. There were no fragments or images like the leftover pieces of a particularly vivid dream. The memories were simply, absolutely, gone. Two years removed. A surgeon’s knife was a butcher’s job in comparison. I had only my notes to go by, bound up in a journal that I’d found tucked inside my jacket, sealed in a Ziploc bag with some car keys. There were stones in my pockets, river stones, heavy enough that I’d had to pull them out, one by one, wallowing at the bottom of the river. The water filled my lungs and my chest convulsed, trying to breathe in the bracken silt, until the last of the stones fell away and I was free to find the surface. It was dark there on the bottom of the river, but my bare feet found the bottom, and I shoved away. Found the surface. Clawed my way to the bank.

Two years, my journal said. I still worked as an accountant and I’d earned a raise but no promotions. Same house. New car. I’d find it parked up the path where a small lot had been cleared away in the trees to allow people to overlook the river. It was late in the day, the sun slipping towards the horizon, and I wondered what day it was. I hoped it was a Friday. I could use the weekend to catch up on my life. The stones in my pockets—the careful notes of my journal—this was not a murder. This was suicide. A futile gesture, since no one had died for about three years now. Just forgot. Died, came back, and forgot everything that happened, all the way back to the first time they’d died. Like hitting the reset button.

I’d run my car off the road that first time. Through the guardrail, tumbling it down the easy slope and into the river. The impact had knocked me unconscious and I’d drowned by the time the rescue crew pulled me free. That was my reset point. A dark night, the river, and a car ponderously filling up with water. I’d killed myself in almost the same place I’d died the first time. I wondered why that was. The person that threw herself into that river was a stranger now, lost, and I was left wondering what had driven her to such desperation. We shared a name, muscle and skin, but I didn’t know who she was. All that I had was this journal in the Ziploc bag.

My house was not empty when I pulled up into the drive. I entered the kitchen, coming in through the garage, and had just set my car keys on the table when I heard a creak from the hall and someone said my name. I screamed and threw myself back, hitting the wall. I stood there—paralyzed—and stared at the stranger that regarded me. He moved warily, as if I were a startled animal. I noted his black hair, brown eyes, careful layers of muscle—very little stubble on his rounded jawline.

“Sandy,” he said again, his voice low, “You’re soaked through.”

“Who are you?” I whispered, edging back.

He froze, one hand raised as if to reassure me. I huddled in on myself, arms pressed in against my stomach.

“I just died,” I said, “in the river.”

“Shit.”

He took a step back, put his hand half in his pocket. Stared at the ground. When he spoke again, his tone was bitter and my blood ran cold. I was shivering violently now, muscles jerking like they remembered the water in my lungs.

“That’s twice now. Twice you’ve done this to me. Us. I’m Dean. We’re engaged.”

I looked at my hand in reflex. It was bare of a ring. His was not.

“I—but—why?”

“I don’t know.” He threw his hands up and turned away from me. “We met a few months after your car accident. Why don’t you go get cleaned up and put on some dry clothes? I’ll go pack my things. I don’t think you’ll want a stranger sleeping over here.”

“Do you—”

“I have an apartment. I’ll just go there. Call you tomorrow, okay?”

I nodded, numb. He vanished off into the living room, clearing the way between myself and the stairs. I took them at a run, fleeing the stranger that was in my house, bewildered and afraid. He came up to the bedroom after I’d turned on the shower and I could hear him moving about, jerking open the closet door and dresser drawers, kicking them shut. I stood there under the flow of water until I could no longer hear him. It reminded me of the river. I turned my face up to the nozzle, held it there under the spray, wondered if that was how it felt with the river stones holding me down, letting the entirety of the river’s mass press on my limbs and steal away my memories.

My journal had no mention of Dean. I read it sitting there on the floor of my bathroom, wrapped in a towel, the mirror covered with condensation. It talked about my job, things I needed to do, meetings, people. Everything that would help me recover from losing two years of my life. My relationships with my friends, my family, current events. Passwords to my computer, my bank account, online shopping. There was nothing about Dean. I read through twice, and on the third attempt I tore one of the pages, frantically thumbing through them as if I’d somehow missed something, a letter tucked between the thin paper that would explain all of this to me. Nothing. I threw the journal and it banged against the closed door.

Then, I cried. Sandy-before was a stranger to me and she’d taken my memories away, left me alone in this terrifying world—familiar enough to feel right, but with objects and scents I no longer knew. Cologne, an additional towel on the wall rack. A fiancé and no ring on my own hand.

There’s no explanation for why people stopped dying. The animals still did. Humanity did not. Our population was frozen—there were no more children born—and science was still waiting to figure out how the aging process would work. It upset everything. Death was far more common now that there were no consequences. The police force was overwhelmed with murders, to the point they could only investigate the serials. The sporadic ones, the moments of anger that only escalated once in a while—the restraint had been removed from those. Like cutting the brake lines. The suicides, too, had increased, as had the accidental deaths. Nothing was final. We were no longer afraid.

I wondered if my first death had truly been an accident. Dean’s wasn’t. It was a mistake, he said, when we talked over the phone. He regretted it. During the first year, when the world went insane and people were testing out this newfound immortality in droves. He’d shot himself and revived gasping, his bathroom wall sprayed with blood. It had been a nightmare to clean, he said, as if that was the worst part of it all. Drowning was much cleaner.

We went out for dinner a few days later, once I had my feet on the ground. I wasn’t sure if I truly understood the world I’d woken up to, but Dean was confident. I’d done this before, he said. The last time it had only taken a few days for me to readjust to my life. I kept such meticulous notes at work, it was easy. The restaurant was generic Italian and I found the sauce heavy and insipid, as if the kitchen were afraid to try anything for fear of offending someone’s palate. Dean talked about his job, about the promotion he was angling for. He told me of our times together, how we’d go to baseball games and what I’d wear when we went to clubs. He loved horror movies and told me we’d go see one soon. Maybe this weekend. I did not say much of anything. I told myself that it was because I was still so unsure of myself, of my place in everything around me. I felt adrift. Like I was still caught in the river and the current was pulling me along, that the stones had slipped from my pockets and I was lost in the tumult. I could only keep treading water and hope that the surface would appear.

After dinner, Dean dropped me off at my house. We stood on the front porch and I wondered if I should invite him in, if I could at this point. He didn’t say anything, just looked at me with a furrowed brow, like a dog at the window. Then he leaned forwards and I felt his lips on the line of my jaw. They lingered there and I didn’t move, aware of his hands at my hips, not quite touching just yet. My back was straight and I could only think of my own breathing. Then Dean drew back, leaving a cold spot of moisture from where his lips had touched my skin, and he stepped away, down off the porch.

“I’ll pick you up this weekend for the movie,” he said, “Around eight, I guess.”

He turned and walked away. I stared down at my hand as his car backed out of my drive. He’d bought me a new ring as I could only assume I had lost the original in the river. It was a plain gold band. Cheap. He didn’t say it, but he was waiting to see if this would still work. He didn’t want to waste his money on a broken relationship. I’d thrown away years of effort when I threw myself into the river.

I turned and fled back into the house and locked the door behind me. I checked the backdoor and windows as well. I told myself that it was because crime was up since we stopped dying, that there was a higher chance that a home intrusion would result in the homeowner being killed. Then I went upstairs, to my closet. I had stowed my journal in the back, in an old shoebox. I took it out and sat on the floor, cross-legged, and thumbed through the pages. I did take such meticulous notes—there were lists of the movies I’d seen and the places I liked to shop. My favorite restaurants. I skimmed that page, searching the entries. I did this twice. The Italian place was not listed. We’d gone there for our anniversary each year we were together, Dean said. We loved it.

I returned the journal to its hiding place and stood. I looked through the shirts, flipped through my blouses, one by one. Studying them. I found, at the back of the closet, a number of t-shirts for a baseball team. Their fronts emblazoned with the logo, the backs either bare or sporting an unrecognizable name and number. There were four in all. I stepped back and looked at these for a long time. I did not really like baseball. This, I knew, without the help of my notes. I’d never really cared much for sports.

Didn’t people change in a relationship?

I asked my coworkers about Dean. They talked to me carefully now and I thought that perhaps they knew something happened, but did not want to bring it up directly. I was caught up on my work. The adjustment was almost seamless. There were notations of important life events—how Jessica married three months ago, how David’s son was now four years old, and how Eric had tripped on the stairs and broken his neck last month and was still trying to dig through his archived e-mails to understand what he was doing here. It was enough to get by, the details of their lives would be obscured by the casual detachment that the workplace fostered. I saw the looks though, the wary glances in the hallway that said not everything was right. Perhaps they knew the signs better than I did. I’d done this twice now, after all.

They told me I’d had my difficulties with Dean. That I was often stressed by our relationship, that I worried about the two of us a lot. We’d fight and break up, then he’d show up that weekend with all these plans for a romantic trip and talk me into going with him and it’d be better for a few days after that. I’d be happy. Then he proposed and that put an end to our regular breakups. He’d send me flowers sometimes, have them delivered to the front desk and I’d go down there and bring them back to my desk. I’d leave them there until they wilted and someone else would throw them out after I’d gone home for the day. It was more detail than I expected and this was why I thought they knew I’d killed myself. There were clues here, subtle signs that could help me understand why I’d done this. This, and the journal. I brought it to work with me and read it over my lunch break, sitting at my desk with my pasta half-eaten in front of me, flipping through the pages and re-reading every word. My doctor was located on Elm St. My air conditioner had been repaired the previous summer and I was putting back money for when it finally broke for the last time. I’d changed which church I went to. All these little details in my precise script, little phrases with no embellishment. No explanation. Just facts.

I was starting to hate the before-Sandy.

Dean was passive in his anger. I learned this in bits and pieces, how he would look away and sigh—a sharp gesture—when I did not react to his advances. How he would move away from me and excuse himself to his apartment shortly after. Even that seemed like an accusation. He never invited me over and he never returned to gather the rest of his belongings. Like it was just a temporary thing, that we were on hold until I came around. He’d tell me that we would do this together, that we liked this and enjoyed doing that. Together. As if I’d suddenly remember and it’d all be okay if he just said it often enough. I would look in my journal after he left, even though I knew most of the entries by heart now. I didn’t have the park we’d go to on weekends listed as my favorite place and I didn’t write down any of the horror movies as ones I’d seen since the first time I died.

I didn’t see him angry until some months into our struggling relationship. I was cooking dinner, my attempt at reconciliation, at saying that this house was his house as well and we could pretend and be normal for a little while. I made stir fry and I put peanuts in it, and when I set down the plates at the table he recoiled, standing and stalking to the other side of the kitchen. I stared at him and he leaned up against the back wall, letting out his breath in a huff, arms crossed. I knew the posture. He wasn’t looking at me.

“Dean,” I said, “I didn’t make it spicy if that’s what you’re worried about.”

“I’m allergic to peanuts.”

I was quiet a moment.

“I-I forgot,” I said, reaching for the plates to take them away, “I’ll order something instead.”

“Yeah. Do that.”

My hand stalled in mid-gesture and I stared down at the steaming food, the brown noodles and the pile of vegetables, littered with the offending item like slick insects.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “I’m really trying here.”

“Yeah, you’re trying.” He didn’t keep the bite out of his voice. “We shouldn’t even be having to do this at all. And all you say is you’re sorry.”

“I don’t know why I killed myself,” I whispered, “I don’t know what else to say.”

“Don’t know why?” He threw his hands into the air and turned his back to me. “You were being selfish! Did you even think about what that would do to me? To us?”

“Were we fighting just before? Like this?”

“No! I don’t have a clue why you killed yourself. For kicks, I guess. Oh, I’ll just go pop in the river for a swim and not come up for air.”

“You shot yourself.” It came out with more of a sting than I intended, like the crack of a whip. I regretted it instantly. Dean went still.

“I wasn’t in a relationship,” he said, each word measured. I could hear the heat behind them. “I didn’t have anyone who cared about me.”

I couldn’t find a reply to that. Maybe I was selfish. I hadn’t even written down his peanut allergy in my book. I hadn’t written down anything about him.

“You know what?” he sighed, running his hands through his hair, “I’m going home. Just forget it. We’ll try dinner some other night.”

I let him go. The door fell shut behind him, hard. When the engine of his car died away in the distance, I stirred to life again. I returned to the kitchen and took out a bottle of hot sauce. It was from a local farmer’s market. I’d written that down in my journal, which day to go, which vendor to see and what flavor to buy. I poured this liberally over both plates and ate first mine, then his. I felt sick after, my stomach full to the point it hurt.

The peanuts were the best part.

I talked to Jessica the next day. I went to her cubicle and sat there and we held the conversation in a low tone. I asked her how her relationship with Ben was, how things had changed for her after she’d gotten engaged. She was quiet a moment, studying me, then she put her hands in her lap and composed herself. It was a deliberate gesture, an indication that she was giving me her full attention. That she took my question seriously, that she understood it was more than just idle talk.

“This is about Dean, isn’t it?” she said.

I looked down at the ground.

“I don’t like to interfere in other people’s relationships,” she said, “but Sandy, you’ve killed yourself over this before—and I think you’ve done it again. You don’t have to tell me if I’m right or not. But I think that says a lot on its own. Have you asked any of your friends about this?”

“I didn’t find any notes left in my journal,” I said, “and all the ones I have in my address book…we haven’t talked for a long time, they said.”

“And isn’t that kind of telling?”

She said it with an air of expectation. I just stood and returned to my desk. I sat there a long time, staring at the computer monitor, until the screen went into hibernation and I was forced to stir the mouse to jog it awake. I thought, then, that I understood before-Sandy. She’d given me a blank slate. All the important details, the things I needed to establish myself. Nothing else. A second chance, to do things differently this time.

To decide for myself on Dean.

He was like a wart, I decided, on my drive home. Stuck there, part of my flesh, and I saw it every time I looked at myself in the mirror. I had to get rid of it. It was a blemish and I picked at it, constantly, and tried to pretend it was nothing. Like a stain on my skin that I could cover up if I was just skillful enough with the concealer and blush. Something I could put a bandage over and pretend it wasn’t there, that it wasn’t a problem. That everything was fine or that I just needed to try enough. It had to go.

I left my house after dark. I’d never been to his apartment but I called one of his friends and got the address. I took a longer route there so that I would drive past a construction site on the way. I parked the car in one of the gravel turn-offs beside the road and walked along the fence surrounding the site until I was out of sight of the street. Then, I climbed up and over the fence, landing hard in a crouch. There were neat piles of building materials stacked in rows. I found what I was looking for at the end of one of these lanes, where scrap material was piled to await disposal. There was a length of rebar there, about the length of my forearm and the width of my thumb. I took it with me.

Dean’s apartment was on the second floor. I bought a bouquet of flowers with the longest stems I could find from the grocery store down the street, and I slipped the rebar into the middle of them. Then I waited at the outside door to Dean’s apartment building until someone came along and I begged them to buzz me in, I told them that I wanted to surprise my fiancé. For our anniversary. He recognized Dean’s name and knew that he was engaged, so he let me in. I saw him look at my hand, noting the ring. I hurried upstairs and then hovered there outside his door, listening to ensure the other resident had gone inside and the hallway was empty. Then I knocked.

Dean was surprised to see me. He glanced backwards, at the living room beyond. Uneasy. I wondered why he’d never brought me here. It was curious.

“Sandy,” he said without much enthusiasm, “I didn’t think we were doing anything tonight.”

“I wanted to surprise you.” I clutched at the flowers nervously. “Can I come in?”

“Well—okay—but I don’t have much furniture. Just cheap stuff. I never really built this place up because I thought we were going to live together.”

His voice had taken that hard edge again. I didn’t reply, just let him turn around and start to move inside, through the entryway. The door slipped shut behind me with a heavy click and I pulled the piece of rebar free. He didn’t realize it, didn’t realize anything. There was surprisingly little effort involved. The weight of the metal was enough, gravity pulling the rebar downwards, like it was eager to be reunited with the earth and only needed the slight push I gave it. I felt the muscles in my arm all too clearly—how the bicep strained a moment, how the forearm seemed to twist and the wrist gave a sharp bite of pain as it rotated around. I felt the impact up through my elbow. It made my fingers go numb. There was a heavy sound, like I’d dropped a sack of potatoes on the tiled floor, and Dean sagged as his knees folded under him. His body was squat, lax. His head draped against the wall and lolled there, eyes open and unfocused. I raised the piece of rebar up again, the metal protesting at the movement, as if it didn’t want to leave the earth. I let it drop again and Dean shuddered and slid further towards the ground. There was blood slipping down his forehead, like fingers caressing his hair. I’d not touched him back, not in the entire time we were together since I died in the river. He’d stroked my hair, kissed my face, touched my shoulders. I never moved.

I raised the rebar. Let it fall. I did this, mechanically, watching with a sort of detachment as the blood puddled in the hollow of his neck and overflowed onto the floor. How the side of his head seemed to bow inwards. Like a waning moon. My muscles hurt and I stopped a moment, letting the tip of the rebar touch the tiled floor. I was panting. My shoulder ached.

I wrapped the rebar in plastic bags and put it back into the flowers. I cleaned the floor and the wall. Dean was right—blood was messy. I couldn’t imagine what it had been like to clean up after a gunshot to the head. This was bad enough. I threw the soiled cleaning supplies into another plastic bag and tied it up. I’d take it with me. Dispose of it elsewhere. The entryway was now relatively clean, the only blood spots were close to where he’d fallen. He’d think he had slipped and fallen, perhaps, when he came around in a few hours. I didn’t really care. I wasn’t feeling much of anything at the moment, just a sort of light-headed sensation, like I was floating. I walked through his apartment and looked at each room. There was little furniture and fewer personal belongings. Pictures of himself with his friends, some memorabilia from his baseball team. I found a few framed photos of us, shoved off to the side. They weren’t recent. They were the before-Sandy. My smile looked strained.

I left with the flowers and threw the bag of bloody rags in a random dumpster in a parking lot on the way home. I threw the engagement ring out the window of the car as I drove away. When I reached my house, I put the flowers in a vase of water on the table. I put the rebar at the back of my closet, still wrapped in plastic. I left it there, letting the blood dry, resting in the corner next to the shoebox with my journal. The flowers remained on my table until they wilted and then I threw them out. I threw out the rest of Dean’s belongings as well, his cologne and his toothbrush and the woman’s sized baseball t-shirts. The bottle of fragrance broke from the fall and the garbage can stunk of spice and the sickly-sweet perfume of half-rotted lilies.

After that, I did not see Dean until almost three weeks later, while grocery shopping. I stopped at the mouth of the aisle, staring, and my heart tumbled over itself. He was standing there, by the jelly, trying to decide between apricot and blueberry. I could go up to him. Introduce myself. Smile, flirt. Start over. I’d know all his favorite things, what movies to suggest we see, which baseball tickets to surprise him with. He wouldn’t know that I’d killed myself twice before. He wouldn’t blame me for it, again and again. I could be perfect and he’d love me for it, for understanding him and knowing and liking all the things he knew and liked. I’d know not to cook meals with peanuts.

I walked down the aisle, stopped next to him. Reached in just beside him so that he was forced to side-step out of politeness.

“Excuse me,” I murmured.

I picked up the the first jar of peanut butter my fingers closed on. I dropped this in my basket, turned my back, and walked away.

_

Thank you to Kelsey Lynne for sharing the complete text of her story “Resettin” 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, click here for links.

Kelsey Lynne is an automated testing developer. She enjoys writing in her free time, typically between the hours of midnight and 1:00 a.m. When she is not coding or depriving herself of sleep to write, she enjoys painting or playing the harp. Her education consists of a computer science degree and two years of a creative writing minor, before she changed her minor to business so she could take exciting classes like Finance 101. Kelsey lives with her three cats and one dog.

“On Wilson” – Brad Pauquette

My dog’s hair will not grow forever. Each follicle reaches its terminal length, and then his body discards the hair, littered about in vacuum-clogging clumps on the carpet and pooled in the corners of every staircase.

But each of my dog’s hairs will not grow to the same length either, the short hairs on his snout gradually increase in length as they run over his head to the full shag of his German Shepherd back, and then the length tapers down again to his paws. No one directs them, but each hair follicle knows its exact length, every hair succumbs to the greater mission of his beautiful black and brown coat, none rebel.

My wife sits beside me, fiddling with the radio. My son, two-years-old, babbles nonsense in his car seat, positioned behind me.

I back out of the driveway, put the car in drive and pull forward. We aren’t going anywhere important—out to lunch, cheap Indian food at the North Market or baked potatoes from Wendy’s.

A short block from our house, Lyncroft Ave. deadends into Wilson Ave. On the left sits a broken pink dinosaur of a house, returning to dust by natural decay right before our eyes. It sits empty, with rain coming through blanket-sized holes in the roof, and grass in the yard that stretches four feet high. On the right, an imposing yellow brick house stands three stories tall, with six chimneys reaching towards the sky and as many pitbulls roaming the backyard. A right turn takes you into downtown Columbus, a left turn takes you into Eastgate, one of the better black neighborhoods in Columbus. Our neighborhood is neither downtown nor Eastgate.

If you were to pull through the dead-end intersection at Wilson, you’d run into a white duplex, where a sixty-inch TV blocks the only unboarded window on the left half. The TV is either picked up or delivered by the Rent-A-Center or Aaron’s truck several times a year. It is apparent that the TV also partially blocks the front entrance, but there are many reasons “USE BACK DOOR” is spray painted in foot tall red letters across the front door.

A few times a week, I sit on my front porch late at night, dragging down a Turkish Gold as the cicadas compete with sirens and the sounds of casual domestic abuse. The foot traffic past my front porch never stops, no matter the time of night or day. Even in the wee hours of the morning, it never stops.

Jittery men, some young, some old, almost all of them black in this neighborhood, walk down Lyncroft Ave. and disappear across the street, behind that white duplex, their eyes jumping back and forth, nervously checking behind them. Fifteen minutes later they emerge again, heading back up Lyncroft Ave. to a vacant garage most likely, but now with a smooth, rhythmic gait, their eyes staring straight ahead, focused—mellowed, yet alive.

In the afternoons, when I pick up litter out of my yard, I see young men wearing coats, regardless of the weather, travel from that white duplex to the yellow brick house across the street. These young men know the pitbulls at the yellow brick house by name, but it doesn’t stop the dogs from barking each time the boys cross the street, the pockets in their baggy coats imperceptibly heavier or lighter, depending on whether they’re going to or from, determined by the relative weight of cash to crack and quarters to meth.

I don’t normally drive towards Wilson after noon, instead, when I need to head downtown, I’ll head north out of my block, and circle back around to Mt. Vernon. This particularly Tuesday I’m feeling frisky, or I’m tired of having the direction I can travel determined by an external authority like I’m nine years old, or perhaps I’m just careless.

I see them as soon as I pull out of my driveway, six black teenagers, looking up towards the white duplex, hollering at a girl on the porch of the right side. All six wear red, it must be a special occasion.

Neighborhood patrols don’t usually wear colors anymore. It only took the police fifteen years to figure out which color belonged to which organization, and then it took the young men who run the crime in the neighborhoods fifteen minutes to switch to subtler methods of team identification. Except for the kids. Kids always wear the colors—like children in the suburbs wear a t-shirt with the name of their favorite band, or the jersey of their favorite MLB star.

Yet, on special occasions, when it’s absolutely critical to determine who belongs on which team, the young men wear their reds in my neighborhood. It’s been a special occasion for a couple of weeks now.

A week earlier, I’d seen six boys between the ages of fourteen and seventeen, suited up in their reds, traveling East towards Pointdexter, ready to help a nearby neighborhood push off the “MS-13” or the “Rolling 22” tags I’d recently seen pop up north of Broad Street.

Just a couple of days ago, I saw the young men of the neighborhood, dressed in black, dispersing to their homes during the hour I sit on my porch, returning a few minutes later to roam towards Mt. Vernon in their red adornments, pants hung low, filled with instruments of exhilaration and destruction.

Red socks peek from beneath Daryl’s black basketball shorts, James wears a red hoody, Darius wears a red stocking cap. Alone, these colors wouldn’t look out of place, but it’s unlikely that every single one of them might have chosen to wear that color by coincidence.

On this particular Tuesday, these six boys making a ruckus with their backs to me, standing in front of the white house on Wilson where Lyncroft dead-ends, they’re wearing their colors. These teenagers aren’t in charge, they don’t get paid—they’re pawns, they get addicted, they get trapped. These ones in front of this house, every one of them is already lost, and most of them will never gain anything for their sacrifice.

These boys aren’t even trusted with guns. Most of them in this group of six are fourteen or fifteen years old. They could get a weapon if they needed to, but they’re not trusted to carry them regularly.

These boys should be in school, but instead they’ll stand in front of a convenience store somewhere to take the group’s numbers from two to six, two of them will be placed on a street corner two blocks down with a cell phone and be told to watch for cops and the right kind of hooptie. At this moment, they could be in school learning to read, learning basic math, but instead they stand in front of a shitty duplex—suited up, hitting a pipe, waiting to be told where their hopped up, hormone-addled brains should go stand—go stand and look like something, but be nothing. At least they know some math, it’s industry specific though, mostly revolving around fractions of an ounce, and the metric gram.

We could count off these boys—ten years from now—prison, drug lord, dead, hopeless addict, prison, dead in prison.

My wife coughs twice in the seat next to me, breaking me from a trance.

“Are you gonna stop?” she asks me.

“Sorry,” I say, and apply the brake.

I shouldn’t have gone this way, not this week—not ever. But today their backs are to me and they don’t look like they’ll notice. I click on my right blinker and pull to a stop at the sign. I turn my wheel and accelerate.

Clairvoyant, or possessed by the devil, one of them turns, looks me in the eye and shouts “Hey Bitch!” Spit dribbles from his blue lips, his glazed red, half-closed eyes look into mine. He lifts up his black sweatshirt, and slaps his naked, ashen belly with his flat hand.

The others turn slowly and snicker, evil eyes peak out from under hoods.

I should complete my turn, I should continue on my way and go eat Indian food with my family. But today I can’t.

They hate me because I’m white. They hate me because I take care of my yard and try to improve my house. They hate me because they can’t touch me, their Lords watch over me like guardian angels. Nothing would bring the cops crashing in on their operations like harming an articulate white family, but they still want me gone.

They steal from me. They come up on my porch late at night and run off with my furniture, they throw rocks through my windows.

Not today.

I pull to the left side of the street and park facing the wrong direction. I reach under my seat and pull out my Sig Sauer P226 9mm pistol, I flip open the center console and take out a loaded magazine.

“What are you doing?” my wife asks, clutching the armrest.

“Not today,” I tell her as I snap the magazine into the grip, and lock it in. “Not today,” I tell her as I stick the gun in my jacket pocket and open my door.

“Stop…” she says, but I can’t hear her, my foot is on the sidewalk and I elbow the car door shut behind me.

I walk directly to the group of six, they are forty feet from me. They turn and congregate to face me like a wall. They laugh. Corporately, they can not decide whether they are more confident or amused, their eyes shift and change.
I walk quickly, but not hurriedly, with my eyes fixed on the boy in the black sweatshirt with the blue lips. When I am twenty feet away, I pull the gun out of my right pocket, and pull back the slide to load a bullet into the chamber.

The boy’s name is Jared. He is seventeen. I know this because I know all of them. I know this because I had a functional basketball hoop, a rare commodity in this neighborhood, and I learned all of their names before I let them play.

The others see the gun and their eyes widen, bright white eyeballs glaring between their dark brown faces and their dark brown eyes. Their feet begin to hint of shifting. But Jared stares at me coldly, he smirks with only half his mouth.

I am fourteen feet away now, and I pull the gun up and level it at his eyes, still moving forward. The younger boys around him begin to back away when I pull back the hammer.

“You gonna shoot me crack—” he begins to say, but I refuse to hear him call me a “cracker” one more time, and the deafening blast of the 9mm cancels out the rest of his word.

The steel slug exits the muzzle of my Sig at twelve hundred feet per second, and my hand jerks upwards and slightly to the right. The round whistles through the air for the two-hundredths of a second it takes to travel the six feet between my outstretched arm and Jared’s forehead, the muzzle flare chasing close behind it.

The bullet splits Jared’s forehead just above his right eye, splintering his skull, immediately bruising his eye. Jagged fragments of bone chip from his forehead and the bullet forces them into his mushy, drug-addled brain. The once spiraling bullet now fragments into two pieces, each of which tumbles through the mass of nerve tissue, tightly orbiting the other like a satellite moon.

The hole in his forehead was tidy, but the mass of bone and matter and bullet fragments tear a ragged hole in the top of the back of his head, his matted hair and unwashed skin tears away and lands on the sidewalk behind him.

As the slide on my pistol recoils, the expended bullet casing ejects from the barrel, and the slide pumps another round into the chamber. The empty brass casing tumbles to the ground, ringing on a rock and tumbling through the grass to my right.

Jared’s body follows his matted hair, and he slumps backwards to the ground.

I hear my wife scream from the car, I hear the girl on the porch scream, but their screams are indistinguishable from the terrified shrieks of the teenage boys as they turn and run. Two of them bolt between the houses on this side of the street and I hear their feet beat down the alley, their voices trailing off. Two stupider and younger ones turn and run down the length of the sidewalk with their backs to me, and the one remaining hoodlum, Darius, tries to back away but trips over his heels. He lies frozen and silent, hyperventilating on the sidewalk in front of me, his narrow chest heaving.

I am tempted to shoot Jared’s lifeless, draining body where it lies on the sidewalk. I am tempted to shoot him in the chest for the basketball hoop he stole and destroyed, though he could have used it at my house every day. I want to shoot him because I can’t leave my son’s three-dollar plastic toys in the front lawn overnight and expect them to be there in the morning. I want to shoot him for every time I’ve been accosted while walking my dog because of the color of my skin. I want to shoot him for every thug kid who’s called me a cracker, for every bullshit gangster who’s threatened to shoot me, for every son-of-a-bitch hoodlum-rapper wannabe who I’ve had to kick off my back porch—smoking blunts on the cement steps when I pull into my driveway, threatening to hurt me because I don’t know “the rules.”

But I don’t have enough bullets for all of that. And Jared’s already dead.

For once I am glad that it will take the police twenty minutes to arrive.

I rest my index finger on the outside of the trigger guard and lower my weapon.

I turn to Darius, and look him in the eyes. I see only fear, I see only panic. I take two steps, bend over and snatch my discarded bullet casing from the grass.

“Not today,” I tell him, and I turn to walk back towards my car.

When I reach the silver station wagon, I slip into the driver’s seat. My wife is terrified. She’s scared of me, she’s scared of the gun in my hand, she’s scared of the neighborhood who will soon be here. I look in the rearview mirror where my two-year-old son is perplexed, his brow furrowed, yet he is silent.

I place the gun on the floor in front of me, put the car in drive and pull across the road to the correct side.

After three blocks, I pull down an empty alley, roll down my window, and toss out the spent casing. It glitters in the sunlight midway on its arc to its new home, hidden among the alley’s trash and vast collection of other spent bullet casings. Suddenly there is a pain in my neck, my arms shake robotically as if the world is a vinyl record player stuck in a scratch.

The bullet casing’s tumbling reverses and it glistens in the sun at the top of its arc again. Before I can comprehend what is happening my hand closes around the shell once more, and my car is traveling in reverse through an empty and gray world. All of the people, the traffic, the noise is gone. My wife and child are no longer with me, and the sun, the only source of color in the world, burns scarlet.

I am alone, paralyzed, trapped moving backwards in my car to an unknown destination. My car roams backwards through the streets to Wilson Ave. Jared, the only other occupant of this gray world, stares blackly at me through sunken dead eyes, standing in front of me on the sidewalk like a marionette held by strings. His matted hair and bits of skull lie in the gray grass behind him, and a pool of black blood stains the sidewalk.

My gun is in my hand again, and I am looking down the sites at Jared’s forehead. The pool of black recedes behind him. A cylinder of steel less than a centimeter in diameter escapes from his forehead, the skin closes neatly behind, and the bullet approaches my paralyzed body.

The Sig’s muzzle swallows the bullet whole, and I suddenly realize how cold the weapon’s steel grip is in my hands. I exhale in this gray world, my breath condenses and falls to the ground in front of me.

The scenery around me is the only living thing, still rushing past me. I continue traveling in reverse, paralyzed, until I am back in my car. I blink and the world fades, I blink and the blackness moves in closer still.

My wife coughs twice in the seat next to me. I look up and the sun blinds me, reflecting off the dull red stop sign where Lyncroft Ave. dead-ends into Wilson.

I look over at her.

“Are you gonna stop?” she asks me.

“Sorry,” I say, and apply the brake.

I signal my turn at the corner and stop, and begin to pull away.

One of the punks on Wilson, Jared, turns to me with his blue lips and ashen face, and yells, “Hey Bitch.” He lifts his black sweatshirt and slaps his ashen belly with his flat palm.

I neither look at him, nor do I look away, I simply execute my right turn, and depress the accelerator.

My wife sniffles in the seat next to me, and I shake my head. I look over to see her eyes turning red before she covers them with her hand.

“Not today…” I mutter to myself, and continue on my way.

_

Thank you to Brad Pauquette for sharing the complete text of his story “On Wilson” 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.

Brad Pauquette is a freelance writer, editor and publication consultant in Columbus, Ohio. He lives in Woodland Park, a neighborhood on the near east side of Columbus, with his wife Melissa and two sons. In addition to serving as the developmental and production editor of this project, Brad is the founder and director of Columbus Creative Cooperative.
He is also the owner of Brad Pauquette Design (www.BradPauquetteDesign.com), a web development and media production company serving small businesses and micro-enterprises in Central Ohio. Find his novella, Sejal and the Walk for Water, which raises awareness and funds for the clean water crisis in India, on Amazon.com.
You can find more information about Brad on his website, www.BradPauquette.com.

 

“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.

“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.