Category Archives: Complete Stories

“Chrysalis” – Heather Sinclair Shaw

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is David here?” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, no, no.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So what,” I say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jabba’s like: “So what’d he say?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Take those fancy sunglasses off!” he barks.

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

“License!”

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

“Yes, sir.”

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

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

“Registration!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m like: “You were pushing it!”

“No, I wasn’t. Were you?”

“No,” I tell her. “I swear I wasn’t.”

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

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

The dude knows everything.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dude is like: “What’s your name?”

“Vincent Santamaria.”

He’s like: “Floor name!”

“Saint Vinny or just Saint.”

“How long you been here?”

“Three years.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comes up: “Delivery failure.”

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

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

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

I’m like: “Give ‘em hell, guys!”

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

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

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

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

_

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

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

“Monsters” – Sara Ross Witt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” I say as I slam the door.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Please don’t,” I say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Cass’s crying,” I tell her.

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

I shake my head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is empty. And quiet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m gathering dirt,” Mom says.

“What the hell for?”

“For a curse.”

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

Stop it, brain.

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

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

“Home!” Anne yells back. “To Dad!”

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

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

“You mean a liar?”

“A false man.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You never know.”

“You could crawl.”

“I don’t think—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Late Date” – Brenda Layman

Little clumps of ice crystals stuck together and collected around the edges of the windshield. The temperature had dropped steadily all afternoon until grey drizzle became heavy snow, followed by more drizzle that froze into an icy glaze, coating bare branches, power lines and the road before them. Jen tried not to show worry. Robert’s hands gripped the wheel. They were old hands, gnarled and arthritic, tendons standing out beneath thin skin. His cheekbones and jawline were still strong, his nose beneath black-framed glasses prominent in his aging face.

“Don’t worry. I’ve driven through worse,” he said, and she knew her attempt to appear unconcerned had failed. “Just twenty miles or so and we’ll be over the hill and the worst will be behind us.”

The hill lay between them and their destination. Every mile took them higher and pushed the temperature lower. The dashboard thermometer reported the downward progression faithfully and without judgment. Thirty-three degrees. Thirty-two. The layer of ice grew steadily as the temperature dropped.

“So, you were saying…” Robert picked up the thread of dropped conversation. She knew he wanted to keep her mind off the treacherous drive, and she played along.

“Yeah, about the play,” she said. “I was saying that I guess I feel sorry for Rothko. I mean, he was so fierce and so vulnerable at the same time.”

“We all have our time, and then it’s somebody else’s time. His conflict is ours, isn’t it?”

“Well, I don’t think my time is over yet,” Jen replied. She was sixteen years Robert’s junior.

“Nor mine, but the day will come. I got used to that idea a long time ago.”

Robert was a poet, really a poet with published volumes of verse and a number of prestigious literary awards under his belt. He still wrote prolifically, pages and pages of lines each day, words like living things emerging from his fingertips and making their way toward the sunlight, seeking approval and thus survival. He smiled.

“Change,” he said. “Change is the future. It’s everything. Shit!” He swore as the car suddenly fishtailed. “Sorry.”

“It’s ok. Do you think we should stop somewhere?” she asked.

“Nowhere to stop until we make it to the other side.” He looked at her and grinned. “Are you saying you want to get a room? On our first date?”

Jen felt her cheeks burn and was amazed that she could still blush like a young girl. Robert was confusing, one moment a wise old man and the next a mischievous boy.

“No, I mean, it’s just the weather, and the ice, and visibility is decreasing.” She tried to recover some dignity with the formality of the phrase, but visibility was indeed decreasing, and steadily. Thick, white fog had dropped, or maybe they had simply plunged into it from beneath as they climbed. Taillights flickered in and out of view a few yards ahead of them.

After the play, they had walked across campus to the Faculty Club, holding on to one another to keep from falling on the slippery walkways as the snow flew. Once safe and dry inside, Robert introduced Jen to his colleagues as “my new friend and lovely date for the evening.”

Jen hadn’t been sure of the date, but going to see a student performance of John Logan’s play, Red, at the local university, accompanied by a professor who had enjoyed a stellar career there, was appealing. Robert had taken her by surprise when he asked her, at a party hosted by one of her clients. She had dismissed him as attractive, but too old. Apparently he had no such qualms, and he had brought her a drink, engaged her in conversation, and then sprung the invitation with practiced ease. She was surprised to hear herself assent.

Afterward, she went online and did some research. She found mentions of his work here and there, and read the poems they quoted. She read his early writings, the poems he wrote at what was considered the height of his career, and his last published effort, released five years earlier. It was unlike the stuff of contemporary poets, less raw and more cerebral. Even his early work, written when he was still in his twenties, had a reserve about it. The passion of his youth ran crimson and hot, but it ran beneath a decorous veneer of literary device.

After Burgundy wine, cheese and conversation at the Faculty Club, they returned to the parking garage and drove carefully to the freeway exit. Jen sat quietly. Structure mattered then, she thought as she watched the windshield wipers rhythmically swiping ice aside, more than it does now. Now it’s feeling creating form; then it was form supporting feeling.

As if he heard her inner voice, Robert said, “Now, take Rothko. He loved being an iconoclast—reveled in it. But the problem with being an iconoclast is, as soon as you start being anything, you set yourself up for the end.”

“I wonder how such a young actor felt about the part?” Jen mused. “He did a great job with it, but it’s hard to imagine he understood it.” The tall, thin young man with his hair streaked silver and lines drawn onto his forehead and the corners of his eyes and mouth had given a masterful effort.

“Yeah.” Robert tapped the brakes and the car slid, then they felt the tires grip. “When I was an undergrad, W.H. Auden came to our school. We all turned out to hear him read. We had to wear jackets and ties then. None of this shorts and t-shirts business. I was thrilled to be there, but I thought him terribly old. The next day our professor asked us what we thought of the lines: ‘There is no such thing as The State/And no one exists alone.’”

“What did you say?”

“I hemmed and hawed and came up with some nonsense about existentialism. Dear God, I had no idea. The only thing I was thinking about was whether or not the girls found me handsome in my new sweater. By the way, do you like this one? I confess I bought it to impress you.”

“It’s very nice. You look good in russet.”

He smiled. “I know, and at my age I try to make good use of every flattering thing I can find.”

“Me too.” Jen laughed.

“Ah, but you are so much less in need of flattery.”

“What a line.”

“But true.”

Before Jen could reply, red taillights glowed through the darkness and white mist. Robert hit the brakes and the car skidded to a stop. “Looks like we’re stopping,” he observed.

“What—”

Jen felt rather than saw Robert’s body tense as his gaze locked on the rearview mirror.

“Jesus, Jen, hold on.”

She heard the collisions, metal screaming and objects colliding, sounds being hurled toward them through the dense, cold air. Impact threw them against their restraints as the airbags burst, filling the car with fine powder that seemed as if the fog from outside was pumping into the car, into Jen’s face, filling her lungs even as the force of the exploding bag struck her in the chest with a blow that left her gasping for air.

Then there was stillness, and silence. She turned to Robert. He was leaning forward, hands still gripping the wheel. His glasses were gone. She slid her hand down the shoulder strap, unlatched her seatbelt, and reached for him.

“Robert!”

He lifted his head. “Are you alright?” he asked.

“I think so.”

Robert unbuckled his seat belt and tried to open his door. It resisted, but he threw his weight against it and it gave. Jen’s wouldn’t open, so she crawled across and Robert helped her climb out the driver’s side.

Icy wind whipped their hair and stole their breath as they stood there steadying each other. Robert pulled his phone out of his coat pocket and called 911.

“This could be bad,” he told Jen. They ventured down the line of smashed cars behind them. Some people had already left their vehicles and were wandering in the snowy road. One teenage girl was shoeless, standing with a small group of friends who huddled together behind a crumpled Honda.

“Where are your shoes?” Jen asked her. “Let’s get them.”

“I don’t know. I don’t know what happened. I was asleep in the back seat,” the girl told her. “I don’t know what to do.”

The rear door was open. Jen leaned inside, groping around in the dark until she located the shoes. She knelt in the snow, knees crackling in protest, and brushed each of the girl’s feet off before sliding them into the shoes.

Satisfied that the teens were all right, Jen moved on to the next car, and then the next, helping people with coats and boots. The fourth car had rolled onto its side. She heard crying, heard the harsh ragged sobs of the young man before she saw him. She stood on tiptoe and looked inside. She could see two figures, one rocking back and forth, the other motionless. She pulled on the door and it moved, but she didn’t have the strength to pull it upward and open.

Robert’s arms reached past her. He pulled the door open a bit and said to the distraught man inside, “Push it open if you can. Help us get you out.”

“Oh, God, he’s dead. Evan is dead,” came the reply.

“Maybe not. Let’s get you out of there and see what we can do. Help is coming.” Robert’s voice was calm. “Come on now, push. That’s it.”

The young man pushed from inside and the door opened. He climbed out, tears streaming down his face. Jen thought he looked about twenty years old, and the tears made him seem even younger and more vulnerable.

“He can’t be alive. There’s no way. Look at him.” Free of the car, the young man was shaking from cold and shock.

Robert put both hands on the car and hoisted himself up.

“Give me a push, Jen.”

She grabbed his legs and shoved upward. He wriggled into the car. Jen couldn’t follow him. She put one foot on a tire, clutched the edge of the window, and dragged herself up. Pebble-shaped glass bits were scattered across the fender. She lay full-length over them and looked into the wrecked car through a jagged hole in the shattered windshield. The freed young man wiped away his tears, then climbed up and lay beside her, still choking back sobs as he looked inside at his friend.

Headlights tilted at weird angles and illuminated the scene in streaks and patches. Inside the car, Robert curled at an angle behind the body of a young man of perhaps nineteen. There was grey paint in the boy, Evan’s, hair. The actor was little more than a child, yet he had just played the part of an aging artist. Debris and junk of the sort college kids collect in back seats had been thrown throughout the car and then come to rest in the downhill side of the passenger compartment. A strip of light lay across Robert and the face he cradled in his hands, a face with blood trickling from the nose and mouth, with one eye dangling sightless from its socket. Robert pressed what looked like a wadded T shirt against the side of the boy’s head.

“He’s breathing, Jen.”

The words left Robert’s lips in little puffs of vapor. He bent close to the bloodied face.

“Say your lines,” he commanded.

An eyelid fluttered.

“Do you hear me? We’ve got a show to do. Say your lines,” Robert insisted.

The boy began to mutter.

“I can’t hear you. Speak up. Enunciate.”

The good eye opened. The young actor looked at Robert and began to speak. Jen could hardly believe what was happening. The lines came forth, mumbled in places, but coherent.

“So, now, what do you see?—Be specific. No, be exact. Be exact—but sensitive. You understand? Be kind. Be a human being, that’s all I can say. Be a human being for once in your life!”

He stopped, and Robert urged him on. “Go on, go on. Keep going. What’s next?” Evan mumbled something unintelligible, then he spoke clearly again.

“There is only one thing I fear in life, my friend…one day the black will swallow the red.”

Line after line the actor spoke, blood bubbling between his lips. It seemed to Jen they had been there for hours when she heard sirens. Seconds later they were surrounded by state patrol officers and paramedics.

“Help us. There’s somebody badly hurt here,” she told them. The young man beside Jen slid himself to the ground. An officer helped Jen climb down, and minutes later men lifted the student from the wreckage and placed him on a gurney. Robert crawled out behind him. Both his hands were covered in blood; blood was smeared down the front of his coat.

“Are you alright, sir?” A paramedic supported Robert until he was steady on his feet.

“Yes, thank you. It’s not my blood.”

“Come on, let’s go back to the car and get out of this wind,” Jen told Robert. She put her arm around him and felt him shivering. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket, wet it in the snow, and wiped off his bloody hands, which were already blue from the cold. They walked together, their breath visible before them. Jen’s knees had begun to ache. They climbed back into the car and Robert pulled her onto his lap, wrapping his arms around her. They snuggled together for warmth, Robert’s head on Jen’s shoulder. For a long time neither spoke. They simply sat there, holding one another in the car that, although damaged, still provided shelter from the freezing darkness.

“I was so afraid he would die,” Robert said at last. “His blood, you know? It was so warm and red. His blood convinced me that I could keep him alive. No one with blood like that could stop living.”

“None of us is ready to stop living,” she told him, and she stroked his steel-grey hair.

Thank you to Brenda Layman for sharing the complete text of her story “Late Date” 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.

Brenda Layman was born in Ashland, Kentucky, but she has lived for most of her life in Ohio. She is a member of Columbus Creative Cooperative, The Outdoor Writers of Ohio, Writers Satellite and Ohio Writers Guild and she has published many articles in Pickerington Community Magazine, Ohio Valley Outdoors, and other print and online magazines. She lives in Pickerington, Ohio with her husband, Mark. Brenda loves fishing, kayaking and traveling, and at the time this anthology was released she had recently rediscovered the joy of watercolor painting.

“Open House” – Maria Hummer

Before we view the house we get new clothes, new haircuts and new names. We decide we are Amy and Todd. We know we can’t live here, not in this house, not the people we are now. The people we are now live in a tiny shared apartment with friends who don’t do dishes and smoke too much pot and eat our cereal when they get hungry. The people we are now bathe in showers black with mold, shoo mice from the crumb-floored kitchen, and pinch our noses when we open the fridge to keep out the smell of rotting oranges. The people we are now stopped kissing each other goodnight, we just climb into bed and sigh.

We don’t want to be these tired and going-nowhere people. We want to be Amy and Todd.

Amy and Todd have clean fingernails and dressers full of fresh paired socks. Amy and Todd get up early on Sundays, and wear slippers, and vacuum floors, and organize spice racks by color. Amy and Todd bake pies.

They do not scrape cigarette butts out of crusty coffee mugs, or pick the bodies of ants from their cereal like unwanted raisins. Amy and Todd go for walks in the neighborhood, down streets lined with matching houses like a litter of new puppies sitting in a row. The cars are unscratched, the children riding past on bikes say “excuse me,” and the evening air is filled with real birdsong, not the throaty complaints of crows.

We could be these people. We could be Amy and Todd and drink fruit tea and read books about European history and get excited about light fixtures, which is the first thing we comment on—the front hallway light fixture—when Joe shows us his house, his life, the life that could be ours.

“Lovely,” I say. Amy and Todd say words like lovely.

There is a side table in the hallway with nothing on it. Its only purpose is to be a table and

I, Amy, am charmed by this.

The house smells of clean rugs and lentil soup. Joe’s wife Melanie is cooking in the kitchen.

It smells beautiful, and she stirs the soup and she is beautiful. I could be her.

“Are you vegetarians?” I ask, and Melanie says no, they just like to eat healthy. I approve.

Joe shows us everything in the kitchen that could belong to Amy and Todd: clean white fridge with ice dispenser, new dishwasher, expensive coffee grinder, a set of hand-painted plates, white with blue fish. Even the half-used boxes of rice and pasta. “Everything you see,” says Melanie.

Joe squeezes her shoulders. “Except for my Melanie,” he says. Melanie gives Joe an adoring look. We beam.

Joe takes us to a room he calls the sitting room. In the shared apartment we call it the living room, but I like the word Joe uses and I think Amy would use it too. I’m glad there’s not one designated room for living. The kitchen, the bathroom, the room where you sleep, they are all for living, for laughing and drinking wine and spilling spaghetti sauce and trying tai chi one cold winter morning in socks. Every room is a room for such living and Joe takes us through them all.

Todd—it’s his name now—asks Joe the practical questions. How old is that, when should this be replaced, is it possible to move this to here. I peer out the windows of every room like it’s the most important thing. It’s vital to Amy that each window look out on a vision of what her life could be—something green and flowering, or maybe soft and fluttering like laundry on a line. I check every window and I don’t see broken things or loose garbage. I see patience, and healthy grass, and hope. Amy would delight in these windows.

Todd and I follow Joe and we look at the things he points at and go: Mm. Right. Nice. When Joe looks away we widen our eyes at each other and make big gasping shapes with our mouths, like we’re at the Grand Canyon, like we’re seeing the best sunset of our lives. We touch the clean white walls and we wonder if we deserve this, this cleanliness, but then we stop caring if we deserve it, we just want it so bad.

Joe shows us his study. The chestnut desk is covered in piles of books and papers.

“I’m a creative man at heart,” he says. “Been writing a novel in my spare time. It’s unfinished, but you might have fun fixing it up.”

Todd and I look at each other. We didn’t count on this, but we suppose it makes sense, some things left unfinished, and it’s fair for us to inherit that. We’re young, we’re fresh, we like a challenge.

“What about jobs?” asks Todd. A good question.

Joe tells us he works in a bank and Melanie stays at home. “Obviously,” he says, “either of you could fill either role. We’re not sexist here. But someone would have to stay home.”

“Can the one who stays at home also work?” I ask. “Like freelance or something.”

“I don’t see why not,” says Joe, “but you might find it difficult.”

Todd and I look at each other. Difficult because of another unfinished project? Another novel?

“The girls want lots of attention,” says Joe. “They’re very sweet, but don’t expect them to leave you alone for very long.”

Todd and I avoid each other’s eyes, trying not to panic. The ad said nothing about girls. Seeking young, energetic couple for quiet family life in the suburbs. Newly-renovated house. Amazing space. Lots of potential. Call Joe to arrange a viewing.

My stomach churns as I remember the ad. Family. Potential. We hadn’t interpreted it this way.

We follow Joe. Down the hall trickles the sound of young voices and toys being dropped. Joe opens the door to something he says is the play room. We step inside.

The girls.

“This one’s Tilly,” says Joe, touching the soft ponytail of a girl, about five years old, eating a cereal bar. She grins at us, oats and chocolate in her teeth. Joe picks up the other girl, smaller than Tilly and playing with a plastic penguin. He gives her a loud kiss on the cheek and she giggles, dark eyebrows twitching. “And this is Nona,” he says.

“Hi,” we say to the girls. They ignore us and go back to playing.

“All the toys are included,” he says. “All the clothes. If you decide to take it we’ll go over the details, like their likes and dislikes and fears and things that make them feel better. Nona, for example, always stops crying if you give her a little peanut butter. Always. We don’t know why.”

We ask Joe if we can talk it over a moment. We go into the bathroom. We close the door.

The bathroom is huge. It has a tub and separate shower and a vanity table. Todd and I blink in its whiteness like two people woken suddenly from a nap. We’d forgotten the world could be this bright. We’d been asleep.

“I think I love it,” says Todd.

I twist the sink handles. Hot on, cold on, hot off, cold off. The water comes out smooth as an icicle.

“But the girls,” I say.

“Yeah,” he says.

“I didn’t think we were looking for that sort of life.”

“Yeah. But I think we could make it work.”

I look out the window. It always helps, when making a decision, to just look out the window.

“I do like the big backyard,” I say.

“And that extra freezer,” says Todd.

We go back into the room with Tilly and Nona. Joe is gone and Todd leaves to find him and talk about rent and other particulars. I stay with the girls. They ask me if I want to play penguins and I say that I do. I hear Todd’s voice coming from somewhere in the house. His voice is deep and filling. Good enough for a meal, I always say. I can feel it filling the house, slipping between kitchen plates and table legs and under couches and into this room, like rising bread. I’m in this room playing penguins with Tilly and Nona and Todd’s voice fills me like risen bread, and I know we can do this, we can host game nights and wax floors and tie little girls’ shoes in this house as Amy and Todd.

Thank you to Maria Hummer for sharing the complete text of her story “Open House” 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.

Maria Hummer is from Toledo and lives in London, England. She has a B.F.A. in Creative Writing and an M.A. in Screenwriting. Her short film Dinner and a Movie was officially selected for the 2013 Edinburgh Film Festival, Palm Springs Festival, London Short Film Festival and others. Currently she is in post-production of the film adaptation of her short story “He Took off his Skin for Me,” published in Devil’s Lake and finalist for the Driftless Prize in Fiction. Maria is writing her first novel.