Short Stories 

 

 

 

Tuesday
Jan132015

Short Stories by Ashley Sgro, Kami Westhoff, Bethany Snyder, Jody Azzouni, Ace Boggess

Ashley Sgro

Calculating Tom

By Ashley Sgro

 

            “I’m so hungry.”

            “It shouldn’t be much longer.”

            “I wish they would hurry up so we can get out of here.”

            “They’ll be out soon.”

            “Can you hand me a magazine? Maybe that’ll help distract me.”

            “What kind do you want?”

            “An interior decorating one.”

            “Here.”

            “Now I can daydream about re-modeling this place.”

            “It’s just a waiting area. There’s no need for it to be fancy.”

            “It needs some color.”

            “The walls are light blue.”

            “The walls are boring. They should be painted red.”

            “Red?”

            “Yeah, it would make the space much more vibrant.”

            “I think red might be an inappropriate color.”

            “Fine. How about orange?”

            “What?”

            “Orange—for the walls.”

            “No.”

            “Why not?”

            “Because!”

            “It would help people focus more on other things—like food.”

            “Food? Is that all you think about?”

            “No, but I’m starving.”

            “You could be a little more patient. They just lost their son.”

            “Don’t you think I know that?”

            “You just seem to be acting so nonchalant about everything. I don’t think you’ve even cried yet.”

            “I have!”

            “When?”

            “Before!”

            “I don’t think so.”

            “Why are you badgering me?”

            “I guess I just want you to miss him as much as I do.”

            “You need to relax.”

            “You’re right. That’s probably what he would want me to do.”

            “I wouldn’t know.”

            “But I thought you two were close?”

            “I was only his sister.”

            “Maybe I should’ve been his brother. At least he would’ve had a sibling that cared.”

            “I care! And Tom thought of you as his brother anyway.”

            “I’m glad.”

            “Good.”

            “I miss him.”

            “How about green?”

            “What?”

            “For the walls.”

            “How can you still be thinking about that?”

            “Green like money!”

            “No!”

            “People would be so happy if they walked into this room.”

            “Because it would be green?”

            “Because it would look like the walls were covered in money!”

            “Money doesn’t automatically make everyone happy.”

            “It should.”

            “You’re being so selfish!”

            “Fine, I’ll stop talking and just read my magazine.”

            “That’s a good idea.”

            “You know, I really can’t understand why you think I don’t care about him. I did help with the funeral arrangements.”

            “All you did was schedule a time for his burial.”

            “And choose a coffin!”

            “You had him buried in a wooden box!”

            “It was cedar!”

            “It was cheap!”

            “I was being resourceful.”

            “And weren’t you the one who wanted to have him cremated?”

            “Yes, but my parents would have probably kept his ashes in the house or dumped them in our front yard.”

            “What would’ve been wrong with having his remains nearby?”

            “Everything! And if his urn fell, there would be a mess of Tom all over the floor, so I’d have to suck him up with the vacuum cleaner.”

            “Your house has wooden floors. You could’ve just carefully swept his remains back into the urn.”

            “No! I’d get all dirty.”

            “Maybe we should just stop talking.”

“That’s fine with me.”

“Wonderful.”

            “Is there a clock in here?”

            “I thought we were going to enjoy some silence.”

            “Just tell me if there’s one in here.”

            “There’s one behind you.”

            “It’s already past one!”

            “So?”

            “The restaurant stops serving their discount dishes at one!”

            “Your parents should almost be finished.”

            “It feels like we’ve been sitting here for hours.”

            “Your brother just died!”

            “And he doesn’t need to be fed anymore!”

“Your parents are going through a difficult time.”

“Look, I’m hungry, and I wish they would finish with whatever they need to finish.”

“They’re probably looking at his will.”

“What could he have left them?”

“I don’t know. It’s really none of my business.”

“Maybe money?”

“Possibly.”

“I wonder how much he’s worth.”

“I’m speechless.”

“Why, you know? It’s a lot, isn’t it?”

“No!”

“A little?”

“I don’t know!”

“Then why are you teasing me?”

“You’re unbelievable.”

“Well, thanks.”

“Not in a good way!”

“Oh, why not?”

“Forget it!”

“Fine!”

“Fine.”

“Anyway, back to the money. I hope he left me some.”

“He probably did because he loved you.”

“Yeah, but I hope he left my parents most of his money.”

“So they’ll be taken care of?”

“So they can pay for the bill at lunch.”

“What!”

“What?”

“What’s wrong with you!”

“If it bothers you that much, you can pay for the bill.”

“I don’t even know why I’m here with you anyway!”

“Because I invited you!”

“Why? I know I was Tom’s close friend, but I don’t think I should be here.”

“You’re my friend too.”

“Supposedly.”

“Why are we still fighting? We should just calm down and wait for my parents to finish.”

“We?”

I.”

“That’s better.”

I will calm down and wait for my parents to finish.”

“Do you think you can handle that?”

“I’ll survive.”

“Finally.”

She glances down at her magazine.

“How about black?”

“No! Your mind should be on Tom right now.”

“Tim?”

 

Kami Westhoff

 

The Worse You Feel the Better

By Kami Westhoff

 

Annaliese 

Because of the way the mind wants to translate the horrible into the benign, I thought I was looking at a strangely limbed tree, perhaps one struck by some sort of disease that caused its bark to waste away and bare its fleshy sapwood. That thought stayed for a second or two, before a gust spread a scent that made nausea surge from my stomach to the backs of my eyes. I stayed at the bottom of a breath and just felt it: my OB had told me to be grateful I felt so terrible, that it meant that everything was doing what it was supposed to. She’d said, “the worse you feel the better.”  I inhaled, imagined the breath meandering into the depths of my lungs, swishing out the old and useless air, easing the stitches of worry between my ribs, and exhaled. I moved a little closer to the tree, an action which surprised me even as I lifted my foot up and over a rotted tree trunk.

It was only a few steps before I deciphered the bared arms and legs of a man, wrists and ankles tied to twin trees with rope. He was naked except for a pair of white boxer shorts, which were stained with blood and shit and urine. His clothing was to the right of his body, clearly not arranged by a woman. The navy pants were folded zipper out, the pale yellow shirt, arms folded toward the chest. The back of the shirt was stained with a slim smear of dirt, almost as a child had traced its finger down its father’s back.  Why navy and yellow? Who put it together—would a man think of matching such colors? What kind of man wears a shirt the color of a buttercup? I’d read an article once on the psychology of color choice, but couldn’t remember the specifics. Brown leather shoes sat on top of the shirt. The state of the man’s clothing and shoes would be of some interest to the police, investigators, the man’s loved ones.

The wind blew and the man bobbed and the branches creaked and it occurred to me that he might still be alive.  I should focus on the relevant details, the immediate concerns. I might have to save a life today. For a second I couldn’t remember exactly where I was, but I heard the grumbling of a truck slowing for the corner where I’d seen people set up signs and blow bubbles and whistles to support the athletes in the Mountains to Molehills relay race.  I felt a throb in the back of my throat and thought to step backwards over the branch and continue my walk. I circled my palm over on stomach, or womb, as my husband now referred to it. How would anyone ever know I had been there? When the news broke, I would act shocked at the headlines, receive and make calls and say thank God it wasn’t me who found him, after all, only a short walk from home, and what with all that walking I do now. 

I kneeled down, my low back under a constant pressure only relieved by doing so, and tightened the muscles that hadn’t been strong enough to keep the first baby in. I felt the spread of wetness on my underwear I once would’ve feared was blood.  But I learned to notice the subtle differences in weight and consistency and texture of what my body released after I’d driven to Dr. Flora’s, blood soaking the towel wedged between my legs.

 I rose slowly with my head still and eyes fixed on his face. His eyes were closed, which again made me think he might be alive, and I noticed he was attractive. He resembled a teacher I’d had as a teenager, a man whose presence had sent my body buzzing. I’d learned, from this teacher’s class, about some of the physics of attraction.  I remembered his smell, the real one, under the others he used to cover it, and imagined that scent zipping through my nostrils and into my brain and electrifying my most animal places. I was an age that would make our mating legal yet frowned upon by school policy, but how can anyone really deny the complex rules of attraction that lay dormant until the moment we breathe the air of the perfect biological match?    

The man in the tree wasn’t the teacher. I’d known that as soon as I’d noticed the resemblance. I moved closer to look for a wallet. The wind shivered his hair a bit, and I realized then it wasn’t his body producing the smell. Maybe a dead deer or raccoon. I unfolded his navy trousers and slipped my hand in the back pocket and pulled out his wallet. William David Johnson.

 

William 

Though I fought against the men as they twisted my arms and legs behind my back, when I heard the zip of the ties around my ankles and wrists, I relaxed and waited.  I heard the thud of the bat and could tell my kneecap had split; I saw the flash before the floodlight split the thin meat of my forehead. I tasted the familiar tang of blood, and smelled the bodily fluids these actions forced my body to expel. I could tell that these men had never done something like this by the moment of hesitation before each hit, the way they looked to one another, hoping the other would be the one to lose all control and finish me off. After the beating they untied me and took off my shoes and shirt and pants. I could hear them talking, but not their words, and waited for them to tear off my underwear and destroy that which had destroyed so many others, but when I came to, my underwear was on and I was still intact.

 I didn’t mean to be who I was. It was only weeks after the first explosion of a wet dream woke me that I walked in on my sister in the bath, unzipped my jeans, grabbed her long black hair, slick with shampoo, and pulled her face into my crotch. The bubbles from the shampoo slid down the back of my hand and I could smell their scent for the rest of the day. I didn’t know what I was doing, but she seemed to, and it was done quickly. Afterward, I smacked her forehead into the edge of the tub before I knew I had done it. She wept and moaned in her room for hours, telling my parents she had a terrible headache, maybe even a migraine. At my mother’s request, I brought my sister a hot water bottle for her to curl around, an ice pack for her head. My mother believed most unpleasant conditions were easily remedied. When I lay the ice pack over her forehead, I told her I was sorry for her headache. And I was. I’d never planned on giving her a headache.

 The men had interrupted me on duty, which is what I called it even though I knew the actual term was grooming. There were two girls collecting sticks and arranging them into some sort of shelter. From the first look, it wasn’t clear which one would be a better choice. Not only for my own benefit, but also for hers. I’m not a monster. I looked for the one that already wore the slouch so obvious on girls that have been chosen by people like me. The damage was already done, and they were generally easier to convince to keep quiet and knew what to do. 

 I’d heard the men approach, and stood to face them. I had nothing to hide yet. But I looked at one man and saw he had eyes so light the looking into them made mine water,  the same eyes of the girl I’d weeks earlier talked into my car, a ride home, yes, I live really close to you, know your folks, it’s getting pretty dark, sweetie, isn’t it? It didn’t make it any easier to resist when it required so little creativity or persuasion. It was always so easy to get them to do what I wanted.

I hadn’t actually done all I’d wanted to her. Though the girl with the light eyes looked so perfect from my car, so young and sweet kicking up water in the creek, splashing her friend, kneeling now and then to search for a tadpole, her sneaky scoop of water to try to catch one, her body was more developed than I’d thought, thick hair where I preferred soft down, a fullness of the skin I preferred taut. I made do, as they say, but was left with more frustration than satisfaction.

The wind blew across my lips, and I could tell the cracks had set in. When I licked them my jaw clunked and I sensed the pressure pinching in the deepest part of my ear. There was something so easy about this licking, and I realized my front teeth were gone.

I opened my eyes to the ground to look for my teeth, and saw my clothes folded under my feet. I thought the teeth might be under the clothes, or scattered in the leaves and mud, or perhaps even tucked into my pocket the way a mother would tuck lunch money.  I moved my tongue over the bloody sockets and remembered rubbing my thumb over the swollen gums in my daughter’s mouth. There was a sweetness to an infant’s breath when they teethe unlike any other scent:  intimate, one-of-a-kind. I suspect only a biological parent could identify it from that of another infant. Her fussy twisting and moaning had calmed when I had done this, her tiny hand grasped my wrist as if to say please don’t stop.

Should I have fought harder to live longer and be a father longer? My daughter only had four teeth, so many more to come and go. I’d been able to comfort her in a way her mother hadn’t—who would soothe the swelling before the eruption of the other teeth?  Who knows how happy I could’ve made her, at least for a while.  Even with my sister there was a life before when we laughed and played. When we raced, each desperate to be the first to stomp tracks through a batch of fresh snow or find the first ripe tomato. Played War, Old Maid, Cribbage. When, because it saddened her, I pierced the worm with the hook just below what we imagined its neck and cinched its body into that J shape, and then, because it disgusted me, she slit open the just-caught fish and made it dinner. When we wrestled like kittens playing, only to giggle and gasp and exhaust ourselves with laughter. There was that time, I’m sure of it. Perhaps I could’ve loved my daughter as a proper father, taught her to feel secure and trusting of men, then left before she became something I couldn’t stop myself from destroying.

 

Edward

There are just some goddamned things you cannot control. Like when it didn’t rain that summer for four months and there was a mandatory NO WATERING ordinance and my entire garden, with the exception of the tomatoes, which tended to thrive under stress, went to shit. We had to eat store-bought corn, beans, and carrots for months. The Jerome’s, Goddamn bless them, shared their peas and potatoes with us that year. Thank Jesus for neighbors that understand what’s important, that look out for you and yours like their own. Probably sounds sick that I can go on about things like peas and carrots and corn and beans after doing what I did. I won’t deny that. No matter what I did the damage can’t be undone, and I know that good as anyone. But things can be done to make sure no one else will wish to hell it was otherwise.

My daughter didn’t think I could tell what’d happened to her, but I knew it the way I knew the ripeness of a cob of corn without even touching it. She didn’t do any of the normal things you’d expect a little girl to do. She didn’t curl up to her mama and not let go, or twitch or wince when I hugged her. But it was still all over her the way a  just-butchered cow’s smell seeps into your clothes and skin and won’t wash out. But it was easy to see she walked a little different, like someone who’s trying not to slip. I asked her mother if she thought something was up with her, a mother knows that sort of thing, right? But she said that was how girls act when they are becoming women. I said, She’s eleven, What kind of woman could she be, and my wife said, Fathers never know when their baby girls become women.

I had stuffed an oil rag into his mouth and duct-taped it. I couldn’t stand the thought of him being able to beg for mercy or to pray to God. Killing him was so much easier than I’d expected. He didn’t even flinch when I swung the bat at his head. Or kick or cry or scream when my neighbor shattered his kneecaps and kicked out his teeth, both things I’d never have done myself. I didn’t want to make him suffer. He didn’t deserve to be a victim. He just deserved to be done.         

I remember that when my wife was pregnant with our daughter, someone told me having a kid was like living life with your heart outside your body. Well, that isn’t really true. It’s more like living with your heart and your lungs and your brain and your guts and your liver and your spleen and any other organ meant for the inside on the out, exposed to the whim of anyone out there that has things they can’t stop themselves from doing. Or can stop, but don’t. When I got home, changed out of my coveralls, took a shower, and Knocked-Before-Entering like the sign on her door requested. I told her, Honey, that man will never hurt you again. She looked at me and her eyes were big and wet like Bossie’s had been the second after the bullet slammed into her brain, almost like she knew that soon enough she’d be hanging in the barn, her guts and blood and shit pooling on the big blue butcher tarp.

Like I said, there are some things you just cannot control. But there are things you can, and you sure as hell better.

 

William

I saw the woman walking toward me, and I thought, for a split second, that my mother was coming to save me as she had so many times before. Perhaps it is a function of basic biology—a chemical reaction to think of one’s mother as death is approaching.  I couldn’t separate hearing from sight, so I only heard the sound of her approaching when my eyes were open. She stopped and looked up at me, then I blinked and there was only darkness and silence. My mother had once caught me with my sister. I’d waited in her closet until my sister had crawled into bed, then opened the door slowly, growling quietly. I’d only planned to startle her—we were still children and sometimes I just wanted to play games with her like we’d always done—scare her half to death then fall down giggling, promising, Sorry, Sorry, but the look on your face, but she was watching me from her bed, no fear in her eyes, just watching.

I knew you were there, she said. You don’t scare me.

I was on top of her in an instant. I held a pillow over her face and yanked up her nightgown. She lay completely still. I was off her by the time my mother opened the bedroom door, but was still holding the pillow over her face. My mother came to me, taken my hand and said, Poor Willy, sleepwalking again, and led me to my bedroom.

There were only a few more times after that. Each time I hurt her in a way I didn’t mean to: bruises, scratches, bumps, blood. I was always sorry about that. My sister’s body soon began swelling and growing hair, her actions more intentional and contemplative, and I lost all interest. Sometimes I’d suggest a game of rummy or cribbage and she’d oblige, but there was never anything in her eyes or her voice that suggested she was anything other than destroyed.

   I saw the woman reach into the pocket of my slacks, and I thought to ask about my teeth. She didn’t appear to be scared. How did she know the men who did this to me weren’t nearby? I heard from my mother that my sister had become a wonderful woman. Successful, happy, and healthy. I wondered how that was possible; could it be what I did wasn’t what I remembered? That I’d overestimated my own effect on others?

  The woman stood and stepped back from my things. She rubbed her stomach the way I’d seen my wife do when she was pregnant. She didn’t look far along, perhaps a four or five months, just far enough to want a girl, but pray for a boy.

 

Annaliese

I looked at his license. He was smiling in the picture and I thought again how attractive he was. Someone must be missing him. A woman I’d had a college class with that had gone missing on a hike not far from here.  At our professor’s encouragement we’d distributed flyers around campus and held a vigil that packed the center of campus that drew in so many people that the light from our candles made the whole world seem on fire. A friend of hers had spoken that night, asking us to be silent to look into every face we could see from where we stood and understand how many people this woman mattered to. Later I’d learned there were over a thousand faces there, a thousand people missing one, a thousand lives undone, at least a little, by this one missing.

 Months later I’d dreamed I’d killed that classmate. That I’d smashed her head in with a rock, over and over until her face lay like lasagna in her skull. I had no idea why I’d dreamed this; I liked this woman, she was kind, intelligent, friendly, happy. I continued to see flashes of what I’d done during the seconds between sleep and wakefulness, in that time when it is so difficult to tell what is real and what is not, and then for weeks later. When her body was found and cause of death revealed as a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head I felt relief. It was horrible. Tragic. Heartbreaking. But it was her choice.               

I slid the license into the wallet, and saw a flash of color from the cash pocket. I pulled out a stack of photos, the one on top an infant in a baptismal dress, and then photo after photo of different girls, all nine or ten or so.  It was clear William David hadn’t made the choice to die here. But he must’ve made choice after choice that led to this place. We have choices to make about how much suffering we can stand, and how much we allow others to suffer.

Though my husband had pleaded with me not to, I’d held my dead daughter before I let them take her. My husband hadn’t even wanted to see her, but I couldn’t let her be gone without knowing if she favored me or my husband, if she had that strange thumb that runs on my side, or the attached earlobes on his. Most would be surprised at how developed a 13-week fetus was—fingernails, eyebrows, wrinkles where the fingers bend. She wore an expression I recognized as one of my husband’s. I’d seen the expression on him only a few times, when he’d heard the results of his younger brother’s finally-clear CAT scan, when he’d learned I was pregnant after two years of trying, and again during our eight week ultra sound, telling us we had a viable fetus.

I stared at her and waited for the sight of her to tear my heart out. I didn’t feel anything in my heart, but instead the entire length of my spine throbbed. So this is what death feels like, I’d thought.  I raised the bundle toward my husband, it was like lifting a handful of leaves, but he waved his hands and reached for the door. I considered dropping her. He’d have to catch her, wouldn’t he? He couldn’t just let her fall. The nurse said, Take your time, and excused herself and I said to my husband, “hold her, you fucking coward.”

The sky was darker now, and William David was starting to look more like a shadow than person. I considered looking for his missing teeth—surely someone would be comforted by them being buried with his body. We buried our baby’s ashes five days ago. We’d kept them in her nursery for months, but once I found out I was pregnant again I knew we had to let her go.  Her ashes had fit in a box the size of one of those miniature cereal boxes that had always caused me such disappointment—never enough and always the plainest kinds, Corn Flakes, Raisin Bran, instead of Cookie Crisp or Honey Combs.

During the burial, my husband had stood behind me, arms wrapped gently around my stomach, face wedged between my neck and coat. In bed that night he’d lifted the blankets and pressed his mouth to my stomach. He’d done this often during the first pregnancy, to say, Hello, baby, We love you, We can’t wait to meet you. I put my hand on his head, remembering, as my mother had told me, he was suffering too. He moved his lips over my bellybutton and whispered, You wouldn’t be here if she hadn’t died, Don’t ever forget that.

I had covered my stomach and rolled away and imagined positive, healthy energy being sent from my brain to the baby like I’d read in my keeping-a-pregnancy books. I waited for him to wedge his knees into the back of mine and his arm around my belly and make it better, but his chalky snore came quickly, and the space between us was filled by our needy cat.

 On my walk home I prepared myself to be destroyed while telling the story of the hanging man, first on the phone to 911, then to my husband. I’d schedule the abortion for as soon as possible. No one would ever have to know this undoing was my doing; who wouldn’t miscarry after witnessing such horror? The details of the hours before William’s death would surely come out and people would come forward and the kind of man he was would be made clear. And his mother, perhaps, would weep in front of the camera, swear he’d been such a good boy, how could anyone do something like this to her boy, and I would cry about my loss, all of it so unfair, destroyed again to all those around me, but with a heart as light as leaves.

 

Bethany Snyder

Jackpot

By Bethany Snyder

 

            Mount Rushmore isn’t open at night. Sherri pulls up in front of the park entrance at just after one in the morning. She shifts the van into park and turns off the radio. She cracks her knuckles and then squeezes her hands into stiff fists. Her fingers are swollen from squeezing the steering wheel.

She closes her eyes, sees her family as she left them back at the hotel: Bill and the boys, asleep on the pull-out sofa in the flickering light of the Rockies game. Seth wears a plastic glow-in-the-dark necklace on his head like a crown; it colors his blond hair a sickly purple. Jack’s bare feet are pressed into Bill’s back. Bill’s mouth is open, jaw slack, one hand loosely curled around Jack’s wrist. On the coffee table pushed up under the window are three half-empty milkshakes, two vanilla, one strawberry, and a plate of limp French fries.

She’d only had three beers at dinner, but Bill had insisted on driving home from the restaurant, so when she decided to go out for a drive, she couldn’t find the van. The parking lot was a flood of light that teased the dull pain she’d been feeling all day into a full-blown headache. She picked her way from shadow to shadow, avoided the cluster of smokers crowded around a propped open side door. She finally found the van parked at the back of the hotel, as far from their room as possible, of course, and wedged in so close to a gold Cadillac that she had to climb in from the passenger side.

It had been Bill’s idea to come to South Dakota. Their last vacation as a family should be special, he’d said. Sherri had suggested Disney, maybe Sea World. Something that would really stimulate the boys. But Bill said the Black Hills would be educational. In the fall, the boys would be the only ones in their class with stories about gun fights and bison and prairie dogs. Sherri said they wouldn’t remember any stories to share with their classmates, which led to another argument about Sherri’s lack of faith in their children.  In the end, Bill had worn her down, and they’d loaded up the van and driven north.

There were plenty of decent hotels in downtown Deadwood, but Bill had found Gulches of Fun online and mentioned it to the boys before discussing it with Sherri. Seth and Jack were mesmerized by words they didn’t understand: go karts, miniature golf, skee ball. Slot machines right in the hotel. Breakfast buffet, room service, indoor pool. They’ve been in Deadwood three days and have only left the hotel once, for dinner at the Double D Bar & Grill. No hike up to Mount Moriah Cemetery to see Wild Bill Hickok’s grave, no afternoon escape from the heat in the cool caverns of Wind Cave over in Hot Springs, no pictures of the boys waving miniature stars and stripes with the presidents looking over their shoulders.

That morning, before the boys woke, Sherri walked into the bathroom to suggest to her husband, again, that they drive to Keystone.

“They’re having fun,” Bill said. He crunched ice between his front teeth, swallowed the shards. “We can go to Rushmore tomorrow.”

“We could walk up to the cemetery,” Sherri said. She flapped a brochure in his direction. He looked at it, then back at Sherri.

“It’s hot.”

“If we go early, we can beat the heat.”

“It’s going to be ninety. The boys want to swim.” He brushed his graying hair, rough strokes that tugged the skin at his temples.

Sherri squeezed toothpaste. “You don’t know what they want.” She brushed.

Bill poured aftershave into his hands, clapped, slapped his cheeks and neck. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Sherri spit. “You wanted to come here for you. Don’t pretend this is for the boys. They don’t want to sit in a hotel all day.”

It is the same argument they have had countless times before. The argument they started having even before the boys were born.

Bill leaned close to the mirror, picked at a scab on his chin. “They have fun in the pool. Seth likes to swim.”

“He can’t swim.”

“He can float. We’ll get him some of those arm floats.”

“He’ll drown.”

“Jesus, Sherri,” Bill said. He met the reflection of her eyes. “He’s not going to drown.”

This was the part in the argument where he would accuse her of wanting something terrible to happen, to make it easier for her. And then it would be her turn to deny such thoughts, even though they wormed their way further into her heart each day.

“Da?”

They turned; Jack stood in the doorway, his thumb in his mouth and his pull-up diaper around his ankles.

The fourth day in Deadwood: roulette wheels, sunburns, steamed hot dogs and salt and vinegar potato chips. In the afternoon, a thunderstorm. Sherri thumbed a paperback. The boys took a nap. Bill lost two hundred dollars at the poker table. Dinner at the Double D, a doggie bag for Seth’s leftover French fries and Styrofoam cups for milkshakes. Sherri had finished his bacon cheeseburger and Heinekens. She didn’t believe in leftovers.

 ***

Sherri thinks she’s scraped the rear bumper of the Cadillac as she backs out of the parking space. To make sure, she puts the transmission into drive and pulls forward until she hears the satisfying crunch of the van’s front bumper meeting the Caddy’s rear end. According to the Florida license plate, the gold boat belongs to GR8GRPA.

Her clothes are still in the room, but she has her purse, her driver’s license, and a few hundred dollars in cash. Bill had taken the debit card out of her wallet; he needed more money to use in the casino, and hadn’t remembered to give it back. She has enough money to get back to Denver, at least. But first: Mount Rushmore.

Which is closed. There’s no moon, and she can only see the dark edges of the presidents’ heads against the black sky.

There’s a map in the glove box, worn thin at the folded edges. Van idling, Sherri sits hunched over the map. Her finger traces the squiggly line that will take her from Keystone to points south. Home to Denver, to suitcases and the cardboard boxes she’s been stashing in the basement, waiting to be filled.

She puts the van in gear and pulls out onto the smooth surface of Route 385. It’s too dark to drive fast, the road too curvy for cruise control. She cranks the window down to hear the chattering of prairie dogs, the low, mournful howl of a coyote.

 ***

 “What are you going to tell the boys?” she asked Bill, the cloudless morning a month ago when she’d told him she wanted a divorce. The boys always listened better when Bill talked; it would be better if the news came from him.

“I haven’t decided yet.”

Typical Bill. Seven thirty at night, the boys crying on the couch, Sherri just home from another exhausting day at the store, her stomach rumbling. What’s for dinner? I haven’t decided yet. Small things like dinner; big things like deformed fetuses. There’s something wrong with one of your twins, Mr. and Mrs. Harrell. He has Down Syndrome. Sherri felt the chair underneath her but didn’t recall deciding to sit down. Just one? The other is fine? From what we can tell, just one. We will run more tests to be sure. But the odds of having identical twins with Down Syndrome are approximately one in a million. Oh, god, Bill, what are we going to do? I haven’t decided yet.

Sherri is not a gambler, but Bill is an addict.

The odds were with them; Bill assured her they could deal with one disabled child. And so the damaged twin was not aborted. Months of late-night meals of frozen pizza and warm diet soda. Working until her due date, and then past. Belly, feet swollen.

Damaged twin not aborted, but born. And then the horror, the cold fist that gripped her heart and squeezed, as Bill held the second boy out to her, the one who was supposed to be fine. Identical twins. Identical. “Look,” Bill said. “They’re one in a million, our boys.”

***

Not that she doesn’t love Seth and Jack. It’s just a lot to ask of her—of anyone—to raise two special needs children, boys who will need around-the-clock care for the rest of their lives, raised by a stay-at-home father more interested in slot machines and scratch tickets than keeping his family happy and fed. When she said, “I want a divorce,” he had been watching the news for that night’s quick pick numbers and so she said it again to make sure he’d heard.

“Well,” he had finally replied. “I’m not surprised.” She was relieved and heartbroken.

“I still want to see the boys.”

“See them?”

She swallowed, pushed the words up through the tight tunnel of her throat. “I don’t want custody.”

“You’re their mother.” Bill crumpled the quick pick ticket and tossed it onto the coffee table.

“I didn’t want them,” she said. “And I don’t want to do this anymore.” She could only look at the carpet.

***

Sherri steers the van along the silent, winding roads of southwest South Dakota. The casinos are dark; Mount Rushmore is gated until morning. There is nothing to do but drive.

And worry about the boys. Seth is outgoing, brave and willing to jump off the top step of the back porch, or try a fish taco, as long as his daddy is there. He follows Bill around the yard, pushing the plastic lawnmower that spits bubbles out the back, hooting back at the birds. Jack prefers to be in the kitchen with Sherri, thumb in his mouth, a coloring book open on the table in front of him. Although they are seven, neither of the boys can read yet, but Seth is getting close. He recognizes pictures of cows, dogs, butterflies. Jack uses books to build ramps for his Matchbox cars.

Seth will be okay; he is daddy’s little boy. Bill saves all his patience for Seth. But who will take Jack for walks around the neighborhood after dinner when Sherri is gone? Bill and Seth spend evenings on the couch watching Sesame Street. Who will show Jack again how to tie his shoes? Seth just lets Bill do it—he can’t be bothered, there are too many things to look at, too many adventures to be had. But Jack wants to learn, even when he gets so frustrated his face turns red and he starts to shake. Who will be patient enough to teach Jack how to throw a football, ride a bicycle, dance with a girl? Seth can already ride a bicycle. He’s so much more coordinated than his brother.

But Jack has potential. Jack could be someone special. Maybe Bill will let her take Jack. She said she didn’t want them, couldn’t handle them, but if she only had Jack, maybe she could do it.

***

Sherri pulls over to the side of the road and lets her head fall into her hands. She hasn’t cried since Seth and Jack were born—since she saw their matching sweet, almond eyes and broad, flat faces. She has been too numb to cry. Two babies, one in a million, two damaged babies because Bill said the odds were good. Even if Jack could learn to tie his shoes and ride a bike and dance with a girl, Sherri will still spend the rest of her life taking care of her son, holding his hand at the grocery store when Jack is twenty, cutting his roast beef when Jack is middle aged and Sherri no longer has teeth to chew her own dinner.

The first word Jack said was “da.” But he was looking at Sherri when he said it.

***

“What are you going to do?” Sherri shoved undershirts and elastic-waist shorts into a Spider-man suitcase for the boys. It is a ten hour drive to Deadwood, so Sherri packed coloring books and crayons, the plastic CD player.

Bill looked at her and said, “About what?”

“About the boys. You can’t take care of them alone.”

“You aren’t giving me much of a choice.”

Sherri picked up Jack’s pillow, squeezed it. “I know, I’m sorry. But I just can’t. I can’t live here. I can’t deal with this every day.” She dropped the pillow back on Jack’s bed and began rooting through the boys’ dresser for socks. “I didn’t want this.”

“Want what?”

“Them. Like this.”

“The doctors said one of them was going to be okay. I wasn’t going to let you kill him. Either of them.”

“I didn’t mean that.”

“What else did you mean?”

A few minutes of silence. Yes, she did want to end the pregnancy. Her lungs had filled with ice water that day.

Sherri said: “I can give you money.”

“You’re going to give me money. A lot of it.” Bill sat down on Seth’s bed. His voice was thin when he said: “And the house.”

“We shouldn’t go on this trip. You can just take the money we would’ve spent there and use it for the boys.”

“This trip is for the boys.”

Sherri’s jaw clenched. “This trip is so you can blow a thousand dollars on slot machines.”

Bill laughed, a sharp, short bark. Sherri held the Spider-man suitcase out to him. “Put this in the van. I’ll get the boys.”

***

Sherri gets out of the car and walks into the dark. Something small scuttles away from her. There is no moon to see by. She will just walk for awhile, clear her head, clear her lungs. She will breathe.

She steps into a hole, falls, hears the crack of bone before she feels the pain. She cries out, but only the prairie dogs hear her.

She lays on the uneven ground with her arm thrown over her eyes. She breathes irregularly, in large gulps. Her left foot is still in the prairie dog hole; it hurts too much to move. Her phone is in her purse. Her purse is in the van.

A few hundred feet away, at the tree line, something large moves. A branch snaps. Sherri lowers her arm and looks toward the sound. A shape, nearly as big as the van, emerges from the shadow.

“Hello,” Sherri says, the word a sigh.

The bison comes closer, its enormous, shaggy head swinging low. It sniffs at Sherri’s feet, her left ankle cocked at an unsettling angle. It sniffs at the knees of her jeans. Her hand.

***

Bill had taken Seth and Jack into the casino on the bottom floor of Gulches of Fun before dinner at the Double D. Sherri followed, after a quick detour to the bar for a bottle of cold beer. No one under twenty-one was allowed in the casino, but once the manager saw Jack and Seth’s matching blank faces, the rules no longer applied. Bill sat at the slot machine with one boy on each knee, letting them take turns pulling the silver arm, feeding nickels into the greedy slot. Sherri stood to the side, gulping the beer, the liquid cold and soothing on her throat. 

Then Seth shouted, “Win!” and Jack began to screech. Bill whooped. Sherri turned to see him holding Seth’s hands under the river of silver pouring from the machine, the flood of nickels.

***

The bison sniffs at Sherri’s jacket. Bill doesn’t need her money. Bill has eight dollars in nickels that he will turn into eight hundred dollars at the poker table the next night. Bill has a mother who can move into the spare bedroom. He has friends who will introduce him to their sisters, cousins, coworkers. Someone kind and unselfish who will be patient with the boys and who will teach them both to tie their shoes, to ride their bikes, to dance.

The bison turns its head so that the sharp, stiff horn tugs at Sherri’s jacket, runs up the side of her cheek. Sweat pools into the hollow of her throat. If the boys can remember the story to tell it, it will be a good one: My mama got gored to death by a bison. She broke her ankle in a prairie dog hole. She couldn’t get up and the bison got her and that’s why my mama went away.

Hot, rancid breath floods Sherri’s nostrils. She tenses her arms, her legs, her spine. Readies herself for the pull of flesh from bone. Maybe this is better than moving to Tucson or Nashville. This way, she’s not a mother who abandoned her sons. This way, she will be remembered for bringing oatmeal cookies to their second-grade class, for hanging their macaroni art on the refrigerator, for being a selfless, patient mother. For loving them. This is better, to be taken from them. Sherri closes her eyes. Ready.

The bison grunts and walks off into the dark.

 

Jody Azzouni

The Meaning of Life. The Meaning of Death

By Jody Azzouni

1.

Sometimes we really can predict the future, my doctor says to me, and it’s really really sad whenever we can do that. Stop being philosophical, I snap at him, it’s really really annoying. Especially in a bar. Where people are trying to drink things.

Sitting next to me, to my immediate left, are two young lovers. They’re talking about modern dance in loud reverential tones. The new modern dance. The new contemporary module of the new modern dance. While they’re holding hands. While they’re sort of holding hands.

Okay, here’s the truth. They’re kind of jiggling their fingers together and it looks really choreographed, or at least fake. What they’re doing with their fingers. They’re being erotic with one another, I think. Or to one another. I’m guessing this is what’s going on. But maybe they’re just good friends. Who are into finger things.

You wouldn’t know at first that it was modern dance they’re talking about because they’re using words like Parkinson’s Disease, tremors, Peripheral Neuropathy, Central Nervous System Disorders, Lou Gehrig’s Disease. And they mention spasms too. A lot. To describe how modern-dance dancers move these days. How they should move these days. And that they should scream at the same time. Really really loud. Because sound is dance too. Screaming is, anyway.

They’re saying things to each other like: It’s so inspiring that people with diseases like that still try to move. And with such inspiring artistic nobility. That you want to represent. And then they’re talking about dancing robot parts. The next module in the new modern dance. And all of this really enthusiastically. Young people are always so inspiring, aren’t they? This is them saying that, not me saying that. This is them talking about themselves.

I can predict the future too, I tell my doctor. You’re not the only who knows when bad things are coming.

What bad thing is my doctor predicting this time? Let’s call him Fred. My doctor. What bad thing is Fred predicting for me?

You can guess this correctly. I know you can.

 

2.

So this is the sad part of the story that I’m telling you. Before we retired to the bar, me and Fred, we were in his office. And what he was telling me are all the kinds of things you never want to hear from your doctor. Like I’m sorry. Like there’s nothing we can do. Like there’s nothing anyone can do. Not yet. Maybe tomorrow. After you’re dead, I mean. But then again, maybe never. That’s often the case. That we can never do something about something.

So that you should just try to enjoy your last remaining moments. That’s what he says next. Fred. However many of these last remaining moments there are. Make something significant of these last remaining moments. Or just downright fun. Downright. That’s his word. Damned joyful. That’s what he says at another point in our conversation. Later in our conversation. And then he leans back in his easy chair, and smiles warmly like we’re in this together. Me and him. Dying together, as it were. Except he gets to live.

Like almost all doctors these days he knows how to talk to patients in these situations. Because he’s taken philosophy courses. Not just the required course in litigation analysis. The Meaning of Life. The Meaning of Death. That sort of thing.

And he’s got suggestions too. This here Fred. Lots of them. For what I should be doing during all my last remaining moments. You’re probably thinking: This here Fred is trying to sell me something. And you’d be right.

 

3.

Two guys come into the bar. (This isn’t a joke.) Two guys with robot parts, I mean. Their lower bodies are kind of shiny-black sleek boxes with big red wheelies. A lot of buttons and joysticks on the consoles. They do the hello-with-the-eyebrows thing with Fred, who eyebrows them back in a totally friendly way. Then they zip-wheel elegantly into the restaurant, to a table near the back. They know Fred, of course. Why am I not surprised?

Fred meanwhile has been name-dropping all the famous people he’s treated that have had cancer. Successfully treated, I mean. Cured for good, I mean. By just removing their body parts, see? and replacing them with something better. Metal and plastic don’t get cancer, he explains to me, have you noticed that? Because there’s no such thing as silicon-based cancer. Cancer is totally carbon based. Which is totally cool. Because even viruses aren’t totally carbon based. Lots of viruses are electronic. Maybe most of them. But cancer isn’t electronic. Not even a little bit. Not yet, anyway.

I’ve never thought about this—who ever would who was still in his right mind?—but of course he’s telling the truth. People don’t swap out their furniture or change their windows because they’ve gotten cancer. Kids don’t dump their toys because they’ve gotten cancer. Inorganic is just better, Fred tells me. And then he shows off by rotating his right hand 180 degrees on its wrist. Rapidly, I mean. Very impressive, I say. Because even the modern-dance jiggling-finger people are watching it spin around. Nice, I add. Give that man another beer, someone calls from across the bar.

Fred’s a surgeon, by the way. A good one. A very good one.

These new detachable hands do a whole bunch of neat programmable tricks, Fred tells me next. It’ll dance on its fingers if I remove it like this, and push this series of buttons on the thumb. It can do rock, or waltz back and forth with my other hand, or even something called the twist. While it makes its own music. And hip-hop. Hands are amazing at hip-hop, hip-hop was made for the hand. Want to see? Maybe you want to buy one? For your last moments?

Fred invests in a lot of start-ups. In robot prosthetics. Did I mention that?

His hand looks just like a real hand by the way. Except, of course, when it’s dancing all by itself on a bartop like it’s doing right now. Then it looks like nothing on Earth that you’d ever want to see.

So here’s  my problem, apparently. New detachable hands won’t fix me. New wheelie feet won’t fix me either. So I’m doomed. As it were. Because you can’t really replace brains. Especially if someone has them.

I hope you can tell that I’m really depressed. Really really depressed. Really really really depressed. Especially because I’m sitting here in a bar with Fred. And with Fred’s hands.

Well, in a way brain cancer—even your spread-out-all-over-the-place kind of brain cancer—is quite curable, that’s what Fred tells me when we were still in his office. Because we could just replace your brains too. You know, all of them. That’s what Fred adds. With something pretty much as good. And most people wouldn’t notice, they really wouldn’t. But then we’d apparently just have replaced you. That’s what everyone says, anyway, and I guess they’re right if they’re everyone who says that.

It’s a real problem, he muses now, almost as if I wasn’t in the room, almost as if I’d already died or anyway, as if I’d mysteriously vanished. People do that sometimes. In conversations, I mean. As if they’re practicing. For your future.

And then Fred adds meditatively: You can tell that it’s probably unsolvable, because philosophers are writing about it. Of all people.

Just about then things got a little weird. Or weirder, anyway. Because the doctor suddenly spoke differently, even his voice became a little deeper now, a little more resonant or profound or something, he’d straightened up in his seat, and he was looking at me intently, into my eyes. I really had the impression there that he was going to talk to me. It was almost as if he had been seized against his will with something like insight or wisdom or whatever. (Things none of us want anymore—because it just hurts too much to be like that). Don’t you think, he said slowly, really slowly, really really slowly, that how we die shows who we are? Who we really are?

I looked at him. And not just because he was the only thing in the room that was moving in an interesting way. But because I was thinking: what if we’re hit by buses or what if we fall off cliffs by accident or what if commercial drones collapsing out of the sky land on us? So I said to Fred: Sheer accidents show who we are? Mechanical failures from the sky that crush us to death show who are we are? Whyever would they do such a thing? And how?

Fred says back to me: When you have an opportunity to plan your death, I mean. When you have a choice.

 

4.

And then there are always those con artists who come around, trying to rip you off when you’re dying. Even then, I mean. They just never stop. Because at least one percent of the general population is sociopathic. And these people need jobs too. Never ever forget that. It explains nearly everything.

I don’t mean Fred, of course. Fred is about as honest as an earnest idealistic young man in his position ever gets. Yes, there have been those moments when I was in the office with him, and he was shouting into his cellphone to his broker: Sell it! Those artificial feet aren’t going anywhere. But that just shows that what it means to be a doctor has mutated—that’s all. Like all jobs do. Like all job descriptions do.

Reincarnation salesmen, on the other hand, let’s admit it, they’re the sleeziest, they surely are. Oh wow, one of them says to me, all breathless and everything, everyone want to be reborn™. Come back to this? I respond, I think I’d rather not. I think I’ll pass. Reincarnation isn’t what you think it is, he says back, reincarnation’s changed too. And then he says next, depending on how much you want to spend, we can YouGene™ insects. (Oh wow, I said. But primarily to be polite.) Think of crickets that scratch their legs and make your own special sounds—like your name or the way you sneeze. Or animals—new animals I mean—cute cats with your ears sticking out of the sides of their heads. Or your nose. Or some other part of your anatomy that you’re really into. This is certainly something to think about, I tell him. I tell him this because I’m thinking about all the parts of my anatomy that I’m still really into.

 

5.

Okay, so what’s Fred trying to sell me? It’s innocent enough. Really. Entertainment. What’s called Last Minute Entertainment. I don’t think he’s trademarked that label, and it’s clever. I keep telling him to hurry up before someone else does it.

 

6.

What about hunting? Fred asks me. Hunting? I ask back. Real hunting, Fred tells me. Where you actually kill something. Without animal activists finding out, I mean. Your last kill. How much? I ask immediately. Because it’s always about money. Well, Fred says (instead of answering my question), think of a small ocean in Texas. Recently built. Ted Turner, I think. Probably. Since that guy just never dies. You kill a whole whale, Ahab-style. Whale-sized whale, I mean. Before drowning, I mean. Who drowning? I ask. The whale? Me? Someone else?

You drowning, he says. Because that’s the idea, last minute entertainment, he says, like I’m being a little thick. Big angry white whale coming down on you from above. That’s your last moment, see? Big white whale blacking out everything and then you die.

Um, I say. Sounds great, I add. (But I’m thinking, the whale dies in this scenario? I’m not quite seeing a dead whale from how Fred’s described things.) I drum my fingers on the bar top for a second, and then all of a sudden Fred’s hands do a couple of handstands, and take bows. (He’s kind of a competitive guy, this Fred here. That’s what I realize.)

Okay, Fred responds after a moment, and I realize he thinks I’m reluctant because of the money. He says: I admit that it’s kind of expensive, it’s as expensive, I guess, as flying to Mars without radiation protection. To your fresh new graveyard on another planet. That gets named after you. At least for a while, I mean. It’s really really expensive. The deductible and the copayment, I mean. But you can afford it. I don’t take in the implication of what he’s just said. For a minute or two, I mean.

 

7.

We’re moving onto other suggestions. Because I’m obviously not very excited about last-minute whaling. Fred has lots of brochures, of course. On paper. For old people like me. Who are most of his customers, I guess. They’re about last-minute adventures, last-ditch attempts, last meals, end-of-the-world scenarios, kidnapped-by-terrorist options. I’m surprised that the other people at the bar are all so interested in this stuff—even the young modern-dance jiggle-finger people. You guys aren’t dying, I say. Not yet, one tells me, as if he’s making a joke. And it never hurts to plan ahead, he adds, and now I realize he thinks he’s being witty. But what’s more important is that I’ve just realized that Fred’s implied that the bulk of this stuff is covered by insurance. Health insurance. For real, I mean. And I realize it makes sense. Because how you die can be expensive, really expensive. And I think: They want to keep you out of the hospitals. And even out of the nursing homes, the good nursing homes, anyway. Who can blame them? The insurance companies, I mean. The guys who are looking after all of us these days.

 

8.

So I’m looking at the Making-Mormon-Planets-A-Reality™ brochure when this guy butts in. He’s talking to us about helping others. The other people who need to die? Fred is asking him. The guy is annoyed by Fred. Or maybe just generally sulky, the way most altruists are nowadays. No, he says, helping other people live better. And longer. Because longer is better. Giving your last moments away. To someone else. So they have some more moments to live through. Taking care of sick people, for example. That no one else will go near because they’re contagious. Changing their bedpans. For example. Fred winces in feigned pain. He’s a doctor, after all.

Fred and I decide to ignore this guy. You can totally do that at bars now. Without getting into fights I mean. It wasn’t always that way. I remember, I totally remember. Bars were different in other ways too. No dismembered hands ever danced at bars. For example. That’s kind of new.

 

9.

Tortured by terrorists? I’m asking Fred now, by real terrorists? I ask further: And people pay for this? Insurance companies pay for this? If the people are close enough to dying already, Fred tells me. And then he mentions studies that actually show that you live a little longer if you’re being tortured. So it’s not just paying off for the insurance companies. That result was totally surprising, Fred adds. Isn’t empirical science amazing? someone else interjects. It’s something to do with the immune system getting revved up, Fred explains. And now he’s explaining it to everyone else at the bar. Like eating spicy food, he says. Only different, of course.

That immune system. So full of surprises. That we live longer if we’re being tortured. This is the kind of fact that makes it look like we were designed for something by someone. Designed for something bigger than us, I mean. It just doesn’t look like an accident. Not even a little bit. So I’m thinking it would be good if philosophers knew about this. Because it sounds like a proof of God’s existence. That he’s out there. Making things better for us. In every way he can think of.

These brochures are so cool, one of the young finger-jigglers says, but do you only sell this stuff to dying people? Yeah, Fred says mournfully. Because it’s really really expensive, and insurance doesn’t kick in unless you’re dying.

 

10.

I was so depressed, I really was. Because I had nothing to live for. (Did you notice that? Could you tell?)

But now … you saw this coming, right? I’m sure you did. Because the point of this story isn’t to surprise you. It really isn’t. There aren’t any surprises here. Not a single one. Even if it doesn’t look that way.

I’m in my own movie. It’s all being filmed, what’s happening here. What’s happening to me. It’s for my relatives to watch. Those people my stock broker has done so much for. And it’s for my descendants, too, whoever they are. Whatever they are. And maybe for all the other sentient beings we eventually mutate into. If this film becomes famous on Youtube, I mean. Which it totally could. This really isn’t impossible. None of this is really impossible. Which is kind of thrilling. If you’re in the right frame of mind.

I’m in a small room, and I’m panicked, I’m frightened almost to death. Almost. That’s crucial. That it’s almost.

It’s an old-style room, hard to find these days, usually they show up only in old movies. Plaster walls, real paint on them, crown molding. No LED anywhere. Real windows. I mean: a real window. One real window, small and almost too high for me to pull myself into. Even with an adrenaline rush. Almost. Almost is so important in this genre. Like those movies from the seventies, the nineteen seventies. I just love the authenticity, although I’m way too frightened to focus on it right now. Because my heart is pounding, it really really is. Has your heart ever pounded? I mean with you just standing there watching something about to happen to you? Don’t miss it. I mean it. Even if it’s the last thing you ever do. Because it’s definitely the way to go.

The door, the door. Always, it’s the doors that matter. The way in. The way out. Think symbol. Think metaphor. Think allegory. Think myth. It’s a wooden job, this door, with a lovely antique cylindrical brass doorknob. Keyhole underneath it. With a key, a big key. A skeleton key. Really. That I turn to lock the door, and that I then throw across the room. (Because I am so panicked. Because I am so panicked.)

I’ve also propped a chair up under the doorknob, by the way. To wedge the door shut from the inside. And I’ve pulled a rickety table up against the chair. To hold the chair in place.

Have you noticed that this kind of thing never works in the movies? And that it doesn’t work in real life either?

What we’ve been waiting for. The viewers, I mean. You over there, for example, who’s watching this. And me too. A giant lizard that has door-splintered its giant head into the room. Big toothful reptilian jaw, lots of slushy drool sloshing around those bright-white island teeth. Pointy. Most of them, anyway. And that big green ugly head waving back and forth, hissing and spitting at me. Saying: Hereee’zzz Jack.

Hereee’zzz Jack. That’s so cool, that’s so original, that’s so fresh. And then I notice for the second time, the small window, the one that’s way too small for me to pry myself through, but perfect for getting stuck in when giant lizards are chasing you. I run for it, thrilled to death, while behind me I hear the door being torn apart into splinters. Totally torn apart into splinters, I bet. Totally.

This is going to be quick. I can tell.

 

Ace Boggess

Thank You for the Opportunity

By Ace Boggess

 

“Can we get a light, please?” said Curtis, waving the white stick about like some conductor’s baton.  His hands looked strangely pale in the bright summer sunshine—skinny, too, and sort of spectral.

The matron stepped forward to greet the new arrivals.  She wore all black despite the sunny noontime atmosphere—shoes, socks, skirt above the knees, blouse pressed tightly to her cartoonish curves.  Allison, read the name above her left breast, letters orange as if sewn in fire.  Her hair also was black, as were here eyes.  “Three of you,” she said, raising the golden rectangle that held the flame in its cage.  “Three of a kind.  Three’s a crowd and a magic number.  There were three bears and three little pigs.  Three stars in Orion’s belt.  Three wise men.  Primary colors?  Three.  Nostradamus named three antichrists, and there are three of you in this holy trinity.  Allow me to light a candle for your prayers.”  She extended her arm, while Curtis bent toward the flame.  His cigarette crackled as it took.

“My turn,” said Tia, who somewhat resembled Wonder Woman in her red bikini. 

“Certainly,” said the matron.

Tia leaned in to light hers, then pulled back and coughed daintily.  “I felt that,” she said.  “Cold and hot at the same time.”

“It is,” Curtis agreed.  “Makes my skin tingle like I just touched a live current.”

“And you, Miss?” said the matron.

“I don’t know,” said Carrie.  “I’ve never done this before.”

“It’s okay to back out.”

“Peer pressure,” said Curtis.

“Peer pressure,” Tia agreed.

Carrie instinctively used the back of her hand to wipe hair from her eyes, though her blond locks had been reduced to a sort of buzz cut.  “Oh, what the hell.”  She took the plunge.

“Doesn’t have much taste,” said Tia, holding hers up to watch the orange glow descending from the tip.  Smoke drifted upward, splitting into a pair of streams that then entwined like two lovers. 

The sounds of seagulls crying and waves crashing filled the air as the trio stood there, studying their cigarettes, occasionally raising them to their lips to take a puff.  There was also a rumble that sounded like distant thunder.

“It’s kind of nice,” said Curtis.  “I feel calmer, relaxed.  And what’s that smell?  It reminds me of summer camp when I was a boy.”

“That’s just the smoke,” the matron explained. 

“Oh,” said Curtis.

“Paper and plant matter burning.”

“Oh.”

Carrie did the thing with the back of her hand again.  She couldn’t get used to her new look.  Before, stray strands of golden hair always danced and dangled across her eyes.  Now, she seemed as if she wanted to cry but couldn’t make the tears.  “We’re better than this,” she told the others.  “I don’t like it.”

“I guess it’s an acquired taste,” said Curtis.

The matron nodded her head and feigned a smile.  “He’s right.  It’s not for everyone.”

Curtis inhaled deeply.  His cigarette had burned halfway down.  “It loses some of the novelty after a couple tries, but it’s all right.  I want to keep going.”

“Is that rain?” asked Tia.

“I’m afraid so,” said the matron.

“I don’t want to stand out in the rain.”

“Don’t worry, dear.  It’ll pass.”

“The rain?”

“No, the cigarette … and your unwillingness to suffer through a storm.”

The sky opened up, drenching the four of them.  Everything turned a sickly gray-green tint, and the world took on the smell of dewy leaves and mildew. 

The three women covered their heads with their arms.  Curtis used his spare hand to shield his cigarette.  He lifted the stick and puffed fiercely.  Tia smoked also, stopping long enough to say, “Well, ain’t this just the be-all end-all.”

“Be glad it’s not the middle of winter,” said the matron.  “Imagine trying to smoke with gloves on, or worse, without gloves when it’s so cold you have to keep changing hands and placing the free one in your pocket.”

“Sounds like a blast.”

“Oh, to hell with this,” Carrie shouted suddenly.  She threw her soggy cigarette in the wet sand.  “I’ve had enough.  I’m done here.”  Her white beach shirt was soaked through, showing off her lavender bathing suit that outlined her breasts and unusually large nipples.

“What about you?” said the matron.

Tia shrugged and flicked her cigarette away.

“One more puff,” said Curtis.  He inhaled once, twice, thrice, spitting back clouds half as gray as those overhead.  When the fire burned all the way to the filter, he dropped the cigarette and covered it with wet sand.  “Okay, I guess I’m done.  Thank you for the opportunity.”

The woman in black clapped her hands.  As if she had cast a spell, the sky brightened—slowly at first, but soon returning to the light of a warm summer afternoon.  “I hope you’ve enjoyed this little adventure.  Please come back and visit us again.”  The lighting shifted once more, yellowing and dimming.  The ocean transformed into a black wall, the sky and sun lost to a black ceiling.  Allison reached out, pulled a lever and opened a doorway in the black. 

Outside, crowds of people walked by from all directions—young couples, families holding teddy bears and shopping bags, toothless carnies in long, striped pants.  A barker was calling out, “New to this year’s state fair, step right up and take the rollercoaster ride of a lifetime.  No tickets required.  Come in and check out the smoking booth.  Fun for the whole family.  Step right up!  Step up and take a journey to the days of yore!” 

The trio walked slowly into the bright summer sunlight.  The air smelled of funnel cakes and cotton candy.  A man walked by, eating a Krispy Kreme cheeseburger, and Tia could almost taste it on her lips.  “I want one of those,” she said.  Her bikini had mutated into a white tee shirt and shorts. 

Likewise, Carrie’s blond hair had grown back out.  She brushed away strands with the back of her hand.  “I don’t get it,” she said.  “The smoking, the standing around out it the rain—I just don’t see the point, I guess.”

Curtis stared down at his wide, brown hands, making sure they were his.  He saw the green outline of a cigarette stretching from between two fingers.  “I tell you,” he said, “I enjoyed that a lot.  It was something special, something different.  Why don’t we get back in line?  What do you say?  I want to go again.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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