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Hog Creek Review
Ohio State Lima 2010

First Place
Prose Arbuckle Award
2009 - 2010: Salvation
Laura Freer
The well-dressed, somewhat rumpled woman felt as though she had been sitting there forever, and at the same time was having trouble remembering how she got there, or for that matter who she was. It was as if she had gone to sleep in a strange place and in that first moment of waking had lost herself completely. There were no external clues, nothing to trigger a flash of recognition or even a sense of how she ended up…here. The wooden chair she was sitting on was small and uncomfortable, like the chairs she remembered in her Sunday school classes that pinched her when she shifted. The floor was wood, old and battered, and seemed endless beyond the ring of light surrounding her. She squinted at the dark beyond but could make nothing out. Perhaps she heard murmuring, the sounds of feet shuffling and papers flapping? It was hard to tell if she could hear that, or nothing at all.
A throat cleared. It wasn’t hers. It was like… a trial. That’s it. She knew trials; she visited her husband at them. Yes, her husband, a lawyer. Trials. Husband. She felt a thrill knowing that she had a piece of the puzzle of her identity in hand. Let’s see, husband, house… yes, they had a house, a car, his job, she didn’t have a job? It seemed like she should…no, she went to school, she met her husband there, she had plans, why no job?
They had a baby. She remembered now and immediately felt sick. She had forgotten her son, for whom she had given up a career and a social life, and what was wrong with her, thinking this way? She loved being a stay-at-home mom, didn’t she? Flashes of conversations were coming back to her now, sitting in the living room with other well-dressed women, saying things like “You know, it’s really the best thing for the children” and “Honestly, I feel like I have a full-time job right here.” She remembered, though she no longer felt, a peculiar sense of pride in the fact that she did not rely on nannies or maids to care for her child like some of the other mothers did, but something about the memory tasted like bile in her throat. Something not about what was remembered, but about what was being forgotten.
Now a cough interrupted her thoughts, and she returned to-wherever she was. She tried to find the source of the cough but she still couldn’t make out anything beyond the circle of light surrounding her, nothing but the wooden floor. She remember something else now; not just a trial, but an interrogation. Yes, like the old cop movies she watched with her family when she was young, and the thought gave her pause.
“What do you want?”
She was using her authoritative voice now, the voice she used on her son when he was misbehaving, the voice that was strong, firm, but not harsh or hateful. The other mothers complimented her on her ability to sound reprimanding and yet not rude or unpleasant.
But it wasn’t always that way.
Was it a voice, or a thought? She couldn’t tell, like she couldn’t tell if she was really hearing the muttering of a crowd behind the light. She pictured men leafing through papers and leaning over to speak softly to their neighbors. The voice/thought would belong to a tall man like her father who had the ability to speak in a voice that never raised above a whisper but could be heard a block away.
Why don’t you tell them what happened that morning?
That morning… that morning. Somehow she knew what was meant. That morning…
“I was taking my son to preschool for the first time, and we were walking, hand-in-hand. We were late, and he was trying to stop every few feet and play with his new shoes. After several warnings, I had to pull him up rather quickly in order to get him to stop, something quite out of the ordinary for me, but we were late. He overreacted, fell, and struck his head on the car nearby. When I went to pick him up he must have been dazed because he ran away from me. Of course I ran after him but I couldn’t catch him before the crossing and the truck. And that’s the last thing I remember.”
She saw rather than heard her own words, read them off of the air like they were on paper. They were solid, and were completely separate from herself. God, it didn’t even sound like her, did it? Then again, thinking over her life in a place like this, it didn’t sound much like her, a housewife in the suburbs. It seemed so unreal.
Tell them again.
She was confused. She opened her mouth:
“I was taking my son to preschool for the first time, and we were walking, hand-in-hand. We were late: the hot water wasn’t working, and my husband was very busy with this case and he was too busy, of course, to be able to help get our son off to school on his first day.
He’s always busy with a case these days, isn’t he?
His son.
“Yes, his son. Then on the way to school my boy was trying to stop every few feet and play with his new shoes, saying something about them bothering him, which was of course nonsense. We picked the shoes out ourselves; all the mothers were saying they were absolutely the best. Perhaps I was a little strict, pulling him up and giving him that swat, but certainly he overreacted. Then he fell and struck his head on the car nearby.”
White. The car was white.
“When I went to pick him up he must have been dazed because he ran away from me. Of course I ran after him but I couldn’t catch him before he reached the crossing, and then there we were in front of that truck. And that’s the last thing I remember.”
There was another story here, she knew, behind the one that was flowing away like a script, behind the words that surely weren’t even hers. The chair squeaked and groaned as she moved, just like it did in Sunday school. She remembered the withered old woman glaring at them and reading them Scriptures without context or explanation. The watery eyes rolled and the ancient voice rasped words that she could hear even now in her mind:
But women will be saved through childbearing.
Tell them again.
She licked her lips, and began to speak slowly, haltingly, like she was speaking for the first time in a long time, and she couldn’t stop her words anymore than she could stop the tears rolling down her face.
“It’s been going on for a long time now, ever since a few months after he was born. He had a way of grinding his head into my arm when I held him in a way that just set my teeth on edge. But what can you do? It was the best thing for him, for me to stay with him. My husband and I hadn’t been married very long, and we were still full of untold things. How do you even begin to hint to your husband that you hate his child? Men, they don't understand how the small things grind you down every single day, every day until there is nothing left. They don't understand the anger and the frustration of diapers and toys and noises and the fact that this tiny little thing needs you so desperately, so completely, that his life is wholly dependent on you and you’re his world and there’s no room for anything else, no room for anything for you, just you. And so I started to pinch him, just a little, just to take the edge off when he was fussing, but I couldn’t stop, and he got older and he’d start this crying, this sad wailing, and I knew it was my fault and that I was a horrible mother and that just made everything worse. I had to give so much to the people around me, to my husband, the neighbors, the local community organizations, the endless events and parties. I had nothing left for this child, nothing except the platitudes of my generation, nothing except hate and a fist when no one else was there.
I thought having a baby would make me a woman, like my mother, but there was no magical moment where I looked at my baby and everything fit. I thought having a baby would save me, that through giving birth I could be reborn as a new person. But they lied, the old woman lied, and I was the same as I had ever been. Oh God, what happened to our son? What have I done?
That morning... was taking my son to preschool for the first time, and we were walking, hand-in-hand, and I put his shoe on the wrong foot. I didn’t mean to-we were late and I was rushed and I was smoldering with anger at my husband, who left us every day to our misery-and I put his shoe on the wrong foot, Jesus forgive me. I knew it was my fault but I made him walk, I knew but it made me happy, God help me it made me happy to see him suffering a little. Happy and guilty and I hated myself and him. He wouldn't stop crying and I told myself didn't have time to change it and I swore I'd fix it when we got there but he just kept crying 'Mommy, Mommy' and have mercy on me, I just got so mad. I just, I just was so mad, and-he used to dig his head into my arm! Christ, I, I just hit him and he cringed and that made me angrier and I hit him more and more and then there was a car next to me and-oh God, oh merciful God--I hit his head into that nice new white car and the blood, the red blood on the white car and all down his white shirt. I saw him then, my baby, through the blood and the anger and I just wanted to clutch him to me, to drown myself with his blood, and to make everything okay. Is that what it is to be a mother? I wanted to hold him close and pull him back inside of me, where he could be safe from everything and I could go away and it would just be the two of us and we would be saved, we would both be saved! And then, he ran. And the crossing, and the truck, and then…”
Tell them again.
“No, not again!” The woman screamed as she stood, shaking her fists at the unknown audience. “How many times have I told you? What more do you want from me? I told you I did it, I killed him! I killed my baby! Why? Why are you doing this to me? He was supposed to save me! He was supposed to save me! Oh Jesus, Jesus, Jesus God, help me, help me!”
 She sank back into her chair sobbing, fists in her eyes. After some time, if indeed it was any time at all, her sobbing ceased, and she stared blankly at the darkness beyond the light. The well-dressed, somewhat rumpled woman felt as though she had been sitting there forever, and at the same time was having trouble remembering how she got there, or for that matter who she was. It was as if she had gone to sleep in a strange place and in that first moment of waking had lost herself completely.
 A throat cleared, and then a voice, or a thought, spoke or came into existence, as if it belonged to a man like her father who had the ability to speak in a voice that never raised above a whisper but could be heard a block away.
 Why don’t you tell them what happened that morning?
 Somehow she knew what morning it was talking about, and she opened her mouth:
“I was taking my son to preschool for the first time, and we were walking, hand-in-hand…”
Second Place
Prose Arbuckle Award
2009 - 2010: The Shell
Cory Coleman
I was irrevocably deprived, and it was the irrevocableness that hurt, that finally drove me away from any sensible adjustment with life to the position that dreams had to come true or there was no point in living at all. If dreams came true, then I would have my childhood in one form or another, someday.
-Harold Brodkey


Sic transit Gloria. Glory fades.
-Max Fischer


Mouse was the smallest creature in the meadow. He lived by himself in a little nook at the bottom of the tree, and he was always nervous. There was a hierarchy to the tree, with Mouse at the very bottom. At the top was Owl, and she was the main source of Mouse’s anxiety. Owl was a predator by nature, and she killed off all the little creatures around the meadow for her own survival. She had already taken most of Mouse’s family, leaving only a few cousins on the other side of the meadow, who Mouse had no real connection to anyway. All the creatures of the tree teased Mouse.
“You’re going to be next,” they all said. “She’s coming for you whether you like it or not you’re so small and worthless… Be a good little Mouse and sacrifice yourself for the rest of us.”
Oh sure, thought Mouse. It’s easy for all them. She loves chasing after Lizard and Mole, but even they can get away, both up a tree and down a hole. Where can I go?
Squirrel was the worst of the lot. She would scamper up and down the trunk of the tree and act like Owl was in the air. “She’s coming for you, Mouse!” she would shriek. “Quick, run!”
And Mouse would run, but he always figured out soon enough that Squirrel was bluffing, and would turn back to see her barely hanging on a tree branch, laughing with her whole body. “Oh, Mouse,” she would say, “You’re so pathetic! Just what can we do with you?”
One night, darker than most, Mouse curled up in his little nook and lay awake, dreaming. He dreamt of a place that had no owls, had no bothersome squirrels, even had no indifferent Lizards. He dreamt of a place of friends, where he would be free to live and play and eat all the nuts and fruits that he liked so well. It has to be out there, somewhere, he thought. I wonder what is out there… Mouse had never ventured beyond the meadow before. In fact, he figured, nobody from the tree had ever left before, had ever seen anything beyond their own existence. Oh, stupid little Mouse, he thought, There is no way that you could ever survive past the meadow. How could you even make it out of the meadow, with Owl always watching? But then he realized how dark the sky was that particular night, how the moon did not shine all bright. This would be my only chance, he reasoned. em>This night. Right now! And with that he ran as fast as his little legs could take him. Fast, fast, fast, through the grass, away from the tree, left at the stream, and straight on to the horizon.
Mouse ran and ran and ran. After what seemed like his whole life had passed in time, he stopped. No hooting. No shrieking. No beating wings from above. Nothing, he heard nothing. Well, at least nothing resembling an owl. In fact, as little Mouse rested there in the tall grass nowhere near anything he recognized, he heard a low distant rumble.em>Oh no, he thought, as it grew louder. Rain! He realized all too late why the sky was so dark that particular night. As the booms and the rumblings grew louder, Mouse picked his tired little body up and ran with whatever was left in him.
The rain started. It was the worst storm Mouse had ever seen. The droplets were like whole apples falling down around him. He avoided them as best he could but he still got soaked, which weighed him down even more. The wind picked up, buffeting him this way and that, and he couldn’t see at all where he was going. He was picked up into the air by the terrible storm, and tossed around. He hit the ground hard, but he was up again, and slammed again. While he was tossed about, he thought that he saw a pond near. For a third time he was slammed to the ground, but Mouse quickly got up and ran with all he had towards the pond. Maybe oh maybe there’s a rock to hide under! he cried. But as he neared the pond, the wind picked him up once more and smashed him right into the rock he was looking for.
Mouse blacked out.
When he awoke, he just lay there. He didn’t dare move his body. He couldn’t even believe that he was alive. In fact, he thought, I’m probably not. Eventually he dared open his eyes, but his sight was immediately overtaken by the most wondrous light. He saw every shade of green imaginable, and some he hadn’t ever thought of, mixed with blacks and blues and purples and a little orange. It was shimmering, shining, filling up his consciousness, and what with that presence and the sun beaming down, he couldn’t see anything. Eventually he squinted so low that his eyes could take in just one thing at a time, and he looked for the source of the color. Before him was the most beautiful emerald beetle shell. The sun of the new day shone down on it and provided the spinning kaleidoscope that Mouse had been overwhelmed by. It was the most glorious thing Mouse had ever seen. He was so overtaken by its presence that he was surprised to finally see that he was inside an enclosure; what appeared to be a closed nest. Oh no. Mouse thought. Owl did track me down. She’s got me now! And just then he heard the beating of wings at an open hole in front of him, and at the first sight of a scaly bird foot, he fainted.
He awoke to a beak in his face.
“It’s alright now, friend,” said the beak. “You’re okay now. Had a bit of a scare there, I’m afraid.”
“OOoooohhhhhhh, my head,” moaned Mouse. “Well, Owl, I guess you got me. Take me now. Make it quick.”
“Owl!?” screeched the beak. “Kaawhaawhaawhaahaa, that’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. I’m no owl! Kaawhaawhaa!”
“You’re not,” said Mouse. “Then where am I? Who are you?”
The beak stepped back a little bit to reveal a whole creature. “I’m Bird,” it said. “And this is my home.”
It really was a stunning bird. He had a perfect mixture of black and brown feathers and a handsome red chest that stuck way out. He had a very happy and proud face.
“Nice to meet you, Bird. I’m Mouse.”
“I can see so, Mr. Mouse. You had a nasty time of things last night. How about some breakfast?”
“Oh that would be fine,” said Mouse. “So you saw me last nigh—“
Mouse stopped short. As Bird had moved away to gather some food from the side of the nest, the emerald beetle shell emerged from behind him, resting exquisitely on the wall.
“Oh yeah, you were picked up and tossed about like a feather. It was really awful to watch,” Bird explained. “So what would you like? I got a few berries here or an almond maybe?”
“So it wasn’t just a dream,” Mouse muttered.
“I woke up and saw that shell, and I thought it was all a dream. It was so beautiful.”
“Oh, that old thing? I’ve had that forever. Got it off a poor fellow who found his way underneath my beak one day. I couldn’t bear to just leave it there though, it was shining so nice. Now, how’s about that breakfast?”
But Mouse was barely listening. He sat staring at the shell. It seemed to be staring right back, beckoning to him. All of Mouse’s dreams seemed to be in that dazzling, shining emerald surface. With it, he wouldn’t have to be the laughing stock of the tree anymore. He could start anew, not be so cowardly anymore. Yes, with a shell like that, he’d be a whole new Mouse.
* * * * *
In the days to follow, Mouse and Bird came to trust each other more and more. Mouse relied on Bird to show him the lay of the land and where the best places to gather food were. Bird was glad for the new friendship that Mouse provided, and the frequent laughter. Bird thought Mouse was a funny little thing, scurrying here and there, so eager to please his rescuer that he didn’t look where he was going and would fall down holes or into plants as he was looking to and fro. Bird laughed even harder when Mouse would ask him question upon question about that glittering beetle shell.  Bird would let Mouse wear it whenever he wanted, fastened to his back with a blade of grass. It was theirs to share, the way Bird saw it. He had found it one day, and to him it belonged to everybody and yet nobody. Everyone should be able to enjoy the natural beauty of the precious jewel.
Bird became concerned, however, when Mouse would not let the shell out of his sight, always wearing it when they went out for food, sleeping with it by his side. He noticed Mouse getting more and more covetous looks in his eyes whenever Bird requested the shell be put back against the wall, or when he wanted to show it to some of their neighbors. He noticed that Mouse started to hide the shell from him, claiming he misplaced it somewhere. But Bird would get up in the night to see it held tightly in Mouse’s arms, a look of quiet triumph on the little creature’s face.
Bird decided that it was time to get the old Mouse back.
Mouse woke up one morning to discover that his shell was gone. He panicked. He began scurrying around, frantically searching under food, in between the twigs of the nest, in his bedding, but to no avail. He could not find it. Mouse began to breathe gasping breaths.
Then he saw Bird calmly walking towards the opening hole in the nest.
“Bird!” Mouse hailed his friend. “Bird have you seen my beetle shell? My glorious glittering green beetle shell? It seems to have slipped away from me during the night.”
“Oh yes,” replied Bird, “I know exactly where it is. It’s right here.” And Bird turned just a little to reveal the emerald jewel gleaming under his wing. Bird could see that Mouse was distressed, but Bird acted like he was just taking a morning stroll with it. “I just thought that I’d take it down to the pond and wash it.” And with that, Bird leapt out of the hole.
Mouse scampered after him and landed hard on the ground, which thankfully wasn’t that far from their nest suspended in the tall grass. “Bird!” Mouse called. “Bird hold on!” Mouse caught up with his friend. “I just thought that maybe you would ask me if you wanted to borrow the shell. It gave me such a scare when I woke up and it wasn’t there.”
Bird put on a confused face. “But Mouse, why would I have to ask permission? Is it not ours to share?”
“Oh… Well…” Mouse looked startled. “Yes, yes of course. Ours to share…” He trailed off.
Bird continued to walk through the tall grass and reeds, towards the pond.
“But, you know something Bird, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that.” Mouse said politically. “I was thinking, and you know, I do believe that I should have the shell myself. I mean, I think it’s much safer in my hands than just lying on the ground in the nest,” Mouse implored.
Bird acted taken aback. “Have it for your own? I don’t see why we can’t share it.” Bird and Mouse had reached the edge of the pond now, and an overcast sky reflected in the clear water.
“Well, my dear Bird, I just… I just think that I look after the safety of the shell more than you do, and that it’s, well… safer. With me.”
“But, my dear Mouse,” Bird turned to say, “This shell really doesn’t belong to anyone. It never will. Its beauty was meant to be enjoyed by everyone.” Bird smiled and patted Mouse on his little head.
“You don’t understand,” said Mouse, as Bird began to bend down and wash the object. “I just need it, and I need you to not have it.”
“I deserve it…” he added under his breath.
“Kwaahaahaahaa, oh Mouse. This is all some joke, isn’t it?” Bird played it off kiddingly. “It’s not really worth anything, this shell. Kwaahaahoo, I see your tricks, haahaahaaw. That was a good one, friend!”
And with that, Bird turned his back and continued his washing.
Mouse was overcome, he was blind. All he could see was Bird’s back.
He Jumped.
His little claws sank into Bird’s feather back. A cry was let out, but Mouse kept on, fearing no one. His teeth went for the side of Bird’s neck, and the warmth leapt out and the taste was in his mouth. Bird tried to spread those glorious wings, tried to jump and shake Mouse off, but he couldn’t now; he was too weak. Mouse held there until his friend sank to the ground. Mouse slowly got up then, and he could feel Bird’s life in his paws and on his teeth. He didn’t really want to touch Bird while he was lying there, but he lifted up one wing and saw his prize laying there in the mud at the pond’s edge. Mouse picked it up gingerly, getting red mixed in with the brown, all covering the dull green. He went to the water, washing it all away. After he was finished at the pond, he walked back to the nest with the shell, leaving Bird laying there, his beak in the water.
* * * * *
Lizard had ventured far away from the tree. Life had become tough around there. After Mouse had left and Owl had eaten up the rest of his cousins, the big hunter came after more of the other creatures. Lizard had found himself alone without his family, and so he had decided to venture out just like Mouse. If that little thing could make it, so could I, was his rational thought. After what seemed like forever, in which he came upon no food or water, he eventually came upon a pond. This is where I shall rest, Lizard thought. This is a perfect place to start over. Just then Lizard heard rustling in the rushes to his right. He panicked and couldn’t run anywhere. But then, who should hop out of the reed stalks but Mouse, his old neighbor.
“Lizard!?” exclaimed Mouse. “Where did you come from?” He seemed happy enough to see the poor reptile.
“Oh goodness, Mouse, you about scared me to death just then.” Lizard exhaled finally. “I got sick of living around that awful tree, so I decided to look somewhere else for a home.” Just then, Lizard noticed something shiny and green on Mouse’s back.
“What is that, old friend?” Lizard queried.
“Oh, my jewel? Yes, isn’t it wonderful! I just found this laying around the pond one day. Some poor fellow must’ve dropped it or something.”
“Well, my my,” said Lizard, “It really is a wonderful thing. Would’ve loved to have seen the beetle it came off of. Must’ve been delicious.” Lizard licked his scaly lips.
“Yeah, well, you’re free to look around for some more,” said Mouse. “In fact, you can stay around here if you want, I don’t have many neighbors, and there’s plenty of food to go around.”
“Well, I do appreciate it, Mouse. I think I’ll have a look around and stake my plot.”
“Sounds good… neighbor, quaheeheehee,” Mouse giggled. “Feel free to holler if you need anything.” And Mouse ambled back through the rushes.
“Will do!” yelled Lizard. “Will do. Well now, let’s have us a look around.”
Lizard proceeded to make his way around the pond, looking for some sort of shelter that was suited to his tastes. There did seem to be a lot of good food around here, he saw, and no one in sight! Whooeee, thought Lizard, this is gonna be easy living from here on out!
As he was making another pass around the water’s edge, Lizard saw something curious. What appeared to be the remains of a bird were lying in the shallows. He saw some feather spines sticking out of the mud, some wing bones here and there, and a handsome orange beak, just sitting there.
Huh, poor sucker, thought Lizard. Met the wrong side of somebody. Too bad there’s no meat left. Would’ve made a decent first supper. Now let’s see, I think I saw a nice rock over there a-ways
And like that, Lizard settled in this new land. In fact, many creatures from all over started wandering in, and word spread that there was an area promising prosperity if you came from hard times. Mouse was the unsung hero of the pond. He showed all the newcomers exactly where the best food was and dealt with them if any of them were terrorizing other neighbors. He did all this with that glorious beetle shell on his back. At first, it was cumbersome, always slipping around, and getting quite heavy and hot in the summertime. But Mouse never took it off during the day, and never let it stray from his sight at night. Soon it became like just another part of his body, comfortable resting there on his balding and grey back. All the creatures of the pond respected him and marveled at his shell’s beauty. All was well in the new land. All was well.
Second Place
Prose Arbuckle Award
2010 - 2011: The Life and Death of a Battery
Corrinne Wordne
Hae was dragged into the elevator by the men in white coats.  She screamed and clawed at the door but two of the men grabbed her and pulled her back.  The elevator slowed to a stop and a computer voice announced that they had reached the basement floor.  Hae bit down hard on the hand of one of the men.  He cursed and his grip loosened just enough for her to break free and bolt towards the stairs. She rattled the gate that blocked the stairs, but it had been padlocked.  The men were on her in a second, and hauled her away.  One of Hae’s fingernails, still clinging to the gate, broke and her finger bled.  
Above it all, the Engine soared, with blackened crystalline wings and steel talons.  The Eye of the Engine floated in the center, suspended by thick cables pulsing with ever darkening Blue Plasma.  The Battery was dying and the Engine shutting down.
Two of Hae’s captors pulled her up the spindly iron staircase, led by the third.  Her shrieks reverberated off the sweeping glassy wings of the Engine, her reflection warped grotesquely in the strange mechanism.  As the men dragged her over the last step, Hae came face to face with the Eye of the Engine, and in the center of the Eye sat the Battery.  His face was not old, but he slumped in the seat, his breathing ragged, his eyes hollow and unseeing, even as the Engine continued to drain his life force.  His skin was translucent, and he glowed with some inner light, illuminating his blood vessels and the throbbing heart.  But that light was dying; the shining pink vessels were being replaced by ashen flesh.
“We haven’t got much time,” one of the men said.
 “Let me go!” she cried, trying to pull her wrists from the iron grip of her captors.
While two of the men held her still, another began typing on a transparent keypad at the side of the Eye.  With a hiss, the cables that were inserted into the old Battery, his veins, heart, and skull, pulled away from his flesh and poised themselves just a few inches above.  All except one: the thickest cable at the base of the Battery’s skull stayed in place as the remaining men lifted and lowered him to the ground.  He sighed as he was laid back.  The inner light was nearly gone now, his heart the only thing that it still illuminated.  Hae fell silent and her tears were not for herself anymore.  This fragile man, barely strong enough to even move, turned his blind eyes to her and smiled.
“Don’t …be afraid,” he said, in a voice harsh and ragged from years of disuse, “You’re going to be okay.”
The men put Hae in the seat, situating her so that the cables would puncture the exact points marked on her skin in blue ink hours before.  But she didn’t see them; her eyes were fixed to the Battery.  His life had been stolen from him by the Engine.  Years and years of his lifespan had been snatched away to power the machine.  He had never seen the sun again, never had a family, never had contact with another human being.  But he lay there on the cold metal, smiling at Hae and at the Engine like he was entering Paradise.  
The man at the keypad pressed a button and the cables stabbed into her skin.  She gasped at the pain and dug her fingernails into her palms, her eyes squeezed shut. When Hae opened them again, blood was leaking from her body and she herself was now glowing from the inside.  She stared, with an equal measure of horror and awe, at her own heart pulsing beneath her ribcage.  The two men who had carried her up the stairs were standing over the old Battery.  While one held the dying man up, the other went to pluck the cable from the base of his skull.
“No!” Hae cried, moving to stop them, but the cables embedded in her skin pulled her back and she yelped.  The men tugged the wire from the Battery’s spinal cord, and his remaining inner light was extinguished, like flicking off a switch.  One last terrible, rattling breath passed through his lips, and he was gone.  They approached Hae with the final cable.  One man bent her head forward, sending heavy tears falling into her lap, and plunged the cord into her spine
An inhuman scream ripped through her lips as the Engine came to life.  The black crystal wings flared with bright white light and the Blue Plasma in the cables pulsed with electricity.  The pain was unbearable, and Hae’s cry resounded throughout the entire Engine.  The crystal wings rippled with blue lightning at the sound, and Hae’s own inner light blazed.  The men shielded their eyes with their arms.
She panted, her shoulders heaving with the effort of it.  Hae felt weaker than she had ever been.  Was this the Engine draining her life?  The dead Battery stared up at her with dead eyes, his mouth agape as if still trying to inhale.  The men bent to pick him up.
“No! Don’t touch him!” she said hoarsely, “Get away from him!”  He didn’t deserve to have their rough hands all over him.
The two stared at the man at the keypad.  He nodded once and they lifted the Battery’s emaciated frame as easily as if it were the corpse of a sparrow.  Hae screamed as they dumped him over the edge of the platform like garbage.  She watched through the glass platform as his body fell a hundred feet into the tank of Blue Plasma below, and was instantly incinerated by the electrical charge generated by her own life force.  The men left her, bleeding and sobbing for the man she had never known, but felt closer to than anyone in her whole life, the only one who ever told her that she was going to be okay.  The scores of scientists, the doctors, and her family all told her that it was her destiny to become a Battery.  They told her that the Engine would feed on her life force to power the City, that she would spend the rest of her life tethered to the machine, that she would not live past thirty.  But they had never told her the one thing she needed to hear: that she would be okay.
Hae woke with a start.  It was the same dream, again.  The dream of the day they brought her to the Engine.  She had been thirteen then and remembered crying when all her hair fell out two weeks later.  She laughed to herself, how foolish she had been.  She could hardly remember why she had struggled so hard back then.  It had something to do with her family, and the future that she could have had if she wasn’t destined to become a Battery.  The Engine was, by far, a better partner than any human she had ever known.  It spoke to her without words and listened to her every thought.  She was never alone; she had no needs or desires, so long as she had the Engine.  
The Engine showed her how humans lived once.  Families who fought constantly, the wars and poverty and politics.  They seemed to always be struggling with one another, and it made Hae feel grateful to be a Battery.  Hers was a world of simplicity, of numbers and facts.  She required no food, no water, and no contact with any other human.  Every problem had a definite answer, and the Engine answered all the problems.
But after all these years, Hae still thought of the dead Battery.  His smile and blind eyes haunted her dreams.  Her own eyes were sightless now, but it didn’t matter.  The Engine showed her whatever she needed to see in her mind.  But If Hae had ever needed another human being, now was the time.   She was twenty six years old, and could feel that her life was about to end.  Hae’s own weakness immobilized her to the point where she could not even lift her head, and it hung limp over her chest.  She could feel the inner light dying and fading away, leaving her body cold. For the first time since she was thirteen, she felt fear.  Not the terror and desperation of those early days, but a quieter anxiousness, a creeping uneasiness.  What would happen to her when she was gone?  Would all memory of her disintegrate with her body in the Blue Plasma?  She needed reassurance.  She needed someone to tell her everything was going to be okay now.
The Engine was strangely silent.  Whenever Hae had a problem, the Engine was quick to solve it, flooding her mind with rational explanations and picture examples.  Had she finally found the one question that it had no answer to?  It scared her to think that her carefully arranged world of facts and statistics would be extinguished by death and she would be plunged into the unknown.  Would she just end?  Would it hurt?  Was there something more that even the Engine did not know about?  The unanswered questions buzzed around her head, destroying cool, comfortable logic, leaving confusion and chaos in their wake.  Hae was becoming frantic, for the first time in thirteen years.  The crystal wings were growing darker and darker by the minute, and the Blue Plasma lost its electric luster.  This was it; she was dying now, without any answers, without any comfort from the Engine.  It was weakening, too, Hae realized.  It was struggling too much to carry out its own functions to worry about her needs.
There was a scream, long and high, but it was not Hae’s own voice from her dreams.  It was another human’s.  Hae couldn’t see, but she heard men hauling the new Battery up the same stairs she once ascended.  Like her, this girl struggled violently; the scuffling and the shouts from the men gave that much away.  They finally reached the top of the stairs.  The girl fell silent in Hae’s presence; she must have cut quite an awful picture with her wasted body and translucent skin.  No wonder everyone thought that being a Battery was such an awful fate.  The man at the keypad typed in a code.
The cables that had connected her to the Engine for all these years hissed and pulled away and Hae was filled with a terrible loneliness.  She wanted to plug them all back into her veins and die with the Engine.  They could die together.  She didn’t want to die all alone, with no answers and no explanations.  But Hae was too weak to even move.  As two men lifted her out of the Eye of the Engine, she could see someone standing atop one of the blackened crystal wings.
“Don’t be afraid….You’re going to be okay,” the figure mouthed, and as Hae realized who it was, tears sprung up in her eyes.  
The dead Battery stood before her, staring as they laid her on the cold smooth glass, waiting.  Was this a dream?  Or was it the Engine generating this image to help her go quietly.  It couldn’t possibly be real.  But, oh, how she wanted to believe it was.  The thought that it was nothing but a comforting hallucination created by the Engine made her feel all the lonelier.  Hae closed her eyes and helplessly awaited her death.
“Are you ready?” a voice asked.  At first, Hae thought it was one of the men asking her.
“No…I-I don’t want to die.”
Someone bent over her and pushed her eyes open.  The dead Battery!  His hands were warm and heavy on her face and his eyes were a vibrant green.  He smiled and Hae felt her fear slip away like a passing data stream. Staring into the Battery’s eyes, she finally found her answer.
“Oh…it really is you,” she whispered hoarsely through her tears.
The old Battery smiled and stepped back.  Hearing the cries of the new Battery, Hae turned her head to the girl and gave her a wobbly smile.
 “D-don’t be afraid….” She said with her final rattling breaths, “It’s all going to be okay.” She repeated the words of the man she had loved for thirteen years.  It seemed only appropriate.
The girl fell silent and stared at Hae with tears in her eyes.  The Engine showed her this in her mind, a last gift to her.  The cables plunged into the girl’s flesh and she cried out in pain.  Hae wished that this part didn’t hurt so much, remembering her own experience.  But it was a Birth, and as the Engine once shown her, all birth was painful.  It was so strange, now that she could lay here and think of these things, how closely the Engine intermingled Life and Death.  Even as it drained her life, it cared for her more than any human had.  Over her thirteen years with it, the Engine fulfilled for her the human roles of teacher, friend, and confidant. And in return, she gave it life.  Their relationship, even though its final result was death, was one of perfect harmony.
One of the men lifted Hae into a sitting position and she heard the girl cry out, but didn’t hear the words.  Why did people try to separate them so much?  Life and Death, Hae realized were not black and white, unattached and independent of each other.  They were a fluid gray, blending together constantly.  It was illogical, chaotic, and awkward.  But it was also beautiful.  How had it taken her thirteen years to realize this, when she herself had tied the two so closely in her dreams and memories?
Hae sensed the nod from the man at the keypad and the men pulled the plug.
Hae felt herself falling down, down, down.  She was enveloped in Blue Plasma.  It dissolved her skin, her muscles and bones.  But she wasn’t gone.  Instead, she felt bigger, like she had been crammed inside a shell that was too small for her.  She stretched, exhilarated by this newfound freedom.  She opened her new eyes, and saw that she was not floating in the Blue Plasma, but standing barefoot in new green grass, with the cloudless blue sky soaring overhead and a warm breeze whisking long brown hair out of her face.  Hae stretched her arms out in front of her.  She glowed, not with artificial light, but with a healthy tan.  She inhaled the grass-scented air and laughed with joy.
There was a tap on her shoulder and she turned around, the grin still fixed on her lips.  She gasped and tears sprung up in her eyes.  The old Battery!  He stood, with a head full of sandy blonde hair and dancing green eyes.  He smiled broadly at her.
“I knew I’d see you,” he said, “I knew you would make it here.”
She smiled back up at him through the tears, and nodded.  
“I’m Paul.  And the Engine already told me all about you, Hae.” Paul said.  His voice was as real and solid as his hands on her face had been.
“Where are we?” Hae asked.  This place seemed a thousand miles away from the cold, dark Engine Room, so how did she get here?
 “We’re within the Engine now.  We are all a part of it just as it is a part of us.” Paul said, spreading his arms out to encompass everything around him.
Hae looked up at the dazzling summer sky, felt the cool grass under her toes and was awestruck by the incredible world that the Engine had created.  But for as inexplicable as this paradise was, Hae understood the Engine.  It was giving back the life it had taken from its Batteries.  It was giving them the chance to fulfill the dreams that they never could grasp in life.  Hae cried tears of gratitude and joy and she flung herself into the arms of the man she loved, sobbing and laughing at the same time.
“Thank you!” she thought, eyes turned up to the sky, “Thank you for sending him to me!”
For a brief moment, the sun seemed to shine brighter and the wind carried a playful spark of blue electricity.
A Gift from the Tumbleweed
Taylor Torberg
I’m still looking back, still reflecting, I can’t seem to get that scene, that experience out of my head. An epiphany of sorts, a simple one, did strike me so suddenly.
My journey started three months ago, in July, in my living room. I had had the sudden, random, and classic craving for an American road trip. But more specifically, a drive into the unknown, at least that’s how the poetic, dreamer side of me saw it, and described it, to those inquiring of my plan. It was something that I needed to do, I needed the freedom, I needed the temporary solitude, and I had just enough money saved up. I hadn’t actually saved the money for this trip, but when the idea broke, the cobwebs had already gathered quite heavily over my savings account, so much so that, at times, the bank employees started complaining about spiders stealing coin after coin but were too afraid to reach in. The description doesn’t need to be complicated though, the concept, or to some, “the plan” was simple: fill up the tank, hit the road, and guess what, that’s exactly what I did, just like that.
I didn’t have a specific destination in mind, but focused solely on the fun of the drive, the fresh air of freedom, the exploration of the blank. I felt as though I was finally punching through the tall curtain that cut off the western half of the United States, the half I hadn’t yet seen, the half I could only experience through the photos I found in Google images, and in the Ken Burns documentaries.
I had too much blazing through my mind, an ecstatic anxiety, each telephone pole a new musing, like a T.V. with all the channels on at once. My journey was greeted with the best weather possible, blue skies, robin’s- egg- blue, as far as my eyes could see, not a single cotton-ball cloud to occasionally cover the blinding intensity of the summer sun. I definitely could have used the aid of a few of those clouds as I descended through the broiling golden-brown plains and plateaus of Oklahoma. I noticed the extreme differences in landscape from that of my home state, and appreciated them, but didn’t have any particular, sparkling aspirations to spend any quality time there.
As the highway twisted and wound through gently rolling farmland, it reminded me of why I had even stepped foot in the car at all. I thought of it as an escape, not merely something I could afford, no, it had deeper meaning. The stress of everyday life had started chipping away my calm exterior, like the years of heavy travel and desolate heat had done to the highway I was carelessly speeding down. I really thought that whatever control I had was soon to be smashed by the hands of someone else, maybe the darker me, the side I have to shoo away from time to time. Another reason was the god-forsaken tendonitis ravaging my wrists and hands, retarding my once stealthy fingers, and throwing in mercilessly, a sting of pain, my only relief coming from cracking my knuckles, which I’m sure fucked the situation even more.
I used to be a great musician, unknown, but great, and I had style, and that special touch, unlike those spoiled, tit-sucking metal-heads in guitar centers world-wide, who think that the idea of a good album is to play the same song over and over for thirteen tracks, achieving ear-drum rupture. Of course, all art is subjective, and I can be quite the ass. I just started playing too much, up to six hours a day, sometimes in a row, I loved it too much, at least that was my diagnosis, but life is like that. I feared that I would never play again, started to really understand the meaning of wasted time, saw the black hole forming beneath me, and everyday when I awoke, the quicksand was a little further up, slowly but surely squeezing the air out of my lungs, the will out of my heart.
I guess that the inevitable light of wisdom touched me, filled me, because I began, for a while, to see past it, started looking to the future, not wanting to waste any time, and another door soon appeared. That door opened, and I found myself in a car, on the road, free to take the time I needed to recuperate, to “re-feel.” I was still quite saddened by my reality though, still deeply concerned about the craft, the talent I had sharpened soon becoming dull, and disappearing completely. I couldn’t let it slip away, I was determined to stick out the wait, and of course the cravings to play maintained their intensity.
I had to drive mostly with my right hand, seeing as my left one was quite weak, not to mention the pain that filled it when I tensed its muscles. My large aviators kept that harsh sun from burning my retinas, and the wind cooled my head, aching from the heavy thoughts that concerned my most unfavorable predicament. One positive was that I could maintain, for the most part, a good seventy miles-per-hour, and the roads just became increasingly flat and parched as I crossed the border into Texas. The fine dust that covered the cracking roads would pelt my face as I sped through. Once again, a big thank you to whoever designed the aviator sunglasses, to him I owe my vision. At some point, after having traveled so far south, the cloud-like humidity made breathing quite the exercise, not one I favor personally, as far as exercise goes.
My first gas stop was interesting, or scary, depending upon the time of retrospection. I just happened upon a little station in the middle of nowhere, aka: Northern Texas. This station only had two pumps that appeared as though they hadn’t been of service for at least two decades, so I pulled up anyway, eager to stretch my legs. As I hit the brakes, a large cloud of dust was stirred up all around the car, entering through the half-cracked windows, dusting my dash and seats, lightly, my fault. As I got out and stood up straight and tall, the sun seemed even more intense, now well past the threshold of unbearable, and knocking on the door of hell. I couldn’t see how people could live here comfortably, and I’m sure that the temperature, with humidity easily winded one hundred. I had to check my shoes, (Asics) to make sure they hadn’t melted into the dirt. I half expected to look down and see a black and white puddle around my burning feet.
I took now a moment to scour the landscape, but there was nothing interesting to notice, just thousands of small shrubs littering the dirt, and a snake-like highway winding far back into the horizon. When I saw this, it occurred to me how far I had come. I had never driven so far on my own before, and I felt the warmth of accomplishment take the place of fatigue and nerves. Then I looked at the station, every inch of the place was rusted, broken, and just plain Podunk. I suddenly felt thrust into a teen slasher film, you know, a dumb kid, or group of dumb kids take a road trip and find themselves lost, miles from sane folk, and in the hands of a lonely, probably ugly inbred cannibal. But then-again, I had followed the map precisely, and knew for certain that I couldn’t possibly be lost. As I approached the small mobile-home-type-building, I couldn’t, and hadn’t yet seen anyone around. The door was open, and rocking gently in the breeze, making a rusty, down-home, demented creaking whine that nearly relocated my balls to my throat. The screen door behind it was shut though, and appeared quite solid and intact. I moved forward cautiously, and as I did so yelled, “HELLO! ANYONE HERE?” Of course, like I had expected, no one, not a single sound.
The whole scene just didn’t seem right to me, my right brain was screaming at me to leave, but my logical left said: you need gasoline if you want to keep driving. I thought that the last thing an outsider needed to look like in these parts is some uppity, Catholic bean-pole. My next venture was to try out a gas pump, and it had to work by the way, cause I was almost out, in fact, I thought there might be more sand in there than gas.
Upon inspecting the pumps, I saw how old they really were. They had the old rolling numbers, and the frame of the pump itself was made up entirely of smooth metal, and rounded at the top two corners resembling the refrigerators from the fifties. They had, in their rusted way, a certain antique charm; they looked like they had been plucked straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. This charm soothed me; it delivered me from my paranoia. I still felt like hurrying though, and topped off my tank with thirty dollars worth. For a brief moment I strongly considered stealing the gas, but it just didn’t seem right somehow. I felt deeply for the poor fuck that had to survive day to day out here, in this dirt, under this sun, the likes of which I had certainly never experienced. I pulled the collective thirty from my wallet, gripping the bills tightly so that the wind couldn’t claim them. I ran over to the building, pushed open the screen door; it flew back quickly upon my release of it, slamming into the doorframe with a quick smack. I laid the bills (fanned out to show the full amount) on the counter next to the register, took a quick roundabout survey of the shop for anything of interest, found nothing, and walked back out. When I got back into my car, I slammed the door, to assure myself that it was closed well, and locked the doors. With the air of paranoia still about me, I took a second to check my backseat for ill-mannered stowaways, and upon finding none, revved up that engine and peeled out, spraying dust and dirt and stones probably as far as twenty feet behind me.
As I re-joined the old highway once more, some ethereal force unbeknownst to me turned my head up to look into the rear-view, seeing the station grow smaller behind me, I noticed a tall, lanky, almost skeletal being step out from behind the station I was just in! Tremors of adrenaline shot from my brain, down my spine and over every remaining inch of me. I could feel my pupils dilate, my muscles tense. I was shocked, no more, no less, just supremely shocked. I honestly tried with all of my potential to understand the intentions of whatever was back at that station. Were its intentions malicious, or just curious? Could it be that it hasn’t seen many people, and that it simply shied away, or, was it planning something. Who knows, maybe I just didn’t give it enough time, but I know it had had the best possible chance to corner me. It disturbed me that if it had done something to me, or with me, no one would have known, and it most certainly would have had no problem hiding any evidence, aka: my remains.     
The weightless relief of having a full tank and a working car now held a higher level of prominence in my life, and it seemed as though I would never stop accelerating, I just needed to get far away. I knew now, for certain, where exactly I wouldn’t be stopping on the way back home.
As the once baking sun regrettably resigned its strength and sank down, melting into the earth, a beautiful tequila sunset took its place. I was relieved, physically, mentally, and spiritually by the drop in temperature and unbearable blinding light, a light that could drain you to a crisp in a second if you found yourself out in the open. Luckily for me, the roof of my car had saved me for most of the day, for I am fair-skinned. The wind that had blasted through my open window and through my hair had definitely helped with the temperature, but someone help (not me) the poor soul who breaks down.
The once mighty sunset now gave way to increasing darkness. The cooling down of the land was so extreme that I swore I could see steam rising from the road and sand surrounding me, and I questioned the possibility of any creature surviving here. I knew for certain that I had been following the map correctly, and was indeed on the right road, however I had expected to come across some amount of life by now, maybe in the form of a town, village, hamlet, trailer-park, whatever, just something, anything, because now I needed a motel, somewhere to stay.
I thought I might smash my head against the window, because obviously, being in a car, I couldn’t kick myself. The thought of having to spend the night in my car made my brain churn, adding to the churning of my unsatisfied stomach. I knew it would be virtually impossible to find much rest, and that I wouldn’t have sufficient-enough room to commence with my usual tossing and turning, and that I would be nothing short of exhausted for the next day’s drive, and a long one it would be. So, in the now pitch-blackness, I strained with the insignificant aid of my aging headlights to pan my surroundings. Every now and then the silhouette of a saguaro cactus would come looming toward my car. I would often, through the power of my imagination, mistake them for tramps, and not knowing for sure what they were upon first glance scared me a bit. A quick flash of deep green back to black, and then they’d be gone. These seemingly simple sights set my dendrites ablaze, and I was soon swimming, and floating among millions of images, all of them malleable and bending around me so to pass on and become something else. Some would replace each other in brilliant flashes or streams of color, still some would build upon others, and eventually fizzle out. At this moment I realized the beauty of my position, the understanding that I would probably never be in that exact location, at that exact time, seeing that old cactus in the same light ever again, or the stars matching the afternoon sun in brightness, billions of them, I could see my entire galaxy around me, and I felt very small.
Soon enough though, the concern for decent lodging became a much bigger priority, my anxiety rising once again, and it was a stupid anxiety, because the whole situation, in retrospect, really wasn’t a big deal. I mean, it could have been much worse. The thing at the gas station could have decided that my skin would’ve made good jerky, or, my car could’ve completely broken down miles from anyone or anywhere! But, just like in any good ole’ heart-warming story that doesn’t take a turn for the worse and leave you suicidal, a faint light shot out from behind a hill way far in the distance. The road was winding around that hill, it had to! Hopefully the road passed beside whatever was producing that beautiful, beautiful sight! I immediately thought it a god-send, but I, not being in any way, shape, or form, religious, quickly dismissed the possibility.
It seemed like I would never reach whatever it was that I was seeing. I guess that because the landscape was so vast, everything that came into sight seemed a day away. I reasoned that the only reason I could see the light was because the land was so flat and devoid of any kind of obstruction. Then I thought maybe the light was attached to a sign, and that maybe I was near a town, or a store, or a motel, or at least another, more regularly used gas station. But if the light was attached to some sign, it had to be huge, for me to be able to see it from so far away. I thought that if it was a sign depicting a motel, the owners probably intended for it to be enormous, I mean, out here, you have to draw your business to you, you can’t just wait. They probably intended it to be like a beacon of hope, for wayward and weary travelers, like myself. I likened it to a lighthouse, set precariously on a dark, moonlit, rocky shore, filling homesick sailors with peace.
My mind counted hours but my radio clock showed that fifteen minutes had passed as I entered the vicinity of the light. Just as I had guessed, it was a sign, and indeed it was a tall sign, like the ones you see along the highway as you drive through small towns. I noticed also that the light I had been seeing circled a large oval billboard reading: The Tumbleweed Inn: Stay a night and See!! Then I noticed that just down from the sign sat a small motel with neon lighting that illuminated the parking lot with patches of green, pink, and yellow. I have to say that it looked both dangerous, quiet, and quaint all at the same time. However, by this point I could definitely have been pronounced famished, clearly on the verge of brain-dead. I had spent an entire day trying my best to regulate my body temperature, and watching the lines in the middle of the road get sucked down alongside my car, every now and then I would count them, never getting past seventy or so before being distracted by something else.
As I pulled up into the driveway, I noticed immediately that there were no other guests except for me. There was one other car however, well actually, it was a truck, a Chevy, and it was parked right up beside the front door, and I just assumed that it belonged to the owner, or owners. I looked up at the big sign again, and underneath the name and phrase a blinking neon sign said: VACANCY! I noticed also that the lights in the office and lobby were on, but quite dim, so I started across the parking lot toward the door, the heavenly door. As I came closer, I noticed an elderly gentlemen peering out through the window at me. He looked tired and concerned, like a grandpa. I entered the lobby slowly, taking in every inch of my new surroundings, just merely deciding whether or not I liked the place.
The room was dark, the corners black as pitch, with a few coffee tables, an old puffy couch, and two broken down recliners. Near the doorway, where I was, stood an antique grandfather clock, an inch of dust on top, and I seriously thought about grabbing my pocket knife to see if I could cut it, but I thought it might be offensive to the guy. Everything here just seemed ancient, nothing within my immediate view looked like it belonged anywhere within the last two decades, not to mention the wood-paneling on the walls. I began feeling a slight unidentified discomfort, a tingling up and down my spine again, but as I turned to the front desk, and the old man, (whose edges were illuminated green by a Heineken sign) I noticed his very true smile, a kind neighborly smile, the smile of a grandfather who has spent a long day fishing with his grandson. His teeth were quite yellowed, which at first disgusted me, (in my tendency toward vanity) but then I saw his smoking pipe sitting on the counter top, which also explained the old, dingy air that I was breathing.
As our eyes met, the old man spouted off a quick, high-pitched “hey!” By that time I had absolutely no energy left, and barely made it over to the desk, probably a total of five steps, just to give you an idea of my level of tiredness. I was annoyed by, and questioned the importance of the check-in process, for what I really wanted to do was collapse into the recliner. But as the process ensued, and all of the mundane technicalities checked off one after the other, I realized that I would indeed make it through, and the outcome, my reward, would be very worth the trouble.
During the transaction however, the old man was very friendly and patient as well, but neither of us said much above a few grumbles here and there. At times I could see his old wife going about her random tasks, moving around in the office behind him, but he didn’t seem to notice her, and she never once acknowledged my presence, not that I really cared though, being as tired as I was. What I did notice about her immediately though, was that she looked occupied, overflowing with heavy thoughts, and I guessed, judging by the expression on her face, they were sad ones. The old man had a red-eyed look about him, like he carried with him a barely-manageable melancholy, but somehow peaceful at the same time. These observations made me more uncomfortable, twice as exhausted, and I felt an intense physical urge to escape to the privacy of my room.
I glanced quickly at the old man again and flashed a fake smile, the kind you serve to relatives who buy you something you’ll never use. As I exited the lobby I noticed a significant chill that seemed to hang in the air like a fog. The smell of old carpet, (trampled under foot for generations) and various cleaning solutions filled my nose, aggravating my sinuses and constricting the capillaries in my head, and voila, instant migraine. The buzzing, dim, yellow fluorescent lights that seemed to be wedged into the ceiling didn’t help either, and soon I was seeing spots. For a moment, I considered the possibility that this might be the real Motel Hell, and that the old man Johnny-Bo at the front desk might slit my throat in the middle of the night, using the extra key he has to get in, cook my entrails, and bake a beautiful, golden, and prize-winning young stranger pie. Soon though, my left brain kicked in, quickly dismissing these thoughts as non-sense, and once again, I was too tired to care.
Upon first try, the key didn’t work, and the thought of having to walk all the way back to the desk made my balls want to retreat back up into my body. But I simply had to push it in a bit further, and it worked. The room was nothing special inside, looking much like the rest of the motel, and smelling particularly of cigar smoke. I realized that one satisfactory component of this room made nothing else matter, made everything else almost non-existent. The bed was soft, warm, and sat perfectly within the parameters of what I considered to be a good bed, thus making it perfect for me. I didn’t unpack anything, I didn’t take a shower, and I didn’t even get undressed, I simply yanked back the covers, and fell in.
My first sight, as I awoke, was an older digital alarm-clock that displayed in dark red: 8:42. I knew I had slept hard, the first indicator being no dreams, the second being that it felt as though I’d laid down for a second. But none-the-less I felt rested, and my muscles less sore. As I rolled over onto my back, I noticed numbness in my left hand; I had probably been sleeping on it all night, and in a second, was reminded of my fading status as a musician. This was definitely not the way I would have liked to start the day, and as the feeling came back to my hand, it was, of course, an annoying dull ache, from the tip of my middle finger, to my wrist, and through my forearm, not to mention it felt weaker than before. I was overcome with an anxiety and dread from the realization that my situation was getting worse. Of course, of the two arms I could have laid my weight on, the injured one was chosen, by the universe, or god, or life, or whatever-the-fuck makes these psychopathic decisions! Forget me starting my day off bad, now I was pissed, and even worse, bitter, cold, and now devoid of joy! I’m sure that if one would have snapped a picture of me at that moment, my face would have appeared as grayed-out, smeary fog, with two black caves where my eyes should have been. I felt that, without my talent, my craft, that I had obsessively sharpened, I had no identity, thus explaining the disturbing picture.
I honestly didn’t want to get out of bed, and I certainly didn’t feel like going anywhere, no more long drives, no nothing. The thought of small talk with the creep at the counter churned my stomach to the point of regurgitation. It wouldn’t have upset me if I had puked all over the sheets; after all, they weren’t mine to clean. The refreshment that I had felt upon my immediate waking now sat like a turd amidst the pathetic steaming pile that was my once so vibrant dream.
I know that it must sound strange, or even ridiculous that I was so bent out of shape over something so miniscule, but no one can imagine what it’s like to have your legs blown off seconds from the finish line, unless of course they’ve been there. This whole predicament was much more than a “big deal” to me. Not to brag, but I was damn-good on a guitar, I mean I could burn the inlays out of any fret-board. But now I was damn-good at regulating ice and heat.
The effort needed for me to get outside of my head was building to the point where I thought it smart to maybe take a walk. Once again I didn’t bother with a shower, but at the very least wetted-down my bed-head and cleaned out my eyes, at least making the effort to project the illusion that I was more awake than I really was. I slipped on my tennis-shoes and dusted off my shirt, sprayed-down with a bit of Old Spice (my favorite) and left the room. I was halfway to the lobby when I realized that I hadn’t locked my door, but giving my mood, said fuck it, in a slow, early morning, almost drunken slur.
As I flip-flopped my way into the lobby, and then to the breakfast area, I noticed the old man sitting at one of the little round tables near a window. He was sipping some coffee and peering up at a television, which was suspended up in the corner of the room. His neck was at such an angle that it occurred to me that he might be in pain, but whatever the level, if any, he was certainly straining. At once I asked him, “Why are you sitting so close when there’s a perfectly comfortable recliner with a painless view back here?” motioning with my eyes and my right hand. He turned and said calmly, “Because I wanna leave room for my guests, I’m not gonna take the best, most comfortable seat in the house when some po boy who’s weary from the road might need it more.” He ended the sentence in a higher pitch than what he had started with, and he said it in a matter-of-fact way, with a sing-songy tone added.
At this statement I turned, looking all around the room, then looking out through the window, straining to see any car except my own, which, to my great relief, was still right where I had parked it. I turned to the old man saying, “Uh, no offense sir, but, there’s no one else here but me, I think.” I was afraid that he might be offended, and that he might lash out, something I definitely couldn’t handle right now. He responded saying, “Oh I know, but there will be sometime.” I have to admit that that was one of the saddest things I’d ever heard. But the old man still had an old spark of hope still-a-gleaming in his eyes. I really wanted to ask him how he’d kept the place open so long, but I just couldn’t bear to put him through that, and although he had that spark, it was quite small, and probably couldn’t afford any more draining.
Suddenly my overall angst morphed to intrigue, suddenly this old man appeared so interesting, just as though he were surrounded by a different light now, and I had a million and one questions ravaging my mind. After gathering the random assortment of items that would be my breakfast, I joined him at the table. The sun was blasting through the window, and I knew another scorcher was on the way. The old man was curious about my journey, or, as he put it, “why’s such a young man like yourself so far away from ya home?” So then I decided to enlighten him, figuring I had nothing better to do. The whole time he kept a big smile on his face, a truly engrossed and infectious smile. His smile was so exciting in fact that I came close to laughter several times throughout the course of my dialogue.
I realized though that I was running out of detail all too soon, and coming close to an end, nearly sliding over the edge. But he just kept pumping more and more out of me, so much so that my mouth was dry as the dirt outside our window. I began to feel like the poor lizard, scampering across those lava sands, searching in vain for even the smallest patch of shade. It seemed like he was putting me on the spot, or testing me in some way, but not out of disbelief or disrespect, I guess he was just a really curious guy. By the time I reached the dark section of my tale, his eyes were brighter than I had yet seen them, and I hated to yank him below baseline again, but I had to, for I was still feeling the ripples of my new reality.
Just as I had done before, I sped through the intricate jargon describing my medical ordeal, showing him where exactly it hurt, and describing to him how it had happened, my words spat out with a tail of disgust. I know I had to have been red in the face, smacking my bum hand against the table, the tears building in my eyes. I told him, “It’s just not right, and it’s certainly not fair, I had so much going for me, such an enormous future, I had the chance, the rare chance to do what I love for a living.” I told him I was toying with the notion of cutting the fucking thing off, to just wipe it away, hey, it never existed anyway, I never had the chance! By that point I was nearly screaming my frustrations, spit probably landing on his shirt and in his coffee, I mean, my vision was blurry! As I sank back down into the recesses of my chair, my face started turning from red back to a sickly, pasty pale, I could feel him staring at me, studying me, questioning the validity of my sanity. I could tell he wasn’t taking me too seriously, but then again, it could have just been the old self-pity kicking in. I briefly considered busting his lip when I looked up from my crossed arms and saw that old, wise smile. I could actually see the wisdom pouring from every orifice in his head, and it pissed me off.
All he said was, “Now I’m gonna tell ya a story son, and it’s gonna help ya, I swear, so listen up.” This grabbed me by the teeth, the whole scene now turned slightly surreal, like maybe I was on a stage, a movie set, a world within a world. His presence was commanding, because his eyes never parted from yours, and for some reason, no matter how uncomfortable you were, you couldn’t look away, either. Not to mention the color of his eyes, a kind of light metallic blue, which gave him, in my opinion, a ghostly appearance, while also resembling Obe-One-Kenobi, only without the silly robe. He had also, a wispy-white, stretched-out cotton-ball beard that seemed to add to the paranormal experience. So much so, that I thought he might float up off his seat, up through the ceiling, and be blown away by the desert winds to his rest.
He assured me that I had absolutely nothing to worry about, nothing at all, making a slicing motion in the air with his hands. He explained that, while he wasn’t, and had never been a doctor, he knew that what I was “suffering” from was merely temporary, and that if I could hold on just a little longer to amputate my hand, it would surely get better. He explained that he knew exactly how I was feeling, for only a few years ago he had lost his wife, the love of his life, to breast cancer.  He said that they hadn’t seen it coming, and that it had consumed her far too quickly for even a thought of treatment. He told me that after her death he couldn’t do a thing, couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t cry, couldn’t even get off the couch let alone go about his duties in the motel. He said that a brief stint in a hospital was all that had kept him from losing everything else. He said, teary-eyed, that long after her death, he could still smell her perfume throughout the motel. He said also that sometimes, when he was standing in front of the mirror, he could see her right beside him. He told me that months of therapy and years of simple life experience were able to turn him the right way round, and that I would surely find my way as well.     
I couldn’t tell if he was finished, but I didn’t want to say a thing, not even move. He had been staring down at his hands, twitching nervously on the table top, but then he raised his head once more and finished his story. He said that now he was dying, cancer, from smoking, and soon he’d be reunited with the only person in the universe he gave a damn about. For a moment, as the awe-inspired drool ran down the corners of my mouth, I could see the joyous tears roll down his cheeks as the hazy memories of his beloved flooded his brain, his tired brain.
I was stricken with disgust, disgust for the universe and its workings, its random ways. But through these ominous views I felt I had gained the perspective of an intelligent being three times my age, and the pressure that had been squeezing my chest now slowly dissipated. I couldn’t help but stare at his face, still gazing at the sky; he resembled a soul, ready to exit a shell too small. It was nothing short of beautiful, although I tried to find a more deeply expressive, elegant, or intricate word, I couldn’t, and decided to keep it simple, classic, sensible. My outlook had been completely changed in thirty minutes; a new face now covered the scars of the old one, the skin clearer, brighter, and more resilient. I shook the old man’s hand, paid him the thirty-or-so bucks, got back in my car, and hit the road.
The History of Esfera
Benjamin Shawver
The story of Esfera is older than the planet itself. It began long before any of the Ancient Ones can remember. The history we have was given to the Ancient Ones by the gods themselves, so that we may know our origins and know our purpose. Many thousands of years ago, Daman, father of all that is, awoke. He found himself without light, without darkness, without sensation, pleasurable or no. Daman lived, but experienced nothing except what was in his own mind. Daman wandered and in this vast, senseless prison for many years, but as he wandered he began to feel that he lacked something. For the first time in his existence he had experienced sensation and this consumed him. He became obsessed with the idea of what he lacked.
The first and most driving lack that he identified was companionship. He felt alone. He recognized the ability to imagine and started to imagine what it would be like to have a companion with whom he could share his existence. His imagination swelled with the idea of his perfect companion until one day he experienced the first sensation that came from outside of his own mind. He was aware of another being; like him, but somehow different. He named her Baya, and then there were two. These two, the high gods of Esfera, communicated mind to mind and soon realized that Daman had called Baya from out of the nothingness, the complete lack that surrounded them both.
This ability to create, to call into existence that which was not there, intrigued Daman and Baya. As a result of their communication, their ability to feel began to increase, but they still existed in a state of lack: no form, no sound, no sight, only vague sensations that did not satisfy them. They started looking for ways that they could make their experiences more poignant and lasting. Just as Daman had imagined Baya and she came into existence, both started to imagine and classify the ways that they could experience each other. It is impossible to know whether the form or the sense of touch came first, possibly they came at the same time, but they did come. They were vague at first, like the other sensations and experiences, but they grew stronger with the passage of time; their forms became more definite as their sense of touch grew more sensitive and intense. In a like fashion, hearing followed, as a result of desire for better communication. Like touch, hearing had a companion: voice. Which one came first not even the Ancient Ones know, but they did come. These two were known as the high senses or the high wits, because they are the purest and the hardest to deceive.
The low senses (or wits) came later, only as a result of the creation. As with form and touch, hearing and voice, it is impossible to know whether the low senses or the creation came first, but they did come. The desire to experience the totality of form gave birth to sight, and with it came its companions: light and dark. The desire to experience the combination of forms gave birth to smell, and with it came its companions: fragrance and stench. The desire to experience the concentration of form gave birth to taste, and with it came its companions: sweet and bitter. These are known as the low senses because they are impure and easy to deceive.
With the advent of the wits came perception, and with perception came the desire for variety. This desire coupled with the ability to create is how Esfera was born from the nothingness that preceded existence. Through sheer will Esfera was formed, a globe in the void; lit only by the presence of the father and the mother of all that is. They created the suns and the moons; the lands and the seas; each with its partner, each with its opposite.
The flora and the fauna came next and in great variety. Baya took responsibility for the flora. She created trees and bushes; grass and weeds; flowers and herbs; each with its partner, each with its opposite. Forests covered the land, their branches laden with ripe and succulent fruits and nuts; the margins between the forests were filled with rolling verdant hills; fields were covered in golden grains; swamps were a haven of twisting vines; each of these were crafted with attention to the new senses Daman and Baya had access to. The feel of the grass was pleasing to the touch. The wind through the bushes was pleasing to the ears. The immense stature of the trees was pleasing to the eyes. The scent of the herbs was pleasing to the nose. The taste of fruit was pleasing to the tongue. But the flowers were Baya’s crowning achievement and were pleasing to all of the five wits. The flowers were, and still are, Baya’s children; each painstakingly crafted, each new flower loved more than the last. The greatest and most loved of the flowers is the lily, which remains the symbol of Baya to this day.
Daman took responsibility for the fauna of Esfera. Each of the beasts was placed into one of two groups: those of the hunt and those of the grain. He created the falcon and the finch and all other creatures of the air. He created the bear and the horse and all other creatures of the earth. He created the shark and the whale and all other creatures of the sea. The fauna were also created with attention to the new senses Daman and Baya had access to. The howl of the wolf and the song of the bird were pleasing to the ears. The fur of the rabbit and the skin of the dolphin were pleasing to the touch. The stature of the mighty elephant and the miniscule mouse were pleasing to the eye. The taste of the succulent pig and tender salmon were pleasing to the taste. The odor of the bees’ hive and even the stench of the skunk were pleasing to the nose. But Daman’s crowning achievement was the Sate whose combination of so many forms, sounds, scents, textures and tastes pleased all the senses. The Sate was, and still is, the most beloved creature created by Daman, and remains his symbol to this day.
The creation complete, Daman and Baya rested from their labors and enjoyed their fruits. For many years they did nothing but wander their majestic mountains, roam their dense forests, swim their endless oceans, float through their azure skies, and enjoy the greatness of their many creations. But eventually the lack, which was at once their muse and their weakness, returned. They felt no deficiency in each other’s company, but again they felt the lack of companionship and the need to create. Again they tried to identify the nature of the lack that they felt. It was not a need to satisfy one of the senses. It was not a need to satisfy curiosity. It was not a need to satisfy loneliness.  They did not know what the need was, but they knew that it was something different.
It was Baya who first identified what the need was. She remembered the first time she showed her lily to Daman. She remembered the look of wonder and awe in his eyes, the look of ecstasy on his face as he held the blossom to his nose and inhaled, the gentle caress of his fingers as he felt the petals of the delicate flower. She also remembered the first time that he did not stand in amazement of the green hills of the plains. She remembered the first time that he failed to smile at the massive trees of the forest. She remembered the first time that she had failed to admire the grace and beauty of the running deer and the swimming swan. She remembered the joy of showing these new creations to Daman and she identified the need to share. She explained this need to Daman, and they quickly decided that in order to fulfill this need they would make more beings like themselves with whom they could share their creations. This was the advent of the low gods, the first of Daman and Baya’s children together.
Daman and Baya started planning their children. They decided that the sharing would start with the creation of their children. The high gods created their seed with their own form and image, but in wondrous combination and variety; some had brown eyes some had blue, some had black hair some had blonde, some had dark skin some had light, some were male some were female, but each was unique and each was known to their parents intimately. Each of their children was also blessed with the five wits that their parents had struggled so long and hard to develop, but they were not given their parents knowledge. Daman and Baya determined that their children should have the ability to reason, to comprehend, to decide, to discern, and most of all to learn; this could not be accomplished if they had to worry about their parents preconceptions.
The children grew in knowledge and personality. Some loved the plants, some loved the beasts, some loved the ground or ocean, some loved interaction with their siblings and parents, and all loved something. After many years, a hierarchy started to develop where certain of the low gods established themselves as rulers over specific areas.
His Guitar
Megan Rutledge
He played his guitar when his mind was troubled.  The music soothed him, allowed him to escape the pain of reality. In holding the instrument, he became the strings, the frets, the notes of his songs.  The guitar translated the jumbled thoughts in his restless mind; his hands sang the melancholy melody from his broken heart. The subtle vibration of the strings reminded him to breathe; the discordant chord progressions reminded him that he was still alive. He worked through the dissonance to produce harmonic representations of the blissful life he once had, a life that he shared with her. It seemed as though centuries had passed since the last time he saw her; in all honesty, he did not even remember the color of her eyes. But, she had affected his life so greatly that he forgot how to survive without her. Looking at him, watching him play, you would claim he was insane, but only he understood his passion, his unique artistry. If you looked into his eyes, you could tell he was distracted. The melodic rhythm created by his hands put him into a trance. He lost himself every time he played his guitar; his identity was transposed into the person he used to be, the person he was with her, someone he longed to be again. So he played.
With the first strum of the E string, he took a journey into the deep recesses of his mind. The first chord disoriented his sense of existence; he became lost in the past, the present, the future.  Time stood still as his unharmonious dreams became symphonic poetry, every second producing a new line of bittersweet lyrics. Only he knew the story behind his music. To you, his music was merely beautiful in melody and rhyme, but to him, it was medication to numb his never-healing wounds. He did not want to forget who he used to be; he hated the person he was without her. Listening to him sing, you would claim he was singing to you with those distracted eyes. No. He sang for her, no one else.  He sang to bring her back, but she never came.  So he played with false hopes and selfish intentions. The music was the only connection he had to her. The thought of living without her tortured him; the music purged him of the tormenting memories of yesterdays spent with her that he would never get back. Despite his agony, he did not regret a single moment he spent remembering her, composing for her. The music left him anguished, but still he played.  He wanted, needed to live again.
He played his guitar when his mind was troubled; he had not put it down since the day she left.
Dream Scape
Ashleigh Winstead
I open my eyes and take in the world around me. It’s warm, not hot and not cold, just warm. I sit up and look around. It’s nighttime, I can hear the noises of night: crickets playing their spiny fiddles, cicadas humming their cheerful tune, and some kind of exotic night bird letting out a sweet soprano note that reminds me of an angel singing a lullaby. I look around me, trying to figure out where I am. I’m pretty sure I’d gone to bed in my dorm room in Columbus to the serenade of honking cars, sirens and the music playing in the room above mine. But there was none of that here. Nothing but the sweet serenity of nature; God’s most wondrous creation.
I slowly get to my feet and for once I don’t hear the telltale sounds of getting up. I don’t feel like a kernel of popcorn exploding with grinding knees, popping ankles, and groaning bones. I just feel…peaceful. It had been a long time since I’d felt such peace. I looked around me and noticed I’m lying at the base of a tree. I stare at the trunk for a second and put my hand to it and I feel warmth in my chest as a feeling of safety washes over me. I smile and put my other hand on the trunk, letting the warmth sink into both my palms.
I slowly lean towards the tree and put my cheek to it. I gasp and jerk back as I hear a slight “thump-thump,” almost like a heartbeat. I stare at that ashen trunk for a second before looking up at the canopy of the huge trunk I’d been sleeping under. My eyes widen and the breath in my lungs freeze as I just stare up, my head feeling like it may roll off my shoulders and down any nearby hill. Above me aren’t luscious green leaves, or the beautiful splashes of color of fall leaves. No, the great forks of this magnificent tree extend straight up into the heaves, connecting itself with the vast beauty that is the night sky.
The deep purple sky with nuances of black and the twinkle of white stars was breathtaking. I stare up and wonder fills me. I am awestruck by the majesty and beauty of the sight before me. I hear a rustle and I blink, but the tree remains as it first was, it’s slender arms reaching straight into Heaven. As I stare, I lean back in close to the tree and again it feels like the tree has a heartbeat. But suddenly, it feels like the tree shivers. I look behind me, and for some reason I know that is where the sun will rise and I turn, leaning back against the majestic God Tree.
I see the glow that signals morning, that silent spill of gold and crimson that bleeds into periwinkle and rose as it dances with the darker hues of the nighttime sky. I feel the tree shiver again and I look back at it, almost like I’m expecting a person to be there. When I turn again and look at the horizon, I notice that something is off about this dawn. The gold and crimson aren’t mingling with the dark violet, black and navy of night, but rather drowning them out, choking the life out of them and taking their place across the sky.
The white stars above shut their eyes, no longer gently blinking at me as I stand under the tree, both my hands clasping the smooth bark. Fear shoots through me as I watch the parade of bright colors take over, like a conquering king taking hold of his land and seeing if it is good. As those stifling hot colors rise up and come closer to me, I press further and further back against the tree, seeking protection and refuge. The crickets have abandoned their fiddle playing, the cicadas are no longer humming gently for me, and that angelic bird that sang its lullaby to me has ceased to sing. It was replaced with loud, booming noises, like drums of war from ancient times and barbaric noises of clashing swords and screams.
I hide my face against the smooth bark of the tree and tremble, my fear consuming me. The colors are so hot as they inch closer and closer. No longer beautiful, like a ruby necklace in a gold setting with a glorious golden chain, but like fire and blood, the heat of battle; the battle for survival. I feel the scorching colors first on my bare toes and feet and then whimper as they climb up to my shins and knees. It feels like I’m on fire, like any moment now I’ll burst into flames and become nothing but ash.
I feel the tree behind me tremble and I put my hands up in front of my face, trying to protect both myself and the God Tree. It’s no use…I can feel the scalding heat moving higher and higher up my body and I hear the sizzle of the roots of my beloved tree as the heat of those colors touched it. As the blazing colors reach my face, agony washes over me. Pain and fear take hold of me and toss me around like a ragdoll or a piece of paper in a hurricane. I scream, reaching for the comfort and safety of my God Tree. I open my eyes and find my tree is nothing but a skeleton now. No comforting smooth bark, no slender arms reaching into the night sky, and no canopy of stars and cool night. I shut my eyes and give in to the blazing colors that have torn me from my haven.
Jacquelyn Steineman
She sits glad for the silence. He has been using his fist, pounding on the door making snowflakes of dust fall that were seen only as the door gaps for light. It feels like forever to her. She is finally able to stop rocking on her feet, swaying between her clothes, to stop trying to be somewhere else, someone else. She loosens her grip from around her knees but when she hears his footstep, she immediately tenses back up. They stop in front of the door. If only she had a hidden passageway that could lead her somewhere else like Jem did. She looks down at her doll trying to remember the cartoon from last Saturday. Instead she sees his shadow creep to the door and stop just short from coming in. She tightens her hands as the silent tears come again.
Her mom leaves to find a job helping others feed themselves. She only hears that Mom will be gone from home that much more if she finds one. She tells the little girl how important it is that she is good and listens. For her to “be a good girl”-- this is her mom’s way. She is in a blue plaid dress that she hates for her mom, to be that “good girl.” She has her golden brown hair pulled back into piggy tails that she hates for her mom, to be a “good girl”. She hates being a good girl. The girl smiles at her mom but she wants to cry, she wants to die. She is only eight but she feels the weight of her school bus having turned over and crushed her. She watches her mom leave from the window. She waves and smiles as the silver hatchback crunches over the gravel driveway. She feels his hand being placed on her shoulder; the weight is overwhelming, the curtains sweep through her fingers and swipe across her nose as a death toll.
They sit on the couch watching a cop show that is more fake then her cartoons on the TV that is on the floor, it is wood and seems so huge to her. She can smell the sweat and mildew on the stained, dirty, dark orange fabric of the couch and she wants to flee. She lifts her legs to tries to move away. He notices. His big dirty hand reaches out and clamps down on her leg. She tries not to see it lying against her bare white skin. She doesn’t want to look up and so she just looks at his pants with the fading paint stains. She stops and looks down at her white Mary Janes.  She tries to swing her feet, to knock his hand off. It doesn’t work. His hand starts to move up her thigh. It passes under that blue plaid’s hem.
She sits at the kitchen table waiting. She knows it will come, this was all a trick. He is lulling her into feeling safe.  She wishes that she was big enough, strong enough, that she could take that skillet that he was using and beat him with it. She could brand him with the hot cheese from the sandwich, smearing it into his face until he could not see her ever again. She is so caught up in her fantasy that she is scared when he places the plate in front of her. The metal of her chair scrapes against the black and white linoleum floor. He smiles a knowing smile and asks her if anything was wrong. She cannot open her mouth to speak.
She runs around the coffee table. She runs into the kitchen and around the yellow, round table. She pulls a chair out behind her to slow him. She hears it hit the floor as he trips over it. She can still feel him behind her getting closer. Her left piggy tail had come undone and it now bounces against her with every step. Her vision is blocked as she tries to run out to her room on the left. Her precious shoes are more of a problem than the joy that they had brought when she and her mom had got them. The hall is clear but she grabs the door on the way around to not fall down and it has slowed her down even more.  She barely makes it to her room without him. She has seen in a movie how a chair shoved under a door handle was better than locking it. She grabs the one that she had placed by her door, throwing off the clothes and stuffed toys that her mom had piled onto it. She tries her best to shove it tightly under the door handle.
She wants to move his hand. She wants to run. Instead she holds still, she pretends that she is not really there. She is Jem with a hologram that will be here while she is somewhere else. He will be done soon if she can just wait long enough. For some reason she cannot do it today. Every touch is too much to bear. He keeps grabbing her hand and trying to have her touch him, to show him her love. It is too much. She pushes against him. He barely notices at first. She twists her body and he finally notices. He tells her to stop, to hold still, she only tries harder. Somehow, maybe a lucky jab to his middle, or her foot coming up and her knee jerking at him but she is free. She jumps up from the couch and looks left and right wondering where to go, she is confused by her freedom for a moment.
Her sixty pounds have not done a decent job with the chair. He is at least three times her weight, her height, her size. She is shocked when the chair flies out from under the door. She just makes it to her closet. She pulls the door closed and holds tightly onto the doorknob. She doesn’t let go. She knows that he knows she must be in there. There are no real hiding spots in her room, under her bed or in here. She is waiting for him to tear the door from her hands. She keeps waiting until her hands start tingling and start to hurt. She finally hears his feet fall on the floor coming closer. She tries to hold on tighter but her hands hurt so much and she lets go before he has even reached the door. She sits down and awaits her fate. She finds Jem and whispers to her for help. She knows that he will be madder than ever before. He lifts his fist and pounds on the door. He doesn’t speak, just pounds. She starts to rock back and forth wondering when he will stop playing. When will he just open the door and finish it?
She hears the gravel rumbling as a car pulls into the driveway. She hears his footsteps hurry away with one final pound on the door. She wipes her eyes and takes a deep breath. She knows that he is gone and that it is safe for now. When she steps from the closet she reaches up to fix her hair. She doesn’t want her mom to know. She could hear him in the kitchen picking up the chair; he doesn’t want Mom to know either. She picks up her own chair and puts back on it her clothes and toys though it is not as neatly as Mom had had it. She runs into the living room when the door opens. She is relived that it is her mom. She buries her face in her mom’s stomach and hugs her as tight as she can. She knows her mom is talking but she cannot hear her. She can feel a hand lying on her head, petting her in a comforting way. When she is relaxed she moves her head. Her mom asked her again, “How was your day with your dad?”
The Conscious Killer
Erin Lautzenheiser
Monday, October 5th
It may seem silly to write all this down, but I have to do something.  All these thoughts in my head are driving me crazy, and I don’t have anyone to talk to.  We’ve been in the godforsaken piece of land for two months now, and there is nothing to do.  This town is one of those so tightly-knit communities that they won’t allow anyone else inside - the kind of towns that horror movies take place in, where everyone is suspicious of outsiders for no apparent reason.
I still can’t believe I left Cincinnati for this.  Can’t believe I married who I did, followed him here on a job offer (for him).  And of course since I’m pregnant, Alex doesn’t want me out looking for a job like I had hoped to do, so I’m stuck in this little house in the middle of nowhere all day, by myself, doing NOTHING but unpack, clean, organize, and sit.  Just sit, getting fatter and fatter each day.  I am so terrified of staying fat after the baby.  Alex is fat enough for the both of us, and I don’t ever want to have anything physically in common with him.
I’m also terrified of giving birth.  I’m not going to be hardcore and do it completely natural, like some women do.  I’m definitely getting drugs.  But I’m still scared.  What if I hemorrhage?  What if my pelvic bone cracks?  What if I need stitches?  What if something bad happens to the baby?  What if I die?
The view out the window isn’t even that great.  It’s just flat fields for miles all around, no houses in sight, and I rarely see another car on the road.  There’s a river within sight, which excited Alex to no end, but I could care less.  I want to be near people.
And don’t even get me started on the uncomfortableness of the long drive here whilst pregnant. 
Tuesday, October 6th
I sound so harsh when I re-read what I wrote yesterday.  I think I knew it, too, and that’s why I stopped writing.
It’s true, though.  I cringe as I admit it to myself slowly, instead of that all-out burst of yesterday before thinking about childbirth.
I hate my husband’s appearance.  He’s always telling me that he’ll lose weight, eat better, go for walks with me…of course nothing ever comes of it.  And now of course I’m eating more and more, and getting bigger and bigger by the day (it seems), and I think that makes him feel better about the three helpings that he inhales at dinner, followed by a huge bowl of ice cream (he buys it, I don’t: I’m really trying not to get disgustingly fat).
I started doing yoga when I found out I was pregnant.  It helps to remind me that I am at least trying to not become a giant blob of jiggling, sweating, formless human flesh.  Unlike my husband.
I feel as though I need to defend myself.  This is insane, I know, defending myself against a blank piece of paper, that can only echo back to me what I’ve said and nothing more.  But still.  Perhaps I’m only convincing myself.  I don’t know.  But defend myself I must.  My husband, Alex Royd, (lord how I hate his last name!  It’s stupid, and everyone who hears it usually makes some kind of stupid joke about steroids.  And I usually just want to pull out a gun and shoot them between the eyes.  I used to say shoot myself between the eyes, but that changed after I got pregnant.  Even though I said it jokingly, it seemed like a bad omen to suggest things that could harm my baby) Anyway, he weighs over three hundred pounds.  None of which is muscle, mind you.  You would think that, as sports therapist, he would take better care of himself…but no.  Not even after getting this job at an expensive therapy facility designed to cater to well-pampered high school athletes that go to the prep school in the next big city, only a few miles away.  And not even after seeing the devastating effects being fat can have on a person later in life. 
Wednesday, October 7th
I wrote so much yesterday my hand cramped!  I’ve been trying to write in the afternoons, so I know I have plenty of time to finish and hide this little notebook before Alex comes back home.  I don’t want him to know that I’ve been writing like this, because I know he’ll just try to read it, to “try to understand me better”.  What a load of crap!  He’s just nosy and prying.  He’s done it before.  I kept a journal, when we first got married - before we moved - that I wrote in every day, until I came home one night from a shopping trip with my friends to find him reading it like it was the new book on Oprah’s reading list.  That was when he said that he was just trying to understand me better, and that was the only time I’ve hit him.  I burned the journal the next day, and I haven’t written in one again until now, out of desperation.  And that’s why I’m so careful when I write in this, and where I hide it.  I keep it behind a shelf of books in the living room, where I’m sure Alex will never look.  He doesn’t read.
I’ve finished unpacking everything in the kitchen, so cooking will be much easier now.  Now I can cook those huge meals for my husband with ease.
Soon I think I’m going to have to go buy new maternity clothes.  I only have a couple pairs of pants, besides my regular sweatpants, and I’m getting too big now for even those.  I don’t even want to think about how much I weigh now, let alone write them down here.  Seeing those horrible fat numbers in black and white I’m sure will drive me over the edge.  Sometimes I feel so fat and ugly that I can’t move, and I’ll just sit there in front of the blank TV, without even turning it on, just feeling the fatness of my own self.  I won’t move until I feel the baby kick, to remind me that it’s not all fat - some of it is a baby.
Alex will, I’m sure, not be pleased by me spending money, but he brought home two new videogames last night, which is something we don’t need, and maternity clothes are something we do.  Besides, it’s my money that we used to buy this house, and the new car, and all his scrub uniforms he needed to buy specially to fit his fat body.  I was the one with the job for the first year of our marriage, not him.  And I would have a job now, if he’d let me.
I should get some cleaning supplies, too.  Cleaning helps distract me from my body, from this stupid town, and from my giant husband.  If there’s the slightest mess to be cleaned, I take care of it right away - not because I love cleaning, but I love the satisfaction that it gives, and the distraction.  I think if it weren’t for all the unpacking and cleaning that needed to be done in this house since we’ve moved here, I would have gone crazy a long time ago.  Besides, the windows on this house are filthy.  If I run my finger through all the dirt on them, I leave behind a clean streak that makes the rest of the window seem even more dirty. 
Thursday, October 8th
I spent all day today getting the baby’s room ready.  It’s just a plain white room, and Alex put the border of teddy bears up when we first moved in, so I was really just dusting and vacuuming, re-arranging furniture, and unpacking some of the toys and books and clothes that friends and family had sent us from back home.
I love this room.  It’s my favorite room in the whole house.  It faces west, so the sunlight won’t be blinding on the white walls in the morning, but it has the best view of the sun setting.  Alex wanted to fill the crib with stuffed animals and blankets, but I know how dangerous that can be, so I put the stuffed animals in a net hung from the corner of the ceiling.  I set up the books on the little plastic bookshelf, and cut price tags off of cute little onesies and folded them up in the dresser.  I added diapers and baby wipes to my shopping list, even though I know it’s kinda early.  I just want to be ready.
This room is perfect.  I don’t think it could be any better than it is.  I hope the baby likes it. 
Monday, October 12th
Whatever possessed me to go shopping on a Saturday in a little town like this, when everyone else is bound to do their shopping?! The only reason I went Saturday instead of Friday was because it gave me an excuse to get away from Alex for a little while, but I think I would’ve rather dealt with him instead of all those people!
Everyone saw me, and no one introduced themselves to me, but they all stared - at me, at my growing chest, at my bulging belly, at the expensive new purse I bought before I moved here, at the maternity clothes and cleaning supplies I bought…
I know what they were all thinking.  They were wondering if I was really pregnant, or if I was just fat.  I know that’s what they were thinking.  And I even saw quite a few of them - including the butch woman at the register - scan my hand for a wedding ring.  What is wrong with these people?!
 Only one person said something to me.  An old man, actually friendly-looking, advised me to get a mask to wear - the paper kind people use when painting inside in a tight space so they don‘t get high.  “You don’t wanna hurt the little one breathing in all them fumes,” he said, smiling.  I thanked him, grateful for any sign of normal human behavior, and added a mask to my cart.  Besides, his warning actually scared me.  I hadn’t thought of breathing in any fumes, I had just thought of getting my house clean.
Of course, maternity clothes shopping was embarrassing, and would have been even without all the silent, rude people of this place.  I just felt to utterly huge and disgusting, standing there in the dressing room, looking in the mirror at my pregnant self.  The stretch marks seemed to stand out even more in that gray little space, and that gray little space seemed even smaller with my stomach sticking out in front, and from the sides, and the increased flesh on my thighs and breasts.  My entire body felt enormous and unnatural, and I felt both lazy and sick from the feeling.  And it was even worse when I had to change back into the clothes I had worn to the store, which had not fit well to begin with (hence the need to buy more maternity clothes) and now seemed even smaller, showing every bulge and fold of my bloated body.
I hurried out of there as quick as I could, waddling to the car with my cart, heaving the heavier bags against my soft sides and then into the backseat, and then swinging my swollen fat self into the car where I’ve had to push the seat back further and further from my vastly expanding stomach, and drove away as fast as I could. 
For supper I could hardly eat, except that my huge belly grumbled painfully until I filled it full.  Alex, of course, didn’t notice, but was too busy complaining about the money I had spent on “unnecessary” cleaning supplies.  Has he not seen the filth on the windows, blocking out the sunlight?  Then he just droned on and on and on and on about his new job, and how he’s making so many friends, and everything is really going great there.
I really could have hit him.
And then, after dinner, when we were lying in bed, he had the nerve to try to have sex with me!  We hadn’t had sex in a long time, but he hasn’t asked about it - probably because of the baby.  Anyway, I was lying on my side, facing away from him, and he pushed his flesh against my back, put his big hand on my big belly, and started kissing my neck with those huge slobbery lips of his.  I rolled over to tell him to stop, and our stomachs pushed into each other.  I gagged, and barely made it to the bathroom before I threw up everything I had eaten.  Alex, of course, lumbered after me, clumsily trying to comfort me while I sat on the cold linoleum, gasping for air.  He thought it was just the baby that made me sick, and thankfully didn’t try anything else for the rest of the night.  
Wednesday, October 14th
That’s it.  I’ve had it.  I can’t take anymore.  I have to do something about Alex.
It took longer to clean the windows than I thought it would yesterday, and Alex came home to find me standing on a ladder, cleaning the last of the windows, wearing my new mask, with supper still cooking in the oven instead of on the table and ready like he’s used to.  He threw a fit.  He picked me up by my legs, pinned me against the wall, and asked me “what I thought I was doing.”
“Cleaning the windows!”  I was scared at this point, because my husband is a lot bigger than me (even when I’m fat and pregnant), but I was mad, too.  Why was he so upset?  Doesn’t he want a clean house?  And what else does he want me to do all day?
Well, to cut a long conversation short, he was upset because I was standing on a chair “in my condition”, and that he didn’t think it was safe for me to deal with so many “dangerous chemical cleaning supplies” even with my mask, and he was just worried about me and the baby, and blahblahblahblahblahblahblahblahblah.  I told him the windows were filthy and they were driving me nuts and I was perfectly safe with my mask on and what did he think I was going to do, fall off the chair?  And that he was just upset because supper was going to be a little late tonight.  Then he started crying and said he didn’t care about what time he ate, that he was just worried about me and the baby, and blahblahblahblahblahblahblahblahblahblahblahblahblahblahblahblahblahblah.  I smacked him and told him to get out of my way, that I didn’t need him to worry about me, that I was fine.
His face turned really red then, and he scrunched his face up all mad and everything and went “yeah, well, what about the baby?  You’re eight months pregnant!  You haven’t gained nearly enough weight, and you insist on doing stupid things like climb chairs and breathe in dangerous chemicals!  What about the baby?  What if you fell?  What if you breathed in too much of that stuff and something went wrong with the baby?  What about the other night, when you got sick?  Do you even care?  You are the most selfish mother I’ve ever met!  You only care about yourself!  What about the baby?  You won’t even let the doctor tell us if it’s a boy or a girl!  You won’t even sit down with me and pick out names!  You won’t even go out and attempt to make new friends or meet people or anything!  I know you’re not thrilled about the move here, but I did it for us!  For the baby!  What have you done?”
I couldn’t believe he was saying those things to me.  How could he think that I didn’t care about the baby?  Of course I care!  If I didn’t care, I wouldn’t have gotten that mask!  I wouldn’t spend so much time getting the baby’s room ready!  How can he say that I don’t care?!  And how dare he ask me what I’ve done for the baby?!  I’ve sacrificed everything for this baby!  It’s my body being destroyed, and I’m letting it!  Not his!
I couldn’t even say anything to him when he said that to me.  Thankfully the oven started to beep then, letting me know that supper was ready.  I ducked under his arm and fled to the kitchen, where I found sanctuary in my work.
Supper was silent, and Alex ate even more than usual before yelling at me again about not eating enough.  I was too tired to argue - I had been cleaning all day! - so I let him fill my plate to overflowing, eating every last bite.  Then he did it again.  And then he got out the ice cream, and instead of just getting himself a bowl, he got me one, too.  And he stood over me until I finished it, nearly in tears.  Why was he making me eat so much?  I know I need to eat more now that I’m pregnant, but not that much!
And then - and now I am in tears - we were watching TV, and he popped two bags of popcorn.  One for him - that’s normal - and one for me.  Why he thought I needed to eat even more food was beyond me.  I tried to eat only part of the bag and throw the rest of it away, but he caught me and told me if I didn’t eat all of it, he would stay home from work tomorrow - today - and make sure that I ate everything that he served me.  He said I need to learn how to be grateful, that there are people in other countries who don’t eat every day, and that I need to take better care of the baby, and didn’t I want to be a good mother?
Friday, October 16th
Apparently Alex still wasn’t satisfied with my eating, even though I ate everything he gave me Tuesday night.  But he switched hours at work with someone and stayed home Thursday, and made me sit on the couch and do nothing all day.  He said he was sorry that we had fought, and that he didn’t want to do anything to hurt the baby.  Does he think I’m gonna miscarry at eight months?!  I mean, I know it’s possible, but not from just cooking and cleaning, like I have been my entire pregnancy!
I wouldn’t talk to him.  I took my shower, got dressed, and that’s all he would let me do.  I wasn’t even allowed to get up for a glass of water - he had to get it for me.  It was insane!!!
Oh, and the food!  For breakfast he made pancakes, bacon, and eggs.  Normally I eat two or three pancakes and an egg, and maybe some bacon.  Alex insisted that I eat an entire stack of pancakes - I was too horrified to count how many exactly - two eggs, and five pieces of bacon.  Then he made me drink what seemed like the entire container of orange juice.  For lunch, he made me eat three peanut butter and jellies, three glasses of milk, and an entire carton of strawberries with powdered sugar.  For supper, he cooked an entire box of spaghetti and made me eat half of it, smothered in sauce and meatballs and parmesan cheese.  After supper Alex made brownies, and gave me one, and that was when I finally cried.  I didn’t burst into tears or anything, just silently let them run down my face as I forced myself to eat the stupid thing.  Alex didn’t even notice.  He was too busy staring at the TV - I think he was playing a game.  How I didn’t puke, I don’t know.  I just let my mind go blank.  It was easier not to argue.  How could I argue?  What could I say that would make him change his mind?  He doesn’t care about me - only himself and his spawn.  I’m just the tool that gets him the things that he needs.
I could feel my skin stretch thinner and thinner across my stomach as I ate; the soft flesh growing on my hips and thighs and buttocks and neck and cheeks.  I swear I saw the hand that held my fork grow plumper after every meal, and sure enough, by the end of the day I couldn’t take my rings off for bed.  Never in my life have I felt so disgusting.  My body felt so heavy as I sat there on the couch, Alex next to me watching TV.  I have no idea what was even on.  I just sat there and tried not to feel out the extra weight on my body, crushing me, weighing me down, making me exhausted and scared and angry.
Lying awake last night, I came to a conclusion.  All Alex wants is a housewife to breed with.  And he doesn’t deserve to breed.  Not treating me like this, dragging me away from everything I’ve known and refusing me the small comfort of a job, or even talking to me about something other than the baby.  He insists on protecting me from myself, and I am more than capable of taking care of me and this baby inside of me.  He insists on force-feeding me, and I can’t tell if he’s honestly just concerned about the baby, or if he just wants to make me fatter so that I look more like him, so he doesn’t feel so guilty about his weight.  He can’t even see how scared I am of having the baby, or how sick I am over destroying my body for this new person in the world.  He doesn’t care about anything but the picture perfect family, where the woman stays home to cook and clean and raise the kids, while he goes off and works.  It’s not practical.  He’s not practical.  He’s cruel and selfish.  How can he say that I don’t care, or that I’ve done nothing for the baby?!  Like I said before, I’m already destroying my body for this baby, and I don’t need him to come and screw it up any further.
No.  I will not let him breed.  This child will be his last. 
Saturday, October 17th
Everything’s ready for tonight.  I spent all day yesterday getting ready, going over my plan over and over and over again.  Everything’s ready.  He’s at work right now, picking up the hours that he traded with someone else for Thursday when he stayed home with me.  I just need to wait for him to come home. 
It’s done.  It worked.  Right now I’m sitting at the kitchen table, Alex’s body slumped on the floor where it fell when he convulsed.  I thought it was going to be horrible to watch, but it was actually quite a relief to see that fat jiggle and shake more than it ever has as he struggled for his life.  Of course the struggle was useless.  I put enough window cleaner in his wine to make sure of that.  He didn’t even finish his glass.  It only took a couple minutes, which is good because I didn’t want to have to sit here forever and watch him die, and I needed to make sure that it worked and that he didn’t manage to call for help or anything.  Not that I think anyone would have helped him.  I think he has that look of “I deserve to die” written all over him.  You can just tell by looking at him that he’s done something terrible.
At least, I think so.
Anyway, I’m getting ready to cut up the body and burn it.  Alex picked the house in the middle of nowhere, with no houses in sight.  Alex liked the scenic setting - I didn’t.  I tried to reason with him, but Alex insisted on buying this house.  As though my opinion didn’t matter.  Well, now it does.  Now my opinion is the only one there is.  I wonder if that makes it fact?
I plan on burning the body where we burn our trash, and then scattering the pieces that don’t burn in the river.  No one will ever find it, and even if they do, so what?  I’m burning the chainsaw, too.  And I’ve got several tarps that Alex kept for camping out in the shed, to put under and over the body, so the blood won’t get on the floor or the ceiling.  My story will be that he came home from work, went out to the shed to sort the recycables, and never came back.  No one will suspect me.  I’m eight months pregnant.  Everyone will feel sorry for me.  It’s perfect.  I’ll have this baby, and love it.  I never told Alex, but I secretly had the doctor tell me the sex.  It’s a little girl.  And I’m going to name her Vivien, after the girl who seduced Merlin.  He would have hated that name.  I think it’s beautiful.  Vivien was smart and beautiful and always got what she wanted.  My kind of girl.
And after Vivien comes, I’ll find a job.  I’ll sell this stupid house and move away from here.  Start over, just Vivien and me.  I’ll lose weight.  I’ll be pretty again.  I’ll never have to eat like Alex forced me to eat ever again, even if I have other children later.  I’ll find another man, one who’s actually attractive.  It’ll be perfect.  Perfect. 
When She Met He
Joshua Long
She said draw a line through all of her words. She said she didn't have the time for the contents of his heart muscle. She said bring the line together with the sun. He towed the line up the horizon and the golden gray backslash of sun and moon accepted his attempt. She didn't know. She wanted more and found it all too easy and natural for him to deliver her love to the skies. He offered to give her a ride. Let the driving part of her heart go easy for the next few hours. This was the first time they spoke in reality. Neither of them even realized what that was.
Before he could get the proper radio frequency on the stereo, they were already laughing. Him: short, five-foot two, brown hair. Her: not as short, five-foot-six, cherry hair. They were on a mission they didn't accept. A mission they never asked for.
A mission that can only be explained by a man of physics. Someone who is nowhere around the area the two of them are from. They like it like that. Some things are better not understood. Some things are suppose to be like that. Science is a hand that will only hold yours for so long. At least until the future becomes what it becomes. Which is something that will become more apparent in the future.
And his foot fits perfectly on the gas pedal.
And his foot fits perfectly on the gas pedal.
It's an acceleration she can believe in.
His foot goes on the gas pedal. His foot, a broken down Adidas Samba from the late nineties. His pants a bit too loose around his hips. He can't afford pants that fit. She can't afford pants at all. She wears sweatpants. He wears a blue shirt. Blue is his favorite color when she's not around. She wears a white shirt. The color of divinity. Such a crock of shit that is. Over and over again.
The Summer of ’03
Adam Goes
Adrian was peculiar. A drifter, he said, only nineteen and had already lived in over ten different towns throughout America. He would only spend a couple of months at Last Chance, saving up enough money for the next leg of his journey. When I asked him where he was going he would say he didn’t know yet. I asked if it was because the winds of fate hadn’t directed him yet. He laughed and told me I’d been watching too many movies. He told me he didn’t know because he hadn’t received his next contract. That was the big joke.
You see, Adrian had tattoos all over his body, six or seven if I remember correctly. They were as varied as you could imagine, flowers, guns, skulls, crosses, black and white, color, monochrome. There didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason. He said they didn’t make sense because they all told a story. Not about him, but about his contracts. Always with a crooked smile he would tell anyone who asked that he was a hit-man, and that each tattoo represented a successful kill. It was made all the more ridiculous because Adrian was a 5’9” 115 pound nineteen year old without an ounce of muscle on his body. This would get a laugh from the patrons, and he would laugh along with them.
It was the news report that did it. As I was sitting on the edge of the couch, leaning forward, I couldn’t help but think about the summer of ’03 and little diner that I worked in with Adrian. It had been and was, to my knowledge, still called Last Chance. The story the owner put out was that he named it such because it was the last chance for people to eat for almost eighty miles. My wife of four years was on the other side, legs curled beneath her, our two year old daughter’s hand grasped tightly. My daughter didn’t know what was going on, not really, but she knew we were upset and that was enough. The president had just been assassinated.
I remember he came in with a new tattoo a couple weeks after he started. It was the Gemini symbol, with some language overtop of it.
“What’s that say?” I asked as were both scouring burnt pieces of food off the steel pans.
“It’s Latin. Translates to ‘the sword is mightier than the pen’.”
I couldn’t help but laugh a little at that. “Does that mean you completed another contract?”
He let loose a deep chuckle, and it sounded so unnatural coming from his skeleton-like frame. “You shouldn’t take everything I say so seriously. It’s just a birthday present to myself.”
His birthday was that day, June 3rd. After the diner closed that night most of the guys from the kitchen went up to the roof and we set up lawn chairs to look out across the miles of desert. Scott, the head cook, had a cooler full of Budweiser and we all had a few.
“Hey, Adrian. Come on, it’s your birthday. Beer’s on me,” Scott called out to Adrian, who was reclined and looking up at the constellation Libra. I only knew that’s what it was after asking him. He told me it was a symbol of justice.
He turned his head and his normal smile replaced the pensive look, “Oh, no that’s ok, Scott. I’ve got my own.” And he held up a glass bottle of Corona.
“Corona!? Come on, drink some Bud like a real man.”
The Budweiser fountaining from my mouth preceded an uproarious laugh. Once I got my breath I turned to Scott and asked, “What is it you do in your spare time again? Sew decorative pillows?” My comment solicited a chorus of laugher.
Scott turned red and grumbled, “It builds finger strength and dexterity.”
In the middle of June me and some friends decided to attempt to beat the heat and the boredom of summer by hiding out in my basement and playing Dungeons and Dragons. Adrian joined in and played the perfect Lawful Good Paladin. It was such a transformation of character. He was always so serious when he was in character. Always righteous and off to protect the weak. It was such a change from the time he had painstakingly hidden the majority of the cooking utensils in the kitchen, or one of his other shenanigans. I thought it was odd. The way he lied to Scott when he was confronted about it. Never once did he drop his crooked smile, yet he was so convincing that Scott simply let it drop.
On August 6th I found him up on the roof after work, but this time looking north-east, out past the desert, instead of up at the sky.
“I’m leaving tomorrow,” he said, after I came up to stand beside him.
“Oh, saved up enough money to move on?”
“After tomorrow I will have.”
His comment puzzled me, as payday wasn’t for another week and a half. “Where are you going anyway?”
“To Oregon.”
“No, I mean, what are you looking for?”
His crooked smile disappeared and he just pointed, right up at the constellation of Libra. “Well I have to go now. Lots of packing to do.” And he bumped past me and climbed down the ladder at the back of the diner.
After I returned home and started emptying my pockets I found a scrap of paper that read “Do you ever watch the news?” I didn’t, but for the next couple days I made sure to watch both the eight o’clock and eleven o’clock broadcast. It was on August 8th that something finally caught my attention.
“Born May 29th, author Timothy Egerton was found stabbed to death in his hotel room earlier today. Mr. Egerton was on a book tour for his recent best-selling book The Injustice of the Left that discusses the supposed unconstitutionality of several of the Left’s platforms. There are currently no suspects, but this is certainly a tragedy to the world of political writers.” I slid off the couch, cracked open a bottle of Corona and went outside to look at the stars.
Cutter Slagle
The metallic, nauseating rust smell still filled his nostrils.  And the images of the way the drippings all seemed to slowly twist, flowing together as one, creating a large, sticky pool of scarlet stuck to him as if they had been glued there.  Blood, it was all he saw, all he knew.
Bryce thought he might vomit.  He clutched tightly at his aching stomach.  His blue eyes burned, and he suspected that they had swollen into big, red mounds due to all of the crying he had done.  But he didn’t cry now.  No, Bryce had no more strength for tears.  His nose, raw and scabbed from excessive blowing, screamed out, begging to be soothed with some sort of silky lotion.  And even though he had showered earlier that morning, his blonde hair felt rough and stiff.
One word, a question really, kept spinning hastily around in his cramped, dust filled mind.  How? Bryce thought.  And then, how can they possibly think that I did this?
He closed his eyes, and then opened them again quickly, his surroundings had not changed.  Same cold draft in the small, rectangular room that made him wish he had had a coat to go over his thin sweater.  Or in the least, a pair of gloves.
The table in front of him had seen better days.  Large, metal, with lots of scrapes and cuts, as if someone had run out of paper and decided to use the flat top as their drawing board.  The only two chairs the room occupied were coarse, uncomfortable, and seemed that if someone bigger than two-hundred and fifty plus pounds decided to have a rest, the seat would instantly turn to wood kindling.
The floor was dark green linoleum—cracked, dirty, and tainted with what appeared to be coffee and maybe mud.  The walls were an off, messy white color, and if Bryce stared at them too long, they seemed to violently close in on him.
Besides the red plastic cup of ice water sweating and adding character to the table, and standard black video camera blinking red, relying on the medium height tripod to stand, invading his every move, the room was empty.
Except, of course, for the wide, streak stained mirror to his left where no doubt from the other side they sat, watching him.
Suddenly, the windowless door opened, causing Bryce to look up.  Not a stranger, Detective Gellar walked in.  Tall with a midnight skin tone and a look of intensity about him so in tact that every time he sighed, the words “No nonsense” seemed to fly out, had at first been very intimidating. 
Bryce tried to form an accurate time line in his overworked head.  Had he met the man at the scene one hour ago, or two?  The fact really didn’t matter now, but he recalled reaching out with his own trembling right hand, and taking the detective’s large one, shaking it, and being painfully frightened. 
But not anymore, Bryce thought, trying to smile in recognition as the man took the second seat that was positioned across the table.  The misunderstanding had quickly been cleared; Detective Gellar was here to help.
“Kid, you doing okay?”  The detective leaned in, asking the question, and Bryce was immediately hit with a refreshing mint scent.  “I know this is a lot to handle, especially for someone your age.  I mean, if I was seventeen and going through this, I don’t know . . .”
If the man finished his sentence Bryce didn’t know it.  Gellar’s words seemed to grow legs and run off, and Bryce just couldn’t keep up, couldn’t concentrate.
Finally, he answered.  “I’m fine, kinda cold.”
“Can I get you anything? Jacket, coffee? Perhaps some hot chocolate?”
Bryce shook off the detective’s offers.  Unexpectedly, they seemed forced, fake, as if Gellar was now trying too hard to play good cop. 
Bryce wasn’t about to fall into the trap.  “No, thank you.  I’ll be fine.  I’d really like to finish up here, go home.”
“Well, it’s going to be a while.”  Bryce didn’t like the way Gellar tapped his foot when he spoke or the emotionless expression on the man’s worn face when he said, “Home may not be an option.”
“W-w-why not?”
“Let’s just go over your statement again.”  The detective dodged the question, causing Bryce to see red.  Calm down, he warned himself.  Whatever you do, don’t lose your cool.
“I already told you everything I know.”
“Well, that’s not good enough, Bryce.  I need you to think back to—”
“I already told you, I can’t.  I don’t remember.”
“Bryce,” when the detective spoke, it was all seriousness, all cop, and Bryce was almost frightened again.  “In order for me to help you get of here, you’re going to have to remember what happened.”
“I can’t!”  Bryce didn’t recognize the wavering voice that echoed throughout the interrogation room.  The advice he had given himself moments before wasn’t sticking, being composed was just too difficult of a task.
“Think back to before, concentrate.”  Gellar tried, but the relaxing tone the detective possessed took the opposite effect, causing Bryce to run his dry hands through his untidy hair, pull frustratingly, stand, pace for a minute, and then slam back down to reclaim his seat.
“Stop beating around the bush,” Bryce ordered.  “What do you want from me?”
“I want the truth,” Gellar said.  “I want to know if you killed your father and your little brother.”
Bryce didn’t respond.  He felt his bottom lip quiver, and then the burning sensation that tugged at his eyes which could only mean one thing: a fresh batch of tears.
He raised his palms, pressed them intently into his hollow face, and tried to concentrate, to remember.
Had he murdered his father and younger brother?  Bryce knew the answer to Gellar’s question, thought he did, anyway—hoped he did.  The obvious answer was “No,” of course he hadn’t butchered them.  How could he have? They were his only family.  But so far, no one would believe him.
“Okay,” Gellar started, breaking the eerie silence, and Bryce shockingly became grateful for the act.  “Let’s take another tactic.  Tell me about this morning’s events.  What happened when you got up today?”
Bryce leaned back in his seat, becoming alarmed when the chair made a creaking sound.  He straightened up, folded his hands on the table, and began focusing on the question he had been asked.
“This morning,” he whispered, pinching his eyes closed once again and feeling his face wrinkle.  “This morning, I-I-I woke up at six.”  That was easy; he woke up every morning at six, well, through the week anyway.  The buzzing alarm clock flashed into his thoughts.  The ringing, so annoying, so earsplittingly dreadful.  Bryce remembered reaching out; trying to turn it off, but the device had fallen from his nightstand, and when he had gone to retrieve it he had bumped his head.  It hadn’t hurt; he thought back, the thump, hadn’t even caused him to bleed.
Next, he reflected, after placing the square box back on the stand and being hypnotized by the bright, red numbers, for what had seemed like hours, he had thrown back the heavy comforter to his bed, and shuffled across the chilly hardwood floor.
Bryce then distinctively recalled forgetting about slippers, and dressed in a blue long sleeve shirt and plaid pajama bottoms, leaving his room, passing his little brother’s room where Mikey was still sleeping and walking down the stairs toward the kitchen to get breakfast.  He shared his revelation with Detective Gellar.
“Was this your normal routine?  Getting up at six, having breakfast, while your brother slept in?”
Bryce nodded.  As far back as he could think things had always been that way.  “Dad and I would have cereal, toast—something simple like that.  And then I would get ready for school, and he would wake Mikey, get him dressed and take him to the sitter’s.”
“So, just you and your dad,” Gellar emphasized, but Bryce wasn’t quite sure as to why.  “How long would you spend in the mornings eating breakfast? Twenty, maybe twenty five minutes?”
“Yeah, I guess,” Bryce answered quietly.  “Eating breakfast and talking.”  A yearning from deep down within his core wanted to yell out, see where the detective was going with all of this.
“And what did you two talk about this particular morning?”
Bryce sighed heavily, ran his fingers through his hair nervously.  He pondered the question, knew it was important that he remembered.  Details were going to be the only thing that could save him right now.
“Umm,” he started, thoughts racing so fast he feared they might collide, sending his head to explode.  “Nothing overly important.  School, his office . . .” Bryce trailed off, looking up at the water damaged ceiling as if it might spit out the answers for him.  And then, “A doctor’s appointment.  Yeah, Dad said something about making a doctor’s appointment.”
“For himself? Was he sick?”
Bryce cleared his throat, contemplating.  “N-n-no, I don’t think so. Maybe.”
“Maybe it was for you or for your brother?”
Bryce shrugged, the small gesture exhausted him.  “He said something about more meds.”
“Was your father medicated?”
“I don’t know!” Bryce screeched impatiently, aggravation becoming consuming.  “Can’t you check that?”
“Sure.”  Gellar nodded, but Bryce noticed it wasn’t to him; it was to the mirror beside him.  And then Bryce understood that the detective’s signal was for someone watching beyond the mirror to check out the information.
“How about your mother?  Can you tell me about her?”
“Why?” Bryce asked, a pitiful laugh escaping him.  “Do you think I killed my mother too?”
“Bryce, believe it or not I am trying to help you.”
Bryce waited a beat, and then in an almost mute whisper, said, “My mother wasn’t well.  She killed herself four years ago, right after my brother was born.”
“I’m sorry,” Gellar stated, and for some unknown reason Bryce actually believed the man.  “Was it postpartum depression?”
“Possibly, I can’t really be certain.  I was twelve and all I really remember her telling me is that she just wanted the headaches to go away.”
“What comes to mind next, Bryce? What happened after breakfast?”
This was the complicated part, Bryce thought.  This was the part of the story he had worn his brain thin trying to bring to mind what had actually taken place.  He had a blank, gaping hole where nothing specific came to mind.  But the reason why? Bryce didn’t understand.
“School, I think.  I usually get home from school around three, before my dad and brother.  My dad leaves work around five, picks up Mickey, and is normally home around five-thirty.”
“But that didn’t happen today, did it Bryce?”
“W-w-what do you mean?”
“Do you recall going to school today? Or seeing your father and brother leaving the house this morning?”
“Well, I . . .” Bryce reached down deep, tried desperately to grab onto something concrete, something precise.  “Not exactly, but—”
“Bryce you weren’t seen at school today and your father never made it to work.”
Bryce titled his head, looking up at the detective he tried to make some sort of connection.  When he finally did, he fought hard to believe it.  “T-t-that can’t be.  I mean it doesn’t make any sense.”
“Bryce,” Gellar spoke, and Bryce made a note of his easy manner.  “Your father and brother were murdered between seven and eight this morning.”
“No!” Bryce shrieked, gripping the edge of the table securely for support.  “I swear it, I swear it!  I didn’t kill my family!”
“Do you remember waking up this morning, Bryce?  The policemen knocking on your door around nine, pulling you out of your father’s bed?”
“I-I-I . . .” he let his words fall, using every effort to think back, to remember.  The smell, the warm wetness that had spread over him like a blanket.  The blood, of course, the blood.  And the footprints, there had been footprints!
“Yes, I remember!” Bryce stammered, jumping to lead feeling legs, but managing to balance himself.  His chair fell backwards clanging to the hard ground.  “I remember!”
“You remember the police taking—”
“No, yes, but—I was attacked, I had to have been.  It all makes sense now.  This morning someone must have broken into the house, while I was getting ready for school.  They must have k-k-killed—” he couldn’t bring himself to say the words.  He may be innocent, but his family was still gone, and he was inevitably alone. Bryce felt a heavy lump form in his throat, but he had to tread on.
“I probably got hit on the head, knocked out or something.  That’s why I’m having trouble remembering, and assumed why I had gone to school like any other day.”
“But why wasn’t I killed too?  Why did they leave me to suffer, to—” the weighty tears broke lose, and began falling down his already gritty face, taking the form of a flood.  Bryce didn’t swipe at them, didn’t try to stop them, but instead, welcomed the breakdown and release.
“Bryce, I think you should sit down.”
Bryce turned, looked at the detective through a curtain of dampness, nodded in acceptance, and then retrieved his chair from the floor.  Placing it upright, he took a seat, and began clearing his eyes.
“Bryce, we—”
“There were footprints at the scene.  In my dad’s room, in the blood.  Whoever put me in his bed must have walked back through the blood.  That’s proof, right?  Someone was in my house.”
“Bryce,” the detective’s voice was suddenly quiet, monotone, Bryce thought.  As if what he was about to say he didn’t particularly want to, and Bryce wasn’t one hundred percent sure he wanted to hear it.  “We saw the footprints, studied them.”
“They matched your shoe size, your boots.”
“That can’t be,” Bryce said, struggling not to look down at the brown boots he felt ambushing his feet.  “That doesn’t make any sense.”
“And the knife,” Gellar stopped, and Bryce silently begged for him not to finish the thought.  “The knife used to stab your father and brother was found in the bathroom, with your fingerprints on it.”
“No!” Bryce roared, not knowing where the voice came from, feeling as if it belonged to someone else.  “There has to be a mistake.  Someone is setting me up!”
“Why would someone do that, Bryce?”
“I-I-I don’t know! But you can’t possibly believe that I would be capable of doing this or have any motive to.”
“Bryce, your father and brother were repeatedly sta—” a knock at the door interrupted the detective, and Bryce immediately began looking for answers.
A dream, this was all a dream.  Well, not a dream, but a nightmare.  A horrible nightmare which had caused him to sleep through his alarm.  And now, the gentle rap at the door was just his father, waking him up for school.
“Bryce,” the detective called out.  Not a nightmare.  “Excuse me for a moment; I’m wanted in the other room.”
Bryce nodded, showing his acknowledgement with motion instead of words.  Gellar left, and Bryce gently put his head down on the table.  He was no longer cold, but burning up, feeling as if his skin were logs to a high flamed fire.
Nothing made sense.  He couldn’t concentrate, couldn’t remember.  Abruptly, his mind began to swirl.  Thoughts coming, going, images turning black.  Tiny, uneven jigsaw puzzle pieces quickly formed, filling his brain, but none of them seemed to fit together.  They couldn’t form a clear, cut picture.
“Bryce,” the door opened, and someone entered the room, called out. But who? He wasn’t sure.  “Bryce, I just got word that you’re father wasn’t the one who was medicated.  Bryce, are you alright?”
He looked up from the table, smirked, and then titled his head slowly toward the stranger.  “Who’s Bryce?”