The works of fiction published in this volume range from flash or sudden fiction to more developed short stories. These writers address a variety of topics from personal tragedy to political commentary. We hope they result evocative and move you to reflect on the topics they touch.
SLOW & STEADY
As the sun beams into my eyes, I wake up and get to my feet. I yawn as I stretch my body. The smell of wet soil and garbage doesn’t bother me, as it would a person wearing a tie and a fancy watch. As I stand there, I notice the white Nissan with a Miami Heat plate rush by. I know it’s a quarter to seven. My neighbors start to walk to the service vans that provide the only free meal. A frigid drop lands on my head. I look up to see the high bridges over me, but the longer I gaze, the higher I feel I’m flying. The cars overhead rush with thunderous engines, and I wake up from reality.
After my free meal, I sit for a while under the noisy bridge. After a few hours the driver of the white Nissan rushes by with a burger in his mouth and I know it’s a quarter to twelve. As the young driver of the Nissan stops at a traffic light, he punches the steering wheel. He must be in a hurry. I slowly get to my feet and walk towards the busiest street. I begin to ask for money and food in the melting temperature.
After four hours and seven dollars, a familiar car pulls up next to me. The young driver of the Nissan that is always in a hurry stops to give me a bottle of water.
“Can I give you some advice?” I say.
Surprised at what I asked him, he gives me a grin. “Sure,” he tells me.
“You should really slow down,” I suggest.
“And why in the world would I do that?” he asks.
“Because life is beautiful when you slow down and enjoy it.”
“Really?” he responds sarcastically.
“Really.” I answer back. “I had it all once, used to live always stressed out. I was always in a hurry, until it all came to a sudden halt and I lost it all,” I paused for a second as the traffic light turned green. ”Life is not a race, but indeed a journey.”
“Sure,” he tells me and speeds off. Before disappearing from sight, I notice for the first time cars passing him as he slows down.
WAR WITH FIRE
The man before me gleamed helplessly, surprised from my assault, falling with such force my heart vibrated for a moment. He was only one among the eight humans who challenged me, hoping to have the honor and privilege to have defeated fire in a fight to the death. Two more of their numbers were coming in from behind me. They did not think I had already noticed them. How foolish. My sword Rhea, who rested in my right hand, leaped to my left so I could catch the chains one of the men wanted to wrap me in. The second I grasped its coldness I pulled it close. Never would I forget the look in that man’s face as he fell towards me. The light slowly faded from his eyes. As I spun around and sliced his chest open, the blood danced above his wound before giving in to the force of my swing. He was probably the only one among these hubris mortals who truly understood how strong I was. I appeared before the other man and cut him down before he could even react.
I am not known as just heat in the universe. I am something far beyond that. I am energy in motion; I am acceleration, power, and even a force strong enough to rip particles apart. I can accelerate anything to whatever speed I want. Though I am limited by being in a physical form, I am not feared or respected across an infinite number of galaxies and universes, even among my own family, merely because I possess these wonderful gifts. Yes, they are frightening, but that alone would not be enough to give me the strength to subdue all my younger siblings together and make them follow and respect me. There is only one reason why all of them respect me so and it is because I am strong.
Across the centuries on this planet I had counted myself off, choosing to hide from the world I feared I would destroy. But I forgot that is the very role of nature.
My abilities are beyond most of my family. While they can live in this world peacefully, like my younger sister Water, or cause a commotion like my younger brother Chaos. My abilities have a kind of pressure and responsibility; I was wrong to assume I could hide out forever.
I cleaned the blood off Rhea and waited for the next one to step forward. It did not matter what they did. If they planned against my sword, it would not be enough. If they planned against all of my other abilities, it still would not be enough. Even if they planned against a catastrophic event, such as the sun ending, or the universe being swallowed by a massive black hole, it would not be enough. I will always be beyond their reach.
As children our regular visits to the beach were to the mid-beach area of 71st Street. Car loads of families from the other side of the bay would arrive every Saturday, from May to August, unload their six kids, four coolers, eight lounge chairs, four regular folding chairs, a domino table, (of course playing dominoes was part of the sacred ritual), two umbrellas, and what seemed an unending number of sacks with clothes and food. We must have seemed like a gypsy troop setting up camp. At the end of each of these one day excursions, we had to pack up all our belongings and drive back across the bay to our suburbs in the west.
Later as teenagers we ventured further north to the “cool” beaches of BalHarbor, Haulover and Sunny Isles and to the southern-most beaches of Key Biscayne. However, none of these regular destinations stir up the fondest memories. Not their pristine crème color sand, turquoise blue water (clear enough to see your toes when chest deep), or balmy breezes that swept over our bronzing bodies succeeded in placing them at the top of the list.
That honor goes to South Beach. However, when I was growing up we knew South Beach as Playa de los Viejos, loosely translated meaning, the Old Folk Beach. Our visits there were memorable. We knew something was up when packing the car we took twice as much food and all of our clothes were in suitcases.
“Mom, where are we going?” I asked.
“A la playa,” Mom answered.
“I can see we’re going to the beach, but why the suitcases?” My sister Lidia jumped in with her sarcastic teenage tone.
“Una sorpresa,” Mom replied.
A surprise? I knew my brother and sister were thinking what I was thinking, maybe we’re going to Disney World? It turned out they weren’t thinking that at all and that wasn’t what my parents had in mind either. It became clear to me too when we didn’t take the turn-off towards the turnpike which we would have taken to go north to Orlando. Instead my dad kept driving due east straight to the beaches, but at reaching Collins Ave (A1A) he turned south instead of turning north as we usually did.
After an additional 20 minute drive through blocks and blocks of beige and brown stucco buildings, with only an occasional pastel colored one in between, we finally arrived at our destination, The Beacon Hotel. Well, at first glance I wasn’t at all impressed. It’s hard to get a 10 year old in the 70’s excited when driving up to a forty year-old hotel and greeted by 25 senior citizens sitting on the hotel’s terrazzo veranda.
“¿Que te parece?” my dad asked.
“You want to know what we think?” My sister asked him as she flapped her arms around and pulled her hair in disbelief.
I didn’t know then what a rhetorical question was, but I knew enough to know that my dad wasn’t really asking for our opinion or approval. My big sister was either the gutsiest 17 year-old I had ever met, or just plain-out crazy. I eventually learned it was neither. Lidia was genuinely overcome with disappointment, which lasted all of 10 minutes. Her tune changed when my mother told her she could invite her boyfriend to spend the day with us. It took her about ten seconds to find the pay phone booth in the lobby.
While my sister chatted on the phone, the rest of the clan had to unload the car and trek the stuff up to the third floor, given the elevator had a sign strung through the metal accordion door that read Temporarily Out of Order. Funny thing is, three years later on our final stay there, the initials I had fingered through the dust on the sign during that first visit could still be made out. Truth be told I didn’t do much of the trekking. After the first load, I hung out with my sister at the telephone booth; I enjoyed pestering her. My brother Mickey, the middle kid, and my parents got everything to the room.
Then it only got better. As my sister chatted on the phone, I saw my aunts and uncles at the front desk checking in and out in the terrazzo veranda facing the ocean were my cousins, all four of them. I knew then, this would be a vacation I wouldn’t soon forget. Sure enough, for the following three years the otherwise routine summers were bookended by the best Memorial and Labor Day weekends I can remember. Those six weekends were full of early morning strolls on the beach with my Uncle Rodolfo and Aunt Providence, the only three early birds in the entire family, and late night camp fires out on the beach with my cousins, siblings and about 15 of their friends, singing and playing guitar until well past 2:00AM. Being the youngest among all my cousins and siblings, I was teased and taunted but never excluded. That meant the world to me and was well worth the mischievous abuse.
There were times that all the young people split up and did their own thing with their friends. Even I had made friends at the hotel my own age, and even one not so much my age. I remember the first time Mrs. Schwartz challenged me to a game of backgammon. She was good. I usually spent the early evenings with my dad and two uncles playing dominoes out on the terrazzo veranda, where the cool breeze that came off the ocean made it difficult to believe it was a sweltering 98 degrees just a block west where the breeze just didn’t reach. On one of these nights, my dad and uncles were watching something on TV, I don’t recall what it was, but their faces were glued to the tube and there was no prying them away. I went out to the veranda and kicked the plastic dominoes table we had brought.
“You should not do that!” an old woman sitting out on the edge of the veranda scolded.
“It’s my dad’s.” I said.
“So that gives you the right to go kicking it around?”
“What is your name?” she asked, then waved me over and patted the chair next to her, “Sit.”
I was too shy to answer and not brave enough to disobey. I went over and sat next to her. Within minutes we had set up the backgammon board on the dominoes table and she proceeded to teach me how to play a game I had never seen before. She told me her name and told me that when she was a little girl she lived in Poland. Then later, she moved to America, to NYC, got married had five children and 11 grandchildren. When I asked her where they were, she looked out towards the ocean for a moment then back at me.
“Ok, enough teaching you how to play. I challenge you now. You win or you lose. We will see now.”
I lost. The backgammon game that is; but I won something that I can’t quite name even to this day. Mrs. Schwartz was a permanent fixture at the Beacon Hotel and I looked forward to playing backgammon with her every evening those two weekends per year. I even convinced my parents to drive by on July 4th (we were already on this side of the bay, what was a 20 minute extra drive through bumper to bumper holiday traffic?) so we could just say hello; and that we did. Her glassy eyes spoke of her joy to see us. The second year I was actually able to win some of the backgammon games. It got harder to say goodbye that second Labor Day. On the third year, she wasn’t out on the veranda when we arrived. I rushed to the front desk to ask for her, but the new clerk had no idea who I was talking about. No one seemed to know whom I was asking about. On our second night my sister, already married by then, came to see me.
“She’s gone, Carl.”
“Where to?” I asked incredulously.
She didn’t have to spell it out for me. Her uncharacteristic silence and patience with me eventually helped me understand what she meant. I never learned Mrs. Schwartz’s first name, but for some reason I thought maybe her name was Hana or Ester. After that third Labor Day we never did go back as a whole family. The older cousins were all getting married and moving away, the uncles were ill, the area was beginning its final decline into poverty and crime before re-emerging 20 years later as the Art Deco historical gem that it has always been, albeit no one seemed to know it. I’ve forgotten how to play backgammon, but I haven’t forgotten Mrs. Schwartz.
You told me your secret. You didn’t have to tell me though, I already knew. I saw it all. I was sitting in the closet, right where you left me, in the middle of our hide and seek game. I was looking through the crack in the closet door. I was looking for you. I heard you yell ready or not, here I come. We were having such a good time. But I saw him when he came in. I heard him ask you if you wanted to play a game. I saw you hesitate before agreeing. At first I was mad because you were playing with him instead of me. I was watching you two. But then I was glad I wasn’t playing. I didn’t like his game. I could kind of tell you didn’t like it either. All those places he put his hands. I didn’t even know hands could go there. I tried to stop watching because you told me it’s not good to spy, but you know I have trouble closing my eyes. You started to cry but he put his fingers to his lips. “Shh.” I couldn’t help you from where I was. I couldn’t move. His game went on for a while. I was glad when he got up to leave. He straightened your dress out for you. I guess that was nice at least. I heard what he said too, “Don’t tell Mommy and Daddy, okay? Carrie Lee, don’t tell anyone, this is our little secret. If you tell, something bad will happen to Mommy and Daddy.” I don’t like secrets. I know you don’t like secrets either. I saw him kiss you before he left. I could tell you didn’t like that. It wasn’t a normal kiss. It was a kiss like Mommy and Daddy kiss. I thought it was weird too, I’d never seen a big man kiss a little girl that way. But don’t worry about the secret. I won’t tell anyone. I love Mommy and Daddy. I don’t want anything bad to happen to them. So don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone what I saw.
I’m glad we talked the other day. It’s been so long since we talked. I know you’re busy now. I see you running around all the time, doing homework and talking to friends. I’ve been lonely though, just waiting to talk. So I’m really glad that we talked the other day. You told me another secret, but I already knew. I’m always listening. I know you told me not to listen to conversations that don’t involve me, but I couldn’t help it. I always want to know how you are doing and we hadn’t talked in so long, so I listened. It was about the bad man. I heard you say he got in trouble for playing games with another girl. You told me it was the same game he used to play with you, when you were younger. You said he was playing with other girls. He got in trouble for it. The bad man went to jail. You said that you should have told Mommy and Daddy too, but I don’t know. He said something bad would happen to Mommy and Daddy if you told. But you told me and nothing happened. I don’t know. Anyway, I’m glad he won’t be around again. I didn’t like him much. Every time he came over to play you would cry. I don’t like seeing you cry. He was a bad man for making you play that game. I’m glad I never had to play.
We haven’t spoken in a long time; I miss playing with you. I know you’re busy, I can see that. I heard you talking the other day. You were talking to your friend. I can’t remember her name, it starts with the letter ‘B’ I think. I heard you telling her about a boy. A boy you like. I already knew you liked him though. I saw him once, when he was here. I saw him kiss you. This wasn’t like the other kiss, the one the bad man gave you. You didn’t cry after this kiss. I heard you tell your friend about the kiss. I wonder if you told her about the bad man. I don’t know if the bad man’s words were true. I don’t want anything to happen to Mommy and Daddy. They brought me to you.
You talked to me again. I’m so glad you did. You told me about the boy. You told me he was your boyfriend, but not anymore. You told me it was because you couldn’t kiss him without remembering the bad man. I wanted to cry for you, but I can’t cry, you know that. I had seen you with the boy. I saw you move away every time he tried to hold you. I saw you panic when he got too close. I saw it all. I feel bad about it. He really did seem like a nice boy. You told me you couldn’t tell the boy why you couldn’t be with him so you lied to him. I remember you told me lying was bad. I don’t think that makes you bad though. You started to cry when you told me that bad man might be let out of jail. I hope he doesn’t come over anymore. I don’t like the games he plays. You held me for hours as you cried on your bed. I was glad to absorb your tears. It had been so long since you held me. I thought maybe we could play again, like we used to. But you put me back when you were done crying. I’ll be here when you need me. I’ll never leave you. I’ll just sit here on this shelf, right where you left me.
I grinned at the bright reflection of my face. I just needed to wash the windshield, and then I’d be finished. The laughter of children reached my ears as families walked down to the park at the end of the street. A sweet elderly couple across the street was trimming the hedge on their front lawn, and I waved hello when I was sure they saw me. I didn’t see them wave back, but I paid it no mind, picking up my bucket of soapy water and my big yellow sponge. Deciding to let it dry in the sun, I walked over to the front of the car when I was done.
It was after I fell face first into the ground that I finally realized a great amount of force had made contact with the back of my head. The bucket flew out of my hand and rolled into a gutter down the street. I stood and gathered myself as quickly as possible when I noticed a butter knife with a heavy handle on the ground behind me. I picked it up and looked around sharply for someone to blame. After only a second, it was obvious to me that none of the people around could have thrown something with that level of accuracy – so I looked up. I’m not sure what I expected to see, but the clouds were beginning to turn gray. Still, that wasn’t out of the ordinary, maybe even a little welcomed.
Then, against the dark grey background of a storm cloud, something shimmered. Just for a second, it was so quick I was scarcely sure I saw it until I heard a great sound of crashing scraping metal. I looked to my left, and sticking straight up from my car was what appeared to be a machete. It glinted and gleamed with each wobble it produced. Another sound followed, this time more blunt, until it was followed by a scream. The old woman thrashed in silent panicked movements, contorted in fear and pain. Her husband was the only one yelling and shouting; his line of vision never veered from the lobster knife sticking out of her body.
I looked up one more time, and the entire sky was glistening as if it had been dusted with glitter. The stars seemed to have come out early to drill the sky with blinding dashes and dots. The first downfall came hurling into view when most people were transfixed in awe. I had already run to the front door, fumbling with shaking fingers and cold metal keys until I was able to slam the door behind me. I tottered into the living room when it started to rain: bread knives, table knives, oyster knives, daggers, meat cleavers, rapiers, and katanas. It rained every kind of knife or blade I had ever seen and some I never had. They rained down on the street, stabbing into the pavement or adjacent gardens, and I watched it all through my bay window in perversely frozen horror.
The old woman on the other side of the street was pinned to the ground by the lobster knife. She opened her mouth, but her screams were drowned out and then silenced by the piercing sound of a thousand blades hitting concrete, metal and flesh. Within moments, she had been disassembled. The families that had made their way to the park were now running back to their houses, and didn’t even consider knocking on a neighbor’s door for sanctuary, so insular was each home in our community.
From what I could see, all the knives landed blade down, no matter how heavy the handle was – which was bizarre. A blue car, long-swords and scimitars sticking out of the roof, swerved and skidded down the road making it look like a demented metal porcupine. In a matter of minutes, most of the people on the street had been chopped to pieces, save for a few. Some, a middle aged woman, a toddler and the husband of the woman across the street, were moderately unscathed, and so, stood completely still, hoping, like me, that the rain would stop before they were torn apart.
I closed the curtains and listened to the knives hitting the roof of my house. Through the din of crashing, a low groan reverberated in the house. I leaned against the wall with my eyes closed, wondering how long it would take for the roof to collapse.
R A I N
Summer has crawled into life once more; its arrival causes the living to slow down, to catch their breath, and the dead to rot and decompose exponentially faster. I place the dustpan next to the dead bird. It weighs more than I expected as I brush it up along with the spilt cat food in its midst. Still in my jammies, I rise from my squatting position only to stand silently watching and listening for something I can neither see nor hear just beyond the backyard porch. I move out into the wet uncovered patio, dust pan still in hand, and sit on the wrought iron rocker. I notice the wetness seeping through my jammies too late, and resign myself to the moist soggy feeling, not that different from the hot humid air’s effect on the rest of me. The night is dark; no moonlight penetrates the heavy avocado and mango canopy. Beyond the cover of the tall trees a dark starless sky has given way to a patchy and puffy ceiling of various shades of grey. Was it only yesterday that it all started to go wrong?
When I left work unusually early I wasn’t expecting a 2-hour traffic jam to get home. The expressway on ramp was covered in spent wet flowers from a silvery branch of a Royal Poinciana. The regal centerpiece of a lushly over landscaped FDOT highway swale, the tree spread its orange-red canopy over the spiral road.
I struggled to not dwell on the day’s event as I drove north on LeJeune Road which had only recently been released from a two-year stint in construction purgatory. Below tall live oaks that lined both sides of the ten-lane boulevard and its center median a variety of ground cover species weaved a tricolor path in and out between the oaks completely litter free. I rolled down the window and tossed out the “Notice of Furlough” slip sitting on the dashboard. I had been staring at it since I left the office-parking garage, and I was starting to feel it was looking back at me.
Furlough, budget cuts, political promises had been the buzz that had spread through the hallways all week-long, and today it had knocked on my door.
I’m almost home, I told myself as my gas guzzling pickup inched its way north on Red Road straddling the dark murky water of that 10-mile canal. A manatee, six iguanas (two of them, road kill), four egrets, and one hour later I had moved three-quarters of a mile; progress!
I arrived home, fixed a drink and shed my business attire. In the covered porch out back I sat and watched the shady yard grow darker as the clouds got ominous and a distant rumbling seemed to come closer. The first drops bounced off the wide bird of paradise leaves and gently landed on my cuff-less wrist as I hung the parakeet cage outside for a while. My thoughts wandered off in search of why’s, how’s and now what’s.
A loud boom and a bright flash brought me back out of my stupor and into the pitch black. As I got up to go back inside I tripped over the cat’s dish. Inside my search for a broom and dustpan was interrupted by four phone calls from well wishing co-workers happy they were not the ones let go. Defeated, I showered and went to bed.
I thought I woke at the sound of the pounding rain meeting the roof, but it was not that sound that actually drew me from my sleep. A commotion, a squeal and a loud thump reminded me of what I had forgotten. I threw on my robe and ran outside but it was too late. The rain had stopped.
OF LUST, LOFT & PIGEON POOP
The morning began like any other Sunday morning: black coffee in my favorite bone china cup, the Miami Herald neatly rolled up into a small bundle wrapped in plastic still moist with morning dew and a #2 pencil in hand for circling the classifieds. However, this morning would be like no other. I felt a sense of urgency, an urgency that denied me the pleasure of tasting the bitter black dark roast steaming in my cup. My taste buds had betrayed me as punishment for my wrong doings; only the ones on the far sides of my tongue, the ones that taste sourness, performed their function. The doctor said it was psychosomatic and the sooner I dealt with the unresolved emotions festering inside of me, the sooner my taste buds would allow me the sense of flavor once again. It wasn’t they who failed me; it was I who had failed them.
The source of all my troubles was lying next to the newspaper on the kitchen table, inside a torn white envelope marked “registered letter” dated two weeks earlier. A single knock at the door had brought me face to face with the mail carrier and the ominous letter. How could a simple piece of registered mail bring forth such a tumultuous frantic disruption to one’s life?
Just three weeks earlier, not yet sleep deprived, I had made love with abandon, and had spent dusk drawing the sunset’s red and orange hues that filtered through the clouds from my bedroom window. A mother pigeon had abandoned her nest on the sill along with three ugly un-plumed fledglings I named Pugsley, Uncle Fester and Lurch. The names fit them well because of their awkward ugliness. Even with all the pigeon poop, feather-down and nest clippings littering my sill they gave me reason to wake up in the morning, looking forward to finding them all there, waiting for me to feed them. I felt needed.
Jacqueline and I hadn’t spoken a word in those three weeks. Not a text, an email, not even mere eye contact. I couldn’t blame her for showing such indifference. I was partially to blame. I had allowed the stress of that letter to come between us. Although working within inches of each other daily, close enough to smell each other’s breath and close enough that the scent of the honey almond shampoo she used in the shower that morning inebriated me; one would surmise that we were complete strangers rather than lovers. Her indifference cut through me like the scalpel she wielded in her right hand. It was I who bled in that operating room daily, rather than the patient I had anesthetized. Every day a part of me would die in that O.R.; “la petite mort.” Walking into the O.R. the smell of the sterile environment was enough to send my stomach lurching into waves of nausea. My skin flushed and my body ached, screaming for just a simple glance of her in the surgical suite. That would have been enough to hold me over until who knows when. I feasted nightly on remnant crumbs of our love; year old love letters she had penned still scantily held the scent of her perfume and were my saving grace. I lay there quivering, cradled in the arms of Hypnos each night with her letters crumpled in my hand.
This horrible wedge that had come between Jacqueline and me – the turmoil that was now my life – was all due to this letter that came in the mail. During those two weeks, I had closed myself off to her and in return, she had alienated herself from me. She had picked up some of her belongings and left.
In bright red letters the color of venous blood, my blood, the letter read:
This letter is to officially inform you that your lease will not be renewed. The building and land are being sold for development. You have three weeks from the date of this letter to vacate. We are sorry for any inconvenience this may have caused.
It was not an inconvenience; it was sheer devastation, like a death in the family; the loss of a limb. Thirteen years I had lived in this loft. It had seen me through long sleepless nights of studying for anesthesiology boards, thesis writing and the occasional love letter. Christmases with our friends and family, pictures of vacations spent together and walls covered with framed diplomas, accolades and achievements earned through years of study. Upstairs in the loft a large futon, with Goose down pillows and a white comforter that permeated in both our scents, lay in lonesome disarray. It had been witness to nights of passion, lust and bonds of love being forged. For the past three weeks I had slept on the couch in my study, unable to bring myself to climb the loft stairs. Now, everything had been deleted, gone with the stroke of a pen. I abhorred red ink. I raised the now cold black coffee and took a sip, still, no taste.
“Great, now the classifieds are wet with coffee, just great.”
It was then that I noticed the ad beckoning at me to read it from the middle of the wet ring where the cup had sat:
Up for lease, 35th street and Madeira Avenue. 1,000 SF loft, hard wood floors, built-in library, kitchenette, cable and water included. Open house this weekend. If interested, please drive by from 12-3 pm. Peggy Williams.
My autonomic nervous system drove the car there. I didn’t even realize how or when I arrived; I just knew I was at the address and being greeted by a woman resembling Doris Day with a bouffant hair do. She looked as if she had walked out of a McCall’s magazine. I gathered myself, and we began to chat about the property and the lease.
“You are actually the first person to see the loft. Please come in.” We walked side by side, entering the foyer and glaring at the beautiful hard wood floors; she looked up at me through misty eyes. “The loft has been sealed about 15 years. After my mother’s death I couldn’t bear to visit the place, but I am ready to move on now and lease it with the option to buy. To the appropriate person of course; too many memories in this place, you know?”
Just as we entered the kitchen area, at exactly the stroke of noon, a large wall clock resembling a Folgers’s percolator pot began to chime. One just like my grandmother had bought with five Sperry & Hutchinson green trading stamp books saved after purchasing groceries from the A&P. The place looked as if time had stood still.
Peggy began to tell me about her mother and how she had been an artist; she had used the loft as a studio. The kitchen’s only use was to brew coffee, bake an occasional pie in the oven and to wash her brushes in the sink. Easels, paints and brushes, the remnants of an artist’s life stood before us. Hundreds of books lined the walls in teak bookshelves.
“Books can stay if you like, I don’t have much use for them anyhow, and you are welcomed to keep them if you wish as well as the pictures on the walls in the upstairs nook. That’s if you’re interested in a three year lease?”
“I’d like that very much thank you, and yes! I accept the lease.” Was I dreaming? Perhaps, but I was not about to wake up from this dream now, not now.
“I feel good about you, I Like your vibes” she exclaimed in a Timothy Learish sort of way and with a stroke of a pen, the place was mine for the next three years, with the option to buy of course.
The kitchen window had a wonderful wide red windowsill, perfect for Pugsley, Uncle Fester and Lurch. The loft was quaint with a spiraling wrought iron staircase reminiscent of the old 60’s movies, which led to a nook, perfect for a large futon. It had a bohemian ambiance to it. Pencil sketches and framed original drawings of wild orchids that strangely resembled vulvas, were neatly placed along the walls. They were signed: “with Love, Georgia O’Keefe”. A month alone and I was starting to see mirages in wild orchids? I sat there in shock but for a moment, just absorbing the sheer madness of it all, and then gathered myself.
Thoughts of Jacqueline flooded my mind and a wave of nausea washed over me. I started to cry for all the days I had not cried and for all the nights we had not spent together or made love. The realization that she was gone, truly gone, had seeped deep into my bone marrow, right then and there. What had I done? Had I thrown out the baby with the bathwater? Perhaps I had.
Moving day came. Lurch, Uncle Fester and Pugsley traveled in their nest inside a cardboard box marked: EGGS, DO NOT CRUSH. My first guests, and from the looks of them on the windowsill overlooking the small yard, it was a good place, a place where new memories would be forged. I sat there on the floor, the bookcases, the oil paintings, brushes, easels and colored chalks staring at me, witnesses to my loneliness. I felt a moment of elation as I looked around my new digs, of having found a new place to call home, but at what price? The elation was short lived.
In my haste, I had lost, forgotten, what was most essential, and for this, I had to face the reality of my actions, but I wasn’t truly alone; I had the kids on the windowsill and Georgia O’Keefe’s orchids watching over my sleep.
I’d just begun to unpack the boxes marked “kitchen” when a diminutive knock sounded at the side kitchen door; the fledglings, startled, started to peep and flutter their featherless wings. There, on the other side of that door, stood what was most essential to me, in wrinkled blue scrubs that showed signs of a sleepless night on call and holding in her right hand a scrap of paper I had left with my neighbor. Nothing was said for a few uncomfortable moments; we both stood there, staring at each other. I broke the painful silence.
“Care for a cup of black coffee and a hot shower stranger? I haven’t unpacked the good china,” I said, looking at her through misty eyes, biting my lower lip as to hide my quivering chin, “so a Styrofoam Dixie cup will have to do.”
“Please, thank you.”
I could see her trying to swallow a hard knot that was tightly lodged in her throat; her face flushed and reddened. A comfortable silence ensued. We both glanced down at the floor and walked into the kitchen without a word being said.
“I’ll introduce you to Georgia after you shower.”
“Never mind,” I said, and as we both sipped our black coffee in white Styrofoam Dixie cups, she looked up at me.
“This dark roast is delicious; tastes percolated.”
I smiled and nodded in agreement, and at that very moment, realized, that yes, it was the most delicious dark roast I had ever tasted.
He was tall- Strong. His hair was brown- Wavy and messy. His eyes were green- The kind of eyes that spoke to you without his lips saying a single word. His smile was blinding- Intoxicating. His shoulders were broad- Inviting. I fell in love with him the summer before I started high school. He was two years older than me, a friend of a friend’s. We met by chance, but became friends quickly. It was so easy falling for him, not that I ever intended to. He was sweet and kind- Funny. We spent hours on the phone. Countless summer days were spent by the pool, just talking. But friends was all we were, good friends, but friends none the less. I knew, even then, that I couldn’t tell him how I felt. At the time I was content just having him in my life, even if just as a friend.
I can’t lie and say it didn’t hurt to be just friends. I felt a stab in my heart every time he told me about the new girl he liked. It hurt to have him so close and yet so unattainable. Still, I decided having him in my life as a friend was better than not having him at all.
Being the good friends that we were, I was not surprised when he called me one rainy spring afternoon my sophomore year. “You have to come see my tree house,” he said, “I can’t believe you’ve never seen it.” I was always excited to hang out with him, and this time was no different. I was overjoyed, bouncing off the walls like a child on a sugar high. I know it sounds silly, a fifteen year old girl ecstatic over a tree house, but this wasn’t just any tree house- it was his tree house.
I tried to sound nonchalant as I mumbled, “Sure,” into the phone before rushing out the door and running to his house a block away. Once there, I rang the doorbell and tried to still my heart as I waited for him to open the door.
“That was quick,” he commented as he opened the door with a smile. He grabbed my hand to pull me inside. “Come on,” he said laughing. I couldn’t help but smile too. I remember wondering then, does he know?
He let my hand go when we reached the tree house. It was a tiny thing. To be honest, it didn’t even look that sturdy. There was a tiny ladder leading up to a small square hole in the floor of the tree house.
“I know it isn’t much,” he began, but I cut him off before he could say anymore.
“It’s awesome,” I was smiling like a fool, so happy to be standing at the foot of a tree house with the boy I loved. Not many girls were this lucky.
“Let’s go up,” he suggested. I should have said no. I should have gone home and finished my homework. I should have taken a second look at that tiny shack of a tree house and decided not to go up. I should have kindly smiled and said no. But I was young, I was in love, and I was naïve.
“Okay,” I said grabbing onto the ratty ladder to make my way up. Inside the tree house was small. The two of us hardly fit inside together. The only way we managed to fit was lying side by side, one side of his body touching one side of my mine. There was a small hole in the roof. I could see the clouds passing by through it.
“What do you think that cloud is shaped like?” He asked, taking a hold of my hand and casually playing with my fingers. My heart must have skipped a beat, maybe even a few. Again I thought- does he know? He must know.
“I don’t know,” I said nervously. I couldn’t focus on the shape of a cloud, not when he was holding my hand. No boy had ever held my hand before. No boy had ever laid this close to me. No boy had ever invited me to see his tree house. There were many firsts that day.
“I think it looks like a heart,” he replied, squeezing my hand. I giggled then, not because something was funny but because here I was lying next to the boy I loved with my hand in his looking at clouds and discerning shapes. He turned his head to mine and whispered, “You’re beautiful.” His breath tickled my ear so I giggled again and looked at him. It was then that he kissed me. It was everything I thought my first kiss would be. Sweet, cute, romantic- Innocent. He smiled as he pulled away. I smiled too, from ear to ear. Then he kissed me again, with more passion and vigor. His hand moved to the back of my head.
I was happy, but through my elated state I felt it- something was wrong. There was a tiny warning sign somewhere in the back of my head, at least I like to think there was. Something felt wrong. I put my hand up to his chest and pushed a little. “Maybe we should slow down,” I said softly, but there was something different in his eyes. Something wrong. He smiled, but it wasn’t the warm inviting smile from two minutes ago, the smile I had grown to love. It was cold, “Maybe we shouldn’t” was his reply.
I opened my mouth to protest but his mouth covered mine before I could utter a single syllable. His hand was still on the back of my head and he wrapped it in my hair. I couldn’t pull away from him. I tried to push him off, but he pushed my hand away. He was stronger than me. Before I could stop it he was on top of me.
“No.” It was the first word that came to my head and the only word I could fit in between his feverish kisses. “No, no, no,” I repeated with increasing volume.
“You’re so beautiful,” he whispered, but it sounded dirty- tainted.
He was touching me, his hands were everywhere. “No.” I was yelling now and my body started to catch up. I kicked. I threw punches. I was screaming now. He covered my mouth. “Be quiet. Isn’t this what you wanted?” he said. He was angry. “No, no, no,” I said again, but I couldn’t lower my voice. I couldn’t stop yelling.
He didn’t like that, so he hit me- Hard. My head hit the wood. I felt him pull my pants down. He was trying to touch me and fumble with his pants. I tried one more time to fight, to kick, to harm, to escape his grasp, to scream, but it was useless. He hit me again, a fist to the side of the head.
I stopped fighting. I stopped kicking. I stopped screaming. I stopped breathing. I lay like a corpse with tears in my eyes looking through the small hole in the roof of the tree house.
There are some things you never forget. Some things don’t fade with time. Things like the smell of wood and sweat, mingling together. Or the feel of someone’s uninvited breath on your neck. Or even the sound of a spring time rain falling around you and squeaky wood. You don’t forget the way time slowed to a crawl. Or the thumping of one body against another. And certainly not the sun creeping in through tiny cracks and a small hole in the roof of a tree house to blind you. Images and sensations I could never erase, no matter how hard I tried.
When he finished, he sat up. Smiling. I still couldn’t move. He kissed my forehead. “That was fun, let’s do it again sometime.” He had to have noticed the tears rolling down my cheeks, my lack of movement, or even the slowness of my breath. It was hard to ignore, but he said nothing. He pulled his pants up and made his way down the ladder, “I’ll be right back,” he yelled. I was sore aching and bloody. I wanted to crawl up into a ball and die right there in that tiny stupid tree house, but I didn’t. I found enough strength to pull my pants back up and get out of that tree house- fast. I didn’t know where he had gone, but I didn’t want to be there when he got back. Walking back through the house to leave was not an option, so I left through the side door, like a cheap whore.
When I got home I went straight to the bathroom to shower. I scrubbed every inch of body, every patch of skin he touched. I scrubbed until I was red, and still I felt dirty. I cried until there were no tears left to cry. Afterwards I went to my bed and just lay there, thinking.
I thought about going to the police. I could have told them what he did. He would deny it, of course, and say I had made it up. I couldn’t show them the pounding in my head from when he hit me, but I could show them the bruises he left on my arms and legs while he held me down. It would be a big scandal. But then I thought some more about it. I would have to tell more than one person. I would have to explain why I went into the tree house to begin with. I would have to tell a group of strangers that the boy I loved had ignored my tears and cries and done what he wanted with my body. And if it ever went to trial, it would be his word against mine. I would say yes and he would say no. I had just washed away any possible evidence in the shower. People would have to decide who was lying and who was telling the truth. I would have to tell more strangers what happened. What it would all boil down to was one simple thing- who had the more convincing story? And what if that wasn’t me? What if they believed him?
So I decided, that day while lying in bed, void of all emotion, that I would not tell anyone. I would not tell a room full of strangers, I would not tell friends, I would not tell relatives, I would not tell. And I never did. I never went to the police, or a friend, or a relative. I never told anyone.
Now, some seventy years later, I still have not told anyone about that day. Not my parents, not my husband, not a close friend, no one. I alone bare my secret. The only time I came close to telling someone was when my husband proposed to me, but I never went through with it. The truth is, by the time he proposed, I had buried the memory and the regrets. The regrets had taken with them the midnight crying fits and the fear of tree houses. I was no longer visibly damaged.
My husband’s recent death, however, has awakened in me a need to tell someone. I still can’t talk to anyone about it, not that I really have anyone to talk to. Justice is not what I seek. I long ago gave up the hope that somehow, someway, justice would be served to me. No, I merely want to unburden by myself before my eventual passing. I want to die, alone in my bed, knowing that someone out there knows that sweet boys can turn into monsters in an instant. I think that will give me peace of mind, if nothing else.
Before I go, I will say this. There is one thing that still strikes fear in my heart. One thing that still steals my breath and leaves me cold. I could never escape the memory completely; time doesn’t help with that. The glint of sunlight in my eye blinding me momentarily never fails to quicken my heartbeat and bring tears to my eyes. It is the one thing that brings to life the memory of that rainy spring day. That momentary blindness makes me feel so… helpless. Most people find happiness in sunlight, but I find it is a constant reminder that some monsters steal innocence in a tiny tree house in the middle of the day.
Elyse (Vivi) Caveda
“Wait up, Chris! Alex just found out his phone doesn’t have parental blocks!” shouted a slightly chubby blonde boy in a preppy school uniform. Chris cringed and stopped dead in his tracks, thinking he had gotten out of class early enough to not have to walk home with some of his most loathsome classmates. He was wrong.
“I really don’t have time to watch porn or whatever with you guys, I have stuff to do in a little while,” Chris said clearly, but deliberately avoiding eye contact.
Alex finally caught up just in time to hear this and remarked slyly, “Oh, so you have a girlfriend now?” He smirked, barely looking up from an expensive touch-screen phone that no fourteen year old would really ever need.
Two of the three boys sniggered only to see a particular shade of red had slowly crept its way onto Chris’s cheeks.
“You do have a girlfriend, don’t you? Amazing. Everyone thought you were a queer.” said the blondeboy giddily, patting Chris on the back.
“Shut up, Robert.”
“Blah, enough gossiping, take a look at this!” Alex waved the phone in front of both their faces. The screen displayed a Japanese website, the video buffering for a second before playing.
There was a moment of silence as the animated cartoon featured a rather busty young Japanese schoolgirl cleaning a chalkboard with jiggling vigor.
“Dude, gross!” bellowed Robert as soon as a monstrous demonic blob raised the girl’s skirt and inserted a series of phallic limbs into most of her orifices. “Why can’t they just have a human dude with an actual thing do it to her?”
Chris groaned loudly at the fact that this conversation was even happening. His head was already swollen with the pointlessness of the things these two idiots discussed every day, and it was getting to be all too much for him.
Alex ignored him and slid his glasses up the bridge of his nose in a professorial manner. “In Japan, they have decency laws against showing penises, even in porn. Tentacles are an easy way to get around it, so they became a popular theme.”
“Freakin’ weird. You sure know a lot about this stuff, Alex.” Robert huffed with more than a dash of discomfort as he pushed the hand holding the phone away from his face.
Alex pocketed the phone smoothly without even blinking. “Oh, I agree. It’s completely weird. I’m just fascinated by how sick some things on the internet are; not to mention that people actually get off on this. What kind of person-”
“This is my house, guys. I’ll see you on Monday.” Chris interrupted, already two steps up his porch with a jingling set of keys at the ready.
“Weren’t we meeting at Robert’s house on Sunday?” Alex said with a puzzled expression.
“Nope, I’ve got to clean my room and mow the lawn.” The last word of the sentence was punctuated by the abrupt slam of the front door.
Only when the third lock on the door clicked into place, could Chris sigh loudly in relief. He promptly dropped his backpack onto a chair, and was about to take off his jacket when he felt a cool embrace come from behind to take hold of his arms and shoulders. He tilted his head back as he felt murmuring nuzzles travel up his spine and neck.
“Oh Chris, you know I think you’re so cute when you’re in your school uniform. Keep it on today.” said a mature, feminine voice with a commanding air.
Feeling something slide deftly into his slacks, he reeled further backward, having long since rested all his weight back on her. “Anything for you.” He exhaled deeply before allowing himself to be enveloped in her wonderfully tingling gelatinous ooze; half a dozen tentacles wrapped around his chest.
B E R T A
The woman played with her chips and salsa, taking one, dipping it, then swirling it around some more before taking a bite. Alone at the bar, she stood out among the rest of the patrons. The others, mostly in pairs, guys waving their fists at the b-ball game on the screen and lovers close enough to feel each other’s breath on their skin, were all in their twenties or thirties. She was at least 70. Her soft yellow Polo shirt seemed to fade into her porcelain white skin. As she ate her chips and chased them down with a tall frosted mug of beer, she stared at the young couple next to her. Her stare was fixed at the man’s back. Feeling a burning sensation burrowing into him, he turned around.
“Loneliness sucks!” she said to him in Spanish before he ever had a chance to part his lips.
“I’m sorry,” he said, still confused.
“No need, it’s part of life. You think you get used to it but you don’t,” she said. Then she leaned over to shake his hand and added, “I’m Berta.”
The man twisted around awkwardly and shook her hand. “I’m José and this is my wife Arelys.”
“You make a beautiful couple. You remind me of my husband and me.”
“Is he here?” Arelys asked.
Berta didn’t respond; she seemed to disconnect briefly before returning her attention to Arelys with a muted reluctant smile. After only a moment, she resumed her casual chat with the couple. The bartender approached Berta, removed the empty mug and set a fresh napkin in its place.
“Another one?” he asked.
“Would you like another beer,” he asked her in Spanish.
“Si por favor,” Berta replied.
Berta, José and Arelys continued chatting until the couple’s meal arrived. Berta nursed her beer and perused the menu, as the couple slowly returned to their private conversation.
“¿Donde está el baño?” Berta asked the bartender.
The bartender pointed to the restroom sign and explained the route to her. Just as she was out of sight from the bar area, an elderly man in his 70s approached the bar and asked for a shot of whiskey and a beer. He raised the shot glass and whispered just below his breath, “this one’s for lo–,” he paused for a moment and then continued,”self-sufficiency,” and then downed the shot and chased it with his beer, killing half of it in one gulp.
“Would you like to see a menu?” the bartender asked.
“No gracias, I’m not staying; I just needed to wet my whistle,” he said with a rough throaty tone before finishing off the rest of the beer, paying his tab and departing out of sight.
Berta returned to her beer and nursed it a while longer before finally ordering another; this time she asked for a shot of whiskey to accompany it. She sat there nursing her fresh beer while the young couple she had been chatting with ate their meal. Forty minutes later the couple paid their bill and got up to leave.
“Adios.” Berta said reluctantly.
“Adios,” the couple called out as they walked away.
Berta played with her chips and salsa, taking one, dipping it then swirling it around some more before taking a bite.