Lost Cavern

       As far as she could see anywhere in the room, no one was keeping watch. Expecting to find someone, she saw only herself. At one end of the entrance, distant, light was projecting her off-red hair into gray in the end huge wall mirror. Its silver alloy cracked into a fine mesh, so her flesh was a ghost.

       Or was it an alabaster bust in the attic or plaster head of a composer won as an award in a piano playing contest? She rotated her own to see which and flicked her eyes to see neither of these. Instead, she was awake, after all the long trip home.

       On this giant mirror screen, she could see who was in back of her. Who shot pool? Who pressed their hands to their heads during board games, when the vast room contained restless groups with a constant z-z-z? Seeing or hearing no one, she landed in a booth. Her fingers traced unknown names scratched into the table, stick forms, and one “Kilroy was here.”

       Some called this vast room a refuge, a bunker. Not wanting to be surprised while seated, she stood up. The living would soon arrive.

* * *

       A year ago, wary of this spot, she’d hunted at dusk for the door into the building. Looking for insiders, one in particular, here was the door but not the man.

       The right door was one lined up in a series of false front buildings near the city’s main square. The storefront, like so many headstones one of which tipped, waiting for the past to thrust into the future. The door one gave way.

       Once an ice cream parlor for great-grands, this semi-underground now revisited with its fogged windows, had allowed passersby to gaze in until closed.  

       Her mother’s best friend had sung earlier on in this speakeasy, called the Cave for cavern. Later landlords used its expanse for a storeroom, until the break-in.  

       Into its lower reaches, youths forced in against the metal plate that covered the opening into a rundown restaurant, closed for the night on a particular night twenty or thirty years ago and only now reopened. 

       On into the dumbwaiter, others followed, swinging down below. This original core called their hideout the Cell for cellar. “We’ll make us our own hangout,” said Joey.

       “Yeah! No drug sellers.” Louie mocked short Joey.

       “Yeah, sellers.”

* * *  

       The community hullabaloo ballyhooed this gang hangout. The building’s latest owner said, “No place to go. So, they stay.” 

       Later though, Pete said, “He’s losing interest, as some of the town’s dailies and weeklies wrote that this drop-in for dropouts and some grown-up volunteers was drawing ‘riffraff and rejects with ducktails, and hellers dishonorably discharged.’” Something must be done for this trouble in Riverton.

       If anyone asked Michaela, nicknamed Micki, “Why go down to that hideaway?” she would have skittered away. It drew her into its whiffs of Prohibition, the twenties with speakeasies that dazzled and the thirties that dimmed the experiment. What mattered? 

       For Pete, the youth worker now semi-in-charge, tall and loose-limbed told her, “Keep an eye on the females, cut out the clinical people.” Once in sight, the Cell types were bouncing, pinching, punching, and other actions unknown to the sippers, stool sitters and hoppers of another era.

       The patient load getting used to the medical center differed from these here on the Cell’s floor. Steadying herself, she was unsure how to deal with these kids or grown-ups or those in between.

       Because of soles with cleats, their steps clicked on the stairs, fists pounded the stairwell and sounded like a drumming dance warming up. She jumped. Down bowling alleys, they were shooting scratched bowls at helter-skelter pins on alleys.

       On the sidelines, some with eyes sunken into their heads watched, until one put a coin into the jukebox. On flashed red, green, and blue into the low-lit atmosphere. The music of Gladys Knight and the Pips rollicked out.

* * *

       Instead of Pete, the one she was looking for, another older man sauntered in through the dancers on the floor, while a child, Annie, giggled behind him. Then the little one stayed to bob dance in time with the others. “Don’t leave,” he told her, as he pushed on toward the bar counter. He leaned on it. His fingers began tapping to the musical sounds on the marble, its graphite veins almost wobbled in time to the off-white staticky music, scratchy from jukebox. Distracted, his head fanned to lock into points across the span of the room to study each youth. After rotating for minutes, he said, “Girls hardly touch boys these days, do they? No cheek to cheek in this wartime. Just touch and go.”

* * *

       Micki glanced up at him. He removed his windbreaker that matched his chinos, pressed. With his kerchief, he wiped the damp from his temples. A musical staff crossed his frown lines beneath his white hair, swept to one side. Sadness that crouched between his eyes dropped away from time to time. Mostly, it stayed during the loud music.

       Years earlier, in the nightspot where they stood-in, he said, “I performed here and in clubs all over town and country.” Still scanning the Cell for someone, he revolved at times, pausing toward her at a diagonal. This man walked away from the bar, only to come back and reminisce, until the loud music stopped him.

       “After the Upper Peninsula Conservatory and Study with a master from the North, I landed my first job.” Trumpeters heard him in his school combo before Lent. “They’d come to talk me, while my pop was fixing the roof over our head, into joining their show.” 

       Pop resisted. “No.” 

       Mom relented. “Let him go with the circus.”

       Eventually, he arrived at Danceland on the edge of Chicago, where he played most weeknights. Dancers never seen before impressed him.

       “Why?”

       “What they did at the beginning of the Second World War was before anyone else in the know knew the way. We tuned up for all the gals out there, kicking off their shoes and performing in their stocking’d feet long before the fellows came in. They hadn’t paired off yet. You’d never seen such grateful people in your life for our music. Away they’d go!”

       Hank had moved on, he let Michaela know. She’d been the neighbor he’d known by sight and the neighbor she heard by his jazz music. 

       The dancers lay within him forever. Moreover, besides the violin, he had taught himself the saxophone. So, the leader of a new show band asked him to join up, playing two instruments for the pay of one.

       Between the discs on the red, green, blue, and red jukebox turnstile, he must have dreamed aloud this all back to her. “When the outside grew cold,” he continued, “the band moved farther south, and we turned inside while touring from place to place. Luckily though,” he said, “we did not zigzag every day, breaking the jumps.”  

       “What was that?” she asked.

       In time, Hank had teamed up with another bandleader, whose brother played with Paul Whiteman, though Hank said he’d been aiming for that band or another big one, when deciding the Whiteman band was too sentimental.

       By his late teens, he was recalling and enthusing with Micki. Of the youthful dances catching on in his hometown and hers, the one band gave Bunny Berigan his start at the Hollywood Gate. In its first “dime a dance,” Berigan dumbfounded the dancers with his special, “I Can’t Get Started.”

       “He stopped the show.”

       “He did. Who else could?” Later, the younger bandsmen parted into several small bands. She listened. He’d spent the following season at the River City Garden. In a big show band they performed—the players that is—for an hour at least twice a night, lasting until late in the morning. Onstage every so often, stars from comedy to opera also appeared, Hank said, “Names you never heard of.”

       “I might have.” 

       Sometimes two or three bands were booked-in at the same place. After the evening finished, some of the players would turn on their portable Victrola for others coming back from the ballrooms and clubs. They would sit around listening to thousands of “Louis records” by the hour.

       “Armstrong was jazz,” Hank said. “His New Orleans was all jazz. Chicago was jazz.” 

       “Some jazzmen arrange their music like a symphony. The ’go-men improvise. Sidemen play choruses. The band he played in played for thousands in the great big ballroom.” On its ceiling, a machine projected (Micki imagined) through an endless film over blinking lights for stars. “They’d play a medley of all the old familiar tunes.” 

       Hank could still hear Berigan, still a sideman, who would let go with his “Was That a Dream?”

       “He was a ’go-man, I was a sideman. He’s dead now, I’m alive.”

       As Hank talked, she slid her eyes on a younger man alongside the organizer Pete and watched him with his scrolls. She could not tell for sure if he was he; she’d been holding him in her mind for so long, creating reality, sleight of hand, sleight of mind.

       She could see his long neck leading to the dip in his back. Sensing her stare, he glanced over his shoulder at her.

       She was studying the ceiling over him. Others there in the great maroon were also tilting themselves toward the Cell ceiling, tin pressed into a squared-off design, to see it. She was looking up. Hank too was staring. Everyone was stargazing.

 * * *

       Hank was rattling on. “Berigan joined us in the last months in Detroit. All the celebrities came, the big shots. The time was Prohibition. Mr. Sloane, head of General Motors, came on weeknights, Amelia Earhart on weekends. They applauded Berigan, as he stopped the show with ‘I’m Nobody’s Baby.’”   

       When the Crash came, everyone was standing around, bemoaning what they’d lost. They did not tune up for dance music much at first. Eventually, players tried “PC dances” for a percentage of what was taken in at the door. We’d play and earn only a few cents the whole night long. We were trying to hang on.

       Things started to come back. “Talking pictures became the thing. Unless you belonged to the biggest band in the world,” he was saying, “you found little to do. Finally, the next world war brought Swing to a halt.” 

       Who knew if this man before Michaela would stay around the Cell for long? Was this here Hank volunteer material? He asked her for a drink. Without telling him that the Cell offered nothing soothing or lifting, no alcohol, pills, uppers or downers for its youthful clientele, now that grown-ups took over against other townspeople who wanted the Cell clubhouse banned and banished. 

       The cupboard below the counter held two warm drinks. One she handed one to him and the other hers for a later make-believe pick-me-up.

       The music was loud; they could not talk, nor could she. Or hear. Or see. Hank looked around the floor.

* * *

       The great maroon room held the usual groups. They little intermixed. One, the truants and wayward ones, called the other the would-be collegians and collegiates. They danced or hung out and around, both of them or neither, insulted each other, hardly suiting each other. 

       Everyone though was occupied. No one was out of order now. The organizer Pete was at the end of the space and with the younger guy at the other end to measure the floor space.

* * *

       Only the musician stayed nearby scrutinizing the growing crowd coming in, now that night was falling.

* * *

       Near dusk, Michaela had been standing on the street, all silence, when she’d glimpsed the player’s early family once again. The last light of day inflamed windows, still visible in the area buildings, unlike the Cell’s mucky blocked-up ones, as she waited for its youth organizer to unlock the door to the Cell farther down the alleyway. Something creaked behind her just before sundown. On the flats of the land along the riverbed, the unexpected arrived. 

       Lamps awake lit up the carriage sheen poised there on the street, while someone flashed a camera for photographs, and some museum somewhere came to life. The hair of its passengers flew around their faces, while Michaela’s then shorter hair stayed put. Center of the night, Lana, daughter of Hank rarely seen, wore a long black skirt cut on the bias. She pulled it up as if it would drag. Her toe touched down on the coach step as if the ground would fail her. Her partner in sideburns and crown waves above his white tie, steered them ahead toward the nearby supper club. A flip of her long hair alerted Michaela the onlooker.

       Lana and her brothers grew up half a generation behind Michaela, and next-door. The celebrated younger woman was shown in the newspaper the next day, where Micki confirmed what she knew. The man with the hair and tux from the night before would dance with his truelove at the club and was quoted in the society news, “I wooed her for years as a teenager.”  

       When Lana had first met him, she avoided him. He’d continued with a local reporter. Still, he sought her until she consented. Still, they’d not yet married.

       Michaela’s widowed mother was surprised. “See how well the younger woman turned out from her role as sweeper to her mother’s and Hank’s brood of kids.” Temporarily, their mother, Micki’s now former next-door neighbor, resorted to public aid, while their sons began to join the military.  

       Her by-then ex, Hank, had exited long before. Michaela had known his music from their next-door basements. Before she had been aware of the silence of the music, the music stopped. Those who lived nearby had been relieved by that family’s departure.

* * *

       She turned. If the mirror displayed her as ghastly or ghostly, it pictured him as deathly. “Name’s Hank,” he extended his hand to hers. She said, “I remember. Mine’s Micki.”    

* * *

       Spying them, his youngest daughter, Annie, her dance done, scrammed off the dance space, ran up to him and poked him in the ribs. Beneath her unruly yellow hair, her huge blue eyes looked smoky and seldom blinked. 

       She yowled, “Pip died. Pip, Pip, Pip. You promised me a new bird. You did. Jimmy took him out of his cage. He pulled out his tail feathers, not me. You promised.”

       “Maybe,” Hank replied. She danced off. “She’s almost nine and gives me trouble. I clean up in the morning. But later she calls me at work at night to tell me she’s picking everything up for him, cleaning up. Instead, she messes up the house. When I came home, I saw the pots were on cushions every which way. The lampshades were upside down. My records, Bach partitas, were all over the place out of their covers. One minute she’s good, the next so bad. She’s told so many lies, nobody believes her when she tells the truth.”

       “That’s not true,” the girl spoke up, as she popped over again.

       “What’s the matter? Can’t you supervise her instead of leave her alone?” Micki asked.

       “I’m used to loneliness,” he said. “I’m a loner. But she plays alone too much.” 

       “At times, she’s too bossy with her only friend. They’re both losers.” Still, to help the friendship along, the only one the girl had, all along, Hank gave some of her old things to the other girl. Mandy objected, by saying, “You’re helping yourself to my new things.” Hank denied this problem. “Not so.”

       “Her older brother’s troubled himself. When his mother, my wife, left me.”

       Mandy said, “You left.”  

       “Her older brother’s a mama’s pet,” Hank, the father, said, about the son “who was admitted to the Pavilion. Now he’s better and living with someone else.” 

       Hank had fixed up the basement of his home, dividing it into rooms with cinder block walls, for them and their new baby.  

       “When I work at odd jobs day or night, they watch my little daughter Annie, who stays with them and, then, belongs to a real family.”

* * *

       Abruptly, in the Cell, someone turned on extra lights. Micki could see how someone must have stained the counter over layers of grime, the spills darkening it. Over the serving area center, Hank braced himself. Near where they stood, a large lamp with a globe of opaque glass with brilliance in old Technicolor. These colors edged the mirror. In it, the light now backlit her face to semi-human, until someone else once again shut it off, leaving the room to its fewer lights, as the organizer and the other man unscrewed the lamp to keep roughhousing Cell boys from breaking it. So, they carried the turn-of-the-century globe to the sub-cellar.

       During this activity, Hank was telling no one in particular at the end of his musical career he used to play in places like this one. Now the Cell was reorganizing its own passions. Sooner or later anyone there fell into talking, taking part.  

       While telling him about the Cell, Micki lifted herself off from leaning on the bar, while he rolled his sleeves up, ready to go out into the heat or make himself at home. 

       He used to blow a horn every day, “But not so much now. I can play rock. Or classical. But I’m better at jazz. Swing.” 

       “Swing’s making a comeback.”  

       “Nostalgia: It was a musical war. Yours won.”

       “No, only yesterday someone said she was getting into old crooners.”

       “That’s different from swing.”

       “Along the same line.”

       After a pause, he said, “It was a musical war; rock won over swing.”

       On his forearm, when he squeezed his daughter to his side in his style of hug, Michaela watched his arm. When he twisted it, the tattoo gestured and jabbed the air. This she-dagger rode his ulna, inside his funny bone. Busty pectorals cleaved there above an American flag bodice expected to end in a mermaid’s tail bone. Instead it tapered into a blade.

       “What war were you in?” Micki asked. 

       He’d just missed WWII. The Navy wouldn’t take him, nor the Army, but the Merchant Marine did. So he missed active duty, when married with young ones, and he was too old for the one going on in Indochina.

       Over the jukebox music, he yelled. “Two of my boys went to ’Nam, one never made it home. The youngest never got there.”

       “Ever in a battle?” Micki asked.

       He didn’t answer. “One’s alive, the one I’m looking for. He’ll do anything for a fast buck.” He gave Micki a card with telephone numbers for home and work if she caught sight of his son. He made a fist down low for emphasis, the tattoo on the arm flexed, when he spoke. He moved it behind the counter and talked. Mandy rushed off the dance floor. 

       Once when his daughter was asleep, he started talking about her when she saw her brother walk by her bed. She tee-heed. “My brother Jimmy Tony was stealing my best clothes and money. But I pretended not to see him, because he might do something to me. If you spy his cow boots, their skin’s two-toned stitches.”

       “Shush.”

       “He eats so much of his girlfriend’s pasta, everyone calls him ‘Tony.’ If he’s down here in the Cell, in cow-boots, call him ‘Tony.’ Besides he relieves others on the job, like me a floater. Time off, he might drop off here.” 

       “The best brother,” Hank whispered, “drowned nine months ago in the river.

       “Now she has one less brother and no mother. I’m her mother, her father and her brother, the one she used to go everywhere with. Her sisters are somewhere. She really only has me.  

       “She needs friends,” he said.

       “I have friends,” Annie insisted.

       “You can’t have too many these days.”

       His eyes darkened. To get over his troubles, his last wife’s death, his son’s suffocating, he said, “I have a few drinks, slip on Paganini, lift weights to keep going. I moonlight in extra time for money.

       “I’m grown now. I have good memories, bad days. My life’s done. But hers is different. It’s beginning. 

       “She’s got troubles.”

       “I’ll think about her,” Micki told him. She would too, though the girl was too young for the Cell gang. Maybe, maybe not. 

       “If you ever see Jimmy Tony with blond loose hair, let me know?”

       “I’ll try.”

       “I’ll get him before he gets at me.”  

       He saluted. She saw the lineup of black-and-blue indelible puncture marks and scabs on his arm, jabbed by tubular needles.

       He shouldn’t be here with kids, she thought.

       He retreated upstairs out of the Cell.

       Someone flashed the lights off and on. Must be closing time. Thudding resounded within the walls of the stairwell. Everyone looked up. 

       A rangy youth seen first in the mirror, with longish blond hair, stood at the door of the Cell’s top of the stairwell.

       Joey tried to run up to plug him. Tall Louie sought to slug him but stopped short and bracketed the blond guy with his arms with sharp elbows pitted outward to prevent him from hitting some other guy.

       Pete the new organizer signaled with the lights on and off. One Cellmate threw himself up on the marble counter to reach the clock and spike off its hands. From then on, the Cell was a timeless place. Everyone left for the night.

About the author, Jean E. Verthein: I earned a master’s of fine arts degree from Sarah Lawrence College and received two writing grants from the Ragdale Foundation. My work has been published by Adelaide Literary Magazine, Artifact Nouveau, The Saint Ann’s Review, Downtown Brooklyn, Gival Press, Green Mountains Review, Scarlet Leaf Review, Hypertext Magazine, Litbreak, Oracle Fine Arts Review, and other presses.

What She Dared

Around the block from where she lives, another brick row house waits. Victorian like the rest, with deep blue trim and a stoop of four marble steps. The not-so-young couple that lives there moved into the neighborhood about the same time she left the suburbs and chose the city to find an engaged life. Hoping for weekends that didn’t include the rituals of lawn mowers and Weedwackers and piles of mulch. Planning for museums and long river walks.

She saw the couple a few times right after her move: the woman with a full-to-bursting belly, the man with his fifties crew cut. He was nothing to her then—just one of her neighbors. Occasionally she saw him stoop-sitting or carrying groceries home. She remembers talking to him a few months ago when neighbors gathered to chat.

Today, she is sixty-five and Medicare-ready. Because her hormones have long ago declared a ceasefire and her eggs have long ago disappeared, there can’t be a chemical trail running invisibly toward that neighbor’s house. But he has sensed something through the summer heat. He asks for her number one afternoon in front of her house while his dog wraps the leash around the urine-scented tree.

“Here’s my home phone,” she tries.

“No, your cell.” He laughs. “That way we can chat.”

She is sure of what the neighbor wants—as if the book on seduction has suddenly opened to her again. Just two weeks earlier, she’d left her second husband in the middle of their European vacation after a fight that never belonged in a lavish restaurant overlooking Venice’s Grand Canal. Lashing together her stuffed bags and carry-on, she rolled them down the street, making her way to the airport alone.

She’s spent the time at home revisiting old photo albums filled with her lost young man. They’d been married fifteen years when he died, gone before he could bald, work on his beer belly, or become bored with her. Disappeared in the middle of their lives along with all their memories, so she could never again turn to someone and ask: Remember when? No one would ever know her young, or dream a long future with her, or remind her of that exact moment their children were born. It should have lasted fifty years, that marriage.

But the neighbor doesn’t know her story; he only pauses in his dog-walking to get that number and start words flowing between them.

* * *

Let’s meet for coffee, the neighbor texts. Or for a drink or dinner. I’m really free next week.

So transparent, she thinks, as she loads on the wedding bands and her engagement ring. And chooses a dress that shows her figure but doesn’t reveal too much. How her body has changed in the last ten years, slackening into an odd variation of itself. She turns away from what she sees.

Locking the door behind her, she thinks that she’s always lived an honest life. Holding to rules that might protect her from moral disaster: Keep shared secrets; don’t hold grudges. Don’t envy others even when they’ve loved the same person for a lifetime. Don’t sleep with more than one man at a time. And certainly not with a man who belongs to someone else.

She isn’t even sure it’s him when she enters the bar, running through what she remembers from the sidewalk interview. That clipped hair. Tanned skin. Trim for a guy around fifty. Waiting for him to turn around, she feels all the years compress into this single moment. She is both that skinny teen waiting for her breasts to appear and the woman who has collected more experiences than anyone merits. Time confuses her, filling her with sadness.

“I’m not sure about my marriage,” she starts, getting to the truth even before she sips her wine. Even before he can start his seduction. “Not sure he can change. Or of what I want.”

She wants to say: I know what you’re about and you scare me. This scares me.

“I’m very attracted to you,” he says. “Was from the moment I saw you talking to your friends.”

“On the stoop?” she asks. “That was months ago.”

“I think about you whenever I walk by your house.”

“With or without the dog?”

He is laughing. “Marriage is hard.” Then he adds, “There are gaps,” as if admitting a secret.

She advises like someone’s mother. “But you have a child. You must be careful.”

“Supplementing works,” he offers.

“To fill in those gaps?” When he nods, she says, “Have you done this before?” His hand trembles slightly, the ice hitting the glass. As if he’s afraid.

Supplementing, she thinks. Like increasing vitamin D. Or devising a financial plan to insure both growth and safety. Or adding fiber to every meal. Supplementing: a new way to describe an ongoing problem since biblical times—one so common there’s even a Commandment against it. Number seven, she calculates.

So why that night does she say No, then Yes when he opens his front door? “Do you want to see the house?” Hadn’t she always been curious about that third-floor addition?

And first No, then Yes when he asks, “May I kiss you?”

He touches her face, his hands in her hair as he guides her into the kiss. Her hands stay by her side, and she wonders if she should move them. He pulls them around his neck and plays at her lips with his best technique. She tastes alcohol on his tongue.

She leaves so quickly the neighbor must wonder why, almost slamming the door behind her as she runs toward her house. But she is simply amazed that she has dared. The first new mouth in years. In front of her mirror, she wonders if this sin is etched on her face. Across the places where she rubs creams and glycolic acids each night.

She thinks of a statue that long ago beckoned—even before she was naked with a man, even before she had kissed passionately. The man’s hand rests gently on his lover’s bare thigh. The woman’s arm is around his neck, but he holds back, restraint tightening the muscles along his back. Nothing exists for them but the sensations their mouths produce. Their marble bodies glowed before her. For the first time in years, she wants to visit that sculpture. To revisit that kiss.

* * *

A few days later, in the middle of her living room, the neighbor’s second kiss is familiar and hungry. His mouth more insistent, less polite; his hands strong against her back. She’s aware of the fullness of his lips and the rhythm of the kiss. The very shape of his body.

“Mmm,” he mutters. “I’ve been thinking about you all day.”

But she remembers kissing her lost husband the first time behind the college dorms. He’d pulled her close, holding her against him in the spring air. Couples were locked together in every dark spot next to the building. Back then there were no husbands or wives or nosy neighbors to hide from. No teenage kid to damage. No grown children to disappoint.

“I want to kiss you now,” that lost husband had said when they were nineteen.

“If you didn’t,” she answered, her mouth against his ear, “I’d be rather disappointed.”

She can still pull the words and feel that long-ago kiss, one of thousands before the disease ignited within him to destroy. Before she washed his face after his breathing had stopped, and kissed that stilled mouth one last time.

The neighbor studies her face. “Are you here?” he asks. “Here with me?”

“Yes,” she answers.

* * *

Before the third kiss, in the corner of his hallway far from the windows where someone might see, the neighbor holds her tightly. The colored bubbles have flown between their houses, between their separate beds a block away. Foreplay that’s so provocative she can’t breathe. Can’t imagine being wanted this way after so long. Her now husband has stopped kissing her, along with everything else. A quick peck on the lips seems to be all she merits. She, who has always relished the physical.

For the first time she gives in to the neighbor’s kiss. She thinks of swooning Victorians, of young girls who lose control and later pay, of foolish old women chasing the past. She wants to cry and sing at the same time, to call out: I am still here. She wants everything this man can offer, played out in those bubbles that find her instantly in the bed she has taken over.

It’s the same she once shared with her lost husband—her lifetime bed. An antique they’d found on the Outer Banks when just engaged. The one she made her babies on. The one where she clasped him to her that night before the hospital, not realizing that they would never lie together again. The one she wept in after he died.

With her second marriage, she changed the mattress. Jettisoned the older one with hopes for the future. That husband, still in Europe, calls her daily, begging her to keep his spot until he returns. If she lets him come home. Tonight she will sleep on the diagonal, claiming all the territory as her own.

* * *

For days, all she is sure of are the sensations the neighbor’s mouth has ignited, like in some pulsing romance novel she always ignored in the store. I will, she thinks. I’m my own person. I want to live. I’m tired of being abandoned.

But the neighbor panics. I’m not sure I can, he writes. Afraid of making a mess. Please understand. I’m very, very sorry.

The texts slow down, then stop. She sees him on his stoop with his son. Walking with his wife on the street. Summer is over, and in the indifferent air, rules are once again important.

Only an interlude, she tells herself after she reads, I’ve enjoyed getting to know you. It’s beginning, middle, and end already marked. She will not deceive her own face in the mirror. A small moment, she knows. And nothing more. Her husband will return with his apologies packed in his oversize bags and with his secret, tight mouth.

* * *

In winter to come, the house around the block will be closed. She will watch the shades open and close, the window boxes cleared of flowers, the collected trash on the curb for recycling. Inside will be the man who once kissed her. Before, she might have convinced herself that none of this mattered and passion was over. That she was old enough to be happy with what she had. That she shouldn’t again expect something like those three kisses and all those imaginings.

But nothing will work against what the future cannot hold. Because in his coming and disappearing, in the colored bubbles that once floated through a sensual twilight, he has left her pregnant with desire.


About the Author: Phyllis Carol Agins has long found inspiration in Philadelphia, PA. Two novels, a children’s book, and an architectural study were all published during her years there. Recent short fiction has appeared in Minetta Review, Soundings East, Pennsylvania English, and Lillith, among more than thirty-five other literary journals. Lately, she divides her time between Philly and Nice, France, adding the Mediterranean rhythms to her sources of inspiration. She has recently finished FINDING MAURICE, a novel about Algeria and France during the 1960’s.

Disappearing

          It takes me a minute to realize that my mother is talking, and I reluctantly look up from my book. “What?” 

          “You need to get ready, we’re leaving for the ‘Preserve Chapman Island’ meeting in ten minutes.”

          “You’re kidding, right?”

          The meeting has nothing to do with me—it’s just an excuse for my parents and their friends to drink martinis and talk about getting rid of the cannery on the island. 

          When she doesn’t say anything, I add in the bitchiest, most sarcastic voice I can muster, “I thought I was grounded?”

          Silently she scowls at me with her hands on her hips. “You’re coming with us. That’s final.” 

          As I expect, the “meeting” is a bunch of old people drinking and laughing too loud. As soon as we walk in, my parents are pulled into a conversation and I take a drink off a tray—a gin and tonic or a vodka tonic, I’m not sure—and walk out to the sunroom. I ignore the women talking at the end of the room, and sip my drink and stare out at the sailing-school boats in the bay. Watching the little boats pulling on their moorings, I thank God that sailing lessons are long behind me. All the other kids seemed to love it, but for me it was torture. Even when the water was calm, it was a blue so dark it was nearly black. I spent every minute on the boat worrying about what was hidden under the surface—mackerel being chased by stripers, lobsters crawling over the rocks or something else I didn’t want to let myself imagine. I tried to convince myself that whatever was sliding through the water wouldn’t hurt me, but every time my sailboat capsized, I’d scramble as fast as I could to right it and climb back in. I couldn’t bear to be in the water, my legs dangling down into the black, thinking of everything that might be lurking below. 

          I startle when someone next to me says, “Care for a canapé, Miss?”

          “Uh, no thanks,” I say distractedly, glancing at the server then back out at the water. 

          “What the hell, Frankie?” the girl says.

          I turn to look at her. She’s wearing black pants and a white shirt, but she’s young and her long hair is pulled back in a ponytail. 

          She stares at me with disbelief. “It’s me—Shannon—we hung out at Tina’s last week? And like a million other times too?”

          “Right! Of course I know you, Shannon.” I force a laugh. 

          “For a minute I thought you didn’t recognize me!” She says, laughing, “Thank God! I didn’t want to think you’re like everybody else here!”

          “Oh, please!” I say, rolling my eyes. “Don’t confuse me with my parents!”

          “Will you be at Pete’s tonight? Everyone’s going and the twins got a keg.”

          “I’m not sure if I can. I’m still grounded.” 

          Mrs. Carson sees me through the doorway and comes out to the porch. “Oh, Francine! It’s so nice to see you! Charlotte will be sorry she missed you; she’s not back from London yet.”

          I can feel Shannon watching me as I nod slightly.

          Turning to Shannon, she says, “Why don’t you refresh your tray, and please tell someone in the kitchen there’s a spill on the rug in the study that will have to get cleaned up quickly or it’s going to set.”

          “Of course.”

          To me, she says, “As soon as Charlotte’s back we’ll have to get out on the tennis courts.”

          As Shannon walks away I blurt out, “See you tonight.”

          Mrs. Carson seems startled, but Shannon doesn’t acknowledge what I said.  

          “Nice party,” I say to Mrs. Carson, “I’m going to go outside for a bit,” and go out the screen door to the lawn. I wander around and then sit on the tree swing. Lazily I push myself and think yet again how annoying it is to be grounded, especially since there are only a few weeks left of summer. The funny thing about getting caught Saturday is that TJ had promised the night would be epic, but it was actually one of the most boring nights all summer. When he picked me up, I was just happy to be done with the SAT tutor my mother had somehow found to come out to the cottage. The tutoring—and my father and brother’s constant arguing—were driving me crazy. In most ways it wasn’t different from any other summer, but somehow everything was grating on my nerves.

          TJ picked me up in his faded red pickup, and as we drove I was content to feel the breeze and watch the sky smeared with orange and pink. We stopped at the empty parking lot at Crescent Beach and smoked some pot while we watched the sunset. As usual, the pot put TJ in a philosophical mood.

          “There are two kinds of people in the world, Frankie,” he’d said, counting on his fingers. “One, the kind who are petrified of doing anything because they might screw up their one precious life. And, two, the kind that have to find a reason every day not to end it all.” He looked over and took my hand. “Am I right?”

          I smiled. “You might be.” 

          We hung out for a while longer, and as he pulled out of the parking lot, TJ asked, “You ready to get this evening started?” 

          “Sure,” I said, adding, “Hell, yah!” Trying to sound more excited.

          Leaning back against the headrest, I felt sleepy from the pot and thought about what TJ had said. He said things like that a lot—usually when he was trying to convince me to do something like get high, jump off the dock railing, or have sex with him. And maybe there was something to his philosophy, but I know there are way more than two kinds of people in the world. There are the ones like the kids at home who are going to succeed and live impressive lives, despite all the ways they’re bound to fuck up. There are the clueless, oblivious ones like my dad, who doesn’t seem to register anyone except himself. And there are the “everything is wonderful as long as the neighbors think it is” people like my mother, who is entirely focused on creating the appearance of perfection. Then there’s my brother who’s threatening to be some kind of a rebel, but who I’m sure will end up exactly where he’s expected to be. But if TJ wants to see the world as black and white, who am I to disagree? 

          “Let’s get this party started!” He accelerated briefly before stopping at a traffic light.

          When the light changed, TJ hesitated for a moment before turning right like the car in front of us. We drove for a few blocks back toward the bridge to the island, and I wondered where we were going. Maybe to get some food at the Clam Hut? But then he turned left, and took an immediate right heading away from town, just like the blue Camry in front of us. I glanced at him but he seemed to be concentrating.

          We drove for a bit and I had no idea where we were. The road became narrower, winding through dense woods. Finally, it straightened out and we passed a farm with huge fields stretching out on either side, the empty fields lined with fence posts and sagging strings of barbed wire. 

          “Where are we?” I asked. I honestly didn’t know what town we were in, and there was no one else around except the car in front of us.

          I looked at TJ and he shrugged.

          The Camry was still in front of us, and it accelerated and then suddenly turned left into a neighborhood without signaling, and TJ turned in after it.

          “What are you doing?” I asked.

          He looked at me and said with a laugh, “Check this guy out! He is totally freaking…”

          Just as he said that, the Toyota took a quick left and then a quick right. I had to grab onto the armrest as the truck swerved and the car in front of us sped back out of the neighborhood, TJ keeping up with him.

          “What are you doing?” I asked, realizing I’d been holding my breath.

          “Oh my God!” he said, laughing again. “This guy is losing his shit!”

          The Camry blew through a stop sign and raced down another quiet side street as we followed close behind, and I wanted to tell TJ to slow down. Then suddenly, with tires squealing, the guy in front of us turned into a driveway. I wondered if it was even his house.

          TJ slowed his truck as we passed and I could see the driver—an old guy with short gray hair and a beard—staring at us in the rearview mirror, his eyes bugging out. As we watched, the car door started to open. TJ stepped on it and we sped down the street and turned back out on the main road.

          TJ slapped the wheel like he’d just seen the funniest thing in the world. Finally, he turned and looked at me. “What?”

          I could feel my heart pounding. “What was the point of that exactly?”

          “Don’t you ever feel like you need to do something…unexpected? I don’t know Frankie, if you don’t get it, I can’t explain it to you.” 

          We drove in silence for a few minutes, and I considered asking him if he’d take me home. I didn’t feel like going out anymore, and having an early night sounded much more appealing than hanging out at a random party.

          “I’m not like you,” TJ said, seemingly out of nowhere. “I don’t come from a rich family with lots of houses.”

          “We only have two houses,” I interrupted. “Well, three, I guess, if you count the ski cabin but…” I let my voice fade away, hearing how stupid I sounded.

          TJ didn’t even look over at me, seeming lost in thought. “Whatever—one house, three houses—it’s not just that and you know it.” He scowled at the road. 

          “And it’s not just the money, although that’s part of it. It’s more that you’re not from here. Your life is already bigger than this place. My life has always been—and will probably always be—here. But the island is just a place you come sometimes, a stopping point on the way to your real life.”

          We rode in silence. I wanted to contradict him, but I couldn’t think of what to say without sounding condescending. And the truth is, I got what he was saying. 

          “Sometimes I feel like I’m looking through binoculars, you know?” he said. “Like all I can see is one tiny area in front of me…when I know there’s so much more out there. There has to be,” he added softly.

          We stopped at Dairy Queen for hot fudge sundaes, and someone told us that the party on the beach had already been broken up. So we drove out to the marsh and drank the six pack he’d brought, until I was tired of pushing his hands away from the zipper on my jeans and said I had to get home. 

          I don’t even know what time it was when I got home. I just have a vague memory of staring up at the stars as TJ drove me home, but that could have been a memory from another cloudless night when we were driving around. All I know is that there’s a different sky in Maine— where millions and billions of stars crowd the black night sky, a sky that doesn’t exist anywhere else. 

          TJ shut the headlights off before turning into the driveway, and he stopped far from the house. I wasn’t even drunk, and I’ve snuck in so many times I know how to keep the kitchen door from squeaking, but that didn’t matter since my parents were sitting in the living room. One thing I do remember, is saying “Oh, fuck” when I saw them.

          Of course they acted outraged and grounded me for a week. Listening to their lecture about my lack of responsibility, I felt like it was a scene scripted to make them feel like good parents. It was such an overreaction—and especially stupid given how lame the night was—but for some reason I didn’t feel like arguing. 

          The first night of my sentence, Jay and I were both home and we played Yahtzee on the screened porch like we did when we were kids. Our parents were out and we sipped cans of beer and watched the sunset. As the darkness took over we didn’t bother to turn on the porch lights, our game forgotten.

          Out of nowhere Jay asked, “So why are you hanging out with TJ? He seems like such a loser.”

          Pissed off, I sat up. “No he’s not. He’s…” 

          I tried to think of a response while at the same time trying to figure out what I really thought of him. “Maybe he doesn’t belong to the yacht club, but he’s better than most of the douches that come here for the summer.”

          Jay seemed to think about that for a minute. “Fine, but I’ve seen him doing wheelies on his motorcycle, and I heard he can get kind of out of control.”

          “Jesus, Jay,” I said with a laugh. “It’s called being a kid—doing backflips off the pier isn’t exactly a criminal offense.”

          “I know…I just don’t want you to get hurt.”

          It actually made me kind of happy to hear him say that. “I know. TJ blows a lot of smoke too. He jokes about not living past twenty-five, and going out in a blaze of glory. But he’s not serious about any of that. He’s actually pretty smart and will probably end up going to college.” 

          After a minute, I added, “Don’t tell Mom, but I’m actually starting to wrap my head around senior year and college, too.” We ended up talking about my top college choices and whether I should apply early like he did, or keep my options open. 

          I’m thinking about that conversation when my parents finally leave the party. I’ve been sitting on the swing for more than an hour when they come out. They seem slightly surprised to see me, as if they forgot they dragged me there. I don’t speak on the ride home, and they’re so busy talking loudly—or arguing (sometimes it’s hard to tell). I try to pretend I’m not there. They’ve both definitely had a few, so at least I know I won’t have a hard time sneaking out later.

          I call TJ from the kitchen phone as soon as we get home, and make a sandwich and eat it in my room. At ten o’clock, I put a sweatshirt, a flashlight, and two joints I’ve been saving in an old backpack. If I have to, I can climb out the window and climb out over the porch roof, but from the hallway I can hear my parents’ voices coming from the porch. From the volume of their voices and laughter, I know that I can go down the back staircase and out the side door. I make sure to shut off my light and put my pillow under the quilt in case they check in on me. I don’t think they ever do, but better safe than sorry. 

          At the bottom of the stairs I almost bump into Jay leaving the kitchen with a bowl of ice cream. 

          “Oh my God! You gave me a heart attack!” I whisper as loudly as I dare. I put my hand to my chest and can feel my heart beating wildly.

          “I gave you a heart attack? What are you doing?”

          “Nothing…”

          “Right. For God’s sake, Frankie, you’re grounded!” he interrupts. 

          “Fuck you, Jay.”

          “Nice,” he responds.

          “No, seriously, you’re not in charge of me.”

          “Maybe not, but that doesn’t mean that you’re not being stupid…”

          “Stupid? Wanting to go to a party and hang out with people that are real, and aren’t just the same country club assholes?” My voice grows louder but I don’t care. 

          “No, I get it,” Jay says, his face serious. “I really do.”

          He reaches out and touches my arm. “I just worry about you—especially with TJ.” 

          I consider telling him to fuck off again, but looking at his face I say, “I know, Jay. But you don’t have to worry about me. It’s summer and I just want to have a little fun, I’ll be fine.”

          I turn to go but he holds onto my arm. “OK, promise me? And don’t be too late.”

          “Okay, Jean,” I say smiling. We both hate it when we call each other by our mother’s name.

          “Promise?” he asks again, gently squeezing my arm. 

          “I promise.” 

          The moon is nearly full and I don’t even have to turn on the flashlight as I walk down the driveway to the end of the road. Waiting for TJ, I slap at the mosquitos that buzz incessantly around my head, and I wonder if I should have said I’d go out. But as soon as I see his headlights, I’m glad I did. There are only a few more weeks until I have to go back home and deal with the real world. I need to seize every chance I have to enjoy what’s probably going to be my last full summer on the island. 

          The party ends up being way more fun than I expected. Jason has a big house, and his parents’ bar is well-stocked. We do shots and then someone cranks the music and everyone starts dancing. I’m having a good time, but after we’ve been dancing for a while I look over at TJ and catch his eye. He winks and I wink back, then he walks over and takes my hand.

          “Ready to go to Deer Point? It’ll be romantic.” He raises his eyebrows trying to make me laugh. 

          I smile and rest my head on his shoulder. “Another time. I’m ready to go home.”

          He kisses my head and we walk to the car. 

          It’s only a couple miles back to the cottage across the bridge to the island. I sit close to TJ as he drives. He has one hand resting on my leg and I put my head on his shoulder. It’s hard to keep my eyes open, I suddenly feel as if I could sleep forever. 

          “Tonight was fun, thank you,” I say.

          “Frankie, you don’t have to thank me. Being with you is the best part of my summer…the best part of everything, really.” 

          I’m thinking about what he said as we approach the bridge. Even though it’s not even four o’clock in the morning, the sky is changing. Not quite gray, but there’s a hint that the sun is about to rise. 

          I take TJ’s hand and he looks at me. As he turns his gaze back to the road, he says, “Oh, shit.” 

          As I look up, the blurry shape of a deer is rushing toward the side of the truck. TJ jerks his arm and I fall to the side as the pickup swerves. My head twists sharply as we slam against the bridge railing, and I feel a rush of air as the door flies open. As I wait for everything to stop, I realize that I am falling. And there must be sound, but I don’t hear a thing as I feel the truck slam against the water and the rush of cold surround me as everything goes dark. 

About the Author, Kim Venkataraman: My work has appeared or is forthcoming in Amarillo Bay, Carbon Culture Review, Desert Voices, East Jasmine Review, Forge, Halfway Down the Stairs, The MacGuffin, The Licking River Review, Midway Journal, Nassau Review, Penmen Review, Redivider, Riverwind, Spout Magazine, Talking River, Valparaiso Fiction Review, and Willow Review. I live outside of Boston, and spend time during the summer in Maine where I grew up.

Lonely Bones

       Jessa smiles the first time that she runs away from the hospital—the same smile that always wins Amelie over, bright and wild. She stands in Amelie’s bedroom like it’s the only place she belongs as Amelie muffles a yawn behind her hands and says, “Jess? How’d you get here—I thought you were supposed to still be at the hospital?”

       “It’s okay, I’m way better now. Like a whole new person, you know?” Jessa says and something inside Amelie sinks because Jessa has fed her those exact same lines at least a hundred times. “And anyway, I didn’t really like it there. I’d rather be here with you.”

       Amelie pushes down her doubts as she climbs out of bed and wraps her arms around Jessa. Her body feels so light, like a strong gust of wind might carry her away into the wide prairie sky.

#

       On their first date, Jake watches Amelie eat—fork and knife slicing her meal into tiny pieces. There’s only one restaurant in town, so they slide into the corner booth that has belonged to Jake and his friends for as long as Amelie can remember. 

       “Has Jess come back from the hospital yet?” he says. Amelie blushes every time he speaks—tall and broad-shouldered, he is so beautiful that sometimes she forgets to breathe. 

       “Yeah, the hospital signed her out this morning.”

       “I’m glad she’s back. But let’s go, we’re late for the movie,” he says, blue eyes drifting up to the clock hanging on the wall. When Amelie glances back down at her half empty plate, he says, “You weren’t going to eat all of that anyway, right?”

       “What? Oh—no.” She shakes her head and pushes it away, although the smell of food still makes her hungry stomach grumble.

       Later, his hands cover her body—fingers running across the smooth grooves of her bones.

#

       The next time that Amelie visits Jessa, it feels like she is barely there at all—brown eyes huge in her delicate face. They sit quiet on the floor of Jessa’s bedroom as sunlight falls through the open window. White curtains blow in the breeze.

       “So you’re feeling better?” Amelie draws her knees up to her chest.

       “Yeah, I feel great.” 

       “Why do you do it?” 

       “Do what?” Jessa blinks, thin cotton shirt clinging to every curve of her vertebrae. They stare at each other in silence before Amelie says, “Never mind. I just—I missed you so much.”

       “I missed you too.” Jessa hesitates before she takes Amelie’s hand. Amelie closes her eyes and wishes that they could just stay like this for the rest of their lives.

#

       Jake meets Amelie late at the party out in the country—loud music thrumming like a second heartbeat deep inside her body.

       “Want to dance?” He smiles, slinging an arm like an anchor around her shoulders.

       “Okay,” she says and he takes her hand, pushing through the milling bodies as she drifts in his wake. They dance through several long songs—his heavy hands wander from her waist as they sway in slow circles. 

       When he goes outside to smoke, she glimpses Jessa through a brief gap in the crowd—thin, almost ethereal body moving to the music as people watch like they can’t look away. Amelie doesn’t blame them. 

       She waits, but Jake never comes back from his smoke break and so Amelie pushes through the crowd until she reaches Jessa. They dance the rest of the night away and when Amelie places her hands on Jessa’s waist, she can feel her hip bones, sharp beneath her clothes. 

       Later, they both crawl into an empty bed, heads heavy from exhaustion. Jessa falls asleep almost immediately, despite the pills that she has been popping all evening—body warm beneath the sheets. Amelie stays awake, listening to the sound of her breathing.

#

       The second time that Jessa runs away, Amelie also stops eating. She cuts her meals into small bites and pushes the pieces around on her plate until it grows cold, and then she throws it out. At night, she lays awake in the dark, waiting for Jessa to tap on her window, demanding to be let inside. When she sleeps, she doesn’t dream about anything.

       “Are you on a diet or something? You’ve lost a lot of weight,” Jake says one morning, sitting half-dressed at her kitchen table.

       “No.” Amelie sips black coffee, taste bitter in the back of her throat.

       “Well you look great.”

       “Thanks.” Amelie stands, pushing back her chair—its legs scrape against the kitchen tiles. When she shrugs into her jacket, he says, “Where are you going?”

       “Out to look for Jess. No one’s seen her since she ran away from the hospital.”

       She kisses him on the cheek before she leaves.

#

       Amelie visits all of Jessa’s favorite places, always expecting to find her waiting—smiling like it’s some kind of game. But she returns home alone as the sun sets, feet sore from walking all around town. 

       Up in her bedroom, Amelie shuffles through all the clothes in her closet, picking a few potential outfits to wear on her next date with Jake. 

       “Hey, could you just say something?” She sends the message to Jessa and waits for her phone to vibrate. When it stays silent, she tosses it down on the covers of her bed and bites her bottom lip. Her head hurts, a dull pain pulsing at the back of her skull.

       She tries on the outfits in front of the mirror, spinning in slow circles to study the way the clothes hang from her body. Then she strips down to her underwear and runs her hands along her rib cage—feeling all the empty spaces between her bones.

#

       On their next date, Jake drives far out of town—parking the truck on the side of a deserted dirt road, headlights brightening the night. They sit in the open bed of the vehicle, passing a bottle of wine back and forth beneath the stars.

       Amelie only takes small sips, eyes tracing the constellations in the heavens above as Jake curls his thick-muscled arm around her waist. When she checks her phone, screen highlighting the delicate contours of her face, he says, “Have you heard anything from her yet?”

       “No.” Amelie knows who he is talking about without even asking.

       “Well, she’s got to show up eventually. But it’s kind of nice that I’ve got you all to myself right now,” he says and kisses her, mouth rough and hungry.

       When he pulls off her loose cotton shirt, he grins at her skinny body. Amelie wonders if it’s possible to become thin enough to just disappear completely.

#

       She showers after Jake drops her off at her place, shivering beneath the slow-warming water. Crawling into bed, she pulls the pillows over her head and breathes deep, like maybe the scent of Jessa’s hair still lingers caught in the fabric. But it doesn’t smell like anything and so she reaches for her phone on the nightstand.

       “Please say something.” Amelie sends another text to Jessa, slender fingers tapping against the smooth screen. Stubborn, her phone stays silent and she sighs, closing her eyes.

       In her dreams, Jake is eating her—skin, bone and marrow. Bright blood smears the corners of his mouth and she wakes with a start, heart hammering as she stares into the dark. 

       And this might also be a dream, but later Jessa taps on the window until Amelie stumbles out of bed to let her inside. They fall asleep together, Amelie holding Jessa close enough to feel the bones beneath her clothes.

       When she wakes, her stomach aches. 

About the Author: Ashton Noone writes short fiction from Calgary, Alberta. Ashton's work has been a finalist in the In Places Between: The Robyn Herrington Memorial Short Story Contest and has appeared in the Aurora Award-nominated anthology Enigma Front: The Monster Within.

Hummingbirds

       “Rufous is back!” Blanche shouts.

       Henry falters from a doze in his electronic push-up chair.

       Blanche grabs for a tattered dish towel and marches toward the deck on a mission, only to be met by an obstacle! The screen door is completely broken. 

       Her wrinkled face squishes into a grimace. Blanche knows, only too well, that her neighbor, Sally Collins, will be happy to help on the next check-in. Sally cheerfully drops by every morning, with a cup-of-tea excuse, but Blanche is certain it’s to make sure that she and Henry survived the night. Sally’s been here already this morning. She won’t be back until tomorrow. Blanche will figure out how to fix the screen door on her own before then. 

       Sally is the same age as Blanche—eighty—but looks rosy in her pastel “jogging” outfits, and she moves with a bouncy step since taking up tap dancing at the Trumbull Grange Hall. 

       Blanche jiggles the screen door, tips it to the side, and wiggles it the other way. She shoves and thump-thump-thumps it open. If she doesn’t hop-to, tannish brown Rufous, like a schoolyard bully, will chase the more cooperative red and green Broad-tails away. A nine-inch space between the screen door and its frame allows Blanche to slip through. Her body, in gray sweatshirt and baggy trousers, has shrunk to five feet, two inches from her earlier five feet, five inches. Never a heavy woman, Blanche weighs a mere ninety pounds. 

       Charging onto the deck, she waves the dish towel like a flag that has seen too many battles. Blanche doesn’t want to hurt Rufous, but something has to be done. He can’t run roughshod over the others. If she could only get a little closer. Taunting her, he circles behind the feeder. When she had her full height, Blanche could have easily reached him. 

       She doesn’t depart, so Rufous jets off to loiter in a nearby ponderosa pine while the other hummingbirds gather to take fast sips from ten red plastic, blossom-shaped dispensers. They give each other turns the way Blanche wants them to do.

       She used to teach fifth graders, and often said, “They’re agreeable. Different from those sixth graders with their big ideas.”

       Fifteen years ago, Henry, upon his retirement, came up with his moving-to-the-cabin-permanently idea. Blanche felt a painful clutch to the chest as if her heart had been stabbed. The thought of leaving her school, where she had been employed since their boys went off to college, caused a throbbing, like her lifeblood pumping out. 

       Eventually, she got over the loss and started volunteer work. She also quit thinking of the old white colonial in Denver as “my home,” which is a good thing because their youngest son, Andrew, and his wife, both artists, bought the house. Recently, they painted it chartreuse with burgundy trim.

       With a huff of irritation, her thoughts return to Sally Collins and her meddling ways. 

       Sally is also a permanent resident on the river. She and Ralph and her three pampered felines moved in year-round shortly after Henry and Blanche Robinson took up permanent residence. 

       At the time, Henry said, “This is just grand. Chums right here in the wilderness. We don’t have to drive down the mountain for a party.”

       At the time, Blanche felt grateful to have an old friend nearby.

       As soon as she turns her back and heads for the front room of the cabin, Rufous, like a fighter pilot, dive-bombs the Broad-tails. Blanche does an about-face. If it’s necessary to stand here until the little ones get their fair share, that’s exactly what she will do. For another ten minutes she waits, dish towel stretched tightly between her two hands, teeth clenched, causing her prominent chin to jut out. 

       At last, the satiated Broad-tails fly off to hide in low-hanging branches, and she finally feels free to leave her post. It’s time for Rufous to have all he wants. There’s plenty more. Blanche makes a new batch of boiled water and sugar every day. She requires a good supply because bats raid the feeder at night. If some sleep wasn’t necessary, she’d stay up with a flashlight to scare them off.

       “Did you get rid of him?” Henry rasps, leaning forward on his chair when Blanche returns. He can barely see the hummers due to macular degeneration, which has left him legally blind, yet claims that he senses their whirring motion and hears their metallic whistling sound.

       “I sure did,” Blanche says. “Kept him away until the others got enough.”

       Henry has taken to slumping on his walker near the deck railing, letting the more sociable of the hummers, never Rufous, land on an outstretched finger. Grinning, he says the beating wings tickle. Observing this, Blanche finds it impossible to believe that he used to perform several delicate surgeries each month. Christopher, their eldest son, has taken over the practice, with his wife as part-time bookkeeper—a position Blanche held through their boys’ growing-up years.

       “How ’bout me?” Henry whines. “Time to fill me up?” 

       “Sandwiches’ll be ready as fast as I can assemble them.”

       “A bit of wine’d be nice.”

       “You always say that.”

       “Well, it would. Some of the peppery red that Ralph used to like,” he coaxes.

       Sally’s husband always said, “Wine is good for us.” He’s been gone over a year. Cancer. Blanche is sure that if he hadn’t indulged in all the scotch, as well as all the wine, he’d still be with them.

       She takes a small glass shaped like a turned-up bell and pours barely a thimbleful of cabernet into it.

       “Dr. Johnston tells me this is beneficial. Takes away the aches and helps me sleep,” Henry informs her for at least the hundredth time. 

       “What does he know? Burt Johnston doesn’t look old enough to be a doctor,” Blanche retorts for at least the hundredth time. “If you hadn’t been drinking so much wine all these years, you’d have your vision, of that I’m absolutely convinced.” And your sharp mind. Blanche forges toward the kitchen. “Besides, you sleep more than enough with those long naps.”

       While standing next to the counter nibbling at her own lunch, she cuts Henry’s tuna fish sandwich in triangles and places them on a plate from the old house. It belonged to her mother and has a rose pattern. When he could see, Henry liked these dishes. Alongside the sandwich, she arranges sliced Gala apple in a pinwheel. Next, Blanche waves her hand over the plate as if giving his food a blessing and carries it to a foldable tray alongside his “magic” chair.

       After she sets down the meal and tucks a napkin into Henry’s collar, he says, “More, please?” Two wobbly hands lift the wineglass under Blanche’s nose, Oliver Twist-like. 

       “Just one additional, very small serving,” she says, and after it’s poured, “I don’t want you tripping in the bedroom when you go for your rest.”

       Blanche hears Henry’s sigh, but chooses to ignore it. Several months ago, he fell at bedtime. Stark-naked and about to wriggle into his pajama bottoms, he tipped over. She couldn’t hoist him onto the bed. He insisted that she help dress him before calling Sally, so she rolled and boosted and tugged until he said, “I’m properly covered.” Upon arrival, Sally aided Blanche in lifting Henry off the floor and tucking him under his blankets.  

       She stayed for at least an hour. “To make sure everything’s okay.”

       That’s when Blanche first imagined Sally acting as their monitor. Tick-tick-tick.

       “Why don’t I get a little wine to relax you?” Sally had said, in an annoying, artificially calming voice that she’s taken to using all the time.

       “I don’t need to relax. I’ll make some tea.”

       “Tea would be nice. Remember tea we used to drink at The Cozy Café?”

       “I most certainly do, as well as the work on your campaigns.” And so started one of their many stories. Blanche helped Sally win every high school class office she ever ran for, with useful improvement ideas and colorful, eye-catching posters: Vote for Sal—She’s Your Gal!!! They lost touch with each other until, after Blanche’s years of supporting Henry through medical training, when he finally joined an established practice, they became reacquainted. Sally was the wife of another junior partner in the cardiology group.

       She would say, “It’s so remarkable that Ralph and Henry came to the same office. We were able to resume our friendship.”

       Blanche also used to think of it as remarkable.

       On the night Henry fell, when Sally ran out of memories, she started on the Robinsons’ general well-being. “If he breaks something, I’m afraid you’ll have to move back to the city.”

       This prospect would have pleased Blanche no end earlier, but she’s grown to love living in the mountains. Early on, she visited a nursing home in Woodland Park three times a week, bringing wholesome snacks like homemade granola bars and vegetable juices whipped up in her blender. These offerings were not always appreciated. Still, Blanche said things like, “It’s your responsibility to stay as healthy as possible,” and felt pleased with their cooperation. Lately, she’s had more than enough to do keeping Henry in working order, and stopped going to this nursing home. The past two summers since his deterioration, she has worried that it’ll be the last season to feed the hummingbirds and protect the Broad-tails against Rufous. What will they do when she’s not around? Will the poor things be ill-prepared for their long flight? Will they starve? 

       That wretched night of Henry’s fall, Sally eventually took her lantern and left for the short walk back to her cabin. That was when she first said, “Call any time you need me,” and the next morning her drop-in checks began.

       Blanche vowed to never need Sally again, and she’s been successful until the blasted screen door broke.

       However, it’s going to have to wait a bit. After Henry is prepared for his nap, Blanche tromps to the bathroom. She’s been working on a huge project—re-pasting wine labels stuck to the walls over forty years before, back in the days when she enjoyed the revelry. Back when she liked the buttery taste of chardonnay. These labels stayed perfectly fine until the past few months when all of them started to peel off at once. Her plan for the day was to finish this task.

       A hint of a smile crosses her face as she recalls Henry’s oft-heard remark, when he could see: “This beats fussy wallpaper or boring old paint. Every one of these labels has a story and represents a fantastic time. Better than reading a magazine when you’re sitting for a long while.”


       They hosted work parties with friends that first year the cabin was built, each person taking turns with the pasting. The bathroom walls are covered with labels of every wine variety: chardonnay, rosé, zinfandel, a Zeller Schwarze Katz—this one mounted by Sally. Henry had leaned close and peered at the black cat, with back arched and paws outstretched. He said in a teasing voice, “It looks like you, Sal.” 

       That day, Blanche said, “Oh, Henry, it does not!”

       Sally comments on this label whenever she uses their bathroom. If it wasn’t her grandchildren’s favorite, Blanche would rip it off the wall and throw it in the trash. Instead, she squeezes her lips together and swallows to get rid of the memory of chardonnay in her mouth.

       She puts her stepladder in place and starts to work. In her normal rushing fashion, she drills through the designated task and completes her goal. She neatly places supplies under the sink, stands back, and admires her efforts.

       Suddenly, her still-sharp ears pick up rustling noises. Rufous again! She considers the stuck screen door and decides to push it onto the deck in order to get her ladder through, thinking that after defending the Broad-tails, she’ll fix it. Blanche fetches a broom in order to really give Rufous what-for! Several Broad-tails cluster in the pines like spectators to a bloody confrontation.

       She places the ladder close to the railing, tests for stability, and climbs a couple steps. She reaches with the broom to give Rufous a good whack, but he zigzags away from the bristles. Landing on the feeder’s far side, he commences to gulp belligerently. She nudges the feeder’s bottom with her broom, and he zooms away. Blanche climbs up another step to the top of her ladder. Here she can hold him off. She swishes through the air several times, pauses, and sniffs at sun-warmed pine needles spread over the deck. This mess will have to be swept away as soon as she’s fixed that door. The Broad-tails flit tentatively past the feeder and spread their tails like fans, seeming to say, “Thank you.”

       “You’re welcome,” Blanche answers. Poised as straight as a sentry, she glares at Rufous until he backs down and disappears. Most of the Broad-tails zero in on plastic blossoms. A few vibrate nearby as if awaiting orders. Gradually they join the group.

       Once her duty is completed, Blanche prepares to leave. It’s time to get Henry up so he doesn’t sleep the rest of the day away. And once that’s done, she’ll fix the door. She moves each foot down once, twice, and on the final step catches a toe. The broom drops with a clatter. She circles her scrawny arms backward, round and round, loses her balance, and tumbles from the ladder. At the last moment, Blanche turns her head to look into the cabin, catching a glimpse of Henry’s gnarly, bare foot peeking out from under the covers. Then, she crashes onto the deck and smashes her temple against the metal frame of the waiting screen door.

       A puddle of blood, as dark as red wine, pools around her cheek. She lies there, eyes scrunched shut, hands uncharacteristically quiet.

* * *

       That’s how Sally Collins finds her in the early evening. An ominous feeling caused Sally to come by for another check on the elderly couple. Blood has dried a dark rust color, and Blanche’s face is grayish white. Sally touches her neck. No pulse. After a startled few seconds, she considers moving Blanche into the cabin, or at least looking for something to cover her. Sally concludes that neither action will make her any better off than resting in the open on a bed of fragrant pine needles.

       “Blanche…Blanche… Where are you?”

       Sally barely hears Henry’s voice. She raises her own. “It’s me. Sally. I’ll be right in.” She looks at the fallen screen door and wonders when it broke. Sally scoots it aside with a hard nudge of her toe so that she can enter the cabin. With this action her head whirls as Blanche’s head tips back and forth and clunks to the deck. 

       Sally takes a deep breath and goes to help Henry out of bed. Once he’s sitting up, she gently guides his bare feet to the floor and into fuzzy slippers. She places an arm under his arm. The other hand presses his chest for balance.

       Henry pushes his walker into the opening where the screen door used to be. Blanche lies inches from his fuzzy foot. 

       “You must stay inside,” Sally tells him. “It’s cold out here with the sun setting.”

       “Where’s Blanche?”

       “There’s been an accident. I’m so sorry.” Sally puts her arm around Henry’s frail shoulders, guiding him and the walker to his special chair. In the bedroom, she finds a quilt to wrap around him.

       Henry shivers uncontrollably as if his chair vibrates. Through chattering teeth he says, “What kind of accident?”

       Sally explains that Blanche fell off a ladder onto the deck, hit her head, and she’s gone.

       He looks blank, as if shell-shocked. It takes a while for the accident to register. With his head slowly shaking, he says, “How could this happen? She’s such a trooper.”

       “That she was,” Sally agrees.

       And, after a few more minutes, Henry murmurs, “Blanche always kept humming along.”

       Sally uncovers a dusty bottle of scotch. It’s her deceased husband’s Chivas Regal, hidden in the back of Blanche’s first-aid cupboard. She pours a healthy dose in a tumbler for Henry, to warm him and settle his nerves. Now, she calls the Douglas County Sheriff’s Department. They tell Sally that before long someone will arrive to take her best friend away. 

       Turning to Blanche’s mostly unused chair, beside Henry, Sally sits down with her own scotch in a bell-shaped glass. She watches the tiny birds at their feeder. They all depart, except the biggest one. He’s such a pretty coppery gold color.

       Rufous sticks around for a long time, taking an extra-big drink. 


About the author Kathleen Glassburn: My work has been published or is forthcoming in Adelaide Literary Journal, Amarillo Bay, Broad River Review, Epiphany Magazine, Rio Grande Review, riverSedge, SLAB, Wild Violet, and several other journals. My story “Picnics” was a finalist in Glimmer Train’s Best Start contest. I am Managing Editor of The Writer’s Workshop Review and my novel, Making It Work, is now available from Amazon.

Faster Than A Roller Coaster

       He’s perched on that red armchair, as usual. My Pierce. Surrounded by bird nests. Mud and twigs. Leaves and bark. Some are hanging from hooks in the ceiling, like purses. Orioles. And there are tidy little cups. Goldfinch, I think. He’s labeled some of the nests, the ones in glass cabinets; others are displayed on open shelves or falling apart on the scratched mahogany table his mother gave us. 

       “It’s after midnight,” I say.

       He smiles up at me. I love his white hair. Premature at forty-two. I love his face, unlined, pale, boyish. 

       “I need an owl,” he says.

       “Pay attention, Pierce. She’s sixteen and it’s after midnight.”

       But there she is, my Clare, racing up the hall toward us, her red hair half out of her ponytail, bursting into the room we call The Museum, where Pierce keeps his collections. 

       “I’m sorry.” She’s panting. “We went for ice cream.”

       “That’s no excuse.”

       “I said I was sorry.” She brushes past me and wraps her arms around Pierce’s neck. “Wayne wants to meet you, Daddy,” she says. “I told him you play the clarinet. He plays piano, plays for parties and stuff.”

       “What kind of piano?” Pierce asks.

       “Jazz,” Clare says. “And dancing music, like Elvis and Buddy Holly.” 

       “Concentrate, Pierce,” I beg. “She’s sixteen years old, coming in after midnight.” 

       He pauses, looking up at me like he hears me. Then, “I really need a Great Horned nest.” 

       Clare giggles. A late night, giddy sort of laugh.

       I give up. I love her. And she’s home.

~

       The first time it happened, I was just her age, a high school majorette from the wrong side of the tracks. And he was a short skinny boy in the band, with hair so blond it was almost white and skin so pale he looked anemic. I could feel his eyes on me as I twirled my baton; he was marching along behind, tootling away on his clarinet. 

       And then one day he just disappeared; he wasn’t in class, wasn’t in the band. People said he had gone to a ranch out west to build up his strength. Which made some sense because he was so pale. He was just a boy in the band then, not yet my sweetheart, but I missed him. And was glad when he came back to school, after a couple of months, with some sun on his face. 

       I found out all about it years later, after he stood up to his old bully of a rich daddy and married me, after he started filling up our apartment with butterflies. At first it seemed innocent enough. He knew all about nature, could whistle bird songs, could say what kind they were when nobody else could see them flitting about in the trees. He’d capture butterflies, pin them to stiff cardboard, put them in box frames with cotton. At first, it was just on Saturdays; he’d be out there tramping around in the woods with his binoculars and butterfly nets. Then it was early in the morning weekdays before work. I had my job as a secretary for Dr. Newman and didn’t pay much attention until butterflies started to take over the apartment. Our place was pretty small then, living room, kitchen, bedroom. And he just filled it up with butterflies, live ones wriggling in nets, dead ones, wings all sorts of colors, plus caterpillars, dead and alive. Strange smells all over the house. He hung glass-framed butterflies on all the walls, filled the shelves with messy, broken cocoons. Pretty soon heaps of wings covered the coffee table, the top of the refrigerator, the kitchen cabinets. 

       And then Pierce stopped, like he had wound down. He just sat in the middle of all that mess, staring at nothing, hardly talking.

       I didn’t know what to do; I was afraid to tell his parents. Afraid they’d blame me. They found out anyway because he stopped going to the Mill, where his dad had gotten him a job. So late one afternoon, old man Pierce burst in, took one look at the mess, and the next thing I knew, he carried my beautiful boy husband off in an ambulance. 

       That’s when I found out it had happened before. It was a nervous breakdown, at least that’s what his dad called it. They took him to a hospital down in North Carolina and put wires on the sides of his head and shocked him into getting better. His parents told folks he was traveling for business. 

       I’d done a lot of growing up before I ever married Pierce, keeping house for my hard-drinking daddy, getting myself a scholarship to secretarial school. But this was the worst. Pierce was the only person I’d ever loved except my mother who died when I was six. I loved his blunt fingers, his narrow body, the smell of starch his plaid shirts gave off, his sweet breath. I worried I had somehow brought on his sickness and I was scared out of my mind. 

       While he was gone, his parents bought us this house and moved me in. His mother told me she couldn’t stand the idea of Pierce coming back to that tiny apartment where he’d had his breakdown.  But the new place felt large and empty without him. And I was so lonely. I visited him several times before they decided to shock him, but that was worse than the loneliness. He just sat in a chair in his hospital room and stared at the TV.  It didn’t matter what the program was. He just stared at it. I couldn’t get him to talk or even look at me. It was awful. I thought he didn’t love me anymore. 

       It didn’t last forever. He came home and was his old self. Playing his clarinet, collecting, bird nests this time, but in an organized way in his “Museum.” 

       Then Clare was born. My girl. Named for my mother. And he’s been more or less okay ever since. He’s had his ups and downs, of course, and once, when Clare was little, he had to go back for a shock treatment. But he’s on a new medicine now and it’s going well. To Clare he’s the perfect father. She has no idea. And I want it to stay that way. 

~

       Wayne’s at the door. Polite as pie. He’s a good-looking boy. Six feet at least, floppy brown hair. Dark sleepy eyes. I see why Clare likes him. 

       “Where you off to, baby?” Pierce asks.

       “A party,” she says.

       “Where?”

       “Moose Club.”

       “No,” I say. The Moose Club is a lump of stucco, squatting on the edge of the river. The members are mostly rednecks, who shoot squirrel and rabbit and fancy themselves big game hunters.

        “Wayne’s playing for somebody’s engagement party,” she says.

       “I don’t like it,” I say. “There’ll be drinking and carrying on.”

       “I’ll come,” Pierce says.

       Clare grabs him round the neck. I stare at them.

       “I’ll be the chaperone. Don’t worry, honey.”

       It’s only after he’s climbed into the back seat of Wayne’s Plymouth that I catch a glimpse of his clarinet case on the seat next to him. 

       Pierce plays a beautiful clarinet. He studied in New York. All the classics, Flight of the Bumblebee, Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. That was before we married. He’d had his heart set on being a musician, but his old man put his foot down, said you can’t earn a decent living tootling on a horn. Sent him to work in one of the Mill offices, where he was president. I never knew what Pierce did exactly, only that he didn’t like it. When the old man died, he left us enough money for Pierce to stop going to the Mill. He mostly stayed home and played his music and worked on his collections. 

       I wash the dinner dishes and pick up the Ladies Home Journal. But I can’t concentrate. Partly, because I’ve got that Moose Club on my mind. But I also keep seeing the clarinet case on the back seat of Wayne’s car. Pierce never plays in public, just has a friend or two come over occasionally to jam, as he calls it. He’s a snob, really, about his music. So I’m thinking, if he’s planning to play his clarinet tonight, I want to hear it.  After about a half hour, I put on my coat and back the Oldsmobile out of the garage. 

       I’ve seen the Moose Club from the outside all my life but never had reason to go in. I open the door to a barn-like room full of crêpe paper streamers with big red cardboard hearts stapled to them and lots of loud music. Men in shirt sleeves and loosened ties are bouncing around with women done up in taffeta party dresses, blues and greens mostly, with full skirts out of net and black suede high heels. I recognize some of the patients from Dr. Newman’s office, where I work, but they’re too busy dancing to say hello. Besides, I’m looking all around for Clare and Pierce. 

       Wayne’s up on a stage, banging away at the piano, a Buddy Holly tune I recognize, and laughing and talking to the dancers. Then, in a flash, he turns his head toward somebody in the band and starts nodding. And that’s when I see Pierce. Up on the stage with all those boys. His eyes are closed, his square-tipped fingers are flying over the keys, and his head is swaying, all in perfect time with the guitars and piano. His face so serious. And Wayne’s laughing and nodding. 

       After a minute or two people stop dancing and stand around the band watching Pierce, clapping to the beat, and belting out, “Going faster than a roller coaster.” And there’s Clare, up in front of the crowd, snapping her fingers with the others, her mouth moving. Pierce keeps playing that tune like it’s the most natural thing in the world. When did he ever hear about Buddy Holly? The guitar player is grinning at him, and the short, skinny boy on banjo stops strumming long enough to let Pierce play solo. I push through the crowd, singing along with the rest of them, bumping into people, stepping on suede-covered toes. Trying to join my daughter. Getting the feel of it.

       The clapping gets louder and louder. I see Wayne turn back to the piano. He tries a few chords but can’t connect with Pierce’s solo, so he stops and waits. I look at Pierce.  His eyes are still closed, but now, instead of swaying to the rhythm, his whole body’s jerking around. Buddy Holly is long gone. I have to reach Clare. Her eyes are fixed on her father, her cheeks are bright red, and she’s stamping her feet with the beat. But the beat keeps changing and the tune seems to be lost. The noise in the room is getting louder. Pierce keeps on playing, faster and faster. 

       I don’t know what to do. 

       It’s Wayne who saves him. He picks up the microphone, walks over to Pierce and thanks him in a voice that drowns out the music. Pierce stops playing and looks around, like he’s surprised. 

       Wayne says, “Well, folks, we’ve had a real treat here. Let’s give a hand to the best woodwind player in the state of Virginia, Mr. Pierce Luther, Jr.” He puts his arm around my husband’s thin shoulders; Pierce gives a sideways grin and the two of them take a low bow.

       “Thank you, Sir,” Wayne says and walks him over toward me and Clare.

       “What d’you think?” Pierce is beaming.

       “Time to go,” I say. 

       “No!” Clare says.

       “Your Mom’s right.” Wayne puts his arms around Clare and Pierce, one on each side, and walks them to the door, with me following close behind.

       “Thank you,” I mutter, but he’s gone, winding his way through the crowd, back to his piano. 

       On the way home Clare bounces around in the front seat next to me, talking a mile a minute.

       “What about Dad’s solo?” 

       “It was great. Most of it,” I say. At least that’s honest.

       “Maybe my improvising was a bit sophisticated for the boys, huh?” Pierce chimes in from the back seat.

       “Sounded like you were improvising on Mozart,” I say.

       “That wasn’t Mozart. That was jazz.”

       “He was riffing on Buddy Holly,” Clare says. “You’re too tone deaf to hear it.” 

       I let it go.  Maybe this isn’t what I think it is.

~

       “Quick! What’s the bird?”

       It’s early on Saturday morning, a week after the Moose Club dance, and Pierce is peering through binoculars out the kitchen window, chirping: Here I am-- in the tree-- look up-- at the top. 

       “Red-eyed Vireo.” Clare’s answer is quick, automatic. She butters her toast, half asleep. 

       “Bingo!” Pierce has drilled those bird songs into her from the time she learned to talk. “Get dressed. Today’s the day.” 

       She’s wide-awake now, binoculars in one hand, toast in the other, heading for the door. She’s spent her childhood tramping the woods around Spotswood with her daddy, listening for bird songs, inspecting the forest floor for the telltale white splashes that might mean a nest, scrambling up oaks and elms and maples, easing the empty nests out of the tree limbs and carrying them home in a wicker basket lined with velvet. Whenever there are eggs, they wait until they’re sure the nest is empty before making the snatch. I know all this because I went collecting with him before she was born. And I still occasionally go along, just to watch the two of them conspiring together, standing silent in the woods, waiting. I wait with them. Holding my breath. 

       This Saturday, I watch him closely. Ever since the party at the Moose Club, I’ve felt kind of uneasy. So I call out, “Me too. I’m coming too.”

       Pierce heads the Dodge pickup south on Route 29. About thirty miles out of Spotswood, he swerves suddenly onto a dirt road. We bump along for several miles, red dust flying up in all directions, coating the windows.

       “Where’re you going?” 

       He laughs, a giddy sort of laugh.

       And then he hits the brakes, jumps out of the car, and starts running.

       “It’s up there,” he says, training his binoculars toward the top of a hill alongside the road. “Let’s go.”

       He’s running, up the base of the hill, kicking up red dust and brown pine needles. 

       By the time I get out of the car, he’s a third of the way up the hill, hanging on to roots, a cotton mesh bag slung over his shoulder.

       I look at the top of the hill through my binoculars. And there it is, on a low branch of a tree. A huge nest made of different size sticks with leaves spilling out the top. An owl’s nest. 

       Pierce is inching up the hillside, grabbing roots, resting one foot at a time on rocks half-buried in the red dirt.

       I call out in as calm a voice as I can manage, “Be careful, Pierce.” 

       And then he’s on the top of the hill, arms waving in triumph.

       I look over at Clare. Her cheeks are bright. And she’s grinning up at her daddy. We watch Pierce stretch his hand up to the nest and carefully place it in the mesh bag. Then he starts scrambling down the hill.

       In a flash, a Great Horned Owl swoops out of the air, claws outstretched. Clare and I race to the car. The mother lands on the branch of the tree where her nest was, screeching and screeching. 

       “Turn the motor on,” Pierce yells as he half runs, half slides down to the bottom of the hill, binoculars swinging wildly around his neck, the bag held out beside him. He dives into the front seat of the car, slamming the door just as the owl dive-bombs, crashing into the window beside him. For a split second, the bird glares in at us with large yellow eyes, then drops out of sight.

       “Drive!” Pierce yells.

       “Is she hurt?” Clare’s voice is high pitched.

       “Of course not,” he says. “That bird is flying through the pine trees right now, swooping down on mice.” He makes a perfect imitation of an owl’s haunting call. 

       I want to scream at him, “It’s not true. You know it’s not true.” But there’s Clare. 

       “You think so?” she asks. She wants to believe.

       Back home, Pierce sweeps two robins’ nests aside to make space on the mahogany table for his latest prize.

       “Look at the inside.” Clare’s voice is hushed. 

       I look down at downy feathers. The mother owl must have plucked them from her own breast. And there’s squirrel fur in here. And then I see them. Two white perfectly formed eggs are resting on a cross hatch of downy feathers. 

       “What have you done?” I whisper.

       Clare stares at her father. “We’re not supposed to take eggs.” She sounds close to tears.

       “I didn’t see them.” Pierce looks sheepish. 

       I don’t believe him. I quickly put my arm around my daughter. “Even the experts make mistakes, honey,” I say. “I’m sure your dad thought the nest was old.”

       Pierce smiles and nods.

~

       Now that nesting season is in full swing, Clare is up early on Saturdays, out all day with her father, armed with binoculars, telescope, Sibley’s, sandwiches. They come home after dark, exhausted, her cheeks flushed. She talks all through dinner, hardly eating anything. They’re watching nests and the hatching of babies, red-tailed hawks, robins, cardinals. It’s June; the woods are full of song. 

       I watch Pierce, but he seems calm, happy. Clare wants to be with him, that’s all he needs. I tell myself, relax. 

       The owl’s nest sits there in the middle of the mahogany table, large, messy, the eggs stone cold. 

~

       “Mama!” It’s Clare’s voice. Coming from Pierce’s collections room. 

       I rush down the hall. The door is open. Mud and twigs, leaves and bark, thick on the floor, stop me. 

       Pierce is standing near the door. He looks at me, mouth open, eyes searching mine. I realize I’ve been expecting this. For weeks now. I’ve got to get her out of here before . . . 

       Then I see her. Her shoes are muddy and her sweater’s torn. She’s smiling, and for just one minute, I hope everything’s going to be all right. 

       But there’s something in her hands, something she’s holding tight against her chest.

       “It’s my surprise,” she says.  Her eyes are bright, her voice high-pitched, excited.  “It’s because of the raccoons. Don’t you see? I had to. The raccoons.” 

       “Clare,” I speak softly. “Sweetheart?”

       “It’s okay, Mama,” she says, kicking at the pile of broken nests on the floor. “I just need a broom. It was too crowded in here. I had to make room. I just need a broom.”

       I reach for her. 

       She backs away. “Mama, where’s the broom?” 

       Fear hangs heavy. Weighs me down. Stops my breath. “Sweetheart,” I manage to whisper.

       “I need to sweep.” Her voice is frantic. “Look at all this mess.”

       But I’m not looking at the mess. I’m staring at the muddy fists she’s stretching out to me. A broken handle of a purse-like nest dangles from her thumb.

       She spreads open her fingers.

       I don’t want to look. I don’t want to know. I want to hold her. 

       “Aren’t they sweet, Mama? Aren’t they perfect?”

       Two pink featherless creatures lie limp in her hands, their tiny legs drawn up close to their bodies. 

About the Author, Nancy Bourne: Since retiring as an attorney for public schools, I have been teaching writing and composition to prisoners and incarcerated minors, making pottery in my home studio, and writing fiction. In addition to my November 2017 publication in Poydras Review, my stories have been published in Upstreet, The South Carolina Review, Summerset Review, Carolina Quarterly, Quiddity, Forge, Persimmon Tree, The MacGuffin, Thin Air, Bluestem Magazine, The Long Story, Shadowgraph, Steel Toe Review, Five on the Fifth and Ursa Minor. My work has also been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.

The Nanjing Bridge

It took a considerable time to walk to the Nanjing Bridge. Lizhu had taken the six am metro to the first station past the eastern bank and she had set off straight west towards the Yangtze. The stretch of road had been particularly long between yellow concrete apartment blocks from whose balconies the residents had hung their clothes and towels. The city fog was thick around the heights of these buildings, the upper floors disfigured in the soft rain. Those clothes would get wet and have to be dried again. Lizhu checked the map on her phone, thinking the river should be just at the end of the street but all she could see in the distance was a vaporous line of trees and high bushes.

     Getting closer she was reassured that the trees were a part of an artificial wetland that was being used as a levee for the river and turning the corner she saw a mile to the south there was the immense double-decked steel framework of the Nanjing Bridge. On the higher level struggled the white lights of morning traffic and then a cargo train swept and rattled along the lower level.

     She spent twenty minutes going down to the riverfront to reach the base of the bridge where the levee returned to being just a concrete slope.  It was quiet beneath the high din of the vehicles above; there were few other people about. There was only an old woman in a waterproof poncho and straw hat pulling out reeds from the banks and a pair of old men chatting who had disinterestedly left some fishing rods standing as they sat on their deck chairs on the levee slope.

     These men too, like Lizhu, had not bothered with a raincoat that day. At this point the bridge was at full height, its beginning planted deeper in the city, but Lizhu had assumed there would be a stairway that she could climb, but the door on the pillar was boarded shut with plywood. Lizhu went down the slope to ask the old woman how to get up to the bridge but she just stared blankly at her with her worn brown face and charcoal black eyes. 

     Lizhu went over to the old men, and they consulted each other, and they didn’t seem to want to tell her. They informed her that she’d have to follow the bridge all the way back to where it started if she wanted to go up as all the stairwells had been closed.

     She walked through a corrugated fence to walk along the underpass of the bridge. When the bridge was first built as the first major infrastructure project after the massacre and War of Resistance, they had clearly hoped this area below the bridge could be used as a gathering place or market; between each consecutive pillar of the bridge were two curved European style streetlamps whose glass had been long smashed.

     Every other stairway had been boarded up, but on a main pillar along a horizontal face that spanned the width of the bridge there was a double door. She couldn’t enter this, but did briefly consider the adjacent window; if she broke off a little more glass she could have fit through the gap. She did, however, peer inside to where there was a hallway with a twenty foot bronze statue of Chairman Mao smiling in front of a red banner. 

     She was surprised that they had let such a place get so dilapidated. Feeling a draught on her face she looked into the dank dark, filled with building refuse, and saw some stairs going around the back wall, but she decided even if she did this the door at the top would probably be locked. 

     A half hour later, clambering past a plastic dump to get onto the main roads, passing through multiple crossroads of the early morning traffic, she found the legitimate start of the bridge and started along its rising sidewalk. Even in all her repeated visions of this morning, she hadn’t expected it to be like this. The fog from down the Yangtze valley had submerged the other half of the bridge into grey wilderness, and Lizhu felt she was walking towards nothing.

     Beside the first towers on each side there were statues of revolutionary soldiers, glorious eagle-eyed proletariats brandishing rifles and holding high the Little Red Book. There were so many buses with glowing red bus numbers, 525, 536, 555, 525, one after the other, feeding packed hordes into the main city on the other side. 

Another thing that distracted her were that the scooters mainly drove on the sidewalk so she was regularly having to stand to one side when some man loudly beeped at her from behind. Lizhu tried anxiously to get a look at their faces, but then they would drive on pivoting past her and disappear off into the nothingness, their luminous ponchos of yellow or blue or red being the last things to fade from view.

     The bridge she walked on was now above the water, the wide river flowing from the west, melding with the city and sky, and many coal barges sailed beneath. Lizhu was considering the railing; if they really wanted to stop everyone jumping it would be so easy to make it taller. They should also change the grating, the lines of the pattern had a hole in the centre, inviting like a step. Yet Lizhu felt drained of pure horror; she tried to see the dark ceiling she had seen last night; the pain and humiliation that had been growing, twisting and scalding her, suddenly seemed a little less real.

     There was no relief though; she couldn’t face a return home. They had probably already found the note, maybe even called in to her office, where the moths had teemed along the long panels of electric lights, to tell Daixin that he’d be short a worker and would have to hire a replacement. There was to be no reference letter and prospects of future employment were now even worse. She hadn’t moved in ten minutes. She looked up and down the bridge and passing cars, buses and scooters and wondered who would stop her.

     Lizhu stared at the world’s largest river port, the container ships slightly more solid in the fog than the towering cranes which arched over the ships like bare winter trees. To test how she felt about it she put her first foot through the railing and lifted herself up. The wind of the drop blew up in her eyes and all she had to do was lean her weight forward. She waited for someone to pull her down but no one did. She turned and stared at the traffic, the drivers of the cars sparing her a glance, the children in the backseat gazing, only some of the people on the bus, fiddling with their phones and sleeping standing up, even took a second to notice her.

     Then she felt it again, the rejection, and the confusion, and the rage. She’d thought they were making efforts to stop jumpers. She thought about the stories about Chen Si, the Angel of Nanjing, an ordinary middle-aged man who had gained fame for taking it upon himself to drive up and down the Nanjing Bridge on his scooter, to try and stop the many jumpers from the world’s most popular suicide spot. He’d then take those he saved back to his shelter, and try and help them get back on their feet. 

     Yet no one was coming for her. She was nearly crying, leaning forward and holding herself up, the air getting painfully caught in her throat. She looked back at the traffic and watched it pass. Now there was a new shame and humiliation in standing here like a stain on society, a foul lack of discretion. The minutes piled up and she repressed a wail.

     It took so long that by the end she felt so hollow she didn’t at first notice the black muddy scooter pull up. The drizzle had gotten heavier and a stocky man with a bright yellow poncho hooded over a red baseball cap got off the scooter.  He made as if to grab her but he stopped awkwardly when she turned her head to him.

     ‘Do not jump. Do not jump. It is unnecessary.’ He didn’t sound entirely confident.

     ‘Are you Chen Si?’

     He was a man with a thick jaw and beaded eyes. He had the large dark hands of a laborer and they were reaching out to her. He was young though, no more than thirties. 

     ‘Yes, yes, I am Chen Si. Do not jump. You have only one life.’

     ‘You are not Chen Si.’

     His eyes were full of fear, but he smiled like a man who would not turn back.

     ‘No, I am Chen Si. Look you are getting wet; it is raining, come here.’

     He pulled her by the back of her jumper down as she fell limp. She felt broken and weak from the effort of staying still. Leading her by the shoulder he took out a radiant pink poncho from a bag on his scooter basket, and with some effort got it over her head, Lizhu being persuaded to put her arms through the correct holes.

     She got on the back of the scooter. She held him tightly and tried to bury her face in the back of his yellow poncho but he was breathing very quickly and she stopped and straightened her back. Suddenly she was passing through traffic again, weaving between cars, crossing the bridge into the wall of fog which started to recede. She had no idea where she was going or how time was still moving, every second counted by a breath of this man.

‘I will take you to a safe place where we can talk and then we will find out what is wrong.’ 

     They broke a left on the road, then slipped through some food stalls on a side street, the fruit covered by tarpaulin, then took another left to an ally attended by four local dogs, and into a narrow warren interlinking the thirty story high apartment blocks. She lost count of how many blocks deep they had gone; entering one through a black gate left open, he swept around the row of parked bikes and scooters and put his at the end.

     ‘Here we are. My home is on the sixteenth floor.’ 

     They went in, and stood silently in the dank elevator with a grey haired woman in sandals who left on the thirteenth floor. The man had to pull back a stiff metal grating on his front door and looked through a ring with several keys for the correct one. The room was typically sized and cheaply furnished, one small central room that was bedroom, living area and kitchen, and behind a small door to the side a closet of a bathroom. He was very nervous and he picked up a glass that had been left on the table by the couch and put it in the sink.

     ‘I’m very sorry, this place is a mess; I am sometimes too busy to keep it clean. The bathroom is there, you got very wet out on the bridge; you can use it if you like.’

     Lizhu noted that to herself that it seemed that the room had been recently cleaned. The glass had been the only thing out of place, everything else was put away and dusted, but she saw sauce stains on the tablecloth and yellow smoke marks on the venetian blinds that when combined with the smell beneath the air freshener made her think that this room was not in its natural state. She went into the bathroom and locked the door.

     It was one of those bathrooms without a shower curtain, but instead a sloped floor that allowed the water to flow down an open drain. She paused when she saw the fresh towel and soap waiting for her on the windowsill. She decided the best thing to do would just be to dry her hair with the towel. There was a comb, and she ran it a few times through her hair. She wasn’t the most beautiful woman, but her face was still youthful, and she thought with a twitch of disgust that she was probably the most beautiful, if not the only, woman this man had ever brought back here with him.

     ‘Sit down, sit down – are you hungry? You didn’t have a shower? I can get you fresh clothes if you like; they are men’s clothes but they are dry.’

     ‘No, I am okay thank you. I like my clothes.’

     ‘I suppose you must. Would you like tea? I have many flavors.’

     He proceeded to take out multiple boxes tea of and place them on the table in front of her. She eventually picked the Oolong tea.

     ‘Yes you are right that is my favorite.’ He had the kettle already boiled, and he poured out the tea. ‘Now you must tell me – we must fix this – why would you think of doing such a thing? What is this sadness that you have?’

     ‘Chen Si, it is strange, I thought when I had read about you before that you had been developing a shelter for the people you had saved?’

     ‘Oh oh, well a shelter is perhaps a too formal name for it. But yes, there is a place where some of the friends who I have brought back from the brink meet up and we talk about everything big and small. First though, my new friends come here and we fix everything.’

     ‘The article also said that you were an older man and that you had a wife.’

     ‘Har har, well perhaps I look older than I am? That must be a mistake. And no, I have never had a wife. That must be another mistake, maybe the reporter thought one of my friends was a wife.’

     ‘Reporters should be more careful. They must be bad reporters. They said that you lived with your two very elderly parents and they helped run the shelter.’

     The man took a sip of his tea and this returned some of the colour to his face which had been draining and turning ashen. For the first time so far he looked her in the eye intently and there was a new softness and firmness in his voice.

     ‘No that is not true. My parents are long gone. They were very good parents and they taught me well and I treated them well in return. But this is enough questions about me. I am well, you are not.’ He leant forward a bit now and his composure faltered as he became overcome with excitement and intensity ‘You are so special, why would you throw away what is so special? What has made you do this?’

     ‘I don’t particularly want to talk about this now. This is something that it hurts to talk about.’

     ‘But the time is now! If I didn’t stop you this time wouldn’t even be here.’

     Lizhu wondered how long he had been watching her, perhaps he could honestly not have seen that she had hesitated beyond the point where the task was impossible. Still, he was claiming himself as a savior that Lizhu did not feel he was.

     ‘No the time is over.’

     ‘No, the time is now! Even if you wish to hold the story secret at first, tell me about what you were feeling that made you want to do that.’

     This was received by a silence but his face was as rapt as a mask and she decided to try and appease him. ‘I have been feeling empty for a long time now. I have been foolish and cruel. People have stolen so much from me and there is no way to fix it. It gets worse by the second.’

     ‘That is where I shall prove you wrong, it gets better! I have helped so many I am certain that I can help you!’

     ‘You’ve never had anyone who can’t be helped? Who jumped as soon as you turned your back?’

     ‘Never! Well never anymore… there were one or two early on and I had not learnt fully how… But now I understand how I can help the best and in a way it has not only helped so many but it has also helped myself!’ He lifted himself from the chair and darted towards a cupboard in the kitchen unit. ‘Here, look, one of the men that I once saved was a brilliant young man doing Fine Art at Nanjing University. He was messed up because he hated his parents and was a failure in love. She had lied about their past together, turned what he thought was beautiful into a misshapen lie. I brought him here – and I told him very firmly that he was so special - and he cried and thanked me. I sat him here, gave him paper and paint, and he made all of these.’ 

     He produced a few sheets with watercolors. They were decent but somewhat sloppy, the effect of the greens in the tree beside the pond running into the sky might have been intentional, and there was one of a chrysanthemum whose petals were a pleasing light blue. Still, there were issues of perspective and clunkiness; if there was an art student, he could add lack of talent to the list of his woes. ‘Are these not wonderful pictures? Such a treasure that has been saved! And look at this intricate calligraphy at such a young age - he has all the nuance of a master!’ He pointed feverishly at the characters to the top-left of the chrysanthemum; they were hard to read, near illegible, but said To Chen Si, who saved my life.

     Lizhu was falling into tiredness, little able to cope with this man. She gazed into her teacup and hoped vaguely that it hadn’t been spiked somehow. ‘Yes, if you helped him then you have done a very noble thing.’

     This was exactly what he wanted to hear. ‘I don’t know about noble!’ he emphasised, brimming with delight, ‘But I do what I can and I hope that I can do the same for you.’ 

     Perhaps, thought Lizhu, saying that you are going to do something and repeating that claim incessantly is some modern tactic of psychology. Maybe the man is a genius. Regardless, she suppressed a yawn but could not supress the second; her eyes and mind were growing heavy. It was probably safe for now, he didn’t seem so bad really. ‘I’m sorry, would it be possible for me to have a short nap? I have had a busy day so far.’

     ‘By all means! By all means! Sleep is the greatest healer – greater than me!’ Lizhu took off her boots and slumped sideways on the sofa as the man dashed around the apartment looking for a quilt. It made her feel lazy in a nice way and she indulged in a few memories of her father who when she was a child would get similarly anxious when she was sick. The man who claimed he was Chen Si took a deep breath, and began to walk around more slowly, and opening a closet managed to find the quilt. Closing her eyes felt all too good and she didn’t worry about the quilt he would soon place on her.

When she awoke dreamlessly, the man was leaning on the opened window. He was smoking a cigarette with a pitch black filter, angling himself so that all the curled smoke left the room. It was early dusk, she must have slept for hours, and the smog didn’t appear too thick despite the spreads of scattered color and the faint blur of the farthest towers. She presumed he had been watching her sleep; nevertheless he was more wrapped up in himself at that moment. 

     Perhaps it was just the yellowing sky, but there was a brightness in his eyes, like plum wine. He smiled contentedly when he noticed her watching him, and didn’t feel the need to say anything immediately, and returned to gazing out the window. The wind made a slight sound across the opened window but Lizhu couldn’t feel any warmth or cold from it. The perennial sound of traffic seemed far below. He finished up his cigarette and extinguished in it a saucer. He spoke now in a new and lower voice,

     ‘Hello Lizhu, I hope you had a good sleep. Are you feeling better? Are you hungry?’

     ‘Agh, thank you, I think I need to sleep a bit longer but I guess I am awake now. I need a few minutes to wake up before I will know if I am hungry or not.’  

     ‘Okay well I can cook, or if you like we can go out for some food later. Just relax and clear your head.’

     ‘I’ll have some more of that tea actually. It was very good.’

     ‘It is isn’t it?’ He said with a small laugh. ‘Yes you look fresher. Sometimes sleep really does make all the difference; it makes what is dreams and what is waking far clearer.’

     How little this man knew of her life. He probably presumed some loneliness or stress, another case of being too little for the insatiate maw of the world. She wondered if he understood how memories can tarnish every dream, every thought tainted by warped associations leading to the unacceptability of what actually happened in the real world. The unacceptability of what had become the main events in her life. The unacceptability that nothing can be reset and the sick joke that it all ends in the same way anyway. Placing down her fresh cup of tea in front of her, unbothered by her silence, and possibly pleased that she was contemplating his wisdom, he began again.

     ‘Yes, you remind me of one of my earliest patients. Especially that withdrawn look in your eyes that you had before you went to sleep, like you were stranded.’

     Lizhu decided maybe she could push the man on this point, make the man tell a story better than that spurious one about the art student; authenticity under pressure has a ring of truth, a particularity of detail and imperfect coherence that invention can seldom match.

     ‘Oh I tend not to discuss the stories of those who came before. I like to give everyone confidence in privacy.’

     ‘But you said this patient reminded you of me, perhaps their story is the one to help me. Besides you told me the story of the art student…’

     He frowned but seemed to decide to maintain composure in front of being so obviously caught and he managed to smile with his eyes. ‘I suppose you are right, do you mind if I have another cigarette?’ She assented and he went back over to the window. ‘Well this young man was a truly tragic case; I hope for your sake that your woes are not so hideous. He is much better now but still I shudder for the pain he must have felt. I shan’t use his real name, we can call him Weifeng.’ He wiped his mouth with his sleeve and stared intently at Lizhu.

     ‘Weifeng was a hei haizei, an illegal child. He was born in a shed on a farm in Gaungxi province, his father having reared one legitimate son, being a farmer he could have three, but his next legitimate children were daughters, and so he coerced his wife to have five other children to work as free labour. That man was cursed, four more girls who were quite useful, but also Weifeng. The children were kept on the back of the farm till they grew old enough to lift sacks of corn, hidden from authorities, without any hankou documentation.’

      ‘Life is an incredible struggle without a citizen number, it means no school, no public transport, no buying accommodation, and worst no bank account so no way to get paid normally in a job. Maybe you can stay on the farm if no one asks, but if you want to avoid laboring in fields or sneaking in the back doors of factories, it can turn you into a criminal or a sex worker. I tell you many of those jumping of the Nanjing Bridge are hei haizei and with eight million of them they are larger than many nations on Earth.’ 

     His look told her he was trying to gauge by her reaction if she was a hei haizei. Judging that she was not, he took a breath to calm himself. ‘The father, mother and legitimate children would abuse the hei haizei, beatings and so on. The mother taught them to speak and a little bit of reading, but for the most part they were given less food, less love and less humanity. The family had to be inhumane, it was the only way they could make their crime palatable. Weifeng began carrying the sacks of corn when he was six and he continued until he was seventeen. The family had been making money, and the father full of vanity had been expanding, and someone who hated him was friends with the authorities and as a favour they went to investigate his cheap labour.’

     ‘One morning, Weifeng saw the policemen park just outside the farm, one off in search of an interview with the parents, three others sent to round up the workers. The father tried to lie his way out of it, but bloods were taken, and he received a huge fine for five unlawful children. There was no chance he could pay so they took his entire corn harvest. He screamed, he protested, he spent every day in front of the magistrate’s office begging for his life back, threatening he would drink poison if nothing was done for him, and with one too many looks of disgust from the security guards he drank the poison.’

     ‘The mother died shortly thereafter and the legitimate son was given the running of the farm in a state of permanent debt. The hei haizei were to stay with the son, and he probably continues the sick way he treated the sisters to this day, but Weifeng took the opportunity to leave.’

     Unnerved by the troubling energy that was brewing in the man Lizhu said ‘You really seem to empathise with what Weifeng has gone through Chen Si.’

     ‘Yes. We talked for a very long time.’ Unabated, he continued. ‘He found short jobs with truck companies lifting construction materials from the trucks to the sites. Then he reached the Yangtze and he got picked up by the national coal company, loading and unloading the coal barges, and sailing with them up to the mines and down to their destinations. The work was hard, but the exploitation wasn’t personal, and there was a freedom to it; on days between smog, while sailing in those rare non-urbanized parts of the Yangtze, he could lie on his back on the sheets covering the coal and look up at the night sky and feel like someone.’

     ‘Then a new young man joined the crew, let’s call him Jianbin. He was a humorous guy who became quickly popular with the entire crew. Weifeng had been mostly silent in his work so far, they all thought him as dumb as an ox, and the crew enjoyed the fact that Weifeng was getting paid far less than them, but Jianbin had time for him and made him laugh. Jianbin was soft-spoken but in an insistent way that couldn’t be interrupted; he had a cracked way of telling his stories. He was fond of the English word ‘fuck’ and had mock embarrassing stories involving women and whores that were probably fictitious but it didn’t matter because the jokes were funny.’

     ‘Anyway, Jianbin had become very interested in Weifeng due to a startling similarity in their appearances, same height build and even face really, and he made fun of Weifeng’s country accent, but Weifeng was able to joke back and soon they became inseparable during the boat journeys. They did their jobs together, with Weifeng’s extra strength being useful to Jianbin, and Jianbin affording him more protection from the others. Jianbin hated the work but he admitted that this extended to all work. He was the first true friend that Weifeng had ever had. Jianbin didn’t like his own family and when he heard Weifeng’s story he was sympathetic and joked that he could have his parents who were assholes.’

     He stopped for a moment, losing some momentum, the man poured himself another cup of tea and went back to the window. ‘One night drifting along, Jianbin had a brochure for a perfume ad, a lady in a blue dress with her hair up and with her back turned towards the camera and Weifeng was taking a bit too much of an interest so Jianbin gave him the brochure. He didn’t make it too obvious or embarrassing but Jianbin asked a couple of questions that more or less confirmed that Weifeng had never been with a woman. Jianbin laughed and cheerfully suggested that they should go find some when they reached Wuhan.’

     It was edging towards darkness outside and some of the lights from the towers were being flicked on. ‘In Wuhan, they finished up their work and Jianbin discharged himself from the company because he thought coal was too difficult to wash off himself. Weifeng was slipped his cash and Jianbin went to the ATM. They wandered around the shops, finding a cheap department store Weifeng bought himself a shirt with a floral print and from a stall on the side of the road shoes that weren’t muddy. Jianbin led him off to some of the business estates to the east of the city, where there were some run down bars and the like but Jianbin couldn’t find the one he was looking for. It took them into the late hours of the morning, and reaching the warehouse of a car company Jianbin began to get tired and suggest that he was sorry and had fucked up the evening.’

     ‘It was quiet and still, there was no one else about and no streetlights, and Weifeng said he saw something down the alley behind the warehouse. Jianbin didn’t know what he was talking about, and was asking why the fuck he was going down that alley, but being left alone he followed him. Weifeng paused in the alley and looked around, finding a half empty cylinder of petrol which he studied for some time, and then he turned back and approached Jianbin with no expression and took out a knife and slit his throat. Jianbin was so surprised he had barely raised an arm to stop him and Weifeng held his face in the mud as the blood poured out.’ 

     The man had lost interest in his tea, but he gave it a quick look, and placed it on the windowsill. ‘Yes he said it was terrible and there was so much blood. Weifeng took off his new and ruined shirt and threw it over the head where more blood seeped through. If he pushed down it just caused more to come out. He took his wallet and the hankou documents that Jianbin had been carrying and he lifted him into a paper bin. Then he poured the petrol in the paper bin and with a match set it on fire. The flames were tall and red and they sent long shadows and smoke along the alley walls.’

     ‘Weifeng was terrified, and he couldn’t move, he hadn’t thought there would be so much smoke - someone was bound to come and catch him. He finally decided he had to run away as fast as possible lest someone photograph his own tall shadow on the wall and use it to identify him.’  The man grimaced as if to suggest that Weifeng had been stupid to think such a thing, ‘He ran, and no one gave chase. He walked northwards until the sun rose, got on a bus to the train station, looking enough like Jianbin he used the hankou at the counter and booked a train to Beijing, the first he had ever taken. He found work there and was paid in full for the first time. He sent a letter to Jianbin’s parents telling them that he hated them and never wanted to see them again. Then work took him to Nanjing, he found the bridge, and I found him.’

     ‘You saved a murderer?’

     ‘Yes, yes I did. And now he is no longer a murderer, and he didn’t fall off the bridge.’

     ‘So he goes around living the life that Jianbin should have had?’

     He frowned, clearly agitated by her line of questioning, and knelt forward as if to convince her of a crucial point. 

     ‘Why waste a citizen number? Why waste two lives? This way he can live for good.’

     ‘Does he live for good?’

     ‘Yes, he tries. Maybe he is not remarkable but he tries.’

     ‘And how is he not consumed by guilt? How is it possible for him to live with himself? It makes me sick.’

     Paradoxically, with visible effort, he held his face expressionless.

     ‘Yes, you are very sick and need to be cured but we’ll get there.  Maybe it is you need time to think, think about what can be lost and what can be gained, think about how people are not that different really.’

     His enforced calm concerned Lizhu more than his increased intensity and she backtracked,

     ‘I guess one must know the man, and I hope that you are right in trusting him.’ 

‘I agree, but I do not need hope. I know.’ He stood up, and with a motion of his back of his hand gestured for her to hand him her cup, ‘Come, I think it’s time we get out of this apartment, maybe we can go get some food. There is a place down the road run by a man called Lu, he does good noodles with black bean sauce. Or fresh dumplings if you want them, he always has many.’

They left the apartment. The lift was slow coming so they went down the emergency stairway, the windows looking east showed the flat clouds still receding and the moon rising from the ramshackle city below.  The air was warm and the dust sweet as Chen Si checked his scooter but then suggested it would be as easy to walk. Mothers were at the balconies squeezing the lingering damp in the left out clothes, a group of boys watched two older boys in soccer jerseys trying to perform bicycle tricks, and Lizhu and the man had to cross to the other side of the street when a group of construction workers came along carrying building materials and tools for their night shift.

     ‘It is an important thing to always look at the people around you, and remember that all of them have probably thought about jumping off the bridge at least once. Yet here they are, they seem happy, and it is a nice evening.’ He pulled her lightly by the wrist as he made the snap decision to cross the road, the cars slowing down without protest or surprise and swerving around them, ‘It is a time to think about good things. You said you were not from Nanjing, have you tried the famous Nanjing noodles?’

     ‘No, I haven’t, this is my first time in Nanjing.’

     ‘You must try our famous Nanjing noodles, they are delicious, the very best. May I ask where you are from?’

     ‘Well my family is based here in Jiangsu Province but in a smaller town near Suzhou but I haven’t been living there for a while.’

     ‘Yes, Suzhou, there is very good food in Suzhou. The best moon cakes for the Mid-Autumn festival that I have eaten were from Suzhou; I think it was a famous bakery because people had been queuing all morning to get these moon cakes and I bought five just for me and they were excellent moon cakes.’

     ‘I think I know the place you are talking about but I never went there.’

     ‘Oh you should go, you should go.’

     They turned the corner and crossed the road again to a row of open street shops, the heavy yellow light glaring and the chatter and activity loud and the pop music quiet. The seventh shop down, the tables outside half-filled and the tables inside mostly empty, was Lu’s.

     ‘Good evening Lu. That sure smells good.’

     Lu, a short man in a polo shirt with balding dark black hair in a comb over, was standing in front of the shop, on barbecue duty with the spiced chicken skewers. Lu didn’t hear the man’s greeting and he just shouted back at his wife something about the rice and she shouted back at him. They went into the cramped interior and took an empty table in the corner near the fan. A member of Lu’s family, a daughter or niece perhaps, came over and asked them what they wanted and they ordered the noodles with the black bean sauce.

     ‘Best noodles in Jiangsu Province, you will soon see.’ assured the ‘Chen Si’ man smiling, seeming pleased with the eye contact he was making. They had just gotten some water when they heard a deep voice outside the door order,

     ‘I’ll have the egg fried rice, Lu, with both the chicken and the pork giblets. Do you have sweetcorn today? Yes, add the sweetcorn.’

     In walked a tall man, Lizhu looked at him when she noticed repressed anxiety spread into the corners of the eyes of her companion.  The entrant appeared to be an older man dressing young with long black hair down to his shoulders, with a black zipped up sports jacket, large spectacles. He smiled at the table with a crooked yellow grin.

     ‘Hello, little Honglin,’ he said touching him on the shoulder, ‘you have a lady friend with you, who is this? Nice to meet you.’

     Waving his hands to indicate a misunderstanding and gathering a small toothed smile of his own ‘Oh I’m sorry, I think you must think that I’m someone else. What is your name?’

     This only seemed to amuse the tall man on some level; he paused before he responded, ‘My name is Guoyi as you know, and you are Honglin my little friend who works with me on the docks. How could I be mistaken?’

     ‘This is very funny, I must look very much like this man but I must say my name isn’t Honglin and I have never met you before sir.’

     The man snorted, and looked between the man and Lizhu considering the situation, ‘I suppose this is possible. Honglin would never be quite so polite as you sir, or be sitting at a table with a lady friend because all his conversation is rubbish.’ The crooked grin widened watching the reactions, and he sat at the adjacent table, the noodles with black bean sauce and his egg fried rice all arriving at the same time, and with his chopsticks he picked up a fist sized chunk of rice and fit it into his wide mouth. ‘Hey Lu! This guy, isn’t this Honglin here?’

     From the doorway Lu called in ‘I don’t know, that is the guy with the noodles and black bean sauce, even when I have tasty chicken skewers fresh from the fire, always with the noodles and black bean sauce’ and he shrugged dismissively.

     Guoyi chuckled ‘Your wife makes a good sauce Lu, we cannot hold this as proof. Well sir, one thing you could do for us is show us your shoulder as I know for a fact that my good friend Honglin has a scar on his shoulder’ his long-fingered hand once again extended to the man’s shoulder.

     The arms was blocked gently with the man laughing ‘Really, you are a very curious man, but I do not want you checking my shoulder’

     ‘Why not? What is the harm?’

     ‘It just isn’t okay and I would like for you to stop talking to us now as I am having no time to talk to my friend.’

     ‘I see, have it your way. I’ll be talking to Honglin soon enough and we’ll soon see if you are telling the truth.’ He laid back in his chair, turned away, and concentrated on his rice with a smirk. 

     Turning back to the noodles, which were quite good but not exceptional, the man said to Lizhu as quietly as he could without it being obvious that he was trying to be hard to be overheard ‘You know Lizhu, I have to say that I did tell one lie: I’ve never really been to this restaurant before. I heard it was good from a friend and I brought you here thinking you might enjoy it, the food is good, but the people are very strange.’

     Guoyi, pretending to look at his phone, let out a chuckle at this. He turned his head again and watched them with contempt but did not say a word. The man slurped down most of his noodles in an impressive time and then said he was going to the bathroom and maybe they could head back to the apartment when they finished up. This left Lizhu along with the remainder of her noodles and Guoyi who sat at his table staring at her intently.

     ‘So your name is Lizhu? Why are you with this man? Surely you are not his girl. He is a terrible man.’

     ‘I’m not his girl. I am a friend of his.’

     This answer interested him even more. ‘Old friend or new friend?’

     ‘New.’

     He considered this. ‘You should be very careful. No one knows about little Honglin, he is always lying. He has no internet, no QQ, no WeChat, no one knows where he comes from or what is true.’

     ‘He doesn’t seem so bad to me. He is strange but I think he is probably kind.’

     Guoyi leaned forward again ‘What did he say his name was to you?’

     ‘Chen Si.’

     His eyes lit up suddenly like there was glass in them that fractured and he let out a ringing laugh ‘Hey Lu! Lu! Listen to what Honglin has been saying his name was – Chen Si!’

     ‘Chen Si – the angel!?’ Lu was laughing wildly revealing some of his missing teeth, taking some of his skewers away from where the flames were becoming too high.

     Guoyi turned backed to Lizhu, swallowing his laughter but barely able to stop his thick amphibian lips from forming a smirk. He had a rotten face and cruel eyes, thought Lizhu, and he leant towards her and whispered,

     ‘Run. You should run.’

     Lizhu considered telling him that she didn’t need to and that it was alright. She thought that maybe she should say this man had a good heart even if he was crazy and that he wanted to help people. Yet long second after long second passed looking into the terrible face of Guoyi, and she thought of the towel and soap waiting for her, the freakish intensity with which the man had told his stories, the way he had gazed at her longingly, the quilt she had woken up beneath, the way he had spoken about the murderer – ‘I know’ he had said – and she felt a chasm within herself.

     ‘Quickly, you should go. He will be back soon.’

     Instinctively she looked around for her handbag and then remembered she didn’t have one and she stood up and headed for the doorway. Lu walked over to Guoyi’s table, and he whispered something, and they stifled it for a second but they then burst into howls of shrill laughter.

     It was late and in a poorly lit part of the city she did not know. The buses had stopped running and the taxis did not roam this area. She knew it would take her hours to walk anywhere and she didn’t want to ask for directions. She wanted to go back to the Nanjing Bridge, but she knew the man would be waiting for her, searching up and down.

     Eventually finding again the sleepless veins of the main city, the glitzy advertisements for clothes and weddings looming higher than ever, she went back to the hostel she had left her stuff in and crept into her bed as silently as she could though she knew she had woken up the other customers with the click of the door. The next morning, she found she could turn even colder when she heard on the news that a docks worker called Guoyi had been brutally murdered in his home.

About the Author: W.J. Wrigley is a recent graduate of Trinity College Dublin and is moving to the USA for grad school in the coming Fall. He has had fiction and poetry published several times in the university journals The Icarus and the Attic and elsewhere and he hopes to continue to improve and progress. This story 'The Nanjing Bridge' is based on stories he heard while he lived in China.