The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it live: a live thing, a story. -Ursula K. Le Guin

C’mon! Tell us a short story…

Sad, silly, suspenseful, funky, fascinating, or fantastical – give it a whirl! But on this page, make it short. This is our short story section, where we tell the truth in one episode. The form is wide open, we have no particular agenda. So sit down with your imaginative self and spin us a tale. And did we mention, make it short?

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My family and I live in Edmond, OK where I have been employed by the University of Central Oklahoma for the past five years. Edmond and Oklahoma City are connected not only by an invisible line across the highway, but by the people who live and work here. We remember and honor the survivors of not only the 1995 Bombing, but also those who continue to survive covert, personal attacks, the affects of which they have been forced to hide. I am one such survivor.

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Hannah

…for all who survived

With her hand still numbly holding the open door, Hannah’s eyes stared at the raindrops dripping off her umbrella. She ignored the thoughts that nagged at the back of her head, wishing she could shake them off as easily as she shook the umbrella she was clutching.  The raindrops pooled at her feet, capturing Hannah’s blank stare as she watched the puddle grow and change shape. It wasn’t until a pair of wet, black shoes hurried through accompanied by, “Excuse me; nasty weather isn’t it?” that Hannah broke her gaze, released the door, and stepped into the lobby to close her umbrella.

A cursory glance at the crowd of familiar faces acknowledged the occasional smile as Hannah sidestepped anyone who might detain her. Slipping into the ladies’ room, she drew a deep breath and hurried past the row of stalls, looking for feet under the doors. One pair of basic black pumps shifted positions, urging Hannah to duck into the first vacant stall.  Sliding the lock into place with a metallic click, Hannah exhaled a muffled, shuddering sigh, leaned her head against the door and listened. There was a quick stop at the sink, before the shoes clicked their way back into hall, leaving Hannah alone.

“It’s not safe…. We’re not safe. ” The words echoed through Hannah’s thoughts, bouncing off well-worn memories that hid behind the pulse pounding in her ears.

Hot tears mixed with cool dampness from the falling rain.  Their saltiness lingered on her tongue as she bit her lip. Hidden from the faces a few feet away, Hannah sat down on the toilet and let the tears flow. How ironic it was, she thought, that only when she was alone could she really hear this never-ending barrage of memories and voices inside her own head?

Hidden inside her mind where few could or would ever be granted access, lived a variety of parts, like reflections from one mirror into a wall of other mirrors. Various ages tumbled over each other in a panic. One cried because she didn’t understand what was happening. Another trembled in fright. Her twin hid within the shadows that stretched into the darkness. Hannah could feel the fear expressed by her younger voices and the anger that was building around it. The young frightened voices were not alone. Among the group of older personas the debate over how best to handle this crisis gathered volume.

“Just breathe slowly…in-out-in-out.”

“Forget the breathing! Let’s just get out of here!”

“Running away isn’t going to solve anything. We have to go out there and prove that we’re stronger than this!”

“We aren’t stronger than this. We aren’t even strong enough to get out of this stall.”

“This isn’t helping. Everyone be quiet before she starts ripping her arms open again.”

“Too late! Look at her; she’s already started.”

Hannah looked down at her arm. The reddened tracks displayed where she had clawed at her skin, raking her fingernails across tissue that had already been scarred from previous episodes. Drops of blood settled into a haphazard polka dot pattern in a jagged tear.

“Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my hand?”

“Great…quotes from Macbeth! Ancient literature isn’t going to help us with this mess.”

“Shakespeare’s too old. We should post it on the internet as modern morbid!”

“That’s disgusting!”

“Stop it, all of you! If no one has any helpful suggestions, just shut up. We’ve got to handle this before she makes it worse.”

Hannah tore off a length of tissue, mopped her face, and tossed the soggy, mascara-blackened wad into the toilet. She watched it circle the bowl and disappear as it was sucked into the drain. Her shaking hand unlocked the stall door. Cautiously, Hannah stepped out and scanned the room to make sure she was still alone. The unoccupied sinks were only a few feet away and the stall doors all stood ajar. Taking a deep breath, Hannah watched her black shoes walk toward the sink and stop in front of the closest basin.

How odd her hand looked against the chrome as she turned on the water.   The faucet spilled cool water into the basin, and Hannah turned her wrists into the flow. As the red blood melted into the stream of water, Hannah’s heated pulse began to slow its panicked race. The arguing stopped. The cacophony was calmed. The crying soon followed suit. By the time the bleeding was abated, only one tiny, sing-song voice remained.

“Rain, rain come and stay. Little Hannah cannot play. Everyone is hurt today.”

One by one, the silenced voices retreated past the little girl stomping in the rain puddles and singing her rhyme. As the last one slipped into the dark shadows, the little girl turned her face into the rain and lapsed into silence.

Hannah was uncertain how long she had stood at the sink staring at the stream of water. Cupping her hands, she took a drink and then ran her wet hands through her hair. Her scars reflected in the mirror, showing off their discoloration and jagged edges. Her usual excuse that they were the result of a childhood accident would not cover the newly torn flesh today.  Hannah turned off the water, pulled her sleeve down to cover the wound, and stared into the reflection of her coffee-colored eyes trying to make sure she had hidden the frenzied faces of fear that lived there. She could not leave this room until the veneer was back in place.

Beyond the bathroom door there were hundreds of familiar faces. Most had come to expect Hannah’s periodic eccentricities and odd behavior. A certain degree of social deviation was generally tolerated, but Hannah knew that there was an invisible line that separated what society would accept as unique and eccentric from behavior that would stamp her crazy and dangerous.

Hannah shook her head at the irony and impossibility of it all. Drying her hands, she reached into her purse and grabbed her makeup case as she heard the bathroom door open. Hannah quickly patted foundation over her nose and under her eyes before the new pair of black pumps turned the corner. Nodding at the acquaintance that quickly brushed past her, Hannah completed her facial touch-up then gently dabbed her arm, hiding the physical evidence of her inner pain. With a twist of the cap, she dropped the bottle back into her purse and practiced her smile in the mirror. As she left, she listened to her own black pumps making the typical click, click, click on the tile floor, unaware that the makeup bottle had deposited a small drop of foundation on her uniform black shoe and gravity was sculpting it into the shape of a tiny tear drop.

story by catherine walls, all rights reserved

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kathleen-powers-vermaelen Kathleen Powers-Vermaelen teaches writing and is pursuing an M.F.A. in Creative Writing and Literature at Stony Brook Southampton. Her work has been published in Proteus, Beginnings, PKA’s Advocate, MotherVerse, Main Channel Voices, The Southampton Review and The East Hampton Star. She lives with her husband and two sons in Bayport, New York. _________________________________________________________________________________________
10_gallon_hatTHE THIEF OF YOUR HEART
by Kathleen Powers-Vermaelen

The telephone rings.  I roll over, look at my alarm clock, swear and pick up the handset. “Someone had better be dead.”

“Sorry to disappoint.  How are you, Mo?”

I should hang up, but I don’t.  I click on the bedside lamp, push my sheets away and scoot into a sitting position against the cherry headboard. “It’s 2:13 a.m.  I’m tired, Jeff.  Any other questions?”

“Yeah.  You alone?”

“I wouldn’t have answered the phone otherwise.”

“Good.  Got an important request to make.”

“So important you had to call me now?”

“Yeah.”  He pauses.  “Please don’t get married on Saturday.”

“Ugh…”  I knock the back of my skull against the wood.  “Jeff, we’ve been over this.”

“Let’s review.”

“Fine—if we must.  Michael loves me.  I love him.  He asked.  I said yes.  We set a date, and that date is this coming Saturday.  Itold you this months ago.”

“But why are you marrying him?”

“Your head’s a big black hole, you know that?” I frown at my reflection in the dresser mirror across the room as if it’s his, not mine. “You are density defined.”

“I just want to understand, darlin’.  All downsides acknowledged, we’re still pretty damned good—”

“We were good, Jeff.  Past tense.”

“We’ll have to agree to disagree there.”

I can’t help but smile.  Arguing with Jeff is so much more fun than arguing with Michael.  “Fine, so long as we’re clear that I’m getting married on Saturday anyway.”

“You’re breaking my heart here, Mo.  Don’t pretend you don’t know.”

The conversation should end now, but I linger on the line.  He counts on my allowing our talks to continue past the point of usefulness, and I oblige him without fail.  “Where are you calling from, anyway?”

“Work.”

“What—you mean you’re on your cell phone, outside some Oyster Bay Cove Victorian, casing the place?”

“No, I’m on my cell phone inside a Port Washington Dutch Colonial, and I’m working.”

I sit bolt upright.  “You’re robbing someone’s house as we speak?”

“Yeah, that’s my job.  What of it?”

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, says the voice my head, in the case against Jeffrey Bender, I give you Exhibit Number One.

“First off,” I say, “stealing isn’t working.”

“Hey, you think this isn’t work?  Try it sometime.”

“Oh, I think not.  I enjoy my freedom.”  I lean back again, focusing on the ceiling.  “What’s their name?”

“Whose name?”

“The family whose home you’re robbing.  No doubt you’ve seen it somewhere.  The mailbox, the doorbell—”

“Underwood.”  I remain silent, so he adds, “Don’t worry.  They’re rich bastards.  They won’t feel this at all.”

“Is that how you justify yourself?”

“Hey—a man’s gotta eat.”

“There are legal ways to accomplish that, you know.”  Over the line I can hear the clinking of booty in Jeff’s bag while he moves about, collecting more.  “How are you able to talk if you’re busy pinching stuff?”

“Oh, I’m hands-free.”

“Are you kidding?”  I struggle to envision him—dark glossy hair, dark bedroom eyes, dark clothes hugging his fine frame as he strolls though strange dark rooms, helping himself to someone else’s belongings while chatting on a headset at complete ease, as if he’s meandering around his own apartment.

“Modern technology be praised,” he replies.

“Aren’t you supposed to be listening for someone?  What happens if the Underwoods come home?”

“They’re on vacation.”

“How do you know that?”

“Timers.  They’re everywhere, so the Underwoods plan to be away for a while.”

“What if they’re coming home tonight?  What if they flew in on the redeye and their car is turning onto the block right now?”

“These people don’t fly the redeye.  Besides, who comes home on a Wednesday?  Ooh… nice.  This here must be Waterford.”

I sigh. “You don’t have the common sense God gave a goat, Jeff.”

“Clearly.  I keep calling you even though I’m getting nowhere.”  He awaits my clever response.  I have none, so he says, “Look, don’t worry about me.  I’ve got things under control here.  Let’s talk about you.”

“What about me?”

“Everything about you, baby.  First, tell me what you’re wearing.”

“You can’t be serious.”

“C’mon. For old times’ sake.”

Snorting, I look down at my clothing.  “If you must know, I’m wearing an extra large men’s t-shirt and Michael’s boxer shorts.”

“Oh.”

“And what are you wearing, Jeff?  A ski mask?”

“I’m wearing a ten gallon hat that’s so huge I had to cut eyeholes in it to see through.”

I have to chuckle.  “Marvelous.”

“And that’s all I’m wearing.”

“Thank you for that visual.”

“Ditto, Mo.  Now, about this wedding…”

“What about it?”

“Big mistake.  Think about this great chemistry we have.  If you marry this Michael guy… well, that’ll make our relationship more complicated.”

“We have no relationship, Jeff.”

“Remind me why.”

“You call at quarter after two in the middle of a burglary and you have to ask?”

“You must have a good reason.”

“I do.  You’re a crook.”

“Oh, c’mon.  What’s Michael do for a living?”

“He’s a lawyer.”

Jeff snickers.  “Do I even need to draw a parallel here?”

“Laugh it up, felon.  He’s a criminal defense attorney.  You may need one soon.”

“Sweetheart, I’m a professional because I don’t get caught.”  An odd pop comes over the line. “Nice fridge.  Must’ve cost them some bucks.”

“What—you’re robbing their icebox, too?”

“I got the munchies.”

“Oh, that’s right. You said a man has to eat.”

“Now you’re catching on.”  I listen while Jeff raids the Underwoods’ refrigerator.  “Nothing in here but condiments,” he says.  “Don’t these people shop?”

“Not before they go on vacation.”

“Oh, I forgot.”  The pop sounds again and footfalls follow—Jeff is moving out of the kitchen.  “I’ll have to wait, then.  Next stop, the master bedroom.”

I lean forward to rest my freckled forehead against my bent knees.  “I wish you hadn’t called me while you’re at this, Jeff.  I feel like an accomplice.”

“Nah, you’re more like Jiminy Cricket on my shoulder.”

“Is that a problem?”

“Having you scold me while I’m in the act?  More like a pain in the ass.”

“Sorry.  I still have a few morals left.”

“And here I was, thinking I’d driven them all out of you.”

“You wish,” I say, sitting back.

“And you worry way too much.  I’ll make it up to you, okay?  How about a Claddagh ring?”

“What?”

“Mrs. Underwood has a Claddagh ring here.  You’re Irish, right? With a name like Maureen, I’d presume—”

“I don’t want Mrs. Underwood’s Claddagh ring.”

“A heart pendant, then?  One with real diamonds?”

“This is surreal.  You sound like you’re shopping.”

“Look, I’m gonna take this stuff anyway.  I’d be happy to make a gift of it.”

My grip on the handset tightens.  “Jeff, leave the necklace and ring.  Mr. Underwood might have given them to his wife on a wedding anniversary.  You’re taking more than jewelry.  You’re taking memories.”

He’s silent at first.  I expect a burst of mocking laughter, but he doesn’t give me one.  “Okay,” he says instead.

“Really?”

“Really.”

I’m stunned.  It’s the first time he’s ever heeded me. “Thank you, Jeff,” I say—
but then I overhear the ping of the ring and the tinkle of the necklace’s chain sliding over the crystal in his bag.

“Don’t know why you’re so sentimental about someone else’s stuff,” he says, more plinks sounding as the rest of the jewelry box’s contents find their way inside.

Now I’m pissed. “I know you took the ring, Jeff.  I heard it.”

“You did?  Good ears…  Okay, I’ll put it back.  Listen.”  An abrupt, static-laden thud sounds, as if a microphone has been dropped.  “Hear that?  That’s the ring going back.  Mrs. Underwood will be confused as hell about my taking everything else and leaving that, but what the hell—always leave ’em guessing.  Right?”

“And the necklace, Jeff.”

“Oh, c’mon.”

“No negotiations.”

“Okay, fine.”  Another scratchy thud.  “See that?  You’re a good influence.  You can’t marry another guy and leave me to this life of crime.  I need a decent woman to straighten me out.”

“And how long will that take?  Fifteen years to life?”

“Ouch. You make me sound like such a lose—AHHHHH!”

I jump off the bed into a standing position.  “JEFF?  What’s happening?”

“Holy shit.”  His cackle mimics the Mad Hatter’s. “One of the timers just popped the corner floor lamp on.  I swear, I almost flat-lined!”

I scowl, settling on the edge of my mattress.  “Nothing about this is funny.”

“Oh, I’m all right.  Nothing’s happened.”

“Not yet, it hasn’t.”  I grasp one knee, bracing for what I’m about to suggest.  “Jeff, listen to me.  Dump the bag out on the floor and leave.  You’re too smart for this.  Walk out now and start over—tonight.”

“Why should I?”

“Because you don’t want to end up in jail.”

“They’d have to catch me first.  If they do, I’ll tell my lawyer a sob story, get the charge knocked down to trespassing, pay a fee and be off like a prom dress at midnight.”

“And then what?  You’ll rob houses again?  Jeff, please. Think things through for once.”

He’s quiet for several moments.  “If I stop, will you call things off with Mike and give me another chance?”

I hesitate.  “No.”

“You didn’t say no right away.  That means you still feel something, Mo.”

“Does it matter?  I’m getting married this weekend.”

“You can’t marry one guy when you’ve got feelings for another.”

“Oh?  What book is that rule in?”

“Why rush into marrying a guy you don’t really love?”

“But I do love him.  And I respect him.  Most important of all, I trust him.”  My throat tightens, so I work at controlling my voice.  “There’s more to a relationship than reckless passion, Jeff.  That’s why I ended ours.  There’s just no trusting you.”

I expect this to penetrate the imagined force field that prevents reason from getting through to him—yet another mistake on my part.  “Aw, baby, you can trust me,” he says. “When have I ever lied to you?”

“When?  Less than two minutes ago.”

He sucks in a breath.

“Jeff?”

“Flashing lights in the driveway. A patrol car—”

“What?”

“Gotta go, Mo.  Later.”  I hear a cracking sound—a chair falling over—and his feet pounding the floor before the connection goes dead.

Sickened, I hang up the phone.

Sleep proves to be impossible afterward.  My remaining hours in bed are spent propped up against my headboard, my posterior numbing, my mind churning with unanswered questions.  Did Jeff manage to elude the cops, or is he in the back of a police cruiser, hands cuffed behind him?  When will he call to let me know?  Should I pick up when he calls?  Why did I answer the telephone tonight—and why do I always stay on the line with him?

The dark blue night gives way to a pale rose-colored dawn, and the creeping orange glow of sunrise overtakes the horizon.  Meanwhile, head and heart do magnificent battle.  I didn’t lie when I said I love my fiancé.  He’s considerate and hardworking, two essential qualities that Jeff lacks.  Michael bests Jeff without effort.  Still, I haven’t let go of this thief of mine.  He has me.

Stop stalling what’s inevitable, I tell myself.  You know what this means, what you need to do.

The phone rings again, and of course, I lift the handset.  “Is this your one phone call?” I ask.

“That’s why I love you, Mo,” Jeff replies. “You’re so witty.  No, I’m not in jail—I’m back in beautiful Astoria, kicking it with a cold one.”

“Got away clean, did you?”

“Clean as a nun’s patootie.  Lost my ten gallon hat when I jumped the fence, though.”

“How unfortunate.”

“Yeah.  So, have you thought about what I said earlier?”

“I have.”

“And?”

I answer by hanging up.

story by Kathleen Powers-Vermaelen, all rights reserved

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PICT0013_2Valerie Grant is a mother, a mental health counselor in private practice, a writer, and a visual artist living in Boulder Colorado. She is in the process of writing her first novel. As she writes this bio she is smelling her neighbors’ barbecue, salivating, and unable to think of anything else to say.

__________________________________________________________________________________________Sinking, sinking, swimming


Sinking, Swimming

Daniel walks into the dusk of his bedroom, pierced by the light of tiny stars, the air heavy and smelling of lavender. Adair took a bath before she crawled under the covers. Above their bed, on the ceiling, tiny Christmas tree lights the color of butter are arranged in a constellation: the Big Dipper, the North Star. A system of navigation. He helped Adair hang them 4 years ago, her removing the bulbs that were in the wrong places, arranging and rearranging.  His eyes adjust and he can see the lump of her under the comforter, and that the lump is still. He sighs with relief.

In the closet, Daniel takes off layers, holds his sweater to his nose and breathes deep – the smell of Ellie, still in the fibers. He closes his eyes and she is nuzzling his neck, inhaling, hungry. He holds the sweater against his chest a moment, then folds it slowly and places it into the middle of the sweater pile. He goes into the bathroom, feels the sickness in his belly, and pees sitting down. It is the sickness from loving two women. He brushes his teeth, the toothbrush so heavy in his hand that his shoulders sag. He crosses the almost dark, decides not to turn off the starlight yet, carefully lifts the covers on his side of the bed. Adair is facing him, eyes closed. Her breathing has quieted, her sleeping bumped in passing by his presence. He settles on his side and watches her.

He remembers her face without wrinkles. Now even when she is completely relaxed there are furrows on her brow, rivulets spreading from the corners of her eyes, up from her top lip. He has been there through their entire formation. Ellie comes with the beginning of wrinkles, and sometimes he is jealous for her history, that she lived those wrinkles and the moments that made them apart from him.

Again the sickness, the gnawing.

Adair’s hair became unruly as it grayed. She says it has settled into neighborhoods – curly neighborhoods, straight neighborhoods, each with its own rules. She wears it long, past her shoulders, and usually twists it into a bun to keep it out of her way. At night it is loose, sprawling against her face, the pillow, the comforter. As he watches she relaxes, deeper in sleep again, her mouth opening slightly, beginning to snore.

The girl he married.

He rolls onto his back and wonders if the same North Star that guided him here would ever guide him away.

Adair’s voice startles him. “How was it?” she mumbles. She knew Ellie was helping him cook tonight. He has Adair’s permission for their friendship. He calls it a friendship. He lies through his teeth.

“One of the girls’ goldfish died,” he says.

“Why do people have fish,”  Adair mumbles.

Adair shifts, looks at Daniel, tries to let her eyes focus on his curly brown-gray locks. His face is weary, the stubble on his chin is silver now. His eyebrows are those of her father, of an older man. He is her oldest friend, a brother of sorts. Sometimes he shows up, sometimes he just leaves his body where they trip over it. She listens to the pauses between his breathing. He seems to be here.

“But the thing is, I guess it was an exceptional goldfish,” Daniel continues.

“Hmm.”

He turns toward her again, on his side, and she turns onto her back and places her toes under his calf. Her toes are cold, and he moves to hold them between his thighs.

“Well I guess there were two fish, Goldie and Silver, or maybe Goldie and Snowflake.”

“Snowflake,” she says.

“How do you know?”  How could she know?

“Because Goldfish can be white but not silver.”

“Oh.” He takes this in. “I think you’re right. So anyway… are you sure you want to hear this?” Her eyes are closed again. If she’s going to fall asleep he won’t bother. He won’t betray everyone by telling this story.

“Goldie and Snowflake. I’m hooked.” She opens one eye and grins to apologize.

“Well, I guess Snowflake and Goldie were very happy together, swimming around in the goldfish bowl. But then last week, Snowflake got sick. I guess she kept sinking to the bottom, struggling to get to the top but not able to.”

“I know what that is – but I forget.” Adair mumbles.

“ – and Ellie and the girls were watching her struggle – and I guess Goldie would go down and nudge Snowflake, and hang out with her on the bottom instead of swimming all around. So Ellie got some kind of fish medicine and it helped for a while, and Goldie seemed so happy, and then Snowflake started sinking again. And this is the amazing thing… Goldie would swim down and get underneath Snowflake and try to raise her up from the bottom. And sometimes, like running with an old car to get the motor turning over, it would work when Goldie carried Snowflake, and she would begin to swim for a while.”

He pauses, envisioning Ellie, her eyes red.

“But Snowflake got sicker. Goldie kept trying to carry her, to lift her up, to get her to swim, but she couldn’t. I guess they found Snowflake floating at the top this morning, upside down… and took her out and buried her. And Goldie barely moves. Goldie seems to be really sad.”

Adair says, “Maybe she’s getting sick too.”

Daniel rolls onto his back. He’s angry, and there are tears in his throat. Which seems pretty stupid. He swallows them, and says,
“Maybe she’s sad.”

They’re quiet a long time. Daniel doesn’t say the rest. That he feels like he has been sick for a long time, that he has, in fact, been sinking, and that Ellie swims down and gets underneath him, nudges him, carries him up. He doesn’t say she’s the reason he is swimming again.

On her side of the bed Adair wonders at the things Daniel wonders at. Children get goldfish, and they die, and the children learn to grieve and get on with it. Daniel has never been good at getting on with it. She pulls her foot free of his thighs and rolls over onto her other side.

“Get the stars.”

Daniel reaches over the edge of the bed and pulls the cord out of the socket. He hears the hamster wheel spinning in Sophie’s bedroom, the alarm clock ticking at his side. He hears his wife of 25 years let out a slow, deep breath.

“’Good Night, Moon,” she whispers, slipping five cold toes back under his left calf.
He swallows hard and flexes his calf gently into her foot.

story by valerie grant, 2009, all rights reserved

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reunion-004_2

Phyllis Mathis is a writer, a psychotherapist, and a life coach, living and working in Littleton, CO. Her novel is entitled Cold Counsel. Check out her website: Resonance: your life, in tune.

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mirrorMirrors and Windows

“Just write something, anything,” she coaxed herself as she stared at the blank page. Denise looked out the window, waiting for inspiration.

Denise was forever looking out of windows, ever since childhood. Kneeling on the cushions, leaning her elbows on the sofa back, she gazed out the window of the little house on Hanover Street. Always out the window, as if something marvelous was headed her way, and all she had to do was catch it as it passed.

For one short springtime, Bobby was that marvelous something. Denise smiled, remembering the innocence of that eighth grade crush: Bobby, heading out the front door, pretending to check something in the back of the pickup; Denise, sentry of the picture window across the way, passing the time on a Sunday afternoon. As soon as Bobby appeared out-of-doors, Denise would find a reason to put on her coat and join him in the street.

They talked for hours. Rather, Bobby talked for hours while she listened, tirelessly holding him with her presence, her laugh, her shy glances. Aside from Denise, no one in Bobby’s world listened to him. If they had, he’d have turned out okay; as it was, they lost him, setting him adrift until he finally lost himself. Even Denise lost him eventually, despite heavy doses of her listening balm.

She listened for herself, of course, offering to him what she herself still craved. She listened, and laughed, and listened some more, hoping for a turn to explore her soul aloud, but he couldn’t spare it, couldn’t offer her the space. His soul was hungry for what she gave, but too malnourished to return the favor. He didn’t know the rules.

She had hoped he would love her, cling to her in grateful desperation, but she didn’t know he couldn’t bear it. She was the mirror he longed for elsewhere. He’d hoped by gazing he could find some value, something to carry him to the next place, but he didn’t find it, couldn’t see it. He couldn’t love her then. She’d become a witness to his empty soul, and he had to look away.

Denise sat at the page, feeling an old sadness, recounting the Bobbies she had collected through the years. Chuck and Marty, Barry, and finally James, so many empty souls, drawn to the mirror like thirsty wanderers, breaking the rules and walking away, without so much as a thank you kindly.

Once had come Robert, and she had fallen hard. He was someone who, for some unknown reason, was willing to hold the mirror she craved. He reflected something golden; saw it clear as day. She thought he was magic, able to conjure by slight of hand, some brilliant image of her longed-for self. Her untrained eyes failed to see, and so she turned to him in desperation, looking for her brilliant self in the depth of his clear blue eyes. Ignorant, she wanted him. Needed him. If he wasn’t there, she couldn’t see, couldn’t hold her own mirror; she lost the hope of keeping herself alive. She couldn’t bear it when he wouldn’t stay.

Wiser now, Denise peered from a different window, waiting for something true to break into the light. At last, holding her own mirror, she knew that today, as every day, she would reflect her golden self right here on the page.

Something marvelous was headed her way, straight from the depths of her own bright soul. Time and an open window were all she needed.

story by Phyllis Mathis, all rights reserved

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jen-lee-magic

Jen Lee is a writer and spoken word artist in Brooklyn, New York. She is a collector of stories, many of which unfold in her vibrant neighborhood or in the lives of her closest friends. Jen is the author of Don’t Write: A Reluctant Journal, and Solstice: Stories of Light in the Dark . She writes regularly about the creative process, among other things, at jenlee.net. She will be teaching two writing workshops at Squam Art Workshops in September, 2009.

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late-for-dinner-window

Late for Dinner

“Tsk, tsk, late again tonight, are we, Dearie?”  The woman in a 1950s apron carried a covered dish to the table with stained orange mitts.  “I know you don’t like meat, so I made extra veggies tonight.”  Her face was alarming, with eyes that protruded out and a shriveled little mouth.  “We’ve been waiting for you.  I was beginning to worry.”  She lit long taper candles with the gas stovetop flame.  Two yellow flames shone in the kitchen window.

“I hope you weren’t out with that conniving man again.  Any man who brings a woman that many gifts can’t be trusted.  A guilty conscience, that one has.

“I don’t understand why you need a man at all.  You have a lovely apartment to come home to, everything you need.”

Dull serving utensils scraped up spoonfuls of food, and she shook them into four piles on her plate.  Cheap wine sat to the right in a small juice glass with maize wheat stacks painted on the side.

“The extra butter is for Bunny.  She is getting far too thin for her own good.”  She cut squares off a softened stick on a white saucer and flung them onto each of the four piles.  “That’s better already, I’d say.”

“Now, Bunny, are you going to stay up all hours watching television again, or are you going to bed at a decent hour?  You can’t live off coffee and cigarettes forever, you know.  I wish I knew what made you lose your appetite for life.  Can we wake it up again before you fade away?  You’re fading, Bunny, just fading.  Don’t you know we love you?  You’re such a pretty girl.  Why can’t you love yourself?

“Both of you make me angry sometimes,” the words came out muffled by the food being smashed between teeth and gums.  “You have everything—youth, beauty, means.  Why can’t you just be happy?

“That’s your third tea kettle in as many months, Dearie.  Can’t you settle on a color for your kitchen and live with it?  Such things are not meant to be disposable.

“I have much less than all that, and still, I know how to be content.  A warm apartment,” she paused to fork in another tall bite, “good food,” her jaw flapped, “good wine.”  She raised the glass as if to toast, “and each other.  This is the good life.

“Oh, Dearie, you’re not putting on that dress tonight? You are going out with him again.  Let’s see—he’s either married or a playboy.  Well,” she put down her fork and scrubbed her pout with a cheap restaurant napkin.  Tiny crumbs had gathered in the thin hairs of her upper lip.  “As long as you don’t bring that hanky panky back here,” hands brushed each other back and forth, almost clapping, “it’s none of my affair, now.  You want your heart broken, no one can stop you.  You know where we’ll be when you get it out of your system.”  She carried the dishes to the sink and turned on the water.

“Damn man cuts dinner short again,” she muttered and blew out the candles.  “It’s okay, Bunny,” she consoled.  “It won’t last.”  Her eyes narrowed.

“It never does.”  She turned to the sink and scrubbed the dishes with more force than necessary.

The window above the table was a solid dark pane.  Across the garden, in the next building, a woman in a black slip-dress picked up her clutch and turned out the light.  One floor below, another woman lit a cigarette and turned on the television.

story by jen lee, all rights reserved

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dscf00581Emma Gazley is a 16 year old writer, living with her parents, her brother, and her cat Sebastian, in Arvada, Colorado. Emma has been cracking open books since she could hold them, and writing since she could hold a pen steady. She likes obscure and well-known bands of every genre, and her favorite word to say is antidisestablishmentarianism. She spends a dangerous amount of money in used movie, book, and CD stores. Don’t ask her what her favorite anything is, because she will not be able to make up her mind.

_________________________________________________________________________________________

hand_washingDry, by Emma Gazley (all rights reserved)

The water steams up spirals in the basin, giving my forearms a sauna and making my hands tingle with red. My fingers are curled, my hands limp in the sink. I let them lie there, under the stream of living water. When I am sucking my breath through clenched teeth and my own trickle of living water slips down my cheek, I finally turn off the tap. I pump a puddle of gooey soap into the palm of my hand and rub it over my skin. Smooth, slimy, and soapy.

I turn the tap to cold and push the lever to full blast. I repeat the process, laying my thin, bare fingers down. The frigid water chills me to a place deep inside me, down in my core. I imagine the ice burgeoning and swelling in me, turning my veins solid, the icicles clinging to my heartstrings. I can no longer feel my hands. So I pick up the nailbrush that has been in my heart-shaped soap dish for years and I brush. I don’t keep to my nails, I scrub everything. After all, these hands are not clean. I scrub and brush, the bristles scraping flesh, like crabs combing a beach.

I wash my hands because I am dirty, and this helps. Because life is not how it was, and it is not how it should be.

Eventually I must desert my sanctuary and venture into untamed lands. I rub my hands hard with the towel, till what little dead skin is left comes off and falls in tiny flakes. The doorknob feels like grime in my hand as I open the door and tentatively glance both ways down the hall. Prayers flutter through my lips, to the God of All Things Clean: ‘Please let me make it out of the house before she wakes up—’

I must have neglected to scrub between my fingers because the God of All Things Clean doesn’t make an effort to shield me this time.

“Empty the dishwasher before you go,” Mom’s rusty voice croaks from amongst the fury of wayward hair spilling into her face. She is sitting at the only table we have, a fold-out one people use for playing cards on. I am late already. By five minutes my first class will begin. It takes four to reach school from the traffic light at the bottom of our street.

I take out the dishes, noticing that the dishwasher didn’t do its job. I use a knife to scrape the last of yesterday’s meatloaf off of a dinner plate; the sound grates against my ears. Mom growls. Meat sticks to my fingers. The dishwasher is empty, like so many other things. My hands twitch, filthy.

I wash my hands because I am dirty, and this helps. Because life is not how it was, and it is not how it should be.

“I need a note for school,” the words come out breathy and pleading. She ignores me.  There is a notepad on the fridge. I take it down, scribble the note, and pass it across the wood table.

“Can you just sign it?” I feel like a mailman delivering a package. I wish I were delivering something she wanted, but mine is like a box of bills, not a fashion magazine, by the look on her sour face. She reluctantly scrawls a syllable with a dirty look at me and reminds me to pick up toilet paper on my way home. I will not forget. The flowering bruise on my arm will remind me. The pen has gotten smudges of incriminating ink on my fingertips.

I wash my hands because I am dirty, and this helps. Because life is not how it was, and it is not how it should be.

When I come home Mom tells me to make dinner. I only hesitate for a second, thinking about the spelling test I need to study for tomorrow. Dropping my bag quietly, I pull a bag of stale pasta out of the cupboard. While the water is boiling, I sit and start my homework. The smell of books is fragrant and strong, and I breathe deep. It’s as if the world of books opens my petals and rips me from my thorns. I am a hard-boiled egg, and the stories gently peel off the hard shell, eat away the shield of white, until there is the real me, the yolk. Reading, I lose myself.

Mom yells that the water is boiling over. She stands. She reminds me of a tower. Not the Eiffel tower I’ve heard so much of in my books, but the Tower of Babel. We share the same blood, but speak utterly different languages. I jump to turn down the stove and pour the old pasta in. A drop of boiling water flies up to sting my cheek.

“That’s too much!” she snarls, like a chained dog. I can sense the ferocious tremors going through her. I know what is coming.

“Damn it, girl, can’t you just get this one thing right?” she slams her fist on the table, knocking over a glass and spraying her pink bathrobe with vodka, “Aren’t you enough of a burden already? God, I work twelve ours every day, just so you can go to school and learn how to make something of yourself, and when I come home you mess up the one thing I ask you to do! What would your father say—?”

Don’tthinkaboutDaddydon’tlistendon’tcryshedoesn’tmeanit.

“…and now he’s gone thanks to you. You are lucky to be alive, why can’t you just get one thing right and show a little gratitude, damn it?!”

She flips the table over and the dishes and books fly around the room. I had been leaning against the stove, but now I edge across the room to the fridge, trying to blend in with the faded wallpaper. I yank open the fridge door, hiding my face, and pull out a jar of tomato sauce.

“Dinner’s almost ready,” I say as softly as I can. She stops weeping into her hands and steps towards me.

“Have you been ignoring me, child?” she asks in her dangerous voice, pale face going red and blotchy. My lip trembles, though I don’t mean it to. After she is finished with me I open the sauce with shaking hands. I pour the sauce over our pasta, and when I close the lid it runs down my fingers.

I wash my hands because I am dirty, and this helps. Because life is not how it was, and it is not how it should be.

For a homework assignment in English, they asked us to write a short paragraph about something that changed our lives. I carefully placed the letters on the page in my special cursive:

“When I was four, my Daddy died. It happened because there was a cat in the middle of the road and I walked into the street to save it. Daddy saw a car coming and ran to get me. He pushed me into the sidewalk, and I landed in the mud. Daddy was hit by a red truck. The cat ran away, so he saved us both.”

I hand in the assignment, thinking I have done exactly what my teacher asked of me. But the next day I have to talk with the guidance counselor. He looks at me with hard eyes, even when he pretends to smile, and I don’t like him. After he asks me a lot of questions, I go into the bathroom and a tear runs down my cheek. I wipe it away, rubbing the salt water into my palm.

I wash my hands because I am dirty and this helps. Because life is not how it was, and it is not how it should be.

Sixteen years later I do not throw tables when I am angry. I have found a man who would run out into a busy street to save me. My hands crack and bleed when I stretch them because of all the washing. When I finish rinsing them I look at myself in the mirror and stare at the pale face.

My mom sent me a box in the mail last week for my twenty-third birthday. I sliced the tape and opened the flaps, grief, sorrow, and uncertainty clinging to me. The smell of my mother is there, but without the tainted scent of liquor. Inside the box are three things. The first is a picture of the three of us together. Mom is smiling, Daddy is smiling, and I am smiling. The second thing is a thin, worn book of collected poems. Inscribed on the inside of the cover is, “This book was your Father’s. Now it’s yours. Happy Birthday.”

But it is that last thing that makes me choke on a wave of tears. The grief, sorrow, and uncertainty ebb away. It is a bottle of moisturizing hand lotion, something I could pick up at any number of stores, though I never have. It means more to me than both of the other things. I open it, and it smells of roses.

Looking at myself in the mirror, I mouth the word, “Clean.”

I massage the lotion into my hands because they are clean and dry. Because life is not how it was, but it is finally, finally how it should be.

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kathleen-powers-vermaelen Kathleen Powers-Vermaelen teaches writing and is pursuing an M.F.A. in Creative Writing and Literature at Stony Brook Southampton. Her work has been published in Proteus, Beginnings, PKA’s Advocate, MotherVerse, Main Channel Voices, The Southampton Review and The East Hampton Star. She lives with her husband and two sons in Bayport, New York. _________________________________________________________________________________________ one-pair-too-manyOne Pair Too Many

Careening down Stewart Avenue toward Blake’s house with a lumpy plastic grocery bag resting on the passenger seat beside me, I fantasize a scene—but not the one I’ll cause when I confront Blake.  I’m envisioning the scene that’ll take place hours after I’ve fled, when homicide detectives circle my ex’s prone corpse and puzzle over the murder weapon.  Why?  Because sticking out of Blake’s mouth will be the tip of the golf shoe I’ve jammed down his throat. Death by suffocation, they’ll call it.  Death by stupidity would be more accurate.

The tasteful, cream-colored envelope arrived on my desk one morning four weeks ago.  An embossed invitation within requested my presence at the annual company golf outing, an exclusive event held for executives and noted up-and-comers.  Suppressing gleeful shrieks, I’d spent the rest of my day obsessing about preparing for the event. Once home, I reassured myself by loitering at my closet, fingering the exquisite golf outfit I’d purchased eight months ago while still dating Blake.  When I finally turned my attention to the closet floor, I expected to see my matching pair of golf shoes posing there.  But they weren’t. Frowning, I dove into deep thought, retracing their steps.

Memory then sandbagged me: The last time I’d used them was during a Washington DC golfing vacation with Blake, after which he’d insisted I put them in his car’s trunk for safekeeping. If I wanted my shoes back, I’d have to call him.

Groaning, I collapsed on my bed.  I knew Blake would consider my call anything but an honest attempt to reclaim an overpriced pair of golf shoes.  The minute we’d hung up, he’d go to the water cooler and snicker with his buddies about his obsessed ex’s poor excuse for reestablishing contact.  Now I had to choose: reach out and be labeled a lovelorn fool, or relinquish the shoes and save face.

After some deliberation, I made my decision.  Screw him.  I wasn’t going to spend $100 on a new pair because Blake had a magnificent ego.  I’d make it crystal clear that all I wanted were the shoes—nothing else.  If he synthesized that into an attempt at rekindling, he’d have to stretch things in order to get there.

I called Blake’s office the following Monday morning because I didn’t feel like hearing my replacement—the woman with whom he’d cheated—answer his home telephone.  The gods smiled upon me because his voice-mail answered.

“Blake, it’s Rachel.  Just calling because I need my golf shoes back for this company thing.  They’re in the trunk of your car.  If you could swing by my place and stick them in the mailbox on your way home, I’d appreciate it.  Thanks.”

Satisfied that there was no way to misinterpret that, I hung up. Twenty minutes later, my office phone rang.

“Raych, it’s Blake,” he said when I picked up.  “I was in a meeting.”

“You didn’t have to call me back.”

“No, I wanted to.  How’ve you been?”

I squirmed.  “Fine.  You?”

“Good.”

Awkward silence ensued.  “So, you’re going golfing?”

“Right—at the company’s executive outing.”

“Congratulations.”

“Thanks.  Can I have my golf shoes back?”

“I’ll swing by on Friday.  When’s a good time?”

“Just drop them in my mailbox anytime.”

“No, someone might see me and steal them.  You’re a seven and that’s a pretty common woman’s shoe size.”

“They’re golf shoes, Blake.  I don’t think many people would be interested.”

“Even so, I want to make sure you get them.  When’s a good time?”

“No, really— throw ’em in a grocery bag.  No one will know.”

“Don’t you want them back safely?”

I snickered.  “Blake, what’s the deal here?”

“I’d like to catch up.  It’s been… what?  Four months?”

I bit my tongue.  Yes, it had been just that—four months.  Sixteen weeks.  One hundred and twenty three days.  The amount of time I’d spent working my tail off, busying myself so I wouldn’t think about having wasted a year with a pushy, commitment-phobic jerk.  But saying so wouldn’t help me get my shoes back.

“Everything’s great.  All I’m missing is my golf shoes.”

“Honestly, Raych.  Can’t you try not to be so bitter?”

“Will you drop them off or not?”

“Fine, we’ll do it your way.  But I still can’t swing by until Friday.”

“Okay.  Let me know if that plan changes.”

I hung up. Of course, the shoes did not arrive as promised on Friday evening—and they failed to show in the two weeks that followed. By the third Saturday, I could wait no more.

“Blake,” I said in a calm tone when his voicemail took my call, “it’s been almost three weeks now.  Is there a problem?  Should I come by the house to pick the shoes up?  If you’d rather I not, please drop them off this week.”  I hoped my veiled threat—to come over and introduce myself to his bimbo—might motivate him.

I almost did a spontaneous jig of joy in the street when I discovered a white Waldbaum’s grocery bag inside my mailbox the following Friday evening, the outline of the shoes visible through the translucent white plastic.  It wasn’t until I’d flung the shoes into the bottom of my bedroom closet that I realized something was off.  Flipping on the light, I stared down in disbelief.  My shoes were brown and white.  These were black and white.  They weren’t my shoes—and that could mean only one thing. He’d dropped off her shoes instead.

“Passive aggressive son of a bitch.”  I snatched up the shoes and headed to the door.  “You want a scene?  Fine! You’ve got one!”

When I pull up in front of Blake’s two-bedroom, hunter green ranch, I leap out with the strange golf shoes in hand and stalk up his well-lit driveway, considering which expletives to use when he appears. I ring the bell, trying to control my trembling.  The front door swings open, and a stranger materializes in the yellow porch light.

“Hi… you’re Rachel, right?”

I recognize him as half of the couple that rents Blake’s basement apartment.  “Hi,” I say, wondering when Blake started socializing with his tenants.  “Is Blake—?”

“Guess you haven’t heard, huh?” Everything makes sense at once.

“He doesn’t live here anymore,” I say.

“Well, yes and no.  He and… um, he moved to Connecticut.  He still keeps the basement apartment, though.  For when he visits family.”

“How long ago did he move out?”

“Two months ago.”  The tenant shifts his weight from foot to foot. “Sorry.”

“Right.  Thanks.”

I start back down the porch steps, a dull ache in my throat.  Current feelings aside, this news is difficult to stomach.  I couldn’t even joke about Blake and I moving in together; he’d insisted he would never be ready for that type of commitment.  Yet it had taken only a few months with her to make an exception.

As if this bombshell isn’t enough, another comes—Blake’s Benz pulling up at the curb behind my car.  When I recognize it, I clench my jaw so hard my teeth feel as if I’ve just chomped down on tinfoil.  Seeing the two of them together is not what I need at present. But a lone woman gets out of the driver’s seat and moves toward the base of the driveway carrying an overstuffed brown bag, a loaf of Italian bread jutting from its top. I glance over my shoulder then and note the gentle glow from the basement windows on the side lawn.  They’re down for the weekend—that accounts for the shoes’ sudden arrival tonight—and Blake’s downstairs, waiting for his girlfriend to get back their dinner.

I focus on her, taking a good look for the first time.  She’s about a decade younger than I am, blonde, skinny and long-legged.  She wears a low-cut black blouse with matching tight leggings and those clunky, Candies’ high-heeled sandals that come in and out of style.  Her face is, of course, perfect.  I now regret having left the house without checking my makeup. She slows when she nears me.

“Can I help you?” she asks, her voice baby-dollish, like Melanie Griffith’s. What the hell, I think, I’m already in this deep.  I hold up the Waldbaum’s bag.

“These wouldn’t happen to be your golf shoes inside here?”

“My boyfriend just bought me a pair. How’d you—?”

I thrust my hand forward.  “Pleased to meet you.  I’m Rachel, Blake’s ex.”

“Oh!”  She shakes my hand.  “Nice to meet you.  I’m Marla.  I guess you’d say I’m the ‘current’.”  She laughs, nervous.

“Look,” I say, handing the Waldbaum’s bag to her. “I asked Blake to return my golf shoes.  He dropped this wrong pair off earlier.  I just came to get the right ones.”

“I’ll bet they’re in the trunk.  He keeps mine there, so he might have confused them.”

“Sounds right.  So, you’ve got the keys—can you help me out?”

Marla’s eyes widen.  “Oh, I don’t know.  Blake asked me not to go into his trunk.”

Her too?  “Look, I’ll never tell.  Let’s sneak it quick.  He’ll be none the wiser.” Marla looks unconvinced, so I add, “Otherwise, we’ll have to get him involved and, well, I wouldn’t want to spoil your evening.”

This makes sense to Marla.  “Follow me.”

We return to the street.  I wait while she puts her bag down on the curb and slips her key into the Benz’s trunk lock.

“I wouldn’t have pegged you a golfer,” I say, just to make small talk.

“Blake got me into it.” She pushes the trunk lid up and steps back.  “He’s obsessed.”

“Tell me about it.  I’d never have bought golf shoes otherwise.”

The street lamp above illuminates the haphazard contents that lay within: a spare tire, a few tools, work gloves, a tire iron.

“Let’s see…” Marla lifts a large blue duffel bag from a corner of the trunk’s depths.  “Maybe they’re in here?”  She unzips, overturns and shakes the bag until the contents spill out, clunking against the other items inside. We blink, confused, while examining the bounty.  “What the—?”  I pick up one of several pairs of ladies’ golf shoes, all joined together by knotted laces.

“What the hell is this?”

At first, Marla just stares.  Then she recovers and seizes a pair.

“Are these yours?” she asks, trying her best to sound as if this were a normal situation.

“No, too big.  Maybe these?”  I pick up a pair that looks like mine.  “Nope, eights.”  I put them aside and sift through the others. “Whose shoes are these, anyway?”

Marla shrugs as if she doesn’t care.

“I guess we now know why he didn’t want us in his trunk.”

She frosts over.  “Have you found your pair yet?”

“Wait a sec.” I fish out another pair—size seven but the wrong colors.  “Nope.” I grab another but put it down when I see they’re the wrong color and size.  “Nope.”  Then, I spy familiar shoes.  “Hold on…”  I check for small, blue-inked initials inside the heel.  “These are mine.” Marla places both hands on the trunk lid and I step back.  She slams it so hard, the sound of impact echoes back from the stockade fence across the street.

“Well,” she says, “you got what you came for.”

“I definitely did. Thanks.”  I head back to my car, trying not to smile. Grocery bag back in her arms, Marla clops up the driveway.  Meanwhile, I slide into my car and start the engine.  Only after I pull away from the curb do I begin convulsing with repressed hilarity.  I do this because Marla’s the one asking questions tonight, not me.  And I do it because Blake no longer has one pair too many.

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