FICTION PIECE

The Pooka

by Thomas Belton

 

(Based on a Traditional Irish Folk Tale by W.B. Yeats)

There was a man named Daniel O’Rourke who lived at the bottom of Holly Dale just beyond the ford to Murray’s Gate. An old man he was too, with steely grey hair and a red bulbous nose, a flat head you could cook an egg on when he got so hot and flustered a-times with his temper. He’d a horse named Marie, a shy little mare with soft green eyes and gay speckled fetlocks above her hoofs that blew like white puffs of smoke you ever got her running. Now Daniel was known as a fiddler and a storyteller and was often invited to perform at ceilidh dances or weddings at the parish hall where hospitality was given to all who could appreciate his skills, even at high manor houses as far afield as the next county. And it was well known at these gatherings that he’d often find himself a-dither and in his cups and that he’d rely on Marie to get him home apace.

It was after a wedding feast and a great party in the High Manor near Brockmartin that he became a bit ‘under the clouds’ as they say, and as he left the party to make his way home, he became hopelessly lost. Which was a hard thing to do for Daniel, a fellow raised both man and boy thereabouts. But nonetheless he found himself on a strange road at midnight with no one to keep him company ’cept for a full moon shining overhead and a strange fairy light that beckoned within the depths of a stream he was crossing like a burnished golden sovereign.

Silly twit that he was, he had no idea he was looking at the reflection of the yellow moon in the creek beneath his horse’s hooves, and when he leaned over to pick up that celestial coin, per plunk! Down he fell, full clothed, into the freezing water.

‘Halp,’ he cried. ‘Death alive! I’m drowning now! Will someone na’ help me?’

But it was no use that anyone could, so he decided to swim. Which is peculiar, for until that very moment he had never swum a stroke in his life. And more amazed was he when his arms and legs came out of the water completely and he proceeded to breaststroke through the night sky like he was swimming the River Liffey.

It’s then he heard a strange voice over his shoulder, “How are you this fine, soft night, Daniel O’Rourke?”

Amazed at this development Daniel looked back and saw that he was being carried aloft through the night sky by a prodigious golden eagle. As big as a Belfast house it was, with a wingspan that could cover a whole barn rood, its claws like pruning hooks, and its long wicked black beak a set of sharp shears clacking away when it talked. But it’s the eyes tell Daniel this is no ordinary eagle. Its eyes glowed bright red with a bilious green halo, like a cauldron of deep mischief was in there. And that’s when Daniel O’Rourke knew the Pooka has captured him.

The Pooka is a faerie creature as old as old is, as old as when the first men walked this weary world, as old as the first fishes that swam in the deepest holes of the sea, a creature so dark and cunning that few men know him when they sees him. His name is Pooka and he is a shape-shifter, capable of turning himself into a goat or a tree or even an eagle. He lives in the deep forest and usually in a fairy hole. A fairy hole is a deep secret place where the wee spirits hide in the daytime from the tall folk.

As everyone knows, the Pooka is a trickster and a hateful one at that. Forever playing practical jokes and convincing gullible fellows to do things they wouldna’ do in a stone’s throw. He especially hates people he finds in his woods at night for with all the clear-cutting of trees to make farmland he feels humans are laying waste to his natural domain and anything he can do to scare them off is just a ruse de guerre.

“Where are you taking me?” Daniel cried in fright.

And the Pooka, cocking his eagle head in reply, asked, “Where do you want to go?”

Daniel looked down and saw the Manor House falling far behind, some people still there dancing, others repairing to the out crofts to sleep and dream, so he said, “Take me back from whence I’ve come.”

“Assuredly,” said the Pooka as it turned in a deft glide neat as a pin but away from the Manor House, sweeping his wings up and down, taking Daniel higher and higher, the moon getting bigger and bigger as they rose up and out into the darkness of the night.

“Halp!” Daniel hollered again. “Where the devil are you taking me?”

“Why Dan,” the Pooka said, “I’m taking you from whence you’ve come. Poor sod, didn’t you know that when God made all you Irish folk, he’d run out of good red clay so he used yellow moon dust instead? A poor afterthought by the creator, I admit, but makes sense if you think upon how many of your kinsmen have been cast-out lunatics.”

“Wait now, Pooka, I meant back to the Manor House and ye know it.”

“Dan, Dan,” the Pooka said, looking askance at him in the way a pigeon does at a cat, nervously tilting his head from one good eye to the other. “Didn’t the good prefects tell you to say what you mean and mean what you say back there in the Grammar School and to not speak frivolously?”

Now the moon at the time was shaped like the letter Q with a little hook hanging off the side, a handle made from a whole oak tree. The belief amongst the faerie folk was that God had used the hook like a soup tureen handle when he poured out the moon dust to make the Irish, rattling it about like a saltshaker. It was to this hook that the Eagle eventually took Daniel and dropped him like a budgie bird on a perch.

“Ya canna leave me here,” he cried.

“Oh, but I can and I will, Dan,” the Pooka said amicably. “You see, a year ago, didn’t you make your way to mount Ben Bulben and pull some eggs out of my nest for your supper?”

“Aye!” he answered nervously. “But it was only for me omelette. I left you two and did’na think ye’d mind. You were so egg rich and me a starving thing so far from home and me cupboard.”

“It’s only fair I return the favour then, Dan. Nicked you fair and square, I did. Now you can hang on the moon cooling yer heels till doomsday crows three times for all I care.”

And with that the Pooka flew away like a thunderbolt leaving poor Dan with his feet a-hanging off the edge of the moon so lonely and small in the night sky. I tell you Dan began a bawling like a baby then, so grief-stricken was he, so beyond anyone’s help or caring. The penances he promised the Good Lord, the prayers he sent up, the things that crossed his mind that convinced him he’d never see the pearly gates of heaven with such sins as his on his soul.

That’s when much to his surprise and right below his dangling feet, a trap door opened in the face of the moon with a loud bang and out came the ‘Man in the Moon’, like a centipede escaping his hole. First his head appeared, bobbing up and down like he was climbing the basement stairs then his torso and his swinging arms then finally his sandaled feet. He was a great bit of a man too, with a long brushy grey beard down to his belt and a great white sheet wrapped around his body for a robe and a great flaming coal lamp attached to a band around his head like a coal miner back in Tipperary.

“And a healthy good morrow to you, Daniel O’Rourke,” he said. “But by whose leave are you visiting me today? I don’t remember sending out invitations to tea and biscuits nor an open invitation to hospitality.”

“Saving your honour’s presence,” Daniel began respectfully, and related the harrowing previous hours of his eventful adventures from the first moment playing his fiddle at the wedding to the false golden sovereign in the stream, his vain attempt at swimming, his capture by the deceitful abducting Pooka disguised as an eagle, and his abandonment for no apparent reason (he figured he’d keep the egg pilferage to himself).

“Well,” the Man in the Moon replied, “That is indeed a woeful and pitiful story, Dan. Worthy of a great epic, it is. But, Dan, ye canna’ stay there on that hook. You’re rocking my home something dreadful, and I canna take my bath it’s splashing around so much inside with all yer bellowing and caterwauling about yer wrongs. Do if you please jump off.”

“Jump off! Indeed not!” Daniel huffed and pulled himself tighter against the protruding hook. “Are you daft, man? I’ll fall back the many miles to the hard ground below and surely kill myself, every bone in me body busted like a rack of kindling.”

“No concern of mine, Dan,” he said. “Now be off with you.”

“Nay, I’ll not,” Dan said. “And who’ll it be to put me off, not you!” he added puffing his chest out like a rooster in grand cock-fighting form. “I’ve been known to take a man mightier than you in fisticuffs, I have, back of the barn on threshing day and beat him senseless. So there, you blackguard,” Daniel added, puffing himself up like a yard cock, and raising his fists into the Marquees of Queensbury fighter’s stance.

“A fight is it, Dan’l? Well, I see how that stands to reason with such an ungracious guest as yer ’self.”

Then without another word the ‘Man in the Moon’ repaired backwards down the steps he come, as Daniel relaxed on his perch, figuring he’d showed that old coot ‘what for’.  “Ahh but the ladies they loved me for me pugnacity,” he said wistfully, looking off towards the blue marble of the Earth in the black emptiness of the night sky. For he would usually lose those altercations, which was alright he thought as he smiled, because the village girls loved a loser with panache and would curse the bully who’d thumped him while applying cool compresses to his swollen eye and cradling him in their soft bosoms.

“Man alive! I wish I were home again with my lady wife, Myrtle, and not here standing alone arguing with a looney madman.”

That’s when the ‘Man in the Moon’ came back up the stairs stomping dreadfully mad and with a monstrous meat cleaver in his hand. Then without a how-do-you-do, whack! He splits the tree limb in half. And before Daniel can offer up a plea for mercy, he’s falling the long way home to the grand blue planet below.

Looking up, he saw the Old Man smiling and shouting, “Thank you for your visit, Dan. Always good to see you! Next time would ye be so considerate as to bring some of them potato dumplings from Paddy Doran’s Public House on Ester Street in Dublin? I do love a good dumpling.”

And that was the last thing Daniel O’Rourke heard from that wicked evil man who lives in the moon. And he swore to himself as he fell that he’d never ever give him any dumplings of his. He’d rather feed it to the sow and her piglets in the yard than share it with a blackguard.  And as he fell, and he fell, he had time to take his bearings. He saw the white shores of Araby go by with their sandy beaches that go on forever, he saw elephant and tigers wrestling on the green grass plains of Asia as he tumbled past in a dark funk at his predicament, and then he saw Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin sail by, and he knew it was not far to his own hometown in County Sligo on that lovely green sward of Ireland.

Dan, sensing an opportunity to save himself, pulled out his shirttail and threw it up over his head like a great ship’s sail and lo! it snapped tight like a great umbrella and slowed Daniel down, rocking him in a long sliding motion towards the earth below. But fate was not done with Dan yet as he realised too late that he’d missed his mark by a good league and splash! He landed in the middle of Sligo Bay.

Now there’s poor Dan sitting at the bottom of the bay with his shirt tail hanging over his head, his best Sunday suit ruined with the deep saltwater, when who swims up but the great behemoth, Blue Whale, yawning. “Why are you here, Daniel?” the whale asked. “You’ve awakened me from a deep dark sleep.”

So, Dan tells him the story of playing his fiddle at the wedding, the golden sovereign in the stream, his capture by the deceitful abducting Pooka, his abandonment on the moon, his precipitous departure from that silver orb, his ingenious parachute adventure and unfortunate miscalculation upon landing. And lastly, he said, “Is there any way you can help a poor fiddler home, Sir Whale? My feet are cold and my suit is soggy and my fiddle fair ruined. I need a hot toddy to warm me up and a snooze in me blanket by the fireside.”

In a sonorous voice with large bubbles drifting up from his cavernous mouth, the whale said, “Daniel O’Rourke, indeed you are far from home. But I’m too sleepy to carry you there on my back this night.”

“Have pity on me, great sir. Is there no way to get me abed before dawn?”

With a great yawn the whale slowly slid around from nose to tail, its huge eye passing a few feet from Dan’s shivering form, its great fins swaying up and down in a sleepy motion until the giant’s monstrously large tail was but a few inches from Dan’s face.

“May the road rise up to meet you, Daniel O’Rourke,” the whale said in a low bubbly rumble as he fanned him with his prodigious tail, tumbling Dan end-over-end like a top spinning across the muddy bed of Sligo Bay, the mole crabs and starfish scuttling out of his way, spinning on his bum till he’s pushed up against a sunken ship and fell wobbling to the bottom in a huff.

“Halp,” Daniel cried again, his coat, shirt, and drawers flapping about him like Tuesday’s wash in the current. Then much to Dan’s surprise, just when he thinks it’s quits; time to meet the Good Lord himself and ask forgiveness for his sins, a hole opens in the water in front of him, forming a bubble of air, and out popped the Pooka smiling.  The Pooka’s transformed  like a Billy Goat now with horns all a-twisted and curly and a wispy bit of a beard that jiggles when he talks. His lop-sided smile, leering eye, and bitty beard made Dan think of his wife, Myrtle, when she’d caught him a fib and was contemplating what kind of deviltry to play on him in recompense.

“You dastardly old man, Daniel. Have ye fallen down again? Wake up I say and get out of my bay. And tell your friends not to dump their trash in my water and foul my marshes with their gear.”

“In the Lord’s name, Pooka, I’m not a fisherman to leave me nets on your smelly swamp or dump me garbage in your bay. Nor am I a woodsman to cut down yer forests or a farmer to plough yer meadows under. I am but a fiddler who plays and sings to make the lads and lasses dance, sing a tune to take away their worries. Why, oh why, have you bedevilled me so?”

“That’s neither here nor there, Dan. It’s your whole lot that annoys me and you a smidgen in me eye worth wiping. Off with you now!”

With that the Pooka snickered and with a kick of his four furry feet jumps back through the hole creating a backwash that sucked Daniel up and dropped him out a-tumbling on the other side.

Dan sat up and shook his befogged head, the peculiarities of the night now worn off and the dawn’s red light just gleaming through the trees. Looking about he saw not the cold saltwater of Sligo Bay before him but the muddy stream he’d fallen into the night before. Just then a rough bit of wetness scraped across his baldpate and he shrieked, thinking the Pooka’s come back in the form of a lion to gobble him down. Twisting in terror, he looked up into the loving face of his good mare, Marie. The horse licked his face once more with a long slurping tongue as he heard her belly rumble like a hollow drum, no doubt thumping for her oats back at the barn, needing His Honour to get up and ride her back to the barn for breakfast.

Gaining his feet, Daniel slowly pulled his body onto Marie’s back and swung his swollen rump into the saddle but as the mare sidestepped with the first nudge of his knees, Daniel spun in his saddle to look up into the morning sky. He saw the pale white moon there too large to be real and the Man in the Moon sitting on what was left of his tree, kicking his feet and eating porridge from a prodigious bowl.

He waved at Daniel, who shook his fist and shouted back, “Irishmen made of moon dust, indeed. You’re no kin of mine, old man!”

But then Daniel heard a “Caw, caw cawing” coming from behind and turned to see a giant raven circling him, the bird’s beak moving, but it’s the voice of the Pooka he heard, “Stay outta my forest, Dan, and dinna think of cutting down me trees and planting yer corn and potatoes in me woods.”

Daniel blinked and shook his head to clear the cobwebs out of his brainpan then waved at the bird crying, “Keep yer blasted forest, Pooka! I’ll nay see ye no more for it’s off to Dublin I’m bound to tell my tales and sing my songs where nary a man may meet a trickster like you. But this I might do to keep you outta my hair. I’ll make a song of this night and tell the tale and maybe the parson down in the vale will hear it and pass it on. Maybe the magistrates will hear it and maybe the squires who’ll teach the gentle folk to respect your woods and your waters.”

“You think so?” The Pooka squawked and laughed dubiously. “I’ll see you around, Daniel O’Rourke.”

 

 

FICTION PIECE

What You Choose

by Alexes Snow

 

Air rushed into Metro’s lungs at the same time he flung his eyes open, instantly flinching at the brightness. He repeatedly blinked as he took a moment to adjust to the room’s light. Once his eyes focused, he scanned the area around him.

“Where am I?” He asked himself.

He had woken up on the floor of a very large room; it was as big as a parking garage floor, or the floor of an office building. However, aside from its sheer size, it did not resemble the floor of either a parking garage or an office. In fact, it didn’t resemble any kind of place he knew. In fact, it looked more so like a box than a room; from floor to ceiling it was nothing except white, and upon inspection, noticed that there were no marks or seams along the walls that would have indicated any kind of error during the building process or even wear and tear over time.

There were no windows to let any light in which confused Metro considering the room was beyond bright, and there didn’t seem to be any other light sources that he could see.

The only pop of color in the room were a few trees scattered about, Metro counted three, and piles of dead leaves littered the floor; the orange, red, and yellow hues of the leaves added a touch of vibrancy to the space. He stood up, walking to the tree closest to him and noticing how loudly his footsteps echoed off the walls.

As he approached the tree, he noticed shapes suspended in the air; it was the leaves. Metro’s brows drew together as he tried to understand how this was possible. It seemed like an anomaly, though this entire place seemed to be an anomaly of its own.

It’s as if all time has stopped.

Reaching up, Metro plucked one of the leaves from the air. It crunched and fell to pieces when he crumpled it in his hand.

“I thought it would be fake.” He muttered to himself.

There’s no way this tree could be real, it wasn’t even growing out of the ground; it seemed like it was just placed there. There were no cracks along the floor where the tree’s roots should have burrowed. Metro grabbed and crunched up another leaf, letting the pieces fall to the ground.

A creaking sound like that of an old chair came from behind Metro, startling him. He spun around to find a wooden picnic table settled ahead in the middle of the room with multiple people sat around it. From a short distance it seemed that they were all moving and talking, yet not a sound came from them. After the initial creak which Metro assumed came from the table, the room had gone deafeningly silent once again.

He decided to approach the table; maybe he could ask them where he was.

 

His footsteps echoed at a steady pace, but as he drew closer, he realized the people looked familiar. He started running towards them, only stopping when he came to the head of the table, his eyes wide.

He was right, he did know these people; it was his family.

There were six in total; his mom, dad, grandmother, grandfather, uncle, and little brother. There was an empty seat in front of him, right at the head of the table. Metro assumed it was for him.

He preferred to stand.

The scene before him was a cheerful one; everyone was laughing, talking, and smiling with one another. At one point his grandmother let out what seemed like a billowing laugh, slamming her hand on the table, tears pricking the corner of her eyes. Metro’s face softened and the corner of his lips turned upward for just a moment at seeing his grandmother enjoy the family’s company for once. He wished he could have heard it.

In his peripheral something caught Metro’s eye. This place seemed to have a habit of new things popping up because suddenly against one wall was a large double door that hadn’t been there before. It stood out, although Metro guessed anything would stand out against the stark white of the room.

He left the table and approached the door which was about three times his own height. It looked almost medieval with its arched shape that came together at a point, and heavy iron knockers on either door. Two torches clung to the wall on either side, but their flames seemed to have been extinguished.

Looking over his shoulder towards the table, he noted that his family still sat absorbed into whatever conversation they were having that wasn’t audible. They didn’t seem to notice the door that came from nowhere, or if they did, they were not paying it any mind.

Turning back to the door, Metro looked it over. It looked pretty solid.

He placed his hands on either side, positioning his one foot behind him to use as an anchor. Bending his knees slightly and utilizing his entire body weight, he gave a hearty push. He was expecting the door to be heavy, so when it opened effortlessly, Metro fell headfirst onto the floor of the next room.

“Ow…” He grumbled while getting to his feet and dusting himself off, “I’m getting real tired of this damn place…” He paused for a second, “Wherever this place is…”

Entering this room had been underwhelming as it was just as empty as the last one. It was significantly smaller, only a fraction of the size of the last one, but the ceilings were much taller. In the middle of the room was a slightly raised platform; a podium stood on it, like a stage of sorts. Everything, including the stage and podium, was still coated in white. And in this room, there were no trees or leaves spread sporadically about the place. In fact, the only pop of color was a second, yet identical door immediately to his left. The only difference with this one was the fact that the torches on either side of the door had a flickering flame that spat and sputtered.

Walking towards the door with the lit torches, Metro’s footsteps continued to echo. A loud thud sounded, and he realized the door he entered had shut on its own, closing him in this new space. Stepping up to the door with the lit torches, he repeated the pattern of placing his hands on the wood; this time, however, he only pushed slightly as he was not keen on falling into whatever room lay beyond this one like he had before.

Nothing happened.

He tried again, with a little more force this time, but again the door refused to budge.

“Maybe this one is actually as heavy as it looks.” He said to himself.

Once more he positioned himself, this time with his shoulder against the door, and he let out a grunt as he applied his full body weight against it, confident that he wouldn’t go flying forward this time around.

“You’re not going to be able to open that one just yet.” Metro jumped, startled by the deep voice that came from behind him, and turned around. Where the platform had been empty just a moment ago, there stood an incredibly large man behind the podium. Retracing his steps back to the front of the room, it was obvious as to just how big the man stood considering Metro only came to about the top of his knee. No wonder the ceilings in here were so high.

A velvet robe hung down, covering the tops of his large feet; it was a deep, rich purple with intricate patterns lacing the entirety of the fabric. It looked incredibly heavy, like stage presence, except more beautiful and it gave the impression that this person was of royalty or at least of some importance. Metro looked up to see the man’s face, but there was no face to look up at; high above him, a thick layer of fog hung in the air around where the man’s head should have beem. Metro mentally noted how this place kept getting weirder and weirder by the minute.

“Um,” Metro started, not quite sure where to begin, “What do you mean I can’t open it yet?”

There was a moment of silence before the man answered him, “I mean exactly that; at this point you cannot exit through that door. Later, however? You might be able to.”

Metro started to feel frustrated. It’s an exit? And what’s coming later? He felt like he was ending up with more questions than answers.

Pushing aside his annoyance, Metro tried again, “Okay, so where are we? Where is this place? Is this a dream?” He motioned to the space around them.

“I cannot tell you.”.

Metro sighed. Third times the charm.

“Alright, so where is another exit that I can leave through so that I can go home or…maybe, wake up?”

“There isn’t one.”

Both individuals stayed silent as they stared at each other, or rather, Metro locked eyes onto the fog that covered the person’s face and assumed that this person was looking down at him as well.

“So let me get this straight,” Metro’s patience was thinning, “You can’t tell me where we are. I can’t go through that door over there.” Metro pointed at the door to his left, its torches still flickering, “And there’s no other exit for me to leave out of?”

“That is correct.” The foggy-faced man replied.

When he didn’t say anything further, Metro pinched the bridge of his nose, drawing his brows together.

“So, what can you do for me?” he asked.

“I can offer you a choice.”

Metro raised an eyebrow; he was glaring now, hoping that the frustration in his eyes pierced through the fog so that this man knew he was getting on Metro’s last nerve.

“A choice?” He questioned.

“Yes. A choice.” The man confirmed, “Would you like to hear what it is?”

What other option did he have? Should he push, bang, and kick against the heavy door until he finally got it open, if he got it open? Or perhaps he could go back into the room he started in and sit with his family as they silently converse with one another, staying there until he lost his mind from the deafening quiet that naturally inhabited this place.

Metro relented, “Sure. I’ll hear the choice you have for me.”

The man held up two fingers, “I can give you two options.” He pointed towards the door which wouldn’t open, “You can either go through that exit and experience what is on the other side.” He then motioned towards the door behind Metro, the one that led to the other room, “Or you can go back through that door and be with your family. However, if you go through the exit, you must go alone, and I cannot tell you what is on the other side; it will be either better or worse than the life you live now, but that is all I can tell you. If you choose to go back into the room you came from you will never know, no matter how much you wonder or ask, what lies behind this door.”

Metro was silent as he contemplated what the man told him.

“So, if I choose the exit, I can’t take my family with me?”

“No, you cannot. You will also never see them again if that is what you choose.”

“If I choose them… will I get to go back home? To my world?”

“I cannot tell you.”

Metro’s frustration has faded into something more…hollow. He couldn’t quite say how he was feeling at the moment, he just knew he wasn’t as upset anymore. He thought about asking the man why he was even in this place and why he was being given these choices to begin with, but Metro had a feeling he either didn’t have the answer or wasn’t going to give it.

Metro opened his mouth to speak, “Am I allowed to think on it?”

“You may take as much time as you need.” The man responded.

“Can I…” Metro started, but he hesitiated for a moment before continuing, “Can I go sit with my family before I make my decision?”

“Of course” Was all the man said.

Metro uttered a “thanks” under his breath as he turned around, walking towards the door leading to the other room. It wasn’t until he put his hand on the door’s large, iron handle that he stopped to turn around once more, “Who are you?” He asked the man with no face, and even though he couldn’t tell for sure, Metro could have sworn he felt the man’s eyes on him.

Silence hung between them for a moment too long.

“I cannot tell you.”

Metro said nothing, only nodding as he pulled on the door’s handle; it opened just as easily as it had before.

 

Metro let the door shut behind him as dragged his feet back to the picnic table where his family sat. Nothing seemed to have changed while he was gone. The trees still stood around the room. The leaves were still suspended in the air while others still littered the floor. His family still laughed and chattered about while making no noise. Approaching the head of the table, Metro could tell that his family knew he was there. A couple times he noticed how his younger brother glanced at him without saying anything.

He imagined his family stopping their conversations with each other and turning to him, inviting him to sit down and join them. When that didn’t happen, Metro pulled out the chair from the head of the table and invited himself to a seat.

He sat back and surveyed the unfamiliarity of the scene; his dad said something to his mom, causing her to playfully poke at his arm, an interaction that Metro had never seen between them. On the other side of the table, Metro’s grandmother was talking to his younger brother; he didn’t know what the conversation consisted of, but they seemed happy nonetheless. Lastly, he noted how his grandfather and uncle seemed to be having a pleasant talk as well. They weren’t laughing but they had small smiles on their faces that told Metro that they were at least content.

Sitting there, it hit Metro just how unfamiliar this scene was to him. Have they ever been able to be in a room together like this while enjoying each other’s company?

Metro was so used to compartmentalizing the time he spent with his family. He would only be able to see everyone within their own space because getting everyone together was just an argument waiting to happen. In fact, a part of Metro half expected a fight to break out at any time, despite the currently cheerful atmosphere.

His eyes lowered and locked onto a leaf that lay on the table.

“I only have two choices. I’ve never cared about the life or the family I have, I’ve always wanted something different, but…” He silently thought.

He looked around the table. What if this was the start of things changing? What if they were able to get along from here on out? He never thought he’d be offered the choice, but now that he has been… He wasn’t quite sure what he was supposed to do.

He caught his little brother glancing at him again; this time, however, his eyes lingered on Metro’s for a little longer than before.

What about his brother? A feeling like an overcast had suddenly invaded his mind and body. He loved his brother deeply and he remembered helping his mother take care of him when he was a baby, could he really just abandon him so easily?

His eyes, once again, became glued to the leaf on the table. He stayed like that for a while, letting his mind fog over, not thinking about anything at all.

“Hey.”

Metro’s head snapped up, his family had all stopped talking to each other and they were now looking at him; their expressions were warm and inviting, not like how he typically knew them to be. Metro was surprised he could hear them.

“Um, hey.” He responded.

His mom tilted her head to the side, if only slightly, “You okay? You’re spacing out a little.”

“Yeah. Sorry, didn’t mean to, I’m just… thinking.”

This time his uncle spoke up, “Are you having a good time? Are you happy?”

Metro didn’t know what to say to that; he wasn’t necessarily enjoying his time here,  wherever here was. He was more confused than anything. He felt like he was at a loss. But they were all so content and they were enjoying being a family. They were never a family, so who was he to ruin this?

Metro forced a smile, “Yeah, I’m having a good time.”

“Good.” His grandfather said with a nod.

“You deserve happiness, Metro.” His dad chimed in.

Everyone around the table nodded in agreement. Metro’s head seemed a little less foggy, “Yeah, thanks guys.” This time when he smiled, it wasn’t forced. Tears even threatened to collect in his eyes, but Metro had never cried in front of his family before and no matter the circumstances, he was not about to start now.

He saw his grandmother’s hand resting on the top of the table and he reached for it. Suddenly, everyone’s heads snapped to look at him, each of their expressions eerily blank, but their eyes stared so intently that it felt like they bore holes through Metro. He yanked his hand back, clutching it close to his chest.

“So you’re choosing us, Metro?” His mother said next to him, her voice seeming deeper and more menacing than he knew it to be.

“Wh-What?” He stammered in shock.

“Does this mean you’re staying with us?” His uncle asked with wide, unblinking eyes.

“N-no, I haven’t made my choice yet.” He choked out.

At that, they all went back to their conversations; the silence ensued, and Metro was left at the head of the table.

He sat in his chair, saying nothing. Is that how he chooses them? He has to touch them? He allowed himself to calm down as he took in the sight before him, the unfamiliarity of it all; his family was together, and despite that brief unnatural moment, they were happy. There was no screaming, no fighting, no insults thrown at each other.

Would it be so bad to stay like this? This is what he’s always wanted. It’s what they’ve always wanted, and right now they have it. Could he really stay here? Will this even last?

Metro didn’t know the answer, so instead he accepted that as fact and chose not to decide right then. Sinking deeper into his chair, he released the muscles that he didn’t realize he was tensing as he took in the pleasant atmosphere. It was almost relaxing, and he stayed that way for a while; minutes, hours, maybe even days. Metro didn’t keep track of time because he didn’t see any need to. The man with the foggy face said he could take as much time as he needed anyway so he chose to bask in the unity of having his family together for the first and last time.

Eventually, Metro stood from his seat, his family still chatting away silently. They didn’t even bother to look his way as he walked back towards the door that led to the other room; he didn’t mind, he was just happy that he had been able to sit with them.

The door once again opened easily, but Metro noticed when he entered the room that the man was gone. There was a feeling in Metro’s gut that he wouldn’t see him again. He turned around, looking through the door frame at his family one last time. They stayed where he left them, no one turned around to wave at him, to say goodbye, to talk him out of what he was about to do, they just sat there enveloped in their conversations. Metro was just happy he could leave them like this, in a state of togetherness. He let the door slowly close, his eyes not leaving them until the sliver of space between the door and the frame got smaller and smaller. Click. The door shut, and they were gone.

Metro’s feet stayed planted where they were. He could go back, he could stay with them at least a little longer, but no, Metro’s dad was right; he deserved happiness too. Once again, he listened to the echo of his footsteps as he trekked over to the door to the left of the room. The torches were still lit, the light offering nothing to the already brightly lit room. He put his hands on the door, hesitating. He turned around and checked for the foggy faced man, but he didn’t appear. Perhaps Metro wanted him there to talk him out of this decision, perhaps he just wanted him there, but it didn’t matter because he wasn’t.

Metro pushed slightly on the doors but stopped when they started to open. It had been nearly impossible the last time he tried, but now he knew they would open effortlessly. He took a deep breath, holding onto it for a moment before releasing it. He pushed again, but this time he let the doors swing open all the way. A light blinded him; he tried to let his eyes adjust but it was too much and he couldn’t. He didn’t know what was on the other side, he was scared to find out, but he felt like he had to know. He took one step forward, then another. He kept walking into the light, letting the doors softly shut behind him.

FICTION PIECE

Rollercoaster

by Nick Stovel

 

The very second I agreed to ride the Ball Buster, I knew I was in over my head. However, one of the unwritten laws of high school states, “If you agree to do something in front of your friends, do it, lest you be ridiculed for the rest of your time in school, and at every reunion afterward.” Palm Breeze Academy had a tradition where the incoming senior class would go on a field trip the weekend before the new school year. Following the grand opening of their new rollercoaster two months prior, Mount Olympus Amusement Park was chosen as our destination.

I remember the bus buzzing with commotion. The rusty metallic frame vibrated under the scorching August sun. On top of that, constant chatter pinged all around the inside of the bus, up and down both rows, across each bench. However, the sound that really stood out came from my friends chanting, “Austin’s gonna bust his balls! Austin’s gonna bust his balls!” for nearly the entire three-hour drive.

As a self-proclaimed nervous wreck, I flirted with the idea of causing a scene by standing up and demanding we pull over so I could step out and vomit. Instead, I stayed silent and watched through my window as we passed every rest stop, with our headstrong principal leading the way, determined to make our 9:30 am arrival time.

I was sitting at the very back, the last seat on the driver’s side, nervously glancing around, jealous of everyone’s excitement. Next to me sat Cody the Curious. His government name is Cody Jones, but he had this rather pesky habit of wanting to know the details of everything going on, always.

“So, what made you agree to ride the Ball Buster?” he asked. Of all my friends, I knew Cody the longest. “I mean, I remember you talking about your fear of rollercoasters since, like, fourth grade. Remember—”

“Yeah, yeah, I remember.” He loved mentioning the incident years ago in which we were in line for a kiddy rollercoaster at the South Florida Fair. After we got to the front and the coaster came screeching back in, a thin man in a light blue shirt hopped out of the front cart and spilled his guts right there on the platform. Needless to say, I bolted. “Look, it’s about to be senior year, I should probably get over my childhood fears, right?”

Before Cody could respond, a voice from the seat in front of us interjected: “Don’t listen to that shit. Austin’s a fuckin’ liar.”

I looked up to see the widest grin on the face of Ian the Instigator, birth name Ian Thomas. He entered the picture freshman year, after his family moved down from New Jersey. I remember him walking into lunch on the first day of school—his dark hair slick, oily, and reflective under the fluorescent cafeteria lights—wearing jet black sunglasses. After chopping it up with the cafeteria lady for ten minutes, he happened by Cody and me sitting at the end of the long wooden table at the back of the cafeteria. There was an empty seat next to Cody to which he plopped himself into. By the start of our next class, the friendship was solidified.

“This is about Millie, let’s be honest here,” Ian continued, then tapped his finger to his head. “I mean think about it, everyone’s gonna be talkin’ about their Ball Buster story after the trip. Austin doesn’t wanna be the only one to say ‘oh, I didn’t ride it’ and be known as a pussy to the rest of the school, and especially to her.”

I shook my head. “That’s not even remotely close. I just wanna conquer a fear, that’s all. It’s for myself, no one else.”

“I don’t know,” Cody started, “what Ian’s saying does make sense. You can’t tell me not lookin’ like a pussy didn’t cross your mind. It did, didn’t it?”

“No!” I repeated, with more angst fueling my voice. “Millie was not a factor in my decision, nor was anyone else from school.”

“That’s not what I heard,” said the voice from the bench directly across the aisle. The comment came from Reggie Wallace. Although technically not a regular in my friend group, overall, he was well liked due to the chill aura he projected. His voice was a low, soothing rumble, and his demeanor was calm and relaxed.

“Oh, not you, too,” I said.

“Shut up, Austin,” said Ian. “What did you hear, Reggie?”

He smiled. “I heard through the grapevine that our boy Austin over there is gonna ask Millie to ride the coaster with him.”

In perfect unison, Cody and Ian shouted “ooooh shit,” and Cody put his hand on my head and shook me around. After pushing his arm away, I glanced up and down the bus and saw other kids glancing back, trying to figure out the reason behind the commotion. Millie was at the front of the bus; it didn’t seem like she’d heard anything yet, but with the way these two were acting…

“Will y’all please shut up!” I pleaded. This, of course, was not taken seriously, and was met with the three of them cackling even more.

“Yo, we’re just fuckin’ with you dawg.” Reggie said with a smile. “For real, we just wanna see you out here winnin’, that’s all. I remember when she first moved here, we had biology together and you kept talkin’ to me about her. I can’t believe you still haven’t made a move. How long ago was that?”

Cody jumped in. “Three years ago.”

“Three years!” Reggie continued, “three years you’ve been talking about this chick and not to her.” Reggie twisted his body so that he was fully facing me, his feet stuck out in the aisle. “She’s just a human being bro, just spit your game and do you, it’s not that serious.”

“But he does talk to her, that’s the thing!” Ian shouted over the vibrating bus. “At least on Wednesdays and Fridays, he does.” He turned to me. “I see you sneaking out of lunch five minutes early on those days.”

“Wait, that’s why you leave lunch early sometimes?” Cody asked. “You’ve actually been shooting your shot?”

Before I could respond, Ian continued. “On those days, Millie eats lunch with the rest of the Honor’s Society in Mr. Wilder’s room, right next to the lockers. There’s a short window after the meeting when no one else is in the hallway. That’s when our boy over here likes to make his move.” He looked at me. “I see you, bro. Mr. Smooth Operator.”

I shook my head. “How on earth are you passing your classes with all the time you apparently spend spying on me?”

Ian chuckled. “Don’t worry, C’s get degree, my guy.”

I looked at Ian, who continued to smile throughout the conversation. I then glanced at Cody, then Reggie, then out the window at the green blur of vegetation we zoomed by along the highway. Had it not been for the constant hum throughout the bus, I was sure everyone would be in on this conversation. Eventually, I sighed and turned to Reggie. “How did you even hear about that?”

Reggie smirked. “So, you admit it’s true then?” He leaned slightly into the aisle toward me, his eyes refusing to disengage from my face.

“Okay,” I said, “I want to, yes. I’ve been thinking about it for some time.”

Reggie chuckled. “All right cool, cause I didn’t hear shit, so I’m glad you confirmed that.”

The three of them laughed as I rolled my eyes and wiped sweat off of my eyebrows. I peeked around again, hoping the knowledge of my plan wouldn’t spread to the front of the bus where Millie sat.

The dirty, mustard yellow contraption churned ahead on the faded, grey highway, until finally arriving at 9:30 am precisely, much to the pleasure of Principal Peterson. When we turned the final corner, the park entrance opened up big, bold, and beautiful. Ten pearl white arches stood out front, each about twenty feet tall and stretched thirty feet across. They lay in perfect symmetry, five on each side of the grand sign that welcomed visitors from all over the world.

“Fuckin’ Mount Olympus,” Ian squealed at the sight.

The bus halted next to the curb outside of the main entrance. As I stepped off, I felt a lump growing rapidly in my throat, pushing down on my Adam’s apple. The situation became real, no longer hearsay, nor theory. Once the entire senior class was situated, Principal Peterson, along with five chaperones, corralled everyone into a large circle, practically blocking the entrance, forcing bystanders to walk around or through us.

“All right, listen up” the principal started, talking through a megaphone. “Please see me or one of the chaperones for your ticket. Once you enter the park, you are free to go about. I ask that you simply stick together in groups of at least two to three. Don’t go anywhere by yourself.”

I stood with my friends towards the back of the large mass. barely listening, trying to distract myself from the mission, trying to stop the tingling sensation coursing through my palms and into my fingertips. However, all I could hear was the metal clanks radiating from rollercoasters and other rides inside of the park which caused my heart to race. The morning sun was shining against an aqua sky between spotty white clouds. Sweat began leaking from the creases of my armpits, the fold in the center of my chest, and along the grooves of my hands.

“Everyone is to meet back here, in this courtyard, at 6:00 pm promptly,” Principal Peterson continued. “There will be consequences for anyone who shows up even a minute over.” He stopped and cleared his throat. “Well without further ado ladies and gentlemen, you are dismissed. Have a fun time!”

After receiving our tickets, my friends and I turned and headed toward the gate. As we crossed the threshold and entered the park, we were greeted by a large, artificial mountain capped with synthetic snow. Standing atop the structure was Zeus himself, holding a blue, cartoon shaped lightning bolt in his right hand. “Welcome, humans” the god said in a raspy, rather unimpressive mechanical voice. His eyes lit up with blinking white lights, and every few seconds the arm holding the bolt would rock back and forth.

“Yo, I think I saw Millie heading toward the Ball Buster sign-up,” Reggie tapped me on the shoulder and said.

“The what?” I asked.

“The Ball Buster sign-up computer,” he replied. “You didn’t hear Principal Pete? The park is making everyone who wants to ride sign up for a specific time slot so as many people as possible can get a turn.”

I shrugged. “I guess that makes sense.”

“If you’re gonna ask her,” he continued, “you better do it now before she signs up with someone else.”

I took a deep breath, Reggie patted me on the back, and the four of us headed toward the sign up computer. We trekked through the park, past pretzel stands and gift shops, walked underneath massive metal tracks winding about, and even got splashed by a passing barge from Poseidon’s Sea Adventure. After twenty minutes of walking, I saw the tall, bright blue sign, with contrasted bright red letters making it impossible to miss: REGISTER HERE TO HAVE YOUR BALLS BUSTED! Underneath the sign was a blue tent, with multiple computers set up on two long, black tables.

“Yo, I don’t know about this shit, guys. I feel like I’m gonna puke. I don’t know if it’s because of Millie or cause of the ride, or both.” I finally said. “Like, I really don’t need to ride this thing, what’s it gonna do for my overall life, ya know?”

Ian slapped his hand on my shoulder. “Bro, chill. You’re asking a girl to go on an amusement park ride with you. What’s the issue?”

I sighed. “I mean, I don’t know.”  As we approached the tent, I glanced about looking for Millie. However, despite the many heads bobbing about, none of them were hers.

“Right here,” said Reggie as he pointed to her name on one of the computers. “5:25, cart 6, seat A.” He slid his finger to the empty space beside her name. “And would you look at that, the seat next to her is wide open.”

I froze. “Yeah, but…” I started. “Like, shouldn’t I at least ask her first? What if she doesn’t wanna ride with me? I mean, why would she sign up by herself?”

“Oh yeah, sure bro.” Ian started, “why don’t you waltz around the park, take forever to find her, only to have someone else sign up in your spot. Makes perfect sense.”

“Honestly bro,” Reggie started, “she probably wants to ride other things first and that time just works best for her. I mean, it’s probably not even a big deal. You’re gonna be screaming the whole time anyways.”

“Yeah, but you would think she would at least ride it with Miranda,” I said, referring to Millie’s best friend.

“I don’t know, bro. When life gives you lemons…” Ian said.

“You better hurry though,” Cody started. “Word on the street is Jake Dent wants to ask her too.”

I scrunched my eyebrows. “Jake Dent? Fuck Jake Dent. Where’d you even hear that?”

“On the street, duh” Cody replied with a sarcastic shrug. “But yeah, exactly like you said, fuck Jake Dent. He’s got the queasiest stomach in the world. We all remember him at the sophomore retreat, right?”

“Bro, people who never even went to our school know about that incident.” Ian said.

“All right, okay, I’ll do it!” I said as I watched myself type my name next to Millie’s and press the giant “confirm” button.

With the sound of that click, my heart went from snare to bass drum. My nerves along with the sweltering sun worked in tandem to dehydrate me. However, since the time at that point was only 10:30, I found solace knowing that many hours separated me from the daunting task.

As we left the sign-up tent, we split into two groups of two. Ian and Reggie, being amusement park fanatics, wanted to ride the Ball Buster as soon as they could. They chose the earliest slots available, both at 11:05. Cody, although still a fan of rollercoasters, agreed to accompany me on some of the less intimidating attractions. He wanted to help me “warm up” to the Ball Buster, so we started with the easiest, slowest attractions in the park, and worked our way up. The first was “Hermes’ Highway,” a simulation ride in which you drive a mail truck that belongs to a company owned by the messenger god. Personally, I’d give it a ten out of ten for creativity, but a four out of ten for overall excitement. After that, we waited for about an hour to walk through “Medusa’s Mansion”, a haunted house themed attraction. Truthfully, the experience wasn’t anything to brag about. It sure as shit wasn’t worth standing in line for sixty minutes listening to Cody try and figure out how a ride named Ball Buster ended up in an Ancient Greek themed park.

After meeting back up with Reggie and Ian for a quick lunch, Cody and I went to catch an interactive show about Theseus and the minotaur. Despite these distractions, my mind and my nerves stayed fixated on 5:25 pm. With each passing hour, every burning minute, I knew I was drawing closer to the event, to the inevitable, and I would have to cash the checks my mouth wrote.

#

The hours passed, many rides were ridden, the sun went from bright yellow to deep amber, but eventually, the time was upon us. It was 5:15 as Cody and I made our way to the Ball Buster. The ride towered over the rest of the park, so finding it did not require a map. As we approached the tall, blue tracks, I could hear the screams of “fun” coming from riders as they zoomed by.

When we got there, I saw Millie in the distance standing by the ride entrance, and I figured it was time. With each and every step in her direction, my heart thudded like boulders being dropped from a skyscraper. When I was within ten feet of her, she looked in my direction, and a wide, sparkling grin stretched across her face.

“Austin, hey!” she said in her bubbly voice, as soft as a morning mist.

“Hey Millie,” I managed to gurgle out.

“I’m so glad we’re riding with each other.” She stepped closer and wrapped her arms around my shoulders and neck. “Miranda said Cody wanted to ride with her and told me that you wanted to ride with me. I would’ve waited for you earlier at the sign-up tent, but Miranda wanted to catch the Persephone show.”

“Wait, Cody did wha…” my voice trailed off as I looked over my shoulder. He had already walked off with Miranda, but he looked back and flashed me a cheeky smile.

“Yeah, he texted Miranda like as soon as we entered the park,” Millie said.

I smirked. “I didn’t even know he had her number like that.”

She laughed back. “Yeah, I think she has History with him and Reggie.”

Well played I thought.

When we reached the platform, I followed the track as far as I could with my eyes, anticipating the beast’s arrival. Millie bounced with excitement. My palms tingled.

“This is gonna be so fun!” she said.

I gulped.

Eventually, the cherry red, metallic worm slowly clicked its way to the platform. The ride stopped, people exited (no one barfed), and the time came for us to enter cart 6. I tried soaking in the moment as much as possible. Task one of two had been complete. Now, all I had to do was survive the coaster. After Millie and I were settled into the hard, plastic seats, the ride operator walked over and pushed the large black bar onto our chests.

“You ready?” she asked.

“As ready as I’ll ever be, I guess.” I replied.

I was told the ride lasted about two and a half minutes, but the first sixty seconds were rather slow. The coaster pulled off, jerking us a little before maintaining a comfortable speed.

A few seconds of silence passed, with nothing but rhythmic clicking filling the air. Then, Millie asked “So, Austin, you like me, right?”

My eyes widened. I was not prepared to confess, but in that moment, the notion seemed obvious. I fumbled my words for a moment, deciphering what to say. “I mean, uhh, what?”

“It’s okay, I figured as much.”

“Fuck,” I said, which was all I could say in that moment. “I mean, yeah I do, but I—”

“No really, it’s fine.” She interrupted. “You’re so sweet. Truth be told, I wish you had made a move earlier before I got a boyfriend.”

I sank. “Oh, you have a boyfriend?”

“Yeah, I met him at a festival over the summer. We exchanged numbers, and it kinda just grew after that.”

“Oh, I see,” I said. I felt flattened. Disappointed.

She nodded. “We hit it off right away, and we started texting like every night.”

I don’t wanna hear this shit! I nodded. “Damn, that’s cool, he must be really special then.”

She smirked. “Yeah, I guess you could say that.”

There was another brief moment of silence, where all that could be heard was click…click…click.

“I just don’t like most guys from school. I don’t know. There are a lot of weird vibes at PBA.”

I smirked. “Yeah, that’s accurate. Hope I’m not one of them.”

She grinned. “Nah, you’re okay. You’re gonna have to start talking to me for more than ten minutes a week though.” she teased.

“All right, fair enough.”

Another pause. Click…click…

“So, we’re still good?” she asked.

The coaster turned a corner and started to ascend. Millie’s hair fell back; her face was totally exposed.

I nodded. “Yeah. We’re good.”

The ride plateaued. Up ahead the track disappeared below the horizon.

“If I’m being honest though,” I continued, “it feels like my balls were busted before the ride even—”

Suddenly, Millie leaned over and kissed my cheek.

Before I could make sense of what happened, the rollercoaster shot forward with a thrust unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before.Whether it was the speed or the smooch, my stomach dropped straight through my body, left behind somewhere on the track.

FICTION PIECE

A Lot of Woe

by Mark Silcox

 

The shy weird chick from my bio class was sitting next to Jordan halfway down the bus. She was leaning a little sideways into the aisle reading a paperback. Her arms were wrapped round that shiny blue plastic backpack she lugs around the hallways every damn day. Jordan was staring out of the fogged-up window with a Jesus, save me look on his face.

Normally I would have just caught his eye and laughed as I strolled past to grab a seat at the back. But there was nowhere left to sit down – the bus was packed that day, probably because of the ugly grey rain that’d been falling since morning. Also, I guess I felt a little sorry for the dude – his stop was the very last one on the route, so he’d be stuck next to Sweetie Pie until she hopped off.

I walked down to where they were sitting and grabbed the metal bar overhead, then reached across the girl to tug out one of Jordan’s earbuds. “Hey,” I said.

The girl totally ignored me. She smelled of something chemical: cough drops, or maybe formaldehyde. We’d chopped up a fetal pig in bio earlier that afternoon.

Jordan jerked his head round to look at me. “Hey, Wendy! No ride home today?” The bus lurched away from the curbside shelter.

“Nope. Mom’s pulling a double.” My mom was covering a shift for a friend of hers at the pharma plant. Normally when the weather was this crap, she’d have picked me up in the school parking lot after my last class.

Jordan gave me an up-and-down stare, sort of halfway between standard pervy male and nervous small animal. He had on those fuck-awful bottle thick glasses his parents made him wear to school. Usually when our squad got together at the mall after classes, he’d take off these massive goggles and slip them into his back pocket. Without them, he had a habit of bumping into stuff, but it made him look a bit less like a lemur than he did right now.

Jordan had been part of the scenery for me ever since kindergarten. But we’d only started hanging out around tenth grade, when Stockholm High got closed down for good and all the kids from our subdivision got shifted into the new charter school. I liked him a fair bit. He was quiet and geeky, but often funny, and never too cool to laugh at other peoples’ jokes. We’d never actually made out – I had considered it a couple of times, but hadn’t ever been quite ready to commit. Especially after Lexi told me she thought he was maybe a bit gay.

We Stockholm people had to stick together.

“So,” I asked him, “what you got planned for the weekend?” It was Friday.

“Nothing much I guess.”

I nodded. “Mm.”

He tilted his head like a curious small dog. I glanced over at the girl – Callie, her name was, actually. I knew because the bio teacher was always calling on her in class. Jordan rolled his eyes and shrugged again, like he’d already made peace with the dark side of life as a hardcore public transit user.

“You want to maybe go out later and look around for Jimmy Z?” I asked him.

He blinked, then grinned up at me. He looked a lot less like a feral tarsier when he smiled. “Oh, hey, yeah! We could do that, for sure.”

‘Jimmy Z’ was the name we all had for a fictional local drug dealer. I think it was Gary who first starting using it. One night when we were stuck in the parking lot – probably after Denny’s had closed and there was nothing on Netflix worth going home for – he had spun out this long-ass, totally made-up story about his dealings with ol’ Jim during his own former life as a junkie. It took almost half an hour of listening to him before any of us were confident enough to call bullshit. Which of course it was: Gary got better grades than any of us. His parents took him to the art museum for his birthday, for fuck’s sake. But ever since then, whenever we were all super bored someone would always say “Let’s go visit Jimmy Z!” Lexi used to mention him over the phone when she thought her parents were listening in on her through the bedroom door. My mom was less nosy, so I never had to prank her like that, fortunately I guess.

I had a pretty lively image of the Jimster in my head. Skinny thirty-something dude with sunken cheeks, facial piercings, and a bunch of metal rings on one hand. No gun, but maybe a short, nasty knife tucked into one of his worn cowboy boots.

“I’ll need to get hold of a little cash first, though” I said to Jordan. “I’m broke right now, but maybe I could sell a couple of my textbooks. Or my new winter gloves.” It was late October, and there was already a frosty bite in the air. Callie had an expensive scarf tucked underneath her coat collar.

“That’d suck,” said Jordan, getting right into the spirit of the game. “That new shit he’s been selling is killer, though.”

“The yellow powder, you mean? The stuff that looks like broken glass?”

“Uh huh. It’s, uh…it’s nice.”

“Yeah,” I said, “I’ve heard it’s pretty tight. Darryl tried some last week. He said after the first couple of minutes, it felt like Jesus was kissing his nipples.”

I almost busted out when I saw Jordan’s reaction to this, but I managed to clench my teeth together and give him a quick look of warning. He had a high shrieky laugh, and I knew if he let it sneak out even once, the game would be up for us.

Damn!” he managed to choke out after a few painful seconds.

“I bet it feels different for everybody, though. Like Ex, y’know, or…uh…PCP. The way they make some people all mellow, while others are rolling around pulling at their faces.”

Callie was still just sitting there with a finger stuck between the pages of her flimsy novel. Under her fall jacket she was wearing a sweatshirt with an artsy painting of flowers on the front. She was a chubby girl, but her clothes always did a good job of hiding it. Probably designer stuff. All those kids who lived in detached houses and had been in charter since they were little had lots of Mom-and-Dad money to throw around on stuff like clothes, or brand-new paperbacks. The book’s front cover was all shiny, with a bright painting of goblins or something. And it wasn’t the first one I’d seen her carrying around. She hadn’t turned the page once since we’d started talking.

“One good thing about the stuff he sells me, though,” I said. “It totally kills your appetite. I’ve lost, like, seven pounds since school started!” I tugged up the edge of my jacket to just above my midriff, and Jordan leered appreciatively. “My mom keeps asking me why I don’t finish my dinner.”

“Mm-hm. Have you tried the blue stuff? That shit turns me into a major horndog. I get a boner like a…like, a really big one, sometimes for hours.”

That was totally disgusting – typical Jordan. But also maybe a good addition to the story. “I know what you mean. Last time I dosed up out behind Chelsea Mall, I ended up practically grinding on one of the dumpsters. I’ve been having way, way too much sex. And I can’t afford to buy condoms! Last week I had to steal a pair from my uncle’s wallet. He likes the see-through kind.”

This set Jordan off. He spat out a harsh yelp of a laugh, but then did a decent job of acting like it was just a half-finished sneeze. He wiped his nose on the sleeve of his rain-spattered jacket. Callie shifted around in her seat. She was holding her paperback at a sideways angle now. Still trying to pretend she was reading, but only barely.

A couple of old ladies got onto the bus and shuffled down the aisle in sopping plastic ponchos. They stopped where I was standing, and both of them looked at me like I was going to burn their house down that night. I gave them my Sunday school twinkle, and spoke in the fake BBC accent my Aunt Grace had taught me. “I am so velly solly; am I blocking yoah pawth?”

The lady in front’s eyes bugged out, but the other one kept her surly expression as they pushed past, dripping rainwater onto my shoes.

By that time, the bus was rolling past the outer edge of the bougie neighborhood we had to travel through every day to get to and from school, into the crummier part of town where the Stockholm kids all lived. You could feel the wheels start to leap around over the crevices and canyons in the tarmac. I had skipped lunch that day, and all the jouncing was making me nauseous. But I didn’t want to bail on Jordan halfway through our performance.

“Do your parents know you use the stuff?” I lowered my voice a bit to give the whole discussion a gloomier feel.

He was right there with me. “I think my mom is figuring it out. She gave me this look while I was eating my cornflakes this morning like…you know how your parents can get, sometimes?”

“Like they have something they want to say, but they’re too chickenshit to say it, so they just sit there with their mouths all funny?”

“Uh huh. Exactly! Just like that.”

“Oh, yeah,” I said. “I’ve seen that look. My Dad totally knows I’m using too. He can’t really criticize me though, cause he’s got his own thing going.”

“What does he take? I’m guessing meth. He seems kinda twitchy.”

I shook my head. “Vodka. And pills sometimes. Little orange ones.”

Callie had closed the book at last, and was staring straight ahead. Her eyes were wide and round, just like they sometimes used to get in bio class before she’d ask a question about DNA, or membranes, or something else nobody else there would understand. I’ve never been that much of a drama queen, but I’ve got to admit it was fun having such a good audience.

“It’s a shame they have to worry so much about us. I guess I’ll never kick the habit, but I wish I could sometimes. Y’know?”

Jordan turned toward the rain-drenched window with a perfect, world-weary shudder. “Uh huh. I really hate to see my mom cry. It sucks being this way, sometimes.”

“It sure does. It’s sort of ironic, isn’t it, how something that feels so amazing can also cause such a lot of woe.”

All of a sudden Callie jerked upright in her seat and gave a violent snort. At first, I thought she was maybe having some kind of seizure. Then she squeezed her eyes shut and pressed her lips together, and produced a quieter, snuffling noise. She hugged her backpack extra-tightly and started swaying just a little back and forth.

“What the fuck?” Jordan slid further away from her on the seat.

She was laughing. It took me maybe fifteen seconds to be able to tell.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she said in a breathy voice. “But you guys…I have to admit, you had me there for a few minutes.” She turned to look up at me. Her face was bright red, but she was smiling. “You blew it though, just now. ‘A lot of woe!’

“Huh?”

She rubbed the back of her sleeve against her nose a couple of times, still giggling in a strange, silent way. “I mean, maybe if there were junkies at the Renaissance Faire, they’d talk like that. But two kids from Thomas Paine High riding a transit bus?” She shook her head. “Nuh-uh – sorry.”

Jordan’s eyes locked with mine. Embarrassed and furious at the same time, in that special way that only dudes can get. I took a quick breath like I wanted to say something, but realized I was fresh out of words. He turned toward the dripping window, pulled the collar of his jacket up high, and sunk down very low in his seat.

Callie was still staring up at me.

What?” I said.

She shrugged and went back to reading.

A space had opened up near the rear of the bus, so I went and plopped myself down there, behind an old dude wearing a moist fedora. I wanted to just put in my earphones and listen to something loud. But for some reason I felt too bundled-up and sluggish to even bother reaching into my jacket pocket. The rain had gotten heavier, clattering down like bullets on the metal roof.

Three stops later, at some random street outside a row of duplexes, Jordan suddenly jumped up, shoved his way past Callie, and got off the bus. We were nowhere near his house. I couldn’t imagine what the hell he was doing. I thought about opening the window and calling out to him, but that would have been pretty lame of me with all of the other people around. The last I saw of him, he was disappearing around the corner of an abandoned strip mall, with his shoulders all hunched and water streaming down the back of his neck.

More massive heaves and shudders as the bus crunched over a giant pothole. The geezer in the fedora sneezed a couple of times into a cloth hanky, then looked straight down at it. Admiring his work, I guess.

My stop was still about fifteen minutes away when Callie stood up, turned around in the corridor, and walked along the slick floor of the aisle, straight toward me.

I faced outward, pressing my cheek onto the cold glass, but watched her coming from the corner of my eye. We were drifting among the weedy boulevards, discount stores, and blotchy grey apartment complexes near the fringes of the suburbs. No way in hell did she actually live out here. She wasn’t going to sit next to me, was she? What was she even up to, staying on the bus this far into our nasty, non-bougie neighborhood?

She must have seen the question on my face. “Got a babysitting job for the weekend with some people from my church,” she said. Then she slid in beside me, shiny backpack and all. She gripped the seat in front of us and stared straight ahead as the wheels juddered around a sharp corner.

Neither of us said anything for a couple more stops. I tried to just keep staring out at all the black rain puddles and broken-up parking lots. But I couldn’t stop myself from glancing over toward her a couple of times. She had put her book away, and was chewing on something.

“Sorry I bummed out your friend,” she eventually mumbled.

I gave the most minimal shrug I could manage, short of not responding at all.

“Want a Swedish Fish?” She held out a wrinkled plastic bag of squashy candy. I shook my head.

The bus pulled up outside the huge windowless medical mall where all the local doctors had their offices. A bunch of the oldsters we’d been traveling with started wobbling their way out onto the curb, including fedora-head and the two grumpy shopping-bag ladies. I watched the wet wind blow the flaps of loose clothing around their bodies. What a crap way to spend a Friday afternoon, I thought to myself.

Callie pointed toward the window, apparently willing to give it one more try. “So, is this where ‘Jimmy Z’ hangs out?” The look she was giving me was tough to read. Was she about to laugh, or did she just have some sort of facial tic? For moment I tried to think of a snarky comeback, but nothing even halfway good enough came to mind. So I just rolled my eyes and turned away from her as firmly as I could.

I heard her give out an enormous sigh. “Look, Wendy” she said, “you can talk to me or not talk to me – it’s up to you. But you can’t hide it forever, y’know.”

The straight-up oddness of this remark made me turn back to face her. “What? Hide what? What the hell are you even talking about?”

She let go of her backpack with one hand, leaned closer, and gave me a sharp jab below the ribs with her elbow.

I flinched, but it didn’t actually hurt. She’d hit the fat paperback I had been carrying in the inside pocket of my jacket.

It was a thing about dragons or hobbits or something – I don’t remember now what it was called. I had been reading it for the past week or so. Second or third book in a series. Aunt Grace had bought me the full boxed set for Christmas, one of the best presents I’d gotten from anyone. I read every book she recommended, and to be honest I’d been enjoying the hell out of this one. Privately, I had thought – at school, I only took it out and read a few pages when I knew I was going to be left completely alone.

But as the bus rolled under a noisy underpass, Callie jabbed at the book again and raised her eyebrows at me. “What’s that inside your coat pocket, huh?” She was smiling by this point, all wide and wolfish. “That your stash of hard drugs?”

She had known that it was there all along. She must have seen me reading it somewhere, somehow, in spite of how careful I thought I’d been. And now she had me right where she wanted me.

 

FICTION PIECE

We Were Happy

by Elizabeth Day

 

Based on the song by Taylor Swift

The tent stood tall and grand at the front of the pier, striped in red and white. He told me to trust him, and I did, with everything in me. I felt the nervous giggle bubble out of me as he grabbed my hand and we ran through the opening of the tent before anyone could catch us.

It was standing room only, and we took it. I held his hand while we watched the clowns because he thought they were creepy. He wrapped his arms around my shoulders when the sword swallower performed his act because it made me nervous. We stayed that way for the rest of the show. I remember looking up at the trapeze artists performing in the sky, leaning back on his chest, hearing his laugh just above my head. I felt like I was right where I belonged.

Our laughs followed us out of the tent. The sun was setting on the ocean as we ran down the rest of the pier. Others got sidetracked with carnival attractions or with street performers, but not us. He and I were always focused on the horizon. It’s true what they say, about running while holding hands not being practical, but we didn’t care. We had all the time in the world, and nothing was more important than his hand in mine.

We sat on the edge when we finally reached it.

“This is such an angel number moment,” he said. “I wish it was 11:11 so we could make a wish.”

“Don’t say that,” I said. “Look at the sun. It’s so pretty.” It was low enough in the sky that it wasn’t at that excruciating height where the entire ocean glows like a flashlight and blinds you, so instead the water was a collage of colors: blue, orange, yellow, green.

“Why can’t we just make a wish anyway?” I asked.

“That’s a fair point,” he said. “Alright, ready?”

“Ready,” I grinned.

We sat in silence for a moment to make our wish. I can’t be certain what he wished for, but I wished for the farm.

He tried to get it out of me, what I wished for, but of course I didn’t give it up. I’m sure it was easy enough for him to guess, though; because I said, “I can’t say it. I can’t risk us not getting it.”

He smiled like he knew. I bet you anything he wished for the farm too.

We watched the boats until the sun had disappeared from the sky completely. The pier was alive around us, but it was quiet and peaceful. Our laughs as we talked together were the loudest sounds for miles. If the pier was alive, our laughs were the heartbeat.

Once our joy was the only thing lighting up the sky and it was too dark to see anything, we started the long drive home. Not that we were going home. We fully planned on being out all night, and our mothers fully planned on us being out all night too. The world was ours, and we had no intention of letting go.

We parked in front of his house once we got to the neighborhood, and then we started walking. We didn’t try to quiet our laughter, quiet our joy. It shone golden in the dark. Sometimes we would stop and dance together, the porch lights acting as spotlights on the world’s ballroom floor.

One such time he stopped and just held me there, then said quietly, “It’s 11:11.”

In the hush of the moment, I wished with all of my heart for the farm. With everything I had. I pictured our life together—him working on his daddy’s farm until he had enough money to make it ours. Me singing in coffee houses in town for a little extra change. Until finally one day we would own it together as husband and wife. Just one more piece of the town that would belong to us.

Our eyes closed, our faces together, the comforting feeling of his nose on mine, I whispered, “If we wish for it together, can we say it out loud?”

“Yep,” he whispered back.

“I wished for the farm,” I said.

We kissed, and I have wondered since that moment if I made a mistake saying it out loud, if that kiss whispered in intimacy sealed our fate.

 

I had never thought of going to New York before. I sang in the local coffee house through high school; music was my passion. I never even thought of taking the music out of our town, but everyone said I had so much potential. I started applying to schools, because it couldn’t hurt, right? It would just help me see what I could really do.

He knew about it, and he supported me. Neither of us thought about what would happen if I got accepted.

I was offered a lot of money by every big name school on the horizon. At first it was amazing—I had no idea how good I was. I was okay with just knowing that.

But with everyone’s congratulations came the questions about where I was going to go. My parents started researching in depth the programs at every school. New York shone through the haze of all the others. The prospect of possibility was so exciting.

I was young, they said. I had the entire future ahead of me. Who was I to deny myself of these incredible opportunities? It got to the point that it felt like I must just not know what I wanted. The decision was made.

The day I told him, I watched the internal fight behind his eyes, battling with his life to smile for me.

He congratulated me, but then he asked a question no one else had asked previously: “Will you come back?”

I said I would, of course, when I had my degree. I think he knew it wasn’t true, in that very moment, long before I did. There was never a concrete breakup. We had the false hope of fading slowly.

I think I knew on the day I celebrated working for one year at the singing bar in Hell’s Kitchen. My new best friend led the house in a toast, saying, “Here’s to many more!”

I started weeping, not for joy, but for the realization that I was still living my dream, playing music in a little restaurant, with no end in sight… except this time I wasn’t with the love of my life.

To this day, every time I visit town, I hear Graham’s voice in my mind clear as day. I see him kissing me and pulling away to say, “Emely, I can’t wait to spend the rest of my life with you. It’s only a matter of time. We’ll graduate, and then I’ll keep working, and we can get married, and the farm will be ours. I can’t wait.”

I hate visiting home, because I can’t stop crying. I didn’t merely let him down; I betrayed him. When I remember that, I think they must be right, all the people who say I love my career more than Graham.

I want him back, but I don’t deserve him. I have given him nothing to love me for. He works on the farm without anyone to look forward to sharing it with, and I live in a bigger city with bigger dreams that feel absolutely hollow without him in them. Maybe we were happy once, but not anymore, not since I watched our happiness set like a golden sun on our town.

 

FICTION PIECE

Love Potions Don’t Work

by Jade Cheng

 

“Have you ever seen a more beautiful creature?” Cerise sighed, her eyes peering into the crowd, following a particular figure. Their silver jewelry shimmered under the setting sun, peering out from the magenta dyed tips of their hair.

“If you’re talking about that girl you’ve been drooling over for the past four full moon phases, maybe you should find a better description than creature.” Her best friend Enith smirked. Cerise leaned against the pumpkin stand, still following the witch she often saw in her dreams.

“Remind me again how many manifestation spells you’ve casted this past phase?” Enith asked, glancing behind him to look at the girl his friend was fixated on.

“Oh geeze.” Cerise huffed, pushing off the cart to face him, a couple daisies sprouting from her scalp embarrassingly, recalling all the spells she had cast. She picked up the manifestation spell from a friend some moon phases ago; sitting in her room, surrounded by candles as she chanted a wish to the full moon. She looked away from the witch she was infatuated over. “One manifestation each new moon, I’m not stupid enough to cast anything like that during the different phases.”

Enith arched his eyebrow suspiciously. “You know manifestations only work if you also put in a bit of effort.” He nodded not so subtly towards her love interest.

“For your information, Maxine and I have hung out, several times actually.” Cerise rebutted, sticking out her chin.

“So you mean when you dragged her out into the woods to look for plants.” Enith side eyed his friend.

“First off, we were looking for mushrooms. And secondly I didn’t drag her, she wanted to come.” Cerise said knowingly while Enith rolled his eyes. The two of them started to walk away from the stand. Their boots crunching on the dirt and leaves of the marketplace paths.

The marketplace of the town sat in the middle of the surrounding neighborhoods. It was the heart and soul of the magical community, amidst the woods that surrounded the cozy houses and local shops. Separate from the world beyond the woods, the town stood in isolation and only rumors of the nonmagical passed in whispers from witch to warlock.

“We should get the rest of the ingredients for the midnight ritual.” Enith turned back towards Cerise, gesturing to the list she held in her left hand.

“You’re right. Also, did you manage to find the moonberries I asked for? They’re gonna be my artifact for tonight.” Cerise asked handing him the list.She had heard about moonberries about a week ago and was excited to hear that Enith had seen them in a local herbalist shop. Everyone who attends a midnight ritual needs an artifact to help channel their magic during the ritual to accomplish whatever magical task they wanted to complete during the night. Cerise being a Green Witch usually brought a seed, sapling, or a sprout.

“Oh yeah no worries, they’re at my place.” Enith reassured scanning the list.

“Awesome thanks. How many people are coming tonight?” She asked.

“Hmm.” Enith thought for a minute while they continued to walk through the busy crowds. “I’d say around five of us. Me and someone else from the Lunar Covens, you from the Green Covens, oh Vana from the Sea Covens, and I think she’s inviting someone from the Spirit Covens.”

“That’s a decent crowd for a midnight ritual.” Cerise commented. Her family always encouraged her to go to the midnight rituals; it strengthens magic and just got her out of the house in general. Occurring every different moon phase, the rituals were a vital part to the magical community. A young witch like herself would gather with friends or close family spending quality time together to practice magic, make wishes, summon spirits for guidance and strengthen bonds with her peers and loved ones.

The two of them approached a small cobblestone shop with the picture of a bubbling cauldron painted on a sign. The old wood door creaked as Enith pushed it aside for them to enter. Compared to the crisp autumn breeze outside, the inside air was warm and smelled of sage and pastries. The small shop was crowded with shelves. Dried herbs dangled from the rafters, crystal balls and rocks were meticulously placed behind glass cabinets, with animal skulls and bones lining dust covered shelves.

“Miss Claudine.” Enith called out into the shop. A shuffle of footsteps and a couple clangs and bangs sounded from the back.

“Yes, yes, I’m here. Who’s there?” A quaky voice followed the commotion. A small old woman with large, chipped glasses emerged out of the crowded trinkets.

“Hi Miss Claudine! Its Cerise and Enith.” Cerise smiled at the older woman whose dusty robes swished as she walked.

“Oh Cerise, Enith! How good to see you two again.” She beamed at the young witch and warlock. “Come to pick up some things for the midnight ritual?”

“Yup, just a few ingredients.” Enith responded.

“So good to see the young folk still preforming the rituals. Well, you know how it works, just holler if you need help finding anything.” The older witch waved her hand and muttered a spell, lighting some candles to illuminate the shop. Enith turned to look for the remaining ingredients as Cerise began to browse around the familiar shop.

“Oh, Cerise!” Miss Claudine gestured to her with a single boney finger. She walked over to the shop keeper, ducking to avoid hitting her head on some herb bundles. The woman gently grabbed her arm and led her to an ornate cabinet. Pulling out a rusted skeleton key from her robe, she unlocked the cabinet with a click.

“I heard some chatter that you’ve been casting quite a few manifestation spells, young lady.” She raised her long grey eyebrows at Cerise.

“I, I well, maybe a couple, but…” She stumbled over her words, making Miss Claudine chuckle. Of course, Miss Claudine knew about Maxine. She was the oldest witch in the town, everyone knew her, and she knew everything. Almost everything.

“Oh, I remember when I was a young witch in love. I drank homebrew confidence potions every new moon hoping I would gain the courage to talk to my Magnus.” The old woman said, reminiscing on her youth. “Of course, I was never the best brewer, my robes nearly caught fire every time I lit a cauldron.”

She let out a raspy laugh as she reached for a dusty bottle on the top shelf. Grasping it and wiping the dust on her already dirty robes, she held out the bottle for Cerise to see. The small bottle contained a swirling pink-purple liquid, shimmering as the contents inside swished around.

“Is that –“ Cerise’s eyes widened.

“A love potion.” Miss Claudine grinned.

“A love potion?!” Cerise heard Enith shout from the other side of the shop.

“Enith, stop eavesdropping!” She shouted back at her friend.

“Miss Claudine, please make her take that! She needs it.” Enith locked eyes with Cerise from across the shop and gave him a look of utter betrayal.

“I agree with Enith.” Miss Claudine nodded placing the bottle in Cerise’s hand.

“But I’ve never used a love potion before. What about a confidence brew like you were talking about, or something else that would just, help me…” Cerise trailed off looking at the small bottle that left dust on her fingers.

“No, no, not a confidence brew at a midnight ritual. You’d mess the magic up, those potions are far too widespread for something so specific, my dear.” Miss Claudine waved her hand, shuffling away to organize some glass marbles.

“Will this… make them like me?” Cerise hesitated with the question. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to give Maxine something that would force them to like her; it didn’t sit right with her. She knew Miss Claudine was very wise, but she couldn’t do this to her crush.

“Is that what you want?” The woman peered back at Cerise through some shelving while she continued to move about the shop. Enith glanced at her, waiting for an answer.

“I want them to like me, but not because of a potion. Just to like me for who I am.” Cerise answered gripping the bottle tighter now at the thought of possible rejection.

Maxine. The girl Cerise had liked before she could even put her feelings into words. She wasn’t sure what it was. Maybe the way her smile could light up the room, or how she never seemed to be in a bad mood. Her father was the town’s Medicinal Warlock, and Cerise with her love of strange magical plants practically lived in his office with all the accidents she got herself into. Maxine, like some other witches and warlocks in town, followed their parent’s job. So whenever Cerise landed into a prickly bush or burnt herself on an ember flower, Maxine was there to help her father patch Cerise up again.

They had grown closer this past year, and she wasn’t complaining one bit about the few times they had hung out. But despite their enclosed community, she had never met anyone like herself. There wasn’t one warlock couple or witch couple, it was all the same. One female witch, one male warlock and their children who would grow up and marry like their parents. One witch, one warlock. Maybe there was something wrong with her. No matter how many boys her mother invited over to dinner, or her friends that her father asked about; none of them made her tingle like when she was with Maxine.

Enith was the only one who knew, truly knew. He was the only person she trusted with this secret, and the reason she was even grasping this bottle in the first place. But she couldn’t ignore the intrusive thoughts lingering in the back of her mind. What would her family say? Would the community outcast her? Burn her like witch trials in the olden days? This town was all she had ever known, what would she do if they kicked her out? What would she do without her home? A lone witch without a coven is a dead witch.

She felt a hand on her shoulder. Enith looked down at the bottle that was still being grasped in between her fingers. What would this potion do to her future?

“Oh child.” Miss Claudine said softly. “I understand your concern, come here” She said, gesturing for Cerise and Enith to follow her to the counter. The old woman walked behind the old wooden furniture, grasping a small piece of parchment with her long nails, sliding it across the counter.

“Love potions are more versatile than people think they are.” She explained. “Follow these instructions and it’ll manipulate the potion. This way it’ll allow you to know if that special someone has feelings for you and vice versa, instead of using a love potion in a traditional sense.”

“I say, go for it.” Enith shrugged as he began to place the ingredients he gathered on the counter, handing Miss Claudine a stack of coins. Cerise hesitated for a moment, considering her options. Technically no one was forcing her to use the potion and even if she bought it that was no guarantee that she was required to use it. Making up her mind, she reached into her cloak about to pull out her own coin pouch.

“No need, dear.” Miss Claudine held out a hand. “If it works, bring them by the shop and buy them something nice.” The old women winked, smiling sweetly. Cerise returned a grateful grin, placing the bottle and its instructions into her pocket.

“Ok, well we better get going.” Enith nodded towards the front door. “Thank you, Miss Claudine, we’ll see you later.”

“Yes, thank you so much.” Cerise waved at the woman and followed her friend out of the shop.

“Have fun tonight you too, be careful if you summon spirits!” Miss Claudine called out as they said their goodbyes.

Cerise and Enith parted ways after they left the shop. They had a couple of hours before Enith would be ready to entertain guests, so Cerise began the walk back to her family home. The marketplace had started to clear now. Witches and warlocks were packing up their goods into wagons and bags. The street lanterns were being lit, the mystical fires flickering and giggling as the elemental witches brought them to life. Brooms hovered and moved on their own, sweeping the porches of shops or pilling the fallen autumn leaves into gold and orange piles. A group of young warlocks carrying a rather large cauldron rushed past her, chattering excitedly. The town of Addersbrooke was buzzing with excitement with the rising of a Waxing Crescent Moon. As the marketplace was closing, houselights turned on. The moon phase rituals were a time of gathering for covens, family and friends. Cerise felt herself growing a little more excited for when the clock would strike midnight.

She approached the small cul-de-sac where her house sat. There was smoke billowing softly out of the brick chimney of her family home. The large oak door had her family’s coven symbol, a maple leaf, carved in the center. The smell of home wafted around her as soon as she stepped through the high archway. The soft vanilla and pine scent snuck into her nose, warming her body. She could already hear her father in the kitchen while her mother sat in her chair besides the fireplace, knitting an orange scarf.

“Oh, Cerise, there you are.” Her mother smiled upon seeing her daughter enter the house.

“Hey mom, hi Teatime!” Cerise exclaimed happily, the orange family cat rubbed against her tights. The fluffy animal purred and arched its back when Cerise leaned over to scratch its rump.

“Where’ve you been today?” Her father asked poking his head out from the kitchen, his glasses fogged over from his cooking.

“I was out with Enith at the marketplace.” She responded.

“Are you staying with us for the midnight ritual tonight?” Her mother asked. Cerise took off her shoes and picked up the chunky cat.

“No, I got invited to Enith’s ritual.” She stuck out her tongue which Teatime returned with a gapping yawn, showing all his little canines.

“Oh, alright. We’re having the Nightshades over in an hour, you remember their son Oren, right? The two of you went to elementary together.” Cerise thought for a moment at the mention of the name.

“I’m sure if I saw him I’d remember his face.” She concluded. She made her way to the kitchen to see what her father was cooking. He had wiped his glasses off on his apron, the spoon left to stir on its own in the large bubbling cauldron, enchanted by her father’s cooking magic.

“I remember Oren.” He said. “Good boy, good boy. I think he’s working for that herbalist next to the bookstore.”

“No dear.” Her mother corrected him. “That’s Arbor, the Mallow’s son. Oren has been apprenticing under Mr. Cleary the town’s Potionist.”

“An apprenticeship you say? Well I’ll be darned, good for him!” Her father exclaimed, his glasses fogging up again. He turned back to Cerise.

“Now I’m not having you going over to Enith’s empty handed. Make sure you grab some of this before you head out tonight.” He gestured to the stew made of carrots, celery, onions and wild boar.

“I will. I just need to get some stuff together and I’ll be back down to grab it.” She replied, putting Teatime down.

“No, no take him upstairs with you.” Her mother said waving her hand. “He’s already knocked over enough of my spices off the shelf.”

“Teatime, you naughty cat!” Cerise frowned at the animal. He blinked innocently.

Gesturing for the cat to follow, Cerise headed upstairs to her room. The spiral staircase creaked under their steps. Pushing her bedroom door aside she removed the cloak from her shoulders, placing it on the foot of her bed. The small cozy room was lit by candlelight and firefly lanterns which made the walls a warm gold. The window nook next to her bed let the moonlight in, offering a view of the woods beyond her neighborhood. Teatime jumped up onto the cushioned nook, his pudgy body struggling just a bit.

Cerise moved towards her wooden wardrobe, opening it up to choose her outfit for tonight. Pushing some pieces of clothing aside she reached out and grabbed one of her long sleeve dresses. A spiderweb lace shawl was sewn onto the shoulders, one of her favorites. Pleased with her decision she tossed that onto her bed as well. Then hearing a clink, she perked up. The hanger had knocked against something in her cloak. Turning she saw the small bottle poking out from under the fabric. Eyes widening, she quickly shut her bedroom door. The potion.

Moving towards her bed she gingerly grasped the bottle, the instructions falling out with it. Unfolding the paper, she scanned the writing.

To user,

Place 3 drops in each of 2 cups of drinkable liquid.

After consuming if the user feels warm and fuzzy, the feeling results in attraction.

If after consuming the user feels cold, the feeling results in unattraction.

Three drops. Cerise opened the bottle and looked at the swirling liquid inside. Thinking for a minute she recalled a dropper she had in her home brewing kit. Placing the bottle down on her nightstand she headed over to her desk. Tossing out old recipes and pens in the trash nearby she finally found a single glass dropper in the last drawer.

“Perfect.” She smiled to herself holding the dropper up to the candlelight. Turning around to grasp the bottle Cerise froze and locked eyes with Teatime. His fuzzy paw was raised above the precious bottle of liquid.

“No.” Cerise said sternly at the cat who mimicked her stillness, the two of them locked in a silent argument. The cat’s tail tip flicked mischievously, raising his paw slightly higher.

“Don’t. You. Dare.” She said through clenched teeth. Teatime’s eyes glanced at the bottle then back at Cerise.

“I will never forgive you.” She whispered, fear laced in her voice. But Teatime did not live for her forgiveness; he was a true being of chaos. Then, with a single stroke of his toe beans the bottle was knocked over the edge of the nightstand. Cerise lunged forward, arms outstretched, reaching for the falling bottle. With a shattering crash, the glass hit the hard wooden floor, sending drops of pink-purple liquid across the room. Cerise landed with a thump on her stomach, the potion seeping into her clothes and floor. She felt her heart sink into her stomach as pieces of glass cut her forearm.

“No, no, no, no.” She desperately said out loud. Scrambling to her feet, she grasped the dropper frantically. Then like a mad man, she hunched over the remaining puddle, trying to suck up any remaining drops, but she was not successful. A soft thump sounded next to her as Teatime descended from the nightstand and sat next to his owner. Sadness welled up in her as she stared harshly at him.

What was she going to do? Tears started to blur her vision as the frustration consumed her. This was her chance, her one shot at knowing if Maxine had feelings too. This was the only way she could have known without exposing herself entirely and risk losing the people she cared about. She couldn’t fix this, not with her low brewing experience. If she tried to recreate the potion it would surely end in disaster, and she wasn’t going to ask Miss Claudine for another one. It was generous enough for the older woman to gift her the potion in the first place, so to ask for another would be rude and also costly. Money that Cerise didn’t have.

The overwhelming feeling of defeat felt heavy in her chest. She would never know if there was someone else like her out there. There wasn’t anything she could do. Seeing that bottle had filled her with such hope, as if the universe had answered her prayers, and now it was gone. She didn’t want to go back to manifestation spells that never seemed to work. Back to stolen glances and nervous smiles. She wanted answers, she needed answers. Was she doomed to be alone? Marrying a warlock she didn’t have feelings for, always wondering what her life could have been like.

“Cerise you’re going to be late to Eniths!” Her mother called from downstairs. Cerise sniffed, she didn’t even want to go to Eniths anymore, but she couldn’t miss a ritual they were too important. Staring at the broken glass on her floor, knowing there was nothing she could do she grabbed a dust pan. She hardly felt the scratches of glass on her forearm as she cleaned up. Numbness overcame her, engulfed in her own head with thoughts of doubt and uncertainty. She wiped away the tears, trying to pull herself together. Taking a breath, she headed downstairs.

“Ok I’m gonna get going now.” She said, reaching for the container of stew that her father left on the counter.

“Alrighty dear, have a good ritual and give Enith’s family our best.” Her mother replied to her daughter. Cerise nodded before stepping out of the door, pulling the cloak closer to her body to guard against the cold air.

Enith’s neighborhood was just beyond the marketplace; if she hurried, it would only take her 10 to 15 minutes. Her black boots clicked on the cobblestone street echoing out into the night. Now, as the darkness swept over the town, the laughing and gathering of voices in homes could be heard even out on the streets. Other witches and warlocks passed her going off to their own rituals as the town came to life with the night of the Waxing Crescent Moon. Turning a corner, she could make out the distant lights of Enith’s neighborhood. Family coven symbols glowed on front doors proudly in the moonlight as Cerise passed trees, animals, shells, and more. Finally, she spotted Enith’s place–a cozy stone house with a thatched roof, the upturned crescent moon etched into the front door glowed a warm gold. Cerise knocked three times. The door opened, revealing Enith’s mother, a short woman with a graying black bob haircut.

“Hello Mrs. Moira.” Cerise greeted with a smile.

“Oh hello Cerise!” Mrs. Moira smiled, wrinkles forming around her eyes. “Come in, come in. Enith and the others are upstairs in the star room.”

“Thank you. This is from my family.” She held up the container of stew after removing her shoes in the house.

“How lovely, thank you.” Mrs. Moira replied taking the container. “There’s some food already up there so help yourself. If you need anything, just let Enith know.”

“Perfect thank you, have a good ritual as well.” Cerise thanked her before heading up stairs. Every family of the Lunar Covens had a star room in their house and, similar to the sunroom of her family home and other Green Covens, it was the most beautiful and taken care of room in the house. She could hear laughter and chatter from down the hall as she neared the room.

“Hey Cerise!” Enith waved at her when she stepped through the archway. The room was bathed in moonlight and glow crystals. Cushions were scattered around the hardwood floor with a glass coffee table off to the side with dishes of food prepared for them. The one wall of the room without windows had constellations and moon phases hand painted onto it. Shelves lined a far corner of the wall, bottled of silver moon water, stones and glass balls pushed into sections.

“Hi everyone! How’s it going?” Cerise approached the small group. Just as Enith said, Linus, another boy from the Lunar Covens was sitting next to Enith, sporting a well pressed button up shirt embroidered with stars. Vana, from the Sea Covens, patted the cushion next to her for Cerise to sit. Her tight curly hair had a silver shimmer to it as she moved her head side to side.

“I feel like I haven’t seen you in so long!” Vana exclaimed beaming from ear to ear.

“It’s been pretty long! I think I remember seeing you at the spring festival a few moons ago.” Cerise said with an overly big smile while trying to hide her lingering sadness from the broken potion.

“Probably! I know that’s also when I last saw Linus.” Vana replied pointing to the other boy who was halfway through a platter of wild boar meat and sauteed dandelions.

“Mhm.” He mumbled, mouth full. Enith chuckled, reaching to grab a couple things for the ritual.

“I’m gonna start drawing the sigil. Our last person should be here soon.” He said, a stick of chalk in his hand. Vana gave him a thumbs up.

“Did you need any help?” She asked wiggling her hands in preparation for a spell.

“No, I’m good. Just prepare your artifacts for the sigil so we have everything ready for the ritual.” He reassured, the chalk lines forming into a multitude of circles and symbols.

“Hey Enith, you got my seeds?” Cerise asked recalling from earlier that day.

“Oh yeah!” He perked up at her question. “Sorry, they’re downstairs in the kitchen, you can ask my mom for them.”

“Alrighty.” She stated, standing up from her comfortable spot on the cushion. Cerise exited the room and back downstairs.

She heard chatter coming from the living room and figured following the voices would be her best bet at finding Enith’s mom. Rounding the corner, she saw Mrs. and Mr. Moira sitting around a sigil with a few other adults. The chalk lines glowed white illuminating their features. White candles burned around them with their magical artifacts intricately placed inside the sigil. It was such a normal sight to see, but Cerise could feel the powerful magic coming from the circle of adults. It overwhelmed her in a way, tingling her fingertips and sending goosebumps up her arms and legs.

“You need something, sweetie?” Mrs. Moira had turned towards Cerise.

“Yes please, Enith told me he had some seeds for the ritual?” She asked the women.

“Ah yes! Right over there on the counter, little glass container.” Cerise followed her pointed finger.

“Thank you so much.” Grasping the container holding 5 hazelnut sized seeds. She examined them for a second, they were white and fleshy with flecks of green scattered across the surface. There was a knock at the front door in the background, she heard Mrs. Moira’s voice greet someone, but Cerise was too into her examination to make out the words.

“Cerise!” Mrs. Moira’s call snapped her back. She moved from the kitchen towards the front door, eyes still on the seeds.

“Cerise dear, could you show Maxine where the star room is?” The woman asked.

“Huh?!” Cerise jerked her head up. And just like that there she was, the witch that caused moths to flutter in her stomach. She grinned at Cerise, dark eyes creasing at the corners, soft smile lines outlining her cheeks. Her hair fell onto her shoulders, dyed magenta at the tips with silver earrings hanging from her earlobes, a velvet cape swished around her ankles.

“Hey Cerise.” Maxine’s voice broke through the silence. Cerise felt her legs wobble hearing her name being spoken through that angelic voice.

“H-Hey.” She swallowed, pointing towards the stairs. “Yeah, just follow me.”

She followed close to Cerise as they walked upstairs and down the hall. Her heartbeat pounding in her head, slowly nearing the star room. The sigil was fully drawn now and the cushions and furniture had been pushed to the side. The chalk lines swirled into a multitude of circles, several artifacts placed in smaller circles, a conch shell, a crystal ball, and a vial of moon water.

“She made it!” Vana exclaimed. “Were my directions clear?”

“I did get lost, but I found it eventually. Sorry I’m a bit late.” Maxine apologized to Enith.

“No worries, we just finished setting everything up. Put your artifact in the circle, the veil hasn’t been put up yet.” Enith gestured to an empty circle. Maxine produced a silver chain from her cloak pocket, a hand beaded lavender flower pendant swayed in the air.

“That’s really pretty.” Cerise complimented, summoning up her courage to speak.

“Thanks, it was a relative’s.” Maxine replied softly, placing the necklace delicately in the circle. Cerise put a single seed next to hers.

“Sweet! Let’s put up the veil and get started!” Enith clapped his hands together excitedly. They all took a seat around the sigil, forming a circle. Enith took a basket of candles and began to hand them out to everyone. Once each person had a candle in front of them, Enith plucked out a single strand of his hair placing it atop the candle. The hair burst into a puff of fire which then slowly died down to a single white flame. Everyone else did the same, Linus’s white flame, Vana’s blue flame, Maxine’s yellow and Cerise’s green. Once the candles were lit, a translucent barrier rose from the edges of the sigil, separating the artifacts inside from the witches and warlocks outside.

“Ok what’s everyone doing tonight?” Enith asked after a moment of silence.

“I’m making a prediction.” Linus said aloud.

“Making a wish.” Vana chimed in.

“Trying some complex magic and hoping for the best.” Cerise chuckled.

“I’m gonna try a summoning.” Maxine added.

“Sweet. I’m also making a prediction.” Enith finished.

“Wow, so what type of magic are you doing for us tonight, Cerise?” Maxine leaned in closer as she asked the question, her eyes peering up from under her long lashes.

“Oh, uh just trying to make that moonberry blossom.” She smiled nervously pointing to the seed. “I couldn’t do it with just my magic so I figured a ritual would be a good place, ya know, combining magic and all that…”

Cerise twiddled her thumbs, trying not to make eye contact with Maxine. Her face felt like it was on fire. She glanced elsewhere but made the mistake of looking at Enith who wiggled his eyebrows.

“Well, I sure hope it works, I’d love to see something like that. I bet its beautiful.” Maxine replied softly, her shoulder brushing against Cerise’s. A small daisy sprouted on top of Cerise’s head upon the impact.

“Cerise, why don’t you go first then?” Vana suggested, seeming to pick up on the energy of the room. “If you’re using combined magic, it might be best to go before everyone uses up their own.”

“Sounds good with me.” Enith agreed, leaning back on his elbows, a cheeky grin spreading across his face. Linus shrugged off to the side.

More small flowers started to bud and sprout in Cerise’s hair, feeling the conversation switch onto herself. She could give it a go, despite her shaky hands.

“Sure, sure I’ll go then.” She announced, clutching her fists in concentration.

“Sweet, just lead us into it.” Enith said rubbing his hands together preparing his magic.

“Ok, let’s see, if everyone could lend me some magic?” Cerise asked holding out her hands either side. The circle of witches and warlocks all connected hands with each other letting their magic flow through them in a circle. To her right she felt Maxine’s warm palm offer a little squeeze as Cerise felt all their magic course through her veins. Her heartbeat picked up and she felt stronger, more confident. A tingling in her fingers gave her goosebumps and made her hair stand on end. The small flower that had sprouted from embarrassment in her hair opened fully now, growing leaves and stems and vines. Opening her eyes she took a deep breath, focusing on the task before her.

“Let’s do this.” She said, the confidence showing in her announcement to the room. Small specks of light radiated around her as she outstretched her hands towards the sigil. Before she even uttered a spell, the moonberry seed visibly began to vibrate in the circle. She steadied herself before speaking.

“Sub lunae lumine mando tibi crescere!” Cerise’s voice echoed off the walls. A deep rumble trembled under the floorboards, the seed trembling. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Maxine watching her in awe. Determined not to lose focus Cerise repeated the spell again.

“Sub lunae lumine mando tibi crescere!” Then with the final words spoken the seed cracked down the middle. A blue-white light illuminated the room, and roots and a stem began to emerge. The plan grew taller and taller, taking up as much room as the veil of the sigil allowed it too. Glimmering silver petals unfurled under the light of the moon, revealing a shining crystal-like sphere at the center.

“Damn!” Enith gapped at the giant plant in the middle of his star room. Cerise lowered her hands, arms shaky and drained as she felt magic slowly drain from her body.

“Woooo! Go Cerise!” Vana shouted and clapped her hands in excitement.

“It’s absolutely gorgeous.” Maxine breathed. Cerise sat back, taking a moment to recover her energy.

“Yeah, it’s really something isn’t it?” She said, taking in her work. “Thanks for the help you guys, I’ve been trying to get that spell for ages….” Cerise rambled before noticing Maxine move next to her.

“Uh, Maxine whatcha doin?” Enith asked cautiously.

“It’s just so, pretty.” Maxine said, trance like reaching out towards the veil.

“Woah, hey wait!” Cerise nearly shouted. Once Maxine’s hand touched the veil, the barrier between the sigil’s magical containment and the outside world was broken. An ear-piercing boom exploded as the veil fell upon impact. Without thinking Cerise leapt from her spot, tackling Maxine to the side but she was too late.

The two of them blew back from the tear in the veil. The compressed magic was too much for them to avoid and they went flying so hard, they broke through one of the glass walls. Cerise gripped onto Maxine as hard as she could while they fell. Opening her eyes for a moment she saw the grassy mossy ground below them grow nearer and nearer. Summoning all her strength she shouted a spell into the air.

“Excreso musco!” The moss below them grew ten times its size, creating a giant cushion of green below.

“Oof!” The two felt the wind get knocked out of them on impact with the moss. Cerise stared up at the stars above them, gasping for breath. Her heart beating out of her chest.

“Oh shit!” She cried out in a moment of clarity. She sat up, grasping Maxine’s shoulders, terrified. “Oh my god, are you ok? Are you hurt? Maxine?”

The girl still laying down, the night sky reflecting in her dark eyes, slowly blinked. A smile crept onto her face, spreading from cheek to cheek.

“Maxine?” Cerise breathed. Then she sat up, their faces nose to nose. Cerise could feel the warmth radiating off the girl as Maxine grabbed Cerise’s face.

“Cerise, you’re incredible!” Maxine exclaimed, a look of pure joy and excitement completely engulfing her.

“Wha- what are you talking about?” Cerise asked, did Maxine hit her head? Did she have a concussion.

“I’m so sorry, your plant was like pulling me towards it. I don’t know what came over me, and then I broke the veil and the magic escaped… But you broke my fall with your amazing magic! Thank you so much!” Maxine rambled on, the infectious smile never leaving her face, making Cerise feel warm and fuzzy. Their faces were so close, and Maxine’s hands were so soft and warm.

“I almost fucking killed you.” Cerise said shaking.

“No, you saved my life Cerise! I-I’m so grateful.” Maxine comforted. The excitement slowly going away, replaced with a new look on her face. It was gentle and bright, her thumb caressing Cerise’s cheek. Then slowly without even processing what was happening she saw Maxine’s face grow closer and closer.

When their lips made contact it was if every racing thought in Cerise’s mind simply disappeared. Maxine smelt of warm lavender candles and baked apples. When she finally pulled away the cold fall air filled the gap between them. Flowers sprouted in Cerise’s hair, by her eyes and on her hands. Maxine giggled at the sight, reaching up to pluck a purple periwinkle off her head.

“Maybe you could tell me more about that plant someday?” Maxine asked rather shyly, twirling the flower between her fingers.

“I-I’d love to.” Cerise smiled genuinely. Then raising a shaky hand, palm up, a bouquet of periwinkles sprouted before them.

It turns out she never needed a love potion in the first place.

FICTION PIECE

Favorite Grandchild

by David Larsen

 

Clay Gibson couldn’t watch when Frank and his father killed the hen—he just couldn’t do it—but the fresh, menacingly-dark blood on the gray tree stump and the axe that leaned against the side of the stump had some unyielding hold on his twelve-year-old mind. As hard as he tried, he couldn’t keep from glancing at, then quickly looking away from, the site of the slaughter, the first step in the preparation of the chicken and noodles, Clay’s favorite meal that Grandma Peck cooked, especially for him, whenever his family came to visit.

Unlike his mother’s chicken dinners, dishes prepared with chicken breasts that came from the A & P, rubbery pieces of meat, tidily wrapped in cellophane, his grandmother’s wonderful meals commenced with violence, a perfunctory carnage that occurred not more than sixty feet from the backdoor of the small, run-down shack on SW Forty Second Street, the dilapidated shanty his grandmother shared with Frank, her second husband, a whiskered, grizzled old man Clay adored.

The bird’s severed head was gone—his father must have removed it from the sacrificial stump—but white feathers, the reminders of the bird’s hopeless struggle, a match with a preordained outcome, were scattered all around the stump.

It wasn’t that Clay felt any kinship with the chickens. To the contrary, he hated the creatures; the disagreeable birds chased him around the yard every time he stepped out the back door; he was fed up with being terrorized by the hideous clucking demons. There was no love lost between them. Squeamish and, unfortunately, timid, Clay was intimidated by the petulant feathered oppressors; any terror the birds suffered in the preparation of his favorite meal, Clay looked upon as justice served. But he wanted no part in the administration of the retribution.

Clay knew the next steps in the process by heart: the chicken’s remaining feathers would be plucked, the insides of the bird would be yanked out, his grandmother would skillfully remove small hairs, or whatever they were, from the chicken’s flesh with tweezers, the chicken—what was left of it—would then be cleaned and torn into pieces, then placed into the large pot on the kitchen stove. The noodles, cut into strips from dough that had been artfully rolled out with a wooden rolling pin, would be added once the meat separated from the bones in the pot of boiling water, spices of some sort would be pinched into what would soon be the broth.

The outcome: one of the tastiest dinners anyone could ask for.

Clay loved devouring the bird and the thick, slimy noodles, even after all he had witnessed. There would be green beans from the garden and, the best part of the feast, the desert, a rhubarb pie from the stalks of the plants that randomly grew down by the cornfield Frank illegally cultivated on the railroad’s land, a couple of acres squeezed in between the switching tracks and his grandparents’ shingled hovel. It was all for Clay, his grandparent’s favorite grandchild.

And Clay was the Pecks’ favorite grandchild. More than once, Frank had told him so. The old man saved all of his prizes from the boxes of Cheerios, Wheaties and Corn Flakes for Clay—and for Clay only—when he came to visit. The bristly old man kept the trinkets—plastic rings, a tiny magnifying glass, miniature soldiers, a small boat that actually floated—stashed away in the top drawer of the mahogany chest of drawers in his bedroom. On the previous year’s visit Frank told Clay to keep these gifts a secret. “Don’t tell your cousins that I give you these,” he told the boy. “When Glen and Sharon come here, all they do is make fun of the way we live. ‘Why do you live in this small little house? Why do you have cows in your backyard?  Why are you poor?’ You, Clay, you’re different. You seem to like it here. All they do is complain that there’s no TV. That there’s nothing to do.”

Being the favorite grandchild of the Pecks carried some pretty heavy responsibilities: Clay was expected to tag along with Frank when he walked Ma and Cherry, the old man’s two milk cows, over to pasture in a vacant lot a quarter of a mile away.

Pat, Frank’s three-legged, gray-whiskered terrier hobbled alongside the two as they thrashed through the high weeds. Clay loved that dog in spite of the mongrel’s wiry coat and horrible breath.

Another obligation—a treat, never a chore—was that he was expected to listen to Frank’s stories. Frank had done more in his life than anyone: he’d ridden with Teddy Roosevelt in Cuba, he worked on the canal in Panama, he was, at one time, the sheriff in Downs, Kansas, he’d panned for gold in the Yukon, he, when he was a young man, was a gandy dancer on a crew in the southern counties of Iowa. There wasn’t much the man hadn’t done.

Clay knew, once they returned to the house, with the cows safely staked in the grassy vacant lot, there would be an afternoon’s session of sitting beside Frank, in the shade on the wooden steps that led to the house’s backdoor. He listened intently to the recounting of the exploits the man had survived, back before the Midwest had been totally settled, back when there were still adventures to be experienced, back before men, like his own father, merely went off to work and came home every day. Before the every-day drudgery of the fathers of Clay and his friends.

The day was already sticky hot, the temperature in the upper eighties, a scorcher for central Iowa this late in August. Grandma Peck would more than likely stir up a pitcher of Kool Aid for the two to gulp down as they whittled away at “just-the-right-size” branches from the red elm out by the storage shed. The old man and the boy would talk, man to man, about the triumphs Frank had achieved in his breathtaking life.

This day was shaping up to be another great one for Clay.

“Back in Kansas I had a run-in with the James brothers,” said Frank. His raspy voice added to the tales he told. “They were a couple of tough boys.”

Frank’s knife took a foot-long curl of bark off the side of his chunk of the elm.

“You knew Jesse James, Frank?”

“Knew him?” Frank looked off across the rows of corn south of the back yard. He squinted one eye, hesitated, for effect, then spoke in his best down-home drawl. “I used to run with those two, Frank and Jesse, both of them…before they went so bad.”

“Did you rob any banks?” Clay hated that his own voice had risen to a high pitch, but this was a truly remarkable admission, even for a man with Frank’s experiences.

“No, no. I knew them when they were still okay. Once they went bad, I joined a posse that went after that gang. Even though we’d once been good friends, I had to help put an end to their rampaging.” Frank sniffled heavily and took a swig of the orange Kool Aid. He paused again, then continued. “I never went in for breaking the law, but I knew the likes of the James boys all too well.”

“What was Jesse James like?” Clay also took a hearty gulp of the Kool Aid.

“I guess you could say he had a mean streak, even before all the robbing and killing. But, shoot, when I knew him, he was just trying to get enough money to buy a farm. He used to tell me ‘Frank, when I get my farm, I want you to be my partner’. Well, I guess that would have worked out just fine, but then he took to getting ideas about getting rich quick. That’s when him and me split up. The next thing I knew I was riding after him with a bunch of other fellas.” Frank spit a stream of brown tobacco juice into the grass off to his side of the backdoor steps.

Clay struggled with his pocket knife, a gift from Frank two years earlier. The bark on his stick wouldn’t come off easily. “Was this when you were a sheriff?”

“No, that came later. I was still pretty young when we went after Jesse. We never caught him though. Some say he was never really shot. That he lived to be an old man. I just know we could never track him down and take him in.”

“That must have been something. Knowing Jesse James.”

The old man tossed his smooth, shucked branch into the yard. He stood and stretched.

“We’d better go and get Ma and Cherry before someone steals them,” said Frank. “Why don’t you run in and tell your mother that we’re going to go and bring those two bossies back home? And, Clay, while you’re in there, see how those noodles are coming along. I’m getting pretty hungry, aren’t you?”

Before Clay went inside, he ran off to the outhouse on the edge of the cornfield. As his brother had warned, the plumbing inside the house was on the fritz again. Clay’s teenage brother, Carl, never came to the Pecks’ house; he thought they were just a couple of rubes.

Luckily, the privy wasn’t unbearable. Number one wasn’t so bad in the outhouse; number two, on the other hand, was an entirely different story.

Inside the house his mother and Grandma Peck worked, side by side, in the small kitchen.  Two Berthas, mother and daughter, going about their business as if they’d been born to it. His father was on the glider on the front porch, his eyes glued to the latest issue of Time magazine.

“Mom,” Clay asked, “did you know that Frank knew Jesse James?” He was puffed up with pride and wanted his mother to share the joy of it.

“I didn’t know that.” His mother said absently. She was intent on stirring something into the heavy, black and white speckled pot.

“He did.” Clay insisted. “And he used to run with him before Jesse became an outlaw.”

Grandma Peck smiled at Clay, then looked at Clay’s mother through the coke-bottle-thick lenses of her wire-framed glasses. The old woman clunked across the linoleum floor in her old-fashioned, thick-heeled, lace-up shoes. In her home-sewn dresses she looked like Eleanor Roosevelt. Clay had seen the dead president’s widow on TV when he watched a little of the Democrats’ convention with his father. His father liked keeping up on stuff like that. To Clay, it seemed awfully boring, but he knew, that like his father, he was a Democrat, as was his mother. His family liked Ike, but voted for Adlai Stevenson.

Finally, his mother set the spoon on the stove. “Clay, sometimes Frank’s stories are just stories. He makes things up, just to make your afternoons with him exciting.”

“No, Mom. He really knew Jesse James.”

“Clay.” His mother sighed and put her hands on his shoulders. “Jesse James died a long time ago. Probably about when Frank was born. Frank couldn’t have known the man. He was a baby back then. You just have to take his stories as fun. They aren’t always meant to be real.”

Grandma Peck chuckled. “Clay,” she said, “Frank’s an old man with a wild imagination.”

“I’d bet he did know Jesse James,” Clay pouted.

He slammed the back door as he stumbled out of the house. Frank stood at the edge of the cornfield. In his old-fashioned felt fedora with sweat stains enhancing its band, his plaid flannel shirt and overalls, he looked like a scarecrow out there all by himself.

Somehow, in the ten short minutes Clay had been inside, everything had changed. He couldn’t explain what exactly was different. The yard he had always loved to play in, his favorite place in the entire world, looked the same, only smaller and disheveled. The rope clothesline his grandmother hung Frank’s faded overalls on was still there, but sagged sadly, almost apologetically. Out by the outlaw cornfields, the outhouse still tilted, as if it could tumble downthe hill at any moment. But how many people still used an outhouse? It all appeared terribly shabby.

Everything was wrong, things he’d never noticed before: how shoddy the whole property really was, how downtrodden and poor his grandparents must look to those who didn’t know and love them as he did. Clay hated himself for thinking such thoughts. He felt ashamed, not only of the two old people, but also of himself for feeling the way he did. To be embarrassed by the people he loved was unforgivable.

“Did you tell your mother that we’ve got to go and get Ma and Cherry?” asked Frank.

Clay looked at the old man. Then at the clay at his feet. “She told me I couldn’t go.” His voice trembled. “You’ll have to go without me, Frank.”

After Frank had sauntered off across the field and into the knee-high, thick weeds of the vacant lot, Clay sat on the steps and whittled by himself. He grumbled and took his frustration out on the stick.

He looked across the yard and noticed that most of the dead chicken’s feathers had blown away…or been gathered up. Cautiously, he walked toward the stump. The blood had dried, only the dark stain remained, and the axe had been removed, probably placed back in the shed.

Two mangy cats sat in the shade of the elm, the chicken’s head between them, its eye fixed on the afternoon sun slipping to the west in the cloudless sky. Neither of the cats had any use for the bird’s head, but neither was willing to concede the useless prize to the other.

Clay stood for a minute and studied the bird’s head, its red comb, its yellow beak, its red wattles. About the ugliest creature in all creation. But everything seemed ugly to him.

When he’d seen enough, he whirled around and with a shriek ran toward the eight chickens that were busy pecking around the section of the yard where Grandma Peck tossed their feed every morning. The arrogant rooster that strutted in front of the coop, as if he owned the place, saw the boy coming and scampered inside the dilapidated wooden structure.

Kicking and shouting at the top of his lungs, Clay charged right through the rest of the jabbering monsters. When he reached the wall of the deteriorating coop, he turned and yelled “A-h-h”. He wanted to pound his chest…like Tarzan.

Again, he yelled “A-h-h,” and made another attack on the squawking, scattering birds. “Stupid chickens,” he yelled.  “Goddamn, stupid chickens.” To his surprise, he discovered that chickens are quicker than twelve-year-old boys.

 

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY

Jade Cheng

Jade Cheng is a student at the University of Nevada, Reno, pursuing their BS in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation , with a minor in English Writing. Hoping to receive a Ph.D. later in her academic career, Jade values both the biological sciences and the literary arts. When they are not working on another writing piece or in the university’s research labs, they can be found spending time with friends and love ones, cooking, reading, and watching some of their favorite movies.

Their work in Fterota Logia: Love Potions Don’t Work

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY

Mark Silcox

Mark Silcox was born and raised just outside of Toronto, Canada. He has previously worked as a security guard, a short order cook, and a freelance writer in the video game industry. His writing is featured in the n64 game Aidyn Chronicles: The First Mage as well as the indie games Dragonlord and The Cave of Morpheus.  He currently lives in Edmond, Oklahoma, where he serves as Chair of the Department of Humanities and Philosophy at the University of Central Oklahoma. He is the author of A Defense of Simulated Experience: New Noble Lies (2019), editor of Experience Machines: The Philosophy of Virtual Worlds (2017), co-author of Philosophy through Video Games (with Jon Cogburn, 2008) and co-editor of Dungeons & Dragons and Philosophy: Raiding The Temple of Wisdom (with Jon Cogburn, 2012). His SF novel The Face on the Mountain was published by Incandescent Phoenix Press in 2015.

His work in Fterota Logia: A Lot of Woe

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY

Nick Stovel

Nick Stovel is a writer and student pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Central Florida. Prior to that, he received his Bachelor of Arts in English from Florida Atlantic University, graduating cum laude. A true lover of storytelling, he has been writing since he had the ability to form sentences, and is also a self-proclaimed cinephile. His stories explore various themes but often feature characters struggling with anxiety and sense of self. In his free time, he enjoys going to the beach.

His work in Fterota Logia: Rollercoaster