The Chicken and the Train  |  Cetoria Tomberlin



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             I stumbled across them by mistake. It was a late August afternoon, and I wasn’t ready to go home yet. Mom was going through a stage that involved lots of crying and plate throwing. Dad called it “the change,” but I didn’t really understand what that meant. I was 14, and I hadn’t even made it to first base with a girl yet.
             The south side of the high school in my hometown is bordered by a fairly dense patch of woods. The forestry team uses it every Thursday for practice. Because of the overgrown wildlife, most people miss the tracks. That’s what we call them: the tracks; a set of rarely used train tracks that bypass the entire town. Dad tells stories about how he and his buddies used to play chicken with the trains. You stand on the tracks as long as you dare with the train coming straight at you. The really brave kids would hop into the empty boxcars as they passed and ride for a mile or two.
             Nowadays, they’re mostly deserted. The trains still run, but not regularly, and their cargo is wood chips or scrap metal. Occasionally, you might find a fellow wanderer walking along the parallel lines or just passing his time sitting on the rails. Lucky me, that day, I found two. I didn’t recognize who they were at first, but what they were doing was pretty obvious. It was a couple in the midst of one intense make-out scene. So intense, they didn’t notice me standing just outside the trees. I’m not a Peeping Tom or anything like that, but I was finding it really hard to look away. The girl’s curly brown hair was getting frizzier by the second, and her nails just kept running up and down the guy’s back like she was trying to claw through his shirt. Something felt strange about the pair, not their intimacy, but something else I couldn’t figure at the moment.
             Suddenly, I realized whose privacy I was trespassing upon. Miranda. The girl’s name was Miranda Crossley. Those were her long dark curls getting dust and dirt mixed into them with sweat. She was two years older than I, and one of the prettiest girls I, or anyone else in our town, had ever seen. Her mother and my mother both taught at the elementary school. Our parents attended the same dinner parties. Hers always brought Miranda along dressed in the softest yellows and pinks to complement her lightly browned skin and blue eyes. They were so proud of the lovely child they had created. So much so they didn’t even consider giving her a sibling. If that was Miranda, then the guy breathing heavily above her must be Chris, her boyfriend. His father was the only divorce lawyer in the whole county. Chris was a senior and not bad looking himself. Rumor had it he was going to UNC for college next year to study biology. His parents were thrilled to have a future doctor in the family.
             The realization must have been more audible than the click I heard in my head because just as I was putting two and two together, Miranda looked over Chris’ shoulder. Our eyes locked, and I don’t think I could have moved an inch. I doubt I even breathed for a full minute. Apparently, Miranda didn’t mind an audience, though, because she quickly returned her full attention to Chris. I felt my lungs fill again, and I tried to decide if I should back away slowly or turn tail and run like hell. I doubted Chris would be as understanding as Miranda.
             I took one quiet, small step backward. I could feel the twig beneath my shoe before I heard it, but it was too late; the weight of my foot was dropping and my reflexes weren’t working at full speed. The snap could have been heard a mile away.
             I saw Chris’ body attempt to turn, but Miranda grabbed his shoulders and pulled him back down for a long kiss. She lifted one of her hands off his shoulder blade and flicked me away as fervently as she could without attracting her partner’s attention. I turned and ran the entire way home.
             Only after closing the door and sinking to the floor, did I allow myself to think again. I grasped what was wrong with the scene. It was Miranda; she had looked like she was about to cry.


♥♥♥


             Two weeks later I was standing there again, but this time it was almost 7 p.m. I had decided to take a walk after dinner and figured it was safe to try my old standby again.
             She was sitting on the gravel rocks by the tracks, alone. I stopped myself from walking right into her line of vision. She was wearing a yellow sun dress with purple flowers all over it. Her feet were bare, but I spotted her flip-flops about five feet away, sitting on one of the iron railings.
             After a minute or two, she spoke: “Are you going to stand there all night?”
             Damn, guess she heard me.
             “Well?” She looked straight into the woods, but not directly at me.
             I felt like I was approaching a firing squad as I stepped out from behind the pine. I thought she’d accuse me of being a complete creep, but she smiled when she saw me.
             “It’s you. I thought … anyway.” She shook her head slightly. “Are you stalking me, Jackson Powell?”
             “No! I mean, no. I’m not stalking you, Miranda.”
             She was smirking at me still. “You know my name?”
             “Everyone knows your name. It’s a small town, and our mothers work together … and … well, you’re Miranda Crossley.”
             She was looking past me know, toward the direction I had come.
             “Are you expecting someone?” I asked.
             “Kind of,” she conceded.
             “Chris?”
             “It’s like I can’t escape him. Everywhere I go, he’s there. It’s exhausting hiding from your own boyfriend.”
             “I wouldn’t know about that.” I sat down beside her.
             “You think you’re funny, don’t you.” She shoved my shoulder with her own as she said it. “Hey, you sure got a show the other day.”
             I looked down at my shoes; my face was on fire with guilt. She stopped giggling when she saw my embarrassment. Her hand slid onto my knee. She must have been hot-natured; it was burning up. I couldn’t stop staring at it. A girl’s hand was on my knee. Miranda Crossley’s hand was on my knee.
             “You got a girlfriend, Jack?”
             “Nobody calls me Jack.”
             “Nobody but me,” she retorted with a smile. “Answer the question, please.”
             “No,” I admitted.
             “Ever had one?”
             “No.” What was this, 21 questions?
             “Well, I bet that means you’ve never kissed a girl.”
             “Well, I no—not any girl I wasn’t related to. I mean, not kissed-kissed, just—you know, like my mom or sister—like how you kiss your mom or sister.” I managed to shut up and just stare at my shoes again. She didn’t torment me, though.
             “Yeah, I get it. You don’t make out with your mom or sister.”
             I couldn’t help but laugh, which must have been what she wanted because she was laughing, too. Her hand squeezed my knee, and I considered putting my hand on top of hers. I wanted to know what they’d look like together.
             “Kissing’s fun, Jack. You should try it sometime.”
             “I will. I mean, one day,” I said. My eyes darted up to her face, then back down to our hands again. We sat there for a few minutes in silence. I didn’t feel like I normally did with girls, awkward and out of place. I felt, I guess, like I was supposed to feel: natural. I guess that’s what made me brave enough to ask her: “Why are you hiding from your boyfriend?”
             She sighed really heavily before answering, “Don’t you ever just want to be alone? Just for a little while?”
             “Yeah, sure,” I replied.
             “Chris doesn’t like to be alone. He doesn’t get it. If I’m not with him, he thinks I’m with someone else. Who else would I be with?”
             “Maybe another guy?” I was serious, but she didn’t think so.
             “What other guy? Chris is the best any girl could hope for here. Top of the ladder, right?”
             “I guess if you’re climbing a ladder, he is.”
             “I’m 16. I’ve got the best I’m going to have at 16? What kind of sick joke is that?”
             I didn’t think those were really questions for me so I just sat there looking at the prettiest girl in town tell me she didn’t really like her boyfriend.
             We both heard the leaves moving before we heard Chris’ voice. “Miranda!”
             I stood to leave. “I’d better go.”
             “Hey, don’t let him scare you.”
             “It’s not that … well, maybe a little, but …” I put my hands in my pockets. I didn’t want to leave, but I didn’t want to be there with her and Chris. Three’s a crowd when two guys and a pretty girl are involved. “He seems mad Miranda, I don’t …”
             “He probably is,” she conceded with another sigh. “Go hide behind the brush on the other side of the tracks. You don’t have time to make it too far by now, anyway. He’s going to walk through those trees any second.”
             I hesitated.
             “He’ll know you’ve been here, with me, if you go back the way you came.”
             She was right. Chris wasn’t a bad guy, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t get mad. I didn’t answer. I dodged for the greenery and made it just before he came striding out of the woods on the same path I had taken earlier.
             “Miranda! Didn’t you hear me calling you?” He stopped a few feet in front of her. I couldn’t tell from where I was watching, but my guess is she was glaring at him.
             “I think the whole town heard you.”
             “We were supposed to go to the movies tonight. I called your cell.” He said it like he was accusing her of something.
             “There’s no service out here; you know that.”
             “I went to your house, and your parents said you’d left to meet me half an hour ago. I had to lie and say we got our wires crossed.”
             “Imagine that, you lying to my parents,” she quipped.
             “I don’t like it.” His eyes were on his shoes now.
             “Well, you sure do it enough.” I noticed she slightly jerked her head when she spoke each word.
             “Only about important stuff!” His head popped up. “What? You want me to tell them you’re avoiding me because you’re pregnant and scared out of your mind?”
             If a leaf had chosen that particular moment to fall, I would have heard it.
             “I’m not scared, Chris,” Miranda answered softly.
             “Well, you sure were two weeks ago. Crying on my shoulder for hours about how your life was over and everything was ruined.” As soon as he was done, his facial expression fell. He reminded me of the time I told my mother she was fat. It wasn’t a lie, but wasn’t very nice to say, either.
             “Everything is ruined, Chris.”
             “Now, just cut that out. Nothing’s ruined. It’s just a baby—people have them all the time.” Chris’s voice was elevating with every word.
             Miranda didn’t agree. “People, not kids.”
             “You really think you’re still a kid? After what we’ve done?”
             There was that smirk again. “Well, when you put it that way.”
             “Miranda.” Chris took a step toward her. “I don’t want to fight.”
             She made like she was about to stand. “Then you better stay right where you are.”
             “Miranda, please. We need to tell our parents. You’re gonna start showing soon. They can help us.”
             “Help us what? Pick names?”
             “Figure things out. Make some decisions.”
             “Decisions? Now you want to make decisions?”
             “I want you to decide. I told you what I want. M, I … I love you … this baby doesn’t change that.” He stepped toward her again. His hands were out, palms open. “It doesn’t change anything. I don’t care.” He took one more step, and she was on her feet.
             She turned her back on him, but kept yelling to him over her shoulder, “Doesn’t change anything? How stupid are you? You think this is about how you feel? I don’t give a shit how you feel. This, sweetheart, is all your fault!”
             Chris’ face resembled someone who had been slapped. “That’s not fair! I didn’t, I didn’t force you. You … we … it just happened.”
             “Yeah, it just happened—and I just have to pay for it. I just get to drop out of school. I just get to spend prom in labor.” She was almost barking every word.
             “Miranda, I … I didn’t …” His hands dropped and balled into fists at his side. He took deep breaths between his words. “I just … just want you to calm down.”
             “I just want you to go away!” She picked up one of the gravel stones and threw it at him. It missed, which only made her angrier. Chris laughed softly and unclenched his fists.
             “You’re so pretty when you’re mad, M.”
              “Well, I’m not going to be pretty for long!”
             She was trying to pace, but she was failing miserably—the gravel rocks were so large, and she hadn’t put her shoes back on. I could already see blood from fresh scratches near the bottoms of her feet.
             “M … please, please look at me.” He sounded like a lost little boy.
             This must have surprised her, because she lost her balance and landed in a cloud of dust and rocks.
             “Jesus, M. Are you—” He rushed toward her and crouched down to help her up.
             “Shut up! Just shut up!” The fall had opened the flood gates. “Please Chris, just shut the fuck up.”
             “All right, Miranda.” He grabbed her shoulders and tried to lift her.
             “Let. Go. Let go!” She flailed her arms at him.
             His hands sprang away. “All right! All right!” He took a step back. “I’m sorry, just … I’m sorry.” He put his hands in his pockets and just looked down at her. “Please don’t cry. Please.”
             She was trying to stop herself, but the effort was fruitless. Chris, and I from the bushes, just stood there watching this beautiful girl crying her eyes out. I don’t know how long it took the tears to subside, but they eventually did.
             “Go … just go, Chris. I … I don’t … I don’t want you here.”
             Now Chris was doing the sighing. “Come with me.”
             She didn’t answer back at first. She just pulled her knees to her chest and placed her head on top of them. “No.”
             Another sigh from Chris. “What do you want me to do?”
             “Leave,” she demanded, then added, “please.”
             “Okay, I’ll call you later tonight, or you can call me, whatever you want.” He turned slowly and walked away back the way he came. Once he was out of sight and earshot, I came out of my hiding place. I would have preferred to stay there until morning, but it seemed rude to leave her there, like that. I picked up her shoes and sat down next to her with them.
             “Miranda, I’m so sorry.” I placed them in front of her.
             “It’s not your fault,” she said, without lifting her head.
             “What … what are you going to do?” I said, after a moment or two of silence.
             “Weren’t you listening? It’s already been done.”
             We were quiet for a while after that. She was the first to speak up.
             “Jackson?” she said softly.
             “Yeah?”
             “Could you do me a favor?”
             “Yeah sure, anything.”
             “Just forget whatever you heard a few minutes ago, okay?” She had lifted her head by now.
             “I won’t tell anyone, promise,” I responded.
             “Thanks, you understand … I … I just can’t handle this just yet. My parents … they’re … they’re never going to forgive this.” The tears started again, but they were silent this time, and she wiped them away just as quietly before they reached her chin.
             I wanted to tell her she was wrong, but I didn’t really think she was. Whatever would have been the right thing to say at that moment was beyond me. I’d never felt so meaningless in my whole life. I remained silent, but sat there with her until the sun had completely set and the moon was rising. I realized it was going to be a long, dark walk home.
             “Miranda, we should go. It’s getting pretty dark.”
             “You go ahead, Jack. I’m going to sit here a little longer.”
             “You want to walk through the woods alone?”
             “No, the tracks circle the town. One section is only a few feet behind my backyard. I’ll follow them when I’m ready. Besides, the moon’s out; it’s not that dark.”
             “I don’t want to leave you.”
             “You’re sweet, but really, it’s okay. Go.”
             “This feels wrong.” I stalled.
             “You’re going to be a good boyfriend one day, Jack.” And with that, she leaned over and planted a simple, short kiss on my cheek, just under my eye. Then, another on my lips.
             “Now, you’ve kissed a girl.”
             “Miranda …”
             “Go. I want you to.”
             I stood up and turned for the woods. It went against everything I knew to leave a girl by herself after dark to walk home alone, but it went against something else not to do what she asked.
             “See you later, Miranda.”
             “Goodbye, Jack.”
             I headed for the trail but took my time. I thought she might change her mind and wanted to give her plenty of time to do so. When I reached the pine trees, I looked back to see if she were still watching me, but her eyes were fixed on the moon.
             She had already forgotten me. I stayed there watching her at least another hour. Eventually, she stood up and started walking east on the tracks. She was about half a mile down them when I noticed her shoes still lying on the gravel.


♥♥♥


             I woke up the next morning around 9 a.m. Dad was knocking on my door, asking if he could come in. This should have been a clue: my father doesn’t ask if he can do anything in his own house. He opened the door slowly. He looked horrible, like he hadn’t slept, but that wasn’t possible since he and mom had both been asleep when I got in the night before. He walked to my window and started talking, but he didn’t look at me.
             “Jackson, there’s something I need to tell you.” His fingers traced the chips in the paint of my windowsill. I never saw Dad fidget before. Something wasn’t right, and I didn’t really want to know what. I just wanted to go back to sleep. I wanted to forget about Miranda and Chris and their baby.
             “Jackson, are you awake? Are you listening?”
             “Yeah, I’m awake.”
             “Jackson, last night … Miranda … Miranda Crossley was found early this morning.”
             “Found?”
             “She was walking on the train tracks, and it was so dark, the train … it didn’t stop. The story is she came out of nowhere—just appeared on the tracks like a ghost. Her boyfriend called her parents’ house around midnight. They had a fight, and he wanted to apologize. Her parents thought she was still with him. They got worried and started looking for her. Her best friend, Janie, suggested the tracks. Said she used to go there all the time to think.”
             “There’s hardly ever a train on the tracks.”
             “I know. It’s the damnedest thing.” He seemed almost to laugh, but not in humor. “She was an only child. Her parents must be going out of their minds. School is canceled Monday. That’s when they’re having the funeral.”
             I wanted to ask about the baby, but I had a promise to keep.
             “I don’t want you to go near those tracks again. I know you like to walk on them sometimes, but … well, just don’t anymore. All right?”
             “All right.”


♥ End ♥



Cetoria Tomberlin is a poet and fiction writer who lives in Northwest Georgia. She received her bachelor’s degree in creative writing from Berry College. Her work has previously appeared in Southern Women’s Review, The Battered Suitcase, Spires, and Fairy Tale Review. She is currently at work on her first novel. This featured piece first appeared on Haunted Waters Press.


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An Unholy Itch  |  Angela D’Ambrosio



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             “Why in the name that is holy did no one talk to me about this!” I said, talking to myself and crying on the inside, as I considered dropping to all fours so I could scoot across the carpet like a dog with worms. “Oh, yes, only girl, remember?”
             I never really thought growing up with only brothers was a disadvantage. Quite the opposite. I liked being the only girl. I didn’t have to compete for which girl was the smartest, was most athletic, had the most talent, or was the prettiest sister; I won all categories by default. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized what I had missed out on. I didn’t have that blood-bonded peer that I could talk to or ask difficult girl questions. I didn’t have that voice in the dark to use as a bedtime confessional.
             You would think my mother, growing up with five sisters, would see the opportunity with her only daughter to jump in and fill that void, but I think that, because she had sisters, she didn’t realize what they’d provided her and what blanks were being left void for me. In addition, my mother wasn’t the best communicator. I remember my first “girl talk” with her was during the summer I turned twelve. We were at some sort of ball game. My dad was a coach, so we were always at some game or tournament, and occasionally my dad would have me help with different tasks, like shagging balls and such. There was a break in the games, and my mother called me over to the bleachers.
             She whispered in my ear, “I think it’s time you get a bra.”
             Mortified that she would even suggest I had developing bumpies, I walked away without a word. A few days later, she came home with a white “trainer” that I promptly threw away.
             I was almost fourteen when a girl in my class told me, “You should probably wear a bra.” Then, I conceded.
             It was mostly the same story when I started my period. It happened on the school bus on the way home.
             Some lower-grade boy told me, “You stink.”
             I punched him in the arm and said, “I do not!”
             I was a bit of a late bloomer, so I had heard the girls talking about having their periods. I knew who had started, and I knew what those machines in the girls bathroom dispensed. (Mostly because curiosity got the best of me, and I had to sacrifice a dime to find out.) When I got home that day, I bashfully told my mother that I had started my period. What she told me then was perplexing, and to this day, I’m still not completely sure what she meant.
             “Welcome to the calendar of the month club!” she said.
             Huh?
             “I keep the Kotexes under the bathroom sink. Use them. Also, you need to make sure you take the garbage out of the bathroom because it will stink to high heavens.”
             She might have said more, but I don’t remember. I was suffering from shell shock from my womanhood injury. She was speaking another language, and I was worried this might escalate into the “sex talk” that I didn’t want, so I did what any smart teenage kid would do. I shut up and waited until I could ask one of the girls from school about it the next day. Nothing like public school education outside the classroom.


♥♥♥


             Two decades later, and I’m striking a bold balance between awkwardness and irreverence.
             I was trying to look as casual as possible, while straddling the air vent at the pool, as I watched the kids take swim lessons. Hoping I wasn’t being noticed, and at the most, giving the impression that I was trying to cool myself in the confines of the sauna-like building.
             “I’m just hot. I am definitely not airing out my lady garden in public,” I began snickering to myself.
             I am thirty-five years old, and I have never had the yeast infection conversation with anyone. I do remember, however, overhearing a conversation that will never be scrubbed from my brain. I must have been seven, and my mother had taken me to a lunch date with her sisters. I am pretty sure the luncheon started with the usual pleasantries, but it didn’t take long until it was a full-fledged hen party. They began talking about yeast infections and cackling over the subject.
             I remember my Aunt Cindy saying something about yogurt fixing the problem: “Even a direct application does the trick.”
             Then, my Aunt Debbie (the naughty one) quipped, “Just don’t lick the spoon after.”
             The table of sisters erupted into tear-inducing laughter, and I was forever scarred with the image of yogurt ministration.
             I knew I was beyond the helpful benefits of yogurt (directly or indirectly). I couldn’t wait, and with perfect timing my husband was traveling, so I ended up at the doctor’s office with three kids in tow.
             I was in complete agony and borderline suicidal. In that kind of desperation, I didn’t care that I had to take my three kids to a doctor visit that involved stirrups. I had no choice, and the nursing staff was gracious enough to provide books and toys in the patient room to entertain the kids. Don’t get me wrong; there wasn’t a bird’s eye view for my young support group. The doctor did provide nightclub-type entertainment, however, when she shut the lights off and clicked on her blue light to see if my lady garden glowed. The kids, not paying attention to me, ooohed and aaahed with how the blue light made their shirts and teeth glow.
             The doctor remarked, “Oh, you poor dear!”
             Laying there in the dark, naked from the waist down as the doctor confirmed my misery, I couldn’t help but feel bitter. I doubt guys go through this type of humiliation for their version of yeast, unfairly named jock itch. It’s not like their version makes them extra active. And it’s not like I spontaneously want to bake bread with my affliction.
             Men and women have their own burdens to bear, but this is definitely a checkmark in the “winning” column for men in the battle of the sexes.


♥ End ♥



Angela D’Ambrosio grew up in a small mountain town of Idaho and graduated top of her class of seven. She was born in Boise, Idaho, in 1977, the second of four children and the only girl. She currently lives in Sun Valley, Idaho, where she raises three small kids and blogs about reading, writing, and the human condition. [Author photo by and © Rick D’Ambrosio; used with permission, all rights reserved.]


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Search tag: Go Read Your Lunch.  Kindle picture by NotFromUtrecht, modified by Maximilian Schönherr, used under Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons.  All stories are submitted by the authors, are used with permission, and are not to be reused in any way without the authors’ consent.

Iron Road  |  J. W. Slider



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             The wind kicked and threw a blur of orange and brown leaves into Ben Richter’s face. He lifted his arm to shield his eyes and leaned hard into the horizon, pushing forward. His feet ached, and the feeling had almost left his hands, lost somewhere in the cold morning air. While he walked, he gritted his teeth and thought about his father, somewhere overseas. Maybe the man had another family by now. He smiled for a moment as the thought of his mother came and went. The last thing she’d given him was life, and for that, she was perfect.
             His feet slid easily against the gravel of the railway, but the collars of his boots were starting to wear against his legs, and twice he’d had to stop to pad them. He stopped again, noticing a thin line of blood against the leg of his jeans where blisters had begun to form. Kneeling on the damp wood of a railroad tie, he pulled his wool socks up again. As he stood, the ground began to shake, and he heard the whistle of an oncoming train ring out in the distance.
             He inched back from the tracks until he was safely tucked away in the tree line. With the train to his right and a stream just beyond the trees, he watched the flowing water until the shaking had passed, then turned back toward the tracks as the last car shot by. Stomping through the brush and kicking ancient shreds of newspapers out of his way, he made his way back toward the gray, winding road. With a final kick, he cleared the edge of the weeds, but something caught his eye: a tiny, filthy coin that skittered across the stone in front of his boot. He took his hand from his pocket, stooped down, and carefully plucked it up.
             Ben rubbed the coin between his fingers, taking some of the dirt from its surface, then spit and rubbed at it again. It wasn’t like anything he’d ever seen, but it seemed as attractive as it was foreign. Maybe it’d be worth something. A meal or two, Ben thought. The first side had what looked like an elaborate maze, and on the opposite side was the face of a man, sharp and angular. He contemplated the gold coin for a moment, then lifted his coat and slid it into the pocket of his jeans. A few more miles, just a few more, and I’ll be somewhere.
             Ben labored on, a 24-year-old silhouette against the skyline, with wide shoulders and a long stride. He wasn’t the scars from his father’s belt or what was left of his savings, jammed into his pockets. His shoulders sagged under the weight of those things, but his legs, constant and solid, pushed on. It was a familiar scene on a new canvas. It’s funny how, in some ways, you learn to hate the things you get comfortable with, because as soon as you decide to love them, they get busy leaving you, he thought. The constant pressure of the earth beneath his feet was the one thing that was always there when he needed it.
             It was evening when he stepped from the tracks to follow the light from what he figured must be a city. It was further away than he’d thought, but Ben trudged on, watching the soft glow and outline of buildings grow larger and clearer until he passed a sign that read, “Welcome to Echton.” He felt his spirits lift at the thought of a warm meal and a bed and quickened his pace. The feeling abruptly left him as he walked past building after building, already closed for the night. He checked his watch, only 6:10.
             “Seriously?” he muttered.
             “Meeting tonight,” a voice said from the darkness of an alley.
             Ben peered in the direction of the sound but could barely make out a tall shadow.
             “You’re not from around here,” the voice added.
             “Do you know where I could get some food? Maybe just a chair, a beer, and a TV?” Ben asked the shadow. The clacking of footsteps against planking broke the momentary silence, and the figure drew closer until Ben could make out the form of a thin man in a suit with a hat pulled low over his eyes.
             “Could see ’bout all that, but you’ll have to wait.”
             “Wait for what?” Ben peered skeptically, glancing around at the clean-cut brick storefronts and ornate gray streetlights.
             “Folks to finish up the meeting,” the man said.
             “Okay, well, is there anywhere I can wait inside?” His socks soaked through and his teeth chattering, Ben was growing impatient.
             The man leaned forward into the light and smiled, revealing a set of jagged teeth. “Follow me,” he said.
             They walked in silence through the town. When he turned the corner, Ben saw a small crowd gathered outside a concrete building that read, “Echton City Worship.” What could be so important that an entire city had to shut down to have a meeting about it?
             As they neared the door, the man turned, swept off his hat, and with a little flourish, said, “Welcome to Echton.”
             Ben followed the man into what looked like a chapel with tall stained glass windows at its sides and row after row of bodies packed into pews. Some turned to watch him pass, and he grew suddenly conscious of his dirty jacket and torn jeans.
             It wasn’t that they were dressed much differently than he was, although their clothes were considerably cleaner. It was the way they held themselves, upright and proper. Their eyes would pass over him quickly, but he felt them linger there for just a moment, and it made his skin prickle. Regardless, he was grateful for the warmth of the building that burned his face and hands. They ached and tingled as sensation crept back into them. At the edges of the room, a handful of men in black uniforms leaned against the walls, gazing over the gathered crowd.
             The man he was following stopped near the middle of the group and whispered something to two men who were already seated. Ben smiled nervously, looking them over. The first was a frail older man, and the other, an enormous mustached man in an overcoat. They slid to the side and opened a spot on the pew for Ben. He nodded gratefully and lowered himself into the seat. The frail man to his left extended a gnarled hand and gave Ben a warm smile.
             “Henry Smalls,” he wheezed.
             “Ben Richter.”
             Henry gestured to the other man, shaking a bony finger at him. “This is my son, Fredrick.”
             Scooting forward, Ben shook Fredrick’s hand, and the big man nodded back politely.
             “Nice to meet you,” Ben said. He bent down to untie his boots, wincing as his fingers grazed the blisters on his legs. Henry’s hand touched Ben’s arm lightly.
             “That’s no good,” Henry said, waving his hand over the crimson stains that dotted Ben’s pant legs.
             Ben shook his head. “Nothing much to do about that.”
             “I think you are wrong, my friend. We might be able to do something about this problem,” Henry chuckled. “I think I’ve got at least some thicker socks in stock, and they’re certainly drier. No charge.”
             Just then, the lights dimmed, and the crowd grew silent.
             “Thank you,” Ben whispered. He looked to the front of the room to see a rather fat man perspiring through his suit, standing at a large mahogany podium. The man cleared his throat and began to speak in a rumbling monotone.
             “Here we are gathered, in witness of our Lord and Savior, to an emergency Echton city upkeep meeting.” The members of the crowd leaned forward anxiously, and Ben could feel the tension in the room. “First, we will deal with some pressing ordinances and township issues; following that, we can move on to … other issues.”
             The large man beside Ben frowned, and a murmur spread through the crowd, which again grew silent. Ben couldn’t make out anything they were saying, although he thought he heard the name Starns, or perhaps Steagle. Maybe it hadn’t been anything at all.
             The fat man pulled a list from his pocket and began reading, stopping occasionally for a quick vote of confidence. The room was warm, and it felt so good to sit. Ben soon found himself drifting off. He fought to regain consciousness, his head falling backward, then snapping forward as he woke again. Straightening himself, he pulled at his pant legs, which had risen gradually as he slumped in the pew. His hand grazed his pocket as he sat up, remembering the coin tucked away inside it.
             Leaning to the side, he tugged it free and turned it over in his hands. He scraped at its surface lightly with his fingernails and rubbed it with the sleeve of his shirt. It was such a strange little thing, almost as if it had its own gravity. A hand squeezed his shoulder, and Ben looked up to see the thin man standing at the edge of the pew.
             “Now, where did you get that?” the man hissed.
             “I— I just found it,” Ben stammered.
             “That’s very interesting.”
             The man snatched the coin from Ben’s hand and turned, motioning for him to follow. Ben looked around, but no one seemed to have noticed them standing in the middle of the meeting. At least, none of them were acknowledging it. He allowed himself to be led from the room, but couldn’t help but think it strange that no one turned to watch the two make their exit. All eyes remained fixed on the stage, even as he tripped over a woman’s feet and almost fell.
             He could hardly register what was happening as they reentered the cold autumn air and crossed the road.
             “I wondered if a few minutes in our little meeting might jog your memory,” the man said, prodding Ben forward. “Just passing through, eh?”
             “I just found it. I don’t even know where it came from.”
             Ben began to protest, but the man lifted a slender finger to his lips and shook his head. Trying to get his bearings, Ben felt his heart beating fast and his muscles tense. As if the stranger already knew his thoughts, the man pulled his jacket to the side so the bronze star on his chest and a gray revolver on his hip shone in the golden glow of the streetlights.
             “We’re just gonna get ta where we’re goin’ now. You’ll have plenty of time to talk later, ” the man said.
             Ben watched his feet shuffle along the roadway and frantically tried to imagine where he was being taken. They passed half a dozen storefronts, then came to a walkway and the entrance of an aging brick building. The iron doors of a cell groaned open, and the man put a hand on Ben’s back and shoved him in. As the cell door slammed shut, Ben was shocked back to reality.
             “What are you doing?” he half shouted, watching the man smile and flip the coin in his palm.
             “You sit tight. We gonna have a little chat about this, soon as I get back,” he laughed to himself and slipped back through the open front door, locking it with a gentle click.
             Ben stood motionless, trying to take in what had just happened. He sunk down, scraping his back against the wall and dropping his face into his hands. The cool, hard concrete under him and the iron bars that lined the rest of the room confirmed the obvious: he was a prisoner.
             As he sat in silence, resentment grew inside him: the thin man in the suit, the coin, and most of all, his horrible luck. He didn’t have any kind of identification. He’d lost any sort of papers he had a few weeks back. Who can I even call if they give me a call? He tried to steady his breathing and concentrate, but, in the quiet of the cell, everything seemed more infuriating. Tap, tap, tap, something rapped against the back wall.
             “What?” he snapped. “What do you want!?” I can’t go anywhere without running into some cop who thinks he’s a war hero interrogation specialist. After a second, the anger faded to a feeling of helplessness, and he slumped back down. The sound resumed, and he swore he heard a voice, although it was so faint he couldn’t be sure. Easy now, he thought. It’s nothing; keep your head. The cell was musty, damp, and stiflingly silent, except for the tapping. It seemed to go on forever.
             At first, he thought he’d imagined it, maybe a byproduct of the tapping-induced insanity. But no, Ben was sure that something was touching his head or being sprinkled onto it. He looked up, and his eyes were showered with mortar dust.
             “Agh,” he groaned, blinking furiously. He jumped to his feet and looked at the spot above his head. He couldn’t see anything, but then the tapping began again, this time erratic and stronger than ever, and the brick began to shiver each time a tap rang out. He touched the wall with his fingertips and felt the vibrations radiating through it.
             “Hello?” he said. It stopped for a moment, and again he thought he made out a voice behind the wall. His pulse started to rise. Were they just playing games with him? He pressed his ear to the rough, red wall and listened, but the tapping suddenly stopped.
             “You think that’s funny, huh?” he said aloud.
             In the silence of the room, he now heard only footfalls and a set of voices, growing louder. It took him a moment to realize it was coming from the front of the room, not the wall. He settled himself on the dusty bed at the edge of the cell, pressed his palms into his eyes, and tried to calm his nerves, as he heard the door open and shut, bringing the footsteps closer still.


♥ End ♥



J. W. Slider has worked in a variety of environments and most recently has become involved in political work, including advance for the White House, work on the Presidential Inaugural Committee, and work on the Obama/Biden reelection campaign. His education was centered around broadcast technology and promotional writing, but since graduation, he’s also spent a good deal of time working to develop skills centered around event management, logistics, and interactive promotional work. His advance work has taken him through multiple foreign countries, as well as many places in the U. S. In addition to this, J. W. also hosts a weekly writing newsletter that develops editorial material on a number of topics chosen by him or the readers of the letter. This featured piece is the first chapter of the completed novel of the same name, available from Amazon. [Author photo by and © Dan Slider; used with permission, all rights reserved.]


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The sponsor for today’s fabulous story is Hardly Square, a strategy-, branding-, and design-based boutique located in Baltimore, Maryland, that specializes in graphic design, web design, and eLearning courses. Please support our sponsors. We couldn’t do what we do without them. Sponsors do not necessarily endorse the message of the story, only provide funding for the Go Read Your Lunch series. Want to become a sponsor? Here’s how.


Search tag: Go Read Your Lunch.  Kindle picture by NotFromUtrecht, modified by Maximilian Schönherr, used under Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons.  All stories are submitted by the authors, are used with permission, and are not to be reused in any way without the authors’ consent.

The Mugger’s Philosophy  |  Luke Maguire Armstrong



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             It came when the weathermen predicted it would not. Mittens sobbed from forgotten closets. Inestimable sparks of too-bright light discoed across the Hudson, controlled, they claimed, by quantum laws. Seventy-seven degrees was all it took for a woman as frail as intercultural love to wheel her body out of her above-the-city abode to the winking world below, where dedicated dog walkers and runners passed monkey-bar yelps from fenced-in playgrounds. Jersey, with less of a reason than ever for a visit, waited obliviously across the river, and a tower that represented history more than freedom was in the last spring, when it would still have a sky to reach for. Seventy-seven spring degrees—the temperature that compelled Ron to walk again with that gun, his search for alternatives cursed and traded for last fall’s M.O.
             Ron did not know why he chose the second man. The slouching shoulders that would drive a teacher mad were likely suspects. It could have been the way the man put his hands in his pockets like it did not matter if he ever removed them. Ron was as helpless before these queries as a man peering at his lover behind bed sheets, wondering, Why she? Why her?
             Why this reverence for understanding, and did others in this line of work ask themselves these things? Was Ron a philosopher among thieves, or were thieves philosophers among men? Was the Pizza Hut lunch buffet as good as he remembered it? Were the dire predictions challenging the longevity of bananas founded? What about GMOs?
             Was he not fluent in the whispering of body language? Did the man’s face maybe have something to do with all this? The man was ugly enough for Ron to think so, without feeling blamable. The guy wore glasses. Hipster glasses. This ugly man, walking so dispossessed, turning uninspiringly onto Jane Street, moving slowly, a target for the laziest of lions.
             Ron removed his pistol cinematically from his pants to inside his wrinkled blazer and clutched it to his heart. He hoped, despite the man’s ugliness, that he at least germinated his personality to the point that women occasionally considered maybe sleeping with him. When the lights went out, what was the difference? Only the naïve and young thought sex with the lights on was risk-free.
             The hipster meandered down a quiet side street. Ron stayed a few steps behind him, until no one else was in sight. Stick ’em up, said a silly voice in Ron’s head. Your money or your life, said a voice from a 50s western. You gonna die, son, said the cruel voice of Johnny Cash. But this was business, and Ron knew better than to mix it with pleasure. His lines were cliché, but he loved them like a public pronouncer of proverbs.
             “Wallet and phone, son; you’re being robbed.”
             There are ways to be eaten by a lion without losing your dignity. It is possible to embarrass adversity with apathy. You can lose every battle and still drag out a win in the war, like removing an unwilling kid from a McDonald’s play land. There is a proper way to enjoy lousy wine, and there is certainly a way to face a mugger pointing a gun at your back without him losing all respect for you.
             One way to lose that respect is to shriek, “Ahhhhh,” and to bend down on your knees and beg for mercy.
             Ron put the gun in his jacket’s breast pocket and leaned over to lend the kneeling man a hand. “Get yourself together. If I wanted to shoot you, do you think I would have walked up to you and made a request that only a living person could be expected to comply with?”
             The man thought the question was rhetorical and continued to cower. “Anything, I’ll do anything. There is no reason to shoot me.”
             Ron wondered if the hipster would be willing to change his name to Bruno and move to Russia to be a toughie in an underground gambling circuit, but suspected not. “Is this your first time?”
             “First time what?”
             “Having sex with a goat.”
             “What!”
             “Getting mugged!”
             The man’s trembling-trembling hands managed to find his wallet and phone, and he extended them religiously to Ron, bracing himself for whatever wrath he imagined.
             Ron took the wallet, removed a Visa card, and read, “Stanley James Horner. You look like a Stanley James Horner. Come on, get off the ground!” Ron removed forty-six dollars from the wallet and put the cash in his back pocket. “Now, first thing you are going to want to do is go home, get online, find the number to your bank, and cancel your credit and debit cards. Otherwise, I’m going to get a bunch of blenders from the nearest appliance store and make milkshakes the rest of my days.” He handed the wallet back to Stanley, who steadied himself. Ron pointed to the shaking man’s leather shoulder bag. “And your … whatever you call your bag. My gut instinct is to call it a purse, then a man bag, and after that a murse, but I realize that all three of these might be offensive to you. There is nothing wrong with a man using a bag like that, so stick up for yourself.”
             Stanley hesitated. “There’s nothing in here. Just books and papers.”
             An old woman, walking two poodle-ish dogs, appeared from around the corner.
             “Act normal, or I’ll shoot you,” Ron said with dogmatic certainty.
             The woman had the face of a prune and walked with the expediency of parting for an ill-conceived war. How many seasons remained for her, and might her dogs last longer? She treated each step like it was something worth starting a cult about.
             “We could be here all day,” Ron said, more to himself than to Stanley.
             In an amount of time it takes to build up the nerve to ask the hottest girl in school to the prom, she drew close enough for the dogs to sniff the cuff of Ron’s pants.
             “It’s okay,” said her cigarette-smoking voice. “They’re so friendly. Just love people.”
             “I’m allergic to dogs,” Ron said.
             “Oh, so am I. These are hypoallergenic dogs.”
             “There’s no such thing,” said Ron. He turned to Stanley: “You ever heard of such a thing? A hypoallergenic dog?”
             The woman broke in first, “It’s because of science. Science made my dogs just the way they are.” She concentrated on bending over and gave each dog a pat.
             She’s too gleeful not to be on some sort of mood-altering medication, Ron thought. The eternal question lay before him, To mug or not to mug? He generally did not mug the elderly and had a rule against women, but there seemed to be little else he could do to put an end to this conversation. He could kick her dogs, and maybe she would rush away in a huff. Ron patted the first dog with his shoe. These dogs had been spared the hardships of life, and that brought some joy to Ron.
             “You seem like nice young men,” she said.
             “Do we?” Ron asked. “What if I told you that I had a gun in my pocket and was in the process of robbing this man when you came up?”
             The woman laughed and rested a hand on Ron’s shoulder. “I’m far too sexually active not to still know never to believe what a man says.”
             Ron counted the negatives and realized she had only used two, when Stanley said, “Viagra’s a wonderful thing.”
             “Well, holy shit,” said Ron. “You have a personality.”
             The woman breathed in the sky and the trees. Her dogs panted eagerly and made gentle tugs at their leashes. “Well, boys, it’s a wonderful day. So enjoy it.”
             “What, she’s not going to give us a quarter so we can buy ourselves some candy?” Ron said to Stanley, as he waved with a shooing motion for as long as it took for her to disappear. “Now, back to you, Stan-the-Man—”
             “Aren’t you a little white to be robbing me?”
             “That’s a horrible thing to say. Very racist. I may be a criminal, but you’re the racist. Anyway, this here’s a hold-up,” he savored the words, their cliché eclipsed by relevancy. “Give me your bag, and you can go on your way. First best day of the year, you wouldn’t me to ruin the whole thing for you.”
             “There’s nothing in here. Just books and papers.”
             “Since when have books and paper been nothing?”
             “There is nothing of value in here. If you want, we can go to the ATM, and I can take you out $100. I have a daily limit.”
             “$100 is your daily limit? That’s horseshit.”
             “$200.”
             “Bullshit.” Ron adjusted his Coors Light belt buckle. “Stanley, when you mug someone, you can do it any way you want. I’m calling the shots here, and if you think about the risks involved with me escorting you to an ATM where they have cameras, you can probably guess why, to me, it sounds as risk free as shitting on my OCD Aunt Marjorie’s coffee table.”
             Stanley trembled, and Ron thought about an idea for a book. A short book, more likely a novella. It would center on a painter who experienced the world through the opposite means of perception as the rest of us. While most people see the whole, and then break it down into particulars composing it, the painter—and she would be a knockout broad who laughed at the moon, made kissy faces at the sun, and guffawed at the notion of monogamy, drank straight shots of tequila and painting supplies—would perceive the world oppositely. She would see the particulars and then the whole.
             This woman’s life would be lived at the individual level of an object’s parts. The men she slept with—and they were many of every creed and nationality and shoe size—she would experience them not as an entire entity, but as an amalgamation of abstract concepts sharing mutual roles composing the man. Her life after last call would be filled with unreasonable hours spent smoking cigarettes in thrilled bedrooms.
             But how would her perceptual differences come out in her art? How would someone seeing the world that way paint? A further problem, how to portray art with text? Perhaps he should collaborate with a visual artist who could work out the details of artistic portrayal.
             Ron decided the story would never come together, as Stanley took out a binding of a few hundred pages from his backpack and held his bag toward Ron.
             “What’s that?” Ron signaled the papers being spared his pilfering.
             “Nothing.”
             “Nothing is nothing.”
             “It’s just a stupid thing I’ve been writing.”
             “Well, let me see it.”
             “Why would you want to see it?”
             “I’m interested in more than just mugging people, you know.” Ron grabbed it from Stanley and read the cover aloud, “Occasions of Solitude by S. J. Horner. Why don’t you want to use your first name?”
             “I just—Is this really necessary, that we have this conversation?”
             “So you wrote this?”
             “Yes.”
             “Why are you so worried, then, if I have it? You’re afraid I will publish it in my name or something?”
             “It’s my only copy,” Stanley replied.
             “It’s not backed up on your computer?”
             “I wrote it on a typewriter.”
             “Why the fuck did you do that?”
             “I like the feel of it.”
             “You mean you like the feel of being a writer.”
             “I just think that—”
             Ron turned to a random passage of the manuscript, “‘… What connects a bus ride through dark Middle America interstates, the star’s pimples picked by the moon, that rattles the past like cans tied to my tying the knot with the vehicle of the present. …’ It’s not bad, but getting through it is like navigating the cafeteria code in junior high. And it’s really reaching at being good. Plus, your title makes you sound like you’re the type of guy who carves all that dark poetry shit on bathroom stall walls, when all anyone should be carving on those walls are ejaculating dicks and postscript predicates questioning the sexuality of everyone who thought they should immortalize their names in the same place life discards what it no longer needs.” He flipped to another section, “‘… The star-kissed waves lapped upon the shore, commanding Howard’s attention, as he skipped stones over the moonlit-and-led waters of that night. …’ Jesus, is it all like this?”
             “It’s a draft.”
             “Will you write about this?” Ron asked. “About getting mugged?”
             “Probably.”
             “Fiction or non-fiction?”
             “Fiction, probably.”
             “See. Why the hell? You have a perfectly good story. You have the woman with the dogs. Guy mugs you, and he asked you about your book, and he even reads it to you, and you are going to make that fiction?”
             “Maybe I’ll make it a woman who gets mugged,” Stanley said, “because then there’s always the fear of …”
             “Rape. You can say it. It’s not a nice word, but it’s not off limits when you’re talking about it. That’s why I don’t mug women. No, thank you. Can’t deal with them thinking that that’s what I’m after.”
             “Why did you choose me?”
             “Easy target.”
             “Why?”
             “What if you wrote a story about a woman mugger robbing a man?”
             “What do you mean I’m an easy target?”
             A woman with grocery bags passed them, and neither party paid attention to the other.
             “Look, I came for your money, not to offend you,” Ron said, “but you’ve seen yourself in the mirror. You’re skin and bones, pale. And you have this face that belongs in a circus performed for circus performers—”
             “It’s been winter all year.”
             “The fact is I chose you, and who knows why. I’m the guy with the gun—you’re the guy who obviously didn’t have a gun. I’ve been trying not to do this. I am a writer, too, and I need to make rent, so you do what you have to, right?”
             They stood facing each other. The heat of 5 p.m. was done acting like it owed the world something, and the air recoiled. Ron removed the wallet again, took out the driver’s license, and squinted at the address. “I’ll keep this, I’ll read it, and I’ll mail it back to you with the license later this week. This your current address?”
             “That’s not happening. Just give it back to me. You’re obviously not going to shoot me. You already would have done so.”
             “That’s my line, and this is my gun. Recall our power balance? Jesus. What was it like disciplining you as a child?”
             A car drove unhurriedly by, and both men turned to regard it for different reasons. Ron noticed the drop in temperature and felt resentful, muttering the worlds, “Unclothing the atmosphere.” The same day that had encouraged the world to be apart of it was now chasing its participants away with dropping degrees from a windy cloud cover.
             Ron tried to grasp the thinking that occurs between thoughts like classroom whispers during a test. Why this hipster in front of him? And there must be a word that is not compassion to describe the sensation that, on a farm in Indiana, a man—whose hands carried shovels and pushed wheelbarrows and made omelets and his bed, and now clutched a gun to his heart, with another man’s wallet and bag and phone—was feeling.
             When George Mallory was asked why he climbed a mountain that seemed hell bent on killing him, he said, “Because it was there.” Here was a man who saw other people, knew of their phones and wallets and sometimes laptops, and that was why this other man was here hostage to a gun. Behave, they had told him so many times, such a long time ago. This was behavior, too. Why not pull the trigger of a gun? It was there. Ron revered that deeper mind more than the one that left nothing to the imagination.
             Stanley sensed the change in Ron and fell silent, realizing that words could do nothing but be themselves.
             “Where the hell did our spring day go?” Ron heard the cruel voice ask. “Huh? Where the hell did it go, S. J. Horner?”
             Stanley did not know the answer any more than Ron knew the answer as to why Ron removed the gun, pointed it at Stanley’s chest, and pulled the trigger.
             Stanley fell to the ground. Ron threw the wallet at Stanley’s seizing torso, and then did something that surprised even him. He threw half of the manuscript in his hands in the air so that it rained down like leaves, and then, he sprinted back toward Jane Street.
             It was not the BB that knocked Stanley to the ground, but some command from some part of him he was not fully acquainted with. Later that evening, he would spend hours on Google noting the differences between BB pistols and actual handguns, and he would be glad to learn that some looked basically identical.
             In the time it took for a frenzy to free itself from a dead certainty, Ron had already turned the corner to join a motherless horde of the city, where no one would need to know whose backpack was worn by whom and what subway reading material haunted who and why.
             ‘“Wait,” she said, suddenly infatuated with the forgotten possibility of uncompromised contentment. Wasn’t loneliness rooting for everyone else in the world? The depths at which we come to understand that it’s okay to lose your balance, necessary to slip, this tortured compassion felt for everyone, a necessary sadness wanting to fix every frown that gave him the strength to make a decision that, even then, he knew would never be taken off of scrutiny’s table.’
             Ron looked up and stared so long at the woman in front of him that she crossed her legs and turned away. It was not bad, but he could not tell if it were good. He re-read the passage several times. He hoped it was good. If it were good, then the whole experience would compel Stanley to make it better. If it were not good, then it was no worse than having forty-six dollars in his back pocket that Ron did not have on the train ride in.


♥ End ♥



Luke Maguire Armstrong was a baby, who became a boy, who became a man. Once, he fought a bear and almost died. Haters later claimed it was “only a raccoon” and that he was “acting like a little girl.” Between 2008 and 2012, Luke directed the educational development NGO Nuestros Ahijados in Guatemala. This work was featured on ABC News’ 20/20 with Christiane Amanpour and in The Huffington Post. He is the author of How We Are Human and iPoems for the Dolphins to Click Home About. [Author photo by and © Ray Conway; used with permission, all rights reserved.]

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Search tag: Go Read Your Lunch.  Kindle picture by NotFromUtrecht, modified by Maximilian Schönherr, used under Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons.  All stories are submitted by the authors, are used with permission, and are not to be reused in any way without the authors’ consent.