Good Game  |  Trina Allen



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             Autumn had come late. A drought had sucked Raleigh and most of North Carolina dry. Sunburned brown, the parched grass and withered flowers had lost their will to live. Leaves still clung stubbornly to the trees, but they were shrunken shells ready to blow in the wind. The air felt as oppressive as my life had become.
             I woke early, unable to sleep, jealous of Lauren’s quiet breathing and my dog’s snoring. Even the hum of the ceiling fan made me restless. Watching the blades turn, their shadows waxing and waning across the ceiling, I longed to turn over in bed. That simple act—now an impossible dream—might have brought the welcome release of sleep. Defeated, I reached up, grabbed the specially made bar on my headboard with both hands, and hauled myself upright with a small grunt. With considerable effort, and a somewhat louder grunt, I lifted myself into my waiting wheelchair and positioned my useless legs, all without interrupting Lauren’s sleep.
             Rolling into the bathroom, I opened the medicine cabinet. Dozens of pill bottles—a virtual pharmacy—rested on the shelves. Whatever I needed to make it through the day—opiates, mood elevators, antidepressants—it was all there waiting for me. I opened the bottle of Oxycodone, poured a dozen of the white tablets into my hand and lifted it to my mouth.
             “Son, you are stronger than this!”
             I glanced in the mirror, searching for him. Only my reflection stared back at me, face knotted in misery. My jaws clenched shut. I couldn’t do it. No easy out with a drug-induced ride into Neverland. Not today.
             Dumping all but one pill back, I held the bottle over the toilet bowl. Should I flush the rest? Save me from myself?
             “Remember the purpose of the game, son.”
             Startled, I dropped the bottle into the toilet bowl. Damn him! Reaching into toilet water is never the best way to start the day. After washing my hands, I slammed the cabinet door a little harder than I intended when putting the Oxycodone back. Peeking into the bedroom, I was relieved to see Lauren still asleep. She could sleep through anything.
             Wheeling into my office, I scanned the shelves of books, trying to find something that would hold my attention. How Life Imitates Chess by Garry Kasparov or King’s Gambit? Both were too heavy for this early hour. Instead, I pulled Tess Gerritsen’s latest thriller off the shelf.
             I was turning the first page when he appeared, wearing his favorite wrinkled shirt, his hair a silvery mass of curls. Dad walked over to my chessboard, a nice wooden set he’d gotten me as a teenager. He turned the board so that he would play black and gestured for me to join him.
             My father had poured so much of his heart and soul into the game that the board must have absorbed some of his spirit. Because now, even though he’s gone, he can materialize and even talk to me about the game.
             I wheeled my chair over to the board and adjusted my feet in the holders of my wheelchair, not thinking too much about why or how Dad was sitting across from me, just focusing on the game, instead. I opened with a pawn to e4. We each made seven moves, and then my father said, “Good game.” He shook my hand and smiled—the same sheepish smile he had always worn when he won a game. Then, he was gone.
             I set the knight in my hand on the board, looking at wooden pieces positioned in the unfinished game. I moved the knight, hoping somehow that would make my father return. He didn’t. My thoughts drifted.
             Twenty years ago, my sister Kathy had challenged me at this very chessboard. “I’ll beat the pants off you, stubble head, if you’re not too scared to play me.”
             Wiping moisture from my eyes, I heard Lauren’s alarm clock go off down the hall—six o’clock. Rex whined. A black Lab mix, his brown eyes studied me. I patted his head. He didn’t lick my hand, nuzzle me, or beg to be fed, but continued to watch, waiting for a command.
             My thoughts drifted again. I had been a cyclist in high school, looked at Lance Armstrong’s picture on my bedroom wall each night before I went to sleep. At age 18, I had biked 300 miles a week, rising before dawn and cycling until time for school. Then, each evening, I peddled the country roads beside the tobacco fields for several more hours. I knew Dad would be waiting up for me at home, ready to listen to details about my ride, while I gulped down warmed-over meat and potatoes. I remember those hours as some of the best of my life. Up until two years ago, I had continued biking. Chess consumed me now, as biking once did. I studied, practiced, and worked hard. If I lost a game, I challenged myself to do better next time. When I played a good game, the mental high was the same.
             I wheeled into the bedroom.
             “How are you this morning?” Lauren asked. “You got up early.”
             “I couldn’t sleep,” I mumbled. Our relationship had been strained since the accident. I know she tries, but I can be pretty hard to live with. I was more comfortable with Rex.
             “What time will you be home tonight?” There were worry lines around her mouth.
             “Probably around five,” I answered, frowning. I knew she worried that I wasn’t working full time. Her teaching salary wasn’t enough to cover our expenses. Because of all my medical bills, we’d filed bankruptcy after my accident. We were still recovering.
             Wheeling into the bathroom with Rex on my heels, I glanced in the mirror at a still-young-looking face below a full head of black hair. A few more wrinkles around my eyes, maybe. I flexed my arms, muscled more heavily now than ever in my cycling years. My stomach was a little flabbier, but I thought Lauren still found me attractive.
             I removed my shirt and unzipped my pants. “Rex, pants.” Those were the first words I’d spoken to my dog this morning. I lifted myself up on the arms of my chair and Rex slowly eased the pants off. He was an 85-pound Lab-Shepherd mix with the gentle personality of a Lab and the build of a Shepherd.
             “Washer.” I gestured to the shirt and pants on the floor. Rex obediently picked them up, and I knew he’d deposit both on top of the washing machine.
             Tired, I rested for a moment in my wheelchair before wheeling over to the shower. In this bathroom, specially designed for my needs, my shower chair has metal bars that allow me to haul myself into it. Cabinets and faucets are all at my level, and anything else that I need, Rex can get for me.
             “Bye, honey,” drifted from the living room.
             I grunted a goodbye.
             Once ready for work, I gestured toward the back door and said, “Rex, toilet,” the command for him to go outside and relieve himself. He obediently went to the back door, pushed the door handle down with his muzzle, and pulled the door open. A few minutes later, he returned ready to assist. I leaned over to him and clipped on his service dog harness.
             A hand gesture, and Rex dropped my briefcase in my lap. My workday was about to begin. Wheeling to the door, Rex got there before I did. Again, he pulled the handle with his nose and opened the door. After I wheeled through, he closed it behind me.
             I wheeled to my car and clicked the remote key that opened the door. The ramp descended, and Rex bounded in ahead of me. As I wheeled myself in, the dog never took his eyes off me, waiting. I lifted myself from my chair into the driver’s seat of my specially modified car. Looking at Rex sitting in the seat next to me, I knew I couldn’t survive without him. Still, I did not allow myself to pet him. I could not forget that it was a dog that took my legs.
             I had been finishing a long Saturday afternoon bike ride, pleased with my time, when a Shepherd mix ran from a field directly toward my bike, barking. Ears up, head up, teeth bared. Its growl sent adrenaline coursing through my tired body. I reacted, pressed the brakes too hard. My body flipped over the handlebars, and I landed with a thud on the hot blacktopped road. That was my last ride.
             Honking startled me from my thoughts. I swerved back into my lane, ignoring the driver’s finger in the SUV that I’d nearly run off the road. I merged with other commuters onto the freeway.
             I pulled into a handicapped space at the testing company where I worked. A dead oak leaf made its solitary meandering journey to the curb, as I wheeled into the building.
             Rex walked ahead of me, while I greeted my cube mates. When I wheeled up to my computer, he sat next to me, alternating between watching me and watching the door. I gave him a hand signal to lie down, settled in myself, and absently wheeled my chair back and forth while reading my e-mail.
             Tired eyes burning from my early morning, I tried to focus. I had to send the test questions I was developing to the client by the end of the week. No use, my concentration was off.
             I looked at my watch, almost time. I dreaded the call I had to make at 9:50. My sister, Kathy, was doing better the past few days, but she had checked herself into the hospital a week ago. She had been spiraling down out of a manic period with her bipolar depression. Her doctors were adjusting her meds, but that took time. She could receive phone calls in the psychiatric ward, but only at ten minutes before an hour. She was in classes the rest of the time. They kept her pretty busy.
             I flipped open my cell phone and wheeled out into the hall. “Let me speak to Kathy, please.” When she came on, I was at a loss for words. I hadn’t thought about what I would say. “Do you need anything, sis?”
             “I’m okay, David.” Her voice cracked.
             My father’s words came to mind: Remember the purpose of the game. I cleared my throat and said, “Kathy, you have control of the board. It’s time to connect your rooks.”
             “Thanks, David.” Her voice was still weak, but she sounded better.
             “I’ll talk to you tomorrow.” As I hung up the phone, I rubbed my eyes. I had communicated everything that needed to be said in those two sentences. Rooks are the last pieces to be brought into play, ready for action only after the pawns and minor pieces control the center of the board and the queen performs both offensive and defensive tasks.
             I sat back at my computer, but my thoughts wandered. Unable to concentrate on work, I checked my Internet chess games in progress. No one was online, probably all working hard, unlike me. I needed the competition a game could offer, so I set no lower limit to the rating of the player who could challenge me. Someone answered the challenge. Her rating was so low that I would gain no rating points by beating her and lose points from my rating if I lost. I played anyway.
             I botched my opening in a few moves, but I put a direct threat against her queen with a bishop. She sacrificed her queen, but at that point she had such an overwhelming material and positional advantage, she checkmated me in less than 30 moves, even without her queen.
             No point in staying at work. If I couldn’t even play a decent game of chess, I would be of no use here. I had a niggling thought that Lauren could be right about me. I wasn’t ready to work full time.
             Rex and I drove into our subdivision early in the afternoon. The warm weather had lured the neighbors outside. I waved at Amy walking her dog. Pepper stopped, sniffed around, and marked a mailbox. High school kids milled about. Their now-empty bus made its way down the street, brakes squealing.
             I turned onto my street, as two kids on bikes tore down the hill. I could almost feel the wind in my face, could breathe in the tarry smell of heated blacktop. Almost. Never again! I thought, wheeling my chair up my driveway. The happy sound of kids yelling in play accompanied me up the ramp. Ironically, I was still on two wheels.
             Once home, Rex opened the door for me. I gave him the command to stop working. He walked to the closet containing his treats, rose up on his hind legs and danced. Rex looked at me, put his mouth on his bag of treats, and gingerly pulled it out of the cabinet. He looked ridiculous, trying to hide the bag in his teeth. I couldn’t help smiling. I let him help himself to a few biscuits.
             I wheeled out on the deck with Rex beside me. He ran across the yard, a black blur. Then, we spent several minutes playing our version of catch. I threw the ball. He caught or chased it and barreled toward my wheelchair at top speed, then dropped the ball in my lap. When I tired of playing, he sat by my chair, happily chewing his ball.
             I thought of another yard. A happier time. Kathy and I had sat at a picnic table playing chess with my father, whose patience seemed endless. I remembered one game in particular. I had just checkmated Kathy in seven moves. Heady with pride, when I challenged my father, I brought the lady out to d4, expecting to checkmate him.
             Dad captured my queen easily with his rook, defeating me with my own arrogance. As I lay my king down in defeat, he smiled, the way he always did, shook my hand, and said, “Good game.”
             I wheeled inside, opened the fridge, and brought a beer out to the deck table. I watched condensation form on the outside of the bottle. I took a long pull from the beer and sank back in my chair, letting the sun warm my face.
             My father had passed away two months ago. Having recovered from a particularly aggressive cancer, he was left with nerve damage from the chemotherapy. Unable to walk, drive, lift his arms, or even use the bathroom, he simply gave up on life. His heart had stopped. Checkmate. End game. I wondered if I should join him.
             Rex’s barking startled me back to the present. Lauren would be home from work in a half hour or so. I wheeled inside and opened a cabinet under the kitchen counter. I pulled out a bottle of vodka and took a swig. While it was still burning down my throat to my stomach, I drank another and another.
             I called Rex and checked my reflection in the bathroom. My eyes were a little red, but looking at the computer screen all day could have caused that. I brushed my teeth and splashed some water on my face. I had difficulty lowering myself onto the toilet and back into my chair. Realizing I was already buzzed, I grabbed another beer from the fridge.
             Rex greeted Lauren at the door, wagging his tail, jumping in excitement.
             “How are you, honey?” I asked, rather proud that I hadn’t slurred my words.
             “Tough day. Some kid called in a bomb threat, so we spent an hour outside, while they cleared the school building.”
             “I’m sorry, honey,” I said, wheeling my chair over to her. As she bent down to kiss me, I thought, You really don’t know what a tough day is, until you spend it on two wheels.
             After eating a light dinner of chicken salad, we both sat at the table with a glass of wine.
             “When do you think you’ll go back to a full-time schedule?” Lauren asked.
             “I don’t know. When I’m ready.” How dare she ask? She was too wrapped up in teaching her fifth grade students to care about me anyway.
             “I just wondered how you are doing.”
             “My father pa … passed away. How do you think I’m doing?” I wheeled angrily back from the table, annoyed at myself for slurring my words.
             “I know honey, but it’s been two months. Wouldn’t you feel better if you are working more, instead of being home alone?”
             “No, I … I’m not ready.”
             Lauren’s eyes darted toward mine. “I’m worried about you. You drink too much.” She pushed her chair away from the table, folded her hands, and said, “I really think you should go back to work full time.”
             I felt nauseous. Acid burned in the pit of my stomach. I didn’t know if I could work full time. I said, “You never cared about me, just how much income I can bring in. Admit it.”
             “You’re wrong, David. I love you.”
             “If you’re so worried about money, why don’t you try something besides teaching? Your salary is pathetic.” As soon as the words came out of my mouth, I regretted saying them.
             Lauren gave me the look and slammed the door to the spare bedroom. I heard the door lock.
             I drank another couple of shots. Too angry to sleep, I knocked on the spare-room door.
             “Leave me alone. I don’t want to talk to you. I don’t even want to look at you when you’re drinking like this.”
             Lying in bed, I knew I’d never get to sleep. I wondered when Lauren and I had stopped communicating. “Rex, beer.”
             My faithful companion came back with a can in his teeth. I pulled myself up by grabbing the bar on the headboard and drank down the beer.
             I woke up at three o’clock, cramped and cold, remembering Lauren and I had fought again. When I woke up next, my head was pounding. I rolled into the bathroom and vomited, which was difficult. Only someone in a wheelchair can appreciate the intricacies.
             I resolved to quit drinking so much. I would also apologize to Lauren for getting so angry. Maybe I could repair the damage.


♥♥♥


             Saturday morning after our talk, things were tense, but patched, at least. I had tried to explain to Lauren that I wasn’t angry with her. What I couldn’t tell her is that I was angry with everyone: our neighbors, my coworkers, anyone who can walk.
             Lauren left to do errands. Alone in the house, I tried to read the paper, but I couldn’t concentrate. Not in the mood for chess, I called Rex over, and we took a drive.
             Bright sun sliced my eyes as I drove past fields of stubbly hay. Gradually, the air became less oppressive, cooler. Rex hung his head out the window, his ears blowing in the wind as dark clouds rolled overhead. Lightning struck a jagged white incision in the gray. Rain pelted the windshield and ran in rivulets, before it was captured by the wipers. Breathing in the clean smell of summer: ragweed, fresh mowed hay, and clover, I quickly rolled up the windows, but not before Rex’s head was soaked. I pulled the car under the partial protection of a row of tall cedars, just as lightning cracked again. I used the jacket I kept in the car to rub Rex dry. Thunder rumbled. Rex wagged his tail and pulled at the jacket in a pseudo tug of war. I continued stroking his neck, watching rain fall across a field and a corn silo darken with moisture. A pair of black birds dove into the corn stalks, hungry for whatever life the rain brought out.
             Rex barked.
             As I looked into his brown eyes and scratched behind his ears, I swear I heard my father say, “Good game.”


♥ End ♥



Trina Allen is an educational consultant and longtime writer whose stories can be found in magazines such as The Dead Mule, Chiron Review, Word Catalyst, and Thunder Sandwich. This featured story was a finalist for the 2011 Eric Hoffer Award. She lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, with her husband and two Lab-mix dogs.

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The Deathbed Confession
of Christopher Walken
 |  Paul Corman-Roberts



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             Lenny, lean over close, so you can hear everything it is that I need to tell you right now. Listen; it’s imperative you get every word of this clearly, do you understand? I’m not saying I was always a good man, Len. Not always … but I was not of the character … I wasn’t … what I mean to say is, there were limits in my life that I observed. There are limits in all people’s lives, but where they’re drawn … where they’re drawn determines what kind of people we are. And R. J.’s line was drawn. R. J. might have been the last one to see her, but I was the last one to hear her, see?
             Even now … goddamn. I don’t want you to get the wrong idea. The truth is not as sordid as you might think it is. But perhaps, it’s more sordid than it should be.
             Len, the first thing you need to understand is that cunt of a captain was a fiend whose mother assuredly conceived and birthed his squalid ass on the banks of the River Styx, all right? He was one of these fucking guys who would break out a Himalayan mountain’s worth of snow on a lounge table on a Thursday night and, somehow, would make his way through your stash like a Hoover vacuum before sunrise Sunday.
             No, wait, I’m saying this all wrong now, that’s … that’s not really where I should begin. The look on your face says, “Chris, you poor, sad prick, just get it off your chest, brother.” Forgive me; this is difficult. You want to know if … if she and I … if we …
             No. It never happened, though Christ knows I wanted it to. There were a couple of times where it almost went down on the Brainstorm shoot. Hot kissing, heavy petting; and then, she pulls up, saying she’s not ready, that it’s “not right, right now.” You know the drill. What guy doesn’t know that drill? Except it hadn’t happened like that for me in damn near twenty years, Len. You’d really think a man my age would know better, yet still I was transformed into this drooling puppy of a man-child, this completely, hopelessly starstruck kid, even though I was pushing forty. She was already a living legend when I got my break. Running my hands all over the body of a woman my friends and I had ached for in school—that way you ache for things you’re sure you’ll never have—that was like drinking ambrosia from the fountain of male entitlement, Len. Those make-out sessions were the life’s peak of my ego, and that’s saying something. But that’s also as far as it ever went, Len, as this cruel fucking universe is my witness.
             And let me tell you, there was not one other set of gams in all Hollywood, not one, that I—or any other straight, red-blooded actor just starting out—would want to have been with. She was in her prime THEN, I tell you. I wasn’t going to demand it, Len. No, uh-uh, not when it was being put on layaway. And a young man in the prime of life—and not the prime of sexual longevity, Lenny, but the prime of confidence and success of knowing who one is finally and just how to be with an older woman—when you’re a man like that, and a woman like that puts it on layaway, I don’t care who you are: you book the date.
             It was supposed to have been that weekend. She kept saying R. J. wouldn’t mind if we got together, that he was just going to go out to another party scene on another yacht or some such thing and do his own thing. She told me he was a swinger and that was his thing, and he was a good man who respected their thing and that they were very hip, you know. She liked to use that word—“hip”—like they were these high-class beatniks. She said he was into pretty men, and that’s why he liked being with her, because she reminded him of a pretty man. But I couldn’t … no, wouldn’t see something like that at that time, Len. I always wonder if I could now.
             By Thanksgiving night, though, I had resolved, in my own heart, that there would be no intimate encounter between us that weekend. We could have been together that night, with her old man out on the boat. Just him being out there, and maybe I’m less of a man for admitting this to you, Len, but whenever I was alone with her that weekend, it wasn’t there, you know? Not like other times we had been alone. It was like we were just friends again, like when we first met on the shoot, but then, when we were out in public, it was on again. And I’d start to think, Oh yeah, we’re back on again. But then, she’d start talking about R. J. all over again, because that’s part of what was getting her off.
             For the first, and really only time in my life, I was experiencing sexual schizophrenia. I’d change my mind and say to myself, “No, Chris, you are going to jump over this cliff. Just a little more champagne, and we’ll be there any minute.” And the next minute, I was back trying to swear her off all over again. Because so what if her old man is a little fruity, and she’s a little saucy—you just don’t make a guy’s wife in front of him. I know he was square with the younger crowd, old-fashioned nice guy, you know, but man, this was still Bobby fucking Wagner. This man was a strong survivor and wasn’t he worthy of respect? Wasn’t he worthy of dignity? That’s the question I wanted to ask her at the Harbor Reef restaurant, and I couldn’t quite … I was just this horny lottery winner. But the more she smack-talked R. J., the hornier she got. The longer dinner went on, the more forward she got, too.
             Then, he showed up with Davern and all bets were off. I tell you, he didn’t appear to me as a man who didn’t care about who his wife was humping. Oh, no, he was making jokes about the rumors, and underneath his easy laughter, I could see his fury; for the first time in my life, I saw the cuckold’s fury, though oddly, not for the last. So, what does she do, but takes her right hand down to my lower thigh and begins this slow buildup with the most supple stroking motion, and I mean … you know as well as anyone, Len, that men, simple men like us, can’t hide anything in that position. Not with a woman like that. No. And with the captain running his mouth about all the booze and drugs we had available. He was the reason we were asked to fucking leave the place.
             When we got back to The Splendour(sigh) … the blow was stupid, it was just stupid of us to be doing so much, but I got into a “match you line for line” contest with that prick-faced captain, who quite honestly was. I mean, he even had straight-laced Bobby hooking down lines, just to give the whole sordid situation a spin of its own, like a high-noon bacchanal. You heard the phrase, Lenny? Going to eleven? You know that phrase? Let me tell you, all of us on that yacht that night, all of us …
             People like Natalie and R. J. should not be allowed to go to eleven. Not after what they go through to get where they are; not after what they become.
             She kept goading him to go to the other party. And then, he’d say, “Oh, sure, Natasha, so you can take your latest thoroughbred for a test ride?”
             So, then, she says she’s going to take the dinghy to the party. And then, in front of her husband, she puts her hand on my package, asks me if I would like to go to the party with her, and then, promptly violated my ear space with the very wiggling tip of her tongue, in that exact order. I can still feel how warm her saliva made my ear out in the ocean air and the utterly, absolutely homicidal look on Bobby’s face. The feeling I had, looking at this beautiful woman’s husband, while my ear felt so wet, cool, and comfortable: that’s the memory that never leaves me, Lenny. It never leaves me. R. J. might very well be into making the hairy-man back all night long, but he did not come from a generation that tolerated being made to look foolish.
             I couldn’t take it anymore. And I was beaten down, from the whole weekend of partying and psychic fucking head games. I’d had enough of all the bad karma, and they obviously had not, so I made my way down to the bedrooms. Davern at least showed me a little mercy. He could tell I needed to take the edge off, and the whole time we’re down there smoking a joint, we can hear them fighting, and he’s telling me this is all perfectly normal—they act like this all the time—and then, we hear the hitting, you know: slapping, punching. So, Davern casually announces he should go shut the boat down. Like, maybe he’s used to this cue. I knew, then, that my dream, my dream of hearing the serenade of our lovemaking, the sound of her being made love to by me … that was something I was never going to hear, Lenny. Not while R. J. had to be part of the equation. It was never going to be the way I pictured it for us. It was never just going to be the two of us, but always the three of us. Every night with her was going to be a night on the yacht.
             I swear I just stayed there in my room and heard a little more yelling, but for the most part, it seemed to die down. I didn’t want to know. More than anything, I wanted to get off the boat, get out of the fucking ocean as soon as I could the next day. The coke had worn off, the booze had caught up to me, and the weed was starting to settle in real good, and like any other night of partying winding down, I just drifted off. But you know how sometimes, in that instant just before the sandman comes for you, in that one instant, a sudden burst of adrenaline hits you like a tractor-trailer and jolts you awake?
             You know I’ve heard all the stories, Len. I know they say two of the lifeboats left the yacht that night, and only one came back. But what happened? Brother, that’s between R. J. and God.
             We spoke later, after the funeral, and it was very strange because … I apologized to him for my behavior, and he accepted. Then, he apologized to me—but he wouldn’t say for what. I won’t lie to you, my friend; I was afraid. I felt myself in danger that evening on the yacht. I felt that R. J. intended me harm. Even now, when I see these reruns of celebrity poker matches on the fucking Game Show Network, and there he is: Old Man Wagner, in his seventies, looking like he can’t be fucked with by anyone, and everyone at the table knows it. He still gets the girls. Nothing happens to guys like R. J. Not in this world. They get away with everything, because nobody wants to go down that road of darkness with them. On the television, the look in his eyes still makes me want to crap my pants even before I got into this fucking mess I’m in now. Now that he’s gone, he still has that look on his face like he’s going to find me, even now that it’s impossible, because his is a malevolence that is so old and so transcendent, it can reach beyond the grave. Just because I’m telling you all this. He always looked like he was that guy.
             But, Len, I do know I woke up at one point on the yacht, just as I was falling off to sleep, and you know how you get pulled back awake with a start, because you think you saw or heard something? On the yacht, I thought I heard a splash in the water, somewhere not so far away. And it was the damnedest thing, Lenny. As I fell back asleep, I heard a woman singing. I heard her, drunk and singing away. There is no doubt in my mind it was her, because I’ve never, never forgotten that face and the things that voice said to me. There were times when I was with her and heard her sing, but I never really appreciated it until just that moment, because, of course, it was a different kind of singing I dreamed about, you know.
             There’s a place for us, a time and place for us. Hold my hand, and we’re halfway there. Hold my hand, and I’ll take you there. Somehow, someday, somewhere!
             She would have been out in the water, already in the Reaper’s clutch, and her voice was coming back to me from that abyss, like radio signals from a sleek, but very lonely, spaceship on the verge of plunging across the event horizon of a black hole. But at the time, it was the sound of her voice, crossing the distance between what I thought was our cabins that was the sweetest lullaby I could ever have to lull me to sleep. At that moment, it didn’t seem as if things would become as terrible as they did, as if she were just fine singing her heart out to me on the water. At that moment, it was all-good. And the fuck of it is, Lenny, to this very moment, it still is. I got my serenade after all, didn’t I?
             Take a walk now, friend, I need to get rest now. And please … lock the door behind you on the way out.


♥ End ♥



Paul Corman-Roberts is the author of three collections of prose poems and flash fiction: Coming World Gone World (Howling Dog, 2006), Neocom(muter) (Tainted Coffee, 2009), and 19th Street Station (Full of Crow, 2011). He is a co-founder of the Beast Crawl Literary Festival in Oakland, California, and is the fiction editor for Full of Crow Online Quarterly. Recent and upcoming work can be seen in Cease, Cows; Samizdat Literary Journal; The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature; Red Fez; Corium, and Be About It. He was the winner of the Out of Our Magazine 2010 Poetry Contest and spent the evening of the Rodney King Riots in 1992 barricaded in a Circle K convenience store. This story first appeared in subTerrain. [Author photo by and © Timothy Crandle; 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.

If Only Her Husband Were a Member of the Brotherhood of Flying Things  |  Elizabeth P. Glixman



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             The pest control man wore a dark blue uniform with the name Bob machine embroidered on the jacket pocket. His eyes were in shadow, framed by cascading frizzy hair and the purple visor of his baseball cap. There was a sticky substance on the jacket cuff.
             “Seen any roaches?” he asked.
             “None this year,” Harry said. “I did see a bug on the stove last night. It couldn’t be a roach. Roaches hate light.”
             “Not the babies.” Bob searched the cupboards with zealous eyes. “What color?”
             “Brown.”
             “Wings?”
             “Yes.”
             Bob pushed the proboscis of his gel gun into cabinets and under the sink. Harry heard air moving.
             When Bob was done, he said, “No problem anymore.”
             Harry opened the front door for the man to leave, but Harry saw insect wings flapping like accordion pleats under Bob’s jacket, as the bug man scurried toward the door. There was no truck in the driveway. The sky was covered with flying things.


♥♥♥


             Harry couldn’t wait for his wife, Joan, to get home, so he could tell her about the pest control man. Harry didn’t believe it himself. He might have been hallucinating, like the time he drank twelve bottles of soda in two hours and had a hypoglycemic sugar dip where little tiny creatures crawled the walls of the kitchen, yelling, “We rule the world!” Those creatures were green and wingless.
             Joan told him he was a greedy pig, and if he did things in moderation, he would see the world as it really was.
             It was obvious Harry and Joan had problems. Most of the time, Harry let Joan’s hurtful comments slide off his curved, phlegmatic shoulders. He often did not tell her about the things he saw, like the herd of sheep in the backyard or the yellow elephant in the living room. But the rustle of wings was so strong in the bug man’s coat, it gave Harry a visceral rush. He had to tell her and risk her response.
             Harry recalled their first years of marriage. They were sweet like cotton candy with each other and warm like sand dunes in heat. Their love was hardcore (They watched porno flicks together.), yet soft inside. There was nothing they wouldn’t do for each other. As the years went by, Harry knew that, lately, Joan was not happy. There were no children. She had a uterus that would not hold one. She gained twenty pounds in the last year. She told Harry it was because of him.
             “Our relationship is so strained,” she’d say, “but I love you, Harry.”
             It was always that way with Joan. She told Harry something painful and then, said the opposite. His skin broke out with little red welts. The doctor said it was hives.
             “Is anything bothering you, Harry?” the doctor asked.
             “Not that I can think of.”
             The doctor gave Harry a bottle of calamine lotion and told him to come back if it didn’t work.


♥♥♥


             Harry looked out the door. All he saw was blue sky, but he could sense the fluttering of wings. He read the Encyclopedia of North American Birds, while waiting for Joan to come home.
             When Joan came home with groceries, Harry saw the cheesecake peering out of the brown paper bag. He waited for her to sit down on the sofa, and then, he began: “The bug man was here today.”
             “So,” said Joan. “Did he find any cockroaches?” They had an infestation years ago, before the whole town flooded, six feet of water up to the third floor of city hall.
             “No.” Harry spoke faster, as if there were a hysterical train on the tracks, speeding toward him. “I know you won’t believe me, but I think he was a bug.”
             “Oh,” said Joan, and the “oh” was elevated in the air like the cry of a person who was being tickled under the armpits.
             “Yes,” said Harry, “I am sure he was a bug.”
             “Have you been overdosing on soda again?”
             “No.”
             “What makes you think he was a bug?”
             “The rustling. There was a rustling under his coat. I saw the frail wing tips, delicate, veined, and pulsating. I saw the wings in the sky, hundreds of them, after he left. It was like he was shedding. Like he was cloning himself. It was like the Brotherhood of Flying Things in the sky right over our head, Joan.” Harry did not know where the term Brotherhood of Flying Things came from. Maybe he had watched The Da Vinci Code one too many times.
             Joan bit into the cheesecake she had placed on the kitchen table for dessert for their dinner. “Harry, I think you need to go see your doctor, again.”
             “The wings are real.”
             “I don’t see any, Harry.” Joan opened the back door and said, “Not even one on the ground. Not one wing. Not one feather.”
             “They flew away, Joan. They flew away a split second after they appeared, and then, they floated from the sky like snowflakes and melted.”
             Joan stared at Harry, cheese on her lips. She said, “It is the doctor, or I am leaving you. My mother tells me every day to get the heck out of this insane asylum. All you talk about are creatures, winged ones and miniscule ones. Ten-toed elephants in the living room. This isn’t the first time you’ve accused normal people of being insects or animals. Remember my boss? When you saw her, you told me she was a wasp. When I went into the kitchen to get coffee and those Pepperidge Farm cookies, you actually told her she was one. I don’t know what to do. I really don’t know what to do.”
             “She is.”
             “What?”
             “A Wasp. Her ancestors came to America on the Mayflower.”
             Joan was not interested in genealogy. “She is not a bug. None of this exists. Do you hear me?”
             Harry did not doubt himself. He knew these creatures existed. He knew the bug man was an insect. To appease his dear wife, he made an appointment with the doctor.


♥♥♥


             “How’s the itching?” asked the doctor.
             “That’s not the problem,” said Harry.
             “What is?”
             Harry told him the story of the bug man. He told him about the elephants and tarantulas that sang, “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime.”
             “Anything else, Harry?” said the doctor, as he listened to Harry’s heart.
             “I forgot about the invisible crocodile in the backyard, who wants a swimming pool. He told me to go to Home Depot. The pools are on sale this week.” Harry told the doctor about Joan’s boss being a real wasp, not just a cultural one, and about his fear of brown sticky substances, especially the goo on long paper strips Joan hung in the summer on the porch.
             The doctor shook his head, took notes, and said, “Harry, when you see these creatures, ignore them. They will go away in peace. By the way, you have a good ticker.”
             “Like the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz.”
             “You have a good heart, Harry. Don’t worry about the crocodile or the bug man. They won’t be here for long.”
             Harry was getting in his car in the parking lot outside the doctor’s office; he heard the rustling of wings. He looked into the sky; there was the doctor in flight, his strong and firm wings holding the fervent night air.
             Oh, God, thought Harry. You can’t trust anyone.


♥♥♥


             What will I tell Joan? wondered Harry. I will tell her the doctor gave me tranquilizers. That will make her feel better. I will tell her I know there are no creatures in the house. I don’t know what else to do. Maybe I could tell her that the doctor is an insect who told me I have a good ticker? I don’t think Joan will buy this. She will probably call 911 and have me removed, get power of attorney and take my decision-making powers away. I can’t let that happen.
             “What did the doctor tell you?” said Joan. She was sitting on the couch in her pink chenille bathrobe, eating chocolate cream pie.
             “He said for me to get rest, take tranquilizers, told me to stay off the soda, and said my wife needs to understand the strain I am under, considering I was laid off for the fourth time in four years from my job at the fly tackle store. It isn’t easy, Joan. These lay offs are stressful.”
             “Honey, I am sorry. Here, have some pie. You will always be my snookie-wookie man.”
             Harry did not like lying to Joan, but he had to. She just did not understand. “You are my fuzzie-wuzzie bunny,” he said back to her. Terms of endearment and good pastry always refreshed their relationship.


♥♥♥


             Joan worked as a cleaning lady at Scientifica Excursion Laboratory, where the mad scientists (They were mad because of lack of government funding.) were studying UFOs and aliens. Joan’s boss told her daily that it was only a matter of time before some creatures tried to take over the world.
             “Look at us,” her boss said. “We are an uninventive species on the brink of no distinction.”
             Joan had to agree. Life was one boring routine, and that is what Scientifica Laboratories wanted to change. They were interested in creating rockets that took people on space excursions. Joan often thought of asking if Harry could go on the test rocket. It wasn’t that she didn’t love Harry. It was that it was hard living with a man who hallucinated.
             Joan went to work, like she always did each Monday. Shortly after she left, Harry heard noises at the front door. He opened it. There was the bug man, Bob.
             “I’ve come back to check on the situation,” Bob said.
             “No bugs,” replied Harry.
             “Let me check anyway.”
             “Okay.” No harm, Harry thought. A follow-up is fine. Bob was being pushy. The bug man went into the kitchen. Harry heard the cupboards opening and closing.
             “No bugs,” Bob said.
             Harry heard a rustling. He saw through the window the flock of wingless creatures in the sky. He saw Bob smile. Harry felt uncomfortable. He felt itchy. Then, he heard popping from his cotton shirt, and to his horror, he had wings—large, long, tapered wings—coming out of his own body.
             There was a knock at the door. He opened it. There was his doctor.
             “I thought I would check on you,” the doctor said, smiling an evil ear-to-tooth grin.
             Harry saw the wings growing from the doctor’s side. Harry went to get a fly swatter, then stopped. I can’t swat my doctor. They will take me off my HMO.
             “A house call, how nice,” said Bob.
             Harry was levitating off the ground. The sound was stronger, like a symphony orchestra. Harry feared the conductors would appear in the living room imminently, maybe that longhaired one from the Boston Pops. It seemed like they were all levitating. What would Joan think? He must have eaten too much liverwurst on rye for breakfast.
             The doctor didn’t seem to notice that Harry and Bob were transforming. Harry had flown dangerously close to the ceiling. He looked at the molding around the living-room ceiling. He thought about how much Joan and he had fought over what type of molding to get. She wanted it simple. He wanted it ornate. He was glad she had won, as his new delicate body bumped against it.
             The doctor kept talking like everything was fine. “I had another patient with similar visions of strange creatures in his yard,” said the doctor. “Actually, I had two this week.” The doctor looked at Bob and Harry. “I knew the world was disintegrating, but not this fast. I thought we would remain Homo sapiens for at least another millennium.”
             “The time frame has changed,” said Bob. “Orders from the big Latin insect. All the men on Earth need help. I hate the damn itching, Doc. Isn’t there anything you can do?”
             “Sorry, Bob. Itching is part of growth. Haven’t you heard that your enemies, those who crank your butt, are your greatest friends? Think of itching as a friend.”
             “Haven’t heard that one,” said Bob.
             “What change?” asked Harry.
             No one answered. They were all fluttering. Harry looked through the window that Joan had draped with sheer lace curtains, against his manly wishes. He saw his neighbor, Mr. Mahoney, and his recently neutered Doberman Pinscher flying in the sky with large creatures with wingspans the length of a football field.
             “The big one, Harry,” Bob finally said, his face morphing into two little eyes and a few antennae. “Join us. We are the males leading the way into the Brotherhood of Flying Things.”
             The Brotherhood of Flying Things. There is that phrase again, thought Harry.
             “We are ancient,” said Bob, “and selective. We find men who want to get away from their wives and help them to start a new civilization where men can wear mismatched clothing and watch football and do anything they want.”
             Harry floated closer to the ceiling. He heard Joan’s car pull up in the driveway. When she came inside, she found the doctor and Harry sitting on the couch.
             “Honey, you look kind of pale. Is anything wrong? Why is the doctor here? What is that sound?” Joan asked.
             “I feel lightheaded,” Harry said.
             The doctor added, “Joan, it is something going around. Come sit with us on the couch. Did you ever wonder what flying would feel like?”
             “Flying? Do you mean flying in an airplane?”
             “No, Joan, ” said the doctor. “Men need freedom to fly. That is the kind of flying I am talking about. Flying to new heights.”
             “I can’t hold them in anymore,” said Harry, as his wings broke loose from his mohair girlie sweater Joan had knitted him for his fortieth birthday. Joan watched as her knit four-pearl, two-pattern gift broke apart from the puncture of wings. She watched with her eyes popping, as Harry, the doctor, and the bug man—who had appeared from nowhere—flew out the door.
             Even though Harry felt the medical community had failed him once again (not telling him the truth—that he was clairvoyant), Harry felt buoyant, free as a bird, with no Joan to tell him what to do.
             When the whole thing was over and the house was empty of insects, Joan’s eyes became normal circles. She turned on the television to watch Springer and ate the leftover liverwurst on rye. She was not sure why she did everything in slow motion. She felt suddenly queasy.
             “Damn,” she said, as her eyes opened. Harry was sleeping beside her with his baseball bat to ward off any creatures that entered their room. “Damn,” she repeated quietly. “He is still here.”
             She would tell Harry to go get a check-up tomorrow at the doctor’s, hoping the doctor really was a card-carrying member of the Brotherhood of Flying Things.


♥ End ♥



Elizabeth P. Glixman is a poet, writer, and artist. She is the author of four poetry chapbooks: A White Girl Lynching, Cowboy Writes a Letter & Other Love Poems, (both by Pudding House Publications) and The Wonder of It All (Alternating Current Press). Her latest chapbook is I Am the Flame (Finishing Line Press), available on Amazon. Her work has been published in numerous print and online magazines and anthologies, including Her Circle, The Pedestal Magazine, Frigg, HEArt Online, r.kv.r.y. Quarterly Journal, Grey Sparrow Journal, storySouth, and Journey Poetry Anthology (Eden Water Press). One of her short stories was included in the Million Writers Award Notable Stories of 2005. Elizabeth was the long-time Interview Editor for Eclectica.org. You can read her interviews with poets, writers, and other creative people in the archives. This story first appeared in Lady Jane’s Miscellany; Vol. 1, Iss. 1; Online Edition.

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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.

On Bridges and Ash  |  Ronnie K. Stephens



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             Craig eased the car to a stop in front of his parents’ house. His dad had invited him home for dinner and to catch up on Craig’s life at college. As he opened the door, he could smell his favorite meal. The aroma of meatloaf, mashed sweet potatoes, and green bean casserole filled every room. His dad was setting the table, as his mom carefully sliced the meatloaf into thick strips. Craig took the plate onto which his mom had just placed a strip of beef, and he made his way around, taking generous portions of the potatoes and casserole. At first, the conversation was light and relatively pointless. Craig answered their questions about teachers, class, and the latest events being held on campus. His father told him about a new contract, and his mother pointed out the newly upholstered sofa in the living room.
             “Are there any girls you’ve had your eye on?” his mom finally asked.
             “No, Mom, not lately. There’s this guy, Anthony. We’ve been hanging out a lot lately.”
             “A guy?”
             “Yes … a guy. He’s in one of my classes—”
             “I don’t want to hear about it,” she interrupted.
             “Beth, let him spea—” his father started.
             “Jack, you two know how I feel about that,” she retorted.
             “Mom, I’m tired of acting like it’s not there.”
             “You know the rules. You don’t talk about it, and I won’t comment on it.”
             “But wh—”
             “Craig, you remember my brother, Ian?” Beth asked.
             “Yes, but I’m not—”
             “Ian was—”
             “Beth, leave it alone,” Jack cut in. “So, Craig, have you decided on a major yet?”
             “Um … no, not yet.”


♥♥♥


             Craig walked slowly to class, barely mustering the strength to lift his feet from the pavement as he thought about the night before. He looked up and saw Anthony waiting for him in front of their next class. Anthony was of average height with black hair and green eyes. He was thin, but not skinny, and his lips seemed to curl naturally into a smile. He waved at Craig, noticing the clouds in his usually bright brown eyes.
             Craig had never been in a real relationship with a man, so he and Anthony were taking things very slow. It wasn’t that Craig hadn’t wanted to be with other guys, but being around his mother had always made it too hard. As Craig made his way to Anthony, his composure gave way and tears trickled down his cheek. She’d never cared for him the way his father had. She constantly told him that he wasn’t “normal” and that real men played football like his father. Despite being very muscular and fit, Craig had never enjoyed sports, although racquetball was growing on him. In fact, he and Anthony were supposed to play that night.
             Craig sighed and told Anthony how it had gone. Anthony hugged him tightly and glared at the students gawking as they walked by. It was rough being different in the Bible Belt. They climbed a flight of steps and entered the oldest building on campus. It didn’t have air conditioning, but teachers usually opened the windows in the fall, and the breeze felt good as the two strolled through the hall and into the classroom.
             When it was time for class to begin, the teacher called attention to the front. She told the students that she had to leave early for a doctor’s appointment. They cheered and jumped from their seats. As Craig was putting his binder back into his bag, Anthony leaned in and kissed him on the cheek. Craig pulled back, scared that some classmates might take offense. Anthony sighed. He knew how hard it was for Craig, and though it wasn’t going to be easy, he was prepared to help Craig get comfortable with prying eyes and hateful jeers.
             They parted ways and planned to meet for racquetball just after dinner. As Craig ambled to his dorm to change before dinner, he thought about his father and wondered how he’d ever put up with Mother. He remembered a time when his father, Jack, had explained to him that Beth’s brother, Ian, had been gay. I wonder if Mom knows he told me, Craig thought, recalling his father’s interjection the previous night.
             Beth’s father had not accepted it and had banned Ian from the house. Beth did not speak to Ian again for five years. One day, Ian called her crying and said that he was near her apartment and wanted to stop by, so she told him to come over whenever he liked. When Ian arrived, he explained to Beth that he had been diagnosed with AIDS about four months prior. His lover, Brian, had recently died of the disease. Beth was devastated. Ian admitted that his apartment, leased in Brian’s name, was too expensive for him and that he had nowhere to go. Beth offered him their extra room and promised to help him in whatever way he needed.
             Soon, Ian began to show signs of slowing down. His skin got paler. He started to lose weight. His naps went from hours to days. It had crushed Beth to watch him deteriorate that way. Jack and Beth had only been dating for a few months when Ian took a turn for the worse. Craig remembered his father’s eyes watering as he told him about Ian’s voice growing so soft they could barely hear him speaking. One day, as Beth sat with Ian reading, she glanced over at him sleeping. She smiled for a moment, and then stared in horror at the chest that was no longer moving. She screamed for Jack to come into the room and feel for a pulse. There was none. Beth was so heartbroken that she had refused to attend the funeral, Craig’s father had said.


♥♥♥


             Craig had gotten so lost in thought that he didn’t notice the clock flashing six o’clock. He grabbed an apple from the mini fridge in the corner of his dorm room and sprinted to the gymnasium. He took the stairs two at a time, as he rushed to the fourth floor and began looking for Anthony. Anthony spotted him down at the other end of the hall and shouted for him. Craig turned and smiled.
             “Sorry I’m late,” he said.
             “It’s no problem. Just don’t do it again, or I won’t go so easy on ya,” Anthony chided.
             Craig laughed, and they headed into the court. As the game wore on and things began to get more intense, Craig couldn’t help but watch the way Anthony’s muscles flexed every time he’d stop before swinging. He’d lunge from side to side, calves bulging, and hit the ball as if it were everything wrong with the world all condensed and thrown to him. Lost in thought, Craig didn’t notice the ball flying at his chest. It smacked him back to reality with jarring force. As he tried to catch his breath, Anthony rushed over to make sure that he was all right. Craig said that he was fine, and he’d just need a minute to recuperate. Anthony walked over to the corner of the court and peeled off the shirt sticking to his own back. Craig had never seen Anthony with his shirt off and reveled in his near-hairless chest. It wasn’t as muscular as his own, but Anthony’s abdominal muscles were to die for. Craig found himself longing to trace the indentations and bury himself in Anthony’s neck.
             Anthony looked over at Craig and noticed him staring at the sweat running down his chest. He smiled, glided over to Craig and whispered into his ear, “Do you like what you see?”
             “Of course,” Craig said. “You have an amazing body. I never noticed it until now.”
             “Gee thanks,” Anthony replied, thick with sarcasm.
             “I didn’t … um … you’re … oh, you know what I meant,” Craig scowled.
             “I know, but I like to see you squirm,” Anthony said, moving a little closer. “Have you ever kissed a guy, Craig?”
             “Of course,” he replied, “but it never really meant anything. For me, it’s always been sexual. I was too afraid to try and have a relationship.”
             “I sensed that,” Anthony said. “I’m gonna help you through it, Craig. Things will work out just fine.”
             “Thanks,” Craig replied, smiling.
             When their time was up, the two headed back toward the dormitories. As it came time to part ways, the two embraced in a passionate kiss.
             “See ya in class tomorrow,” Anthony said, as he walked away. Craig couldn’t take his eyes off of Anthony until he had disappeared into his building. He walked to his own, slowly, indirectly. In fact, he walked so indirectly that he found himself on the other side of campus, near the amphitheater.
             Craig opened the door to his room and stood in shock. His bed was turned upside down, his drawers emptied all over the floor, his computer monitor was playing what looked to be a gay porn movie, and across the mirror in bright red letters someone had written “Faggots Will Burn In Hell!” Craig was furious. Who could have possibly gotten into my room and done this? He wanted to call the police, but his fingers dialed home subconsciously. When his mother picked up, Craig tried to hide the anger in his voice and asked for his father.
             “Hold on a second,” Beth said. Craig could hear her yelling to his father, “Jack! Craig is calling for you!”
             “Hello, son,” he heard his father say after a few seconds. “What’s up?”
             “Um … well … to tell you the truth, I didn’t mean to call.”
             “What do you mean?”
             “Well … someone broke into my room. Everything is a mess. I was trying to call the police.”
             “What for? Is anything broken?”
             “Well … no. It’s just that, they spray painted something on the wall.”
             “What?”
             “Faggots will burn in hell.”
             “Oh, God. All right, call the campus police. They probably won’t be able to find who did it, but at least they’ll be aware and keep a better eye on the dorm.”
             “You’re right. Is Mom still angry?”
             “Yeah, but she’ll come around. Give her time.”
             “Thanks.”
             “Listen, I know it hurts to have your mother so upset, but I don’t want you to become what you think we want you to be. You’re following your heart, and I’m proud of you.”
             “Thanks, Dad,” Craig stammered. “I’ll call you this weekend, okay?”
             “Okay, son. Good luck with Anthony.”
             Craig smiled and hung up the phone. It took him nearly three hours to get his room back into the meticulous order it had previously been in. He sat at the computer, scanning emails and looking at his buddy list. He searched the screen names for “javagurl” and sent a message to her:
             cnfsd: “got any coffee?”
             javagurl: “would i ever be without?”
             cnfsd: “of course not … come over?”
             Lauren knocked on the door a few minutes later, and it swung open. Craig was standing in his boxers looking like a deer caught in the headlights.
             “Damn, that was quick,” he said.
             “Well, you said you were upset, did you want me to take my time?”
             “I guess not,” he said, trying to cover himself.
             Lauren walked over to him and slid her hand into his boxers. “Relax, sweetie, you’re gay, and I’m not in the mood,” she giggled. “So, where’s the coffee maker?” Craig pointed to the newly arranged counter. “I assume you want it strong?”
             “You assume correctly,” Craig said, as he pulled on a pair of pajama pants.
             While the coffee brewed, Lauren pulled off her coat and plopped herself onto the bed. Craig looked at her and sighed. Time’s like these would have been impossible before he’d met her. Lauren was, he imagined, what every guy would want in a girl. She had shoulder-length brown hair, dark green eyes, and milky white skin. He’d seen her naked plenty of times, and proportion was certainly not lost on her. Her small, firm breasts equalized nicely with an apple-shaped butt that bounced slightly when she walked.
             They sat on the floor and talked for hours. Craig told Lauren all about what had gone on at his parents’ house, the action he’d gotten on the racquetball court, and the conversation with his father after walking into his room. Lauren just sat back, taking it all in and sipping coffee. Sometimes, these nights could turn into mornings and then into nights again. Coffee was essential. The more Craig talked, the more obvious the tears fighting to the surface were. Lauren pulled him close and rested his head on her shoulder.
             “It’s okay, Craig. Things are going to be fine, I promise,” she said.
             “How do you know?” he asked.
             “Anthony is an amazing guy, and it’s obvious that he is going to help you get comfortable with the whole relationship thing. Plus, your dad understands and is always going to be there for you. Even if your mom doesn’t come around, you have me, right?” She smiled.
             “I guess you’re right,” he said, trailing off with a lost look in his eye. Eventually, he glanced at the clock; it was three in the morning. “So, you stayin’ or goin’?” he asked her.
             “Whatever you want me to do,” she said softly.
             “You can stay. It’d be nice to have someone to hold tonight.”
             “Your wish is my command,” Lauren replied. She stood up and pulled off her shirt. Craig’s eyes lingered on her bra; it was a camouflage print that looked great against her skin. She unbuttoned her jeans and wiggled, trying to get them off. Craig looked at her and laughed.
             “How anyone takes the time to get those off of you, I’ll never know,” he said.
             “Yeah, well, it’s been a while since a guy’s gotten these off,” she replied.
             He walked over and knelt down, putting his fingers inside the waist of the jeans. “Allow me, my lady,” he joked. He eased them off to reveal matching cotton string-bikini panties. He could smell her musk and realized he’d never been this close to her before. He looked up to see her blushing. Craig knew she had feelings for him, but they had never really discussed it. Lauren looked back at him, catching his eye.
             “Are you okay?” he asked.
             “Yeah …”
             “Lauren?”
             “Yeah?”
             “You know I love you, right?”
             “Of course I do. I love you, too.”
             “I’m sorry I don’t feel the way you do.”
             “Don’t be silly, Craig. I don’t want you to feel bad. Every girl wants her gay friend; they’re the best guys out there. Not to mention, you’re the hottest guy I know,” she giggled.
             “Okay,” he said, hugging her. “Let’s get some sleep.”
             “Absolutely.”


♥♥♥


             The alarm clock screamed, and they both jolted awake. It was nine o’clock, time for Craig to head to class again. He brushed the hair from Lauren’s face and kissed her forehead. “Thank you so much, Lauren,” he said. “You’re the best friend I could ever wish for.”
             “You’re welcome,” she said groggily. “See you tonight at the coffee shop?”
             “You bet.”
             Craig walked to class, whistling as the rain pelted his face. The red leaves were matted to the sidewalks, and Craig thought the ground looked like a giant pool of blood. He had his earphones on and was listening to the latest Green Day CD. As he bounced his head up and down, playing imaginary drums, a small group of guys headed toward him. He noticed them, but not recognizing them, turned his attention to a paper sack floating around in the wind. A rock hit the side of his head, and he heard a piercing sound in his left ear. In a flash, the men were upon him.
             The first man punched him in the jaw, sending shockwaves of pain through his body. He dropped his books and ducked the next punch, coming up with a shot of his own. His fist landed on the guy to his right, sending him sprawling. He turned just in time to see knuckles meeting his eye socket. His eyes began to water, and he could see nothing. He lunged forward and felt his forearm slam into someone’s neck. He heard a thud and then kicked at the mass on the ground in front of him. He could hear people shouting in the distance. Somewhere far off, he heard somebody screaming for help. That was the last thing he heard before something hard landed on the back of his head, crushing the skull.
             Craig woke up three days later in the hospital. He looked around, trying to focus on his surroundings. He could see his father sitting in a chair, reading the newspaper. “What happened, Dad?” he asked.
             “Apparently, you were jumped by three guys,” Jack answered.
             “How do they look?” he joked.
             “Two of them rode in with you; the police are still looking for the third. It seems he grabbed a rock and swung it at your head. Someone called the police as soon as people saw you fighting them. The paramedics said that you lost almost a pint of blood.”
             “Goddamn, how?” Craig asked.
             “You had a massive skull fracture. The entire back half of your skull has been replaced with a metal plate.” Jack said, wincing at the thought.
             “Holy shit! Do the police know why they jumped me?”
             “No. They were hop—”
             “Hey! You’re awake!” Lauren exclaimed, bursting in with Anthony. “How do you feel?”
             “I’m all right, I think,” Craig mumbled, reaching for Anthony’s hand.
             Lauren leaned forward and whispered something into Craig’s ear that made him smile. He reached into her pants pocket and pulled out a bag of chocolate-covered coffee beans. Craig laughed. Lauren always knew just what he needed. Anthony leaned down and kissed his forehead. Craig smiled and pulled him down to kiss his cheek, then faded back into a dark sleep. The silence in the room was deafening.


♥♥♥


             Craig was released from the hospital two days later. He was ordered to be under constant supervision for one week. His mom had refused to let him stay at home as long as he and Anthony were seeing each other. Jack fought hard for Craig, but in the end, Beth just wouldn’t budge. Lauren offered to stay with Craig at the dormitory, and Anthony would walk him from class to class during the day. As Anthony tried to hold Craig up and help him into the room, Lauren smoothed the sheets and moved the comforter out of Craig’s way. Craig lay down and said thanks to Anthony, who leaned in and kissed him. Lauren looked at them glassy-eyed. They broke the kiss and said their goodbyes.
             The next few days were boring for Craig. Lauren did what little cooking she could with the microwave and a sandwich maker, and Anthony helped him to class, where Craig sat in a daze. His mind was in a constant fog, which he supposed was the reason for the constant supervision. At night, Craig and Lauren would sit and talk for hours, laughing about various memories. Craig remembered the first time he and Lauren had met. He was stepping off the bus, when he tripped and sent all of his books and paper flying. Lauren had knelt down to help him pick up the books. Craig looked at her and flashed a half-smile, saying thanks. They introduced themselves and spent the next few hours talking. At some point, each realized they had missed their classes, but decided they weren’t important, anyhow. Lauren and Craig shared coffee, childhood stories, and random problems with society. They laughed as they thought back to that day and how inseparable they had been since.
             A few nights later, Craig stared through Lauren, wide-eyed and desperate, like he was running from something.
             “What is it, Craig?” Lauren asked softly.
             “Oh, it’s nothing. I’m just … just thinking about my mother,” he replied.
             “She’ll come around, babe; it’s just gonna take some time.”
             “I know. I’m not thinking about that. I’m thinking about the day she met you. It’s the only time I can remember her being proud of me. She was so … so excited to see me bring a girl home,” Craig mumbled, lost in thought. “Do you think she’ll ever forgive me, Lauren?”
             “Of course. She’s your mother, Craig. Eventually, she’ll realize that you won’t change, and that you’re still a great guy.”
             “Maybe. Should I call her or something? Just to let her know I’m doing all right?”
             “She might like that.”
             “I hope so,” Craig replied.
             He picked up the phone and dialed home. Beth answered the phone cheerily, but her voiced fell soft when she realized it was Craig. “What is it, honey?”
             “I want to talk to you, Mom.”
             “About what?”
             “Why didn’t you come visit me in the hospital?”
             “Well, your dad said everything was under control, that you were fine. And—”
             “And what, Mom?”
             “The truth is I couldn’t bear to see you so beat up.”
             “So you just ignored it?”
             “Craig, it’s not that … it’s just, things like that happened to Ian—”
             “I’m not Ian, Mom! Things are different now. I don’t have AIDS. I’m not going to die. I’m your son! Why can’t you just be there for me?”
             “I am … well, I will be. You just … you have to give me time. You … you know I love you, right?”
             Craig didn’t know. He didn’t know because he hadn’t heard her. He’d already handed the phone to Lauren while he tried to fight tears. Lauren told Craig what Beth had said; it only made him cry harder.


♥♥♥


             Craig woke up in Lauren’s arms the next morning. He saw an email notification blinking on the screen. He eased Lauren’s arm from his neck and opened his inbox. There was an email from his mom. He opened the email and read:
             “Please come over for dinner Saturday, Craig.
             Love,
             Your mom”
             He replied, saying simply: “ok.”
             It was Friday, and Lauren had told Craig about a date she had scheduled some time ago. She asked if he wanted her to cancel, but Craig had told her to go and have fun. He and Anthony were planning to go see a local jazz musician at the coffee shop, anyway. He was hoping to take his mind off of things for the night.
             The coffee shop was empty when Craig and Anthony arrived. It was only five o’clock, and the musician didn’t start for another couple of hours. They ordered lattes and talked about school and spring break plans.
             The jazz musician played for several hours. Craig and Anthony ordered café sandwiches and a couple more lattes. When they were done eating, Anthony asked Craig to dance. Craig hesitated for a second, then got up and headed for the dance floor. They danced for a long time, and Craig began to feel dizzy, so they sat down. They paid the bill and started to walk toward the door. As they walked outside, two men walked up to them.
             “Excuse me, sir, are you Craig Langstrom?”
             “Yes, that’s me,” Craig answered.
             “I’m Detective Mulvey, and this is Detective Williams. We’re investigating your assault.”
             “Oh? Did you find the guys?”
             “Well, we think so. We’d like you to come down to the station and identify them.”
             “All right. Can I have my dad come along?”
             “Of course. Just give him a call and have him meet us at the station.”
             “Okay.” The two detectives walked back to the curb and started to get into their cars. “Wait!” Craig yelled to them.
             “What is it, sir?”
             “How did you know I’d be here?”
             “A friend of yours,” the detective glanced at his notepad, “Lauren, answered your phone and told us where to find you.”
             “Oh, that was nice of her.” Craig and Anthony jogged to the parking lot and got into Craig’s car. “Remind me to buy a big cup of her favorite brew next time we go out.”
             “Like you don’t ever do that anyway,” Anthony joked.
             Craig dialed his parents’ number. When his dad answered, he relayed the conversation with the detectives and asked his father to meet them at the precinct. Twenty minutes later, Craig and Anthony pulled into a spot and entered the station. They saw the detectives at the far end of the hall and walked toward them. The men ushered Craig into a room. He was surprised to see his mother waiting for him.
             “Mom, what are you doing here? I thought Dad—”
             “I thought it was about time for me to be here for you. I hope that’s all right.”
             “Um … yeah, of course.”
             “Whenever you’re ready, sir,” one of the detectives said.
             “Go ahead.”
             Three sets of six men walked into the line-up room. In each set, Craig was certain of his selection.
             “That’ll do for now, son,” the other detective said, after the third line-up. “We’ll be in touch.”
             “Thank you.”
             Craig and his mother walked out of the room. Beth saw Anthony standing in the hall. Craig’s jaw tensed, as he braced himself for the worst.
             “Anthony, I’d really like it if you could join us for dinner tomorrow night.”
             Craig’s jaw dropped.
             Anthony looked at Craig, then back to Beth. “It would be my pleasure, ma’am.”

♥ End ♥



Ronnie K. Stephens writes poems on his refrigerator every morning. He wrangles teenagers for a living and sometimes convinces them to turn their poems into new pennies after school. The word victim is constantly challenged in his writing. The only math he knows is balance. If it’s not equal, it’s not finished. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Rattle, Paper Darts, Weave Magazine, DASH, and PANK, among others. [Author photo by and © Katelyn J. Stephens; used with permission, all rights reserved.]

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