Sunrise Special  |  John Vicary



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             “You can’t smoke that in here.”
             The old man peered over his glasses at the slip of a girl who’d interrupted his morning cigarette. “Since when?”
             The waitress frowned. “Since always.”
             “That’s not true. I’ve been coming here for years. And I always sit right here—right in this very spot—and have my cigarette.” The old man held up his lighter, as if that provided proof.
             “There are no-smoking laws in New York. I’m sorry, sir, but you’ll have to go outside for that.” The waitress sighed. Seven in the morning, and people were already giving her grief.
             “Martha lets me,” the man said.
             “I’m not Martha,” the waitress countered.
             The man snorted. “I noticed. Where is she?”
             “I don’t know. I’m here to take your order today. Can I bring you anything? Coffee?” She swirled the remains of a half-empty pot.
             The man nodded. “Sure, sure. And lots of cream. Martha knows I like a lot of cream. I don’t have to tell her that.”
             “Okay.”
             As the waitress poured him his first cup, the man unfolded his newspaper. “So, I bet you hear a lot of things working here, am I right?”
             “It’s a diner, not a bar. Do you know what else you want, or do you need a minute?” The waitress tried not to tap her foot.
             “Yeah, I’ll have the Sunrise Special. So, no one ever tells you stuff, huh? What’s your name, anyway?”
             The waitress flicked her nametag. “How do you want your eggs cooked?”
             The man squinted. “Well, you’re not much of a talker, are you? Agnes. What kind of a name is Agnes for a girl like you?”
             Agnes shrugged. “I was named after my great aunt, you know? Eggs. How do you like them?”
             The man smiled. “Sunny side up, Agnes. It suits you. I’m Howard. Nice to meet you.”
             “I’m glad you approve. That comes with toast. There’s whole wheat, rye, sourdough, and white.”
             “Well, the kids these days and their names. It’s good to hear something solid. Something you can wear for the rest of your life. Names are like coats, you know. You want to pick one that’s going to last. Agnes will do you.”
             “Right. Well, my mom chose it, so next time she calls, I’ll be sure to tell her thanks for giving me a coat name. Toast?”
             “How come you aren’t writing this down? How are you going to remember my order?” the man asked.
             Agnes tried not to roll her eyes. “So far you haven’t ordered, mister.”
             “Howard. Call me Howard.”
             “Can you just decide on the toast, or do you need a minute?” the waitress asked. Old people took forever and a day to do anything.
             “You’re in such a rush. It isn’t like anyone else is even here. Rye, please. I’d like rye.”
             The waitress nodded. “It comes with a side of meat. There’s sausage links, patties, or turkey sausage. What will it be?”
             “Do you ever want to tell a secret to someone who doesn’t know you?” the man asked suddenly.
             “Why would I want to do that?” The waitress was too startled to bother with questions of meat. No one had ever asked her anything like that before.
             Howard creased his paper between his fingers. “Sometimes it’s easier to tell a stranger. That’s all. Someone who doesn’t know you might not judge you.”
             “That’s silly,” the waitress said, but as she said it, she didn’t really think it was. It seemed to make perfect sense.
             The man stared at her. “It’s easy. I’ll go first: I cheated on my wife.”
             “What?” The waitress set down the almost-empty coffee pot on the Formica table. “Why would you tell me that?”
             “I needed to,” the man said. “I had to tell someone. Your turn. Go ahead; it’s amazingly cathartic.”
             Agnes swallowed. “You’re crazy!” She didn’t want to look at him, this old man in a buttoned-down shirt, sitting there calmly after he’d just admitted to cheating on his wife. It was surreal; that’s what it was. People just didn’t say things like that! “You’re crazy.” Then, she thought he must be going senile, and she felt bad for saying it twice.
             “I’m a lot of things, but I’m not crazy.” Howard tore open a tub of cream and stirred it into his coffee. “I loved my wife, you know. Very much. I’m not saying that to make myself sound better; if anything, that makes it worse. The thing is, she never knew I cheated. I’m so glad she never did. It would have hurt her so much. She’s gone now, God rest her. But I had to tell someone, look someone in the face and admit that it happened. I mean, this was years ago. Years. Before you were a gleam in your mother’s eye, as we used to say. I just had to tell someone and be free of it. And you’re that someone, Agnes, so I thank you for that.”
             “But … why?” The waitress sat down across from the man, even if it was against the rules. It felt silly to be looming over him, and besides, the diner really was empty. “Why did you?”
             Howard sipped his coffee. “I’ve asked myself that so many times over the years, and every time I come up with a different answer. I don’t know that there is any one reason. Certainly not one that you’ll understand. I guess I just missed being in love. I didn’t realize I had been all along.”
             The weight of his earnest admission hung in the air between them, a terrible imbalance, and the waitress knew she had no obligation, but still, she wanted to tip the scale out of the valley of peculiarity they’d fallen into. “I never learned to tie my shoes,” she blurted out before she could stop herself.
             The man blinked, his eyes owlish behind the trifocals.
             Agnes held out her ankle, showing off the Velcro-ed shoe. “My parents weren’t around much, and I just never learned when I should have. Then, I felt silly when I got too old, and I was embarrassed to ask. So that’s it. My deep, dark secret.”
             “Feel better?”
             The waitress smiled. “Kind of, yeah.” She stood. “I’ll go place your order and bring you a refill on that coffee.”
             “I’d be most obliged, Agnes.”
             There was one other girl on the day shift, and Agnes motioned her over as she set another pot of coffee on to brew. “You see that guy in my section?” Agnes asked. “The old guy in the striped shirt?”
             Heather nodded. “Howard? Yeah. He’s a regular. Been coming for years. Why? He giving you trouble?”
             “No, no. I was just wondering if he ever talked to you.”
             Heather shook her head. “Usually, he’s in Martha’s section. I’ve had him once or twice, but I don’t think he’s said anything to me. Did he say something nasty? Try to hit on you?”
             “Ew. Heather. That’s gross.” Agnes wrinkled her nose. “He’s nice. He’s not like that.”
             Heather raised her eyebrows. “They’re all like that, honey. You should know that by now.”
             Agnes made a face and took the man his refill. “Here’s the cream. I didn’t forget.”
             Howard lowered the paper he’d been reading. “I got arrested one time.”
             The waitress’ hand wavered, and she spilled a drop. “Excuse me?” Maybe Heather was right. Maybe it was indecent exposure …
             “I’ve spent time in jail. You’re looking at someone who has a misdemeanor on his record. I’m a criminal.”
             The waitress mopped up the spill with a rag from her apron pocket. “You don’t seem like a hardened criminal,” she said.
             “I am,” he answered.
             “What did you do? Or is that the secret?” Please don’t be creepy, she thought.
             “I organized a strike. It turned ugly, and someone was hurt in the scramble that followed. Although, it isn’t really a secret, I guess. It just bothers me; that’s all. I never meant for anyone to be injured. If I could, I’d take it all back. That’s something I regret, that people were hurt because of me. So, yeah, I’m a felon.”
             How could she have thought the worst of him? “Well, not in the strictest sense. A felon has a felony record. So you’re not a felon … Howard.”
             The man reached for his cup. “I guess you’re as good’a waitress as Martha.”
             “Thanks.” The waitress scratched her forehead. “I had a baby.” She tried not to cringe when she said it.
             Howard set his cup down but said nothing.
             Agnes kept talking, the words spilling out in a rush. “I was only sixteen, you know. Too young for a baby. They told me I could hold her, say goodbye, but I didn’t want to. I know they thought I didn’t care, and that bothered me. I did care. I did. I knew if I held her and smelled that baby smell, I’d never give her up. I moved up here the next summer, and I’ve never told anyone about that, never.” She smoothed her apron. “Aren’t you going to say anything? Aren’t you going to say you’re sorry or whatever it is people say? I always thought when I finally told someone that’s what he’d say.”
             The man looked at her. “Do you want me to?”
             “No. That’s stupid.” The waitress wiped her eyes. “Why would you be? You don’t even know me.”
             “I am sorry, but I wasn’t going to say it. I think you’re sorry enough. You don’t need to hear it from a stranger. You just need to tell it. Have someone hear you.” The man tightened his mouth into a line.
             “Yeah. Your food should be ready by now. I’ll be right back.” The waitress turned and marched to the counter. His Sunrise Special was the only one there, ready to be delivered. She picked it up and took it to him without further comment. She’d said enough already. God knows what Howard thought of her.
             When it was time to bring him the bill, he cleared his throat. The waitress braced herself. He was probably going to say something, tell her how terrible she was, what an awful person—
             “I’m dying.”
             Agnes blinked. “What?”
             The man rolled the bill into a cylinder between his fingers as he talked. “I’m dying. I have cancer. It’s these cigarettes—that’s what they tell me. I guess it isn’t a secret, my dying, but it was for a long time. This is my last day here, living my life the way I want to. My terms. My son is coming up from Georgia, and I’m going to hospice this afternoon. All my things, my house … well, none of this matters to you, Agnes. Agnes with the name that will last. I can say this, though. Quit the things you need to. And the things you can’t, well … you might as well enjoy them right up until the end.” He unrolled the slip of paper and breathed out as he stared at the words. “Will you please tell Martha I sent her my regards?”
             The waitress nodded. She didn’t trust herself to speak.
             “Thank you, my dear.” The man stood, and she could see now how fragile he was beneath that cotton shirt. Why did it matter? Yet, she was surprised to find that it did. “You have a lovely day. It’s just starting, don’t you know?”
             The waitress watched him shuffle out, and she didn’t know if she felt like laughing or crying. Maybe it was a little of both.


♥ End ♥



John Vicary is an author from rural Michigan. He’s been published in various anthologies, including Dead Men’s Tales, Plague, and The Longest Hours. He enjoys playing the piano and hanging out with his five kids.

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A Nihilist with Many Reasons  |  David Stockdale



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             I have a habit of being very productive through the act of procrastination; that is, when I don’t want to do something, I pursue very elaborate means to put that something off and avoid its very necessity. So, when I was handed divorce papers a couple of months ago, I found all sorts of roundabout ways not to sign them. I cleaned every bit of my apartment. I sorted out my closet and donated all of my unwanted clothes. I took cooking lessons, and then karate. I began reading to the elderly.
             I should point out, however, that none of this was done out of altruism or self-improvement. At that point in my life, I believed in neither. But I did schedule and attend an appointment with a psychologist. All of these actions were originally intended to distract myself from the divorce. I think shrinks are amusing. As a child, I regularly saw them. Though, I’d like to think that I had problems because of an unusually high intellect (that may or may not be a factor), my parents’ main concern was my innate lack of tactfulness and my inability to make friends. I still have no real friends other than Ray, who is only friends with me because he sees me as one of his causes, so I don’t think the doctors really helped me.
             I’m gone, the note read. It was in the form of a Post-it on the refrigerator. From a distance, I had figured the note pertained to some errand she wished me to complete. But nope. I’m gone. What kind of thing is that to write on a Post-it note?
             I knew something was up when I woke that morning, and no coffee was made. The woman always made the coffee. And I always put the whiskey in it and referred to it as ‘Irish Coffee.’ Add the word ‘Irish’ to anything, and it implies that you have augmented the beverage with wonderful alcohol—which I was drinking a lot more of, by the way, now that she was ‘gone.’
             You miss the little things more than the big. Like, how she would put some spice that I can’t pronounce in my eggs for breakfast, and it gave them this extra little flavor that I could never quite place. Of course, had I asked her about it, I would know. Should’ve asked her more things. Should’ve talked more. Funny thing is, when actually I wanted to talk, there was no one to talk to since the woman was gone. Figures.
             I kept the Post-it note. There was this lingering feeling that maybe I could figure out why she left. It was about, say, a week after she left, that I crammed the Post-it note in my desk and tried to stop thinking about it. Out of sight, out of mind. Isn’t that what they say?
             There were mice in my building, and after a day or two of depressive mulling, I contrived a rather unorthodox method of getting rid of them: ultrasonic waves. The sound editor on my computer is capable of creating tones beyond the detection of human ears. But according to my findings, mice can hear much higher frequencies than people, and they’re quite disturbed by the noises. So, after creating this little sound file, I blasted these high frequencies all throughout the apartment. Guess what? No more mice. It drives them out.
             I relayed this whole escapade to the doctor.
             “Strange how something can be undetectable to me; I’m completely oblivious to it, and yet the mice are driven mad by that very thing—so mad, that they are driven out entirely,” I said to the doctor.
             He nodded. He didn’t talk much, but something about him made me feel at ease.
             I don’t know what happened between the time I considered myself an unbridled idealist and now—my present state of mind. It seems like I’ve been dealt a series of unfortunate blows in my life, but who hasn’t? That’s not what it is. I’m not bitter. That’s not why I feel this foreboding, sinking sense of emptiness. It’s all of this damned artifice I see everywhere. Billboards. It drains the life out of me. I’m overcome with the futility of it all. Everything’s predictable. So fucking predictable. I hate high-definition television, by the way. My god, do we need to see every sweaty pore on Oprah’s face? Do we need to see the mucus dripping from peoples’ noses? You know what my real problem with the world is? There’s no movement in life. Anything that appears to be movement is an illusion. The world remains the same sad, arbitrary rock it has been since its inception.
             So, why am I saying this? Why do nihilists do anything, for that matter? I don’t have an answer to that, other than it is human nature for men to strive toward achieving a kind of agency in their little worlds, albeit in vain. If the world is a stage, and life is a theater production, I certainly wouldn’t be the guy operating the lights or handing out the playbills. What I would do, though—I would work against the play, to illuminate the artifice of it all. Show all the pulleys and sandbags. I’d be the sneering critic in the front row, throwing spitballs at the cast.
             And in that spirit, let me tell you a story. Well, it’s more of a series of minor disasters than an actual story. This is no tale of brave Ulysses. There is no greatness to my Gatsby. I am, as every creature on Earth that has managed to walk upright eventually becomes, a soulless menace. Dead-eyed, a quantum fluctuation culminated from a series of unlikely probabilities. We call it life. Nothing more.
             Despite this, I was once a bright-eyed college student, my heart set on going into the Peace Corps, or perhaps climbing Mount Everest. I had ambitions toward something altruistic and epic, and also—I now realize years later—naïve and, ultimately, fruitless. Maybe it had something to do with my mom telling me, every morning as she drove me to school, that I was put in the world for a special purpose.
             “God has a plan for you,” she used to say.
             Due to the unlikely circumstances of my birth, it seemed plausible at the time. See, I was one of those premature births you hear about. You know, the babies that you can hold in one hand. Of course, I don’t remember being that small, and I can’t begin to imagine the hell I put my parents through. I was sick often during my childhood. At age four, I developed a nasty case of pneumonia and nearly died. And that’s my earliest memory: Resting in a hospital bed with my father sitting with me. Dad was reading the paper, and my sister was playing tic-tac-toe with me. And then the doctor came in, pulled my father out of the room and closed the door. I couldn’t hear them talking, but the look of dread and worry on my father’s face said enough. I survived, despite the doctor’s ominous predictions. And my mother had ingrained in me a sense of purpose, though this sense has since atrophied.
             I used to say a broad liberal-arts education was criminally underrated in this day and age. Bullshit. I hated math. I didn’t know what else to do. So, I majored in, of all things, English. The respective ugly looks I got from my parents were alone worth the tuition. And, after all, I read. I have a creative personality, whatever that means. I spent most of my childhood with my head in the clouds, idly wandering between dreams of taking it to the hoop like Michael Jordan and the considerably more-divine aspiration of becoming a Buddhist monk. That was more about karate, in hindsight.
             Life has an unfortunate way of siphoning out the dreamers, though, until all that is left is the crusty, mundane remnants that one might call the silent majority. I, myself, seemed to have lost my drive somewhere between freshman year of college and, well—it gets hazy after that. They say adolescence is a time when you’re supposed to find yourself. It’s supposed to be a point in your life where the world is broadening, and you’re beginning to realize what you can do. My experience has been, for the most part, the antithesis of that sentiment.
             I’ve had a problem for the past few months, and it’s beyond the point of concern. Concern both for my career, and perhaps more disconcerting, concern for my mental welfare. I am, as you may have guessed by now, a writer. Short fiction, mostly. I do many things to pay the bills, though most of it not interesting and not relevant to the story at hand. Here’s my problem, though: As of late, all of my stories have devolved into suicide notes. All of my characters end up killing themselves. I don’t mean to do it; it just happens. The natural course of the story ends with the protagonist committing suicide, and I can’t seem to help it. I wrote a story about a rock climber. Before I knew it, he jumped off the very summit I spent 14 pages getting him up. I wrote a story about a dentist, and after going on for ages about how his life wasn’t so bad, I had him overdose on nitrous oxide. Through an elaborate farce at which I, myself, would have cringed had it not been my own creation, I arranged for a provincial-but-sweet beekeeper to allow himself to be engulfed in a swarm of his own nurturing, thus killing him. They were cheap endings, really. But I couldn’t seem to justify any other way.
             I tried writing a story about a man with terminal lung cancer. Hah, I thought, I’ve written myself into a corner. The guy’s going to die anyway, so why would he kill himself? I’ll just have him try to enjoy the remaining few months of his life, and let the story manifest into a thoughtful meditation on the frailty of human existence. Critics will rejoice at my hypothetical genius.
             Of course, then, I thought about all the pain this guy must be going through and all those people Dr. Kevorkian put down. I suppose that had always been in the back of my head. So, I had my cancer guy end up going into remission. There we go. He’ll have a new lease on life now. It left a bad taste in my mouth, though, having everything end hunky-dory like that. So, I had the guy’s wife leave him, taking the kids with her. On top of that, there was the massive debt from his hospital bills. Eventually, I had him explode himself with one of his old oxygen tanks.
             After this, the thought that I might have a problem entered my mind. My friend, Ray, was no help.
             “Just stop making your characters kill themselves,” he would say.
             As if I had a choice in the matter. My stories write themselves. I merely act as a vessel. I know that sounds crazy, but it’s how I work.
             “Jesus, just stop being so fucking morbid,” he would say.
             I’m baffled by such criticisms, because I write what I see. If my stories are morbid, it’s because the world is a dark and lonely place. Despite all this, I knew something needed to change. I couldn’t have all my characters going around blowing their brains out and jumping off buildings. I was running out of suicide methods, after all.
             I had a long talk with Ray in an effort to expunge the reason for my protagonists’ shared suicidal tendencies, though I had an idea what he would say beforehand.
             “You know, people aren’t as miserable as you want them to be,” said Ray. Stoic, noble Raymond. He always fought for meaning in his own judgmental sort of way.
             “Perhaps they’re more miserable.” I was immediately ashamed of my own glibness.
             “If the truth is that there is no truth, then why do you say it like it’s true?” asked Ray. The glare in his eye gave me the impression that he was serious.
             “Well that’s just swell,” I said. “I like that.”
             “Really, come on.”
             “You’re a piece of work, Raymond. You really are.”
             “I’m just asking because, honestly, I don’t think you can make sense of it yourself.”
             “There’s nothing to make sense of. That’s the whole point.” I felt our conversation was headed in a circular direction, which was precisely what I figured would happen. And I’ve gone over it in my head more times than there are pores on Raymond’s nose. He doesn’t understand that.
             I started to think outside of the box. I tried writing a story from the point of view of a rock. A rock is an inanimate object. By definition, it does not have the capacity to commit suicide. It doesn’t even know it exists, for fuck’s sake. Furthermore, it’s not like you can just destroy a rock. They’re built Ford tough.
             Unfortunately, I have a friend who happens to be a geologist. Over a beer, he explained to me very glibly that rocks, when exposed to extreme heat, do, indeed, undergo transitions comparable to what one may call their destruction. At the very least, he suggested, they undergo a dramatic transformation. In fact, things like that have been going on since forever. Fuck.
             I immediately put the rock story on hold. It wasn’t going anywhere, anyway. I figured I’d stop writing for a while, clear my head. Some people say you need to take a break and live your life. You know, let your thoughts stew around and simmer or whatever.
             So, that’s what I did. I got a part-time job as a cashier in a grocery store. Ah, the glamorous life of the out-of-work writer. It was an experience, to say the least, with a few peculiar eccentricities. My supervisor was a doddering old loon named Doris who reeked of cigarettes. There were anti-union posters in the break room. Among my peers was a homely, teenaged girl named Carla, whose existence seemed apparent only when there was a spill in aisle four. There was a guy named Lewis, around my age, who also worked the registers. He was the type who wore oversized Buddy Holly glasses and itchy sweaters and donned an inappropriately wild beard. I felt an immediate disdain for him. In fact, I felt an immediate disdain for everyone in the store, even the customers. Especially the customers. The way they waddled up and down the aisles in an aimless, wanting sort of way, not once looking where they were going—it made me want to go postal sometimes. Instead of calling it “going postal,” they should call it “going to the grocery store.”
             Homicidal urges aside, there were times when I was proud to say that I bared it all. I would often stand at my register, lost in the sterile fluorescent haze. The radio never relented, save for someone using the PA. Adult Contemporary, as if there were anything contemporary about it. Or adult, for that matter. I wish somebody could explain to me how society came to be this way, because I don’t get it.
             What I do know is the look on Carla’s face when I caught her crying in the break room. Despite my callous demeanor in the words I display to you now, I do try to present myself with a certain empathic grace. Maybe it’s a reaction to my unfeeling surroundings. Young Carla was sniveling, her right hand covering her eyes, and her left clutching her blood-red smock.
             “What’s the matter?” I asked.
             She jumped, apparently not realizing that I had been there to see her cry. “What the fuck do you want?” she asked.
             I suddenly felt as though I had walked in on a woman giving birth, or perhaps, undergoing a painful dental procedure. “Why are you crying?”
             She pushed herself back against the wall and settled into an encumbered lean. “It doesn’t matter,” she said.
             I wasn’t about to press the issue, but I felt obligated to say something to show my concern. “Well, it’s probably not worth crying about. Girls like you don’t need to cry over silly things.”
             She looked up, her eyebrows coming to an insipid crux. I had seen this look before in other women and knew its implications well.
             “What do you know?” she asked.
             I hesitated. “I know that he probably isn’t worth it,” I finally said. “The guy you’re crying over, I mean.”
             The agitated expression on her face melted away, exchanged with something closer to ambivalence and confusion. I took it to mean the assumption I made had been at least partially correct. At this point, I felt as though I’d done my societal duty in consoling her, and walked away.
             There’s a different sort of cry that people have when they’re experiencing that kind of anguish. I know that cry all too well. That night, I wrote the beginning of a short story about a girl born with no face. She was fed intravenously through a series of tubes and breathed through a manufactured hole in her neck. She had no eyes, and thus, no conception of the way things looked; colors and shapes were mere abstractions. But very real in her mind—and more so than the average person—was the concept of hopelessness and death, because the two notions formed a whirlwind of threats since her unfortunate birth. I stopped there. Never did finish the story, because when I went into my desk to get another pen, I saw the Post-it note: I’m gone. I confess I was drinking that night. I always drink when I write. But seeing that note again didn’t have the same effect it did before; i.e. sobbing uncontrollably. I saw it as nothing. It had no context in light of a girl without a face. I threw it out.
             Somewhere along the line, I realized that maybe my characters were always committing suicide because I, myself, saw suicide as an inevitable outcome for my own life. I have no real home to speak of. No past, either—or at least, nothing that I can relate to my past. I have no face, really. All of these memories floating around in the back of my head seem irrelevant, provincial, and mediocre. I’ve allowed myself, through various circumstances, to become lazy and complacent, and thus, my existence has become meaningless. Maybe it was always meaningless. That’s the bitch about life: you never really know. I realized that my philosophy, or lack thereof, was reactionary. I’ve never been anything fully, but more a series of contradictions. Semi affluent. Quasi intellectual. Self-hating, but narcissistic. This had never occurred to me before, perhaps because I’d never had a shrink who actually made me confront the notion. They would usually just write me a script for that latest antidepressant on the market and have me on my way. Avoidance.
             “Now that you know what the problem is, why don’t we work up a solution?” the doctor asked.
             “I can’t change,” I said. “My brain is hard wired for misery.”
             “That’s nonsense. You don’t want to think you can change, because if that’s true, then it’s always been your choice to be miserable. And if it’s always been your choice, that means you want to be miserable.”
             “You think I like the way I am? You think I enjoy seeing the world this way? Look, I wish I could see the world through the same rose-tinted glasses that you do, but I don’t.”
             “I’m not asking you to be delusional. I know the world is a harsh and uncaring place. But it’s also beautiful. There are different ways of seeing things.”
             I sat there for a moment, not so much thinking about what he was saying, because I knew he was right. I was more so just sitting there, waiting for the moment to pass. But he kept prodding me.
             “I know it’s not easy to change the way you see things,” he said. “It’s a struggle every day, but you have to keep trying.”
             I said nothing, but sat back in my seat with a bemused expression.
             “Start small,” he said.
             And then, our time was up. No psychologist had ever had such a genuine demeanor with me.
             I had always taken to the idea that the world was a hopeless, uncaring place. But here I had myriad people helping me in their own peculiar ways: Ray, the good doctor, and even Carla. It was this realization that finally brought me to sign those divorce papers. I guess if you looked at life like a journey, or some trite shit like that, I’d have to say my epic really has yet to be told. Hope was always a luxury of which I never consciously wished to indulge, but it’s beginning to look as if it will inevitably indulge me. My characters don’t kill themselves anymore, by the way. I’ve even managed to stay alive myself.


♥ End ♥



David Stockdale is a writer from the southwest suburbs of Chicago. His fictional short stories have been featured in Bartleby Snopes Literary Magazine, The Commonline Journal, Midwest Literary Magazine, and Behind Closed Doors Literary Blog.

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2 October, 1982
Dear Liz,

             I am here, and it’s just as I remember it: birch trees everywhere, same smoky smell to the autumn air, and the people still shy as teens. Forty years later, and nothing’s changed except me.
             Matti’s brother, Paavo, picked me up from the airport. I wish I knew ahead that they looked exactly alike—I thought Matt came from the grave to spook me back on the plane, back home. Seems like something he’d do. But their resemblance is only physical. Paavo might as well be mute, even by Finnish standards. His wife, impossibly, is even quieter. The silence is welcome, though. I’m not here to talk.
             Paavo drove me around Keskusta this afternoon, and then we went to the University of Oulu, where he teaches. For a man who doesn’t talk, he somehow opened his big mouth about my coming. When we got to his office, every member of the English Dept. was there, fawning in his strange Nordic accent. I had no idea they’d know me way out here. But don’t worry, Liz; I was polite. I smiled and signed their books (which apparently were translated into Finnish. That’s news to me. I’ll have to buy a couple before I leave.). I was not okay, however, when they began inviting themselves out to Paavo’s cabin, the place where I’ll be working. At this point, Paavo stole me away and marched us down the hall, apologizing the entire drive back, as if his tongue were stuck in a loop.
             Jesus, I miss you. Writing you from this distance, from any, is horrible. I haven’t written you a letter since what? High school? It feels that way; missing you this much and writing about it feels adolescent. A cold stone in the stomach.
             Listen, I know my coming out here raises all those bad memories. You didn’t say anything—always the goddamned gracious wife, you bit your tongue, helped me pack, kissed me goodbye. I feel like a bastard, so you know, for leaving the first time and leaving now. What can I say but that Matt’s death awoke some things I need to sort out? I know that sounds stupidly mysterious, but it’s a mystery to me, too. When I figure it out, I’ll explain it all.
             This is when I say I love you. Regrettably, this is when I apologize.
                                         Tom


♥♥♥


16 October, 1982
Dear Liz,

             Thank you for the package. The circus peanuts were a hoot. The only candy they eat here is actually salty—they call it salmiakki. They do, however, make a good liquor flavored the same way. Paavo and I have become good friends over it.
             Your timing is perfect as always. The package came in time for me to wear the knee brace on our hike near the Russian border. I tolerated the walk well for an old fart, but I’m sore in every crick today. Paavo tried to get me into the sauna (Every house here has one.) to help the pain. He doesn’t understand why I won’t go in, and I don’t know how to explain it to him.
             The other day, I picked up a book called, The Kalevala. It’s Finland’s version of The Odyssey, a very strange epic poem that oddly enough speaks to me. And to you. Here’s a passage from its beginning:
Long my tale’s been in the cold
for ages has lain hidden:
shall I take the tales out of the cold
scoop the songs out of the frost
bring my little box indoors
the casket to the seat end
under the famous roof beam
       under the fair roof
shall I open the word-chest
and unlock the top of the ball
untie the knot of the coil?
             Your last letter made it clear that I should not take the tale out of the cold, or at least, that I should keep my trap shut about it. Perhaps you’re right. My attempt at honesty is selfish. But the poem addresses another. You asked who came out here, the writer or your husband. You know how to hit it, Liz. It’s both. Your Tom is all knotted up in this, and I’ve come out to untie him.
             The first snow of the season has just begun. The flakes are the big fluffy kind, like cloud chunks, and the sight of them riddling the gray afternoon reminds me of the days with you and the kids along Chittenango Creek. I think I’ll brace my knee, tough out the pain, and take a walk. I will bring you along.
                                         Much love, Tom


♥♥♥


31 Oct, 82
Dear Liz,

             Not surprisingly, I was atrocious over the phone. It was great to hear your voice, but awful to listen to myself bumble assurances. Hell, I’m sorry, Liz.
             Let me clarify what I was trying to say on the phone. First, I’m glad you’re reading The Kalevala, as well—it bridges one of many gaps between us. The parallels you drew between our epic hero, Väinämöinen, and me may be accurate. But be assured: my quest here will not last an epic period of time. I don’t intend to start and finish an entire novel while here. I’ll be lucky if I even start it! And while I admit to having some demons to exorcise, I will not turn that into a mythic saga. So, I’ll repeat the date when I’ll be coming home: February 15, in time for my birthday.
             Tomorrow, we set out for the excursion I came here for. We’ll be staying in Paavo’s family’s cabin near the Norway border for the remaining three months. And yes, all the Finns from the English Dept. are coming along. I decided they may be of some use after all. Unfortunately, the cabin is too remote to receive mail, let alone electricity or running water. But Paavo assures there’s a town about ten miles away with a post office, so when I get there, I’ll send you another letter with the new PO box address.
             Liz, I hate myself for putting you through this, just as I hate the sound of my apologies, like Paavo stuck in a loop. When I return, let’s go somewhere tropical, perhaps Hawaii or Saint Martin. We’ll sit on the beach and drink cold beers under palm trees and talk of nothing but nonsense. Conjure this up the next time my stupidity fouls your mood. Lie down to bed with it nights, and so will I.
                                         I love you, Tom


♥♥♥


1 November
Liz,

             Eleven of us van-prowling through Arctic twilight, steady line of purple snow racing out the window, distant mountains gradually growing. Meanwhile Abba and Meatloaf blare from the radio, Finns singing along happy or oblivious.
             I am here.
             Have you gotten to the part in The Kalevala where Aino drowns herself because she was forced to marry Väinämöinen? Her mother was so leveled with grief, her tears forming rivers, sprouting birches, birches keeping cuckoos who call out reminders of Aino’s fate. (And our hero, Väinämöinen, broken by grief.) I wake up to cuckoos, Liz.
             Survival here is a basic struggle. We hack away at wood, we haul lakewater from a hole axed in ice, we shovel walking paths, we shiver in bunks, then add another log. Then, there’s downtime: a scary Nordic beast—three hours of daylight, noon to three. Candles always going, oranging the commons room. The Finns—they play cards, they drink hard, they use Sauna, and they are fascinated by me. I don’t know what they will do when those things wear thin.
             Me, I am thrilled by the conditions. There’s time to write and read. Time to experience and fiddle with knots. To study cuckoo song. Then, there’s time to think late-night, when the Finns sleep and cold creeps, and my mind wanders into the woods passing through trees, trudging through snow, peering down the slope at the frozen lake, listening for the stirring beneath the ice. Listening too hard.
             The candle wax is a puddle, the flame going. This is not the way I wanted to end the letter. I’ll give you a better one next time.
                                         Yours


♥♥♥


11/82
Dear Liz,

             Thank you for the photograph—that catfish is nearly as big as Ryan. I often wonder what creatures roam this lake. Nights, I stand on the ice and peer into the hole, expecting to see the spiny back of some prehistoric lake monster. The water is blacker than anything you’ve ever seen. It stirs up the imagination; it scares the hell out of me. There’s folklore to water, a timelessness that intrigues (Ever wonder why we’ve always lived near it? Either the ocean or the creek?). This lake is thick with meaning—its story sung in gurgles, poetry its only interpreter. Väinämöinen couldn’t translate the song and suffered the grief. Then, he had his second chance in his arms when Aino took mermaid form—he was about to carve her up for meal, but she rebuked him for not recognizing her and swam off, this time for good. My second chance may be slithering out of my arms, as well, standing too much on the ice, peering too long into the hole.
             I did not write you drunk, Liz. You caught me in the early stages of adjusting to the Arctic element, so I’m sorry for the bad poetry. Cabin living is especially challenging. We wake up after sleeping in sweaters and pants, cut wood to rewarm the cabin, fetch water, make breakfast (which consists of very strong coffee and makkara, or sausage, maybe a slice of dark bread and a hunk of cheese if any’s left over from the once-a-week trip to town), have downtime, maybe hike if it isn’t snowing, prepare sauna (It takes a couple hours to warm.), eat dinner (sausages, bread), sauna (not me, Liz), downtime, bed. Even for the Finns, this cabin is too unrelenting. After only two weeks, two of the ten have left, perhaps because my novelty wore off. Ironically, it’s Petri and Sirpa, the two American Lit. professors—they exhausted their questions about my novels. I honestly don’t know what keeps the others, for what keeps me is entirely different. Unless we all have our lake monsters.
                                         Love, Tom

P.S. You still reading The Kalevala? What the hell is this Sampo Väinämöinen seeks?


♥♥♥


12/82
Liz,

             No, I don’t have the Oxford Edition, and I’m glad for it—the translator’s conclusion that we must accept the Sampo as mystery would cause me to chuck the book into the fire. That’s lazy interpretation.
             It’s been vibrating my brain alert nights; I’ve been going over and over its few appearances in the epic: In “Forging the Sampo,” dejected Väinämöinen meets Louhi, mistress of the Northland, who promises to return Väinämöinen to his home (and his sauna), as well as bestow her daughter on him, if he can forge this Sampo. He tells her he hasn’t the ability to forge it, but he knows the smith who can, Ilmarinen, the one who crafted the sky. Väinämöinen brought this challenge to Ilmarinen, who took it up, persuaded by the maiden gift, and after four failures—forging a crossbow, a boat, a heifer, and a plough—finally forged the Sampo with its triumvirate mills: one for corn, another for salt, the third for money. Once finished, Ilmarinen faced his promised maid, but she turned him down, saying she had work to do in her own land. Much later in the epic (in “Stealing the Sampo”), Väinämöinen, Ilmarinen, and Lemminkäinen steal the Sampo from Louhi when Väinämöinen lulls her army by playing his kantele. They take the Sampo on their boat, and Louhi sends the fog, which Väinämöinen disperses with his sword. Then, she sends the sea monster, the Gaffer’s son. Väinämöinen threatens it, telling the monster never to return, to which it agrees if spared. The poem then shifts to fable, saying the monster has never since, and never will, show itself to mankind. This is the strange story of the Sampo.
             My poor companions are being bombarded with Kalevala questions. If they gave me better answers, I’d leave them alone. Only Paavo and Anja are Scandinavian Lit. professors, and both teach the theories of the Sampo you mentioned but don’t have a particular opinion (or don’t care to tell me). Pia, the only historian, will talk extensively on the subject (usually after the vodka’s open), but it always shifts into shouting about Finland’s independence.
             One request does get satisfied nights, however, and that is to have The Kalevala read to me in Finnish. This is typically done by either Paavo—who seems to feel some guilt at not having more to offer on the subject of the Sampo—or Tipu, the one grad student who came along for some sort of credit, and as such, is willing to do just about anything no one else wants to do (which includes reading to me).
             It’s a spell, Liz, a haunting chant. I sit back in the firelight and listen to the crooked cadence, the cumbersome, mesmerizing music, imagining meaning into the words, each pronounced syllable triggering an action in the epic, tickling the prehistoric part of my brain that understands this language. By the conclusion of the reading, I feel wiser on the subject, but hardly smarter.
             It has become my quest to demystify the damned Sampo once and for all. The other night, I finally braved the first step.
             I’ve been avoiding sauna this entire time. (Perhaps you’ve noticed?) Well, I took it on, much to my group’s delight—they’ve been pressing me about it nightly, and my acquiescence might have actually delayed many of their leaving.
             It was a difficult return. You know how it feels, Liz, to visit a childhood place after decades of absence (neglect) and how the smells—perhaps the pine of a grandmother’s yard, or the must of the back of her closet—rip you back so hard and fast, your stomach rollercoaster aches? It was the very same, triggered most mercilessly by smell: the cedary redolence of hot wood, the burning scent of steam—the violent transition of lakewater tortured upon scalding rocks. But there’s more to it than smell. The sensation of enduring pain in the form of heat, sucking fire into your lungs, water pouring out your skin as if bleeding it, posturing your body to tolerate the heat, the pain, the sweat. This is an ancient ritual for Finns, and yet it’s personal. An internal struggle.
             Still, the Sampo remains somewhere at the bottom of that lake. My nights remain busy peering into the hole, cursing my fear.
              (Is this something I can even tell you about? I question everything I tell, since you scrutinize the slightest slip of my pen. Hopefully, you won’t begrudge sauna description; I desperately want you to know at least something I’m experiencing here.)
                                         Yours, Tom


♥♥♥


Liz,

             I couldn’t wait for your response to write again. I’ve been thinking about the idea that sauna is the only way to include you, and since I did not describe it right in my previous letter, I’m going to give it another try.
             I’m taking you in with me.
             The ritual begins late afternoon. It takes a couple hours to get the rocks good and hot, so you have to start packing the stove with wood to get the fire going early. The ones assigned to this chore will also fill all the pails with lakewater for ladling. Then, you eat dinner. On occasion, some of the Finns have taken their makkara into sauna, cooking them in foil on the rocks. Then, a snort of cognac or vodka to warm you up, and it’s time.
             As I’ve mentioned, sauna is in a separate cabin, just up the slope. As we walk over to it, look down to your left, and you’ll see, through the trees, an imposing field of ice arresting the firs. You’ll also notice, reflecting off the frozen lake, a motion of colors—blue, pink, and green—and perhaps, if we pause our march, you’ll hear a cosmic whisper above our heads. If you catch a break in the trees, you’ll glimpse the Northern Lights swirling the sky. Long ago, on a night like this, Matt told me the legend of the Lights: the Great Nordic Fox swipes snow up into the sky with his tail, and what we see are the flakes catching the moonlight. This has always married itself to the image of Matt (and many, many years later, his younger brother, Paavo), hacking away at the ice with a long ax, the noise of steel to waterbone mixed with mangrunt, and—leaping up into his face and into the sky—ice splinters by the thousands.
             Just inside the cabin, in a small room on the left, is where you remove your clothes. It gets tight in here when everyone’s undressing at the same time—knees and elbows knocking. So you feel more comfortable, I’ll introduce you to everyone. It’s an unnecessary formality, as you’ll truly get to know these people when suffering heat as a community. Regardless, this is Paavo, Anja, Saana, Outi, Erkki, Kimmo, Pia, and Tipu.
             Before we enter, prepare for how hot it’s going to be. If at any time it becomes too much, just step out on the porch and cool off. It’s not a sign of weakness. There’s no reason to try to prove yourself in front of the Finns. (I know how stubborn you can be.)
             Ready?
             Feel the wave of heat wash over your face, down your shoulders, your arms, torso, legs. It feels good, like getting into a hot shower after working out in the cold.
             Right now, you’re probably very aware that you’re naked, and you don’t know where to settle your eyes because you want to look at everyone else’s body—not out of any sexual desire, but because it gives you a more complete picture of that person. Nothing is hidden now, and you want to match the color of one’s eyes to the shade and size of her nipples; the thickness of one’s fingers to the girth of his penis. You want to look, but know you shouldn’t; but neither do you want to appear uncomfortable, making it obvious that you’re not looking. All I can tell you is in a few minutes, you’ll be distracted by the heat.
             The first ladle of water is poured on the rocks, which will fire off a scorching steam. You’ll notice how focused you are on the pain, on your breathing. You concentrate on your fingertips, watching sweat bead off. But the heat keeps coming, and then, it plays with your mind. You hurt, so all the hurt you’ve ever experienced is recalled. And while you’re not alone in sauna, you’re alone with pain, and sometimes it beats you, and you have to leave; sometimes you win, but it’s only a victory for that night. It starts all over your next visit to sauna.
             This particular night, I stepped outside for a moment to piss off the porch into the snow. You are there with me: young and exotic. It’s December deep in the Arctic Circle, and we’re completely naked and standing in the frozen world, sweaty arms locked up, feeling magical with the cosmic light folding above us. We are in love for those moments. They are the quietest moments I’ve ever known. And then, they were ruined.


♥♥♥


Liz,

             My prematurely sent letter has thrown off the order of our correspondence. I’m not even sure to which you are responding—I don’t think it was the most recent. If I had any sense, I’d wait for you to catch up.
             I need to keep writing you.
             We’re a sweaty herd stamping down the slope toward the frozen lake, where the sky’s spectacle reflects phantomlike on the powdery surface. We aim for the black blemish, a hole axed in ice. We crowd around it, waiting for the one who’s done it before, Paavo (brother of the one who did it first), to show us it can be done. We are filled with crazies, laughing and terrified.
             He plunges in, and we crowd the hole to steal a glimpse at the disappearing act, holding breaths. Only a second later, he resurfaces, gasping and shrieking and holyshitting in his language, leaping out the water, disappearing off the ice, up the steps, back into sauna.
             It can be done. Could it be done again?
             My turn is coming as the others imitate the first. There is little thought as to how this will work. The madness, the cold coming, feet sticking to ice, lights slithering across the sky, makes it hard to think. And then I’m alone, the last one, standing with my toes curled over the purple-white lip of hole, staring into the roiling black eye of the lake. This is when my logic returns and reminds me of the danger, tells me to fear. There are things in that lake that have been waiting for me, and there’s no telling what they’ll do.
             I step off the ice and plunge in.
             This is where things go black. How do I describe it to you? What lake-words but bubble and deep do I know? This is the logic gap that needs filling, for when I tell you that the Tom who comes out—who limps off the ice and up the slope, and who settles back in sauna, gasping for air—is never the Tom who went into the lake, can you really believe me? When I say, therefore, your Tom is not returning, can you understand?


♥♥♥


Dear Liz,

             Thank you for the Christmas gift, but by now you know I can’t take the Hawaii trip with you. It troubles to read your optimistic letter, written before you learned I can’t return. It is strange to hold an artifact containing your bliss, while, at this moment, on the other side of the planet, you must be in turmoil.
             And yet, what do you know? Nothing, because you won’t let me tell it. So, I have to find another way.
             The lake—I’m being a coward, splashing around on the surface. I need to go down if I’m ever to get it right.
             Submerging—the muted roar of water rushing ears, the squeeze of volume resisting displacement, slicing assault of cold colder than ice, and then: submerged—the strange peace of drifting in this stygian underworld. This is when my eyes come alive, because I’m searching, because when the body disturbs the ancient water, the maze of bubbles blazing with Northern Lights mesmerizes; the magnificent ice-ceiling that glows and pulses shades of pink stupefies. But down is where I’m drawn, to where even my wildly treading feet are lost in the black. How many millions of miles deep, how many prehistoric monsters below: stirring lake giants snapped to attention—a translucent eye popping open, a meaty flipper pushing off the muddy floor—slithering up toward the pale, squirmy intruder? The physical dangers don’t concern me as much as the phantom leviathans ghosting around in the depths, the cursed souls barking out their rages, blackening the water. This is what I baptize myself in nightly.
             What I encounter when I submerge, Liz, is a stupid boy who fears me and fights me and flees deeper into the lake every time I draw near. The shadow of his retreat and the scorned expression when our eyes meet are enough to shy away. But I’ve never been good at shying, so I return again and again, having to dive deeper and deeper to refind the boy and try to yank him out. He’s been too long chilling in these waters, also searching, and afraid of the change that’s awaiting him on the surface. The last thing he saw was a braid of golden hair twisting down into the pitch, and he’s forever grasping at it in his nightmares.
             But this is hardly all of it, for I’m contending with all of the me’s who have made their visits previous nights, frozen in the quantum fabric of the lake. I have to wrestle through them each time, just to begin searching for the boy. These Toms are thick and tumbly at the surface, daft as manatees, battling themselves for space, crowding the hole in the ice, making it increasingly difficult to get out. But there is always hope. There are always the lights to show the way out, either dazzling the bubbles or pulsing the ice pink.
             When I emerge, however, as the first time, and I crawl off the ice and make for sauna, I am never the same. This, I need to make clear to you. This, I have not yet begun to make clear. Another time, way.
                                         Tom


♥♥♥


Dear Liz,

             Deeply, painfully sorry.
             Maybe I am writing in metaphor; it’s hard to tell anymore. But regrettably, my meaning is literal. And certainly, I can’t call. To do so, I would have to leave this lake, drive into town, and I cannot leave this lake. (Faithful Paavo, the only one remaining, goes to town to deliver/pick up mail.) But the problem lies more in talking than leaving. I’m overwhelmed with all these possible ways to tell you what I need to tell you, all of those ways wrong but all ways that could crowd each other, block out any language, and there I’d be on the phone, mumbling out the dissonance. I’m sorry, but writing you is all I can do now, and now even that is failing me. But I’m not surrendering. I still have the fight in me.
             Coming out: I swam for the lights—a ladder of color bending in the black. I would have never gotten out otherwise. Then again, I didn’t come out. As punishment, the lake took me hostage, and this other Tom crawled out the icehole, alone. My gasping echoed on that expanse of ice, got lost in the firs—my fingers, changing colors before my eyes. Recalling nascent instincts, I knew to get off my hands and knees and walk. And I knew where to walk to: sauna, warmth. The lake was slowly pouring out my ears and untinting my eyes, revealing a sudden reality stingingly. I was moving, alone, transitioning to take up the new Tom who was waiting in sauna for me to slip into: head drooped, shivery, crying into his frozen fists like a baby mourning the loss of the womb.
             I waited too long in sauna that night. Truth is, I didn’t know how to go along as this new person, and held out as long as possible. Then, I did leave, went to the cabin (the others fast asleep), got in bed without saying a word, somehow slept, awoke before the others seeking evidence of dream. I visited the lake, and the hole was frozen over.
             I could tell no one, Liz, not even Matt. The story was at the bottom of the lake, wrapped in a braid, my tongue frozen dumb. I left that place, returning—up to recently—only in dream. When I got back, I went back to you, and we married. If it never happened, I would have never come back. I still don’t know what to make of that.


♥♥♥


Dear,

             I should have never taken you down I forced you I lost you losing you. You’ve become more than girl you’ve become folklore you’ve become cuckoo song and mermaid you’ve become Sampo. But you were once a girl I lost:
             Down the slope steps hand in moist hand sky ablaze with foxtail dazzles the young writer finding his experience. As a group, we’d done it the night before. Seemed simple then: in and out like penguins. Now, we are alone. Sauna heat is leaving us, cold coming on. Ten toes curled over the lip of the hole. A black mouth stretching its icy jaws to eat up two.
             Ready?
             You say no. That’s what you’ve been saying, but I haven’t been listening. I’ve been dipping you into the lake night after night; each attempt at telling a tale sunk you deeper. Losing you, and now I’m chasing two braids both retreating quickly into the dark.
             Then hope arrived, handed over by faithful Paavo (He’s leaving tomorrow with or without me.). It was your letter, your words. I’ve been reading them aloud for the past hour, a saving mantra. These words especially:
And then there’s the other part of me, the one who would spend the rest of her days trudging through the snow and ice until she found her man, wherever he is, whoever he became.
             Trudge at me? Trade in your Hawaii ticket and trudge at me, as old as you are, as lost as I am? No. I’ll find my way out—I’ll follow bubbles, paddle toward ladder of light, pull myself up, stand alone on ice, an old man, a sonofabitch writer on a layer of ice no thicker than his phony novels, a sonofabitch husband shaken by his wife’s words “trudging” “rest of her days” because she wants this last walk to be with him, not at him, even if it’s walking off this ice together, hand in hand, toward sauna.
             I was trying to tell it when it didn’t have a language. My whole life, it’s what I’ve been trying, but it can’t be told. So, I’ll do what the bard did at the end of the epic after speaking so long:
I’ll wind my tales in a ball
in a bundle I’ll roll them
put them up in the shed loft
       inside locks of bone
from where they’ll never get out
never in this world be free
             I’ll leave it all in the lake, Liz, let the ice close the hole, claim my failure, and turn it into folklore. I’ve given it plenty of material.


♥ End ♥



Kevin Catalano is the author of The Word Made Flesh (firthFORTH Books), a collection of flash and short stories. His fiction has appeared, or is forthcoming, in PANK, Booth, Pear Noir!, Atticus Review, Gargoyle Magazine, Used Furniture Review, Fiddleblack, Aethlon: A Journal of Sport Literature, REAL: Regarding Arts and Letters, and others. He has an MFA in fiction from Rutgers-Newark University, where he also teaches literature and composition. He lives in New Jersey with his wife and two children. This story first appeared in Prick of the Spindle, Vol 2:1 and was a 2008 Million Writers Award notable story. [Author photo by and © Megan Catalano; 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.