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Meg Tuite    D. L. Luke    John Biesecker    Robert McParland    RonKoppelberger    Ronald C. Paxton   

Amanda Sington Williams    Rosa Alexander with co-author shELAH    Jennifer A. Hudson   



A City is Made Up By the Corpse of the Habitual

By

MEG TUITE



      The woman sat and watched him day after day. He was a disappearing act in the cafe they both went to and out on the streets of the city. Once a girl sat right on top of him, drank her coffee, made phone calls on her cell, read the newspaper and then left, without excusing herself or acknowledging him in any way.

      The woman loved him for this. He abided many things. He got to the cafe at 9 AM prompt for years and she sat at a table nearby. He drank his coffee with two packets of sugar that he stirred in slow methodical swirls while he stared off into space.

      The woman thought of approaching him. He wore impeccable suits and his shoes were always scuffed from the long walks he took and all the people who stepped on them. He never spoke to anyone. Death hovered around him like a vaporous camouflage. It was a hazard. He was pummeled on the streets by crowds that ignored him. He never became annoyed.

      The woman loved him so much that she would walk in front of him and attempt to part people like the red sea to keep them from damaging him anymore than he already was. They smacked into her instead. She would sometimes walk backwards in front of him, stare at him intently, but he didn't notice. He might have been a philosopher or someone who had suffered much loss.

      After years of obsession, watching decay fester his eye sockets further into his skull and his rugged skin turn to gray stone she picked up her coffee and muffin and went to sit next to him at his table. His bones swam inside his suits. She was afraid there would be no trace of him soon. She had rehearsed many things that she might say to the man, but now was at a loss for words.

      At some point he looked over at her. He smiled. She didn't mind that his lips were a memory and his teeth were brown as his beverage.

      "I've been waiting for you," he said.

      Her heart was entombed in some kind of mausoleum, expanding with each breath she took. She didn't know that he saw her too.

      "We have a lot to catch up on," he said.

      She merely nodded, buoyant with the potency of the moment.

      A loud group of boys came up to their table. One sat on top of the man and another sat on top of the woman and the other two boys pulled up chairs. The one lodged in the woman's lap was quite globular, but the woman didn't mind.

      The man looked over at the woman. "You see, nothing is ever as uncomfortable as you imagine."




BIO: Meg Tuite's writing has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous journals including Berkeley Fiction Review, 34th Parallel, Valpairaso Literary Review, One, the Journal, Monkeybicycle, Hawaii Review and Boston Literary Magazine. She is the fiction editor of The Santa Fe Literary Review and Connotation Press. Her novel "Domestic Apparition" (2011) is now available through San Francisco Bay Press. She has a monthly column "Exquisite Quartet" up at Used Furniture Review. Her blog: megtuite.wordpress






Elmer's Gift

By


D. L. LUKE



     
     
     
     
      For some, Christmas conjures good tidings to all, warm memories of big family get-togethers, snow angels, mistletoe, and roast beast hot out of the stove. Others buckle under the pressure of picking out the right present to please their loved ones. For those that walk around on a crutch, a reoccurring nightmare emerges out of the shadows in the minds. Divorce, separation, poverty, broken dreams, the loss of a pet, close friend or loved one are sad reminders of the lonely existence we live as another year draws to a close.
      The burden of participating in the conventions of holiday cheer is forced when the fragilities of the heart surface at this most tender time of the year. For me, the lasting impressions I have of Christmas is Wendy, my three year old daughter. Milk chocolate dribbles out of the corners of her mouth. Tears stream down her cheeks because I refused to give her any more candy.
      Jennifer, the eldest, is five, screaming her lungs out. The candy cane she holds on for dear life is stuck to Christmas wrap that wants a piece of the action.
      Both girls are surrounded by small mountains of unwrapped presents. They sit next to the tree that looks like it's been through a tornado of day after Christmas shoppers. Our beagle puppy, Elmer, the runt of the litter, wakes from a nap and bounds across the room to join in the festivities.
      If there really is a Santa Claus, the Old Jolly Fool would've vied against climbing down our chimney, (not that we had one for him to climb down anyway). He would've said no to our naughty ones and gone to the next house where children are innately kind and sweet.
      "Whose idea was it to feed her chocolate Santa?" I asked.
      At 5:30 in the morning, we mistakenly turned our backs and gone in the kitchen to fix ourselves a cup of coffee. Our daughters had climbed the fake brick-faced chimney and dragged the stockings down from the mantle. Their ham-fisted fingers managed to empty the stocking's contents. They tore open the plastic wrap and cellophane. They shoved chocolate bars and gobs of gooey marsh mellow down their throats.
      "You'll make yourself sick," Barbara said to Wendy. She wiped away the chocolate smeared on her little fat face with a warm wet rag.
      As patriarch of the family, I felt it my duty to make memories for my daughters, one in the traditional sense that they could draw from years later. That is if their brains had enough retaining power to remember.
      "Look," I said, pointing to the half bitten chocolate-chip cookie left on the plate sitting on the coffee table.
      "Santa Claus came," announced the eldest. She forgot about her cravings for fudge and turned her fickle attention to the empty glass of milk.
      Wendy touched the fingerprints smudged on the glass, proof she and her sister needed to believe in his existence. (When the girls got older, we switched from cookies and milk to a ham sandwich and a cold glass of beer).
      "You better not shout and you better not cry," I said. "Santa Claus will exchange the presents for cash, and drive down to Tahiti."
      "Matt," my wife said. "Don't say that."
      My wife and I spent enough money to feed the malnourished orphans in Darfur. We fell for the trap that every parent is encouraged to do - go out and spend - even if you can't afford to buy. We postponed paying the bills. We sacrificed the necessities to spoil and lavish our children.
      Old enough to walk, Wendy opted to crawl instead. She went for the biggest present with her name on the gift tag. Wendy attacked the present, ignoring all social formalities taught to her, like asking for permission or saying "please."
      Her sister, at least, showed some self-restraint. Jennifer sat on her hands, in her penguin-print pajamas, and asked if it was all right to open the presents.
      "Go ahead, sweetie," my wife said. "Dig in."
      The gold shiny paper, massacred by the hands of a child, lay strewn about on the carpet. Wendy couldn't open the box, which was bigger than her, without our help. "What is it?" she asked. Her small voice sniffled with agitation from not getting the instant gratification she'd expected.
      "Let me open it for you," I said.
      I pulled out my Leather man from the pocket of my jeans, a gift Barbara had given me a few Christmas' ago. I sliced through the seam where the tape ran across the top.
      Minimum assembly was required for Dora's Pirate Adventure Playhouse. Both our daughters loved Dora, a cartoon that I saw no appeal in, but what did I know. I was spoon-fed Looney Tunes for breakfast as a boy. "Look Wendy," my wife said. "It comes with pirate costumes so you and Jennifer can play together."
      Wendy stared at the playhouse as if watching an aging opera star singing her last performance. Children are bad actors and she was no exception. Instead of jumping for joy, she crept inside, gave it a perfunctory look, and gazed through the telescope.
      "Wow! Look what I got," the oldest opened up her first present in record speed. "An iDog that makes bow-wows sounds."
      I'd done very little shopping since Barbara did it for us; but I took particular pride in picking out that present from Radio Shack. When I saw how she never bothered taking the mechanical canine out of the box I wanted to pack up all the presents, return them to Wal-Marts, Toys-R-Us, and all the other places we had stood in line, and get our money back.
     












     
     
      Jennifer wasted no time unwrapping the next present. Only slightly amused by the sweater that sat untouched in the shirt box, she had this wolfish look in her eyes as she scanned the mounds of presents, hoping to find the right one that could win her heart, captivate her interest, and satisfy her dark curiosity.
      "Here," Barbara said, shoving a box with a big red bow in her lap. "Open this."
      I must've done something wrong as a father to have such spoiled and rotten children who have no clue about charity or how to receive gifts.
      I went to the kitchen and grabbed the beef-flavored rawhide sitting on the counter.
      Beagles have a dicey reputation as a breed for being obstinate and willful; I didn't care, I wanted one anyway. This being his first Christmas, I went through the trouble of wrapping the bone for him.
      I looked out the window. The outdoors looked uninviting like a snow globe that had been shaken by an angry hand. The cold wind whipped the thin layer of snow on the ground in cruel directions.
      Howls and screams, sounds associated with a torture chamber, came from the middle of the living room. The TV was turned on with a picture of a Yule log burning on the hearth.
      "Elmer," I said, ignoring the girls' outburst to find the only friend I had.
      In the den, Elmer lied sprawled out on the couch, where he wasn't supposed to be. With a single thump, he jumped down. His ears drooped; he looked guilty as if he'd got caught peeing on the carpet.
      "Here you go boy," I said and patted him on the head. "Merry Christmas."
      His tail wagged. An indication how grateful he was for the little attention he received. He licked his chops at the savory smell of rawhide. Elmer gently took it in his mouth and unloosened the wrap with the ends of his teeth. He walked off in a quiet spot where he could be alone with his bone.
      I returned to join the family in the living room. "No," Jennifer screamed, refusing to let go of a doll she held in her arms. "It's mine."
      "No, it's not. That's what I wanted," Wendy cried, trying to rip it away from her. When she realized that she had no chance of winning because she was much smaller she stomped her feet and held her breathe until her face morphed into a mutant-looking beet. "Mommy," she yelled. "That's my Bratz doll."
      "Santa might be confused," Barbara said. "I thought you said you wanted Cloe." "No, sleepover Sasha," Wendy said. Her diction had the accuracy of a child much older than herself. "Jenn" wants Cloe. "
      "No, I don't," Jennifer said, clutching her doll. "Sasha's mine."
      Wendy launched into hysterics that made me think what screw-ups we were as parents. Who kidnapped our beautiful girls and replaced them with these alien monsters?
      "All the children Santa has to give presents to, he might've made a mistake," their mother explained. "We can fix it, don't worry."
      This was the thanks we received for being selfless, spending all our money on the children. They deserved nothing more than a lump of coal. Afraid of ruining Christmas, I had to step away and cool my temper.
      Elmer was in the den, chewing on his bone, stretched out on the couch again. He rolled onto his back, self-content and happy.
      I sat down next to him and rubbed his white belly. "How's it going buddy?" I said. "I'm glad I made somebody happy."
      His tail wagged so hard that his stout little body began to shake. We were so close to each other that Elmer stuck out his big wet tongue and slobbered my entire face, including my mouth and my mustache. At that moment, I realized something; aside from the birth of my daughters, that was the best present I ever received.

The End





BIO: "A lifetime resident of New York State, I live in the capital region in Troy. I freelance for Latham Life and River Life, a two weekly newspaper associated with The Record (http://www.troyrecord.com).

Using the pen name D. L. Luke, I am a published short story writer. My published short stories received honors from The New School University in New York City where I graduated and The Writer's Digest, and they also appear in literary magazines, ezines, and journals.

Short stories published in the following literary journals, magazines, and ezines: Kritter Kronicles Magazine kritterkronicklesmagazine R.K.V.R.Y. Quarterly Literary Journal, ninetymeetingsinninetydays The Externalist, a Journal of Perspectives theexternalist.com Hotmetalpress.net, hotmetalpress The Hamilton Stone Review, hamiltonstone.org Dispatch One, litdispatch New York Writer's Coalition: Plum Biscuit, New York Writer's Coalition "











art by Dan Williams

"Mini - Flames"

Artwork by Dan Williams





Coda

By

JOHN BIESECKER


    
      You were the self-proclaimed Master of Stairs, crawling up and down with careless ease. Then you fell. I will never forget that look in your eyes; Daddy, why aren't you stopping this? I was too far away, too immobile, parked with crutches at the kitchen table. You rolled head over heels, and I wasn't there. I watched you watch me through the banister as you rolled. I hobbled over, scooped you up in my arms. God, you cried! More from fear than pain; nothing had hit the floor with any real authority. I held you, wrapped my warm arms around you, inhaled the scent of baby hair as I held you close and rocked you.

      The first flowers arrive, bright and cheerful points of light, invasions of a warm spring contrasting with the cold of late winter. Throw them away. But your mother will want them.

      That summer day. Your tears. You lost and didn't like it. Little league soccer teaches many lessons, and this was your first. That final goal, between your legs, your fault. I knelt, held you in my warm arms. Was it enough? I told you that maybe next time, if you tried harder, you wouldn't lose.

      I lied.


      Sympathy cards pile up, unopened, stacked with only a hint of order on the antique cook stove. It hasn't had a fire in its belly since you left; now contains only stacks of useless catalogs, dreary papers for filing.

      That first day of school. Behind us the yellow behemoths belched small children in a swirling, chattering current that seemed to overwhelm you. I could see it in your wide, brown eyes. Perhaps we should have done pre-school, prepared you better for this shock immersion. Given you the building blocks of social skills.

      I walked you to your door and knelt down. Wrapped my arms in a quick hug. "I'll miss you today." I said, "But I'll try to be brave. I won't cry." You looked up at me. You were brave too. But the corners of your eyes betrayed you.

      That first real report card. Sixth grade, I believe, when they stop giving "satisfactory" and begin with the letter grades. You held it out, the mixture of fear and pride in your eyes reflecting your grades. A few A's, mostly B's, one glaring D. What did I say? Why the D? Why not more A's?


      Pink sun rises, peeking over Kansas. I turn my back on it. The sky is huge, our presence simply a peripheral coincident across the deep, infinite white that has yet to light to blue. It's cold. We walk across the brown grass, the frost marks our footsteps, records our progress for a posterity destined to be short-lived, burnt in the mid-morning sun. Your mother says nothing, stares at the ground. This will be hard for her.

      I remember shadows that fell from the trees, hiding the path in patches of mystery, and the moon was absent, a void of dark in her place. You stood, silent, dirty Spiderman t-shirt and cut offs, stared into the unknown. The warm summer wind brought the sound of tree frogs up from the pond. "What's wrong?" I asked, knowing full well.

      "Nothing" you said, unwilling to show fear.

      "C'mon. You're too old to be afraid of the dark." I shamed you into moving forward and away, down that dark path.

      When you left for California, I wanted to wrap my arms around you. You were so big, a man, yet a boy. The yellow U-haul coughed clouds of brown smoke behind you.

      Randy sat in the driver seat, waiting. Your hair was in your eyes, the fashion of the times. You stood there, hands in the front pockets of your jeans. Your mother hugged you, tears in her eyes. "Mom, I'll be back at Christmas. That's just a few months away." You said.

      Then you stood before me. I wanted to, but didn't know if I should hug the now man; my little boy. So I shook your hand. Was that right? Should I have hugged you, wrapped my arms around you and squeezed as I wanted to? Did you want one?

      I watched your taillights disappear.
The eulogy is sweet and succinct. I barely hear the pastor's words, but know what he says. I wrote it last night. I can't bring myself to speak, to be the one who sums the short life. A slight breeze rolls down from the mountains, cool on my face.

      When we visited, I should have noticed more. The beer cans overflowing were not the normal "Carefree young man". You'd gained weight. California sucks, you said. The people are too shallow; it's hard to make friends. I should have said; come home. I gave some silly advice about working hard, it all being worth it, not there to make friends. Grad school isn't supposed to be easy. How's the grades? I was so proud.

      Randy found you.

      I found myself consoling him, talking him through it from a thousand miles away, when I was the one who needed consoling.

      Why wasn't I there? Why couldn't I have pulled the barrel from your mouth, wrapped my arms around you, told you it was going to be alright. Before you pulled the trigger. Why?


      I want to pull off these useless arms, throw them down the hole that holds what is left of you. But I can't. Instead, I wrap them around your mother. She's going to need them.



BIO: "I live and play in beautiful Boulder, Colorado. In the spare breaths of life I write. My work has appeared in the Boston Literary Magazine and Ruthless Peoples Magazine."






Muffin


By


ROBERT McPARLAND



     

      How was that cat getting out? It shouldn't have been possible. Where the townhouses ended, the backyards were enclosed by a wall. It wasn't the Great Wall of China, but it was eight feet tall, high enough to keep in a cat. Yet, sure enough, Muffin was gone again. How, Doris wondered. She decided that she was going sit on the patio and watch. She'd take her sunglasses and a cup of herbal tea and the croissant on a tray and she would sit down at that circular table and wait.
      Doris Darling walked to the table, putting on her sunglasses. There was plenty of sun, even with the wall. There was a fence next door, also eight feet high, and hedges rose behind it. Was there a break in the fence, she wondered. Or had Muffin suddenly transformed into an Olympic cat?
      Next door was Mr. Peter's yard. He'd only been living there next to the townhouses for a year. Mr. Peters was leaving the neighborhood soon, he'd said. What was it he did for a living? No one knew. She guessed that maybe he was a writer. He rarely went out and he had few visitors. Last she saw him was when? Four days ago? Through the fence she'd seen him, prowling through his yard with the garden hose. Hello, Charlie, she'd said and he had waved a cheery hello. He certainly liked to garden, that Mr. Peters. Why, he'd just put in a new row of rosebushes. Doris could see them beyond the fence. They were tall, like the fence, almost eight feet high.
      Surely Muffin couldn't scale the wall or climb over that fence! Yet, he'd gotten over there into Mr. Peters' yard. How? There had to be a break in that fence, somewhere. Doris walked along the fence, inspecting the ground. Beyond the fence the ground appeared soft, recently turned where the rose bushes were. The fence was secure. There were no holes, no tunnels under it. Then how had Muffin gotten out? Yet, there he was, again over there on the other side where the rosebushes were. Hearing Doris's steps, the cat's nose poked up. Bright fiery eyes peered through the rosebush.
      "Muffin! Oh, for Godsakes!"
      I must call on Mr. Peters, she thought. She went to get her cell phone, then stopped before she got up the steps. No, she would pay Mr. Peters a visit, ring the doorbell, apologize for the cat pulling at his new rose bushes. She'd have to go into his yard to get the cat. Come to think of it, she hadn't seen Mr. Peters for a few days. That wasn't unusual. She didn't see Mr. Peters much. He really was a bit of a recluse and nobody knew what he did for a living. She went around to his house and into the backyard.
      "Hello? Hello, Mr. Peters? Charlie, are you there? The cat has gotten out again."
      There was no answer.
      Well, I'll just tell him I was looking for the cat, she said to herself as she stepped further into the yard.
      "Muffin?" she called. Where had that cat gone now? The sunlight played down across the lawn, shining brightly from the clouds. She looked across the grass, smelled the fresh scent of it and the newly turned soil. She began to follow the sidewalk that led to Mr. Peters' back door - and to Muffin.
      The cat looked up, hearing her approach. But this time Muffin did not run. He looked agitated and continued to scrape at the back door.
      "There you are!"
      Muffin scraped at the door. Then she saw it - on the path: tiny cat prints in red. There were traces of blood, scratches up against the white aluminum door.
      "Oh, God," she said.
      She called the police from her cell phone. She put Muffin into a cardboard box and carried him home. The cat was shaking. So was she. Mr. Peters was dead.
      There was an inquiry the next day. The house was marked off with yellow tape, locked, except to the detectives. But somehow Muffin got in. Must have gotten in through a window, she concluded. The detectives were not thrilled with Muffin's gymnastics. They chased him from the house.
      "It's that cat again!"
      "Keep it out. It'll contaminate the crime scene!"
      They tried to chase him away but Muffin came back again. One of the detectives followed Muffin out to the yard, cursing. He saw Muffin scurry across the lawn and then stop. Muffin began to paw at the ground under the rosebush.
      "Hey, Joe, come out here a second. What's with that cat?"
      Muffin looked up as the man approached. The cat jolted to a corner of the yard, escaping under the fence. The man looked down and saw a small silver box lying under the rosebush.
      The next day Muffin brought them the murder weapon. The knife had been tossed away into a drainpipe near the cellar door.
      "Almost a million dollars? You mean, Muffin found that under the rosebush?" Jessica Bonham said.
      "It's what the killer was looking for," Doris said.
      "What was Mr. Peters doing with all that money? Why put it under a rosebush?"
      "I thought he just adored gardening," Doris said. "Didn't you?"
      That's when they saw Muffin. He was on the edge of the low roof of the townhouse, fur lit by the sun. He was inching along the gutter. No, he was sliding down the drainpipe out onto a tree branch, leaping from it into the next yard.
      "So that's how he does it," Doris said.
      "Now I've seen everything."
     
      That evening Doris Darling greeted her guests. She wouldn't cancel her party. Her guests were friends of the family. Joe and Valerie were driving from Indio, Morgan from San Bernardino. Cameron, her son, was in for a few days from New York where he'd just been presented with a book award for his third novel. It was something to celebrate. Doris wanted the members of the Whistler's Club, her painting group, to meet him. She'd invited the neighbors too. It would be good for the neighbors, she decided. The murder of Mr. Peters had come as such a shock.
      Doris hadn't thrown a cocktail party in years. She decorated the yard with plastic lamps, white tablecloths, and colorful paper streamers. She'd put the champagne on ice, beer in the coolers. Doris called the caterer. She'd be a good hostess, bring some interesting people together, help the neighbors to forget their angst for a while. She looked again at her guest list: Jessica Bonham, Clara Eugenia Peabody, Cheyney Parsons, Richard Hermann: the neighbors. Detective Pat Chambers. She'd invited the detective too. She'd made good friends with her during the past few days.
      Detective Madeline Chambers was a bright young black woman. People at the office called her Maddie; some just called her Mad. But she was hardly that. She was attractive, Doris thought; maybe it was that sure manner about her she almost envied. For years Chambers had worked with the LAPD, but more recently she'd come out to the desert. It was Detective Chambers who'd told Doris she should go ahead with the party for her son.














      "Don't let anything stop you," she'd said. "It isn't every day that your son comes out to visit you."
      "But Maddie, don't criminals come back? I mean, don't they have this tendency to revisit the scene of the crime?"
      "You read too many novels, Doris," Maddie Chambers had said.
      "But aren't most murder victims killed by somebody they know?"
      "Doris, this person was after that money that was planted under the rosebush. Nobody is after you. No one is any threat to you or your guests. Have the party. Get on with your life."
      But it occurred later to Doris, while she was folding her laundry, that Maddie wasn't going to be there just to act as police protection. No, she expected the killer to come back - and that's why Maddie Chambers wanted to be there. Just in case. Better to have her there than not, she thought as she brought the clothes basket upstairs. The thought came to her unbidden. They usually come back, you know. Just like dirty clothes come back to the laundry room. They usually come back again. What if it was somebody who knew him? What if it was somebody she herself knew?
      "Relationships," said Cameron. That's what the best novels were about, he said. That's what his was about.
      "Well, here's to relationships," Bill Griff said, raising a glass. "What do you think, Cheyney? Should we be toasting relationships?"
      "Indeed," Cheyney Parsons said. "I'm all for them."
      "Cheyney," Jessica Bonham said. "Doris's cat seems to have taken an interest in you."
      "Why, yes, Cheyney," Bill said. "She seems to be staring right at you."
      On a chair, Muffin bristled, hearing the voice. The cat's eyes were wide; its body was tense. Muffin's hair seemed to be standing on end.
      "That cat again," Cheyney said. "What a nuisance those animals are."
      Muffin was heard to hiss.
      "Now that's what I think of the stock market, Muffin," said Joe, tapping the newspaper that was opened on his lap. "Smart cat you've got there, Doris. He gets a whiff of those dot com stocks and he's hissing like the rest of us."
      "The Tao of the Dow," Bill Griff said, lifting his glass again.
      "Well, Doris, honey. This is a lovely party," Clara Eugenia Peabody said. "It does help one to forget all of that, you know," her voice fell to a whisper. She looked out across the fence and the rosebush. "That unpleasantness. Did you make the crepes, dear?"
      "The party is catered, Clara. I had it catered," Doris said.
      "Oh, but they are good," Clara said, sucking her lips, licking her fingertips of nail polish. She was soaking up the afternoon sun instead of the rays of a sun lamp. She blinked at Doris with her false eyelashes and circled the bowl of punch.
      Muffin hissed again. Cheyney Parsons walked away.
      Clara Peabody cast a look at Muffin and fed him a piece of shrimp.
      "Clara, you shouldn't!" Doris said.
      "Oh, Doris, the cat is obviously hungry, dear," Clara said. "Besides, I de-shelled the shrimp. That is a word, isn't it? De-shelled?"
      "Muffin will be into the shrimp bowl now, shells and all. Oh, Cameron, can you take the shrimp inside? I don't want Muffin to get at it."
      "Sure," said Cameron. "You want me to put it in the refrigerator?"

      Doris nodded and Cameron took the bowl of shrimp and went into the townhouse. She watched him go inside. Then she turned around and found herself looking into the dark eyes of Detective Maddie Chambers.
      "Thanks for inviting me, Doris," Maddie said. "This party is a good thing for the neighborhood. Gives everyone a different perspective."
      "Oh, but you're a dear, Maddie," Doris said.
      "And you're a Darling. Oh, I know, you've probably been teased for years about your name."
      "It was my husband's name," Doris said. "My son uses a pseudonym. He's Cameron Darring. He's darling to me, but he'd rather drop the l and be daring."
      "Ah, yes," Maddie said. "Relationships."
      Then they heard an expletive, loudly cursed across the yard. Everyone turned to see Cheyney Parsons. He was looking down at the ground under the rosebush. Muffin, on the wall above him, leg raised as if firing against a post, Muffin had sprayed all over him.
      The workmen cut the tree branch two days later. They blocked off access to the low roof and the drainpipe so that Muffin could not slide down.
      "You don't want to hurt yourself now, Muffin," Doris said. "You've gotten into enough mischief for now."
      She expected to hear from Cheyney Parsons a scathing complaint against furry felines. But he had long since disappeared from the neighborhood. At the window to Parson's townhouse, closed tight against the world, Maddie Chambers found the most telling of clues: the dried prints of Mr. Peters' blood in the shape of cat's paws, lines scraping, trying to get in. Inside the townhouse the detective found a pair of urine scented pants in the bedroom closet. The threads of another pair of pants there matched those at the crime scene at Mr. Peter's house.

      The police found Cheyney Parsons the next day. He'd checked into a cheap hotel up near Redwoods. It seems that he knew about the hotel from the gambling ring he and Charlie Peters were involved in. Probably he thought he was safe, all those days after the murder, far away from home. But by then Muffin had found a pair of plastic gloves, still bloody, although they'd been washed.
      Doris thought about it while doing the laundry. She was hanging Cameron's shirts on the clothesline in the sun. Through the fence she could see the mail truck making its circle of the townhouses. Rory was delivering the mail - toothy smile, black face, muscular motion- saying hello to Randy Gleichner and his two boxers, Simon and Garfunkel. Mr. Gleichner was holding his dogs back from jumping up on the mailman, holding the leash - yap, yap, yap. Better not let them see Muffin, Doris thought, or they'd really get crazy. Doris could see Clara Peabody watching from her townhouse window. It was a neighborhood ringed with sunshine.













art by Dan Williams

"Tentacles"

Art by Dan Williams
















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RON KOPPELBERGER



Raindrops


    

Her covenant was a symbol of tranquility and supple cashmere, just a touch of beauty and emerald eyes of devotion. She tasted the French toast treat and the chocolate quik all in one gulp. She scrutinized the slow moving cotton down of passing clouds and azure heaven with a painstaking expectation.

The noon point meridian challenged moted sun beams and dancing rainbow prisms against the crystal goblet full of chocolate milk. She took another bite of French toast savoring the flavor of her indiscretion. She thought of cascading moisture and gushing wellsprings, she thought of sunshine and rain, dustbowls devoured by river torrents and flowing oceans with cerulean Tides and warm mists.

Imposing gusts of sandy dry soil billowed across the once fertile fields of the parched farmland. Her cashmere sweater was warm and the earnest song of trickling raindrops would make her covenant complete. She had asked for rain, touching the ruby red and gold trimmed necklace with a faithful insistence. She had promised the intrusive betrayer, the sycophant of Welsh Bank and bad nix mortgage holders a windfall in the form of blessed rain, for wicker county and all of its inhabitants, mostly the poor and farmers. Looking toward the desert like plain of her hundred acre farm the banker had sighed and given her a six month extension on the mortgage. The boarder of rambling unsullied soil and defiant daydream saffron seed waited in tense mystery of its master and her wild notion of rain.

Conceived of and necessary for the wont of what's promised to the needy
and the starving the

rain complied as she sat eating her French toast. She had known the rain
would come, she had a

covenant with heaven and the dream had touched her again, the dream of
fresh starts and

nascent wheat bloom, the dream of country baptism by rain and sweet salvation.
The gentle

hissing breath of sanctity, in the form of thousands upon thousands of
beaded liquid life poured

down throughout the county. An amused banker would have to admit that a
miracle had

occurred in Wicker County




     

The Flood


    
      The soul of rough empty drought and quiet cascades of rain cloaked the desire of the burgeoning farm. Rain, rain, rain, rain, the drought had ended With a gentle hiss of joyous rain. Inhaling, he tasted the cool misty vapors, Whispering for just a brief moment, he prayed for the deluge to abate; only a few days earlier he had been eating dust and hoping for rain. The corners of the wood framed house poured torrents into the secret trenches running beneath the downspouts, great gullies, holes filled with water. The buckets and roaster pans were nearly full again and the dripping ceiling, smudged dark by leaks, slung in bellies and frayed paint. Surrendering to the sheets of moisture, the layers of top-soil used for growing wheat, saffron and sorghum had washed away leaving hard packed clay and muddy quicksand.
      It was difficult to see through the foggy window panes, nevertheless, he persisted; rolling in waves of shimmering crystal, streams of fast, cool rain. By the wills of rare sodden earth and pools hungrily branded by the reflection of gray rolling thunder, he watched and continued to pray. The furrows ran far and away from the front door of the house; the rain offered an unmanageable abandon, an overcast cloud of inaction. The roads were rivers dug by varying degrees of impasse. He paused and took a deep breath in contemplation of the flood as the rain gave birth to the distant lightening. Strange, he thought, the amber glow of sunshine conveyed the wrath of shadow and silhouette, dark clouds, huge billowing in black cotton and rain.
      The sunglow increased and the prospect of sunshine and rain was a promise for salvation; He sighed, "Thank-God." the clouds fell behind the western view and the sky presented an amazing scarlet and fire. Seasons warning the survivor of rain and flood, havens and the bond with earth and God. A marriage of profound mercies and damp claims of ownership, unto the gods of rain, denied by the sun and sky. He had postponed the desire to embrace the sun for its' warmth, nevertheless, the rain, the pouring driven rain had abated and the fires of heaven embraced all of the earth. The deserts would be dry again and the bordering farm country would flourish amongst the wheat and the blossoming promise of eternity.



BIO: "I am a short story writer, a poet and an artist. I have written 102 books of poetry over the past several years and 18 novels: I have been submitting my work for the past two and a half years. I am thrilled by acceptance. I am always looking for an audience. I have published 590 poems, 484 short stories, and 101 pieces of art in over 180 periodicals, books and anthologies as well as in radio broadcasts. I have been published in The Storyteller, Ceremony, Write On!!! (Poetry Magazette), Writing Raw and Necrology Shorts. Also I recently won the People's Choice Award for poetry In The Storyteller for a poem titled Secret Sash. I have been accepted in England, Australia, Canada, Japan, Thailand and India. I love to write and offer an experience to the reader. I am a member of The American Poet's Society as well as The Isles Poetry Association and The Dark Fiction Guild. (My art is viewable at face book,ronnie.koppelberger)
Website-SwampLit SwampLit
Website-Shadows at Night-Tide Shadowsatnighttide
Website- WolfFray.Blogspot
Website- Ravenswont.blogspot
E-Magazine/Website- FarthermostDream.Blogspot
Website- Marageinblame.blogspot
E-Magazine/website- Ethrealsouls.blogspot






Unseasonable Weather


By


AMANDA SINGTON-WILLIAMS



     
      Moonlight shines on snow and claw-like branches. A sparrow chirps. Suzanne watches the sun rising above the chimney pots, one already smoking. As she watches her breath fade on the window, she thinks about the uncanny timing of the letter which now lies on her table. She barely slept last night, the blue paisley duvet lies crumpled in the middle of her bed. The clink of the radiator and gurgling pipes seeped through her dreams as they worked on warming the smallest bedroom in the house. Built over the garage a year after Suzanne's unplanned birth, twenty-two months after the arrival of her sister's sweet gurgles, it is often chilly.
      A light from the kitchen comes on, a chair scrapes on the black and white quarry tiles and the silence of the early dawn is broken. The moon passes through mist, and snow starts to fall again.
      "Unseasonably cold weather" the weatherman said, a broad smirk spreading across his waxen face. "A weather front from Siberia." he'd added, and the map showed a swirling mass of cloud.
      Suzanne takes her wedding dress out of the wardrobe and holds it against herself in front of the mirror. She moves closer to her reflection, glad that she chose a milky ivory instead of white. Still she finds the arrival of this day hard to believe.
      Brown eyes stare back at her, a little red-rimmed from last night's sleeplessness, nevertheless her best feature: almond shaped with long lashes that curl in the corners. She thinks of her sister with her creamy skin and rose tinted lips. Suzanne used to watch her sister sleeping; a princess waiting to be woken and kissed by a handsome prince. Or one of the boys who hung around the youth club panting hormones, ointment painted on spotty faces. They would ask Susanne where Diana was, her sister with the voluptuous figure and luscious hair.
      A clock chimes six o'clock; five more hours of being single. Her wedding dress is lacy, like the frost of Yorkshire winters, or in this week's freeze. She tries her veil; it is small with silk snowdrops woven through the band. She watches herself in the mirror, lifts her face up, pats the dress down, rubs her cold cheeks. Strange coincidence that the week she met Ed there was an unusual cold snap which froze lakes and all fish that swam near the surface; they lay beached on the shores, their eyes glassy, their gills still, though it was in Turkey and during May.
      Suzanne trained as an archaeologist; she'd studied at a north eastern university where the cold winds blew hard from the North Sea, and her underwear, hanging on the clothes line, would turn stiff and frozen, blocks of ice in her socks like the bulge of tangerines in a Christmas stocking. Although her grades were good, she didn't think they'd accept her on the dig in search of artifacts from a Roman citadel where all the recognised archaeologists went to discuss their research projects, to congratulate each other and whistle in the amphitheatre, or strike matches and wonder as the sound travelled around, like echoes in a vault. But Suzanne's application was accepted; a surprise letter received on a cool spring day. And so, she borrowed her father's tent and flew out the following month. She'd expected a white heat out here in the sun bleached mountains of Kurdistan, but was taken by surprise by the cold, had been shivering and blowing on her reddened fingers when a man wearing a blue fleece came over.
      "It's heading towards us from the snowy mountains in the north," he said as he offered a steaming cup of coffee in a metal mug. "It's usually reasonably warm, but you can never tell."
      He winked at her; she blushed. "I didn't come prepared for this icy weather." She hugged herself in her thin grey anorak.
      "You can borrow my sweater if you like." He stripped off his fur-lined jacket, pulled his red and blue striped sweater over his head and handed it to her folded, a package. Unused to male chivalry, she hesitated.
      "Take it," he said and studied her carefully. "Where's your tent?"
      She pointed to her father's green one man tent, caved in and leaning.
      "I've got a large tent with thermal lining." He laughed. "You're welcome to share if the wind blows a freezing gale again."
      Suzanne, flustered, combed her fringe with her thawing fingers and started to gnaw at a fingernail, then pulled on his sweater and was almost consumed by the huge turtle neck.
      "Your eyes change to green," he said. "When you wear blue." He looked up at the sky. "You should wear it more often."
      Ed was a lecturer at a southern university situated on gentle downs, tidy, with squares of green and bright yellow, the landscape of the Normans. He'd had years of experience preparing for the variable weather of archaeological digs: from the raw sandstorms of the Gobi desert, to the sweltering Mexico plains or the mosquito coast of the tropics. He'd pitched a tent where dunes with patches of scrub dotted spasmodically around, resembling snow-capped hills. He had all the equipment, even for the unseasonably biting winds of eastern Turkey. He told her of a dig in the Cyprus mountains where the temperature dropped to several degrees below freezing at night. And Suzanne wondered with whom he'd offered to share his warm and cosy tent with on that occasion.
      "This is my first dig outside Europe" she said.
      "I'll show you a sight you won't forget. A wonder of the ancient world," he said. "I'll come and find you at five o' clock." He reached for his rucksack and walked off towards a group of bearded men. Suzanne watched him pick up the conversation as they pointed to a site where another group of men crouched, marking out an area with white chalk.
      The sound of water dripping from the thawing icicles in the eves breaks through her thoughts. There's a knock at Suzanne's bedroom door, she's quite forgotten where she is. Her sister Diana walks in. Her nightie is white, frilled with a blue ribbon threaded through the neckline; her breasts are visible through the sheer fabric.
      "Darling" she says." It's your big day. You're a star, sis," she whispers. "You look as fresh as a daisy."
      There's scent of nectar from Alpine flowers mixed with a deep musk; the aroma fills the room with every movement Diana makes.
      Suzanne sniffs the air. "That's a nice perfume." She frowns. "It's so familiar."
      "Oh it's a sampler I picked up the other day." Diana's eyes glisten. "You can have it if you like."
      Suzanne isn't listening. She stares at her refection. "I have a nagging feeling..." She stops herself from saying more about her fear of losing her independence, of turning into a production line of babies and dirty dishes, instead of the excitement of the dig. And yesterday, as if to taunt her, was the arrival of another unexpected letter.
      "You look fabulous."
      "I'm just not quite..."
      "What? Sure about getting married?" Diana's eyes widen. She moves closer to her sister, her scent moves with her. "Ed's a good man, a good catch; you'll make him very happy." She fingers the veil, her nails are painted the colour of strawberry ice cream.
      "Just pre-wedding nerves, I suppose." And she wonders about happiness. Glancing down at her bedside table, she sees Diana following her gaze, looking at the open letter, the top of a crest on the page. She watches her sister, expecting her to query it, but Diana says nothing, merely tosses back a lock of hair.
      "I'll help you put your dress on when you're ready." She gives Suzanne a kiss on the cheek. "You're so cold," she says. "Not for much longer though." Her laugh is like silver bells.
      At five 'o clock in the afternoon Suzanne had met Ed, he'd found her digging in the barren soil, a blue cap pulled down over her ears. She was so engrossed in her task, she didn't hear Ed call her name. She had already found a large pot fragment; it lay on its side desolate in its half state.
      "Let me show you something I promised earlier," he said.
      Suzanne brushed the mud from her jeans, and wiped her hands on his borrowed sweater. He smiled, beckoned and she followed. His strides were long, purposeful, unlike her short steps. But she kept up with him, her two paces to his one. They reached the remains of a temple. He moved to the middle of the ruin, between two columns and looked up towards the mountain as it darkened. Standing together, they watched the sun set over the pinnacle of the snow topped peak, the ice turning red. She turned to him.
      "They knew a thing or two didn't they, the Romans?"
      He didn't reply at first, kept on looking towards the setting sun. She took the opportunity to study his features, his unshaven face, the black strands of hair peeping out from beneath his woollen hat, his ruddy complexion, the chubby cheeks. He turned to face her.
      "I thought you'd like it" he said.













      Suzanne eats a hearty breakfast, sausages, eggs, tomatoes and fried bread, unlike her usual coffee and toast. Silly tradition, hen and stag nights, worse when it meant she had to stay away from the home she shared with Ed, to return to her parent's matching curtains, cushions and place mats, the piano which is never played, but polished to a high gloss every Saturday. While warming the coffee pot she looks out through the embroidered net curtains, as white as the frosty looks her mother had given her when she said the reception would be in the local pub. Bubbles of doubt, encouraged by her lack of sleep were pushing through to the surface of her mind. Was it possible to ever return to the magic of their first meeting in Turkey? Could this ceremony bring it back? She fiddles with the petal from a white miniature rose, the container sent from her cousin, and remembers the feeling of conquest when she told Diana of her plans. But that pride, that sensation of having won had faded in a week. What did it matter that she was the first to marry? Who cared? And for too long, she'd allowed her concerns fester while she busied herself with research.
      Her mother appears at the door. "Have to get your dad to clear the drive of snow and ice." Suzanna nods and pours herself another coffee.
      "Big day then?"
      "Yup. Big day."
      "You could look happier about it."
      "Tired."
      Her mother tuts and busies herself making tea for Suzanna's father. "Never thought it'd be you before our Diana. Last thing we expected. And now here it is. Your big day." She brushes her lips on Suzanna's hair and makes her way up the stairs.
      Diana comes in to the kitchen. She is humming. She touches Suzanne's shoulder. "It's time to put your dress on, little sis."
      Suzanne gets a whiff of her sister's perfume. She sniffs again and remembers the scent. Like a sudden snowstorm, the realisation hits her full on. Her fingers loosen and the porcelain coffee mug drops; she sees it in mid-air the pink and white roses blurring as it nears the floor. The smash of china resounds around the kitchen, coffee spills out across the black and white tiles and a splash lands on a white miniature rose that has drifted down from the table. Fragments of porcelain scatter around the room, into corners, under cupboards and the table where they'll be found in the weeks ahead.
     
      They didn't have sex on the first night in his huge tent, with the fire embers glowing, the snow on the mountains just visible through the tent's opening flap. They didn't on the second or third either, and Suzanne's mind ploughed through the possibilities. Did he find her unattractive? Who could blame him if he did? Or was she too greedy when she ate, too clumsy? But on the fourth night when the ground was hard with frost, they rocked all night, panting and sweating in the sub-zero temperatures, while bats flitted overhead, flying across the silver moon.
      Afterwards, they talked of the Roman Empire, and on that first night she knew her knowledge excited him, her intellect, her widely read mind turned him on, aroused him. In turn, she loved him as an elder, a man wiser than her father.
      She dug with a new vigour. It snowed; a heavy snow which hid the landscape and slowly melted when the afternoon sun's rays touched the sparkling surface. She removed her hat and dug some more. Two men, one with a grey moustache and a booming voice, dropped to their knees and dug alongside her. Suzanne used her bare hands; she scraped and burrowed, heaved, and gasped. She didn't eat all day and didn't feel the cold. Ed faded, the passionate nights a distant memory.
      Soon there were fifteen people all digging until night fell and continued as the sun appeared on the horizon. Ed was confined to his tent, half-delirious with dysentery. He said he loved Suzanne the more for not nursing him, for preferring the offerings of history hidden in hard, cold soil to the confines of mopping his brow and changing the sodden sheets. And she believed him, thought she'd found her match.
      The dig was extended a week, until learned men from Ankara University came to identify the find. Their journey took two days, the trucks bumped and ground over barren mountains, hostile winds blowing grit and snow into their eyes. The drivers wore chequered scarves around their frozen faces like the soldiers of the Ottoman Empire. With Ed, now better, at her side, she waited to be introduced.
      "It's a marvellous find," the professor said to the Turkish academia. "Professor Martin's the name. Just happened to be having a look in the area." He had bushy eyebrows that crossed over at the bridge of his nose.
      Suzanne opened her mouth. "Actually," she said. "Actually, it was me."
      Professor Martin took his glasses off, squinted at her."Oh yes, Miss erm, Miss...?"
      "Suzanne McCloud."
      "Yes yes, well you did a fair bit of digging." He put an arm round the two Turkish men. "Shall we have a beer, a little celebration? My tent?"
      Suzanne tugged at the professor's sleeve. "It was my find, not yours." Her voice was plaintive, like the twelve year old who washed dishes, her arms covered in foaming suds, while her sister topped up her beauty sleep. Ed remained silent. But she thought nothing of it. Not until a few weeks ago when he told her of the letter he'd written "to put things in order before their big day."
     
      The clock strikes seven in the Yorkshire house. Suzanne is in her room. She is thinking as facts fall into place like a data bank. Guilt, she knows plays all kinds of mind games. She packs slowly, folding her wedding dress, replacing it into its plastic carrier. Outside, the birds are singing, fox tracks mark the snow laden garden, a car revs repeatedly. Suzanne listens to the raised voices from downstairs, sees a shadow rising beside her.
      "How did you guess?" Her sister's eyes shine like newly formed ice. Her face is stained with tears.
      Suzanne sniffs her sister's scent again, like a skunk on newly laid snow; she'd left her calling card on Ed's shirts, in his car, on his pillow, on the crisp white sheets he'd shared with Suzanne. She'd never questioned Ed why he'd decided to write to the university. Perhaps two causes of guilt, two wrong doings were too much for him. One should have been enough.
      "Oh God, what have I done? I'm so sorry." Diana starts to wail. Her mother rushes up the stairs.
      "You can have him sis. Is that what you wanted?"
      "It was him. Not me." She is shouting now. Tears stream down her face as their mother opens Suzanna's door, shuts it deliberately behind her.
      "Keep the noise down, you two, this is supposed to be a special day." She looks down at the packed case, the veil crumpled on the bed. "This is silly, Suzanne, Diana didn't mean any harm, it was probably only a little kiss." Her mother removes the wedding dress from the bag, spreads it out on the bed and pats the lace. "She wouldn't have meant any harm."
      But Suzanne is half way down the stairs, the letter clutched in her hand. It appears that Professor Martin was mistaken, it reads. She takes the phone into the kitchen. In honour of your historical find... She doesn't care that there was no apology, no explanation. She re-reads the last sentence of the letter twice. We would like to offer you a Professorship with full research facilities, a team of well qualified student Archaeologists and.... She dials the Ankara University number, and watches a black and white cat pad through the snow as she waits for the switchboard to put her through to the Dean.


BIO: "My first novel, The Eloquence of Desire was published in 2010. I have had several short stories published and am listing (see links below). I teach novel writing and have an MA in Creative Writing and Authorship.
Links:  sentinelpoetry     writingraw     etherbooks - Ether Books is a publishing company on which short stodownloadedbe dowloaded on i-pods and smart phones. I have had 8 stories published by them.
More information can be seen about me on amandasingtonwilliams




Mountain Easter

By


RONALD C. PAXTON



     
      Julia Maddox finished washing the last breakfast dish, stretched her aching back, and looked out the kitchen window just in time to see her husband fall off the porch roof. She continued to stare out the window, unable to process what she had just seen. Her brain finally sent a message to her feet and Julia banged open the door and rushed out into the yard.
      Her husband was curled up in a fetal position, struggling for breath, and moaning in pain. The ladder remained in place against the side of the house.
      Julia knelt beside the man she had been married to for forty one years and opened her mouth to speak. A wheezing rush of air was all that emerged. She tried again and said, "Don't try to move - I'm calling 911. Where does it hurt? What happened? Why didn't you use the ladder?"
      "Calm down, Julia," the injured man managed through clenched teeth. He drew a shallow breath and tried to continue but his wife was already on the phone.
      "The ambulance is on the way," Julia announced as she ended the call. "Stay still," she ordered. "I need to keep you warm. I'm going to get a blanket."
      Julia got to her feet and in one fluid motion whipped off her kitchen apron and spread it over her prostrate husband. "Back in a minute," she panted.
      Julia's husband gingerly turned his head and looked at the apron that was draped over his body. He started to laugh and then swallowed a scream as white-hot pain tore into his ribs.
      A moment later the kitchen door slammed and Julia Maddox hurried back to her husband's side. She gently retrieved her apron and replaced it with the comforter from their bedroom.
      Unable to think of anything else to say or do, Julia sat on the ground, stroked her husband's head, and waited. A siren wailed in the distance.
     
      "Mountain Easter!" a voice exclaimed.
      With some effort Easter Maddox raised his head from the gurney in patient bay number two of the emergency room.
      "Nobody calls me that anymore," he growled, referring to the nickname bestowed upon him in high school by the boys from town who found his backwoods ways hilarious. The name had stuck but the teasing had stopped when he stepped onto the football field. The young man from high in the Blue Ridge Mountains managed to set a couple of school records that remained unbroken forty four years later.
      "Hey, Thrill," Julia Maddox called as Dr. Kenneth Hill entered the room.
      The internist walked over to Julia and hugged her. "Nobody calls me that anymore, either," he replied with a smile.
      The doctor turned his attention to the man on the gurney and said, "So, you retired from the paper mill less than a month ago and now, here you are. What's a sixty two year old man doing climbing around on a roof, anyway?"
      "Had a high wind last night up on the mountain," Easter gasped. "Checking for loose shingles."
      "Well, you're pretty lucky, Easter," Hill said. "You've got a cracked rib and some bruising but nothing else. The ribs will heal on their own. If you were twenty years younger I'd send you home right now with a prescription for some pain medication."
      "You're admitting him?" Julia asked in alarm.
      "Just a precaution," Dr. Hill replied. "I'll be back in the morning."
      "Julia, why don't you go check on my room and pick up a newspaper," Easter asked. "I imagine I'll be along shortly."
      As soon as his wife was gone, Easter turned to his friend and said, "Something's coming, Thrill. Something bad."
      The words turned the internist's skin to goose flesh. Ever since their days as high school teammates Easter had claimed to have Second Sight with telepathic ability, a "gift" he had supposedly inherited from his mother. Hill had initially dismissed it, but over the years he had seen enough unexplainable things to make him wonder. As a man of science he continued to reject the concept, but he had come to realize that Easter Maddox was probably the most intuitive and self-aware person he had ever met.
      Dr. Hill didn't waste time with empty reassurances. "Can you see it?" he asked.
      "It's dark," Easter replied. "Dark and heavy."
      "Your lungs and heart both look good," the internist responded.
      Easter remained silent.
      "When?" the doctor quietly asked.
      "Soon," Easter answered. "Maybe tomorrow."
      "I'll leave orders for the nursing staff to check on you throughout the night," Hill said. He laid his hand on his friend's shoulder and said, "I'll see you and Julia in the morning."
      Dr. Kenneth Hill left his patient and headed for the parking lot. It was not until he tried to retrieve his keys that he realized how badly his hands were shaking.
     
      The pneumonia had found a place to hide beyond the sight or sound of modern medical technology. Around midnight it began to probe the pulmonary system of its host with the enthusiastic persistence of a timeshare salesman.
      Dr. Hill got the call at 3:00 A.M. and gave medication orders to the nursing supervisor. Dawn was still an hour away when he pulled into his hospital parking space.
      Julia Maddox sat in the hospital room chair where she had spent the night and let her mind drift. She had first met Easter when she was sixteen years old and had known immediately that he was the one for her. It had taken him a little longer, being a teen-age boy and pretty full of himself. They had married young and raised two sons who were both married with families of their own. It had been the best forty one years of her life.
      She watched through red-rimmed eyes as her husband dozed fitfully.
      He looks so old. Well, of course he does, Julia. He is old. So are you. What had her friend,Karen, told her? You're still middle-aged assuming you live to be a hundred and twenty four.
      Julia shifted in her chair, fighting to stay awake. What will become of us? We're back up in the mountains, miles from town, no close neighbors. The boys live halfway across the country. It would kill Easter to sell the house and move to town. Probably couldn't find anyone to buy it in this economy, anyway. God, I'm scared.
      "Morning," someone whispered softly.
      Julia's head snapped up and she nearly fell out of her chair.
      "Oh, morning Thrill," she said with relief. "He had a bad night."
      The doctor studied Easter's chart and then examined him briefly.
      "Why don't you go home and get some rest, Julia," Hill said when he was done. "I'm going to move Easter to another room. He'll be in good hands."
      "I guess I'll grab a quick shower and change of clothes," Julia said, standing. "I should be back in a couple of hours. Where will he be?"
      The internist placed his hand gently on Julia's arm. "Intensive Care," he said.
     
      Julia's life quickly took on a daily routine of days spent at the hospital with her husband as he fought to defeat the pneumonia. She learned to eat the food in the hospital cafeteria and was on a first name basis with the nursing staff. The endless nights were spent lying in an empty bed waiting for daybreak. Julia found that sleeping on Easter's side of the bed did provide a small measure of comfort. Housework, grocery shopping, and other errands became a distant memory. Life became surreal. Julia felt hollow inside. She occasionally pinched herself to see if she could still feel physical sensation.











      "Knock, knock," Sarah Jane Howard said as she entered the intensive care unit and walked over to Easter's bed. "How's the patient today?" she asked.
      "Ready to go home," Easter said. "If they keep me in this ridiculous gown much longer I'll be so depressed they'll have to transfer me to the psychiatric ward."
      "He's a lot better, Sarah Jane," Julia agreed. "We'll see what Dr. Hill has to say."
      Julia was very fond of the younger woman and grateful for her daily visits. Sarah Jane and John Howard owned Wild Pony Ranch and were their nearest neighbors. Sarah Jane was a volunteer at the hospital, visiting patients, delivering newspapers and magazines, and generally assisting the staff any way she could. Her five year old daughter, Emma, sometimes accompanied her and could always be counted on to brighten everyone's day.
      Julia's hopes rose as her husband continued to grow stronger. Then another Friday came and her spirits sank again. Weekends in the hospital were the worst. The place took on the sepulchral air of a funeral home, as a skeleton staff waited for the real work to begin again on Monday.
      Dr. Hill stopped by late Friday afternoon. "Ready for a big weekend?" he asked Easter.
      "Very funny," Easter replied.
      The doctor grinned. "I just finished your paperwork. You can go home in the morning."
      Julia shot out of her chair and wrapped the internist in a bear hug. Tears stood in her eyes.
      "That's more like it!" Easter exclaimed. Dr. Hill turned to go.
      "Hey, Thrill," Easter said. "The fish are still biting up at the lake. Come on up to the house next Saturday and we'll go catch some. I'll try to talk Julia into packing us lunch."
      "You should be relaxing and taking it easy," the internist advised.
      "That's why we're going fishing," Easter replied with a smile.
      "Sounds perfect," Hill said. "I'll see you Saturday morning."
      "Thrill?" Easter continued. "You know, I...." A hard knot of emotion clogged Easter's throat, blocking the rest of his words.
      "I know," the doctor replied in a husky voice. "I'll see y'all soon."
     
      Julia felt like a child on Christmas Eve. She was too excited to go home and sleep. She straightened Easter's room, packed his belongings, and sat down in her chair to wait for morning.
      The night seemed endless. Finally, around 6:00 A.M. she ordered breakfast for her husband and squirmed in her chair like a four year old in church while Easter ate.
      Easter finished his toast, pushed aside his tray, and reached eagerly for his clothes. Thirty minutes later they had said their goodbyes to the staff and checked out of the hospital.
      Julia brought the car around while her husband waited with an attendant.
      "Miss Julia, Miss Julia," a small voice cried. Julia looked up to see Emma Howard running across the parking lot toward her and Easter. Sarah Jane followed close behind, trying hard to keep up.
      "I brought you something, Mr. Easter," Emma said, holding up a bag. "It's Halloween candy. I was saving it for something special."
      "That's very thoughtful, sweetie," Easter said, "but, I don't want to take something that you were saving."
      Emma gave him a confused look. "But, this is something special," she insisted, handing Easter the bag. "You should eat lots of candy, Mr. Easter," Emma continued. "It always makes me feel better."
      Easter laughed and hugged the little girl. "Thank you, Emma. And thank you, Sarah Jane, for your company and encouragement. I'd like to do something for you. Can you think of anything?"
      "Can you make my husband clean out the utility shed attached to the barn?" Sarah Jane laughed. "It's turned into a junk room. I've been asking him for a month but he keeps making excuses."
      "Mama's going to make it an office," Emma said excitedly, "and she said I could be her assistant."
      "Consider it done," Easter said. "I'll call John on the way home."
      "He doesn't have his cell phone with him," Sarah Jane warned.
      "That's alright," Easter replied with an enigmatic smile.
      The drive home was quiet. Julia glanced frequently at her husband who seemed to be staring intently into the distance.
      Once she caught her husband's eye and a warm smile spread across his face. Time suddenly spun backwards and Julia caught a glimpse of the handsome, awkward young man who had walked out of the Blue Ridge Mountains and into her heart nearly fifty years ago.
      Who knows what the future holds? Julia thought. Whatever happens, I have Easter with me and that's all that matters.
     
      Emma and her mother returned home later that afternoon. Sarah Jane looked down the hill to their barn and was stunned to see her husband cleaning out the utility shed.
      "I can't believe my eyes," she called out. "Did Easter Maddox call you?"
      John Howard gave his wife a funny look. "Nobody called me," he said. "I don't have my phone with me."
      "It must be your guilty conscience," Sarah Jane laughed.
      "I guess," her husband answered. "I kept hearing this voice pounding in my head telling me to clean out the shed now." Sarah Jane and Emma stared at each other with their mouths agape.
     
      Julia pulled up in front of the house and turned off the engine. "Home," she said softly.
      Easter Maddox turned to the only woman he had ever loved and said, "thanks."
      Julia took her husband's hand and sat quietly listening to the woods and the wind; the sounds of home.
      Easter suddenly burst out laughing. He was staring into the distance again.
      "What is it?" Julia asked, smiling.
      "You should see the look on Sarah Jane's face," Easter said.


BIO: Short Story Publishing Credits:
Literary Road Publishers ( literaryroad) Cowboy - December 2008;     Troubadour21.com Publishers (troubadour21) Jack - January 2010 Mercy - February 2010 The Color of Fire - February 2010 Glory Days - March 2010 Night Game - March 2010 Tales From the Ranch - March 2010 ongoing (collection)     Piker Press Publishers (pikerpress) Uncle Frank - February 2010 (cover story) Kayleigh's Run - June 2010 Appomattox - July 2010 Lifeline - August 2011 ( cover story ) Shenandoah Christmas - December 2011 ( cover story )     Quill and Parchment Publishers (quillandparchment) Jupiter's Story - March 2010     Muscadine Lines Publishers (asouthernjournal) The Pocket Watch - April 2010     Imitation Fruit Publishers (imitationfruit) Shades of Gray - May 2010     The Write Place at the Write Time Publishers (thewriteplaceatthewritetime) Reunion - June 2010     Oberon's Law (oberonslaw) Hero - November 2011








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Where the Willow Grows in Transylvania
Chapter XV: No Shortage of Love


By


ROSA ALEXANDER with co-author shELAH


The following story is an excerpt from the novel Where the Willow Grows in Transylvania


     
      "You had better close your beautiful brown eyes and go to sleep," I playfully warned my three-and-a-half-year-old son, Peter, that Christmas Eve in 1984. "Tomorrow morning, when you wake up, you can open your presents. But now, my dear Peter, you must hurry up and go to sleep so Santa can come."
      "Okay, Mummy," Peter said. "But why does Julia always get to stay up longer than me?"
      "Your big sister is almost eight years old," I said. "Julia will help me bake a cake so we may leave out a slice for Santa. Now if I can only think of a little boy who also likes to eat cake."
      "I love cake." Peter beamed, reaching out for another goodnight hug.
      " And I love you, Peter," I said, holding him close to my heart.
      " Tomorrow, when you wake up, we will - "
      " Eat cake and open presents," Peter said.
      " Yes, Peter. But now you must go to sleep," I said, reaching down to give him one final hug.
      " G'night, Mummy," Peter said.
      A few minutes later, when I saw Julia sitting at the kitchen table, waiting patiently to help me bake a Christmas cake, my heart melted. " First, we have to decide what kind of cake we want to bake," I said. " Then we pour the flour in the mixing bowl."
      " I would like to bake two kinds of cakes," Julia said. " A chocolate one and a lemon one. How much flour do we need for each cake, Mummy?"
      " Honey, when you are a good cook like me and your grandmother, you do not have to measure anything. You just look at it and you know when it is right. But, Julia, today we can only bake one cake. We do not have enough butter to bake two. What kind of cake do you think would be good for us to bake?"
      " How about a chocolate cake?" Julia said. "That is the kind Daddy and Peter like best. One day, when we have enough butter, when there are no more shortages, then we can bake a lemon one."
      After I poured just the right amount of flour into the oversized, white porcelain bowl Mother had used for mixing cakes and breads when I was a girl Julia's age, I said, " Now we add a little bit of salt and baking powder and set this mixture aside while we mix the sugar and butter in the other bowl."
      I sighed, slicing off a little less butter than I would have normally used, creaming it in with the sugar. " When you crack an egg open," I told Julia as I cracked open an egg and poured it into another small bowl, "you have to be careful when you separate it from the shell so you do not end up with pieces of shell in what you are making."
      " Let me crack one," Julia said, reaching over and taking one of the remaining three eggs I had set aside.
      " Be careful," I repeated.
      " I know how to do it, Mummy," Julia said. " I watched you crack eggs hundreds of times."
      " Just be careful," I laughed and reminded her, " or you will be eating the slice of cake with a piece of eggshell in it."
      Next, after Julia had cracked the remaining two eggs, she beat the eggs with a fork and poured them in with the butter sugar mixture. Julia and I then blended the cocoa, flour mixture, and milk into this mixture. In less than an hour after we started mixing the cake, Julia and I sat across from each other at the table, laughing and talking. One day, when there was no longer a shortage of butter or flour or sugar, we would bake a chocolate and lemon cake at the same time.
      It's strange, I thought. The shortages began so subtly a few years ago; but with the growth of the Ceausescu regime's power, they have steadily worsened.
      If I did not carefully budget our rations of food, I knew we could easily run out of some of our basic foods. Even though we had money, there was often nothing we could buy. Shelves that once overflowed with a barrage of products in the stores more often than not were now empty. No one seemed to have any sort of rational explanation for the food shortages.
      Some claimed it was partly because the Ceausescu regime refused to import products. We had heard that Ceausescu had sold out our country's oil, electricity, natural gas, and food to the West to pay debts Romania owed. Official sources told us that for a few years, times would be hard; but that in time, as Romania's debts were paid, times would be easier. All we knew for certain was that people all around us struggled to survive.
      Some, we knew, might have died from starvation if neighbors, friends, and families had not shared basic necessities with them. I knew of one family who only had two potatoes but gave one to a neighbor who had none. Each month, families in Transylvania could only purchase a particular amount of certain kinds of foods. The ration for our family of four each month included a half pound of butter, two pounds of pork, one kilogram of sugar, five pounds of flour, and one liter of oil. Milk was not strictly rationed, so we could buy a glass liter of milk each day. We did not have to struggle as hard as some families, because my and Alan's parents regularly gave us vegetables from their gardens.
      Some weeks, our parents would bring us a chicken. Because I now worked as a manager of the local mall in Kingstown, I had a few special connections and could sometimes even purchase coffee. Not until one day in October that year, when I went to check on a neighbor, did I realize just how severe the food situation had become in Transylvania. For supper that night, Aniko, a neighbor in her mid-thirties, told me, she, her husband, and her two boys again ate what they had been eating for the past week: an onion, sliced and marinated in vinegar, and a baked potato.
      "Yesterday, I stood in line for eight hours to buy our family's two pounds of meat," Aniko said. "When I finally reached the front of the line, the manager told me, 'Sorry. We have run out of meat.'"Aniko stormed over to her fridge and yanked open the door, her finger shaking as she pointed inside. "It is empty," she said. "Rosa, I do not know what to do. For two weeks, our family has not had any meat. Next week, we will run out of onions and potatoes."
      That day, when I went back home, I opened my refrigerator, took out the one-pound package of ground pork I had inside, and divided it in half. I wrapped it in wax paper and told Julia, "Here. Please take this and give it to our neighbor, Aniko."
      Julia never questioned the thought of sharing what little we had with a neighbor who had even less. I had taught her from an early age that we had to love and help each other if we were to survive. Aniko, like me and hundreds of other families in our area, constantly wondered, What can we do? Where can we go? How long will this time of food shortages last? We also wondered how many of the stories we had heard about some of our friends and neighbors mysteriously disappearing were true. By now, as the securitate, the secret police, seemed to have infiltrated just about everywhere, I knew in my heart that most likely, the rumors we did not want to believe were true.
      "Be careful," a number of people had warned me at work. "You never know when they are watching you."
      In my daily prayers, I questioned, Dear God, How long will we have to be so afraid in our own homes and communities? How long will we have to worry about what might happen next in our beloved Transylvania? How long will we have to tolerate the Ceausescu hell?



















      At this time, it seemed there were no answers. During the day, the government would intercept and buzz the radio signals so that the only times we could tune into programs broadcast over Voice of America (VOA) or Radio Free Europe (RFE) were late at night. Only one television station operated in Romania at this time, only in the evening for a few hours. This channel broadcast snippets of news that revealed only what the Ceausescu regime wanted us to hear. From what we occasionally heard from VOA and FRE, the majority of other countries throughout the world seemed to know more about what was going on in Romania than we did. Despite the shortages of food and deluge of governmental restrictions, Alan and I reveled in the fact we had been blessed with a love that continued to grow as well as two beautiful children.
      Three years previously, right before Peter had been born, Alan, along with my father, his father, and a host of Alan's relatives, built a beautiful, 2300-square-foot house for us. Many times, however, we ate dinner by candles or in the dark, as the electricity, also regularly rationed, would sporadically be cut on and off. Even with problems, including too many times without hot water, we were thankful to survive.
      This Christmas, as each Christmas since Julia had been born, Mother and Father stayed with us for the holidays. This year, Alan's parents also came. During December, instead of receiving only our two-pound-per-family ration of meat, we could purchase one pound of meat per person. For Christmas dinner, I used the additional two pounds of pork I had saved to make cabbage rolls. I also baked dio´s kala´cs - a Hungarian walnut pastry - to be served next to Julia's chocolate cake.
      Right before dinner, Julia asked, "When will we open the presents, Mummy?"
      "After dinner, Julia."
      Before beginning to eat, we held hands while Alan Sr. prayed, "Lord Jesus, please be our guest on this day as we celebrate the memory of Your birth. We also ask You, God, as our heavenly Father, to give us strength to survive each day. Bless the food You have given us. Amen."
      During the meal, Alan told Peter and Julia, "When I was a boy, we did not have any ornaments to put on our Christmas tree."
      "How did you decorate your tree, Daddy?" Julia asked.
      "We used to string walnuts and apples."
      "Apples, Daddy?" Peter asked.
      "Yes, Peter. Then, when we took down the tree, we ate the apples."
      When Alan completed his story, his father told us, "We were so poor when I was growing up that we could not afford to buy any presents. We celebrated Christmas by singing carols."
      "Will you sing us one of your Christmas carols, Grandpaw?" Julia asked.
      Alan's father smiled and began to softly sing, "Silent night, holy night..."
      When Peter asked Alan's mother, "Grandmaw, will you sing too?" she began to harmonize with Alan's father.
      What a beautiful Christmas, I thought. As I studied the beautiful children God had given to me and Alan to raise, I thought, My family is the best Christmas present I could ever receive.
      Peter's voice suddenly interrupted my thoughts as he impatiently tugged at my sleeve. "Mummy, I already ate my cake. Now can we open our presents? Please?"
      "Yes," I said. "Let us all go sit in the living room, and Julia can pass out the gifts."
      When Julia handed Peter the first present, he eagerly tore away the paper. When he saw she had given him a pair of matchbox cars, Peter began to race one against the other. Julia handed Father his present next.
      "Here, Grandpapa," she said. "Mother and I picked this out for you."
      "How about me? Do I get a present too?" my grandmother asked.
      "Yes, you do, Great-grandmamma," Julia said. "Daddy and I picked out your present."
      After Julia had passed out a present to each person there, she sat down on the floor and began to race Peter's cars with him.
      "Julia, open your present too," Alan reminded her.
      "Oh. I almost forgot."
      Julia opened the miniature piano I had brought for her and smiled. "Thank you, Mummy," she said. She then set the piano aside and again began racing cars with Peter.
      That Christmas of 1984, as we watched Julia and Peter race Peter's tiny matchbox cars, Alan and I had no idea this would be the last Christmas we would share with the children for a long time. We only knew that the political situation, led by the Ceausescu regime, was predicted to get even worse and that more hard times were sure to come.
      Even though there were more and more shortages and hard times, Alan and I deliberately cherished our times together as a family. We knew how to survive. We collected and stockpiled rainwater for times when the water would be cut off. As we sometimes did not have running water for several days, we also kept the bathtub full - just in case.
      When it was too cold for Julia and Peter to sleep in their bedrooms, we huddled together in one room. In the evenings, we talked about what we had done that day. We played games together. At night, after saying our prayers, Alan and I would tell Peter and Julia stories until they fell asleep.


ABOUT THE NOVEL:

"I do not want to hear another word about your 'crazy' American Dream!" Cruel, sarcastic words like these from Rosa Alexander's father during his frequent drunken rants often drove young Rosa to seek solace beneath her weeping willow tree. One day, however, Rosa's aunt Klara visited from America, giving her hope and birthing Rosa's dream for a brighter future."

" In Where the Willow Grows in Transylvania, a historical novel coauthored with shELAH, Rosa shares how she clung to her "crazy" dream for years. In 1985, she and her husband, Alan, finally escaped the cruel eye of the Romanian Communist regime but were forced to leave their children: Julia, 8; and Peter, 4 - behind with Rosa's parents. As Rosa struggled through enormous sorrow throughout an almost four-year battle to reunite her family, the love she and Alan shared and their quest for freedom sustained them. Rosa's childhood dream eventually became a grown-up search for peace and a desperate yearning for her family to be reunited. Ultimately, Rosa's search led her to not only listen for and hear God's voice but to also find her own. Rosa's story reminds readers that dreams are not "crazy" and that with faith, dreams can come true. Rosa (author) grew up in Transylvania, Romania and currently lives in Nashville with her husband. She encourages others to hope, pray, and trust God during trying times. Rosa also stresses: "Never give up hope that a dream can come true - even after 50 years." Along with coauthoring Where the Willow Grows in Transylvania, shELAH writes a weekly newspaper column, "Checkpoints." Currently completing several other books, she hopes readers will sense God's love reflected throughout the pages relating Rosa's struggles and triumphs. "

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Where the Willow Grows in Transylvania may be obtained from: rosaalexander.com amazon.com




Mixed Nuts


By


JENNIFER A. HUDSON





      My interest in Jodie Wexler had started off innocently enough when she'd moved into the house to my left about a year and a half ago. Others might have found my fascination peculiar, I imagine, if not for the fact that she had stood out in more ways than one in our neighborhood. Not only had other thirty-somethings been hard to come by on my street, but also the kind of female thirty-somethings I'd still been dreaming of in my extended bachelorhood - petite, dirty blonde hair, blue eyes, slight Aquiline nose, full lips, nice figure (from what I could tell). Jodie was all of these things, and I'd imagined that, despite my being a bit vertically challenged when compared to the average guy, my dark hair and nice muscle tone would complement her looks, even make for beautiful kids if we ever went that route.
      It had gotten lonely coming home to just an answering machine, where my (also single) buddies would leave their requests to go out fishing, camping, or drinking at one of the local restaurant bars. I'd gotten to thinking it might be nice to have a little buddy to whom I could bequeath our rituals. But kids cost money. I didn't have any. My parents hadn't had any, which was why my mother had halted the production line after me and worked part-time as a secretary for a doctor. My father had worked as an electronic assembler, in shifts of twelve to fourteen hours. Yet I'd been the first Mercier to go to college. I'd studied engineering and then partnered up with a buddy after graduation and opened an air conditioning/heating systems business. In the beginning we'd done pretty well, but we hadn't planned things out for the long term. And thanks to the current economy... Swell, we were in deep. So I'd go out with the guys and drown my worries in several beers, later making my way up to the pair of nice-looking girls on the other side of the bar. They always turned out to be college co-eds who just weren't at my level. I'd almost given up hope. But when Jodie had moved in next door, it'd renewed a kind of boyish desire in me. She'd stood out, not just because of her looks or the Mercedes-Benz CLS sedan she'd kept parked out in her driveway, but because whenever she'd spot me or any of the other neighbors the few times a week she'd come out to get her mail, her eyes would bulge like a child caught in a naughty act before spinning around and rushing right back inside.
      I'd wondered if her odd behavior had anything to do with her profession. She was a psychiatrist at Yale, a fact which I'd learned thanks to the mail carrier who'd mistakenly delivered some of her mail in my box. When I'd read the number of the house, I knew it was her. I'd kept the envelope, hopped online and ran a search on her name. There I'd discovered a brief bio on the hospital's web site, along with a photo; her smile had looked painfully forced.
      I hadn't really discovered much else about her through my use of subtle spy tactics, which consisted of stolen glances through windows and lots of outdoor yard work, but I did know that no one ever visited her - except for her boyfriend, however. He'd pull up every Saturday afternoon in this black T-top Firebird, a real Guido wannabe: black pants and black shirt, hair slicked back, and sunglasses even when the sun didn't shine. I'd been surprised she could dig a guy like that. They'd seemed an odd arrangement, about as unusual a pairing as a Goth girl with a frat boy or jock. Once I'd caught a glimpse through my kitchen window, which paralleled her living room window, of her and the Guido making out. As much as I hadn't been able to stand seeing him with her, I'd enjoyed watching the graceful way she'd arched her back and surrendered herself, her soft and moist lips folding and unfolding. I'd pictured myself as the one kissing her before heading downstairs to my makeshift weight room in my finished basement. One of my buddies had quipped it looked like the lair of some sicko; but I wasn't a psychopath, just a lonely unattached guy who'd admire his own biceps in the mirrored wall and look out the window, wondering what the Guido had that I didn't. Needless to day, I'd been surprised when he stopped coming over Jodie's house. I'd look through the window to find no Firebird. Their state of affairs had changed apparently; I had no idea my own would too.
      One Saturday morning - a hot one, the kind when your clothes stick to you like second skin - I'd just set my trimmer down and stepped back from the hedges to wipe the sweat that was pouring down my face when I had had a sudden feeling that I was being watched. Intently. It was a burning kind of feeling... you know, when you don't even have to look up to know that someone's eyes are on you. I turned to my left and there Jodie stood, her hips pressed firmly against the wood railing of her front porch. She had on one of those stretchy tank tops with the bra built in, white, with a Hawaiian print sarong and a pair of ... what did you call them... Doc Martens? They'd been clunky was all I'd known. Dressed for the cover of Vogue she was not, but her blue eyes appeared very bright - and piercing, as if they could see right through my skin. It could have been the glare of the sun against her glasses. Maybe that's what also made her curl the corners of her mouth upward until her lips parted. The whiteness of her teeth grew until I couldn't help but think of the Cheshire cat.
      "Hi there, neighbor!"
      I couldn't tell if I was more stunned by the fact that she'd been staring at me doing my yard work or by how high-pitched her voice sounded.
      "Hello," I replied, approaching her.
      Her eyes focused on my biceps, completely exposed in my wife-beater tee, as if tracing their width and height for a sketch. "It's a scorcher today, isn't it?"
      "Yep. Sure is."
      "And you're doing all this work on your own? Do you live alone?"
      It could have been my own wishful thinking, but I read a trace of hopefulness in her eyes.
      "Yes, I do."
      "Hmmnn," she purred. "How would you like to come over for dinner next Saturday night? I make a great Beef Wellington."
      I don't know what came over me in that moment, but a series of vibrations strummed up from my throat, something akin to a hyena choking on a stolen piece of meat. Maybe it was the fact that she was offering to cook me Beef Wellington. Maybe it was her outfit. Maybe it was the fact that she had emerged from her cocoon and had invited me over for dinner. I nodded my head up and down like the Mr. Met bobble-head doll affixed to the dash of my Dodge Dakota. "Sounds great."
      "Perfect," she said as she began walking toward her door. "I'll see you then."
      I shuddered as her door closed. I don't know why I should have. Maybe I was still in shock. Maybe I was nervous. Maybe I was excited. It didn't matter. I had a date with the elusive Jodie Wexler!
      My stomach was in knots the following Saturday. I decided on wearing a blue golf shirt, a pair of khakis, my brown loafers and some of that sample Prada cologne I had lying around. I never put anything in my hair, but that night I decided I'd mousse it up a bit to hide some of my thinner spots.
      By six o'clock I was ready. I walked out my front door and headed across the lawn to her front porch. The first thing that caught my eye was the menagerie of lighted deer, penguins and polar bears - he one that still sat in a heap on her front porch since the old lady across the street, in a fit of annoyance, had gone over in March and disconnected the plug from the outside power source, gathered up the zoo and placed it all there. I'm going to ask her about that tonight, I said to myself as I pressed the doorbell button.
      The door opened and there she was - Jodie Wexler in a whole new light! She'd shed her Doc Martens and sarong for this slinky shimmering strapless blue dress, with blue pumps that matched! My mouth dropped. What a figure! I mean, I had gathered she had a nice one, but in this dress... well, it complimented what she had.
      "It's nice to see you," she said as she closed the door behind me and led me into her living room. "I mean, this way, a non-neighborly way." "I'm..."
      "Oh, you don't need to introduce yourself," she whispered in a low voice. "You seem like a very nice man, John."
      I smiled, though I could feel a bit of color coming into my cheeks. "How... um. How did you know my name?"
      She looked down. Some pieces of her flaxen tresses followed the movement. "I looked up all my neighbors' names in the White Pages online in case I ever needed them... you know, in an emergency or something like that." As her head rose, she looked like a child pleading for mercy from punishment the way her blue eyes glistened. I shrugged it off, figuring she was just embarrassed.
      "Well, it's always good to know who your neighbors are. In fact, I'll admit I knew your name already too, from a piece of junk mail that got delivered to my house. I'm glad you invited me over. I've wanted to get to know you for a long time."














      She smiled that Cheshire grin once again. "I'd like to get to know you too. Obviously, I do. I invited you over. But first let me get you a drink. Beer or wine?"
      I really wanted a beer, but I knew she was a wine drinker. White wine. I'd seen that through the window too. "Wine, please. White?"
      Her grin spread even wider. "We have the same taste. That's proving very favorable already," she purred. When she looked at me, her eyes sparkled.
      I'm going to score tonight, was all I could think as she sauntered into her kitchen before reemerging with our glasses of wine. I took a hasty sip and almost gagged. It was Riesling. I had expected her taste to run Chardonnay.
      "So," she began as she sat herself right next to me, her left thigh touching my right one, "Tell me a little about yourself, John. What do you do for a living? You're always doing work outside. Are you in landscaping?"
      "No. I own my own business. I'm an air conditioning/heating systems engineer."
      "Oh, interesting," she interrupted, her eyes inquisitive. "Where did you go to school?"
      I told her the name of the state college I'd gone to. I was sure it would pale in comparison to whatever Ivy League deal she must have attended to be employed by Yale, and I wanted to impress, so I tried to shift the subject. "I take it you're not from Connecticut originally."
      She shook her head and in one slug drank down about a half of the wine in her glass. "San Francisco. My..." her voice trailed suddenly, as she shook her head. "How about you? What are your roots?"
      I told her about how my grandfather, a farmer, had come down from Canada and settled in Bridgeport during the 1940s industrial boom to work in one of the factories. I told her how my father and mother had worked. I told her about my scholarship. I told her about my business, though I conveniently left out the part that it was struggling.
      "So you've come a long way," Jodie observed. "Hard work runs in your genes. That's an asset." She gulped down the rest of her wine and set the empty glass on the coffee table. I'd never seen a girl guzzle down so much in such a short interval. Not even in college. I wondered if underneath all of her ostensible mystery laid a girl who'd been the life of a sorority party, and I was curious how that might translate in the bedroom. The sound of a car pulling up chased away my puerile imaginings.
      "Excuse me a moment," Jodie apologized as she went to answer the door.
      "Hey, there sweetheart," a baritone roared from outside. "Company?"
      "Yes," I overheard her say, "a potential."
      "Well, let me introduce myself to the lucky bastard."
      Following the squeal of the screen door were four steady thumps in my direction. I caught a glimpse of the black shoes and black pants in my direct view. A sudden feeling of dread washed over me. When I looked up, the Guido was lifting his sunglasses. He reached out his hand, but I didn't shake it. I just sat there. Dumb.
      Guido stroked his mustache for a moment, as if considering a proposal, before turning to head up the stairs. "I'll just leave you two alone to business." His footsteps were heavy, like the steady march of a soldier. One, two, three, four...one, two, three, four...
      Jodie sat herself back down next to me, though leaving a bit of breathing room between us. It was almost as if she had reverted back to the awkward, paranoid person I'd observed through the window. Somehow I think I liked her better that way.
      "I guess I should explain," she sighed. "You see, Tony... he's my husband." Ouch!
      "So why did you ask me over?" I also had the mind to ask why the Guido didn't actually live with her, but didn't.
      She looked up, her blue eyes as shiny as cold gin. "Well, we're having some marital issues. You see, Tony has... well, let's just say he has a hard time performing, if you know what I mean. What's more, he's stubborn. He won't get treatment. And I really want to have a baby. It would certainly keep me better company than he does. He's always away on these long business trips. Anyhow, he's opposed to anything unnatural, so Viagra is out of the question. Plus, he's also opposed to my being artificially inseminated, though I have half the mind to do it!"
      I guzzled down my Riesling as if it was water. I almost broke the empty glass as I banged it on the coaster.
      "And what do you want from me? Counsel you two back to marital bliss so he can get it up for you?"
      She shook her head. "No. We want you to impregnate me."
      Holy shit! A snort escaped from my nostrils. I felt like a racehorse whose ass had just been slapped hard.
      "Tony is willing to pay a substantial amount for your help with our situation."
      There was loud, seemingly disembodied, cackle. I soon realized it had come from me.
      "Look, not that I don't think you're gorgeous, or that normally I wouldn't dream of you and me, but these aren't normal circumstances here. You have a husband."
      "I know," she sighed.
      "And I'm not a sperm donor. There are places to go for that, with men who are willing to offer their stuff up."
      "I know, but banks are making anonymity harder these days and Tony's paranoid. Besides, with you it could be special. I know it. I can sense it. And I trust you would keep it secret."
      The muscles in my forehead contracted, pulling my right eyebrow up. It felt funny, as if controlled by a puppeteer with invisible strings. I laughed, really cackled, as my hand seized the bowl of mixed nuts on the table.
      Jodie placed her hand on my knee and began to slowly glide it up along my inner thigh with light pressure. "He's - we're - willing to give you $50,000.00 in exchange for your services and silence. That's all you would have to do. I'll give you some time to think it over. Until then, let me go refresh your wine and check on the beef."
      My head was spinning. I really didn't need another glass of wine. I turned my head upward, as if in supplication, and rested it on the back of the couch.
      $50,000.00! It was a considerable chunk of money, all for living out my fantasy. I could have the two things I wanted most and yet it was having sex with a married woman - a woman married to someone who did God knows what - and it was knowing my child would be somewhere out there and that I'd never be able to play a role in his or her life. Could I really do that?
      "She sure is somethin' isn't she?" the Guido's baritone sang as his heavy footsteps came down the stairs. "Makes me wish I could spend more time with her than I do. Ah, but work calls. It always does. I'm a man of business. Kind of like you. So, have you thought about the offer?"
      "I have."
      "Good, 'cause it will make me happy knowing she's happy." He then leaned in and whispered in my ear. "Besides, I know you've had your eye on her, not that I blame you."
      My stomach felt as if it had been pulled right out of me. I thought I'd been discreet.
      The Guido smiled and put his arm around me, patting me on the back. His breath carried the repugnant odor of Johnnie Walker. "Normally, I'd break a guy's neck for that. But, with you, I'm willing to offer a compromise. You take the money, you get the remaining summer weekends with her, you get her pregnant. Then you leave us alone. You don't even so much as look at her afterward, and you don't even try to look her up or contact her when she moves in the fall."
      "But..."
      The Guido held up one hand, motioning silence, while he handed me the bowl of mixed nuts. "No buts... it's a deal. So, how about those Mets?"
      I shook my head and snickered. Maybe it was the Guido. Maybe it was Jodie announcing dinner was served. Maybe it was the fact that I'd taken a handful of cashews, peanuts and almonds and was stuffing them into my face while nodding my head up and down like that bobble-head doll in my truck. Whatever it was, I knew beef was on the menu and I was hungry.




"A finalist for the 2009 Rita Dove Poetry Award, my fiction and poetry have appeared in Weirdyear, Art Times, Blinking Cursor, Lunarosity, Dark Lady Poetry, The Helix, The Broken Plate, Eleutheria: The Scottish Poetry Review, Nefarious Ballerina, and Sage Woman. (To see some of this work, please visit www.jenniferahudson.com/bibliography.) I have two poems appearing in the new anthology, lifeblood, published by Chickaree Press, and an article in the forthcoming volume Women on Poetry: Writing, Revising, Publishing and Teaching (McFarland), edited by Carol Smallwood, Colleen S. Harris and Cynthia Brackett-Vincent. I am currently pursuing my MFA in Writing at Albertus Magnus College in New Haven, CT. " Jennifer A. Hudson jenniferahudson.com jenniferahudsonwriter.blogspot








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Contributors this Issue:   Cassie Premo Steele      Charles Watts      Barbara Brooks       Scott Kaestner       April Avalon

Edward Palumbo      B. Z. Niditch       Gerald Solomon      Mike Berger      Carl Scharwath    Martin Rosner    Shiv Dutta

B. Z. Niditch    Lucy Painter    Patricia H-F Moore    Diane Mierzwik    Adrienne Pine    Tracy Hauser    Meg Tuite    D. L. Luke

John Biesecker    Robert McParland    Ron Koppelberger   Ronald C. Paxton    Amanda Sington Williams

Rosa Alexander with co-author shELAH    Jennifer A. Hudson    Ernest Williamson   Dan Williams  
 


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