Controllers, by Matthew Walsh

The sign for Brighton read BRIGH because Hurricane Samantha ripped half the town sign down a summer before and it never got replaced.  On the highway, he told himself that there were people more fucked up than him, certainly. It took four hours to get to Brighton from Halifax. Grier would arrive in Brighton at 3 AM. He drove straight, stopping for coffee and wading in ferns up to his waist to piss, his breath fogging on the night air. Everything was quiet and dark.  The stars were so bright. He liked astronomy, but he could never see stars in the city because of the smog.

Finally, he pulled onto the dirt road that led to the cottage.

It was Lisa’s family cottage. She’d been staying there for the last six months. Grier squeezed the bridge of his nose, branches scratched the sides of his Lincoln, green leaves stunned in the headlights swathed over the windows.

Grier hit the breaks, and screamed. There was a moose in the middle of the road.

He honked. The moose wouldn’t move. What was a moose capable of? He knew they were the giants of the forest.  The cottage was a half mile away, he could walk it, but the moose…. He couldn’t get the car around the moose. He backed up,  headlights on the moose, as it faced away from the car. Grier did his stress-breathing exercises.

Lisa banged on the car window. She had a frying pan in her hand, wearing a green bathrobe he’d never seen her in before. Her hair was wet. He rolled the window down. “What are you doing here?” Lisa demanded.

There were eggs in the frying pan,  enough for two. The moose was gone. He looked up at Lisa.

“I came to bring you a couple of things from the house.”

“And you slept here? You’re fucked, Grier.”

Grier knew Lisa was going to leave him when he caught her watching porn in the solarium. He came home to the condo on the eighteenth floor, kicking off his alligator shoes. He heard a faint new sound, buzzing, which he thought was the panini grill. When he opened the solarium door, he saw Lisa on the daybed with a pair of floral underwear around her ankles, a sweating glass of club soda and lime, through which he saw Lisa’s hand, with the controller, rewinding a scene that he’d missed but Lisa wanted to see again.

In Lisa’s other hand was a vibrating blue egg, which dropped from her hand and skittered along the oak floor. Lisa screamed, her leg tangled in the blanket and she fell hard on the floor, knees first. She screamed, holding her knee, the porn music whispering below the screams, the little blue egg buzzing on the floor like it had places to go.

Lisa couldn’t say how long she would be gone. Friends had been asking. Grier didn’t know what to tell them. She took nothing with her, but wanted the panini grill, but she left it behind even though she loved it.

Lisa was comfortable in the country with no internet, but she had a phone line. He didn’t know anyone who could live without the internet, he said to Lisa one night. “You don’t have to. You have plenty of internet in the city.” Lisa said.

“I don’t want the internet. I want you.” Grier confided walking around the small, empty blue room across from their bedroom. Lisa had painted it a starlight blue. “I should come out this weekend.” Grier said, looking down on the city from the blue room.

“I’ve gotta get three paintings ready for an installation in Stellarton.” Lisa countered.

Grier thought he would disrupt her creative process.  She went there to be alone. That’s what therapy teaches, Grier thought.  If Lisa needed solitude, he would provide it the only way he knew how, with his absence.

Grier and Lisa exchanged occasional emails, subject header: CONDO. He refused to sell the condo. He would not downgrade. Grier spent more time at the office, working on menu layouts for restaurant chains.

One night he dreamed about dogs.  For two days he walked by a pet shop, and finally decided on a little white and brown dog. He brought the dog home but when the claws scratched the hardwood floor he thought he should return it. The wood was imported and expensive.

He tried keeping the dog on the kitchen laminate, but all it did was screech all night.  He tried to return the dog but the pet store would not let him. “There’s nothing wrong with the dog at all,” Grier said, setting the dog on the check-out counter. He rubbed the dog’s head and looked at the cashier.

“We can’t take the dog back because he’s been outside. He could make the other dogs sick.” The cashier stapled a stack of receipts together. “A pet is not a toss-off, Bucko.”

Bucko.

“It was a big mistake,” Grier said.

“We’re closing in ten minutes.”

A few days later, Grier thawed some tilapia fillets. He wanted to call Lisa but she was probably chopping down a tree. Diana arrived for dinner when the fish was crispy and hot. Diana had perfect timing. She wore a black dress with pearls, and took her shoes off at the door.  “Grier, why aren’t you smiling? Still not smiling yet? Aren’t you happy to see me?”

“I`m thinking about Lisa.” Grier said, pushing away his wine. Diana laughed with her whole face, putting a hand delicately on his shoulder. “You’re a real deluded one, my god, Grier! It’s been a year!”

“Six months.” Grier looked out at the sunset. “I feel incomplete without her,” Grier said, setting the dinner table.

“Well, Lisa feels complete without trying for the baby,” Diana said. “I’ve come to terms with her feelings.  She’s still so young, Grier.”

“She’s in Brighton.”

“The perfect place for her,” Diana said. “Oh, Grier, I love you both–even through the troubles.”

“She never liked you.”

“We’ll all laugh about it in a few years.”

Grier was not laughing. The three of them had been close through both procedures, and while Diana had done this kind of thing before, Lisa grew uncomfortable and distant, and dropped the idea of a shared parenting strategy.

Diana broke into her soft boiled egg. “You should see the look on your face,” She said, “Think about getting a little tuck. Tighten your chin up.”

When she went to the bathroom, Grier snatched Diana’s phone up and checked her incoming messages. Lisa was there, sixth from the top! His eyes ate helplessly at the shared messages. They only went back a month, but Lisa mentioned someone named Sidney.

Was Sidney a lover from Brighton? Grier heard Diana cough and returned the phone to the side of her plate, pouring them both more wine. They had been such good friends he didn’t want to make things weirder. Diana came back, scratching her head. “Why is there a puppy dish in the kitchen?”

“Oh, Grier, you beloved fool.” Diana said, laughing helplessly as she put her shoes on. She was almost crying. She kissed both of his cheeks and then repeated the act. “Will you walk me to the lobby?” She asked.

“I’ll walk you to the elevator.”
Her purple coat was draped over her arm, and her lips were straight. “Oh, you cheer me up.” Diana said, and  kissed him softly on the neck before stepping out into the hallway in her bare feet. “Call me a cab?”

“You’re a cab.”

When Diana had left, Grier packed his car and drove to Brighton. He told her he didn’t want to fight. Lisa looked up the road, where Grier assumed this “Sidney” person was, possibly emerging from the shower, looking for his green housecoat. He got out of the car and stood in front of Lisa for the first time in six months. “I had the urge to see you,” Grier said. “Work is bonkers. Totally bonkers. I brought you something.”

“What?” Lisa asked. Grier gestured to the back window. She peered in, then frowned. “The panini grill?”

“It’s the panini grill.”

“Grier–”

“I panicked. I had to see you!” Grier said, with his arms open. Lisa started walking towards the cabin, shaking the cold eggs out of the frying pan along the dirt road. He followed her. Lisa’s pace quickened, until she reached the front door steps, where she shut the door behind her. Grier stood in the driveway, hands in his pockets.

Lisa came out later and handed him a black coffee. She wore jeans and a shirt, one Grier remembered picking out for her. “I`m going out for a few hours, so why don’t you go into town and do something?”

“I`ll just stay–”

“No, you wont,” Lisa said, jingling her keys around her ring finger. “And you design restaurant menus, how can work be totally bonkers?”

“Do you know how many pictures of hamburgers end up looking like top hats on menus?”

“I couldn’t even guess.”

“Tons of them.”

“I`ll be back late,” Lisa said, pointing Grier’s car. “I need you to leave so I can leave.”

“Then I might go to that diner in Bayfield, that country kitchen,” Grier said. Lisa got in her car, giving him a thumbs up, then waited for him to drive off. He watched her shrink in his rear-view from her spot in the middle of the road.

When he came back from Bayfield, the moose was in the road again. A small one. A bag of apples was sitting beside it. Grier honked at the moose and this time it looked at him with big wet eyes. He parked the car, and slowly walked around the moose, who huffed at him and slowly chewed an apple.

Lisa had taken the extra front door key from the hiding spot. Grier walked circles around the cottage, looking for an opening. At the back of the house was the bedroom. Through the sliding glass doors he saw that Lisa had rearranged things. Large canvasses leaned against the wall, a large nest of blankets laid beside her bed.

Grier froze and looked into the foliage. He took a few steps and listened. Something was out there, he thought. He walked back to the car. The moose was gone, the apples trampled and scattered everywhere. He waited cautiously in his car, checking the door locks.

When Lisa’s car honked behind his, Grier drove up to the cottage. Lisa was out before him. It was dark, and the stars were out, and Lisa had a box with her. He wanted to know where she had gone, but instead he said, “There was a moose in the road!”

“Sometimes she comes around. She’s been around here since the winter.” Lisa said, tenderly, as she opened the door to the cottage and put the box on the counter. “She’s a bit of a local celebrity.”

“Pretty tiny for a moose.” Grier said, folding his arms.

“She’s a juvenile. You’d know all about that,” Lisa said, smiling. Grier breathed a sigh of relief. She was laughing, she was opening up.

“I think she’s sick.”

“She has a healthy appetite.” Lisa said, pouring water from the faucet. “You should check into a hotel if you don’t plan on driving back to the city.”

“I had dinner with Diana last night.”

“Why are you here?” Lisa tried to say calmly. Grier took his shoes off. “Don’t take your shoes off. You aren’t staying!”

“Why?”

“Go back to the city!”

“Why?”

“Because I don’t know why you’re here!” Lisa stormed towards the shoes, grabbing them before Grier could stop her. She chucked them across the lawn, then pushed Grier out on the porch. “Why would you come here and mention Diana?”

“I thought you would want to know!”

“I don’t want to know!” Lisa said.  They spoke through the crack in the door.

“I thought you loved Diana!”

“Leave, please.”

“We can make this work,” Grier said. Moths were flickering against the porch light, touching the bulb with their furry heads like they wanted to get inside the glowing circle. “Make it work together.”

“It was a mistake!” Lisa said, closing and locking the door. Grier walked down the steps and into the grass. His socks were soaked, the night was misty. Fog rolled in from the lake and swamps north of the property. Grier found his left shoe and looked up at the house, all black and closed up and not his anymore.

The shed wasn’t locked so Grier slept in it. He woke up in the early morning to another sound. Blue light shone over the top of the trees, and through a gap in the shed wall he could see the moose, racing towards Lisa who stood off the porch with a bowl. His immediate urge was to scream out, but the moose came to a halt and nuzzled Lisa with its head. Lisa pressed her head to its cheek. She held an apple in her hand and the moose ate from it, licking Lisa’s palm.

The moose came around because Lisa was feeding it. When she left, Grier called animal services and a man showed up with a rifle. “She is a bit of a local celebrity,” Kenny with the rifle said, “moose being that friendly and coming from the woods must be sick.”

“Lyme disease.” Grier agreed, with his arms folded in front of his chest. Kenny combed the woods and couldn’t find the animal and promised he would be back at dusk. “Is dusk a good time for moose?” Grier asked.

“The best time,” Kenny said, swinging into his truck, and driving back to town.

Grier spent the afternoon collecting blueberries in a bucket. Lisa came back when he was carrying the panini grill to the porch. Lisa was swinging car keys on her middle finger. “Are you finally leaving?” Lisa called to him. She juggled a bag of groceries, looking around the property. Grier laid the panini grill on the porch. “What are you doing with the moose?”

“The moose comes around in the morning and I feed it,” Lisa said. “Diana texted me this morning. Please don’t drag me through shit again.”

“What did she say?” Grier thought Diana would be able to get through to Lisa, get everything back on track. Lisa put the groceries on the kitchen counter and leaned against the counter, looking at Grier disgustedly. “She said you had a dog.”

“I had a dog,” Grier said, “I left him tied to a pole outside work and when I came back he was gone.”

“Is that what happened? Could anyone be so heartless? Go find it, Grier. Go find that dog and be happy.”

“What are you doing with that moose?”

“It’s still a young moose. It needs me.”

“Animal services came to remove the moose.” Grier said.

“They came here, unprovoked, to stop a moose from sitting on a dirt road?”

Grier nodded seriously.

“I`m calling the police to remove you, how’s that?” Lisa went into the house with her cellphone and Grier followed her. It was almost late afternoon. When was dusk?

Lisa ran to the bedroom. She yelled at Grier for following her inside, and slammed the bedroom door in his face, but not before Grier saw the nest of blankets up close, with long dark hairs on the linens. Grier felt acid rise in his throat. “Do you have that animal sleeping with you in the house?”

“She has no mother!” Lisa said from behind the door.

“Is the moose Sidney?”

“The police are on their way!”

“Great, I have my amazing ordeal to explain.” Grier yelled, shaking the door handle.

“If a door’s closed, don’t open it!”

Grier bit his lip, wanting to scream but he didn’t want to treat her like an animal. He heard Lisa open the sliding glass door, and saw through the windows the top of her head coming around the house. From the porch, Grier spotted Lisa leading the moose back into the bedroom. A vehicle was coming up the road, and Grier’s heart sank further when he saw it was Kenny.

Kenny stepped down off the truck. Seeing Lisa with in a white dress with the moose reminded Grier of the covers of romance novels. “Get off my goddamned property, Kenny!” Lisa shouted. Kenny held his hands up.

Grier heard more vehicles coming. Lisa disappeared inside with Sidney. From a window, Lisa screamed, “This is not your property, Grier. You think you own everything?”

Grier thought about where he left the dog. The day after buying it, he drank champagne to celebrate. Day-old, it had lost some of it’s bite. He made dinner and ate slowly while the dog whimpered at his feet. It sat under the table and rested its chin on the rung of the chair, maintaining eye contact and making Grier nervous. What the hell did it want?

The fish was dry, so Grier gave it to the dog. The puppy wobbled over and sniffed Grier’s foot. Grier raised his legs into the air. Grier put the champagne flute in the sink and went to bed with the door closed, thinking about the mistake he’d made.

Lisa and the moose stood in the window, unashamed, while Grier, Kenny and the people from animal services pooled around the house. Dusk, Grier thought. Lisa and Sidney stood side by side in the window as men approached the house.  One of the officers removed the panini grill off the porch. Grier rubbed the space between his eyes, thinking wildly. All this time? He thought, all this time? There were signs all over town: DO NOT FEED THE ANIMALS. Grier hoped Lisa realized she could only blame herself. Kenny was knocking on Lisa’s door.

Grier backed up from the crowd, and cut through the bushes to where the towncar was parked. The leaves of the trees and bushes were wet, cold like a puppy’s nose.

 

Matthew Walsh is a Nova Scotian writer, and his work has appeared in Carousel, Joyland and Matrix. New work is forthcoming in The Quotable, Pulp Magazine and Johnathan Magazine.

You are Here, by Kate Kimball

You don’t know his name.  When the defense attorney says it, followed by a staccato of questions, it is foreign, a muddled language that your tongue can’t make its way around.   It is a bullet grazing your ear.  It takes you a long time to answer questions—maybe two minutes, sometimes three.  You had practiced the answers for weeks.  You had role-played and rehearsed.  You had spent one hundred and thirty dollars on a skirt.  You wore low heels, a formal sweater, simple earrings, a hint of perfume.  For the most part, you looked like there wasn’t anything wrong.  You looked okay.  There is a way to remake the experience, your lawyer had said.  There is a way to show up and say what you need to say, but this time, something is different because you are here and he is here and he is going away.  No.  Not like last time.  He is here and after, you can leave.

There is a quiet hum in the room from the fluorescent lights and you find some space where you can step outside of yourself, leave your body on the stand, fly above and look down on the room.  Even though you promised you would work on not separating from your body and use your newly learned coping skills, like breathing slowly, you can’t help it now, and do it anyway.

The jury is a mix of young and old—more men than women.  You take note of the older man in the wheelchair, the woman with a hijab and shy eyes, the heavily tattooed older man, an earring in his ear.  Everyone looks bored.  Everyone, except a woman—older—a touch of gray in her hair.  Her eyes look strained and there are moments, you note, where the attorney speaks and she looks as though she wants to spring forth and ask a question.  For that reason, she reminds you of your mother.

You had almost asked your mother to come.  Almost.  But, your sister was getting married the same week and she was busy.  Incredibly so.  Your mother was serving the luncheon at the local ward house—a familiar tradition only found in Salt Lake City—something you had initially wanted to blow off anyway.  You could never fit with those stereotyped Mormons.  They were so happy and so calm and family-oriented.  Everything was about service.  Everything was about gratitude.  It wasn’t their fault.  Something had always bothered you about your own tribe.  But now, you would give anything to be there.

We need to review that night, the attorney begins.  I know this is difficult, but we need to know what happened.  Can you do this?

You’re above the attorney, staring at his shoes, which you figure must be Cole Haans, and the way his hair is thinning in the back, making an odd orb on top of his head.  His voice is solid and for a moment, it scares you, before you remember that you are here—up above—so high and that you need to go down and enter yourself again.

You breathe in and breathe out.

Yes, you tell the attorney.  Yes.

You wish you could pray, scramble a million different fragments of prayer together, but the blood swirls around your head.  Your temples throb.  The pressure; the pain.

Yes.

You know this man.  You know him and his cousin and his friend and how they sat on the floor snorting lines of crystal off of your driver’s license and taking turns tangling their fingers in your hair and making fun of your religion and making lewd comments about your body.  At first, they took turns stuffing their fists underneath the front of your dress, rubbing fingers over your nipples and later, moving in between your legs.  The cousin said you had nice hair.  It was long unruly then.  Now it is short—cut to your chin.  Your mother says that it suits you.

The man knew your brother.  He knew your brother’s name and age and workplace and all about the fishing trip taken last summer in Colorado and he knew how your brother had failed rehab twice and had moved in and out of your parents’ house so often that you could hardly count the times.  He knew where you lived and he knew the shortest route to take.  When he saw you walking home from school and offered you a ride, it was still light out.  Early, even.  You tell the attorney that it was maybe 7 pm and it was terribly cold.

November?  He asks you.  You wore a coat?

You have a hard time remembering what happened before.  But you do remember the coat.  After, it was all that remained.

You had the coat when you presented at the hospital, the attorney reminds you.  Do you remember how you got there?

You had stood in the lobby of the hospital staring at a map of the many wings.  There was Labor & Delivery, Pediatrics, Med/Surg, Emergency.  The map was a never-ending realm of cages.  It was cold, and you only had a sock and the coat, the shards wrapped tightly around your frame, mind spinning around the star on the map, You are Here, You are Here, You are Here.  

Until you were not.

A man brought you a wheelchair, the attorney offers.  He was a radiology tech, just off of work; he described you as being in shock.  Confused.  You didn’t answer him when he asked if you needed help.  Everything was so fast.

How did you get to the lobby?

Of the hospital?  You ask.

He nods slowly, and you try to pull yourself back in.

You breathe in and breathe out.

Before the hospital…before.  You had tried to sit up, first, and it was as though you couldn’t breathe.  The air was cold.

There was snow outside and burned-out Christmas lights.  There was a pile of tightly rolled newspapers by the front door.  There was a crack in the window, a dead spider in the sill.

How did you leave the house?  The attorney asks.  What happened then?

First, you threw up.  It wasn’t easy, though.  No. You wished for death when your diaphragm heaved.  For a moment, you thought you would pass out—the pressure was so great.  The broken Christmas lights.  The shards of glass.  You had been unable to make it to the bathroom and the vomit had been spewed messily by the wall.  You had needed to go to the bathroom and hadn’t made it there, either.  You remember the way you couldn’t stop even though you tried.  You remember the smell.

You made it out, the attorney offers.  In your statement—you mentioned the door.

Everything was about getting to the door.  You moved slowly, dizzily along a hallway.  Half the carpet was torn up.  The wood was sharp and you worried, for a moment, about splinters.  You felt terrible.  You were sick.

You hadn’t had insulin for a long time…you picked up a broken bottle from the floor.  You tried to smell it, but the only thing you could smell was the urine.  Your purse had been gutted—messes of biology notes, a torn book by Kafka, used syringes, an empty bottle of Tylenol.  Everything was turned inside out.  Your wallet was gone.

Did you have a watch to tell time?

No, you say.  You have no idea how long you were there.

The insulin was a concern because you knew your blood sugar was high.  Your head was cloudy and you felt sticky and hot, but cold.  You were freezing.

You felt hot…and cold?  The attorney pauses.

Yes.

Yes, hot and sick and tired and sore, but the door was there and you could see it.

Did you try to stand?

No, you whisper.  Your legs were a jellied mess and you were afraid, terribly afraid of what was on them.  It was urine or spit or blood or semen or feces or vodka or all of it and more.  But, you told yourself it was oil paint.  It was framed up and captured.  It was abstract.

Paint.  In your purse, you had two tubes of oil and three brushes.  The canvas you had been carrying earlier was the torso of a woman, her arm stretched in front of her breasts.  You were still working on her tendons, the rope of muscle from shoulder to elbow.  It was as though she was going to shoot a bow, the arrow flying ahead.  Away.  She didn’t have a face.  But, you thought of adding one just then.  You had to get it done.  You had a terrible headache.  But, still.

The problem was, you begin.  There weren’t any clothes.

Your clothes, you mean?  You couldn’t find them?

You were panicked for clothes.  In the beginning, you had been walking home, snow beginning to fall.  Underneath, you wore black underwear and bra.  It was important to match, your roommate had said.  What if you were ever in a car accident?  You wore a slinky blue dress, a pair of black tights, gray boots, a thin sweater, the long black wool coat.

Did you remove your own clothes?  The attorney asks carefully.  Was it by choice?

The house was his grandmother’s, the man had said.  She was in California visiting his aunt.  In the kitchen, she had linoleum that was swirled with brown and gold.  The gold, oddly, was the color of one of the paints you had purchased at the college bookstore that day.  She had white ceramic jars for flour, sugar, salt.  She had an elephant-shaped cookie jar.  She had crocheted mismatched towels.

He offered you a beer.

No, you say.  You didn’t take it.  You had drunk beer before, yes.  But, you had walked by the church one Sunday and had found yourself going in, watching the entire service in your dirty jeans with one ear bud in your ear playing Shirley Manson.  Eventually, you turned it off and crossed your legs, listening to the hymn instead.  You wondered if you would ever believe.

The man told you he had never liked Mormons.

He wanted you to meet his friend.  You remembered the friend’s name—Russ.  He had showed up once at the bar where your brother played.  Russ had long dark hair that he had formed into messy dreadlocks.  He wore wrinkled t-shirts and holey jeans.  His arms were so skinny that you thought they looked like they belonged on a child.  There was something wrong.

But, it hadn’t been hard to get you from the car to the house.  No.  The man wanted you to meet Russ.  He wanted to show you his paintings and he wanted to ask you about your brother’s music.  He told you that your eyes were beautiful and he touched your arm, asking you to come in and stay.

You didn’t know what made you do it.

But you know that there was a piece of you that cared so much it made you reckless.

It was everything, really.  It was studying chemistry and barely passing classes and losing the ability to add and subtract.  It was hours and hours of studying and writing equations over and over and passing with 72% and that not being enough, never being enough.  It was taking any job that came your way and making deposits of two dollars into a checking account that was on the constant verge of overdraft.

It was because you didn’t know if there was a God.

It was because your mother had told you that you choose everything in life, including how and when you die.  You chose your family and the place to which you were born.  You could never blame anyone; never.  Everything, always, was your doing.

Did you want to go into the house?

Yes.

Because he had touched you and it meant something.  Because he had touched you and told you that you had an incredible smile and because he seemed kind, you would go anywhere with him.  You would do anything.  You were that lonely.

Yes.

But you can’t say this aloud.  No.  Not here.

You took an art class that semester because it looked interesting and because you couldn’t, just couldn’t find meaning in equations.  You drew naked figures of all sizes.  A man with a deformed leg.  An overweight woman with heavy breasts.  A flat chested Asian woman who looked like a child.  You found it meaningful.

Was this the man you went inside the house on 32nd East with?  The attorney points to a man you cannot look at.  But, you do focus on his hands.  They mimic the movement that he once had inside you, rapid, strong, agitated.

You can’t answer.  Not yet.  You float above and look down, heat rising to your head in embarrassment.

Do you know him?

You told him that because you were trying to change your life, you couldn’t sleep with him.  Because you decided that maybe, maybe there was a God, it wouldn’t be right.  Maybe there was a place for you in His kingdom, your mother close by.  It didn’t matter if you went to medical school and made a six-figure income.  It didn’t matter that he knew all of your brother’s songs and he thought he was a genius.  It didn’t matter that you liked his laugh.

Let’s go back to the clothes.

The woman juror who reminds you of your mother seems, for a minute, interested in this.  Clothes.  Everything, once you moved out of your mother’s house, revolved around an avoidance of laundry.

At the time, you had impeccable taste.  You spent almost every paycheck on rent, diet soda, and clothes.  You bought tailored skirts made of satin and nylon.  You bought heeled shoes that made you look like the woman you were not—confident, controlled, careful.  There were heavy bangles, earrings made of precious stones.  Cobalt blue blouses, cuffed red slacks, heavy belts.  Lots of comforting black and alluring grays.  Lace lingerie in the color of Easter grass that no one saw.  You could wear something different every day for three weeks without doing laundry.  At the time, this was important to you.

The man told you that he hadn’t slept in three days.  He asked you to ride his wave.

He wanted you to relax, open up, let him in.

Had you ever done drugs before?

Pot, you tell the attorney.  Once, soaking your feet in a bathtub in Colorado, where you went to visit your roommate’s parents.  It was over Spring Break.  All it did was make you cough.

The man wanted you to snort crystal.  He said it would make you not feel anything.  It would unleash your super powers.  You told him you wanted to leave—you had to go back to the canvas and finish the arm.  This was important.

Did he let you leave?

The room feels like an aquarium.  You seem to go forward, bump against glass and retract.  All the heads are looking at you.  You can feel their stares.

His cousin came in through the kitchen.  He was smoking and he carried a McDonald’s bag.  He offered you fries.

Take them, the man said, his hand crawling underneath your dress, stroking between your legs.

You didn’t.  Later, you wished you would have.

The thing was, you knew and didn’t know.  You knew when the man told you to take your dress off, you didn’t have an option.  You knew that when Russ appeared, the gun held loosely in front of your face, you didn’t have an option.  When the cousin had taken your wallet and laughed at the lack of money, you didn’t have an option.  All you had was a folded twenty dollar bill.  Money for food for the week.

You still said no.

Did you try to leave?  Did you try to get away?

You had never seen a gun before in your life.  Your brother didn’t hunt nor did your father.  Your mother thought any possession of weapons was morally wrong.  She believed in the words of Chekhov.  If a gun is placed on stage, it needs to go off…

You were afraid?  The attorney offers.

Yes, you admit.

The truth was, even though you were an adult, even though you were in college, you had never had sex.  There were men, of course.  You did what they wanted to a point.  You could handle the jumble of awkward limbs in a movie theater; you didn’t mind kissing or even going down on them in the dark, quiet interior of a car.  But you had never been led to what was next.  You held onto the idea of a temple marriage, like the one your parents had.  Like the one your sister was going to have.  You couldn’t be with someone for eternity if you had sex before marriage.  You could never walk into the temple feeling clean.

Because you are here and the man is here, you have to talk about these things.  You have to stumble through the fact that you began school with a 4.0 GPA and ended with a 2.4.  Perhaps if you had more knowledge at the time, you think now.  Perhaps you could have done what he wanted and left whole.  Was there a real difference between yes and no? Maybe yes was all it took to erase pain.

Let’s refocus, the attorney suggests.  How did you get to the door?

Staying still, you start.  You fumbled along the floorboards, your palms moving your body inch by inch.  At the time, you were afraid to breathe.  Perhaps the clothes were there, you say.  But, you couldn’t look.  You couldn’t stay in the hallway.

It was very dark.

Your blindness forced you to feel everything—the urine soaked floorboards, the wall smeared with feces, the shards of glass from the smashed bottle of vodka.  Later, you managed to find your dress.  In the store dressing room, it had made you like the others your mother went to church with.  You were together, then.  You weren’t a mess.

The dress was wet and torn.  It looked like trash.

Where had the men gone?

You didn’t know.  They had snorted a few lines, drank vodka from the bottle after.  They laughed about the way you had cum and had hit your head into a table when you tried to resist.

Perhaps they had fallen asleep.

Did they leave?

You had prayed then.  It was sloppy, poorly formed.  It was not in the language of your mother.  You knew that you had chosen this as you had chosen everything in your life up to this point, but you were still you and you couldn’t leave without clothes.  It was just too cold.

The coat was in a heap by the door, you tell the attorney.

You don’t tell him that you thought it was an answer to your prayer.

At first, it had almost seemed like the body of the cousin, the man that had spoken to you like he knew you.  You’ve always been so alone.  But I hear you.  I am your Savior.  At night, you can’t get his whispers out of your ear.

Did you put the coat on and leave immediately?

No.

The coat was a heavy thing and it was hard to figure out the belt.  You managed to pull it onto one arm and then you heaved, vomit trailing down the side of your mouth, falling on the coat.  Still, you didn’t care.  And later, when you kneeled and used the doorknob to pull yourself upright, you didn’t care.

Where did you go after you opened the door?  Did you try to go to any of the houses in the area?

No.

You were too cold and scared and dizzy and sick.  Your head pounded from being hit on the table.  You felt that your body was something newly unzipped.  Soon, everything was going to empty.  You couldn’t think about what was between your legs.  You couldn’t know.

Because it was November and it was snowing, you tried to walk quickly.  The snow stung your feet and the wind scraped your face.

You are here you are here you are here.

You didn’t have direction, exactly.  Your eyes hurt and it was hard to make out the signs in the dark.  Were you going north or south or east or west?  All you remembered was the 7-Eleven you had passed on the way to the man’s grandmother’s house.  There was a payphone.  There was a light.  You had to get there.

But your legs hurt.  Your blood was so high that there were shooting pains down your nerves.  Your feet throbbed and it was hard to walk.

So, eventually…you made it to the 7-Eleven?

Yes.

Yes because you had to get home and get insulin and take a shower and lay down.  Yes because there was the canvas and the stack of homework for Human Physiology and the Cell Biology final in two weeks.  Yes because you hadn’t talked to your roommate for three days and because you didn’t have any money, you had to call her collect.

When your roommate came and got you, you apologized for the smell.  You told her that you drank too much and wandered off.  The party was lousy, you said.  You didn’t miss anything.

You told her to take you home.  You promised her money for gas.

She didn’t want the money and insisted that you see a doctor.  Yes, she took you to the hospital and dropped you off in front.  After you left four days later, you went back to your apartment and found that she had completely moved out, never to be seen again.  For a while, you tried looking on Facebook.  You Googled her name.  No one knows where she went.  She just isn’t here.

The room feels like a wave that you can’t swim through and your head pounds.

Do you know this man?  The attorney repeats.  He points over to the man, the man whose body moved yours in a way that covered the anger of the world.  He said that he loved you.  He told you that he was your salvation.  I am your Savior.  He talked to you like he was the truth and the light, the path to follow to find home.

The attorney breathes in, waiting.

Pieces of prayer spurt inside your mind.  There is the cry for help.  If only you knew what to say.

Do you know you are here?  The attorney asks.

You are here and your mother is not and your sister is not and your brother is not.  Soon, your younger sister will be married to a man that will do things to her, all sorts of things, but because she says yes, they will be everything this isn’t.  Your sister and her husband will sleep next to each other under a quilt that your aunt sewed and whisper things, things not like you have heard, better things.  There will be hope.  You are here and maybe God is and maybe all you can do is pray in fragments.  Maybe your language will always be haiku.

Do you know this man?

Yes, you decide after breathing in and breathing out.  I do.

 

Kate Kimball is a PhD student at Florida State University.  Her work has appeared in The Hawaii Review, Ellipsis, Weber: The Contemporary West, Kestrel, and Arcadia among others. She has worked over fifty jobs and originally is from Salt Lake City.  Her work, at times, draws on these things.

The Obama Soap, by Michael Ndubuisi Agugom

He tore off his hand-me-down suit. He kicked off the fake-leather shoes. Chuka handed all to his task-boy. The boy, a poor lamb, who spoke more by nodding his head than using his mouth, put Chuka’s items into one of the ghana-must-go bags. Chuka was down to his boxers. He and his task-boy were at the head of the street.

A vagrant pregnant goat ambled towards them. She halted. She had the eyes of a septuagenarian and gazed at the duo momentarily, as though aware of what they were up to, and left them to carry on. The poor lamb thought the nanny goat admired Chuka’s naked physique. Chuka’s glistening shaved head, his broad shoulders, and his thick calves were features to admire.  He watched as Chuka drew in a deep breath. It was a beautiful morning and prospects were as bright as the risen sun. The task-boy grinned at him. Chuka returned the grin, he was not a selfish fellow.  Indicating his readiness, the task-boy nodded to Chuka. Chuka ran his thumbs back and forth inside the band of his boxers and tore down the street. He screamed, “It’s Obama! It’s Jonathan! It’s Obama!” as he ran.

Heads began to turn. In no time, the crowd he’d been seeking emerged: housewives. They began converging to catch a glimpse of Chuka. He made it to the tail of the street panting. He stooped over, hands on his knees gasping for breath. He rose and looked to the top of the street. Not enough audience yet. The street was about twelve poles, one of the longest he had taken on. The task-boy was leaning on the street signpost. The signpost at the entrance of the street indicated the name of the street but Chuka cared nothing for the names of city streets —he could hardly pronounce most—he thought of streets by their peculiar features. This street could only brag of one single-storied building. So in his mind, this was Single-Storey street.

The newly planted signpost was the only government presence on the street. The rest was a slum: caked brown earth, potholes the size of craters, dirt and dust that rose to give houses new coats, and enough rat carcasses to feed the hungry vultures. And there were plenty of filthy rags to be found in the street for Chuka to use. If perfect could describe anything by man, this was it.

He started his return lap to the head of the street, kicking up dust and picking up rags along the way. He screamed even louder this time. The deafening strength of his voice was a thunderclap. The women on the frontages were now calling on the ones inside to come out and behold the spectacle. One woman told another that it was the early manifestations of madness. Another woman thought Chuka was handsome and questioned why such a handsome young man would destroy himself with substance abuse. Yet, another insisted it was a new form of ritual. Young men nowadays would do anything for riches.

Chuka reached the head of the street, and he was satisfied for the turnout was thick. He carried the rags he had collected on his head. He looked like one among an exodus having crossed the desert. He sauntered back to the centre of the street and let drop the pile of rags.  He stood still. A good crowd, mostly women, surged around him. There was an air of expectation. Chuka wore a solemn look and yelled, “I’ve come to show you American wonder! If you’re a wife or a mother and you’re still inside then you’re not a good one.” He paused for effect. He shoved his thumbs in the band of his boxers and made to pull them down. The women ah-ed. He stopped and grinned wildly. The women began to drift closer around him like a haze.

“I’m sure you’re thinking, ‘is he a madman?’ I’m not. I’m here to show you the secrets of the high and mighty. I’m especially talking to our wives and mothers here gathered.

Look at these rags,” he said, picking up a few and raising them above his head. “These dirty rags will become clean again. Like dead bones that rise again.”

The women chuckled.

Carrying a basin and a bag full of sachet detergent and toilet soaps, the task-boy shouldered through the crowd that had circled around Chuka.

“I’ll show you that detergent pass detergent, just as man pass man. Not all men are equal; some are more equal than others. Some detergents too are more equal than others. I’m

a man of action. I believe in the principle of Thomas: show me your hand Master and I’ll believe you’ve risen! Can I get a hallelujah here-ei!”

“Hallelujah!” The women responded amused.

He was pleased, he knew he had their minds. “I too will show you how powerful this soap is.” He bid the women to fetch water. A generous basin of water was brought into the circle. The women buzzed around him.

“Move back a bit, move back. I need space. I don’t want to suffocate.”

They did.

He poured water into the empty basin, tore open a pack of detergent, poured a handful into the water, and stirred, all the while humming, “Come and see, American-wonder, come and see, American-wonder.” He picked out the filthiest rag and dumped it into the frothy water. “I’m about to show you the detergent used by great women. While the rag soaks well, let me tell you a small secret story that happened. Recently our First Lady went to America and sat with Mitchel Obama. I hope una know who she’s?

A woman eager for attention screamed, “Yes! Wife of American President.”

“You see! Even though you mothers wash, cook, and clean all day, you still listen to news and know who’s who in the world. Clap for yourselves beautiful mothers!”

They did excitedly.

“So, First Lady and Madam Obama started chatting. You know small-small talk and gossip.”

The women laughed.

“First Lady now ask Madam Obama, ‘Mitchel, what detergent do you use to wash your clothes and these fine curtains in White House?’ Do you know the detergent Madam Mitchel told her?”

The women screamed, “No-o!”

Chuka held a pack of the detergent up to the heavens. “Flora Detergent! And do you know the best part of the story?”

They chorused another, “No-o!”

“Patience! Wait for it! Before I finish my story, make we check on our rags.”

He threw his hands in the basin. After a few minutes of squeezing, he brought out the rag, transferred it into the plain water basin and rinsed. He brought out the rag again and held it up. To their amazement, it was cleaner than they could’ve possibly imagined.

The women cheered.

“Now hear the rest of the story. Madam Mitchel told our First Lady that it’s made by one of our own. It is made here and sent abroad for the world to use. But, like other things, we don’t value it. So, First Lady came back and declared that only this detergent will be used in Aso Rock Villa. You’re a woman here and you want your house to be as white as the White House and Aso Rock Villa. This is the detergent for you. It’s because of this soap that oyibo people called their government house White House: everything inside is sparkling clean. In fact, if you want to be wives of presidents, you want your husband to become president, use this detergent!”

The women guffawed and began to fetch their purses.

“But wait! That’s not all. I have tablet soap too. This soap does wonders to the skin. Just as the detergent washes your clothes clean, this one washes poverty off your skin completely. Wives, mothers! If you want to be as beautiful as the wife of a president, this is the soap for you—how many of you know that the American president is not even from America?”

“He’s from Kenya.” A woman screamed.

“You see! You see what I mean. The lovely madam confirmed it; she and her husband have been using this soap right from the days they were doing boyfriend-and-girlfriend. Mothers, nothing is impossible in this world. You can have children here and they’ll become presidents in  foreign lands. All you need is to bathe your children with this soap. If your children don’t become presidents, your children-children will become. That’s all. They call it Flora Soap. I call it Obama Soap! I call it what?”

“Obama Soap!”

“I call it what?”

“Obama Soap!”

“Get one for your husband! Get one for yourself! Get one for every one of your children! And if you are a good woman, get one for your neighbour! First come, first get!

Don’t think about it! Don’t wait for your neighbour to test it first…” He kept repeating as the women fought to buy off what was left. He sold out his stock on that street and wished he had brought more.

On the bus home, Chuka felt satisfied. As the bus wound through the heart of Victoria Island, heading for the mainland, he knew where his next sales stunt would be.

“Bring dirty rags on your way tomorrow,” he ordered the boy. “Tomorrow we’ll tread a different ground. We’ll hit jackpot tomorrow.” The boy nodded his head and smiled. If the poor lamb had known the ground Chuka meant, that smile would not have come to his face, and he would not have shown up the following morning.

Chuka’s father dreamt amply on his behalf. The old farmer, since his youth, wanted to be a famous politician. But the Civil War broke out and truncated his ambition. Chuka had to carry that burden on his father’s behalf. There was no encumbrance to Chuka not achieving it. Now, through the son the old farmer would be known as the father of a famous actor.
The old farmer imagined himself grinning into cameras at his doorstep, answering questions about how he managed to raise a fine actor on his small farm. Around his kinsmen, he bragged about how great his son would turn out. He took the trouble of buying current movies. He learnt names of all the big indigenous actors, Ezuruonye,  Elliot, Edochie, and could easily see the ones that bore resemblance to his son. His son would be on the screen soon.

Patiently, he waited.

Chuka had wanted to take a major in agriculture at the university and become a commercial farmer. But his father would not hear of such nonsense, he was not going to waste his small farm proceeds on training that he could just as well give to his son.  Chuka fought back, but his father’s position was as clear as the full moon: either he take another major and become someone who wears a suit or forget university altogether. Thinking to upset his father, he opted for a degree in Theatre Arts. In Chuka’s estimation, such a degree was for carefree youths who knew nothing better than to use the degree to exorcise the demons within them. He thought he had succeeded in riling his old man, but the old farmer was all the happier at the news. It could only have been a stroke of providence that his son had by chance or destiny validated his own youthful ambition. The old farmer began to see the newspaper headline: Son of a farmer receives award for the category of Best Actor in… He did not torment his mind over the title of the movie. It could be Elephants on Rampage in Kenya for all he cared provided the award went to his son.

After graduation, Chuka returned home to join his father on the rice farm, but his father once again made it clear there was no theatre or movie-set on his farm. Chuka would have to take his certificate to the city where the sheet of paper would merit value. If he sent Chuka to university to study only to return to his farm, he might as well have spent the money buying cats and rearing them to chase away the rats that were eating up everything in his house.
Chuka realized that getting his father to change his mind would be as easy as cooking stone to soften. He gathered his guts in his hands and made up his mind to go to the city. But, in truth, he had brought only his body to the big city. He left his mind on his father’s rice farm.

The morning he was to leave, the happy old farmer sat his son down and told him what he had heard of the big city. “There,” he said, “you could sell pebbles as diamonds to people if you were clever enough. You could also end up buying pebbles as diamonds if you were dumb enough. By all means, make sure you’re the seller—not the buyer.” Those words were glued to Chuka’s mind as he left his village.

Chuka had never been to any big city. The only place he had been to close in size was the university town where he had studied. He did not suffer anxiety when the signboard to the big commercial city seemed to say to him that the world functioned differently here.

After one year in the city, Chuka could not score a cheap commercial much less a role in a movie. Whatever he had been taught in the university made no sense in the world of movies. There were no theaters or plays in which he could perform. His first movie audition was disastrous. He had brought along his degree certificate in the hopes it would help him edge out the uneducated riffraff of aspiring actors. The director asked him what that sheet of paper in his hand was. “My Degree Certificate, sah.” Chuka had said. The director and the casting crew rolled over themselves in laughter. “Were you told this is a job interview?” the director asked. After a year of wearing suits and knotting ties to countless interviews, Chuka concluded those interviews were only staged to fulfill some standard recruitment procedure and he gave up on them. He was about to return to his father’s rice farm to escape eviction from the landlord when his neighbour, Aliboy, came to his doormat bearing a small sachet of hope.

“How can you just give up?  In this city you can make money in many ways, not necessarily collar jobs. You just need to be brave!”

“Easy to say. You have a job.” Chuka countered.

“Job indeed! What do you think I do for a living?”

“Everyone knows—”

“Ol’boy, forget! My suit is only packaging. That’s what this city demands of you: packaging.” Aliboy wore a suit every morning to work but not many knew what he really did for a living. He was always in a nice suit, so everyone imagined him seated on a swivel chair in an opulent office, his legs up on a polished mahogany table. The picture was easy to imagine since he told whoever asked he was an Executive Marketer.

“I sell detergent in the market. I take off this suit when I get to the company shop in the market and wear my hustle clothes. Look, in this city anything can bring in money. Nobody cares how provided the money come in plentifully.”

Chuka was dumbfounded.

Aliboy explained that he made commissions on the sales of detergent and toilet soap. He sold only in the market. He encouraged Chuka to come in on the business at least until he could secure a more lucrative job. Back in his room from which he was to be evicted, Chuka thought of all that Aliboy had told him.  And then he made up his mind. He would do it.  But, he would not just sell in the market. He would take the product to the doorstep of the buyers, and he would sell more. But after a month or so, it had not yielded much success and moving door-to-door was exhausting. He pondered hard again. The city hungered for spectacle—he would provide it with one. He could use his theatre training after all. He would take his drama to the street. And he would make more sales and more money. But he would not rest on his laurels. He would be a seller to both the poor and the rich.

He was beginning to see the wisdom in his father’s words. True, he was not acting on any theatre stage or before a camera, but he was almost certain it would not be long before the entire city would know him as the young man who put up a good street show and raked in big sales. And who knows, one of those big film directors could be on the streets in Victoria Island and spot him at his clever drama. Chuka could not have been happier. His heart was filled with a sense of accomplishment and optimism.

Aliboy was on his way in that night, when he saw Chuka out on the balcony, a bottle of beer next to him, sporting a lavish grin on his face.  It was the third night in a row. Chuka’s happiness worried Aliboy.

“Ol’boy, wetin dey happen?” He approached Chuka. “This wan that every evening you’re downing bottles of beer.”

Chuka grinned, but Aliboy did not return it. “The gods have remembered me.”

“Remembered you?” Aliboy sat down.

“My hard work is paying off. My sales are hitting the roof. By this time tomorrow  I will have made enough money to pay that bedbug that calls himself landlord.”

“Ol’boy! For real! Make dem give me one bottle na.”

Chuka called out to the girl across the way who sold beer to bring another bottle.

“Is it the same lines you’re using?”

“No. I improvise given the particular street. Tomorrow will be my biggest day.”

“How? You want to add otumopko to it?”

“No-o. For what na. I’m hitting Victoria Island.”

“Vic-what?”

“Victoria Island, V.I.”

“Of course, I heard you the first time. Ol’boy, I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

“You thought so too when I told you about putting up drama on the street.”

“This one is different. V.I. is where the rich, the highly educated, the politicians, the powerful—”

“Exactly! That’s where they all reside. And that’s why I’m going there with my drama. They’ll appreciate my performance more than these poor ignorant slum women.”

“Hmm!”Aliboy sipped his beer. He said nothing more.

That night Chuka dreamt of rich women. Not only did they buy off his stock, they took his phone number so they could make direct orders from him. Aliboy, on the other hand, had a restless night. He could not help dreaming of Chuka, suddenly a rich man, while he remained a pauper. It irritated him that the boy he had introduced to the small business was about to make fortunes from it. He got out of bed perspiring like the bottle of beer he’d had. He calmed his nerves with a stick of cigarette. He thought about it for a while then concluded that if he had had as much education as Chuka, he too would have been clever enough to employ such ingenuity to sales. The blame for his lack of education fell on his own father. He threw out the envy in his heart like dirty water in a bowl. And returned to bed.

The signboard at the entrance of the street read: “Wandering Is Not Allowed Here.” Chuka strutted in chuckling to himself, these rich people have a funny way of making everything about them appear exclusive. It was a cul-de-sac of about eight poles. Purely residential buildings. Buildings with gates and fences as high as his grandfather’s yam barns lined the street. The street was tarred. It was so clean that Chuka thought anyone could eat right off the ground. The houses displayed manicured shrubs and front-lawns. The street bore the silence and solemnity of a graveyard. Chuka alone saw the possibility of bringing the street to life. He could not understand why living, breathing people would lock themselves up in these ostentatious mausoleums. No doubt behind every gate, every door, and every window bored housewives hungered for a little spectacle.

His task boy was a drenched leaf. For reasons Chuka could not fathom, the boy seemed terrified. Chuka thought light of the boy’s state.  He took it to imply the boy was dazed by the display of affluence. He pitied him. He took off his suit-jacket, his necktie and shirt, then slipped off the suit-pants, and was down to his boxers.  He grabbed a few rags and began trotting along the street bellowing out, “It’s Obama! It’s Jonathan! It’s Obama” and dropping the rags he would retrieve on the way back.  At the end of the street, he took a breather.

He looked ahead to ascertain how many curious stares he had drawn. He indeed had drawn some. Heads were popping out. Some were peeping from security-post holes. But not the heads of housewives as he was expecting. Instead, these were heads accompanied by rifles. Chuka was too blinded by prospects to see them at first. He drew a large breath for the return lap. He had nothing to worry about. The Haves did not rush at spectacles like the Have-nots. He will just have to be ready with his freshly thought out story. It would suit them when they began to emerge like ants from anthills. To show that he was just as educated as they were, and not some riffraff from the slum, he would employ his practised American accent when he spoke. And, he would hike up the price on the detergents and soaps since rich people generally regard cheaply bought goods as inferior goods.

He was almost to the centre of the street when a soldier marched out from one of the buildings, cocked his rifle, and pointed it at Chuka. He could see instantly that the soldier’s face bore no second thought on shooting him for the slightest of reasons. Chuka froze on the spot, the rags dangling from his hands.

“Stop there, bloody-idiot!” The soldier bawled. He did not have to waste his saliva. Chuka was sensible enough to understand what it meant when a soldier pointed a gun at you close range. His task-boy, observing the unfolding events, had left their wares of sachets and bars of soap on the street, and before the soldier uttered another command, was already on the Third Mainland Bridge, on ten toes, running for dear life. He was not going to get a slug to his head over detergents.

“On your knees, your hands for your back,” the soldier ordered.

Chuka obeyed.

The soldier came closer. He brought the nozzle of the rifle to Chuka’s temple. Chuka felt its coldness and reasoned that death indeed was cold, not warm. He urinated on himself instantly. More soldiers emerged from different buildings and came at him. He felt his lungs block. It became had to breathe, but his heart was a frenetic talking drum. Chuka wondered briefly how the country could ever win a war with so many soldiers used as house guards.

“How many are you?” The first soldier asked.

Words froze in Chuka’s mouth. He thawed a word and stuttered, “two.” But when he looked up the street, he saw that the task boy was gone.  Chuka was alone.

“Where’s your second?”

Chuka did not have answer to that. He pointed to the spot where the boy was supposed to be.

“Who asked you to raise your hand? Lie on your belly! On your belly!”

Chuka fell flat on his stomach, the hot tar seared him. He wept. The first soldier asked him if the things at the street entrance were his. Chuka affirmed. They ordered him up and led him to where the boy had dropped the bag. He told them the contents of the bag was just soaps and sachet detergent, but they were not listening. The first soldier ordered Chuka back on the ground and told another soldier to radio bomb squad. Chuka had not thought clearly of the situation, but when he heard “bomb squad” he became certain of its gravity. Of course, there was no bomb in the bag, but his anxiety multiplied, for a man could be shot over bean cake and here he was suspected of carrying a bomb. If the hot tar burnt him to his soul, the late morning sun was a plate of burning coal on his back.

The soldiers maintained a safe distance as though he had a contagious disease. A few of them took strategic positions on alert, in case Chuka was a tactical distraction. They made eye contact and continued.

“What were you sent here for?”

“Sent. I wasn’t sent.”

“Shut up! Answer the question.”

“Obama soap!”

The soldiers looked confused. What had the President of America got to do with soap? The closest struck Chuka’s head with the butt of his gun, that should bring him to his senses.

“America send you here?”

“No…I sell soap. Forgive me, I meant no harm.”

The soldiers became frantic and impatient. They ordered Chuka to turn out the contents of the bag. Chuka staggered up, the soldiers stepped back. Chuka emptied the bag on the street with trembling hands, his body, a burning stick of wood. A few sachets of the detergent burst open and spilled. The soldiers moved in closer. They suddenly lowered their guns.

“So, it’s soap that make you run naked, littering the street. You want to sell Obama soap. Is this street America? People who sell soap stay in the market or use TV, radio. Bloody-idiot! Since you want to sell soap, You’ll sell to us today —”

Chuka’s thoughts were in shambles. How could he explain his sales drama to them? They were not the lot to stand around for that. But now they wanted his drama. He stood there hesitating, unsure how to begin, but when the soldier raised his gun and cocked it, he jumped into action:

“I’m sure you’re thinking, ‘is he a madman?’ I’m not…I’m here to show you the secrets of the high and mighty. I’m especially talking to our wives and mothers here gathered…” Before he could say another word, a soldier walloped Chuka across the face. The slap threw him to the ground. For a few seconds he could not see clearly.

“Do we look like women?” The soldier scoffed.

“I’m sorry, fathers and men.”

“What does your father do?”

“He’s a farmer, sah.”

“Poor farmer, I believe?”

Chuka nodded his head. He saw hope, maybe this truth would elicit sympathy from the soldiers. They would see that he was just a young man from a lowly background but bold enough to contrive a clever means of surviving the harsh realities of the big city. “So, your father is poor, you have never been rich, and yet you know the secrets of the high and mighty?” The soldiers laughed. Chuka’s hope vanished. “So, this is the lie you feed our women on the streets to sell soap?”

“I’m sorry, I just—”

Another soldier smacked Chuka from behind, he staggered forward. “What else have you been feeding women?”

Chuka felt a dryness in his throat, his mind a desert. What could repair his predicament? He blubbered, “I’ll show you that detergent pass detergent, just as man pass man. These rags”, his wet eyes went to the rag beside him, “will become clean again as dead bones rise again. This soap will wash poverty off your skin—”

“Bones will rise again!” The soldier jeered. “You really are a fraud! Why are you still poor, running all over the streets naked if your soap washes poverty off the skin?”

“I’m sorry, I only—”

“Shut up! You see that soap,” the soldier pointed to the spilled detergent, “you’re going to lick it clean.”

Chuka fell on his knees, entreating. A soldier booted him from behind, Chuka fell on his face. Chuka crawled on all-fours like a dog and lapped detergent and dirt off the tar. The detergent stung his gullet as he swallowed, his stomach was a storm of deep gurgling.

The soldiers watched him with great amusement. They ordered him up. Chuka got up, tears were waterfalls on his cheeks, his tongue stuck out discoloured from the burn, froth drooling from his mouth. “Don’t worry the detergent will wash poverty off your belly,” they guffawed. “Gather your soap into the bag and carry it on your head.”

Chuka quivering violently, did as they told him. He wobbled under the weight of his wares. “Now, run off! And as you do, keep shouting ‘Come and buy soap-o!’ And if I turn to see you’re still on this street….” Chuka did not wait for him to complete his threat, he
hobbled away down the street, “Come and buy soap-o! Come buy soap-o!” but the powder burned his throat, and his once thunderous voice was now weak and rasping. The soldiers watched him in hysterical glee.

He boarded a bus home still in his boxers. Everyone who shared the bus seat with him thought no doubt he was a madman. His body was a mass of bumps, burns, and pains; his great spirit crushed. It told him he should not have clung to the sachet of hope Aliboy had offered him, he should not have dared to dream big, should not have dared to be so bold with his gift.

Aliboy came in that evening with two bottles of beer expectant of great news. But he was shocked when he saw the beaten Chuka. Chuka calmly narrated his ordeal. He concluded by declaring he was returning to his village. Aliboy tried to give him heart.

“You can still sell—”

“They said they don’t ever want to see me on the streets disturbing people.”

“They meant their streets, not….”

But Chuka could no longer listen. With what little strength left in him, he stuffed his belongings into the ghana-must-go bag. He dragged it and himself to the nearest bus-station and booked a night-travel ticket. By daybreak, Chuka was back on his father’s rice farm. When the old farmer saw his son’s face, he did not have the mouth to ask him the title of the movie he had featured in.

 

Michael Agugom was born in Nigeria. He was a producer and presenter with the largest TV network in Africa. He teaches English language and volunteers as coordinator for an NGO.

Visitation, by Neil Connelly

It’s Clayton’s weekend with his girls (once a month, as per the agreement) and things aren’t going well.  Nikki, 13, is sulkier than usual and Laura, 9, seems to be taking her big sister’s lead.  For the better part of two hours this Saturday night, he has suffered through  a 3-D supernatural teen romance involving witches, warlocks, and a plucky dragon that gives advice on listening to your heart and finding true love.  Still, sitting between them in the darkness, with an eight dollar bucket of popcorn on his lap, Clayton savors his daughters’ laughter.  In the theatre, he doesn’t feel bad and that feels pretty good, and for now, all this seems like a blessing.

Since Miriam dropped them off yesterday at the Red Robin on Carlisle Pike, it’s been an ordeal.  He made a mistake right away by asking if she wanted to join them, and following that curbside rejection, the girls couldn’t find anything on the menu they really wanted to eat.  After sleeping in all morning, they asked to go to the mall, and as they wove through the crowd, wandering from clothing store to clothing store, Clayton trailed them at a distance, stalker-like.  His planned visit to the corn maze got rained out, but there was a minor victory at the Farmer’s Market, with its organic fruit smoothies.  Later, they spent a couple hours at the library, where Laura read a book about a crime-solving cat and Nikki worked on project for her religious education class.  In the last couple months, as she’s begun to prepare for Confirmation, she’s apparently had a resurgence of faith.  Miriam told Clayton that their teen daughter demanded to be driven to a penance service last Saturday and wept all the way home.  Clayton has decided it’s a reaction to the divorce, finalized two months ago after a six month separation.  He told Miriam that Nikki was just going through a phase.  Things wouldn’t always be this way.

On the way home from the movie, Clayton tries to ignore the 3-D induced headache and envisions a round of cold pizza and a game of Scrabble.  The girls sit silently in the back seat.  He drives through Camp Hill, past the grocery store where he used to wheel them down the aisle at unsafe cart speeds, past the grade school he used to walk them to.  The rent in Lemoyne, down along the river, is cheaper than in the borough.  His community college instructor salary only goes so far.

The car is silent except for the voice of the GPS, which every thirty seconds or so chirps out.  “Turn around,” the tinny female voice insists.  “Make the next right and then take the highway.”  At the dealership, they told Clayton it would cost over $500 to replace the malfunctioning system, which is perpetually trying to direct him to an unknown destination.

Trying to ease the tension, Clayton says, “I may try to get a second job as a chauffeur.  Would you two be references?”  The girls say nothing, and Clayton presses. “So what did you think of the movie?  How many stars?”

Only Laura mumbles something like, “It was alright.”

Then Nikki clears her throat, pauses long enough for Clayton to make brief eye contact in the rear view mirror, and says to her sister, “Those witches had it wrong, trying to find the warlock of their dreams.  They were ignoring the amazing powers they had all on their own.  A woman doesn’t need a man to be complete.”

At this, Clayton loses his focus, cruises straight through a red light, and nearly gets T-boned by a minivan.  The other driver blares on the horn as Clayton veers over the double line, cuts back into his lane, and then quickly pulls over, into a pile of leaves along the curb.  Both his daughters finish screaming and he says, “Jackass!  Damn it.  Look girls, we’re fine. Everything’s okay.”  It’s a sentence he wishes he could believe.

That line Nikki said about what a woman doesn’t need, he’s sure it’s something she picked up from her mother  If she said this to her, Clayton thinks, there’s no telling what else his ex-wife has told his elder daughter.  Traffic rushes by, and Clayton thinks of the manila envelope he stashed on top of the fridge, the one that came certified mail from Miriam two weeks ago.  The GPS says, “Up ahead, merge right.”

At the apartment, both girls refuse more pizza, and though Clayton is starving, he decides to show solidarity.  He offers soda, ice cream, and they shake their heads.  He’s about to ask them if this protest is some kind of body image thing when Nikki says, “Can I have your wifi password?”

Clayton tells her it’s on the modem in the only bedroom, and she disappears, pulling her new i-something from her pocket.  Clayton sits down at the kitchen table across from Laura.  “How about some Scrabble?”

She shakes her head.

“What’s going on in school?  Third grade still as boring as when I went?”

She glances at the bedroom.  “We’re working on multiplication tables.  We have to know everything up to twelve times twelve.”

“Nine times seven,” Clayton fires out.

She hesitates, looks at a dusty ceiling fan for the answer.  When she says “sixty-four” Clayton can’t hide his frown.

Laura’s shoulders drop and she hangs her head in that way kids do.

“I didn’t get to the nines yet.”

“We’ll work on them now,” Clayton offers, excited at the prospect.

Laura sighs.  “It’s Saturday night.”

Clayton wants to ask her how she’s doing, if those sessions with the school counselor are doing any good, how she’s sleeping.  He wants to ask about Miriam.  But he knows any questions like this will turn his daughter into a stone wall.  She asks, “Can I go see what Nikki’s looking at?” and Clayton realizes that his older daughter doesn’t plan on coming out of the bedroom.  “Sure,” he says.  “Whatever you want.”  She bounds off, and he heads for the couch.  After scanning the channels, he finds Penn State trailing Temple at the half.

Later, after the game ends in double overtime, after the girls have changed into their pajamas and brushed their teeth, after the light’s been off for an hour in his bedroom where they sleep, Clayton opens a non-alcoholic beer and reaches for the envelope on top of the fridge, then sits at his wobbly kitchen table.  He slides out the forms and again he sees the ornate diocesan seal and the all caps title on the packet’s first page:  “Petition for Prescribing the Nullity of Marriage.”  Over the phone, Miriam explained to him that if granted, the annulment would mean they were never truly married in the first place, that they never formed the kind of bond married couples are supposed to as far as openness and honesty.  Given recent events, Clayton has a hard time arguing with this.  But he wonders if it was always this way, if even nineteen years ago he kept some crucial part of himself from Miriam.

The questions he’s supposed to fill out make his head swim.  What traits first drew you to your spouse?  On the day of your wedding, did you experience significant confusion or regret?  How would you describe your honeymoon?  The questionnaire is twelve pages long, eighty-nine questions.  Clayton sips at the non-alcoholic beer and wishes he had something with a little more bite.

His bedroom door creaks open, and Clayton turns to see Nikki, stumbling towards him, rubbing her eyes.  He turns the forms face down and sets his beer on the floor at his side.  Instead of heading for the bathroom as he thought she would, she walks straight to the table and sits across from him.   “Laura’s grinding her teeth,” she says.  “She forgot her mouth guard.”

Clayton says,  “That doesn’t sound good.”

“Nothing we can do about it now.  But I can’t sleep in there.”

“Take the couch,” Clayton says.  “I’ll be fine in the easy chair.”

They sit in silence.  Nikki yawns.  “What’re you working on so late?”

Clayton gathers the papers into a stack.  “Just school stuff,” he says.  “Another committee.”

He can see the lie register on Nikki’s face, and he shifts in his chair.  “It’s paperwork for the annulment.  Your mom told me you guys know she’s asked for one.”

“I do know,” Nikki says.  “I keep wondering something.  If the church decides you guys were never married, does that mean me and Laura are illegitimate?”

“No,” Clayton says.  “Nobody’s going to—”

“Cause I mean, it seems kind of crazy that you can wave a magic wand and undo the past.  That’s a pretty crazy thing.”

Clayton lifts the beer from his side and takes a swig.  Nikki seems neither surprised nor upset, but when he sets it on the table, he turns the label to her so she can see it’s non-alcoholic.  She says, “Does that mean I can have one?”

This is the longest conversation he’s had with his daughter in weeks, and he doesn’t want it to end.  So he pushes his bottle toward her and says, “Just a taste.”

Nikki takes a sip and makes a sour face.  “God, that’s horrible.  If you can’t even get a buzz, what’s the point?”

“Habit, I guess.  That’s not much of a reason.”

She shakes her head and puts the bottle down.  “I won’t tell mom.”  As she crosses to the couch and shakes out the quilt, Clayton both regrets and relishes this secret.  He watches his daughter curl up, and reaches overhead to turn out the light.  In the dark, Nikki says, “Tomorrow, maybe we could try the corn maze.  I checked the weather before and it’s not supposed to rain.”

Clayton brightens at this unexpected request.  Her voice is flat and without enthusiasm, but still, she’s projecting into the future and imagining them together.  “You bet Nik,” he says.  “Anything you want.”

“Great,” she says back.  “We’ll go after mass.”

This too catches Clayton off guard.  He hasn’t been to church for a year.  But he realizes Nikki likely knows this, and he can’t find a reason to object.  Also, the notion of a mass, with its rhythm and sameness, the singing and the ritual, it settles on him in a pleasant way.  He says, “Sounds good.”

In the shadows, Clayton shuffles to the Lazy-Boy and drags a thin blanket across his legs.  From here, with the light from the street making the gauzy curtain glow, he can just make out the profile of his daughter’s face, and he thinks he can see her lips moving.  He closes his eyes and can hear the quietest of whispers, or it may just be steam escaping from the radiator.  Clayton decides his daughter is praying, and he wonders what she’s asking of God.

In the morning, following a failed attempt at Mickey Mouse/Snowman pancakes with blueberries, Clayton drives them out to St. Theresa’s.  Nikki told him that Miriam always goes to the 10 o’clock, so he decides they’ll hit the 11:15.  But he does arrive early enough to catch some of the late crowd heading home.   He scans the departing traffic, hoping for a glimpse of his ex-wife.

Inside, they find an empty pew and he lowers the kneeler.  In between his daughters, Clayton crosses himself and recites in his mind a perfunctory Our Father.  “Daily bread,” he thinks.  “Thy will be done.”  He knows the words can have great significance, but for now, he’s saddened to find them somewhat empty.  Similarly, during the readings he tries to concentrate and gather what wisdom he can, but meaning eludes him.  When the priest delivers his sermon about Jesus’ forty days in the desert, Clayton tunes in.  He’s hoping to hear how Christ stopped wandering, how he found a way out of the wilderness, but that never comes, and Clayton’s left with only the slim satisfaction of knowing that even the son of God could get lost.

During the offering, Clayton fishes out a few wrinkled dollars and tries passing them to Laura and Nikki, but neither one reaches for the money.  “We’re not kids,” Nikki whispers.

Clayton, who’d meant it mostly as a nostalgic joke, nearly says, “Of course you are.  You’re my kids.”

When the basket gets passed along the pew, he drops the cash in himself.

Not long after, he’s grateful for the “Peace of Christ,” as each of his girls leans into his open arms and embraces him.  These hugs are usually reserved for goodbyes, forced and awkward in the driveway of the home where he used to live.  But here, in the place with candied light slanting through stained glass windows, Laura seems reluctant to release him, and Nikki squeezes him tightly.  He’s not sure what he should read into these embraces.

When the time comes for communion, Clayton follows Laura out into the aisle and marches along solemnly.  As he nears the altar, he feels something tug at his shirttail and glances back to see Nikki, giving him a stern stare.  He whispers “What?” and she raises her eyebrows but keeps her lips tight.  The line moves forward, and Clayton proceeds, fumbling at the last moment when he can’t recall which hand covers which when he cups them to receive the Eucharist.   The wafer, which he’d hoped might ignite insight, tastes as bland as he recalled, and he returns to their pew disappointed.

Outside afterwards, heading for the car, Nikki walks ahead of him ten, fifteen feet, with her arms crossed.  Even Laura asks, “What’s her problem?”

Clayton shrugs.

It’s just over a half an hour drive to the corn maze.  Laura reads her cat book and Clayton grows weary of the back seat’s stony silence.  He tunes into a.m. radio, where the Baltimore Ravens pregame show is on.  The starting quarterback is out with a bruised hip.  The replacement, a rookie, is expected to have a rough time facing the opposing team’s legendary pass rush.  The GPS urges Clayton, “Turn around as soon as you can.”

The Amazing Maize Maze (Acres of Fun For the Whole Family) is on an organic farm in the hills of Perry County.  It’s the kind of place where you can pay to pick your own apples and blueberries.  They pull into the slanted open field, following a slow stream of minivans, and pass a plywood board that lists the activities:  Hay Ride =  Free!; Pumpkins =  $5 small/ $10 large;  Pumpkin Catapult = $8; Haunted Barn = $9; Maze = $10.  It’s quite a little cottage industry, Clayton thinks.  Following the hand signals of a zombie farm boy, he parks by a pickup truck with kids spilling from the bed.  They scurry for a makeshift petting zoo past the edge of the lot.

Laura opens her door and shouts, “Goats!” and she’s off.  But Nikki stays where she is, so Clayton doesn’t move.  Glancing in the rear view mirror, he sees her bowed head.  It’s almost as if she’s praying.  But the sense that he’s waiting for her judgment is palpable, and it reminds him of a similar sensation he often felt with his wife.  He wants her to get it over with.

Nikki says, “You should really go to confession.”

Clayton grips the steering wheel hard, as if bracing for a crash.  Behind them, a golf cart rolls past.  Looking at the darkened dashboard, he speaks slowly. “Tell me exactly what your mother told you.”

After a few seconds, Nikki speaks up.  “I’m talking about mass.  When you went up for communion, that was a sin.”

Now Clayton turns to face her.  “How was that a sin?”

“Dad.  You’re divorced.  You aren’t allowed.”

Clayton isn’t well versed on canonical law, but even the idea of this disturbs him.  Still, he’s glad it’s not what he suspected.   He searches for the right words, but the best he can come up with are, “Ok.  I didn’t know that.”

“You should have,” she scolds.  “St. Veronica says the path to God is paved with knowledge.”

“Who’s this now?”

“St. Veronica.  She’s the saint I’m doing my project on.   She cleaned Jesus’ face with a cloth and then His image appeared on it.  The one who’s name I’m taking for Confirmation?  God dad.  Do you ever listen to me?  I told you all about this yesterday.”

She flings open the door and Clayton gets out on his side.  He watches her storm toward Laura, who is leaning over a low fence and scratching a goat.

Hoping to turn the day around, Clayton goes all out  Despite the crazy prices, he tells his daughters they can do everything, and they do.   On the hay ride, they rattle through a covered bridge spanning the Yellow Breeches Creek.  In the haunted house, they are accosted by a headless woman with a pitchfork, which makes both girls leap for their father.   At the pumpkin chucker, they catapult a pumpkin in a rainbow arc, easily a hundred yards, and when it explodes on impact, even Nikki says, “Cool.”  All this time, she has not spoken to Clayton.

To buy tickets for the maze, they have to enter the overpriced country store.  Laura wanders into the aisles of crocheted Bible covers and nickel-a-piece candy, while Clayton and Nikki pick up the tickets and decide on drinks.  Clayton takes his black coffee to a bench beside an enormous gumball machine.  Nikki drifts to the bench and sits at his side, holding a Styrofoam cup of hot cocoa.  She says, “You can’t even be my sponsor, do you know that?”

Clayton thinks of AA, the three somber meetings he went to at Miriam’s insistence.  But Nikki’s statement doesn’t make any sense. “Sponsor?” he says.

“For my confirmation.  I’m supposed to pick like, some major role model who’s a killer good Catholic.  But you’re not in good standing, so no matter what I think, they’d reject you.”

Clayton shrugs.  He wants to say, “Can’t say I blame them,” but he doubts it’s the time for levity.  Plus, the joke isn’t really funny.  So he goes with, “I wish I could be your sponsor.”

She tilts the cup to her lips, warms her palms against the outside.  “Why did you guys get a divorce?”

He’s shocked that, in all these months, he’s never been asked this.  He looks away, toward the open door.  “That’s something you might want to bring up with your mom.”

“I did.  She said to ask you.”

Clayton worries the ticket in his hand.  He scans the room.  A chubby adolescent boy approaches the gumball machine, inserts his coins, and watches the gumball rattle through the mousetrap contraption before spitting out the bottom.  When the boy leaves, Clayton says, “People grow apart.”

Nikki huffs.  “That’s what the counselor said.  That’s what Father Frank said.  That’s what it says in the stupid book mom got me.  I’m going to ask you again and if you say that, so help me I’ll scream.  My life got ripped in sixteen pieces, and I deserve more than a lame ass version of shit happens.”

“Don’t make a scene,” Clayton says, looking around at the milling customers.  But when he turns to his daughter’s face, she seems supernaturally calm.

Nikki repeats her question.  “Why did you guys get divorced?”

Clayton drinks the last of the bitter coffee.  In a low voice he says, “I made some mistakes, is that what you want to hear?  I made mistakes and your mom didn’t want to give me another chance.”

“What kind of mistakes?”

“Grown up mistakes.  Enough of this.”

“So you won’t tell me what you did?”

He rises to his feet, and he can feel his heart thumping in his chest.  Laura rushes into them, holding a tiny statue of a pig in a ballerina tutu.  “Won’t mom love this?” she asks.

“I’ll buy it,” Clayton says as he snatches it from her.   “Let’s head for the maze.”

Fifteen minutes later, Clayton is trudging through corn much taller than he’d thought it would be, over his head by at least a foot.  For a while the three of them wandered the tiny corridors and tried to get into the spirit, getting spooked by a werewolf and a vampire, then an angel of death complete with scythe.  As they walk along the narrowed path, he glances at the thick stalks, and they seem like bars.   The girls are walking ahead of him, leaning into each other and whispering.  Maybe they’re looking at the map, but he suspects Nikki is filling Laura in on what happened at the country store.

Above them, the sky has turned grey and dark, and the wind shivering the corn makes Clayton turn up his collar.  He wonders what the score of the game is, and hollers, “Girls, let’s stay together.”

They take another right, then a quick left, and he hustles to catch up to them.  “This isn’t a race, okay?”

“I want to get back to the car,” Laura says.  “It’s cold.”

Nikki stops and consults the map.  “I think we made a wrong turn.  There should be a four way intersection right here.  From there, we should be able to take this short cut.”

“Where’d all the other people go?  How come I can’t hear anybody else anymore?  Guys, I’m getting freaked out.”

“Nothing to get freaked out about,” Clayton insists.  “We’re fine.  Give me the map.”

After Nikki doesn’t hand it over, Clayton pulls it away.  The maze is much more intricate then he’d thought possible.  He can’t find the intersection Nikki mentioned or her short cut.  He listens and can’t hear the sounds of the farm.  When he looks up to consult the sun, he finds it totally hidden by the grey sky.

“Tell me,” Nikki says.  She stands right in front of him, and he knows what she means.  “You don’t think I can guess?  Why can’t you just say it?”

“If you know, then I don’t have to.”

“But you should.  You should be honest with me and name it.”

Laura is rubbing her arms.  “Guys.  Don’t fight, okay?  Let’s get out of here.”

A squadron of crows floats above them, shadow silhouettes.  Nikki has not broken eye contact with Clayton.  “You’ll feel better, Dad.  There’s a reason they call it coming clean.  St. Veronica, her name comes from the Latin word for truth.  And just as she wiped away the dirt from Christ’s face, she said telling the truth wiped away the sins from your soul.”

Clayton considers his sins against the marriage, his failures as a husband.  And he recognizes what he’s being called on to do now as a father.  After a long silence,  he says, “Sorry Nikki.  I just can’t.  One day you’ll understand.”

She takes the map back from her father.  “I hope you’re wrong.  I hope I never understand.”

Clayton is about to put his arms around her when, behind her, a large figure wearing a bloody hockey mask and holding an axe splits the corn stalk and charges their way, letting loose a blood-curdling cry.  Clayton shoves Nikki to the side, steps into the attacker, and drives a fist into his masked face.  The cheap plastic shatters, and the would be killer crumbles to the ground.

Laura, screaming, sprints back the way they came.

Sitting in the dirt, the teen cups both hands to his face.   When Nikki says, “Are you alright?” he pulls his hands down, revealing a thin stream of blood running from one nostril.

Clayton says, “Nikki, go get your sister. I’ll take care of this guy.”  He bends to help him up and the kid shrugs free.  “What the hell old dude!  You hit me.”

“I’m sorry,” Clayton says, and with those words he turns to see if Nikki heard him. But she’s already disappeared on the trail of her sister, calling our her name.

The kid gets to his feet and says, “Where’s my axe?”

Clayton locates it and gives it to him.  The kid says, “This hurts like a bitch.  I gotta go find some ice.”

“I’ll help you,” Clayton says.  “Just let me get my daughters.”

“Screw your help, man,” the kid tells him, and he strides directly into the corn, like a ghost disappearing into a solid wall.

Once he’s gone, Clayton can hear Nikki yelling “Laura!” and then he hears Laura yelling, “Nikki!  Over here!”  He walks toward the sounds but comes to a dead end.  Their shouting seems distant, echoed.  He pushes into the corn itself, forcing the stalks out of his way.  “Girls!” he hollers.  And now he begins to march more quickly, urgently, pausing every few steps to try and hear them again, to get his bearing.  He yells, “Stay where you are!” but has no idea if they hear him.  As he rushes blindly, he vows to come clean.  He’ll fill out the annulment forms and go to confession. He is suddenly eager for penance.

He stops, chest heaving with exertion, and turns to where he thinks his daughter are.  But their cries have grown weaker, faded to almost nothing.  Until finally, Clayton’s not sure if he’s hearing them at all, or if maybe the sound is just the memory of their voices.

 

Before returning to his home state of Pennsylvania, where he teaches writing at Shippensburg University, Neil Connelly directed the MFA program at McNeese State in Lake Charles, Louisiana. He’s published over a dozen short stories and five novels, including The Midlife Crisis of Commander Invincible (LSU Press) and The Pocket Guide to Divorce:  A Self-help Work of Fiction (Gorsky Press). His collection of short stories, In the Wake of Our Vows, is forthcoming. More about Neil Connelly can be found at www.neilconnelly.com.

His Gift, by Toti O’Brien

He has lost it entirely on Christmas Day. Why then? Wasn’t he home with his wife and children? Busy like everyone else? What happened that tipped off the balance for good?

She will never know. Probably nothing happened. Simply, the last straw abated the camel or— to use a different metaphor—the last drop made the vase spill.

He started calling early, first on the home line. When she answered he uttered his absurd claim: could he borrow her child for a hike in the mountains, in search of those herbs he has mentioned, only thriving in the wilderness?

The hike would be long: all day, kind-of unpredictable. Giving a come back time isn’t possible. She should leave the boy for the night: he could sleep over, then be “returned” in the morning.

Sure. She’d confide her boy to the middle-aged instructor of an after-school class, for the two of them to hike the mountains on Christmas Day, in search of local flora. Hallelujah. How could he insist on it? How could he not be afraid of her calling the police, reporting his request, letting it speak by itself?

By the way… why didn’t she already? Wasn’t she aware, yet, of the guy’s intentions? Hundred per cent? Thousand per cent. Why didn’t she report him? She was scared, and that chilled the blood in her veins.

Her blood had slowed down since she first suspected, first noticed the incongruity of the man’s behavior. Since he first came up with absurd demands, such as giving the boy a ride on the way to a field trip. What? Didn’t she have a car, like all the other parents? She declined, of course: but she started feeling troubled, agitated.

Then the insistence about giving the child (for he was so gifted, so exceptional) a special training. Private: one to one. He would start him on herbariums, microscopes—more than all, the wilderness… those hikes on unspecified little trails to find the rare berry, the unique mushroom…

All right! Did he think praise for the boy’s talent would give him free leave? Would those compliments so blur the mother, she would not realize the hazards, the agenda? Come on…

Well: it must have worked in the past, for he pressed the gas button—so to speak—without hesitation. And, to tell the truth, his game pushed her off balance, a bit. It was important—very important—that the child felt empowered, trusted, valued. It was paramount especially in the delicate phase he was undergoing. A moment of confusion, demotivation…

She had been so grateful, so happy, when the instructor (he looked serious, reliable, a true family man) had applauded the boy’s attention, his uncanny capacity of recognizing and handling plants, butterflies, insects, flowers. “This is not of his age!” he complimented. Then, “He’s truly prodigious.” Then, “He will be my best disciple.” Disciple, he said. Not student.

That is when she first wavered… the first note that sounded out of tune, shrieking. Still, withdrawing at that point seemed irrational, wrong, even dangerous. The boy—who was aware of the praise, of the unique position he had suddenly acquired—could only interpret her decision as cruelty. As a nasty caprice on her part, and that was the last thing she wanted.

In fact, for a long time she hadn’t seen him happy. Positively interested. She perceived a tangible enthusiasm, a joyfulness, when she brought him to class after lunch. Or when, having waited outside for an hour, she returned to find him busy with petals, seeds, winged things. He stood in front of the bench, his blond head haloed with pride. He emanated a convincing well-being she, alas, wasn’t accustomed to see. Silently, she sipped in the vision. She would not—by all means—destroy it.

But she should. On the last class before the break, she had come in the room earlier than usual. She had sat on a small chair along the wall. Time wasn’t over yet but the instructor, incongruously, came to see her: crossing over the room, leaving the kids unattended. That was weird, but he seemed relentless, as if his body escaped his control. As if his legs couldn’t help skipping under his center of gravity, lead to the left, hurry towards the corner where she sat—uneasy, confused.

He came several times, each time speaking more hurriedly and—oh god—more loudly. He said he’d like to keep the boy after class, to teach him some more. Today it would not be possible, she said. Then he said he would like bringing him to his lab… to his home, showing him his collection. No reason for her to come by: he would drive him back afterwards. Show his collection to him? That sounded like terrible literature. That sounded like a joke.

Sorry, today it wouldn’t work, she repeated. Shyly she lowered her voice, while his kept rising. That made her uncomfortable. She stole glances to the right, to the left: parents had started filtering in, class was about to end. Did they hear him? Wasn’t he embarrassed? Afraid? If they heard him (how could they not) wouldn’t they notice the absurdity? If they didn’t notice it, would it mean she was wrong, making a mountain of nothing?

The mountain. The man seemed to be obsessed with it. He had mentioned it early in the process, and he often came back to the point. Precious things—herbs, flowers, insects, shells— could only be found in the mountains, on remote hiking tracks he had previously explored. Those hikes were the non plus ultra: the accomplishing step for a true naturalist. He had to bring his special disciple in the mountain, for his training to be complete. When would she let him? (That she would not wasn’t thinkable).

The entire mountain thing filled her with horror, even more than the suggested overnight at the man’s house (where, by general understanding, a wife and two daughters lived). Did he invent a family? Hard to say: the guy looked perfectly normal. And while, in the beginning, such appearance side-tracked her, soon it became a flag, a bell deafening her with its toll.

Idiot, she said to herself, how would you want him to look? Should he wear a shirt with “pervert” written on? Should he look disheveled, hair tousled, bloodshot eyes, fly unzipped?

He looked perfectly normal. Until, on the last day of class, though nothing had changed at his appearance she remarked the phenomena… his legs rushing away, as if a cut split his body at waist level—the underneath section taking a life on its own. And his tone of voice rising, rising, uncaring of witnesses: as if the volume button had come loose.

On their way home, she wondered why her son mentioned nothing about those excursions. Why he didn’t insist on them, didn’t protest her refusal? He had certainly heard the entire conversation: the last time it was uttered while she helped him into his coat. But he remained quiet. What did he think? Was he preoccupied? What did he sense? What did he understand? She didn’t dare asking.

Christmas day. After she had briskly declined—with an even tone, not unkind but certainly curt—the man’s demented suggestions…

How did he get her number? Easy enough: their data were printed on the registration form… But on Christmas day, after swallowing her denial, he started calling the boy’s cellphone. Did he have that number as well? How so?

She heard the rings. The boy was in his room, playing games at the computer, living his life. Anyone could have called: his dad, his grandparents, family, even friends: 25th of December, for god’s sake… But those rings—she perfectly heard them from her room, the house was very tiny—were ominous. Ominous.

She heard three during the morning. At lunch she did not ask about it. She wasn’t the nosy type…There was a lax serenity about the day, sunless but also rainless—fragile, kind of suspended.

In the afternoon the boy returned to his room. No more calls, apparently. He came out at some point, though, handing his muted phone. Mom?” he said, “He keeps trying.” He was quiet, he looked tranquil: he just gave her the phone. On the screen she saw the same number lined up for many, too many times. Just a number: no caller identity, but it wasn’t needed. The boy apparently knew. He was tranquil, and quiet.

Her eyes glued on those digits, she felt her stomach gape, her heart sink a couple inches and, again, her blood chill. Those cyphers looked ominous. “We will not respond,” she said. Her tone banal, nondescript. The boy answered nothing. “Would you like to leave your phone here?” she added. “No,” he said, resuming to his room.

Her blood also resumed its regular circulation. She felt better. She felt they would handle this: she wouldn’t have to call the police. What could she say? Nothing was in the open. Were those calls sufficient to accuse? Of what? He looked normal. Don’t they all? He was only calling. On Christmas day? What did he want? Going for a hike in the mountain, he had said, earlier on. What did he say to the child? The child didn’t pick up the phone. Why didn’t he? What did the child know?

The mountain sounded ominous. Wasn’t the overnight at his house good enough, for the obvious perversity he had in mind?

Obvious. Why didn’t she call the cops, then? She didn’t have proof. He looked like a family man. Officially there were a wife and two daughters. What hell would she unleash over wife and daughters, by calling the police?

And again, wasn’t his house enough? Why the mountain?

He would kill the boy afterwards. He would push him down a ravine, hide him in the woods. Horror grabbed her: come on, why the mountain, if not…? What are mountains for, if not?

Her blood simply froze. What if she had said: “I’d allow this hike, sir, only at the condition of me coming along.” Ha, ha, ha. But then, couldn’t he kill her? Push her down a ravine? Of course. Then he would do what he wanted. Then he would kill the boy. Probably.

The hike, of course, would never take place. She knew—she had no doubt—but now, on Christmas day, they also needed for the phone calls to stop.

She was trying to take her mind off, to move over, when she heard the rustling outside. Light, like leaves moved by the wind… On the porch? Well, that sounded like someone pushing a flier in the box, sliding it through the screen door. On a holiday? Any time… no need to be alarmed.

Today, though, something weird is going on. Abnormal. She is scared. She should verify.

She walks, softly, she watches from the peephole. No one on the porch, nothing. Then she sees him: he has stepped down the stairs dividing the porch from the curb. He stands at an angle, a bit hard to spot but not hiding, really. His expression impenetrable, obtuse. There is something about him, suspended… suspended, like the weather.

Now her body escapes her. Before she can think she has opened her door—the screen still in front of her. In the screen, right there, at chest level and impossible to miss, there’s a package. She grabs it without thinking, then she takes a step forward. He also does. He’s back on the stairs: they are facing each other. There’s a quiet between them… like a pillow. A cushion of quiet—only brittle, as if made of glass. A Christmas ball, a glass ornament… clear, transparent. She can feel it. She can feel that with another step she will break it, and that scares her.

Still her body is not under control, her legs skip under, move forward. She has taken another step. He did too: backwards. He has lowered himself, again, at street level. And the space that divides them has remained miraculously unchanged. A frame, as if they were a pair of ballroom dancers. Oh god.

He looks strange… yet normal. Horribly, disgustingly normal. She had never noticed, in fact, how distasteful is his peculiar normality. He also looks agitated, greedy, and insecure at the same time. He has started talking. He’s repeating the same litany, only a bit rushed, with a few mannerisms making him sound like a parrot. Like a tape, a broken recording.

“Today,” he says, “is the perfect day. The weather: ideal. And it is a holiday.” Oh well, did he notice? Today, he says, is the day for that famous hike in the mountain. He has tried calling (she knows, she has answered, doesn’t he recall? She has said no, no, no). Then he thought coming here would be simpler. Can she call the boy, get him ready?

Did he find the address on the damn registration form? He must have. She has taken another step forward, unaware of her gestures, her posture, her acts. The package he has stuck into the door, roughly, badly wrapped, is in the hand that she nervously motions in front of her. The package—narrow, stiff, elongated—serves as a baton, a cane, punctuating her words.

She is talking indeed: very slowly, each word kind of exploding with friction. Each word like spit. “Sir!” she says, “Sir!”

With each word, she takes a step forward and the man, almost graciously, recedes. It’s a dance. “Don’t, you, ever, dare!” She is at the edge of the porch. “Approach, my child, my house, myself!” “Say, another, word!” “Never! Never! Never!” The words jump like frogs. They fly out: black crows, loudly cackling. She bites them with her teeth au passage. Her words, like crows, fly after the man, threatening to claw at his eyes.

He is murmuring now. She barely grasps his last sentence, “I had brought him a gift. I have left it at the door.” Then he turns around. He is walking away. From the back he looks bent. Deflated.

She stands on the porch, facing out, her back to the front door, blocking the entrance. She can’t move now, at all. Her legs feel stiff and sore. She’s suddenly aware of the thing in her hand: obtrusive and kind of heavy. She tears the piece of tape, holding the thin cardboard wrap. She does it in a rush, almost furiously, yet not quite herself.

It’s a knife. Huge. Sharp. A hatchet of sort. Certainly for cutting herbs, stems, and branches. Certainly a nature thing, a tool of the trade. Certainly. He’s come to bring a knife. He has left it there, stuck inside the screen door, at chest level.

 

Toti O’Brien’s work has appeared in Intrinsick, Alebrijes, Entropy and Random Sample, among other journals and anthologies. More about her can be found at totihan.net/writer.html

A Holocaust Story, by Idan Cohen

What happened was this: Ben said, “We are all going to die.”

And I said, “Shut up!”

The ebony walls of Yad Vashem enclosed  around us, boxing us in like kittens left in the middle of a road

“We are,” he said calmly.

And the memorial pictures, those black and white stark photos of men with stupid mustaches and beautiful women with no fashion sense, they glared at both of us, reproaching, dying, dying, like, all the time.

“You are so depressing.” I said. I would have said; “You are so fucking depressing.” But we were children, and children at that age still listen to their parents. Today, looking back, I can say; Ben, you were so fucking depressing.

I put my hands in my pockets and would have kicked at something if there was something to kick at, if this wasn’t hallowed ground, a burial spot for dreams, all ebony and tears. So what if we are all going to die, I asked myself, walking forward with my head down to join the rest of the class, leaving Ben to stare at the constantly changing orchestra of the dying on the plasma screen. So what? It’s no big deal! So engrossed in philosophical digression was I, I didn’t notice the large back of Fat Rotem until I crashed into it. There I was; and I was hardly her size, maybe the third smallest in the class, softly enfolded between her immense shoulder blades, the flesh of her holding me like the sea.

I stepped back. Some of the class had turned to look at me, and I gulped. I knew this meant about a month of teasing about being Fat Rotem’s boyfriend. I avoided her eyes and dashed forward to the comfort of my social stratum.

“What was that?” asked Ofir, from my left side. On the right side, Chai silently grinned at me, a stigma instigator being given an award.

“Shut up!” I told both of them preemptively. Chai’s grin widened.

“Hey,” said Ofir, distracted by the emptiness to his own left, “where’s Ben?”

“He’s back there,” I said, gesturing to the ebony corridor behind the hall, “being all depressing.”

“What did he say?”

“That we’re all going— ” Mrs. Zach’s piercing gaze caught mine. She didn’t even have to say anything, only pointedly stare. Okay, my eyes replied. Man! Teachers!

“Sit!” She commanded, a drill sergeant. Lunchtime rumor had it that Mrs. Zach had actually been a sergeant major in the army. Others, more tongue-in-cheek, had it that she had been a tank. We, perfect little soldiers, sat.

The Yad Vashem guide, a young girl who, if I had been older, I would have been utterly infatuated with, cleared her throat. As it was, I didn’t like her hair. It was stupid. “One and a half million children were killed in the Holocaust,” she said by rote. Having said it so many times, she had completely forgotten that the statement had any meaning. “These,” and here she gestured around, her fingers extending carelessly, so sure she would find a relic, “are the toys we have found.”

“Psst!” whispered Chai. “Fat Rotem’s boyfriend!”

“Shut up!”

“What did Ben say?”

I cased the surroundings with the spy’s finesse every child in Mrs. Zach’s class had to learn to survive. The guide with the stupid hair was droning on about a stupid old doll, and Mrs. Zach was completely engrossed. The attached medic, a twenty one year old all the girls in class had fallen in love with on the bus, leaned on a wall and gave the impression of needing a cigarette.

The three of us leaned into a conspiratorial circle.

“He said we’re all going to die!” I whispered gravely. Ofir and Chai leaned back, their eyes wide.

“Wallah,” Chai exhaled softly.

“That’s stupid!” whispered Ofir forcefully. “What does it have to with anything?”

“That’s what I said!” I told him.

We settled down from our conspiracy, communing in solitary upon what we had put forward.  I even listened to the stupid hair guide for a moment.

“You can take ten minutes and look at the toys of those children,” she said.

We sat there, intently waiting for the next sentence. When none came, we stirred in our seats uneasily. The guide looked nervously at Mrs. Zach.

“Go on!” said Mrs. Zach.

Released from stasis, we scrambled to our feet and went to look at the toys.

“Hey,” crowed Ziv, “Look at this!” He triumphantly raised a black cap wearing mustachioed 1937 gentlemen of means action figure. “It’s Hitler!” A portion of the class gathered round. “Nah,” said Moshe, taking it from Ziv. “It’s a guy from some old movies my parents watch.” I looked closely at it. The man’s face was round, chubby, and his coat looked ill-fitting. The whole thing was ugly as sin.

“I think it’s just some guy,” I said.

Ziv shook his head, his decisions already made. “It’s Hitler!”

“Why would anyone have a Hitler doll?” Nurit asked in her piercing high voice, invoking a slight shudder that rippled through the class. Ziv was visibly wrestling with his urge to smack her good. We all did that when she talked.

“Those kids were stupid. Why wouldn’t they have a Hitler doll?”

“They were pretty stupid,” Moshe said, as the class nodded approvingly.

“Of course they were stupid!” said Ziv. “They all died, didn’t they?”

Even more approving nods. Only idiots died was the general perception in our class. I didn’t want to look at the doll anymore. It was just some guy, anyway. It wasn’t Hitler at all.

Ofir and Chai were on their knees looking at a rusted bicycle with a bright pink bow on the handlebars. “What you looking at?” I asked, squeezing between them.

“I have a bike just like this.” Chai said quietly. “Just like it.”

“It’s fifty years old,” I told him. “It’s probably older than your granddad.”

He looked at me so suddenly I almost fell. “My granddad was our age fifty years ago.” Chai was always good at math. I copied off him on math tests.

“Maybe it was your granddad’s bike,” Ofir said.

We all looked at the rusty shell of a childhood, that absurdly new bow on the back suddenly flowing back as if there was a wind, then settling back. I thought of my bike, with five gears and an air-gel cushion and everything.

“My granddad never rode a bike.”

“It still can’t be just like yours,” Ofir said, anxious to prove a point. Ofir was like that; Ofir liked to prove things. “It’s really old.” We both turned our eyes on Chai, waiting to see what he’d say.

“Yeah.” he said. “Probably.”

There was a sudden clapping of hands, which instinctively brought us to our feet, ending the conversation forever. Mrs. Zach continued clapping until everyone stopped looking at things other than her tightlipped face. “Follow Ifaat, please!” she instructed. Ifaat was the guide with the stupid hair. She smiled nervously at us and waved, as if we hadn’t been following her for the past half hour already. The class started tromping silently out of the room and into one of the endless ebony-gray corridors.

“Hey!” whispered Ofir. “What about Ben?”

I slowed my steps until the mass of the class hid us from Mrs. Zach at the front. The medic wasn’t walking at the end like he was supposed to, he was in the front now, talking to Ifaat. Ick. I fretted for a moment, walking forward a step and then backwards, trying to see if anyone was looking. Fat Rotem, always in the back, looked at me with her sad eyes as she passed, and Chai didn’t even say a word. We were the only ones left in the room.

“Come on!” I said, and headed back to the other corridor. There were actually two corridors out of the room with the bike and the doll that wasn’t Hitler or a movie star or anyone special at all. One led to where Ben was. The other led to where Ben wasn’t. Ofir and Chai followed. Chai’s eyes stayed on the rusting bike until it was out of sight.

After a few meters, the corridor lights suddenly stopped. It was almost completely dark. We walked for a few moments more, our hands on the walls, constantly touching each other, making sure there was still someone else in the universe.

Then the voice of God said, “DIERDRE SELACH.”

We all jumped, but when we found each other with our hands we calmed down again.

“The speakers!” said Ofir.

“Yeah,” I whispered back, just so he’d know he wasn’t the only one to figure it out.

We walked another meter, and the voice of God said BEN SAVION. We walked another meter and the voice of God said Nineteen thirty, Nineteen forty. Feeling our way through another meter, the voice of God said MORDECHAI DYAN. Another meter and the voice of God said Nineteen twenty four, Nineteen forty. We walked another meter and the voice of God said DAVID CZERNIAKOW. Another meter and suddenly we could see and the voice of God spoke no more and we were in another exhibit.

The walls were filled with photos of people. They were mostly in black uniforms with this sort of sharp hat, and that was black too, and had an edge and sometimes an eagle on it. They looked like people do, and for a moment I was confused why they were up there, why they were important, why they all had fancy black uniforms.

“Nazis!” exclaimed Chai softly, his breath spreading the word across the empty room like poisonous gas.

“No way,” I whispered back, the voice of God still echoing in my head as I spun around and looked at the photos, studying the uniforms. “They look just like regular people.”

“They are!” he grated back.

Ofir stared. “Why are you whispering!” he suddenly shouted, his voice echoing all around. I shuddered. “Shut up!” I whispered hoarsely at him. “You’ll wake them up!”

They both stared at me and I tried to hide inside my body.

“Where’s Ben?” asked Chai at last, still giving fleeting glances to the perfect white faces below perfect black hats with eagles on them.

“I don’t know,” I said, deciding not to tell them that I’d taken the wrong corridor, not wanting to go back through the tunnel of the voice of God. “Probably somewhere through there.” I pointed randomly. These rooms were all connected. We’d find the room with the plasma screen showing the dead in no time.

“Let’s go,” Ofir said, still not whispering in that way he had, on purpose. I glared at him and walked ahead into the next room. It was filled with the rusting remains of a really old rail car, so rusted it was no longer brown but the blackish brown of decay and corrosion so palpable you should have smelt it, though you couldn’t. As if it had been left rusting on purpose. Out of spite.

“What is that?” asked Ofir. Chai and I exchanged looks, both of us half shrugging, still not able to do a small shrug without shaking at least half of our bodies. Neither of us knew. Ofir went closer and touched the thing. I wanted to go find Ben, but went and touched it too. It felt like rust, like thorns, like regular metal. Chai didn’t touch it. Ofir went and read the plate next to it.

“One of the rail cars,” he read carefully and slowly, giving each word space to settle, “that brought passengers to Birkenau.”

Ofir looked at the rail car thoughtfully, and then read the plate again, mouthing the words to himself.

“Huh,” he said.

“Can we go find Ben now?” I asked.

“Sure.”

We went past the rail car that did not stink of death, that felt like regular metal and thorns, and into the next room, where a group of tourists with flip-flops and pasty white skin stared at a bunch of books lying with tattered covers in a concrete ditch. We crept by them softly, not wanting to be noticed and asked as to the whereabouts of our teacher and guide, barely noticing the plasma screen showing black and white video of a great big fire.

“I’m starving,” I told Chai. “A cook out sounds really great.”

“Wallah,” he replied. We passed the last of the pasty tourists, glancing back all of the time in case they suddenly decided to chase us. “Did you bring a lunch?”

“Two pitas with chocolate spread,” I told him. He made a face because he didn’t like chocolate spread. I knew that, which was why I asked my mother for it, so he wouldn’t eat all of it. Ofir shouted to us from ahead, and again for a moment I shivered, not knowing why, we were not even in a room with pictures now, there was no one to wake up.

“Ben’s here!” Ofir shouted, and I shivered but followed his voice.

Ben was in the next room, a room with the hole in it covered by glass, in which were like thousands of really old shoes. Ifaat had told us that these had been the shoes of those killed in the gas chambers, and had then smiled at the medic, who gave the impression of needing a cigarette. Ben was sitting on the glass staring down, his fingers trawling up and down on it, picking out shoes and tracing their form, one after the other.

He saw us coming and raised his eyes, which were haggard and red with tears.

“Hey guys.”

“Hey Ben,” we chorused, slightly embarrassed now that we had disturbed him, made him stop his tracing of shoes, maybe he’d lost count and would have to start over.

“We’re all going to die,” he said. His eyes candle sockets.

“Come on, Ben, we need to get back to the class before Mrs. Zach notices we left,” I said.

His eyes met mine.

“What’s that matter? Look around!” his voice suddenly rising in volume but lowering in pitch. But I didn’t shiver this time.

Chai sat down in front of Ben, who was staring down again. He met his eyes. “Hey, you’re right,” he said, “we are all going to die.”

Ofir and I stared at him. He could feel it on his back.

“Well, we are!” He turned to us. Ben stared at him too. “We are.” He said more softly, now fixing his gaze on the shoes below. I stared too. Ofir stared up into space, at the gray roof of the room of Yad Vashem, the cat box in which we had been left. We stared, we stared for the longest time.

“But not today,” I suddenly said. Everyone looked at me.

“Not today,” I said again, looking at all of them, then at the shoes again, then up, trying to see what Ofir saw, and couldn’t. “Right?”

Ofir stared up, abstracted, and thought about it like he thought about a science problem, studying the issue until it was clear. We stared at him, hoping for a good answer. You could trust Ofir to tell the truth, no matter to who and what would happen after he told it. At last he nodded. “Probably.”

A slow grin spread itself across Chai’s face. “Yeah, probably not today.”

We were all almost overcome with giggles, unable to understand why, but we didn’t release them, they showed only in the curve of our pained smiles, in the effort of keeping them in. We looked at Ben, who smiled weakly. He got up from the glass shoe cage and walked to us, taking his place, so we were all again together like we were supposed to be, Chai on the right, Ben on the left, Ofir between Ben and me, and me between Ofir and Chai.

And then we all would have started giggling like crazy, but Ben suddenly looked at his watch, a new thing his dad had bought him just last month. It had all the gadgets and was digital, and he looked up at all of us in horror.

“It’s six! We need to be at the busses right now!”

All traces of laughter or despair vanished. We exchanged frightened glances. “Mrs. Zach will kill us!” exclaimed Chai.

Ofir blanched, he was Mrs. Zach’s favorite, she’d kill him even more than the rest of us.  Ben came back to his senses pressed with the imminent danger presented, his eyes filled with healthy practical despair. We were so dead.

“This way!” I said, pointing to a random corridor which might or might not lead to the exit. And I don’t know why, they followed me.

And we ran.

 

Idan Cohen is a bi-lingual Israeli, infected with English during a few formative years in San Diego. He holds odd jobs as a rough laborer and dreams about being a kind of cultural philosopher / engineer. During the Holoucaust his granny hid in a wardrobe in Romania, but she always prefered talking about training for the Hagana at the detention centers in Cyprus. And that may be optimism in a nut shell.

Share