The sunset filtered through the tree branches just above where the darkening sky touched the horizon. Pale pink and gauzy blue, the colors were so delicate Maisie could only see them if she cut her eyes to the side. Out beyond the trees, the dark bulk of a steer lumbered through the field. At the edge of the yard Kevin’s old swing set sat rusting in the twilight.
Maisie’s heart constricted. The house, the field, the yard, the gravel driveway, even the deep road-side ditches like mini rivers, awash in melted snow, all of it was as familiar as the back of her hand. It was all the same, but different, too. So was she. Her body was heavier now, her face more lined than ten years ago when she’d last lived here, in her parents’ house.
“Maisie? Do you want a salad before dinner?”
Maisie turned from the kitchen window. “Sure, but I can make it. Should I make salads for you and dad, too?”
“That would be nice, honey.” Her mother smiled. “Thank you.”
“No problem.” Maisie forced a smile of her own in return. She reached for the cane she’d left leaning against the counter, and stumped to the refrigerator. Her knee was still stiff, six weeks after a surprise encounter with a stealthy patch of ice had left both her knee and her car in ruins. PT twice a week was helping. The cane was more for balance now than for support, but she was still a long way from where she’d been.
As she moved around the kitchen, she found herself looking for things in all the wrong places. When she’d lived here before, the kitchen hadn’t been remodeled yet. How old had Kevin been then? Eight? Maybe nine? They’d moved out when he was twelve, finally able to afford their own place five long years after the financial ruin of her messy divorce. It still seemed like yesterday to Maisie, but her little boy was turning twenty-two today.
A haze of tears muted the bell pepper she was slicing into a blur. Her brain wasn’t only confused about where things were in the kitchen. So many times today, she’d thought she’d seen Kevin out of the corner of her eye. Each time she’d jerked her head around, expecting to see him, still eight years old, grinning at her with his laughing dark eyes and chipped front tooth.
“Mom, Dad, salads are ready,” Maisie plunked the salad bowls down on the dining room table. When no one came, she stumped to the hallway. Fox News blared from two different directions, the slight delay from one room to the other creating an echo. “Dad!” Maise called toward the den. “Your salad is ready!” She stumped a few steps in the other direction to poke her head into the living room. “Mom? Salads are ready.”
Maisie heard her father’s recliner swing closed, and the sound of her mother’s high-pitched voice shooing the cat out of the way as her parents made their way to the table. Maisie went in the other direction. She locked herself in the bathroom, then turned on the water in the sink full force. Her cane clattered to the floor.
The face of the middle-aged woman reflected in the mirror turned red and blotchy, her mouth stretched into a grimace by silent sobs. She clapped a hand over her mouth and tore her gaze away, looking down instead at the water rushing into the sink. The sink in here used to be ugly pink porcelain. This sink was white, its bowl molded seamlessly into the sleek surface of the vanity top. The ugly tile was long gone.
Kevin was long gone, too. He’d grown up and flown away, her baby bird a baby no longer. He was an adult now, busy and happy, living his own life.
Maisie fumbled her cell phone out of her pocket, hoping to see a missed a call, but the screen was blank. He was probably on his way home from work now, or maybe he’d stopped to have a beer with friends to celebrate his birthday. Whatever he was doing, he was out in the world, living his life.
Resigned, Maisie slid the phone back into her pocket and picked up the hand towel. She blotted her face and took a series of deep breaths. When her reflection was serene once again, she picked her cane up from the floor and made her way back to the dining room.
“There you are, we thought you fell in.” Maisie’s mother joked. As Maisie began to pick at her salad her mother got up and cleared away her father’s empty bowl. She bustled into the kitchen with it, then returned with a steaming casserole dish. “I tried a new recipe tonight, southwest casserole.”
The crunch of tires on gravel in the driveway came as Maisie’s father was reaching for the salt shaker. Maisie sat up straight in her seat, a forkful of lettuce halfway to her mouth. Could it be?
Someone clumped up the steps to the kitchen door, then the door opened to reveal Kevin’s tall form in the doorway. Maisie dropped her fork and stood up. Forgetting the cane, she hobbled towards the kitchen. Kevin flashed his familiar smile, her mind seeing the old chip in his tooth, the one he’d long since had repaired. “Hi Mom,” his voice rumbled in her ear as he wrapped her in a bear hug. She hugged him back, hard, her throat too tight to manage words.
“You didn’t think I’d miss seeing you on my birthday, did you? Mom! Why? You know I’d never forget.”
“I know,” Maisie’s voice was raspy with tears. “Don’t mind me, I’m just a silly old mom.” She looked up at her boy’s laughing dark eyes and smiled. So many things were different, now, but so much was still the same.
Kelly Ospina lives in central New Jersey with far too many children and animals. When not writing, she can usually be found doing laundry, yelling at children to pick up after themselves and cleaning up dog hair.
“One hundred days,” I say as the prime minister leafs through the contract I’d given him. He scans the pages through a pair of black rimmed spectacles held in front of his nose with a chubby white fist.
He looked much as I had expected him to: black suit and bowtie, slouched in his chair with a cigar wedged between his fingers. The office we were in seemed rather humble for his station, though. A cramped little dungeon, dotted with wooden posts to hold up the floor above. The walls were mostly bare, save for a bookshelf and a few photographs and newspaper clippings, soon to be replaced by sprawling maps of a world at war, no doubt.
“One hundred days,” I say again, “split into no less than three hundred nights, spread out over the next ten years. We’d work out a schedule for you, arrange your transport.”
The prime minister lays the contract down on the desk and tucks his glasses away into his jacket. “And what would I be doing on these nights, exactly?” One got the impression that there was a little too much flesh in his mouth when he spoke.
“Dinner parties, public speaking.” I shrug. “Who’s to say, it’s all down to the client’s personal tastes.”
It was usually best not to think about what clients might want to do with the escorts.
“You’re a celebrity, or at least you will be. People in the future want your time. They want to show you off to their friends, spend their evenings talking to you over a glass of whisky. We just facilitate that demand. We take you to the people who want to meet you most.”
He goes back to looking at the contract, straightening it up with his fingertips so that its bottom edge runs parallel to the desk.
“Suppose I sign. What’s in it for me?”
“Everything.” I say with a grin.
“You’re talking about the war.”
I nod. “And more. We ensure that things go as they’re supposed to, that all your efforts are successful. We make sure that you become the man that our clients want to meet.”
He pops his cigar into his mouth and strikes a match to light it.
“So I sign this, and the war ends before it even starts.”
“Ha! That wouldn’t be very theatrical now, would it? No, there most certainly will be a war, I’m afraid, and there will be casualties. But we’ll be there to make sure the right side wins.”
“And if I refuse this… generous offer of yours? What then? I mean, who’s to say we need your help?”
I flash the prime minister another grin, then stand up and step over to my right to inspect the pictures on the wall.
“Wonderful shot, this,” I say, pointing to a framed newspaper clipping. Its headline piece shows a skeletal man in an old suit triumphantly waving a sheet of paper above his head like a tiny white flag.
“Fascinating man, your predecessor,” I say, leaning in a little closer so that I can see the white streaks in the old premier’s hair. “He turned us down. We made him a similar offer, not long before this was taken actually. Hundred days, win the war.”
I take the frame off the wall and hold it in my hands, running a thumb over the old man’s face. “Such a shame.”
We really had made the old PM an offer, and he really had turned us down. Of course, we always knew that he would. Did he even have a choice?
“Peace for our time,” I say, holding the picture up to the prime minister. “We all know how that turned out, don’t we.”
I set the picture back on the wall and return to my chair. The prime minister glowers at me from across the desk, chewing on his cigar like he’s trying to eat it.
“We could always talk to your friend on the continent,” I say. “I hear he’s keen on this sort of thing. Not our first choice, of course, but we can make do. Time has a strong current prime minister, but even the greatest rivers can be diverted.”
He scowls and takes out his pen.
Chris Ovenden teaches philosophy at the University of Manchester, UK. When he isn’t marking papers he likes to write flash fiction about robots, time travel and possible worlds.
Emmet exited the hospital with anchors in his pockets. His feet trudged along the snow-covered pathway that led to the parking lot. Ice cracked under his boots. He felt the wind collide with his exposed cheeks, causing the odor of disinfectants and alcohol to resurface under his nose.
He had decided against bringing his scarf today. He wanted to feel the cold expand his lungs to their capacity, and maybe then he would be able to handle the hollowness in his stomach.
James had been both a blessing and a curse in Emmet’s life. They met when they were five years old in the neighborhood park. Both of them were equally determined to reach the top of the slide before the other. James had won, though Emmet never admitted that he had let him win because he wanted a friend.
“What are you looking at?” James asked, his brow raised.
“Your face. Do you look mean all the time?” Emmet’s shoulders hunched into a sheepish shrug. His mother had always told him to mind his business. If he didn’t have anything nice to say, he shouldn’t say it at all. Oops.
James surprisingly, and to Emmet’s relief, laughed. “Duh. I have to keep the bad kids away.”
Emmet opened the door of his car. Once inside, he couldn’t be bothered to turn the key in the ignition. Instead, both hands gripped the steering wheel. His knuckles faded to white. His nails left crescents in the leather. This wasn’t how things were supposed to turn out for them.
“Do you think that Stacey will ever notice me?” James sighed, lazily turning to view Emmet. Silence. “Hello?” James tapped Emmet’s shoulder firmly with his pencil.
“Thinking about me naked again, Emmet? I know I’m irresistible, but we have bigger things to talk about.”
Emmet grunted, elbowing James in the side. “You wish, James, you wish. And to answer your question, no. Stacey will never notice you because your ego is bigger than what’s between your legs.”
His forehead was pressed against the steering wheel now. His gaze was focused on the leftover crumbs on the floor. They were from chips or doughnuts, possibly both. He counted them: seven in total.
Seven minutes ago, Emmet still had a best friend.
“We’re going to be all right though, yeah? Even with you so far away?”Emmet’s mouth was curved into a hopeful grin. There was a three hour time difference between New York and San Francisco, but they’d have plenty of time to talk.
James cupped both of his shoulders, nodding without as much as a second thought. “Obviously. You can’t get rid of me that easily.” James laughed, a throaty kind of sound that was interrupted by an announcement, “Flight 47A to San Francisco is now boarding.” James briefly surveyed the sea of people that had begun moving from the nearest waiting area, merging into an already condensed crowd. He took a second to take it all in. “I’ll see you soon,” he said to Emmet as he hurried in the direction of the gate. Somewhere along the way, he tripped and fell over the carrier bag that had slipped from his shoulder mid-haste.
Emmet hadn’t seen that for himself, though he had heard about it the instant James’ plane had touched ground.
Emmet was still in the hospital parking lot. Leaving struck as an impossible option; if he did, it would mean that all of this was real. The distance between them would be greater than a text message, a phone call, a plane ride.
“Hi, this is James. Leave a message after the beep.”
“Hey… uh… I got your voicemail again. I’ve been trying to call you all week, but you haven’t answered. That’s become kind of your thing lately. Anyway… I figured I’d tell you the news this way. I got an internship with that media company I applied to a couple of months back. They wanted me out of five thousand applicants or some crazy number like that. I still can’t believe it and I… I wish you’d just pick up your goddamned phone, James.”
The line went dead.
The line had a rhythm, a rhythm that Emmet could not get out of his head. Up and down, like waves. These waves however, crashed to shore and never rose again. He wasn’t going to wake up, the doctors said. They were sorry, they said.
“Last week, we went for lunch. She was fine.” James was slumped over the couch, hands dragging down his face.
Emmet sat next to him, exhaling a breath. “I know. James… I’m sorry.” Emmet wished he knew of something better to say, something that could ease even a fraction of the pain.
The heart attack had come as a shock and since then everything happened in a blur: James breaking down, James planning the wake, James saying goodbye as his mother’s casket was lowered into the ground. James walked away from the ordeal emptier than before. The light that Emmet was used to seeing in his eyes had dimmed. He wasn’t certain if James would get it back.
“Promise me something.”
Emmet hadn’t expected James to speak. “Anything.”
“If something like… what happens to my mom happens to me—”
James held up a hand. “If something happens to me, I trust you to… do what you think is best. My parents are d…dead. You’re… family, Emmet.”
Emmet had agreed then, believing his promise would never have to be fulfilled. Life chose otherwise. When Emmet witnessed James surrounded by wires and tubes, he knew James wouldn’t have wanted to live like that.
There was nothing left, the doctors had said.
One car. One ignored red light. One shaking hand that Emmet used to sign the release form.
And the heartbeat on the monitor was going, gone.
And all that was left for Emmet was blinding silence and anchors in his pockets.
Megan Manzano is currently attending University in order to achieve a Bachelor’s degree in English. She is a resident of New York City and was successful in gaining her first publication in The Anglerfish Magazine in 2013. Her favorite activities include reading, blogging, fangirling, and expressing her imagination through writing.
Thomas was wringing his hands.
Thomas was gritting his teeth.
Thomas was shitting his pants.
Christ, how had he been so stupid? Of course the backup security would be on a separate line! The alarm was screeching like a disgruntled Spanish fishwife, drilling a hole in his concentration and compounding his panic.
Thomas tried to breathe.
Okay, he thought, I have some time, probably a few minutes before the frigs arrive (Thomas thought of the French police as frigs – frogs crossed with pigs), so not a lot of time. What have I got?
Well, he had a five-million-pound painting of a woman’s behind…
What else? A flashlight, a pocket knife, a set of screwdrivers, a cellphone; nothing of any use now.
What he really needed was a bulldozer or maybe a tank to knock down the heavy steel gates that had slammed down on all the exits… Why oh why did they not simply leave those bloody gates down during closing time? Thomas wondered. That way prospective procurers such as himself wouldn’t even bother trying their luck! But perhaps that was the point… Perhaps the museums wanted to catch the odd thief every now and then. Probably made for good headlines, which probably made for good business.
Suddenly Thomas wished he was back in Trafalgar Square dressed all in gold with his gold face-paint and gold hairspray, standing on his little golden pedestal. It was true what they said: We all think we’re unhappy with our lives until we’re standing knee-deep in pig shit. And, now that he thought about it with the new perspective of one caught red-handed, he had been happy. Holding real still, waiting for the clink of a coin, doing a wave for ten pence and a jig for a pound; he had enjoyed it. It wasn’t such bad work – better than sitting in an office all day. And children thought he was hilarious…
Except Tommy Junior. Tommy Junior was embarrassed that his dad was a living statue for a living. And when Junior’s asthma had taken a turn for the worse, Thomas simply couldn’t afford the medication any more. So here he was, clutching a painting of a woman’s behind and about to go to Froggy prison…
Thomas tried to calm down.
Junior needs his father, he told himself, so think, Thomas, think mate! You’re in the east wing, remember the blueprints, remember the website. . .
There would be a display of seventeenth century clothing down the hall – on loan from the National History Museum, if he remembered correctly. Maybe he could hide amidst the frocks and coifs until the frigs went past and then make good his escape? He could think of no better plan anyway.
Thomas spun on his heels and ran back down the way he’d come, taking a left into a tall room filled with stagecoaches and absurd outfits in glass frames and several mannequins posing in extravagantly colorful finery. Looking around at the mannequins, still and silent on their pedestals, Thomas smiled.
He grabbed a feathered hat from one dummy and a pair of pantaloons from another. Swiped a pair of silver-buckled boots from a display and tucked his own shoes into his belt. He hurriedly buttoned a ghastly doublet over a ruff nabbed from Samuel De Champlain the navigator, and added a fur-lined coat to complete the disguise. Then, standing beside De Champlain with the painting rolled in his hand like an ocean chart, he raised a finger to the west and did what he did best.
When the police came to search the room, they failed to notice the quiet breathing of one of the mannequins. Thomas stood stock still all night long, while investigators hurried up and down the corridor outside the room and the hotel’s curators were ushered in. Tears were shed. People said, “merde!” And Thomas didn’t move at all throughout the following morning.
Electricians came to rewire the cables he had cut, the ones for CCTV and beam alarms. Thomas scarcely blinked.
The museum finally reopened its doors to the public late in the afternoon. A throng had gathered to come and see the cordoned-off crime scene in the east wing, just beyond the room with the display of 17th century clothing, and when a mannequin next to Samuel De Champlain descended its pedestal and shed its coat and feathered hat, nobody noticed. Thomas mingled with the crowd and made his way to the museum toilette. There, he finally allowed himself to feel relief. He also took a piss.
He strode from the Petit Palais Art Museum, right out the front door, and along the bank of the Seine, heading for his hotel. He smiled as he read the headline of the day’s paper over the shoulder of a man seated on a bench. It read, Tableau Précieux Volé Par ‘Le Fantôme’. Priceless Painting Stolen by ‘The Ghost’. Ha! The Ghost! He liked that, and he was willing to bet Tommy Junior would like it too.
Daniel Boshoff used to be a dope-smoking teenage delinquent, a ceramic sculptor, a chef, a sailor on the high seas, a musician, a tattooist, and a baker of artisan breads (in that order), but apparently consistency isn’t his thing. Now he gardens and writes and depletes his savings account. He lives in Cape Town, South Africa with his partner in everything (including, but not limited to, crime), who is a blonde. If you can beat him at scrabble, he will be your friend forever.
An old man named Lester lived at the same nursing home as my grandfather back in the late 1970s. I still cringe when I think of that place. The smell of stale urine dominated the bleak institution like a horrid, invisible fog. Otherwise the place was simply gray — gray walls, gray furniture, gray people.
Back then, even at thirteen, I could tell that most of the residents at the home were pretty far gone, including my grandfather. Alzheimer’s had taken his mind, and to him it was the 1930s and this place was a hotel that he managed. He once told me, “None of these people have paid their bills for months, but I just don’t have the heart to make them leave.”
Lester, on the other hand, had a one-track mind. The only word that seemed to remain in his vocabulary was cigarette. If a nurse walked by and said, “Good morning, Lester,” his sole reply would always be “Cigarette.” If the commissary lady called out, “Dinner is served,” he would cry, “Cigarette.” Often he shouted the word with no prompting at all. Lester really wanted a cigarette.
He was bean-pole thin, Lester was, and tall. When he stood and shuffled around the home, he would have to hold up his pants by the waist to keep them from falling down. Once he forgot to do this and his pants dropped to his ankles, revealing a dingy pair of boxer shorts.
“Lester, pull up your pants,” the nurse had said.
“Cigarette,” said Lester.
“Looks like someone ought to get Lester a belt,” said Dad. We’d chuckled, but really I just felt sort of sorry for Lester.
One day we were visiting Grandpa in the foul-smelling common room and I really needed to get some air. I made for the back door.
I got outside and tried to avoid puking as I gulped the somewhat fresher air of the patio. It was deserted save for one man in a chair — Lester. The nurse had probably escorted him out here when she got fed up with him.
“Hi Lester,” I said.
“You really want a cigarette, don’t you?”
“Cigarette!” His voice rose with an almost pleading tone as he heard his favorite word repeated back to him. I cast a Hamburglar glance from side to side. No one was around.
I headed off, making for the side parking lot and Dad’s truck. There in the cab, sitting on the dash, was a pack of Dad’s Kool Filter Kings. I took out two, lighting them with the truck’s cigarette lighter.
When I got back to the patio Lester’s head was slopped over, his eyes closed. “Cigarette, Lester?” I asked.
He looked up. I passed him the cigarette and he handled it for a moment with the same reverence that a penitent might finger his rosary beads. “Careful,” I said. “It’s lit.”
He nodded, then took a deep drag. When he exhaled, I could just make out the words, “Ah, that’s good.”
“Guess you can talk after all.”
Lester looked at me, holding the cigarette within the V of two extended fingers. “Why talk? Nobody listens.”
I nodded. Lester continued, “You’re a good boy.” His voice was thin and creaky like an old wax cylinder recording of Edison. When he said ‘boy,’ the word had two syllables: ‘boi-ahh.’
“I been here three god-damned years,” he said. “Not one damn smoke. Say it’ll kill me. Like that matters a hill of beans.”
“Nothing to be sorry about. Way it is. Gotta keep ya alive to keep them checks coming in. Just put ya up like old silver that never gets used. ‘You can’t smoke, Lester. You can’t drink. Can’t curse. Can’t be looking at Nurse Higgins’ ass like that.’ Might have a god-damned heart attack.”
I chuckled, and Lester did too between puffs.
“You got your whole life ahead of you, boi-ahh. Make sure you enjoy it. Live high on the hog. I wish I had.”
We were almost finished with our smokes when a nurse caught us. Much to Lester’s chagrin, it wasn’t the buxom Nurse Higgins. “Young man, there’s no smoking here. And Lester! He has emphysema. He can’t be smoking. Put those out and come with me.”
The nurse dragged me to my dad and ratted me out. When she mentioned cigarettes, Grandpa looked up. “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should,” he said, quoting an old cigarette ad. Dad, sporting a sheepish grin, issued a curt goodbye to Grandpa and the nurse, then escorted me out of the home. “Get in the truck,” he said.
I got in the passenger seat, fearing the worst. Dad mechanically pulled a cigarette out of the pack on the dash, then paused, certainly remembering the issue at hand. “What the hell,” he said finally, then lit it. He gave it to me. “Don’t tell your mother.” He lit another for himself.
“You did a good thing there. Hell, I’ve had a mind to give ole Lester a smoke for ages. Never had the guts.”
I didn’t know what to say. I just took a cautious drag from my cigarette.
“Someday that’ll be me in there, like ole Lester. I hope you’ll bring me cigarettes, son.”
“And a beer. I always like a beer with a smoke.”
“Live high on the hog, eh?”
Dad laughed. As we drove away from the home, I puffed my cigarette, gazing out the window at the world, wondering if this was the beginning of living high on the hog.
Years later, Dad’s prediction of course came true. The nursing homes these days aren’t quite so bad, but they still frown upon smoking. I have to escort Dad to the far edges of the grounds to give him his smokes. “Tastes good, like a cigarette should,” I always say to him. The old slogan reminds me of Grandpa, even though, unlike most men of his era, he didn’t smoke.
Christopher Owen lives in Texas with his wife and two cats. His work has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Fried Fiction, Mystic Signals and other places. He is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop.