Tennyson Hess poured leftover water from the green-bean pot onto the blue hydrangeas outside his front door. Back in the kitchen, he set the empty pot on a cooling burner. He turned toward his supper and pulled out his chair, leaning a little into it for support. He sat to eat and found himself staring once more at the Christmas photos on his refrigerator. The pictures were old now, curling and yellowing. In them smiled children he scarcely recalled, here and there accompanied by a parent. The adults he knew better, although they had changed. Old friends and cousins wore lined faces and sagging bodies, decay drawn like a veil over the vibrant and happy people he had known. He flexed his own stiffening fingers.
Supper never took long, anymore. Without the din and disorder of companionship, it was a tidy ritual of perhaps ten minutes in length. Tonight when he had finished, his dinner dishes nearly filled the washer, so he started the machine and stood listening while the water hissed in. It would stay a while, working, cycling before it drained. Perhaps you could never step in the same river twice, he thought, but if you were a dollar-fifty plastic bowl you might more than once feel the same dishwater current’s caress.
After a moment he pushed off from the counter. He went through the living room, where a beginner’s songbook lay open on the piano. The teacher he had dispensed with after a handful of lessons — she had been a retired schoolteacher, too chipper and too garrulous for his tastes these days — but in her absence he had continued with the music and could by now play each simple piece by heart.
On the back porch, he sat on the bench swing to rock a while and watch the sky turn pink behind the neighbor’s house. A slender black cat struggled from under their porch, through the latticework, then slunk up their steps, leapt onto a woven-bottomed chair, and settled to stare back at the man.
“We had a cat, in the old neighborhood,” said Tennyson. “Prettier than you. I suppose she was really June’s. I gave her away, first time I moved.”
A car pulled up on the other side of the neighbor’s house. Car doors opened and slammed, youthful voices shouted. The cat startled and fled. In a moment, perhaps, the family would flood around the house. Tennyson could meet them if he liked. The young man, the father of all those children, had waved to him from time to time, coming and going. Tennyson had pretended not to see it. But he could change all that: they could talk about the Red Sox, or the state of their patchy little gardens, and the boys could play the piano.
He went inside, instead, and upstairs. When he snapped on his bedroom lamp June was there, smiling silver-framed from the bedside table — her face at fifty, almost as old as she got.
She had made fresh oatmeal cookies often, she’d had a knack with animals and roses, and he had thought for a little while that not even death could do them part. But she had stared up at him more than once with those eyes — gray now, stilled and protected behind the glass but blue, moving, vulnerable then–searching his face for the inevitable traces of age multiplying in it and had told him, “Don’t you understand, Tenny? We’re drowning.”
He could see it the way she told it, time tugging skin into wrinkles like water distorting clothing, the swirling eddies of years pulling people inexorably from each other, pushing them under and away. “We’re drowning so slowly,” she’d said. Reaching through the depths toward each other, maybe, or looking up for oxygen, the sun, the slim possibility of rescue. But whatever they reached for, bloating and changing and drowning all the same. “Look how wild people’s hair gets, if they keep it at all. It’s always flowing away from them. You can see the currents just get stronger farther on.”
Remembering, he reached one time-twisted hand up to touch his own hair, thin and uncooperative, standing out from his head like riotous seaweed. He chuckled, coughed, and scrubbed saltwater from his eyes. “How right you are, my dear.”
It was she who had told him, in that last love letter, “Don’t try to follow me, darling. You know you can never leap in the same river twice.” He had gone and stood on the bridge all the same, wishing down toward the water. But in the end, knowing her to be past his grasp, he had driven home to the pretty cat and the newly-cavernous house.
He had answered the questions of the police, let them see the letter, and endured the ugly terms they used (victim, suspects, and finally: suicide.) He had shrugged against prodding, too-helpful family and friends of hers, of theirs, and against suddenly interested colleagues’-wives. He had finished the requisite years of his work and had moved three times since his retirement, seeking peace.
It can be a difficult thing to find, when you carry your beloved’s ghost with you.
At the very least, he had reasoned once, when leaving what he knew: a man should be allowed to grieve and to die with a little privacy. And over the years the privacy he needed had expanded around him bit by bit until it was a kind of quiet sea.
But now, when a baby’s gurgle came with the summer twilight through his open window he looked down at a pair of small boys running and at their father on the porch’s step, bouncing in his arms a little one in pink blankets. And even though he knew the despair of drowning, he shuffled down the stairs, pulling at his disordered hair. He stood behind the porch door a moment to take in a deep, wet, rattling breath before he stepped out into the dim and fragrant evening.
Wilma Bernard has previously had work published by Metro Moms and Youth Imagination, as well as here at Every Day Fiction.
“I can’t come in to work today, boss, the baby’s on the roof. Bye!” Ellen clicked the off button on her phone and stuck it in her pocket as she ran out the back door. In the middle of the yard she turned to look at the roof. There was the baby, sitting on the ridgeline, sucking her thumb.
Ellen sighed. If she went up on the roof, the baby would just materialize somewhere else on the roof, just like a dog with a sock running around the house in a game of chase. “Sarah, Sweetie, come on down. I have a cookie for you.”
Sarah looked at her mother with big blue eyes and pulled her thumb out of her mouth. “Ma, ma, ma, ma, ma,” and stuck the thumb back in.
This wasn’t supposed to happen. Ellen had no superpowers, the only one in her family who didn’t. “Just not in your genes we guess, Sweetheart,” her parents told her when she was fourteen. “A power certainly would have manifested on puberty, if you had any power at all.” She was disappointed. Her brother, Sam, could fly, lucky jerk. His power manifested at five. Her parents had to keep him in a harness, tethered to the floor until he understood that he couldn’t just fly anywhere or any time.
Her mother, Carol, could see through things, helpful in a family of superheroes. There was always a broken bone somewhere in the family that she could see to help set. Dad could throw flame from his hands. It made the family camping easier, that’s for sure.
Ellen called her mother. “Hi, I’ve got a problem.”
“What is it, Sweetie?”
“The baby’s on the roof.”
“I’ll be right over.”
Ellen put the phone back in her pocket. It would take at least half an hour for her mother to get here. “Sarah, want some ice cream?”
The thumb came out again and Ellen could swear the baby was thinking the offer over. Nope, the thumb went back in. Ellen looked around. No neighbors seemed to have noticed; otherwise the police would be here. No one looks at the neighbors’ roofs, do they? They bought this house because she didn’t have powers. There was no need to live in the family superhero compound, away from the regular citizens, if there weren’t going to be superhero children to protect. Big mistake.
By the time Carol arrived, Ellen had tried juice, candy, and the baby’s favorite stuffed teddy bear as bribes but Sarah remained on the roof. Her mother stood beside her and studied the baby. “You tell Scott yet?”
Ellen shook her head. “How can I? I wasn’t supposed to have powers, remember? He’s not from a superhero family; he’s not going to understand.”
“You’re going to have to tell him.”
“Yeah, I know. But first, let’s get the baby down.”
“You tried bribes?”
“Yep, she’s not taking bribes.”
“How’d she get up there? Fly?”
“No, she just materialized up there. I suppose Sam might be able to fly up and get her, if she doesn’t decide to just disappear and pop up somewhere else.”
Carol folded her arms as she watched Sarah bat at a butterfly. “A tether might not work for her.”
“I thought of that. She’d just disappear right out of it.”
“The baby still has all of her clothes on. So it might work, if she has to take what’s on her body.”
“Maybe, mom, but right now I need to get her down before the neighbors notice and call the cops.”
Her mother waved at the baby. “Hi, dumplin’. Come give Grandma a kiss.”
They were still staring up when Sarah appeared at Carol’s feet. She scooped the baby up and gave her a big hug and a kiss. “What a good girl you are. Let’s go get some juice.”
Sarah smiled and took her thumb out of her mouth. “Ba, ba, ba, ba, ba?”
Carol grinned at her daughter. “You might consider moving out to the family compound. You’re going to have your hands full.”
Connie Cockrell began writing in response to a challenge from her daughter in October 2011 and has been hooked ever since. Her books run the gamut from SciFi and Fantasy to Contemporary to Halloween and Christmas stories. She’s published two novels, The Gulliver Station series, three collections of short stories and has been included in three different anthologies. Connie continues to write about whatever comes into her head. If you’d like to know more, go to www.conniesrandomthoughts.wordpress.com or to www.facebook.com/ConniesRandomThoughts.
Humphrey was feeling so squeamish he was sure he’d lose his dinner all over the stage when he opened his mouth. What the hell was he doing trying to be an actor anyhow, he thought. He’d been born a rich kid who’d never have to work if he didn’t want to, with Father a much respected society surgeon and Mother famous in her own right as a portrait artist. It was she, in fact, who had engineered her son’s first professional appearance — at 15 months — by selling his picture to a baby food company for use in their advertising.
In less than two minutes, the skinny young man would know whether the acting lessons had been worth his mother’s dough. It was 1922, the Rupert Theatre — Broadway! — and Humphrey (still unsure about using that as a stage name, thinking it sounded sissy) was pacing in the wing, waiting to enter stage left and deliver the second line, second scene, second act of a second-rate melodrama called Swifty. It would be his first stage utterance ever.
Costumed in white linen slacks and white dress shirt and heavily pancaked, Humphrey knew his parents were sitting front row center, clutching their playbills, anxiously awaiting his stage debut. It was not a comforting thought.
One minute to go. Humphrey patted his slicked-back black hair and, in the traditional relaxation exercise of actors, arched his back, rolled his head from side to side, and wiggled his arms at his side. In an unconscious gesture he had acquired a few years previously, he ran his tongue over his upper lip, nudging a scar there. That slight pucker, the relic of a poke from a drunken shipmate, was temporarily masked by powder — though no one in the audience could possibly see it — for as the director had told him, “You’re playing a young gentleman, kid, not a goddam two-bit thug.” Humphrey had been amused by that, having purposely refused the doctor’s offer to sew up his lip because he thought the scar would give him a tougher look.
He certainly didn’t feel tough now. Thirty seconds more, and he was having a hard time remembering how to say his one line. All the weeks he he’d rehearsed to get that line just right, and in less than half a minute he’d be hurling it across the footlights into hundreds of critical ears, some belonging to critics.
“Jesus!” he spat aloud and thought, shoulda stayed in the Navy. At least I looked like a man in that white outfit.
Suddenly, he heard his cue…
“Goodness, where is that lad?”
The neophyte actor’s head was suddenly light, his mouth dry. On legs weighted as if encased in concrete, he managed to push himself forward. Bounding into the English drawing room set and vigorously slapping the air with a heavy wooden racquet, 20-year-old Humphrey DeForest Bogart announced to his fellow actors, the audience, his parents, and the critics his single two-word line:
Andy Spiegel spent his career in advertising and marketing. Now semi-retired, he is a freelance writer and audio-video editor and writes for pleasure.
“Ladies and gentlemen, let’s hear it again for The Amazing Jimmy!” a child’s voice announced, trying to sound grown up. A smattering of applause from a dozen pairs of tiny hands and several pairs of adult ones followed. Lois could feel her migraine rising with each palm striking its twin, the stress of putting this party together finally catching up to her, but she smiled anyway. After all, Jimmy did look kind of cute in his top hat and cape.
“For my final trick, I’ll need a volunteer from the audience!” Little hands shot up into the air, accompanied by excited and hopeful exclamations of “ME, ME, ME!” as each child in the front row vied for the opportunity to be The Amazing Jimmy’s assistant. It was a futile hope though, as Jimmy had already promised to pick his sister for the final trick. It was her birthday after all, and that had been the price of Lois agreeing to Jimmy’s show during the party.
“Okay, birthday girl, come on up!” Jimmy made a sweeping motion with his hand, but Abby was already on her feet, giving the audience a little curtsy and joining her brother.
Lois leaned over to her husband Dave. “Get a picture, they look adorable.”
“Been recording the whole show, ” Dave smiled, steadying his iPhone, “gonna bring this out at his wedding.”
Lois punched him in the shoulder playfully, but laughed seeing that future in her head. “Don’t make fun, he practiced really hard all week for this.”
“Oh I know he did.” Dave panned the audience with the phone for variety. “I thought his first trick really set the tone.”
Lois suppressed a snort. Jimmy’s first trick was the classic ‘pick a card’ trick for which he had selected one of the neighbor’s children, Sara, to participate. She had picked a card, shown it around, and put it back in the deck. Jimmy shuffled, then proceeded to go through the deck from the top down, asking Sara about every single card until he found hers. Magic.
“And now, before your very eyes, I will make the birthday girl disappear!” Jimmy was covering the small prop table he had been using with a white sheet. The sheet was completely decorated with images and figures in black Sharpie.
“Did you help him with that?” Dave raised his eyebrows. He zoomed the camera in on the drawings. “They’re really good, they look all magicky and stuff.”
“Wasn’t me. Although that’s probably one of my good sheets.” Lois frowned.
Up front, Jimmy was ushering Abby under the table. She waved and blew the audience a kiss as Jimmy pulled the sheet down, hiding her.
“Everyone quiet please, I need to focus the magic!” Jimmy reached into his pocket and pulled out a white feather. He examined it for a minute and then looked as though he would cry.
“What’s wrong, sweetie?” Lois moved to head the tears off quickly.
“It got folded over in my pocket.” He held up the now L-shaped feather for her to see.
“Oh, I’m sure it will still work just fine,” Lois cooed.
Jimmy shook his head. “No, the trick won’t work right without it.” Tears were imminent.
“Do something, please,” Lois said without moving her lips.
Dave raised a mocking eyebrow. “Oh, right away. He can have the spare I always carry with me.” Lois was not amused. He sighed, handed her the phone and walked up front to Jimmy. “Can’t we make do with it just for now, son?”
Jimmy shook his head, staring at the ground, shoulders slumped.
Dave stood up and scanned the perimeter of the yard. There were some crows in the hedge hiding from the sunlight. Hoping to get lucky, he strolled over and shooed them away. A few moments on his knees in the grass and he triumphantly returned with a long crow feather and handed it to Jimmy.
“There you go, on with the show. Only make sure to wash your hands after.” Dave returned to his seat. “You’re welcome,” he muttered to Lois as he took back the phone and began filming again.
Jimmy looked at the feather for a few minutes, apparently unsure it was an acceptable replacement. Just then his sister poked her head out from under the table.
“Is it time yet? I want to come out.”
Jimmy went to where she was, and pushed her back under. “You’re supposed to wait for the signal,” he whispered, but not very quietly. Between his assistant trying to walk off and the audience getting restless, Jimmy decided to go with the substitute feather. He laid it carefully on the table over a group of drawings that looked like smaller feathers in the table’s center.
“And now I say the magic words!” Jimmy lifted his arms over the table and began to speak.
Dave’s brow furrowed. “Doesn’t sound like Abracadabra to me.”
“Actually it’s kind of creepy.” Lois rubbed her arms to ward off the goosebumps.
Jimmy finished the magic words. There was a buzzing sound and a sharp crack.
Under the table, Abby decided that being a magician’s assistant wasn’t as much fun as she’d thought it would be. She was bored, hot, and about to come out from under the table when she heard a loud snap outside. Jimmy had told her that meant the trick was finished. She tensed, ready to spring out as soon as Jimmy lifted the sheet.
She waited. And waited. And waited. Finally she could stand it no longer. She pushed up the white sheet and jumped out with arms raised.
“TADA!” she yelled.
Her exclamation faded to silence, in the empty backyard.
Jason Thomas lives in San Diego, California with his wife and four children. When he isn’t writing fiction, he’s writing code for the video game industry.
Javier hears the words, but they don’t register. Women don’t talk to men like him. He shoves his hands in his pockets, keeps his gaze trained on the ground.
“Hey, you. Mr. Hawaiian shirt.”
From the corner of his eye, Javier sees the sea of multi-hued, multi-generational faces staring up at the woman, perched in the bed of her pick-up. They all want work, or seem to want it. Some probably only stopped for the entertainment of watching a tiny, fiery-haired woman try to hire day labor from a pool of rag-tag men, recently released into the general population after a night in the county homeless shelter.
Javier persists in staring at his feet. The redhead knows she has his attention, though, because she says, “What do you know about fire layin’?”
Javier kicks a stone in his path. “I got some experience. What of it?”
“I got ten mommas fixin’ to lay. I need a coop and nesting boxes, ASAP.”
“Why don’t you do it yourself?”
“Ten mommas. Ten fireproof nesting boxes. Two days — or so says the weather man. You want the job or not?”
Javier shrugs. “What do I get for it?”
“Three hots and a cot, enough pay to buy you a couple new shirts. You should probably burn that one.”
Javier looks up and reveals the burn scars marring his left cheek and jaw. They match the marks on his left forearm that his short-sleeve shirt fails to cover. The scars make people wary; so does his questionable immigration status. Few will take the risk of hiring him and the ones who do usually try to take advantage of him. But something about this woman intrigues. Javier smiles at her. “This is my best shirt.”
The woman snorts. “Then you need this job worse than I thought.
Javier sheds his Hawaiian shirt and works in an undershirt, soaked through with sweat. Even in the shade of a magnolia, where Gilda has set him up with fire-rated drywall and a five-gallon bucket of liquid flame retardant, Javier’s blood boils. The birds need the heat, requiring 100-plus temps for laying, and this day promises to approach the threshold. The weatherman says tomorrow for sure and Javier has three nesting boxes to finish before then.
Gilda brings Javier a glass of tea. He guzzles it before the ice cubes can melt, but he instantly regrets it. “Uh,” he says, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Brain freeze.”
Gilda sips her own tea and smirks at him. “Shouldn’t be so greedy.”
When their break ends, Gilda joins Javier. He likes how hard she works to keep up with his more experienced skills. “Why did you wait until the last minute?” Javier asks. “You should have finished these boxes a while back.”
“The birds were a surprise,” says Gilda. “Sorta dropped on my doorstep a couple days ago.”
“Don’t know. But you see I got them laying hens and I do an okay egg business, so they must have thought I could handle these girls.”
“You didn’t try to sell them? They don’t come cheap.” Sexual potency and rejuvenation after consuming pulverized feathers, miraculous crop yields from guano fertilization, meat served as a delicacy in some countries; these birds turn a comfortable profit, if one overlooks the hazards of breeding them.
“Maybe I’m keen to the challenge,” says Gilda.
“Most people don’t breed on a whim.” Javier flicks his fingers across the burn scars on his cheek to illustrate his meaning. “It’s dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing. Get careless and you’ll get burned.”
“Is that what happened to you? You got careless?”
“Birds, authority, beautiful women… I took a lot of risks when I was younger, learned a lot of lessons the hard way.”
Javier winks. “Now I’m a lot more cautious.”
For once the weathermen’s predictions of hundred-plus temperatures proves accurate. Javier and Gilda stand at a safe distance from the recently finished coop and watch the occupants of the new nesting boxes settle into place. Gilda keeps her water hose close by, just in case. “I been reading on-line,” says Gilda. “Says they’ll wait until the hottest part of the day to start laying, and then… pop, pop, pop, one right after the other. Sorta like microwave popcorn.”
“But when has your microwave popcorn ever come along with thousand degree blasts of flame?”
Gilda frowns. “Are you sure those nesting boxes will hold up?”
“They should do the trick, but they’ll need to be regularly replaced. The brooding and incubation keeps up a steady flame, sort of like a pilot light. It weakens the box’s fireproofing over time.”
“I hadn’t really thought that far ahead,” says Gilda.
“Typical chick survival rate is about fifty percent. This time next year, you’ll have at least fifteen, ready to lay. And then you gotta keep them all fed — they only like live prey — keep them warm, healthy, and happy. On top of your regular laying hens, phoenix breeding is going to double your work.”
Gilda starts to ask another question, but is interrupted by a momma bird’s soft cry, followed by the jettison of flame. A plume of dazzling plasma, like a sun flare, rockets into the sky. Javier’s breath catches in his chest. Another bird sings out; another blaze reaches to the clouds. Javier grips Gilda’s elbow and tugs her away from the coop.
“My God,” Gilda says. “It’s amazing.”
“Sure is,” says Javier. “I’d almost forgotten.”
Gilda turns to look at him. “Double my workload, huh?”
Javier nods. “At least.”
“If you could set aside your caution, I’d offer you a business partnership.”
Javier considers it — the inherent perils of phoenix breeding and trusting a woman he barely knows. Then he unbuttons his Hawaiian shirt, balls it up, and chucks it into one of the laying boxes, ensuring its incineration. He smiles at Gilda. “I guess that’s a risk I’d be willing to take.”
K.B. Sluss’s fiction has appeared at Daily Science Fiction, Stupefying Stories and a few other places. She’s anticipating publication of her first novel with Red Adept Publishing, some time in 2015.