I discovered his magic by accident. Tom didn’t like to show off. He was the sort of next-door neighbor you waved to when you both happened to arrive home at the same time. Nearing fifty, he spoke with eyes blue, clear, and serene. Tom Campbell was a “handyman,” vanishing each morning in his immaculate pickup truck. There was no Mrs. Campbell. Not even a dog or cat.
When I found my St. Francis statue toppled in the rose bed between our houses, I winced. Tom was watering his bloom-covered gardenia bush.
“Storm was bad last night,” he said. “Don’t try to pick that up yourself. It’s too heavy.”
“My father gave him to me,” I whispered. “I think it’s broken.”
I didn’t think it was broken. I knew. A telltale crack necklaced his throat. The one saint I remembered who died peacefully in bed was martyred in a Texas spring storm.
“It’ll be fine.” Tom stood over the statue, ignominiously lying in the baby weeds peeping through my mulch.
I wondered how Tom got his five gardenias to bloom all the time. I quit executing gardenias after my last two attempts died. On the internet, I found a helpful thread, describing countless other people’s efforts to grow a lone gardenia. Laughing over the desperation and confessions, I had felt better. Then Tom began to grow gardenias that not only thrived but seemed perpetually covered in gorgeous blooms that scented his whole front yard.
“I have to go to work.” I wiped a stupid tear from the corner of my eye. Who cries over a garden statue?
“It’ll be fine, Ellie,” he said. He smiled.
It reminded me of the rare sunny day on my last trip to Ireland with Da.
“All right. If you say so,” I said.
Sometimes the last straw wasn’t a piece of hay you were spinning into gold for an angry King. Sometimes it was St. Francis, that benign spirit beloved for his reverence for all living things. His joy in life itself, from sun to moon was a perpetual “Alleluia” of joy. My father Francis took his namesake seriously. Until his death, Da had celebrated October 4, the feast day of the little friar from Assisi, with as much pomp and reverence as March 17.
“I could have been pope,” Da told us, over his eightieth birthday dinner. “Did you know, I even studied for the Church, when I was a young man? But where would you all be then? I would be in that pope mobile in Rome. And you would be little angels, waiting on a cloud.”
The five Mahoney progeny looked grim.
“Da, I cannot imagine you as Pope,” said my brother Sean, eyeing the last fried mushroom as my brother Flynn’s hand hovered across the table.
“I would have been a good pope,” Da insisted. His voice shook then, all the time, from the palsy, but it still brought that jolt of attention to our ears. “It’s not all about the one thing or the other. It’s about your heart, Sean. The heart is all that matters. You have to have a joyful heart.”
“Right now, it would give me joy if Flynn let me have this mushroom,” Sean said. Everyone laughed except Da.
That had been our last family dinner; Da passed away a week later.
Since Da’s death, coming only months my divorce, I had felt joy oozing through the cracks. For weeks, even getting out of bed felt like pushing off heavy debris, fighting off the weighty possessions blown onto me as I slept. In dreams, I herded homeless cats, rescued drowning puppies from certain death.
When Tom moved in next door, I tried to make an effort to look competent again. Keeping my job no longer my only priority, I tried to make sure my yard was mowed, my roses tended.
“To know how Ellie feels, look at her garden,” Da had told my siblings. “She never talks, much. But her roses tell you everything. If there is nothing blooming in her garden, then neither is she.”
He knew. Last week I planted flower seeds.
When I came home, the first thing I noticed as I drove up was the tall form of St. Francis, once more shadowing my zinnia babies.
Moments later, I closed my car door, and took a closer look. St. Francis’s healing was miraculous. The crack around his neck wasn’t just repaired. It was gone, a seamless stretch of gray concrete telling no tales.
Gone too, I noticed seconds later, every tiny, scraggly weed in the garden bordering our property line.
On my front doorstep, I found three white gardenias sipping water from their red plastic cup. My note from the universe, signed by Tom Campbell, the wizard of ordinary things.
Eliza Archer is working on a novel. She drinks too much coffee.
It was the best of pies. It was the worst of pies. I have to admit the pastry could not be faulted. I actually enjoyed it. Then as soon as I bit into the pie I found that it was all gristle and bits of animal I prefer not to speculate about. The Commanding Officer stood over me and made sure I ate every scrap of it too. All of the troops who were going out to the forward base ate these pies. It was as if it were some kind of toughening-up exercise.
I was there to report on the victory over the hill tribes who had been revolting. The Dictator (he had no other name or title) was going to defeat them in the next four days. If there were no victory there would be no report. The CO cheerily told me not to worry because in that case I would probably be dead. He actually slapped me on the back quite hard and the officers who were sitting at the table with me found it quite amusing.
Orders were shouted and echoed around the underground bunker where we had been eating. As we left a subaltern pointed out the steel doors to me.
“They will hold out for a good four days,” was his confident prediction.
If I had any trepidation about the food at the forward base, it was immediately dispelled at my next meal. The food was plentiful and better than I have ever tasted at any army base. The men visibly perked up. Life at the forward base might be a fraught. Correction, it was fraught, what with snipers and improvised explosive devices. However the food and the conditions were excellent. Nothing like the horror pie of my first night came my way again.
It was on the second day that the hill tribesmen launched an assault on the camp. I have seen better attacks mounted by unarmed Boy Scouts to be honest with you but the CO gave the order “panic stations” and the men retreated in disorder.
They held onto their guns but dropped their packs in order to move the faster. The disciplined troops looked like a complete and utter rabble. I expected the CO to be incandescent with rage. On the contrary I caught sight of him smiling at the panic. The hill tribesmen were so busy looting the abundant supplies in the camp they were slow to give chase and the steel doors of the underground redoubt clanged behind us.
The CO did a piece to camera for me. “We have just fought a decisive engagement with the rebels and they will give us no trouble for many years to come. The casualties among the hill tribesmen have been catastrophic while as you can see,” (a quick pan around the room) “all of my men are unharmed.”
I was baffled. The CO went back to his office with senior officers and a bottle of Scotch. For the rest of us it was the ghastly pies again. To my surprise I saw a number of pies being taken into the CO’s office as well.
Four days later when the steel doors opened again, the hills were eerily silent except for the sound of carrion crows. The forward base and two villages I visited were littered with remains. None of the rebels or their wives and children had a mark on them.
“Poison?” I asked somewhat incredulously, “we were eating poison?”
The CO nodded.
“And the pies?”
“You need to eat one every four days or so. They are vile so that any which fell into the wrong hands were unlikely to be eaten but they contain the antidote. The poison takes roughly four days to work as you can see from this lot. You can report the victory but no details in case we decide to use this method again. It is the Dictator’s own idea of course. He is a strong man.”
Derek McMillan is the author of Stories from the Mirror of Eternity which is available on Kindle. Amazon allows you to “try before you buy” so you could have a look. Derek is a retired teacher and his editor is his wife, Angela McMillan.
Two riders were approaching. The rumble of their motorcycles throbbed in my aching head as I sat on a milk crate with my toes pitched like a pigeon-toed mule. Miniature dust devils ran over my feet as I swept them together and sat up like a right proper lady.
My daddy stepped out of the hot house we called a general store and eyed me with cruelty. “Get up off your ass. Customer’s comin’.”
I slid my dusty feet firmly into my flip-flops and walked over to the gas pump, muttering under my breath. “Next week, I’ll be eighteen and you won’t be able to hit me then, asshole.” I only whispered because I wasn’t in the mood for another whack.
I brushed off my jean shorts, and with one hand on my hip, I mustered a fake smile as the cycles pulled up. Harleys, both. The riders wore clean black leather and holsters on their hips. When they dismounted and removed their helmets, their young faces shocked me into a real smile.
One stood back, legs wide, appraising the place. I didn’t need to hear him speak to know he saw how rundown our little shithole was. The other rider stepped up to me. I put my hand on the fuel pump, about to do my job, but he nudged my hand away and pumped the gas himself. With the tank full, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a twenty. I took it while he stared at me.
“You have a nice smile,” he said, flashing his own pearly whites. I smiled brighter and whispered an honest thank you. “Is it true what they say?” he asked.
“Is what true?”
“That Earth girls are easy.”
I remembered that being an old 80’s song or movie or something. I laughed out loud for a moment but stopped when I saw his deadpan expression. “That depends,” I said.
“On whether you have room for two on that bike.” I nodded my head over to his hog.
He looked back as if considering, not sure. Then he turned back to me. “Seems I do.”
“Then I’m easy as pie,” I said in my best southern drawl.
He held his hand out to me just as my daddy decided to be proprietary. “Not so fast. She might be easy but she ain’t free.”
The stranger looked confused as his eyes moved over Daddy, walking up all oil stained and dirty. An uncertain anger pinched the stranger’s handsome face into a snarled mass of hard, angry lines. “And what is that supposed to mean?”
“You stupid or somethin’? Look around you. You think I got any money out here in the middle of bum-fuck nowhere? A man’s gotta make the most of his assets.” He reached out and squeezed my asset. “She might not be a virgin,” he said with a knowing sneer, “but for another twenty, she’ll act like one if you want her to. Cry for ya and everthin’.”
“Stop it, Daddy!” I said, mainly to myself, as I dropped my head in familiar shame.
“What did you say to me?”
I looked up wanting to speak, but Daddy hauled off and backhanded me into a dry puddle, slamming me down onto the cracked, desert hardpan. Before I could wipe the blood from my lip, I heard a choked gurgle. I stood, finding my daddy’s face blown up red like a balloon about to pop at the end of the stranger’s long, black leather arm.
“Where I come from, a man is more respectful of his kin.” The stranger’s fingers gripped tighter as he lifted Daddy’s feet off the ground. Daddy flailed his arms around and managed to reach for his switchblade. He pulled it and stuck it into the muscular arm of the stranger.
With a small grunt, the stranger dropped Daddy to the ground and pulled the knife out. Bright green blood dripped off the blade. He looked at the nifty little weapon, wiped it on his leather pants, closed it and slipped it into his pocket. Then he pulled his holstered revolver and aimed it at my daddy’s head.
I gasped. He looked at me. I nodded. He pulled the trigger.
It wasn’t the sound of a bullet that echoed off the tin of our old general store. It was a zap. A sizzle. And just like that, Daddy was gone. Disintegrated.
The stranger reached his hand out to me again and this time I took it. He pulled me close, crushing me to his hard chest. His thick arms wrapped around me and as I pressed my face to his body, I began to cry.
When my tears quieted, my hero pulled away and looked at me with an expression that I hadn’t seen since before my mother died with her face bashed in. He looked at me with compassion and respect. His eyes twinkled and he whispered to me. “I thought you said you were easy?”
“Um…” I looked around confused.
“Seems no matter where I go in the universe, the beautiful ones are always the most complicated.”
I smiled and shrugged stupidly. Then he kissed me. Gentle and soft, his mouth pressed slowly against mine.
“Hey, loverboy!” his companion called out. “We’re gonna miss our portal. Time moves faster around here, remember!”
My hero turned to grin at his friend, then he focused deep, swirling blue eyes on me. “You comin’?”
I nodded, taking his hand. “Just where are you from anyway?”
“It’s a very long ride.”
SMNilsen is a speculative writer of the stay-at-home kind. She lives in Maryland with three silly children, two yappy Jack Russells and one supportive husband. Her forthcoming short story, “That Murderous Thieving Bastard and His Wretched Beanstalk” is slated for publication in Fringework’s anthology series, Grimm and Grimmer Vol 3. She is a current member of the Critters Writers Workshop. She enjoys swimming and yoga and procrastinating by scrolling on Facebook. You can keep up with her on her website, SMNilsen.wordpress.com.
“You don’t have to do this!” Joe grabbed Mara’s hand as she reached for the doorbell at number 81. “This is not you!” An odor of damp emanated from the stone facade.
“This was your idea,” Mara pushed Joe away and rang. “It’s your fault. You were the one who organized everything, remember, even the move.” Church bell chimes sounded. The heavy wooden door groaned as it opened centimeter by centimeter like the unraveling of gift wrap.
“Signora Romano, I presume.” A heavy-set lady loomed over the doorstep, the room behind illuminated by candles. Joe strained to register Madame Lumiere. She wore a white, curtain-like dress. Globe earrings hung down alongside long, black hair. Her nose dominated her face.
“And my husband Joe. Vatsula gave him your number.”
“Follow me.” Madame ushered them to a large round table, pulled the shutter ajar at the opposite window.
“Do you know what to expect?” Madame pushed in their ladder-back chairs, her dress billowing around her.
“Vatsula told me you wore a turban.” Joe spaced his chair away from the table. Madame sat down across from them.
“I answer to many callings. I reflect what spirits want to see.”
“Spirits want all these candles? You charge extra for these? Vatsula didn’t say anything about candles.”
“Where I dwell, there is only transition. Negative energy will hinder our mission. Shall we proceed?”
“Mara, this is all very weird. Let’s go.”
“What’s wrong with you?” Mara tapped Joe under the table. “Behave now.”
“So you remain true to your mission, Signora, unlike your husband.” Madame removed a match from a beaded box. She lit a large, round, cream-colored candle centered on the table, placed nail-painted hands over it, and sighed, lowering herself into a massive wooden chair behind her. “We call your grandmother?”
“My nonna, Giovanna,” Mara took her husband’s hands.
“She died at 81?” Madame closed her eyes. Joe thought back to the number on the door, 81. Was that a coincidence?
“Giovanna, blood is thick, spirits are wide. Appear!” Madame moaned. Her irises turned under her eyelids.
“There are countless Giovannas,” Mara interjected. “How do you know if you are calling my nonna?”
Madame opened an eye and peered at Mara. She shut it again, opened the other. That eye shut too. Madame opened and closed each eye while holding her hands over the candle. The flame bent sideways, up, then back down. Mara squeezed Joe’s hands.
“That candle won’t last long like that, she’ll definitely charge extra,” Joe said.
“Giov-v-v-a-a-a-n-n-n-a-a.” Madame’s eyes opened and closed at a quickened pace. Her head swayed to the flickering flame. She rose up. Her body, puppet-like, heaved to a half-standing position. She whirled about the table, arms dangling, then jutting into the air. Madame pranced, moaning. “Giovanna, blood thick, spirits wise!” The shutters banged open. A gust of wind blew the candles out.
Joe groped for a match, lit the candle. The flame flickered.
“Who’s bothering me?” Madame slumped in her chair. Her head landed on its side on the table, her eyes wide open.
“Madame, everything alright?” Joe retreated further from the table. “This is weird.”
“What do you want, Woman?” It was an old familiar voice.
Mara hung onto Joe, his mouth o-shaped. “What’s going on?”
“Tell me, I was almost resting peacefully till this.” The voice came from Madame but she didn’t move. The heavy breeze whipped through the room, swept past their chairs.
“Nonna? Can that be you?”
“Come mai? Mara, that sounds like you. Don’t tell me you’re dead!”
“Oh no, Nonna, I’m not dead. I’m here with Joe. We wanted to find you so you could tell me how you made your sauce. Yours stood up straight, mine is so runny. Please tell me!”
“My sweet Mara, you convoked me here to ask about my sauce? You didn’t hold onto my recipes?”
“Well, I tried. Joe lost them in the move. You know I always loved your cooking! Please tell me!”
Mara relaxed her grip on Joe’s hands. But the voice grew sinister. “You were always an annoying child! Couldn’t let anyone be, always crying for something. No, no recipes, figure it out yourself.”
Mara clenched Joe’s arm. “But I want to pass your recipes to my children — ”
“You married that worthless American man? Disastro! I told you to marry Umberto.”
“Umberto was over 180 pounds with greasy hair.”
“He wouldn’t have lost my recipes, would he? Umberto loved my cooking!”
Joe gripped Mara this time. Who was Umberto?
Mara was talking again. “Nonna, please — ”
“Porco miseria! You’re on your own now!” The breeze whipped around the table, the candlelight flickered.
“Hey, I’m not that bad!” Joe piped up. “Didn’t lose the ceramic bowls.”
“What happened to my jewels?” Madame was up, her body whirled around the table, her arms waving over head. Her hair spiked up lock by lock.
“I — I don’t know — ” Mara tightened her grip on Joe. “You’re scaring me, Nonna, you were never like this before! I just wanted the recipe!”
Joe peeled Mara’s nails from his skin, he was bleeding. Mara was screaming, her eyes transfixed on Madame. “Joe, I am out of here!”
“I’m coming!” Joe stood up but Madame had wedged her twirling self between him and Mara. “Madame, calm down, please! Let me help you!” She pranced, twirled. When Joe could finally wiggle around her, the door was open. Mara was gone.
“That’s it!” Joe pulled Madame into a chair. She slumped her head, moaning again. He searched the wall, flipped the lights on.
“Vatsula, I know it’s you. I said make it authentic, not weird,” he said. “Anyway, thanks, I think Mara will stop blaming me for losing her grandmother’s recipes. Here’s your 50 bucks.”
Madame’s dress fluttered. “I told her you were a bum! You’ll pay $81 and I want my jewels.” It was the same familiar voice.
Julianne DiNenna is an Italian-American writer from Washington, DC. She is a constant sea-crosser, voyaging on an open page when not traveling for work, trailing ink like footprints in soft soil. Her poems and short stories have been published in Italy, a Love Story, Offshoots, Hello Switzerland, Susan B and Me, Grasslands Review, ‘Airplane Reading’, among others.
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.