The black arrowhead strung deep across George’s chest on a brown, gnarled cord, its outline sharp and pointed. He was sipping on his fourth whiskey and staring into the pockmarked wood of the bar top. Everyone knew who he was. Everyone knew where he sat — even when he wasn’t around, the center stool remained empty. As if it was irradiated.
I was feeling tipsy and brave. How are you doing? I asked.
Could be better.
I knocked back my drink and prepared for a raspy monologue, but nothing else leaked from the guy besides ethanol fumes. He gripped the bar top with scarred fingers, holding his own against the tide of whatever was dragging him deep into the ocean, past the surf foam, past the buoys that marked safe swimming, and past the distant pleasure boats that held close to the shore. I kept pressing with the questions. When I asked about women, he uncurled his fingers from the wood and pressed the arrowhead edge into his sternum.
Blood formed thin Rorschach blots on his shirt. His face didn’t change. He must be used to it. I thought of scars, crisscrossing his heart like the location of a treasure chest on a pirate map, and drew back. I wasn’t welcome in his world, but I couldn’t leave just yet. I ordered another drink. The haze crept on the edge of my vision.
One for you?
He shook his head.
What was her name?
He breathed out a syllable or two, like a sacred prayer, but I didn’t catch it. I almost asked him again but he pressed harder and the blot darkened and spread.
She came and left.
And that was that. In a moment of ecstatic clarity, I filled in the gaps and I knew. She had crashed into his life, a bullet train with its brakes cut, and he was powerless against her. When she had gone, she ripped off a chunk of him that he had never even known existed, and left the arrowhead as a constant reminder. I knew, and I swear to God I would have bet everything I owned, that he went to bed every night with that fucking thing wrapped around his throat like a collar. When he rolled over in his fitful sleep, the obsidian dug into his chest, tearing into his sternum as a bloody reminder that he was not powerful enough. That someone had bested him and they had reduced him to this, a near-catatonic drunk at some shit bar in some shit city. Talking with me. And I had nothing else to say about that.
I paid for us both and said goodbye. He must not have heard.
I walked past the fleet of cabs idling outside the bar. I kept thinking of George and his bloodied shirt. That woman destroyed him, whoever she was. She was a tornado, tearing through his neighborhood, reducing his home to a pile of splintered wood and broken glass. He was a cancer-stricken survivor of her nuclear blast.
I couldn’t stop thinking about it. He would see her face everywhere he went. He would hear her voice in every song and in every conversation. He would compare her touch to everything that he brushed against, and her taste to everything that he put in his mouth. Nothing would compare, because she glowed so bright and hot that his eyes were blind, his eardrums pierced, his fingertips singed, and his taste buds burnt off.
And I was in love with that. I got home, changed, brushed my teeth and lay next to her. My ember. She was breathing, not snoring, and I wished she would have snored. I wish she would have groaned and moved around and maybe said my name and I would have said, baby, it’s me, I’m back.
We would have kissed and I would have held her and been left thinking about her. About the way we hold hands in private and in public. About her body, about her voice, about the things she says, over and over and over again because some people are like that. Some people are predictable and you like it one week and you hate it the next but it never changes. But instead she slept soundly and I was left thinking about the arrowhead. I realized I would never wear an arrowhead for her. She didn’t deserve it. She was still here, she was still mine, and I was still hers. No, it had to be someone else. Someone who flickered in and out of my life like an exploding sun, except I wouldn’t be watching through a telescope. I would be burning.
Did I ever have someone like that before? No one came to mind. I would have known. She was all I had, and she was sleeping so peacefully I couldn’t help but kick her. She woke up, smiled, and whispered my name. I whispered her name, rolling the syllables on my tongue like a cough drop. Suddenly, I had a thought that left me shaking and sweaty.
Maybe she would wear one for me.
Yegor Chekmarev is currently a junior studying engineering at Princeton University.
Alice White and her abductor are trudging through the Chihuahuan Desert. She’s in her Sunday blue dress and her legs are bare, thin, and shapely. The dress is missing buttons. The sun is so hot she feels it will burn her to ash. When they pass the carcass of a Mexican wolf, she wonders if death can live longer than a Creosote Bush. She wishes the sun would turn to a cold soup filled with the alphabet letters of her name. It would satisfy her thirst and she would be so full of herself.
Her abductor is named Leon, an itinerant ranch hand. Leon has two stumps for fingers. Alice believes his constant scowl means he can never get enough of anything.
He had abducted Alice from the bordello where her surrogate mother worked. She took Alice in after General Geraldo Rama’s raid left Alice’s town a pyre of burning wood and reeking blackened flesh. The woman sneaked Alice covered plates of tack, souse, and chili-flavored jerky. In a tiny room with red ants zigzagging across floorboards, Alice slept with her face snuggled against the woman’s breasts. Alice slowly regained her speech. She never lost her fear of fires even from a distance.
“We near the Pecos River, yet?” asks Alice, shading her eyes. They pass clumps of Rainbow and Fire-barrel cactus. Alice stubs her big toe against a small rock. A tarantula hovers next to its own shadow.
“How you know?”
“I just do.”
“The sun looks the same to me. Maybe you think we’re walking but we ain’t moving at all.”
“Shut up, girly.”
In town, Alice sometimes peeked through a hole in the second-floor wall and watched the men undress before the women, their bodies pot-bellied or made ugly by scars. She wondered how they could down whiskey after whiskey until their appetite for love, like their booze, oozed through their pores. Some fell asleep above the women and nothing was exchanged. Alice laughed. They’d die prisoners of their own brand of poison.
Leon’s horse stumbles to the ground, remains there. In a fit of rage, he kicks arcs of glistening sand into the air.
“Poor horse,” says Alice, “must have been dreaming of water.”
“I should ride every whore out here.”
“But you can’t shoot a gun,” Alice says, tilting her head, leaving her lips slightly parted, giving off a kind of innocent schoolgirl charm.
“I can shoot you, girly. Try me.”
Alice turns and continues to walk. She closes her eyes and imagines walking into the sun.
“Do you think the sun has yellow spots?” she yells out.
“What a stupid thing…”
“It’d be unnatural, wouldn’t it?”
“Shut up, bone-brained girl.”
“Just a joke, Mister.”
“It ain’t a joke. I’m selling you. Remember?”
Trouble started when Alice’s surrogate mother told the other “employees” that Leon could only please a woman with his tongue, that he couldn’t “shoot his gun.” It spread from one clique to another. When Leon traced the source of the gossip, he demanded money from Alice’s mother for “damaging his character.” She stammered that she did not have the amount. He kidnapped Alice, saying that he knew a barren couple near the border who wanted a child, even though Alice was now fifteen.
“They’ll pay plenty for blond hair and blue sing-song eyes. A watery dream.”
At night, Alice hums a song by the campfire. Leon snores so loud, she thinks he will attract wolves, the kind that thrive in heat.
Slowly, she leans over and tries to wake him. He doesn’t budge. She slips an unsteady hand around his gun, then finishes his canteen water. She wipes the dribble from her lips.
By sunrise, he awakes to Alice pointing his gun at him.
“I bartered your water,” she says in sing-song.
“Little bitch, ” he says, rising from the dirt.
“Don’t,” she says, backing away, “I can shoot straight.”
He tries to stare her down.
“Then why don’t you drop me here. Being this close, it’s a sure shot. And you could turn back and head home. That is, if you can find your way or if the sun doesn’t melt you to nothing.”
Her lips slowly curl.
“I want you to take off your clothes.”
His eyes widen.
“Why? You never saw a naked man before?”
“Sure. Seen plenty back in town. ”
“Then why? Don’t you think I’m a little old for you.”
She fires a bullet into the ground near his foot. The dust forms thin drifting clouds.
“I don’t want you, Mister. I want you to burn.”
He removes his clothes. They move on, this time with Alice behind him. They grow weary, thirsty, too heavy for themselves.
In the desert, Alice thinks of death. How vast. Maybe it is a whiteness that stretches everywhere, bleeds through everything. Maybe it is the color of nothing. And she cannot think or feel or remember. To be blotted-out, made numb. The way she felt after General Rama had burned her town down.
Sometime in the afternoon, with the sun strong as ever, Leon rambles on about how his father was a yellow-bellied bastard, a deserter from The Border Wars, how he left the family with barely enough money for food. His mother scraped a living, performing various chores farm to farm, bringing Leon with her. She became a mistress to a wealthy businessman. Leon disowned her.
He collapses in the sand. Crouching beside him, Alice can feel no pulse. His body is scorched. With eyes full of desert and sky, she hates herself.
She surveys mosaics of waist-high grass in the distance. She imagines water running somewhere under tall grass. A secret place.
She rises, looks into the sun, and aims the gun. She wonders that if she fires into it, will the sun rain all the water it has withheld?
The thought of this makes Alice laugh so hard that she might pee whatever water is left inside her.
Kyle Hemmings lives and works in New Jersey. He has been published in Elimae, Smokelong Quarterly, This Zine Will Change Your Life, Blaze Vox, Matchbook, and elsewhere. He loves 50s Sci-Fi movies, manga comics, and pre-punk garage bands of the 60s.
In the Mission District, all the creeps come out at dusk. Mom-and-pop shops do business during the day, but the hoods and addicts emerge when the sun goes down. I hate getting calls for this part of town just before dark. Three months with the Department and I still haven’t drawn my gun outside the firing range. I’d like to keep it that way. My sergeant turns up the dial on our patrol car radio as Dispatch murmurs through the speaker.
“Disturbance reported at the corner of Mission and…”
My sergeant curses before Dispatch finishes. I cringe. He starts up our black-and-white sedan, the siren blaring while blue and red lights flash down the crowded boulevard. Shadows lengthen across the sidewalks as cars pull out of our way. The deafening roar of our siren makes me wince, but I keep my window down. Our car’s AC busted last week, just in time for Indian Summer. The stifling heat permeates every inch of my damp skin. Earthquake weather, we call it.
We pass the Old Mission as the car races down the main avenue. Pigeons scatter across the adobe church. Barrio thugs on the front steps leer at us as we pass. At noon, they’d scatter like cockroaches if we drove by, but with dark coming on they give us the stare. Come nightfall, this is still their part of the city, not ours. Not the cops’.
My sergeant double-parks outside an apartment complex. It’s my turn to curse. I recognize the slum. We busted a big-muscled guy manhandling his girlfriend here just last week. My left ribs still smart from a blow he gave me with a wrench. My grey-haired sergeant took care of him with a nightstick to both knees. Never underestimate a cranky old badge.
Two other blue uniforms arrive on the scene. Chen and Wachowski. I’ve seen them before, but they work a different station. They frown as we come up the walk. A woman’s voice screeches from an upstairs apartment.
“That for us?” my sergeant asks.
“Number 408,” Wachowski says.
They each pull out their batons as we take the stairs. My sergeant turns around and jabs my chest with a heavy finger.
“You’re on Red.”
Damn it. I draw my pistol, checking the magazine before I cock it. Red means one officer is ready with lethal force, just in case things go wrong. Standard police procedure. Unfortunately, something always goes wrong. The four of us cluster outside door 408. Piercing feminine shrieks emanate from inside, the drone of TV static permeating the room. My sergeant bangs on the door.
“Police, open up!”
The door opens a crack, unlocked. My sergeant prods his head inside, raising his club. The shouting within the apartment suddenly stops.
A butcher knife twirls through the air, embedding itself in the doorframe. My sergeant jumps back. I flinch, the steel blade wobbling nearby in the doorway. I raise my piece. An elderly woman with white hair screams again, a pair of kitchen knives in either hand. She bawls at us as she hurls another dagger at the door.
“Get out! You won’t take me! I know Tai Chi!”
A second knife thuds into the door, sending splinters across my cheek. My sergeant frowns.
“We got a goddamn nut job in there! You still on Red, newbie?”
I nod, holding my gun up. Christ. Do I really have to shoot this old lady? She’s probably somebody’s grandmother. She tosses another knife. Chen and Wachowski exchange looks.
“She’s got to run out of knives sooner or later,” Chen says.
I shake my head.
“I don’t think so.”
Behind the half-open door, the old woman picks up more cutlery. Dozens of knives cover the linoleum floor. The old bat must have ordered steak knives for years. Wachowski grimaces.
“What do we do now?”
My sergeant looks at my pistol.
“Not much choice. The first guy that sticks his head in there gets a knife between the eyes.”
No one else draws their gun. I can’t blame them. If I wasn’t already on Red, I wouldn’t be volunteering to put a bullet in some old granny’s skull. My shift was almost over for the day. Damn. Every time I get a call for the Mission, something bad goes down. My sergeant puts a hand on my shoulder.
“If you can’t do it, rook, I’ll have to.”
I nod, wishing I could holster my sidearm and let someone else do this. Chen and Wachowski keep their eyes on me. Every man here’s been on the Force for years. I knew I’d have to draw my gun on somebody someday; I just wish it didn’t have to be a senior citizen. I nudge towards the door as another knife wedges into the woodwork. My gun barrel hovers over the door handle. Why’d this old crazy bat have to be a ninja-star throwing nut too?
My eyes suddenly widen. I keep my gun in one hand, taking my sergeant’s baton in the other.
“What are you doing, kid?”
“Trust me, Sarge.”
He exchanges looks with the other cops as I push the door open with my knee. The old crone raises another kitchen knife. I lower my piece and lob the baton forward with my good arm. The nightstick spins end over end toward her.
She shrieks and drops her knives, ducking out of the way as the baton crashes through a window. Before I can blink, the sergeant and other officers dog pile on the old woman. She glares up at me, snarling.
“He tried to kill me!”
My sergeant smirks as he puts her in handcuffs.
“You should thank him, ma’am. If I had my way, you’d have died of lead poisoning.”
I holster my gun, putting the safety on. Wiping the sweat from my brow, I heave a sigh. At least I didn’t have to pull the trigger. That can wait for another day.
Mark Noce is a Technical Writer by day and Fiction Author by night. He writes novels about historical fiction, ranging from pirates to the colonial frontier to the American Civil War. He also writes contemporary short-stories.
This is a story about a guy Giles, who knew a girl Janet, a long time ago. He’d make her laugh. She particularly loved his Morrissey impersonation. One evening she gave him a lift home. When they arrived outside his flat they sat silently in the front of her car. Was she waiting for him to kiss her? He didn’t know. He never knew. Too scared to carpe the diem. He just said goodnight weakly as he fiddled with the car door handle and scurried out.
The years went by. She went to London to work in publishing. He did something vague in horticulture. They lost touch. Sometimes he’d think back on that moment when he didn’t kiss her. Then one night, sitting in front of his computer, infused with red wine and middle-age ennui he googled her name, and realized she’d moved back to Dublin. And lived close by. According to her website she operated her own proof-reading and editing services from home. Scrutinizing her photo he noticed she had changed — then again he had changed, horticulture does that to you — but he still felt an attraction towards her. And she still had the same surname. Maybe she was single. Like he was. After a few long-term car crashes.
He devised a strategy. He would contact her under the guise of seeking professional expertise. To do some editing for him. Which meant he had to write a book. A book that needed to be edited. Which meant an extra long book. What could he write an extra long book about?
Meeting someone was so complicated.
Apart from aspects of horticultural science and the core economic fundamentals of the agribusiness sector, his one area of expertise was Irritable Bowel Syndrome. He knew all about Irritable Bowel Syndrome — personal reasons. But could he write a book about it? A lengthy tome? Is this the type of topic he’d want a possible future romantic partner to pore through and edit? Maybe he could make it a light read — he already had a title and the publisher’s tagline — “An Extreme Case of Flatulence, Giles Wardrop’s enchanting blend of fart and fiction.” He was good at titles and taglines. Spent his days fantasizing about bestsellers he’d write and the blurbs he’d concoct.
But he was no writer. There was no way he could create a mass of words, one after the other, in the right order that made some sense and kept a reader engaged. However much he hated it, he had to accept that his world would always be a world of plant cultivation.
Then he remembered his old friend from college. Bob.
Bob spewed out trilogies. Sci-fi noir. His very own genre. They were hugely successful online. About a space-travelling private investigator, Bertram Cosmos. Bob’s most recent book, Death Comes To Cosmos, had been picked up by some big name publisher.
The situation was explained over a smoothie. Bob’s bi-annual detox.
“The longer the better. The more work she has to do, the more consultations we’ll have to have. This means more time to communicate with each other. Who knows where it will lead.”
“Giles, I think I have just the thing for this lady. Ever hear of Thomas Pynchon? ”
“He writes dense, complex novels. I went through my Pynchon phase when I was twenty-two. Wrote a 900-page novel called The Something of Something.”
“The Something of Something.”
“Yeh. She’ll have her work cut out with that one.”
“Thanks, buddy. Oh, by the way, there’s no porn or erotica in it, is there?”
“Of course there’s porn and erotica in it. I was twenty-two.”
Giles picked up the manuscript the following day. He’d unpacked fertilizer bags that were lighter. He hadn’t planned to flick through The Something of Something but was slightly concerned about the porn and erotica content. After twenty impenetrable indecipherable pages, completely exhausted, he placed it aside.
Why the book subterfuge in the first place, he thought in a moment of clarity while emitting loudly some, not trapped but incarcerated, wind. Why not just email her? Or ring her? All her details were on her website. Better still, go to her local coffee shop and ‘accidentally’ bump into her.
It was a week later. He was sitting opposite Janet in ‘Noshington’, a coffee shop in town. And since he had decided to email her after all, he felt he actually did need to give the proposed meeting a business pretext. Hence, the bag-of-fertilizer-sized package on the coffee table.
“I’m really impressed. I always knew you were artistic. I can’t wait to go through The Something of Nothing.”
There was a pause. Giles smiled at Janet.
“Thanks for the kind words. But remember, I did write it years ago. It’s probably puerile, maybe a bit obscene in places and much too long.
That’s why I need your help.”
“Don’t be over-critical. It’s some achievement writing 900 pages.”
She looked at the cover page.
“Robert M. McFadden. Good pen-name.”
Giles had left Bob’s name on the manuscript. Outwardly he remained calm. Inwardly he performed self-loathing hari-kari.
They chatted for some time. She told him she’d been married and divorced, had a son away in college in Sunderland and was enjoying life back in Dublin. He talked at length about arboculture, fogponics and mechanical weed control.
Coffee over, he offered to carry the manuscript to her car.
“Thanks, Giles. Listen, I’m going your way, have to pick up a few things. Can I drop you home?”
Soon they were outside his small red mid-terrace house. Sitting silently in the front of her car. There was a long pause. A certain tension. Was she waiting for him to kiss her? After twenty-five years, would he finally carpe the diem? He looked at her. Was about to lean over when there was a long powerful explosive sound.
Not trapped but incarcerated wind.
Karl MacDermott is an Irish-born comedy writer. He has written many articles for The Irish Times and online publications like Pure Slush and Literary Orphans. He has written two humor fiction novels — The Creative Lower Being and a new novel, Ireland’s Favourite Failure, which is available on Amazon Kindle. He is currently writer-in-residence at his home in Dublin.
“Hey, I think we broke something,” he said, shaking me awake. Ann’s dad always looks like the snapshot she’d had of him, taken on the Burma Road: bare-chested, center-parted hair, broad smile, burly. The clock said 2:45. Ann’s side of the bed was empty. I didn’t like him waking me up in the small hours to talk about Ann. For years I’d make him go away by pretending he wasn’t there. Sometimes I’d get back to sleep.
Tonight was different. I didn’t like that “something was broken.” I didn’t like the sound of “we.”
“Show me,” I said rolling to sit up, sliding my feet into my slippers in case there was broken glass. I snapped the light on and he crinkled up his eyes. It made him look like Ann the year we were married, squinting against the summer sun at Seaside.
He led the way into the den. My own father sat at the computer. He looked like the snapshot I have of him in Civilian Public Service camp: bare-chested, his hair brushed straight back from his high forehead. He had never visited before. This couldn’t be good.
“I didn’t know you two knew each other,” I said. They traded a quick glance.
“Buzz and I have worked together,” my father said.
“The boys say the only way to tell us apart is that Sol eats gefilte fish and I eat smoked whiting,” Buzz added.
“What did you break?”
Neither one would meet my eyes. I let an edge into my voice. “Show me what you broke.”
“We didn’t break it,” my father groused to Buzz.
“It’s more like we let it happen.”
“We couldn’t have prevented it.”
“We didn’t prevent it.”
“Guys!” I looked for a place to sit down. My father was at the desk, Buzz had the comfy chair. I leaned against the bookcase. “What did you break?”
“Your heart, kiddo,” said Buzz, not meeting my eyes. “We let them break your heart.”
My father turned in his chair to face me. I knew the look, familiar from countless Saturdays after shul. He was about to lecture. “I didn’t go into CPS Camp to save the world. The WRL types thought if we all became conscientious objectors there’d be no more war, but I knew that if we all became CO’s, the Germans would slaughter us.”
Ann’s father looked at me impatiently. “War Resisters’ League,” I explained. He snorted.
“I just couldn’t do what I knew was wrong. I couldn’t deliberately kill anyone.”
I knew all this about Dad. He’d signed up for CPS, even though it was for the duration or longer. CO’s could be required to continue to serve in the camps until the last GI was discharged. I still didn’t know why he was here.
“Dad,” I said. “It’s gone three in the morning.”
Buzz answered for him. “I didn’t have all these fancy ideas, and I still haven’t met anyone from any ‘War Resisters League,’” he said. “I just had to do what was right.”
On the Burma Road, dysentery killed more troops than the Japanese. They left sick buddies behind with a canteen and no hope. After the war, Buzz had drunk himself to death.
“So you both came to explain to me what you did in the war?” I asked, with less sarcasm than I had planned. They looked at each other.
“She couldn’t have married him for his brains.”
Dad pushed back in his chair and turned the monitor to show me the South Tower in flames. Where Ann had died. Buzz stood up and took me by the shoulders. Dad came up behind him and rested a hand on his back.
“We both of us did not want, ever, to do anything wrong,” my father said.
“We wanted to stop all the bad guys,” Buzz added. “But it looks like we let them break your heart.”
My Dad turned Buzz around, so they were eye to eye.
“We couldn’t have prevented it.”
I wondered if I could ever get back to sleep, or wanted to. “What makes you think anything you did in World War II has anything to do with . . .” I stopped. “What makes you think you broke my heart?”
“We wouldn’t be here otherwise,” Buzz said.
“Not that there was anything we could . . .”
“Don’t start up!”
Time to try a little peacemaking. I asked, “Do you guys drink coffee?”
“Not any more,” said Buzz.
“It just runs straight through us. But don’t let us stop you,” my father added. They followed me to the kitchen. I boiled water, made some instant. When I went to sit down, Buzz was in my chair. I sat in Ann’s. Dad sat where our youngest had used to sit, growing up after Ann’s was empty.
“What will it take for you to leave me alone?” I couldn’t control my voice. It cracked and squeaked. Buzz looked away, but Dad took my hand. He felt warm and real.
“We’re not going to leave,” he said.
“We can’t,” Buzz added. “Until we help you.”
“Okay,” I said quietly. “How?”
“At last!” Buzz said. He pushed back from the table and lumbered to the fridge. “Got any whiting?”
“Buzz, you can’t eat any more,” said my father.
“Anyway I don’t,” I added. Buzz grimaced.
“What they call smoked whiting these days is usually cod,” Ann said from the door. She looked as real as the other two. A lot younger than me, now. The dead years had been good to her.
“Hey, Pumpkin,” said Buzz, “look who we finally got to talk to us about you.”
“Buzz thinks you can fix what he says we broke,” said my father sourly.
“Sol said there was nothing we could do,” Buzz added. “But he was wrong.”
Ann sat down and took my hand. Hers was warmer than mine. Dad stood up. “Come on, Buzz,” he said. “These kids need to talk.”
Walter Lawn is a professional disaster recovery planner, who writes poetry and short fiction. His work is included in the anthology Unclaimed Baggage, published in 2013 by White Lightning Publishing.