Photo by Austin Ban

Photo by Austin Ban

After the funeral and the burial and the celebration of life where distant relations and overreaching parishioners drank his liquor cabinet dry, Andre found himself across the kitchen table from a girl whose index finger was buried deep in the cavern of her right nostril. She’d scrunched up her eyes and her nose, as if squeezing together the features of her face might make it easier to unearth the treasures inside her hollow head. Andre’s stomach churned at the sight, but he said nothing, even though he supposed it was now his place to do so.

The girl belonged to the wife that Andre had just put in the ground, a leftover from a marriage gone by, and she was now Andre’s by law. At least until she bled and curved out and he could pass her off to someone else. Sell her even, get a dowry out of it, if he could get her to stop picking her goddamned nose.

“Not very ladylike,” he said, picking at his teeth with his thumb.

“It’s right there,” she said through gritted teeth, still digging.

Andre reached into the suit coat he’d hung over the back of his chair and produced a hankie. He held it across the table for her to take.

“What am I supposed to do with that?” she asked.

“Blow your nose,” he said.

“Never learned how,” she said, finally calling her finger back from the hunt.

“Never learned?” he said.

“Never,” she said, wiping her finger along the bodice of her dress, mucus smearing across the new black fabric.

“You put your nose into it and blow,” he explained, miming the action.

“That’s awful,” she said.

“And what you’re doing isn’t?”

The girl’s eyebrows ticked up upward ever so slightly as her painted lips trembled.

“What?” said Andre. “What did I say?”

“My mother,” said the girl, a pair of tears chasing each other down her cheek. “My mother taught me to do it this way.”

“I never saw her,” Andre began, but before he could finish, the girl stood up sharply from the table, her chair toppling backwards onto the floor, and she said:

“No, you didn’t.”

Andre met the woman and her daughter on the third of July, down the center of town, where he took townsfolk up in his hot air balloon for a quarter a pop. They were the first in line, wanting to get a ride in before claiming their spot along the sidewalk for the parade the next day, and they were all smiles as they climbed aboard.

When Andre asked “What’re your names, my pretty ladies?” he was told by the young girl that they were Carla and Carlene respectively.

“Respectively?” he said, with a smile of his own.

Carlene, the daughter, she pointed at the gap along the right side of his grin, and she asked her mother what happened to the nice man’s teeth.

“Lost them,” he said, closing the basket’s door and latching it. “Lost them in the war.”

Carla, the mother, set a gloved hand upon his bare forearm and gave him a little squeeze. “Oh, you brave soul,” she said.

He smiled again as he adjusted the flame and took them into the air. “No bravery required to lose a couple of teeth,” he said. “Just a German boot in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

She tilted her head a touch and raised the corners of her lips in a weak attempt at a grin, then said something about his modesty as they lurched upward—a rockier beginning to their ride than Andre had hoped for. But when she stumbled into him, her chest pressed against his, her gloved hand still on his arm, he did not feel sorry.

Though he did say, “My apologies” as he steadied her, as he held out a hand to steady her daughter as well.

“My apologies”—it was what he said to her in the dark of her bedroom that night, as well, when he finished before she could.

She laughed loudly, then quickly covered her mouth as she looked to the door to see if her daughter had been woken.

The starched sheets clung to his back as he rolled off the top of her, came with him in a twisted mess and left her naked in the moonlight.

“You,” she whispered, “are the first man to ever say that to me.”

“A French girl taught me manners,” he said as Carla rolled onto her side and ran a hand along the contours of his chest.

“What else did she teach you?” said Carla. “Something to make it up to her?”

Andre blushed.

Carla slapped his chest so hard it stung, so hard that the sound echoed through the room. She looked to the door again, held still as she waited for a light to come on in the hall.

“What was that for?” asked Andre.

“You can’t just blush,” said Carla. “You have to tell me.”

Instead, he showed her.

“Did you love my mother?” Carlene asked him.

It was the morning after the funeral and he was spooning sugar atop his apparently tasteless corn flakes in the hopes of appeasing her sweet tooth. The marriage had been young when catastrophe struck, the relationship not much more mature. There had been barely two months in which to learn what these women ate, how they spent their day. Barely two months to learn—or not, as the case might be—of their nasty habits, the affectations he would have to adjust to in this house where he had lived according to routines established by his own mother a lifetime ago.

He stepped away from her, toward the refrigerator, to gather up the milk and to compose an answer for his lips and for his face. He had appreciated Carla, had been fond of her, of waking to the sight of her pretty face half buried in a pillow on his bed, but had he loved her? He’d been working on it, but that wasn’t what the child wanted to hear.

Lost in thought, he opened the ice box instead of the fridge, and it was only the blast of cold air that broke him of his reverie.

Inside, there was nothing but a wrapped-up piece of wedding cake, something he’d been convinced to save for their first anniversary. As he stared through the cellophane at the thick icing piled atop the white cake, his stomach grumbled in hunger.

“You can’t have that,” said Carlene. “It hasn’t been a year yet.”

He turned on her and snapped, “And who’s going to eat it when that day comes, huh?”

Her lip quivered as she waited for what he’d say next. What he’d do. But when he said nothing, when he did nothing but slam the ice box door shut, she stood from the table and ran out, leaving the dry corn flakes behind. The last of his cereal sat uneaten in her bowl, sugar dusted across the top like the layer of dust upon his mantle. The mantle that Carla had taken to cleaning since moving in, on Saturday mornings just like this one.

He sat at the table and picked a single cornflake from the bowl, shaking off what sugar he could. Then he put it into his mouth and let it soften on his tongue, thinking of how little time there had been to change things, and of how much had changed in spite of all that.

The fever had come on fast, taking hold of Carla’s body just as the summer loosened its grip on their small town. She must’ve picked it up at the diner, she told him as she slipped into a nightgown at midday and took to bed. Couple of regulars’d had the sniffles, and that must’ve been it.

But then the coughing began. It shook her body and echoed through the house. Blood and phlegm filled the steel bowl he ferried back and forth from her side to the toilet. And yet, as scary as those days were, the silence that followed was more frightening than anything that had come before.

One morning, after having dozed off in the armchair he’d dragged from the parlor to the foot of the bed, he woke to find Carlene sitting at her mother’s side, dabbing at Carla’s forehead with a damp cloth.

“What are you doing?” he asked the girl as he wiped the sleep from his eyes.

“Making her comfortable,” said Carlene.

“You shouldn’t be in here,” he said. “You might catch whatever’s caught your mother.”

“You’re in here,” said Carlene. “What if it catches you first?”

“I have a strong constitution,” said Andre.

Carlene scoffed. “That’s what my father said before he died.”

“I was a prisoner,” he told her then. “And the things those Krauts did to me—if I could survive those, then a little fever isn’t going to hurt me.”

“It’s not little,” said Carlene, dipping her cloth into a bowl of water that looked too much like the bowl of filth for Andre’s taste.

Carlene looked back over her shoulder at him. “How’d you escape?” she asked.

“We didn’t,” he said. “They were about to get rid of us when another army, friendly to ours, came rolling in.”

“You were rescued,” said Carlene.

“Yes,” said Andre.

“The way you rescued my mother and me,” she said, wiping again at her mother’s forehead.

“I suppose,” he said. “I suppose that’s true.”

She stared at her mother then as she said, “You’re better at being rescued.”

In the night, Andre woke at the sound of Carlene’s feet padding down the hall. He turned to wake Carla, to ask her to check on her daughter, but all that was there to nudge was a pillow that had already lost the shape of the woman’s head.

Andre hoisted himself up then, swinging his legs over the side of the bed. He sat for a second and closed his eyes again, listening to the sound of his lungs expanding and contracting, a trick he’d learned in the hole he’d been kept in during the war. He’d learned it to keep the sound of his empty stomach from infecting his every waking moment, but it did the trick now, too. There was something in the corner of his eye that wasn’t sleep, and he did not want more of it to coming spilling forth when he wiped it away.

Up he got, once the moment passed, shuffling down the hallway himself, breathing deeply again as his knees locked themselves up and voiced their crackling concerns.

Then, suddenly, a light flashed on in the kitchen, a bright slice of yellow cutting through the dark for but a moment before it was gone again.

Andre quickened his pace.

When he rounded the corner, realizing all he’d brought with him to defend himself and Carlene were his fists, he put up his dukes anyway. Just in case. But he needn’t have. There was no intruder, no abductor nor villain of any sort. There was only Carlene, seated at the kitchen table, the slice of cake plated before her.

“I’m hungry,” she said, not looking at him. “There’s nothing else left.”

Andre pulled a chair out from under the table and took a seat, staying silent as he did. He remembered a moment with Carla, one of their few spats, where she’d told him over a burnt roast that the whole thing could have been avoided if only he’d shut up and listened.

“It’s not my fault,” said Carlene, her gaze still fixed on the frozen piece of cake. “You won’t go to the grocer’s. You won’t buy us food.”

It was the word us that brought forth the sniffle from his nose, an involuntary sound. He wondered if that would count against him.

“Are you crying?”

In his mind, he told her that he was coming down with something, but in the real world he held those words behind the prison of his teeth.

“I can’t eat your tears,” she said, sounding like she’d like to try.

Deciding that action was not the same as speech, Andre reached across the table and pulled the plate toward himself.

“You have to share,” said Carlene, a quaver in her voice. “I’m starving.”

Andre looked away from her for the first time since sitting down, focusing on the cellophane. Carla never did anything halfway, did she? It was wrapped up good and tight. His eyes squinted in the dim light creeping in from the street lamp outside, squinted as he searched for some corner to pull on. He spun the plate around once, then again, then once more before he found what he was looking for.

When the slice of cake was finally free, he slid it back across the table to Carlene. In his hand then, he balled up the cellophane, relishing in its crinkles and its crackles as he did.

“You’ll need to let it thaw for a bit,” he said as he stood. “I’ll get a fork.”

And now it was Carlene who said nothing, who sat silent in a room permeated by this unexpected kindness, as unexpected for him as it was for her. She said nothing until the drawer of silverware squeaked open. It was only then that she told him to grab two. Two forks instead of one.

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The Last Donut

Photo by Ryan McGuire

Photo by Ryan McGuire

Once Ashley had the Slush Puppie in hand, she felt guilty. She felt guilty for letting Robin take her to the L’il Peach in the first place. She felt guilty for buying it, of course. And, most of all, she felt guilty for even thinking of drinking it. As Robin backed the car out of its parking space, and the warm glow of the enormous storefront windows began to fade, Ashley could hardly bear to look at the damnable drink. Mounds of poorly plowed snow crunched beneath the wheels of Robin’s Chevy Celebrity. On the car stereo, Robert Smith sang to the girls, “It’s a perfect day for letting go,” and he sounded perfectly ridiculous, this normally mopey old man, as he implored them, “Let’s get happy!” Didn’t he know how serious this business was, the business with the Slush Puppie? Had he never been heavy in his entire life? Could he not understand her predicament?

Robin certainly could not. She was of the belief that every pound lost was a cause for celebration. But Robin had always been thin and pretty, the kind of girl who, if she just so happened to put on an extra pound or two, could simply will that excess weight away with a blink of her eyes or a twitch of her nose. A Slush Puppie run made sense to her, this girl who had never had to count a calorie in her life. But to Ashley the drink was the embodiment of every bad habit she had spent six months of her life trying to break. A Slush Puppie was nothing more than flavored syrup and ice, and syrup was nothing more than liquid sugar, and every gram of sugar Ashley put into her body represented nothing more—or less—than an extra roll of fat bulging over her belt line, an extra pound of flesh weighing down her cheeks and her chin. Every gram of sugar she ingested was a concession of defeat, an admission that her own personal battle of the bulge was a struggle in which she could not prevail.

Beside her, Robin slurped at her own Slush Puppie like it was going out of style. And Ashley knew what Robin would say once she noticed that Ashley had hardly touched hers. She would remind Ashley that, after only six months, she was just four pounds shy of her ideal weight, and that those four extra pounds might even be attributed to all the muscle she’d built up.  She would remind her that it was different when the boys stared now, that they no longer made fat jokes underneath their breath, and that, when the occasionally obnoxious one did opt to make some loud proclamation, it was no longer the chant of “BOOM-BABBA, BOOM-BABBA,” but a wolf-whistle instead. And lastly, Robin would point out the very obvious fact that six months ago Ashley could never have fit into even the loosest most worn-out pair of Robin’s jeans, much less the tight vinyl get-up she was borrowing tonight. Robin would say, ‘If you still think you’re fat, even now, then you’re calling me fat, too. And I don’t think I’m fat. Do you think I’m fat, Ashley?’

Yes, Ashley knew this was coming. So, rather than face it, rather than suffer through Robin’s pathetic attempt at misdirection, Ashley picked up the Slush Puppie and began to sip. It was completely nonsensical, this feeling she had, but she really did feel herself grow a little bit fatter with each bit of cherry-flavored slush that slimed its way across her tongue and down into her throat.

Robin turned the music down just as it was about to get good and dark again, the strains of a cyclical piano melody and the swirl of synthesized strings gradually drowning beneath the roar of the car’s heating vents. “I’m glad we did this,” she said, holding up her own Puppie. “It’s like old times, you know. I mean, we really haven’t gotten together since me and Michael—”

“Since me and Adam,” Ashley added, slurping hard at the drink to kill the bad taste that Adam’s name left in her mouth. “Why did we ever bother with each other’s brothers anyway? Why do you still bother?”

Robin groaned. “You know, almost everything that you loathe about your brother is something I find endearing.”

“For instance?”

“For instance, I love that Michael is so malleable. He’s an artist one minute, a singer the next—”

“Some people might call that an inability to focus,” said Ashley.

“Well, some people just don’t get it,” said Robin, accelerating the car through the tangled intersection of Chelmsford Center. “You think that Michael loving Nine Inch Nails only after you introduced them to him makes him a poser, but what it really means, in my mind, is that he was willing to cast aside his preconceived notions of what music should be in order to adapt and appreciate something brand new.”

“Fine,” conceded Ashley. “But the fact that he gave up painting to join your little garage band—”

“We play in a basement, thank you very much,” said Robin, with a smirk.

“Fine!” snapped Ashley. “Fine, your little basement band. The fact that he gave up painting to join Gideon’s fucking Bible—that’s dumb. He gave up something he’d been doing since he was a little kid just because you spent one evening hanging all over him, telling him what a great singer he is—which he’s not, by the way—and I just think that’s retarded.”

Robin giggled. “You’re fun when you’re angry.”

Ashley picked up her Slush Puppie from the cup holder, and if it was possible to slurp angrily, that’s just what she did.

Not unlike Adam’s cellar-cum-dungeon, David’s basement was adorned with more than its fair share of candles. But that was where the similarities ended. The depths of Adam’s house were walled with somber gray brick, but here, here in David’s sanctuary, the plaster walls were painted a deep rusty read, the kind of color you felt warm just looking at. Everywhere you looked, there were soft squashy things on which to sit, and no matter where you sat there was always at least one book within reach, often three or four or more. And CDs! God, there were hundreds of them, maybe thousands, all shelved neatly along the far wall. When you were down here, you understood where all the money David pilfered from his mother’s purse went, the per diem that he took as part of their silent agreement that she could neglect him completely and totally, so long as she understood and did not complain about the money that was always missing. When you were down here you understood that David wasn’t taking the money because he was afflicted with that all-too-common teenage addiction to wastefulness. No, he was taking the money, and using it, to better himself, to expand his mind and to embrace the many possibilities of the world. David, unlike Adam, used this extra space allotted to him to welcome people in, to join the world, or at least to bring it to him, instead of using it to escape, to retreat, to push away.

No object in the room better epitomized David than the piece of yellowed parchment which hung within an ornate Victorian frame above his roaring fireplace. Written on the parchment was a single word, ‘Forgive,’ and that really was all you needed to know about David—that no matter what had been done to him, he was always ready to, as Grampy used to say, “let bygones be bygones.”

The band was the perfect example. Who among that motley crew would hesitate to poison the well of a friend when it suited them? Billy? Well, all boastful Billy Mills had done was to announce to a battle-of-the-bands crowd that had just awarded first place to some other quartet that the band didn’t need the “stupid” prize money anyway, because he had just secured them, through his “connections” in Boston, a record contract of their very own. Oh, how the crowd had oohed and ahhed over that; David had lost count of how many people asked for details every day in the halls at school. But when David pressed Billy for details, both for himself and for the inquiring minds of Chelmsford High, all Billy could say was, “I’m working on it.” A month later, “I’m still working on it.” And two months after that, “Well, these things sometimes fall through.” Which was easy enough for Billy to say, because his fat ass had already graduated, because he didn’t have to pass the sneering faces on his way into musical rehearsals; he didn’t have to listen to whispers end abruptly whenever he entered the chorus room, that terrible, lonely silence.

Robin, with whom David had conceived this sonic gang of theirs—well her best Judas impression came in her steadfast refusal to side with David on any band-related issue, despite the supposedly heartfelt proclamation she had made to the contrary during their very first practice together. He had always wanted their fourth member to be a bass-player, which would have allowed him to stay on rhythm guitar and on lead vocals, and Robin had said she would back him on that “one-hundred percent.” But when Michael came around, when he did whatever he did to get her juices flowing, and she invited him to join as their singer—Michael, who couldn’t play any instrument at all—she had relegated David to the bass, to the role of sideman. And when Michael began to assert himself, when he suggested they play “Go Your Own Way” at the talent show—David scoffing, “The Fleetwood Mac song?”—who had Robin sided with then? Her boyfriend, of course, who had come up with what she called, “a brilliant idea,” an idea that played off of the school’s perception of their little love triangle.

“Nobody will get it,” David had said. “You give them too much credit.”

But Michael had sneered and said, “You don’t give them enough.”

Yes, David had surrounded himself with snakes, but Michael was the worst of all, Michael, who had been with David the day he bought that hopeful bit of parchment which hung above the fireplace. David had been warned about Michael. Ashley had implored David, countless times, to break off his friendship with her brother, and to come back to her. “It’s only a matter of time,” she’d told him once, adding up his stack of comics from behind the counter at the store. “It’s only a matter of time before he moves on to someone else, or something else. Michael’s like that box of chocolates in Forrest Gump—you never know when it’s going to start sucking, but it’s guaranteed that it’ll suck eventually.” Michael had stolen the girl, and the band, and there was no telling what he’d pilfer next. And yet, David had forgiven him. He had forgiven them all.

Which was why it was into David’s arms that Ashley had been fleeing the past few weeks. After all, if David could put out the fires of those burning bridges, if he could heal wounds which cut that deep, then perhaps, she’d reasoned, he could help to heal her, too. And, sure, it hadn’t been going exactly according to plan, but there was still... Time? Potential? Well, there was still something. And she wasn’t ready to give up just yet.

“You two together?” asked an unfamiliar voice.

“What...” stuttered Ashley, blushing. “No, No, we’re not... Not exactly.”

“No,” said the woman. “No, I suppose not. Too much fire in your eyes.”

Ashley sipped water from her plastic cup and cast a sidelong glance at her inquisitor. She was impossibly beautiful, the kind of woman not found in nature, or at least not in Massachusetts. Her flawless face was framed by that seemingly ubiquitous haircut of the moment, what Ashley’s own stylist called ‘the Rachel,’ after the sitcom character who’d inspired it, a bouncy layered shag of cherry red hair. She was dressed normally enough—except, maybe, for the fur-trimmed suede jacket—a white turtleneck and skin-tight blue jeans accentuating her tall, lean frame. But her midriff, left bare by both the blouse and the pants, was preternaturally tanned and toned. The jeweled stud which pierced her navel looked more glitzy than Mom’s wedding ring.

Suddenly aware that she was staring, Ashley turned her eyes back to the heated band meeting spilling out from the cramped boiler room. “Are you here with someone?” she asked the woman.

“The drummer,” she answered. “Billy?”

Ashley smirked, everything clicking. Of course she was here with Billy. Billy, who had not gone to college, who had landed himself a cushy job at a computer company, who still lived at home, who had plenty of disposable income. Billy, the consumer. Of food, of video games, and now, apparently, of this most temporary and disposable commodity of them all.

“How’d you two meet?” asked Ashley.

“Mutual friend.”

“Friend wouldn’t happen to be named Benjamin, would he?”

The woman smiled. “Funny you should mention it. We actually have eight friends named Benjamin.” She shrugged. “Weird, huh?”

Ashley was no longer smiling. In fact, she could feel her bottom lip drooping down. Eight hundred a night? What did you have to do for eight hundred a night? Ashley swallowed hard, and then stuttered, “I guess you don’t have to hold down a regular job with friends like that, huh?”

“Well, I also do some work at a club a couple of towns over,” she said. And then, looking casually over one shoulder and then the other, as if to assure that they were not being overheard, she elaborated. “I dance. Great money if you know what you’re doing. It’s all about the tips, of course.”

Ashley nodded along, puzzled by the way that this woman was looking at her now, as if sizing her up. “What?” asked Ashley.

“Girl with a body like yours...”

Ashley groaned. “A body like mine?” This was too much, Patronized by a prostitute! “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“Girl, you have a great body. Don’t you ever doubt it. No place for doubt in a beautiful woman. A beautiful woman who doubts herself... Well, when you don’t respect how beautiful you are, when you don’t understand how special and unique your beauty is, then you squander it. You waste it away without even knowing it.”

Ashley thought instantly of her mother, buttoned up inside her white coat every day. But then she snipped at the woman. “And you’re not squandering it? You’re not wasting away this precious commodity of yours by selling it to anybody with enough cash?”

“Honey, I’m not squandering anything. I’m celebrating my body, my body and what it can do for me, what it can get for me. You see that Jag out front?”

“Belongs to the dealers who live on the second floor,” said Ashley, trying to sound certain of it, though she was anything but.

The woman shook her head. “It’s mine. And if I had a picture, I’d show you the lake house I have up on Winnipesaukee, which I bought with cash, up front.”

“And if you hadn’t just snorted it all out of the crack of Billy’s fat ass, you’d share your blow with me too, right?”

The woman laughed, just a little.

“Fine. You make money. You buy things. But how do you live with the fact that, all around you, people are making music, or art, or books? How do you live with the fact that, at the end of the night, all you have is the money and your tired body staring back at you from the mirror?”

“Well, hun,” she began. ‘Money may not be able to buy me love, but it’ll buy me just about everything else. And, as for having nothing to show for myself but the body I see in the mirror at night, to that I say: the body is the garden of the soul. When you look at yourself, don’t feel ashamed of all the work you’ve done to look like this. Don’t think that you should’ve been focused on reading or music or something more worthwhile instead. Your beauty is your gift, and that’s okay.”

Ashley looked away, off into the darkest corner of the room she could find with her tired eyes.

“And if he doesn’t get that,” the woman said. “If he wants more out of you than what you have to offer, toss him aside. Men are like Kleenex, really. Pull one out of the box, use him for what he’s worth, and then throw him away. And when you’re ready for another, guess what? There’s always another one right there. They pop right out the box for women like us, fresh and clean and ready to do whatever you ask of them.”

“That’s kind of an obnoxious and insensitive way to look at it.”

“Look honey, the way girls like us are hurt by men, it’s the only way to—”

“I haven’t been hurt by men,” spat Ashley. “What makes you think—”

“Girl, you think you’re some kind of enigma. You think you’re mysterious. And it’s not your fault; everybody your age thinks that about themselves. But I’ve been around the block. You’re like an open book to me, some old paperback I’ve curled up with a hundred times. The pages of you are dog-eared and torn.”

Ashley was about to tell her off—if she, Ashley, was dog-eared and torn, what did that make this old bitch?—but her rage was quelled by the weight of a hand on her shoulder and David’s melodious voice drawing near to her ear.

“I’m sorry to interrupt,” he said, smiling in the direction of Billy’s whore du jour. “But, if you want to have that talk, I have time now.”

“What about the show?”

“Well, your brother has finally consented to open with a Cure song—‘10:15 Saturday Night,’ actually—but only if we wait until precisely 10:15 to begin the show.”

Ashley groaned.

“I’m sorry,” said David, extending his hand to Ashley’s antagonist, “but we’ve not yet been introduced, have we?”

“I’m here with Billy,” she said, shaking David’s hand, the brief intertwining of their fingers making Ashley sick. “I’m Cammi.”

“Nice to meet you, Cammi,” said David.

“Yes,” said Ashley, slipping her arm around David’s. “Very nice to meet you. But we’re going to go now. Lots to chat about, you know.”

“Of course,” said Cammi, shooing them along, a knowing smile on her face. “You two have a nice talk.”

Ashley pulled David along, zigging and zagging her way through the crowd, and heading toward the stairs. And it wasn’t until they were halfway up, and safely out of earshot, that she whispered to David, “Billy’s date is a prostitute.”

David smirked “An escort, actually.”

“Is there a difference?”

They crept out of the stairwell and into David’s kitchen. “A subtle and yet, according to Billy, important one: sex is not mandated with an escort; it may be implied, but it’s not required. Ostensibly, Billy’s paying for a date, the theory being that, like any old date, the more riches he lavishes on his companion, the more willing she will be to part with her virtue come nightfall.”

Ashley sighed and shook her head as they stole through the kitchen and into the living room, where a cluster of their classmates were huddled around the television, laughing hysterically. On the TV, a Japanese man was carrying a golden volleyball across a swaying, rickety rope bridge, dodging a barrage of black balls being fired at him by a group of men armed with air cannons. When one of the black balls hit him square in the crotch, the living room crowd exploded with cheers. The man dropped his golden parcel over the side of the bridge, then took a second hit—this one to the head—before falling off himself, down into the muddy pit below. Ashley felt wrong laughing, but laugh she did. She asked David, who was smiling broadly, “What is this?”

“Takeshi’s Castle. Japanese game show. Tyler brought it.”

“Where does he find this stuff?”

David shrugged. “Don’t know; didn’t say. But that’s Tyler for you. The only truly original person I’ve ever met.”

On a night where it seemed that everyone she interacted with was going to do the best they could to piss her off, this really took the cake. But rather than let it ruin her carefully laid plans, she, yet again, swallowed her pride. She nodded in the direction of David’s bedroom. “We should go have that talk now.”

David, still transfixed by Tyler’s latest demonstration of originality, murmured something inaudible, almost as if to say, “Can’t we just stay here and watch this instead?” but he didn’t protest when she tugged on his arm again. What boy would? Because, as much as a guy might have loved Japanese game shows, or originality, there was always one thing he loved more.

But, when it was over, it was all she could do to keep from crying.

She’d come so close; she’d felt that last wave coming on, the big one, its shadow falling over her as it crested high above. But just like each of the other times, it was as if Adam was right there in her head, ready to pull her out of the water at the cruelest possible moment, just before the crash. And as he carried her to shore, away from the sea she so longed to return to, he whispered into her ear, with a kind of faux Asian accent, “None fo’ you!”

Every time with David had ended like this, and every time with Tyler before him—Tyler, who, come to think of it, hadn’t been all that original in bed. It always ended with her huddled beneath the covers, shivering, sheets pulled up to her chin, and with him standing at the foot of the bed, getting dressed, his bare chest pink with warmth, a positive glow about him. With David, since their trysts usually preceded a show, the only difference was the application of makeup and the teasing of hair that came along with him putting himself back together again.

“Did you intentionally prolong this particular talk,” asked David, haphazardly applying eyeliner in between glances at the wall clock, “knowing that your brother would be pissed off about the show not starting on time?”

“Honestly, David, I try not to think about my brother when I’m having sex.”

David grunted, squeezing a glob of hair product into the palm of his hand. “I beg to differ. If you aren’t worried about your brother’s perception of you, why all the euphemisms for our our relationship?”

“I’m sorry,” said Ashley, her anger flooding her with a sense of warmth that the sex had not, “but was this bad for you? Judging by the look on your face when it was over, I got the impression that—”

“It was fine, Ash. I’m not criticizing your sexual prowess.”

“Well, good. Good! Cause I’m good in bed.”

“Yes,” he said, checking the final look of his hair before toweling off the excess gel from his hands.

Ashley got out of bed and began to dress herself. “Billy’s date,” she told David, “she was telling me that I could make it as a dancer. What do you think about that?”

“Well, Ash,” he said, pausing for a few seconds before continuing. “You’ve lost a lot of weight, and you look phenomenal, but you have to be very, very skinny to do ballet. Skinnier than maybe you should—”

“Stripping, David,” Ashley clarified. “She thinks I could make it as an exotic dancer.”

“Oh,” he said, casting his eyes toward the floor.

“Why would an escort be talking to me about the ballet?”

David folded his arms, bit on his bottom lip, and bobbed his head to one side and then the other. He tapped his fingers on his arm and then, abruptly, he unfolded his arms and began to tap his foot. He paced.

“What?” she asked. “What do you want to say?”

He stopped pacing. “I saw the look on your face when you told me she was a prostitute.”


“And you looked disgusted,” said David.

“Well, dancing’s not hooking.”

“Yes,” said David. “But don’t you think that that’s all just shades of gray?”

“Well, sure,” admitted Ashley. “But you just set your standards. You say, there are certain things I just don’t do. I mean, I could make a lot of money, if she’s right about me. I could live comfortably, get a nice car, a place of my own; I could help you guys pay for some studio time! And all that, just for getting naked a couple of hours a day? I mean, I could do anything I wanted to. I wouldn’t be tied down like my brother or my cousins, all of them trying to be artistic and failing miserably. Hell, I worked hard for this body. Why shouldn’t I get a return on my investment? Why—”

David cut her off, raising a finger to his lips to shush her. And then, just outside the bedroom door, two raised voices argued their way closer and closer. It reminded Ashley of the fights she used to hear Uncle Rob and Aunt Lydia having in the middle of the night down the Cape. And Ashley would have covered her ears this time, like she did back then, if the voices hadn’t been Michael’s and Robin’s, if the fight hadn’t been one she’d been hoping to eavesdrop on for months.

“We’ve got a show to do, Michael! You can’t just leave.”

“We had a show to do,” shouted Michael. And then, almost as if he could see through the door, could see where David and Ashley were hiding, his voice growled in their direction. “But David decided he had better things to do. And now Billy’s gone—”

“We can do a show without Billy. We’ll just go acoustic.”

“I’ve got things to do, too, Robin. You know I was planning on heading down to Harwich tonight.”

“Why, Michael?” asked Robin. “What the hell is down the Cape?” Her question, though she could never have known it, recalled quite poignantly Aunt Lydia’s oft-repeated query from those days gone by: “Why don’t you go off to Wyoming then, if that’d make you happier?”

Michael answered, in an almost perfect imitation of Uncle Rob, “You wouldn’t understand.”

And then there were doors slamming open and closed, and more screaming—most of it unintelligible—and finally David twisted the doorknob and led Ashley out into the living room. The room had cleared, the crowd having followed the drama out into the hall and onto the porch. Ashley and David snuck into the back of the throng, doing their best to blend in, and Ashley got a glimpse of the street corner just in time to see Michael’s Ford Tempo racing off into the night. Robin was kicking at the chain link fence, and now she was storming her way through the crowd, right toward Ashley and David. The masses parted like the Red Sea before Noah or Jesus or whoever that was, and deposited Robin directly in front of the two people who, it appeared, from the scowl on her face, she’d been longing to have a word with.

“You two have a nice chat?” asked Robin.

“It was nice enough,” said Ashley.

“Good,” said Robin. “Cause it’s time for us to go. You’ve got your learner’s permit with you, right?”

“Yeah, why?”

Robin plunked the keys to her car down into Ashley’s hand. “Cause you’re driving,” she said, and then, surveying the crowd with squinted eyes, she pointed at Tyler. “And he’s coming with.”

“Show’s canceled then?” David asked Robin.

“What do you think?” she shouted over her shoulder, leading Ashley and Tyler toward the street.

“Where are we going?” Ashley asked, unlocking the car.

“We’re driving,” said Robin, nearly shoving Tyler into the backseat, before getting in beside him.

“Where?” asked Ashley.

“I don’t care,” spat Robin. “Anywhere but here.”

“Are we dropping Tyler off?”

“Ashley, would you just get in the fucking car?”

Obediently, Ashley drove them out of the Highlands and back onto route 110, the main drag. She did her best to ignore the sounds of zippers unzipping, of lips smacking against lips, of wet skin rubbing against tight vinyl. And she tried not to think about the fact that this was what she had asked for, that this was what she had wanted. In theory, in her imagination, the fight was the end of it. But in practice, in practice this was something quite different. She saw, in her mind’s eye, how Michael would react when he found out. She remembered, all too well, what he had looked like creeping out from under the couch where he’d hidden during their game of hide and seek all those years ago, creeping out after Ashley had bounced up and down on the thing to announce that she’d found him. His face had been black and blue, his eyes red, his eyelids swollen with tears he refused to cry in front of anyone. She could see now that she had always been on the wrong side, because it wasn’t Michael in the backseat with someone else; it was Robin. But it was too late to defect now, wasn’t it? Far, far too late.

They crossed beneath the Route 3 overpass, out of Lowell and into Chelmsford. And as they drove past the cinema on the left and the Market Basket on the right, Ashley seethed inside. She had no idea where she was going, or even what she was doing. She turned into the parking lot of the Chelmsford Mall, creeping slowly down the hill toward the strip of department stores. And when she reached the bottom of the hill, she started to do donuts in front of the Bradlees, one circle after another, because it was the most ridiculous thing she could think of to do, and this was the most ridiculous situation she could think of to be in. Why wasn’t she in the car with her brother right now, heading down the Cape? Why was she here with this shrew, this skank that for so long she had called friend?

“Ashley?” Robin finally asked. “What are you doing?”

Grimly, Ashley mumbled, “Waiting for the cops to show up.”

“Well, shit,” groaned Robin, sitting up, zipping up a pair of pants. “If you didn’t want to come out with us, Ashley, you could’ve said so and I would’ve just taken you home.”

“Oh,” sighed Ashley, pulling prematurely out of her last donut and heading back up the hill. “I didn’t realize I had a choice.”

I write and publish new fiction and drama once per week. If you like what you’re reading, support me on Patreon to read new material a week in advance.

What She Was Willing to Give

Ashley’s path had begun at Grampy’s place, down the Cape. The garage there was dark and cool in the summers of her youth, a refuge from the heat, from her family, and from the boys who tormented her at the beach. She liked to sit in there by herself, in quiet solitude, in the rumble seat of the old Ford. And she liked to brainstorm comebacks for her next encounter with the townies who called her Shamu. But, most of all, she liked to look at the pin-up calendar that hung in there, in that place girls weren’t meant to be, and she liked to imagine that one day the pounds would fall away from her like marble from Venus, that one day she would be pretty enough for a calendar, even if she’d never think of posing for one, and pretty enough for a townie, even though she’d never give a townie the time of day.

If the words her grandfather spoke so often to her had ever been true, that God made pretty girls in all sizes, then the women she found on those glossy pages, the whole homogenized lot of them, were proof-positive that the times they were a-changing. Uniformly blonde and uniformly bronzed, they were also uniformly perky, both in their demeanor and in their physical endowments. Their breasts defied gravity, their bikinis defied logic, and the way they draped themselves over the automobiles with which they posed defied even the most liberal definitions of good taste. But Ashley had never minded any of that. She liked having a standard to live up to, a target to take aim at. Her mother may have vilified these women at every turn, and mocked the ideal to which they were encouraging young girls to aspire to, but even Michaela Silver could not argue with the facts of the matter. These were the women who made the world go round. Their young, nubile bodies sold magazines and movie tickets. Their bright vacuous smiles were like a spoonful of sugar on newscasts that were increasingly harder to swallow. And though a thousand ships might be launched to protect the honor of but one of them, it seemed just as likely that the world might stand united, if only for a moment, at the batting of the right eyelash.

She could still recall how her mother had scrutinized Miss August the summer she’d finally caught Ashley in there, the way that Michaela had said, so dismissively, “She’s nothing to write home about.”

Ashley had grumbled.

Michaela stepped toward the calendar. “It’s all an exercise in titillation anyway,” she said. “See the way the stiletto’s dangling from her naked foot? Notice how the rest of her is all covered up? I mean, anyone with a bare foot would look sexy posed like this…”

Ashley plunged her greasy hand into the depths of a bag of potato chips and fished around for the last few crumbs.

“…the right piece of fabric in the right place, Ashley. That’s all it is.”

Which was easy for her to say. If it weren’t for the varicose veins that crept, like vines, along the length of her hips and thighs, Michaela might’ve been able to make a calendar of her own. Ashley wasn’t blind. She’d seen how the men at her father’s company picnics looked at her mother, whispering to each other over their beers, hating to see her leave, but loving to watch her go. And she wasn’t deaf either. She’d heard Michael’s friends teasing him during their sleepovers, making crude jokes and bold proclamations.

“…besides,” said Michaela, wrapping an arm around Ashley’s shoulder. “Physical beauty isn’t everything. Your grandmother was a… what is the word Grampy likes to use?”

“Substantial,” said Ashley.

“Yes,” said Michaela. “Your grandmother was a substantial woman. And that didn’t make her any less beautiful.”

Ashley shrugged off Michaela’s arm, stood, and walked away. “It did make her die though,” said Ashley. “Didn’t it?” She ran her hand along the Ford’s chrome bumper, peering down at her own reflection, at the way it doubled the size of her face, the number of her chins. She fought the urge to punch the car.

“You think I’m lying to you?” said Michaela.

“No,” said Ashley. “You’re telling me the same thing that the beautiful people always tell the butt-ugly people.”

“Ashley, you’re not…”

Ashley faced her mother. “No, Mom, I am,” she said. “But here’s what you don’t know…”

“…you have always been too concerned with appearances…”

“…I’m not always going to be ugly…”

“…the right clothes, the right toys…”

“…and I’m not always going to be fat…”

“…if you focused on your schoolwork as much as you focus on…”

“…I’m going to be pretty one day,” said Ashley. “Because pretty is power, and it takes an ugly girl to recognize that. I’m going to be pretty, and then I’m going to show all of you how it’s done.”

She was on the third song of her last set when she saw him. She was bent over at the waist, her g-string slipping down the length of her legs towards the stage floor, and there he was. She stared off to her right, over the heads of the sparse stage-side crowd, through the veil of cigar smoke, and into the most shadowy corner of the club. It was lit only by the yellowish-white of Christmas tree lights that hung along the ceiling like clusters of grapes from a vine.

All she could see was the shape of him, but his shape was unmistakable—the slight, feminine expanse of his shoulders, and the way that he slouched, like a turtle pulling its head into its shell. She squinted at him, the rows of purple and pink stage lights flashing at her, blinding her. Her pupils dilated, and the first thing she could make out for sure was that blindingly white hair of his, practically glowing under the club’s black lights. The sight of it made her sick to her stomach.

He picked up his drink and started toward her. Ashley strutted away from him, toward the pole that plunged downward from the ceiling into the center of the stage, her eyes glued to the stage mirror in front of her to track his progress. She grabbed hold of the pole with both hands, at a spot above her head, pulled herself up, and whipped herself around it, pulling her knees tight against her chest as she spun, closer and closer, to the bottom.

The sparse crowd hooted and hollered. Adam clapped a golf clap.

It had been three years since she’d seen him outside of this place, since the night she’d walked into a ballroom on the arm of John Dalton, he in his tux and a top hat, she in a gown so sequined and low-cut that it put the dress she’d seen in Robin’s closet to shame. Adam was with Alice Coover, the blonde with the big hips who Ashley had flipped the bird the afternoon of her falling out with him. But Alice, in her predictably clingy satin number, had been unable to hold his gaze when Ashley walked in. Adam stared at her, a primal hunger in his eyes, the look she’d walked seven miles a day for. She and her date could’ve turned around right then and left, gotten right to the violent, short-lived sex they’d have in the hotel room overlooking Hampton Beach early the next morning, and she would’ve been satisfied.

Instead, they stayed nearly the entire time, through the band’s renditions of the Spice Girls’ “Wannabe” and Alanis Morrisette’s “Ironic”, and the DJ’s repetitive playing, during the band’s breaks, of Janet Jackson’s 1987 album, Control, which, a decade after its release, did little to inspire the senior class of Chelmsford High to take to the dance floor. She danced with her date, with his friends from the basketball team that they’d been seated with, and she’d even done the line dances with the other girls—“The Electric Slide” and “The Macarena.” And she’d posed for all the photos they’d asked for, too, smiling in each one, content to play the role of conformist for the night because she’d gotten what she’d come for.

Adam came to their table toward the end of the night to a round of polite nods from the boys at the table and a drink held high by Ashley’s date, followed by the call of “’S’up Gates?” as he stood to shake Adam’s hand.

“Dalton, you mind if I steal your date for a dance,” Adam had asked.

John shook his head, ‘No’ and nudged Ashley up out of her seat, smiling at the two of them as they headed out to the dance floor.

“You look amazing,” Adam told her.

“I know,” she said.

“I just wanted to—”

“Don’t,” Ashley told him. “You’ll fuck it up. Just shut up and dance with me.”

He’d shut his mouth and taken the lead, and she remembered how good it had felt to close her eyes and dare to dream that this wouldn’t be the last time he’d hold her like that.

And now this. Once a week, every week. Sometimes twice. Her body was his drug, just like she’d always wanted, but somehow, despite what she said out loud to the contrary, it didn’t really feel like she was in control, after all.

Ashley, once again in full costume, took Adam by the hand and walked him into the alcove off to the left of the stage where they did the lap dances. There were four couches. Two faced the wall, with their backs to the main floor, and just enough space between them to allow you into the little alcove. The other two were back up against the far wall, facing outward. There was an overgrown fern in the space between the second two, and its leaves tickled her ass when she danced on that side. They sat on one of the couches facing the wall. The blue lights that hung overhead made every speck of dust and lint on him glow. While he wiped at the legs of his jeans, Ashley scratched at the back of her neck, waiting for the next song.

“How you been?” he asked her.

She nodded slowly, staring up at the ceiling, at the tiles that had been missing since she’d started here, at the exposed cable that hung up there. “Nothing to complain about,” she told him, nodding, staring down at a run in her stockings, right below the knee, trying to remember just where she’d bought this pair, the most comfortable she owned.

“Are you this cold to all your customers?”

Ashley stared at him. “You’re a customer now? Oh,” she said, covering her mouth with her hands, “I didn’t know.” She hoisted her legs and laid them across his lap. “Is that better, sir?”

“That’s just wonderful,” he said, running his hand along her leg, from ankle to thigh.

The song faded out and Ashley rose to her feet. Adam slouched back into the couch’s cushions as she stood above him, nudging his legs apart with her knees. As the next song began, an orchestra of blurps and bleeps that reminded her of the video games they’d played together so long ago, she untied the front of her white schoolgirl’s blouse and slipped it off, back off her shoulders. She slipped one hand up into her hair and slid the other slowly down her neck, and then her chest, and then, finally, her stomach. She lifted the hem of her plaid skirt and rubbed at herself through her thong, leaning her head back, opening her mouth in a faux moan.

“I like this,” he said. Then again: “I like this.”

She turned around and thrust her ass backwards, toward his face, as she bent to push her skirt and panties to the floor. Steadying herself on his knees, she crouched and sat herself down on his lap, her naked bottom grinding against the roughness of his jeans. She could feel his dick throbbing beneath the fabric. Ashley leaned back, resting her head on his shoulder, arching her back, gyrating. She breathed heavy in his ear, bit at his earlobe.

“Holy shit,” he said. “Holy—”

His crotch grew sticky and wet as she continued to work him. He was moaning now—it sounded like he might be asking her to stop—and that just drove her more. She squeezed his knees and snapped her hips back and forth. His hands were on her now, gripping her tightly, trying to hold her in place. But she kept going. She relented only when his hands dropped away. Only when he’d conceded did she still herself.

“Ashley…” he murmured.

“Hannah,” she said, standing up. “My name is Hannah, sir.”

“Sorry,” he said, unfolding his wallet. “How much do I owe you?”

She gave him a wry smile. “How much was it worth to you?”

He pulled out a twenty and a five, handed them to her, and then stood to adjust himself.

She stuffed the bills into her garter, collected her costume, and began to get dressed.

“Pleasure,” he mumbled, “as always.”

“Oh no,” she said, extending a hand for him to kiss, which he did. “The pleasure’s all mine.”

And then she turned on him and scoped the floor for her next mark, something to cleanse the palate before cashing out and driving home.

I write and publish new fiction and drama once per week. If you like what you’re reading, support me on Patreon to read new material a week in advance.

Authors of Geek Force Five: 2015

Photo by Ryan McGuire

Photo by Ryan McGuire

The big move that I wrote about last week has robbed me of a lot of creative time this summer, but one outlet where I’m delighted to report that progress has not slowed is my little genre fiction magazine, Geek Force Five. In fact, I am now ready to announce the table of contents for Geek Force Five: 2015, our eighth issue.

  • “Recommended Memories for You” by Steven Marston
  • “The Black Hills” by Josiah Spence
  • “Folklore” by S.E. Clark
  • “The Fat Man Happens” by RJ Wolfe
  • “Three Times Fast” by Bethany Snyder

Haunted tunnels, epic ancestors, post-apocalyptic gunfights, and a catalog of human memories for sale–we have all that, plus creatures that crawl in search of a very particular kind of blood.

The issue is due in print and in your favorite eBook format on September 1, 2015. Stay tuned for announcements on the cover and pre-orders.

In the meantime, if you or anyone you know would be interested in serving as the issue’s copyeditor or marketing lead in exchange for a share of the profits, please contact me at

What He Was Willing to Take

Photo by Volkan Olmez

Photo by Volkan Olmez

Ashley’s ears were still ringing from the piercing wail of the school’s fire alarm; the lingering scent of burning rubber clung to her clothes and to her hair. A year before she would have been thankful for whichever of Chelmsford’s junior pyromaniacs had picked the middle of the school day to demonstrate his prowess. But at that moment, with Adam’s house looming large in front of them, sitting atop the hill, she actually found herself wishing for the boredom of Mr. Russo’s English class. Pepper, the Gates’ mid-sized mutt, was roaming about the the fenced-in yard, barking down the street at them, but the lot was otherwise empty. Adam’s parents were still at work. Robin, his sister, hadn’t come home yet. Ashley frowned. They’d have the whole house to themselves, and she knew what that meant.

Sweat dripped down her forehead as they trudged up the hill. It ran, like a waterfall, down the length of her back, and it sat heavy, like a swamp, under each breast, and in between every roll of fat. Her underwear was riding up in the back, and in the front it was chafing the inside of each thigh. Her heart pounded so hard that she could actually feel the blood chugging up through her neck and into her head. And that felt weird, sure, but what bothered her the most was the sound her breathing. Heavy, wheezy, almost as if she was choking on something, it reminded her of a sound she’d spent the better part of a school year trying to forget. It reminded her of Grampy.

In days gone by, the sight of Adam’s perfect posterior in front of her would have served to keep the dark thoughts at bay. Even beneath his baggy jeans, which he paused to pull up every hundred feet or so, the boy’s bottom had once been a fixed point, the North Star to her as she drifted aimlessly along the seas of discontent. But what was the Greek myth where the kid flew too high with his man-made wings, trying to reach the sky, the object of his adoration, only to have his wings fall apart under the heat of the sun? What was the name of that one? She couldn’t remember. But that’s how she felt. She had gotten too close and now she was plummeting toward the unforgiving ocean below.

The school bus they could have taken—should have taken, in Adam’s opinion—rumbled up beside them. A gaggle of blonde girls stared out of the windows at her, pointing their manicured fingers, laughter shaking their anorexic frames and jiggling their perky little breasts. Ashley hoisted her arm and gave them the finger. One of them raced up the aisle toward the driver, her micro-mini skirt riding up on a pair of thunder-thighs that rivaled Ashley’s in size, revealing pink panties that barely covered her flat little tattle-tail. The bus’s brake lights flashed, the girl tripped, and she fell out of view. Ashley laughed a little, but it hurt, so she stopped.

“What so funny, Slim?” Adam asked her over his shoulder.

“Nothing,” she said, leaning forward, hands on her knees, to catch her breath.

Adam turned around for the first time since they’d left school, stopping, doubling back toward her. “Are you gonna have a heart attack?” he asked. “Because I am not giving you mouth-to-mouth.”

He was so fiendishly handsome, this boy, his platinum blond hair cropped close to his head, his strong, square jaw line softened just a bit by the small patch of brown beard on his chin. When she first began to think of kissing boys, this was the face she longed to kiss. But now, now she simply longed to scratch it away, to expose to the world what lay beneath it, the face she saw in his basement when she looked up at him from her spot between his legs. Yes, he was fiendishly handsome, but the key word was no longer handsome.

“You okay?” he asked, bending at the waist, leaning his body closer to her. She could smell the sweet, musky fragrance of his deodorant, and she wanted to tackle him, to wrestle him to the ground, rip off his baggy jeans, and crush him underneath this body of hers, this body that he did not want, that, save for her mouth, he would not take.

She shooed him away and stood up straight again. “I’m fine,” she said. “I just needed a breather.”

“We could have taken the bus,” he reminded her.

“It’s fine,” she said. “I need the exercise.”

They started up the final stretch of the hill, Adam walking a little slower now, letting Ashley set the pace. She walked slower than she needed to and every few steps she glanced back over her shoulder, hoping to spot Robin’s car, or Michael’s. If it took them long enough to get there, then someone would come, someone would come and rescue her. Someone would come and take her back home.

The street was eerily silent.

“I heard the fire was in the art room,” Adam was saying. “You think it got to any of your brother’s stuff?”

“I hope not,” she said. “Because that would be like a national catastrophe, wouldn’t it? We’d have to have, like, a moment of silence.”

“And maybe they’d bring in some grief counselors or something,” Adam added, smirking.

They laughed together, like they used to. Why couldn’t it be just like that again? She longed for the Adam before the dye job, before the facial hair, the one who asked her over to play on the Nintendo or the Sega, the one who had worked with her in the comic book store and debated the quality of DC versus Marvel. She longed for the boy she knew before she’d made her move, her stupid, stupid move, which she couldn’t take back now, even if she wanted to. Because, unlike the marathon video game sessions of old, there was no reset button for her life. There were no do-overs.

The best she could do was stall. So, when they reached the house, she asked about Robin’s prom dress. Their mutual fascination with the relationship between their older siblings was sure to buy her a few minutes.

The walls of Robin’s room were lined with posters of Pearl Jam and Green Day and Sarah McLachlan. The floor was littered with concert t-shirts, blue jeans, bras, and a towering pile of underwear. Two guitar cases leaned against her amp, one hard and the other soft. And an incense burner sat atop the nightstand, next to a framed photograph of Robin and Michael.

Ashley picked up the frame as Adam stepped carefully across the wasteland of his sister’s room toward the closet. The picture was a shot of Robin and Michael up on stage at that year’s talent show, huddled close together, in the middle of their cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way,” which, despite Ashley’s predictions to the contrary, had gone off swimmingly with the crowd. They were singing into a single microphone, smiles cracking through the veneer of their serious rock & roll faces. Ashley remembered how, from her seat in the front row, she had seen them kiss when the lights went down. She and Adam had been the first in line to get into the show, just so that they could be front-row to witness the spectacular collapse of Gideon’s Bible in front of the entire school. That the kiss was what she’d gotten instead, the kiss amidst the roar of all their schoolmates and the cries of “Encore! Encore!”—that was just too much. She and Adam hadn’t even stuck around for the rest of the show. They’d traipsed out back, into the woods, and partied with the stoners who’d set up shop out there, Ashley hoping that the reefer and the alcohol might help her land a kiss of her own.

But there were limits to their relationship. Kissing was not allowed. It implied intimacy. It implied that they were together. And they were not together. They were friends, with benefits. Even if the benefits were mostly his.

Setting the picture down, she told Adam, “In the car, on our trips down to the Cape, Michael used to sing along with the radio and I’d, like, punch him. Because, back then, he really sucked. But he just kept singing.”

The old metal of the closet doors creaked as Adam pulled them open.

“He spent a lot of time in Brighton last fall, at our cousin Veronica’s place, practicing. I think it was cause he had a crush on Veronica’s friend Desiree at the time.”

“Desiree Emerson?” Adam asked as he pushed blouses and slacks back into the corner of the closet. “I know kids who get their hair cut at her salon on Drum Hill just so’s they can check her out once a month. Every guy in school had a crush on Desiree when she was still here.”

“Well, every guy in school is stupid, because I think she’s a lesbian. I think she has a crush on my cousin. It’s so gay.”

“Nah,” he said, beckoning Ashley toward him with a wave of his hand. “Lesbian’s aren’t gay. Lesbians are awesome.”

Ashley groaned at him as he pulled the dress out into the light. “First, I can’t even believe she agreed to go to the prom in the first place. And second, I can’t believe she’s going to wear this. It’s, like, not her thing at all. She’s gonna look so queer.”

Ashley gawked at the dress, clenching her teeth to keep her jaw from falling. It was full-length and sparkly all the way from the spaghetti straps down to the hem of the skirt, and it was tiny. Ashley frowned, realizing it would take three times the material to cover herself, and of course the spaghetti straps would never work for her. He bare arms made her look chubbier than she was, so she’d need a shawl or something, and that would make her look like her grandmother. It would fit Robin like a glove, though. She would be stunning in it, the dark blue bringing out all of the subtle flecks of color in her hazel eyes, the greens and the golds and the little bits of blue. Ashley imagined Robin’s normally spiky hair slicked down, sophisticated, a jewel-studded clip on each side of her face, and some sort of necklace or something, and maybe just one pair of earrings, dangly ones, sparkling in the low light of the dance hall. Ashley saw how big her brother would smile when he saw his girlfriend in this dress. And then she saw them together at some hotel up at Hampton Beach, after the dance. She imagined the dress balled up on the floor alongside Michael’s wrinkled tuxedo, and the two of them waking up together as the sun rose outside their window, its rays glistening across the purply blue of the ocean’s incoming waves. Ashley clenched her fists. It was the sort of thing she would never have, could never hope to have.

“Lame, right?” Adam asked her.

“So lame,” she said.

He closed the closet. “Okay. You’ve seen it. Now, can we go downstairs?”

Ashley nodded meekly. This was all she could hope for. This was it.

Though the basement was finished, it still had the feel of a dungeon. His parents had given him free reign down here when he’d complained about all the money they’d invested in Robin’s guitars and amplifiers and all that. Three of the four walls were just the exposed stone of the foundation and the fourth, the one wall they’d actually sheetrocked, had been painted a dark gray. The room was always dim, since there were no windows down here and since Adam had a thing against electric lamps when candles could be used instead. It reeked of the incense he’d stolen from Robin’s room. There were bookshelves stocked with stone gargoyles and dusty old tomes. Heavy metal posters adorned the walls. And the center piece of the room was a wooden throne he’d stolen from the theatre guild’s props closet while working crew freshman year.

Adam sat on the throne and Ashley knelt before him, pulling his flaccid cock into her mouth.

She had been the one to suggest this, on a visit just last month. They’d been eating pizza and flipping through channels, cackling at a group of jackasses on MTV singing a mid-tempo love song over a montage of themselves playing football and golf. They were skipping past the plethora of news channels covering the bombing of that building out in Oklahoma, opening every segment with a live shot of the half that was still standing, the twisted concrete and metal looking something like an open wound, and they’d stumbled across a murky glimpse of two naked bodies grinding against each other.

“What was that?” she had asked him.

Sheepishly, he’d tapped at a button on the controller, the screen growing less wavy and blurry with each tap, until the picture was crystal-clear. Ashley remembered how she’d stared at the screen, at the buxom blonde on top of the thin, emaciated guy, facing away from him, bouncing up and down, her huge breasts lifeless, hardly moving. She remembered how the woman had squealed “Oh, God,” and then, “Harder! Harder!”

Adam had been timid about it, shuffling about in his throne, saying, “This is fucked-up. I shouldn’t be watching this with you.”

But when she’d pushed her hand up along his leg, when she’d unbuttoned his pants and unzipped his fly, he stopped complaining. And when she’d taken him into her mouth just as, on screen, they’d cut to a different shot, this one of the girl on her knees, head tilted upward, eyes closed, mouth open, and tongue out, a hardened penis aimed like a cannon at her face—Adam had smiled on her. He had smiled on her then. And she had hoped it was just the beginning, just the beginning of a longer metamorphosis of their friendship.

But here she was again, with his cock in her mouth, waiting for inevitable gush of his seed against the back of her throat. It would go no further, she knew now. She was, as he reminded her, just a “fat chick.” And, like he said, she should just accept who she was.

He wrapped his hands around the back of her head and pulled her face into the tangled brown forest of his crotch. She felt herself gagging and she coughed as she tried to push away him, to push out from underneath his grip. But he would not let go. So she clamped down on him with her teeth, just a little bit. He winced and screeched “Ow!” as she fell backward away from him.

“You were hurting me,” she told him, coughing again.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “It felt good.”

Ashley stood and walked away from him. “I want you to make me feel good, Adam. I’m doing anymore until you do something for me.”

“What?” he asked, his voice still screechy. “I’m not having sex with you, if that’s what you’re asking. I thought we’d established the ground rules a long time ago.”

“Rules were meant to be—”

“Maybe if you lost some weight,” he said, standing, zipping up his pants. “But the way you are now, you’re liable to crush a dude.”

“You suck,” she told him, heading for his stairs. “You fucking suck.”

“No,” he said, creeping up after her. “That’s what you do.” He grabbed hold of her arm, smirking at her. “And you do it pretty well.”

“Is this fucking funny to you?” she asked him, pulling away and opening up the door at the top of the stairs.

“No, it’s not funny to me at all,” he said. “I’m gonna have fucking blue balls now.”

Ashley headed for the front door, pausing before she opened it. “If we’re friends with benefits, what’s my benefit? Huh?”

“You get to hang out with me,” he said, serious. “People pick on you less because they know we’re tight and they’re afraid I might fuck them up.”

“That’s not enough,” she said, walking out the door.

Half an hour from his house, walking home started to seem like the dumbest decision she’d ever made. Ashley was sweating so much, it was like she’d been out in a rainstorm. She kept reaching for a piece of her shirt to wipe her forehead with, but there were no dry spots left. She was wheezing so hard she had to stop every few minutes just to catch her breath. And she was crying, too, just a little, though any passersby probably would’ve mistaken the tears for more sweat.

Damn him, she thought to herself. Damn them all.

When she passed the high school she fought off the urge to stop, find a phone, and call for a ride. She could hear Mom now: You shouldn’t walk that far. Not yet. Maybe after you’ve built up your stamina. Maybe after you’ve lost fifteen pounds. She slapped at the branches of a thick shrub as she passed it by. Sure, Adam lived in North Chelmsford and she lived on the border of South Chelmsford and that meant you had all of just plain-old Chelmsford in between. But she would show Mom. She would show everyone who had ever doubted her.

Michael was the painter, Matt the writer, and Veronica the singer. What did people think she was good at? Video games? Eating? When the sobbing came, she slapped at her thick thigh and quickened her pace, trying to outrun the oncoming wave. You’re done whimpering, she said to herself. You are done crying.

Once in a while someone honked at her and yelled something imperceptible. They might’ve been offering a ride or hurling some snide remark, but she didn’t pay them any attention either way. The old Ashley might’ve flipped them the bird, might’ve screamed something back. But this Ashley, she just stared at the ground in front of her and kept walking.

She would do this every day, she decided, and she would lose the weight. The dieting alone wasn’t working. That was clear to her now. Staring down at the ground in front of her meant staring past the gut she’d spent a lifetime building. If she walked to and from school every day, she’d get in shape. She could use the showers in the girls’ locker room. She’d bring shampoo and soap and a change of clothes. She’d get there early, wash up before class, and then change back into her walking clothes at the end of the day.

Even in the summer, when there was no school, she’d still do it. By the time it was time to go school shopping in August, she would be buying smaller clothes. Maybe, if she kept doing it long enough, she could try out for a team or something. Maybe softball. She’d played little league with Michael for a while, back when Dad was their coach. She’d been alright at that. She could try out for a school play. She could act better than any of those conceited drama dorks anyway.

With her mind on what she was going to do, the pace somehow quickened. Her breathing grew steadier, as if she’d broken through some sort of wall. The sweating stopped bothering her, and she actually started to feel something going on in her legs, something a little like pain, but more like progress. The center of town was coming up. She passed the congregational church, where she hadn’t been since she was a baby, back when Mom and Dad still cared about such things, and then she passed the old fire station. They were washing Engine 1 out in the driveway, the red steel glistening in the afternoon sun. One of the firefighters waved across the street at her. She waved back.

Ashley crossed the tangle of roads that made up Chelmsford Center, and walked past Jack’s Diner, already closed up for the afternoon, and then past the Quick Mart. She headed up Acton Road and something felt lighter within her. She was almost home. She was actually going to make it.

Dad was out mowing the lawn when she made her way down the long driveway and into the yard. The smell of gasoline and freshly cut grass soothed her throbbing head. He stopped when he saw her, and walked across the yard, wiping at his forehead with a rag.

“You look like a mess,” he said. “Where’ve you been?”

“Why do you care?” she asked him, suddenly aware of how hot she was and how much she ached.

“Did you walk all the way back from school?”

Ashley walked past him, towards the house. “Mom’s always saying I need to get some more exercise.”

“I would’ve given you a ride. All you had to do was call.”

Ashley stepped inside and slammed the door behind her. She was panting. Her clothes clung to her, sopping with sweat. Her stomach churned and she could taste the remnants of chicken and Caesar dressing rising, hot, in the back of her throat. She ran into the bathroom, fell to her knees in front of the toilet, and threw up.

Hunched over the toilet, she grabbed toilet paper and dabbed at the corners of her mouth. She started to cry, and then stopped. “Suck it up,” she said to herself. “You’ll get used to it eventually. And then you won’t throw up anymore.”

She heard the front door open. Dad called out, “Are you alright?”

She answered, “I’m fine, Dad,” and flushed the toilet.

I write and publish new fiction and drama once per week. If you like what you’re reading, support me on Patreon to read new material a week in advance.

Moving On

After 11 years of living in our own house in New Hampshire, my family has moved back to Massachusetts to live on the upper floor of my parents’ place.

Why? Well, we’ve amassed $30,647 in credit card debt, we can’t afford our mortgage anymore, and we want a brighter future for our kids and ourselves than the crushing debt allowed for. Than continuing to work as educators—doing “what we love”—allows for, at least without help.

I’ve said before that artists shouldn’t buy houses. I’ll just go ahead now and say that teachers shouldn’t either.

At any rate, I’m glad that we finally did something about what my friends have listened to me complain about for damn near a decade. And while I’ll miss the place where we raised our kids for the earliest part of their lives, I’m happy to be back in the house where I grew up, a place they have grown to love themselves.

Chelmsford is the only place that’s ever really felt like home to me, and while I battle with crushing anxiety and depression this summer, it’s comforting to be waging that war against my inner demons on turf that I know and love.

More soon on all of this. I have lots more to say about this move, lots more to get off my chest.


After his family’s Great Schism, after the fallout of that terrible day, Matthew Silver didn’t visit home again for three years. And the first image that came to him when he tried to remember that trip back was a sea of maroon and white. Somewhere within that sea sat his sister, Veronica, and somewhere within her swelling belly sat the wretched gremlin who would one day call Matt ‘uncle.’ He’d spotted Vern during the processional, and had intended to keep his evil eye upon her throughout the entire ceremony, as if his unyielding stare might somehow induce both the spontaneous abortion of that abomination in her womb and the cessation of this lie of a life she had consigned herself to, but he had lost her when Grampy launched into another of his stories about Dad’s misspent youth, and he hadn’t been able to find her since.

“Your father was never more at home than he was on this football field,” Grampy had said, gesturing out at the field on which the graduation exercises were taking place. “Except for gallivanting around in his car on weekends, I don’t think there was anything your father enjoyed doing more than clearing the way for his running back. There was no greater joy in his life than the feeling of laying out a fellow on the other team, of seeing some poor sap collapse into a heap in his wake. He never smiled more than he did after a game.”

Matt knew the story all too well. Over the past four years, Grampy seemed to have forgotten every nasty little thing there was to forget about his first-born son. The only stories that came now were the happy ones. There were no outright mentions of the teenaged car accidents anymore, no references made to the weekend benders that were a staple of Robert Silver’s senior year of high school. The Robert Silver who would sooner strangle his own son than admit relation to a homosexual—he was all but forgotten. Robert Silver, star of the gridiron, successful businessman, humble father ready for reconciliation—that was the man they spoke of now.

Would his father be so willing to reconcile, Matt wondered, if he knew all of the gory details? Matt recalled clearly how vulgar he had been the night of the Great Schism, but the family hadn’t heard the half of what he’d done. They had never heard about him losing his virginity on the fifty-yard line of the very field where his father had once ‘plowed the road,’ and where his sister was commencing now. He’d never described for them the sublime pleasure of Garry sliding into him, that feeling of wholeness, of completeness, that came when he was so filled that he felt he was about to burst.

Maybe if he had described it for them, or for Veronica at the very least, maybe then he wouldn’t be witnessing this travesty playing out before him. Maybe if he had told her what it felt like, what it truly felt like to be with someone who accepted you for who you were—maybe if he had told her that, instead of teasing her, instead of making fun, then maybe she wouldn’t be down there with a baby in her belly, and a rock on her finger. Maybe then he wouldn’t be able to see the strings being pulled by that grinning puppeteer sitting in the stands across the way, with one arm around his wife and the other around the bit player he’d elevated to a starring role.

“Is that the fella over there with your parents?” Grampy asked.

Matt nodded. Though he had never met Tim, he knew that the goateed man-boy sitting beside his father could be no one else. He knew that Grampy must know that too, and he found that he resented the old man for asking the question.

“Here comes your sister,” Grampy said, pointing to the line of white-gowned girls forming to the side of the dais.

Matt watched two girls behind Veronica whispering conspiratorially to each other, and he sneered. He remembered the feeling all too well, remembered how he and Garry had suffered the slings and arrows of their classmates, remembered with a painful lurch in his stomach how those attacks had eventually driven Garry back into the closet from whence he came.

Matt searched the crowd of soon-to-be graduates for another face, the other victim of his father’s folly. He was surprised at how easily he was able to find Desiree Emerson’s face in the crowd, that beautiful heart-shaped face that adorned countless picture frames in his sister’s room at home, both alone and in crowds. She had already received her diploma, and she was staring at the thing now. Matt imagined that she was trying to figure out what it all meant, what kind of impact this piece of paper would truly have on her life going forward. She looked sad. Her face was hidden, for the most part, by her mortarboard, but her pouty lips looked significantly poutier than usual. Matt had long suspected that Veronica’s feelings for Desiree would have been returned, if only she opened up about them, but that was something else he’d never bothered to tell his sister. And so, he suspected that Desiree’s sadness was more than just the melancholy brought on by the impending arrival of the “real world” at her doorstep. He felt certain that she was sad for the same reasons he was.

“Veronica Amelia Silver,” read the announcer, and up onto the platform came Veronica, preceded by that foul, loathsome bump of hers. A smattering of polite applause issued from her classmates. From the stands on either side of the football field came great whoops and hollers of affection. Grampy inserted two pinkies into his mouth and let loose an ear-splitting whistle. And though Matt stood when Grampy stood, and did not sit until Grampy sat, he kept his celebration more subdued. He clapped lightly, and did nothing more.

It was his first time home in three years, but, as far as Matt was concerned, the house hadn’t changed much at all. They’d taken down the hideous floral print wallpaper that had hung throughout the house and replaced it with a few coats of taupe paint, but all of the store-bought prints were still hanging in their gilded frames, still trying to look like originals. The family picture wall in the living room was still the family picture wall. And on the refrigerator, there were still the collection of forty-eight mismatched state magnets that his mother insisted on haphazardly assembling into a very rough approximation of the continental United States. The bottle-opener was still in the same drawer, the beer was still in the crisper at the bottom of the fridge, and, if you looked hard enough, and reached far enough, you could still find a forgotten nip bottle in the Lazy Susan.

Matt cracked open a bottle of Bud, poured the nip of vodka down its chilled neck, and then swirled the bottle around to mix it up. Sure, it was liquid courage. But there was nothing wrong with that. Somewhere, lurking in the shadows of this house, was the one man he hoped to avoid above all others. Matt took a swig of his drink, and then another. It was Grampy who had suggested they come here before heading back down the Cape, and Grampy who had assured him that they were welcome. It was Grampy who Matt had hoped to hide behind during his inevitable encounter with dear old Dad. But Grampy was nowhere to be found at the moment, and Matt was certain he had spied his father in the next room just a few minutes ago. Matt drank some more.

A heavy hand clapped on his shoulder, and Matt sighed. “How’re things?” his father asked him.

“Things are fine,” said Matt, wanting to shrug off his father’s hand but thinking he’d better not.

“I hear you’re working on the family history now,” said Robert.

Matt nodded.

His father nodded along with him. “If you ask me, it’s about time you got into something worthwhile like that.”

Matt had no response for this, made no reply.

“You taking the opportunity to interview your grandfather?” Robert asked. “They say that’s the first step to take, interviewing the people who were there while they’re still here.”

“Grampy’s not going anywhere,” Matt assured his father.

Robert smirked, and Matt fought the urge to wipe that expression away with a swift punch in the nose. “Maybe not,” Robert said. “But it’s better to be safe than—”

“I am interviewing him,” Matt said, cutting his father off. “I know what I’m doing.”

“No one said you didn’t,” said Robert, finally removing his hand, finally walking away.

It was unnerving, how pleasant he had been. Maybe Grampy was right, maybe Robert really was ready for reconciliation. But Matt couldn’t stand the thought of it. There was a lot more to fight about, a lot more to get sorted out between them. As a kid, he had never been able to understand how adults could so easily sweep things under the rug. He had never been a big believer in bygones. And now, as an adult, he had even less of a stomach for his elders’ naiveté. Did they really think that he could forgive so easily? Did they really think he’d forgotten the terror that came from realizing he might die just for having been honest about who he was?

Matt chugged at his beer. Adult life was far too innocuous for his tastes. Everybody played it too safe, now that they felt like they had something to lose. If there was a single reason he hadn’t had a lover in the three years he’d been living down the Cape, it was because there was no danger in it anymore. That had been part of the allure when he was a kid, when he was with Garry: the subterfuge, the danger involved if he was caught. But he didn’t have to sneak around under Grampy’s roof. Elijah Silver was too understanding, too open-minded, and too kind.

From across the room, he spied his sister moving toward him. Matt finished his beer and plunked it down on the kitchen counter. He’d been hoping to get another brew into his belly before this encounter, but there was no hope of that now.

Veronica hugged him, the warm swollen flesh of her midsection pressing against him awkwardly as she did. “I’m glad you came,” she said.

“Congratulations,” he said.

“Thank you,” she said. “It wasn’t exactly something I was planning for, but—”

“I was congratulating you on graduation,” Matt said. “Not on the baby.”

“Oh,” said Veronica. “It’s going to be like that, is it?”

“If we’re going to do this, I need another beer.”

Veronica held the refrigerator door shut with a single ropy arm. “We don’t need to fight about it, Matty.”

Matt grimaced. “I wish you wouldn’t call me that.”

“Matt,” she said. “All I’m saying is that you don’t need to flip out about it. If you don’t want to talk about it, we won’t talk about it.”

Matt snorted a quick laugh. “How are we not supposed to talk about it?” he asked, gesturing toward her belly. “If ever there was an elephant in a room…”

Veronica drew close to him and whispered. “You think I’m being dishonest with myself.”

Matt whispered back. “Can you deny it?”

“I was stupid,” she said. “I did something I shouldn’t have. But I’ve got to deal with that now. What would have been really dishonest is if I’d gone through with the A-B-O-R-T-I—”

“Why are you spelling it out?” Matt fumed.

“I don’t want the baby to—”

“You were going to have an abortion?” Matt asked. “And you didn’t go through with it?”

“I couldn’t,” said Veronica.

“Fine,” Matt said. “Have the fucking baby. But why marry the asshole with the goatee? Why not live a little dangerously? You don’t think you could do this on your own? Or with Des—”

Veronica put a hand to his lips, shushing him. “She’s in the other room, Matty.”

“She would be with you,” Matt told his sister, deciding that the truth was finally in order. “She would be with you, if only you asked.”

“She’s straight, Matt. About the straightest girl I know.”

“How do you know?”

Veronica sighed and leaned back against the kitchen counter. “It doesn’t matter who I want to be with, Matt. What I want, most of all, is to go to college. And I know that that can’t happen if—”

“You don’t think they’d find some way to keep you there, with your grades? We’re different, you and me. You could survive without the old man’s money.”

Veronica rubbed at her bulging stomach. “It’s not just tuition money I need now, Matt.”

Matt kicked a foot at the refrigerator, leaving a dent in his wake, and then stormed out of the house, unable to take it anymore.

I write and publish new fiction and drama once per week. If you like what you’re reading, support me on Patreon to read new material a week in advance.

The Last Time I Was a Boy

Photo by Grzegorz Mleczek

Over the past 12 years, I’ve amassed hundreds of pages of stories on The Silver Family. Much of this material exists now in a manuscript I am shopping to agents, some of it has been published in All He Left Behind, and the rest exists currently in two unfinished manuscripts, tentatively titled The Black Sheep and Always a Bridesmaid. Here is a favorite section of mine from The Black Sheep to close out the month of June here.

Matt remembered the first time his grandfather told him about the photograph, a picture of Grampy and his sister taken on what Grampy called “the last day I was a boy.” It was a long story, but it held him rapt. And it had begun with a single question, a simple query posed just as the old man was wrapping up a rant about the real reason behind the binge eating of Matt’s cousin Ashley. “Have you ever felt guilty?” Matt had asked him. “Even once?”

Grampy had exhaled then, cigarette smoke pouring from his nostrils, a pained smirk playing across his lips.

“It was the kind of New England day that Rockwell might have painted for a cover of the Post. On Boston Common, the leaves were falling down like rain, like some peculiar brand of precipitation common only in our little corner of the world. It was the fall of ’44 and that day I was bound for the Sanatorium, the home for consumptives, where my sister Dottie was now a resident.

“I’d been sitting all morning on the low, wide sill of the family’s old brownstone on Beacon Hill. There was an old maple just in front of the place, barren but for a single, brittle leaf, and this leaf transfixed me, Matthew, it really did. For, as hard as the wind pushed through the streets of the hill, that leaf would not fall. It trembled, it looked as if it were about to snap loose, but it did not. I knew that it must succumb eventually, but I prayed that it would stay, stay there through the bitter winter cold and be resurrected in the spring just like all the rest.

“Such foolish notions... Yes, your grandfather had them once, too.

“Anyhow, when Dottie had come down with TB, I couldn’t exactly tell you. Since striking out on her own and leaving the brownstone when she was just a teenager, she’d never been one to give too much thought to how sanitary her living conditions were. And she was a woman who had never been shy in her affections—my father once called her a strumpet, but, to borrow a saying of your Uncle Albert’s, I prefer to remember her as a lover instead of a fighter. She was the kind of gal who showed up to our gigs by herself and shimmied her behind off, the kind of gal all the guys loved to play for, to look at while playing—hell, the kind of gal I loved to look at too, when it wasn’t my sister.

“So, she could have picked it up anywhere, but the important thing, the undeniable fact, was that she had it, and that she had it bad.

“I could hear her coughing before I’d even opened the door. It was a deep, guttural hacking, full of phlegm and bad tidings. When I stepped into her room she was sitting up in bed, something she’d strictly been forbidden to do, and she was hunched over a leather-bound sketchbook, her left hand wrapped around a charcoal pencil that was dancing across the page. She didn’t even look up at me as she said, ‘I know, I know… Thing is, I was inspired, and when the muse…’

“‘I know all about the muse,’ I told her. ‘You don’t need to explain her to me.’

“She smiled then, as she looked up at me—what a beautiful toothy smile she had, Matthew—and she shook her head, ‘You look like death warmed over, big brother. What’s eatin’ you?’

“‘Nothing,’ I told her. ‘Nothing’s eating me, Dot. You just look a little paler than I expected is all.’ And she did look bad, pale as a ghost except for the rouge she’d applied to her sunken cheeks.

“‘I’m fine, Lijah,’ she told me. ‘Don’t you go blowing your top over little old me.’

“Which might have been more convincing, Matthew, if she hadn’t been coughing between each sentence.

“‘Whatchu working on?’ I asked her.

‘She perked up and spun the sketchbook around on her lap for me to see. ‘I struck a deal with one of the orderlies. This coming Sunday during services, she’s going to sneak me in a canvas, some brushes, and some paint, and I’m going to give it one last go.’

“‘One last go? What are you on about? What do you mean, one last…?’

“She put a finger to my lips to quiet me and you’ve got to understand, Matthew, that when my sister asked me to do something—anything—I did it. No fooling around. She wanted me to be quiet, then I shut right up.

“‘Lijah,’ she said. ‘Let’s quit with the denying it. I’m gone before the year is out. Don’t be a sap. Let’s just enjoy our visit, okay?’

“And I nodded, because when a woman’s making that much sense, that’s what you do—you nod along. So, I nodded, and, as I did, I looked down at the sketchbook and finally got a good look at it.

“It was a drawing of me and my car, if you can believe it, just me and that old jalopy I was convinced would be with me forever. My sister and I were close, see. We were all the family we had, even if there was a distant cousin putting a roof over our heads from time to time. So, when she painted, she liked to paint me, and when I played trumpet, wherever it was—up in Montreal, over in Detroit, or down south in the bayou—wherever I played, I played as if I was playing for her. Because she was always the first one to tell me if I was stinking up a joint, and if I couldn’t impress her, I didn’t care about showing off for nobody else. And I served the same role for her, see, which is why, when she asked me what I thought, I had to tell her it seemed like pure, grade A crap.

“‘Crap?’ she asked me, her voice more agitated than hurt. ‘I know what crap is, Eli Silver, and this ain’t it. That gig you played at the Cocoanut Grove, before the fire—now that was crap…’

“‘Now, don’t get ugly with me, Dot.’ I pleaded. ‘Don’t get ugly.’

“‘What’s crap about it then? You were always queer for my car paintings.’

“‘Yeah, but your others always had a story. What’s the story here, Dot?’

“‘I oughta put your lights out, Lijah, I really oughta.’ She was fuming now, not so pale anymore. ‘Not every damn painting has to tell a story.’

“‘Okay,’ I told her, ‘Then it’s not crap. It just boring.’

“‘Yeah, well, we’ll see how important a story is when you’re raking in the chips with this after I’m gone. A painter doesn’t need to tell a good story to get famous. She just needs to shuffle off the mortal coil, or however that goes. And TB’s the way to do it, Lijah. TB’s the way to go.’

“I looked at the sketch again, because I couldn’t bear to look at her when she was talking like that. And I guessed that, if she did finish it before she was gone, there’d be a story for at least one person. For me, I mean. Because that painting would always remind me of that afternoon, of the things we said to each other. And that, I guessed, would have to do.”

Grampy sighed, but didn’t falter. “She stifled a cough as I kissed her on the cheek that afternoon, as we said our goodbyes. She called for an orderly to come and snap a picture for us. And as we waited for the girl to arrive, Dot asked me to ask our father about being buried in the family plot again. I said that I would, and as we posed for the picture, as I smiled big and bright, I honestly felt hopeful that everything was going to work out, that I was going to mend fences with my father, that when I told him what was happening to his daughter he would come around, and that the two of us by her bedside would help my sister make a miraculous recovery. But that was it, that was the last time I saw her.”

Matt remembered how he had nodded along then, feeling the novice’s need to sum up. “And you felt guilty that you’d called her painting crap, that that was the last conversation you two had.”

Grampy shook his head. “You would think so, but that wasn’t it. No, the one time I felt guilty was years later, when I heard that same cough coming out of my own body. I put down my trumpet that day and gave myself over to the rigamarole of a day job, toiling away at the garage for years and years. My Edna never asked me to stop, nor did my boys. No, I gave up my music, my passion, over a silly cough, whereas my sister kept at it until the very end. I felt guilty, unbelievably guilty, because I was sure that I’d let her down.”

I write and publish new fiction and drama once per week. If you like what you’re reading, support me on Patreon to read new material a week in advance.

Ain't the Same as Love

Ain't the Same as Love is full-length play I've been working on for two years to produce at a local theater, and though the artistic committee there has passed on it twice now, I am quite happy with where it's at. Therefore, I'm sharing with you as this week's Weekly Writing (a series title that's still a work in progress; though I couldn't keep up with Draft a Day's frequency, I much preferred the music of that name).

Since the play is 90 pages long, I'm hiding the full text behind a Read More link. I try not to do that, but in this case it seemed appropriate. If you'd prefer to read it as a PDF, you can do that, too.

Iron Gretel

Illustration from Internet Archive Book Images

Once upon a time, when the prince was but a wee lad, still locked in the tower by his mother, he made a game of counting how long each huntsman lasted in the forest before the trees ate him. Many a moon passed before the king finally grew tired of listening to the howls of pain that issued from deep within the woods. Many a moon passed, and many a hunter, but the prince never tired of watching the trees close in. He liked to guess how many birds would flee from the uppermost branches as the trees leaned in. He liked to imagine what manner of beast could so easily devour the strapping young men who presented themselves to his father, their teeth gleaming, their chins chiseled, their hair cropped impossibly close to their heads in what was then the style. The huntsmen seemed invincible to the prince, even from his high perch in the tower, even at that distance. What could best them? What in the world?

After one final try to make safe the forest, the last seven of his majesty’s hunters embarking on the quest together and never returning, the king decreed that the woods were unsafe and off limits to all. The prince watched the proclamation from the tower, counting the wrinkles on his father’s forehead, watching as the old man rubbed the back of his neck on the way down from the dais, all pretense of bravery and assuredness gone from his weary countenance. There were three more wrinkles than the last time the prince had seen the king.

Years passed. The prince reached the precipice of manhood, his voice crackling and straining as his body stretched uncomfortably taller. He was reminded of an old tale his mother used to read to him by his bedside in the tower, the story of wing-makers, a father and son who flew too close to heaven and were struck down for their impertinence. The prince began to slump his shoulders forward, the way his father now did. Perhaps if he feigned the plight of the old, God could be tricked into sparing him their fate.

It was on the eve of his thirteenth birthday, the day he would be released from the tower, that prince spied a most peculiar sight. Through the courtyard came a hooded figure. The figure carried a crossbow, a sword, and a heavy satchel. A hunter, thought the prince. The first to arrive in their starving, cursed country in ages. And yet, that was not what made the sight peculiar. The strangeness of the scene was made plain only when the hood of the figure was lowered to reveal not a man, but a woman.

The prince, for the first time, felt a stirring in his loins. She was a pretty thing, now that the hood was down. Hair the color of copper, skin the color of milk, and, he now noticed, a goodly bosom beneath her cloak and tunic.

She shouted for the king or his representative, and the old man trudged out from the palace gates to meet her, leaning heavily upon his scepter.

They spoke in hushed tones, so that the prince could not make out the purpose of their intercourse no matter how hard he strained, no matter how far through the window he leaned.

But then, then the king raised a weary arm toward the forest. Weary, yet welcoming. The huntress bowed to him and made her way into the woods.

The prince began to count. When he reached one hundred and still she did not scream, the stirring in his loins became a full-on discomfort. He reached into his breeches to adjust himself and recoiled in horror at the tiny drop of moisture he found there. He breathed easier when, upon inspection, he saw that it was not blood.

And then he refocused. He stared out at the treetops, waiting. But they did not close in as they always had before. His curiosity was swelling.

When that night his mother came to read to him and serve his evening meal, he begged her to set him free then and there. ‘I will be a man in mere hours,’ he said. ‘Why should I be asleep in this prison when the clock strikes twelve?’

‘But what will you do in the dark?’ she asked him. ‘What will you do?’

‘I will rescue the huntress,’ he said. ‘It is what a prince should do. A man!’

And his mother, weary herself of years spent protecting the boy and serving the king, she sighed and she let him go.

He ran towards the forest, stopping only at the blacksmith to demand a sword he did not yet know how to wield. And then, into the woods he went.

The trees seemed to go on for ages, spreading out all around him, reaching up to heaven in a way that made him question why God did not punish them in the way He punished man for standing too tall. But the prince banished such blasphemy from his mind and came back to the task at hand. He focused his gaze on the footprints before him, the bootprints of the huntress, and he followed them.

After a good, long walk, the moon rising in the sky above him, the prince caught sight of a roaring fire in a clearing up ahead.

He drew closer, creeping from the shadows of one tree to another until he could see who sat by the light and warmth of the fire. She was drinking from a flask and smiling, her foot toying with something long and metal—her sword, he suddenly realized—which was planted in between the shoulder blades of a man covered in white-blonde hair from his head to his feet.

The prince’s foot crushed a fallen branch then, as he stepped back in amazement, and the crack echoed through the clearing.

The huntress stood in a flash, her crossbow aimed right at him.

‘You,’ she called out. ‘You there in the shadows, come into the light.’

The prince did as he was told.

‘You are the prince,’ the huntress said with a smile.

‘I am,’ he said.

‘If you will but lower your sword,’ she said, lowering her own weapon, ‘I will give you the bow you are owed.’

‘Oh,’ said the prince, not realizing that he still held the sword. He dropped it.

The huntress bowed, then said, ‘Will you join me?’

The prince stayed put. He asked, ‘Who is it you’ve killed?’

The huntress smiled again. ‘The monster what dwelled here,’ she said, pointing to a small pond the prince could only now make out, now that his eyes had begun to adjust to the light.

‘But he,’ the prince stammered, ‘he killed all those men.’

‘Indeed he did,’ said the huntress. ‘Please,’ she said. ‘Join me, your highness. It’s a lot warmer over here.’

The prince took a few steps toward her. ‘But how did you–?’ he said, trailing off, hoping she would finish his sentence for him.

She nudged the hilt of her sword with her foot. ‘With that,’ she said.

‘But you,’ said the prince. ‘You’re a… a woman.’

The huntress laughed, her chortle filling the clearing with a glee that sent the prince back a step, then two.

‘I surely am,’ she said. ‘And if you come closer, I’ll prove it to you. Manhood is upon you,’ she said. ‘Is it not?’

The prince said nothing as she did what she did next, as she stood and ambled toward him, unlacing her tunic as she drew nearer. When she was too close for comfort, when he could see that her green eyes were flecked with gold, he stared over her shoulder at the beast he’d long imagined. The body was so small. Muscled, yes. Hairy as a beast should be. But small.

The huntress draped her arms over the prince’s shoulders. ‘Are you ready?’ she asked.

‘No,’ the prince cried out as he ducked out from under her embrace. ‘No,’ he cried as he raced back toward the palace, the huntress’ laughter following him through the woods like a pack of dogs nipping at his heels, never seeming to grow fainter no matter how much distance he put between himself and her.

‘No,’ he said to his mother, as she ran her fingers through his disheveled hair, as she dried his tears with the sheet of his bed in the tower. ‘No,’ he said. ‘I am not ready.’

I write and publish new short fiction once per week. If you like what you’re reading, support me on Patreon to read new stories a week in advance.