“Next Time Take the Skyline” by Mather Schneider

Dispatch sent me to a house in the Tucson foothills. It was a typical foothills community full of upper class false-adobe houses all painted the same sallow desert tan. No real color was allowed by the neighborhood ordinance. It was 111 degrees and there hadn’t even been a cloud in 4 days.

When I arrived in my cab I heard loud music inside the house. I didn’t see anybody. No phone number had been provided. I got out of the cab and knocked on the door several times. A man grunted: “RIGHT OUT!” I waited on the sunny driveway and looked at my watch: 2:15 p.m.

The door opened and a Rottweiller leaped out at me. A man inside caught the dog by the scruff of the neck.

“You son of a BITCH!” he screamed, and kicked the dog viciously back inside.

He was Hispanic, around fifty, black hair slicked back into a tiny, perfectly tight ponytail. He wore sunglasses, brown wool sports jacket, new blue jeans and walnut colored dress shoes. And he was BUILT. Not tall, but wide. He had a confidence. He held a glass of beer and walked toward the cab.

In the cab, he said: “I’m Carlos.”


“Very sad about Big John,” Carlos said.

Big John had been a cab driver for many years. He had died a few weeks before of a kidney infection. He had complained about pain for days but he wouldn’t go to the doctor, he said he didn’t have the money. That’s what sitting in these vehicles day after day can do to you. One day he drove his cab to the hospital and walked into the emergency room. He was dead 7 hours later.

“He was a friend of yours?” I said.

“Of course!” Carlos said. “He was my driver for ten years. I’ve been…out of town. I just heard about his death. Big John was a good man.”

I had never liked Big John much.

“Where we headed?” I said.

Carlos looked at me as if he had been offended.

“Craycroft and Pima.”

The east side. That meant at least thirty five dollars on the meter.

“You want me to take the freeway?” I said.

“Whatever you want.”

“Or maybe Skyline Drive?”

“Either one.”

I sat there a moment. I was nervous. I was just a middle aged guy with a studio apartment, I didn’t want any trouble. Carlos took a hand gun out of his coat pocket and sat it on the seat beside him.

“I’ll take the freeway,” I said.

Carlos had cans of beer in the pockets of his sports jacket. He finished his glass and took a can out and filled it again. He was perfectly shaved except for a little hair under the middle of his lower lip.

A piece of rubber tire came upon us on the highway. I swerved to miss it and Carlos nearly spilled his beer.

“Take it easy,” he said.


Halfway there Carlos said, “Next time take Skyline.”

Carlos told me to pull into the parking lot of a pawn shop. He got out slowly and strutted into the store. He stayed inside for at least twenty minutes. My palms were wet. I should leave, I should leave, I thought. Carlos had taken his gun with him.

After a while, I got out of the cab and looked in the glass doors of the pawn shop. At that moment Carlos came out, almost hitting me in the nose with the door.

“I see how you are,” Carlos said.

“Just checking my hair,” I told him.

“I need a beer,” Carlos said. “Take me to the south side.”

The south side was another twenty minutes away, and once we got there he wanted me to go to a gas station, where he bought a twelve pack of beer. Then he instructed me to park in an alley looking out onto the street, right next to a Mexican guy selling corn out of the back of his truck. The corn nearly steamed in its husks sitting there in boxes in the sun. The meter clicked more slowly as we sat. I watched it like the doomsday clock.

Carlos drank his beer.

I turned around and looked at him.

“Can I ask a question?” I said. Carlos nodded and lifted his hand.

“What exactly are we doing?” I said.

Carlos smiled and shook his head.

“In life you must be flexible,” he said.

“But what is our ultimate destination?”

“You’ll have to ask God that question, my friend. Just drive.”

He wanted me to drive when he told me to drive and to turn where he told me to turn and to listen when he talked. Carlos measured my reactions.

“You have a girlfriend?” Carlos asked.


“Are you a man, or what?” he said.

“I think so.”

“I have four girlfriends,” Carlos said. “One in New York, one in Brazil, and two in Mexico.”

“That’s a lot.”

“Not really,” he said.

“They like the money,” I said.

“No!” Carlos said. “It’s more than the money.”

“All right.”

Carlos wanted the music turned up. Then he talked in whispers.

“A man needs to have some fun once in a while,” he said.

I knew what he meant.

“You know what I mean?” he said.




The whole thing was some kind of test.

“Can you keep a secret?” Carlos said.


I didn’t want any secrets, I’d had enough of secrets. My heart was racing and I was sweating all over. My fear was mixed with anger.

“I mean,” he said, “you know where I live, you know all this about me.”

“You haven’t told me anything.”

“I’m not stupid.”

“I didn’t say you were stupid.”

“I don’t want to wake up with an ice pick in the back of my neck,” Carlos said. “You have to be careful. Just like driving this cab around, you never know who you’re going to pick up.”


“Can you keep your mouth shut is what I’m asking you,” Carlos said.

“If I have to.”

“One day a man might come up to you,” Carlos said.


“This man may look just like me, this man may even claim to be me. What will you tell him?”

“Nothing, Carlos.”“Pull over here.”

We sat on 12th Ave., which was Carlos’s street. He “ran” it. One of the perks of running a street is he never had to pay for anything and could supposedly walk up to any woman he saw and take her to a hotel.

It was all about something he called “protection”. Big John had been his driver for nearly ten years. Carlos was never in Tucson long enough to have his own car, so he used Big John. Big John was driving a cab around hell right about then, which was probably not much hotter than Tucson.

“Nobody’s gonna take care of you,” Carlos said. “You’ve got to take care of yourself. A man’s got to take care of himself, you know what I mean?”


“Look around you,” he said. “That guy selling corn out of the back of his god damned truck back there, he’s got an old lady at home and four kids, man. Who’s gonna take care of them?”

“I don’t know.”

“Me!” Carlos said. “Nobody else is gonna do it! I take care of them. They are like my children. I would do anything for them. I mean, sometimes you gotta kick ass, but that’s just how it goes.”

He held out his right arm and flexed his biceps.

“Go ahead,” he said, “feel it. Eighteen fucking inches.”


Carlos looked at me. He liked me, but he didn’t like me.

“You don’t understand anything, do you?”

“I’m not from this world,” I said.

Carlos laughed. He shook my hand about twenty times and said he wanted me to be his new driver. My hand was still sweaty and when Carlos let go, he wiped his hand on his jeans and smiled viciously.

Intimidation vibrated from Carlos. He sat back there, ensconced in malignant ego, completely full of himself, ready to kill at any moment, or ready to die. He was a man you just did not fuck with. And his gun sat there the whole time.

The next part of the afternoon was spent going to various places. He kept barking at me.

“Pull over there! Not here, there! Do what I tell you!”

At one point I pulled the cab over outside of a little taco stand. I told Carlos he was wearing me out, and that I was tired of his mouth. My fear had been exhausted and I was just plain pissed. Plus I was hungry. Carlos looked at me with shock. I figured I was done for. But Carlos softened. He grinned and patted me on the shoulder.

“You have some balls after all, my friend,” he said.

After that, he was quiet, and more polite.

We stopped at many pawn shops and bars, so Carlos could collect protection money or just throw his weight around. He was never in these places more than a few minutes. Sometimes he returned slightly winded or with a layer of perspiration on his upper lip. Other times I heard loud voices from inside the buildings, and one time a muffled gun shot. I sat behind the wheel and stared through my sunglasses into the sunshine, at the palms and cactus and dusty alleys. I just could not leave. Carlos knew what company I worked for and unless I was willing to leave the city, I was afraid Carlos would find me if I just drove off and left him.

Outside of one Mexican restaurants there were four Mexican musicians unloading their musical instruments from a truck. Four old Mexican men, dressed like farmers. They were preparing to play in the restaurant.

“Stop the car,” Carlos said.

He got out and walked over to the musicians, snapped something in Spanish. They jumped like Satan’s jesters. Carlos walked back and climbed into the cab, leaving the door open. The windows were down. The musicians scrambled over and stood right next to the cab. Carlos named a song and they exploded into it. They played their hearts out. The instruments that they strummed and pounded were held together by duct tape and carpentry nails, too beat up and old to even interest a pawn shop.

They were more scared than I was. They knew this Carlos. I could see it on their faces. They were all sweating in the afternoon sun. Everybody was sweating except Carlos. There was no joy in that music, only fear of hitting a wrong note. After about five songs, Carlos tired of them, waved them off. Not a dime tip.

When he walked out of yet another pawn shop, he told me he would be staying there for a while, and that I was free to leave. I had been held hostage for over four hours.

“Whatever you want,” I said.

“I’m a man,” Carlos said. “I do what I want.”

The rest of his twelve pack of beer sat on the floor of the cab.

“You want your beer?”

“Fuck the beer.”

“All right.”

“You’re my driver, right?” Carlos said. “You will take me here and there, sometimes?”

“Sure, Carlos.”

There didn’t seem to be anything else to say.

The fare was one hundred and eighty dollars. Carlos took out an inch-thick fold of bills and handed me the exact amount. Then he made theatrics about giving me a five dollar tip.

“I always pay my debts,” he said. “Remember that.”

He said he would be calling, and warned me again about keeping my mouth shut. I drove, my heart beating like a rabbit’s, very much alive. I found a shady spot on the north side of town, rolled the window down and turned off the engine. I sat there thinking about those skin-and-bone musicians, their strained smiles, their yellow teeth, their long brown fingers plucking the guitar strings, tapping the drum, holding the horn that shined golden in the sun. The sweat rolling down their faces like laborers in a field. The lone singer who closed his eyes and lifted his head and prayed his voice would not crack. I could not remember the songs he sang, not a word of them, not a note, only his courage, his bared throat.

Mather Schneider is a 47 year old cab driver who has had many poems and stories published since 1994. He has 4 full length books available.


“Poolside at the Hemingway House” by Holly Hollar

When you ask—how much is enough?—like Cecilia Malone, who reclines in the sun on a sailboat at harbor in Key West, who asks herself, how much money did I donate to the Humane Society of Greater Orlando last year? Is this particular shade of green from the Michael Kors fall collection over now? If you dare to ask that dangerous question—how much is enough—do try to find yourself in less opulent surroundings. Not a word about it on a boat. Otherwise, it’s just obnoxious.

A thirty million dollar beauty floats less than fifty yards away. It boasts a neon-lit hot tub on the second story and a seventy-inch flat screen TV she can see through the floor to ceiling windows on the main deck.

She was looking inside when she saw a man, she presumed the owner, remove his shirt, so she fixed her aging eyes on his taut abdomen—he must be in his thirties?—and felt a familiar twinge that had been gone since her last husband, Frank, passed away two years ago. She is sixty two. The yachtsman looks at her and she glances away and eyes her phone instead, wishing her daughter would call her back, and wondering where the hell Manchi is, because he should be back by now. But most of all she thinks, people just don’t know when to stop. What else could he have done with his money, how many people might have benefited from those millions; in her smug staring she miscalculates the distance to her mouth and spills mimosa on her silk scarf. There’s such a thing as limited, acceptable indulgence, she is sure of it. Really, how much is enough for some people? But also, she is jealous. She should be on that yacht. Not Manchi’s dinky sailboat.

Manchi glommed on at a Humane Society event when Gouda, her pug, wound up in his lap. A neighbor of Cecilia’s, a rigid woman, whispered to her husband, appalled about the dog at the event. But Cecilia didn’t care because she’s the organization’s largest donor.

Cecilia had popped a bruschetta in her mouth and realized too late it was too large for a single bite. She was chewing painfully when she saw Gouda run to Manchi’s feet and Manchi bent down to pick him up and Cecilia had no choice but at least to say hello and retrieve her pet. She noticed his smile. He wanted her contact information and so she gave it to him. She decided he was not bad looking.

Gouda grunts and pants whenever Manchi rubs his belly. Manchi is wealthy and bright. He made his money with a well-placed chain of Señor Frogs along the Mayan Riviera, which allowed him to purchase the boat Cecilia now habituates, for the week at least. The boat is named Rana, Spanish for frog.

The sail from Miami to Key West made her nauseous, excited, afraid and claustrophobic, all of these feelings now exacerbated by the capacious yacht napping in her line of sight. All the more reason to get out and explore. Today they will see the Hemingway house, something she has wanted to do from the moment Manchi floated the idea of Key West over afternoon iced coffees a month ago.

The mimosa sweetens her unbrushed teeth. She curls her toes on the fiberglass floor and tucks a strand of short red hair behind her ear, annoyed with the wind for the constant tousle. The tethered boom swings from side to side. Cling clang, cling clang, metal pieces flapping metal mast. Far off, by the Cuban Coffee Queen, she sees Manchi carrying two iced coffees. He does not see her, but she sees him whirl one eighty to ogle two passing girls in bikinis. So this is what he’s like when I’m not around. She adds a tally to her growing list of “cons.”

Should she say something to Manchi about the bikini girls? No, she decides. Instead, she picks up a tube of sunscreen and rubs the lotion on her face. Maybe.

I got you a Cuban coffee.

Manchi’s aviator sunglasses are mirrors of her ghostly face as he leans in to kiss her good morning. He exchanges a cup of coffee for the tube of sunscreen and begins massaging a dollop onto his bald head.

She rubs the last of the sunscreen into her cheeks. Can we go to the Hemingway House today? I want to see it.

You’re the boss.

She hates it when he says that. She wants him to be the boss. He thinks she wants to be the boss.

I saw you checking out those girls in bikinis.

Beautiful weren’t they?

She snorts. If you’re into that sort of thing.

Every red blooded man is into that sort of thing. Sorry sweetheart.

Maybe I’ll go by myself to the Hemingway House. Maybe that’s my sort of thing. She stomps down into the main cabin.

He sighs and follows her, pausing long enough on the steps to see her rummaging through the onboard cooler.
If you’re looking for the other bottle of champagne, I drank it last night. Come here, don’t be mad. I’m crazy about you. It’s just girls in bikinis.

He pulls her into a hug.

She’s not really mad about the bikini girls. She is mad at time.

When they finally leave the boat, the morning fishing charters have returned to dock. Tarpon undulate in the water below the filet table; from time to time they thrash at skins and heads from snappers which flip into the water with the flick of the first mate’s filet knife. Silver arcs emerge from the murky water and disappear below. The water churns and froths, each fish greedier than the last. No patience, all survival. Tarpon wake slaps piling.

Cecilia holds Manchi’s hand, even though it sweats, and they stare for a while at the feeding frenzy. Cecilia, mesmerized, looks away only when Manchi motions to three skippers hauling a coffin-sized cooler down the dock. She makes way, dropping his hand. If she took one more step back and fell into the water, would the tarpon move in for the kill? And how long would it take for them to finish? And what if Manchi dove in behind her?

We should get a cab. Manchi walks to a line of pink sedans. Cecilia follows, the tarpon still twirling in her mind.

When they arrive at the Hemingway House, they are approached by a fat man in a small t shirt holding a roll of tickets. His face sweats like a cold glass of sweet tea, the droplets eventually dribble down into his beard and fall from the wiry ends onto hot cement below. The man motions for money. Cecilia reaches for her wallet slowly, glancing at Manchi. He does not move. She pulls it from her purse, making an event of the thing, spilling a compact onto the cement that erupts into fine powder on impact.

Can you just pay the man please. She fusses over the compact but keeps an eye on Manchi who is now reaching for his wallet.

She takes in the property as she crouches— yellow shutters, green hedges like a sea wall and palms casting shade on the roof. A cat curls under the porch, Cecilia spots its needy eyes as she stands again and clutches her purse under her left arm.

It’s just like the day she was married to Frank. Nothing has changed except for the people and how they are dressed. Cecilia feels a familiar squeeze on her heart and abdomen—the clenching of grief muscles for the sucker punch of fond memories. Frank’s face on their wedding day flashes in her memory like a movie clip.

Walking tour starts in ten minutes. We close at four. Private event – a wedding. The man hands Manchi two tickets.

Cecilia wore her mother’s gown. Her mother looked severe that day, she wore a high bun, with three karat diamond earrings. Her father’s business partners smoked cigars on the lawn. She was afraid, when she hugged the man her father called Chuck, the man responsible for their fortune, that ash would fall on the fine silk of her dress and burn a hole. Her father – honey, you remember Chuck. She smiled and touched his arm. I’m so glad you could make it. Her father teared up moments before they walked down the aisle. What did he tell her? Compromise only on the little things.

And Frank was so eager to be married to her he went directly to I do before the proper time. Everyone laughed, even her mother. Later she and Frank and their friends drank beer and danced the streets to reggae. And when they made love on their wedding night, the need of their bodies was like a category five hurricane.

Cecilia, the tour is starting. Manchi places his hand on her lower back and she refocuses on his face, on the present, and follows him into the house which smells of the sea, and of old books and maps. A welcome memory.

Her mother was hungover the next morning at breakfast. So was Cecilia. Party of the year, she heard one of her father’s friends say to another.

After the breakfast they caught a ferry to Dry Tortuga. Frank’s blonde hair blew in the wind like the fronds of palms. He handed Cecilia a strawberry daiquiri. She put her free hand around his neck and drew him in for a kiss.

They camped for a night on Dry Tortuga. Frank played a ukelele on the brick walkway surrounding Fort Jefferson. The sunset looked like a cocktail of cranberry and orange juice for the imbibing darkness.

Manchi walks upstairs first, Cecilia follows, to the bedroom, and the old typewriter. Manchi looks around the room. Would you like to live in a place like this?

Frank and I were married here.

Manchi looks back blankly. In this room?

Cecilia smiles. No. On the grounds. We got married on the lawn. I hope that isn’t strange for you.

I imagine it’s rather strange for you.
Strange isn’t the word. She rifles through her purse and finds a lipstick. She uses a mirror in the nearby bathroom to apply it. Manchi observes from the doorway.

Does being here make you miss him? Are you sad?

Sad isn’t the word. Yes, of course I miss aspects of him. Being here reminds me of myself when I was younger, as much as it does of him. No matter how much time we had with each other, it would never have been enough. I probably shouldn’t talk about it with you. I’m sorry.

Then let’s not talk about it. Manchi walks down the stairs and out onto the veranda by the pool where a cluster of people stare down into the cement. A tour guide tells the group this is where they can see the infamous penny in the concrete, buried after Ernest yelled at his wife about the cost of the pool project, something about taking every last penny. The boxing ring once occupied the space in the backyard, before the pool. But Manchi can picture the bloody noses and knuckles and Manchi is only looking on an empty pool but being with Cecilia is like that. Maybe he needs it.

It’s hard to start over, she says from behind him.

I know. He takes her hand. They look at one another. His eyebrows lift and he nods toward the pool. She smiles.

They’ll kick us out. She slides her feet from her sandals and sets her purse down.

Screw ‘em. Manchi pivots toward the pool and pulls her hand. Cecilia does not protest. They splash into the pool. The sound of Cecilia’s laughter fills the courtyard and with its eruption comes a moment of lightness she didn’t know she needed. He stands still beside her, watching her mouth, his own mouth open as he exhales in bursts. Manchi hauls himself out of the pool. For a moment he resembles a frog splayed on the concrete as he pulls his knees to his chest and stands.

Let me give you a hand. He reaches down and lifts Cecilia from the water. No chiding from the staff. Only a little girl takes issue; she huffs and throws her braid over her shoulder. They wet her new shoes.

Cecilia and Manchi squish in their sandals as they walk two miles back to the pier. They stop at a bait shop selling beer cozies and frozen squid and ice cream sandwiches. Manchi buys two of the sandwiches. The white cream runs down Cecilia’s fingers as it melts. Cecilia scrapes the melty brown sandwich from her fingers with her bottom teeth. She is happy and for now that is enough.

A month after their return to Orlando she will appreciate Manchi’s patience, how he knows to calm her when she grows impetuous. She will introduce him to her daughter over lunch at the country club and her daughter will remark on how well-matched they seem. She will laugh as Gouda’s loyalty drifts so that the dog responds only to Manchi’s commands and not her own. And she will go on feeling some need has been filled. But she will still be mad at time.

Holly Hollar is a financial advisor living and working in Nashville, TN. This is her debut work of fiction. Holly received a degree in Creative Writing from Emory University and holds a Masters in Business Administration from Wake Forest University. She is originally from Winston-Salem, North Carolina. When she is not working or writing, Holly enjoys hiking and camping with her husband Aaron and their sassy boxer, Alice.

“Marriage” by James Armstrong

I have been married for six years. I have not spoken with my wife for the past five. We live together, you understand. We sleep in the same bed and eat dinner at the same table. Yet no matter how hard I try, I cannot talk to her.

We never ran out of things to say while we were dating. We had similar interests—we both liked to cook, and we watched the same TV shows. She was relaxed and easy-going, which was exactly what I was looking for. By degrees, I suppose, I began to fall in love with her.

I had always known I wanted to get married, and right away I began asking myself if Lynn might be the one. I’m not sure I know what that means anymore, but back then I thought I did, and I was sure Lynn was it—true love, or at least something close enough. I proposed to her after dinner one night at a fancy French restaurant, and she accepted.

On our wedding day, I could hardly dress—I was so nervous—but I knew there was no one else I wanted to spend my life with. When I kissed her at the altar, I don’t think I had ever felt happier in my life.

For the first several months, things went well. We fought occasionally, but we always made up. Afterward, we would laugh at the absurdity of the things we’d argue over, the proper way to scrub a toilet or who had made coffee the last time.

After a while, Lynn started having to work more at the office. They were cutting back, and she was doing the jobs of two people. It wasn’t fair, but if she didn’t want to get sacked in the next round of layoffs, we were just going to have to deal.

Then Lynn’s uncle died. She had never been close to her father, who had abandoned them when Lynn was a teenager. Uncle Mark was the closest thing to a father she had. She mourned him for quite some time, and made it clear she needed to be alone in her grief.

After that, she started having problems with her gallbladder—at least that’s what the doctors thought it was. The whole thing cleared itself up after a while, so it could have been something else. The pain was intense for a couple of months, though, and she didn’t want to do anything—even talk.

In all this time, we would wake up together, have our morning coffee, swap out parts of the newspaper, go our separate ways to work, come home, have dinner, spend a couple hours watching TV, and go to sleep at each other’s sides. It was an orderly routine and didn’t call for us to say much of anything. Everything was understood.

That’s why I can’t tell you the precise day on which Lynn and I stopped talking. We had grown used to saying little, and soon we were saying nothing at all. The breakfast table was silent. Nothing was said over the course of dinner. We would sit on the sofa staring at the TV, and it would do the talking for us.

The worst, I think, was in bed. I would lie there next to her, wanting to say something, but I couldn’t. We had grown distant in every sense of the word except the literal one, and that hurt more than anything.

Days and weeks passed, months, and we said nothing. Lynn seemed remarkably calm about the whole situation. She would shower and dress in the morning as if nothing were wrong. She would get home and start sorting through the mail without a word, or even a look. It was as if nothing had changed, but everything had changed. My wife had stopped speaking to me, and I didn’t even know why.

Was she mad at me? Had I committed some unspeakable offense? I tried to think of what it might be. Something I had said? Not said? I began scowling at her when she walked into a room, and she would roll her eyes at me and leave.

At last, I decided I needed to be the bigger person and break the silence. I still couldn’t speak to her, however, so I wrote a note:

“Dear Lynn,” it said, “I can’t stand what has happened to us. Why don’t we ever talk anymore? If I have done something, I honestly don’t know what it was, but I am sorry. I never intended to hurt you or cause you pain. I love you, Lynn. I love you, and I want things to be the way they were before. Will you come back to me? Please? Yours Forever, Bobby.”

I left the note on the kitchen table where she would be sure to see it, then went into the bedroom and waited for her to get home. I heard the sound of her car pulling up and of its motor going still. The car door slammed. The front door to the house opened and closed, and footsteps went off into the kitchen.

I listened for a long time and heard nothing. I wanted to cry out, but I held my peace. Eventually, I heard footsteps again, and then the front door opening and closing.

I went out into the kitchen. Lynn had left me a note:

“Dear Bobby,” it said, “Went to gym. Be back later. Would you mind going to store while I’m out? I’d go myself, but it’s the opposite direction. We need milk, eggs, salad, tomatoes, and green beans. Also, if the mac & cheese is still on sale, pick up a couple boxes. Love Always, Lynn.

“P.S. Got your note. Thanks.”

I read it three or four times, still not knowing what to think. “Love Always, Lynn?” What did she mean by that? I pour my heart out to her, and she asks me to go to the grocery store?

Yet it was the postscript that was strangest of all. The note would have made sense if she hadn’t read what I’d written, but she clearly had. She had read my note, acknowledged it, but acted as if I had given her directions to the gas station.

I went to the store and got milk, eggs, salad, tomatoes, green beans, and three boxes of macaroni and cheese. When Lynn got back from the gym, I fixed green beans and mac and cheese and warmed up some eggplant we had left over in the fridge. We ate in silence then went into the living room and watched TV.

The next day, I left another note:

“Dear Lynn,” it said, “What is going on? I’m confused. Do you still love me? If so, how come we can’t talk together anymore? I feel like I’m living with a stranger, only it’s a stranger I already know. Does this make any sense to you? Help me. Please. I don’t know what to do. Desperately Yours, Bobby.”

I got another note in response:

“Dear Bobby,” it said, “Garbage collector didn’t pick up the trash for some reason. Did we put it out too late? Maybe it’s some crazy govm’t holiday. Anyway, I put it in the garage so it wouldn’t block the curb. Went to the store to pick something up for Mom’s birthday. See you when I get back. Love Always, Lynn.

“P.S. The note was sweet. Thnx.”

I wanted to pull my hair out. I drove to the shore and looked into the ocean. I wondered what it would be like to drown. I’ve always been afraid of the water, and I figured that must be about the worst death there is—to drown in the ocean.

Then I thought I would rather drown in the ocean than in a pool. At least in the ocean, you’re swallowed up by something immense, something so big you can scarcely imagine it. How much worse to drown in a pool—to drown in a bathtub—to drown in a glass of water.

I came back and found Lynn already in bed. I lied down next to her and started to cry. I wept until my tears were gone and there was nothing left inside of me. She never woke up.

The next day we had breakfast together as if nothing had happened. We went to work, came home, had dinner, and watched television. I found the monotony of our life laughable, but I didn’t know how to change it.

I wanted to ask Lynn if she’d like to do something different. Perhaps we could go out dancing, though truth be told, I can’t dance, and I only wanted to do that because I thought it was something you were supposed to do if you were a couple. Besides, who could hear each other with all that music—and what I really wanted to do was talk.

Perhaps the next weekend we could get away somewhere. The mountains maybe. I had never been to the mountains, and I had no idea how to get there, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. At least it would be different than sitting in that house—that tiny house—and not knowing what to do.

I never took her dancing, and we never went to the mountains. I hated the situation, but how could I change it when I couldn’t even talk to her?

So I decided to make tacos. I had never made tacos before, so at least it was something different. I bought tortillas and salsa and lettuce and sour cream and refried beans. We would make tacos, and life would be better.

Lynn’s a vegetarian, so that’s why there was no meat. She scooped extra large spoonfuls of beans into her taco and covered them with lettuce and tomato and sour cream and shredded cheddar cheese. She had four bean tacos, then took a spoon and scraped the last of the beans onto her plate with a little cheese and sour cream. She ate it all then left me with the dishes and went out into the living room to watch her favorite show.

After doing the dishes, I went out and sat beside Lynn on the sofa. The TV had one of those sitcoms that used to make her laugh so hard I was afraid she might fall off the couch. It was a rerun, though, and we had both seen it before. She had the volume turned up really high, and the laugh track ran every time there was a joke. Neither of us laughed.

A commercial came on, and it was louder than the show, as commercials always are. What was more, it was one of those really awful commercials from a local car dealership. Could it get any worse than that?

And there, sitting next to Lynn on the sofa, watching a bad television show break for an even worse commercial, there came a huge, low-pitched, unmistakable sound. It drowned out even the TV. From right beside me came the most enormous fart I had ever heard in my life.

And it reeked. There could be no mistaking this for moving furniture. After eating four tacos and a small mountain of refried beans, Lynn had let rip the most foul-smelling odor imaginable. I wondered if we would ever be able to let people into the house again.

Lynn and I looked at each other. And we began to laugh. It was the first time I could remember either of us laughing in a very long while. We laughed louder and louder, until tears started coming down, and we threw our arms around each other’s necks and kissed each other gently on the cheeks. I lifted her up off the sofa and took her back to the bedroom where we made love and fell asleep and woke up in the morning and said nothing.

Marriage is like that sometimes.

James Armstrong has had stories appear in The Long Story, Birmingham Arts Journal, Concho River Review, The Chaffey Review, and other publications. His plays have been published in Arts & Letters, Canyon Voices, The Louisville Review, Yemassee, and The Best American Short Plays: 2012-2013.

“Breaking the Surface” by Jeannette Brown

She has always been the Good Girl, but here she is, breaking all the rules. She wonders why she hasn’t done it before. And why she is doing it now.

She has recently received her punishment, so now she can commit crimes.

The first rule she is breaking is “Don’t go swimming until two months after the baby comes or when you quit bleeding, whichever comes first.” Or maybe second, she’s a little fuzzy on the details of her research. After reading seven or 20 websites filled with conflicting advice, the results all ran together.

She has not quit bleeding, so she’s wearing a tampon and it hasn’t yet been six weeks. Another rule broken.

It has only been three and a half weeks, yet here she is, in the humid, muggy, perhaps haunted basement of the YWCA, about to swim. Breaking another rule: No Swimming Without a Lifeguard. She’s becoming a regular scofflaw.

The air in the basement is damp and dank, fetid. It is ripe for growing fungi and other sordid parasites, but everyone knows the Y washes down the pool and the walkways, the bleachers and probably the walls with chlorine. Nothing can survive chlorine.

She approaches the ladder, turns, and backs down, slowly placing a bare foot solidly on each rung so as not to slip into the deep. She knows better than to dive or jump in. She eases into the familiarity of the water as she assumed she would ease into motherhood.

By wearing her “new mother” underwear—cotton panties and a nursing bra—she’s breaking another rule: Swimsuits Only. Still inhabiting her swollen postpartum body, she did not want to wrestle it into a restrictive, faux-fabric body suit. Her cotton undies float close to her skin. She opens both flaps of the nursing bra, allowing the water to caress her buoyant, lactating, useless breasts.

The fluidity of the water is a loving caress. She lets go of the ladder and pushes off gently, floating on her back. This is probably what being in the womb feels like, surrounded by softness, as soundless, gentle waves bring slow body bounces. The slightest ripples carry the water away before it returns. She imagines a baby curled fetally, smiling with the pleasure of merely being, floating in silence except for the occasional orchestral music or the murmur of parental voices cajoling, cooing for it to come out and join the two who have chosen its name so carefully, so specifically for this particular baby.

Water movement reflects light off the blue walls and dapples the ceiling, giving the effect of surround movement, being in a bubble. A womb bubble.

But as of three weeks ago, she has not spoken the name, will never speak it again. There is no baby. No baby that screamed in anger at being taken from its mother’s warm body bath and jettisoned into the cold antiseptic, fluorescent-lit birth station to the latex-gloved hands of the doctor.

No, she only birthed the silent baby, blue not because of the fluorescent lights but because it had been dead for over 24 hours. The doctors could not explain why or what. Just because. Maybe it couldn’t catch its breath. Maybe it needed gills. Maybe it didn’t want to be a baby.

Maybe she should be swimming in the ocean. Salt water is buoyant. Salt water heals wounds. But it only heals the kind of wounds that bleed, not the real ones. On the other hand, blood draws sharks, so maybe the ocean is a bad idea.

Floating in the warm water of the pool, she imagines being the baby, imagines that it lives and comes into the world screaming and kicking like all real babies do, so she imagines that she hears the baby screaming. She’s floating in the tepid, body-temperature water, her chin resting on the surface so that the motion of her dog-paddling hands sends tiny waves of water across her lips and into her nose when she inhales.

But after she lets the dream baby float away into the air, it continues to cry. Perhaps she’s losing her mind. According to her internet research, women like her often end up in the psych ward. They just cannot accept a stillborn baby. They lose their shit. She imagines seeking refuge away from her well-meaning friends and relatives. Even from her husband who thinks he is being so supportive but only reminds her of her failure. Her punishment for who-knows-what crime.

But still the baby cries. It wails, screams, demands to be comforted. Slowly, she realizes that the screams come not from within her mind but from the south side of the pool area, the bleachers where in all her years of water aerobics class, she has never seen an audience except for the young, inattentive lifeguard studying her homework, certain that no one in the class would distract her by drowning.

The woman gains the ladder and crawls from the water, wondering if she is hallucinating, destined for the psych ward with all the other crazy mothers and almost mothers. She finds her towel and wipes her eyes, pats her arms, and dries her hair a bit just in case the hallucination would like the opportunity to disappear. But no, when she looks toward the bleachers, she sees a plastic carrier. And a pink blanket. And the round squinting face of a baby so furious it has lost its voice.

Instinctively, she reaches for the baby, lifts it out of the carrier and cuddles it, crooning “ Sweet baby, you’ll be fine, sweet baby.” She holds it close enough to inhale its sweet scent of sour milk and burp and poo, its baby newness. The baby smiles at her with unfocused eyes.

She returns the baby to the carrier in case its mother finds her and assumes the wrong thing. Any real Mother would. Any Mother who had delivered a real live baby. She backs away, looking around, wondering when and how the Mother came and went without being noticed. She looks at the floor, searching for footprints to find a direction for the Mother, but all is wet.

She drapes her towel around her body so the Mother won’t be alarmed when she comes upon a woman standing in wet panties and unflapped bra instead of a swimsuit.

Now she’s confused because the baby is crying again and she wants to hold it but that would be awkward when the real Mother comes back, so she squats beside the baby and pats its stomach, cooing, “Sweet baby, don’t cry. Mommy’s on her way.” The baby quiets. She pats and coos for a while longer.

Where is the real Mother? Who would leave their baby alone for so long? The woman pats the baby one last time and goes to search the dressing rooms and showers. She is alone. She’s even checked the tiny men’s dressing room that she’s never seen anyone use. She’s begun to bleed past her tampon, so she lowers herself to the edge of the pool and slips back in. The red stain floats away from her like an aura, and then dissolves.

She can’t be totally psycho because she does understand that the baby doesn’t belong in the basement of a YWCA. But yes. It does. She’s seen the signs outside and in the lobby a hundred times without really seeing them: “Safe Place.” A safe place to drop off a baby that you can’t take care of, that is inconvenient, that isn’t what you thought a baby would be like.

She weighs her loss against this Mother’s gain. For this baby has a Mother and she did gain a child. But now she, too has lost her child. But why the basement, the dank pool basement? Why not leave the baby in the lobby?

Maybe the Mother was afraid of being seen, being traced. Or maybe she, too, knows the pool is the closest thing to the womb.

Here is a baby. A free baby that looks to be about a month old. Just like her baby would be if her baby had continued to be a baby instead of drifting off into the next world, nameless.

A Mother-less baby. A baby-less mother. The equation is impossibly perfect. She wonders whether the baby has a name, or whether the Mother thought that naming the baby would weigh too heavily on them both. Actually, “Baby” isn’t a bad name for the first few months, until you get a feel for the personality. At least that’s what she’s heard.

She understands the rules. If you find a baby, you turn said baby over to the authorities. She knows what a Good Girl would do. But the rules do not apply in this instance. This baby is out of bounds. This baby is beyond the laws of nature or decorum.

This Good Girl has choices.

Jeannette Brown writes poetry and fiction. Her work has been published in Bellevue Literary Review, Southwestern American Literature, New Millennium Writings, Texas Observer, ArtSpace, Mother Earth, Breathing the Same Air–An East Tennessee Anthology, Suddenly IV, Knoxville Bound, and other publications. She is the co-editor of Literary Lunch, a food anthology. She has enjoyed residencies at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and Rivendell Writers’ Colony.

“My Friend Jeb” by Katie Burgess

HR asked me to put together something for Jeb, probably because I was the closest thing he had to a friend at Zoom! Wellness Emporium. See, three years ago I gave him a pound of French roast for Secret Santa. Jeb was always the first one to make coffee in the mornings, so when I drew his name that was all I could think to get him. “You require caffeine to wake up every day”—that was literally all I knew about the guy. But his face when he opened it—it was like I’d looked into his soul or something. Every day afterwards he’d tell me how he’d made some of that delicious coffee, until he used it all up, and then he’d say he tried another brand but it wasn’t as good, so he’d gone back to the one I gave him. “Zach knows coffee,” he’d tell everyone, when really I don’t like it much.

So although we’d worked together for years at the same Zoom! branch at the Green Pond Mall, I didn’t know other things about him, like how he’d joined a class for people scared of flying. That is, not until his graduation flight crashed outside Tallahassee. The obituary mentioned only that he was born in Pensacola and survived by a stepbrother there, nothing about any kind of service being held anywhere. At first no one at the store was sure what to do. But everyone remembered me and the coffee, so I was tasked with honoring his memory.

I sat up that night Googling “deceased coworker ideas” and found a lot of stuff, like poems to read, but I couldn’t tell which ones were good. I drank a beer and then another beer. I read lists of different flowers and what they meant. I ran out of beer, so I poked around the kitchen and found a bottle of coconut rum left by my ex-girlfriend, Nika. It was old but still smelled coconutty, so I figured it was fine. It tasted fine. Then I decided to call Nika.

“What is it?” she said.

“I wanted to say hey,” I said.

“Ok, you said hey.”

“Have you ever heard of candytuft? It’s a flower. Guess what it means.”

“Goodbye, Zach.”

“Wait,” I said. “I need to tell someone about Jeb. He was in a plane crash.”

“Oh my god—who?”

“Jeb. We worked together. He was an anxious flyer.”

“I don’t remember you ever mentioning a Jeb.”

“Maybe he drank too much coffee. That can exacerbate anxiety.”

“Jeb who?”

“Wilkins. I mean Wilcox. Jeb Wilcox. We were sort of friends.”

“Look, Zach, I’m sorry. But it’s late, and the kids wake up at like six.”

I’d forgotten that the guy Nika moved in with had little kids. She was probably terrific with them. “Sure,” I said. “Night.”

Monday morning I printed out a picture of Jeb from when Zoom! had its last Presidents’ Day Blowout Sale—his eyes were half closed, and he had on a Lincoln hat, but it was all anyone could find. I affixed it to some cardboard and propped it up at customer service, along with a vase of silk flowers. I’d ended up just picking flowers that looked nice, all colors, because I got confused over the different flower meanings. I made a sign saying, “A member of our Zoom! family recently passed. We invite our guests to share a few words with his loved ones,” and I left pens for people to sign the picture. HR said the stepbrother in Pensacola would be coming to pick up Jeb’s last paycheck, so I should give the picture, along with any belongings left in Jeb’s locker, to him.

I watched as customers walked past Jeb’s picture. A few stopped and made sad faces before going on to buy their yoga pants and balance balls. I tried to remember what, if anything, I’d said to Jeb the last time I saw him. Maybe some crack about our new uniforms, but that might have been to someone else. Over in vitamins, Jeb’s usual section, a trainee was explaining to customers about the different protein powders we carried, nobody knowing or caring that it should have been Jeb doing it.

At closing time the stepbrother came in to pick up Jeb’s things. He regarded the check disappointedly. I handed him a box with Jeb’s stuff—some paperbacks and a pair of reading glasses—along with the signed picture. Customers had written a few Bible verses and a heart on it. “I’m sorry for your loss,” I said. “Jeb was a terrific guy. We all loved him around here.” The stepbrother nodded and shuffled off.

As I was leaving the mall I spotted Jeb’s picture in the trash. Maybe Jeb and his stepbrother weren’t close, but I thought Jeb deserved better than to be left like that. I took the picture home.

I sat in front of the TV that night and drank the rest of the coconut rum. I called Nika again, but I got her voicemail. I tried to imagine Jeb’s last moments, when they knew the plane was going down. Did he regret getting on it? Or did he think, if only for a second, I’m flying? No telling what he might have thought, or what else I didn’t know about him.

I found an old frame I’d bought and never used, and I trimmed down the picture until it fit. I hung it up over the TV, thinking how one day people would came over and ask who that was, and I’d say, “That’s Jeb. My friend. He was a great, great man.”

Katie Burgess lives in South Carolina, where she does improv and is editor in chief of Emrys Journal.

“Trading Houses” by Nancy Bourne

I was at Caroline Overby’s house, sewing clothes for her dolls, when out of the blue I heard, “Goddammit, where the hell is Fanny?”

A man wearing a button shirt and a tangled purple tie walked in. His hair was white and he wasn’t wearing shoes.

“Oh,” he said, in this really polite kind of voice. “I didn’t know you had company, Caroline.” He didn’t look at me. “I’ll go find her myself.” He tripped on my book bag on his way out, nearly falling.

“Goddammit!” And he was gone.

“Who’s that?” I asked.

Caroline was concentrating on cutting a piece of green satin fabric with pinking shears and didn’t look up.

“That’s Daddy,” she said.


Caroline’s daddy owns the mill. I know that because practically everybody in town works for him, including my daddy. It’s a cotton mill and they make uniforms for our soldiers in Korea.

That’s when Caroline whispered, “I’m planning to trade houses with you. It’s a secret.”

I stared.

“What do you mean?”

“I’ll live in your house and you’ll move here.”


“I like your house better.”

Now that made no sense. Caroline’s house was a mansion, solid white, with marble columns out front. I’d been looking up the hill at that big white house and pretending I lived there ever since I could remember.

My house is little. No upstairs. The living room feels crowded with just a sofa, two chairs and the Victrola. No dining room. We eat in the kitchen. Mama and Daddy sleep in one bedroom; I share the other with my sister Becky. She’s nine.

Caroline was the prettiest girl in my fifth grade class. She had long red hair and she wore a different dress every day.

We sometimes walked the two blocks to my house after school, but she’d never invited me to hers until that day. Linwood, her chauffeur, picked us up from school in a black Cadillac and drove us, like two princesses, up the hill to Caroline’s house. The marble columns were cool and smooth on my fingers as I passed by.

When we got inside, the first thing I noticed was the quiet. Like nobody lived there. And it smelled like lemons.

“Come on,” Caroline said, “my room’s upstairs.” We were in the front hall, as big as my living room. No furniture except for a table where they put the mail. And so quiet.

“Can I look around down here first?” I whispered.

There were three living rooms on the first floor. Three. The biggest one on one side of the hall had four sofas, I counted them, and lots of chairs with velvet seats, like the ones in the museum in Williamsburg. It didn’t look like anyone ever sat in that room. On the other side of the hall was another big living room with black shiny tables and vases with dragons painted on them.

“That’s the Chinese room,” Caroline told me.

The third living room was painted yellow, with lots of windows. All the furniture was white, and there were rows of flowers just outside the glass doors, which were open. It smelled like summer in there even though it was only March.

“This is the sun room,” Caroline said.

Just imagine.

Every single room, even the kitchen, had wall-to wall-carpets, which made them so quiet I felt like tiptoeing.

Upstairs you’d go into one bedroom and it would lead to another one and then another one. You could get lost in all those rooms. The beds had fluffy quilts and stacks of pillows. It didn’t look like anybody ever slept in any of those beds, they looked so clean and tidy.

“Which is your mama and daddy’s room?” I asked Caroline.

“Mama sleeps in there.” She pushed open the door, and I got a glimpse of a white filmy bedspread, maybe organdy, and somebody in the bed. Caroline closed the door fast, before I could see more.

“Daddy’s up there.” She pointed to the ceiling.

“What’s up there?”

“His room. Mama won’t let him smoke down here.”

That’s how I found out there was a third floor, but we didn’t go up there. I wanted to, but I felt funny asking.

Caroline’s bedroom was huge. Over the bed was a baby blue quilted canopy, and in the middle of the room was a giant table full of drawing paper and a bucket of brushes and jars of oil paints. Two walls had murals on them. On one, horses were racing, with jockeys on their backs in red caps; on the other, a girl with blond hair was smelling tall blue flowers in a garden.

“Daddy asked some famous artist he knows to paint them,” she said. “It took him forever.”

Caroline had a real kitchen in her room with a stove and a refrigerator that made ice. And there was a Singer sewing machine, just like my mama’s. I wanted that room. I wanted the whole house.

I thought she was fooling, but the very next week when we were at my house, she asked me again, “Wouldn’t you like to trade houses?”

I looked at the scissors and the pot of glue and the colored paper all over my double-decker bed and said, “Who wouldn’t? But why do you want to?”

“Your house is small. I like it. It’s cozy.”

“But you live in a mansion and you have a kitchen in your room and a sewing machine.”

She was staring out the window. “I know. But here’s what we’ll do.” Her voice sounded far away. “You will live there, and we can cook and sew whenever you ask me over after school.”

“Your daddy won’t like it.”

“I bet he would if he could see your house.”

I tried to imagine the owner of the mill, barefoot with a purple tie, in my little house.

“So. We’re going to trade,” Caroline said.

“You’re making fun of me,” I said.

“No. I mean it.”

I didn’t believe her, but I wanted to. I wanted the room with the red ceiling and the one with big ocean waves painted on the wall and her mama’s room with the organdy bedspread. Wouldn’t Mama love that room? It was crazy how much I wanted that house.

The next time Caroline came over, she told me her daddy was picking her up.



“Not Linwood?”

“I asked Daddy to come after me today.”

“I better tell Mama.”

But I didn’t have time, because it was already five o’clock and the doorbell was ringing.

Caroline ran to open it. He was wearing a gray suit this time with a vest and shiny black shoes. I almost didn’t recognize him.

“Well, hello,” he said with a big smile. “You must be Lorna.”

“Won’t you come in, Mr. Overby?”

It was my mother and I’d never seen her so jittery. Her hair was tied back with a scarf and her apron, which she was pulling over her head, had grease stains. The whole house smelled like ham.

“Thank you ma’am,” Mr. Overby said in this really polite voice, “but I’ll just collect Miss Caroline here and be off.”

“I’m not ready, Daddy,” Caroline said. “I have to get my stuff. You come in.”

He looked like he didn’t know what to do.

Then Mama said in a polite voice I didn’t recognize, “Can I get you something to drink while you wait, Mr. Overby?” She’d taken off the scarf and was trying to smooth her hair into place.

“No thank you.”

He just stood there for a minute, staring at the blocks my sister had spread all over the living room floor, like he’d never seen blocks before. Then, very carefully, he picked his way around them, trailing after Caroline. We all crowded into my room. Caroline sat on the lower bunk bed, picking her drawings out of the mess and sliding them into her book bag. Mr. Overby stood in the doorway, holding his hat. My room had never seemed so small.

Caroline smiled up at her daddy.

“Isn’t this a cute house?” she said.

“Yes indeed,” he said. “Now let’s go.” And he headed out.

Just before he reached the front door, he stumbled into the three-legged footstool Becky had used as the base of a tower of blocks and fell smack down on the floor.

“Oh, Mr. Overby, I am so sorry.” Mama took his arm and tried to pull him up. I thought for a minute she might cry.

He pulled himself to his feet, breathing hard, his white hair in his eyes. There was a funny smell I didn’t recognize.

“Don’t worry,” he said to Mama. “It’s my fault; I’m so clumsy.”

Before that day, Caroline had been mostly a school friend. But suddenly, she was asking to come play at my house after school at least twice a week. We painted and played Monopoly, like other kids, but more and more Caroline harped on the subject of changing houses. Like all the time. Like it was really going to happen.

“I’ll bring my easel to my new room,” she would say, “but none of the other stuff. I can play with that when I visit you.”

“Won’t you miss your kitchen?”

“I won’t have to. Fanny will give you stuff, and we can make brownies.”

She was so serious about it, she pulled me right in. But it wasn’t hard. All I had to do was imagine myself in that sunroom.

“What will you do with the mirror room?” she asked.

“I’m going to keep my clothes in there,” I said. “Then when I try them on, I can see exactly how I look.”

“You’ll have lots of clothes to try on,” she said, “because I won’t be bringing many dresses to my new house. I want you to have them.”

“Really?” All those dresses, a different one every day.

“And you’ll have Fanny.”

“What about Fanny?”

“She’ll be there,” she said. “She’ll cook you anything you like for dinner.”

“Steak and French fries?”

“Every night if you like.”

“Won’t you miss having a cook?” I asked.

“She’s an old grump,” Caroline said. “You’re welcome to her. Besides Mama will cook for Daddy and me. And we’ll eat together in the kitchen. And afterwards, we’ll go to the living room and watch TV together.”

“We don’t have a TV,” I reminded her.

“Daddy will buy us one.”

Sometime that spring, Becky started complaining that blocks were missing.

“Look under the bed,” Mama said.

“I did. It’s the short ones that I really need. Somebody’s stealing them.”

“Don’t be silly,” Mama said. “Who’d steal blocks? I’ll help you look.”

But the blocks weren’t anywhere. And Becky’s favorite paper dolls also disappeared. And a Mary Poppins book.

Then one afternoon I saw Caroline putting my Anne of Green Gables into her book bag.

“You want to borrow that?” I asked.

She smiled. “I’ve read it. I’m just helping you move.”

“Helping me how?”

“I thought it would be nice for you to have some of your things already in your room when you move.”

That’s when I knew. “The blocks. That was you.”

For a minute she just stood there staring at Anne of Green Gables, like she’d been caught. But then she giggled and dropped the book in her bag.

“You can’t do that,” I said.

“Why not? We’re changing houses really soon.”

“It’s just pretend,” I said.


The way she said it scared me.

“Okay,” I said. “You can take my things, but don’t take Becky’s.”

Why didn’t I tell Mama about all this make-believe? She’d have nipped it in the bud for sure. That’s why I didn’t tell her.

The next time Linwood came to pick Caroline up, he was carrying a bag with Becky’s blocks. Mama thanked him, but after that she told me I couldn’t invite Caroline to our house any more.

“But she’s my best friend.”

“She took Becky’s blocks without telling you. What kind of friend is that?”

“She brought them back.” I didn’t tell her about the book.

“That’s not good enough.”

“Please,” I begged. “She won’t take anything else. I promise.”

“I should call her mother,” Mama said. But she never did. I think she was afraid of Mr. Overby.

So after that we went to Caroline’s house. And that suited me just fine.

“Let’s play in a different room every time I come over,” I suggested.

She kissed me on the cheek. “That’s a good idea. Then you can tell your mama about every room. That will make her want to move here.”

It made me feel like a cheat, letting her go on that way. But I wanted really badly to see those rooms.

So we roamed the house.

“Sit here,” she’d point to a chair. “Isn’t the velvet cushion dreamy?”

She dragged me to a large picture window. “Look out there, Lorna. Did you ever see such pretty daffodils?”

We played Old Maids on the dining room table in the red room and scattered Monopoly money all over the blue velvet lounge chair in the room with violets on the wallpaper.

One time she took hold of my hand and rubbed it all over a soft, soft bedspread in one of the empty rooms. “Try it,” she said. “It’s like sleeping on a cloud.”

So I climbed up on that satin smooth bedspread and lay there, smelling the lemon smell that was everywhere.

We never went up to the third floor.

Sometimes I heard somebody walking around up there, but I didn’t ask.

Mrs. Overby showed up every once in awhile, dressed in a pastel dress and wearing hats with a veil.

“You girls having fun?” That’s what she always said.

“Yes ma’am,” I’d say. But Caroline would just watch her mother and not say a thing.

After a few minutes, Mrs. Overby would disappear out the front door.

I was dying to spend a night in Caroline’s house, to lie in her canopied bed and whisper secrets, to eat breakfast together. So when she invited me for a Saturday night, I couldn’t wait.

She met me at the front door. “Close your eyes,” she demanded.

I could feel her hand tugging me forward, through the front hall, up the stairs to a flat soft carpet. I remember hanging onto one of Mama’s shopping bags, stuffed with my pajamas and toothbrush, and trying not to stumble. Finally I heard a door open.


I peered through the dark. All I could see were lights. Tiny lights.

“Where are we?”

“Ghost Hollow.” Her voice was all quivery.

All of a sudden I wanted to go home.

“I can’t see.”

“Come in,” she whispered.

I took a step and bumped my shin on something sharp.

“Come on, Caroline. Turn on the light.”

“Hush! Wait a minute.”

I smelled something familiar, but I couldn’t figure out what.

“Turn on the light!” This time my voice was loud.

And there we were, in Caroline’s brightly lit bedroom. The curtains were pulled tight. And there were candles on the sewing machine, the stove, the refrigerator, tall red ones in silver candleholders. All burning.

“You spoiled it,” she said. “It was going to be so much fun, sitting here in the dark, telling ghost stories. I’ve been planning it all day. But you spoiled it.”

“I’m sorry. I’m scared of ghosts.”

She laughed. Her old laugh. “Then I guess it worked.” And she hugged me.

We blew out the candles and started working on the jigsaw puzzle that was half finished on her drawing table. We never mentioned the candles again.

In the meantime, Caroline kept asking to come to my house.

At first I made excuses, “Mama’s taking me shopping,” or “Becky has a friend over and Mama says the house is too crowded.”

But finally I had to tell her. “Mama doesn’t want you to come to our house anymore.” We were on the playground during recess, off to ourselves.

Caroline’s face went white. “Why?”

“Because you took Becky’s blocks and stuff.”

“But you know why I did that.”

“Sure I do, but they were Becky’s.”

“I am going to move to your house.”

“That’s all pretend,” I said.

She was staring at me in a way I didn’t like. “It’s not pretend. I want your little house. We made a deal. You promised.”

I didn’t know what to say. I knew I hadn’t made any deal, but I had led her on.

“Why don’t we skip rope?” I finally said and headed off to join some girls in my class.

“Traitor!” she yelled.

I acted like I didn’t hear her. But I felt just awful.

I woke up to sirens. And the smell of smoke.

I shook Becky. I was sure it was our house, the sirens were so close.

We ran to the living room and out the front door. Mama and Daddy were standing out on the sidewalk.

“Where is it?” I yelled over the screaming sirens.

Daddy pulled me close and pointed to mountains of gray smoke against the sky. You could see the smoke even though it was night because of the big red flames shooting up inside it. And my eyes were burning.

“Is it . . .?” I couldn’t say it.

Suddenly our street was full of people, some in bathrobes, some barefoot, some zipping up their jackets over pajama bottoms. I could hear them yelling at each other over the sirens.

“Is it the old man?”

I felt sick to my stomach.

“Sure looks like it.”

“You think they’re in there?”

“Caroline?” I was crying.

“Let’s go inside.” It was Mama’s voice in my ear.

But I wouldn’t budge. I kept staring at the red flames and smelling the smoke and hearing the sirens and crying.

The next morning we all turned up to gaze at what was left of the house. The walls looked like big hunks of charcoal with sooty marble columns in front. The inside was full of water and there was this awful smell. I stood there looking at the black, smoky mess and thought about the sun room and the organdy bedspread and Caroline’s sewing machine and all those quiet, quiet rooms.

“Don’t cry,” Daddy said. “I heard they got everybody out.”

But I just kept crying.

That afternoon the Fire Chief drove all over town yelling through a megaphone that the Fire Department had saved everybody. The family was in the hospital recovering. Daddy took me to the hospital, but they wouldn’t let me see Caroline. I sent her a card, but she didn’t answer it.

There was a lot of gossip about the fire. But the rumor that Mr. Overby’s leg was cut off turned out to be true. It had been so badly burned they had to amputate. Mrs. Overby was in seclusion, they said; nobody knew where.

I didn’t see Caroline again. Somebody said they were sending her to some place down in South Carolina.

Everybody in town has a theory about what started the fire.

Some blame the electric wires. Some claim grease caught on fire in the kitchen. There are also rumors.

–The old man was smoking in bed.

–The old man was drunk again.

–Serves him right, the old bastard.

Mr. Overby told the newspaper, “I don’t smoke in bed. Period.” He said it was arson and he wanted to get to the bottom of it.

That’s what scares me. Because they’ll start looking around. And maybe they’ll look in Caroline’s room. And maybe . . .

I keep telling myself it was an accident. Of course it was.

But then I wake up at night, and I’m back in her room with those candles. And I ask myself, suppose it wasn’t an accident. Suppose . . .

But she wouldn’t. Would she? She was mad because I wouldn’t trade houses.

She called me a traitor.

I want to tell Mama. I want to tell her everything. About Caroline’s plan. About how I led her on. About the candles.

But suppose I tell her. She’ll say she has to call the Fire Department. I know she will. And then something awful will happen.

And it will be my fault.

Nancy Bourne’s stories have been published in Upstreet, The South Carolina Review, Summerset Review, Carolina Quarterly, Quiddity, Forge, Persimmon Tree, MacGuffin, Thin Air, Bluestem Magazine, The Long Story, and Shadowgraph. One of these stories was nominated for the 2016 Pushcart Prize.

“Yeah, That’s It” by Charles Israel, Jr.

that’s the sound, he thought. He turned around fast, as fast as he might have 20 years ago, and saw nothing. A sound like that once in a day, you could ignore it; twice in one day, okay, you could pretend you hadn’t heard it, although pretending left you wincing; but the third time in one day, like right now? You couldn’t ignore it. Just like you couldn’t ignore what you know you shouldn’t ignore.

If it wasn’t coming from the neighbors, if it wasn’t coming from outside. Well, it could be from inside the house, right above his head, from a ceiling timber that, with the cold weather coming, had contracted—and sent out a loud crack. Although the house was old, it didn’t seem old enough to warrant such a sound as this.

He was sure it wasn’t a human sound—no words, or a yell, or a scream. But if it were the kind of sound that could only be caused by a human? His wife Claire was at work, selling houses, and his daughter Isabelle was still at the high school, rehearsing the senior play. There was no human in the house but him.

Just a loud crack, not a run of sounds, not a tenor singing a scale, but a long pause and then, the single crack, like the unfurling and cracking of a whip—a small sonic boom.

A ghost? Yeah, a ghost. Well then, it would have to be a ghost of somebody he knew, because the sound sure was familiar.

Late afternoon was swooning in the arms of evening. The golden drapes in the living room were sliding off their rods, getting swept out through the windows, and flying off into the late-afternoon sky. Here he was, in the middle of middle age, halfway to a hundred.

The master suite—where he was—took up the entire third story of the house, with its ceiling clipped. Floors of heart pine, a wood that whispered in fine echo. In their early days in the house, when Isabelle was small, he and Claire had danced up here on the third floor, and had called it their private ballroom. When Claire danced in her high heels, a little echo catching between the heart pine and the curved leather sole.

Of course, it could be coming from deep in the house, like in the closed-off chimney whose insides no smoke had tickled in years.

Could it be the new device downstairs, the one Claire had installed, saying it could run their whole house? It came with a screen and was connected, without wires, to so many things. It could put on security, start the stove warming, play a little song for Isabelle when she walked in the front door from school or the play, and in the computer’s soft female voice coming through the textured speakers, tell Isabelle what her snack was, on those afternoons when he was still at the business he inherited, or when Claire was late from yoga or selling homes.

But surely, right, the sound was coming from outside. Then, it might be easier to stop.

From the north dormer, he might spot a hawk in the crest of the tallest willow oak, crying out, which sometimes happened; from the east, he could see the house next door, with the chickens cooped in the backyard because the more the hawk let fly his call, the more the chickens stopped their clucking; from the south, facing another neighbor’s house and backyard, came no shouting from Mrs. Zimmerfeld, who’d lost control of her mouth with a stroke.

The west’s three-windowed dormer looked out over his own backyard. He walked over to the clear triptych and knelt on the cushioned bench. The west had the longest view: in the lower terrace stood a reduced stand of loblolly pines, tall trees whose branches began only at the top third of the trunk. When the ice storm hit last winter, you could hear the icy needles tinkling, and these big beautiful trees started snapping in half. But Claire only woke up when the trunks started breaking. They sounded like an artillery stonk.

If it wasn’t a person, or something outside the house, could it be a something on the inside? Just, well, could it be? Hearing such sounds wasn’t the sort of thing you’d want to tell the guys down at the business, even if you did own it.

Not sure, not sure either that he should tell Claire about the sound, not yet, not when she got home tonight after yoga or a late real-estate showing. Didn’t want to sound like an idiot trying to describe a sound that he couldn’t describe to himself. Of late, ever since the sound had started, he’d been repairing to the first-floor guest room to sleep, to ascertain where the sound was coming from, whether it could be heard on the first floor as well. It seemed like good detective work, and Claire seemed to understand.

Sometimes, instead of speaking, he would just hear the things he planned to say, knocking around his head, like a skull inside his own skull. When you heard yourself talk, when the bones of the ear lightly struck—was that the sound you should be afraid of?

It made him dream for no sound. Like you had two headphones cupping your ears and the only sound in them were the eddies of short, quick air currents, and the only other sound being your own thoughts.

Was it worth calling out to the sound? Because if it was a person, then yeah. Something neutral, an opening—like “hello,” or nice like “sweetie”? But “Sweetie” was also a closing. It was the last line in an email, or a message, or a love letter from a lost lover.

There it was again—the sound. The fourth time, the fourth in one day. This time, he called out to it, “Sweetie!”

israelCharles Israel, Jr. teaches creative writing at Queens University of Charlotte. His poetry chapbook, Stacking Weather, was published by Amsterdam Press. He’s also had poems and stories in Field, The Cortland Review, Crazyhorse, Zone 3, Eleven Eleven, Journal of the American Medical Association, North Carolina Literary Review, and Nimrod International Journal.