Things I think about while swimming.
by Hope Chernov

First Place, Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize

Winner 2015 Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize

I swim most days after work, at first because Prescription-Happy Hindu Granny told me to, but now I look forward to it.   The water has become my respite, the soft aqua antidote to my other life, the noisy Kodachrome one, where staying afloat requires more than the flimsy raft with which I’ve been equipped. When I swim, my breath is the only thing, in and out. It doesn’t always stop the thoughts but it slows them down enough so they don’t take over the whole operation. Though sometimes I feel like the thoughts are the only thing I have. Pshaw, Hindu Granny says, Thoughts are overrated. I say, But where would mankind be without thoughts? Happy, she says, tearing the sheet from her little pad and thrusting it at me. Fair enough, I say.

 

Prescription-Happy Hindu Granny was ‘put in my path ’ while completing twelve weeks of what I refer to as my spiritual rejuvenation at an all-inclusive facility. Entry into the program proved difficult; after several attempts that left the acceptance committee unmoved, I upped the ante with my latest effort, Still Life with Stoli and Tranquilizers. That got me in. I graduated with honors, voted least likely to eat Drano when the shitstorm hits by all but two nurses, one of whom sent me back into the world with inspirational parting words.   At your age dumpling, she said, her eyes rheumy and unblinking, It ain’t cute no more. I stared back at her, speechless. She buzzed me out into the sideways sleet and called after me, Get your shit together, dumpling. Next stop is State. That’s the end of the line. You hear? I pulled the hood of my sweatshirt up and walked faster. I did not look back.

 

The facility helped me secure a living wage and an apartment, for which I am grateful. I work as a machinist in a vitamin factory, bringing wellness to the masses one bottle at a time. It’s shift work, dull as dishwater but it keeps me to myself and out of trouble. The apartment is one-fourth of a partially subsidized quad, dingy but adequate, occupied by some other alumni of the facility with whom I have little contact but for my neighbor’s sudden howls of despair in the wee small hours.   The ululating, tribal, shocking, is an effective reminder that I’m not out of the woods, not by a long shot, and might never be. But if I can hold down the job, keep regular with Hindu Granny and eventually get a place with thicker walls, who knows, maybe I can make a go of it.

 

Swimming helps. The smell of chlorine and mildew is so strong in the ladies locker room I can taste it. Puritanical chemical on relentless mission to destroy promiscuous, laughing fungi. The battle rages as I change into my other uniform, a one-piece navy blue racerback, austere, serious. Just wait till I get my goggles and cap on, crazy pale alien reptile lady, the skin on my legs so dry it clings to my pants like Velcro. It’s okay, I’ll be in the water soon.

 

There’s a girl some lockers down from me. She’s twelve, I’m guessing. Here for Marjorie, I’m 97% certain. Her face is wide open and sweet, her thin, lightly freckled arms extending out of a Hello Kitty tankini. She’s untying the drawstring on her pants, these patchwork sweatpant-type pants that look very crafty and comfortable. Nice pants I say. She looks over and says Thanks, I made them. Pleased with herself, spunky. Stay that way, I want to tell her.

 

I check myself in the mirror. Brutal. Legs sallow and dry, like freshly plucked chicken thighs dredged in corn meal and ready for hot grease. Fucking chlorine. This is why I ordered the brushes. Dry brushing my entire body every day from head to toe will yield glowing skin and major benefits to the lymph system or my money back. I have to keep the original packaging is all. The lymph nodes, you’ve got to keep them clear, Prescription-Happy Hindu Granny told me this, or all kinds of things build up in there, so you brush and clear them out and spectacular health awaits. I figure with smooth skin and sparkling lymph nodes, the world is my oyster.

 

On the pool deck I see spunky patchwork pants girl talking to an overgrown man in a chair, or maybe the chair is too small. I give one of her errant brown curls a tug as I pass. She’s mad but when she sees me she smiles. The overgrown man looks at me and gives a slight nod. Her father, I presume. Or her much older lover. Or her father and her much older lover. There’s a name embroidered on his jacket. Gary. Gary’s eyes, almond shaped, Asian almost, they stay with me. I wonder what goes on with Gary, average white guy with Asian eyes, Gary bald on top with dark hair on the sides of his head, Gary with a spunky daughter. Gary looks sad, a little beaten down. We have that in common.

 

I sit at the edge of the pool, my legs dangling in the water. It feels colder than usual. I’m fantasizing about biscuits and gravy when a swarthy, hirsute type in a too-snug Speedo saunters up to the ‘fast’ lane – think Mark Spitz gone to seed – and proceeds to windmill his rotator cuffs into submission. I used to swim ‘fast’ too until Hindu Granny told me to try slowing down.   What’s the rush? Where’s the fire? she says. In my brain, I tell her. That’s what drugs are for, she says.   So I swim ‘medium’ as an exercise in restraint. It’s hard for me as it goes against my nature, but at least it’s not the ‘slow’ lane, which I would rechristen ‘why bother.’ There’s a strawberry-haired lady in there now holding tiny barbells, languidly floating upright across the pool, her pendulous breasts bouncing gently back and forth in unison. It’s like she’s walking on the moon.

 

I dive. It’s always a shock, the stinging slap of cold water on my flailing limbs, but at the first flip turn I hear Marjorie shouting her raspy voiced instructions, and it calms me. Marjorie’s really good with the kids, so good that she can yell at them because she wants them to be better and they know it. She’s what my Dead Real Granny would call a spitfire – pronounced spitfar – lean and wiry, hair the color and texture of straw braided long down her back, coke-bottle eyeglasses. Her skin is very dry. I suppose I could tell her about the body brushing, but I’m not on those terms with Marjorie. We don’t stop to chat.

 

By lap five I’m ravenous. I haven’t eaten today because I’m fasting. Actually what I’m doing is called ‘intermittent starvation,’ which I heard some radio doctor tout as having ‘enormous physical benefits,’ none of which I can recall because I’m so damn hungry. Twice a week I’m supposed to limit myself to 500 calories. I haven’t mentioned this to Hindu Granny because she’ll tell me I’m batshit crazy, but I got very excited about it, again I can’t remember why, though it has something to do with fasting=healthy=happy. All I know is a ‘rustic’ salad of iceberg lettuce and green pepper is what’s for dinner back at the quad, when what I really want is to drive to the damn Red Lobster for clam chowder and oyster crackers.

 

Hindu Granny says I have a bee in my bonnet about the damn Red Lobster. She’s not wrong. I pass it every day on the way to the pool.   There’s a portable sign with changeable letters at the parking lot entrance, which lately reads Hurry in for the One and Only Endless Shrimp! $9.95 +tax. See, this is the kind of thing that can really fuck with me. Endless, like, infinity? How is it possible? Why is it possible? I mean, the shrimp – the endless shrimp – they’re coming from the ocean presumably, but the ocean is drying up, we know this, this is common knowledge, not to mention the fact that there’s a shortage of clean drinking water in the world and it’s serious. It’s a crisis. I mean, here I am trying to up my intake of water to eight glasses a day because I read that you should drink enough so that your urine is clear, and one day I peed and it was really yellow, like almost green, and I immediately started drinking more water after that. Turns out I had eaten asparagus, which I later learned can turn your pee greenish- yellow, okay false alarm, but still, I figure drinking more water can only help matters. But nowadays, you go to a restaurant and sit down and they don’t even give you a nice cold glass of water anymore, you have to ask for it, and even then it’s probably full of lead and mercury and who knows what else, but why think about that when there’s more pressing issues at stake, like eating shrimp until you explode. I find the whole thing very weird and disturbing, and Hindu Granny doesn’t give a shit, she’s sitting across from me dumbstruck, her eyelids at half-mast. I suspect she may be dozing off until I notice her fingers moving along the curved trunk of a little ceramic Ganesha. Finally she says, Alright, calm down already. Calm down? I say. Have you heard a word I’ve said? I have, she says. I say, Well what do you think? She says, I think you’ve got bigger problems than endless bloody shrimp.   Fair enough, I say. Though if we were talking about endless bloody cow I bet she’d be eating pharmaceuticals by the fistful.

 

Starting to chill out. Still hungry, less itchy. Finding my rhythm. There are times in the pool when the thoughts slow down and I get past the fatigue and my muscles relax, and the water feels like it’s taking me along and my limbs are moving as if I’m not even controlling them, and all I have to do is breathe. And in that moment I think maybe Hindu Granny does know what she’s talking about, that maybe I can do this life thing, I can do life. Though it sticks in my craw that she won’t take my insurance, some ‘out of network’ doublespeak, so I pay her $40 cash, plus free vitamins. Western poppycock, she mutters, rolling the bottle into her drawer that locks with a skeleton key.

 

It’s raining as I pass the damn Red Lobster on the drive home. Don’t. Do not. That goddamn shrimp, it won’t let me live. I turn around and pull into the parking lot. A little information – knowledge is power – then I can let it go. It’s hard to find a parking spot; inside, the lobby is packed with people lining up for endless shrimp even in this shit weather. The hostess, a college girl with absurdly shiny blonde hair is standing behind a podium making marks in a big book. I say Excuse me, and without looking up she says Table for one? No, I say. Take out? she says. Actually, I say, can I ask about the endless shrimp? I’m sorry, she says, the endless shrimp is for dine-in only but I can seat you right away at a one-top if you’d like, and I say No thanks, I’d just like to ask a few questions and she says, I’m sorry, we are really busy, can you give me a sec? Okay, I say, I’ll wait, and also you know what, I’ll take some clam chowder to go. She says Manhattan or New England? I say the white kind, New England, and she says Have a seat and I’ll call you when it’s ready. I’m compelled to clarify that Manhattan clam chowder is technically not chowder, but I have bigger fish to fry, so to speak. Anyway, Hindu Granny would be proud of my restraint.

 

I wait by the lobster tank. Six extremely large, young men wearing identical football jerseys lumber in, shaking themselves off like wet dogs. I know why they’re here. It ain’t for the salad bar. I look at the lobsters, piled on top of each other, their claws bound together with rubber bands. One sits off to the side alone, staring at me with his little black eyes. I think of Gary sitting at the pool, an overgrown lobster too big for his tank. The hostess says Knight party of 3, Knight party of 3 into a microphone, at which point a rawboned, gray woman and a paunchy, ash blond manchild rise solemnly from a banquette. A purse is dropped and picked up with great effort. The woman says Let’s go to an older gentleman next to her, Mr. Knight I presume, who follows behind, wan, resigned. By the looks of them I predict Mrs. Knight will start with the shrimp fra diavolo, Manboy will have shrimp scampi and halfway through the meal they’ll trade plates, then each order something different – because it’s endless! –maybe Cajun shrimp or shrimp Alfredo, and halfway through that they’ll trade off again, and they’ll keep doing that until Mrs. Knight feels like she’s gotten her money’s worth or Manboy pukes, whichever comes first. Mr. Knight will order flounder just to be a shit disturber. This poor lobster. He’s lonely. He needs a friend.

 

I leave without my chowder.

 

Driving home, I was distracted. Gary’s eyes were in my head. The rain evaporated into thick, black fog, which made for an eerie, perilous ride. I arrived shaken and starving at the quad, only to discover a head of limp, brown lettuce and a shrunken, oddly shaped green pepper that was robust by comparison. Discouraged, I went to bed. I fell asleep quickly but woke up an hour or two later, which lately has become the regular. Water clanged violently through the radiator. My neighbor was howling. I considered making herbal tea, but masturbated instead. Dead end. Fucking meds. Then I tried to become very still and empty my mind of all thoughts, which Hindu Granny says helps her fall asleep. She also gave me some Ambien but I refuse to take it on the grounds that she’s prescription happy and sabotaging my already tenuous efforts to live a pharmaceutical-free life. Lying there, it felt impossible to not think any thoughts, but she said that would happen and not to worry because it’s normal and the thoughts eventually go away, you just have to watch them come and go. Howling. Fuck it, maybe I will take an Ambien.

 

The alarm goes off at 4. Rise and shine. Get out of bed, shuffle onto cold kitchen linoleum and switch on buzzing fluorescent light. Line up meds, fill one full glass of water, do I really need meds, no I don’t, yes I do, there’s the rub, I take them and I feel like I don’t need them but that means they’re working. Repeat, that means they’re working. Swallow meds with residual conflict. Get dressed, go out in damp, cold, too-early darkness, start shitty car which turns over weakly and sputters out, restart shitty car, pray shitty car starts, lament not having not-shitty car, lament terrible life without means to buy not-shitty car, shitty car turns over, give grudging thanks to shitty car. Drive to work, my shift starts at 5 and ends at 2 though I stay till 3, the overtime helps and nobody seems to notice. Lately I’ve been picking up weekend shifts too, which Hindu Granny frowns upon. She thinks I need to get out more and ‘interact with the world,’ behaviors I deem to be overrated. I punch in, slip on blue scrubs and wrestle into latex gloves, make like I’m prepping for surgery. I greet Stu out on the floor, he’s on, ready to shit vitamins by the 60 count. I’ve been advised to take good care of my machine, my machine is my friend, and I agree, though I think Stu takes better care of me. He never makes a mistake. We get into a rhythm together, no words to get in the way, just his grinding gears and the tablets tumbling into plastic containers, the sound reminds me of my Dead Real Granny pouring beans into a cast iron pot to soak.

 

Later, at the pool, I see Gary sitting on the deck, all jutting limbs and acute angles shoved into in his chair. He sees me and gives a little hint of a smile with those sad, almond shaped eyes. I feel the fire ignite in my brain. Distress flare. Danger. Stay away. Or, maybe not. Maybe not something bad. Maybe something good, something happy, like bright starlight, guiding me, telling me that there’s some connection, some frequency detectable only to Gary and me. Maybe he’s lonely. Maybe spunky patchwork girl needs a stepmom. Maybe that’s why they were put in my path. I swim laps in the ‘medium’ lane and think about how I can make Gary my friend. Then I think about what it would be like to kiss Gary. Then I think about what it would be like to have his cock in my mouth, like what if I just got out of the water and went over to him and got on my knees and sucked his cock. I wonder if he’d let me. I’d probably lose my pool privileges. So then I think about what I can say to Gary, maybe something like Hi I’ve seen you here before, would you want to meet for lunch or something? And I could suggest the Red Lobster, not for endless shrimp but maybe for one of the lunch specials, which I hear are good. Maybe Gary needs a friend, a real friend. Maybe that Hindu Granny is a genius.

 

I’m in my street clothes when Gary’s daughter comes into the locker room. I must act. Carpe diem. I wait just outside the door, then follow her down a long hallway to a sort of café, a kiosk, where people drink coffee and Gatorade and work on laptops. Gary is sitting alone at a small table, sipping from a Styrofoam cup and reading a thick book. He reads; somehow this bodes well. His daughter joins him and he closes the book. I take a step toward them then hesitate, my heart throbbing wildly in my throat. I conjure the image of the three of us laughing and enjoying refreshments together; buoyed, I take a breath and approach. Hi, I say, louder than intended. His daughter jumps a little; I think I startled her. Gary looks at me, then to her, then back to me again and nods, almost imperceptibly. I search his eyes for a trace of warmth or familiarity, but they remain distant, maybe a little suspicious. Can I help you? he says. Is your name Garrett? I say, still too loud, in a voice that makes me think of the hostess at the Red Lobster talking into the microphone. I repeat, Is your name Garrett? pretending that I hadn’t already asked. My name’s Gary, he says. Oh, I say, Sorry, you look like someone I know. His eyes dart around the room and back to his daughter, and he leans into her and says something that I can’t hear. She nods silently. After a moment I say Is this your daughter? Yes, he says. She’s quite the swimmer, I say. I turn to her and say I really like those pants you made, those patchwork pants?   I think it’s really impressive that you made them yourself, something so creative and practical. She smiles weakly without looking at me. I go on, You sewed them, right? My Granny used to sew. It’s a really good skill to have. Then she asks her father if she can get a drink, and she leaves, and it’s just Gary and me. His long fingers are flitting back and forth along the cover of his book, which I notice is Moby Dick. Hey, call me Ishmael, I say. Then, Are you sure your name isn’t Garrett? Finally he looks straight at me and says, What do you want? The chatter around us stops. I feel intense heat rise in my face and neck, and suddenly none of it is real, I’m in a play and so is Gary, and the café people are the audience, only I don’t know what I’m supposed to say next. Then slowly, Gary stands. His cheeks are flushed. The corner of his mouth twitches a little. What do you want? he repeats, louder. I want to be your friend, I say, in a voice I don’t recognize, small, like a girl. He leans in towards me, so close that for a moment I think he might kiss me. Quietly he says, I don’t know who you are, okay? So stay away from me, and stay the hell away from my daughter. Do you understand? I smell peppermint. His eyes, strange and hard now, stay locked with mine. Yes, I understand. Slowly he sits down and opens his book. I take this as my cue to exit.

 

The sign for endless shrimp is gone. It now says Join the Fresh Catch Club Today! Inside, a different, not so shiny hostess says Table for one? What happened to the endless shrimp? I say. Excuse me? she says. Oh sorry, that ended. I say, But it’s endless. Ha ha, she says, forced. I’m serious, I say. Oh, she says, and then slower and a little louder, Right, that promotion ended, but you can still order any shrimp item off the menu à la carte, and I say I don’t think you understand, I’m asking what happened to the endless shrimp? Um, she says, it ended? I stare back at her. Then she says One moment, I’ll get the manager. I wait by the lobster tank. I see the one who was staring at me, I recognize his little purple elastics. This is the end of the line for him. How long does he have to wait like that, with his claws bound shut? It’s goddamn cruel. The hostess returns with the manager, who has a ruddy face and dead eyes and a crew cut and wears a thin knitted tie. He says Can I help you, I understand you have a question, and I say Yes I do, I would like to know what happened to the endless shrimp. And the manager says, Well that promotion has ended, and I interrupt him, I say, I know I can order shrimp off the menu à la carte, I know that, what I am asking you is what happened to them? Ma’am, he says, I’m not sure I understand your question. I’m thinking, Shit, dumbass, what don’t you understand? Then he hands me a business card and says Ma’am, that promotion has ended, I’m very sorry about that, but feel free to call the number on this card, this is the regional manager who will be happy to answer any questions you may have. I say, So this person knows what happened to the shrimp? You’re telling me if I call this number, this person will be able to tell me what happened to the endless shrimp now that your little promotion has ended? Yes, Ma’am, he says, that is correct. I think you’re bullshitting me, I say. I do, I think you’re bullshitting me, you and your hair and your tie, I don’t think you or this regional motherfucker or anybody knows what happened to the shrimp. Ma’am, the manager says, I’m going to have to ask you to leave now. Fine, I say, nevermind. You people obviously cannot help me. I turn to go, and there he is again, the lobster, staring right at me. I thrust my arm in the water, pull him out and turn to the manager and hostess, holding him above my head. This lobster needs a friend, I say. A real friend. Do you understand? The hostess is biting her lip. The manager picks up the phone. My sleeve is soaked up to my armpit, foul smelling tank water is dripping down the side of my body and into the waist of my jeans. People are looking over now, and everything gets very still. The manager is talking quietly into the phone. This is the end of the line, dumpling. You hear? It ain’t cute no more.

 

I drive to the pool. Breathe, in and out. In the parking lot I call Hindu Granny. It goes straight to voice mail. I leave a message. FUCKING INDIAN WHORE, WHAT THE FUCK GOOD ARE YOU. I rifle through my purse until I find the little plastic bottle, untwist the cap and toss the contents out the car window. Pills scatter like orange-red tadpoles across an asphalt sea.

 

The woman at the front desk says The pool is closing in 15 minutes. Okay great, I say. I change and head up to the deck, which is empty except for Marjorie. She’s moving a wheelchair to the edge of the far lane. Nearby, a head of thick, black ringlets bobs gently on the water’s surface. I hear a noise that reminds me of Stu. Slowly the head begins to rise, followed by a thin, pale white torso, that of a young man. The contraption that lifts him stops with a loud, rusty echo, and the young man hovers waist deep in the gurgling water. His head, still wobbling unsteadily, becomes too heavy for his delicate neck and slumps. His mouth hangs open. I think of Jesus on the cross. Marjorie goes to him and tosses his lifeless arms around her shoulders, and with considerable effort, hoists him up and into the wheelchair. She talks softly to him as she dries him with a towel. She sees me and gives a nod. I dive into the ‘fast’ lane and freestyle like something’s chasing me.

 

Tell me something. Tell you what. Anything. Tell me something about when you were young. Don’t think she said Just talk. Say whatever comes to mind. Okay. My first slow dance. Good, she said. Go on. The junior high social. A boy I’d never seen before was standing alone with his hands in his pockets by the gymnasium double doors. He was tall and skinny. His head was bowed but I could see his eyes peering over at me. I looked back at him, just long enough so he knew that it was okay to come. He slowly walked over and held out his hand. My name’s Garrett, he said. He led me to the dance floor. Boz Scaggs was singing about looking at the moon and feeling blue, and under a blue light Garrett and I began to sway awkwardly. As the song went on, we relaxed. He drew me closer, his hands on my waist, and I let my fingers creep ever so slightly up the back of his neck, because I had seen a lady on television do that and it seemed like the right thing to do. We swayed like that for a while, and he never took his eyes off me. His sad, almond shaped eyes. When the song ended, the lights in the gymnasium came on, sudden and bright. The dance was over. I went to get my purse, I had left it on a chair, and when I came back, Garrett was gone. I searched for him in the throng of people moving toward the exit – I wanted to at least say goodbye – but I couldn’t find him. I waited until most of the gym had cleared out, I thought that maybe he was somewhere too, waiting to say goodbye to me, but it was as if he vanished into thin air. I looked for him the next day in school, and in the days that followed, scanning hallways, the lunchroom, the auditorium. I never saw him. I began to wonder if I had imagined him, if the slow dance really happened. Eventually, I stopped looking and forgot about him. But once in a while he pops into my head and I wonder what happened to him. Garrett and his sad eyes. Now the only eyes gazing upon me are Hindu Granny’s brown, heavy-lidded orbs. They look like they hold the secrets of the universe. You need a friend, she said. I have a friend, I said. Not Stu, she said, a real friend. You’re my friend, I said. I am most certainly not your friend, she said in a voice that made my eyes sting. I’m too fucked up to have a friend, I said. My dear child, said Hindu Granny gently, nobody in this life is too fucked up to have a friend.

 

A bell like an alarm rings out. The pool is closing. I go to the locker room and shower. The warm water feels good on my dry, goose-pimpled skin. I haven’t noticed much of a difference since I started using the brushes, but they say you have to do it for a while, maybe a month or more before you see results. Patience, says Hindu Granny with downward patting hands. Patience, my dear child.

 

Marjorie is standing in the locker room, brushing her long hair. She wears a hunter green polo shirt tucked into pleated khakis with a thin, braided belt, very crisp and clean. She says Hello. I say Hello. After a few moments she says, Your freestyle is beautiful to watch. I was so taken aback, I actually felt myself blush. Thanks, I say. You’ve been swimming a long time, she says. I swam in high school, I say, but I’m just now getting back to it. You’re a natural, she says. She continues brushing her hair, then pulls it back and twists it into a bun that sits at the nape of her neck.   She closes her locker, picks up her bag and says Well, goodnight. Goodnight, I say.

 

I’m on my hands and knees in the parking lot. This feels like a low point. I hear a gentle, raspy voice behind me say Did you lose something? Marjorie. I lost some pills, I say. Actually, I threw them out the window. It’s so dumb. She says Can I help? and before I can protest she’s down on the ground groping with me. Between us we find three pills intact. We get up and I see the knees of her khakis are dirty. I feel bad, so I ask Marjorie if she knows where to get a cup of coffee, and would she like to join me. There’s a diner not far from here she says. Why don’t you follow me. Okay, I say, I’ll follow you.

 

I have coffee. Marjorie has cherry pie à la mode. I sit across from her, examining her lined face, her pale, hazel eyes made larger by the thick lenses of her glasses. Several course white hairs sprout from her upper lip. She eats methodically, making sure that pie and ice cream are represented equally in each spoonful. Then she wipes her mouth with a napkin, and with finality slides her plate aside and rests her folded hands on the table. Tell me your life story, she says. I laugh. Sip my coffee. She looks at me like she’s considering something, her face disconcertingly serene. I’m dealing with some issues right now, is the only thing I can think to say. I look away so she doesn’t see a tear escape the corner of my eye. The waitress appears with more coffee. I peel the top off a little plastic container of cream and pour it into my cup, slowly stirring. I can feel Marjorie’s eyes on me. We sit for a while longer, not saying much, then I pay the check and we leave.

 

Thank you for the pie, Marjorie says in the parking lot. Thanks for helping me find my meds, I say. Then she says, I’ve been looking for someone to help me out at the pool, teaching the kids. Would you be interested? Oh, I don’t know, I say, feeling like I could cry again, so stupid and self-conscious. If Hindu Granny were here she’d be rolling her eyes in exasperation. Sorry, I say, inexplicably, and Marjorie just smiles. Then, she lays a gentle hand on my shoulder and says You know, I’ve been working with kids for a long time, and I’ll let you in on a secret. It helps to be a little crazy. Goodnight she says, and drives off.

 

The next day I go to see Hindu Granny. Well, well, she says. I apologize for chucking my meds, for the rude voice mail. Pshaw, she says with a wave of her hand. You know, my mother-in-law called me a whore when I married her son. But she grew to love me, rest her soul. I talk for some time while Hindu Granny listens. When I’m through she says nothing, just takes the small pad and pen from her desk drawer. I mention coffee with Marjorie as she writes. Sounds maybe like a friend, she says. She tears the paper from the pad and hands it to me. Maybe, I say.

 

I drive to the pool. In the locker room, a group of girls wearing matching red bathing suits chatter like little birds. Gary’s daughter is among them. She sees me, I think she might have smiled but I look away before our eyes can meet. I change and listen to snippets of conversation floating around me. A cute boy, an exam, shampoo that smells like green apples. Then I hear her voice above the others, I can’t swim without my goggles. I look over. She’s upset. The other girls search in vain for spares. Here, I say. I take a pair from my bag and hold them out to her. She says, But how will I get them back to you? Keep them, I say. Really? she says. Keep them, I say, I have extras. Her face brightens. Thank you, she says, accepting them. You’re welcome, I say. The sound of lockers slamming shut and in a flash the girls vanish, their sunny voices echoing softly in my ears.

 

On the deck, Marjorie is standing at the far lane of the pool, signaling the red-suited girls to dive in, one after the other. Behind her people sit in stands and watch. Gary is there, Moby Dick in his lap. I stand at the water’s edge and consider the three empty lanes before me. I adjust my goggles and cap. Finally, I dive into the ‘slow’ lane. I was tired at first and felt like I wouldn’t go very long. Slowing down is a lot harder than it looks. But eventually I found my rhythm and relaxed, and it was as if the water was guiding me, my limbs moving in perfect harmony and without effort, and all I had to do was breathe.

The 4-D Dog
by April Kelly

Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize

Finalist 2015 Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize

Considering the number of dog owners in America, it is safe to speculate that on any given day a small percentage of the population wakes to find an unpleasant mess on the floor, as did Dylan Carter one Thursday in March. The difference between him and the others who made such a discovery that morning is Dylan did not own a dog. And he lived one hundred and twelve stories up on the card-access-only penthouse floor of the newest and tallest building in Chicago.

A year earlier, when he’d made partner in one of the most successful law firms in Illinois, Dylan believed he had added the third and final point to his golden triangle of desirability as a man. The Carter family fortune—by then laundered through four generations to cleanse it of its unsavory robber-baron origins—had ensured his privileged position in society from the day of his birth. It had also led him to view the rarified spectrum from which he would eventually select a mate as a quite narrow strip at the zenith of womankind.

A second unearned gift, that of good genetics, had made Dylan tall, well-proportioned and movie star handsome. A glance at photos of his maternal grandfather assured him he would never succumb to male-pattern baldness, and he would keep his meticulously razored hair well into old age, one day seeing it turn from black to silver.

He understood his lofty position and unlimited money could attract a top-quality woman, but the addition of incredible good looks guaranteed he could aim as high as he chose for that one perfect gem of femininity who deserved to share his life.

Making partner had fanned away any lingering whiff of the spoiled trust fund baby surrounding Dylan Carter, as he had worked hard to earn the reward on his own. Ready at last to begin an earnest search for a wife, he stopped dating the actresses, supermodels and avant-garde artists who had assisted him in sowing (without germination) the wild oats of his raging-hormones twenties, and started seriously assessing the debutantes, heiresses and royalty-adjacent European beauties who comprised the lofty plane of females in which he felt entitled to browse.

The heiress sleeping in his bed that morning when he slipped from under the covers to go make coffee had taken the reins of her family’s company at age 28, after her father had a stroke. For the six months it took him to recuperate and return, she kept things running well enough to show the old man he would not have cause to regret the lack of a son when the time came to turn over the company for good.

Paige was refined, intelligent, a Vassar grad and definitely on Dylan’s radar screen as a potential. They had sniffed each other out at galas, fund-raisers and charity 10Ks for months before having dinner at Henri last week, and their second date had ended in mutually gratifying sex the night before. Paige had checked all the right boxes on his application form for the future Mrs. Carter, Dylan thought.

Right up until his bare foot sank into a pile of excrement on his cream-colored wool Berber carpet.

The one-word expletive he cried when he looked down was singularly appropriate to the occasion. He reflexively jerked his foot up from the stinking mess, which threw him off balance so that he had to set it down again immediately to prevent falling over. This action left a perfect print of five toes and the ball of a foot rendered in umber ten inches from the mother load.

After glancing over his shoulder to make sure his outcry hadn’t woken Paige, he hopped to the kitchen on one foot, stopping in front of the sink and holding onto it with one hand while opening the cabinet below with the other. He was fairly sure Carmen stashed the cleaning supplies there.

Having never been required to wash anything other than his own body for thirty-three years, Dylan paused before the dizzying array of cans, sprayers, sponges and wipes. The bottle promising a “fresh scent of citrus” seemed just the thing to counter the foul smell wafting up from his suspended foot, so he squirted liberally before using a wad of paper towels to scour his sole.

Two more rounds of spritzing and swabbing finally satisfied him he was no longer tainted, so he carried the bottle, the roll of paper towels and the kitchen trash can out to the living room, where he knelt to do what pet owners have been doing since the first dog was allowed into the first cave.

Fifteen minutes later Dylan carried the plastic garbage bag to the chute by the elevator, returned to scrub his hands multiple times, then put up the coffee. He watched the liquid drip into the pot, unnerved by the events of the morning and, when Paige emerged from the bedroom, drawn by the aroma of Jamaican Blue, he eyed her with suspicion but dared not ask the question.

It wasn’t a story he could repeat to his colleagues at Durham, Kempe, Walliston, Finch and Carter, or to his family, but Dylan needed to vent. Luckily, Gary Delgado was free for lunch. Dylan didn’t ask his assistant to book a table at any of his usual high-end restaurants, as Gary was certain to show up wearing a tee-shirt from his eclectic collection, most likely with at least one offensive word in the humorous saying splashed across his chest. He asked Gary to meet him at Jo-Jo’s, their school days’ haunt.

They sat outside at a small metal table, its pedestal as wobbly as it had been twenty years earlier when the two had exercised their newly gained teen independence by dining al fresco on hot dogs and curly fries. The Carters had frowned on their son’s friendship with Gary. Although the children attended the same ultra-exclusive private school, the Delgado boy was on full scholarship, fluked in on the bases of scholastic achievement and high IQ, rather than the guidelines more predictive of future success: millions and millions of dollars.

Gary was one of those quirky people of whom can truly be said doesn’t live up to potential. Too scattered in his thinking to focus on a single career path, too inclined to follow every Alice down every rabbit hole, and too willing to test drive the latest club drugs, Gary earned a living doing what he called “this and that,” basically whatever held his attention right then. Several ingenious patents guaranteed a flow of income, but Gary let it accumulate in a savings account, never motivated to invest it, move it to a higher-interest resting place, or spend it on a more genteel life. He didn’t run in Dylan’s circle, but he had never aspired to, valuing the friendship despite their worlds intersecting so rarely.

After a debate over the ideal condiments for a hot dog, one that had pitted mustard and relish against ketchup and onions for two decades, Dylan recounted the story of the morning’s events. Gary, no newcomer to the world of peculiar sex practices and the wide range of strange indulged in by human beings, took the story at face value and asked Dylan if he was going to see her again.

“Oh, hells no!” Dylan’s usually impeccable communications skills always relaxed in his old friend’s company.

The last of the shared curly fries fell to the quicker fingers of the man in the business suit and the two did their backslapping good-bye, assuming a couple months would pass before they saw each other again.

That’s why Gary was so surprised by the early phone call the next morning asking him to come to Dylan’s condo ASAP. The doorman gave Gary the stink-eye, blanching when he read the tee-shirt, but allowed him in after calling Mr. Carter to verify the guest’s welcome.

Dylan threw open the door before Gary’s knock was done. “Come and take a look,” was all he said before turning and heading down the hallway. Gary shut the door and followed. The first thing he saw on entering his friend’s bedroom was Dylan, still in pajamas, pointing at the floor a few feet away. Even without the gross visual Gary would have known what was on the carpet by the disgusting smell.

“Dude, I thought you weren’t going to see her again.”

“I didn’t! I was alone all night and when I woke up, that was here.”

Gary considered this for a moment before asking, “Are you by any chance using Ambien?”

“No, why?”

“Well, some people who take it get up and eat in their sleep, and others try to drive their car. I thought maybe you could be a sleep-crapper.”

“Jeez, Gary, look at it. That’s from a dog, not a person.”

With sealed windows and only the one entry, there was no possible ingress for a canine unless it knew what code to paw into the keypad. And that’s after it talked its way past the guard.

Dylan and Gary opened every drawer, closet and cabinet. They checked the screws in the vent covers for the heat and A/C, felt along the walls for hidden seams that would indicate a secret panel or trap door. Nothing. And no sign of a dog. At the end of the two-hour search, a frustrated Dylan asked, “How is some filthy mutt getting into my condo?”

“Okay, I think we’re dealing with one of three things here,” Gary said. “A ghost dog, a canine-like alien or a dog from another dimension.” When Dylan stared at him incredulously, Gary hastened to add, “You’re right, the first two are stupid. What you have is a dog from another dimension.”

Queried as to why a dog from the fourth dimension would choose this particular condo in which to leave its three-dimensional poop, Gary pointed out they didn’t know for sure Dylan’s condo was the only one.

“And it isn’t necessarily the fourth dimension that it comes from. There are many other choices. Are you familiar with String Theory?”

When Dylan held up a hand to indicate he was not open to a physics lecture, Gary suggested he ask around to see if any of the other owners were having the same problem. Dylan couldn’t imagine how he would frame an inquiry of that sort to the chairman of the board of directors for the Chicago Symphony or the elderly widow who had founded the prestigious Cornelius Foundation.

Gary left, promising to give the problem a good, hard think. Dylan, too embarrassed to leave a note asking Carmen to dispose of the mess, cleaned it up himself. It was a humbling experience to do a job he wouldn’t ask his housekeeper to do.

For three more nights the poop fairy visited the condo, and Carmen had to add paper towels to her grocery list even though she was certain she had bought six rolls the week before. On the afternoon of the third day, Dylan’s assistant told him a Mr. Delgado was on the line.

“I think I have a fix,” Gary said. “What time do you get home?”

When Dylan’s driver stopped in front of the building, Gary was already waiting with a ten-pound bag of Purina One. The doorman didn’t dare cast a skeptical glance at the wild-haired man in the outrageous tee-shirt—Mr. Carter was among the building’s best tippers at Christmas—so when the men entered the lobby together, they were both greeted with a smile.

Once the elevator doors closed and Dylan slotted in his access card, he turned to Gary. “Dog food? I’m trying to get rid of the thing, not invite it to move in permanently.”

“Have you ever heard the old saying ‘don’t shit where you eat?’ Well, it isn’t only a morality guideline for horny businessmen.”

They filled one of Dylan’s hand-thrown ceramic pasta bowls with kibble and a second with water, then put them on a towel to protect the kitchen’s costly bamboo flooring. The next morning the food bowl was empty and the water was half-gone, but Dylan’s carpeting bore no unwanted gifts. He called Gary to tell him the ploy had been successful, but they both knew it was only a stopgap. Gary promised he was working on something more permanent.

Grocery shopping was a new experience for Dylan, but he had been unwilling to designate the buying of dog food to anyone who might ask questions. That’s why before leaving for work each morning he washed, dried and put away the two mementos of an old fling with a leggy blonde ceramicist. What Carmen didn’t know wouldn’t give her a reason to quit.

He and Gary spoke by phone several times a week, with Gary hinting he was on to something and asking Dylan to be patient. Meanwhile, Dylan fell into the routine of a dog owner, filling the large plastic bowls he had finally picked up in the pet food section of Albertson’s and setting them out every night before going to bed.

After a Friday evening wine tasting that had morphed into a serious putting-away of Grand Cru claret, Dylan came home and fell into bed without remembering to leave food and water for his invisible pet. He awoke the next morning with a hangover and a surprise on the carpet.

Five weeks after that first night deposit had disturbed his orderly existence, Dylan woke to a soft scrabbling sound coming from somewhere inside the condo. A glance at the digital clock on the nightstand told him it was 3:18 a.m., and, assuming the sound was being made by his canine visitor gobbling the kibble, he slipped from his 1200-thread-count cocoon and took a small flashlight from the drawer. He would finally get a look at the 4-D dog.

Moving silently across the carpet with the flashlight held loosely in his right hand, he exited the bedroom, deciding to leave the light off till he got to the kitchen so he could lay eyes on the dog before it had a chance to beam itself up, or whatever the hell it did to leave the condo every night. As he ninja’d his way down the wide hall, he realized the sound was not coming from the kitchen straight ahead, but from the living room to his left. Easing over to the archway that opened onto the vast sunken area dotted with leather couches, Eames chairs and Tiffany lamps, Dylan craned his neck to look inside. The tall windows that made up the west wall of his condo let in enough moonlight for him to see the empty space over the fireplace where his Matisse had hung and two very human figures taking down the Kandinsky from a multi-canvas grouping across the room.

With pounding heart he instantly knew the dog fiasco was part of an art theft scheme. He wasn’t sure how it all fit in—maybe to get him inured to sounds in the night so he wouldn’t wake up—but that had to be the answer. He was angry knowing he had been screwed with and angry his priceless paintings were being stolen, so he flipped the wall switch without considering the consequences. When light flooded the room, the two black-clad intruders dropped the Kandinsky and spun around to find Dylan bringing up his right hand.

“You! Stop!”

The first man saw a metallic glint off the flashlight and yelled, “Gun!” The second man whipped a pistol from his waistband and fired.

Thunder echoed off the high ceiling, but Dylan didn’t hear it until after the bullet had slammed him back against the wall. He slid down, pain radiating through him, as a second bullet exploded into the surface inches over his head. He watched the intruder walk toward him, weapon steady. The next shot would be the fatal one.

From the kitchen a snarling white shape launched itself at the gunman, fully airborne when it crashed into him and took him down. One shot went wild as the gun flew from the man’s hand and skidded across the floor. The second thief dived to retrieve the firearm.

Fighting to remain conscious, Dylan scrambled to his feet and made a dash for the alarm panel in his bedroom. Screaming sirens filled the condo but weren’t loud enough to cover the blast of another gunshot and an inhuman howl of pain. Knowing the building’s security team would arrive within minutes, Dylan shut and locked his bedroom door.

Gary found him in the emergency room four hours later, shortly after police detectives had taken Dylan’s statement. “Does it hurt?”

“Probably. But the drugs they gave me are working re-e-e-eally hard to prevent my knowing that.”

“The doc said you could go home, so I called Jimmy to bring your car and pick us up. I’ll stay with you and maybe try one of your happy pills.”

“Gary,” Dylan mumbled through his pharmaceutical haze. “They shot the dog. One of those scumbags shot him after he saved my life.”

“Oh, boy, those are good drugs.”

As Gary helped his friend into the tee-shirt he had brought, Dylan kept insisting the 4-D dog had come to his aid and been shot. Maybe killed. “And all to save my sorry ass.”

After Gary got his friend home and to bed, he inspected the living room. A vertical streak of dried blood on the wall next to the entry arch marked where a .38 slug had passed through Dylan’s right armpit, grazing a rib and missing the bones of the shoulder joint by inches. The forensic team had pried it out of the wall, along with the bullet that had narrowly missed his head. The third hole was high up near the ceiling across the room and Gary figured it must be from the shot Dylan had said went off as the huge white blur slammed into the gunman.

The police had found three bullets, but if Dylan was right, a fourth had gone into the dog. Gary stayed the rest of that day and night, filling food and water bowls in the evening, remembering at the last second to put down a towel to protect the floor. The kitchen floor in Gary’s own small apartment was impervious not only to water, but to anything short of a direct hit from a drone. When he checked them the next morning, the bowls were untouched.

“Knock, knock,” Gary said from the door of the bedroom.

“Did the dog come back?” Dylan asked, pushing up into a sitting position.

Gary shook his head. “No, but Paige sent a fruit and wine basket.”

“From Glendon’s.” It was a statement, not a question.

“How did you know?”

“It’s my set’s go-to place for births, deaths, weddings, bar mitzvahs, you name it. Glendon’s is Walmart for rich white people.”

“Ah. When you care enough to have your assistant send the very best.”

“Exactly.”

“I’ve got stuff I need to deal with. Are you going to be okay here alone?”

“Yeah. I’ll call Carmen and ask her to pick up soup from Whole Foods.” He fidgeted with the silk duvet. “I just wish I knew what happened to him.”

Gary promised to stop by the next day, and an hour later Carmen arrived to tell Dylan the breaking news on the in-house grapevine. His condo was one of three that had been targeted. All were art thefts by criminals who hacked the building’s computers to get access codes, tied up the doorman and guard, then cleared out the most valuable pieces from two other residences before breaking in to his. Everyone was talking about how brave Mr. Carter was for stopping the bad guys.

“You are like a superhero, Mr. C.”

Dylan knew the real hero had four legs, not two, and he spent his day alternately napping and worrying about the dog. As a child he had begged for one, but his father claimed allergies and his mother claimed they were inherently filthy. Dylan only now realized the carpet color he had chosen for his condo was the very same pale cream his mother had vehemently defended against her seven-year-old’s hypothetical dog.

At 9:30 that evening Dylan filled the bowls and set them on the floor, not bothering to put down a towel first. He sat next to them with his back against one of the custom cabinets that had cost him a fortune, hoping the dog would show. It was the first time in his life he had felt empathy for another living creature.

His parents had always been supportive, but in an abstract way. Cool; distant. They had expected him to be perfect and he had, for the most part, lived up to their wishes. He saw Gary only at school or on the sly, not willing to bring a friend his parents considered undesirable into their pristine world of privilege, and he now wondered if that had ever bothered Gary. Dylan had done without a pet and learned to regurgitate his mother’s views on canine filthiness like a young religious zealot raised on a steady drip of someone else’s idea of God.

Women had been nothing more than exciting toys until his decision to acquire a wife. And then he had evaluated them the way an HR person might screen candidates for a top-level position. Dylan wondered if he had ever felt love. He thought he had a few times in his twenties, but looking back he suspected the concepts of love and sex might have gotten confused. He fell asleep sitting on the kitchen floor, waking early to find the bowls still full.

Messages filled his voicemail, flowers arrived from the law firm, and three more baskets came from Glendon’s, two from the tenants whose artwork had been recovered and one from his parents. He left the messages unanswered and insisted Carmen take the flowers and baskets home to her family. His own doctor came by to check his wound and proffer a higher-grade pain med, but Dylan declined.

Gary never came as promised; instead, he called mid afternoon to say he was finishing up something important. “I have to go see a guy in Springfield right now, but I’ll swing by your place tomorrow.”

Dylan was used to his friend’s attention being diverted by one mirage or another, so he wasn’t surprised, although he would have liked the company. Facing a second lonely night, Dylan filled the food and water bowls, and began his vigil, once again falling asleep in an awkward seated position cradling his strapped-down arm. He dreamed he heard a scraping sound. A whimper. Panting.

Dylan jolted awake to find a huge white dog lying next to him. Crusted blood matted the hair on its right side, the side that faced upward, as the dog panted heavily and tried to lap from the water bowl. Each time he lifted his head, though, his muzzle bumped the bowl and it scooted forward, always staying out of reach.

Dylan tilted the bowl and held it in place while the dog slurped noisily. After getting half the water down his throat and the other half all over the bamboo floor, the dog laid his head back down with a low groan.

“Easy, boy. Easy,” Dylan said softly. He put his left hand on the dog’s neck, feeling the silky hair flatten under his reassuring strokes. The big eyes closed and the pained panting subsided into whimpering sleep.

It took numerous phone calls and the inducement of a five thousand dollar bonus above the fee, but a veterinarian finally agreed to come to the condo immediately. On the basis of Dylan’s description of the injury, the vet brought everything he needed to perform surgery on the scene with a one-armed helper. A little after four a.m. Dr. Mitchell left the condo and Dylan stroked the dog’s neck and shoulder while he waited for the anesthesia to wear off.

The insistent ringing of his cell phone at 7:30 in the morning pulled him from his too-short sleep. A drying smear of blood and a scattering of dog hair were the only signs an injured animal had lain on the kitchen floor a few hours earlier. The phone was in the bedroom and on his way to answer it Dylan automatically looked around for the big white dog.

“You are not going to believe what I found out,” Gary announced enthusiastically.

“Well, Gare, you’d better pick up some coffee and come on over, because I’ve got a pretty unbelievable tale myself.”

Gary managed to hold still and stay quiet through the recounting of the night’s bizarre events, but the moment Dylan wrapped his story Gary was on his feet and pulling rubber bands off the rolled-up tubes of paper he had brought with him.

“The dog’s name is Bear. Short for Mr. Polar Bear.”

“How do you know that?”

“Stay with me,” Gary said, unrolling the first poster-sized sheet onto the kitchen counter and anchoring the corners with four ceramic coffee mugs he took from a wooden service tree. “This is a picture of the Chicago skyline taken from the Adler Planetarium.”

Dylan leaned in to look, but recognized almost nothing. “Are you sure?”

“You mean because you don’t see your building in the photo? That’s because this was taken on March twenty-ninth, 1933. That date ring a bell?”

“No, should it?”

“Okay, what night did your caca drops begin? Never mind, I’ll tell you. March twenty-ninth.” Gary pointed to a hard-to-see object in the photo, above the skyline but far to the left. “That’s an airplane,” he said. “Specifically, a 1931 Ford Trimotor.” In rapid succession he unrolled three more large prints, slapping each one down and indicating the left-to-right path of the aircraft over the city.

The fourth photo, which should have shown the small plane directly centered above the skyline, instead featured the black, white and gray bloom of a mid air explosion.

“Three cameras were running on timers, so I have more shots of the plane blowing up, but this one’s best for our purposes.” The next large sheet he unrolled was clear acetate with only one image, that of the Clarion Tower, the building in which they were standing. When Gary laid the acetate over the photo and adjusted it so the Clarion stood in its correct position among the many skyscrapers for which Chicago is famous, the top of the building overlapped the exploding plane.

As Dylan tried to wrest some meaning from the show-and-tell, Gary took out a smaller sheet of paper, a copy of a newspaper photo. It was folded in half, and he revealed the partial image to his friend with the casual aplomb of Vanna White unveiling a consonant.

“Did the dog in your kitchen look like this one? Because he was in that plane when it blew up.”

Dangling in the air in front of Dylan’s eyes was a dead ringer for the animal he had helped operate on six hours earlier. The same blocky head and straight white hair. The same eyes that had seemingly pled for help in getting to the water bowl. Dylan knew it was the same dog, and yet he understood it couldn’t be. After teetering on a fulcrum of doubt, he came down on the side of rationality.

“If I understand you correctly, you believe a dog was flying that plane when it exploded, and now it has overcome time and death to visit my condo.”

“See, this is the tone I hate. It’s the same dismissive voice you used when I showed you the cockroach shoes I invented when I was ten.”

“They didn’t work, Gary, and you broke your ankle when you tried to climb the wall.”

“If duct tape had been as sticky back then as it is now, cockroach shoes would’ve been awesome.” He unfolded the photocopy so Dylan could see the other half. “The dog wasn’t flying the plane, she was.”

Dylan looked at the grainy image of a beautiful young woman. She and the dog leaned against each other as she held up a trophy topped with a replica of a biplane.

“Her name was Susan Quillian, but a reporter nicknamed her Suzie Q when she won the San Diego to L.A. air race in 1927.”

That was the year Charles Lindbergh made his nonstop solo crossing of the Atlantic, and public interest in aviation was almost manic for the next decade, with female pilots of special interest. Suzie Q and Bear became top draws at flying competitions and air shows across America, overshadowed only slightly by Amelia Earhart.

Suzie Q dazzled the crowds with Immelmanns and loop-the-loops in her de Havilland Tiger Moth, while her dog, too heavy to carry in an aerobatic routine, waited on the ground. For cross-country races she flew a four-place Stinson Detroiter and Bear rode second seat.

When she suddenly dropped out of competition three years after that win in her first race, rumors flew. One said she’d married a tycoon who forbade her from risking her life in the air. A second claimed she had a terminal illness and could no longer muster the physical stamina to fly. The most outlandish rumor, by far, was that she had been hired by Al Capone to smuggle contraband. And that one was true.

Dylan listened intently as Gary went on to tell a tale of gangland Chicago in the 1920s, when Johnny Torrio killed his uncle, Big Jim Colosino, and took over his operation. Bootleg liquor, whores, protection—Johnny sold it all with the help of his young henchman, Al Capone.

Among the many small businesses Al and two backup thugs shook down for protection money was Angelina’s, a restaurant on the South Side owned by Joe Bartolo, a man struggling to pay off medical bills and keep up with college expenses. His wife had died of cancer in 1921 and his daughter Susan had entered Northwestern in 1923, but his restaurant was popular and he managed to stay a half step ahead of financial ruin.

All that changed when Johnny Torrio and an estimated 30 million of his closest friends retired to New York in 1925, leaving the syndicate short-funded when it passed into the hands of the ruthless Al Capone. The new boss’s first order of business was to step up income from all sources, and suddenly protection cost more than Joe Bartolo could afford. The first time he couldn’t cover the vig they smashed up Angelina’s; the second time they smashed up Joe.

“How did you learn all this?”

“You’d be surprised at the number of gangsters who wrote their memoirs once they were locked away and knew there wouldn’t be any future income from criminal acts. So, after the beating, Joe takes out an insurance policy on himself. Two months later his restaurant burns down and he dies in the fire.”

“Capone torched the place?” asked Dylan.

“Maybe. Or maybe Joe knew a suicide would negate the policy and leave his daughter with nothing so he made it look like something else. There was plenty of history to point the finger at arson and murder, courtesy of Al Capone, so the insurance company paid.”

“What happened to his daughter?”

“Now, that’s a mystery. Susan Bartolo dropped out of Northwestern at the end of her second year and disappeared, never to be seen again.” Two years later, however, a young woman named Susan Quillian appeared on the flying circuit with a pair of biplanes and a big white dog, drawing media attention with her surprise win of the San Diego to L.A. cross-country race. She courted publicity for three years, her beauty garnering it even when she didn’t win first prize. And then she quit racing and hired on with Al Capone.

“That makes no sense,” Dylan said. “Why would she go to work for the man she thought caused her father’s death? And how do you know it’s even the same girl?”

“Revenge,” Gary said with a smile. “And Joe Bartolo’s wife’s maiden name was Quillian.” Suzie Q’s good looks and minor celebrity got her in the door, where she pitched Capone the idea of ferrying cargo from place to place via plane. His trucks were getting hijacked by rivals or intercepted by G-men more often than his greedy business model allowed, so the idea appealed to him. Plus, he liked her dog.

After a few test flights with only sawdust in the sealed boxes—Capone had to make sure she wasn’t working for the feds—Suzie Q began air-muling whatever needed a safe ride from one place to another. As trucks full of contraband fell into the wrong hands once or twice a month, Suzie’s SB-1 Detroiter maintained a perfect record: on time and without loss.

“So, Capone is trusting her more and more, even upgraded her wings to a Ford Trimotor. All-aluminum body and capable of carrying a much bigger payload than the Stinson,” said Gary, getting more exited as he told the story he’d been researching for more than a month.

“What was she waiting for? Sounds like she routinely got close enough to kill him.”

“She didn’t want to kill him; she wanted to rip him off. Take the money he’d shaken her father down for, and then some.” Suzie bided her time until late March of 1933, when an armored car transporting gold ingots from Cincinnati to Philadelphia vanished without a trace. An early morning call ordered her to fly to a makeshift airfield near Cicero the next night for a pickup headed to a Montreal warehouse owned by one of Al Capone’s Canadian business associates.

A dozen men with Tommy guns guarded the grassy landing strip as the Tin Goose was loaded, first with a dummy consignment of perfectly legal items in the passenger cabin, then with nondescript 20-pound boxes that went in the hidden, drop-down cargo holds below the inner wing sections. Suzie tried to appear as disinterested in the goods as always, but she surreptitiously counted fourteen of the small wooden boxes before she was given the okay to go. She climbed into the cockpit, fired up the powerful Pratt and Whitney engines, taxied across the moonlit field and flew away, never to be seen again.

“Okay, lets say she landed somewhere, hid the gold and then took off. What I don’t buy is that a photographer just happened to be at the Adler Planetarium that morning. With his cameras coincidentally aimed at the exact spot where the plane exploded? Come on.”

“The photographer didn’t happen to be there. She hired him the previous afternoon to shoot her pre-dawn flight over the city,” said Gary. “Told him she wanted to generate some publicity to restart her flying career. What Suzie Q actually needed was proof of death so Capone wouldn’t come after her with everything he had.”

Gary had spent the day before in Springfield with the photographer’s grandson, who had grown up hearing his grandfather speak of the tragedy.

“My granddad felt terrible about the young woman dying in the explosion,” the man had told Gary. “And almost as bad that he lost her dog.”

When Gary pursued it, the man said Suzie paid his grandfather $100 to watch her dog for a week, but sometime that night Bear broke the chain that held him in the yard, jumped the fence and ran away.

“Grandpa didn’t know what he would tell her when she came back for her dog, but after he saw the plane blow up he knew she wouldn’t be coming back.”

His grandfather sold the photo to the Chicago Tribune and it made the front page, ensuring Capone would see his cargo blasted to kingdom come.

Gary and Dylan sat in silence a few minutes, then placed a phone order for Chinese. While they waited, Dylan asked, “What do you think happened?”

“I think she put a bomb on a timer and parachuted out at the last minute. It was still dark enough for a jumper to go unnoticed, especially with the fireworks elsewhere in the sky. She retrieved the gold and lived a long and happy life far away from Chicago.”

“But if your theory about some Dr. Who time tunnel is true, Bear had to have been in the plane when it blew up. Why would she take him with her if she knew that was going to happen?”

“I don’t know,” said Gary. “Maybe he found his way home that night and hid in the Trimotor. Or maybe he went to the airstrip in Cicero where they’d made so many pickups before. After the boxes were loaded, the mob guys would’ve been watching the perimeter, not the plane, and Bear might have snuck on while Suzie did her pre-flight check.”

Gary was closer to the truth than he knew. Susan Quillian had thought Bear was safe with the photographer when she made an unscheduled stop ten minutes after taking off from Cicero, but once she locked away the last of the boxes she had spent thirty minutes unloading, while she was buckling into her parachute harness, the big white dog leapt aboard and stowed away. Only as she approached Chicago had she felt the familiar wet lick on the back of her neck, and by then it was too late.

At five-feet-three and 102 pounds, Suzie couldn’t possibly carry the 90-pound dog while she parachuted to freedom. With twelve seconds left on the timer and an ache in her heart at the unfairness of it all, she hugged Bear one last time and made the hardest decision of her life.

The smell of shrimp fried rice and broccoli beef hung in the air long after Gary had gone, but Dylan left the open cartons on the counter when he went to bed. He was haunted by thoughts of poor Bear. Abandoned. Left in that plane to die. And if Gary was right, the dog had wandered in some never-never land for more than eighty years until the Clarion Tower had been completed ten months ago and a portal of some kind opened in Dylan’s condo on the anniversary of the accident. Now that the passage was open, the dog could apparently go back and forth at will between the condo and…whatever.

It was all too sci-fi and woo-woo for Dylan to wrap his mind around, and yet, Bear was real. He ate real food and shat real poop, though, thankfully, in that other place now. And a veterinarian had done actual surgery on him. Dylan tried to sleep, but pain in his armpit and worry about the big white dog kept him tossing fitfully for hours.

Sometime deep in the night he heard scuffling and a thud on the floor alongside his bed, so he inched to the edge and looked down. When he saw Bear curled up on the carpet a lump formed in his throat and tears stung his eyes. He draped his good arm over the side and tentatively put his hand on the dog’s neck. He heard a heavy sigh and, a few minutes later, untroubled snoring. Dylan stroked the silky hair until he, too, fell asleep.

Early morning light filtered through the bedroom curtains, gently coaxing him back to consciousness, but when he opened his eyes he snapped awake. Bear sat next to the bed, pink tongue hanging out and tail rhythmically thumping the floor. Standing beside the dog, scowling down at the man in bed, was the beautiful girl Dylan recognized from the grainy news photo.

“So,” she snarled. “Are you the son of a bitch who shot my dog?”

Italians call it the thunderbolt. Less creative Americans call it love at first sight. Dylan had aimed high for a wife, but he never suspected he’d find her one hundred and twelve stories above the ground.

 

Triptych, detail

Heliciculture
by Lisa Nikolidakis

Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize

Runner-up 2015 Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize

Ask anyone in Greece and they will tell you the same: our snails are best. From all over they come to our village in Crete to pluck the mollusks from their swirling shells and feel the soft dissolve against their tongues. My yia-yia says other restaurants are all the time with noise at dinner, but Artemidoros is quiet, a hum. Look around and it’s eyes closed, moans no bigger than whispers. When the people leave, stuffed, they look at my yia-yia and ask, “What is the secret? Tell us.” In the trembling spots of sweat on their foreheads you can see how much they want to know; they think if they too could make the snails at home, life would be better, maybe easier, which shows you what people know. But my yia-yia only smiles, her mouth twisted up on the left side. If the compliment is too strong—if she suspects envy—you can see on her brow the fear of the evil eye, so she mutters garlic under her breath for protection and hides in the kitchen to avoid a curse. And that is the end of that.

Back on my sixteenth Name Day, the whole village pulsed through our house. I’d hoped we might have my party in Heraklion, a real city an hour north that we haven’t once visited, a place where scooters whip down paved roads and people lounge at cafés that play music from this decade, but I might as well have wished for a party at the bottom of the sea. Everyone here says, “Old way is best way,” so not much changes. The guests came, their hands stuffed with raki and plates of snails and envelopes with money and wishes of many more years for me. I’d also asked for fondue—had dropped the word into every conversation I could and imagined pots bubbling over, those long, strange forks—but I should’ve known better. Thanks to my family, I am forever tethered to the snail.

As the sun went down, the village glowing pink like a candle, the band took up its instruments, and everyone locked hands, the circle large and spiraling as we danced foot over foot, hopping and kicking, until in a cloud of orange earth I collapsed into a chair to catch my breath. My favorite cousin, Maria, saw her chance to escape the grip of family and sat next to me. Clapping, we watched as one by one so many people took their turns at the head of the circle to show off their moves, but when my mother took charge of the dance she was graceful as a breeze. Her single, black braid—the one way she wears it—swung down over her white dress to the shallow of her lower back, and she lifted her head as though hovering in the air above everyone was a mystery that only she could read. In her face, a truth held long kept me waiting for some grand reveal, but on my shoulder a hand squeezed gently, and then in my ear, the quiet voice of my yia-yia: “It is time. Come.”

I should’ve known it’d be her. I grabbed Maria’s hand, but my yia-yia tsk-tsk’d, so Maria flopped back in her rocker. She’s the cousin that makes people’s voices go quiet when she’s near. Thirty-four years old, no husband, no children. Lesvía they say when she’s not around, but I’ve never seen her with another woman. She’s left the village—traveled to places outside of Greece (you should hear a fat gasp there)—and has the stories to prove it. Plus, she’s figured out a way to have nothing to do with the snails. I don’t think I’ve even seen her eat one.

 

Maybe I ate too much kataifi, but I swear I could have run the whole village and back six times before my yia-yia was to the end of our street.

Siga, siga,” she said. A reminder of our village motto: slowly, slowly.

We walked beyond the center of town through a landscape no one bothers to look at: patches of olive trees, the ones closest to the road thin, a little twisted and small, but as we made our way deeper into the forest, the moon brightening our path, their trunks swelled in size and swirled, these old Minoan trees, and even had I tried, I couldn’t have wrapped my arms around one. I started to wonder what kind of animals might live in their trunks, how many adders could slip from the cracks at any moment, when my yia-yia stopped and sat on the shelf of a branch that had grown low to the ground.

Her breath was spotty, deep heaves followed by moments of stillness. For most in the village, my yia-yia inspires fear, which seems crazy to me since she’s no taller than a 10-year-old and, when stuffed with food, 43 kilograms. And she’s not small simply because she’s aged—no one knows how old and she won’t answer. When I was younger, I’d sit on her lap, facing her smooth cheeks, and drop coins into the triangle of her neck while she combed my hair. But like all the women in my family she is something of a mystery; maybe that’s where the fear sneaks in. I was so busy watching her that I jumped when I noticed my mother next to me. She put her hand on my chin and steadied my face towards her.

“My child,” she said and smiled without showing her teeth. There was no mistaking whose daughter she was; even in the poor light, I could see her face was a copy of my yia-yia’s—nose straight as a bone and two sharp peaks on her top lip. “What do you hear?”

Everywhere the steady buzz of bugs vibrating their bodies. “The leaf hoppers?” I asked.

My mother said, “Listen beyond that. Deeper. You can hear it. I know you can. Here,” she said and squatted, fanning her fingers in the dirt.

I looked at my yia-yia, who nodded, so I knelt and spread my fingers against the hard earth, the dirt more like a thin layer of dust, and the warmth of the day’s sun seeped into my palms. I heard only the hoppers again, but I closed my eyes—it seemed the right thing to do—and at first I felt it, a vibration light as a cloud, then the sound, a low shhhhhh like the ocean waves ten kilometers away. When I opened my eyes, my mother was sitting next to my yia-yia, watching.

“What do you hear?” she asked again.

I didn’t have the right words—a stomach in need of food, a rumble. But before I said it wrong, my yia-yia spoke.

“The sound is the snails. Our snails. Is Artemidoros. You know already what this means, yes?”

Of course I knew. I’d heard them say it a thousand times. “A gift from Artemis.”

My mother ticked her head to her right, an instruction to sit next to her.

“This is yours, you know,” my mother said. Not really a question.

I stared into the woods.

“This is your legacy. Listen to the snails, and the restaurant will be great success for you after we’re gone.”

I nodded, forced a half smile in that moonlight, but my guts felt like someone kneaded them for tsoureki.

 

At first, I was the harvester. Sixteen years old and one task: find the snails. I was awake then all the time with the sun to wait for rain—so often it threatened but didn’t deliver. But if I was lucky enough to hear Zeus clap, I made my way to the fields that surround our village with my plastic bags and rooted through the green, the snails easy to spot, the fields moving like slow rivers of shell. When it was dry, the work was tougher. Listening hard, my fingers in the dirt, I followed the shhhhhh and kicked over every rock in the shade, climbed into forgotten drain pipes, jammed my arms into the prickly juniper shrubs where I held my breath to avoid their biting stink; one whiff and I could smell nothing else for the day.

Now, two years later, I am the fattener, which is a nice way of saying I am up to my shoulders in slime. It is no secret that whatever the snail eats, you eat, so my job is to make sure they are fat on the outside, clean on the inside. For a week I feed them pasta to help them grow strong, then nothing but flour until their kaka runs white. Then no food and soon enough, they pull their lip over their shell’s opening, and I hand them over to my yia-yia.

I’m no breeder—my mother handles the matchmaking—so I fatten. I also scrape clean the cages and swat away the birds that come for a free lunch. The foulest work is mine, but the snails are never juicier than when they are under my care. Every other day from March to September, the high season, I take to our snail crates—wooden vegetable boxes and netting—and carefully transfer the snails, one-by-one, a process that takes most of the day, so I can wash clean their trail. While I’m there, I listen hard and search for the dead—a tricky feat for most when snails are so slow to show enthusiasm—but now it takes just a few seconds of the shell to my ear; if there is no sound, I toss it into the sack of the dead. Later, when the crates are like new, I take the sack into the street and stomp it until the shells feel like crumbs beneath my foot. Personally, I’d like to skip this step, but my yia-yia she always checks. Poking her head into the backyard before walking to Artemidoros she asks, “The Turks won’t get their satisfaction, right?” and what she means is if the shells are tossed back into the field whole, the soil will seep into them and stay there trapped for 400 years, the same length of time the Ottomans ruled us. Symbols. Everything is symbols and nonsense superstitions.

I was taught in school that to be humble is a woman’s work, but I am fast at my tasks—faster than my mother was when this was her job. If my family has it their way I might do this for another ten, twenty, even thirty years. I don’t care how good I am; if in thirty years I am still peering into old vegetable crates to measure the color of snail shit, may I be eaten by a Cyclops.

The only work I enjoy is the books. One night after the customers had gone and we sat in the office sipping rakomelo, letting the honeyed spirits fill us with some last-minute energy, I watched my mother empty the register into a burlap bag.

“So how’d we do?” I asked. My family never talked money.

“Good, good” she said, not lifting her eyes from the task of tying the string of the bag.

“I mean, how good? I need to know these things for when I run it on my own.” If you want to get them talking, mention the future of business.

My mother wiped her hands on the lap of her dress and looked at me. Sometimes, like in that moment, she seemed to me old as my yia-yia, the same traditions for a hundred years draining out of her every pore.

“We had tonight a better dinner than last night,” she said.

My yia-yia looked to the Panagia icon—the Virgin Mary who hangs everywhere in the village—and crossed herself three times for our success.

“Okay. But how much money did we make?”

“This is hard to say. We pay some people today for linens and wine.”

I tilted my head and tried my best not to sound like a know-it-all. “Right,” I said slowly. “But how much did you start with?”

My mother laughed. “Who counts such things every day?” she asked.

And that’s when I became the bookkeeper, too.

 

So there it is: all spring and summer long, days of feeding and cleaning and plucking the dead, and at night, when the restaurant is alive with customers, I am there waiting tables and balancing the books. Sometimes I am rich with luck and there is a slow night, a dragging Monday, and I sneak off to Maria’s and demand stories. Her home is three little rooms—a bedroom, kitchen/sitting room, and bathroom—all of it on a cool, concrete slab that’s turned green as algae with time. She’s dressed most of it with rugs brought back from her trips, and on nearly every bit of wall hangs what I call “arty things:” mosaic mirrors, postcards yellowed at their edges, a thin scroll of a five-year-old calendar that, at its corners, shows yawning tigers, the animals poised to eat 1984.

We drink and laugh until the knives appear in our ribs, trading tales, mine of the restaurant world, hers of the real one. By the end of most nights, I press her for the one story I haven’t heard. “Tell me about Paris,” I say, and she says, “Stamata” her voice firm, so I sink further into the embroidered pillows on her small sofa. Maria is a woman for whom everything is a mission, like she feels some invisible audience nagging her to complete her task, no matter how small the thing is. But she avoids talk of Paris other than to call it a defeat, so she tells me anything else. Two months ago she talked about Istanbul and its Grand Bazaar, how she walked through the walled city, lost in the maze, in search of one thing: a çini with a Pegasus on it. Normally, those plates are covered in blue and orange flowers, all borne of the same imagination, and at the Bazaar, there were thousands that looked identical. But she was sure if she could find one with a Pegasus that she’d have some proof that the Greeks and Turks hadn’t always been enemies; and if the piece were new, it would show the old bigots in the village that times had really changed.

Last month I said it again: “Paris.”

“How about the food at fešta in Dubrovnik? The ćevapi was the best meat I’ve had.” And then on and on about the dancing, how close it seemed to Greece, how she felt the pull of the horses there from both ends—drawn at once toward her family and traveling further away from them.

I love food, but I didn’t much care and she could tell.

It’s been weeks since I’ve seen her and this time, I’m not going to let her dodge. Before we get the cork out of the bottle, I ask.

And instead of bringing up, I don’t know, the size of the beers at Hofbräuhaus, she asks, “Why are you drawn to a story of failure?”

I smile big, cross my eyes, and through gritted teeth whimper, “Because I love you,” knowing that my silliness always wins her.

“Fine,” she says and sighs. “Just this once.” She pauses to take some wine and clears her throat, a move that signals a quality story. “At The Louvre—everyone must go there, no?—I searched and searched for a sculpture I’d seen once.” She pauses here and helps herself to a big sip of wine before continuing. “In a friend’s book. The Bather, it was called, a marble piece almost as big as David­. I don’t know. Something about the curves of her hip, the loose parted hair, her smooth foot held out to test her invisible bath water.” Maria held her own bare foot out before her, and I bumped her arch with my big toe. “I’ve never gotten her out of my head. I looked for hours, my feet burned from the walk, my stomach angry. It took me the whole day—I barely saw anything in the museum—and I found nothing.” She looks away from me, and her wild, dark curls reach into the air like snakes. “Either way, The Bather is lost to me.”

I lean forward, pour us more wine, top it with Coca-Cola, and ask, “Why didn’t you ask someone where it was?” It seems like a question of reason, but Maria’s eyebrows dig into her face.

“I couldn’t remember the name of the piece, and I never knew the name of the artist. I just had the girl in my mind. I would know her when I saw her. How do you explain this to someone else?”

The story clearly seems sadder to her than me, but I know to be quiet, to sit still in her loss. That goes on long enough, so I finally ask, “What else happened?”

“What do you mean ‘what else’? This is the whole story.”

“But you were in Paris for what, three weeks?”

She nods and says, “Yes, but this is the thing that matters.”

I really don’t know, so I ask: “Why?”

For a moment, I think she’s going to tell me, and I want badly to understand how a sculpture could mean so much, but I should know better. Instead she stands, fills a shallow dish with nuts, and says with her back to me, “Have I told you about the otters at the Isle of Skye?”

 

July is the busiest time in the village for tourists. The rest of us know better than to travel when the heat is so thick it suffocates, but the rest of the world—the Germans, the Brits, the Aussies—they eat it right up. It’s a strange thing to peer inside Artemidoros and see so many pasty faces, their blue eyes nearly popping from their sockets. Tonight we’ve had our busiest Friday of the season and the cleanup will stink. Snails cooked our way—with the olive oil and herb blend—are slippery, and you can always tell when the tourists have been in; walking through the restaurant, the shells lost to the floor break and the shards dig into the soles of our shoes, all of us making big noise as we walk.

The person who named it “waiting tables” had the mind of a mouse. The last thing I have is patience for waiting, especially when it’s down to the last two or three customers that I want badly to shove out the door. One table waves every time I am near to ask for more. I do not know how two men can consume so much, but they have eaten five plates and mostly I’m hoping they don’t find themselves sick. When they are the last ones, they call me over, I hope, for the bill.

“You are ready to pay?” I ask and place the complimentary raki in front of them. One good thing about tourists is that they never know to sip it and instead drink it back in one motion—a speedy process that I am in full support of tonight.

“We are,” says the man in khaki pants and a too-clean white shirt. Bleached. He looks totally bleached: his white hair is loose and large like some old sea captain, and beneath oversized white eyebrows his eyes, light blue, are narrow as string beans. Even the hairs that rest on his lip are white as a marten’s belly. On the empty chair closest to him hangs a round, tan hat with a leather string. I almost laugh imagining him on safari in Crete; perhaps he does not know we have no lions. His companion looks the same in the face, maybe a younger brother, but he is slicker in a fitted blue suit, a costume that looks as out of place in our old, stone restaurant as a bow tie on a donkey.

I add up their platters and tuck the check into the black book. The Suit asks, “Is this your place?”

I cannot locate his accent. Looking over my shoulder at the empty dining room, I know that my yia-yia and mother are in the back, rakomelo in hand, swollen feet hoisted onto chairs.

“Sure,” I say.

The Suit smiles, and he’s got sparkle in his eyes, a mischief that draws me in. “Where do your snails come from?”

It’s an odd question; normally, people are after recipes. My response gives away my suspicion: “Why do you care?” It comes out with more fire than I mean for, but both men smile and Captain Safari begins to dig into his wallet.

“We mean no offense,” says The Suit. “But these really are the best we’ve had, which means someone here knows what they’re doing.”

I shouldn’t be flattered. I should say garlic just in case, but compliments around here rarely come my way, so I blurt it out: “I am the fattener!”

The men look at me, and for a moment, I feel like a fool, but they both start to nod and smile and then without trying I, too, am nodding and smiling.

“So what’s your secret?” The Suit asks, and in those four words I hear only the possibility of betrayal, the thing I can’t do, so I press my lips together tight.

Captain Safari hands me a business card, the paper thick and custard-colored with fine lines carved into it. In the bottom corner there’s a phone number, and in thin black letters over three lines in the center it reads:

Les Agriculteurs
Internationales
de Héliciculture

I can decode the first four words, but I’ve never seen the last.

“We are in the snail business,” says Captain Safari. “And we’re not here to threaten, I promise.” He holds up his right hand and looks to the ceiling. “We help the small farmer set up a system that makes the best snails with the fewest hours of labor.”

“But you just said our snails are best. Everyone says this.”

“They are,” says Captain Safari. “But how many hours do you spend each day harvesting and cleaning? Three? Four?”

All of them, I want to say but don’t.

The Suit stands and stretches his arms over his head, looks around for a moment, and says, “Small place like this, I bet you’re using plastic buckets with air holes. Easy to move, easy to clean. Am I right?”

I have no interest in answering, which works out because before I have a chance Captain Safari says, “Nah. They’ve been at this game a long time. Plastic is too new. I bet they’ve got net sacks hanging in the yard.”

His string-bean eyes drift first toward the window, and I silently pray that he can’t spot the old vegetable crates even though they’re three blocks away. When he looks back at me, his gaze locks on my hands, and all at once I see myself, my family, through these men’s eyes: we are primitive women, and our hands are the ancient link to a way of doing things that belongs in the history books.

But The Suit says, “Don’t worry. We’re not here to disturb a thing.” He’s got lines at the edges of his mouth earned from years of grinning that make me believe him. “Keep the card. If you want to modernize, we can put in the snail-proof fences that take away half of your work. Like a dream.” He pauses to stuff some money into the check holder. “And if you’re interested, you can visit our place in Bordeaux, see how everything works.”

Bordeaux. The word is still circling the air before me like an oversized, French firefly when Captain Safari adds, “We could even fly you up.”

Once I hear their car start, I check: 5,000 drachmas tip. And that’s when I know they’re big time.

 

Maria says go, go, go. “Don’t be one of these Greeks who dies without leaving the country.” We’re on a walk, the evening full of surprising wind, my shift not yet started. We keep our voices low: on this kind of night—when it’s cool in summer—the village is out: pulling laundry from the lines, plucking grapes from the trellises, waiting and listening for anything of interest they might repeat over dinner.

“It feels mean to use someone for a free trip,” I say and drag my palm over the soft blossom of a bougainvillea. It would feel mean, but I’d get over that part. There’s different trouble. “Plus, what would I tell the family? It’s not like I can take a week off.”

“C’mon: the season will be over in two months. You have time.”

I tug on her sleeve, the linen light and thin between my fingers. “That’s not really what I mean.” We stop there on the road, next to the Panagia monastery, an abandoned space like so many others here, most of it crumbling back toward the earth—except for the arcosolium. I’m staring at that arch and wondering about the people who knelt there so many centuries ago, lighting candles and speaking to God, when Maria tells me to knock it off.

“Tell them whatever you need to,” she says. “Listen, what this family doesn’t know about me could fill a book. A long, funny, maybe sad book.”

 

We aren’t raised to ask what we want of this world. I have understood so clearly what I don’t want for so long that I haven’t given much thought to what I do. When I try, when I stare out at the sky and its low-hanging clouds and ask myself, I feel only a hoof pressing down on my chest.

And then in September the letter comes.

I am lucky that I’m doing the books before Artemidoros opens so I meet the mailman. The return address is a sticker printed in a long, thin script that I recognize instantly. Captain Safari and The Suit turn out to be Jean and Jacques, brothers like I suspected, and they want to know if I’ve given their offer thought. Aloud to no one I say, “Pssssh.” I keep reading until I hit the line that makes my knees shake: We understand if you distrust changing your system and wish to preserve the old methods. I slump and press my cheek to the desk and feel the coolness of the wood work its way into my body. And here I am, head down and defeated, when my yia-yia enters, crosses herself three times before Panagia, and begins with arthritic hands to fumble with the strings of her apron. My mother comes in behind her, says hello, and begins talking about the night’s business as she takes over tying her mother’s apron. My breath catches in my throat.

When they leave the room, I begin writing my response, my English letters stacked like difficult blocks, the alphabet of a child. After addressing them, I keep it short: I’m in. Please tell how to proceed. I end it with a request for them to send future letters to Maria’s.

That night we are slow enough to have time to talk, and I’ve never hoped for customers more. Every time my mother is near I bury myself in the already-done books, nose to the spine. Later I escape to Maria’s to plan and drink. To drink a lot.

Even with the restaurant closing for the season, it’s not as though I can simply tell them where I’m going. And forget going alone. No one will understand, so Maria does the kindest thing I can think of: she agrees to come with me, a trip between cousins.

“It’s only for a few days,” I tell my mother the next day while studying her black shoes.

“Look at me,” she says, and I do. Her face looks for a moment like stone in the sunlight, something carved and immoveable, but then it softens, the lines in her forehead gone slack, and she says, “Mmhmm. I understand.”

I don’t know what she means, but I’m too scared to ask, so I hug her instead.

 

When my ticket arrives, I run my thumb over it, the coating at once waxy and smooth. And then I see the date: Tuesday, October 13th. What bad luck.

Maria shakes her head at me. “Stamata. You don’t believe that old shit, do you?”

I say no, of course not, but just in case, I plan to pack one of the evil-eye charms.

 

You’d think I was moving to the moon. But around here leaving town for three days means eighteen people show up for a goodbye dinner. Of course there are snails and the other usual plates—spanakopita and moussaka and horta­—but when my mother comes out of the kitchen into the warm night with a skillet of bubbling saganaki in her hands, I let out a squeal.

“Is not fondue but maybe is close,” she says.“ Fondue, Greek-style!” Everyone laughs at this—even Maria who is caught in a shadow from the house, her smile the only part of her face I can see. I wonder how much of this show has to do with Maria. Are they worried she’ll change me? That we’ll get out of the village together and never look back?

The next morning, my mother and yia-yia and enough cousins to start Greece’s second futbol team walk Maria and me to the bus stop; the bus, of course, was late. It should be loud, but the silence of waiting is on us, and when I hear the bus rumble into existence, I’m on my feet. My pulse throbs in my ears—some excitement—and as it pulls in, my yia-yia tugs at my hand, forces me to face her. The top of her head reaches my chin, a perfect fit for a hug, and I step toward her to do that when she stops me. She bows her head, and with quaking hands removes her chain and crucifix from her neck and lets it fall limp like rope into my palm. I try to refuse but she says, “Take, take. For protection.” And I know I’m only leaving for three days but here I am, crying like I’ve sprung a leak when I get on the bus to Heraklion.

The ride there is what I’m used to: squares of dry land, knotty olive trees, and sloping mountainsides punctuated with white monasteries so high up the buildings look impossible. I know we’re pulling into Heraklion when the traffic tightens—so many people, and not one inch of land seems unoccupied by business. Every corner is held down by kiosks and sweaty men guarding their cigarettes and newspapers and rainbow wrappers. But I never expected palm trees, the long cable of them flanking the road as if to say, “Yes, we are a great place to vacation.”

We don’t have to fetch bags from the bus’s belly, our backpacks small enough to stay with us, so we are first in the queue for a taxi. The ride to the airport runs us along the sea, the old Venetian fort surrounded by boats, some for fishing, others for sailing, and I am surprised when I look the other way and see we are next to a stone wall I can’t see the top of, nearly every bit of it covered in graffiti.

“How can they do this?” I ask Maria. “It’s so pretty and then they destroy it with paint.”

Maria opens her mouth, but shuts it again without speaking and pats me on the head.

 

The airport is an exercise in lines, and each of them looks identical. Maria’s a professional—she knows every right move—and mostly kind about my stupidity, though she barks at me to pay attention a couple of times. In line, I can’t look away from the guards, one man in particular, his mustache thick as his brow, all of it bent in disapproval. When it is my turn to walk through the metal detector, I must move too slow because he claps and yells, “Come on, come on, little girl!” An airplane seems against nature to me, like an oversized and dangerous toy, but I’ll be thrilled to get out of the airport, to cast off the crowds and guards and confusion.

On the plane, Maria sleeps with her mouth open before we are in the air. With my right hand I squeeze tight the armrest and with the left I shuffle my thumb over the painted, glass eye in my pocket every time there is a bump, a shift, a noise. I wish I could sleep, but my body feels heavy with motion, as though I am being held against my seat by a giant, invisible hand. By the time we land at Charles de Gaulle, I feel like I am swimming through the world. I don’t know that I’ve ever been as thankful for anyone as I am for Maria in the airport; it is worse than Heraklion, a bigger maze of people and geometry and no clear exits.

Our tickets give us three days and Bordeaux is close, Maria says maybe three hours by train, so even though it’s late afternoon, we squeeze onto the Metro and get off in a neighborhood called Saint-Germain where we sit at Les Deux Magots. My heart is thick with beats, everything around us is noise and busy and just so fast that it startles me over and over. Maria starts naming artists who once sat here, too: Picasso. Léger. She’s onto something she calls The Surrealists when I forget for a moment my pulse and am reminded of the Louvre. I mention this and Maria looks as though I have tossed my espresso in her face.

“Why not?” I ask, and Maria is quiet, though the café is so loud that it doesn’t translate as much of anything.

“Look: you help me to leave the village,” I say. “Something I might never do. Now let me help you find The Bather.” I crush the brown lump of sugar on my saucer with the back of my thumbnail. Looking at Maria, I worry for a moment that I’ve upset her, my guide to this strange city, but she lets go of a smile, curls one side of her mouth like my yia-yia does, and says, “When we get back from Bordeaux, if there is time, yes. We can go. For now, let’s go see the Tower they all talk so much about.” I know that she doesn’t mean for us to step into the museum. In an hour, we’re on our way to Bordeaux.

 

The further we get from Paris, the better I feel, and by the time we are pulling into Bordeaux, so many trees and vineyards and stone buildings later, I am something like my old self. Jean meets us at the train station, and I am relieved to see that he looks less like he is on safari. Kisses on both cheeks and into his car we go deeper into the country, the sky burned pink and orange, the land so green—such a brighter green than in Crete—that I can’t look away from the fields that fly by. Jean asks how I liked Paris, and I tell him it was too loud, which makes him laugh and say, “You will do well in Bordeaux.”

I guess it was the serious business card that made me anticipate something looming, a cold monster of a building, but we arrive at an aged, two-story house that is triple the size of my own. Behind it sits a clean, one-story building with an orange roof that I assume is an office, but around us are nothing but rows: long, wide rows filled tall and leafy, each of those overgrown segments outlined by thinner bands of upturned earth. As far as I can see, the landscape alternates green and brown. In front of the office, a field of the brightest grass I’ve seen, every inch of it cut so precisely it looks something like surgery. Stepping out of the car, I am slapped with quiet.

“What do you think of our snail farm?” Jean asks and waves one arm at the rows.

I smile but say nothing. I hadn’t realized we were on one.

In the house, we find Jacques wearing a red apron and cooking—you guessed it—snails. He’s out of his suit and in jeans, the hems spotted with dirt, and it almost makes me laugh to see a man cooking in an apron like a lady, but I am careful not to insult.

Jean clicks on music, and we sit for drinks at a long white table right outside of the kitchen. It turns out the French don’t top their wine with Coca-Cola. I’m sure lots of people think it’s better that way but for me it is too strong, bitter, so I sip slowly and look around. From the outside, the house looked old, a worn stone face with wooden shutters for eyes, the paint peeling back and flaking off, but inside everything is new, shiny. The counter in the middle of the room where Jacques stands looks to be marble, and I can’t stop staring at the refrigerator, a silver whale that takes up most of one wall.

“Okay!” Jacques says and places a dish of snails before us on the table. “These are French-style, not Greek, but I think you will be able to taste the quality. Meet Helix Pomatia, a different breed than what you are used to. Of course we raise your Aspersa, too. Bon Appetit.

I didn’t know there were other breeds or the fancy name for ours, and that missing knowledge makes me feel dumb as a bird. I reach for one and putting it on my plate notice all the differences: their shells are twice the size of ours, the stripes almost red, so rich they look drawn on. Stuffed into the opening is a swamp of green, and I can’t see the snail at all. My confusion must look obvious because Jacques says, “Parsley and butter—the Bourguignonne way.” I don’t know how to use the shrunken fork before me—we bend one leg of our normal forks to work for us—so I wait to see someone else do it first and am surprised when it’s Maria. But the thing I notice most is the tightness returned to my chest and the clear voice inside of me wishing for hate. I want so badly to hate this beautiful, French snail, though I’m not sure why. But damn it if it isn’t—I won’t say the best—but it’s really, really, really good.

Jean and Jacques are good hosts—they fill our glasses, offer us cigarettes and more food—and this is the most I’ve seen Maria smile maybe ever. Some warbled French song comes on, one that sounds like Greek rembetika, those old blues songs from the war, and Maria stands and sings and twitches her finger along her throat to make her voice uneven. The guys gasp with laughter, and I’m watching her—I think I’m smiling—in awe of her knowing French, but Maria says, “What? You don’t like Edith Piaf?” She clearly has slipped into her travel self, a person who isn’t judged by the smallness of the village or her lack of children. Here, she is a woman who knows things.

For hours we eat and trade stories, though I am careful when the topic of Artemidoros comes up, not wanting to divulge too much of our secrets. The three of them talk and talk and mostly, I run my fingernail in the grooves of the white table and wonder why anyone would paint a piece of wood. After we are stuffed with breads and cheeses and those delicious snails, Maria and I are led to our separate bedrooms—they have enough space to give us each our own, and Jean says, “Tomorrow we will take the big tour. Rest well.” But for a long while, I lie there on top of the covers listening to the creaks and burps of this big house, wondering what Maria thinks about a bedroom that’s bigger than her whole flat.

 

By daylight, the kitchen is almost too bright to look at—everywhere white and silver bouncing the sun back at me. Someone has laid out breakfast—bread, jam, yogurt, and sliced apples—but no one is there, so I touch nothing. When Jean comes in with Jacques trailing, they both have on jeans and long-sleeved shirts and hats, outfits that say cowboy.

Mange, mange,” Jacques says and shoves a long loaf of bread at me. I picture my yia-yia giving me bread to soak up the olive oil her eggs swim in, and thinking of her reminds me to be polite but clever on the tour.

It’s a perfect day: 13 °C, cloudless and blue and open as a flower. Jean and Jacques walk on either side of me, Maria trailing, and I wish she would catch up so I can pass some of the attention to her. Last night the men were easy, but now they are business, their backs stiff as rakes. At first I find it difficult to make like I care, nods and polite ahhhhs seeming like the only ways to show this, but they are clearly good at what they do. Sometimes it’s like one is searching for a word and the other plucks it from the air for him. Jean says, “The thing about our fences is they protect from…” and he looks to the sky while Jacques says, “Birds, toads, snakes—everything. They are predator-proof.” I think of my crates at home, the twelve of them clogging our backyard and the birds that spy when I am cleaning. They talk of their fences for much of the walk, and I try to picture our land looking like theirs: fences over a meter tall making the neat, neat rows. I’d barely be able to see my yia-yia’s head above it all.

Jacques talks for a long time about the plants they use—much of it boring since I don’t know all the words—but my ears burn at the words “self-feeding.”

“They fatten themselves! I spend a week just feeding them pasta!” I say and instantly regret it. Only wine and children are supposed to tell the truth.

“Pasta is the old way,” Jacques says, and he claps my back. “Think of all the time you’ll have.” My head feels light when he says this. I try to imagine what I would do with so much free time but find my basket of ideas is empty as the sky.

This is the big point they circle back to again and again: cuts labor by two-thirds. They must say this fifteen times, and the more they say it, the more I like it. I have trouble holding the rest of it, the names of so many plants and the materials things are made of. I try to memorize as we walk—chicory and beet and cole, non-toxic polyethylene and PVC—but when Jean says 400 hours, those other words fall from my mind and I interrupt him.

“400 hours for what?” I ask.

“For plant activation,” he says. “It takes work to get it all started, but if you’re working an eight-hour day now, 400 hours is less than two months. It’s not so much for the reward.”

“It is worth the cost,” Jacques says, and I realize that they haven’t mentioned money yet.

I stop walking and ask, “How much?” Maria is no longer in sight, and I’m not sure when we lost her.

“Well,” Jean says, “different things cost different. The external enclosure materials can be from 12,500 to 16,000 francs, the internal quite a bit more—almost 33,000 francs. Then there is disinfestation materials—”

“How much total?” I ask. “In drachmas.”

“We looked into this before you came,” Jean says. “The cost would average around half a million in drachmas, give or take a bit,” and I imagine trying to tell my mother and yia-yia that anything is worth so much. I’ve seen my yia-yia laugh only once when a neighborhood cat got its head stuck in a box. This would bring the second time. And then I remember that mostly I’m there for the free trip, and the fist holding my chest loosens.

“I will have to think about it,” I say.

“Of course, of course,” Jacques says and lights a cigarette. “This is a big decision, a bigger commitment.” And the three of us stand there in silence for a while, so I study the row in front of us, the snails hidden at first behind the leaves, then dozens visible at once, as though I simply had to focus to see them.

“Let’s get you a contract just in case,” Jean says.

The office is cleaner than anyplace I’ve been—like what a hospital looks like on television. Handing it to me, he suggests I have my lawyer look at it before signing, and I let loose the laugh I’ve been keeping in for two days. Sure, I think. I’ll call my lawyer right away.

Back at the house, Maria has her head in a book and her hand on a coffee, feet tossed up on the sofa. “I hope you don’t mind,” she says when we come in, and they say that of course they don’t and head right for the kitchen to prepare more food. I don’t move for some reason, not really sure where to put myself, and I can’t stop looking at Maria, at her comfort, my whole body some how caught on her ease. She tilts her head, her puzzled look, but says nothing.

“Make yourself at home, Apollonia,” Jean says from the kitchen, but I keep standing there like I’m rooted.

“You’re strange,” she says and drops her eyes back to her book.

 

Later, as we’re walking to Jean’s car to return to the train, I ask for a moment to look again at the fences, and with money in his eyes, Jean says yes, so I walk out deep into the farm and bend at the waist every few meters to see what’s living in there. Over and over I find the wrong ones, and I start to doubt what I’ve been told, but then I see them, so many of them: our snails. Leaning my face toward the fence, I take a deep breath and my head fills with nothing but the plants—not even a little stink on these snails. On the tips of my toes, I reach into the pen and rest my palm on a wide leaf and wait. One is eyeing me, I can see that, and it starts to work its way onto my finger, the pulse of its muscular body like a large cat tongue that warms and scratches as it moves. I raise it to my face, its eyes moving quickly as though maybe it’s afraid, so I say, “Shhhhh.” You wouldn’t believe it: the brown shell spotted with yellow half moons, the stripes a perfect clockwise spiral, his body light green as spring, dotted with the smallest drops of white. A real beauty. I can’t wait to hear it, but when I raise it to my ear and listen for its secret, there is nothing. I don’t know how long I’m there, but it’s plenty. I wait and wait and silence: a quiet I feel in my bones.

I start to head back to the car but stop. No. This can’t be it, and all at once my Name Day feels like yesterday so I drop to my knees. The earth that separates the rows is soft, and I hesitate for a second before falling forward and spreading my fingers in the cool, smooth dirt. Closing my eyes, I hear nothing, but I tell myself I will kneel there until these damned snails talk to me, so I stay, the dampness of the earth seeping through my jeans, my knees growing cold, my yia-yia’s cross swinging from my neck like it’s keeping time against my chin, and I listen and listen and not a single sound until the car horn beeps and Maria yells, “Ella! Do you want to stay here or go home?”

 

Five hours before our flight and we are back at Les Deux Magots like it’s the only café in Paris, and my head feels heavy, full of the sound of the city and my yia-yia and my mother and my old vegetable crates and miles and miles of silent snail pens. I haven’t said much because I can’t think clearly, so when the waiter comes by I am surprised when Maria asks him how far the Louvre is. Turns out, it’s fifteen minutes.

Maria is happy that the pyramid entrance is finally finished—it had been under construction when she was here before—but mostly, this time, she knows the name of the piece, so our mission is clear: ask someone, look at The Bather, back to Charles de Gaulle. The line is long, so we have time to talk, though neither of us says much for most of it.

Finally, I ask, “Are you excited?” It’s starting to spit a little outside, and the tiny drops get caught in her curls.

“Of course I am,” she says, but she does not look at me.

Once inside, the sweat comes; in the warmth we shave off our jackets and get in a new line. The woman at the desk tries to send us to a painting called Bather, but Maria is firm and we get our directions to the Richelieu wing, which is so close to where we are that both of us laugh.

I’m not sure why we split up because I don’t really know what I’m looking for, but this is Maria’s plan. I hear her words: Big as David, loose parted hair, her foot held out, but I am shocked by how many of the statues stick out one foot—how many are actually bathing. I read their names: Diana, naked and gripping a washcloth, stands hunched, her weight so firmly planted on both feet that I know she is not the one. Venus towers at nearly two meters—a piece actually called Bather that at first gives me the eureka—but then I notice her hair, the braids pilled on her head without part. It cannot be her. I spin in and out of the rooms finding nothing that seems right, so when a woman wearing a name tag walks by, I ask and she says, “Oh, yes,” and takes me right to it: stuffed in a case with half a dozen other pieces, the whole beautiful woman, her shoulders round, eyes turned down, the sneakiest smile. I don’t know many things about sculpture, but she is somehow perfect. And she is not even one meter tall.

Right there in front of so many tourists sneaking pictures I begin to cry. At first, I can’t take my eyes from The Bather, from the disappointing size of her, but then I can’t stand to look at her anymore either, so I back out of the room, take a seat in the courtyard at the feet of Diana, and remove the contract from my backpack. At the top, to Jean and Jacques I write, Yes. Let’s make the work less, and I flip to the last page and sign my long last name on the firm, black line. When I finish, I fold it square, shove it into my pocket, and take a deep breath, feel the muscles in my shoulders stiffen before releasing. I know what my family thinks about change, but I am not like them. I am thinking this, twisting it over in my head, when I look at the description of Diana, not trying to learn so much as needing to focus on something, and there I see in parenthesis the forgotten word that makes me choke: Artemis.

When Maria finds me, I am still sitting there, eyes burning, one hand in my pocket, my palm sweating onto the contract.

“Well, this is official,” Maria says. “I have looked in every room. She must be in private collection. It is less like a failure now, knowing that I didn’t miss it last time.” If she notices I’m not okay, she doesn’t let on. Maybe it’s because I’m on the ground, maybe, but she looks tall, her head somehow higher than before, a posture I’ve never known her to have. She seems almost sunny, and I don’t have it in me to tell her the cutting truth: that her dream is so close, just a room away, nothing like what she wants, small enough to stuff into my backpack.

Instead, I tell her I’m sorry, but hey, at least I found a Bather of my own, and I crumple the contract in my pocket before pulling my hand from my jeans to run it along Artemis’ ancient foot.

Random Sample
by Alan Sincic

Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize

Finalist 2015 Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize

So not but a week after the funeral and this thing, this crazy thing that happens. I’m trekking through Midtown – no temp job that day – past CBS Headquarters. You know, Black Rock. You’ve seen the pictures: black as a burnt marshmallow, thirty-eight floors of granite, kind of a cross between the Tower of Sauron and that mystery slab of interplanetary licorice got the chimps so ginned up in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

It’s lunch-break at high tide, crowd so thick it tumbles out across the intersection, not in a cascade like spilled rice, but chockablock, in chunks, as if calved off a glacier where it meets the sea. Two years in the city but only now am I beginning to realize that I am not Paganini’s Violin Concerto in A Minor, the lost Rembrandt, the Flambeau a l’Orange garnished with Spears of Cilantro and imported hand-whipped Tangelo Topping. I am not a novel. No. I am a punctuation mark, a bubble, a blip in a crystalline grid. I try to sling the backpack off my shoulder but I’m pinned at the elbows and swept along, pushed up the curb and into that fresh boil of people pouring out the building. Somewhere down here beneath my (bobbing-along-with-the-other-heads) head, down below this sea of shoulders rocking back and forth in the sun, the bottom half of my body surrenders to the tide.

Say you take the state of Texas, shake the cattle loose, and then fold it in half. Then in half again, then again and again however many times till you get all those millions of people stacked up on top of one another –you know, vertically integrated, some billion bullion cubes all pounded down into a hunk of rock you plop, drop into the middle of this river where it meets the sea. That’s Manhattan. A modernified version of the Lone Star State with all the wilderness sucked out of the equation – all them buffalo and jackalope and armadillo sledge-hammered down into a slab of spam, all them cow-pokes and strip clubs and alfalfa silos sucked up into a teaspoon of subatomic niblets, like on the surface of a neutron star. Bracing. Breath-taking. And – since you can pack, per square inch, more tuna into a tin than you can into an ocean – the height of efficiency.

Cowabunga, right? Unless you happen to be the tuna. A fat guy in a pinstripe suit – you know, all buttoned up like a Christmas ham – stops to hail a cab, rocks backward, body-checks me into a pretzel stand. Flash of perfume as I rebound again, as I bump another soft-as-a-blossom secretary, impale myself on the heels she carries to wear at the office, rebound back into the billion-legged crush.

I trip over a cardboard suitcase looped shut with a belt, bumper past the kid on guard above it. Skinny kid, Nigerian or Haitian, slipped like a coat hanger into some kind of skid row polyester Zoot Suit. Bare ankles, beat-up old Oxford Wingtips, packing twine for laces. Smells like a bouquet of wet cardboard. He climbs up onto a fire hydrant to hawk his wares. A head taller than the crowd now, he whips his hands up into the air as if to stir it.

“Um-brel-lah, um-brel-lah, two dollah, two dollah…”

It starts to rain.

“… um-brel-lah, three dollah, three dollah, um-brel-lah…”

I can’t seem to unstick myself from the shoulders of the people around me. Wildebeest stampeding up a riverbank, that’s what we are — I think as I break stride, as I fall back a step — meals on wheels. And that’s when the guy with the clipboard hooks me by the sleeve. You’ve seen the documentary. It’s always the infant, the aged, the injured the croc strikes first. Says he’s got tickets to a show — focus group screening, CBS sitcom, invitation only.

Invitation? For me? Population of a whole village flits by in the second it takes me to scratch my nose. The earth skids on another thousand miles through the black. The odds are astronomical. That I should be the one grain of pollen plucked out of this avalanche and held aloft for all to see, that I should find myself a member of that most exclusive of all clubs, the Random Sample?

“Got your ticket right here.” He tilts the clipboard to show me the goods, slides his thumb back and forth across the CBS logo pressed into the linen bond. “Free.”

The rest of the group he’s already assembled, a dozen or so of the crème de la crème who follow him out the crowd and into this alley, this cut-out between the skyscrapers. Grammy and Pops in the lead, knuckles all a-tremble as they toddle up the curb, as they clack-clack-clack together like a set of salt and pepper shakers; behind them, this Mommy/Baby combo with a hand-woven sling, all cinnamon-twisty-ed together into a tight little pastry; then ground zero, yours truly; then this big block of a guy in work boots and blue khakis, followed by a batch of chub-a-tubby middle-agers, snapped and clipped and velcroed together into swatches and sweats and elasticized fanny packs that vibrate when they walk, then the rearguard, the typical city fare — potpourri of tourists in sunhats and shades and lemon-yellow sneakers, all gaping up at that crust of sky between the rooftops as if Jesus himself were about to jump.

We gather in the shade of the tower.

“Watch your step,” says Clippy, and then: “Oh.” Everybody stops. He glances down at the torn leather jacket slung over my shoulder. “And don’t forget to leave the motorcycle behind.” This gets a laugh.

“I don’t have a motorcycle,” I say.

“Looks like helmet hair to me.” He reconnoiters the fizz, the frozen explosion up over my ears. “My mistake.”

“Bomber jacket,” I say.

“Fifth Avenue. That’s where we park the bombers.”

The group laughs – no. Strike that. Explodes. Brick through a bay window, laugh inside of the center of which I stand. I smile. Clippy pirouettes slowly inside this stir that he’s created, pushes open the wrought iron gate, ushers us inside. I smile. I picture those teddy bear mascots truckers decorate their rigs with. I picture Clippy stripped to his skivvies, bungee-corded to the grill, crispy-crittered right up to his little button eyes with insects and tar bits and random flecks of roadkill. I smile.

As we shuffle down the walk, one of the tourists, lady with dogs on her shirt, friendlies up to me.

“Are you from around hee-er?” The dogs are purebreds, all the top flavors and not cartoon dogs either, but serious, intent, like the presidents on the dollar bills. “You look like you’re from around hee-er.”

Mee-chigan’s where she’s from, land of the squashed e. Into my eyes is where she looks but I look down at the bulldog on her collar, at Winston Churchill there glaring back at me. President Churchill.

“Well, yes. I mean…” I spend so much time alone now I tend to fumble the small talk. Note to self: stop leaving notes to self. “I mean, no.”

“No? Not from hee-er?”

Not the same here, her here and my here. In China they sing-song ten different meanings from out the very same word. It’s all in the pitch. And you gotta warm up first. And God help the tone deaf. The roast shoe. I will have the roast shoe.

“What I mean is, not exactly here.”

“But around hee-er?”

She’s thinking up the hill over yonder by the Mill Pond. At twelve hundred bucks a square foot I’m thinking, just the imprint of my shoelace hee-er would set me back a month’s pay. “No not here, but from the city, sure. Upper West Side.”

“Oh.” She cocks her head to one side and smiles up at me. Too old to flirt now – you know, the big eyes, the head toss, the tumble hair that girls deploy to win the hearts of men – but not too old to work the smile, to squeeze out that last little drop of charm.

“Step it up now,” says Clippy as he unlocks another gate and then plunges us, one by one, through a big brass revolving door and into an empty lobby. Strike that. Lobby filled with air. Black arches booming up and – as in a cathedral – out across the cavern to meet the black granite girders overhead.

“The West Side… ?” She smiles and glances up at the ribs of steel that hold the skylights in place, the chunks of cloud that go skidding by. “The West Side. Which way is that?”

“The Upper West Side.” I lift my hand into the pointing position. Tough to find a landmark when you’ve got no land to mark. We could be in Uruguay for all I know. I turn back to Pedigree, wave in the general direction of the sun. “Up that way. That’s where I live.”

“By yourself?”

“No, no. A bunch of us share – ”

“You look so young.”

Again she smiles. I redden. I open my mouth to say… what? That I don’t look young? That I’ll try, that I should aim to be… what? More older? I smell the sunblock on her cheeks as she steps closer, count the spikes of gray in her hair. Kind of motherly-looking, verging on grandmotherly, but not so bad to look at probably, back in the day, you know, when her skin fit, when gravity was her friend, when the men would all triangulate her position on the xyz coordinates.

“But that’s okay,” she whispers. She pats me on the sleeve – more like an airbrush than a touch – as she glances up into my eyes. “I think it’s sweet.”

Sweet. Sweet is what girls call you when they pinch you between their thumb and forefinger and dust you off into their cappuccino. Sweet is what motherly women call you when they dab at the whiskey stain on your tie and promise to fix you up with somebody intrepid, the magic word that shrinks you down to HO scale so you can be hot glued onto somebody else’s train set.

“Here,” she says. “You could use this.” She’s holding up a discount card, the kind they stick under hotel doorways. “It’s a two-for-one. You get a dozen bagels. For free.”

“H&H.”

“Pardon?”

“Up by me. Best bagels in town.”

“That’s perfect then.”

“But you should – ”

“No-no. We’re leaving town tomorrow.”

“But you could – ”

“No-no. I want you to have it. You and your friends could – here.”

She cups my hand from underneath, pries the fingers open, presses the card into my palm.

“You and your friends – ”

“We’ll have a bagel party. Thanks.”

I pocket the card, try to picture myself with friends. Sweet she calls me. And they say cattle don’t mind being branded? I know you’re supposed to smile when somebody calls you sweet. I get it. I smile. Smile but on the inside I buzz like a beehive whacked with a stick. Back in second grade again is what I am, propped up on a window ledge outside Miss Conner’s room, varnished in sweat, squirming with chiggers, garnished with Cheeto dust and sandspurs and a speckling of gnats, scab on my knee curling up like a radish peel and, head-to-toe, basted with a hand-dipped mélange of mucilage, play dough, asphalt, pine sap, creosote, Kool-Aid, Six-12, sour milk, fig Newton, chalk dust and snot. Miss Conner reaches up to brush the flecks of candy corn from my hair. “You are just the sweetest boy.”

Spoiled for life. Haunted by the notion that there lives in me a sweetness that I am somehow answerable for. I see it in other people all the time. We’ve all of us got the curse. We are each of us convinced, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, that the sweetest piece of real estate in the universe can be found somewhere – if only we could find it – tucked inside of ourselves. And that would be… where, exactly? Childhood gone and nothing to show for it, youth half spent, the moment here gathered in a sieve. Where did the sweetness go?

There’s a jam-up back at the revolving door. Grandma’s got her tote bag stuck between the curve of the glass and the rubber sleeve of the doorframe.

“Stay put,” says Clippy as he hustles out a side door. The crowd stirs. A pudgy little tourist presses through with the hubby in tow. She bobs up out the chop like a buoy, hefty and plush and orbicular, the both of them in their marshmallowy sneaks and pumpkiny jog-togs like bread on the rise, like bumpers, the Bumper Twins, to clear the way for Grandma.

Grandma tugs at the strap. Still got it hooked to her elbow, yanks like she’s snagged it on a folding lawn chair and not a billion ton monolith. There’s this blocky guy in Bermuda shorts, got his hand wedged in the rubbery flap. Grunts. Grunts again. “Don’t touch the door,” he says, cuts through the din with this splintery voice, raw, brass horn with a blown valve. “Don’t push!” Red’s the word for this guy – buzz cut blonde, Rolex the size of a Mayan sundial, fat calf in a quiver up out of that genuine leather moccasin.

Somebody jolts me from behind. Just get a glimpse as he flashes by. Slim guy. Tall. His T-shirt smells of grilled onions and cold beer. He’s got a face like a broken cookie and a strange little hitch to his walk, as if all those years in the sun had warped him right down to the chassis.

“Stand back! Everybody stand back!” says Red, but the tall guy he slides in there, smooth-like, to unravel Grandma’s elbow. He skates her out the way and then fierce – like you crack a whip – yanks the bag free. Whoa. Grandpa drops the umbrella he’s been pointing with. Tall Guy picks it up, swirls it back together with a twist of his fingers, hands Grandma her bag, Grandpa his umbrella. A cocktail umbrella is what they really need, you know – delicate, like a blossom, like they should be floating in a little thumb-sized outrigger at the bottom of a Mai-Tai.

Something about the height of the dome, the emptiness, the echo of the hubbub unsettles me. I skirt the edges, slip out of sight into gap between the pillars, out between the ribs of the dome and into a little anteroom no bigger than a pantry. I slide up onto a metal stool, the only seat. Just room enough for a window, window sill, radiator box – wood-framed and white-washed, all of it, even the glass even, like a sheet of spilled milk. The paint puckers where the sun hits the glass but on the inside, in the chalky light that stirs the shade, it’s cool.

While the others bustle around I drop the pack and slide the bomber jacket up over my shoulders to drape it there… you know, the sleeves empty, my body the hanger. Then, with my hands on the lapels, I slide down into the hollow of the coat itself, just so, like people when it rains, you know, caught out in the open, they pull the jacket like a cowl up over the head? Anybody sees me I pretend, oh, just shaking off the rain is all.

The seams of the leather, rough where the lining used to be, rake up over my cheekbones and, well, raw would be the word it, this stupid jacket. Portable glory is what Dad called it. V-E Day he swapped a Lugar for it. What the Bombardier wanted was a bona fide (beyond the flack in his thighbone) piece of Kraut memorabilia, whereas Dad – having busted his nuts across the hedgerows of Normandy – wanted something more poetical than a hunk of steel. “Besides,” he said as we waited for the bus to steal me off to college, “if you want to be more than a grunt, if you want the girls to picture you, you know…” – he gestured up at the clouds, openhanded sweep like you brush the flanks of a horse – “… you gotta look the part.” Damn straight. Don’t have to fly to look like a flyer is what he meant, is how he pictured himself. All leathery and buff as he rainbows up over the horizon. But that’s my old man for you. Was my old man. Not so big on words, no. Clapped his arm up over my shoulders and, so as not to embarrass me, looked out to where (and for the same reason) I was looking: the burst of red neon up there on the pillar where the buses converge, the leap of the greyhound up out of the gate. Talk about awkward, but hell. Sometimes just not moving, just standing there where you stand, that’d be an action, right? And then the bus came, and then he hesitated, and then – I could tell it was the impulse of the moment – stripped off his jacket. “Don’t worry,” he said as he tossed it up over my head like a serape. “You’ll grow into it.”

The radiator smells like the underside of a pier. I loosen my grip on the jacket, drop it back over my shoulders.

“Restrooms this way,” says Clippy off to the far side, the group at his heels, clipboard clap-clapping his squidgetty hips in a march up the steps to a little mezzanine.  “Ten minutes.”

I don’t even notice, at first, that the jacket’s fallen, so lost am I in whatever this is that I’m lost inside of, this little patch of darkness I portage around with me. You wouldn’t know trouble if it pooped in your pocket is what he used to say. Talk about a eulogy. Or on the gravestone, yeah. That would’ve gotten him. He would’ve laughed at that. I press my palms up into my face, palms like a parenthesis, wait for the wave to pass. I reach down for the jacket, and now when I stoop I see, up under the ledge there, where the stone window sill lips out over the radiator box, just room enough to slide a hand, this little packet. I reach in, pinch the edges, pull it out into the light: Chocolate bar the size of a shingle, shiny and smooth and slippery-ed up onto the cover of an old magazine—Dungeons and Dragons, Issue 27. “Top Ten Spells” it says. “Killer Moves.” “Dazzle Your Team.” The cover shot’s a big black and red volcano that bubbles over with a molten gold that, as it spills down the flanks, spells out, “Secrets of the Elvin Horde.”

I’m trying to imagine what kind of old ex-cop security guard would stock the bunker with all this Medieval geekery and, at the same time, a slab of Ghirardelli’s 72% Cacao Twilight Delight Intense Dark Chocolate. Pocket handkerchief guy, I’m guessing. Crispy boutonniere. Sings opera in the shower. Shines up his bullets every night with linseed oil and a clean shammy cloth. And treats himself to… now that’s odd. The bar looks intact, but half the chocolate’s gone. The hollow wrapper’s been nicely – primly, that would be the word – slid back into the sleeve. Not a crease or even a dent in the foil, as if the missing half had – like the mysterious hollow you get sometimes in the center of a malted milk ball – simply evaporated out into the universe at large. Almost magical… I think as I liberate the last of the chocolate, ease the foil back into the wrapper and, just as primly, slip the magazine and the wrapper back into their little crevasse… Like an offering to the gods.

Clippy’s voice echoes out from behind the columns as the herd migrates into my territory, the Bumper Twins in the lead. “… And even though, in the pre-war era, it was radio that dominated the airwaves…”

This must be the ceremonial entrance. Outside around the block, on the other side of the building, the CBSer’s – the people who pump out the product – buzz back and forth en mass through an archway the size of an airport hanger. All that bustle. All that fizz, fizz that fills the airwaves from one end of the continent to the other. Empire of the Air is what they call it.

I gather my pack, slide off the stool, and (gingerly, as if on ice) step back onto the flagstone. Here we are in the still center of the empire, the Westminster Abby of the Broadcasting Imperium. I look for the plaques of bronze upon the walls, the urns of all the old guard stashed underfoot, the bones bricked over. You know, splinters from the cross: toenail clippings from Rin-Tin-Tin; Ed Sullivan baked into a flying buttress; Lassie’s ashes and Lucy’s red locks and Edward R. Murrow finally stubbed out, grinded down into an ashcan no bigger than a coffee mug and stuffed like a potato up under the granite pavers.

“… because here at the CBS family of broadcasting affiliates,” says the disembodied voice of Clippy as they go trip-tropping along the rim. “We’ve always looked upon our little slice of the TV dial as a public trust…”

Nothing. Sleek as a silo but for one thing. All by itself under the dome stands a bust on a pedestal. As the shadows strike it, the face – burnt by the years to a darker bronze – falls away. All but the nose. The nose is gleaming. So many people have touched – keep touching – the nose, that that’s the only part that still shines. Poor bastard, nose up there all aglow like a priest with a couple rum toddies under his belt. Guy spends his whole life mapping the Northwest Passage or nailing the Triple-Lutz in the tucked position, and all we get in the end is the tip of the nose, this little nibble, this little chip of light.

Like back in the days of the vacuum tube, when you’d click on the set and ping, out of the darkness would pop – like the blip that set the big bang in motion – this little chunk of punctuation, this white dot that’d flatten out, squish down, shoot off to the left and to the right in a single line, sharp as a laser, to cut the void in half. The screen would hum. You’d lean in. The line would flutter and then – boom – spring open like a Jack-In-The-Box with a whole new universe inside.

“Please don’t touch the artwork,” Clippy calls out from his perch on the stool I’d just abandoned, the group all gathered around him, his voice a perfect blend of melodious nanny and puppy-peed-on-the-carpet-again fatalism. All eyes on me.

“It looks like – ” My thumb’s already there, so I scratch the itch, give the nose a rub.

“Walter Cronkite.”

“That’s it. Cronkite. Walter Cronkite. Wasn’t he – ”

“Thirty thousand tons of granite went into the construction of this dome,” says Clippy as he turns away and swings hippo-like down from the stool, heavy but at the same time precise, as if he were, one step at a time, embossing the pavement with a sign of his passing. The group looks up as he points to the pillars of sunlight overhead, at this majesty to which I have already contributed my 00.00004371 percent. “The support beams and the cladding, both. Granite, all granite.”

He shoulders through the thick brass door that swings out into the booming lobby. The group sweeps in behind him. “Welcome to CBS.”

As they disappear through the doorway, I glance back at the bust, blink and blink again, try to match the face fixed there with that animated flipbook of Cronkite we’ve all assembled from years of viewing. Like a frozen waterfall, that bust.

I hustle up behind Pedigree as we skirt the edge of the lobby – buzzing with traffic, big enough to berth a dirigible – past a big black reception desk, then on to a black marble elevator marked Employees Only.

I squeeze in just as the door closes. Belly to belly. Up into the clouds we go. Clippy tracks the light as it slowly pings across the numbered squares above us. It is his job to will the machine upwards. He tries to turn so it’s my elbow and not my belly-button rub-a-dub-dubbing up against him, but Grammy and Pops, immovable as stalagmites, hold him in check. He looks down. It wouldn’t be fair to say that Clippy stops smiling. No sign he’s anything less than thrilled to be inhaling the same air as me, but I can’t help but notice he seems to be strangely fixed, not on me, but on the little shards of Twilight Delight rappelling down the snow-colored slopes of my Kmart Ban-Lon double-knit shirt. The clipboard crackles under the pressure of his thumbs. The papers – rosters, carbons, flyers, maps – all warp up into a fat sandwich in the center of which glints the spine of a glossy magazine, red and gold, color of the Elvin King.

The door opens and he pushes past me. Off we go again, past another black marble desk only this time smaller, as if scaled down – a base camp on Everest – to fit the higher altitude. Clippy’s picking up speed but I stay with him, pin myself to his shoulder, down the corridors, offices, cubicles… broom closets and fuse boxes… air ducts and indentations and architectural punctuation marks that continue to shrink as we wind our way in toward the tower’s center, toward the heart of the realm.

At last… a boardroom. Of a sort. Instead of a table there’s a batch of chairs laid out not in rows, but in a grid, like a marching band at parade rest. If rest is the word for it. The whole place has got that reconstruction-of-a-downed-jetliner feel to it: half the paneling shucked away; raw plasterboard mottled with plumbing specs and blueprints; autographed headshots of the old guard – Perry Como, Snooky Lanson, Tommy Leonardi – pitched (cracked frames and all) up onto a pallet of floor tiles in the corner. I glance up at the two survivors (too high to reach without a ladder) that cap the doorway. Arthur Godfrey strumming a ukulele (You are my sunshine, my only sunshine) and Eydie Gorme (Love ya, Kid) taking her bouffant out for a walk, eyes kicked up to high beam, smile singing out with an equal and infinite love for all that she surveys: me and Clippy and the gang, that T-Square rammed down a tube of old wall-paper samples, that paint can petrified shut, that Post-It flaking off the ceiling fixture, those wires shooting up out the floorboards, webbing out in every direction, thick as a wrist, industrial, juice enough to set a casino ablaze.

“Watch your step now – by next week all of this will be fully computerized, top of the line, IBM, everything.”

Half the group’s already surged around him to grab the bucket-style swivel chairs. Nice touch. Homey. Fake leather padding on a plastic frame, snug but not too comfy, like an airport lounge or the lobby of a Volkswagen dealership. So much for the Tiffany Network. The ambiance here? More Happy Hour at a Scranton bowling alley than, say –given the scale of Paley’s estate – high tea with the Archbishop of Canterbury.

I try to scope out a seat down front, but… where is the screen? Here at the top network in the top city in the – from the Mammoth-bone condo to the Lunar Lander – top of the top country that ever was? Where’s the secret revolving wall activated with a flick of 007’s sterling silver lighter, the geometrically arrayed like-the-eyes-of-an-insect multiple monitors, the itty-bitty Jetson-style personal display pods levitating up out of the floorboards?

“Find a seat quickly please.”

Clippy flips aside a bolt of Vis-Queen to reveal what, at first glance, looks like a chunk of mahogany the size of a steamer trunk. He swivels it around to face us. A box TV, smuggled out the lobby of a Holiday Inn or the living room of some upscale Baltimore dentist, about as flashy as a wheel of government cheese.

Not that I’m disappointed. Hey, Genghis Khan slept in a yurt with a goat nibbling at his toes. Enrico Fermi split the atom in a pilfered squash court. Even Neil Armstrong peed in a diaper on his way to the moon.

I scoot up onto a padded leather bistro stool at the back of the room.

Clippy steps up. “That’s my seat.”

“Does it matter?”

“Yes.”

I wait for an explanation. Clippy’s eyes land on this patch of plaster behind me, as if it was a map of Gaul, and he was Caesar, and I was a bucket of horseshoes. But I’m getting good at this now. I pause. I wait… just long enough to make him wonder what the code for Security is… then slide off the stool with a look of love in my eyes.

“If it’ll make you happy.”

There’s a seat up there by Tall Guy and Pedigree’s apple dumpling of a husband. And that’s when I first notice it – what I’ve been trying to tell you about. Out of every armrest of every chair sprouts a white cable with a bud on the top, also white, like the bud of a lily. Clippy tells us that, see, inside that bud’s this button you push. You wrap the bud in your fist as you sit in the chair – one bud for the right hand and one bud for the left. Red button in the left fist, green button in the right. Like this – see? Both hands at the ready, now… thumbs up. I hold my fists out in front of me, as if expecting someone else to do the choosing… one potato, two potato, three potato, four.

“So long as you like the show,” whispers Clippy with a hand on my shoulder, “press the green button. Don’t like? Press the red button.”

“Hold it down or just press it, punch it?”

“Hold it down.”

“The whole time.”

“The whole time you’re liking it.”

“Like, starting when?”

“From when you first start to like it.”

“But then when I… ”

“When you stop liking it, then stop pressing down, see? When you don’t like it, whenever you’re not liking it, press down on the red button.”

“But if I’m not sure… ”

“You decide. Red or green.”

“Absolutely. But – ”

“Let’s begin.”

He clicks on the video. Flint to the fire. Moonrise over Olduvai Gorge. What gang of chimps ever squatted so still as we do now, waiting in the dark for that glow to begin?

Up comes the opening logo, the big CBS eye. You know they ripped that thing off the Shakers? The Eye of God. Tack it up over your barn door to zap the horseflies. Blast the sinners out from under the rocks, scrub down the righteous with bristles of light. That was back in the day when you couldn’t peel an orange without – you, oops, you pop an earlobe off the Blessed Virgin Mary there glaring up at you from out the pulp. The warble of an angel in the crank of a drill. Holy Ghost on a graham cracker. Jesus God Almighty breaching out the smokehouse chimney, thrashing his way upwards, hand over hand, straight up into that pillar of cloud. Dog paddle. Backstroke. Australian crawl. Believe. Show me that you believe. The Eye of God commands it.

I mash down on the green button.

Tall Guy, he doesn’t miss much. Glances over at my fist, back at the screen, back at me again. The others start to look at their fists, back to Clippy, back to me. Am I breaking the rules? Clippy slides from his stool and makes his way down the aisle.

Now when I mash down on the green, am I telling the universe that yes, this one mouthful of air, this one here, tastes good? Thumbs up? My compliments to the chef? But then the next breath. Do I release the button to vote again or do I… what? Say yes to the breath that I’ve yet to take? I look back at the Eye of God. Does it deserve the green button? Has it earned its place in the great, grand, unscramble-able gumbo of life? So it’s not Joey Heatherton in a white string bikini, Brooks Robinson spearing a line drive, no, but compared to the fleck of guacamole embedded in the beard of Mr. Tourist over there, the cracked yellow toenail of Grandma Moses over here, the empty jacket here I navigate from place to place?

The logo evaporates just as Clippy reaches me. The screen’s dark now. Nice touch. Clears the palette. I give it a green. Then the show begins. Lights, music, titles. Everybody gathers up their buttons, both hands at the ready. Balancing a tray of breakables is what they’re doing. Green. Red. Red. Green. What will it be?

Me? Green. The green party. Go green go.

Funny thing. Don’t recall much about the show itself. Not a bad show. Big Irish-American family. Lots of freckles. Big kitchen. Neighbors popping in, popping out. Incredible, the grooming, everybody – not a zit, not a smudge, not the faintest beetling of an unplucked brow. You’d think they had a whole battalion of people just outside the door to dust the crumbs from off of their Dockers, flick the lint from the fringe of their leg-warmers, pump the hair back up to the maximum recommended PSI.

I try to pick up on the plot. Teenage daughter’s got a crush on the Pope. Or something. Hard to keep it all between the crosshairs what with Clippy just over my shoulder, marinating the air with his invisible ions.

I keep thinking about the difference between the room that we’re in and the room that they – the TV people – are in. In their room, everybody’s all chipper and firm. They know exactly what they want and they’re not afraid to say so. Even when they get angry they do it in a cute way, as in Look at me. Am I not making a spectacle of myself, rascal that I am, carving this turkey with a penknife? And all because the (don’t say a word!) Lumberjack 5000 Electra-Glide Poultry Sword you got me for Christmas just (I am so steamed!) electra-glided clean through its own power cable! This is the kind of anger we like to see. Anger with a punch line, anger you can count on. Not like you’re going to come down in the morning to find the furniture all busted up and spaghetti on the ceiling.

But that’s not all. In their room, every time somebody opens his mouth, there’s laughter. Laughter comes vibrating out the pores of the walls of the room itself. It’s like they’re all living on the inside of some giant percussion instrument somebody keeps striking and striking, over and over again, like a gong.

Okay. So tickle it all, right down to the atoms, but – or so they say – you can’t have the laughter without the tears, sunshine without rain, mammals without 3,000 kiloton asteroid impacts at the tail end of the Cretaceous. So I wait. I lean in. I tilt my head but… so far the only sad things that happen are sad in a cute kind of way. Baby turtle gets flushed down the toilet and goes to heaven. Dad buys a tin of shoe polish to hide the bald spot on the top of his head, but it’s a dye. It’s permanent. And it’s cerulean blue, crest of a cockatiel from the rain forests of Brazil. If only he had a hat like the Pope wears! Again the laughter, but surely there must be a sniffle now, say maybe somewhere just under the surface – sliver of dark chocolate, say, just poking out from under the Crème Brule? Say Grandma gets a boyfriend who dumps her for a younger oldster and she – love on the rebound – decides to hit on a younger man: distinguished, hand-carved mahogany cane, full set of dentures, night watchman down at the fish factory. Who turns out to be gay. Or something. And in love with the Pope. Or something. Bittersweet.

But not here, not now, no. Candles on a cake that’ll never be blown out, that’s what these people are, complete opposite of what you get in the movies nowadays, where like a billion bucks they spend to get the costumes all dustied up, to get that old weathered look, to make it look real. They even pay a costumer to wail away at every stitch of clothing – scuff and tear, scratch and pound, bleach and stain and smear to make the shirt sweat, the pants buckle, the shoes crackle with grit. Professionally distressed is what they call it. And all the while us amateurs out here in the seats, we do it all for free – no camera, no script, no score beyond the sound of our own breathing.

Two handed I’m pressing now, green green as I hunker down, elbows on my knees. Labor of love is what it is, is why we do it. Been wailing away at ourselves for decades now, see, shoes and clothes and teeth and hair – even the bones that hold it all together. And not just Ma and Pa Brittle back there, kiln fired down the years into a pair of porcelain miniatures, no, but all of us. Pedigree all rigid from the strain of smiling as she helps the oldsters press the buttons, eyes bright as candy but the skin, when she squints, crimped at the edges like a cellophane wrapper. And the Bumpers as they lean out over the pair to whisper advice – plumping at the edges, ripening into middle age, oozing out the cracks in their Ken and Barbie exer-wear. As the center of the universe, honeypot at the heart of the piñata, I should be the exception but – cuffed up into the coat of a cow (alas, as they say, no longer with us) – I’m not. And neither is Big Red there as he cocks one fist and then the other Rock’em Sock’em Robot style, right-left, right-right-left as he grips the buttons, as he banks like a skier with the poles tucked, as he burns himself red from the inside out.

From the inside, from the outside, every last one of us we’re burning up, quick like a blaze or slow like a smolder, or cold even, cold like rust, or like fruit, when it ripens, ever so slow, as if there were no end to it, ever, as if nothing that ever ripens will ever die. Clippy pretends otherwise, sure – churns down the aisle to take charge, reaches up to brush a hand through a shock of hair that vanished decades ago, but ripe is what he is, ripe as the pinkish out-of-towers slowly melting into the upholstery, ripe as Tall Guy (Bristlecone pine is what he is), scored by the wind to a twist of iron, all askew, ropey scar down the hollowy cheek. Ripe even as the mother there, buoyant as a plum, rubbing at the crease on her brow as if the palm of her hand were an eraser.

My thumb’s beginning to hurt.

“Sir…” It’s a man’s voice. “Sir…” Clippy leans over to insert this wedge of a word, this sir, straight down into the cleft of my cerebrum. “Sir. You can’t just press down on the green.”

“What do you mean I can’t? I’m doing it.”

“That’s not the way it works.”

“I don’t get to do the button, then?”

“The purpose of the button is to judge the show.”

“Then I get to do the button, then.”

“Yes. But the show…”

I half-point, half-shrug in the direction of the show. But no, the show’s… it’s the screen now, the screen that’s empty but… no. Static. It’s filled with static. Ok. Ok. So I’ve been voting for air.

“So…”

“I know how the buttons work,” I say.

“Good.”

“Okay.”

Clippy’s face flickers on and off in the light of the static. His smile never leaves him but he seems frozen in place, waiting for something to happen, something that involves me. They say you face off against a bear in the woods, you should mirror the bear’s behavior. Or something. Or the opposite maybe. Or maybe I’m the bear and he’s the…

He looks down at my right hand, then back up to meet my gaze.

“Okay. So. So now you have to take your finger off of the button.”

I look down. I’m surprised to discover that I am still pressing the green button. He gives me that raised brow, that toothy smile of his, glaze of a cake in a glass counter, polyurethane all the way. Some people, it’s not enough to smack them. You want everybody to smack them. You wake the family, you sent out the invitations, you catapult the signal flares up over the North Atlantic shipping lanes.

“You see what I’m saying,” he says.

I don’t say a word. I hold up my fist, cable trailing, and stir it in a gentle semi-circle, as if I’d just captured a handful of fireflies and were trying to count them by feel alone.

“You can take your finger off,” he says. “Take your finger off of the button.”

“What for?”

“I just said.”

“But I’m judging the show.”

“But you gotta – here.”

He grabs my fist with both hands. I clench it tighter.

“You gotta…” He tries to pry my thumb loose, but I’m a ballplayer. I do push-ups on my fingertips.

“No. Just let me…” Poor Clippy. The people look up. He’s got one hand around my wrist and the other clawing away at the thumb and they’re all thinking… what? Hillbilly manicure? Finger puppet of the damned? He doesn’t even notice the rest of me now, so intent is he on the thumb. And not a one of us – unless you call rhythmic grunting a conversational gambit – uttering a word.

Even the air itself falls silent. The set hums like a tuning fork. A test pattern pops up on the screen: chief in a headdress smack in the crosshairs of some kind of giant rifle scope, all these other targets sprinkled out around him like consolation prizes. I hear the others creaking up out of their seats, a gasp or two, a woman’s voice in the shape of an oh -– but not a word, a real word anywhere, as if the whole thing’s taking place in this gap between the words, the regular words we use to talk about regular things.

Fist in a bowl of cake batter is what it feels like, Clippy’s fat hands clamped around mine, the hinge of the elbow that hooks me up under the chin, barrel of a belly that presses up into the curve of my spine, bends me like a bow, the both of us twisty-tied up into this little hydraulic mambo.

Like Mama always said – it’s the personal touch that counts, right? And not such a bad-looking guy after all, Clippy, when you get him up close, get a good feel – the brawler’s clinch, the sandpaper kiss – for that face of his, the real one I mean, handsome in a balloonish sort of way, like they took the master and packed it up for shipping and what we got now is the batting – not Elvis the whippet but Elvis at the end, you know, spatula-ed up into that white buckskin jumpsuit with the Liberace tassels and the too-late-by-a-decade Beatle cut. Crisco Elvis.

And like Elvis, alas, calling out to the crowd from under that rhythmic kiloton of ballistic gel, Clippy calls out to me as I burrow my way through the folds of his neck, as I acupressure his spleen with the blade of my elbow, chisel my way up under the buttons of his perma-press blazer and into his secret self, the real Clippy, the cat hair stuck to the tie-clip, the bourbon on the breath, the pierced ear that waits, at the end of the day, for the talisman – paper clip? Golf tee? Cameo singlet of Evel Knievel? – to appear. Clippy, oh Clippy, who waddles home to dream… what? A Zeppelin? A sub? A house in a cloud, a house in a tree, an ancient cedar maybe, tall as a tower, high above a bay where the condor wheels and the water breaks?

The set – the whole room now – flickers like a damp cigar. Tall Guy tries to shuck him loose. And still I keep my fingers locked on the green. The wires rip and the chair pitches over, but to me it’s all about the hand. I think of this cheesy King Kong I saw as a kid. Not the one thumping his chest and smacking fighter planes upside the Empire State Building, no, but a poor man’s Kong, bobbed up one Saturday out of that weekly stew of black and white B-movie chillers on Channel 9’s “Theatre X” – The Deadly Shrew, The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Hand Of… something. Doom maybe. Crazy flick about a chopped-off hand crawling through a mansion turning doorknobs and playing Mozart on the baby grand and throttling all the houseguests. Awesome pics. Every last one. But Son of Kong is the one I’m talking about. Cheap sets. Goofy special effects. And actors you never heard of even, stars who, as the credits unroll, as their fame evaporates in the California sun, veer off into cigarette commercials and puppet theater and Fresno real estate brokerages. But still. In this movie Kong, he never gets off the island, but you still get the girl in the slinky dress, kind of satinish-white, some kind of haute couture jungle jammies, you know, with the nipple-sharp darts, and Kong’s got a hold of her at the end as the island – I don’t remember why, volcano or something – sinks into the sea. He holds her up in his hand, up over his head as the rest of him disappears under the water. Nothing left now but the giant hand with the pretty girl inside it. Hero comes by in a rowboat to rescue her, but it’s Kong, he’s the hero, the dopey ape. He’s drowning but still, still he manages to save her.

Not that I’m exactly thinking all this in the two-point-five seconds it takes Clippy to jujutsu me over his shoulder and into the drywall, but it’s in there somehow, click-snap, like all at once.

Anyway. That’s how it ends. Ka-boom. Clippy all bulldozed up into a heap at the foot of the TV, me in a tangle of wires between the seats, and Tall Guy standing over us, King of the Hill. He’s ripped the collar clean off of Clippy’s shirt and tossed it back into his face. Spray of papers everywhere as the whole gang – even the oldsters – push through the debris to reach me.

“What the hell – ”

“My God – ”

“He just…”

“What happened?”

“I saw the guy –”

I break in before they get a chance to turn on Clippy. “It was my fault. I called him a name.”

“Don’t touch me” is all that Clippy says. Sits. Just – slick as a newborn – sits there. Puffy. Scratched. Waxy with sweat and, over and over again, and under his breath don’t touch me, don’t touch me as he blinks out at… well, at nothing. At a screenfull of snow.

Tall Guy hauls me up onto my feet, up into that stubble of his, that slab of burnt toast you scrape the cinders off with a knife. “Get your stuff,” is all he says.

I grab my backpack. Gather the jacket, the shreds of the jacket, everything but the swatch of rawhide welded to Clippy’s fist.

“This way,” he says, says he… and I… hey, what can I say? I follow him. Sometimes you need a straight-line kind of guy – shortest route through a triple half-hitch is the blade of a hatchet… packet of C4 in the fishing tackle… Mr. Padlock, meet Mr. Twelve-Gauge. Even the tattoo on his collarbone says it: an imitation of a wound, a single cut in a cross-hatch black but stippled red in the center, bright as a strawberry, as if the wound were still fresh, the knife still zinging through the air.

I’m thinking if somebody stops us we say… what? That man on the floor over there, clipboard all smacked upside his head, shoe sprung loose, spritz of hair stuck to the glowing screen? Never seen him before. But nobody says a word. We’re out the door without a backward glance. And I’m so busy lugging my backpack, lacing my boot, hop-scotching down the hall to even register how we finally got there, inside the cage, rattling down the freight elevator, striking out across the lobby, out the door, onto the sidewalk.

Not till we hit the curb do I notice my leg blazing up, my fist clenched, my body cantering from side to side. A sprained ankle. We press on through the crowd. No sign of a posse. The usual pillage: Black Rock booming straight up as the people pour out the base, out from under the black facade, out across the granite steps in every direction at once, like it’s a single thing, like it’s a pepper shaker sprung a leak.

I turn back to say something – Adios, CompadreSemper FiVeni, Vidi, Vici… Something rough, bluff, some little sliver of freeze-dried, whiskey-fied, testoster-ized wit to nail down my credentials as a tough guy, but Tall Guy? Pfft. Gone. Back into the gene pool.

The crowd bulldozes me onward. I feel a tightness in my right forearm, the tendons wrench, the burn like a bootlace in a cinch. I look down at my fist. I step out of the crush and into this niche between the buildings. Tree and a trashcan is all. Vest-pocket park. What do you do when your own body won’t obey you? You pry open the fist with the free hand, crowbar up under the fingers to break the seal. And then I remember the reason for the fist. And then my hand cracks open and there it is, embedded in my palm, lozenge the size of a quarter, smooth as Mentos, not a groove or a hook or a loop to link it to anything other than itself: the green button.

Down through the branches the sunlight splinters, strikes me on the back of the hand. I flip the button, somersault it over and over again between my thumb and my fingers. It’s like a wind that fills a kite, what happens next, the smile that rises up inside me. I picture the batch of us there back in the room again, all of us together again, picture after picture, like when you shake a snow globe and all the flakes that fall, the faces in a flurry, and a flake is what I am, yes, but also and at the same time, the sky through which the flake falls. I shake the sky. I fall through the sky that I shake, and here, and as I fall, inside of these snapshots in a shower, sharp like a slideshow is what they are, helter-skelter like an avalanche, like you chunk a rock at a flock of pigeons and they blast up into the air but, inside of a blink, they get this crazy impulse to order, to compose themselves in flight – sift the avalanche, sort the confetti as it falls.

I see Clippy and me sumo wrestling there in the dark. Tall Guy with a hammer-lock on Clippy’s head, the bone of his shoulder in my face, the three of us all muscled up into this monkey’s knuckle of denim studs and splintered wood and shredded polyester. Elbows. Kneecaps. Baby fat. Gristle. Our breathing all braided together here as if it were a single sound, the single note from out the bigger score, the billions all bubble-wrapped round and round the globe, the millions in the city, the dozen here tumbling by. I see Bumper Hubby as he stretches out a pudgy arm to shield his pudgy wife, see them speckled in a glow of static, see the streak of white across her face where the Ray-Bans end and her cheeks have been – like a pair of Easter eggs dipped in red dye just up to the halfway mark – burnt by the sun. I close my eyes and I see them. Bumper He and Bumper She and that old pastry of a lady beside behind them with her glazed hair and the blown glass eyebrows and the pancakey orange cheeks. Who, I ask, will be true to her? The brittle-as-a-dragonfly fingers and the wilting lily tilt of the neck but there – still burning there, and bright as the day she kissed her first boyfriend – the pepper-red of the lips? That would be me. I will be true. True. And true to Pedigree with her bobbed hair dyed and sprayed a color not seen in nature – sunset on Mars maybe, halo slowly hardening to a helmet –Pedigree who wonders if the Geiger Counter still clicks when she walks by, if the men still burn to her touch. Yes I say to her, and yes I say to the bent hands reaching out to pull me up into the light, yes to the heave and the shudder of the body below, to Tall Guy, to Red-face, to Clippy in all his secret glory, to the out-of-towner crew with the fluorescent culottes and tote bags and fanny packs blown as if at random into a single bouquet, to the mother with the Gerber Peach Puree stippled up the front of her cotton shirt, gold on black in a tiny arc, like the hash marks on the face of a clock and yes, yes, even yes to the baby she holds in the sling, the baby who – as fiercely as I grip the green button – grips the cloth that binds him, and squirms in his cocoon and, with open mouth but not a sound, sweeps it all, and all of us with it, into his widening eyes.

Theories
by B. Boyer-White

Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize

Finalist 2015 Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize

I have a mouthful of hot tea when it hits. A boom in the walls like a wrecking ball blow, then a whole series of them, pounding. Nothing breaks but the windows snake-rattle in their frames.

You flip to a new page of your magazine and say, “She must bowl in her hallway and get a lot of strikes.”

“No,” I cough. I swallowed weird and huffed a vapor of Earl Gray. “She dresses in a suit of armor and drills Stop, Drop, Roll.”

You laugh and run a hand over my ankle, down my foot that rests next to your butt on the couch, and I’m about to reach for you, too, but then the ceiling shrieks like it’s being raked and instead I spill tea on my shirt.

The building is from the 1930s, downright historic by California standards, with the original molding and hardwood floors but with updated appliances and plumbing. The right kinds of aged charm. Still, boards creak under our feet and knobs stick. The sliding closet doors are arthritic and protesting, a thing we could ignore when ours were the only ones screeching.

Then, a month after I moved in with you, she moved in. The upstairs neighbor. What is she possibly doing up there? we ask each other. The crashing over our heads is incessant. The thumping along the walls, excessive. She doesn’t open and close the closet doors; she tortures them like she’s The Inquisition. How is she so, so noisy?

We propose theories. We say things like, she must hold karate classes for tap dancers. Or, she has a stiletto pogo stick.

 

She wears a pirate costume and can’t get the hang of the peg leg.

 

I moved in with you after my job disappeared, abandoning my own apartment so I could save on rent while I looked for work. The hunt could take a little time, we both acknowledged, smoothing our optimism with healthy, adult realism. The economy is bad, the markets have crashed, a recession has hit—all just different declarations of why normal things are suddenly so difficult, or so gone.

It was a kind thing for you to do, taking me in, but also selfish, we say. You want me here; we are ferociously in love; you don’t even have to leave your place for sex; we would have done this anyway, sooner or later. So what if it’s sooner?

So what if this was the reason?

So what?

 

She juices shell-on coconuts for her all-smoothie diet.

 

Upstairs is young, more so than you and me but not by much. She could be a student at the university but she’s no bubbly sorority girl. I gasped the first time I actually saw her, through our kitchen window, hefting trash bags to the alley. “I think she’s a hunchback!”

You all but ran over. She’s never in the common entranceway we share with the three other units in the building, where the bank of four mailboxes open in the wall with four little keys. She never wanders in circles over the grass out back, talking on her cellphone in the purply twilight the way we do when one of our mothers calls.

We saw I was wrong when she reappeared sans bags, lurching but smooth-shouldered. There’s just something slothy about her, with a twisting, bent quality. She won’t pick up her feet to take proper steps and instead drags them like she’s wearing flip-flops even when she isn’t.

Still, our only sightings are like that first one: through the window, when she carries her huge bags to the alley where the cans are. The bags are stuffed so oddly full for one person. We’re curious, but, when we see them in the cans while taking out our own trash, we’re too skeeved to open them and find out what’s inside.

 

She’s a dominatrix and her whip has bad aim.

Every day that you work, I cook dinner, even though we’re supposed to take turns, the way we still do take turns buying groceries though it’s always you who actually buys them, saying, “Rainy day,” as you fold your hand over my wallet. You’re tired when you come home from the clinic. Your scrubs smell like the nursing procedures you’ve performed all day so although I know you’ve washed your hands so many times your knuckles have chapped, I urge you into the shower because I can’t believe you’re not covered in the essence of conditions whose pictures make me snap shut my laptop when I pull them up on Web MD. So dinner will be ready faster if I make it, because for now, while my master’s degree sits in a shiny frame at the bottom of a hastily packed box of some-of-my-other crap, I’ve got the time to watch a pot of water come to boil. Just for now.

While we eat you ask what I applied to that day and I tell you, explaining why I think I’m qualified, and when you agree it isn’t patronizing, it’s sincere. I let you do the dishes because this house is a democracy, and then we take a walk, another part of our newish routine of Living Together. The trees hang low and shadowed in the evening, tropical species not native but thriving in our California dreamin’ weather, and for some reason I find the whole atmosphere sexual—the trees rudely crevassed and swollen, their leaf-blood smells perversely thick and rich. Or maybe it’s just you walking next to me, holding my hand. I want to shove you against the nearest trunk and press my palms into the clammy cool bark on either side of your face to feel the contrast, since your mouth will be hot, I know.

But we just swing arms and talk, intuiting which streets the other would like to turn down. Half the houses we pass are empty and silent like something underwater. Apparently we’re under siege by a “housing crisis,” but there’s no shortage of houses; we pass them everywhere, vacant and ready. It’s just that the people who need them are no longer allowed to live in them.

Hard times, everyone at the top says. Lean times, end times. Times to test our mettle. They throw theories out like sneezes and I wake up in the morning and eat your cereal and drive, wearing an honest-to-goodness outfit, to fill out job applications in coffee shops so I have somewhere to go, too.

The houses that still have people inside are warm-vibed and aglow with lamps. I’ve already admitted that I like looking into the windows. I like seeing the living rooms and dining rooms arranged, their furniture more modern and sterile or overstuffed and grandmotherly than I can comprehend wanting.

“Does it make me creepy?” I ask, my face turned toward the glass between my life and a stranger’s like they’re a museum exhibit.

“Totally. Creepy McCreeperson.”

If I find a face looking back from a dining chair or recliner, I turn my head away quickly. If I can’t see you then you can’t see me. I wasn’t looking. I was never even here.

 

She runs a bootleg mini golf course up there. The moats explain the water stains on our ceiling, too.

 

I practice answering job interview questions in the shower so I’ll be ready when the call comes.

Why were you at your last job only nine months?

My position was dissolved when the organization lost its funding. Ninety percent of the staff was let go.

That’s unfortunate. And what was the nature of the work you did?

We were a nonprofit who worked, broadly, in community aid. I was a coordinator for our job services department.

Could you elaborate?

Absolutely. I acted as a liaison between employers and agencies, and connected the people we served with them, finding the right fit for individuals who were having a difficult time securing employment due to their experience and situation—so the economically vulnerable, single parents, veterans, people with criminal records, or just people who had been laid off, hilariously. I’m sorry. Not “hilariously.” It’s just funny, but not “ha ha” funny. I just mean it’s ironic, that I used to help people find employment and now I can’t find any. Not because I’m not qualified, of course. It’s just a hard market. Really, I’m a valuable asset. Sorry, I don’t think I’m expressing myself well. Did I use “ironic” correctly, just now?

I don’t think so.

Can I try this again, please?

Sure, but you get one chance to make a first impression, and you just burned it.

I know. Fuck.

 

She has a clumsy poltergeist.

 

The sound is part clatter, part high-pitched whine. Eyes to the ceiling, you propose, “Let’s have really loud sex to get back at her.”

“Okay. We’ll get a headboard with huge pillars made of organ pipes. Put the keyboard under the mattress.”

“Please, you’re loud enough as it is. You, Miss, holler like a cat.”

“You wish.”

“Have you had sex with you? I can’t believe I’m not deaf.”

Just to prove you wrong I tackle you and initiate a round. I prove myself wrong. I pound my fist against the wall a few times to punctuate my oh gods to prove how very wrong.

Why don’t we say anything to Upstairs, ever? Poke the offending ceiling with a broom handle? Chuck a tennis ball against it the way we learned in college dormitories to give a warning knock? We could go to her door and politely ask if she’s aware that people live beneath her, and that sound is a thing that travels? Leave a note, like chicken shits. But we never do. Even if we were, finally, to come face-to-face with her on the front walk or at the mailboxes, we would say nothing.

Because she is young and alone and clueless. Because she is possibly sad and definitely weird. Her weaknesses are also her defense; the same reasons we hate her make us love her, in that humane, Thy-Neighbor-Golden-Rule way. Agape, like my Renaissance humanities professor drilled us on years ago—the Latin for love based on charity. Far superior to cupiditās, base and carnal love, the kind you and I splatter the sheets with. I can smell it on my hands, on my upper lip, as I move around the house an hour after you’ve left for work, before I do the thing I don’t want to and wash us off.

I wonder if she can hear us? I think we’re considerate but maybe we forget ourselves and let shampoo bottles fall in the shower, get too many ringing phone calls, laugh too loudly while we have each other and she has no one.

 

She’s a watermelon farmer and Gallagher is her secret roommate.

 

“How did you even remember Gallagher?”

“How did you?”

 

She practices her lumberjacking on model trees.

 

We take a long walk after dinner, cross the highway, and pass the university’s sprawling grounds and the five-story hospital where you work. Beyond that lies the open land with its peppering of trees and there, against the twilight, the distant lamps of the tent city glow.

At first, there were newspaper stories covering the fights in the city meetings and the courts, about all the newly homeless still being part of the public and therefore, entitled to access public land. When the land was finally allowed, the fights began about how much of a shelter is too much. Fabric and coverings, fine, but wood and structure, no. Personal possessions okay but furniture, absolutely not. If someone crossed a line, Demolition was called in.

I look hard at the sky above the small, weak lights—hung lanterns, propped flashlights—and search it for smoke. I like picturing that they have a fire going to warm their hands and cook their food, a nucleus around which everyone gathers in the evening like family. But I know better. The real city said fires are prohibited and would cause the tent city to be shut down. “Shut down,” like an amusement park ride. Like it wouldn’t be torn down, mown down.

“Can you imagine being Demolition?” I ask.

“No. It would be horrible,” you say, brows bent under sincere ache, and I remember why I love you for time ten thousand and eighteen.

I look back at the pale shapes of fabric roofs sitting still as a lake. I say, “It’s like someone turned off their lives. Like a switch.”

“They’re not dead.”

“But they’re gone. They disappeared from the rest of us. Like a light gone off. Click.”

And as though I’m a wizard, one of the far-away tiny lights vanishes. You shiver. “Let’s go home,” you say. You put your arm around me, warm.

 

She’s testing the gravity of her entire shoe closet.

 

Which must be extensive: packages upon packages for her arrive via UPS, from Penney’s and Zappos and whatever girl chic boutique. We know because the UPS guy has to ring the buzzer several times until you finally let him into the common entranceway—she never answers the building’s front door herself. Ever. You politely set her packages at the foot of the stairs where she’s sure to see them. “Jesus,” the UPS guy says to you. “She orders a lot of shit.”

For what? She must never go out, because she’s never not-here, making noise. She never has anyone over. Every time I see her she’s in sweatpants, worn thin and showing off the way her underwear cuts a line into her rump like string around a roast.

We come through the building’s front door to no packages where there was a small pyramid. They’re always gone the next time we look. I tell you in a whisper that I think she orders things on the internet expressly so she can cram them, item by item, into trash bags so she’ll have something to carry into the alley.

You aren’t listening. Someone has dropped their junk mail—again—on the floor in front of the mailboxes, and you rant as you crouch to pick it up. People in this building have no respect. We should move. I can’t deal with this anymore.

I rustle a hand through your hair in a half-baked show of solidarity. You’re generally cheery but this kind of thing gets your back up, the blatant disregard of others. Oil spills because contractors cut corners. Taxes hiked as teacher salaries are gutted. Tainted beef. Our neighbors parking badly so they take up just enough of the curb for our car to not fit. Et cetera. You believe in the simple math of one good deed deserving another. I know part of why you first noticed me, fell in love with me, is what I do for a living. Did.

 

She has to dribble a basketball five hundred times a day as part of her religion.

 

I’ve brainstormed all the ways I could freelance, stamping myself with ambiguous, jargony titles. I’ve posted myself to Craigslist like an old dresser that, it turns out, no one needs.

“I might try for a job at a store,” I tell you. I’ve been mulling it over. Retail hell versus unemployment hell.

“And make minimum wage?”

“It’s what a lot of people make.”

“You’re not a lot of people.”

“That is so fucking elitist.”

“I just mean you’re too qualified. Something will give. Wait it out.”

“But while I’m waiting I could make a little money. Help out.”

“You help out plenty.”

“No, I don’t. At all. I’m like a dependent.”

“Cut it out.”

“It’s weird. I want to do more.”

You kiss me. “Just find your dream job.”

“I’m not an invalid. I don’t need babied.”

The next day I bring home hanger steaks and a too-nice bottle of wine, bought on my dollar just to make the point, any point. You smile and we grill them and drink the whole bottle until we’re singing with the radio making croonie, disgusting music video faces at each other, but that night as I’m drifting to sleep I feel you whisper on my neck, “Hey, Big Spender, don’t do that again. I just want you here.” And right then and only right then, in the seashell of the moment that is your legs tucked behind my legs tucked behind yours, that’s good enough.

 

She runs a derby for those mini Icelandic ponies around her coffee table.

 

Nights when we get home late and park across the street, we can see into the top half of her bedroom because her blinds are always open, windows lit for the long night of whatever-in-the-world ahead. We can see that she has shelves hung and on them, figurines of horses standing in lines. They stare across the room at the opposite wall on which are taped posters. Of horses. Horses standing in the grass next to a weather-worn fence. Horses running through a field of poppies. Horses asserting themselves in her bedroom, everywhere, like saints in a Catholic church.

 

She’s a stay-at-home bullfighter, and her apartment is a china shop.

 

All of the stores I apply to tell me the same thing: try again in the fall for the holidays. Which is months from now. Which reminds me that the six-month grace period on my student loans will end soon. If I still don’t have a job, I’ll need to defer the payments again, for further “hardship.” How can I claim hardship when we drink eleven-dollar-a-pound organic Fair Trade coffee every morning? How can I pay on my loans when I have forty-seven dollars in my checking account and nightmares about finally, finally having to ask you for gas money?

I have a dream that I stop on the sidewalk to look into a window. I step closer and feel the wet, slight suck of lawn and soil on my feet. The light through the window is dim and golden like it’s filtered through a glass of beer. Inside is our bed, and you’re in it asleep, and as I stare longer I start to feel my skin crawl before I realize why, even before I’m hit with the sudden knowledge that you’re not alone, that I’m there, too, but in the mattress, sealed, like a Bog Man in the mud.

You’re awake with me. “Bad dream?” you ask.

“Yeah.”

“You jumped. Were you falling?”

“Yeah. One of those falling dreams.”

You try to pet my face but your arms are sleep-clumsy and you only mash your hand into my nose like wiping it. You say, I was dreaming about parrots, weird, huh? and then, We should go to brunch tomor, and then your breath is deep again.

Six months of grace, which is another word for charity. We understand that it can take up to six months to find a job, of course, good luck. But longer than that and clearly, you’re the problem.

 

She mines for copper wire in the walls with an old-fashioned pickaxe.

 

“And dynamite.”

“Yes, but saves that for nights I have to get up early.”

 

Her kitchen tiles are tectonic. Her floorboards calve like glaciers.

 

“Can you get some more coffee today?” you ask. “We’re out.”

You’re making the movements of an early morning bustle—mouthwash gurgling, keys jingling. Your scrubs are the color of Comet.

I plant my feet into the floor. “Why don’t you get it on your way home?”

“Can you just get it? It’s easier. I’ll have to backtrack, you know.”

You don’t say that I have nowhere else to be and you do, but I hate you momentarily even if you didn’t because it’s true.

It’s not your fault I’m in a bad mood. I did it to myself. Yesterday I walked to the view of the tent city alone, like I owed it to them to visit, to witness.

The thing is, they had begun to disappear before they moved out there, so when they finally did, no one noticed. Phone calls had already stopped coming, friends had quit inviting them out because they knew they couldn’t afford it and that’s so awkward. Even if they could have bought a new shirt, they had no reason to because they couldn’t wonder how everyone at the office would like it. They were winnowed down to one random name in an applicant pool of hundreds, seen for a moment and flushed—there are new, sinister reports of applications being sorted by computer programs combing resumes for keywords, an algorithm of not-giving-a-shit.

If I buy a new shirt and you, the only person who sees me anymore, fail to notice, do I still exist?

Your kiss pelts the top of my head. “I left money in the dish. Oh hey, and bananas? I’m having this weird craving.”

 

She runs a shelter for hair band drummers laid off between tours.

 

Why were you at your last job only nine months?

The organization folded unexpectedly.

I see. Was it something you did?

No, I was great at my job. A real asset. Pardon me, but was it alright that I used the word “folded” in that context?

Yes, it showed you’re casual under pressure. Confident, but a real human being.

Good. I was worried it was unprofessional.

That too. Get out.

 

She’s a freelance crash test dummy with a home studio.

 

I still write two to three cover letters a day but I’ve stopped going to coffee shops, to save on gas and the overpriced cup of tea it takes to rent a table and Wi-Fi. I could ask you for help, but already, you bound into the house evenings in your athletic shoes, fit and flushed with your day, and I feel sexy as a run-over lizard. Putting on anything but fuzzy plain garments in concrete colors feels vulgar so I don’t. When you joke that it’s like I’ve joined a cloister of monks, the Order of the Brothers of Hanes, I smile, but when you repeat it I realize it isn’t a joke, it’s a protest without the sack to say so, and I pull my hood further over my hair.

One of the diners I dropped a resume at actually calls, but only to say they can’t hire me because I’m overqualified, and have no restaurant experience—so, under-qualified. I am cancelling myself out. I have a dream about the tent city, only now I’m in it, in one of the tents, and I can’t sleep because someone is outside the canvas stitching away, closing its seams, and I start to panic because I realize they haven’t left an opening for a door. Then suddenly I’m outside, looking at all of the tents spread for miles, only we’re underground, soil hanging over our heads where sky should be, clumps and roots like clouds with worms tunneling through in tendrils graceful as hair in a breeze and the real world happening above us, banging loudly overhead on its way. So loudly.

I wake up, and I can tell you do, too, when you roll over. I squint at the clock’s digital face, see that we’re looking at midnight in the rearview mirror. A sound chews the ceiling, roaming and destroying.

“It’s like a rolling pin on a spine,” you say.

“Yeah. A giant spine.”

“But also like a tree mulcher.”

“Eating a giant spine.”

“Oh my god. She can’t be.”

She can. She is vacuuming.

 

She plays Whack-a-Mole with blacksmithing equipment. And iron moles.

 

Why were you at your last job only nine months?

The organization lost its funding. Nearly everyone was let go from the bottom, up.

And you think you gained enough experience in that time to qualify you for this job?

Well—

More than the other ten percent of the state’s population who are also out of work?

Uh—

Who had careers while you were still in high school? Who have families to feed?

I—

We’re waiting.

 

She’s a tattoo artist for mannequins, the hard plaster ones, and her gun is a semi-automatic.

 

It’s part of our new routine of living together, me asking if I should just not live here anymore. (As if I have the option, or any options.) We fight, and I ask it, though it comes out more like an accusation than a question. I say I’m tired of you pitying me, so I can’t imagine you aren’t tired of it. When you say you aren’t, I grow suspicious. You say, “Oh Jesus, I meant I don’t pity you, not that I’m not tired of it.”

“So you’re not tired of pitying me?”

“Are you hearing yourself?”

“All I’m saying is, the power must be seductive. It would be for anyone.”

“Oh my god, are you fucking kidding? Yeah, I like lording it over you.”

“I’m just saying you must have your reasons for doing it.”

“How about that I love you? Or maybe I’m just, I don’t know, nice?”

You sit down on the floor like I’ve exhausted the legs right off you. You say, “How can you love me but not believe that I’m good?”

“But you’re the only one who gets to be good. That’s the problem. You give and I take. Can you imagine how that feels? How low it makes me feel?”

“Why would you even say that to me?”

Why would I? I can almost see myself like I’m watching my own body, how gnarled I’ve become, hunching over my reasonings like they’re food, a kill. Why can I say the worst things and not manage the truest? That I’m scared and going crazy and don’t know what to do anymore because I want to be here because I want to, not out of need, because wanting is the state of lovers and need the state of charity cases. I want to be able to just want again.

“I just want you back,” you say. You’re crying a little, in your quiet way. It’s the second time I’ve made you cry in a week, and all I can think is, why are you still making this about you?

 

Bees. Just lots of bees.

I get an email, asking if I’m available to come in for an interview the day after tomorrow. It’s for a real job I applied to two months ago, three maybe, with a real salary at a real company.

The night before I go in, I take an extra long shower, for the practice.

 

After dark, she turns into a giant hamster and rolls around in one of those plastic balls. A huge one.

 

The back porch of her place hangs directly over ours and, suddenly, it’s full of cages. There are five of them, the kind of wire cell in which you would keep a larger animal like a chinchilla, or a team of hamsters. They’re all empty.

This new development sets us ablaze. We say, she’s the general of a hamster army. The bedroom horsies fight the hamster squadron in cacophonous, tiny battles.

It’s like someone has opened a window between us. Light and air rush in. We say, she has a huge rodent tail she unrolls when no one’s around. That’s the sound of it wagging into things.

You laugh until you have to hold your stomach and that makes me laugh and I still can’t get over how great your smile is when it’s split wide like that, when you’ve really given it all away.

 

Two words: River. Dance.

 

I get a phone call this time. They want to do a second interview—I’ve made it to the round of final candidates. They use my first name like they know me.

You insist on cooking dinner, celebration-mode, treating-me-mode, and when our plates are empty you ask if I want to go for a walk but I shake my head and start kissing you, “start” because I’m beginning something. For a crazy moment when we’ve peeled down to nothing but us, I worry I’ve forgotten how to do it. But I haven’t, and anyway it’s like riding a bicycle—you, my sweet bad bicycle, when we come it’s like coming home.

 

She’s hoarded the Terra Cotta Warriors, who she puts on fashion shows for, and if one doesn’t like her outfit she breaks him with a blow dart.

 

“Elaborate.”

“Too much?”

“No. Well-played, actually. You’re my hero.”

 

She practices The Worm wearing rollerblading gear.

 

The call comes just as I’ve gotten home. I found a perfect parking spot and have to set down the bags of groceries on the sidewalk to answer my cell. I take a breath when I see it’s the company.

They loved me. I’m perfect for the job, a great fit for the direction they want to go, and I was their top pick. There have been unanticipated budgetary changes, and they can’t hire for the position after all. They wish me the best. Someone else will be lucky to get me.

I say thanks, pocket my phone, and pick up the grocery bags, all of which is a miracle because my hands are numb. Contending with the keys inside the common entranceway, I stop.

She’s there. Upstairs.

We gape like two different species meeting suddenly at a watering hole. She stands at the boxes, and I see that her hands are small, almost child-sized, around her mail. Her bottom lip doesn’t quite close to her top as she breathes. Her skin looks like she picks at her face too much.

I look directly into her eyes, which are brown. I say, “I didn’t get a job I interviewed for.”

There is a slide like in a child’s playland between our eyes and I am sliding down it, whoosh, smooth, so I will end up in the pit that holds her heart and she will end up in mine with my heart and we will know each other. I say, “That happens to me all the time, not getting jobs, but this time was supposed to be different. I had two interviews.”

She stares.

“Two. They were very serious about me and they just called to tell me I didn’t get it.”

Her eyes are blank.

“Just now,” I say. “On the sidewalk out there, I got the call.”

“Huh,” she says. She turns to lurch up her stairs, and before she does she drops her unwanted mail to the floor. The PennySaver flutters down like so many given-up leaves and comes to rest at my feet. Forty percent off window tinting.

When I walk into our apartment, I throw the front door shut behind me. I slide the grocery bags over the floor, releasing them down and out like they’re bowling balls and when they fall over, I don’t set them upright, I don’t inspect my damage. Instead I walk in a circle around the biggest part of the room, the spot with the most empty square-footage, as fast as I can without running. When I’ve made a perfect middle with my walking, I hop into it, bending at the knees, and squeeze my skull between my hands hard, feeling that I can’t crush it no matter how I try—I am cancelling myself out, I am stronger than I am strong. Some cherry tomatoes have escaped their plastic prison and are making a break for it across the floor, but I ignore them and go straight for the coffee, seizing it and feeling the beans give under my fingers like bugs as I carry it to the kitchen and there, I begin. I start to grind the whole bag, and when that doesn’t do it I have a moment of great inspiration, kissed by tongues of flame am I, and set the grinder on the glass cutting board, the one we hate and hardly use because the shrill clack of the knife coming down on it is so awful, the bony rattle of it rocking on the tile counter with our movements is so awful. But I want it, I want it this loud when I pour in the beans and hold down the button and let it wail, just fucking wail, louder than it should be, than it even believably could be, because I need all of you to know that I’m here, I’m here—for who knows how long—I am here.

 

Milk

Julie Cadwallader Staub

Ruth Stone Poetry Prize

Winner 2015 Ruth Stone Poetry Prize

This goat kicked me only once,
as if to say she knows
I’m an amateur

but leaning my head
against her rounding flank,
I love the way her need for release
matches my need for her milk,
and I remember the ferocious little mouths
that latched on to me
relieving that overwhelming, dripping pressure of too much

and it was all too much then—
the endless stream of groceries meals
bills illnesses laundry jobs no sleep—
so to sit in the rocking chair was sweet respite,
to do just one thing:
watch the baby
drain the profusion of milk out of me
watch the baby
become so contented that nursing faded into sleep.

Now, this ordinary chore of milking generates
a similar contentment in me
the way her steady animal warmth warms me
the way my hands learn the ancient rhythm
the way the pail rings every time her milk hits it.

And a twinge of astonishment
quickens in me as well—
after you and I labored long and hard,
after we created so much together that is still so good—

how can it be that you didn’t live long enough
to come round to this side
where simple contentment gives birth to joy.

Pink
by Kari Smith

Ruth Stone Poetry Prize

Runner-up 2015 Ruth Stone Poetry Prize

like chrysanthemums, like tulips;
like the droopy pink heads of peonies
that filled our kitchen windowsill, spilling
over mason jars and plastic cups
until, it seemed, they could no longer bear
even the weight of air, their oversized
faces too heavy with touch. Pink
like a lily’s slow death, the mess of it
on linoleum—scattered wings
that catch, reflect the deep
pink streaks of sunset.

Pink like the color my mother smeared
across her lips, nights she disappeared
in her favorite outfit—backless top,
leather pants—leaving me alone
until she returned home in a perfume
of diesel and cigarettes; a man murmuring
through pink papered walls; and me,
curled beneath a dozen stitched blooms
I peered through until I heard the door’s
soft click. Pink like the smudged kiss
of sleep, like the stain of it on my cheek.

Pink like the playhouse,
where M. and I undressed each other—
the rub of denim, whisper of cotton
caught around our thickened breath;
the bed of throw pillows, our private palace,
taking turns with the mirror, small bodies
flung open, our pink parts splayed like a treasure
map, two crooked stars marking
what spots shimmered in the dark—this is how
we are the same, how we are different
pink like snapdragons’ puckered lips, that urgency
of tongue, a small pink flag of surrender.

Pink like the scar on my chin
from when a guy hit me, split me open,
with the edge of his ring, while a riot
of bougainvillea crept along a parking lot’s
chain-link fence. Pink, like the extra strip
on a plastic stick, the one meaning pregnant,
the violence of April as cherry trees drop
their canopies, pale stains blooming
down the brick and cement. Pink,
like the beginning of something,
or like the end. Or the slick, raised
pink of healing.

Time Under a Bridge
by Lisa Breger

Ruth Stone Poetry Prize

Runner-up 2015 Ruth Stone Poetry Prize

I don’t want to leave this world:
My friends are in it, and there’s so much beauty.
Even beneath the pigeon-pocked bridge—

the simple steel and concrete off-ramp
seeped with run-off, tubercular,
that runs over roadways and part of the river that leads nowhere—

there’s a park bench, a gathering of squirrels around a stale loaf of bread.
Who wouldn’t spend time here?
Yesterday, along the Greenway under cloudless late January sky,
a flurry of bluebirds sang in the branches.
Today, I follow blue hospital signs

near Boylston, neighborhood of pressure cooker bombs,
and recall survivor Heather Abbot as I take the elevator to the malignancy floor.
Painted toenails on a prosthetic leg.

My deviant cells abnormally split;
high-dose chemotherapies
target and destroy.

She decided they take the leg to heal the body.
I shut my eyes and see the harbor:
gulls squawk over fishing boats along the docks,
dive for entrails, fish heads, and carry them satisfied through salt air.

Tilt-A-Whirl
by Rachel Furey

Overall First Place, Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Literature

Winner 2015 Katherine Paterson Prize

It’s just you in the Tilt-A-Whirl cart until Jimmy Miller slips in beside you. He reeks of cigarette smoke, and you want to grind an elbow into his stomach and tell him to find another cart. But the handlebar clicks shut and the ride starts up and Jimmy’s sitting there beside you smiling underneath his baseball cap, his camo pants brushing against your basketball shorts.

On a different day, this might be a good thing. He’s one of the few guys in school as tall as you. You respect that he doesn’t try too hard, that his hair is messy, that he’s almost always wearing camo pants, not giving a shit that some people call him Camo. He’s an expert shot—always brings down a deer on the first day of the season. You appreciate that kind of efficiency.

But you came here to be alone—came because all that spinning is your way of slowing down the swirl of thoughts in your head. Your cart hasn’t started moving yet, and Jimmy reaches over and places a hand on your knee. His palm is hot, damp, and it stings your floor-burned knee. You push his hand off.

Your cart teeters back and forth, then takes its first full spin. Your body presses into the back of the cart. Jimmy pushes his hands into his pockets and stares at you as if to say, See, now I have my hands contained. Your knees are no longer in danger. Most guys wouldn’t dare to sit beside you. Most guys think you are more guy than girl.

You’re about to tell him his hands don’t have to stay in his pockets—they just have to stay away from you—when your cart turns again. More slowly this time. It doesn’t seem fair. The cart beside yours is spinning like crazy. You catch flashes of three middle school girls in jean shorts and tank tops. They squeeze the handlebar and laugh so hard one of them has spit running down her chin. You used to laugh on this ride. In fact, you probably laughed the last time you were on it.

“What the fuck is wrong with our cart,” you say to Jimmy. He stares at you hard, like he’s looking at you through the sight in his rifle. He has hazel eyes. You never noticed that before.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” he asks.

You squeeze the handlebar. It’s sticky and you wonder what pudgy, popsicle-eating kid sat there before you. You want to be that kid. Ten again. Not six feet tall. Not a licensed, driving adult.

“My dog died,” you say. You time the words just right. Your cart makes its biggest turn yet, and he can’t say a word.

You stare down at your hands. There’s a spot of blood on your thumbnail that you missed when washing your hands. You found it when drying and couldn’t soap again. It seemed fitting that you couldn’t wash all of her away—that a part of Assassin would remain on you. She’d earned her name by hunting groundhogs as a puppy. Even when she was the same size as them, she could kill a couple every week. At the time you were seven and also loved that the word ass was in Assassin twice.

“What kind of dog,” Jimmy asks.

“I’d have to show you a picture,” you say. You had one of those mutts that was part everything. Long ears and short tail. Black, brown, gray, and white hair. Short in some places, long in others. You used to get a kick out of going down to the dog park and telling people Assassin was sixty percent St. Bernard or thirty percent greyhound despite the fact the dog was about two feet tall. You had the swagger to make people believe just about anything.

Your cart spins again. Hard. Three times in a row. You close your eyes. This is what you came for. This moment when your body is one with the seat. You thought this motion might make you forget the morning. But you can still feel Assassin’s warm, wet fur in your palms. You squeeze the handlebar more tightly and her fur is still there.

Your cart slows and you wait for another hard turn, but the ride is slowing altogether. If Jimmy weren’t sitting beside you, you’d curse at the ride operator—tell him to go for another round. Instead, you scoot farther from Jimmy. As soon as the ride stops, you crank open the handlebar and scuttle out.

Jimmy follows you. “Hey,” he says. “Can I get you something to eat?”

You almost tell him to fuck off, then you remember that he is not seeing the same images you have been seeing for the past hour. He wasn’t there on your road to see Assassin’s head turned at an angle so horrific that you had to sit on the pavement a minute before crawling forward. He didn’t pick the dog up and hold her in his arms, didn’t press his neck against the wet snout, hoping to feel a pant of warm air again his skin. He didn’t stand in the backyard with the dog in his arms, its dampness transferring to his T-shirt, while he decided where to bury her.

You hadn’t buried Assassin. Not yet. You needed to ride the Tilt-A-Whirl first. You’d merely picked out the spot, which you believed to be beside the Barbie doll your Aunt Evelyn gave you for your eighth birthday. Barbie was tall like you, but there were no other striking resemblances. With your dad’s power sander, you sanded off her breasts. Then you dissembled her, limb by limb. You took her parts to school in a paper bag—a decision that earned you a week of after-school detention and an order from your dad to either put the doll back together or throw her away. Instead, you buried her. Assassin once dug Barbie up and you had to bury her once more, deeper.

“I’m not hungry,” you tell Jimmy.

“We could ride the train,” he says.

“You mean the dinky kid train?”

“Yep.” He takes a step closer to you. He pulls his hands out of his pockets and keeps them at his sides. “When my little brother gets upset, I take him on the train. It’s calming.”

“Do I look like a little kid to you?”

He shakes his head. “Just a suggestion. That’s all.” He turns like he might leave.

“Fine,” you say.

There’s not a line for the train. That’s one upside to a boring ride. The two of you climb into one of the front cars. They’re made for kids and your knees press against the warm metal. Your floor burn stings again. The kids are slow to load because they’re yammering about the snow cone man being out of watermelon and Mom only allowing one bag of cotton candy. You shift in the tiny seat, eager to be in motion again. Jimmy taps his fingers against his knees. He looks at you, and you think he might say something, but he doesn’t.

Finally, the train starts up. It rattles on the tracks, and vibrations shoot up your feet. The driver pulls a cord, activating an annoying horn that the children cheer for and Jimmy laughs at. The horn blows one more time and you’re back in that scene from an hour ago, the garbage truck blowing its horn. Once. Twice. Three times. You got up off the couch on the third and ran outside to find Assassin.

Your basketball shorts don’t have pockets in them. You wish they did because you don’t know what to do with your hands. The train doesn’t have a handlebar like the Tilt-A-Whirl. You squeeze your fingers into fists and let them bounce up and down on your thighs. You glance up ahead. Gray squirrels are playing chicken with the train. Darting back and forth across the track, their furry tails flitting up and down. On a different day, this might be funny. On a different day, you might root for the train to clip one. Today, you pound your fists into your thighs harder.

The train clatters along, then hits a tunnel. It’s cool and dark and you let yourself go for a moment. You stop pounding your thighs. You relax your face. You take a deep breath, and on the release, you feel something catch in your throat. In the movies people cry one tear at a time, but when the train comes out from under the tunnel and back into bright sun again, your face is wet. You tilt your head away from Jimmy and stare at the grassy hill to your left.

Jimmy does the nicest thing he can. He takes off his baseball cap and places it on your head. He punches the bill down low and then gives you a minute.

You wipe your face. You hold your elbows out to your sides in a way that suggests strength. “It’s my fault,” you say. “I let the dog out. I forgot it was garbage day. The garbage truck was her favorite.” She’d pace up and down the road for an hour after it had gone through, her nose pressed to pavement as if she could absorb each of the smells.

“Okay,” he says. One word. That’s it.

You ease the bill of the hat up and look at him. He meets your glance. “I flipped the trash man off like it was his fault,” you say, “but it wasn’t.”

“To be fair,” Jimmy says, “it was partially his fault. And partially the dog’s fault.”

You shake your head. “No, it wasn’t Assassin’s fault.”

“Wow.” He gazes out into the park. “That’s one hell of a name.”

You want to tell him the part about the word ass being in there twice, but it feels silly now.

He reaches for your knee, then remembers and pulls his hand back. “According to my brother, all dogs go to heaven.”

“Please,” you say, “no clichés.”

“Sure.”

You glance up ahead. Squirrels are still scrambling over the tracks. “This isn’t really a calming ride,” you say.

“Sorry. It was either this or the dunk tank.”

You’re not sure if he’s joking. Maybe you could go for a dip in the dunk tank. All that cold water. A moment without air.

The squirrels are still playing chicken. You swear one had its tail nipped by the train. You can’t watch anymore. You scoot toward the edge of the seat, then you tilt to the side and let yourself fall. You thud against grass, the fall not as hard or satisfying as you expected. But you are on a hill. You let gravity take you. Let yourself roll. Let yourself be ten again, the world circling around you the way you wanted it to on the Tilt-A-Whirl. It’s all warm grass and soft dirt.

Until a chip bag rustles under your thigh. A rock under your hip. Geese shit against your forearm. You pull your arms away from your sides to slow yourself down. The park and the hill and the train are all spinning, but you can make out Jimmy rolling toward you. You reach a hand toward him. You want him to be the one to stop the spinning.

The Lies And Illusions Of Lucy Sparrow
by Sharry Wright

Young Adult Winner, Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Literature

Young Adult Category Winner 2015 Katherine Paterson Prize

September 1876

Part One: Sleight of Hand

CHAPTER ONE

Today is the day my new life begins. One hundred and twenty-three days since we sailed from New York harbor bound for San Francisco. Seventy-one days since I buried Mother at sea.

A cold wind whips the sails and sloshes sea spray on the deck. My skirts snap at my ankles. Loose strands of salt-stiff hair fly at my face in a frenzied dance. I can’t see land yet, but I smell it—stone and earth and things that plant their roots deep down in the soil, plus tar smoke and cold iron that bring the promise of civilization. Soon, thank the stars and angels, will come the sweeter smells: pressed linens, perfumed baths, a roasting leg of lamb, sliced oranges. Mother loved oranges.

Mother. Every time I look at the churning water, a surge of heartache washes over me. I see her wasted body, wrapped and bound, slide down the plank and into the ocean and wonder if the smell of fish will always make me cry.

But no, I tell myself. Enough tears—they’ve given ample salt to the ocean these past two and a half months. It’s time to buck up, as Father would have said. Whatever life dishes up, you must go on until you can go on no more.

 

 

We slip midday through the Golden Gate, though there’s nothing golden about it. Silvery light mutes the land and glints off the rough water. Starboard, a babel of masts confuses the shore, while houses upon houses, stacked like children’s blocks, stretch up into a shroud of fog.

I jump as the cannon’s boom announces our arrival, then brace myself against the rail. Toes curl in my boots—my feet long for solid ground that does not shift or sway. Squinting at the crowd that swarms the approaching dock, I strain for a glimpse of Kit. A year and a half have passed since I’ve seen my twin—we had just turned fifteen when he left with Father for California. As much as I long to see my brother, I dread the news I have to share.

When the gangplank comes down, I scramble to be among the first to disembark. I hit the dock, wobble and sway as if I were still on the water. I snatch up my skirts and lurch forward into the chaos of the crowded wharf. The din of so many voices makes my head spin. I try not to panic as I’m pressed and jostled with the surging mob, meeting and greeting family and friends, and those shouting out their services to the newly arrived. I cover my ears, which lowers the decibel to a rumbling roar. How will Kit and I ever find each other in this bedlam?

I make my way to the edge of the crowd and clamber on top of a pile of trunks the sailors have unloaded to search for my twin brother—long limbed, light brown hair—at least, last time I saw him.

My heart leaps and my hand shoots high in the air as a slender, wheat-haired boy of medium height catches my attention. “Kit!” I cry, “Kit! Over here!”

He doesn’t look up, but continues through the crowd, nudging his way between a press of distracted passengers. I cry out again, “Ki—” but swallow the name as his hand slips into the side pocket of a nearby gentleman’s coat—so quick and slick, like a magic trick. Whatever he’s plucked, he slides inside his own coat and keeps going!

Good god—has my brother taken to a life of crime since I saw him last?

He turns and worms his way in the other direction, then looks up and sees me staring. I let out a held breath—it’s not Kit. Thank goodness. When I glare at the shameless thief’s dishonesty, he shoots back a self-satisfied smirk and disappears into the crowd.

“I’ll thank you to get down off my trunks, Lucy Sparrow,” booms Mr. Chaney, who has no patience for young people. I’d like to tell him that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar but of course I say, “I beg your pardon,” and jump down. He scowls at me, the sour old coot, and directs two men to load his things into a waiting hackney coach.

I go to find my own trunks. When I locate the set marked Sparrow, I sit and wait for Kit to find me. No sense in both of us wandering around, missing each other.

In the midst of the bustle of debarking passengers, another group is saying their farewells, preparing to board a large steamer boat. An elegant young man in a top hat standing in the swirl catches my attention. Where Kit is fair and slender, this handsome young man is mahogany-haired and broad at the shoulder. Seemingly abandoned, his expression drifts between impatience and melancholy. He pulls out his pocket watch, checks the time, and searches the crowd. I wonder who he’s waiting for?

A wife returning from a long journey? A lover come to join him from some place far away? A sister or a brother? Maybe a business partner come to claim his share of California riches? I stand on tiptoes, craning my neck for a better look when his dark eyes catch mine. He smiles and I sway off balance, nearly falling over my trunks. Good lord Lucy. Just because it’s been forever since a handsome young man has smiled at you doesn’t mean you have to go tripping all over yourself.

I risk a glance and his eyes crinkle with both sympathy and amusement. He tilts in my direction but briskly turns as a pretty, ringleted young woman in a stylish traveling ensemble, calls him away. She’s followed by a porter laden with baggage and bundles, hatboxes and a flitting, frightened bird in a cage. She gives the young man a quick kiss and beckons him to follow her to the waiting steamer.

A hitch of disappointment catches in my throat. I scold myself at my silliness as a familiar voice draws my attention.

“Lucy, darling,” a voice calls. It’s Elsa Dickerson , the only person on the ship to befriend me. She weaves through the crowd with her baby fussing at her shoulder and her little Peter in tow. “Is he here? Have you found him?”

“No, not yet.” I hold out my pinkie and baby Charlotte latches on with her tiny fist, drawing my finger to her rosebud mouth.

“Our coach is loaded and ready to go,” Elsa tells me, releasing Peter’s hand and shifting the baby to her other hip. “But we’ll stay until your brother comes.” Peter stretches his arms up to his mama, wanting to be picked up, too. When she tells him no, he whimpers and stamps his feet. Poor Elsa—she’s just eighteen, little more than a year older than I am, and already a widow.

“You don’t need to wait,” I tell Elsa. “If Kit doesn’t show in the next twenty minutes, I’ll take a hack to his boarding house. I have money and the address. I’m quite sure I’ll be fine.”

Peter has worked himself up into a fine fit, now yanking on his mother’s skirts and banging his head at her knees.

“Look, Petey.” I squat and pull a penny from behind his ear. He wipes his face with the back of his hand and takes the offered coin.

“Again,” he says, never tiring of my trick or questioning my ability to pull countless coins from his little ears. I pull out another penny. He takes it and clacks the two together.

“It works every time,” Elsa says when I stand up. “We’ll miss your magic touch.”

“My small handful of tricks—you’ve seen them all. Now Kit, he’s the real magician. The showman in the family.”

The baby whimpers, getting ready for a good cry. She’s too little to be distracted by a coin trick. Elsa glances at the line of coaches. “I hate to leave you on your own…”

“Really, Elsa, I’ll be fine. You still have hours of travel. You should start or you’ll be traveling after dark.”

“If you’re quite sure…”

“I am. Thank you for everything—your kindness and friendship got me through these past few months. I hope you find your sister and her husband well.” We exchange a warm embrace and a kiss on the cheek, then she and her children head toward her waiting coach.

I sit and pull Kit’s letter out of my satchel, the one he’d written after Father had been killed and Kit had made his way to San Francisco. I read over my brother’s bold and solid script in the upper left hand corner. C.S. 1423 Sacramento Street, SF, Ca.

I slide the letter back and reach deeper into my satchel, fingering the fat purse of money—plenty to get by for a week or so. The rest of our savings, enough to buy a modest house and make a life for ourselves in California, are in bonds safely hidden inside Mother’s large trunk. Beneath the purse of bills and coins sits a knot of rope. A cattail knot, the last one Mr. Farnsworth, first mate, taught me. After Mother’s death, all I could do was sleep and tie knots. Grief knot, strangle knot, blood knot, monkey’s fist. Tying knots was the only thing that kept my hands from shaking and I practiced with an urgent desperation until I could tie and untie them all.

Now I can’t help but smile at the prospect of showing Kit. Won’t he be surprised and even a little bit envious! I might teach him a few in exchange for his divulging another illusion or two from his jealously guarded repertoire.

“Good evening, Miss.”

I look up at a small, square-headed man in a bowler hat. An enormous nose, whitened with some kind of powdery substance, blooms above a large dark moustache, waxed at the ends into two tight curls. A clutch of diamonds closes the neck of his starched white shirt. He doesn’t look like a thief, but I grasp my satchel all the same. I’ve been warned to be wary of strangers. The pick-pocketing boy I’d seen earlier drummed that into my head well and clear. “Good evening.”

“You appear to be on your own.” His head tips at my plain grey dress as his face assumes an expression of sympathy. “And in mourning.”

“Yes. I…I recently lost my mother.” The words catch like a fistful of cold coins wedged in the center of my chest. I swallow and straighten, trying to regain my composure, then smooth the sleeves of my mourning dress—one of two plain grey wool dresses that I’ve worn since Father’s death.

“Allow me to assist you.” He gestures to my set of trunks. “You have a lot of luggage and no apparent way to transport them. I can offer a ride to your destination. Which is…?”

“I thank you,” I answer, perhaps too curtly. “But I’m waiting for my brother.”

“I see.” He glances around at the thinning crowd. Many of the passengers, like Elsa, have already left with their families and belongings, although the pier is still buzzing with sailors.

“He seems to be delayed,” says the odd little man. He pinches the gold watch chain that hangs from his vest pocket to one of its jeweled buttons and runs his fingers along the links. “Young lady such as yourself shouldn’t be left on her own around these parts. I would be quite willing to deliver you and your belongings free of charge to your destination.”

“I appreciate your offer,” I say. “But I wouldn’t want to miss my brother.” And I do know better than to go off with a strange man.

As if he’s read my thoughts, he holds out his suede-gloved hand. “Name’s Frank Kenny. At your service, Miss—?”

“I’m not in need of service at the moment.” I don’t volunteer my name—he has no need to know who I am. Besides, it would only encourage further conversation. I can’t decide if he’s a gentleman or not, but either way, there’s something in his manner that unsettles me. His words are friendly enough but his eyes are cold and hard as lumps of black ice and continue to stray below my neckline. I cannot help but feel as if he is assessing me like a side of beef or a horse at auction.

“If your brother comes and misses you,” Mr. Kenny goes on, “then he’ll find you at his residence when he returns.”

“Thank you for your offer, but I’ll wait here a little longer,” I tell him. “Good day, Sir.”

“Suit yourself,” he says, his nose visibly reddening. “But I wouldn’t wait too long. All sorts of scum—” he coughs the word, “—come crawling out around these docks after dark.” He coughs again into a fist then reaches into his breast pocket and takes out what looks like a saltshaker filled with powder. He sprinkles the white substance liberally on his nose, then rubs it in with his fingertips. If this puzzling gesture is meant to mask the blooming crimson, it does so at the cost of making his nose look like a nob of floured dough. He returns the shaker to his pocket, touches the brim of his hat and gives me a slight nod, then turns away.

My teeth catch the corner of my lip as he strolls off towards a diminishing row of coaches. How much longer should I wait?

I close my eyes and see Kit’s face, a near mirror image of my own. Or has he changed in the year and a half since I saw him last? I’d cried when he and Father left Concord to come out west. I hate now that my first words to him after all this time will bring him grief.

Angry shouts draw my attention in another direction, then a swirl of flailing limbs makes me gasp as two savagerous ruffians punch and kick each other to the ground. I let out a squeak and scuttle to the far side of my trunks as they roll and growl, tearing at each other.

One grabs hold of a loose plank and swings it at the head of the other. A tough pack of scoundrels circle around, cheering and urging the fighters on until a shrill whistle cuts through the din and two policemen appear to break up the fight.

“Lucy Sparrow?”

Startled, I whip around to face a plump, ruddy-faced woman standing next to me. A good inch of grey roots separates her forehead from a crown of faded red hair.

“Why, yes. I am. How did you know my name?”

“Thank goodness I found you! I’m Mrs. Terkle. Your brother, Kit? He asked me to fetch you and your mother.” She takes in my dress then looks around. Her hand covers her mouth. “Oh, my dear. You’re all alone?”

“Yes. Mother…didn’t make it.” A cold pinch flattens my windpipe, pressing the last three words out in a thin stream of air.

“You poor thing. I’m so sorry. Your brother will be devastated.”

Yes. I know he will. “But why isn’t Kit here himself?”

“A small disaster at the theater—”

“Wait—what theater?”

“Why, the California. Where your brother works? He didn’t write and tell you?”

“No—the last letter we had, he was hoping to get work as a clerk in a land office.” That was three weeks before we boarded the ship, so nearly five months ago.

“Ah. Well. He’s moved up in the world. Assistant stage manager, he is. But you’ll see him soon and he can tell you all about it.” She reaches over and pats my arm. “We’ll get you settled and then he should be home for supper, before tonight’s show.”

This is such good news! The tightness in my brow and jaw eases—I can feel my face soften with relief. “And you work at this theater, too?” I ask.

“Me?” She tips her head back in a short laugh. “Heavens, no. I’m his housekeeper. A young man such as your brother has no time to cook or clean.”

Stars and angels. Mother would be soothed. She’d never liked the idea that Kit was living in a boarding house.

“Wait here,” Mrs. Terkle commands. “I’ll fetch someone to help with your baggage.” She hurries off, leaving me with my head in a flurry. A job in the theater—how perfect for Kit! Even if he isn’t the one on stage.

I’m not so sure Mother or Father would agree with me—I doubt they’d approve of theater work. Mother had seen to it that both Kit and I were educated. That was one of the reasons she was in such a pucker at Father for taking Kit with him to look for silver. Father’s argument was that once they struck it rich, Kit could use his good education to start a business and forget the nonsense of being a magician.

But then Father was killed and no fortune had been made. The news of Father’s death, his head kicked in by a mule, had left us both wrecked. Mother wandered the house like a grief-stricken ghost while I emptied out the china cabinet and scrubbed each plate, cup, and saucer with lye until my hands were blistered. Later that night, I found Mother crying under the rose bush Father had planted when they were first married, her lips bloodied from eating thorns.

But knowing Kit was on his own, Mother pulled herself together—within a month, she’d sold everything and booked us passage on a ship around the Horn, tracing the same route Father and Kit had taken. Her big plan was to set Kit up in business somewhere in California with the less attractive plan of finding me a husband. As if a girl of a certain age without a ring on her finger wasn’t worth her weight in beans. While I never said it out loud, I was a little disappointed that Mother didn’t expect more from me. And while I’ve no objection to an eventual happy marriage, I’d like the chance to first fall in love before becoming someone’s wife.

But now, who knows? With Kit working at a theater, maybe I’ll be the one to open a business. A bookstore. Or a hat shop. Why not? A tingling of excitement travels through me but is quickly doused by a wave of shame. Mother only wanted what she thought was best for both of us.

Mrs. Terkle returns with two large, rough-looking men pulling a wooden cart and gives the instructions to load up my belongings.

“Come along now, dear. I’m sure you’re quite exhausted after your long voyage.” She turns and I follow her and my trunks to the waiting coach.

My new life is about to begin. I can’t help but take one last glance back in hopes of seeing the handsome man with the mahogany hair standing there with a smile on his face. Of course he isn’t—but the possibility, no matter how vague, is enough to make me smile.

 

CHAPTER TWO

I climb inside the rather run-down coach with my temporary guardian. The smell of stale cigars and sour bodies makes me wonder who the previous passengers were. Mrs. Terkle reaches into her bag and brings out a small bottle of amber liquid. Unscrewing the top, she holds the bottle out to me. “I brought along a little Sherry to settle your nerves.”

The fumes make my head rear back. “No, thank you.” Mother had held the firm belief that alcoholic beverages invited wantonness. I’m not sure I agree, but right now the sickie-sweet smell of this Sherry makes it about as appealing as a dose of cod liver oil.

“Surely a little sip wouldn’t hurt. It’ll perk you up—put some color in your cheeks.”

“No, really. Thank you. But go ahead.” I nod to the bottle.

Mrs. Terkle tucks the bottle back in her bag with a small harrumph, apparently not wishing to imbibe alone.

The road we take is muddy and full of holes. Clusters of shacks give way to rows and rows of little rectangular wooden box houses with plank sidewalks. Construction is everywhere—pounding hammers, rumbling wagons piled high with lumber, and sidewalks piled with heaps of bricks and slabs of stone and marble, forcing people to take to the muddy street.

But then we turn and the view changes—we travel down a wide, brick-paved boulevard lined with large buildings ornate as wedding cakes. Before and behind us, teams of horses pull clanging streetcars along iron tracks. The pungent smell of horse manure pierces the air. The light is flat and harsh—so different from the patterns of dappled light and shade at home. It strikes me that there are no trees in sight. Before he left, Father had told us that San Francisco was a brand new town—that just twenty years ago there were more tents than buildings.

Even so, here the walks swarm with fashionable people, hastening along in their finery. Most men wear shorter frock coats and top hats or bowlers. The ladies are dressed in satins and velvets—rich golds, crimsons from rose-red to pomegranate, and deep, dark, midnight blues—some bustled, all trimmed in cunningly pleated ruffles and bows. Hair is pulled up in clusters of ringlets or high knots, topped with amusingly small, perky veiled hats. I tug and tuck up strands of my own wind-whipped hair—I must look a fright. I’m glad I’ll have time to freshen up before Kit sees me.

We turn off the boulevard and make our way up another muddy street with vendors selling fish and fowl—live geese hiss from behind the bars of their cages. A large tub crawls with red-backed crabs, climbing on top of each other, waving their pinchers around in the air, looking for something to latch onto.

We pass a row of carts filled with produce—lettuces and spinach, peppers, green beans, and carrots. And fresh fruit! My mouth waters. All we’d had on the ship were potatoes, beets and some dry, mealy apples full of worms. And disgustingly bitter Brussels sprouts. I vow never to eat another Brussels sprout in my entire life.

But here, there are even strawberries! Kit had written about the sweet and juicy California strawberries, how good they were. How much he knew I’d love them. He didn’t need to try and convince me—I’d wanted to come to California from the start. I’d hated being left at home while Kit and Father were off on an adventure. I couldn’t help but wonder how different things would be if we had all come out together. But we didn’t, and I am here now.

I turn to Mrs. Terkle and point at the display. “Could we stop?” I ask. “I’d like to get some berries.”

Mrs. Terkle hesitates, then answers, “Of course.” She thumps on the outside of the carriage door, bringing it to a halt, then turns to me. “You do need to beware of pick-pockets,” she reminds me. “Take what you need to buy some fruit and leave your satchel with me. A bit will buy you a nice tin of berries.”

I think of the boy who slipped his hand into the gentleman’s pocket. I do plan to be careful. I take out two bits and tuck them in the cuff of my sleeve. “I’ll be right back,” I tell Mrs. Terkle.

I climb out and start to cross, but gasp and jump back, limbs flailing, as another horse and carriage speeds by me. Heart knocking in my chest, I watch my two-bit coin roll away from me into the street. I catch my breath and wait for several more carriages to pass in each direction. At last, the street is clear, and I cross, snatching up my coin on the way.

A young man hurries toward me. My pulse quickens.

It’s the handsome man from the docks. Apparently, he did not get on the steamer ship.

“Are you all right?” he asks, out of breath. “I am so sorry. But really, you need to be more careful crossing. I nearly ran you over.” He holds a top hat in one hand. He rakes the fingers of his other hand through a spill of dark curls. He is quite tall. And yes, very handsome. His eyes search mine.

My heart flutters at his gaze, but I do not look away.

“I believe I saw you at the pier,” he says.

“Yes.” I barely manage to keep my voice steady.

He clears his throat and his eyes drop to his hands. “Please tell me that you’re all right.” Up close I see his dark hair has a honeyed streak, like it’s been kissed by the sun.

“You gave me a fright,” I say with a mock sternness, “but no, I’m not hurt. I dropped my coin, is all.” The two-bit coin sits in my open right palm—without thinking, I make a pass to my left hand and the coin disappears. An easy trick. I wait a breath and reverse the motion to reveal the coin in my palm again. A habit, I suppose, and something to do when I’m nervous. It seems to help steady my hand.

His face opens with a grin that makes him seem more boyish than he first appeared. “Nicely done,” he says with a laugh. He tips his head back, reassessing me.

My face warms with a flush of pleasure. “Thank you.” I lean with a small bow. “And thank you for not running me over. I…I was just on my way to buy some strawberries.” I wave in the general direction of the berry vendor. I could stand here for hours looking into his fine, intelligent face, but I mustn’t forget the waiting Mrs. Terkle or my brother. “I should probably do that now.”

“Yes, of course. And I’ve left my horse unattended.” He dips his head in another small bow, then sets his top hat on his head. “Perhaps I’ll see you here again sometime? I’m told strawberries are in season until the end of September.”

“Yes,” I say, unable to suppress a grin of my own. “I…I adore strawberries.”

He smiles at me. His eyes look deeply into mine and softly widen, as his face grows solemn. As if he can see the sadness inside of me, as if, for a moment, he can see into my soul.

Neither of us moves.

Finally, he takes a sharp sip of air and breaks his gaze. “I…I should be going.”

“Yes.” My chin dips. “Well. Goodbye then.” I nod and reluctantly turn.

“Please,” he says, making me turn back.

“Yes?”

“Please…be more careful crossing the street from now on.”

“Yes. I will.” I turn again and make my way to the berry vendor, both buoyant and slightly stunned by what has just transpired. I pay my bit on a tin of the plump red fruit, drop one into my mouth and sink my teeth into the firm, sweet flesh. The juicy burst makes me laugh out loud. A taste of heaven.

Dear Mother, you would have loved it here.

I see bowls of berries and cream—bushels and bushels of berries!—in my near future. Strawberry jelly, strawberry jam, strawberry shortcake…

But then—

Zzzzz—pop! Pop-pop-pop-pop!

I gasp and duck as a loud string of explosive pops shatter the air, immediately followed by the shrill scream of frightened horses.

Chaos erupts—shouts, clatters, a crash and a drawn-out, ear-splitting screech that makes me cringe.

I steady myself in the midst of the frenzy then stretch up on my toes. An overturned hack lies in the road, still attached to a wild-eyed horse, frothing at the mouth. Bystanders rush to get closer to the accident, shoving and elbowing to the front of the crowd.

I’m carried along with the jostling mob—a shove to my shoulder knocks the tin from my hand. In seconds, my berries are trampled to red pulp. A chill shivers up my spine.

Gasps and a hushed murmur of pity travel through the crowd. I push through to see three men pulling a writhing young man from under the overturned hack. I cover my mouth as a cry slips up from the back of my throat.

It’s the man I had just been talking with—the one who’d nearly ran me over! My stomach twists at the dark stain that seeps out below the knee of his trousers. Moments ago he was telling me to be careful. Why didn’t I tell him the same? I don’t even know his name.

I pray he will live. Even if he does, it will be a miracle if he ever walks again.

The man I’d bought the strawberries from turns from the front of the crowd, making his way back to his cart. “What happened?” I ask as he passes.

“Hoodlum pranks,” he says, frowning and shaking his head. He points off to the side where some vendors have grabbed several shirking boys by their collars. One of the boys guiltily clings to a string of still unlit firecrackers.

Wretched boys! Wretched firecrackers!

The good Samaritans lift the poor young man, his beautiful face distorted in agony, and place him in another carriage that will hopefully take him to a surgeon. His top hat has been kicked into the gutter in the process. I hurry over, pick it up and run to the coach before it leaves.

“His hat,” I say, handing it through the window to one of the attending men.

“Thank you.” The man nods to me solemnly.

“Thank you for helping him.” A swell of gratitude for the kindness of strangers surges through me.

My desire for berries has evaporated—their sweetness would only taste false. I start back to Mrs. Terkle’s carriage.

I stop, confused. Did it move? Am I turned around?

There it is. Down the street.

I hurry to the waiting coach, but as I near, I see a family inside with a different driver, and I slow to a walk. This carriage has shiny brass trim—not the rusted iron of the other. I turn in a dizzy circle, heart slamming in my chest like a fist.

No. Please, no.

I run wildly from carriage to carriage.

Not this one.

Not the next one.

Is that it?

I race from one end of the block to the other, but know in my sickening heart that none of them are mine.

Maybe my carriage, Mrs. Terkle’s carriage, moved a safe distance from the activity?

I check all possibilities. But no.

The carriage with all of my belongings is gone.

 

CHAPTER THREE

I stand, turned to stone. Still and cold. Holy saints have mercy.

What am I to do now?

All of my money. All of my clothes…photographs…letters. Gone. Everything. Gone.

Around me, strangers return to their lives.

I grab the sleeve of a passing man. “Help me,” I cry, my voice like ripping cloth.

He shakes his head, his brows raised high. “What’s this?”

My hand shakes as I point at the empty space where the carriage stood. “A woman. She robbed me—my money…my clothes.” My words spill in breathless spurts.

He steadies my elbow, looking around. “There.” He points to a policeman taking notes near the site of the accident. “That’s the man to tell.”

I run, stumble, catch myself and keep going until I reach the officer. “I’ve been robbed,” I cry. “A woman—in a carriage—she took everything!”

He holds up a hand. “Calm down there, Miss. Take a deep breath. I just need to finish up this report and I’ll be right with you.” He scribbles something on the pad he’s holding. He turns to the man standing beside him and asks another question.

“Please! It’s urgent!” I grab hold of his sleeve and he levels me with narrowed eyes. “I said wait—I’ll be with you soon as I can.”

My head is going to burst if I have to wait any longer.

He scribbles a few more words on his pad and then turns to me. “Now,” he says, finally. “What happened?”

I swallow and start to describe the knot of events from the time Mrs. Terkle spoke to me while the officer nods and pulls at his ear, gazing over the top of my head.

“So,” he says when I’ve finished, “you got in a carriage with a complete stranger.” He says it like an accusation.

“Why yes. She said she knew my brother.”

“Thieves generally aren’t opposed to telling lies.”

The sarcasm in his tone brings me back to myself, makes me want to kick something. Like his leg. “How would she have known my brother’s name? And mine, for that matter?”

“Lots of ways she could have figured that out—someone saying your name, you mentioning your brother’s name to someone.”

“I didn’t—” Or had I? I stop, dumbfounded, as the scene at the wharf plays out in stronger detail. Mr. Chaney saying my name, my calling out to the pickpocket, thinking it was Kit. I’d even told the man who’d offered me the first ride that I was waiting for my brother. To someone standing near by, paying attention, that was all information that could be used to make a fool of me.

My fingernails dig at the palms of my hands. How could I have been so stupid? So…so naïve? “I have to get my things back—you need to find that woman and my things!”

“Getting huffy won’t help,” the officer says. “Just tell me where you’re staying. We’ll let you know if we locate the goods.”

“I…don’t know where I’m going to stay—I need to find my brother.” How was I going to find Kit now? I had no idea where his house was. I had no idea where to go.

Yes I did—the theater! The California. Kit had a show there toni—Oh. Wait.

Kit’s the showman in the family. That’s what I’d told Elsa at the dock. Mrs. Terkle could have used that to build a story I would believe. She’d fed my own words back to me and I’d swallowed them like a fish swallows a worm.

The letter—Kit’s letter. I reach for my satchel before remembering it was gone. Blast it!

“Hard to help you if we can’t find you,” the policeman says.

“Sacramento Street,” I say.

“That’s a start but I need a number.”

“I…I’m not sure.” I rack my brain for the right numbers. It’s some combination of one, two, three, four. But in what order? Twelve forty-three? Or thirteen forty-two? Or is it fourteen twenty-three?

“Where’s the police station?” I ask.

“City Hall, Washington and Kearny.”

“I’ll come down when I know where I’ll be.”

“All right, little sister. You do that.” He tucks his notebook in his shirt pocket.

I’ll start with the only piece of true information I have—the boarding house where last we’d known Kit was staying. “How do I get to Sacramento Street from here?” I ask.

 

It’s a steep climb up a bump of hills to Sacramento Street, which can hardly be called a street—at least at this point, it’s no more than a rutty dirt road. My heart sinks at the rundown row of boarding houses that stretch ahead. The dilapidation goes beyond mere thrift. I’d assumed that Kit had modest means from the mining claim he’d worked with our father, or had found a job that paid a decent wage—he was clever and charming, albeit easily distracted by what interested him at any given moment.

The first guessed address is not a boarding house but rather a one-story saloon. A veil of black flies drawn by the stench of urine and alcohol buzz loudly from the mud yard. I won’t even bother inquiring after my brother here.

The second address looks to be more of a possibility but when a scantily dressed woman with bleached hair opens the door, my hopes falter.

“What do you want?” the woman says, narrowing her eyes. “If you’re looking for work, you need to spiff yourself up and come back later. Lacey Lil don’t get up ‘til four.”

“No,” I say, horrified at her presumption, for I’m pretty certain what kind of house this is: a house of ill repute where wanton women without morals debase and sell themselves.

“I’m looking for my brother—Kit Sparrow.” I’m nearly as horrified to think that this might be where my brother lives. If this is his residence, I’m glad that Mother isn’t here to see it. It would break her heart.

But I do not, will not, believe it.

“All men out by eight a.m. Looks like you missed him.” She scans my appearance and sneers. “I can see why he’d prefer the company around here,” she says, and shuts the door in my face.

Well! I step back, cheeks burning.

What kind of hellish place have I landed in? Father’s letters had painted something fresher…brighter. The land of golden opportunity, he’d called it. Perhaps for thieves and ladies of the night.

But it’s where I am now. Two down, one to go. I walk another ten blocks to fourteen twenty-three. A quiet house with peeling paint, but the front steps have been swept and decorated with pots spilling red geraniums. I approach the door and pull the strung bell.

A thin woman in a clean but faded dress opens the door, looks me over, and shakes her head. “I’m sorry, but I don’t rent to single ladies.” She starts to close the door without waiting to hear my request.

“Wait! Please, I’m looking for my brother, Kit—Christian—Sparrow. I believe this is the address he gave? Is he…does he live here?”

The door opens slowly again and the woman stares at me. “You look like him.”

“Yes! We’re twins—”

She shakes her head. “He’d heard your ship was lost in a storm. He believed you and your mother dead.”

“Dead?” Oh! Poor Kit. He was right about Mother, but I’m still among the living. “Please, is he here? Can I see him?”

“I’m sorry, Miss. Young Sparrow’s been gone for almost a month, now.”

“G—gone? What do you mean gone? He’s not—” I cannot say the word again. Dead. It can’t be. I would know. I would have felt it, felt that invisible line snap. My hand shakes as I grab the doorframe to steady myself.

“You’d better come in.” She steps back and motions me into the room. “Let me fix you a cup of tea and then I’ll tell you what little I know.” She points me into the parlor and disappears down the hall.

I collapse onto a love seat, numb except for the clutching ache in my chest. Kit. My Kit. He couldn’t have…died. Not without me knowing. And how could he have believed that I was dead?

She returns shortly, hands me a cup of tea and sets a plate of tea biscuits on the table in front of me. The teacup rattles against the saucer. I set it on the table next to the biscuits before I spill hot tea in my lap.

“I’m not certain what happened to your brother,” the woman says, taking a seat in the chair across from the love seat. “All I know is he disappeared about three and a half weeks back. It was a Tuesday.” Her brow furrows and she gets up, goes to a small secretary in the entry way and pulls out a ledger. She turns the pages, squints and nods. “August fifteenth, I believe it was. I heard later that my sister’s husband’s cousin saw him that Tuesday evening with a group of boys on their way down someplace on the Barbary Coast. Out on a spree to sow some wild oats. Went looking for trouble and probably found it. They all disappeared, most likely shanghaied.” She shakes her head.

“Shanghaied? What…what does that mean?” My mouth is so dry, the back of my tongue sticks to my throat.

“Shanghai’s kidnapped. Out to sea. There’s those who get their crew by drugging and taking unattached and fit young men. Poor unsuspecting fellows wake up on a ship miles from shore with no choice but to work as sailors until the tour is over.”

I suck in air, as the smallest of weights wings off my chest. “So—he’s not dead?”

“Like I said, I don’t know what happened. This is all supposition. And I hate to get your hopes up. I hear that once these boys get started going to sea, it’s impossible for them to get away. Most last less than a week back on shore before they drink up their wages and have to do it all over again. They’d be better off dead, if you asked me.”

The landlady’s face blurs and something inside of me collapses again as I think of Kit in such a dreadful situation. I swipe at my eyes with the heel of my hand. My poor brother.

But I have to remember that Kit is clever. I have to believe if he’s been taken to sea, he will find his way back. And I will be here waiting here for him. “How can I find out what ship he might be on? They must keep a record of who comes on board.”

“Not likely. Harbormaster could tell you what ships went out the week your brother went missing, but I doubt there’s a record of those taken against their will. You’ll find out soon enough that most people round here don’t play by any code of ethics.”

I’ve already found that out, and lost everything I had.

“Did anyone check with the land office? Where Kit was working?”

“He’d lost that job. Him thinking you and your mother drowned at sea, he took to his room, missed showing up for work three days in a row. Lots of boys looking for work, so they replaced him, let him go. I checked with them a week or so after he hadn’t come back here. They said they hadn’t seen him for more than a month.”

“What about Kit’s things?”

“I’m sorry.” She touches her fingers to her lips. Her eyes drop to her lap. “I waited two weeks and then gave away everything.” She brushes at invisible crumbs on her faded skirt.

“Everything?” I say, over the hard knuckle in my throat.

Her eyes flick to mine and then back to the hands in her lap. Her head rocks in what might be a nod, then stills. “There’s one thing.” She gets up, goes back to the secretary and opens a small drawer in the middle.

My eyes fill with tears when she places the tiny blue velvet box in my hands. Inside rest two humble treasures—Father’s cufflinks. A gift from Mother two Christmases ago.

“Not expecting you, I’d thought of giving them to my nephew for matriculation,” the landlady says, then lets out a surprised, “Oh…” when I pop one open to reveal the miniature watercolor my mother painted of me, inside. I open the other, and there is Kit.

“Of course, they’re yours now,” she tells me.

I tuck them back and close the box. “Thank you.” They’re all I have. I clutch the velvet box to my heart.

“Of course.” She shifts, uneasy, and clears her throat. “I don’t wish to be rude, but my boarders start returning within the hour and I have business to attend to. When you’ve finished your tea, you best be on your way.”

I attempt a sip of tea but the bitter brew sloshes the brim and puddles the saucer as the realization hits me that I have no place to go. I take a deep breath to clear my head and quickly try to explain how I’ve lost everything. “I cannot pay you,” I say, “but would it be possible for me to stay here for a few days?”

“I’m very sorry for your troubles,” she says, fidgeting with her hands. “Besides keeping a strict rule of no unmarried women, the rooms are full. I have no free beds. It’s a terrible predicament you’re in. If I were you, I’d turn around and go back to where you came from as soon as possible.”

“I have nothing to even pay for a telegram.” Much less a room. Or food. Even if I did have a ticket back to New York, I doubt that my father’s cranky spinster aunt would have me. She was fond of Kit but never liked me much—said I had too many opinions for a proper young lady. Just thinking about her makes me dig the heels of my boots in the carpet. I wouldn’t return to live with her even if I had the money to. Besides, I won’t leave without my brother, or until I at least know what’s happened to him.

My brother’s landlady leaves me sitting, then returns and presses a gold coin in my hand. A quarter eagle. Two and a half dollars. “I’m sorry, but this is all I can do. It should be enough to send a telegram. You must have family somewhere who can wire you the cost of a ticket. Other than that, I really cannot help you.”

 

CHAPTER FOUR

As soon as the landlady closes her door behind me, I slump down on the top step. I can’t think of what to do. This morning I awoke with the hope that I’d be sitting with my brother by now, catching up on the past year and a half, comforting each other in our mutual loss, discussing what to do. Now all I can hope for is his safe return in the not-too-distant future. And that I can find a way to survive while I wait.

My limbs feel thick and heavy. I rub my temples to ease the ache behind my eyes. I need a plan, but fog has seeped into my brain, making my wits dull.

It’s almost dusk when the first boarder comes up the steps. The gaunt man glares at me with pale grey eyes like my presence is a personal offense. I am feeling so cross, I stick my tongue out at him.

His door slam is followed by a muted but agitated exchange on the other side. Moments later, the landlady comes scurrying out. “You cannot sit here,” she says, her forehead bunched. “It will upset my boarders. You need to go on now.”

“I’ve no place to go,” I say, my voice weary.

Her thin lips press together, her hands grip each other in bleach-boned silence. Finally, her breath slides out in a flat whistle and she gestures to the back of the house, then turns and goes inside.

She’s at the back door holding a broom and a bucket when I come around. “Sweep out the hen house and you can sleep in there tonight. Clean straw’s in the shed. Wash up at the spigot when you’re done and I’ll bring you out a bowl of soup. Oh, and watch out for Naughty Boy. If that cock thinks you’re interfering with his biddies, he’ll try to peck your eyes out.”

Stars and angels. Fighting off a cock is all I need to make one of the most awful days of my life even worse. Still, I muster up my manners. “Thank you,” I say. I grab the broom and bucket and follow my nose to the stinking chicken house.

There’s no hint of the evil rooster, so I climb the plank to the door. Inside, I squint at the startled hens and gag at the even fouler smell. A far cry from the starched sheets and perfumed bath I’d been looking forward to. I try breathing through my mouth, but the feather dust stirred up by the flapping chickens makes me cough, sending the hens into a squawking frenzy. Wings beat my arms and face.

“Stop!” I cry, ducking and swiping at them with the broom. This does not have a calming effect. I take a few breaths into my elbow and then hold my breath while I tuck up my skirts. I take a few more elbow breaths and then sweep. When it feels like my lungs will burst, I press my nose back into my elbow for another muffled breath.

When I’ve filled the bucket with dirty straw, I hurry out the low door. Naughty Boy is right there, waiting for me. He rears back, evil-eyed, ready to attack.

I drop the bucket and start swinging. “Stay away or I’ll send you flying.” Either my actions or my words make him stop and take stock. He puffs himself up and struts off in the other direction, pretending he’s lost interest in me. Stupid cock.

I keep him in my sight while I clean up the spill from the bucket, dump it in a heap at the back of the yard and refill it with clean straw from the shed. I spread the clean layer of straw on the hen house floor. As I wash the filth off my hands, the landlady appears with a blanket and a bowl of soup.

“Only one night,” she tells me. “Tomorrow, you need to move on.”

“I will,” I say, although have no idea where ‘on’ will be. “Your brother-in-law’s cousin—the one who saw Kit the night he disappeared? Where might I find him?”

“Tom Deene. Tends lunchtime bar down at The Phoenix. On California. He won’t tell you anymore or different than I did, but if you feel the need, you can catch him when he gets off at five.”

“Thank you Mrs.—?”

“O’Doul.”

“Thank you Mrs. O’Doul. I’ll be gone in the morning.”

I sit on the plank leading up to the hen house and eat the bowl of soup. It’s unseasoned and spare, but I make a display of enjoying the stringy bits of chicken while Naughty Boy gives me the evil eye from the fence and the nervous hens fret inside. “Who rules the roost now, Naughty Boy?” I taunt. He pecks the air and flaps his wings at me but keeps his distance.

I set down the bowl and close my eyes, forehead in my palms. My mind slips to the market, the handsome stranger whose leg was crushed in the accident—I wonder how he’s doing? I curse the boys who lit the firecrackers. And the thieving Mrs. Terkle, deceptive witch—I hope she chokes on her flask of sherry. And the policeman with his arrogant disdain—he acted like someone getting all their belongings stolen happened everyday. Well, for all I know, in this dreadful town, it does. If the police don’t find my trunks, I don’t know what I’ll do. I’ll have to find some way to keep myself while I try to learn what has happened to Kit. Until I can find him. But what? And what if I don’t find him? Oh Kit. What can a sixteen-year-old girl do, all alone in this terrible and unfamiliar city?

My lungs feel tight and hard like shriveled walnuts. Breathe, I tell myself. Air in, air out, air in, air out. Not easy in a corset but I cannot let myself fall into a pit of despair. I’m smart—Father always said I was and never to forget it. I will figure it out.

I will find my brother.

 

 

A Brief Synopsis:

Joining a gang of cross-dressing ex-prostitutes who pick pockets for a living is not what demure but feisty Lucy Sparrow envisioned when she stepped off the ship in San Francisco. But when her brother doesn’t show and she loses everything she has in a con, Lucy does what she has to do to survive. It’s 1876 and the young city of San Francisco, bursting with new wealth from the influx of gold and silver, is cultured, glamorous, wild, dangerous and full of extraordinary characters, many who have woven their way into the fabric of Lucy’s story, including Jeanne Bonnet, Emperor Norton, Miss Piggott and Herrmann The Great.

In the midst of bootleggers, pimps and thieves, Lucy struggles to maintain her moral compass. When Jeanne is killed, it’s up to Lucy to find work and shelter and to help keep the girls safe while avoiding a notorious pimp set on revenge, maintaining her disguise as a boy, and negotiating complicated friendships. THE LIES AND ILLUSIONS OF LUCY SPARROW tells a unique coming-of-age story, full of adventure, shanghaiing hoodlums, and a mistaken-identity romance triangle that nods at Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.

Banu the Builder
by Mathangi Subramanian

Middle-Grade Winner, Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Literature

Middle Grade Category Winner 2015 Katherine Paterson Prize

See her?

That one, there. The one who’s always looking up up up at the tops of things? Falls in every crack in the sidewalk? Always forgetting that she’s on the ground?

That’s Banu. Banu, who is not like the rest of us.

For a long time, we thought Banu was slow. Not slow in the feet. Slow in the head. We’re not even sure how she’s still in class with us, she’s failed so many subjects so many times in so many ways.

The rest of us, we figured everything out pretty fast. The answer to school is simple: mug[1]. Mug, mug, and then mug some more.

Poor Banu. She was never good at mugging. Ask her to add two plus two, and she’ll cower like you’re waving a lathi. As for the ABCs, she never got past B. We’re not even sure if she can write the second half of her own name.

Some of us think it’s because of her afterschool activities. And I don’t mean debate club or field hockey or Model UN – those aren’t for kids like us, or for Banu. After school, Banu goes to construction sites.

Now let me tell you something. You know the only thing worse than a slum like ours?

Construction sites.

There’re always a couple of kids at our school who follow their parents from site to site. You can tell as soon as you speak to them: chopped up hair, hollow eyes, words thick like ragi mudde. They never stick around for long–most don’t even buy school uniforms. They just show up every day in the same outfits until the pants get too short or the blouse gets too tight. Start wearing whatever their older sister or brother was wearing the week before.

Not that we mind having them around. We can always roll our eyes at each other over their heads, raise our eyebrows at their bare feet and skinny elbows.

After all, if you can’t be better than somebody else, what’s the point?

At first we think Banu is having an affair. Not that Banu has ever cared about anything much but the tops of things–trees, buildings, skies. But what else is there at a construction site? The sound of jackhammers? The sandy air? The smell of 10,000 village dreams burning?

Then Banu starts coming home with pockets full of rocks and sand and nails and metal rods. Everything she takes is broken or thrown in the rubbish.

And that isn’t even the strangest part.

The strangest part is that Banu starts building.

I know what you’re thinking. So what? The girl makes a few towers, maybe ties some rods together. That’s what children do. They build things.

But Banu is not like the rest of us.

Most of us never notice. We’re too busy mugging our seven times eight equals fifty six and Gandhiji was born on October 2nd and johnny johnny yes papa[2]. Sometimes we wonder about a thumping or a rattling or a crunching, but mostly we just carry on.

While we mug, Banu builds. Starts going off behind the bushes where the tallest and sturdiest coconut trees take root. Imagines an empire along the banks of the river of sludge flowing down from the hospital.

She builds a fort with metal spikes and pebble-sand towers and a moat big enough for a dragon or two. A palace with windows made out of broken bottles and a gate that slides open and closed. Rows and rows of flats with parking spaces and letter boxes and balconies lined with black iron railings. A farmhouse with a wire fence and two bedrooms and a kitchen with the fixtures for one of those brand new ignition stoves. She even builds roads, and let me tell you, Banu’s roads are stronger and straighter than any of the roads in Bangalore.

In fact, her whole city is stronger and straighter than Bangalore. Makes Bangalore look like it was stuck together with Fevicol and broken promises.

Don’t ask us how. She just does it.

It’s not that she builds to show off, either. We only find out because Yousef steals Joy’s bag and runs off and we chase him into the clearing where Banu looks at us with eyes like Bangalore potholes.

Yousef stops and we all run into his back, but not before Joy gives him one tight slap.

It’s like walking in on Bhumi while she’s becoming the earth. We just stare and stare and hold our breath.

Until Joy says, “Banu, you’re a builder.”

Until Kabini says, “I told you there was no boy.”

Until Prema says, “All this time you never told us.”

Not that it matters. In slums, everyone finds out everything eventually.

We go to a government school.

I’m guessing you go to a private school. Which means you have a lot of stuff that we don’t: new books, maybe? Toilets? Water? (The drinkable kind, not the mud puddle kind.)

But there’s one thing we have that you don’t.

Rats.

Lots and lots of fat, juicy, scurrying, burying rats.

You know what rats like to do?

Eat.

You know what rats like to eat?

Everything.

The radishes in the school garden. The registers on teachers’ desks. The pipes at the water pumps. The pais that the little kids sit on.

See what we mean by everything?

Janaki Madam–that’s our headmistress–she doesn’t like rats. That’s why she pays people to come and put traps and poison and whatever else to scare them away. Though if you ask us, Janaki Madam is scarier than any poison we’ve ever seen.

But even Janaki Madam can’t hold off a vermin scourge with just a government school budget.

These rats? They’re clever, mostly. (Definitely didn’t go to government schools.) At first, they leave bite marks and the occasional dropping, but they don’t show themselves. Not even a flash of paw or twitch of whisker to be seen.

Slowly, though, they start to get bold. We hear them shuffling behind the walls in the middle of the day. We catch their pink noses poking out from cracks in the plaster. We see their fuzzy behinds disappearing into burrows they leave wide open right where the oldest, nastiest boys play cricket after stopping by the liquor store on Sunday mornings.

And then, when still nothing happens to their scaly tails? That’s when the boldness really begins.

They smell the free government breakfast or the holiday meal served once a year on foil plates. Besan ladoos and chicken biryani. Donated by the rich guy who went to our school and miraculously made good. Proof that he didn’t forget the rest of us, even though, let’s be honest, he probably wishes he could.

Those rats smell the crumbs left on the plates and payasam slurps left in the tumblers. And they make a decision: in the middle of the day, they decide to run across the room, humans be damned, and feast.

And if they have to cross Maths Miss’s feet to get there, treading over her bare toes with their cold, pointy claws, then so be it. Annual ladoos are worth the risk.

Let me ask you this. Have you ever seen a grown woman jump up on the only desk in the whole room, not even caring when her sari hitches itself up around her bare belly in the most undignified way?

Have you ever heard the echoes of a shriek that is pure, unadulterated fear?

Have you ever seen a headmistress fly into the room faster than an August evening wind, her eyes blazing with the fire of a thousand vermin funerals, wielding a spade so expertly that she makes a crack in the wall where she just misses an uppity rat’s behind?

Well, we have. And it’s enough to make you believe that all those stone Kalis are too tiny to hold the fury in a single human woman’s heart.

“This has gone too far,” Janaki Madam says, pushing her loosened gray hair behind her ears, correcting her tilted spectacles. “These rats think they run the place.”

“Might I suggest an exterminator, Madam?” Maths Miss squeaks from on top of her desk, “or at least a bureau to hold some of the most tempting materials?”

“With what money, Sushila?”

“I can help,” Banu says.

“Who’s that?” Janaki Madam and Maths Miss ask.

“It’s me,” says Banu. “My name is Banu.”

Now don’t pass judgment. It must’ve been the third or fourth time Banu spoke in class. Ever. So how are the Headmistress and Maths Miss supposed to know? The scrambling scratch of rat feet is more common than the whisper of Banu’s voice.

You?” Maths Miss asks, probably remembering the score Banu got (or didn’t get) on our last exam.

“I can build something. To hold the records. To fence the radishes. To block the burrows.”

“Please,” Maths Miss scoffs.

“She can, Miss,” says Joy. “You should see the way she builds.”

“How much will it cost?” Janaki Madam asks.

“Nothing, Ma’am,” Banu says. “I’ll source the materials myself.”

“How much time do you need?”

“With the right team, I can do it in three days.”

“Then name your team,” Janaki Madam says, “and start today.”

Of course, the team is obvious–if you need something done, you ask us girls. So for three days, Banu becomes our forewoman, school becomes a construction site, and we become construction workers. We don’t mind, though, because we all skip lessons. Plus none of us are afraid of rats–we’ve protected each other from much worse than a bunch of over-achieving fur balls.

So we build.

And we build and we build and we build.

We build a fence around the kitchen garden with long pieces of wire Banu finds in the garbage pile behind the new showroom on 100 Foot Road. We install shelves with doors using pieces of wood and metal Banu drags from the houses they are bulldozing behind the posh flats made of glass. With the leftovers we build a trunk for the pais and toys for the little kids.

Banu finds new pipes for the water pump. She finds sand to stuff into the burrows on the compound grounds. She even finds plaster to seal up the cracks in the walls and along the floors where rats might hide, and paint to cover up the handiwork.

“Where’d you get this, Banu?” Deepa asks, tracing the newly filled cracks with her fingers.

“Behind the hospital,” Banu says.

“In the waste?” Leela shrieks.

Banu shrugs.

“Doesn’t that spread disease?” Kabini asks.

“Probably to the rats,” Banu nods.

“But what about us?” Rukshana asks.

“Stop it, all of you,” Joy snaps. “You’re builders now. Don’t question. Just build.”

Our feet are dusty and our backs ache. Our cheeks are coated in grime and our hands are scraped and rough. Our hair smells like sweat and paint and twisted metal.

But by the end of three days, it is a whole new school. Just like Banu promised.

Our midday meals are full of radishes. The little kids are snug and cozy on their pais. All the paper goods are nibble-free. The space behind the wall gets quiet.

Until one day, Janaki Madam says, “They tell me there’s a terrible rat infestation down at the new shopping mall.” She pushes her lips together so she won’t smile, and sticks out her hand to Banu. “Well done, child.”

Banu grins and shakes Janaki Madam’s hand. Because this, of course, is the surest sign of victory: the rats have given up on Ambedkar Government School. They have moved on to posher places. Places that would throw us out.

Where they went is not the point. The point is that they went, and it’s all because of Banu, and her builders.

Just then a raggedy looking thing in a faded patta pavade and dusty feet shuffles into the room, two pathetic brown pony tails sticking out from her chopped up hair. Her lips can’t hide her two front teeth. Her feet are too big for her legs, like her body was meant to grow more, but just didn’t have the strength.

“New student?” Janaki Madam asks.

“Another of those construction kids, is it?” Yousef says. “Or is it a rat?”

Normally, the rest of us would’ve laughed. After all, if you can’t look down on someone, what’s the point?

But today is not a normal day.

Joy leans across her desk and smacks Yousef across the face.

“What, yah?” Yousef turns red, maybe from Joy’s hand, but probably from her eyes.

“Don’t call her a rat,” Joy says. “Here, new girl,” she pats the space on the bench next to her. “Come sit next to me.”

The girl smiles her buck toothed smile.

“Are you…” the girl begins hesitantly.

“I’m a builder,” Joy says. “Just like you.”

 

~

Footnotes

[1] Indian English slang term for “memorize.”

[2] A rhyme commonly taught to Indian preschoolers. The full rhyme goes, “Johnny Johnny. Yes Papa? Eating sugar? No Papa. Telling lies? No Papa. Open your mouth, ha ha ha.”

Anglerfish: the Black Devil of the Deep
by E. M. Alexander

Picture Book Winner, Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Literature

Picture Book Category Winner 2015 Katherine Paterson Prize

Far, far below the ocean’s surface, where no trace of light can be seen, the deep sea Anglerfish makes her home.

She glides slowly through the dark water. Always on the hunt, her jaw protrudes, baring razor-sharp teeth. She is a fearsome creature. She is the Black Devil of the Deep.

Unlike some of her cousin species like the monkfish, the goosefish, or the frogfish that live in more shallow water (a mere 300 feet down), the Angler lives in water so deep, it is always as black as midnight.

Although she doesn’t remember it, the Anglerfish once lived in the upper mesopelagic zone, known as the twilight zone, where the last traces of sunlight could still penetrate the water. In the scant light a thousand meters below the surface, creatures adapt to the darkness with large eyes.

Anglerfish began her life as a tiny egg that was released far below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean, and floated gently to the surface. As a baby fish, or fry, she feasted on plankton. As she grew into adulthood, she began her descent into the bathypelagic zone, 1,000 to 4,000 meters below the surface.

In the depths of the blackest water, the Anglerfish makes her own light. A tiny bioluminescent lure sprouts forth from a fin that grows between her eyes. “Bioluminescent” is a Latin word that means “living light.” Creatures with bioluminescent adaptations usually live in places where it is very, very dark. They might use their light as a signal, to scare away predators, or to illuminate prey. Only the female Anglerfish has this ability.

The Anglerfish needs her light to survive. She uses the glowing orb as bait, dangling it in front of her mouth like her very own fishing pole. Buried in the mud and sand, she lies in wait for a fish, a shrimp, or maybe even a crab.

Sometimes the Anglerfish wiggles her lure to entice her prey. She hopes they will be deceived and think that the moving light is a tasty morsel of food. When a fish or crab comes close enough, her stomach descends and she extends her flexible jaw. She opens her large mouth and swallows her meal whole. The Anglerfish prefers fish and shrimp, but in the deep, dark depths she calls her home, she will eat whatever she can catch.

A fierce hunter, she has earned the name of Black Devil. Living in a world without sunlight, her dark brown or black skin is a clever camouflage that helps her blend right into her surroundings. The average Anglerfish is six inches, but some can grow as large as 35 inches long. With her large mouth filled with sharp, pointy teeth, the Anglerfish looks like a prehistoric creature. Her skin does not have scales, but it can be covered in warts or spines.

The Anglerfish has jagged teeth that work like a hinge, snapping back into place when she has trapped her prey. Any fish caught in the mouth of a Black Devil will find itself locked in her mouth like a prisoner in a cell.

The Black Devil of the Deep traps her mates as well. She is larger than the tiny male Anglerfish, who only averages two and half to six inches in length. Previously scientists mistook the male Anglerfish for a tiny parasite living under the female’s skin. Now they know that the male attaches to the female’s skin and becomes absorbed into her body.

Their union is a matter of survival. The tiny male, born without a digestive system, cannot survive alone. His sole purpose at birth is to use his heightened sense of smell to seek out a healthy female and attach to her by biting into her flesh. Once attached, his jaws are dissolved by enzymes and his blood fuses with hers.

The Anglerfish will always carry with her one or more males. As their bodies join, all that will be left of the male is his reproductive organs, which the female Angler will use to fertilize her eggs. When she is ready to reproduce, in the spring or early summer, the Anglerfish will lay more than a million eggs in a single spawning.

Her offspring will spend a brief time closer to the sea’s surface, just as she once did, before slowly sinking down for a life in the water’s dark depths.

Once there, her children might be caught by a fisherman seeking out the only edible part of her body—the tail. Or, perhaps they will be lucky enough to make their own homes—far, far below the ocean’s surface, where no trace of light can be seen, in the darkest, loneliest place in the sea.

~

Sources For ANGLERFISH: THE BLACK DEVIL OF THE DEEP

Ganeri, Anita. Creatures That Glow. Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1995.

National Geographic. 12 October 2015.  http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/fish/anglerfish/

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 5 October 2015. http://oceanexplorer.noaa.gov/facts/light-distributed.html

 

 

In the Middle of the Night
by Catey Miller

Honorable Mention, Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Literature

Special Mention 2015 Katherine Paterson Prize

Twenty-one days ago, exactly one month before Layla and I were set to move to different states for different colleges, I was lying on the couch in Layla’s family’s den, pretending to be asleep while she and her mom, Ellen, had a loud fight. The den was dark and Scrubs was on Netflix in the background and Layla and Ellen were shouting at each other about something I don’t remember. I kept pretending to be asleep until the fight ended and Layla moved back onto the couch, at which point I sat up and let her curl her feet up on my thighs and didn’t touch her very ticklish toes while she cried and then fell asleep and I watched more Scrubs. Sometime around midnight, Ellen put her hand on my head as she walked behind the couch and said, “Danielle, if you’re falling asleep, you can stay.” I didn’t want to stay. I said I would rather sleep in my own bed, but thanks. Ellen helped me tuck a blanket around Layla. She told me to please be careful out there and I nodded and waved and didn’t think to hug her goodbye. I made it home fine.

Twenty days ago, Ellen was walking to her car in the Food Lion parking lot, and the driver of the F-350 didn’t see her. It was an accident. I can picture Ellen with her purple reusable shopping bags slung over her shoulders, talking to Layla’s dad on the phone about dinner, reaching for the remote to unlock her car. I can’t picture Layla and her dad and her brother eating dinner that night.

Seventeen days ago there was a service, and my parents cried, and Layla’s dad and her little brother cried. I didn’t talk to Layla at the service, but I held her hand when we circled back to look into the casket again after everyone else had, my second time and her third time. Layla’s mom’s nails were still painted a matte purple called “Black Cherry Chutney,” which we’d picked out for her even though she said it was too dark for her. The polish had chipped on two fingers on her right hand, and this was the part of her that looked the most wrong to me, and I couldn’t remember if I’d painted her right hand or if Layla had. I wondered if her toenails were still painted, too. I wondered if the polish would ever chip if it stayed in her socks in her shoes in the box in the ground. Toenail polish lasts forever.

I’ve been leaving my phone volume turned up overnight, just in case. The first time the phone rang, I answered, “Hello? L?” She hung up. The second time, and the times since, I just slid the green bar, was just there. Sometimes there’s crying, sometimes just the white noise hiss of being connected. Tonight, ten minutes ago, twenty days since I last saw her, there were words. “I’m picking you up.”

Layla is just rounding the cul-de-sac to loop back to my driveway when I slip out the front door. I take quick short steps to the end of the driveway, skimming my fingers along the side of my mom’s burgundy Wrangler as I pass it. The Jeep always looks like some hulking creature in the darkness, its taillights glinting the wrong colors in the bright moonlight. I pat its bumper as I go by.

Layla has the windows rolled down so when she comes to a stop on the road a foot in front of me, I can hear her music. And it’s not her mix CD of songs about girls with L-names—“Lola” and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and “Laura” times three, but not “Layla,” because she hates that it’s a song written about someone else’s wife; “Clapton is such an asshole,” she says, “couldn’t he have just waited for the divorce to write about me?” Clapton notwithstanding, that mix is Layla’s comfort food, and hearing jazz music in its place stops me for a second.

Then I take the last few steps to the car and gently lower the duffel bag I’m carrying onto the floorboard—the half-empty bottle of whiskey swishes against the tempo of the trumpet or whatever is hissing out of the speakers—and fold myself into the car after it. Layla drives the Mazda Miata now, the one her mom was walking to, and it’s so small, so low to the ground and confining. Layla has been badly claustrophobic since I’ve known her, but it doesn’t seem to bother her now.

“Hi,” Layla says when we’re off my street, zipping past stop signs and speed limit markers in the maze of the development my family lives in.

My line is How’s it going, but she’s driving too fast and her fingers are tight on the steering wheel and her hair is tight in her ponytail, and I don’t say anything until we’re out of Sunrise Echoes, out on a main road with traffic lights and shadowy clumps of trees that could be shielding cop cars, and Layla slows to five over. Her fingernails are painted bright yellow, thick and gloopy like she’s been painting over cracks. Mine are dark purple and chipping badly and I hide them under my thighs. Yellow is, I guess, as far from purple as you can get.

It’s too late for my opener now, so I try, “Where we headed?” even though I know we’re headed east, for the ocean, and she knows I know so she doesn’t respond. We always said growing up that it was the best place to be on a hot summer night, said it must be hard to be bored or lonely or sad with the moon on the water; it seemed too perfect. Our parents wouldn’t ever let us go.

It’s just a few minutes to the ocean from my house. My family lives closer than Layla and her dad and her brother, and I wonder if she’s been coming without me, making the longer drive alone all those nights. The hiss of bedroom background noise could’ve been waves, maybe. I wonder if every night she’s been listening to jazz—which is/was a favorite of her parent/s—and what happened to the L-name girls. A saxophonist takes a solo and Layla’s knuckles are popping up against the steering wheel and she hasn’t said anything yet but I know soon she’ll need me to listen, maybe to talk, and I suddenly, selfishly wish I could just nod off in the front seat, my foot rolling the whiskey from above my parents’ fridge back and forth on the floorboard.

But then we’re there and she’s launching herself out of the car, drawing in deep lungfuls of salt air, and I wonder if maybe the claustrophobia didn’t go away after all. It’s always hard to know with Layla, has been since fourth grade, when she was the only one of us who didn’t love horses but still wanted to be involved in all our conversations about them. I keep thinking it will get easier and it keeps going the other way, especially since graduation, and since Ellen.

It occurs to me, listening to Layla get her breathing under control, that maybe now is when it starts to get easier. Maybe if I can understand the shape of her grief I can finally understand her. And then it occurs to me how stupid that is, how things can only get harder from here, and what a bad friend I am to want something good—for me—to come out of this. What a bad person.

“Come on, Dani!” Layla’s voice is high and too loud. She half-walks-half-dances away from me, toward the water, becoming a silhouette. I flick the Miata’s headlights on, grab the duffel, and pocket the keys before I climb out of the car and lock the doors behind us. Then I jog after Layla, half-dancing toward the water, spotlit by the headlights. It smells clearer here at night than during the day, or more private, the salt in the air getting through to us better in the absence of sunscreen and snacks and so many bodies.

“My mom loved it here,” she shouts at me over the ocean spray, even though we’re not close enough to the water yet for it to drown her out.

The last time we all came here together, my parents and Layla’s family, Ellen wore tennis shoes and jogging shorts and a scowl, and she dragged my mom, in a one-piece, on a half-mile walk with her toward the pier. When my mom, chafing and irritated, begged off to play with Layla and me and the others in the water, Layla’s mom kept walking the same loop to the pier and back, arms pumping, stopping every few laps to ask if anyone wanted to join her, and no one did, and I feel a little bad about it now but then I only felt bad that she wouldn’t stop asking. It didn’t seem like she loved it here at all, but that she came here as an obligation.

But I watch Layla kick off her sandals and run in the direction of the pier, her arms spread wide and her head tipped back, and I let the memory she’s creating replace the one I have. Ellen loved it here. We were part of that. I run after Layla and we’re doing what she would’ve wanted us to do, what she would’ve wanted, and it’s an honoring thing, not a grieving thing.

It feels like a grieving thing again when we walk back to the duffle. Layla, like she can sense the mood shifting, starts doing her jerky dance-walk again, sort of a skipping motion that I can’t picture her doing when she’s by herself.

“Hang on,” she says, and darts away toward the parking lot before I can react. I watch her vanish into the darkness the closer she gets to the car, the headlights blinding me more than illuminating her. I have a brief and horrible vision of her going, getting back in the Miata and peeling out, letting me think she was letting me join her and then leaving me out as punishment for something, like maybe I should have called her before tonight, maybe I should have been the one to reach out and say let’s be sad together. But she wouldn’t. She won’t. And then the headlights go off and I’m left blinking in the dark, and suddenly I feel the bulk of her car keys in my pocket and I feel like an idiot.

I reach blindly for the duffel and wish I’d had the presence of mind to shake out the blanket I grabbed from our hall closet before she turned off the lights. The sliding thuds of her bare feet running back toward me in the loose sand make me feel more relieved than I try to let on. I take the car keys out of my pocket and offer them to her when she’s closer, but she waves me off, so I put them back.

“Look up, Dani,” she says, plucking at the back of my T-shirt. “Can’t you see them so much better?”

She must mean the stars because I can, she’s right. I also think the ocean sounds louder, somehow, like the Mazda’s lights were muting the roar of the waves. It’s like we always thought it would be, dark and bright all at once and left here just for us.

We haven’t watched Disney movies together in years, but suddenly I’m looking at the stars and thinking of The Lion King and wanting to ask Layla what she thinks about that, about souls in the night sky like Mufasa, if her mom is one of those big balls of gas and we’re looking up at her light.

But then Layla is sitting on the blanket and reaching for the whiskey in the bag and I’m glad the moment has passed. Though I wish now, out of nowhere, that we’d kept up the Disney movie night tradition from middle school. I can’t tell if it’s a real wish or if it will be gone in the morning.

“It’s so empty,” she says. She swings the bottle around by its neck. “How much did you have before I got to your place?” she asks, teasing, as she unscrews the cap.

I make a pfft noise because I’m not sure if we’re allowed to laugh yet. “Nah, this is just my mom’s favorite.”

“Oh.” She pauses with the bottle an inch from her lips.

“No, that’s not—I mean, that’s why there’s not much left. But no, like, it’s fine. I brought it for you. For us to share.”

She takes a quick sip, or holds the bottle to her mouth long enough for me to believe she did, and passes it back.

While I’m sipping, Layla rolls off of the blanket and onto the sand beside it and spreads herself like she’s going to make an angel. This her mother definitely wouldn’t have done. But Layla looks right at home, squirming a little so that the sand slides and whispers under her moving shoulders. She curls her fingers around fistfuls of sand and tosses them up, does it again, does it again, makes a sound that’s almost a laugh. Her laugh in all its variations sounds like her dad’s, and her round brown eyes are his, and she and her brother both have their dad’s thick curly hair.

“Have you talked to your roommate yet?” I ask.

It takes a while before she answers. “For school, you mean,” she says.

“Yeah. Mine Facebooked me this week to ask what I could bring for the room. She wanted to know about, like, rugs and dishes. Like am I bringing pots and pans. She wants to bring a crock pot.”

“To your tiny dorm room?”

“Yep.”

“She sounds delightful. Good luck.”

“Thanks.”

We go silent for a while. We pass the bottle back and forth. I can’t tell if she’s drinking. I can tell there’s something one of us should be saying now. The waves are loud and the sand is cool and I’m still thinking about The Lion King.

“Didn’t your roomie write you a few weeks ago?” I ask, prodding.

“Yeah. She sent a Facebook message.” Layla’s words come slow, like she has to pull them out one by one from some recess in her brain. “She asked me to bring a TV.”

“More normal than a crock pot. But also kind of assumption-y.”

“Yeah. But I mean, I have one, so.” She tosses up another handful of sand. “Her name’s Lily.”

I hmm sympathetically. There are so many “Lily” songs. Not fair.

Layla sighs like she’s feeling like it’s not fair, too, and I don’t mean to, I’ve been trying to avoid it, but I can’t help it anymore and I spin her feelings—my feelings about what her feelings must be—out in front of me, up at the stars. Layla, left behind by a mother who had grown too smothering sometime in junior or senior year, who didn’t know about the bird tattoo she’d gotten twenty-five days ago, on her eighteenth birthday. A mother she told me she was hoping to re-engage with in just a few months, once we graduated, once she moved three states down and could use the distance as a bridge. Layla, songless by choice; close-to-but-not L-o-l-a Lola, close-to-but-not Billy Joel’s troubled Laura, and so maybe it was just easier to listen to jazz, where you never had to worry about not hearing yourself mentioned.

She interrupts my interior monologue in a faltering voice: “Aren’t you sad, Danielle?”

And everything in me falters. My heart collapses in on itself and my stomach is full of acid. My eyes close against tears that rise fast and make them burn. I wish I’d hugged Ellen goodbye. I wish I’d told my mom I was going out tonight. I am so sad. It is not my sadness.

I inch my left hand into the gap between our bodies, my wrist on the hem of the blanket, and Layla reaches out and grabs it right away, holds it tight, and suddenly I can hear her crying, the wet sniffling sound complementing the rhythm of the ocean in a way that makes me think they’ve synced up before after all.

“I was giving you space,” I say.

Her fingers tighten around mine and I squeeze back, trying not to dig my nails into her skin as much as she’s digging hers into mine, and she scoots across the sand and back onto the blanket. “Too much space,” she says.

“I’m sorry.” I twist so that I’m facing her more and wrap my arms around her, brushing the sand off the back of her shirt while she keeps crying.

She’s saying she’s sorry, too, and she’s saying “I love you,” but I don’t think she’s talking to me. Maybe tomorrow I’ll ask if she wants to watch The Lion King.

I press a hand into Layla’s curly hair and think about how she doesn’t look anything like Ellen and I miss Ellen, who always invited me to stay, who always had blankets ready, who called herself my other mom. I miss her in a way I don’t feel like I have a right to. I hold onto Layla and I miss her, too, and I try but I can’t remember what they were fighting about or why I pretended not to hear.

 

 

Paddy Cats
by Helen Kampion

Honorable Mention, Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Literature

Special Mention 2015 Katherine Paterson Prize

Toshiko lived in a small village in Japan where the rice grew in rows as straight as chopsticks. Every day on her way to the rice paddies, Toshiko greeted the stray cats and scratched their backs.

Late one Monday afternoon, the sky grew black with feathers. A gigantic flock of birds swooped down and pecked at the rice.

Papa-san, what kind of birds are eating our rice?” asked Toshiko.

“I do not know, Little One,” answered Father. “But we must stop them, or all the villagers will starve. Tomorrow we must chase them away with kakashis, scarecrows.”

 

On Tuesday, Father, Toshiko, and the villagers marched to the rice paddies. The cats crouched in the shadows.

The villagers carried bamboo poles hung with rags, fish bones, and meat. They hammered the poles into the ground and set them on fire. Smelly smoke swirled in the air.

Toshiko held her nose.

The cats growled and scurried away.

All day long the villagers lit kakashis.

But the birds stayed and ate.

“It didn’t work, Papa-san,” said Toshiko. “The birds must think it smells like koh, incense.”

Hai, yes, my daughter, these birds find the scent sweet,” said Father. We must try again tomorrow.”

That evening at mealtime, Toshiko’s rice bowl was not filled to the rim.

 

On Wednesday, Father, Toshiko, and the villagers plodded to the rice paddies carrying drums. The cats huddled nearby.

The villagers placed the drums on either side of the paddies and beat them.

Boom! Boom!

The cats yowled and their tails bristled.

All day long the villagers banged the drums.

But the birds stayed and ate and ate.

“Oh no, Papa-san. The drums didn’t work either,” said Toshiko.

Hai, my daughter, these birds like the thunder of the drums,” said Father. “We must try again tomorrow.”

Papa-san, I have an idea,” said Toshiko, watching the cats chase a dragonfly.

“No, Little One, the problem is too big,” said Father. “And you are too small.”

That evening, Toshiko’s rice bowl was only half full.

And so was her stomach.

 

On Thursday, Father, Toshiko, and the villagers trudged to the rice paddies. The cats straggled behind. The villagers carried bamboo poles topped with fierce cloth dragons. They pounded the poles into the ground.

The dragons snapped from side to side in the wind.

The cats arched their backs and hissed.

All day long the villagers added dragon poles.

But the birds stayed and ate and ate and ate.

Papa-san, these birds aren’t afraid of the mighty dragons,” said Toshiko.

Hai, my daughter, these birds have made friends of the dragons,” said Father.

“What will our village do now?” asked Toshiko.

“I do not know,” said Father. “If we cannot stop these birds, we will have nothing to eat and nothing to trade for fish or firewood.”

That evening, Toshiko’s rice bowl held only enough to fill a teacup.

And her empty stomach rumbled like an earthquake.

Papa-san, I can stop these birds from feasting,” said Toshiko.

“Little One, what can you do?” asked Father.

“I have an idea,” answered Toshiko.

“An idea? You are just a child.”

Hai, Papa-san, but it’s a very good idea.”

 

On Friday morning, every family carried a narrow wooden plank to the paddies. Toshiko showed them how to lay the planks between the rows of rice. Then she scattered scraps of fish on the wood. Toshiko grabbed the smelliest chunk.

“Wait here,” she said to the villagers, and darted down the road.

After a short while Toshiko reappeared with the stray cats. She walked backwards into the paddies, dangling the stinky fish in front of the cats. They followed her onto the planks and gobbled up the fish pieces. The startled birds screeched and took flight.

After eating, the cats strolled away and the birds returned.

Over the next two days, Toshiko fed the cats at different times. Each time, the cats scared away the birds. But when the cats disappeared, the birds returned.

 

On Monday morning, the cats waited for her.

Ohayō gozaimasu, good morning,” said Toshiko, feeding the cats. “Today you must stay in the paddies all day and keep the birds away.”

At the end of the day, Father and Toshiko checked the rice paddies. Toshiko saw only contented cats on the planks, and a few black feathers.

Papa-san, there are no birds!”

Hai, my daughter, your cats have saved our village,” said Father. “You may be small, but your ideas are big. Domo arigatō gozaimasu, thank you very much.”

Father bowed to Toshiko and to her paddy cats.

That evening, while the village celebrated, Toshiko filled two bowls of rice to the brim. A small bowl for herself, and a big one for her paddy cats.

 

~

Author’s Notes

For more than 2,000 years, rice has been an important part of Japanese culture. Not only used as a food source, for centuries rice was used as currency for paying taxes and high-ranking government workers, and as an indicator of one’s wealth.

Rice is such a staple of the Japanese diet that the word for meal and cooked rice are the same, gohan. The Japanese added a prefix to gohan to indicate their daily meals: breakfast, asa-gohan; lunch, hiru-gohan; and dinner, ban-gohan.

The most common way to grow rice is in water. It is cultivated by first soaking rice seeds in water and planting them in seedbeds. While the seeds are growing, the farmers plow the paddy to prepare the soil. After the seeds have germinated (sprouted), the seedlings are transferred from the seedbeds to the water-filled paddy. They are planted about two inches apart in neat rows by a machine or by hand. The plantings take place anywhere from the end of April to late June, depending on the region. The rice is harvested in the fall.

As with most crops, the farmers must deal with pests and predators. For centuries, the Japanese used scarecrows to frighten away birds in the rice paddies. The first type of scarecrow consisted of bamboo poles hung with rags, fish bones, and meat. The farmers would light them on fire and the smell would drive away birds and other animals. Because the smell was so bad, they called them kakashi, which means something stinky. Eventually, the farmers made scarecrows in the image of people, using reeds and placing straw hats on their heads. Sometimes farmers added bows and arrows to make the scarecrows appear more fierce. Even though they didn’t set these scarecrows on fire and the reeds didn’t stink, they kept the same name.

 

Attack of the Giant Meatball!
by Callie C. Miller

Honorable Mention, Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Literature

Special Mention 2015 Katherine Paterson Prize

SYNOPSIS

When a giant meatball terrorizes the American Moon colony, twelve-year-old Jupiter and his best friend, Kraig, are recruited by Apollo Command to help track down the menace and take it out. Kraig is a certified genius who always has a plan, and wants nothing more than to be a spy. Jupiter is just your regular smart kid who doesn’t really know what he wants, and is content to be Kraig’s sidekick—until the Meatball Incident allows Jupiter to see his best friend for what he really is: just another twelve-year-old kid.

 

CHAPTER ONE

TO: Agent Vortimer, Central Interstellar Intelligence Agency, United States of America, Earth

FROM: Jupiter Michelangelo Williams, Apollo Command, Apollo Colony, Moon

SUBJECT: Giant Meatball Incident

 

MEMO:

 

Dear Agent Vortimer,

After this message, you will find a recording with everything pertaining to the giant meatball incident—and probably a thing or two that doesn’t pertain, because Agent Theo didn’t tell me that I wouldn’t get to edit anything. Something about the “honesty of the first recall.”

That’s why I got to send a memo.

I guess you know where to find me if you need more information.

This message will self-destruct in five seconds.

Just kidding. I’ve just always wanted to say that.

 

Sincerely,

Jupiter Williams

Apollo Command

 

CHAPTER TWO

The first thing you should know about me is that I am not a rule breaker. Sure, maybe I occasionally toe the fine line between bending and breaking, but what kid doesn’t? If rules were glass grav-discs (a stupid invention, by the way), I’d opt for sticking with the more durable, un-shatterable kind, no matter how slick the other kids said the glass discs rode.

And then there’s Kraig.

Tell Kraig Dash where that fine line is, and he’ll shatter it like a rampant dinosaur during a feeding frenzy, and somehow come out without even a tiny cut. Or detention.

It’s not that he tries to break rules. He just doesn’t see the point of them. They get in the way. I think half the time he just likes seeing how he can get around them.

And somehow, ever since Little Dipper Daycare, he’s convinced me to come along for the ride. That’s why I was standing outside of the principal’s office at Interim Academy.

I wasn’t in trouble. Not yet anyway—it was 1:33 a.m., on a Saturday morning, and our sixth-level year didn’t even start until Monday. Interim is the top middle school in Apollo, and we’d sat through some grueling test sessions to get in.

Okay, I sat through grueling test sessions. Kraig pretty much napped. I’d gotten in with a good amount of wiggle room, but Kraig? He’d aced them.

Which is another thing you should know about Kraig. He’s a twelve-year-old genius. Seriously. I hold my own and get some of the top marks in our class, but Kraig can blow even the instructors out of the water with his IQ—if he wanted to.

If Kraig is so smart, you may ask, why then is he doing something as foolish as breaking into the principal’s office at Interim Academy?

I refer you to the rampant dinosaur.

We were decked out in dark jeans and dark hoodies and Kraig had even insisted on smearing some black gunk on our faces to help us blend in with the night. I already thought the whole operation was ridiculous, but this was just stupid. I mean, once the atmosphere fades to “natural” for the night, everything is black.

Oh, I guess that’s another thing you should know. We live on Moon.

Just Moon, none of this “the moon” nonsense, thank you very much. A couple of centuries ago people got bored with just living on Earth, and I guess they got antsy. At least this time they colonized something where nobody already lived. We see stars like you never could on Earth (so I’ve been told, anyway). We have artificial atmospheres so we can breathe, artificial gravity so we can walk around, and we have complete control over our weather.

Okay, the people in the Center for Atmospheric Realities have complete control, and sometimes they mess it up on purpose to make everything seem more realistic. But basically we live pretty normal lives. School, video games, gravball, whatever. Kids are kids.

Most kids, anyway. Then there’s Kraig again.

Oh, and I’m Jupiter. Yes, like the Roman king of the gods. No, I don’t want to talk about it. Nice to meet you.

Kraig unslung his backpack and pulled out his Omega 4000 Ultra Deluxe Burglar Extreme. He plugged it into Principal Ortega’s drawer and watched the lights blink. He looked like a kid in a candy store.

With a name like “Omega 4000 Ultra Deluxe Burglar Extreme,” it probably sounds like we were up to something pretty awful. I guess breaking into the principal’s office isn’t exactly noble, but the real reason we were there?

In addition to being an actual genius—which, by the way, is Kraig’s best-kept secret—he wants to be a spy. So we were testing his new lockpick. That’s it.

He invented the Omega 4000 Ultra Deluxe Burglar Extreme (he named it too, by the way) and since we could get into serious trouble trying to use it somewhere like the Apollo Command headquarters, he said the school was the next best thing.

The fact that he’d explained all of this to me only about thirty minutes before maybe had something to do with me agreeing to go along. I’m not very good at making decisions at half past REM.

“Give me ten minutes,” Kraig said.

I’d been dozing against the wall but started awake. “What?”

No one was there. Kraig was already through the door.

I poked my head inside. “Ten minutes for what?” I whispered.

Kraig ignored me. He was already behind Principal’s Ortega’s desk, watch off and connecting to the computer. Tiny holographic text scrolled above the watch’s face.

Everyone on Moon has a watch—they do everything from scanning the latest grav-ball stats to tracking how many calories were in that second slice of chocolate-coconut cake. Parents mostly like them for keeping track of their kids.

Kraig mostly likes his for hacking into computers systems. He’s modified his watch. Severely.

Kraig’s fingers flew across the command keys. A hologram display popped up above the desk and lit up the room with a pale light, then a bar started flashing as something loaded. Kraig smiled, then looked through the hologram and at me. He blinked.

“You should probably go keep watch.”

“But—”

“Want to get caught?”

“No—”

“Then keep a lookout. It’s nothing illegal, I promise.”

That was probably true, but I was more than a little irked that Kraig hadn’t told me this was more than a lockpick test. My job is usually to keep watch anyway—partly because I’m not the genius, but also because ever since the one time we got caught reprogramming our old elementary school’s lunch menu to serve only milkshakes on our last day in the fourth level (“How was I supposed to know the lunch staff bots would show up early?” Kraig had said), I’ve generally been a giant nervous breakdown waiting to happen when rules are being utterly and hopelessly shattered as opposed to just being poked a little.

Kraig says this is generally a distraction to his work.

His schemes are usually harmless, and even fun. In daycare he’d ordered a kitten from the supply office during nap time (I had a “nightmare” to provide a distraction). The teacher was totally confused, and last we checked Mr. Mouse was still purring for children in room Alpha 3.

Kraig had never told anyone else, but for a long time after he’d giggle whenever one of the adults mentioned Mr. Mouse—which is another thing about Kraig. It’s not just that he doesn’t want anyone else knowing his real IQ, he just likes knowing that he’s smarter.

So while Kraig did whatever maybe-illegal-but-definitely-rule-breaking activity he’d selected this time, I tiptoed over to Ms. Scott’s desk and sat down.

Ms. Scott is the school secretary, and she is innately creepy even in the middle of a busy school day. But when you and your best friend just broke into the school and now he’s doing something he shouldn’t be on the principal’s computer, and the lights are off except for the weird orange security light that streams in because the door is glass and the windows are huge and all anyone outside would have to do is take half a glance inside to see that something is up—then Ms. Scott’s desk is downright unnatural.

It’s not just all of the stiff birds she has everywhere—it’s all the eyes. Penguins. Hawks. Ostriches (especially the ostriches). Invented birds, real birds, extinct birds, statue birds. The worst was the one without feathers (Interim Academy legend says that Ms. Scott went on vacation and caught, plucked, and stuffed an African swallow herself).

“How’s it coming?” I whispered. I was locked in a staring match with an endangered New York Pigeon because it was better than jumping at every swooping bat (yes, we have imported bats) and twinkling star outside the window.

Also, if I looked away I was pretty sure the pigeon would go in for the kill.

“Ortega’s files are coded,” Kraig called.

My eyes watered. “So?”

“So why does a middle school principal need coded files?”

“Even my little sister has a password for her toy box—”

“No, I mean coded. Encrypted. Way above security for a middle school.”

I thought I might be winning the staring contest. Aside from that, I just really, really wanted to go back to sleep. “Can you just do whatever you’re doing so we can go?”

“Have a little fun, Jupe.”

“I love being Grounded. It’s loads of fun.” “Grounded” doesn’t mean forbidden to play video games and do anything remotely entertaining for a month. It means exiled to Earth, which is basically the worst punishment imaginable (no offense).

I couldn’t take the pigeon anymore. My vision darkened.

But then I realized it wasn’t my vision. The orange light from outside was being blocked by something.

And the something had a face that stared right at me.

 

 

CHAPTER THREE

 

I bolted out of the lavender chair, slammed Ortega’s door shut behind me, and locked it for good measure.

“Kraig!” My voice squeaked, and not because of puberty. If my asthma hadn’t been cured years ago, I definitely would’ve needed my inhaler. “Someone’s here.”

And just like that, the desk’s display was wiped clean, Kraig snapped his watch back onto his wrist, and started digging around in his backpack.

Kraig was calm, cool. I, on the other hand, had just processed that we were about to be caught hacking the principal’s computer in the middle of the night, so I might have freaked out a little.

Okay, a lot. I started to hyperventilate. “We’re going to be expelled. We’ll be expelled, and then Grounded, and never allowed back—oof!”

Kraig yanked my hoodie over my head to get my attention. “We’re too young to be Grounded,” he said. “Follow my lead.” He handed me a spray can and pulled a bag of something colorful out of his backpack.

And then he started throwing confetti all over the office.

The handle to Ortega’s office jiggled. “I know you’re in there!” a voice called. “If you come out right now, things’ll go a lot easier for ya.”

It was Riggers, the old security guard who we’d strolled past on our way inside the grounds. He was legendary for his napping abilities, which is why Kraig had chosen a night Riggers was on duty. He was nice enough during the day, and even when you were in trouble—but you still got in trouble.

“Maybe we should give ourselves in,” I whispered.

“Not yet,” Kraig scoffed. He was artfully tossing handfuls of confetti in a manner that suggested we weren’t about to be totally busted. “A little help?” he said.

I looked down at the spray can he’d handed me. Kraig wasn’t the type to vandalize (mostly because he says it’s inelegant) so I took the cap off and tested it.

A stream of foam shot out and stuck to the wall.

It was silly string. The twentieth century had the best inventions.

Of course Kraig would have planned a cover-up. At least, I hoped the confetti and silly string were a cover-up. And also the tin of slugs he decided to open, for reasons I still don’t understand.

“I’m coming in!” Riggers yelled, and I squirted out the silly string with a vengeance.

It would’ve been memorable if Riggers had at least kicked the door in, but he had a master override code for every door lock in the school. So the door clicked open and swooshed to the side and he stepped into the room.

Kraig and I stood there, looking caught (okay, because we were caught, but Kraig was just pretending). Silly string dangled from the ceiling. Confetti snowed and swirled gently around. Miniature slugs slowly inched across the room.

Riggers stared, mouth open. A few shreds of pink confetti landed gently in his silver hair.

“What in Saturn’s rings are you doing?”

I looked at Kraig, because I wasn’t sure where else to look, and he was leading this operation anyway. He looked embarrassed, like—well, like he’d been caught with his hand in the moon pie jar.

I knew from long experience that this was totally an act. So I waited for him to do something really epic, like throw a smoke bomb so we could run away in stealth or something, but he didn’t do anything. Except I think that he tried to make himself cry.

I groaned. I meant to keep that to myself, but it came out and Riggers gave me a stern look. “Now, you tell me what’s going on—and what’s that gunk on your face? Wipe it off so I can get a good look at you.”

I wiped my hand across my face, but it came away clean. I stared at it.

“You’ve caught us!” Kraig wailed. “We thought it would be a prank to go down in school history, but it’s all ruined!”

Something I have learned about geniuses: they are not natural-born actors. At least, Kraig isn’t. He’s always overdone it a bit in the acting department (which you think he’d have on lockdown because of the whole spy thing), but Riggers didn’t seem to notice.

“Is that all?” he asked. “Now, tell me exactly what sort of prank you pulled.” He looked straight at me when he said this, which I hated because if my parents, or a teacher (or anyone really) asks me a direct question, I can’t not answer it.

“Um,” I said. I held up the can of silly string.

Kraig let out a shuddering breath and made his eyes go sort of squinty, like he’d squirted lemon juice into them or something. “We snuck in, and threw confetti and sprayed silly string, and I opened a tin of slugs.”

“I see that,” Riggers said. One of the slugs was crawling up his pant leg.

I was waiting for the cue from Kraig to bolt, but so far he was just still fake almost-crying. I didn’t think Riggers recognized us because of the black gunk (which I’d decided wasn’t such a stupid idea after all) but that couldn’t last for long.

Mom would take away my Earth rock collection for sure.

Riggers sighed. “Kids will be kids, I guess. I know I loved a good prank back in my day, too. But trespassing is different. How’d you get inside of here, anyway?”

I didn’t know how Kraig was going to answer that one, but as it turned out, he didn’t have to.

Because that’s when everything went dark.

 

CHAPTER FOUR

 

When I say the lights went out, I don’t mean that the office lights shut off and the orange security lights flickered a bit.

I mean all the lights. It was a total blackout.

I stood there blinking until someone grabbed my arm and yanked me towards the door, and I may or may not have accidentally elbowed Riggers, which made me run even faster, which is when I banged into a wall.

“C’mon!” Kraig whispered fiercely. He grabbed my arm and dragged me up and we stumbled to the starlight—which was the only light, anywhere.

So maybe a complete blackout was a bit extravagant—and also unnerving—but it was certainly effective. I mean, I knew the “prank” thing was just a cover-up for whatever Kraig had been up to, but this at least covered our escape.

Riggers had his flashlight out and tried to track us with it, and I could hear him calling the security bot (which was even older than Riggers). Something landed with a thud right behind me—probably a Stopper, which would’ve ruined everything—but I was so freaked out that I would’ve won the Junior Moon Olympics for sprinting. Kraig and I were off school grounds in record time and we didn’t stop running until we were halfway across Bravery Park.

“How did you do that?” I panted. We were both breathing hard, but my eyes had mostly adjusted to the starlight. The sun was on the other side of Moon.

“I ran really fast,” Kraig said. He was doubled over. We both managed to pass PE—but that was about it. Stellar athletes, we were not.

“I mean, how did you turn all the lights off?”

Kraig stood up. “Luna, Jupe, I couldn’t have done that without getting inside about eight different Apollo offices at once.”

I blinked. “So you’ve looked into it, then.”

“Science project in the first level. There were a few tangents.” I had placed well for our level that year, but Kraig won second place overall in Apollo—which was basically unheard of, since overall prizes were selected from kindergarten all the way through the twelfth level. His dad hadn’t even helped him that much, back before his dad was Grounded.

“We should go,” Kraig said. “The emergency generators are on, but that’s the only reason we’re not space dust. This is going to have every Apollo official up.”

Nothing about that statement was comforting, but my internal gravity didn’t shift because of the emergency generators.

My dad works for the Apollo Center for Energy and Resources. Over a year had passed since the failed milkshakes-for-lunch mission, but he made a point to bring it up anytime I seemed to be even slightly out of line: tone of voice, A- instead of A+, ignoring my sister.

I couldn’t sprint any more, but I started speed walking. “What were you doing in Ortega’s office anyway?”

“Changing my schedule.”

I almost stopped walking. “Luna, you used your Ultra Mega Criminal—”

“Omega 4000 Ultra Deluxe Burglar Extreme.”

“—just to change your schedule? You couldn’t talk to the guidance counselor?”

“I tried,” Kraig scowled. “But when you try telling Mr. Han that you’re tired of Mrs. Han’s attempts to teach you test-taking skills, it doesn’t go over so well.”

And that was Kraig. No need to use a spark when a supernova would do.

 

CHAPTER FIVE

 

I knew I was busted before I even crossed the security perimeter to my house.

The kitchen light glowed faintly—backup generator light—which was a dead giveaway in and of itself, but the window to my room was also lit. I may not exactly be in the habit of sneaking out, but I know you’re supposed to make it look like you’re sleeping.

I felt like a black hole had sucked out my stomach. It wasn’t just that I was going to be grounded (little “g”) until I graduated from college. It was that my parents would be space sick not knowing where I was. I usually don’t give them any reasons to worry (only sort-of a rule breaker, remember?), and on the rare occasion I have they really shouldn’t have worried, but that’s just a thing about parents I don’t understand.

I walked around to the front door and braced myself to open it when it whooshed open on its own. My dad almost barreled me over but he pulled up short just in time. “What the—Jupiter? What the heck is all over your face?” He didn’t wait for me to answer. “Marie, he’s right here!”

Dad turned back to me and in his no-nonsense voice said, “You get inside and you stay inside and we’ll talk about this later.”

It had to be two or three in the morning, but Dad was mostly dressed for work (his bow tie wasn’t quite together and he’d grabbed two different shoes) and he had on this really serious expression that he only uses when he thinks Sputnik might be getting a little ambitious with its energy use, or that Olympus is slowly expanding its atmo-dome to gain more territory. For some reason he always thinks that at least one of the other colonies is up to something.

He dashed past me and jumped into the grav-car, pointed at me real sternly one more time, then drove off.

I was still staring after him when my mom came into the hall. “Jupiter, where were you? We—” she got a good look at my face and shrieked—which was not good because it startled her candle. She’s a yoga instructor and not originally from Moon, so she likes to keep candles and incense and a good number of plants around.

“Mom! Mom, it’ll come off.” I hoped.

“Jupiter, we trusted you. First the milkshake incident and now this—” she waved her arms towards the road, but I couldn’t tell if she meant, “How could you create this massive power outage,” or, “How could you willfully sneak out and cause us so much grief and worry?”

“Sorry,” I said meekly, because it was true and also covered both questions.

Mom doesn’t usually get very worked up over things, so seeing her this upset was really uncomfortable. Redirecting seemed like a good idea. “Where’s Dad going?”

“Work.”

I checked my watch just to make sure Kraig and I hadn’t also gone into a time warp during the blackout.

“It’s 3:02 a.m. And it’s Saturday.”

Mom was in her robe and it was clear she’d been crying, which didn’t do anything to make me feel better. “This power outage,” she said, “they don’t know what happened. Jupiter, don’t you realize that you might have been killed if something is wrong with the generators? You could have been sucked into space!”

It didn’t seem like the time to point out that everyone in Apollo, and maybe all of Moon, would have been sucked into space, too. Not to mention that we had generators for the main generators, and backup generators for those generators, and if Kraig was right (and he usually is) there were even secret backup generators for those, just in case.

“Sorry,” I said again.

“Oh, no,” Mom said. “Not yet. But you will be. Go straight upstairs to bed. You’re going to the parade with us tomorrow.”

“Mom!”

“No arguing! That’s just the start of your punishment. Your father will likely be at work all day, and we’ll need you to fill in with Lacey’s float. When he gets home, we’ll discuss the rest of your punishment, and you had better tell us exactly what you were up to. I can’t listen to it right now.”

 

#

 

I made a half-hearted attempt to wash my face, but gave up pretty quickly and collapsed into bed. A few hours later—and I do mean a few—I got my wakeup call.

“Getupgetupgetup!”

Lacey jumped up on my bed, then down, then ran around and jumped off my chair, then jumped onto me and then off again.

I threw my pillow at her and missed.

“It’s parade day!” she sang. “Parade day! Parade day! You’re coming to parade day!”

She wasn’t trying to be annoying. She was excited. She’s only five, so everything is exciting.

I shut my eyes but she peeled one of them open. Her face was two inches from mine.

“What’s on your face?” she asked.

I groan-roared and she finally scurried out, singing her parade day song.

You might think being forced to go a parade is cheap for a punishment, but I hate parades. They’re long, and boring, and you get elbowed and bumped by tons of people just to see a bunch of strangers wave at you while they travel at negative kilometers an hour, and they always throw the candy to the other side of the street, and by the time it’s over everyone is cranky and sweaty and I don’t understand why people think that’s fun.

This parade was Apollo’s annual patriotic parade, so it was going to be extra long, and extra full of all the stuff I already hate about parades.

Lacey, on the other hand, was going to be on a float with her Space Scout Troop, and had been practicing her wave for three weeks. Like I said, she’s five.

After the Lacey Alarm, there was no going back to sleep, even though the parade wouldn’t start for hours. So I got up and showered and scrubbed my face raw—except the black gunk wouldn’t come off.

Mom was still asleep and Lacey was strutting around in front of her mirror (“getting in character” she called it), so I wrote a Very Responsible Note explaining that I thought Kraig might have something to clean my face, that I had my watch, and that I would meet Mom and Lacey early at the parade. Technically, she had said the parade was the start of my punishment, so I figured I’d be in the clear for this.

I left the note on the coffeepot where I knew Mom would find it, and then slipped out the door.

Kraig’s mom had given me my own access code to their house’s security perimeter because I was over so much. I didn’t want to wake her up by ringing the doorbell, so I climbed the tree outside of his window and rapped on it. There wasn’t an answer, so I looked inside.

It looked like a crime scene, but that’s how his room always looked. It took me a while to spot Kraig with all of the half-empty coffee cups, video games, tools, and bubbling experiment tubes, but I finally spotted him half hidden by a pile of laundry. He was using a broken violin for a pillow. Dead asleep.

I banged harder and was close to shouting at him when he finally moved a little, then stumbled over and unlocked the window.

“What are you do-do-doing?” he yawned.

I pointed at my face.

“Peanut butter,” Kraig said.

“Say again?” I thought he must still be asleep.

“Peanut butter.”

“I heard that.”

He yawned again. “The oils in it. Haven’t you ever gotten gum stuck in your hair?”

“Yes. Yours.”

“Oh, right.” Kraig stepped away to rummage through his stuff and I climbed into his room. “You really should learn to forgive and forget,” he called from under his bed. He emerged with a half empty jar of Sticky’s Smooth Peanut Butter.

It worked like magic. “What is this anyway?” I asked while I rubbed the black off.

“An invention I’m working on.” Kraig shrugged and started tinkering with something on his work table, which is what he does when he’s avoiding something.

“What’s it supposed to do?” I tried.

He picked up some wire cutters and started clipping away. “Act like a liquid suction cup. You know, for climbing buildings and things. Only I haven’t figured out the consistency yet, so it’s too sticky—” He glanced up and saw my expression. “Oh, come on. Every spy in the flicks has some sort of suction thingy, only I’m making one that’s real. Super portable, too.”

I had no words. Pass a simple astrophysics test? Not a chance. Create a dangerous and possibly illegal substance for life-threatening activity?

Yes, please.

 

#

 

Kraig said he’d buy us breakfast as Florian’s, because I’d run out of the house without eating, and it was his fault I was grounded, had nearly been caught by Riggers, and was going to be confined to my house for the rest of our known lives. Breakfast at Florian’s almost made everything worth it.

Florian’s used to be the fanciest restaurant in Apollo, until the current owner (that would be Florian) inherited the family business. He started dishing out hot dogs and milkshakes and any other classic American comfort food you could think of—usually with a few twists. His posh ancestors were probably rolling over in their graves, but his business was always booming.

The sign hanging from the roof outside was shaped like a smiling plate with eggs for eyes and pickle for a mouth (don’t ask) and had flashing lights that said “Best breakfast in ApolloTry our Bacon Juice!

There were a few other customers, which was surprising since it was so galactically early. We sat down and programmed our order into the menu.

Ka-thunk! came a crash from the back kitchen.

“Sweet mother of Luna!”

Kraig and I looked at each other.

“Pierre,” we both said.

Florian came out in a crisp white shirt and one of those silly paper hats and set our food in front of us. “Morning boys,” he said. “Early for you two, isn’t it?”

“We’re going to the parade,” Kraig said.

I started. “I’m going to the parade,” I said. “Kraig is going to—I don’t know, ignore his summer reading or something.”

“Which can be done quite well at the parade,” he said. “Pierre all right?”

Pierre was an old robot who had been the maître d’ before Florian’s was Florian’s. He had a few glitches in his programming, and one of them was that he’d never forgiven Florian for tearing down the family establishment and building a diner.

Another was that if you asked for cherry pop instead of cherry soda, he put pepper in your drink. You didn’t make that mistake twice.

“Got a call yesterday that our beef shipment’s canceled, and the bot’s going berserk,” Florian said. “Apparently, there’s a cow shortage.”

“That’s okay, Florian,” Kraig said consolingly. “I’m a vegetarian.”

My head drooped then jerked awake. “Cow shortage?”

“Yep.” Florian wiped his forehead with a cloth. “Don’t know what I’ll do for the lunch rush. No Moonburgers!”

I couldn’t quite get past the issue. “What causes a cow shortage?”

“Stars if I know!” Florian said, which was his polite way of swearing around us (as if we hadn’t heard worse). “Put in the order a week ago, everything’s fine, got a call yesterday, and it’s canceled due to ‘unfortunate circumstances.'”

Something crashed in the kitchen.

“’Scuse me, boys,” Florian called—he was already behind the counter. “Have fun at the parade!”

My eyes were doing this thing where they kept trying to close when I wanted to use them. I forced them to focus on Kraig. He was pouring strawberry syrup all over his food.

“You can’t come to the parade,” I said.

“Everyone is invited,” Kraig said. “Plus, I’m a citizen. It would be unpatriotic not to go.”

“My parents went supernova,” I said. “I haven’t even heard what my dad has to say about things because he had to rush out and go to work. The house smelled like four different kinds of incense—you know how my mom feels about mixing incense. You can’t come. Ever since the Milkshake Mission—”

“That’s exactly why I have to go!” Kraig said. “I have to prove to them that I’m not a bad influence.”

“You are a bad influence!”

That shocked both of us—but it was true, wasn’t it? I mean, I could have decided to stay home the night before—but like I already said, Kraig’s schemes are usually harmless.

And fun.

“Okay, genius,” I said, changing the subject. “What causes a cow shortage?”

He shrugged, and shoved a giant bite of syrup-covered egg-hash brown-ketchup-onion ring mush into his mouth. “Ionno.” He took a gulp of his vanilla mint milkshake and I gagged a little.

I looked at my own fluffy French toast and apple juice.

Simple. Comfortable.

Boring.

“What did your mom think about the blackout?” I asked.

Kraig arranged his mush into a flower shape. “She’s in Sputnik.”

Neither of us said anything else.

 

CHAPTER SIX

 

Nothing in Apollo is ever too far away because of the grav-rail public transit system, but Bravery Park, Florian’s, and Interim Academy are all just a short walk from mine and Kraig’s neighborhood. If you rode a grav-board, things were even closer, but I had a terrifying accident in the third level and still haven’t quite gotten over it, so walking suits me just fine.

Kraig and I found Space Scout Troop 173’s float. I didn’t see Dad anywhere, but thankfully things were so crazy Mom couldn’t decide if she was mad at me for leaving that morning or not (I had left a note).

I think she couldn’t quite decide how she felt about Kraig being there, either. Even if I hadn’t told her anything about last night, she definitely knew he was involved, but ever since his dad got Grounded she’d always had this real soft spot for Kraig.

The meeting area was just inside Bravery Park, and people and bots and animals were everywhere. Someone at the Center for Atmospheric Realities had missed the parade memo and scheduled ‘moderate winds,’ so props and balloons and wigs were blowing all over. Kids were screaming and parents were shouting and animals (and a bot or two) bolted loose at every chance they got. There were people dressed like George Washington (America’s first president), and like Celestra (Apollo’s first pop star), and I saw Miss Junior Apollo chasing down her tiara.

Lacey was strutting around, at her finest. Her troop’s float was a tribute to Apollo’s great inventors, and she was Bartholomew J. Bounce, creator of portable artificial gravity. She wore a giant silver ‘gravity’ belt I’d made for her, jumped around and cried, “A-ha!” and then waved and grinned and bowed—and the parade hadn’t even started yet.

“Hear anything from Dad?” I asked Mom.

“Not yet.”

“I’m sure he’s fine,” Kraig said.

“He’s at work, Kraig,” Mom said. “Not gallivanting around doing who-knows-what.”

I winced. Thankfully, Kraig had the sense to keep his mouth shut, and the bell went off signaling the start of the parade.

My job—and I guess Kraig’s, too—was to walk alongside the Space Scout Troop float and make sure none of the little kids fell off and died.

All things considered, the parade went pretty well—for a parade. Lacey got a lot of laughs, and the float in front of us was rigged to smell like freshly-baked apple pie, which meant we didn’t smell the horses and their you-know-what. Three miles of park later, we’d finally made it to the Neil Armstrong Memorial statue.

Now, every kid in Apollo—and I do mean every kid—has visited Neil at least once on a school field trip. Neil stands right on top of where the real Neil Armstrong planted the American Flag after he first walked on Moon, and Bravery Park is built around it. If you aren’t careful about where you walk, Neil will give you the entire history of his career and how we colonized the moon and how then all of the other countries wanted to colonize the moon, too (the argument that no one can own the moon definitely outweighed the American argument of “We touched it first!”). Neil is sold in souvenir shops for tourists, and is programmed with a special Apollo Parade Day routine.

So we all stood there, waiting for Neil to get through his spiel so that we could get on with our lives.

But he didn’t say his usual, “Hey, there, Apollo citizens!”

Instead, he laughed maniacally.

 

CHAPTER SEVEN

 

No one moved except for Neil.

He did this sort of awkward dance (he was a statue) and then his podium started to rise.

Usually at this point, Neil congratulated everyone on surviving for another year on an originally unlivable surface, and went on to talk about how great we were. Then some sparklers would go off, maybe some colored smoke and fireworks, and then that was it because everyone wanted to leave to have cookouts and eat ice cream.

But Neil still hadn’t said anything. The platform rose slowly and groaned a bit, like it was weighed down. When it got a little higher, the crowd gasped, because it was weighed down. By a humongous, lumpy, hideous mound of…something.

It was shaped like a ball. A huge, disgusting, brownish-reddish-greenish ball. If I’d wanted to hug it (which was the farthest thing from my mind) my arms wouldn’t have even reached halfway around. To give you some perspective.

Two thin legs held it up (no idea how—they were like twigs), and two thin arm-things stuck out from its sides, and ended in wispy claws. On top of the huge lump was another, smaller, mostly round-ish lump. It had two squiggly circles, and a big ugly gash for a mouth, and a couple of sharp fangs.

The apple pie smell was gone. Instead, the air smelled like something cooked. Something seasoned. A bit like an Italian restaurant. And that’s when I realized—

It was a giant meatball.

No one moved. I mean, what would you do if, say, a giant pastrami sandwich with fangs crashed your patriotic parade?

A little dog from the pet show ran up and yipped. It ran forward, then back, then sniffed like it was trying to decide whether or not it was in doggy food heaven, and went back to yipping. It moved forward to try and take a bite.

And then—get this—the meatball moved.

It let out this low garbled groan, like a painful sigh, then reached down and picked up the dog by the scruff of its neck.

And then it stuffed the dog into its mouth and down its throat.

“Octavian!” a man shrieked.

“BUUUUURRRRRP,” said the meatball. Then it grinned and stepped off the platform.

It was like a supernova went off. All of Apollo unfroze, and the chaos level was a million times worse than before. Parents screamed for their children, children screamed for their balloons, and the meatball smashed through whatever it pleased and happily stuffed anything it grabbed with its creepy claws into its mouth.

“Luna!” I swore, and ducked behind the now-empty Space Scout float.

Kraig wasn’t beside me. He was rooted to the spot, staring at the meatball, eyes wide. His body was locked up, shaking.

“Kraig!” I shouted. “Move!”

The meatball swallowed a unicycle—with a clown riding it.

I jumped up and hauled Kraig out of the way of a stampeding giraffe-bot (don’t ask). He finally jolted awake and we started running.

We’d only gone three steps when I heard a familiar scream.

I whirled around just in time to see the meatball swallow my sister.

 

CHAPTER EIGHT

 

“LACEY!” I screamed. “Lacey, you stupid sister, COME BACK!

I charged forward for the meatball but Kraig grabbed my shirt and probably saved me from a gruesome and meaty death. “It’s too late! Run!”

I wanted to keep going (either because I actually really like Lacey sometimes, or because I figured I’d get blamed for this, I didn’t know), but he was right. Unless I wanted to jump down the meatball’s throat—which I did NOT—I couldn’t do anything.

So we ran with the rest of Apollo.

The crowd exploded in every direction, trying to escape the meaty terror at the center. Kraig and I jumped over float pieces and broke through streamers and tripped over at least four plastic astronaut helmets. Parade prop casualties were everywhere and people were everywhere and we really didn’t make much progress for all the times people ran into us (again—managing to pass PE doesn’t exactly prepare you for running for your life).

“Find a tree,” I panted, after the eighth hysterical person knocked me to the side.

Most trees in Bravery Park are good for climbing. Kraig dashed up like the ground was on fire, and I hauled myself up after him.

“Luna,” I gasped. “It ate Lacey—and that dog—and that gardenia display—”

Kraig didn’t look like he’d just run a marathon and escaped with his life. He looked like he’d sprinted through needle tortures and spent too long in Hypnoto’s Fun House and narrowly escaped being shredded by angry pixies. “It’s a giant—a giant m—m—”

“Meatball,” I moaned. “And it ate Lacey. Quick, you’re a genius! How do we get her back?”

The meatball roared from somewhere close to Neil’s statue and my genius best friend nearly fainted out of the tree.

I grabbed him and propped him against the trunk. Kraig was always confident, always knew what was going to happen and what to do about it. He was the creator of the Omega 4000 Ultra Deluxe Burglar Extreme, and loads of other crazy inventions, and could fix anything.

Except in that moment he was huddled against the trunk with his eyes closed, and I’m pretty sure he was whimpering.

“Kraig,” I said.

He muttered something unintelligible.

“Kraig!”

He opened his eyes and focused on me and stopped muttering—though he still leaned into the trunk like maybe it could protect him.

This was starting to get uncomfortable. He was acting like—well, like his security blanket had been taken away or something. Like his personal gravity wasn’t working.

“What gives?” I asked.

“There’s a—an enormous lump of ground beef eating everything in sight,” he said. His voice was a couple of pitches too high.

“And it just ate my sister!” I shouted. “So what the Luna is wrong with you and how do we fix it?”

He opened his mouth but nothing came out. I wondered if he’d started muttering again.

“Listen,” I said, in a mostly normal voice. “You aced the test for Interim Academy. You almost won the Apollo science fair when you were six years old.”

Kraig was tracking now, so I kept going. “You’ve invented all sorts of crazy things that have worked, and if you really wanted to—and I don’t know why you don’t—you could test out of college! So how do we get Lacey back from that giant meatball?”

Kraig flinched.

“Meatball!” I screamed. “Meatball! Meatball! MEATBALL!”

“Stop it!” he shouted. “Stop it! Okay, I’ll tell you!”

I sat back and crossed my arms and waited.

“Okay,” he said. “Okay…”

“You said that already,” I growled.

“O—right. Um…so, back when my dad was—still in Apollo, he and my mom would go out a lot. Like on dates. And I had a really nice babysitter and then she moved so they had to get a new one.”

His eyes started to glaze a bit, but he kept with it.

“Her name was Nancy, and she was crazy. Like, seriously had something wrong. She was nice at first, but then for dinner she made pasta and meatballs, but I was, like, four, and I wanted cereal because the last babysitter always let me have cereal. So Nancy went super-super-supernova, and tried to force the meatballs down my throat. She even blended some up with marinara sauce to make it easier, and then locked me in the hall closet with a humongous plate of them and said I couldn’t come out until they were all gone. Like I said, crazy.”

I nodded slowly, not convinced that Kraig hadn’t lost it himself. “So—what did you do?”

“Mostly just sat and cried,” he said miserably. “She let me out right before my parents came home and told me if I said anything, I’d regret it.”

“And then?” I prompted.

“I became a vegetarian.”

I’d always wondered about that. “No, what did you do about Nancy?”

“My parents asked how I liked her and I told them everything. She didn’t babysit me again.”

I gave him the look my mom gives me when she knows I’m not telling the whole truth, but he was dead serious.

“So…you had a traumatic experience and now you flinch at the sight of meat.”

“Meat? No. Deadly, man-eating, rampaging meat? Yes. How would you feel if a couple of space sharks suddenly appeared and one started chomping after you?”

My face flushed. In the third level he’d convinced me to sneak into Space Sharks 3: Vortex of Doom. I had nightmares about flying sharks spiraling out of a wormhole and chasing me for months.

But he had a point. If the thing you’re most afraid of is a meatball, you’re probably pretty safe (though, I would argue, while there’s no evidence for space sharks, that doesn’t prove they don’t exist).

I thought it would be best if we stayed up in the tree for a little longer, but I don’t think Kraig could have climbed down even if he’d wanted to. His eyes kept darting around, and he’d gone back to muttering.

That was when I realized that, for everything Kraig was, there were also some things he wasn’t.

He wasn’t invincible, no matter how much he pretended. He didn’t always know what was coming, even if he had a master plan. And maybe he was smarter than most (or even all) adults, maybe he was even the smartest kid to ever live—

But he was still just a regular twelve-year-old kid like me.