Previously Published

Semper Fi, Mac

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Sitting down here, the way I do, I’ve taken to looking at their shoes. Just their shoes. It’s a dizzying thing, some days, watching the hundreds of shoes as they make their way past me. All sorts of shoes. You’ve got your practical and your pretty. You’ve got those as noisy as a rocket launcher and those as silent as a sniper in the night. You’ve got your cheap flip-flopping plastics and your hand-crafted Italian leather masterpieces. The quality of the shoe tells you nothing about the possibility of conversion.

Almost all of the shoes are in a hurry, and most, when they see my filthy and worn-out old combat boots sticking out, pick up speed. They skirt past me as quickly as shoes can without breaking into a run. I can measure that with my eyes. I am well trained in such matters. I only look up when there is an adjustment to their speed; either a hitch that slows them, even momentarily, or an actual pause for whatever reason. Then, and only then, do I bother to look up, scanning from their shoes upward. Out of force of habit, I guess, I check to see if the hands hold a weapon, then I scan straight up to the eyes.

I stare, locking them into direct eye contact, looking for the soul that might be in there, to see if there might be anything in there for me. Any kind of compassion for a sick and broken veteran of a foreign war. A soldier knows that when you come eye to eye with a man you can usually see if he is willing to kill you or not. You can also see if he will help you or not. It is all in the eyes if you know how to look. Also, if I focus on the eyes, I don’t have to see the mouths, aghast and agape, or the nose, often covered in revulsion, or the brow, usually contracted into creases of confusion and dismay.

Then I hold out my mug. I move my arm forward and upward slowly, so as not to startle. Also silently. What needs to be said? One can see that my cup is empty. On those rare occasions when the shoes stop, and the eyes see me, and they reach inside themselves and find something to put in my cup, I feel that old sense of ambivalent accomplishment as I did each time I fulfilled my orders in Kuwait. I made a change, but will it last? Still, I fight on.

I am a converter. This is my Tin Cup Trip. The Commander-in-Chief said we are establishing a new world order. Spreading democracy far and wide. With liberty and justice for all. That is it. Liberty and justice. Happiness and comfort are irrelevant pursuits. My mission is still to build coalitions, to end hostilities. I will not quit. This is what I do.

As you were.

The Perfect Employee

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Happiness is overrated…

I reached across the desk and tapped a selection into the Acme 10, the mini converter sitting beneath my mug. Bulletproof coffee. Blecch. I don’t know what the hell I had been thinking with chai latte. I was bringing my happy home life to work again. The office was still empty. I was always early. I needed a good half hour before the early birds to prep myself so I could do what we had been paid to do. I needed to look at late print submissions, slipped production schedules, missed shipping dates, and poor employee evaluations. The reasons we had been engaged in the first place.

I laid my head on my desk.

Emotions are inefficient

Efficient companies are successful companies

Successful companies provide jobs.

And I make enough money at this to give my family a gorgeous house, send our kids to private school, and go on great vacations.

“Jasmine… Are you okay?” Amanda, my partner, had arrived. Damn. I tried not to let her see me like this. I lifted my head.

“I’m fine.”

“Do you want to start?”

“Yeah, let’s get going.” She sat down across from me.  I took a big gulp of the bulletproof and frowned at my tablet. Amanda and I are Co-People Consultants. We improve profitability by productivizing underperforming employees.  I looked at the tall black cylinder that stood across the room. It was the Acme 2050. The Aston Martin of converters.

“Is it programmed?” I asked, though I knew the answer.

The techs had worked through the night to program the individual profile settings we had created for each convert. It was exacting work. The techs had looked exhausted as I passed them on my way in.

“Yep. All finished,” she said and smiled, too brightly, at me to lighten my mood.

“How many?” though I knew that answer too.

“32,” Amanda said and turned as the first converts made their way through the cubicles to mill about outside our office. They had, of course, agreed to the procedure. It was a no-brainer – it was that or get fired. And in this economy, joblessness meant homelessness.

“They don’t feel any different. You know that.” She looked through the glass wall at the group. “They come out focused and energized.” She turned to look at me. “You really should consider it. It’s done wonders for me. You’ll feel much better and it will improve our bottom line!”

“Yeah. We’ll see.” I miss you Amanda. I thought of giggling with my daughters. And you’re out of your fucking mind. Amanda turned back to the group and counted aloud.

“32. Let’s go!”  Cheerful face on, she opened the door and began her welcoming and instructional speech.

“The conversion takes three minutes…  You will feel no pain… You will be smarter. You will be faster. You will be unhampered by emotion. You will be the perfect employee.”

The 2050 hummed softly in the background.

Shore Leave

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When we disembark, we forgo the guided tour. I say there’s safety in numbers, but Nancy says that the bigger the crowd, the less you see. She wants to absorb as much as we can. I’d rather ride on the bus. Staying on the ship by the pool would be even better, but Nancy wants to explore. In less than a block, we’re lost – exactly what she wanted.

The streets are stuffed with stalls selling the usual rip-offs, supposedly ancient artifacts found beneath the desert. We elbow our way among the vendors. Even Nancy agrees we’re not there to buy. She carries a camera instead of a purse. We’re there to take pictures, so that we can prove we were there when we’re home. Nancy’s wide-brimmed bonnet shields the glare of the sun. I wear oversized sunglasses as a shield from the sights. It’s our anniversary. Thirty-eight years. I’m treating her.

We almost miss an open-air store stuffed with ceramics, but a child yanks on Nancy’s blouse. It might rip if we don’t stop. Contrary to my insistence and Nancy’s promises before we set out, we follow the child inside. The stall is lined with shelves, some threatening our knees, others reaching high above my reach. I examine a chest-high ledge that holds scores of plates, saucers, bowls, cups and every other type of conceivable container. China, stoneware, porcelain, ceramics, even some mysterious pottery. Not dinnerware, as no two are alike. Some shine with the glaze of the newly baked. Others show the cracks of the ages.

“These are really charming, aren’t they?” Nancy says.

Charming would be a daiquiri by the pool, but I remind myself that this trip is my gift to her.

“Do you really like them?” I say, mustering false enthusiasm.

“At least one souvenir wouldn’t hurt,” she says. It’s as though she’s fallen under the spell of the cups.

If the only way we can leave is by buying some junk, I’ll indulge her. “Why don’t you pick out one you like?”

She lifts a mug from the end of the shelf. The only one with an inscribed design. On close examination, it has inscriptions in dozens of languages, each intricately arced around its circumference. I squint to read the single line that is written in English. “Whatever you sip from me will bring eternal happiness.” Just that. A forged relic and a fake promise.

The clerk quotes the price in the local coin. I use my pocket currency converter to calculate the cost in dollars. Way too much for such an ugly teacup, but way too little for lasting joy. The clerk pours boiling liquid into the mug, gesturing that I should sip. When I do, the liquid blesses my tongue and tea steam clouds my eyes. I see our wedding day, wedding night, the past steeped in almost 40 years, this single day dipped in the present. Then Nancy blesses my face with her lips.

 

Raptura Largo

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Wren felt a feeling coming out of the shower. She stepped onto the scale. “Griff,” she proclaimed through the bathroom door. “Five pounds! GRIFF!”

“What?” said her husband, tying his shoelaces, toast clamped between his teeth.

“Never mind,” she sighed. “Bad batteries.”

Wren stood still. Even so the numbers kept dwindling. The readout declined through 20 years of common watermarks. Post-baby, pre-baby, wedding. Wren closed her eyes and imagined weightlessness. When she opened them again she was floating two inches off the ground. She grabbed the edge of the sink and started screaming.

In the next 15 minutes there would be news reports: a brilliant object in the sky above Jerusalem; the tops of a million heads breaking through the earth at a cemetery in Brazil. It seemed the loudmouth evangelicals had finally gotten one right—the rapture—save for it happening in the twinkling of an eye.

Wren was two feet off the ground now, moving less like a missile to the Afterlife and more like a days-old helium balloon.

“Yep,” said Griff. “Twitter’s saying rapture.”

“Who?”

“The people being raptured. They can still reach their phones, looks like. Can you imagine how many Christians are two feet off the ground gloating at coworkers right now?”

“Why is it taking so long?”

“I don’t know. I don’t believe in the rapture.”

“Which is why you are down there and I am up here. Oh my god, Griff! You are getting left behind! Why don’t you believe? Do it now! Say you believe!”

“I believe.”

Griff’s feet did not budge.

“Why isn’t it working?” Wren wailed.

“Maybe it’s like saying sorry when you aren’t really sorry.”

“But you ARE sorry. Right?”

“I can’t say. Maybe this is aliens. Or a weird gravity thing.…”

“I’m naked!” Wren interrupted with a shriek. “I can’t go out like this! Hand me underwear—nothing with holes. Work jeans, sweater. Bring me warm socks. The Halloween ones. Wait. They have witches.”

“Christ is going to deny you because your warm feet reference the occult?”

“Fine.”

Griff stood on the toilet and helped dress his wife.

“What’s going to happen when I get to the ceiling?”

Griff mumbled to himself as he removed the shower curtain rod and used it to punch holes in the sheet rock.

“Try to cover your face in the attic,” he said. “You don’t want to breathe in that insulation.”

“What about the roof?”

“Right.”

Griff went outside, leaned a ladder, and climbed to the portion of roof over the bathroom.

If God is God then Wren should pass safely through the solid roof, Griff thought. If I witness it, maybe it will be enough to believe. His choices crystallized—chance to believe and join her in Heaven, or act on behalf of love and endure the coming Apocalypse as a single man in a world without yammering fundamentalists. “Love it is,” he sighed and as he raised the claw hammer, he felt his feet leave the roof.

The Smartest Common Housefly in the World

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Edie’s first year trick-or-treating was a memorable one. Previous years on Halloween, we’d dressed her up in baby costumes to go with ours, one of us holding her while the other opened the door for trick-or-treaters.

Year 1: Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Edie’s little halo was a paper plate spray-painted gold and lit by LEDs, but it looked legit.

Year 2: Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, and Baby Frankenstein, Edie’s hair teased and sprayed like a punk rocker’s, a lightning bolt crown.

Year 3, last year, my favorite: We both dressed like chefs, and Edie was a turkey on a platter. She looked juicy and ridiculous. The Martins from across the street were a bit perturbed. I think they’d make cannibal jokes if they had a sense of humor, so we made the jokes for them. “That’s a bit—disturbing,” Mrs. Martin said, and Hal replied, “Well, you don’t have to have any.” We couldn’t stop laughing when Edie repeated it.

This year, Edie turned four, and she was adamant about her costume: A “common housefly,” as she said, in full, every time she mentioned it. Not only did Hal and I have to be a spider and a flyswatter, respectively, but we needed to enlist someone to be a can of Raid, and we could “never ever ever catch me because I’m the smartest common housefly in the world.”

She must have seen a movie on houseflies at daycare, because her knowledge was extensive: How they see out of hundreds of facets of their compound eyes, how they take off backward before they fly forward, how they regurgitate a fluid that will predigest their food before they slurp it up with their proboscis, or “tube nose,” as Edie put it. How they breed in and eat off “big piles of poop.” I’m not sure how this was described in the documentary. I do know Edie insisted she was too smart to live on a pile of poop, and for this we were grateful.

Edie’s plan was for Spider-Hal and Flyswatter-me and Raid can-Meryl to chase her from house to house as she buzzed at the neighbors and gathered candy into a pouch on her costume. “No regurgitating,” we said several times, and she repeated it back.

Dusk fell, and we locked up, and Edie took off like a missile. Hal had lit up Edie’s wings with glowsticks, but we were a little bogged down in our costumes.

“Edie!” called Hal. “Slow down!”

“BZZZ BZZZ I’m not going to let you catch me!” she cried, and ran in between two parked cars. Our hearts stopped. She knew better. She stopped there between cars, but Hal was furious.

“If you don’t come back here, I’m going to eat you!” called Spider-Hal, just as the Martins opened their door for trick-or-treaters.

A theatrical gasp. “I told you,” said Mr. Martin.

The rest of the night was a breeze.

What If?

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What would happen if I was somebody else? Would I still struggle with my feelings, swathed in guilt, or would there be no shame? Maybe those thoughts wouldn’t even exist at all.

I take short upward glances at my bedroom mirror detesting the reflection glaring back at me. I turn, squeezing my eyes shut. Did others go through the same thing? Surely so much self-hatred isn’t common?

Some days my limbs shake and I can’t lift my eyes. Getting ready to face the day without looking in the mirror isn’t easy. Those days I’d fit in anyone’s Halloween display with ease.

It’s lonely inside my head. The continuous conversations I have in my introverted world of one, examining everything in my boring life until my head feels like it’s about to explode. I do have a few friends but they don’t understand me —no one does. They arrange nights out and usually I make excuses, but sometimes they drag me out, my pulse racing and my throat raw, unable to join in the conversation and laughter. I smile, hoping that will coast me through, either that or stare at the floor waiting for the minutes to pass. I wonder how long they will keep asking?

Mum asks me how I am, and with a closed-lipped smile on my face I say I’m fine. Then I sit alone in my room —thoughts running around my head. My sadness growing and my desperation for answers unspoken.

If I understood what my problem was I’d stand a chance of knowing what to do about it. But, I don’t, so I sit avoiding the mirror as I drape my purple scarf across it. My thoughts spin, surrounded by a haze and I know I want to cry. I’m in mourning but I don’t understand why. All I know is that I have to escape it.

The door creaks open. Mum is there holding a tray.

“You missed dinner again love,” she said, “so I’ve made you a little sandwich. How’s your head?”

I shrug as she places the tray in front of me. I’d been complaining of a non-existent headache for a week now. So twice a day, like clockwork, she had been bringing an aspirin. Mum had always been funny about aspirin and paracetamol, keeping them locked away because of what had happened to her sister. They said she was a coward for doing it, but I believe to do something like that took courage.

“Doctor tomorrow?” Mum asked.

“Maybe.”

“Well, eat your food and take your pill.”

The door clicks shut and I open my dresser drawer. I pick up the missile-shaped pill and drop it inside with the others. Almost enough — just one more day. I shut the drawer carefully. Ironic really, what with mum’s overzealous need to lock them away. If it hadn’t been for that and the story about her sister I’d never have thought of my means of escape.

A Guest For Dinner

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I don’t think taking the box of Halloween masks should be considered stealing. I didn’t ask for them, but they were just sitting there behind the novelty store for anyone to pick up. Besides, mom didn’t ask me to move to Texas, did she? Nobody ever asks me what I want.

The first night at our dump of an apartment, we had dinner kneeling in front of a couple of boxes. Mom insisted we eat together, reminding me it was a new rule now that we were on our own, away from Mr. Hands. She still looks at me with that sad, I’m so sorry I ever let him move in with us and that he touched you that way, look. I’m sick of the look. She just needs to get over it.

The next night at dinner I wore a Freddy Kruger mask to our cardboard table. Mom frowned and fussed while I smiled behind the mask. I threw it in the trash when she started to cry. I had plenty more.

I would have worn the Elvis mask the next night but I wasn’t sure mom could take it. She used to play Elvis records and dance around the living room with me when we lived in Chicago. She liked his music way more than I did, but I didn’t care as long as we danced.

I tossed Elvis on the bed and picked out a common clown mask instead. I thought the clown would cheer us up. Mom said it reminded her of one my dad wore to my third birthday party, just before he died. I took it outside and lit it on fire.

The next day, a girl at school made fun of my accent. I punched her in the mouth and gave her a fat lip, so I wore Mick Jagger to supper. Mom wasn’t happy about me fighting. I tried to explain what happened but she gave me the look again. Mick and I left the table without eating. Mom’s dinner ended up being a five-dollar special from Wine Mart.

We learned about dead presidents in school the next day. My teacher, Mr. Handsome as the girls called him, smiled at me several times. I think he likes me. But not in a creepy sort of way like Mr. Hands. President Nixon joined me for dinner. It made mom smile until grandma called and mom went in the other room and there was yelling. Something hit the wall like a missile and shattered. She didn’t smile after she came back and her eyes were red.

Grandma called again the next afternoon and mom cried a lot. After she got off the phone she gave me a hug and wouldn’t let go when I leaned away.

I decided to chill and didn’t wear a mask to dinner. Instead, I found mom in the kitchen wearing the Elvis mask, singing along to Blue Suede Shoes.

I laughed until I cried, and then we danced.

White Noise

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Andrea expected a call later that morning from their daughter, and then their granddaughter would sing “Happy Birthday” in her uncertain treble. Andrea would wish her Happy Haunting. She stretched in bed. Decades ago, a coworker had said that seventy was old, and the woman intended to retire early. She died of breast cancer when she was forty-two. Life had a way of rewarding you ironically. “You never want to be old? Well, here it is!”

Alan brought her breakfast on a tray. “We can go to a movie tonight, if you like, and dinner.”

“Good food, good entertainment,” she said. “We live like kings in the past.”

“Better.” He gave her a peck on her forehead. “No one’s trying to assassinate us.”

“Just our bodies.”

“What’s the matter?”

“Nothing.” She heard hissing, white noise from a radio or a missile shot off in a faraway country.

“Headache?”

“Just common aches and pains. This coffee is delicious. When I was a child I didn’t like the bitter taste.”

“Do you miss your youth?”

She kissed his mouth. “I wouldn’t choose to be anywhere else.” She took a bite of muffin. “At Kroger’s yesterday, my cart bumped into a stranger. I apologized and the lady blurted that her son had glioblastoma. She was filled with the need to talk. The son works at the local radio station, made his will for his wife and daughters. He had hoped to be a national news anchor someday. The prognosis is a year.”

“Maybe a new treatment . . .”

“I wanted to turn away from her.”

His hand covered hers. “Honey, you don’t know her.”

“No man is an island.” She squeezed his hand.

“You don’t have to do anything about this.”

“The worst thing can happen at any moment, the lady said. You’re shopping in a grocery store, you get a call that your son is in the Emergency Room. You’re trying to decide between rye bread and whole wheat.” Andrea felt a sting in her forehead. “Life gives you the most wonderful thing it can and mocks you, takes it away.” Tears welled up. “Our Jamie never grew up.”

“I remember when he and I planted a garden.” Alan looked away. “His eleventh birthday, when he learned the expression posthumous fame and as we were digging in the dirt, he looked up at me with tricky eyes and said he wanted pre-humus fame. Funny boy.”

Outside the window, the sun shone bright because the last of the leaves had fallen. She folded the napkin. “Jamie kissed me on my birthday.”

“He loved his Halloween Mom.”

She kissed Alan’s cheek.

He leaned toward her. “I’m supposed to kiss you today.”

She watched light shimmer across his jaw. He had not shaved his gray stubble yet. She brushed his cheek with her fingertips and felt the prickle on the dry skin. “It’s my birthday, and I get to do what I want. Life is good.”

He smiled. “So kiss me again.”

Trick or Treat

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It sometimes rains small fish along Namibia’s Skeleton Coast. But not in October. The dry season. The only phenomena falling from the sky that Halloween was ash as the sun somehow set fire to a starving desert.

Our truck teetered over holes and aloe. We passed a quiet hut, smoke sifting through thatch. A donkey hobbled in dust, its front legs bound together at the hooves – common practice to keep the family transportation from wandering off.

Three more huts, and a child pointed a stick at us and shouted “Zwit!”

Then they came running, ten, twenty of them. Some wore sandals, most had shirts.

“Makes you feel like shit right?” Margaret ensured, one hand on the wheel.

Faded Mickey Mouse. Orange UNICEF cap. I nodded, ashamed of how fortunate I was.

“Zwit!” Sun-bleached Batman sweater.

“Zwit!” A 79 peeling off a jersey.

The kids ran alongside the truck, slapping the doors.

“What are they saying?”

“Sweet,” Margaret exhaled in smoke. “All they see out here are tourists on safari. Africa’s all about the animals, right? A banker from Bristol will shoot his Canon like a missile at the lions, aiming for the million-Like shot to post as soon as he’s back at his ‘rugged’ lodge. He throws the candy at the kids to keep them out of the way.”

A boy slapped my side mirror and trailed off.

“Is candy even safe for them?”

Margaret snorted. “Take what you can get.”

One child managed to climb onto the bumper and hang on to the rear windshield wiper.

“You wanna stop?”

Margaret neither slowed down nor sped up.

“Do you ever give them any?”

“Sweets?” Margaret snuffed. “Nah.”

We continued into the desert. The kids eventually fell back.

“Makes you feel like shit right?” Margaret started laughing. “You drop in and the flies start swarming!”

We pulled up to a homestead. Several families stood and watched.

Margaret climbed out of the truck and walked forth with open arms, hunting for hugs from the children.

She shouted at me to snap shots before they ran away.

Tock

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Tick… tick… tick…

The noise drove her a bit batty; she would note it in her records. Would it be possible to obtain a clock that did not make that incessant noise? Surely such a thing existed, and certainly it could not be that difficult to acquire.

Tick… tick… tick…

Why, one could even go so far as to say that it was taunting her. Trudie was sure this was the case, although it did seem to be a bit silly. It was accusing her of impatience, of repetition. Boring things that well-behaved young women did not indulge in. Especially young women of a professional nature.

Tick… tick… tock…

Trudie’s head jerked to the side, glaring at the plain, common timepiece mounted on the wall behind a grid of steel bars.

The clock was not supposed to do that. It was an abnormal noise. She could tolerate the usual clicks it emitted as its hands crept around its face. She was used to it, after all. After years and years of the sound, it was as familiar to her as her heartbeat.

But her heart did not deviate from its tha-thump. It merely repeated it over and over and over again, day after day, hour after hour, minute after minute.

The clock had deviated.

It meant something.

Only Trudie would be able to ferret it out.

 

***

 

“What’s with that one? She called out asking for a new clock earlier,” one man said to another.

“Who? Miss Trudie? Don’t let her bother you. That clock’s out to get her at least once a week, and three times on Halloween.”

The first man rolled his eyes and sneered. “Stupid old bat.”

The second man punched him quickly so that none of the patients would see.

“Don’t say shit like that, man,” he warned in a low, urgent voice. “Some of them can hear you.”

The first man chuckled, rubbing his arm. He looked to the right, back into Miss Trudie’s room. The woman inside sat with her back as straight as a ruler, her hands moving across the desk in front of her as if she was sitting at a control panel, her muscles remembering an action they’d learned long ago.

He stared at her for a moment longer, then knocked on the Plexiglas.

“It’s like at the zoo,” the second man murmured while making notations on his clipboard. “Don’t fuck with the animals.”

The first man took his eyes off Miss Trudie for only a moment.

 

***

 

Her small form moved to the door like a missile shot from its pad.

His eyes opened like saucers when he turned back. She was standing at the door, her brows furrowed, her gaze piercing. He fell over the cart before taking off down the hall. The other, who had warned him about teasing her, guffawed at his retreat.

A small, ladylike giggle slipped from her lips.

Even the clock corrected itself.

Tick… tick… tick…

The Coupon

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The coupon slid out from a mauled manila folder. Daniel examined it with only passing attention, just as he had the dozens of old receipts, crumpled sticky notes, and expired train passes that had been unearthed during his forced evacuation. He went so far as to extend his arm towards the barrel, intending to deposit this relic of long ago e-commerce with the rest of the rubbish, when a single word caught his eye: gun. He remembered then, the idea that had precipitated the purchase, the notion of future heroics: the common man who rises up; the good guy with the gun.

He remembered too why he had tucked it away: the pictures on TV, the crying parents. He moved again to toss it, delete it, scrub it from the world, pretend it had never existed, insist that he’d never been the type to buy it in the first place. Still it clung to his hand, wedged between the thumb and forefinger, unwilling to let itself be tossed into oblivion. And so the coupon found its way into Daniel’s wallet.

The next few weeks were spent wallowing, fighting, explaining, job hunting. And then on a cold, still Tuesday, when the world went about its business and left Daniel behind, he found himself in the parking lot of a nondescript office park, with prim patches of mulch and maple trees, a pharmaceutical distribution center, a recently shuttered Halloween costume pop-up store, and a firearms school. He found relief in the mostly vacant lot, absolution in the absence of rednecks, hicks and hate mongers he presumed frequented this place on evenings and weekends. He was not that. His interest here was purely commercial; he was completing a transaction begun before Newtown, before Aurora, before Charleston and Roseburg and Colorado Springs.

Daniel pulled the coupon from his wallet and handed it to the cashier, conceding that the deal it represented no longer existed, but that its value was absolute: one hour lesson, bullets included. He selected his weapon, enthralled by the selection, listening as the instructor described the characteristics of each: their weight, their feel, their caliber. He did not mention their lack of productivity, their underperformance, their propensity to slack off during the day, their habitual underachievement.

He stood on the range, staring at the target in front of him. He stroked the sleek weapon with his left hand, tenderly, admiring, the way he had once touched Tessa. He fired, and fired, missile after missile, shredding the imaginary evil across the room, snapping the trigger back with the same finger that had clicked its way through the unemployment application just hours before. He shivered with each shot, energy pulsing through his arms, up through his chest, into his heart, up to his head and across his brain. Daniel laughed with no sound, the heavy headphones that enveloped his small head shutting out the world.

Oh, if Tessa could see him now. He beat his breast. He silently howled.

The Bad Pun Kid

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They called him the Halloween Bandit because he dressed up in a black cape and a mask to make him look like a vampire.

As sheriff, it was up to me to catch him if he came to my town, but this was no common criminal. He’d already escaped the law in many other towns and cities. He always hit the banks on Main Street. I started camping outside our Main Street bank and hoped I’d be the one to finally arrest him.

I was dozing off one night when I finally saw him. I didn’t want him to know I was there so I didn’t draw my gun. I picked up a small rock and launched it to distract him. The missile went full speed and knocked him right on his ass. Truth be told, I didn’t feel bad about it.

I stepped out with the intention of arresting him. I told him he had the right to remain silent, and he laughed and pointed.

I looked up just as the vat of hot fudge tipped on its side. The liquid scorched my skin.

It hurt like hell.

“Nice try,” the Halloween Bandit said as he made his escape. “You know what they say though, Sheriff. A Rose by any other name smells just as sweet.”

That’s when I knew who the Halloween bandit was. Only one man I’ve ever known has called me Rose, and there’s only one man I know who’d dare to pun and run. Thing is, he’s been dead twenty years. In those days they called him the Bad Pun Kid but I knew his name was Rait. He was killed during a robbery at the Main Street bank in my town.

I’m the one who shot him.

They don’t believe me, though. The psychiatrist asks me the same questions every session, and I have the same answers.

“Why the costumes?”

“They keep him in the black.”

“Why would he rob banks?”

“It’s Rait’s special interest.”

“Okay, why Main Street banks?”

“Those are the ones he trusts.”

The psychiatrist nods. “Fine, fine, I can accept all that. Even if ghosts did exist, why would a dead person be interested in money, though?”

“Because, doctor,” I say. “He’s a beyond-the-grave robber.”

I don’t think they’re going to let me out anytime soon.

Sparked Memories

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Sorata lay on the hospital bed, her chest rising and falling. Monitors tallied her mortality with beeps and clicks. The painkillers, blood thinners and nourishment dripped into her veins. Her life was liquid, still flowing but tapped off so easily with the twist of a clamp.

Her daughter had just left. Marley had tried to cheer her up by brushing her hair and putting on makeup, a touch of blush, a little eye shadow. Sorata didn’t tell her that when she was shown a mirror, all she saw was thin skin, sagging and tired eyes. An old lady Halloween mask scaring away her self-images of a younger face. She cherished the time Marley was there, and she tried to be lively. But it was a relief when she left. Then Sorata could relax, let her breathing slow, drift.

Marley would pass through, in and out of a busy working mother’s life. She was in the thick of life when everything happens. She’d been arguing with her business partner and her husband was away. The kids had to be driven to school, soccer practice and gymnastics. But Marley managed to stop by the hospital for an hour or so each day. Sorata saw her checking her watch and felt guilty for dragging her daughter away to sit with a quiet mother who kept falling asleep. Marley’s stories seemed so long and complicated. Sorata found herself losing track of what was happening, though she tried to remember to nod now and then.

She pined for those old conversations with her husband Bill. They’d talk late into the night planning adventures. Once they’d secretly camped in a corner of Yosemite National Park and listened to wolves howl as they curled together in the dark, zipped up in their tent, feeling both brazen and foolish. He used to hug her, squeezing her tight. Too much, too hard, she thought then. But Bill died long ago, a sad withering in the hospital when Sorata still felt capable. And once he was gone, she realized she would never be squeezed that way again and found she missed it.

The icy hospital sheets chilled her. When she was a kid, her mother heated bricks in the oven, then wrapped them in flannel and ran them over the bed to warm it as was common back then on the farm. And she remembered her dad taking her to see fireworks at a county fair on New Year’s Eve, just the two of them, how they huddled in toasty blankets as swift missiles shot up into the air and burst into bright stars. Fire released in the sky, fading as it trickled downwards.

The sparkling blackness absorbed Sorata, its trails of light soothing her as she turned inward. A pang struck her and she gasped, inhaling a lingering spark that scorched her throat. But then warmth spread through her body and her memories were released, left to float among the stars.

Of Crows and Corn

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Billy released his shit over a parked car. The greasy missile found its mark and slid down the windshield. That bird had no class.

Samson ruffled his shiny black feathers in disgust. Billy cackled and lit sloppily on the wire next to him, making Samson extend his wings to keep his balance.

“You sicken me, Billy.”

“And you’re an uptight asshole, Sammy.”

A bit of silver foil caught Billy’s eye and he dropped to the ground. He gave the wrapping a good shake, but found it empty and returned. Samson lifted off this time, and settled again when the swaying line came to a stop.

“I’m leaving, Billy.”

“I’ll see you later then,” Billy replied absently. He cocked his head to continue his examination of the street beneath them.

“You don’t get it. I’m getting the hell out of the city. Flying south.”

“Oh, yeah? Going on a real adventure, are ya?”

Billy was mocking him.

“I can’t take it anymore. The noise, the people, the food—”

“Bah!” Billy cawed. “The food? There’s plenty of it.”

“I want corn. The starlings say—”

“Starlings!” Billy squawked. “You want corn? There’s corn around the theater all damn day.”

True, the fluffed and salted stuff was common enough. But that wasn’t real corn. Samson wanted to fly over green fields where he could swoop down and pluck juicy kernels from still-growing ears. That was real corn.

“Why do you think so many are migrating to the city?” Billy went on. “They know how good we have it.”

Billy was an idiot, hatched in the city. Samson had to admit he was hatched there, too, but he wasn’t content with competing with rats for trash. He hated the noise of the streets, and he didn’t want to be chased by dogs and kids when he sought solace in the park. He was tired of the boredom and complacency of safe, high wires and noxious food. Billy just didn’t understand.

Samson pushed off roughly.

“Asshole!” Billy called out as he flapped his wings to steady his bulk on the swinging wire.

***

Daniel lifted his cap and wiped his brow. He leaned against a hoe and looked at his small pumpkin patch. Pops said he could sell them come Halloween, and he was taking good care of them. He lifted a bottle of water to his mouth and looked toward the corn field as he drank.

A big black bird made an awkward landing on one of the tall stalks. The stalk swayed, but the bird opened its wings and steadied itself. It went to work pecking greedily at one of the ripening ears.

Daniel dropped the hoe. He went to Pops’ truck and grabbed the rifle from the rack. He steadied the rifle on the hood and found the trespasser in the sights.

He squeezed the trigger.

The body dropped to the ground. Dust and feathers rose up around it, then settled again as lightly as snow.

Pops would be proud.

So She Says

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She says she’s having a baby.

Strange, given her age.

Stranger still, she says it’s my baby.

Not possible, I say. But I’m not sure I mind. So, what are you planning to do about it?

Do? It? Are you one of those pro-choicers? She aims the question like a missile.

I guess. I hasten to add, Not if it’s mine, though. If it’s mine, I want it.

Oh, it’s yours. She sticks my hand on her belly where it stays like a leaf on wet pavement. Or maybe the leaf is the baby: translucent, fluttery, prone to skittering away.

Did you ever—?

She’s asking a question I don’t want to answer. But I have to. When she said I’m having a baby she pulled me into that Territory of Honesty where even guys who’ve spent their first thirty years as good-for-nothing fuck-ups have to come clean.

Never had to make a hard choice, I say. Fuck, I’ve never even had a long-term relationship.

You might be starting one. She stands, bends left and right like she’s warming up for yoga class. My back hurts, she says. It’s not supposed to yet but it does.

I try again, more gently. So what’re you thinking?

I’m thinking I’ll go on one of those baby websites to see what they look like at twelve weeks. That’s when it happened, right? After Jeremy’s party.

There’s no way I could know. My life’s not exactly a sequence of memorable events. I can only guess Jeremy is some common acquaintance who had a party around Halloween.

Right. Jeremy’s party.

Then I’ll see the OB-GYN. Only she pronounces it like a word, obe-gyne, with a hard g. And I’ll have to quit booze. And coffee.

That is noble.

A shrug, a smile, a reminder of why in the first place I unbuttoned her down to bare skin. I flash back to her hair like sheaves of wheat tenting my face.

I don’t expect anything, she says. I just wanted you to know.

It’s my turn to stutter through difficult sentences. I think I might. I need. Would you be okay if?

The thing is—she juts her hip out and drags the honey wheat across her shoulder—I want to do this on my own. She looks out the restaurant window where it has been raining all this time.

Suddenly, I love her. I love the baby. I’ve already lost her and now I’m losing the baby.

That’s not fair, I say.

I’m forty-one years old. I never planned on this.

Like I did, I think but don’t say.

Goodbye, she says.

She flutters across the restaurant. I could follow. But I sit my ass back down in front of the empty mugs and exhale hard enough to blow open the door she’s about to leave through.

It’ll be okay. I can look her up. I know her name. I’ve got her number.

Or so I say.

Saudade

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Fisk stared at the coffee cup in his hands. It had the logo of a bank, common in Phoenix. A thousand miles from here. It was stained and spider webbed with brown cracks. Fisk watched a dribble of coffee chase itself around the bottom as he rolled the cup between his hands.

Across the battered kitchen table, Angela sat. Her brown hair hung in ropes around her face, dark circles under her eyes. One hand was wrapped around a full cup of coffee, its contents long cold. The other rested on the edge of the table, the stub of a cigarette pinned between two yellow fingers. A thin trail of smoke climbed to the ceiling, twisting and curling in the stale air.

Fisk jerked, his right hand darting under his wrinkled blazer as a loud boom echoed from down the hall. A fierce growling erupted as a small figure shot like a missile from the darkness. Fisk relaxed his grip on the butt of his service weapon. It’s just the damn kid.

The boy, perhaps four years old, tore through the kitchen without stopping. Wearing a tattered Wolverine Halloween mask and a pink bath towel pinned around his neck, he roared like some hellish beast and disappeared into the living room. Angela didn’t react.

For the second time that afternoon, Fisk fell into a waking dream.

He pulled the 9mm from his holster and shot Angela in the forehead. Blood, bone, and tissue sprayed a crimson fan on the dirty wallpaper behind her. She remained completely still.

A moment later Wolverine howled through the room and into the hall. His small body lifted from the ground and flew down the hall, propelled by the hollow point round Fisk put in the center of his back. Fisk opened his mouth to the hot barrel.

He jerked as the coffee cup he’d dropped shattered on the tile floor. Fisk looked at his hand. No gun. He could feel its comforting pressure against his side.

Drawing a shaky breath, he glanced at Angela. Her cigarette had burned down to the filter and extinguished itself. She hadn’t moved.

Fisk slid out of the wobbly kitchen chair and stood, his knees popping. He looked around the dirty kitchen as if seeing for the first time. Reaching into his jacket pocket he pulled out the warrant and dropped it on the table in front of Angela. As he turned and strode towards the front door, the boy made another roaring flight through the kitchen.

In Common

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I watch you studying the tempura shrimp. You are taller than I imagined. I cross the carpet, boots sinking into psychedelic orange swirls.

“You must be Annika,” I say. Must be. It is ordained.

You turn and smile. When you raise your eyebrows, crinkling your forehead, I see the resemblance. I didn’t even have to look for it. Without time to consider all the angles, there it is—his expression on this stranger.

We shake hands, and then you put an arm around me, balancing your plate in the other hand. “This is kind of amazing, isn’t it?” You look at me but then glance around the room, so I am not sure if you mean us meeting at last or the mound of shrimp or the crystal chandeliers.

We sit down with teriyaki chicken, three kinds of potatoes, and four kinds of cheesecake. You ask me what dreams I have had since we started emailing each other. You tell me, “I keep dreaming that I am climbing and climbing this enormous tree. It has smooth bark, like silk. Sometimes I am stuck on a branch and I can hear the wind. Sometimes I just climb. Maybe meeting you is reaching the top.”

“Maybe meeting me is falling to the bottom.” I can’t help myself. Besides, my most memorable dreams are always of falling.

We leave the buffet room and pass the jingle and clang of the slot machines. Elderly women, purses on laps, pull levers and collect coins. “They look like marsupials in their natural habitat,” you say.

“I was thinking more like parakeets,” I say. “All that eye shadow.”

In the elevator, we stand shoulder-to-shoulder. I try not to count how many times I swallow. The elevator stops at every floor, our profiles egging us on in the mirrors, from left and right, front, back, and overhead. We do not look that much alike, except maybe the nose.

On floor 10, a woman in a silver sequined gown and a mask of purple feathers swooshes on. Her companion is a short man wearing camouflage pants and a “Missile Defense Agency” t-shirt. They get off at floor 15.

“It’s always Halloween in Vegas,” you laugh.

We bump hands as we walk down the hall. We pause to watch bungee jumpers hurtling head first toward the asphalt of the parking lot.

“Have you ever wanted to do that?” I ask.

“Nope, but I’d love to watch you do it.” You tilt your chin toward me. The giant clown sign outside bathes us in pink and gold neon. I imagine kissing the blurred line of your upper lip.

A spark thrown on ancient moss sets the rainforest alight. I see my father in your anger. You see him in my laugh. Two girls with a common last name, lost and then found. We hold each other and let the forest burn.

Airlocks

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Your lullabies are sung by robots. In the whooshing darkness you struggle on at a cellular level, dreaming sublevel dreams.

Dan parks the car and places the ticket on the dashboard. It’s a special pass, we are special people now. He grabs my hand for a minute. We exchange a mechanical squeeze, cold as coin.

I get out of the car. I do it slowly. It still feels like I woke up in someone else’s body, maybe one stitched together by drunks out of wet pillows and garden twine. We start walking, through a dank maze cluttered with the sick. Bright pawprints along the floor make it easy to find Neonatal. Just follow the trail of the wounded neon bison.

What I’m feeling is very common, so I’m told. It’s normal, it’s okay, it’s alright. All the things that we are not, anymore. Even my own mother said you’ll get used to it, it meaning you, and I said fuck off mum but only in my mind because things are allowed to be different on the inside than they are on the outside.

There are three sets of doors between Maternity and you, airlocks standing guard between them and us. I don’t say that either, not again, not after seeing the look on Dan’s face: disappointment, disgust, all the dis words, except the one no one’s talking about yet. Let’s see how she goes, is what the healthcare people say. The lifegivers. Health and care. They brought you into the light and now they want to see their project succeed.

The first door is where I am resolute. Deep breath, chin up, past the mummies with their mewling bundles, I can do this! Marching to war, says Dan as we reach the second door, that’s my girl. I grip onto him tightly, look straight ahead and hiss What the fuck is wrong with you.

At the third door I shut my eyes. You had choices, my mum said. You knew at 20 weeks, you could have done something. Well, I did do something – I looked at you and resolved to love you, and I did. I really did, when you were lines and dots on a screen, surging feet and hands. You were a missile, shot from my heart, aiming to forever. Now you are a bulging Halloween mask atop a bag of sticks and the decision I made at 20 weeks came squirming out beside you. It sits on my shoulder. It will never stop growing.

‘Are you ready, Mummy?’ says the nurse in gameshow tones. She taps in the code, the doors spring open and out fly all those words, Treatment, Care Plans, Therapy, PEG Feed, Adaptations, to beat and screech around my head once more. My body drags me in, hungry for its missing piece; my breasts prickle and my eyes start too and I say NO NO NO to myself, blinking before I reach you, so I can see clearly.

I Saw You Today

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After an afternoon at the Kunsthaus, on my walk homewards today, I saw you, Andrea. At Zürich Central I heard your laughter above the rattle of a departing tram. A young body, unfamiliar, yes, but your eyes, your smile; I knew immediately.

You boarded the 7-tram. I took a seat across the aisle that faced two men holding hands. They wore masks. Fasnacht? Ah, no. Halloween.

Last year, some neighbor kids showed at our door. “Süsses oder sours!” They shook plastic shopping sacks and you laughed. “No ghosts and ghouls?” One dressed in scrubs. Another wore a lab coat. The third simply wore black. You threatened to fetch the lemons. “They don’t want lemons,” I said. “They’re threatening to make us sour.” I dropped sweets into their bags.

You held a book on the tram, Stamm on its spine, one of your favorite writers, yes. Yet you gazed out the window to the lake below glistening in clean, autumnal light, and the wall of mountains behind it. I didn’t note at which stop I followed you out.

On a street bordering a park, you let yourself into an unfamiliar apartment building with an unfamiliar set of clinking keys, a crystal-sparkling keychain looking worn, even from my polite distance. At home, didn’t I still listen for your tread echoing up the stairwell, your keys clattering against the front door, the bolt’s click?

I still buy flowers from Silvio’s stand on Fridays.

That first time, he chatted and smiled about the heat until he got to the point when he usually wrapped the flowers, asked after you. The gladioli he held shook. The spool of clear foil rattled, foil folding on the countertop like ribbon candy.

Imagine, Andrea, me stalking someone. How could I not? I retreated to a park bench facing your building. Gangly boys played football nearby, shouts and the thuds of impact. A woman pushed a stroller toward a playground. Her child teetered to the sandbox while she and several women kissed cheeks.

Remember, in our early years, the two of us pointing out babies and toddlers and adolescents: That one with the curls is ours. No, the one with the overbite. I wore braces for three years, ugh.

A boy with my nose caught a pass, kicked the ball onwards. Could he be the son of the you in the unfamiliar body in the unfamiliar apartment? I smiled.

Scents common to the city ebbed and flowed, car exhaust, cigarette smoke, pizza and frites. Micro-sounds of thousands on the move hummed. Church bells peeled.

“Take comfort,” you said, your belief reaching to you on the quiet and so late. I could not.

You stepped onto a balcony. Andrea, above you, in the sky’s deepening blue, planets sparkled—each a missile of God’s love, you said. Ach, your body sinuous, leaning on the rail, hair slipping forward over your shoulder lush and dark, not brittle and broken. You placed a hand on your belly and caressed it.

Why We Hide Under Desks

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I don’t know why we hide under desks. Maybe the teachers know, but they haven’t explained very well. My older brother Jake says the drills at school are stupid. He says nothing will keep us safe. Dad took us with him to the base once and showed us a pretty big missile. I don’t think my desk would stop it.

Still, I like the drills. When the siren sounds we put down our books and sit on the floor like the Indians in our Columbus Day stories. One time we had a drill during gym and we didn’t have any desks to hide under so Mr. Kent told us to lie down on the gym floor. Jake says that Mr. Kent has no common sense, but I guess he just didn’t know what to do in a room with no desks.

Drills during math are the best, because I sit next to Suzanne Fleming who lives down the road from us and when we’re under our desks we make funny faces at each other. She has a pretty smile. Today we had another drill during math and Mrs. Williams left the room and we started talking.

“Are ya’ll coming down trick or treating at our house next week?” Suzanne asked me.

“I hope so,” I said. “But my brother says the Soviets are going to kill us all before then.”

“Oh,” said Suzanne. “I sure hope not. I like Halloween.”

“Jake knows a lot of things.”

“I guess so,” she said.

My brother does know a lot. He reads lots of books, real ones, not comics. Jake’s middle school is next to my school, but he rides to the library for new books before he comes back to get me. Some of them have really neat covers, with swords or lions, but others look more serious. Jake says his favorites are about big brother and burning books. I don’t really understand, because he doesn’t have a big brother, and he likes books.

Today Jake didn’t come back from the library. I waited at school for a while, but then everyone was gone and I walked home. There was a police car in front of my house, and it had Jake’s bike in it, all smashed up. I heard my mom crying real loud. Mrs. Jenkins from next door saw me and brought me inside. Mom hugged me and cried and cried and I couldn’t really understand her. Sometimes she got sad when dad was on a mission because she was scared. Jake would hug her and tell her everything would be fine. I tried to do it now, but she just cried louder. Mrs. Jenkins made her lie down on the couch and told me to rest until my dad came home.

I went up to Jake’s room. He has a desk next to his bed, covered in books. I sat under it. I wonder if Jake is wrong about the drills. I feel safer here, under his desk.