Sunday, December 12, 2010

"Namesake" by Amy Hillgren Peterson: 2010 Honorable Mention

Gemma Galgani moved.

Sunset made the peace yellow walls blush pink with what seemed to be anticipation. They were beginning domestic relations with the four Galgani-Pierces. Mason threw cans of Schlitz to Ned, Kelly, Bruce, and Will. He'd seduced them with promises of beer and ribs in exchange for their bodies' exertion.

The point, Gemma concluded as she hammered brads into the drywall, was that she could move a dozen neighborhoods away from 7720 Knollwood Lane, but the tender beauty of her lost loved ones' eyes would follow her as long as she framed them in, slipped them under glass, and lived with them. She also realized, sick of smelling her own sweat, that the blessing would follow her, too.

"Mom," Henry breathed. "Mom, who's that?”

He picked up Aurelia in his brown-red hands, and the sweaty slickness of them couldn't hold the frame, and with a lunge and slide, Gemma rescued her mother in time.

"Henry, you know who this is. It's your grandmother."

"She doesn't look like a grandmother."

"She was young."

"Was she being your mother then?"

"She never stopped."

"Even though she died?"

"That's right."

"She'll always be with us?"

"Henry, you know this."

"It's hard having only one live grandmother."

"We survive."

"I'm going back outside."

Aurelia, forever thirty-six, said nothing. She insisted, her smile capturing the photographer's imagination, that life, however troubled, and death, had a joyful marriage and an unforgettable new beginning. She already looked content on the west wall. Gemma knew she'd be looking for Genevieve to the east.

Genevieve would wait. Charles insisted on the space above the buffet on the northeast. In gray scale his hair and eyes created caverns of black on the photograph. He didn't wear tribal costume in the candid shot, but grinned with irony in front of a local museum display of an immaculate, bleach-white tepee and wax figures of relaxed, unblemished Santee who could never have hunted anything, not even the bison standing still through the magic of taxidermy.

Life is dirty, Charles told Gemma and Genevieve inside the tepee. "If you haven't been covered in it by the end, you've wasted the gift, and it disappears into the wind, hoping your descendants will have more honor."

Gemma's memory soared through a wind tunnel, careening past the tepee to Genevieve's hand reaching for hers, the two of them on the front seat of the Malibu, of Charles driving into the sangria sunset, in laughter never seeing the edge of asphalt and the oak standing in a carpet of Jerusalem artichokes.

Instantly, Charles was gone.

Genevieve persevered for four months. "I'm ready," she said, and before Gemma could object, she closed her eyes, one blue and one brown, slowly, and whispered, "Forever."

Then,as Gemma cried, "No!", Genevieve told her, "Stars."

The night five years after Genevieve's funeral, Gemma woke with a gasping scream and saw the night sky's stars through her hand. Not through the spaces between her fingers, but through a window that didn't belong. Then a drip landed on her chest. Clammy.


"What is it?" Mason clapped on the lamp.

"My hand," Gemma whispered.

"What did you do?" Mason asked, “What did you do?” He repeated three times with a burgeoning anxiety.

"Nothing. I didn't do anything." Blood made a splashing pattern on the white sheet. "It just happened."

"It's like...that thing. The blood. Of Christ. The cross."

"Stigmata." Gemma was calmer.

"But we're Lutheran."

"I don't know why it would happen to me."

Mason picked up his i-Pad and typed furiously. Back in his element, he applied logic like gauze to the bewildering wound.

Three-ten a.m. The single conclusion: it's apparently a blessing to be a victim soul. And the wound would probably go away. Something about the Pope.


Gemma stood inside the newest house. She sought to light it before everyone started bumping into each other, and the dog.

She found a switch for the dining room that provided enough light to set Genevieve on the east. Aurelia was radiant, beaming at her daughter with sparkling, heavily made up eyes, pouty lips and impossibly youthful skin.

The commute from the new house was forty minutes longer, even on a clear day. The hospital pharmacy rushed.

"Glad you're here," Dylan, the lanky pharm tech greeted her. "We were about to go under."

Jane, the head pharmacist, silently loaded an I.V. drip.

"Where can I jump in?" Gemma asked.

Jane handed her a pile of paper prescriptions. "You can enter these."

The white slips of paper soaked crimson and Gemma sank to the floor.

"Gemma!" Dylan yelled. "What happened?"

"What is that? Paper cut gone wild?" Jane was gifted at turning Gemma's work issues into a joke.

"It's stigmata." Gemma panted as she held her wounded hand against her chest where blood gurgled over her black sweater and grey lab coat.

The phone shrieked. Dylan beat on the computer that had locked up and Jane frantically wiped at the saturated prescription slips. Dylan buzzed in Dr. Kotor, who rushed to Gemma's side. The pain retreated, blood slowed, and before Dr. Kotor's astonished eyes, the wound disappeared.

"What was that?" Dylan asked.

"I read about this during my sub-i," Dr. Kotor said.

"You're a dermatologist," Jane pointed out.

"This is a break in the skin, is it not? Dr. Kotor said.

"Yeah!" Dylan said. "What causes it?"

"There are some things," Dr. Kotor replied, "and as a scientist, I used to reject this, but there are some things that science and reason fail to explain."

"Epic fail," Dylan said.

Gemma's head spun, separate pinwheels dizzying each quadrant of her brain.

"I'll drive you home," Dr. Kotor said.

"I live out in Hamish now."

"You moved again?" Dylan looked astonished.

Jane was silent.

Gemma woke up in her bed. Dr. Kotor must have carried her there because the last thing she remembered from the front seat of the apple green Prius was Dr. Kotor saying, "Some things are too mighty for science and reason. You can keep your mind clear and still open your imagination to wonder."

Mason came home, saw Gemma, and left her in bed. He made spaghetti and meatballs for the boys. He brought her a plate. She picked at it, looking vacantly out the window. "Now everyone knows," she said to Mason.

The phone rang.

There was a knock at the door.

Gemma's i-Phone chimed in with a text.

Henry answered the phone downstairs.

Gemma opened her text. It was from Dylan.

"Channel 7. Now!" It said.

Gemma grabbed the remote and switched on the TV. She heard Mason saying, "No, no. We don't want any interviews," just as she saw her own face in her hospital staff picture on the screen.

"A pharmacist at the hospital, Galgani experienced what officials are calling a stigmata at work this afternoon."

Henry climbed up on the bed. "What's a stigmata?"

"It's..." Gemma had no words.

"Does it hurt?" Henry asked.


"Why do you have it?"

"I don't know."

"Are you a freak?"


"Then why is it on TV?"

"I guess," Gemma sighed. "I guess people are curious because it's different. It doesn't happen every day."

"Can a doctor fix it?"

"I don't think so."

"Can I be on TV?"

"Probably not."

Mason came in. "You go to bed," he said to Henry.

"I won't be able to sleep. There's reporters all over."

"They're going away."

"Is this why we move all the time?" Henry asked.

"It's part of it," Gemma admitted.

"That's stupid."

"Why?" Gemma asked.

"Because you can't run away from yourself." Henry leaped off the bed, nearly knocking Gemma and Mason's wedding picture off the wall. He scrambled out the door, across the hall, and slammed the door to his room, closing it behind the wise dreams he was about to dream.

"Do I need to call the real estate office in the morning?" Mason asked.

"No. We're staying."

Amy Hillgren Peterson is a writer in the Lakes area of Iowa. In addition to short fiction, she writes theatrical plays and essays. To make a living she writes PR documents, grant proposals and collaborates on memoirs and other books. She's been married to Ed for 18 years and is the mother of two sons and a daughter. Her websites: and

Sunday, October 24, 2010

"Tan Shoes and Pink Shoelaces" by Kimila Bowling: 2010 Honorable Mention

Fate penciled me in that afternoon. I merely showed up, and the ability to differentiate reality from fantasy revealed itself. At seven I didn’t understand this developmental leap, nor was I conscious a cognitive enlightenment had occurred. I simply knew special wasn’t special anymore.

My final day of blessed ignorance to the actualities of life began in our nook and cranny kitchen on the east side of Scobey, Mississippi. I sat at the dinette in the nook eating a peanut butter-plastered pancake. I’d yet to dress for the day.

A bad case of the “Arthur” had Granny Tulley stoved-up. She’d called earlier in the morning to relay this information and report cheese and crackers had sustained her for the past two days. Although everyone knew a woman of Granny’s proportion could never be satisfied with meager morsels of Ritz and cheddar, Momma succumbed to the woman who described childbirth as a near-death experience and went to her mother’s aid; thus, keeping a daughter’s conscious clear.

Dad entered the cranny portion of the kitchen scuffing his bare feet across the linoleum.

“We’re on our own, kid.”

He scratched the back of his head and shuffled a tight one-eighty to keep his rhythm.

“Get dressed. I need to go to Jax’s.”

On his way out, he slid the newspaper off the counter and poked it under one arm.
I abandoned my breakfast and high-kneed a skip to my room.

By the time we pulled in front of Jax’s, which by the way took up space in downtown Scobey, the sun could see its reflection on the side of the water tower, and it looked as if we had arrived too late. For what, I didn’t know. But the line at the movie house stretched half a block, and the Assembly’s bake sale had dwindled to a few pies.

When Dad’s soles hit the graveled and tarred surface, he squinted and butted the side of his hand along the top of his eyebrows. He let his eyes bounce along the sidewalks where they eventually settled on Laura Jean Dell.

“How’d you like to see a movie?” he asked, dragging me to the freckled-faced teen.

He handed me two dollars after promising Laura Jean five if she’d see me to The Fontaine Theater. She agreed, liberating Dad and sentencing me to a double matinee featuring Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon. Three hours passed before I saw daylight again.

Upon leaving The Fontaine, Laura Jean took me aside then bent over until our eyes met.

“Go get your Dad. He promised me five dollars.”

I could smell the teenage girl’s cinnamon clove gum as I watched her jaw slid to one side every time she squashed it between her teeth. While balancing on my right leg, I scratched the back of its calf with the top of my left sandal.

“Can’t you come with me? He’s just over there.” I pointed across the street to Jax’s.

“I’ll walk you across the street but I can’t go in. My mom says I’ll get a bad reputation if I’m seen going in there.”

I thought about what she’d said then asked, “What about mine?”

“You’re not old enough to get one,” she said.

My elder’s logic made sense. So I skipped across the street.

Inside Jax’s, cirrus layers of lingering tobacco smoke obscured the already insufficient lighting. Pool balls clacking against one another and the random launching of cuss words created momentary breaks in the chatter and laughter. I kept one hand on the door, self-appointing it home as one would in a game of hide and seek, until I found Dad. He was leaning on a pool stick, holding a bottle between his thumb and forefinger. I went to him.

“Dad,” I said tugging on his britches leg, looking in the vicinity his eyes would be if he were to look at me.

“Hey, kid. Movie over?” he asked. He checked the time before finding my gaze.

“Yeah, and Laura Jean wants her money.”

He handed off the pool stick then took my hand. As we walked to the door, he guzzled the last drink from his bottle before leaving it on the bar. After Dad paid Laura Jean, we crossed the street and ventured into Pryce’s Grocery and Dry Goods. By now, movement on main street had become sporadic, and old men had begun trickling into the store as slowly as leaves falling from a border oak in mid-September. Their seats, stacked wooden crates, formed the customary circle for their afternoon gathering. Some packed a jaw with tobacco while others rolled a smoke. Success of the American Legion team started the powwow early.

Lunch had come and gone, and neither Dad nor I had eaten anything, at least nothing worth mentioning. Dad asked Mr. Pryce to fix him a bologna and hot pepper cheese sandwich, and after several minutes of deliberation, I settled on pickle loaf with mustard, voicing a preference to having the condiment spread on both slices of bread. Mr. Pryce took note. Dad then chose an RC. I favored a grape Nehi.

I didn’t remember Dad saying go. I didn’t know we were racing, but as Mr. Pryce handed me my sandwich, Dad poked his last bite into his mouth. He chased it with a drink and was looking in one of the glass cases which lined both sides of the register before swallowing either.

Mr. Pryce left his domain behind the meat counter to join him. On his way, he lifted his apron with one hand then individually twisted each finger of the opposite hand into the stained fabric. He continued the process as he stood across the glass case from Dad.

After a few bites of pickle loaf and a bottle of Nehi, I felt full. As I wiped mustard off my chin, I decided to linger at the front of the store. Items in the glass case held Dad’s interest, and the old men, who once looked harmless, had traded baseball and a friendly slap on the back for the rising cost of seed and keeping one’s hands to oneself.

At its brightest, the sun spotlighted the best Pryce’s had to offer. Now, its diminishing rays had to stretch to reach the display window, resulting in a partially drawn curtain of darkness. Offstage, a pair of watches – one for a lady, the other a man – passed their time on a piece of black velveteen. Still on stage, a headless mannequin modeled a lace-collared blouse with a floral print skirt. In a sunlit corner, a six-tier pyramid of Libby’s canned vegetables displayed a sign naming it the special of the week. But center stage. Center stage held the answer to coping with the rise in seed prices, Annette’s answer to persuading Frankie to take her to the beach party, and Momma’s answer to squashing Granny Tulley’s power of conviction. The main attraction was a pair of tan shoes, size eleven. A bargain at $7.50. Especially, since they came with pink shoelaces.

Dad had remained focused on the trinkets in the case. As I closed the distance between us, he made his decision and indicated so by pointing. Mr. Pryce retrieved the item, placed it in a small box, then they slid in unison to the register.

“Dad,” I said as I bounced on my tiptoes. “The shoes.”

I tried to take his hand, but he lifted it out of my reach. My fingers found his back pocket where I tugged each syllable.

“Pleeease, Dad-dy. The shoes in the win-dow. They’re just my size.”

Mr. Pryce’s hand hung by its fingertips on the register’s handle as he looked toward me, then at Dad, and repeat the process several times. His pause compelled me to clasp my hands under my chin and look up. As Dad smiled at the man behind the counter, he shook his head. When I heard the register’s drawer open, I realize my shameless display of desperation had gone unheeded.

Outside, Dad opened the driver’s side door of the truck and waited. Unwanted tears came but I didn’t swipe. My hands stayed prisoners in my pockets until I crawled in the truck.

We didn’t turn toward home but continued down the street passed Jax’s and The Fontaine.

“This isn’t the way home,” I said before sitting on my knees, choosing to watch where we’d been instead of where we were going.

Dad pulled his visor down then opened his window. My hair twirled around my face as a willow in a windstorm. I tucked it behind my ears; however, more strands than not continued to wave.

“I need to take care of something. You don’t mind do you?”

My shoulders said they didn’t care before I rested my chin on the back of the seat. From the corner of my eye, I watched him take a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket. He shook up a Benson and Hedges, threw the pack on the dash, then pushed in the lighter. As he waited for it to pop, he asked, “How about some music?” He smiled and beckoned me to his side with a head gesture.

The lighter clicked before I could answer, and within seconds, I could see smoke swirling above his head. When I turned and sat close to him, he took this for a yes and turn the radio on.

The Beatles and Dylan took us as far as the first left, directly passed the mill. Patty Page sang until we reached the fork in the road, then Neil Diamond ushered us to the Charlton’s mailbox and up their driveway.

The paint on the house reminded me of a half-scaled crappie, and the one dangling shutter of a hook in its bottom lip. No automobile sat beside the house. No one played in the yard. No dog lay on the porch and no one came to the door. The only declarations of occupancy were the open front door and the laundry hanging from the clothesline alongside the house.

Before Dad went to the door, he placed a kiss on my cheek. I found it odd he entered without knocking. More so when he let the screen door slap against the wooden frame.

I spent time watching the breeze swing the clothes on the line. One of the unmentionables conveyed the owner’s shared liking for my favorite color, red, indicating her appreciation for the unorthodox. She would surely sympathize with me on my recent disappointment in Dad for denying me the last pair of shoes I would ever ask for.

Time had passed since I’d enjoyed the grape Nehi, and last year when Granny Tulley started blaming her occasional accidents on a stretched bladder, I no longer waited until squirming or crossing my legs became necessary. A refusal to risk a regression to where I wet myself had become the rule.

Honeysuckle blossomed a few feet beyond the row of laundry. I pushed open the truck’s door and slid from the seat. After confident the foliage provided ample coverage, I prepared myself and squatted. My eyes watered as relief came to my bladder, and I assured myself serious expansion had been averted.

When I started back to the truck, the colorful undergarment waved, proudly displaying itself, imitating a flag flying high, nobly symbolizing what it represented. I thought they came in one color--white, the color of Momma’s. Wary, nevertheless intrigued, I reached to touch it, but Dad’s voice passing through an opened window pulled my attention toward him.

“Come on,” he said. “give me more time.”

A woman answered. “I’m tired of waiting.”

“Here sweetheart,” Dad again. “I bought you something.”

The woman squealed then thanked Dad with the recognizable slurps and smacks dads and mommas were suppose to share.

“A little more time?” Dad said.

Enough had been heard. Too many things had been exposed. I retreated but in my haste, a pair of woman’s slacks levitated in front of me. Tangled in britches and stumbling, I groped the air for something, anything, to keep me upright, but all my outstretched fingers snagged was one of the red bra’s shoulder straps. I then heard the wooden clothespins give to the added weight and snap from the line. Closing my eyes, I braced for the fall.

Dad must have heard the commotion because when I opened my eyes, he was looking down at me.

“What are you doing?” He took his hands off his hips and extended one to me.

Ignoring his offer, I got to my feet and brushed passed him. “I had to pee.”

He stayed on my heels until we neared the truck where he double-timed his pace and opened his door for me.

Side-stepping the usual routine, I marched to my side and climbed in. He kept silent as he sat behind the wheel and turned the key. After backing out of the yard, he proceeded down the driveway. This time turning toward home.

With the sun now to our backs, he slapped up his visor then cranked his window, leaving a smoker’s crack. I sat close to my door letting the space between us provided an invisible barrier. A barrier a single word could crumble. An emotional safeguard I knew wouldn’t last.

“Are you all right?” he asked before searching the dash for his pack of cigarettes. After finding them, he lit one and returned the pack to his shirt pocket.

“Fine,” I said. But I wasn’t.

The radio crackled between bouts of music. Instead of tuning in on a station, he clicked it off. While holding the wheel and cigarette in one hand, he reached over and skimmed his fingertips down my hair. I kept my eyes on the road and pulled away. An unspoken answer to his unspoken question.

He switched his driving hand and drew a long pull off his cigarette, but before the cherry dimmed, he snapped his back straight and gripped the wheel at ten and two.

“Hey,” he said, hitting the steering wheel with the heel of his hand. “How about we stop at Pryce’s and get you those shoes?” He shook his head in an effort to convince us both he’d found the answer.

“Yep. That’s what we’ll do. We’ll go back. We’ll go back and get those shoes.”

He turned to watch the road before he accelerated, unaware I no longer shared his newly found optimism of the shoe’s powers or his desire for something new and unique. I now craved pancakes, peanut butter, and a pretense of reality as I fostered a hatred for those shoes and the type of girl who would wear them.

By the time we passed the city limit’s sign, the vining morning glories twisting around its wooden post had lost their day’s blooms. The vapor lights lining the streets had completed their evening ritual of flickering on and off; a momentary period of indecision usually resulting in illumination and a lulling hum.

I looked at him because as yet, he hadn’t turned on the headlights. However, I found myself unable to turn away as he maintained a position so close to the wheel he could’ve used it for a chin rest. Further inspection brought me to a pulsing ball of jaw muscle and a perpetual trail of sweat running along the front of his ear. I then noticed his stare which never wavered from the road. I saw a man determined to change the course of a storm, and his refusal to accept the finality of time. I, on the other hand, had resentfully accepted both.

Kimila Bowling - Biography

My father had a Kraco eight-track in his grasshopper- green Ford pickup. When I would go with him, he’d play my favorite song, “Tan Shoes and Pink Shoelaces,” and I did want a pair of those shoes.
As time passed, I grew up and realized tan was sort of bland and pink clashed with my skin tone. I also discovered you’re supposed to duck while riding in a grasshopper- green truck.
Trying to move forward with my life, I attended a program to become a court stenographer, but I found the dialogue between the attorney and witness boring. It was a constant struggle not to embellish testimony during transcription. I then went through a delusional phase and attended cosmetology and manicurist school. I can’t do hair. I can’t do nails, but I can buy hair products wholesale.
I did, however, work in the insurance industry for fifteen years but kept my storytelling alive while tracking wanted clients for a bail bondsman.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Catch A Tiger by the Toe: 2010 Honorable Mention by Marie Hermet

1. Mitzi

Maybe nothing would ever have happened but for the Christmas stockings. Hand sewn in red and green felt, they were the saddest things I had seen in a long time. As soon as I noticed them, hanging gloomily from every doorknob, I knew that I wanted to marry him.

It was my first visit to Paul’s home, on Whitsun Sunday. His house near Paris was covered with vine and wisteria spilled over the garden walls. From his bedroom window, we had a view on the shimmering skyline along the Seine, but this dusty red stocking was dangling from the handle and there were foil paper angels fluttering in the draughts. In the kitchen, a flashing garland screeched Jingle Bells when you flicked the switch. Over the cooking range someone had tacked a child’s drawing of a house. It was dedicated in large clumsy letters « To the Best Mom in the World ».
The best mom in the world had walked out the summer before to start a new life in Gopherville, Arkansas, with a nightclub owner who specialized in Country music and sex scandals involving underage performers. Dolly had simply vanished from the lives of her husband and daughter, leaving one in care of the other.

Once they got over the first shock, Paul and Lena enjoyed living by themselves. Paul managed to cut his working hours and came back early every night to mess about in the kitchen with his daughter. They invented zany recipes and grew carnivorous plants, secretly watching each other for signs of loneliness. For Christmas, they decided that it would be the just the two of them. Lena cut snowflakes out of white paper and worked hard on her father’s present: a box decorated with tiny shells from last summer’s holidays. Slightly tipsy from the champagne, half buried under layers of torn gift wrappings, she swore that this was her best Christmas ever. She was about to turn eleven.

In January Paul hired a private investigator to locate his wife and start divorce proceedings. Dolly readily agreed to everything; the one thing she asked was permission to visit her daughter in Paris for the winter holidays. She flew back to France, dropped her suitcases in the guest room and opened her arms for Lena to fall into as if nothing had ever happened. Lena started working out schemes to make her mother stay, but Paul, who was quietly putting away the whisky glasses Dolly forgot in her wake, knew that they were doomed. This time, he didn’t even try to search out for the bottles Dolly was hoarding like mice hoard cotton wool for winter.
On the last day before Dolly’s flight home was due, Paul came back after work and found the house empty.

Mother and child had vanished. The car was not in the garage. They could not have gone to the movies and taken the hall carpet with them, could they? It had been torn away from its nails; tufts of wool remained stuck on the bare wood floor. Pictures were missing too, leaving pale squares on the wall. Paul dragged himself through one room after another, counting his losses, looking for clues. The child’s bedroom was a war zone: clothes, toys, stuffed animals, torn cardboard boxes and ripped open suitcases had been hurled across the room. Burdened with the all the luggage she intended to take with her, Dolly had left her daughter’s treasures behind. Paul did not walk in; he just clicked the door shut. On the landing he found one pink plastic thong, size 4, with a torn strap. Clutching it to his chest, he started sobbing at last.

After a while, he gave a few phone calls and found out that his daughter was already flying over Knoxville with her mother. There was nothing he could do. The child’s passport was valid and Dolly was entitled to take her anywhere she pleased. She had chosen the small town she had been raised in.

Ironically, the nearest city was called Hope.

I had met him through friends. With his sad smile and shock of hair touched with gray, Paul looked like a boy grown too fast, weighted down by some secret sorrow. We talked until dawn, then he walked me home and kissed me goodnight at my door. We didn’t feel like rushing; we thought we might have a whole lifetime before us. When Lena disappeared, things changed. Paul’s usually dazed look grew into something darker. He started wandering about in his own private nightmare, misplacing his glasses, his keys, his pocketbook, his telephone – he went nowhere without it for fear of missing a call from Dolly, which never came – even his car. He forgot to eat. He was so distracted that I was afraid he would forget to breathe. By then I was so much in love that I would have moved mountains to see him smile. I could not bear to see him heartbroken. One year later we were married.

Meanwhile, in Arkansas, Dolly had given birth to a new daughter, Claire. Lena missed her father. It proved easy enough to convince Dolly to send her eldest child back to us, and this is when the real trouble started.

2. Lena

I thrashed Bitchy all right tonight. It was brilliant.
Her real name is Mitzi– how ridiculous is that? But I call her Bitchy. Actually, my mom suggested it, but then it suits her perfectly. Of course Bitchy doesn’t have a clue. I have to confess that I hide a few things from Mom too: for example, I haven’t told her yet that sometimes I call Bitchy Mommy. She would hate it, obviously. Poor Mom. It’s hard for her to be so far from me, even though she was the one who left. She calls me every day, and when I am not home, she calls again to leave desperate messages. She keeps asking why I chose to live with my father, and I don’t know what I can say to that. As soon as she starts speaking I know exactly how many drinks she’s had. She is louder after four or five, from six onwards she moans that I abandoned her, and often she ends up sobbing or screaming at me, when it is late at home in Arkansas and she’s had way too many.

So why would I call Bitchy Mommy? Because it pleases them all so much. Not Bitchy, exactly: it unsettles her rather than making her happy, which is fun too. But Grandma loves it. She probably believes that all is well that ends well. And Dad is so glad to see that I adopted his new wife… He thanked me for it the other day. I am his perfect little girl, the jewel of his crown, and ours is the perfect new family. If he only knew! It’s a good thing that no one hears us talking on the phone, Mom and I.

So, tonight, Grandma and Granddad were coming over for dinner. Bitchy spent the whole day running around like a panic-stricken bat. She fumbled about in the kitchen for hours, polishing the silver – which I wouldn’t mind nicking, then burnt her fingers on the oven while trying out fancy recipes. I asked her if she wanted some help, but she brushed me off: she didn’t want me under her feet. I got my revenge when I pinched the foie gras and took it up to my room for a taste. I love foie gras. When I returned it, minus several fat slices, she was livid, but what could she say? And then she asked me to help set the table, but I told her I had homework to do. Who did she think I was? Her household slave?
So we were gathered around the table, all on our best behavior, and I was bored to death. I was sitting next to Dad, as usual. I waited for a lull in the conversation and then I cleared my voice and dropped my bomb:

– Dad?
– Yes, dear?
– Is Mitzi older than you are?

By then, I had everyone’s attention.

Dad mumbled something like:

– Eh? …. Ah… Well, maybe a teeny bit, but why?

Grandpa chose precisely this moment to ask Bitchy whether she could recommend a good film, but they all heard my answer anyway.

– Because it shows.

I saw her flinch and turn scarlet. I looked down at my plate, but our eyes had met. At first she got that incredulous, too stunned to react look… but then I saw outrage and fury. It was as if she was split open and I could see the gears. I had to bite my cheeks hard not to burst out laughing. Thankfully, I could hide behind my hair… I ate off everything in my plate without raising my head, feeling on top of the world. From time to time, I stole a glimpse from under my bangs. She was happily chatting away, but her smile was a shade too bright. After a while, she excused herself and went to the bathroom. She stayed there for quite a long time. I could practically see her checking out every single inch of skin in the mirror, looking out for creases and wrinkles…

I have always heard Grandma say that of the mouths of babes comes forth truth.

3. Mitzi

Lena has been playing truant all year; not a week went by without phone calls from the school, asking what she was up to. Yesterday I had to drive over to pick her up: she was sick. When I arrived at the infirmary, for half a second I did not see Lena, but a strange girl whom I did not immediately recognize. A girl I did not like, slouching aslant in a chair, with hair in her face and legs wide apart. Her piercing was showing in a fold of white belly fat. The eyes she raised towards me registered absolutely nothing, not a flicker of recognition. They were big cat’s eyes, black with silent rage. Her stare chilled me. Usually she never really looks at me; when she needs to say something, she addresses the wall behind me, or the radiator, or the third button of my shirt. She’s been smoking pot again, of course, or worse. I am ashamed of her.

Paul says that it is only teen crisis. He doesn’t know yet that as a gesture of ultimate rebellion, she just had 666 tattooed on the inside of her left arm. Her favorite bands sport names like Aborted, Hatebreed or Suicide Silence. She stocks their collectibles and posts their messages on her walls, along with pictures of her father. He gave her a shoe box full of family photos, and now he is everywhere, in whole series of photo booth portraits, in his passport photos from the time he was three, in holiday snapshots, Paul skiing, Paul on the beach with a ring of girls around him, Paul playing Hendrix on air guitar, Paul with a tie on, probably on Graduation day, Paul with bell-bottoms, Paul thoughtful, holding a book, Paul cute and sexy…

Paul at the age Lena is today.

She has no friends that I know of. The only types she hangs around with are the Goth and Emo kids, loners like herself. They share dark secrets and apocalyptic dreams. When she is home, I feel her hate throbbing in the rooms like a pulse. She has taken this weird habit of hiding in inconspicuous corners, behind doors or curtains, and then materializing when we least expect it. I have an impression of being spied on all the time– or is it that I am going mad? And there are things missing from my desk or closet. When the pen Paul gave me for my birthday disappeared, I asked her for an explanation. She called her mother and told her that she wanted to go back to Arkansas, that she would not live in a house where she was treated like a thief and a liar… There was nothing I could do to plead my case. She knows that her father’s worst nightmare is to see her go, and she plays on that with uncanny virtuosity. Every whim of hers must be fulfilled immediately, or else. Her new fancy is to play drums; she also wants a ferret. Apparently, all her friends have pet ferrets. I should insist that it will be the ferret or me, but I am afraid Paul would choose the ferret.

We’ve been married two years and seven months and I don’t even recognize the man I loved. Last weekend, we had another row. Paul blames me for his daughter’s grades. I was mad with rage at the unfairness of it all, and still crying when he finally came to bed. He switched off the light without a word, turned his back to me, and two minutes later he started snoring. I got up without waking him, took the car keys and went out. I started to drive with no idea of where to go. I only wanted to get away as far as I could. I drove all night. When I finally came back, chilled to the bones, he was still storing. I went to sleep on the couch in the living room. It is an old battered shapeless thing, a makeshift raft in the wreck of our marriage. Watching the day rise between the shutters, I felt like a tramp waiting for dawn in a railway station. I could hear the rumble of the refrigerator. It was not a pleasant noise, but it kept me company.

4. Lena

Grown-ups have funny ideas about us children. They always imagine that we don’t have a clue, as if we were deaf and blind and unable to see what’s going on. They are totally convinced that they are “protecting” us… Not! Protecting us from what, when they don’t even have what it takes to stick together as a family long enough to raise their own kids? I know everything about my father and Bitchy. I know them even better than they know themselves. I love snooping. It’s super easy: when I’m home alone, I search their room, I read every letter I can lay my hands on, I poke through drawers and dressers. There are quite a few interesting items lying around in pockets and handbags as well. Dad leaves just about everything in his coat pockets, even big bucks, and afterwards he keeps looking for them. He never dared to ask me, but he had a row with Bitchy the other day because she had stuffed his jeans in the washing machine with three twenty-euro bills in the rear pocket… or so he thought. The funniest thing of all is that she started arguing, then things got ugly and she ended up crying! I told Mom the whole story and she laughed so hard she nearly split her sides.

Bitchy’s been crying a lot lately, anyway. Things are going downhill fast in this house. They can spend whole days without saying a word to one another. Often at dinner, Dad ignores her completely and speaks only to me. I tell him stories from school, things I make up, anything to hold his attention. She gets up to bring things from the kitchen and clear away, dour-faced and silent as a fish. Pathetic. You can see that she’s dreaming of being someplace else. Well, go, why don’t you? Get a life! While she plays around with her food without actually eating anything, I take second and third helpings, particularly at dessert. I just love eating.
I found a juicy letter that she wrote to Dad, complaining because he doesn’t even look at her anymore… It took him so long to get tired of her, almost three years, but I knew it was going to happen in the end. It was only a matter of time and patience.

“You come home at night, you pour a glass of wine for both of us and you lock yourself up in your study with your glass. You only get out for dinner. Dinner is chaos, impossible to share a few words without being interrupted.”
Yeah, I guess that’s true. I have things to say too.
“After dinner, you go directly back to your study, leaving me to clear the table. Later, often very late, you go to bed. I have been waiting for you. Bedtime: you slip under the covers, you rewind your alarm, and you switch off the light without a word. You fuck me in thirty seconds, hands off, or not at all. And that is the one variation in your routine.”

Not bad so far, is it? But my favorite part is the conclusion:

“ Am I so uninteresting that you don’t even feel like spending a few minutes of your time in my company?”

Well… thank you for pointing out the obvious, Mommy dear.

Marie Hermet

Marie Hermet wanted to be a hippie when she grew up. As it is, she studied Art in Paris, had a stint as a costume designer for the cinema, then finally graduated in English Literature. Currently living in Paris and working as a reader and translator for French publishers, it is her ambition to complete her PhD (about European exiles in Hollywood in the 1940s) before her granddaughter, aged two, finishes high school. Her short stories published in French include L’Oiseleur (awarded the Prix Pégase 2010) and La Reine des Neiges (prix du Musée des Lettres 2009). She believes, as Colum McCann puts it, that you write best not about what you know, but about what you want to know

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

"ENDLESS VACATION" by Paul D. Marks: 2010 Honorable Mention

I used to dream I could fly.

And I'm not really afraid of dying. Not in the normal sense. That sense of the unknown. Heaven. Hell. Maggot food. One's as good as the other.

I had a girlfriend once who slept through a terrorist bomb attack, of course one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. But I don't think she cared about that. And I don't know if her thinking in that moment got as far as heaven-hell-maggot food. I'm sure she was just trying to get the hell out of Dodge before Chrysler imploded.
* * *
I used to want to be a hero.

Doesn't everyone at one time or another? A hero in the movie of your life.
Sometimes a hero in the movie of someone else's life.

It's not like I just got off the bus at the Hollywood Greyhound station like those kids over there. Did they come here to get away from their parents? To become movie stars? Both? Don't they know that the same tether that ties them to home will sink them in this town?

"I'm cold," she says.

I slide a filthy blanket over her. She shivers, pulling it tight around her neck. She leans against the cold stone. A chill shakes her from head to toe. A quivering hand grasps a shock of stringy blonde hair, wraps it over her face; anything to keep the raw wind at bay. Blue veins criss-cross the top of her hand, so many blue highways to the backroads of her soul. But her eyes, windows to that soul, are empty. Devoid of feeling. Devoid of fear. Well, maybe not, but at least that's all hidden behind a wall of street-girl bravado.

"I had to come here," she says.

I'm not sure which here she's referring to. Here, as in here and now, leaning against this cold stone. Or here, as in coming to Hollywood eighteen months ago with stars in her eyes. One of a million, thinking she could be one in a million. A trite, clichéd story to be sure. Unless she's your daughter. Your sister. Your girlfriend.

What is she to me? She's not really any of those things. I'm old enough to be her father, but I'm not. She's not my sister or my girlfriend, though we've had sex on several occasions. She calls it "making love." I call it recreational sex, friends with benefits, but not to her face. Every time we finish she says, "I love you." I mumble something which I assume she takes to be the same. We never talk about it. We often hit Oki Dog afterwards. She cadges money, though she claims never to have turned a trick. I always manage to have a few bucks. Between us we eat okay. Though she spends most of her coin on other things.

"I didn't come here looking for the streets to be paved with gold," she says, her eyelids fluttering. I know she didn't because she'd never heard that expression till I told it to her. But she knew there were palm trees and sunshine, movie stars and Hollywood. And that's where we were now, right in the heart of Hollywood, Paramount Studios only a few yards away.

She may not have known that the streets were supposedly paved with gold; she did know that she might be able to get a job in the movies. Or at least on television. I knew that too, when I came out more than a decade before her. When I came out I was as naïve as her, as everyone else who comes with high hopes and great expectations. I had a script under my arm, a smile on my face and confidence busting out all over. I thought that's all it would take. I won't bore you with how wrong I was. But I did take a meeting with Steven Spielberg once. A friend of a friend knew his assistant and set it up. The meeting–

"They're moving," she giggles.

"What? What's moving?"

"The vampire bites. They're crawling up my arm."

I look at the trail of splotchy welts on her thin arm. "Yeah, they're doing a jig."
"A jig? What's that?"

"A dance."

"Yeah, they're dancing. You're so funny. You always make me laugh."

I make her laugh and she makes me cry. A tear nearly escapes the corner of my eye. I stifle it with a finger that hasn't hit a keyboard in two years. Or is it four?

Her head flops back against the stone. She's okay. I lean back against the hard leg of the bench I'm using as a back support. I watch the vampire bites creep up her arm.

"I could've gone to New York, you know."

I know. I've heard the story a thousand times, but I don't really mind hearing it again. You know how when you know someone well, when you're a good fit, they – and you – start repeating the same stories over and over again as if you've never heard them. When I'm doing it I always wonder if the person remembers the story or are they hearing it yet again for the first time? When I tell them what the first record I bought was. The first movie I saw in a theatre. The first time I ditched school. The first girl I kissed. The lore that makes up our lives. So I knew she could have gone to New York. And I knew why she didn't.

"It was either New York or Hollywood," she says. "The Big Apple or the Big Orange. I like oranges better. Someday I want to hit New York – CBGB's."

"It's not there anymore," I say.

"I know." She stretches out 'know' as if it has three syllables, like a little girl might. "It's a gallery or something now."


I never wanted to rain on her parade of vampire bites, but someone had to tell her that CBGB's, the renowned club where punk rock is said to have started in the 70s with Patti Smith, Television, Richard Hell, the Talking Heads and the Ramones, ain't what it used to be, so to speak. Not to burst her bubble, but so she wouldn't make a wasted trip to NYC like the one to LA. CB's is no more. What good does it do to live in the past?

When she came out here she was wafer thin, or is it waif thin? Same difference. Pale white skin, skinny arms, skinny all over and that long, lank blonde hair that, at least then, all of a year and a half ago, looked natural. These days it comes out of a bottle, but she does a good job and you can hardly tell. Back then, what do they say, back in the day – I hate that fucking expression – she affected that heroin chic look, though she'd never done heroin. Today she lives it. I can see it on her face – the tombstones in her eyes. I can see it on her arms, the tracks running up and down – vampire bites she calls them.

She wants to make a pilgrimage to CB's, but there ain't no CB's anymore and even if there was that whole scene was before she was born. Before she was that gleam in her papa's eye, that bulge in her mommy's tummy. That scene was dead long ago. She wants to go back to something she's nostalgic for – something that barely existed in her lifetime.

Who the hell am I to talk? I came to LA looking for a Hollywood that died before I was born. A glamorous town of movie stars and studios and backlots. A studio system that nurtured talent, whatever you say about how it also might have stifled it with the other hand. A town that made movies in black and white but whose streets were, indeed, paved with gold. Yeah, I bought it – hook, line and clapboard.

And so we met, a scared and lonely girl and a tired and lonely man verging on middle age. Oh hell, middle aged – but that, of course, depends on when you start the clock on that one. I'm not ready for AARP, not for a while anyway.

Two dreamers whose dreams went bust on the prickly pyre of reality. So we have each other and we give each other warmth and someone to talk to on the endless days of our endless vacation. Someone to share dreams with. Someone to share food and shelter with. And watch TV with – we always manage be in front of a TV to watch The Amazing Race. To watch other people living life even as we don't live ours. Someone to share needles and H with and know – with fairly good certainty – that you aren't going to get Hepatitis or Aids from. Now that's reality.

She slides down Dee Dee Ramone's unyielding tombstone, here in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. If she can't make it to CB's she can at least come to where Dee Dee's buried – burned by a heroin overdose. Yards away is a statue of Johnny Ramone. Founders of the Ramones, godfathers of punk. Who gives a damn? She does.

"Dee Dee wrote a song about skag," she says, slurring her words. "Chinese Rock."

Yeah, I know. It's one of those things we talk about over and over, like a broken record. I wonder if she knows that expression.

–My meeting with Spielberg went fine. He loved the pitch. "Leave me pages," he said. I left pages. Never heard back. Called a week later. Too soon. Three weeks later. "He's in pre-production." Eight weeks later. "He's in production." Twenty weeks later – who are you and what do you want? My flirtation with fame and fortune.

I sold my Gibson Les Paul Goldtop a couple weeks ago, the only hold out from my former life. Got pretty good money for it too. We've been staying in a cheap motel, eating pretty well and buying decent dope. Life is good.

I hear voices. For real? In my head? Look down the lane – people stream in.

"Hey, it's Saturday night," I say.

"I forgot."

"They show movies here on Saturdays – against the mausoleum wall."

It's true. Where else but in Hollywood – right here in the heart of Hollywood – would people come to watch movies on a big silver screen – the mausoleum wall – sitting on graves, munching on picnic dinners with their expensive wines and waters, only a few yards from the back of Paramount Studios?

"Do you want to go see the movie?"

She shakes her head. "I like it here."

She slides farther down Dee Dee's stone.

"But I'm cold."

I wrap the blanket tighter around her.

Sometimes-sometimes when we're doing it – having sex – I hope she'll get pregnant. I want to leave something behind. I wanted to leave behind the Great American Screenplay, but that ain't gonna happen. So maybe a kid. But that wouldn't be fair to the kid. Of course, if we have one, maybe I'll straighten up, get a job – yeah. Get an apartment. Call my folks. All that good stuff. Maybe. We don't use protection and we don't get pregnant, so it's a big maybe.

I'm afraid of leaving nothing behind. I'll be gone and no one will even know I was here. I don't live on MySpace or Facebook or Twitter or any of those. I don't exist. No checking account. No driver's license. Hell, no ATM card. No one knows where to find me. No one who knows me knows who I am. Sometimes I barely remember.

Where did I come from? I know. I could tell you, but what's the point? It was another world. Another life. Another me.

I watch her face go calm and peaceful. Slack. Her whole body goes limp.

I want to do something.

I try. But can't.

There's nothing worse than watching someone OD in front of you. You watch them die. You want to help, to call the cops, an ambulance – do something – but you can't because you're smacked out too.

She gave herself a hotshot. Making it in LA wasn't just harder than she expected. It was impossible. When she got off that bus she thought she was tough – she wasn't as tough as she thought. She doesn't care if anyone remembers her. She just wants peace.

Yeah, I used to want to be a hero. And maybe I've even done some heroic things. But no one remembers. No one cares that I chased a city bus for two blocks because the driver wouldn't wait for an old man to get to the stop. I felt like a hero then. But I wanted to save a girl and I couldn't or didn't or maybe even wouldn't. I don't know. Hell, I can't even save myself.

I used to have dreams. I used to dream I could fly.

Paul D. Marks is a former "script doctor," who's now focusing
on fiction, both short and long. His story "Netiquette" won first
place in the Futures Short Story Contest. "Poison Heart" was a
finalist in the Deadly Ink short story competition. "Dem Bones"
was a finalist in the Southern Writers Association contest. His
novel White Heat took second place in the mystery-thriller category
of the South West Writers contest. His story "Terminal Island" appeared in the Fall 2009 issue of Weber: The Contemporary West. He has
also published non-fiction articles in various newspapers and magazines
and has lectured on writing at UCLA, Cal State San Bernardino, Learning
Tree, as well as writers' organizations. He is currently working on a
novel set on the L.A. homefront during World War II and a satirical novel
about the joyous and joyful Hollywood experience.

Friday, August 6, 2010

“Me, Myself, Still Un-cool” by M. Esther Sherman

M. Esther Sherman received an Honorable Mention in our 2010 competition

I’m a poetic soul and always have been, against my better judgment and the beatings of my classmates. My seventeen years of upper middle class life have caused me to be precisely as tough as paper mache and as daring as a monk on sedatives. I have no curfew because even my parents want me to get a life. I drive a 1996 Mustang Cobra, which is still cool because it’s 1997, but I’m afraid of ruining it so I put a cover over it every time I stop somewhere, which is apparently incredibly un-cool. I don’t play sports because they don’t let you carry a copy of Pride and Prejudice beneath your football jersey.

Yes, I am a man and yes, I love Jane Austen.

Most days, and nights, I sit around doing exactly what I am doing right now. I sit on the floor of my bedroom, perfectly decorated with original Star Wars posters, and debate the meaning of life with my witless best friend, Brian Aliander. Oh, and I believe remaking Star Wars will go down as being the only attempt at meaningful contribution for this generation, which since it was a photo copy of a masterpiece will also define us as the stupid little pot-smokers we really are.

It’s the last night before senior year and I am, rather obviously, a virgin…and a band geek who fiddles with the violin.

“Thoughts are fluid and stormy,” I begin with sincere emotion and depth. “They drift between the crevices of our minds as if to suggest there must be something more than this, but what if there isn’t? What if the thoughts we hold and the dreams we cling to are nothing more than the anxious fears of a hopeless heart? Maybe the brokenness, the agony, the hate this world produces in mass is all there really is. Maybe the blood, bruises, and scars we bear are the only truths we will ever find. Thoughts are worthless without the elements that have the potential to make them true. There is a distinct possibility there is nothing more than this.”

I stop and allow my profoundly brilliant realization to be absorbed into the air. Brian’s pudgy form looks back at me with utter amazement. I know I have reached him on a personal level. He swallows his last bite of pizza and chases it with a swig of soda. I sit, in complete anticipation of the affirmation sure to be thrown my way, as he draws in a deep breath before speaking.

“Dude, that’s f’d up,” he finally says, takes another gulp of soda and belches loudly. “You need to sort out your shit or stuff like that’s going to keep coming out of your mouth and you’re going to get the crap beat out of you.”

I shake my head in complete disbelief, which turns out to not be enough to keep him from continuing his unwanted response.

“Not to mention,” Brian continues. “You’re never going to get laid with a mouth that has more practice at quoting dead chicks than with making out with live ones.”

“But I…” I stammer in disbelief.

“I know,” he says after finishing off his drink and tossing the can to the side. “This is our tradition and it’s what we’ve always done. You sit there and say something brilliant and I sit here and applaud you for it. I just can’t do it anymore. I think I finally grew a pair and you should probably do the same.”

With that, and nothing else, my best friend of eleven years gets up, walks out, and disappears from my life.

“How f’d up is that?” I ask my stuffed bear, resting against the bed where he’s been listening to the entire thing. He too looks appalled, though I am uncertain whether Brian or I put that look there.

I know Brian is right. I have reached the point in my life where all my philosophical studies, my nights of lengthy reviews of the newest enlightened compilation of thoughts, and my tiresome habit of thinking before acting mean only one thing: I am un-cool.

The next two weeks prove to be nothing more than the endless cycle guilt accomplishes on every soul stupid enough to listen. One day, I am convinced everything is my fault and I must apologize to Brian. By the next day, I’m convinced I don’t deserve his friendship and he’s better off without me. I’m pretty much a woman like that. I go back and forth until I give up and wait for him to come to me, something I know full well a dimwit like Brian is never going to do because he doesn’t know what he had. The thought alone solidifies the fact I am totally a chick.

I step into Mr. Winter’s advanced calculus class and pull an oversized textbook from my bag before sitting down next to Margerie Swangster, the most beautiful girl on the face of the earth. I could spend days on end, without food or water, completely satisfied just staring at her perfect smile and bouncing blonde hair. If I were slightly cooler, not much but enough, I would comment on her gorgeous rack and hips that move with a mind of their own. I don’t possess the amount of cool necessary to think such things without blushing enough to send me into fever.

“Can I borrow a pencil for the quiz?” Margerie’s angelic voice slips into the air like vapor and vanishes in an instant.

I stare at her dumbly and wonder what a pencil is. I don’t blink.

“Danny?” her voice again.

Danny? That’s my name. Somewhere inside of me I know she is talking to me. The incredible, brilliantly beautiful, sensuously delicate Margerie is talking to me. I can’t breathe and my face begins to pulse red from thinking the word “sensuously”. Alex Bernstein, built like a bear, reaches across my desk to hand her one of my pencils.

“Thank you, Alex,” she hums softly, almost a purr. “You’re a life saver.”

Damn it. Damn it all to hell, me and my inability to function around anything in a skirt. Not that woman have to wear skirts, it’s not the fifties and I’m not that guy. Damn it. I must look angry. I must look angry enough to kill someone because when I regain composure, everyone is looking at me.


This time it is Mr. Winters’ voice punching me in the face.

“Yes, sir.”

I wanted it to sound calm but I know it didn’t.

“You all right, son?”

I burst into flames, metaphorically speaking. It is this moment, the one in which I realize I am no longer un-cool but am now officially a loser, when I start thinking about everything else in the world; beer, belly dancers, bratwurst, caramel apples, catapults, crash scenes. Even my rebellious thoughts appear in alphabetical order.

This was my entire high school experience. I could go on about my freshman year when I showed up to the prom in a bright blue suit because I thought, when this lovely senior girl leaned within inches of me and asked if I’d go with her, she was talking to me and not the senior football star sitting at the desk to my left.

I could tell you about my sophomore year when I thought I made the football team only to realize they thought I was a girl and they were being accommodating in order to not get sued by an irate father who wanted his daughter to play football with the boys.

I could tell you about my junior year when I set the curve on the senior English final and the entire class beat my ass after school. I could tell you a lot of things that have already been summarized by my one minute too long of staring at Margerie Swangster.

I now, two years later and none the wiser, attend a prestigious university, drive a slightly beaten up 1996 Mustang Cobra, and am still a Star Wars loving virgin who plays the violin. My psychology book is cracked open on my desk and my eyes are endlessly searching for answers I can’t find. Professor Grubik’s classes are notorious for answers you can’t find because no one is certain what the question is. I rub my eyes and hear the shower turn off. I hadn’t realized the shower was running.

It is only two a.m. and my roommate, Kevin, usually doesn’t venture in until the sun rises and another day begins. I think that’s actually his motto. He’s one of those guys who are popular enough to have their own motto.

I had stepped out for a minute or two earlier to ask a classmate a question but I hadn’t seen Kevin. It doesn’t matter. I shake my head and convince myself it doesn’t matter, even though what it means is that he is going to step into the main room, brag about his conquests, and remind me of exactly why he’s him and I’m me. Now, I really have no idea where to find the answers and I slam the book shut. The door to the bathroom slides open slowly, not in Kevin’s normally boisterous style, and I turn to comment on exactly that.

There, in my room, completely naked and dripping wet is Margerie Swangster. She’s immediately angry, in the quiet way a girl gets angry even when it’s her fault, and I can’t stop staring. Her body is more perfect than I ever imagined and I certainly did spend many days and nights imagining. She has marble skin, smooth as water and curving perfectly to cover her sensuous hips that still move as if they have a mind of their own. Her immediate anger moves into a smiling state of intrigue as she realizes how much pleasure I’m getting from this. I’m not subtle and I can’t stop staring.

She fixates on my eyes as I settle on her breasts, circling around her nipples until I unconsciously lick my lips with the feel of her skin against them. She stands still but I still feel every inch of her. I throb and I burn with a passion I am unable to satisfy. I take her with a strong but firm hand and she removes my shirt and begins to unbutton my pants. I lay her down on Kevin’s bed and begin to move over her, my tongue pleasing her flesh. She moans and I feel the satisfaction as she grows louder and I dig deeper within her. My fingers are inside of her and my lips taste every inch of her hips as she squirms in ecstasy beneath my strength.

She laughs.

I’m still staring.

Damn it.

“You have a towel, Danny?”

Her voice is precisely as delicious as I remember but I have changed enough to move when she asks. I toss her a towel hanging over my bed and she wraps it around herself. It doesn’t remove the images. I can shake my head a thousand times but it won’t remove the images.

“Thanks,” she says.

I have changed in the last two years. I realize I have changed enough to do something. She pulls one of Kevin’s shirts over her head and as her head reappears, I am there. I touch her hips gently and the towel falls. I’m against her, my hands touching her bare flesh and I kiss her.

The kiss is timid at first, then lingering as an act of rebellion. I allow my lips to part more deeply and she presses herself against me. I don’t know why she’s kissing me back. Maybe she’s curious or maybe she is the sort who gives to charity in more ways than soup kitchens and fundraisers. Her lips are sweet and her skin is warm, the feeling will never leave me. The door opens, of course, and Kevin appears in a sudden movement of panic and disbelief.

“Margie,” he half yells.

She pulls away from me with a giggle and I know she’s smooth enough to live through this.

“Hi, sweetie,” she wraps the towel around her waist, leaving her breasts bouncing beneath his shirt to distract him, and moves toward him, kissing his cheek. “You were late so I thought I’d have a bit of fun with your roommate.”

Her smile melts him, toward her anyway. He turns to me and I make a mistake. Every once in a while, my obscenely high I.Q. gets me into trees I can’t climb out of.

“I thought she needed a little passion in her life,” I smile sharply, like a man who can fly until he’s thrown out a window. “You know, someone who knows what they’re doing.”

Turns out, that was the last thing I would say for over a month since he broke my jaw and I spent twelve hours in a coma. Twelve hours in a coma for kissing Margerie Swangster. Well worth it if you ask me.

That is the basic summary of my college experience. I graduated top of my class, teacher’s favorite, and still a virgin, though I did see a girl naked, rarely picked up a violin, and only put up two Star Wars posters in four years.

Two years after the perfect kiss, I stand in front of the entire university in my long black gown, waiting to give a speech of some limited significance. I have it all written out, all the things I know I should say. Things like “the world is ours” and “these lessons will carry you through the rest of your life”. I know exactly what should come out but when I stand up to the podium, the words disappear. I stand up, in front of everyone and say absolutely nothing. I say nothing because this is exactly what I want to say…

“I am incredibly un-cool and always have been but I know what happens next,” I want to say. “In three years, I will have been working for one of the highest rated companies in the world when I decide to quit in favor of starting my own Internet Company and making several million dollars a month doing almost no actual work whatsoever. I will be on my way to a conference in San Francisco, teaching young kids how to be as amazing as me, when I run into Margerie Swangster who decides it is high time we catch up. I’ll take her back to my penthouse suite, lay her down in all the ways a man does a woman, and realize she was never really that good.

“I will get to wake up the next morning and move on with my life without the fantasy no one can live up to and let her return to her passionless life with some hack she married for money while I realize it was Kevin I always had a thing for,” at this point, if I was speaking, I could watch Kevin squirm. “Turns out his violent overreaction in college was nothing more than a mask to hide his secret love for all things Jane Austen and his dark fetish for Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the homosexual movie theatre on Fifth and Elm. I’ll look him up in the Pink Pages and take him out to a nice meal and an Elvis wedding. We will buy a house by the bay, adopt one of the Jolie-Pitt children as soon as the divorce is finalized, and settle into a comfortable routine consisting of Star Wars novels and violin lessons. I’ll be happy and I will still be un-cool because about twenty years from now, I’m going to realize un-cool is the new cool and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

I stare out at the audience staring back at me and my eyes fall heaviest on Kevin, sitting sternly in the third row from the back. We lock eyes for a moment and I realize it doesn’t matter what I say. I regain my composure and say exactly what I should say, all the clichés that rest on the page in front of me. The crowd applauds politely and I take my seat behind the podium, staring at Kevin’s firm features, content with the fact I already know how it ends.

M. Esther Sherman is the product of Newberg, Oregon, currently resides in SoCal, has the gift of sarcasm, a need to write, is the mother of the most amazing kid on the planet, and still can’t believe Jake was dumb enough to choose Vienna over Tenley (who’s also from Newberg, fyi). She graduated top of her class with a degree in sociology in ’06 and uses her knowledge of human behavior and social norms to craft characters with internal and external controversy with a splash of political animosity. Esther loves to write novels, screenplays, short stories, poetry, and the occasional thank you note and would love nothing more than to have a long happy career in fiction. Some have already said she is, “sure to be one of the most dynamic and masterfully original authors of our time. The witty complexities of her humor and the manner in which she brings her characters to life are nothing short of genius.” Of course, so far, the only people to say those things have also been fictional.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Cloud Creature by Kate Zahnleiter

The Cloud Creature by Kate Zahnleiter: 2010 Second-Place Winner

I like to walk to clear my head, when it gets heavy and full, and so I slip out the front door while he's in the shower. I should leave a note to save him from worry and rage, but I doubt I'll be gone long and either way I cannot bring myself to go back into the house. Henry has made an appointment for Thursday, 11.30. He has printed off an information sheet, complete with carpark diagram, and left a pre-procedure checklist on top of the kitchen bench. I learn something new each time I pass. No food or drink for two hours prior to the scheduled time. Patients will be given medication for the pain. Should infection occur, a course of antibiotics will be prescribed and all discomfort should be cleared within a few days. Bold type at the bottom of the page tells me I will not be permitted to leave the clinic unless accompanied by a family member or friend, but Henry hasn't offered to come with me. He hasn't offered anything other than the money, but then I don't really have any of my own.

I push my way up the hill, enjoying the way my muscles tighten and release, trying to trust the soundness of them and believe that they will not give way and leave me the victim of gravity and the ground below. Lately, I have been thinking often of my body. As a constant. As something other than a vessel which carries me from place to place, a vessel from which I can disembark at any moment. I suppose I have you to thank for that. You've been focusing on your own body, I know. First with the rapid division of cells and now, millimetre by millimetre, every day you are growing yourself. I push my way up the hill and try to ignore the sharp pain in my side which could be your handiwork or could be Henry's, or could simply be a symptom of my general lack of fitness. Exercise is good for foetal development, I know, though I suppose that won't make much difference.

'Get rid of it,' Henry had said, and he had pushed his fingers into my stomach so hard I thought you'd be able to feel them, so hard I thought he was trying to rip you out of there himself. Get rid of it, he'd said, as if he was referring to a stain on a bed sheet or some sort of blood-sucking parasite. He'd spoken that way about a couple of church group leaders, once. They had climbed our front steps and asked if I wanted to be saved, and I did, oh God I did, but he slammed the door in their faces and slid the lock into place.

Get rid of it, he'd said of you, even though I hadn't breathed a word. I hadn't even thought about you while in his presence, just in case he had broken through the final barrier and had learnt to read my mind. I had been careful not to let my hand rest on my stomach more than usual. I had been careful not to let my eyes glaze over when he spoke, since Henry liked to clear my head by cracking it against the nearest hard surface. Instead, I kept you buried until the private daylight hours, until I heard the front door click shut and felt the house clear of him. Then I would sit at our kitchen table in silence and let my mind grow fat with thoughts of you, while I stared at the clock and tracked its movements. I'd heard that time slows down that way, and I wanted to savour each solitary tick. Thursday, 11.30. That's a little over 24 hours, and I wonder if my legs could hold out for that long and keep my head clear. I doubt it, since already I need a rest.

The door to the coffee shop chimes happily as I enter, the bell's enthusiasm not matched by that of the waitress, who sighs when she sees me. I pick a corner booth next to the window, and slide across the seat so I am huddled against the wall. The air conditioning has been turned up too high, and my flesh rises in tiny bumps as it often does when I need an extra layer of insulation, when I need to seem intimidating and larger to my enemy. I rub my body to warm it, careful of all the tender places. There are four fading purple circles on my forearm and I try to line my fingers up with them, the same way I have seen people try to fit their palms into other people's handprints hardened into concrete. Mine aren't a match, though that's no surprise; if my body could be dusted and lighted forensically, every inch would glow with Henry's arches, loops and whorls. I have read that by the seventh week of gestation a foetus has already developed an individual set of fingerprints. You are already unique.

'Can I help you?'

Oh please, yes, could you?

'I'll have a camomile tea, thanks.'

Research shows that light to moderate caffeine consumption is safe during pregnancy, but I'm unclear on the widely accepted definition of 'moderate' and know a lot of the data comes from studies involving pregnant rats. The process differs from creature to creature. From rat to human, from human to human, the process is different for everyone. I think that animal testing is cruel, on a whole, but an argument could be made that there are some things people need to know. For the greater good.

Growing up, I knew two things about my mother. The first was that she had long black hair, like mine. The second was that I had killed her. There was no information at all about my father, and my Child Safety Officer told me not to think on any of these things too much. Unfortunately, there was little else I wanted to think on, between the endless rotation of foster families and government homes and faces, large and twisted, familiar and unfamiliar at once. When I was eight I asked Mrs McTeague, the school librarian at the time, if she knew how to find out more. She had always been so supportive with class projects.

'I can't help you, Cal,' she had said, ducking her head so I couldn't see her eyes. She gave me a book on African wildlife instead and let me sit in her office while I read it. She knew I hated the communal reading room, with the low murmuring of other children and the erratic flipping of pages. She knew even such small sounds bothered me when I was trying to concentrate. She knew how I needed my solitude.

Sometimes I wonder what it's like in there for you, in your own little world. No day or night. No hot or cold. No food or water or air, other than that which I pass on. The ultrasound gave nothing away but a strange rushing, pulsing noise that seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere at once. I hope it doesn't overwhelm and confuse you, in there. I hope you don't get lonely. Sometimes I try to remember what it was like for me, when I was in your position, but it does no good. The human brain and memory can only stretch so far; some things need to be pushed out to make room for others.

Towards the end of my schooling I stayed with a family called the Clarksons. They had three children of their own and the eldest, Miranda, taught me to revise for exams by standing in front of a mirror and saying facts aloud until they stuck in my head. I liked the Clarksons, and I would have liked to have stayed with them for longer than the six months, had Mrs Clarkson not developed multiple sclerosis.

During this time, I met my grandmother. She was much younger than I imagined grandmothers to be, with a raspy voice and a smell of stale scotch and talc. We caught the train to Pelican Bay so she could show me where my mother had grown up. We climbed to the top of Break-Neck Cliff and sat with our legs dangling over the edge. I sucked in sea air and she sucked in nicotine while she spoke, carefully, about my mother.

'She liked to swim to clear her head. She loved the sea. She named you for it.'

I trembled with the effort of restraining myself and tried not to rush her for more. I could already see myself saying these facts aloud to the mirror. I could already see myself moving to Pelican Bay and settling down with my grandmother, with the memory of my mother. I could already see my life changing.

'She never went anywhere else. This was where we laid her to rest. She's still down there, you know. She's still swimming.'

I trembled again, but this time mostly in fear. I imagined my mother as some sort of interminable sea monster; her tired body wrapped in seaweed, her long black hair threaded with salt. I imagined her climbing out of the whitewash and up the side of the cliff towards us, her aching arms outstretched to claim me, to pull me down with her.

'If things had been different...' my grandmother said, but she let the rest of her words fall over the edge of the cliff, so I wasn’t sure what would happen if things had been different.

I sat by the phone for three weeks before I realised she wasn't going to call. I knew I should have spoken more, tried to appear more interesting. I shouldn't have complained when I stumbled and cut my leg as I tried to keep up with her, her footing as steady and sure as a mountain goat's. I shouldn't have told her I didn't know how to swim. I thought about catching the train to Pelican Bay by myself to surprise her, but instead Miranda and I rode into town and I looked up my name in the encyclopaedia. Calypso was a sea goddess. Her mother covered the world while her father was a giant who held the whole thing up. She kept a man prisoner for seven years. She wouldn't let him free.

My tea arrives; tiny flowers floating in hot water.

'Don't burn yourself,' the waitress says, but she doesn't sound as if she cares one way or the other. She looks worn out, and I wonder if she spends her whole day praying not to hear that door chime.

I stare into the pot and try to see shapes in the bobbing yellow clumps. When I was 18, I met a young man with green eyes and a slow, deliberate smile. He could find pictures in the clouds; a swan, a boat, two lovers in the grass. He could put words to the pictures as well, plucking stories from the heavens with such skill that by the end of the day those stories were more real than we were. He told me he saw me playing the piano. He told me he saw me learning to paint. He told me these things while he held my hand gently, stroking the back of it with his thumb. I try to read my tea, now, but it is only the past I see.

'I want to marry you, Cal,' he said to me once, and my heart had beaten right out of my chest and landed in the sky, where it became white and fluffy and read as a single, simple Yes.

Three weeks later, he rolled his car while telling me the story of a cloud creature that grew so large it became everything. I was trapped inside with his lifeless body for two hours, but he didn't suffer. Not as I did. They cut me out and told me I was lucky. They told me I would lose my limp, over time. I still had it when I met Henry, though that didn’t seem to bother him. I still have a scar down the left side of my face, too, which I don't want to lose. That seems to bother him a little.

I told Henry I wanted to study, and to work with victims of trauma and sufferers of chronic pain. I told him I wanted to teach them to play the piano. I told him I wanted to teach them to paint. He nodded, he encouraged me, until one day he changed his mind and broke each of my fingers. But he was sorry for it.

'I just want you here with me, Cal. I just want to take care of you.’

I had considered telling him I could take care of myself, but the truth was I wasn't so sure of it.

'I just love you so much. See?'

His eyes had been full and wet, his intact fingers vice-like on my waist, and I thought that I could see. If I looked at it a certain way. If I tilted my head and squinted.

I didn't want to see you, at first. The nurse offered to hold my hand but I gripped the sheets instead until my knuckles turned white, begging for a misunderstanding, hoping that you had disappeared through my silence and neglect. I didn't want you. You wouldn't want me, with my sallow skin and lank hair, with my swollen gums and concave chest. When I break and bruise I am slow to heal. These are all signs of malnourishment.

The doctor had pointed to a beautiful, floating blur, and I had tried to make a picture out of you. I had tried to build you a story, but I had no talent for it. Practice makes perfect, though, and the doctor had printed out a copy for me to carry home in my back pocket. In my head, I carried home memorised paragraphs from the waiting room brochures. Pregnancy should be a special time. There are many factors to consider when making a decision. A woman has a right to control her body. A woman has a right to choose. Say those lines in front of a mirror and repeat them until they stick. I would say them now, in front of the reflective coffee shop window, but the glass is dusty and streaked with grease, and my likeness is mottled and unformed. I don't think she'd understand. She rarely does.

'Do you know what you've done?' Henry had said. 'Do you know what will happen?'

I knew I had created life out of chaos. I can’t know the future, but I'd done some research. I'd read about crack babies that come out screaming for their next fix. I'd read about foetuses choking themselves before they are even fully grown. I'd read about young eating each other inside the womb. Intra-uterine cannibalism, they call it. Though that article had been about grey nurse sharks.

'Is the thing even mine?'

His voice had been harsh, and I had closed my eyes against it in case he could see how strongly I prayed. For an immaculate conception. For a severe case of sleepwalking. For a gestation period that would break the records. At altitudes of 1,400 to 1,700 metres, the pregnancy of an Alpine Salamander can last for up to three years, though the process differs from creature to creature. I am still not entirely sure what sort of creature I am. Part human, part titan, part sea. I'm still not sure what sort you are, either.

If things had been different. If I could build you a story.

It takes two hours to get to Pelican Bay by train. It takes 20 minutes to walk to the train station from the coffee shop. I could go there now. I could buy a ticket and board the train, take a seat next to a nice elderly woman and her knitting or else across from a couple of teenagers with their headphone speakers turned up too loud. I could find a house with a room to rent. I could find a job. In high school I could type 52 words per minute, and I wouldn't mind scrubbing toilets. I could let my belly grow fat with love of you. I could already see my life changing.

My bag sits open on the seat beside me and I try not to tremble as I rifle through it, try to keep my breathing even so you don't have to fend for yourself. In its depths I find travel tissues, a pen, a packet of gum with three pieces missing. I find my phone with the crack down the middle; a crack along its face which tells me I have five missed calls, though I don't know how I could have missed the shrill, shrieking sound of them. I continue to rake my hands through the debris at the bottom of the bag, even though I know, in my stomach, that I have left my wallet at home. I can see it on the kitchen bench, right next to that appointment slip. I can't even pay for the tea.

I like to walk to clear my head, when it gets heavy and full, but now I don't trust my shaking legs to hold me up. Instead, I fold my arms into a pillow on the tabletop and let them take the weight of it, though I do my best avoid the tender places. I press my ear into the cavern created between the old wood and my body. It echoes, there; a strange rushing, pulsing noise that seems to come from nowhere and everywhere at once. It confuses and overwhelms me. It sounds like the sea.

Kate Zahnleiter was born and raised in South East Queensland, Australia. In 2005 she graduated with a Bachelor of Psychology (Honours), and has since been involved in community care and rehabilitation, working with individuals with mental illness and victims of violence and abuse. Her current goal is to make writing a larger part of her life, and to travel the world as widely as she can for inspiration.