The Boy Aboard The Train

There was this time I saw a boy who rode inside a train;

he rode alone, and read his book, in silence filled with rain.

I peeped him through the windows while I walked along the tracks

and, although I hadn’t seen his face, I knew his story front to back.

Laid across his silken cover, etching deep into his spine,

read the boy’s Life title of cursive script in lines so fine.

His face said “People-Please” and his body fit the bill

as he packed himself like sausage tight against the window’s sill.

From within his inside cover, I stole stories of his youth,

velvet trees left to their swaying over adventures he’d once took;

Yet beneath the trees’ foundation squirmed a mottled, rancid worm,

fed fat on golden-memory fruits that, in hope, its loss return.

On the Boy’s dedication, I read the Names now scrawled upon his life

of kin he’d loved or friends he’d lost, blood-ink turned black with strife.

I learned all the more about him as the list went on and on:

“Forgiveness” was a name unwrit amongst the others he’d done wrong.

Among its countless pages, I perused this boy’s Life Book

written deep in charcoal-forehead lines, stark skin, and blank-page look.

It saddened me. He’d robbed his youth! Very soon, I deduced a plan:

by rewriting his ending, I would make this Boy a Man.

Upon the crossing at the rail-road spikes, I laid my pile of bones,

Stoled, from skeletons, the boy once kept in closets dark and cold.

I forced the train’s conductor to bring their journey to halt

and stifled out their outcries before its passengers claim fault.

For each and every passenger sitting, stalled, aboard that still steam-train,

I forced the ones who weighed it down to exit. In the rain.

As fists beat hard on windows and tempered glass rattled from their rage,

from out one window’s opened crack, I tossed their loaded-brick luggage.

And so with the train now lightened with the one’s who bore their load,

I snatched the boy’s Life Book up, quick, then tossed it in the road:

All those within the carriage car, we Lookers, sat and watched

as rain soaked through its glossy front, whitening pages from black-ink blots.

Between two smallest fingers, the sodden thing was carried on,

before I ripped page from fragile binding till the paper part was gone;

once every Looker had received a page, accompanied by pen,

they wrote a moment of their life the boy had helped fill in.

Once each was done and gathered did I sew the bindings up,

a smattering of pages, corners ruffed and scrawls screwed up,

the passengers all watched me while I produced my own Life Book;

from its thousand empty pages, more than half is what I took.

These I added to the others while the group passed back their pens

and I couldn’t help but smile as the Boy took his Book again.

At first, he stared quiet blankly at the cover, lost for words;

till, from his bag, procured a pencil and wrote “I thank you; Praise the Lord.”

Then without too much ado I stepped back and exited the train,

Waved farewell to its passengers, gay smile wide in pouring rain.

Pilfering through the Lookers’ luggages, I gathered up my things

before I waved one last goodbye to the Man now flying ‘cross rails on steely wings.

Mirror To Another World

This story is an excerpt from my book, Curse of the NonSol Isles, which was pitched in early February and accepted for publication by Tales; Tales is an interactive story-telling platform that provides creators with data to find story/market fit and the economics to scale ideas into massive franchises.

By downloading the app, you can continue the story as chapters are uploaded here!

I led a pretty uneventful life, to tell you the truth. I wasn’t the strongest or the most popular. I wasn’t an athlete or particularly charming. I definitely wasn’t smart; in fact, I passed high school by cheating off the guy in front of me. And the worst part about it? I never bothered to learn his name.

Too bad, I say. Tough luck. School isn’t for everyone, anyway. Too much structure and way too much work. Once I’d finally escaped that hell-hole, I got a job instead, working for the only cruise line that would take some near high-school dropout with no education or experience: Euro-Cruise. Trade in a life of academics for one of adventure and get paid for it, too?

Sign me up!

And I did. With Euro-Cruise. You’d’ve heard of it if you’d been born where I’m from. Not a week went by that we didn’t make the front page of the paper:

Family Falls Ill Due To Undercooked Pork!

Euro-Cruise Pools Prove Hot-Bed For Pink-Eye!

Woman Falls Overboard Due To Crew Member Negligence!

Now, that one was technically my fault. Only partly, though. I did ask that woman nicely to get out of the way before the anchor rope snagged her foot and pulled her over. But did she listen? Of course not. But that didn’t make it into the paper. I nearly lost my job after she went blabbing to the press about her accidental midnight swim. But, as usual, it only took about a month before another headline took my story’s place. The cooks had a habit of playing hockey with the frozen burgers whenever business got slow. Allegedly, that is.

But all press is good press, as the saying goes.

Regardless, the pay was decent for the work I did. The food was decent, if not a bit flavorless, and there was always something to keep me entertained: the maids were always a good time if you caught them in the pool bar after midnight. My lodgings were decent enough for a cabin boy. I had a private room with a bunk to myself. It was long enough for me, so long as I pulled in my legs. I didn’t have lights: the ship’s electrician had “forgotten” to install them after he caught me stealing a picture of his wife. Whatever, I didn’t really need it anyway. I had a footlocker as well, where I stored my cash and other… unmentionables that are best left… unmentioned.

What? Sea life gets lonely, as I’m sure you’ve learned.

Of course, I didn’t have the luxury of a window in my room, as sleeping beneath the ocean didn’t offer much of a view. But I did have a mirror: it was just a bit bigger than a buffet plate and the pride of my eyes most mornings.

So before, when I told you I didn’t have much going for me, that wasn’t exactly true. Back during my Euro-Cruise days, I looked much different than I do now. I had a full head of dark, curly hair with a long beard to match. It wasn’t patchy either. My skin was the canvas for many a Caribbean tattoo artist; two were from the line cook who shared my tiny bathroom down the hall. My eyes had that youthful gleam in them, even after 30 years at sea. In short, I was an extremely handsome guy.

My face looks younger now, but I’d trade 10 years off this body to get 1 year back in the old one.

That certainly was the life. Or one of them, at least. I spent a grand old time on the Euro-Cruise. Being gorgeous, you see, had its own set of advantages: I made great tips whenever the maids needed help cleaning rooms. And I got picked to hose the Luau Night on the Upper Deck… twice! Nothing greases the palms better than a line full of Luau-enthusiasts willing to do whatever it takes for the best cut of a roast pig. And every now and then, some down-and-out widow would book herself a single room to find herself; only to find herself in her bed. With me.

The Euro-Cruise wasn’t the only thing rocking at sea.

But there were no widows on the last trip, though. No cook-outs or conquests or card games. Just some Category-3 that sprang up out of nowhere to track us down off the Amalfi Coast. I didn’t know Italy even got hurricanes that time of year. That’s what I was told, at least. Not that I saw it with my own eyes: I spent that long night tossing and turning in my bunk, courtesy of the line cook’s questionable concept of the word “expired”.

Needless to say, I formed quite the intimate relationship with our shared toilet that week, much to the cook’s dismay.

So as I lay there dying, my stomach twisting harder than a widow at Singles’ Night, I heard the telltale signs of a storm: the creak of steel rivets, the band of loose bolts, the ever-present tilt of the ship shifting just a bit more than usual. My bunk didn’t move much, as things didn’t sway too badly when your room was under the water. It pays to be the lowest man on the totem pole sometimes. I guess. It certainly did in my case, at least. I never did get my last paycheck, though.

I’d ask the foreman to mail it to me now but I doubt he’d know where to send it. I sure don’t.

I never found out what happened to the foreman or the Euro-Cruise. I couldn’t tell you the fate of the staff or any of its passengers. And I’m still a bit upset I missed the chance to really thank the cook for that questionable batch of crustaceans he gave me, but I’m sure whatever he dealt with ended up being a lot worse than a mild case of food poisoning. Not that I was thinking about any of that at the time. All I could focus on was the twisting and screeching of bent steel.

It’s a sound you don’t wanna hear when you’re floating 100 miles off-coast in the cruise-line equivalent of a floating tin can. Besides the sound of my own retching, I was certain it would be the very last thing I’d ever hear. That was, of course, until I heard something else more horrifying: even if I didn’t really know that at the time.

My life changed at that moment: the moment I heard Her.

It’s possible I was hallucinating. Or imagining things to help take my mind off things. It all might’ve been a mirage brought on by my meal of moldy mollusks. Whatever the explanation, or expiration, it certainly felt real at the time. A woman had said my name in the blackness of my broom-closet room, her Voice as clear and soothing as a glassVoice. Because my door wasn’t open to let light in from the hall, I lay in my bed sans sight, searching the corners of the room.

Then a light bloomed on from somewhere; of that much, I’m sure. And it didn’t take long to locate its source. The mirror. It glowed like it’d been backed with a blue light. Yet something was strange about it. It wasn’t coming so much from behind as it was… within it, somehow. I stared at it, at a loss for words.

The Voice spoke again.

“Joshua, can you heVoice?”

So it was real: my mirror was actually talking to me. The light bloomed a bit bright with each and every syllable, before dimming as it fell silent once more. The silence was broken only by the gurgle of my angry stomach; it repeated its question again.

“Joshua-” the mirror glimmered brightly- “can you hear me now?”

“Uhh, y-yes. Hello, mirror. It’s n-nice to meet you, I guess?”

What? As if you could’ve come up with a better response to some inanimate object that started talking to you. Well, maybe you could; but where I’m from, talking mirrors just aren’t normal. It’s an oddity, to say the least. The Voice didn’t seem to think so.

“JoshuaVoice crooned, “come to the window so I can see you.”

I stared around, perplexed.

“Window? I don’t have a window.”

The Voice laughed at me, its Voice fillingVoiceroom like music.

“OfVoicese you do! I’ve been watching you through it for quite some time.”

My face flushed as my thoughts dropped to the footlocker; shifting slightly in my bunk, I pushed it out of the mirror’s sight with my foot. When I spoke, I couldn’t help myself from chuckling nervously.

“O-oh, how flattering! How long have you… been watching exactly? Not a long while, I hope.”

“Long enough to learn that you, Joshua Friel, are the one I’ve been looking for.”

“Looking for? Why?”

“Come to my window.”

“But I don’t have a-“

“You do. I’ll show you.”

The mirror glared brilliantly in a blinding flash of blue. But only for an instant, before falling dark again. I rose from the bed and stood before it, but it wasn’t my reflection I saw. There was light… no, a series of lights. An island! It was far away by the look of it, and bobbing slowly. Up and down. Up and down. Even though the timing was off, it looked almost like it matched a ship’s rise and fall.

But it definitely wasn’t the Euro-Cruise.

Light from that island blazed like a beacon, stretching across a calm, black sea. I could see the sky from the mirror, too; ink-black, starless, as dark as the corners of my cabin room. I turned around, searching the room again. No lights. No pictures. Nothing whatsoever that might reflect in a mirror to play tricks on an old sailor’s eyes. I could barely hide the skepticism in my Voice.

“What is this? Some kind of prank?”

“No prank. No tricks. I only speak Voiceruth.”

“The truth, huh? So what is all this then?”

The Voice laughed again. It sounded like music but much sweeter. It almost made meVoiceet just how bizarre the whole thing was. And I was definitely way less annoyed by her avoiding my question than I should’ve been.

“I don’t understand what’s so funny,” I said. “What’s the deal with the mirror?”

“I’ve already told you, Joshua. Don’t you remember?”

After the Voice said my name, I realized I’d completely forgotten what I’d asked her. SoVoiceling flushed, I asked another question instead.

“Right. So what is it I’m seeing now?”

“The island that will become your salvation.”

“Salvation? From what?”

“Have you really forgotten? Your ship is caught in a terrible storm!”

As the Voice faded, the ship’s walls shook violently. The sound of rain thundered sudVoice above me; thunder cracked and boomed, growing louder and louder in the room. I heard the awful screech of twisting steel before… CRASH! Cue the sound of frenzied screaming. Fear filled me as my senses came rushing back: what the hell am I doing here, talking to a mirror? There’s a storm. A hurricane! The captain will need all hands on deck!

I leaped from my spot, bounding towards the door; as my fingers fumbled against the lock, the Voice rang out sharply.

“Stop at once! You must come back!”

I should’ve noticeVoicethen, that frenzied hint of desperation. I should’ve realized something strange was going on. But my adrenaline had seized me; the bizarreness of the situation clouded my head. And my name…

“Joshua, you mustn’t leave this room!”

“I have to though—” my fingers were frozen at the handle—“the crew needs my help!”

“Your crew is doomed, Joshua: come to me and I shall give you a new one!”

Ah, my name again; the instant I’d heard it, such calmness flooded me that I’d completely forgotten all about the storm. I stood at the door for a moment, trying to remember how I got there. Then, I hurried back to the window. The Voice sounded sweet, and her words were soothing.

“Yes. Precisely. Forget yourVoicebles and come to me.”


“Yes, Joshua?”

I smiled at the sound of my name. The island in the window bobbed up and down. It seemed closer now.

“Is that your island?” I asked.

“No, but it can be yours. A ship approaches as we speak.”

“This ship?”

“No, your vessel cannot be saved. But I shall supply you with another should you chose to join me.”

“Join you?”

“Yes,” the Voice said, sounding pleased.

“How is that possible?”

“Some things cannot be eVoicened; only done. I could be the one to save you.”

“What should I do?”

“I cannot tell you now, but you must make me a promise.”

Even in my current state, something about that seemed awfully suspicious to me.

“How can I promise something when I don’t know what it is?”

“It’s easy. I do it all the time.”

“Yes, but I shouldn’t agree to something if—“

“It’s an easy promise: simply answer ‘yes’.”


“Yes. When the time comes, I will ask you a question. You must promise me now that your answer shall be yes.”

Alright. That’s even more suspicious than before.

“I don’t know about all this.”

“Did you forget? Your ship is doomed.”

Thunder boomed overhead, followed by the ring of alarm bells. They sounded far away; I looked up at the ceiling, but the emergency lights weren’t flashing. Weird. The ship jolted, and I lost my footing; I clawed my way back in front of the mirror. I felt calmer, somehow, just by looking into it.

“Do you want to live, Joshua?”

I thought of all that had happened since the morning; the cramps and the craps and the fever dreams. Something didn’t seem right about all this. The numbers just weren’t adding up. And that’s saying something coming from me, given my academic record. I’d gone through damn near 30 years of emergency drills on the Euro-Cruise: did we even keep bells on this ship? Now, all of a sudden, I could barely remember.

“I’m not a man who makes promises he doesn’t know if he can keep.”

“But if you don’t make it, you won’t be a man for very much longer.”

Boom. Boom! BOOM!

A man was pounding at my door, his shouts muffled behind three inches of hard, brushed steel. I strained my ears to listen, but those bells only got louder; the sound rang in my ears until I could barely hear myself think. I thought I heard someone shout “fire,” but the alarms still hadn’t gone off in my room. I listened hard over the deafening sound of rain, but when the Voice spoke again, its words were crystal clear.

“Your time is almost up in thVoicerld. Join me so you might live.”

“Well, when you put it that way, it doesn’t really leave me with much of a choice…”

“So what do you choose, Joshua Friel?”

“Alright. I agree.”


“Fine. I promise.

The mirror was glowing again: much brighter but no longer blue. It was red before turning orange. It flickered yellow, here and there. Then, just as I recognized it, a ring of flame burst forth from the mirror, surrounding it like a frame. Fear seized me as the blood rushed from my face. Fire. Fire! The wall was on fire!

As I stood there, my heart thumping louder than the fists thundering against my door, a realization hit me. Did I really want this, whatever this was? The Euro-Cruise had survived a dozen tropical storms before this one. So why shouldn’t it survive another? If I’d only opened the door to let the other men in, I might’ve made it on deck to help our ship brave the storm.

But by the time the thought occurred to me, the door had already been engulfed in flames.

“Touch the mirror now, before the spell wears off!”

Her words did nothing to free me; flames danced in my eyes, wide and round as saucers. The men outside my door shout for the hydraulics: the door was jammed shut. Maybe if I just unlocked it for them, we could…


The ship jolted forward again as her scream rang in my ears. Instinctively, I threw out a hand to stop myself from falling forward. Just my luck: it touched the mirror. When I tried to pull away, my hand wouldn’t budge. For a moment, I stood in a burning room with my fingers stuck to the cold glass, screaming as the steel-pinned door flew open.

Then, I felt my body lurch forward sharply; it was as if I were being pulled by the tips of my fingers through icy water. It stung my skin. The weight of it stifled me. White light streaked past me as I held my eyes shut. Terrified, I tried to scream, but my lips were drawn tight. I had the curious, uncomfortable feeling of rising quickly upwards. Like a cork, I rose. Up, up, up. Faster and faster until I was sure I would be sick. My lungs screamed for air, but when I breathed, they filled with liquid.

And just when I thought I had died and risen straight into hell, my mouth broke the water’s surface and breathed in mouthfuls of cold, night air.

I stared skyward for a long time before I realized I was floating. Cold water lapped my clothes which were soaked through to the skin. Had the fire eaten the floor beneath my feet, and I’d slipped into the ocean? I shifted my weight, suddenly aware of the solid wood beam supporting my upper half. Had I clung to it as the ship went down? The Euro-Cruise was made of steel, so where had this come from? I couldn’t remember anything.

I thought maybe I’d hit my head and gotten a concussion. If only that were true.

As I touched my head to feel for a bump, I gasped. A hard and extremely sharp something was protruding from my left temple; it went straight through to the other side, which also ended in a point. So a piece of the wreckage, likely a pipe, had lodged itself in my brain. At least that explained the memory issues.

I explored further, prodding gently around the base of the object. The skin wasn’t torn, and the wound didn’t seem to be bleeding. My vision and breathing seemed fine, considering the head injury. In fact, my head didn’t hurt at all. I pulled gingerly at it, but the thing wouldn’t budge. So I tugged on it. Hard.

Okay. Now it hurt.

I might’ve felt more anxious about it, but it didn’t seem to be a problem. Besides, I had more important questions to answer than what was currently lodged in my skull. How long had I been floating like this? I touched my face and, to my surprise: no sunburn. So I’d only be shipwrecked for a few hours, as a day adrift at sea would’ve scorched my skin raw. But something about that didn’t quite add up: it was well past midnight when that hurricane hit the Euro-Cruise.

Could I really have been floating for only a few hours?

There were no signs of life around me. No broken bits of burning wreckage, either. Just me, my beam, and the moon. Wait, but the moon isn’t blue. At least, not Earth’s moon. Okay, so I definitely had a concussion; no denying that one. What did I mean by Earth’s moon, and why did that color seem… right to me? Maybe the bizarreness of my situation or the thing lodged in my head tempted me to break the first rule of sailing: never drink from the ocean.

But as it passed through my lips, I was hardly surprised to discover the water was fresh.

So I’d drifted somewhere far away from the Mediterranean; the current was certainly strong enough, in any case. It pulled me along swiftly but in a peaceful sort of way. I couldn’t gauge the speed well or navigate either; the constellations overhead were mixed up. Jumbled. They certainly weren’t ones that I’d ever seen. I tried to make out the North star before I failed to find it, for the first time in my life:

Head injury: 2 Joshua: 0

If the morning ever came, I sure as hell didn’t see it. I drifted in and out of consciousness for I don’t know how long. I let the current take me where it would: I was always a go-with-the-flow sort of guy back when I was human. So I’d fall asleep to the sound of water to wake up beneath the same eerie, blue moon. Drink some water here and there if I got thirsty. Fall asleep again. I never got hungry, though; that was good, as I might’ve been drifting along for three days or thirty.

I didn’t count the days, you see, as I never saw a sunrise.

Near the end, I opened my eyes expecting to see something and I did. An island bobbed in the distance, a long way off, with lights blazing brilliantly beneath a starstruck, moon-blue sky. It was a place I’d seen before, in a picture or window maybe. Or was it a mirror?

No, that didn’t make sense.

I couldn’t paddle. Not that I really needed to, as the current was already taking me there. Perhaps it had been the entire time. Something told me I was right in thinking so, even if I didn’t understand it. I didn’t really need to, so I just closed my eyes.

When I opened them again, I was lying on a white sand beach that faced the sea. Propping myself up, I stared across a dark horizon which stood devoid of ships. The heady, steadfast silence was broken only by the sound of waves. And the stillness of the midnight sky, which housed an azure-mirror moon, broke beneath the beams of light burning like beacons behind me.

On the eve of that first night, the island of Lahn Doth received a wandering, wayward traveler.

A Story about The Woman

Once, there lived a boy who fell sick. Due to his parents also being sickly, the boy was cared for by his elderly grandfather. After seeing him through the worst of the illness, the boy’s grandfather carried him out into the garden and sat upon a swing. Extremely tired, the boy sank deeply into the man’s steady arms and closed his eyes. The old man kissed the boy’s forehead and, taking a moment to clear his throat, began to speak:

This is a story about The Woman; what kind of woman she was will be decided by you at the end. Just lay back and listen. Feel the motion as we’re rocked by the swing. Where was I now? Oh yes, I remember! The Woman was a child once, hardly any older than you are right now. Her dreams were dreams of a child, too: large white houses drawn on grass, green as lime. That house was always a colonial, red-brick chimney holding up Crayola-blue skies. She slapped a fat, yellow sunburst in every right corner. And when the girl drew herself, it was on a string of her family; each connected, with a smile, hand in hand.

There were a thousand pictures on her family’s refrigerator. Plenty were good ones, as a matter of fact. Since The Woman was five, she’d had a vision: she knew what she was good at. And she found that liked it, too. She’d draw twenty pictures and toss them. Draw a hundred, but only keep two. Traded in crayons for a pencil, traced the world from it straight down to the nub. She learned things and soon taught herself: grass looked all the more greener in shade. Don’t just draw the sun: make them search for it! Lure the eye to where the light catches, you see.

Soon, those colonial houses looked as real as a photograph. Her father sent it on to the paper. It got published. Next day. In a week, the town started writing her. People requested she draw them something, too. One writer had even sent money; she took that job first, drawing Ms. Doris’ cat. The girl drew it all, strange or common. For Suzanne, draw a Sunflower. The Jolly Rodger for Rodger. Or was it for Johnny? But for Janey, draw a portrait of the photo from the card.

After she’d drawn quite a few, she drove straight to the store; well, The Woman couldn’t drive yet so it was her father that took her. She roved the art isles piling paints by the pale. She strode to the front with the shelves carried with her, slapped the envelope stacked fat full of $10 bills. As she pushed past the door, she told them, “You keep the change. I won’t need it now.” They filled the car to the ceiling with the girl’s shopping bags.

In a month and a half, she had used them all; every inkwell drained empty, no eraser left living, each paint tube crumbled down to the dregs. From one thousand and two, she pulled out the one. Bought an ad in the paper. Again. The ad had only a word for the title. Windows. It was something no one’d thought of before! She’d drawn a window so deep you could fall in it; it looked so real it could have really been there. The grass damn near moved in the summer breeze and the sun warmed your skin to the touch. If you set it on the ground, you’d think God poked a hole in it—you stared through the looking glass into a bright, shining world. 

Well, the people went crazy for it. Letters came by the truck-load each day. She could draw anything. Anything! You’ll never understand how miraculous The Woman’s Windows turned out to be. Whatever you wanted was yours at a letter, every dream dwindled down to a fee. Abraj Al-Bait for the architects. Gold Coasts in every guest bathroom. The Taj Mahal installed just above the frame of your bed. You could travel through time for a woman you’d loved: send her photo, get back a moment from her day! They are powerful things, Windows. They can spell disaster if they’re done wrong.

Or right.

She would draw things but one. Never did any repeats, although sometimes her subjects were the same. People soon seemed intent to exhaust her but she rose to the challenge at every left turn. A family in Vancouver vexed her once, wanted twelve Windows and only gave her three words. “Glass of Water” nearly drowned them all, so the story goes. Lucky their windows were open that day. She filled every page by the gallon, full brimmed watered your mouth and your eyes. With one look, your shoes soaked straight through. It sits behind a glass an inch thick in the Louvre now. As it’s been since re-opening day.

Sometimes famous names signed The Woman’s Letters. Mr. Kirk sent her three sheets a day! Fifty Tigers for Memphis, please, he would write her, for the price of some Fifty-one fees! In three months, she had made a menagerie; Memphis Tigers glaring eyes glinted behind bluish bars or horse-grey. She sent Kirk two for free, one for each of his daughters—the youngest cried when she saw it on opening day. A few hang in their frames at the Hall of Fame. From back in ‘96, the same year you were born!

The Woman sold enough Windows to purchase a cornerstone. Raised a house right on top: a drummed-up, dream-house Colonial, its chimney stacked high with red brick. Some years passed and she stood with her family, hand in hand, toes touching lime grass soaked very deeply in shade. For each child, The Woman painted a room—just like her Windows yet, somehow, more wonderful still. So special were they that the Walls can hardly be described. But I will try my best to describe them. Just for you.

For the first, she gave Space. She created the Cosmos: seven planets roved ‘round the windows and straight up the walls. If you looked too long, they seemed to be moving, each sphere spinning slowly on its tilted, tulle axis. Should the lamps turn out, or a bulb burned out, the Walls birthed out billions of phosphoresced stars. You couldn’t count every faint, far-off flicker; even Guisnesse tried until more blinked into life. She installed several skylights. Every restless night, her son bathed in a warm, moonlight wax. It brought his thought to a boil, before melting his queries to sleep.

For the second, The Woman built the Tide Wall. Stretched the sea out to a sightless expanse. For his safety, she’d provided a carpet-boat, wove of ten shades of brown and of tan. On the West Wall stood Winter, bearing turbulent tides. You could catch a fold from the chafe of those waves! Fall fell fast past the North when the Wall went up: it rained fat drops azure-green. Clear-moss blue. Through the South sailed Springtime, singing sweetly in pails atop pale, pink foam. The fourth was painted in Summer, on its very first morning, when the Sun poked its head in through a solid, gold frame. Every morning, due East, light filled up the sea. Imagine, a lake of gold liquid every day when you opened your eyes.

For the third, she shipped wood in from Babylon. Baltic Oak at $1,000 a board! After she laid out the floor, she went on and chiseled it: from dead wood rose the Earth, both living and true. She carved it out soft so the seed might hold, buried it deep in the grain with her paintbrush-pickaxe. Field and flower sprung up from beneath her feet, blades of grass softer and greener than the Mullein’s silk leaf! On a hill, held fast beneath white cloudsmoke, you stood beneath a bay of blue sky. All around you was nothing but the open air; from the second-floor corridor, you’d walk out of her house! Only the Wall to the West gave the room’s trick away, its white sill floating up from the floor.

Each evening, it held host to the setting sun; soft cotton clouds gilded as the youngest got ready for bed.

She’d worked some Walls to be proud of, and she knew it too. She took several photos, sent them off to the Post. She had named them, each like the first, with a single word: Michael, Francis, and Matthew. The names of her boys. In the bottom right, The Woman wrote a note, explaining her project had now reached its end. The last sentence expressed some of her gratitude:

Thanks much for the paint and the pens.

The Woman was old now, quite due for retirement. So she’d sidelined her sable brush. Called it quits. Sacked the smock. Yet the letters poured in, writ by poor, pleading parents, requesting their ‘Jackson‘s and ‘Jessica‘s. Their ‘Jean-Claude Laurent‘s. Paint the sun for sweet Simon. Sprout Daisy for Rosey, too! They nearly forgot to read the note The Woman left behind.

When they did, they were angry! Where are our children’s Walls, the throng wailed, why won’t you build them? What are the Nicholas’ and Nicolette’s now meant to do? The people caused such a commotion that they soon went to court; The Woman was summoned on Sunday one day! She only sighed soft as she shuffled the floor, scuffled up to her place on the stand. Of their questions, she would answer none. To the judge, she would ask but one.

“What sort of woman do you think I am?”

The courthouse fell silent as the Judge did, too, as the Plantiff’s argument replayed through their heads. Simply put, The Woman had mocked them by placing the Ad. In giving a glimpse, she had now deprived them all: no one more than the children. The Ad was an attack against the body of Youth. A Window was nothing now they’d seen what Walls could do; The Woman should serve her life sentence by building them one Wall per day.

The Judge thought so hard that his wig fell off. He sat so long in the silence that the sound stopped time. Not even the clocked dared make noise as a question came to his mind whose answer he needed to know. He chewed until curiousity, but not courage, brought the words to his lips.

“Why post the pictures,” the Judge judicated, “if the ad was already closed?”

“Because fter a lifetime of practice, my project is done.

The Walls were her Windows, you see.

The Succession of Seeds

“They’re all dead!”

A gust of wind blew hot and heavy through the yard, carrying his voice over it as his words fell like knives, their points burrowing deep into the grass. And my heart. Just beneath the window, I sat amongst the sunken stems and withered leaves of the garden as my breath was ripped from me by the sobs now echoing from upstairs. Sunlight poured like cream from a bowl of clear-blue, cloudless sky, yet a sunny day means nothing to the bitter frost of early morning. The browning bodies of plants, long-dead, poked out from rows of darkened dirt; in rows like little burial mounds, I stared blindly forward as tears welled up. Then, to the brim, they fell hot and fast, scorching through the air like fallen stars to salt the hard earth so that nothing could grow.

And nothing would grow.

David’s sobs grew louder as the sliding door glided open and Mama stepped through it. I didn’t look up until I heard the dull thunk of the glass returning to its frame, felt the weathered, wood board depress slightly as Mama lowered herself onto it to join me. Mama’s eyes were lifeless hunks in swollen lids, stained red from breaking the news of the morning’s carnage. A hand snaked forward, grasping mine in its cold grip as we sat beneath the wailing window, expressing our misery without words.

From above, Grammy’s voice rose up, weak but determined.

“Now, David,” she crooned, “we can always replant them!”

“No, Mama. It’s impossible.”

“Come now, you must have some seeds left.”

“I don’t. They’re not in season; it’s too late,” he said miserably, voice faltering as it was wracked with sobs, “They won’t grow back in time.”

“David, you don’t know that. If we only just start today—” I could hear Grammy moving, saw her in my mind’s eye dragging Davey’s wheelchair to his spot in the bed— “we’ll just get a shovel and…”

“It’s too late, Mama.”

“It’s never too late. You’ve got your sister and June May and me. If we just called them upstairs, I’m sure we could…”

“It’s done, Mama. I’ll never see them.”

“David, please.”

“I’ve got no time left. It’s over.”

For the briefest of moments, I felt my soul leave and travel up to the window. It hung on the sill, surveying the scene: Grammy stood, with shoulders hunched, at the edge of the bed, one hand holding fast to the handle of Davey’s wheelchair. Her nail, cleaned and cut short, scratched along the creases where Grandpa’s knife had carved her initials, then his. Books stood stacked on the wood side-table, glossy surfaces covered by countless plastic bottles of pills. Half-filled. Davey lay beside them, sunken into his spot on the feathered bed. The smell of cream, thick and heavy, rose in plumes from the sores that stretched across his white skin: like dried strawberries floating in milk. His eyes, swollen shut, saw nothing but darkness. As he turned his head to the window, my soul shattered.

I hunched forward, sobbing silently as Mama rubbed life into my aching back. Despite Grammy’s resolve and renewed ministrations, I knew the truth of Davey’s words: nothing could be done. Even if we managed to pull up the garden and plant the seeds again, there would be no way the blooms would sprout by summer’s end. Even if they did, Davey would never see them. I stared around the garden, hating the sprouts for having betrayed us. My thoughts were dark and wild; at every moment, I wished both that the stalks would right themselves and green again or else wither and burst into flame.

“Why don’t I go fetch June May?” 

I felt my stomach drop at the sound of my name.

“No, Mama.”

“I’ll give her some money,” Grammy said as if she hadn’t heard him, “and she’ll go down to Denny’s parlor for some ice cream. You love ice cream.”

“I don’t want ice cream.”

“A sundae then. With anything you want! Let me just call her now.”

My voice rang out from above, loud and full and clear as a bell. It echoed across the yard, then down the street, but I did not rise to meet it.

“Please, Mama,” David said, “I don’t want to get no ice cream.”

“But June May will…”

“I don’t want June May here either. She shouldn’t see me this way.”

“But she’s your family, David. You two’ve always been close!”

“And I want her to remember that Davey, not the one I am now.”

“June May loves you. She wouldn’t care about that.”

“But I do. I don’t want to see anyone.”

“David, you can’t just give up. You’ve got to keep fighting.”

“Mama, it’s over. There’s no fight left in me and nothing left to fight for. I’m tired. Please, just let me sleep.”

Grammy fell silent at Davey’s words. The day did, too. Even the birds, which had been calling to each other with little songs, must have up and flown away. The sun stood past noon, its rays weaker now but still warm. I shivered as goose pimples erupted up my arms. Despite the heat, they were shaking. Mama and me sat, each plagued with her own thoughts, for a long time. Neither of us looked up as we heard the sliding door open, then close.

“June May—” Grammy’s voice was quiet— “I want you to go down to Denny’s and get a tub of ice cream.”

I shook my head, staring at my feet.

“Vanilla,” she said curtly, “and a tub of chocolate sauce. I’ve got the money here.”

A set of bills produced themselves before me, held at the end of Grammy’s left hand. I stared at the dimple in her thumb but did not raise my arm.

“Grammy, I don’t think ice cream is gonna…”

“I’ve had enough of that kind of talk, young lady. Now you just get your ass up and start walking.”

I felt the numbness pass as I processed Grammy’s curse word: it was the first she’d ever used with me. The shock of it caused me to look up at her. I immediately wished I hadn’t: her eyes were swollen, her cheeks stained red, tracks leading down to thin lips drawn tight in an upside-down U. Automatically, I reached out a hand. Cash was shoved into it.

“Get up,” Grammy ordered. I rose to my feet. “Rachel, you go with her.”

Mama didn’t move from her spot on the deck.

“But Mama,” she began.

“Rachel, I don’t want to hear another word out of you. You are going to walk with your daughter down that road and you are going to bring back some ice cream.”

“Mama, please be reasonable.”

“The time for reason is over, Rachel. Now, you’ll do as I say.”

“I’m 32 years old, Mama.”

“And I’m 57 with a son upstairs who needs something we can’t give him. So I’ll give him what I can. Get going to Denny’s.”

“Mama, I don’t feel like it.”

“God dammit, Rachel—” another pulse ran through me as Grammy swore— “everyday there are things I don’t feel like doing but I do them cause they’ve got to get done. I’m going upstairs to check on David and neither of you’d better be here when I come back.”

With that, Grammy turned on her heel and was gone, the door sliding shut behind her. At the sound of the lock clicking into place, Mama rose up and offered me her hand. Taking it, we wove our way along the side of the house to the back gate. It shut softly as we stepped onto the road; it wasn’t far to Denny’s Parlor, less than half a mile, but the street lengthened before us like an endless stretch of black heat. It seared the flesh of my shoeless feet as we passed our house, then the Mason’s, then all the others. Despite the time, not one person was out; no moms watching their children playing ball in the road or fathers cursing at old, broken-down lawnmowers. Maybe Davey’s voice had driven them inside, to the confines of safe and sorrowless homes.

When we reached the corner, I realized I’d forgotten the money. Mama waited as I ran back home, passing empty driveway after empty driveway: even the street was devoid of cars. The garden gate opened slowly as I slipped inside, bounding to the deck. The cash was lying there, right beneath the kitchen window, cracked open to tempt some non-existent breeze. Stooping to grab it, I stopped as sobs rang out again, this time from the kitchen and not Davey’s window. It froze me in my tracks. But by the time muffled footsteps shuffled towards the sliding door and the lock flicked up, I was gone. Racing up the street toward Mama, she said nothing as I handed her the money with my left and wiped my eyes with the right.

Denny’s was a bleak affair, filled with points and gruff mumbles as the paper-hatted parlor boy handed us two large tubs of ice cream. We decided against the chocolate sauce as Davey never liked it in the first place. Grammy knew that, though. She probably just wanted us to show up with something extra. Something special. I stole a pack of birthday candles and slid them into my pocket as we left the store.

We were only a few doors down from McGillicutey’s Greenhouse, so we stopped in, determined to find some seeds. Besides packets of summer squash and scarlet runner beans, there was next to nothing by way of flowers. There were definitely no snapdragons, which Davey had ordered special from the Kitazawa Seed catalog; in fact, there were no flowers at all. The teller told us that the entire section had been cleared out earlier for some event being held, though he couldn’t tell us where or which one. I stared gloomily at the back of a pack of Forget-Me-Nots while Mama argued with the teller to check the back, frowning at the ten-week cycle from seed to flower.

With withering hearts, we left McGillicutey’s sad and seedless before finding a place to sit on the curb. No cars passed by, and the parking lot between Denny’s and the greenhouse was empty. We sat for nearly an hour without speaking before the parlor boy came out, pointing at the ice cream pooled at our feet. He handed us another bag, laden with new tubs, and waved us off as we set off for home.

“June May, do you hear that?”

At the corner of Wisteria Way and our street, Mama stopped. I listened hard over the murmur of the evening bugs; somewhere near, the sounds of scraping and shuffling loomed in the air. Mama’s eyebrows raised as we exchanged a look. Then, rounding the corner, we stopped in our tracks.

Our street, empty only hours ago, was filled; every driveway, and most of the road, was filled with cars. Between them, people moved and shuffled like they were in a parade, traipsing from house to house, lugging wheelbarrows. Some were empty, others piled with dirt. Some filled to the brim with buds and flowers. Neighbors stood in their gardens, shovels in hand, directing others who worked hunched over flower beds. It seemed the street was seized with a sudden urge to plant, but as we watched, we realized what they were doing.

The throng was moving, house to house, filling their barrows with the flowers from each and every garden. Once a yard was stripped of bloom and color, they moved to the next, leaving nothing but dirt in their wake. We followed them as they inched nearer toward our house. Some noticed us, smiling and waving, while others who saw us only leaned forward, renewing their work with fresh vigor. I didn’t understand even as Billy Mason appeared beside me, sliding his hand into mine, staining my skin with mud from his gardening glove.

“June May,” he breathed, “just wait till you see it.”

Mama leaned over, placing her mouth near his ear.

“See what, Billy?”

“Just wait, Ms. Williams. You’d better go inside. I think your Mama needs help getting Davey up.”

Mama rushed inside as Billy’s daddy opened the door for her. I stood on my toes at the sidewalk, watching the neighbors lug their barrows to the back of the house.

“Billy,” I said, “I don’t understand what’s going on.”

“We heard this morning,” Billy whispered, “what happened to all of Davey’s garden. We wanted to help.”

“But it’s too late,” I explained, “to plant anything.”

“Seeds, maybe. But you’ll see in a second, June May. Follow me.”

He tugged at my hand as he led me to the gate, propped open with a garden stone from the neighbor’s yard. I thought we’d go through it and follow the throng into the backyard, but he led me up the steps to my front door instead and, together, we crossed the threshold. I could hear Mama and Grammy fighting as we walked up the stairs.

“Rachel, what on earth’s all that racket!”

“Mama, people are here to see him.”

“I don’t care whose here. Your brother needs to rest.”

“Rachel,” Davey said, “I don’t want no company.”

I stepped into the bedroom as the smell of sickness and calamine lotion hit me.

“Davey,” I said, “it’s something you’ll want to see.”

Grammy looked scandalized as Davey shifted deeper beneath the blankets.

“June May, you get out of here right now! Your uncle’s barely dressed.”

“I’ll help you,” Billy said, appearing from the doorway, “we’ll get you dressed and down the stairs in no time.”

“Stop!” Grammy’s face burned red as a tomato. “I’ll have no more of this. David needs rest, and I need some peace and quiet. All of you, get out of here now!”

“Mama, please—“

“Grammy, you’ve got to listen.”

“I don’t got to do nothing, June May. You get out of this room right now, and bring your little boyfriend with you.”

“Mrs. Williams,” Billy said, “come to the window.”

“The window? You better not tell me what to do in my own house, William Mason, or you’ll find yourself thrown out of it.”

“Please,” he said firmly, holding out a hand, “you’ll understand when you see it.”

She stared at Billy with her eyes wild and dangerous but he didn’t back down. Skeptically, she took his hand and allowed him to lead her to the open window. She stood with her back to us as she stopped in her tracks. For nearly a minute, we all watched her.

“David,” she said quietly, “it’s about time you get up.”

“Mama,” Davey said, “I’m tired.”

“And some fresh air will perk you right up. We’re going outside for a bit.”

“Mama, please don’t make me.”

“June May,” Grammy said softly, “I want you to take Billy and wait out in the hallway. Rachel, you’ll help me get David dressed and ready.”

“Okay, Mama.”

As the door closed, I stepped out of the room, Billy clinging to me like a shadow. Together, we stood in silence as Mama and Grammy got Davey dressed. The two women ignored his protests as David fought and struggled against them, no match for their strength in his weakened, bed-ridden state. He shouted as they hoisted him from the bed into his chair. His face was dark as a storm when the door opened again, and he didn’t thank any of us after we’d maneuvered him down the stairs, one man at every corner of his chair.

The curtain was closed over the sliding door when we’d crossed the carpet into the kitchen. Even the thick cotton curtains couldn’t block out the sound coming from the yard. Even Davey couldn’t help his curiosity.

“What’s all that noise?” he snapped, annoyed with himself for addressing his captors. “What’s going on out there.”

“You’ll see in a second,” Grammy said dreamily. “June May, open the door.”

I nodded to her as I slid the curtain to the side. Discreetly, Grammy’s hands dropped down over Davey’s eyes, covering them as Mama threw open the door. Together with Billy, we lifted Davey’s chair over the threshold and set him down carefully onto the deck. Grammy lifted her hands at Mama’s word, and we all stared, dumbfounded, into the yard.

The backyard was filled, almost entirely, with the shifting bodies of countless people. Nearly 20 or so were on their knees, striking the ground with spades and trowels as they buried roots beneath the ground. The smell of dirt hung in the air like soup, thick and brown and earthy; it moved like water beneath the hands of our neighbors, laying to rest on great bunches of flowers that sprung up and glittered like jewels. In the corner of the yard, Mrs. Mason stacked flowerpots, all of varying color and size, emptied of their contents now planted in our yard. Children bordered the yard, each with a bouquet of flowers in hand, weaving stems like ropes into the chainlink of the fence to form a wall of flowers. The teller from McGuilicutty’s Greenhouse stood amongst them, pulling thick bunches of fresh-cut flowers from an old milk crate.

David did nothing as the scene played out before us, said nothing to break the silent shuffle of a hundred hands hard at work. He simply sat between us, Grammy and Mama and me. I couldn’t blame him; my chest felt so tight I feared it might burst if I did anything else but breathe. In and out. In and out. The fragrance of flowers burrowed deep into my nose, seeped within my skin, down past the veins, and into my very cells. I would smell it for years afterward, during college and on cold days, or when I thought of Davey again, his memory bursting to the surface like a bubble in a boiling pot.

Soon, the first of the crowd took notice of us. Within minutes, the flurry of motion had stopped. Mrs. Mason was the first to approach us; she floated forward with watering eyes, a poppy in her hands, which she placed in David’s lap as she leaned forward to kiss his cheek.

“David,” she said, “we wanted to thank you.”

It was whispered like a prayer, one spoken in darkness and solitude; it made the hairs on our necks stand up as she stepped away and another took her place. Our neighbors lined up before us with a flower in their hand: some grabbed Mama’s hand or held Grammy as she cried. Others hugged me or wished me well. But everyone, even people I had never seen before or since, placed a flower in Davey’s lap and thanked him.

Davey said nothing. Did nothing: the only sign that he had heard them was his hand gripping theirs. The tears now streaming down his face. The sun began to set, and the line disappeared; Mrs. Mason produced a pack of matches and handed them out. They struck them and lit the candles planted in the yard. As the sky grew dark and the neighbors left us, our family stood in the soft glow of firelight within a sea of fragrance and flowers.

A breeze trickled through the yard, bringing with it the sounds and songs of summer. Crickets chirped as stars blinked into life above us, four salted pillars stuck to pulse and petrify. As I stepped into the garden, I leaned above a kitchen candle to produce the pack of my own; carefully, I borrowed the flame to light my own. Then three more, which I passed to others as I resumed my place beside them. We stood until the candles died, till the ice cream had melted and dried, till the wells within us had emptied and filled and then emptied again.

We stayed until the binds that held our feet had loosened only just enough for Grammy to fetch a blanket from the house to wrap us all in it; as the air cooled and the owls hoo’ed, our hearts grew lighter than our troubles and both were lifted upward, on the folds of some far-off, midnight wind, to where they could no longer reach us and our minds were soothed to sleep.

This post is an excerpt from the first draft of the writer’s novel, Dreams of Snapdragon Summers.

Mystery of the Man

He consumed his feelings
like a child swallows mints:
excited at the first taste but
too hasty, too eager, to allow
them to settle too long. They rest,
the dregs of an old half-drunk soda,
left to bake in some car far too long.

He wore moods like clothes;
changed once, twice, or else
thrown in the hamper dirty the
moment they touched his skin
only to shrink another size smaller
once they’d gone through the wash.

He shed tears of crystal glass,
its invisible etchings, razor-thin,
cut through the skin to burrow in
the bones of all who knew him.
It was them whom he cried for.

His smile was a garden, wild and green,
a stretching, creeping vine desperate
to latch on and take hold; yet alone
it was quiet, timid, and tame.

He laughed as a dog pants,
wheezing, with its teeth bared,
lapping at Joy while gasping for air.

He was a man armed with wisdom
enough to know he was only a boy.

He was a man of mystery until he was solved.

Rape . Seed

Deafness fall upon me,

foul words I’ll heed no more

as you scatter them like Rapeseed

at the Earth outside my door.

From bloom of sickly spindles,

leaves of cabbage, white as milk,

petals burnt a Yield-less Yellow,

they asphyxiate their ilk.

Their nettles rise to meet my feet,

draw blood like mourning dew,

I grind them deeper than the roots

as I chop the ancient Yew.

In the clouded fields of Heaven

does a copse of flowers grow:

stem of emerald, petals pale-pink,

beneath gold sun, they glow.

Inside each bud, a person lay

in silent solace, there

forms a thornless, midnight rose

she weaves fast into her hair.

The ones who wait at Garden’s Gate

with water gourd in hand

shall pull from time the Evergreen Vine

of stewards for the land.

But like Adam come to Eden, too,

in dark dogwood you’ll find

another’s tainted finger who

dares pluck out yours or mine.

So I summon every Angel, be you

Winged, Felled, or Arch,

beat witness to my words to

make them corporeal as bark.

For those whose fielded flower’s fate

was tramped long before my prayer:

for every petal stolen,

plant a seed of Healing there.

For those who bore in silence

wicked deeds, both seen and done:

let words sow seeds that sprout

like weeds to blot out putrid Suns.

For the brazen, cursed heathen who steals

blooms for wilted, withered crowns:

let Judgement pass, sure and fast,

in lake of fire, swim and drown.

For those who wish to stop my chant—

my words are Rapeseed.


You can’t.

On windy current and water’s flow:




let it go.

Frustration is a silent companion who sits in the front seat as you pump gas in the bitter cold, laughing as it locks the door with your keys inside. It hovers, just above your shoulder, as you hunch low over the stove; it chatters as you count spices, flicking flecks of spit into the pot of bubbling basil and thyme. When you need a pinch of sugar, it hands you a twist of salt. You’ll always find it waiting among the papers piled high upon your desk—it falls heavy in your lap, like a mound of broken needles, turning your threes to eights with a flourish of a black, Bic pen.

Frustration is a hungry one, too. It’s ravenous, like a cup built up without a bottom; yet still, it demands you to pour. It follows like a shadow on your heels while you walk, waiting for your dog to piss. Pissed, it nips your ankles. It slips into the shower, an unwanted, wanton whore: lapping up the suds that slip down sallow skin until you feel so fouled by the scent of bitter bile you must wash yourself. Again. Insatiable stomach, it eats the time—minute by minute, hour by hour—chewing away the hair at your temples until it gnaws at reddened skin. 

Frustration is a placid, temperamental thing, like a bulb left on to burn out so the porch is dark when you finally come home. It burns itself to nothing but a dim and heated glow, scalding all who are foolish enough to touch it. It wears names like socks, always two and quite disposable: Patty or Karen or Kevin. Or the mailman who refuses to let you pass. Yet you knew It, even before you knew it. It first found you in a dusty photo album, resurrected from its attic tomb: it stood behind you, with fingers in your mouth, pulling up the corners as you stood with your father holding a tiny, tepid bluegill. Then it ate that too. Right down to the bones.

Frustration is always reckless. Restless. Relentless. It finds you in your bed as you lay down to sleep, stealing the covers and grabbing your hand. It jabs its frigid toes, like icicles, into the delicate bends of your knees and elbows, uses its hands to warm your pillow—whenever you flip it, it giggles in the dark. It takes great pleasure in rustling the sheets at the very moment you’re drifting off to sleep, only to feign ignorance once you turn yourself to face it.

Frustration is a wicked bitch—and powerful. It’s a child with a match who’s posed to strike the kindling. It relishes in witnessing the burn. Its friendships are tea-bags: used once and then discarded, or frozen solid to be placed beneath the eyes. The weight of them lingers, though, as the years begin to follow. They’re the frost-bit fingertips you rub deep into open pockets, searching for a warmth that isn’t there. It holds you close, like a lover scorned twice, deleting birthdays from your memories. Or texts from your phone. It’s the unwelcome guest who takes claim of your couch, quits its job to lounge around in your home. But there is a truth about It, which itself is quite frustrating, which you learn from years in its scorched, ruddy glow.

Frustration is a friend who will leave you; but only if you can


“on April 14th”

Some say there are days which will stick in our memory

like how to a strip of brown paper a fly might become glued;

In a child’s first words, on one’s gold-gilded birthday,

or when another first tells them, “I do”:

But as I am too young for that,

I know My day comes on April 14th.

It’s a day which creeps up on me, then it carries me over,

burrowing down like thick weeds in a garden of glass—

with fetid roots of fine sand, scratching deep through the surface,

it releases prickled pinpoints of poisonous gas:

Though the air burns like an Ifrit,

I breathe deeply on April 14th.

Its vines lengthen and grow, bearing rotted fruits which ripen

on tearful showers meant only to feed flowers in May!

“May I pluck them?” he had ask Me once where, curled like cats

on creaking boards of a kitchen, together we’d lay:

My vase lies empty in its plinth by the door

yet my heart finds the floor on April 14th.

As its bottom bakes bone-dry, I fail and try

to capture the fly with the paper I violently tear—

I see no nettles there, nor the fruit they bear,

as my retinas crack like ice in a dead-desert eye:

Once they were faucets which ran everyday for it,

but now they just leak a bit

and, at last, only ever

on April 14th.

Wild Manswood Drive

It was a daisy that killed the Vanterbombs. Prized from the Earth, stolen from its home, it had lived just long enough to bring down the house around it before it withered and faded. As for the family, they woke up one morning dead, with their legs in the air and their faces in the carpet. The neighborhood watched from the street as the paramedics wheeled the entire family out. One. Three. Seven. Every member was accounted for, concealed beneath sheer plastic of black body bags. As the ambulance drove away, and the droves returned to their own houses, it occurred to me just how small the youngest one’s had been. But it wasn’t Olivia, or even my best friend Lee, who I thought of as I sat with my father in the backyard. It was those hands, the ones which had sewn that black material together; did they know what would fill the object of their creation, or had they thought that a bag’s only use was to carry candy, or groceries, or garbage?

To this day, I no longer take any bags at the supermarket.

I was much younger then, not yet sixteen, and things were different on Wild Manswood Drive. The neighborhood was different, and the houses too, not the least of which being the Vanterbombs’. It was a Second Empire, three stories tall, with a garden of stone and rock. Nearly a hundred windows, each fitted with an empty flower box, covered each side so the walls were more glass than anything else. They were gorgeous panes, too, all stained glass and done by hand. Mrs. Vanterbomb, a devout Christian, was something of an artisan too– she had done them all herself, composing scenes of Eden and Saint Francis and the Madonna and Child. Her house was a little Bible– when the light came in from the East, it glittered and shone like a jewel.

But those days are gone. They live now in stories and faded photographs that mold in old books. The memories of that house wander the ruins that are left. It’s a tragedy to see what has become of that place. The Vanterbombs’ bodies hadn’t grown cold before some local teens entertained themselves by throwing stones. Liquid-sapphire waters froze over and shattered like glass. Burning tongues of ruby flame extinguished from a single, well-aimed rock. There’s nothing left of it now to suggest the magnificence of the house that once stood there, except the bare stone fireplaces with edges worn away by wind and rain. And the walls too, or what’s left of them; they stick out of the Earth now like the ribs of an elephant, cold and hard like bones. That’s all that’s left of the Vanterbombs and their home– just the bones. And the bees.

Looking at it now, it makes you wonder: could the house every truly have been so grand? Once a beacon of the town’s prosperity, all that’s left now is permanent eyesore protected by the damned Antiquities Act of 1906. But it’s the story of the family that lived there, the story of the Vanterbombs, that’s the real mystery. The explanation too, if you know where to look. Theirs is the story that tells us why what is, is. Only those that knew them, us ones who played with their children, are left to remember them now. How the man, Richard Vanterbomb, showed up one day with nothing but the title to the land. A banker with a sharp mind and sharper tongue, he had made a killing in the stock market and pulled the funds before the crash. It was his wife, Enid, who decided to buy the house. Together with their three children, they built it up to the height of its glory and lived there as a family. Happy, for a time.

That was before they invited the old man to stay with them. Urman was a shut-in, a mean and angry thing. He might have been his relation, or maybe hers; he might not have been either, as neither seemed to like him much.They never tried to hide it either, even with company over. Many a time I had sat at their dinner table, hands clasped in prayer, while the family interceded with God and the angels to bless Urman with a quick and painless death. His wife, Fleur, seemed to be counting the days down to singledom. The family stuck him in the attic, far from the rest of the household. He emerged no more than twice a day, summoned to his spot at the table by the chime of a bell. Besides that, they didn’t speak to him much or call up to his room. 

I couldn’t blame them, though. During mealtimes, he was a cruel and heartless thing. He hated loud noises and detested laughter. He took great pleasure in calling the children names until the older ones snapped back, or the younger ones cried. Once or twice, even I felt the sting of Urman’s barbed tongue and went home trying to suck out the poison. Every word he spoke was a needle, honed sharp and meant to harm; with it, he wore away at the tapestry of their family until it was naught but wisps of thread.  With time, the whole thing began to unravel.

But not before a sickness had taken hold of Urman– it sprouted up within him and grew like a weed, burrowing deep into the shallows of his mind. He developed a ravenous, insatiable hunger which the family failed to sate. Rhubarb pies, roast quail, vats of cloud-like mashed potatoes whipped by hand. What they presented, he devoured. But still, he demanded more. He would stick out his tongue, roll his eyes until they were all whites, and twist his face into such grotesque shapes it was a wonder if the man was still human.

The final straw came one day over the rump of a wild turkey. I had been invited to dinner, to bear witness to the madness, so I saw the whole thing. How Urman pushed up his plate, empty but for the bones. How his face twisted up like a demon and his tongue slithered out, eyes narrowed as he expressed his distaste for the meal. Then the husband’s hand, produced from thin air, slamming down on the table. The children’s voices, raised above the rattle of dishes, hurling insults and freeing themselves of the weight of a thousand insults left unaddressed. Then the wives, both Urman’s and Mr. Vanterbomb’s, refused to cook his food any longer.

“Learn to cook,” Enid sneered, her teeth bared, “or die hungry, old man.”

Now, every man and his mother’s got a theory about how the end of that family came to be. Through threads of broken history and bits of fragmented memories, each weapes a rope to wrap around that family’s neck to explain their demise. They claim it was an accident, an unfortunate result of an old family’s odd collection. Or that it was done with intention, out of anger or spite. Some say there was no reason at all, really, for the night that the ambulance came up Wild Manswood Drive empty and left with seven body bags, filled to the brim. But as I was there, I knew better. It was precisely that moment, when Urman was faced with the prospect of preparing his own meals, that spelled out the beginning of the end for the Vanterbombs.

That, and the daisy of course, were they things that killed them.

It’s important to understand that, related or not, Urman was deathly allergic to bees. All of the Vanterbombs were. For a family of money and power, it’s ironic that something so small as a bee could have stolen it all. Just one sting and the game was over. That was the reason they had ripped up the garden on the day they moved in, although we hadn’t known it at the time. They never told anyone, not their friends or even relatives. Not even Lee, who was my best friend at the time, had thought to reveal his family’s secret to me. But I learned it just the same one day. From Urman, as a matter of fact.

It was the day of the daisy, the one when everything changed. I was sitting on Lee’s bed,  shuffling through baseball cards, when I heard the old man’s shout. My friend was in the kitchen, sneaking up beers from the refrigerator; I could hear him laughing loudly, distracting his mother from the tink of contraband glass. Urman shouted again, a little louder this time. As I climbed slowly up the stairs, all I could think was that God had finally granted the Vanterbombs their dearest wish.

But I found nobody on the floor when I poked my head into the attic. In fact, Urman was standing upright, stiff as a board, hand extended outward as he waved me quietly to the window. There, on his desk, stood the daisy, a brilliant yellow bloom floating on water. I followed his finger to a second cup, this one turned upside down, holding a bee. It stood stock-still, trapped beneath the glass, flexing its stinger in and out. In and out. I stared at it, and then at Urman, whose face had grown starch white. I crouched lower, eye level with the desk, and moved to touch the glass.

“Don’t, you damned fool,” Urman hissed, slapping my hand, “or you’ll kill us all.”

I straightened my back, wringing out my hand.

“I caught the little devil,” he croaked, color returning to his face. He eyed the glass warily. “Heard it buzzing about before he landed here on the desk.”

I stepped forward, cautiously this time, until I stood beside the old man once more.

“What’ll you do with it?”

“Do with it? I’ll kill the bastard before he kills me!”

“Kills you?”

“Just one sting. That’s all it takes.”

I grabbed a piece of paper and slid it beneath the glass. To Urman’s delight, I showed him how the glass could now be moved. I can still remember his face, his eyes hard and squinting, mouth set in a wicked smile, when I offered to dispose of the bee for him.

“No,” he said gruffly, “I’ll do it myself. You’ll just rob me of the pleasure.”

Just then, Lee came in. Like the bee, he had been drawn to the attic by mistake. He could hardly hide his disappointment when he saw Urman standing there, alive as ever. But that soon turned to confusion, and quickly to fear, at the moment he came forward to see what Urman had trapped on the desk.

“A bee? Get that damned thing out of here, you stupid old man!”

I tried to speak up, to explain the old man’s intentions, but the sound of feet stopped me. The rest of the Vanterbombs filled the attic. The vein in Mr. Vanterbomb’s neck pulsed dangerously.

“Didn’t you hear him, Urman? You get that damned thing out of my house!”

“You old fool,” his wife spat, “are you trying to kill us all?”

This was the way that they spoke to each other, Urman and the family. It’s not like you and I, who do things in the proper way. To the Vanterbombs, this was normal. So it wasn’t the insults that got to Urman. Oh no, it certainly wasn’t the words. If there was one thing that the old man didn’t like, it was being told what to do. Especially if it was something he had already meant to do. In cases like those, if you told him when he already meant to, then he simply wouldn’t do it.

“Oh yes,” came Urman’s silky reply, “I’ve decided to keep him as a pet.”

For the next hour, Urman stood between his family and the bee, refusing to bend beneath the onslaught of their words. Each member of the family offered their argument, pleaded with Urman to listen, or threatened to remove the bee themselves. But every time someone moved toward him, Urman would reach for the glass and lift it; without fail, the family would freeze, words falling dead in their open mouths. They gave up eventually, leaving Urman alone with his deadly new companion. He had named it Alamo, referred to it lovingly as his “little soldier.” He did not leave his attic room, as the bell no longer rang to summon him for dinner. Instead, he made his presence known by singing songs from the top of the stairs, all of which centered around Alamo’s exploits. Set in the same tuneless melody, the lyrics only differed in whose room the bee would find himself in by the time Urman finished the song.

Before long, the family had lost their patience. Their fear, left to simmer, boiled over into anger. They banged pots in the kitchen whenever the song broke out or shouted louder, singing songs of their own. Mrs. Vanterbomb cooked dishes, so seasoned and burdened with flavor, that the old man’s mouth watered in vain. So did the rest of us on Wild Manswood Drive, who wished now more than ever to be invited to dinner at the Vanterbomb’s home. But still, Urman sang his songs, subsisting on nothing but spam and spite.

Nearly a week after Alamo’s appearance, the Vanterbombs took things a step further. One night, on his way to the bathroom, Urman nearly broke his neck tripping over a crystal bell jar. Inside it, a pair of bees bumped stupidly against the glass. Written across the top of it in dark, red marker were the words:

Medicine for Urman

“Take two, you old fool,” came a snicker from the dark hall. “Doctors orders.”For the next three days, nothing happened. Urman had stopped singing. The sound of his footsteps disappeared from upstairs. No one saw him leave, not even to use the bathroom. But he must have left, slipped silently from the house sometime with no one noticing. Where he went, I cannot say. I only know that one warm night in June, while the Vanterbombs were sleeping, their oldest daughter woke up to buzzing. It came from her nightstand, beside her glasses, which she reached for but found a small, mesh cage. Her scream woke the rest of the family, each of whom found a similar box buzzing loudly on his or her bedside table. Their hearts raced, first with fear (then with anger) as they read the large, neat writing:

Thanks for the gift. Love, Urman.

I liked to imagine afterward what might have happened if the family had only taken a moment– just one, to stop and collect themselves. To think first, before they acted. A moment where Richard Vanterbomb might have processed his shock at seeing those bees and then given Urman a chance to explain himself. Urman might have complied, if given the opportunity: after all, he really didn’t want the thing either. Perhaps Enid might have shown the old man that soft, maternal affection she reserved only for her own children. She would make dinner, and rung the bell, an unassuming olive branch for Urman to come join them. The children, Lee and Emma and Olivia too, might greet him. Or offer up a roll. He would be reserved, even awkward, at having gone so long without speech or company; but with his wife’s prompting, he would smile and greet them back. And the Vanterbombs could have found happiness once again.

It’s a thought that passes through my mind every time I walk down Wild Manswood Drive to see that once-grand house abandoned. Or when a cell phone buzzes against an old, oak table. I think of that moment when things might have been different, when every one of them might have been saved, if only one had chosen to swallow his pride and give in. I realize now, as their house grows more and more decrypt with each passing year, that the fate of the Vanterbombs couldn’t be stopped. No more than the fate of their house, whose walls shrink each year as the honeycombs grow larger. From the moment that the first bee touched down on Urman’s desk, they were all doomed. Their anger and their vengefulness grew, stronger and more powerful than Urman’s own sickness.

And their “collection” grew larger still. Where they obtained them, no one knew. How they kept them alive remains shrouded in mystery. With each passing day, the number of bees that lived within their walls doubled. Tripled. By July, their collection grew so numerous that there was no space left, be it shelf or surface, which did not play host to a vessel of Vanterbomb bees.

Yet the family all agreed, mutually, that they would have  certainly been happier without the bees. But as everyone else had them, Lee explained to me the day before he died, it simply wasn’t fair that he shouldn’t have some too. Besides, he kept his only as insurance, as the Vanterbombs now began using their bees to settle petty arguments. If one didn’t want to do the dishes, she need only to threaten to lift the lid of a single glass. If one had done another wrong, he need only offer up some “medicine” to avoid retaliation. The arguments grew worse as the number of bees grew larger.

The buzzing grew louder still.

No one knows who did it, really. There are rumors, still, to this day. And stories–wild speculations as to who had done it and why. Some say it was Lee who first got the notion to test the tensile strength of flimsy, hand-brushed steel. He was always a wild card when I knew him, with a head full of empty, idle buzzing long before the bees. He was stronger than most, just a little different; he enjoyed poking and prodding things just to see what would give. More than one of those painted glass panes was broken in from Lee trying to test which was stronger, his finger or the glass. 

But Emma was prone to clumsiness. Enid had always been rash. And there was Olivia, ever curious. Or Richard, ruled by rage, and his mother whose blood ran the same, hot and thick. Heavy too. And Urman, of course, whose actions were done in an eagerness to spite them all. It might have been any, or all, of them. Each had their reasons. Any one might have lifted a latch or broken the glass. The family was an odd one, after all.

If you ask me, I don’t agree with the stories. It was an accident, I think. A hand stretched out for a sip of midnight water but lifting a jar instead. Or a cage, shifted over without thinking, that fell from its place on a windowsill to burst open at the floor. Whatever it is, however it is, it doesn’t really matter. It was and that’s all there was to it. It could have been any of them. In the end, it only took one for them. One wrong move for the lid to come off, for the family to be laid out like boards upon the floor. In a single second the beating of human hearts within the walls of that house had vanished, drowned out in a sea of droning from the Vanterbomb bees. 

The rooms are empty now, every shelf and surface laid bare. The once-strong walls grow thinner with each winter, paper peeling off beneath the scratch of a million fuzzy feet. They cover the place like paint, lead black, electric yellow. They crawl over the bodies of their dead. The air is filled with a constant humming, low and full, which vibrates deep enough to penetrate your bones. If you listen closely, you can hear it even now, all the way out here.

So it started from a daisy and one, single bee. Though small, their power was so great it managed to erase the house’s memory and all those who lived within it. Nothing is left now save for the rotted frames The garden, still dead, sprouts flowerless thorns which climb a rusted gate, whose top stands frayed and sharp like barbed wire. Light from the West pours in from empty windows to fall upon threadbare floors, carpet faded to brown by years of violent weather. As the days grow warmer, the house’s color fades. After it rains, the scent of mold lingers. The Vanterbomb bees are all that’s left of the house that once was– many generations have been born and died since the days of those who came first. The ones contained safely within polished, crystal jars. Nothing of what was then remains now, aside from faded photographs and the memories of this old and aging man. 

Nothing now is as it was before.

And the Vanterbombs?

No more.

Medical Component Specialist

He reached for the cup, frowning at its lightness, before sucking down the last cold dregs to drop it into the bin beneath his desk. His eyes stung like bees; he pressed hard into them with his palm, massaging deeply. He felt as though he had been awake for a lifetime. He glanced at the clock: it was still only 7:15. The number grinned at him like a winking eye in the clock’s sunshine-frame. He stared at it in disbelief until the number read 7:30.

The door opened, filling the room with the clank of heavy machinery and blaring alarm bells. The constant, mechanical whirring dissipated as the door swung softly shut, replaced with the rustling of the woman’s coat. The noise attracted the young man’s attention, his eyes falling upon her as she wrestled with it, twisting violently. She shrugged it off one shoulder and, without undoing the zipper, pulled her arms from sleeves before allowing it to fall down past her waist; it pooled at her feet, a puddle of red polyester.

“There,” she said triumphantly, stepping out of it before kicking the coat into the corner, behind the door. “I damn near died coming in, wearing a coat like that. It’s so hot out there!”

She didn’t look at him while she spoke but he grunted, noncommittaly, to assure her he’d heard. As he shifted his focus to the mountain of shining, stainless-steel needles before him, he heard the woman move toward her desk; he reached for a handful, pulling several thin needles from the blue plastic bin. He rolled them out neatly across his long, latexed finger, grunting as he pulled one from the end. Frowning, he reached out, holding it over the red bin, which sat to the left of the blue one, before dropping it. 

It fell with a dull thud as he turned his attention back to the row in his hand.

“Seriously,” the woman whined after a time, “you’d think they might put some fans out there or something. Or open up a window, for Chrissake! This place might just kill me one of these days if we keep getting winters like these.”

The young man crossed his fingers as the woman threw off her scarf; he watched it fall to the floor at the foot of the woman’s desk, tangling itself in the wheels as she shoved the chair roughly. Rifling through the clutter on her desk, the woman pulled out a small, white remote. The soft hum of the air-conditioner whirred to life about the man’s head, sounding in time with the click of the woman’s stubby finger. Cold air fell over him like a blanket of snow, a thick drift that bit at his exposed shoulders. He leaned back, sliding his arms into the sleeves of the coat which sat, already waiting, on the back of his chair. He pulled it on fluidly before turning back to his work.

“That’s better,” she said, clapping her hands together. “Gotta get the room down to temperature. Us ladies, you know, we tend to run hot!”

She grinned at him, her eyebrows raised, but he did not look up. Training them on the magnifying lens, he watched the needles roll across the pad of his thumb, eyeing the steel surface for metal burrs. Finding one, he pulled it gently from his grip to drop it to the left, into the red bin. As he set the others down, carefully, into the green one, the woman was already upon him.

“And what’s wrong with this one?” she asked sweetly, dipping her hand deep into the red bin to pull out the piece he had just dropped into it. “I don’t see anything!”

His frown deepened at the sight of her ungloved hand.

“The tip,” he said, frowning slightly at the ungloved hand which now waved itself in front of his face. “It’s broken.”

“Broken?” She echoed, staring at him. “What’s broken?”

“The tip,” he repeated flatly, “it isn’t there.”

“What do you mean, it isn’t there?”

“Would you like to check?”

“Fine,” she said, reaching out her other hand, “give me your loupe.”

He nodded, handing her the circular magnifying lense. She took it from him, turning the switch on the side: a small ring of LED lights flicked to life behind the glass, shimmering against the needle the woman now twisted between her fingers. She squinted, one-eyed, through the lens, her tongue pinched firmly between her teeth. She scoffed and, laughing softly, lowered the loupe in her right hand to rap it smartly on the table.

As she raised it again, the man saw that half of the LED’s had flickered like moths and died. The man stared mutely at their torched, blackened husks.

“The loupe was too bright,” she drawled, “so you lost the tip in the metal’s reflection.”

He stared at her, repeating her words. Silently.

“It’s there,” she insisted, handing the loupe back to him, “you can check it if you like.”

He reached out his hand to take the piece but froze: she had already dropped it into the bin to the green bin. A sound bubbled strangely up from the back of his throat, rising like bile until it burst as the woman turned away. The young man felt his hand fall limply to his side. He looked at the magnifier: another light flickered briefly. Then died.

He leaned over the green bin, saw the piece she had touched and withdrew it—a smudge shone against the polished surface. He stared down at the others, counting out how many others this piece had touched. He stared at the red bin, then set the piece aside.


Then the woman was back, wagging her finger disapprovingly. He watched, nonplussed, as a manicured hand dropped deeply into the green bin, digging through the needles before pulling out a separate one. It glinted in the white light overhead.

“But sweetie,” she said, waving it under his nose, “you managed to let this one slip through?”

He stared at it, locking his eyes on the metal gripped now between her long, red fingernails. She held them up to her eye line, smirking at him.

“What’s wrong with that one?” the man asked.

“The tip,” she said dumbly, “it’s broken.”

“Broken?” He held out his hand. “May I see?”

He flicked the small switch; the crisp, half-glow of LED light illuminated his whitened face.

“The tip,” she repeated, ignoring his outstretched hand. “It isn’t there, honey. You would hardly need a magnifier to see something as simple as that.”

He offered his hand again, but she batted it away.

“I saw it first thing, I did! Pieces big as these ones. I was the best at finding no-tips,” she boasted, twirling the piece in her grip, “on the old 20-22s. Tiny little parts, those ones were; you had to use magnifiers just to find them!”

He said nothing, offered only his outstretched hand.

“That was long before you showed up, anyhow. Back when I was the very best at it. No one in the entire company could hold a candle to me! That’s why they put me up as head of Quality.”

He grunted, stretching his hand out further: still, she ignored it.

“Now, those pieces were horrible little bastards. The 20-22s were thin, tiny little things. You could barely hold them still. And the tips were damn-near microscopic. That’s saying something,” she said impressively, “considering we couldn’t afford microscopes at the time.”

He felt his grip tighten around the cheap, 10x magnification lens. But when he spoke, he kept his voice calm.

“May I see it now?”

“But still,” she said, taking a step back, “I was the one that found them! Impressed the man upstairs pretty decently, considering how I ended up here. And that’s not the only perk of eyes like these–” he watched hers flash like two pin-pricks of emerald lightning– “let’s just say these eyes don’t come cheap. Let me tell you!”

They stared into his blue ones but his did not fall to meet hers.

“Can I see it? Please.”

He watched as her pupils fluttered between his own, then to his outstretched hand. Then they settled on the needle, which she braced tightly between her thumb and forefinger.

“You want to see this one?” she asked innocently. “Well, why didn’t you just say so?”

She was, for a moment, like a faceless statue: her sneakers were stones, rooted to the rough cement floor, as her arm turned to granite before him. Marveled at witnessing this sudden petrification, the young man did not react as the face cracked suddenly at the corners of the mouth. The lips carved themselves into a wide, toothy smile. In a single swift, fluid motion, she had crossed the distance between them to fill it with the needle.

“Look,” she declared, scraping the tip along the ridge of her lacquered nail, “there’s nothing there.”

He stared, blindly, for a fraction of a moment. His vision focused on the pattern; thin, yellow lines rose up the ketchup-red paint in uniform rows, crossing together at pinpoints. They looked almost like scales. The woman cleared her throat, holding the piece out to him, but he felt his hand drop again. When he didn’t speak, she smiled and turned her back to him once more.

“Seriously, sweetie,” she said, dropping the piece into the red bucket, “you do take this all too seriously. It’s quite alright if you miss just one or two. That’s what I’m here for, anyway: to catch the little mistakes like that!”

She turned to face him and smiled again. He was glad for his coat as she reached out to pat his shoulder consolingly, shaking her head softly like a wise, doting mother. He made a note to call his own during his lunch break as the woman withdrew her hand and slumped back toward her desk. She threw herself down into the chair and sank into it—deeply.

He turned back to the pieces, glancing at the loupe. He flicked off the light, then slid the remaining needles into the green bin to the right; they fell with a clink atop the other, now smudge-printed, ones. He reached into the middle bin and withdrew another clump.

“Well,” she drawled, “circling back to what I was saying before you asked for my help…”

“What you were saying…” he repeated automatically, squinting through the dark.

“Right, about the new girl.”

He rolled the pieces between his fingers, his eye catching at one end. 

“The new girl?” he questioned. “What new girl?”

“Ooh, you didn’t know? I’ll show you!

He heard her rifle loudly through the papers on her cluttered desk. He glanced at her over his shoulder before casually flicking his hand over the red bin. He coughed. Then, he carefully dropped the rest into the green one. He grabbed more.

The woman didn’t hear him as she scrolled through her phone.

“I can’t believe you wouldn’t know! So what you’re saying is, the boss only texted me?” 

She pulled out a pack of gum and removed a piece. She glanced up at the young man, caught his eye. She looked at the near-full pack. Pocketed it. As she unwrapped the stick of ice-blue gum to stick it into her mouth, the young man watched as the wrapper fluttered gently down to meet the scarf on the floor.

“I’ve got them here,” she droned, “the messages, I mean. Do you want to see them?”

He said nothing.

“That’s alright. It’s probably better; it’s a new phone and all. I wouldn’t want to dirty it right out of the box. So I’ll read them to you. The boss says it all here.”

She took a moment to straighten herself up, clearing her throat while smacking the gum between her lips. The room was frigid, like spearmint. He pulled his jacket up higher and zipped it to his neck. She cleared her throat again and read:

The new girl will be arriving no later than 12 p.m. today to train under you in Quality.

“‘The new girl,’ he says. He does carry on about things as if I should know them, doesn’t he? But really,” she complained, “he didn’t even give me a name.”

She waited a minute, weighing the silence. The young man left her to it.

“Honestly,” she droned on, “it’s not like I couldn’t figure it out. I heard from Bunter in Cleaning that—Oh? You know Bunter. The short one, with the long black hair. Miserably fat little devil. Doesn’t speak any English? —anyways, I heard from him that she’s his sister-in-law’s niece’s babysitter.

Silence fell over them again.

“A babysitter,” she repeated, as if she couldn’t comprehend it, “can you believe it? In Quality!?”

She allowed the shock of her words to settle in the room like a coat of fine dust; the man wiped some of it off the needles before dropping them into the green bin.

“Anyway, so back to this girl… or better yet, this babysitter! She’s coming here to train under me. The boss upstairs must be hoping for a miracle if he thinks I can train someone up to work like I do, and with no real-world experience besides!”

“You’re right,” the young man replied. “He must be.”

“Well, I am the very best that Quality has to offer,” she said smartly, looking around the nearly empty room, “so it makes sense why he’d choose me. But to pick today of all days, I’ll never understand it. And when it’s so damned hot out there, too!”

The man hunched forward, rolling his eyes. He shifted himself slightly to one side, blocking the view of his monitor. A blue-filmed finger snaked across the tabletop to fall upon the mouse: it squeaked beneath a nail’s pressure. The faintest sound of softened music filled the room, shattering its crypt-like silence. 

“They say that she is only in her twenties,” the woman said after some time, “‘round the same age as you. Can you believe it? I’m practically a babysitter myself now, watching after such small, young things!”

He grinned as the silence fell again and he was met with the sound of sweet, soft music. His peace was short-lived, as the sound of an alarm bell rang through the room. The door was opened. He turned to face her as the new girl stepped into the room.

She allowed the door to swing shut behind her, muting the piercing whistle as the wood thudded bluntly back into its frame. The girl took a moment to allow her eyes to adjust to the darkness of the room. They flickered around it before finding the woman; she smiled before turning toward the young man.

“Good morning,” she said, smiling at him, too. “It’s nice to meet you both. My name is Grace.”

“Grace,” the woman repeated, matter-of-fact. She looked at the clock: it read 11:15. “We’ve been expecting you, Grace.”

“That’s perfect,” Grace beamed at her, “and you are…”

“I’m the Specialist, and your supervisor. But as you’re only training today, it’ll be much more like babysitting. That’s my station there.”

She jerked her head toward the cluttered desk. Grace glanced down quickly at it, then turned to face the door. The woman met the man’s eyes, laughing in mock-silence as she pointed at Grace, whose back was to them as she removed her coat. When she turned again, the coat folded neatly in her hands, her cheeks were slightly pink.

“I’m very sorry,” Grace said, “but I didn’t catch your name.”

The woman didn’t answer. Instead, she stared down at her nails, trying to smooth away a pin-sized puncture from the hot-red lacquer. Grace stared at her before meeting the young man’s eye.

“Well then, how about you over there? Your name would be?”

“Hello,” the man began, “I’m—.”

“That’s our Quality Inspector. He does tips and burrs.”

“Ooh, that sounds very interesting.”

The woman barked with laughter. “Oh no, it’s horrible work. Horribly simple work. So simple, even a monkey could do it. But a monkey costs more than a man in most cases, so the boss makes do. Believe me, Grace,” she laughed, “It’s truly some mindnumbing stuff. But you do get your own loupe, for one thing.”

“A loupe?”

“That’s a magnifier, Grace, to see the imperfections,” the woman said, sounding slightly harassed, “you’d best get familiar with the terms, even if it’s just to save me time in explaining them.”

“Right,” Grace said, “so only the Quality Inspector gets a loupe, then?”

“Well, they get a loupe. And they get the chair by the air conditioner,” the woman said bitterly, “that’s another perk of the job.”

“Air conditioner?” 

The girl glanced quickly around the room, scanning the four walls. After she had turned all the way around, she laughed aloud.

“Honestly,” she beamed, “I thought someone must have left a window open and forgotten about it! But now I realize there are no windows. Goodness gracious, it is quite cold in here!”

“Well, the room’s simply got to stay at one temperature, I’m afraid. This place is so cheap, the air conditioner’s broken—it’s stuck at that temperature.”

“Would you mind, then, if I opened this door?”

Grace reached for the handle and turned it. The sound of metal thumped rhythmically outside the door. Somewhere beyond it, an alarm bell rang out. The young man felt a tendril of hot air lick his exposed ankle: the blood flowed, sluggishly, beneath the surface of raw skin. He shivered.

“Sorry, sweetie. The door’s simply got to stay closed. Quality has a strict sound policy– there can’t be any, I’m afraid.”

The girl’s hand froze beneath the woman’s critical gaze. As the latch clicked back into position and the room fell silent once more, the woman’s mouth twisted into a sickly sweet smile. Grace did not move from her place at the door; she stood, for a moment, as a chunk of solid ice. But as the young man watched her, she slipped her coat back over her shoulders and, without pausing, zipped it to her neck before stepping forward.

“That’s fine,” Grace said, “is it alright if I wear this? I didn’t bring a cardigan.”

“Alright? Why wouldn’t it be?”

“Well, it says on the sign…”

The woman laughed at her. “We put up that sign to keep those grease-monkeys out there from coming into our room. As a member of Quality, you don’t have to follow it.”

“But,” Grace hesitated, “Quality is meant to be a clean room, isn’t it?”

“It’s clean,” the woman reasoned, “or at least clean enough, so long as those damned machinists stay far away from here. They’re always coming in and leaving their dirty rags.”

The woman laughed again before glancing down at her phone. The young man watched Grace’s eyes flutter to the wrapper on the floor, then to the desk. The scarf pooled at the woman’s feet, twisted up in the roller wheels as the woman pushed her chair forward. Grace turned slightly, eyeing the floor in the corner near the door. The young man sighed, picking up his loupe again. He took one shining piece from the middle of his newest row and placed it down softly. To the left. All the others, he laid gently to the right. In the green bin.

Grace cleared her throat.

“I was told that you would be the person training me.”

“That’s right. I am the supervisor, after all.”

“Okay then, what am I supposed to do?”

The woman ignored her, leaning closer to her desk. Her phone blared loudly; the sound of a woman’s voice, loud and shrill, broke through the sound of concert music. A shriek of wild laughter rang out through the room. Grace and the man shared a private look. When Grace repeated herself, the woman, again, did not answer. The young man sighed deeply before leaning forward; the sound of classical music raised, minutely, within the small room.

“Alright,” the woman said after some time, noticing Grace still watching her. “Now that you’ve got that coat business settled, I guess I can finally begin.”

Grace was not thrown off. Instead, she merely smiled.

“Great,” she said cheerfully, “I’m ready to learn.”

“Well, you needn’t be so eager, as you’ll just be sorting today.”

“Sorting,” the girl repeated, “alright. So what do I do?”

The woman motioned Grace to sit down at an empty station; she perched on the edge of the desk, checking her nails, as she explained the process. You sort the clean parts from the dirty ones. It’s terribly simple work, so I’m sure you can handle it. Grace said nothing, merely nodded, pulling on a pair of gloves before setting herself to work. The music raised by a fraction as the man added three more pieces to the pile in his red bin. 

The woman did not move from her spot on the desk, where she scrolled through her phone and explained her opinions on the videos that the two others could not see. Occasionally, she would look up to correct Grace’s work, grabbing roughly at the clean parts.

“Oh no, sweetheart,” the woman said, twisting the part before the girl’s eyes, “don’t know how you could have let that one slip through.”

“Oh, I thought that you had to wear gloves when you—”

“No, no. Because you’re so new, you needn’t worry about making little mistakes like this one. But this one isn’t at all clean, anyone can see that.”

As she dropped the piece into the girl’s red bin, the man rolled his eyes again.

“Well, it’s certainly dirty now, isn’t it?”

The young man froze as the woman turned to look at him, her face seared scarlet. Catlike, she slid from her spot on the girl’s desk and slunk over to him. She dipped her hand into the red bin, rummaging through the pool of damaged needles before pulling out a small handful.

“So wasteful,” she spat, glaring at him, “I simply don’t understand how the boss could have named you a Quality Inspector.”

She dropped them all into the green bin; the young man winced as he heard the pieces smack against each other. Hard. He stared, wide-eyed, as she reached her hand in after them and dug her fingers to the bottom. She swiped a hand over the pile’s surface.

“That’s all the work you’ve gotten done today? You’re moving too slow. It’s nearly lunchtime!”

She turned on her heel and took a step toward Grace, who watched them. Then the woman paused, turned around again, and closed the distance between herself and the man. She grinned wickedly as she grabbed at the computer mouse— laughed as the sound of soft music died suddenly from the room.

“You’re breaking the sound policy,” the woman said, walking toward the door. “Quality has got a strict sound policy—there can’t be any, I’m afraid.”

From their desks, the two stared at the woman as she fished her coat from the corner. The young man’s eyes flicked up to the clock. 11:35. He cleared his throat but the woman, now struggling with her coat, didn’t hear him. She made a show of looking for her scarf, swearing loudly as she untangled it from the wheels of her chair. By the time she stood at the door, the scarf wrapped around her neck, the clock read 11:45.

“Well,” she said loudly, “it’s lunch for me. And hard-earned too, with the day I’ve had!”

Grace stared at her. “But lunch is at noon, isn’t it?”

“Oh, it is. But by the time I make it through that hellish warehouse, and find my keys, then get into my car–” her fingers found the door handle, opened it slightly so whistling filled the room once more— “I’ll still have to wait while the damned thing heats itself. It’ll be long past noon by the time I go on my lunch, really.”

“Oh,” Grace said amusedly, “well, I suppose that makes sense.”

“It does, which is why I come back a bit later than all of you—an extra couple of minutes break helps me prepare myself for the second half of the workday.”

“Right,” the young man said, still staring at the clock.

“Well, Grace. The nearest place to eat is Freddy’s,” the woman told her, one foot already out the door, “it’s the only place, really, for miles and miles. You take a left as you leave the parking lot, opposite the way you came in.”

“A left,” Grace repeated, “to Freddy’s.”

“It’s this ruddy little bar, quite the dive. But the food is decent as it could be, for the town we’re in. And I’m sure, if you ask nicely, they’ll serve you without I.D.”

“Oh! Well, I don’t really drink.”

“Well,” the woman scoffed, “that works out wonderfully for you then, doesn’t it?”

As the door swung shut, the room fell to silence once more. Grace glanced at the young man before each turned back to their station. The man pulled out one needle from his hand and dropped it into the, now empty, red bin. He paused for a long moment, staring at the bow tied neatly in Grace’s hair. Then, reaching out his hand, he grabbed the green bin and dumped it all, in its entirety, to join the one he had just discarded. The blue bin was now empty, its pieces now stacked, nearly identically, into the bin standing on its left.

As he stood and walked toward the door, Grace was waiting for him. Passing by her station, he grinned as he saw that her green bin, too, was empty.

He pulled the broken loupe from his pocket and tossed it onto the woman’s desk; it landed dully amidst the papers, before rolling to the edge to fall upon her chair. As he pulled the door open, a soft silence filled the room. The young man followed Grace as she led them through the heat-soaked machinery to the door outside. Together, they walked quietly through the frigid parking lot to where their cars sat, side-by-side. Once they’d reached them, they each turned around: without speaking, the two stared at the beige, nondescript building they had just exited.

Without entering it, it would be impossible to tell what sort of business occurred inside.

The sun shone weakly overhead as Grace turned to face the young man. She was smiling at him.

“Well,” she said softly, extending her hand, “it was wonderful meeting you.”

He took it, grinning now as well. “Certainly it was, Grace.”

“You take care now.”

“And you,” he said, opening the car door for her. She sat in it. “Drive safely, Grace.”

Her engine sputtered as the young man closed the door. As he got into his car, he turned the key: the engine sprung to life, humming rhythmically as he followed her through the empty parking lot toward the fork in the narrow road. As she pulled slowly into the right turn lane, he pressed the brake on her other side. When he turned, he found her watching him through the window. She waved, grinning as she smiled once more. 

He watched as the broken tail-light of her silver, Mitsubishi Gallant disappeared around the curve in the road.

After a minute or so, the young man realized his car was idling. He pumped the brakes, then checked his rear-view mirror. His breath plumed like a cloud of smoke to hang in the bitter air of his car–he smiled as he flicked a dial. The heater roared to life. He flipped the turn signal, filling the silence with the soft, melodic tick of green, electric light. He turned on the radio, twisted a knob until he found the station: classical music swelled to fill the silence. He looked left and then right. The engine purred smoothly as he shifted the gear into drive and, without looking back, cut across the lane to follow where the girl’s car had disappeared.

To the right.