FEBRUARY 11, 2020| ISSUE no 260
crack the spine
Nuisance Phone Call
short fiction by Eva Rivers
Granted the telephone line is spluttering and crackling but this fella’s slow on the uptake so I give him one more chance. ‘Me who, I’m asking?’
‘Thomas,’ he shouts.
For a half-second the name means nothing, then my stomach crashes to my feet.
‘Is this a prank, fella? Is this a fecking nuisance phone call? Because if it is–’
‘Dad, it’s me,’ he says, his voice crumbling.
I lower myself onto the threadbare stairs. My mind’s empty, my mouth dry as bone dust. For the love of God, I tell myself, say something.
‘How are you, Dad?’
‘It’s been a while,’ he says.
A while? He thinks it’s been a while, does he? I feel Annie’s gentle fingers caress my face and I’m ashamed.
‘It has,’ I say.
‘Are you still racing the pigeons?’ he says, and in his voice I hear the eight-year asking, Da, can I have a pigeon of my own? I gave him a beauty and we’d spend our evenings in the loft tending to the birds.
‘No,’ I tell him. ‘They’re long dead.’ There’s a draught bothering my skin so I tug my dressing gown collar up over my neck.
‘How’s Ma? Can I have a word?’
A sudden uprush of tears catches me out. With my free hand I fumble through my pockets for a handkerchief but all I find is a pair of socks. They’ll have to do.
‘Dad? Are you still there?’
~ ~ ~
We’re standing at the front door and Tom is on the street side of the wooden gate. He’s been home for the weekend—the only visit this term—and now he’s leaving.
‘Call me when you get there,’ says Annie. She blows him a kiss and he blows one back, not with a flourish of the hand like he used to but discreetly. He closes the gate so that the latch clunks into the hold. And he gives it a shake to make sure it’s shut. I’ve always thought that was odd. He looks up at us for a moment, waves and is gone.
That night Annie’s calling the halls of residence to make sure he’s arrived, and I stop her. Let the boy be. Sure he’s gone out for a pint with his mates. We don’t say that we’re shocked by the loss of weight—or the loss of spirit—but we’re both thinking it. Two weeks later we’re in Dublin on a grim November afternoon, our clothes sodden, and we’re begging the porter to let us into Tom’s room. He’s a bit of a job’s worth but when Annie starts catapulting words like missing, responsibility and dead for all we know, he changes his tune.
He walks ahead of us, head down against the rain, swinging a bunch of keys in time to his swaying bulk. I want to grab them and make a run for it, force his stumpy legs move that bit faster. Eventually he leads us up some steps to a landing with four doors and, in a heartbeat, Annie’s banging on number 2.
‘Tom, it’s Mam,’ she says, ‘are you in there?’
The porter unlocks the door and stands aside. I want to go in first but Annie slips in before me. There’s not much light but enough to work out that Tom’s not here.
‘Didn’t we teach him better than this?’ she asks, and walks further into the room.
She picks up clothing that’s been dropped on the floor or strewn across the scant furniture and she holds it close. All the time she keeps her back to me so I don’t see her cry, but I can tell. I nudge aside plates of mouldy scraps with my boot, and gather up the dregs of coffee and beer. I pick up empty vodka bottles and stand them behind the armchair, and wonder how in God’s name it’s come to this. The air is strong with the stench of stale baccy and sour vomit. The bed’s a rumple of filthy sheets with tide marks of piss and maybe worse. And everywhere there are books, stacks of them rising up from the floor, beside the bed, on the windowsill, on the table and under it too. Yet, this doesn’t look like the room of someone who takes books to heart.
‘Look, Annie—,’ but Annie’s got her hands cupped to her mouth and her shoulders are shaking. She’s staring at a large stain on the wall beside the door. From where I’m standing it looks like shit but I move closer and see the tinge of red.
‘For the love of God,’ mutters the porter. He stuffs his hands in his pockets and leaves. When he comes back it’s with two coppers and a clipboard. He’s twitching with self-importance but they snake around him and edge him out.
They look over the room, open the wardrobe, the drawers, flick through rubbish on the table. They insinuate all sorts of things—mental problems, money problems, drugs naturally. We can’t answer their questions quick enough. Then, while one of them busies himself with Annie, the other one—piggy eyes and cheeks bones that could stab you—pulls me aside and asks if Thomas is a homo-sex-u-al. He takes pleasure in stretching the word as far as it’ll go. There’s a smirk on the weasel’s face so I square up to him. The O’Learys don’t take it up the arse, I tell him, my fist ready if he dares to say it again.
All the to-ing and fro-ing with the Garda amounted to nothing. Annie spent the rest of her life worrying the police, the church, the charities, even the press. She did interviews, raised money, knocked on doors, stuck up posters around Dublin and beyond. She was like a dog with a bone. But the day Tom closed the gate and waved goodbye, eleven years ago, was the day he vanished out of our lives. We never heard from him again. Not a letter. Not a call. Not a single bloody word.
~ ~ ~
‘Dad, are you still there?’
‘Can I have a word with Ma?’
Jesus, what do I tell him? Does the fella even deserve to know?
‘Dad, I’d like to come home, see you and Ma. Make things right.’
Something cracks in my head. Did we ever stop him coming home? And did he have to wait so long to ask? Long enough for his mother to die broken-hearted, to never have found out what happened to him. I should be saying all sorts of things about love and forgiveness and family but I stopped believing in them long ago. If Annie were here she’d know what to say. I barely know how to soften the awkwardness. Besides, it’s the crack of dawn and the stair is hurting my arse.
Thomas mumbles something.
‘What’s that?’ I say.
‘I was just speaking to Alice, Dad, my wife.’
‘You’ve a wife?
‘And a beautiful baby girl.’
I wish Annie could hear this because she’s the one who deserves to know that Tom is alive and safe. I never knew what to believe and, in the end, it was easier to believe he’d died.
I’ve been sitting here, my mouth hanging open like an eejit, for too long. I’m stiff with the arthritis and frozen with the cold. Slowly, I unfold myself and get up. I place the receiver oh so gently into the cradle so he won’t know that I’ve gone.
We lean on car doors and sit on trunks despite the dirt. I know I shouldn’t wear white, but in the summer my tan fresh from the river bank or the softball field looks good in white, makes me feel like I’ve actually been somewhere.
As it is, we’re just here again. The liquor store parking lot. None of us old enough to buy, all of us waiting for something to happen. Our vehicles, caked in dust or mud, show signs of who’s been screwing who and where they’ve gone to do it. Tabitha and Chuck must be on again, what with that corn stalk poking out of his fender. Everyone knows she’s wild about the field three miles over by the old Marshall place. We were friends once, and I thought it was cute or funny or whatever.
Jimmy’s not around. I lean against his car, hop on the hood, admire my tan thighs, slick with sweat from the summer heat still dense and pressing down. I’m tired but not about to go home. He’s got to come back some time, I figure. I leave my ass print on the back of his Chevy, and it leaves its ass print on the back of my shorts, like an inkblot I’d hate to fucking know the psychology behind.
My friend Sue hands me a bottle of Jack in a brown paper bag. Chris must have stopped by. The regular customers almost always park in front on the street. I can’t see them from where I sit on Jimmy’s car in the shadows of the side lot, but Sue tends to move around. She knows when Chris or Greg or Bill pulls up out front. For an extra ten or a hand job, they don’t mind buying.
Someone turns the radio up. Sounds like Johnny finally got that new subwoofer he never shuts up about. He’s parked down the line, but still the bass vibrates Jimmy’s car, and I feel it between my legs. The county cop hasn’t been in town tonight. I sense his absence in the relaxed way people lean into each other, in their easy smiles, their tipped back cans. So Johnny’ll keep it cranked until closing time, which is coming soon.
The air buzzes lightly in the neon glow from the liquor store window. I drink from the bottle and think, Fuck, Jimmy, where are you? Leaning back, I take another big swig. It burns all the way down to my belly, and I close my eyes.
“Damn, girl, you got it bad,” Sue says.
She’s been saying that a lot since last spring when I told Jimmy I didn’t want to accept the scholarship to Clarkson if he wasn’t going. Since the night he walked away, not saying anything. Since the night I thought it was over. The night I hid behind the grain elevator crying until one of the guys showed up and I drank a fifth of Old Crow to forget myself for a while and ended up wanting to forget what happened. The night Jimmy came back looking for me and heard all about it.
Sue leaves me the bottle and moves away to sing and sway with the group around the almighty subwoofer. I focus on the bass and the bottle.
Someone hops on the car beside me, and I lurch lower. Fingertips slide under the edge of my shorts, along my thigh. I open an eye and say, “Hey.”
It’s Eric. He lifts his chin toward my bottle and says, “Chris was here?”
“Yeah, I guess.” I shrug and take another drink.
“Come on, let’s dance,” Eric says and pulls my wrist until I’m standing, parking lot gravel crunching under my clearance-bin flip flops. He presses against me and I move back, rounding Jimmy’s car to the far side. I pass the hubcap, notice it’s clean, not like last Saturday night. When I pulled a corn stalk from it, Tabitha said, “We were just talking.”
My head swims with booze. Eric fumbles with my fly. The button hole is tight. I don’t help him, but I don’t stop him either. The door handle grinds against my hip bone. Eric finally frees the button and works his hand down my shorts, slips his fingers under the lacy waistband of the panties I bought at Walmart. They’re fancy enough.
Besides, boys don’t know shit about shit.
Eric’s fingers slip in easily. He braces me against the car door. Good thing. If he let’s go, I know I’ll slide to the side. His mouth is on my neck and I tip my head back. It’s both light and too heavy. I drink and let my eyes close.
Sue calls for me.
Eric pulls back and says, “Shit, you better go. When she’s drunk, she gets crazy and shit.”
“Crazy as shit.” I slide to the side, then open my eyes.
And there’s Jimmy.
Eric pulls from the bottle and saunters off with it. I work that stubborn button on my once-white shorts. Sue rounds the fender, takes my hand, and pulls me along.
Jimmy climbs down from a red F150 I don’t recognize. Eric heads toward him, hand in the air. “Hey, man,” he says, “smell my fingers.”
Jimmy flinches, and I do too. But then he laughs and claps Eric on the back.
“It’s late,” I say to Sue, and I finally turn to go.
When the neon lights wink out behind me and I no longer feel the bass through the soles of my feet, I dust off the back of my pants and keep moving.
flash fiction by Jen Ippensen
poetry by A. Martine
These things add up,
but if you sparse them out, spread them like spilled salt,
you could trick the eye,
the ever vigilant Eye.
I want to be twenty-seven
the only way left is down.
I could be a woman at last
torture myself with earn-ed, willful skill.
Could learn to love myself one day, or else choose
Wouldn’t matter, I’d be free at last,
free to scorn, free at last.
These things add up.
Escape so much you end up on trajectories of fugue,
hoping momentum will buoy you where accountability did not.
I want to have the star treatment,
the right to blow hysterics and own my titular mess, holy mess,
I want to be pampered
the way women who have stopped caring are warranted:
what particular favors do I need to turn in?
These things sure do add up.
Or maybe the times have changed.
Maybe my times have changed:
I want an honorary degree.
Go into slow sentences, big words, long stories, always have the last say.
I’ve gotten older, but —
realizing I’m nothing but a parentheses, I’ve been on a tangent since
— I want to be twenty-seven, that age that might anchor me,
the way twenty-three
It’s that floating, that eternal floating.
These things add up, you see.
It’s that infernal sound again, the sound of your conscience gone hollow,
your fingers struggle around its form, its shape, its contours.
It’s stepping onto the patchy grass
and thinking you’re still a child, your bones enveloped and protected by the fleshiness of your idealism.
It’s stepping into thorns of potential sufferings
(in the form of poison ivy and other hostile flora)
and thinking yourself made of leather and hide —
It’s stepping onto a trampoline
thinking fun will be had, for the very last time
and for the very last time, feeling like God Herself leant over you and made you Sovereign.
These things add up
they add up
and I could never really count them.
I was terrible with numbers,
They jeer and needle me and I can only offer pallid retorts.
So I step on the trampoline instead
because I won’t feel like a fool, even if I am
because I haven’t earned the right to want more.
I am not twenty seven.
I know my time is coming
so I go to meet with it instead
twirling like I am still made of feathers
Like my youthful charm will last forever.
the trampoline won’t let me down
and giving guarantees I cannot follow through.
Because these things add up,
and before you know it you are spent,
playing Faustian games with yourself
whose consequences won’t matter, as long as the
trampoline won’t let you down.
It’s that floating, that floating you swim to
as long as the
trampoline won’t let you down.
It’s that trance you throw your entire body into, pleading
that the trampoline
won’t let you down
won’t let you down.
Just look at all the stars
Embedded in the sidewalk: between the stares
Of prowling tourists, in the shiny glare
Of sun that’s really setting. Where?
From way past Vine, beyond those figures lost in shadow.
A homeless guy, nowhere to go,
Is squatting on the edge
Of a wire-mesh trash bin, like it’s a ledge
That he’s about to jump from.
Wild-eyed, feral, he snarls at you: I’m no bum.
The light from stars, he rants, has died
Before it reaches you—a homicide or suicide?
I was born beneath the sign
Of Jack Daniels, no light was ever mine.
In fact, the garbage in this can is actually a diagram
Of my digestive system: who I am.
The stuff that goes through me goes through this whole city,
And it’s not pretty.
You want respect, you voyeuristic motherfucker?
Then pay me what you owe me, sucker!
What’s funny is, he looks a little bit
Like Paul Auster, the novelist, if Auster’s work had turned to shit
Along with everything. And yet
The life that this guy leads, no debt
And no restraints, is not without attraction.
To blame the world, to bark at passersby—what satisfaction!
Nyargh, nngh, urghh, whatever.
I hear you, brother.
poetry by Gary Duehr
short fiction by Connor Bradley
“Welcome to Parallax, home to the most cutting-edge virtual and augmented reality development team on the planet. We hope you enjoy your visit. Parallax—enjoy life from a different perspective.”
The screen above the check-in desk transitioned from the welcome video to a looping animation of a 3D model of the Parallax company logo.
“Hello,” I said to the man at the check-in desk. “I’m here to try the PVR.”
He looked up from his computer. “Are you a sweepstakes winner?”
“Yeah. Harold Wilson.”
“Okay. I’ll need some photo identification.”
I reached into my pocket and grabbed my Student ID from my wallet. “Will this work?” I asked, handing it over the desk to him.
He frowned as he looked it over. “Hmm,” he paused for a moment. “Sure, I guess this’ll work. Let me get you checked in.”
He typed on his computer for a bit before silently returning my ID. There was a whirring sound to my left as a small machine printed out a visitor ID. He slid the paper ID into a plastic sleeve with a clip and handed it to me.
“Here you are. Please take a seat. A supervisor will show you to the PVR test room shortly.”
I clipped the ID onto my breast pocket and took a seat in the lobby. Aside from me and the check-in guy, the lobby was completely empty. All of the exterior walls were glass, allowing for a nice view of the well-maintained landscape outside. I looked away from the windows and down at my phone just in time to see the clock switch from 11:59 to 12:00, and, as I did, I heard footsteps approaching me.
“Welcome to Parallax Mr. Wilson,” said the woman standing in front of me. “You can follow me to the test room now.”
I stood up and followed her past the check-in desk and into a brightly lit hallway.
“So, how is it working at Parallax?” I asked the woman.
She didn’t reply. She didn’t even seem to react to my question at all. I was only a few paces behind her, so she definitely heard me. I considered asking again, but I lost interest in making small talk and kept following in silence. She stopped at a pair of double doors.
“Here we are,” she said, turning to face me.
She entered first and held the door open. The entire room was bright white, lit by multiple lines of LED lights in the ceiling. The floor was tiled, and the walls and ceiling seemed to be made of lightly textured drywall. The only furniture was a small black table and chair placed in the center of the room.
“Please take a seat,” the woman said.
I sat and looked down at the table. On it sat a small stack of papers and a pen.
“These are terms of service documents and liability waivers. You’ll need to sign them before you can use the PVR.”
“Okay,” I replied.
“I’ll be back to collect these when you are done,” she said before exiting the room.
I picked up the pen and started reading over the documents but gave up pretty quickly. I flipped through the pages, checked all the check boxes, signed where I needed to, and set the pen back down.
A few seconds later, the woman returned, followed by four additional Parallax employees. Two of the employees remained in the entryway to hold the doors open, while the other two entered the room and approached the table on opposite sides.
The woman approached and grabbed the documents. “I’ll file these away and return to set the PVR up shortly,” she said.
She left the room, and the two employees flanking the table picked it up and took it out with them. The two holding the doors followed them into the hallway, closing the doors behind them and leaving me alone again.
I stood up and walked around the room. It was a cube, maybe ten or fifteen feet in all directions, and featureless aside from the doors, chair, and the occasional fleck of black in the tiles. There wasn’t much else to look at, so I sat back down.
I was excited to test the PVR (Parallax Virtual Reality). I could never afford the original PAR (Parallax Augmented Reality), but I tried it at my cousin’s house a few years back right after its release. It was like nothing I’d ever experienced before. The graphics were overlaid on real-world environments, and they blended together seamlessly. The sound quality was hyper realistic, and the earbuds were so comfortable that I completely forgot I was wearing them.
I played Haunted House, a horror game for the PAR that made your own home into something out of a horror movie. You’d walk around the house with the headset on and the lights off. The headset worked as a pair of night vision goggles so you could navigate through the darkness, but it also added small glimpses of ghostly figures. The audio was what really set the atmosphere. You could hear a thunderstorm outside, howling winds, whispers all around you, and bumps, knocks, and creaks all around the house. I could only take it for about ten minutes before I ran for a light switch. It was a terrifying introduction, but it got me intensely interested in Parallax’s gaming technology.
From the rumors I’d heard, the PVR would be on a whole new level of immersion. According to people on the tech forums I frequent, the PVR would provide an experience beyond the immersive audio-visual experience of the PAR. Somehow, the PVR would be fully immersive, including all five senses to create a true virtual reality experience. No one knew how this could be done—or if it were even possible.
The woman reentered the room carrying in her right hand what I assumed was the PVR. It had goggles and earbuds like the PAR, but unlike the PAR, this device had two small suction cups on each side of the goggles that connected to the rest of the headset through a set of wires. In her left hand she carried a small black canvas bag emblazoned with the Parallax logo.
“I’ll need you to empty your pockets, and place all of your belongings in here,” she said, handing me the bag.
I did as she said and returned the bag to her.
“Alright,” she said. “We’re ready to begin.”
She placed the goggles over my eyes, put the earbuds in my ears, and attached the suction cups to my temples.
“You’re ready to go. Just close your eyes, press the power button on the right side of the headset, and count down from ten. When you finish counting, you can open your eyes and your virtual reality experience will begin. Do you have any questions?”
“No,” I replied “I’m ready.”
“Okay, then I’ll see you on the other side.”
I closed my eyes and pressed the power button. White noise filled my ears. I think I heard the woman leave the room, but I couldn’t be sure. I started my countdown: 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 . . .
I opened my eyes. The room looked the same as it had before. I stood up from the chair and turned around to see that the chair was no longer there. I started feeling around for it, but there was nothing. It had totally disappeared. As I did this, I began to notice some gradual changes to the room. The edges and corners started to round out, and the room seemed to be expanding. I spun around in a circle looking for the doors, but they had vanished as well. The room was still brightly lit, but when I looked up, the lights were gone too. I examined the floor, walls, and ceiling to find any small features — the black flecks in the tile or the texturing on the walls — were gone. The room had been transformed into a completely smooth, bright, white, featureless expanse. The rumors were right. This was far beyond anything the PAR was capable of.
“Hello? What do I do now?”
“Welcome to the PVR demo tutorial. Please select a color,” replied a disembodied voice.
It was the pleasant-sounding voice of a young woman. The voice was almost too pleasant, like it was designed by someone to keep users calm. I had a hard time believing this was not a real woman speaking to me. The voice sounded so real. It’s pronunciation, intonation, and general sound quality was like no AI voice program I’d heard before. I stopped thinking about the qualities of the voice itself and focused on its command.
“A color? Um, red?”
As the words left my mouth, a point on the floor below me turned a crimson red. I checked to make sure I wasn’t having a nosebleed when the spot of red rapidly expanded outward. Soon everything was red.
I walked through the red room for a few minutes. The initial awe I felt from seeing the room expand and change colors as it did was wearing off. There had to be more to this demo.
“Okay,” I said “What else can I do?”
“Please select a location,” the voice replied.
“What are my options?”
“There are no limitations. Select any location.”
“An island.” I said.
The red seeped out of the room and everything turned back to white. Then the room filled with a dizzying array of color. There were different shades of blue and yellow and, soon enough, the room wasn’t even a room anymore. I looked around to find myself on a beach. I shielded my eyes from the sun above me and looked out across the ocean. It seemed to go on forever. I felt a pinch on my foot and looked down to see a small crab grabbing onto my pinky toe. I could hear the waves crashing into the shore and smell the briny air as the waves came in. This was unbelievable. I was really there. Just to check, I reached for my head. Sure enough, I wasn’t wearing any headset. No goggles, no earbuds, nothing. I should’ve been frightened, but I was too amazed by the view. I sat on the beach and stared at the ocean.
“Can I have something to eat?” I asked.
“What would you like?”
“How about some pancakes.”
I saw movement out of the corner of my eye and looked over to see a table with a plate of pancakes and a mug of syrup. I walked over to the table, poured some syrup on the pancakes and took a bite. The pancakes were incredibly light and fluffy, but I was put off by the taste of the maple syrup.
“The pancakes are great, but I don’t like maple. Could I get some sugar syrup? Like Log Cabin or Mrs. Butterworth’s or something?”
The color of the syrup changed to a lighter amber color.
“Try them now,” the voice said.
I took another bite, and sure enough the syrup had changed. It was sweeter than before and had none of the maple aftertaste I disliked.
“Damn, these are great.” I said.
I stood over the table and ate the whole plate of pancakes. To my amazement, I didn’t feel any fuller after finishing than I did when I started eating. Usually when I eat that much sugar, I give myself a stomach ache, but I was feeling great.
This whole time I’d expected some game to start. It thought I was waiting for the tutorial to end so I could get into the real demo, but this was it. It was so open-ended that I hadn’t realized until now. With that in mind, I decided to get a bit more imaginative with my requests to really test the limits of the PVR.
The voice delivered on every request I made. I asked if I could fly, and before I knew it, I was flying around the island. I asked for gills and swam down to the ocean floor. It was dark, but the voice turned the brightness up for me. I could see it all as clear as day. The colorful coral and many species of fish were so clear that it looked like I was viewing them through the lens of an expensive video camera. After a few dozen more request on the island, I thought about getting a change of scenery.
Before I could speak, the voice asked “Where would you like to go?”
The first place I thought of was home, and as I did, the beach began to morph around me. The sun, ocean, and sand disappeared and was replaced by the familiar surroundings of my bedroom. I’m sure I gave Parallax my address when I entered the sweepstakes, but I couldn’t believe they had the ability to make a true to life replica of my room. I looked around to see everything exactly as it was when I’d left that morning. I ran out of the room and checked the rest of the house, but no one else was there.
“Hello,” I yelled. “Is anyone here?”
I ran outside and down the street, but it was completely empty. There were a few cars in driveways, but none on the street. There was no motion at all. Even the air was completely still. I knocked on the door of a neighbor’s house but no one answered. Every house had their blinds down and lights out so I couldn’t see in. I started back toward my house and noticed that the only sound I could hear was that of my own footsteps and heavy breathing.
I returned to my room, laid in my bed, and closed my eyes. My chest felt tight, I could barely breathe, my stomach was in knots, and I was beginning to shake uncontrollably. It started with a bit of shivering, as it usually does, but soon I was shaking enough to unseat the mattress from the bedframe. An indescribable feeling that I was all too familiar with started creeping into my mind; an overwhelming sense of dread, of impending doom, of what I imagined death felt like. None of these descriptions can truly describe the feeling, but they are close enough approximations. I laid there for what felt like hours, but in reality, was probably fifteen or twenty minutes. I still felt wired and uncomfortable, but the worst of it was over.
I reopened my eyes to find myself no longer in my room. Instead, I seemed to be in total darkness. Picking myself up off the ground, I looked around, but there was nothing to see — just pitch blackness. I looked down at my hands, which were just as visible as they were in the test room. The room seemed to be lit by some invisible light source that allowed me to see myself but nothing else. I paced around the dark expanse.
“Hello?” I yelled. “Is anyone there? Please let me out. I want to leave now.”
I shut my eyes tight, hoping that everything would fix itself when I reopened them. I opened my eyes to see myself in front of me, standing in the black void. I reached out toward myself and the other me reached out too. It was when I tried to touch it that I realized this was no clone, this was me. My vision was detached from my own body. I could see my body walking through the void from the outside. My body wasn’t mine anymore.
Suddenly, light flooded my eyes. I could feel the goggles being removed from my head, followed by the earbuds and suction cups.
“Where am I?” I asked.
I was lying in a bed that was not my own. Next to me was a woman in a white coat and pants.
“You’re in the medical wing of Parallax HQ,” she replied. “You were unresponsive and dehydrated when your supervisor came in to check on you, so we brought you here and set you up with an IV.”
I realized the discomfort in my arm and looked over to see the IV.
“How long have I been here?”
“Just a couple hours. How are you feeling?” she asked.
“I’m better now.”
“Good to hear.”
She smiled. Her voice was so soothing, it immediately put me at ease. Maybe I should’ve asked why they waited to take the headset off until now, but I didn’t feel any desire to question her judgement.
“So, when can I go home?” I asked.
“You can leave whenever you want, and you can stay as long as you’d like.”
“I think I’ll stay just a bit longer.”
“Okay. I’ll let you get some rest.”
With that she left the room and left me alone again. I felt better, but I was exhausted. I reached for my pocket, but my clothes were gone and replaced with a hospital gown. I saw movement to my right and looked over to see my clothes neatly folded on a chair. On top of them was my phone. I reached for it, then decided against it. I was tired. I’d just take a nap and then leave when I woke up. I closed my eyes and drifted off.
Evenings shouldn’t be this warm.
Santa Ana. That man on the television with the wobbling chin. He says you should say the middle ‘a.’ “Some people,” he says, “are just too lazy to say the middle a.” Test it on your tongue and imagine a wind named after a saint. No. Mama says don’t listen to him with his fancy words. It was the people named the wind Santana. This wind is named for the devil.
The sun comes up dirty when Santana rolls through. The hairs prickle up from my head. Papa scoots his socks across the carpet and a spark jumps from his finger to my nose. “Static electricity,” he says. But then he has to go help out at the dairy.
We’re shut inside. Mama mutters, “Those precious cows aren’t even his.”
She squeezes my shoulder and tells me about the strong man who thought he could stop the wind. He climbed the cliff wall, hugging cold rock until he hauled himself over the edge and stood panting on the bare mesa. He stared straight into the dark eyes of the wind eagle. Her claws clutched the edge of a massive nest in the topmost branch of a dying tree. When she flapped her wings the wind snapped hair into his eyes. Tears cooled his temples. His kerchief tugged loose and flew away. The snaps of his shirt tore open one by one until it, too, sailed away, sleeves waving.With a gasp he landed on his back and his pants stole out from underneath. They, too, took flight. Socks and shoes dribbled along behind. He lost his hair and eyebrows strand by strand. He lies there now. Prone. Clinging to the base of that dying tree.
You don’t close drapes against Santana. Better to watch the desert unhinged. Tumbleweeds bound in elegant arcs. A rusty slab of corrugated tin revolves in the air high above the barn. Dust devils twirl through the fields. Little tornadoes sucking water from crops. An invisible hand rips out our mulberry tree. Roots dangle in the desiccated air.
Fire to the West. Smoke erases the sun.
Santana’s churning. Get ready for a night of howls and whispers. Walls shudder in the dark; beams moan. Fingers of dust sneak under the doors. A window cracks. Coyote howls. Mama says no sleep for the wicked.
When sun finally rises the earth so still and the air so clear. Colors hurt your eyes—red sand, purple mountains, sapphire sky pierced in the west by leftover stars.
A chain saw slices the faraway quiet and Mama snores on the sofa.
I slip outside and down the path to the corral. Trash huddles in the bottlebrush: plastic bags, baling wire, a Barbie doll with no clothes at all.
I throw some hay to my hungry little mare hunkered there behind the wood pile, black tail snug against her chestnut rump. Her eyes swollen shut leaking sludge. She smells me and nickers but she can’t see
all those stiff black birds scattered across the field.
flash fiction by Amanda Barusch
they should make a movie about this
—this close encounter of the cosmic kind
—intergalactic paparazzi have given voyeurs
a gaze a gander a glimpse in false color
of postcoital clusters
actually having a smoke
it’s in this book by Star Gates
a moment in time captured by that starry eyed pair
Hubble and Chandra
with photo-shopping by gravitational lens data
it’s a peek through dozens of stars
with pointy distortions sticking out
so they look like χmas ornaments
except they happened thousands of years ago
yes we’re peeking into a past through cold emptiness
and beyond beyond far beyond any conceivable beyond
half-way to the end of worlds that is somehow the beginning
in this bending twisting flat continuum so full of surprises
at that tiny point
that is 3 million light-years across
we see them fleeing one another
yet still glowing
from an encounter
100 million years ago
still vivid and warm inside
and around them
from their limbs
to their pulsing hearts
although it is morning
they have not forgotten
and will never forget
their time within
Need We Fear the
poetry by John Marvin
Smoking on the Sly
creative non-fiction by Shirley Harshenin
Speed smoking. Seconds count. I lean against vinyl siding, close my eyes. Nicotine rush. My youngest daughter doesn’t know I smoke. Is two cigarettes spread out over six sessions a day really smoking?
Health fanatic Gwyneth Paltrow confessed to smoking one cigarette a week. Her Saturday night guilty pleasure. Does she consider herself a “smoker”? According to addictions specialist, Dr. Peter Selby, we both are: “Closet smoking includes any secretive smoking behaviour, whether a pack a day or one cigarette a month.”
“You’ll quit when you’re ready,” said my mother-in-law before I quit the first time. A refreshing alternative to the usual. “When are you going to quit?” “Must be nice to have so much money!” “Havin’ another cancer stick, eh?”
The first cigarette I smoked was a Popeye Candy Cigarette. Ten cents a pack from the corner store. Wheels still spinning on our ditched bicycles, we’d pucker up and blow powdered smoke through paper-sheathed sugar sticks. My partner in crime held his loose between his lips, James Dean style, while I preferred mine pinched and poised between middle and index fingers, red-dyed tip straight up.
The word “cigarette” was removed from Popeye’s packaging in the 70s. The move implied concern over how their product was perceived and received by its targeted market. But behind closed doors,the tobacco and confectionery industries conspired to hide and distort scientific research that proved candy cigarettes encourage children to smoke.
Dad wore a pack of Craven A’s like a pacemaker in his breast pocket. Uncle Bert always had a fag hanging from his lips. One aunt took pleasure in stabbing her lipstick-stained cigarette straight into the ashtray heap. Another aunt would inhale long, deep drags from king-size menthols and then exhale dramatic jet-trails from her puckered lips. I am not convinced candy cigarettes were a motivating factor that led me to smoke tobacco cigarettes. Modeling my immediate influences by smoking a candy cigarette was as natural as the horsetail reeds and pencil nub props I also “smoked”.
The first time I quit, I did so on the sly. It was the 80s. Everyone smoked. At work, I left an ashtray full of butts in its usual spot on my desk. I had little confidence that I could pull it off. After two weeks, I cleared my desk of the decoy. I stayed quit for two years.
My sister and I started slipping through the fence into the tall grass to smoke stolen cigarettes when we were eight and nine. Our older brother frequented the same grassy field foraging for wild asparagus and occasionally sniffing us out. He took great pleasure in presenting to our mother his discoveries. One brought handfuls of fresh green shoots to the dinner table. The other took Mother from the kitchen to the stoop where she stood hands on hips watching us cower our way home.
I never smoked when I was pregnant. I didn’t quit because I got pregnant, it just worked out that I was not smoking when I got pregnant all three times. I’d like to believe I would have quit had things been different.
Despite evidence of the dangers, “7.2% of women who gave birth smoked cigarettes during pregnancy.” [National Center for Health Statistics, 2016].
The second time I quit, I did so with half a carton of cigarettes left, a husband who agreed to quit with me, and the shame of my toddler daughter waving her hand back and forth as I blew smoke up the chimney flue: “Uckyphonk, Mommy.” I stayed quit for four years.
A school teacher in the 20s, my grandma answered to a strict all-male board of trustees. Among the long list of contractual obligations was, of course, not to smoke cigarettes. Her thin lips curled into an impish smile when she told the story of how she had to smoke on the sly. I marveled at her rebellion.
“Are you crazy?” Randy said under his breath as he passed me puffing in the alley. Without pausing, he slipped through the chain link opening back onto sixth-grade school grounds. He glanced back briefly, shook his head and grinned. I smiled back.
“Let me smell your breath,” Grandma said. My aunt, three years my senior at fifteen, and I would open wide. Soft wads of Doublemint tucked under our tongues. Then she would lift our hands to her nose.
After each sneaked session, I would slink into the bathroom, scrub evidence from my fingers with scented soap and imagine what the neighbors think of my sneaking in and out the basement door, lurking under the eave like a prowler. Whatever the weather. Puff, puff, puff.
Thirty. That’s how many times it takes to successfully quit according to a 2016 survey posted on BMJ website. I hope those results are not accurate.
With our stockinged feet like periscopes out the half-closed bifold doors of my cousin’scloset,we’d smoke Auntie’s menthols. When my uncle popped in the room unexpectedly, we dropped our hot butts into the emptied geometry tin between us and snapped the lid closed. The billowing cloud would have doubled over my non-smoking mother but had no effect on my chain-smoking uncle.
While I was in the closet smoking with my cousin in the 70’s, tobacco companies across the globe were meeting behind closed doors initiating a program called “Operation Berkshire”. Operation Berkshire accumulated 40-million pages of secret documents proving Big Tobacco knew the health risks of smoking and created controversy to confuse and manipulate the public for decades.
“I don’t smoke. I quit,” I announced to a picnic table full of my husband’s coworkers. The pack of Player’s Light I’d picked up for “tonight only” lay open next to my drink on the table. With raised eyebrows,a young fella contemplated the half-smoked cigarette burning between my fingers. “Yeah, looks like it,” he snorted.
“Closet smokers sometimes twist reality to avoid facing the truth.” [Dr. Peter Selby]
Is an occasional drag or two after quitting considered “smoking”? Maybe not. But for me, that one slip inevitably led to another slip and another until the occasional drag or two transgressed into here we go again.
CatherineZeta-Jones, Jennifer Aniston, Charlize Theron, Sarah Jessica Parker, Salma Hayek have all battled for decades to quit. Jennifer and Charlize succeeded, Sarah tried to hide it from her kids, Catherine couldn’t stop even when her husband was dying of cancer. I am not alone in my struggle.
In the 80s, I read a New York Times article that claimed nicotine was more addictive than heroin. I snort laughed at the time.
Chaperoning a grade seven two-night campout required abandoning half-eaten meals to sneak away while the kids were distracted with tube steaks and flapjacks. In the woods behind our cabin,one of the male chaperones caught me. I smiled sheepishly, explaining I didn’t want to set a bad example. He smiled and nodded. Not judgmentally, but not sympathetically either.
Walt Disney smoked three packs a day, but his habit was airbrushed out of all publicity photos. He didn’t want to influence young people.
The third time I quit, I used Nicorette Gum. Nasty tasting stuff I likened to chewing tobacco. I made up my mind the gum would do it, and it did. I stayed quit for a decade.
Although I took measures to protect their pristine lungs from second-hand smoke, I never hid my habit from my first two daughters. Perhaps because smoking was still socially acceptable in the 80s-90s. Or, perhaps my addiction was more persuasive than my conscience. Both daughters smoked as teenagers and into their twenties. Both successfully quit.
In a 201 2interview,Michelle Obama claimed Barack quit so he wouldn’t have to lie if his girls asked him if he smoked. His on again off again secret smoking addiction started in the 80s when he was a college freshman. His daughter, Malia, was photographed smoking in 2017, her freshman year. Perhaps our attempts to hide our addictions are futile.
My husband is a closet ritual smoker. Although our daughters and I know, he prefers to quietly slip off the radar twice a year for his six puffs.
The first package of tobacco cigarettes I bought cost seventy-five cents. The last pack I bought forty years later cost almost six dollars. Both were bought on the sly.
A cardiologist, a heart condition, and Grandma convinced Granddad to quit smoking. Two packs a day turned his insides into a tar-clogged death sentence. Trying to quit two packs a day drove him into the back forty. “After sixty years…sneaking out to smoke?”Grandma lamented with watery eyes.She stood at the kitchen window, cradling her cheek in the palm of her hand, and watched Grandad disappear behind the thick cover of trellised raspberries.
“The process of smoking in secret is two-sided. On the one hand, smokers are ‘sparing’ their loved ones, who would be upset to see them smoke. On the other hand, they are ‘sparing’ themselves from having to acknowledge the guilt which smoking brings them.” [Dr. Daniel Seidman]
“Mommy,” said my youngest, “you smell like smoke.” I froze. Panicked. Threw her older sister—not a closet smoker—under the bus. “I was outside with Danielle earlier,” I said, avoiding eye contact. Shame hung around my neck like a noose.
“Closet smokers are living a lie. If you’re a parent or a spouse, and you’re trying to hide your smoking from your family or friends, what is that really saying about you?” [Matt Neumann,iquit-smoking.com]
The increased risk of stroke and cancer when combining HRT (Hormone Replacement Therapy) and smoking on top of a family history of heart disease and cancer looped through my thoughts daily, but it was the garrote-like guilt of lying to my daughter that made me quit the fourth time.
When my youngest was nine, I heard her calling out to me as she descended the stairs into the basement. I closed my eyes, held my breath as her voice neared the sliding glass doors.This is it.
The gig is up.
Her voice faded with her retreating footsteps, but the concern I heard in her voice when she asked her daddy where I was resonated within me like a gong. The gig was definitely up.
“As soon as you quit, your body starts to recover.” [The Heart and Stroke Foundation]
Was smoking ever enjoyable? I convinced myself it was, but as the smoke cleared, so did the bullshit. There is no pleasure in mapping out my day based on when I get my next puff. No joy in the compulsive routine to hide, coverup and destroy evidence. Perhaps I was as addicted to the fear-of-getting-caught adrenaline as I was to the nicotine.
Twenty minutes after your last cigarette your blood pressure drops. After eight hours, the level of carbon monoxide in your blood returns to normal. The risk of having a heart attack starts to drop after twenty-four hours. [Health Canada]
It’s been five years since my last puff. According to The Heart and Stroke Foundation, my risk of having a stroke is now nearly that of a non-smoker. Statistics aside, the greatest benefit to quitting for me has been living with a clear conscience—no more sneaking around looking like a burglar feeling like a fraud planning my next puff around my daughter’sbusschedule, play dates, errands with her daddy, bath time, and bedtime.
Months into writing and revising Smoking on the Sly, it hit me—I can’t publish this. My youngest, now almost sixteen, still doesn’t know. My husband assured me she could handle it. And, yes, of course, I knew it too. But I worried. Will she be angry, disappointed? Will she look at me differently?
When the opportunity presented itself last week, I held my breath and dove in: “I have something to tell you.” She was surprised, said she had no idea, then thanked me for telling her. “I want to be a good mom,” I said, dabbing my eyes with a soggy tissue. She touched my hand, her golden eyes sparkling with tears. “Oh, Mom,” she said, “You are a good mom. You are the best mom.”
Staying quit requires vigilance. Not allowing time to warble and glorify. Observing without judgment addicts hunkering over hotboxed cigarettes next to garbage and recycle bins, turtle-necking out foot propped doors into grubby alleys, bus drivers pacing and puffing the length of yellow walls on wheels blocks from impressionable eyes. Stark reminders of a mother trembling with adrenaline puffing up a cloud-storm under an eave.
Amanda grew up on a ranch in the San Jacinto valley of Southern California. This free-range childhood gave her an abiding disdain for boundaries and she has the scars to prove it. She holds an MFA from the University of Utah and her poetry, essays, and short stories have appeared in Crack the Spine (US), Mulberry Fork Review (US), Bravado (New Zealand), Stone Path Review (UK) and The Legendary (US). She likes to gaze at ordinary things until they go out of focus and emerge amazing.
Connor Bradley is a third-year Creative Writing Major at Bowling Green State University.
Gary Duehr has taught poetry and writing for institutions including Boston University, Lesley University, and Tufts University. His MFA is from the University of Iowa Writers Workshop. In 2001 he received an NEA Poetry Fellowship, and he has also received grants and fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the LEF Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation. Journals in which his poems have appeared include Agni, American Literary Review, Chiron Review, Cottonwood, Hawaii Review, Hotel Amerika, Iowa Review, North American Review, and Southern Poetry Review. His books of poetry include InPassing (Grisaille Press, 2011), THE BIG BOOK OF WHY (Cobble Hill Books, 2008), Winter Light (Four Way Books, 1999) and Where Everyone Is Going To (St. Andrews College Press, 1999).
Shirley Harshenin writes from her home in the Okanagan Valley, British Columbia. She believes in angels, caffeine, and the human spirit’s extraordinary resilience. Her work has been published in Canadian Writer’s Journal, Room Magazine, Contrary Magazine, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Entropy: Woven, Haiku Journal, and is forthcoming in Unlost Journal.
Jen Ippensen lives and writes in Norfolk, Nebraska. Her work can be found in Every Day Fiction, Midwestern Gothic, Collective Unrest, and Spelk among other places. She holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Nebraska-Omaha. You can find her at www.jenippensen.com or on Twitter @jippensen.
A. Martine is a trilingual writer, musician and artist who goes where the waves take her. She might have been a kraken in a past life. She’s an Assistant Editor at Reckoning Press and a Managing Editor of The Nasiona. In addition to her own website, some of her fiction, nonfiction and poetry can be found or is forthcoming in: Berfrois, The Rumpus, Bright Wall/Dark Room, Metaphorosis, South Broadway Ghost Society, RIC Journal, Lamplight, the Score! anthology, TERSE. Journal, Gone Lawn, Truancy Mag, Confessionalist Zine, Ghost City Review. Follow her @Maelllstrom/www.maelllstrom.com.
John Marvin is a teacher who retired and subsequently earned a Ph.D. in English at SUNY Buffalo. He has poems in scores of journals, and literary criticism in Hypermedia Joyce Studies, James Joyce Quarterly, Pennsylvania English, and Worcester Review. He has a chapter in Hypermedia Joyce, and his book, Nietzsche and Transmodernism: Art and Science Beyond the Modern in Joyce, Stevens, Pynchon, and Kubrick, awaits a publisher. He seeks to marry the experimental, non-narrative with the lyric and traditional in the manner of Nietzsche’s marriage of Apollo and Dionysos. He generally avoids accessibility for its own sake, and the prosaic personal story with superimposed line breaks that is ubiquitous these days.
Eva Rivers lives and works in London. Her stories have appeared in Storgy, Fictive Dream, Sick Lit Magazine, Penny Shorts, The Drabble, 101 Words, Firefly Magazine, and Scribble Magazine. Twitter @MsEvarivers.
Creative Non-Fiction Editor
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