Sharri Bockheim Steen

Fern’s Web

Oh what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practise to deceive!
—Sir Walter Scott (Marmion, 1808)

The Spider’s Role Was Overstated

At age fourteen, Fern discovered something even more extraordinary about Charlotte and her web:  they had simply been tools. Her tools. The medium through which she, Fern, had inadvertently projected her most ardent, pig-centric desires back at age eight.

And now? Now she could lie in bed with her eyes squinched shut, picturing a few select words in any spidery location. For example, if she chose the pantry, the very next morning “FERN IS AWESOME!!!” would appear above the dusty canning jars in the web of an anonymous spider.

The night before starting high school, Fern stocked her pencil case with spiders.

She used her newfound power crudely at first. A plain-looking farm girl, she willed “PROM QUEEN” with such ferocity that the web words over her locker were bold, underlined, and embellished with curlicues—an exact replica of the doodles in her math binder. Her classmates fell for it too, gawping like spring calves. Teachers, popular kids, smart kids, everyone was fooled by the words. Everyone, that is, except her brother Avery, who still called her Pig Girl and mocked her head-to-toe insecurities, from limp hair to size-eleven feet.

Fern’s confidence grew with every web. Soon she could laugh off Avery’s taunts. Her nightmares about exposure—about everyone at school pointing and jeering at gawky, grasping, little Fern—dissipated.

During her third prom coronation, Fern realized that, if she left the farm and her dyslexic older brother, she would be unstoppable. Because people really do believe anything they read.

Illiteracy: A Dog’s Most Endearing Quality

By age twenty-five, Fern had moved to New York City, broken ties to family, and adopted an adoring golden retriever named Beau.

She had also mastered the art of subtlety. She discovered that picturing words without first clearing her mind could produce subliminal messages, sensed rather than seen. And her skill was not limited to spider webs. She could weave words into a bowl of pasta, the wood grain of a table, or the leopard print of her favorite miniskirt.

She began wearing a complex matrix of carefully selected words the way Park Avenue ladies wore signature perfumes. Every night after settling onto the sofa-bed in her walk-up efficiency, she formulated tomorrow’s bright top notes like glamorous and musky base notes like sensual. Every day, admirers buzzed around her and hung, enrapt, on her every word.

Fern kept her admirers at a distance, both physically and emotionally. Being untouchable was the price she willingly paid to guarantee that no one would see the unremarkable farm girl beneath the remarkable words.

Besides, she had Beau. His adoration transcended words.

Fernbeau Entertainment Marketing LLC

By age thirty-five, Fern had discovered that her extraordinary ability could be extraordinarily lucrative. She became a sensation in the product placement industry, supplementing the beer bottle in an actor’s hand by inscribing its brand name into his constellations of boyish freckles. Her clients never noticed the words—only the surge in sales and the glamorous woman responsible for them.

“There’s something about her that says ‘successful,’” a pink-faced client mused to his older colleague over mid-morning martinis. “I knew it from the minute I met her. ‘Course it doesn’t hurt that she’s glamorous.”

His colleague, a bristly warthog of a man, grunted his assent. “That’s why I like how she insists on meeting face-to-face. I mean, damn right, I’ll share a conference room with that. Just me and her with the door locked. Heh, heh.”

Fern heard that very proposition later in the afternoon from a different client. She smiled demurely and stepped away with her usual noncommittal response. After work, she went straight home, as she did every evening, to lounge in the center of her silken bedsheets beside her beloved dog (now Beau the Second) and eat take-out while planning tomorrow’s conquests.

That night Fern dreamed of a crowded courtroom presided over by a ram with BOGUS written in the ridges of its horns. The creature pointed an accusing hoof at her and bugled with maniacal laughter.

She awoke, shaken. The bathroom mirror revealed a scrambling of the words in her skin tone: desirable had become see ribald; powerful turned into woeful pr.

Fern took her first sick day. She lay in bed with the shades pulled, fighting panicked visions of her new empire crumbling.

At six o’clock in the evening, her assistant called. No disasters, no angry clients, no exposure. A good day.

Fern took extra time over her bedtime routine that night. She chose her words carefully and began what became a lifelong sleeping pill habit.

She returned to work the next morning, as desirable and powerful as ever.

Fernfield Manors: A New Luxury Subdivision

At age fifty-eight, Fern, covered in accolades, made a concession to her break with family. Four weeks after her brother Avery died in a tractor accident—and two weeks after Beau the Fourth’s demise—she hired Avery’s daughter Jean and Jean’s husband Richard. They had written a long, effusive letter detailing how Fern’s success had made her a hometown hero and had inspired Jean’s career in public relations. The letter also hinted of their precarious financial state after inheriting the heavily-mortgaged family farm. Fern was happy to take it off their hands and put the property to good use.

Richard had courtly manners and soft brown eyes that melted with admiration every time Fern entered the room. He winked conspiratorially when Fern declined Jean’s barrage of dinner invitations and other attempts at familial intimacy.

Jean was the annoying one. She was an effusive hugger. Fern spent untold effort circumventing Jean’s relentless attempts to embrace her “dear Aunty.” She was also too liberal with exclamation points and smiley faces and too conservative with necklines and hemlines—irksome reminders of farm girl mannerisms.

Still, Jean did surprisingly well in the industry, compensating for her lack of flare and savoir-faire with a knack for forming close friendships with clients and colleagues. She performed all those cheek-pecking, arm-stroking, squeeze-hugging niceties that Fern spent her days evading. Fern learned to use Jean to her advantage, making untouchable celebrity-like appearances while Jean ran around pleasing everyone with puppyish zeal.

It’s As If They’re Begging to Be Exploited

At age seventy-two, Fern suffered a mild stroke. Jean sent Fern nearly a dozen heart-emoji-laden texts as she and Richard rushed to the hospital upon hearing of it the next morning.

“You see me as I am,” said Fern, with a regal sweep of her good arm to indicate the partial paralysis, catheter bag, and blue hospital gown.

“Charming and sophisticated, as always,” Richard insisted.

Fern relaxed and rewarded him with a smile. Charming and sophisticated were the very words she had discretely woven into the blue swirl pattern of her hospital gown the night before.

“Ooh, I’m sooo glad you’re okay, Aunty!” gushed Jean, reaching for Fern’s hand. “Come stay with us! Recover at our house!”

Fern pulled her hand away just in time on a pretense of touching up her hair. “I wouldn’t dream of imposing.”

Richard gave her a soft look. His liquid eyes once again reminded Fern of her long-gone Beaus. “We would be so very honored, dearest Aunt Fern.”

“That’s what families are for!” said Jean, smoothing the bed sheets near Fern’s leg.

Fern edged away (would the girl never stop trying to touch her?) but relented. After all, she could better manage the agency from an employee’s guest suite than from a rehabilitation facility.

The transition to Jean and Richard’s house went well, once Fern had dictated a furniture arrangement that kept Jean at arm’s length. However, Fern soon became aware that her physical recovery would be eclipsed by mental decline. Her short-term memory flickered. She was forced to let Jean and Richard handle more client accounts. She grew irritable at times, snapping at the hired nurses.

Jean’s gushing reassurances and attempts to stroke Fern’s hand never helped matters. It was Richard’s devoted ministrations that soothed her best. He would stand in her bedroom doorway crooning an old love song or offering gallant compliments. “You just rest and let us deal with life’s little frustrations, Gorgeous.”

Fern credited her new wig of long, curly hair that she filled with gorgeous each night before bed.

Only Jean’s gentle touch consoled the unfortunate nurse who tried to remove the wig during Fern’s nap.

When Words Fail

Two nights after her seventy-fourth birthday, Fern awoke after midnight with her heart pounding and her wig stringy with sweat. She knew with dread certainty that she had forgotten to do something before bed. But what? She had applied her face cream, used the toilet, taken her meds. For hours she hunted vainly through the ever-thickening cobwebs of her mind, rummaging through her girlhood bedroom, high school locker, first apartment, countryside estate. Every thread she clutched dissolved, forming a dense fog that left her dream-self blindly groping in bewilderment and desperation.

Fern awoke late the next morning, drained of energy and tightly wound in her bed sheets. Her room was filled with bright sunlight and hushed voices.

“I don’t care how or why it wrote ‘PRMO QUNEE’ over her bed,” Jean was saying in a shrill whisper. “Catch it and take it outside. It was so close to Aunty’s face! It could have bitten the poor dear.”

Richard shrugged. His eyes followed the attractive nurse attacking the web with a roll of paper towels. “Maybe spiders are attracted to old-people smell. I say it’s time to send her to Sunset Acres, where people get paid to deal with the constant demands and complaints.”

Fern shuddered as she lay wordless, helpless, and exposed. She squeezed her eyes tight against the intense sunlight and asked herself, How did I expect this to end?

“Richard, I can’t believe you said that!” said Jean with uncharacteristic outrage.

Fern felt Jean’s warm hand squeeze hers. For once, Fern didn’t—couldn’t—pull away. Only then did she discover the secret to her niece’s professional and personal success: not simply their shared power but Jean’s virtuoso wielding of this inheritance through touch. For, the moment Jean’s hand grasped hers, a girlish, looping script appeared before Fern’s closed eyes, written in the veins of her eyelids: “Safe, Aunty! Rest! XOXO!!! 😊😊”

About the author
Sharri Bockheim Steen
‘s publications include short stories in Kelsey Review (“Tag Sale at Area 51” in Issue 37), The First Line, and several summer fiction issues of U.S. Route 1. She lives in Rocky Hill, New Jersey, and she teaches biology at a private high school in Princeton.

Barbara Krasner

The Diaries

During the war, Dirk always appreciated inheriting his mother’s Aryan features. Not just the blond hair and blue eyes, but also the Teutonic nose, slightly broad at the base and the high cheekbones, the determined shape of the mouth.

From his Dutch father, he inherited the dimple just to the right of his mouth that popped when someone told a good joke.

Not that he’d heard jokes in the last few years, not since before the war. But now the war was over and Otto Frank told him a good one at the café last night.

Dirk now ran his fingers over his worn jacket pocket. What to do with the notebooks and loose pages that comprised Anne’s diary? Otto had said, “Hold onto these for safekeeping. These are her originals and her rewrites. I call them versions A and B.” He pushed his glasses back onto the bridge of his nose. “I’ve altered them in my own hand in version C. I tried my best to imitate her writing. Some things the world doesn’t need to know.” His voice choked when he said “her,” as if mentioning her name outright would conjure up unwanted images.

The pages made Dirk’s bones rattle. What was he to say to his friend? No, don’t give me your most prized possession, the sole remnant besides a few camera shop poses of your young girl?

He strode along the wet cobblestone to his flat and sat on the edge of his ancient iron-framed bed. The cockroaches and rats would soon be out for their nocturnal festivities. He hadn’t bothered to turn on the light for perhaps thirty minutes. He took the notebooks now into his hand, the rough texture of the paper reminded him of rough-cut diamonds—a precious gift with edges that could draw blood, even perhaps kill. Each of the three notebooks was a different size and then there was that first diary, the red-and-white checkerboard book with the lock.

He continued to hold the notebooks while he reached up instinctively to grab hold of the string. He pulled and a meager light shone on his hands. Clean hands, because only clean hands could handle the gems that were Anne’s words.

He had never actually met her. He only met Otto after the war in his capacity to resettle Dutch Jews. He wanted desperately to read her version and then read Otto’s, to see, to feel the difference the camps had made.

He could not keep Anne’s books here. But at the same time, he had to honor his friend’s request. Dirk knew enough about the vulnerability of paper to think about preserving the pages in an archival-safe container of some sort. Though it had only been a few years, the checkerboard had already faded to a pink and off-white. He could go to the museum and make up some story that perhaps the curator might believe. This way he would be able to get free advice. If the curator discovered the ruse, he would not be amused. Recovering the Rembrandts and Vermeers from the Nazi salt mine vaults had left the curator without humor.

Dirk would have to find a place to store the bag or box where he could easily retrieve it when Otto asked for it.

Now he dared to ask himself the question he had pushed into the shadows: What was it about him that led Otto to ask this favor of him?

He was respectable, yes. Reliable, hard-working. But he hadn’t treated Otto really any differently from others who had come to him from Westerbork and the DP camps. If he asked himself honestly, Dirk didn’t even know if he performed satisfactorily at his job. He could perhaps find his Jews homes and jobs. But he could not—and he was always clear about this—he could not help them find their lost ones. That responsibility belonged to the Red Cross. He could not help them recover their lost lives, give them back the years they lost at Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz.

He tucked the notebooks into an old scarf and placed it in the first drawer of his bureau. He prepared for bed and turned out the light.


With Anne’s multi-volume diary still wrapped, Dirk carefully placed the package into his briefcase and set out for the Rijksmuseum. The air was stiff as if the tram wires would snap if the wind exhaled.

He had an appointment with the curator at precisely nine o’clock. Mr. Hendrik De Groot, a short dumpy man with pocked skin, thin lips, and a bushy red moustache stuffed himself behind his mahogany desk.

“I hope this doesn’t take long,” he said, twisting the end of his moustache. “We’re preparing a new exhibit of recovered Rembrandts. There’s much to be done.”

“Yes, of course,” Dirk said. “I am here to inquire about the lockers in the basement.”

De Groot’s hands dropped to the desk’s surface. “Basement?” He considered Dirk and Dirk knew what he was thinking: How could a young man know of such things?

He leaned in toward the desk. “The basement.”

“Your father, of course,” De Groot said, puffing out his chest with his mystery-solving skills.

“I should like to use one.” Dirk patted his briefcase and licked his lips. His mouth had gone dry.

De Groot opened his mouth to say something, but instead ran his fingers over his moustache. “This isn’t anything illegal, is it?” he asked.

“On the contrary. It’s to keep Dutch arts and letters safe.”

“Something of those Jews of yours? They weren’t the only ones who suffered. All of the Netherlands suffered on their behalf.”

If Dirk said anything in response, he risked getting access to a locker. He shrugged off the comment. Every day he read in the newspapers and heard on the streets all these statements of how great the Dutch were and how grateful any surviving Jews should be.

De Groot reached into the top right drawer of the mammoth desk and pulled out an old-fashioned key. He stood and led Dirk down a public hallway. Then he turned left into a much narrower and cooler one. There at the end was a lift. De Groot used the key to open its door and then again to allow the lift to operate. They descended one, two, three floors below. The scent of mold and dampness caused Dirk to cover his nose with his handkerchief. He clung to the handles of his briefcase.

The lift came to an abrupt stop. Iron gating created small spaces in front of him, storage areas, he guessed. But along the back wall were the lockers. Anne’s diary would be safe from environmental factors within the confines of those thick walls.

“I’ll leave you to it,” De Groot said. “I’ll wait in the hall.”

Each locker held a key. Dirk opened one. He slid the locks on his briefcase to his combination and the latch snapped open. “You’ll be safe here, Anne,” he whispered.

Moments later he rejoined De Groot and then found himself on the Number 12 tram with so many others in the morning rush.

Otto came to see him around 11 o’clock.

“I found someone to read the book,” he said, “a historian to read my version. If she likes it, maybe she can recommend a publisher.”

He turned oddly silent and stared out the window onto the boulevard. Dirk had seen that look before. The look that said how did it come to this? How could I survive when my loved ones did not? Why was I saved?

Otto cleared his throat. “My friend, nothing is more important than the publication of Anne’s book. It’s my duty, my obligation to her, to Margot, to my wife.” Otto turned his head away again.

Dirk had become accustomed to seeing that, too. He tried not to put more pressure on Otto by staring at him. Instead he chose to focus on the Montblanc fountain pen laying on his desk blotter. He remembered the birthday when his father, an art historian, gave it to him. He’d been twelve.

What had Anne written with? What had Otto written with when he took her edits and combined them with his own?

In his mind’s eye, Dirk visualized her ink scratchings with pencil edits just in case she changed her mind later. He should have paid more attention to this when he had the actual pages in his hands. He tried to remember. Did blurts of ink stain the pages? He could just imagine Anne’s fingers covered in ink.

“She wanted to publish the diary herself, you said,” Otto said. “She heard a radio program once in 1944. Someone, the minister of education, art, and science, I think, asked for diaries and memoirs written about the occupation. Anne decided then to edit her own material for publication.”

Without the war, Anne could have gone on to university, then maybe become a famous writer or editor. Or a famous movie star. Dirk stifled a chuckle. He wished he had known her. She had gumption. That wasn’t a typical Dutch trait or at least he didn’t think so. But then Anne hadn’t been born Dutch.

“Her diary is in a safe place?” Otto asked.

Dirk nodded.

“I’ll give this historian a few weeks to determine the manuscript’s possibilities. Anne’s book, my book.”

Otto stood and extended his hand. Dirk took it and shook, strong and firm.

There were versions of the truth, Dirk conceded, just like walking into a store with multiple clocks, each confidently asserting the correct time, although they could be seconds or minutes off.

Otto constructed different versions of the diary. He’d admitted it. Which version or versions had Dirk locked up in the museum? He tried to put it out of his mind. He had more important matters to tend to. But every time the bell tower clock across the street chimed, it murmured: truth, truth, truth.

One morning, a bleak Tuesday, he sauntered past the curator’s office to the archival catacombs. He opened his box and pulled out the various journals and loose sheets. He took the checkered journal into his hands and turned to the first page. This he knew was Anne’s original first volume. He read as long as the light held out. Turning the last sheet, at dusk, he sighed.

Dirk did not know what Otto changed or deleted. While he read, he could picture everything: the swiveling bookcase, the annex, the family gathered to hear radio broadcasts, the disagreements between Anne and her mother. He sighed again. Anne had most likely regretted what she said about her mother by the time she reached Bergen-Belsen. A once vibrant girl, who could have made her mark on the world, snuffed out. Otto was right to push for the diary’s publication.

Dirk replaced the papers and left. Out on the street, under a light flurry made visible only by the street lamps, a strange sadness came over him. Why had a Dutch citizen turned in the Franks? Why didn’t the Dutch, like the Danes, protect them? He’d also heard the rumors that another Jew betrayed them. To Dirk, Amsterdam had become a black and white city. Even blossoming tulips seemed gray. He knew why: The Jews were missing. Jews had lived and prospered here for hundreds of years. Without knowing, those who betrayed them gave up parts of themselves that could never be restored.

Newspapers published photos of the death camps. Dirk thought of Anne behind the barbed wire, her emaciated body, dark circles under her eyes, a body already dead. He found himself outside Otto’s old factory on the Prinsengracht. It was quiet except for the water of the canal slapping against the sides. In his mind’s eye the black sedans rolled along the cobblestone, eager to gobble the Franks and take them away. He entered the building and spotted the bookcase. Anne had been precise in her descriptions. The bookcase did indeed swivel. He broke through the cobwebs that now clung to his face and hands and climbed the stairs to Anne’s annex. Then immediately he knew. This space had to be preserved. The diary was not enough.

It was then he noticed the Condemned sign on the building. He didn’t know how he had missed it before. He would have to act fast.

The next day in the office, Dirk phoned Miep Gies at home where Otto was living temporarily. Naturally they would be the first people with whom he’d need to share his vision of turning the annex into a museum, a space that commemorated Anne’s life, not her death.

“He’s gone, Mr. Vandenberg,” she said. “He has moved to Switzerland. His family is there, you know. His mother, siblings.”

“Did he leave anything behind?”

“No, he had very little to take. I have his forwarding address. Would you like that?”

Dirk scribbled it down. He needed to keep in touch with Otto. He needed to know the progress of the book. It had to be published for his own redemption. As he leaned against the bank of his chair, he let himself remember what he had pushed into the shadows of his mind years ago.

His father was still working at the museum, but he seemed to be on the telephone constantly while at home. He’d been speaking more German, smoking more cigarettes. Dirk knew a little German but didn’t bother to pay attention. All he overheard were artists’ names—Rembrandt, van Gogh, Vermeer.

It wasn’t until after Germany’s defeat that his father, no, he had to go back farther than this. He had never suspected his own father would lie. His father said the museum would loan the works of these Dutch masters to the Nazi Reich. Dirk, in gymnasium in 1938, didn’t question him. It would have been impolite and disrespectful.

One night after the family’s evening meal, a man wearing a red armband and swastika called on his father. Listening in from the hallway, Dirk reasoned, was far more interesting than doing logarithmic calculations with a slide rule.

“We’ve commandeered additional works from Jewish homes,” his father said.

“They don’t need them,” the guest said.

Dirk had assumed the paintings would be on loan from the museum. Some of the most famous ones were there. Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch,” and Vermeer’s “The Milkmaid.” He had not considered the loans would come from private owners, private Dutch citizens.

After an hour, the guest left. Dirk’s father poured himself a shot of jenever.

“You lied, Papa,” Dirk said, inching closer.

His father took his glass and sat down in the tufted leather chair. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“The paintings. You told me the Rijksmuseum would loan them. But you’re stealing them from our own Dutch people.”

His father sipped the jenever and smacked his lips. He did not make eye contact, which just brought Dirk to the arm of the chair.

“Jews are not Dutch,” his father said. “They are Jews.”

“You’re wrong. Pieter is in my class. He’s going to university like any other boy with high grades in Holland. He’s Jewish.”

His father took another sip. “The world is changing, Dirk. It’s best not to be so naïve.”

“But you’re lying. Haven’t you always told me to tell the truth?”

Now his father looked at him over his wireframed glasses. “There are different truths, and we have to live with them all. Art is changing. Holland is changing. Europe is changing. We must change with it to survive.”

Dirk wanted to slap the glass out of his father’s hand. But he couldn’t. His father’s furry gray brows knitted together. His teeth clenched. This was an unwanted discussion, Dirk could see that now.

“Go back to your schoolwork now,” his father said.

As Dirk sat on his bed, he didn’t realize he’d placed his head in his hands. Papa was in the business of bodies, not art. He was in the business of exchanging Jews for protection. Dirk’s tongue pressed against the back of his teeth. His father had become despicable.

Dirk opened his chemistry book, but images of Jews—he knew a few from school like Joop Opperman and Arthur Geismeyer—replaced the elements of the periodic table. He was not going to follow in his father’s footsteps. Instinctively, he knew he’d have to erase the footsteps and establish a new legacy, no matter how long it would take.

Jopp Opperman disappeared from school. So did Arthur. At first it seemed like nothing. An absence here or there happened. But after a month, Dirk sensed something was wrong. Then the Nazis overtook the country. Food and tempers ran short. Small children openly begged for bread on the streets of Amsterdam.

One night at dinner, Dirk counted how many slices of bread were in the basket on the table. They had to have come from a whole loaf, with caraway seeds. And yet he didn’t want any. Papa took a piece, slathered it first with butter and then swiped up the gravy from the roast goose.

“How was school today?” Papa asked, his mouth full of fatty goose flesh.

Without looking up, Dirk said, “Good.”

“Just good?”

Dirk did not want to talk to this man. What happened to the father he knew? The one who taught him how to skate on frozen canals, how to tie a tie, how to compliment a young lady. An imposter—a Nazi imposter—had replaced Pieter Vandenberg.

That night, Dirk sneaked into the kitchen and took the bread from the breadbox, along with a jar of congealed goose fat. He padded to the front door and strode to the last place he had seen the begging children. One girl, maybe about eight years old, stood there, shivering in her thin dress. She rubbed her hands. He returned home empty-handed.


Maybe it was 1947. Dirk was reading the newspaper and came across a book review of The Annex, Anne’s book. Or was it Otto’s?

So Otto did what he set out to do. Would he come back for the originals?

Dirk had made lists and lists of Dutch Jews and their resettlements. He did not come across Otto Frank’s name. He wanted to forget. Forget the war, forget Otto, forget Anne, forget the Annex.

But the dead could talk. He phoned Miep Gies. Now he told her about the museum, surprised that no one else had come up with the idea since that day at the Prinsengracht.

“You’ll need money,” Miep said. “And there’s going to be a lot of red tape, especially if you get the government involved and it will need to be involved.”

Dirk knew she was right. He thought about contacting Amsterdam officials, the park commissioner, the Red Cross. He didn’t know which were appropriate. Maybe the first thing would be to pull together people who would care. He’d need Otto, Miep, and then he had another idea: His own father. Although now ailing, he still had connections that could prove useful and maybe working on this idea with Dirk would redeem him in some way.

On the day of the committee meeting, Dirk noticed the tulips in bloom. His favorites were the variegated ones, because life was never all one color. Even in darkness, there is light; in light, there is darkness. He wanted to pluck one that reminded him of the flesh of a plum. He wanted to twist the stem through the buttonhole in his lapel, but it was an offense to deface public property. He hurried to the meeting, although he knew he was at least fifteen minutes early. The Minister of the Interior would be there, but Dirk was more nervous about his father. Would his collaboration with the Nazis in looting art leak into the conversation?

He strode to his office and laid his briefcase on his desk. He waved to his secretary to meet him in the conference room. He hoped the coffee was good and strong. She handed him folders of the agenda and the proposal to be distributed. Dirk had worked day and night to estimate the costs and the investment required. They would need to set up a foundation. He had the forethought to invite a lawyer and an accountant. He also invited Amsterdam’s leading scientists and intellectuals. His father had recommended them.

He laid out the folders on each seat while the secretary opened the blinds and one window. He smiled at her. This meeting required fresh spring air and maybe with a little luck, the scent of tulips would weave its way in. It was fitting in a way that Dirk did not pull the tulip out of the ground. That action would have killed the flower and today’s conversation was about life.

Everything was ready. Dirk could be a powerful negotiator. He had learned from his father.

It wasn’t that Dirk’s father took control of the meeting. He didn’t. But when Pieter Vandenberg spoke, despite his now raspy voice from too much smoking in his youth, he captured his audience with his authority and conviction.

“I know,” he said, “that a foundation given the mission of commemorating Dutch Jews, and Anne Frank in particular—”

“Although she was born German,” the Minister of the Interior was quick to point out.

“Yes, but she represents Dutch Jewry and her diary has appeared first in Dutch,” Papa continued. Dirk instinctively knew where his father was going with this. This foundation, this museum, was bigger than Anne.

“The museum, while not for profit, will add significantly to the city’s tourism revenue. If you turn to page twenty-eight of the proposal,” Dirk added. They were working in tandem now as if their relationship had turned prewar when Dirk was just a pre-gymnasium pip and his father a statue of greatness.

“Mr. Frank, what is your opinion?” Dirk asked.

Otto looked up from his papers and stared out the window. “Good,” he said, “good.” He took out a worn handkerchief and dabbed at the corners of his eyes. “I wanted to do this before, but I lacked the funds.”

They would raise money through grants and private donors.

“What about a black-tie fundraising gala?” the Minister of the Interior asked.

The accountant immediately shook his head. Otto said, “No, this would not be good. It is not the right way to honor those who perished.”

“Of course,” Papa said. “I have prepared a list of private donors.”

Dirk almost laughed when he saw Papa’s name topped the list, followed by many German surnames. Guilt money, as if now donating would render them rein of their heinous duplicity. But money was money and Dirk had to be practical. Collecting from these men would certainly be less arduous and time-consuming, more efficient than writing grant proposals and waiting sometimes a year or more to hear whether the proposal had been accepted.

“We have a plan then,” Dirk said. They would have a foundation. Dirk was to serve as Executive Director. That was the plan, but not the reality. It took years for the Anne Frank House to become real. The city introduced one obstacle after another. The Americans got involved, who knew why. It all seemed so much simpler that spring day in the conference room.

In the meantime, Dirk married, took his bride to Curaçao. She liked it there and they stayed for ten years until matters with Anne’s house resurfaced and the city finally consented with a certificate of occupancy.

Just the thought of that made Dirk break into laughter. Otto and his family had no certificate of occupancy in the annex, Auschwitz, or Bergen-Belsen. Why did it matter so much now? Dirk journeyed back to Amsterdam in May 1960 and witnessed the dedication of the Anne Frank House. He hurried to the Rijksmuseum and rushed past the curator’s office, long emptied of Hendrik De Groot. He clambered down the narrow stairs. Once again, he held the papers in his hands. He thought he should be wearing archival gloves. He had learned enough from his father to know the kind of care such delicacies required.

An hour later, he presented them to the curator of the Anne Frank House. He had done his job. And there in the crowd, white-haired with a moustache, stood Otto. Dirk tipped his hat.

About the author
Barbara Krasner
is Director, Mercer Holocaust, Genocide & Human Rights Education Center, housed at Mercer County Community College. She teaches in the Liberal Arts division at MCCC and in the Holocaust & Genocide Studies program at The College of New Jersey. She holds an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and a PhD in Holocaust & Genocide Studies from Gratz College. She is a frequent contributor to Kelsey Review.

Kevin Kowalski


It had been a week since Joan’s dad died. We were in the garage of his home, the house where Joan grew up, going through his possessions, when Joan’s mother walked up the driveway carrying an armful of receipts, some of which were over 40 years old. She surveyed the garage’s contents like a hunter scanning prey in the woods. Sylvia would engage in conversation later — now was time to focus. Processing the inventory, she sprang into action, taping each receipt to its matching object as an ever-present cigarette remained in her mouth. It was difficult not to admire the efficiency with which she worked. When finished, she waited for a response. Craved it, actually.    

“Can someone help me carry these to my car? I don’t think all of them will fit, but we can try.”   

It’s what she felt she was owed. After years of a brutal marriage, she believed she had it coming. She got the shore house in the divorce, 10 years ago, but she no longer liked living there. Too cold, too small. She needed more. Always more.      

“I’m not helping you with anything. None of this belongs to you. I could call the police,” I said.   

This wasn’t the kind of thing to say to her. It wasn’t worth the trouble. Humoring her was basically the family rule, and the easiest route to take. I wish I could go along with this, but I just couldn’t.   

This wasn’t the first time I’d threatened her, but she acted like it was. Her practiced facial expression was not unlike the ones favored by an actress from one of her beloved 50s movies, after being slapped across the face by the male lead.   

“But these are MINE, Kyle! I have the receipts!” she screamed, pointing to the garage as she rose on her toes. She held them aloft with the conviction of Moses hoisting the Ten Commandments. She looked more at Joan than me, with Joan looking even more exhausted, as if that were possible. She began ramming the items into the trunk of her car, sighing from the minimal physical exertion, until Joan went over to help with the last few things.    

We would wind up going out for Chinese food later – it was always Chinese food, or she would refuse to go – like we always did when she was visiting.   


Joan is an oncologist. Many professionals of this ilk, i.e. surgeons, academics, etc., in my experience, are also professional assholes. Because they do such important, lifesaving, respected work, they also feel obliged to hold forth on any topic under the sun, particularly if said professional is male. This decidedly was not Joan. She cared about three things in life: work, helping people, and her family, and not necessarily in that order. She possessed a remarkable ability to put people at ease and feel better about themselves. She somehow knew how to put difficult people in their place without being confrontational or emotional. We have been together for five years, and her ability in this area still astonishes me. She is as close to a real-life celestial being as I have ever met, which makes me laugh when I think of it, since Joan is an atheist. Her empathy and social skills have always been a source of bewilderment to her mother. She couldn’t understand why Joan would devote so much energy to such things.    

I am Kyle Cunningham, a high school gym teacher and basketball coach, a profession that, to Joan’s parents, was on the same level as coal miner and portable toilet cleaner. They were aghast when Joan and I began dating seriously. It got worse when they found out I lived in a rented one-bedroom apartment and drove a Corolla with more than 200,000 miles on it.  Such a man would simply not do, they told her. That is, until they discovered I was rich. Filthy, stinkin’ rich. Rich enough to do pretty much whatever I wanted in life.   

My mother was a cook at a side-of-the-road Jersey diner who created something called the Faux-burger, the first veggie burger that people actually wanted to eat for the taste, like actual juicy, Grade A prime beef.  It was so good that it sold everywhere, regardless of geography or tradition. That’s right, even in Texas. Every backyard cookout included at least a few Faux-burgers. After a while, people didn’t even think of them as meatless burgers, just that the things were friggin’ amazing. Of course, some diehards refused to try them, but the product took off regardless. Mom was worth millions. It was also the reason I became tolerable to Joan’s parents.    

I was thirteen when Mom’s business started to take off. Before it did, we could barely pay the electric bill and subsisted mostly from diner food that Mom took home from her job. Scouring for loose change for the laundromat, having the electricity cut off now and then, going to Goodwill for clothes — all of it was part of our reality. My dad died in a car accident when I was 3. None of this happened so long ago that I don’t remember what’s it like to have jack shit. So don’t get me wrong, I know how lucky I am to be rich. It’s a hell of a lot better than being broke and wondering how you’re going to pay for groceries this week. But life wasn’t all that bad before Mom hit it big. I was loved, had a roof over my head, and good friends whom I bonded with over basketball. It was all I knew, and it was good enough.    

Mom liked to listen to NPR in the car, and she particularly enjoyed listening to a show called “Voices in the Family,” hosted by a guy named Dan Gottlieb, who was a psychologist confined to a wheelchair after being involved in car accident. Dr. Dan hardly ever talked about his accident or his condition, but I found it fascinating he could still do everything he did. His voice had an exhausted quality to it, like he probably should’ve been taking the day off but felt he needed to host the show anyway. Sometimes parents would call him with concerns about their child, and many of the concerns were pretty common, but Dr. Gottlieb always would answer them patiently. One day a mother called and was extremely distressed over her son’s debilitating shyness. He had no friends and rarely left the house, other than for school. Dr. Gottlieb responded with this: “If your child is shy, there’s nothing you can do it about it. But if he or she has that one thing and that one person, then they can do anything. They can win the Nobel Prize.” There was something in this comment, about being willing to accept a child for who they are, that always stuck with me. I wasn’t going to win a Nobel Prize, but I had teaching and coaching, and I had Joan. I didn’t need much else.    

Simplicity, however, was not something Joan’s mother appreciated. Someone in my financial position should be investing in real estate or overseeing multiple businesses. Sylvia believed that physical education shouldn’t be taught in schools and that sports were a waste of time. She certainly didn’t believe they were things you should make a career out of. She thought it was a disgrace that I would sometimes not get home from away games until 10 pm or so.    

Initially, I just tried to smile and ignore my way through all these comments. I eventually learned, however, that this was a sign of weakness to Sylvia, and it meant that she had the freedom to turn up the heat. She would apply verbal pressure until she got what she wanted, which left me with two choices: 1. acquiesce to whatever she wanted, or 2. fire back at her. After a while, I felt I had no choice but to choose No. 2. It was exhausting, and there were times when I was thankful for the rigors and time constraints of basketball season that allowed me to stay away from her.    

I met Joan when Mom was one of her patients. It was hardly love at first sight. I wasn’t exactly in a romantic mindset during those office visits, and Joan didn’t seem very approachable. She only addressed me if absolutely necessary, and even then she barely threw a glance in my direction. Until then, I had only dated other teachers. After college, I didn’t really know how to meet people outside of work, and it was pretty common for teachers to date each other. We teachers have to rely on each pretty heavily, more often than colleagues in other professions, so it was only natural for some hooking up to take place now and then. It could get sticky, of course, if things turned sour, but we’re all adults, and it’s a hell of a lot better than the cliché of the young gym teacher taking advantage of the popular cheerleader.    

But after a number of visits, I could see that Joan truly cared about her patients and was thoroughly dedicated to them, including Mom. She also seemed lonely to me, like after so many years of dedicating herself to her career, she hadn’t really taken the time to devote herself to much else. One day I noticed her walking with a slight limp and asked her what happened. She told me had competed as a pole vaulter her first year in college and had broken her ankle from a nasty fall. Sometimes the ankle still acted up on her. I had guessed she may have been a swimmer, with her broad shoulders and long arms. After she told me about her pole-vaulting days, I easily pictured her achingly beautiful image soaring over the bar, gracefully falling to earth as if from a cloud. Mom was her patient for more than two years before she finally succumbed.   

After Mom’s death, there wasn’t much of a courtship, really. We just continued an ongoing conversation that we had developed, and it quickly turned into love. We’ve been together ever since, and now, god help me, Sylvia was the closest thing I had to a mom.    

The annoying mother-in-law has to be the worst cliché of all. How many creatively exhausted, harried sitcom writers have sat down to write a script and resorted to the tired mother-in-law scenario. But years into an otherwise happy marriage, here I was, living a hackneyed nightmare of not only annoyance but manipulation, bullying, emotional abuse, and with a little embezzlement thrown in.   

The embezzlement occurred when Joan’s dad was dying and on hospice. Though they constantly professed their hatred for one another, Joan’s parents still had spent a significant amount of time with each other, mostly because no one else would. It had been the oddest and most dysfunctional of relationships. It turns out right around the time Joan’s dad had lost most of his lucidity, Sylvia logged in to her ex-husband’s savings account and helped herself to $40,000.   

Sylvia came clean to Joan shortly after her dad’s death, not so much because her conscience was getting the better of her, but because we were bound to find out eventually. When Joan asked her why she did what she did, Sylvia responded as if the answer couldn’t be more obvious: “Well, because I wasn’t getting any money.” I initially said something about contacting the police, but I didn’t really mean it.  I knew Joan would overlook it, like everything else. Going to the police wasn’t really something I could do on my own.    

“You two have no clue how hard life can get, what it’s been like for me. I had nothing growing up, zip. My dear, departed husband was a miserable prick, but I got what he needed from him. And I worked all those years. Joan, I paid for your education, goddammit. You two don’t understand and you never will.”    

Joan, as usual, was able to shrug it off. 

“She just, you know, doesn’t think about what she says sometimes,” Joan had said.    

A typical night with Sylvia involved watching a 24-hour news channel, even though I don’t like television news. It didn’t matter what anyone else liked when Sylvia visited; she liked television news, and it wasn’t worth the drama and damage to our mental health to spend the night fighting about it. Sylvia was never more in her element, in her comfort zone, than when she was watching the news. Her reactions to the day’s events were rarely more than a few words, but what they lacked in length and analysis, they made up for in stridency and repetition.    

“Bully for you, Obama!”   

“Obamacare! Obamacare! More taxes!   

“They’re going to take over! They’re going to take over!”    

“India! China!”   

“Oh, what do you know?”    

“Aahh! Aahh! Oh!”   

Every now and then she would take a break and acknowledge us after one of the news reports supported, albeit usually flimsily, one of her worldviews.    

“You know I was right about (fill in the blank).” The comment came with her patented smirk and several head nods.    

This is how it went, every time she came over, which was several nights a week. I would often cook dinner while Joan and Sylvia watched the news. My mom taught how to me to cook everything she made at the diner. She thought it was important that a man know how to cook, and she would stand with me in the kitchen on her days off and impart her wisdom. She would play Motown or jazz and sing, laughing and kidding with me if I used the wrong ingredient. I would make faces at her musical selections or at her off-key singing, which would make her laugh even more. She was always so patient when teaching me, no matter how exhausted she may have been. When I started to get proficient with a certain dish, she would step back, smile, and let me finish up without her help. We would then sit at our little kitchen table to eat, discussing anything and everything. Each other was all we had, but it was good enough.  

These memories came easily to me as I cooked, that is until they were interrupted by Sylvia’s shrieking at the television. Sylvia always ate whatever I made. She would usually complain about it before eating, casting aspersions at its nutritional value, but she never complained after she was finished. The absence of any form of criticism from Sylvia was the equivalent of anyone else doing a backflip. I so wished I could tell Mom about how oddly satisfying I found this little dynamic, and then we could sit at the kitchen table laugh about it together.    


It got to a point, however, where I knew I had to do something. It wasn’t any one thing that led to my decision. It wasn’t even about Sylvia’s comments, or the way she hurt Joan and that Joan felt powerless to do anything about it. It was the fact that no one ever did anything about it. We all figured it wasn’t worth the effort or the energy to do something about such behavior. She was old and ignorant, didn’t know any better. At her age, she may not be around much longer anyway, right? But I knew better. She still had so much more to complain about, so much more to hate, so much more to be outraged about. She could very well outlive us all.  

I was tired of hearing I needed to accept the things I can’t change. Mom wasn’t coming back, people would tell me, she was in a better place now. I couldn’t accept this, just flat-out refused. I was going to do something, and I was going to figure out how to get away with it. This would be my little contribution to the world. No, life was not fair, not even close, but, just this one time, I was going to make things a little less unfair.    

It would have to look like an accident, which meant it would have to happen at the shore house. Accidents happened at the shore all the time: boating accidents, drownings, drunken driving. It would be just another mishap. I just had to figure out how to get her on a boat. She didn’t do much of anything anymore, not that she ever really did. She may go to the beach for 20 minutes or so and complain about the weather and the people before leaving. I had to get her on a boat, but it couldn’t be a scenic cruise or anything similar. It had to be just the two of us.    

I remembered that Joan once told me that Sylvia and Joan’s father would occasionally rent a boat and spend a couple of hours on the bay. Almost all relationships have some positive moments in the beginning, even horror shows like Joan’s parents’ marriage was. I could picture them out there many years ago, enjoying a couple of hours of contentment, maybe even smiling and laughing together. They were young and had no idea how bad things would get, the vileness each of them was capable of.    

It was worth a shot. Sylvia wasn’t the most perceptive person. Whenever someone offered to do something for her, she responded with her typical sense of entitlement, as if it were about time someone did something for her.    

One Saturday morning, Joan was called away to see a patient. She dutifully responded with her typical alacrity after kissing me goodbye. Usually I would’ve left, too, back to our townhouse, fleeing the eventual awkwardness and agitation that came with spending more than fifteen minutes with Sylvia. Instead, I poured another cup of coffee and pored over the newspaper while Sylvia stared at the TV, waiting for something to scream at.    

“Have you ever noticed those pontoon boats over in Holgate?” I said.   

“What’s a pontoon boat?”    

“You know, it’s kind of like a small fishing boat.”   

“I don’t know anything about fishing.”    

“Right, I know you don’t. A lot of people like to take them out for rides in the bay. It’s kind of peaceful.”   

“It’s pretty peaceful here, too.”   

“I guess. But maybe we could try it.”   

“You’re not going back to the townhouse?”   

“No, I don’t feel like driving back right now.”   

She turned her gaze back to the television.   

“I haven’t been on a boat since before Joan was born, when I was first married to her father.”   

“Yes, I remember Joan once saying something about it.”   

Her face softened and she tilted her head slightly upward and gazed at the ceiling.   

“OK, fine.”   

She walked to her room and came out wearing sneakers that I had never seen before.    

“Well, are we going?”   

Easy enough. Everyone, even Sylvia, likes to get out of the house occasionally. I drove both of us the ten minutes to the dock. Neither of us spoke, except for Sylvia giving me directions on how to get there, even though she knew I knew exactly how to get there.    

I paid for the rental and we were escorted to a boat.    

“This is so small.  Is this all you have?” she asked the man who rented us the boat.     

“Well, yes, they’re pretty much all the same size.”   

“Well, fine fine!” she said, throwing her hands in the air.    

I helped her in. It was sunny but still early enough in the season so that there weren’t many boats in the water. Before long we had a little piece of the bay all to ourselves.   

We eased out over the water as I struggled to control my shaky hands. We kept easing out over the bay, wordlessly, before I cut the engine just as we were out of sight of anyone else. I forced a smile to make it look like I was enjoying the peacefulness. I began thinking of the players I coached and how some of them would get so nervous before games they would throw up in the bathroom.  I would have to remind them it was only a high school basketball game, not life or death.  

Sylvia turned to face me. Her countenance lacked the permanent scowl I had come to hate over the years. She took a deep breath and looked me directly in the eyes.  

“I haven’t told Joan yet, but I have been diagnosed with cancer. I guess that’s what over 50 years of smoking will do to you.”   

I took my own deep breath and waited for her to continue. She had said the words calmly, thoughtfully, even sage-like. I had never seen her like this before. She was nearly unrecognizable. Up until the very end, Mom remained hopeful she could recover. One look at Sylvia and I saw she had already had enough. She knew full well how wretched the rest of her living days would be.  

“I am not like your mother, Kyle. She was tough and strong. Somehow, she was strong enough to turn her pain into love. She saw beauty in everything. I have been in pain for as long as I can remember. I don’t know any other way to be. I’m tired of hurting, and I’m so tired of being alone.”  

There were still no other boats anywhere in sight. As I stared at her, I realized how much she must have looked like Joan when she was a young woman. How she was once beautiful, completely in love and brimming with life.  

She looked down and then toward the water before springing off the boat like she was suddenly possessed. I had never seen her do anything remotely athletic, and the shocking swiftness of the movement paralyzed me. She started flailing upon hitting the water, breathing hard but mostly silent. I scurried to the edge of the boat and reached out, clutching a handful of silver hair. I pulled like a spastic one-armed rower as I steadied myself. Sylvia was screaming from my hair-pulling; it was long and terrible, and her face was no longer soft.  

“Do something, Kyle! Oh god, do something. I need help!” 

I thought of Mom and wished she could be there to guide me. I needed her to tell me the right thing to do. I suddenly felt bad about pulling Sylvia’s hair, but it was all I could grasp. Sylvia’s eyes met mine as I pulled her close enough so I could grab the top of her sweatshirt with my other hand. She breathed so deeply I thought she was having a heart attack. I got her back in the boat as carefully as I could. Her trembling disturbed me so much I wanted to slap her to get her to stop.  

“Oh, god, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. Don’t tell Joan I did this. I’ll tell her about the cancer, but don’t tell her about this. She doesn’t need to know.” 

I again was paralyzed, this time by her words. I had never heard apologize for anything before.   

“I won’t. I won’t tell her about any of this. It’s, it’s OK.” 

I didn’t believe it, of course. Nothing was OK. But I didn’t know what else to say.   

Eventually, slowly, she calmed herself enough so her body was shaking just slightly. I gently placed on my hand on her shoulder and kept it there for a few seconds as I smoothed her hair. She remained slumped over, staring at her feet, not acknowledging my touch. I removed my hand, started the boat, and began to bring us both back to shore.   

About the author
Kevin Kowalski
is a resident of Robbinsville, NJ.

Ilene Dube

Forever Vacation

After removing my laptop, gels and liquids, and setting them in dirty gray bins, I placed my backpack on the conveyor belt and stepped onto the yellow footprints, assuming that unbecoming straddle.

“Anything in your pockets?”

“Just my boarding pass.”

“Nothing can be in your pockets.”

I took out the thermal-printed piece of probably-not-paper and held it as my body got scanned, then watched as my backpack got diverted into the chute of rejected parcels. Barefoot, balancing my laptop and liquids and shoes and jacket, I found myself surrounded by four TSA officials.

“What’s going on?” asked Logan, fumbling to put his belt back on. I pumped my hand, gesturing: stay calm.

The female officer had pulled my backpack onto a metal table and was unloading everything, haphazardly. When she pulled out my jar of psyllium fiber her face brightened, as if this is what they were looking for all along. Putting on blue rubber gloves, she swabbed it, then opened it, examining the whitish powder.

The drug enforcement team gathered. “What is this?”

“I use it to lower my cholesterol.”  

The team captain spun it in his hand. “It looks like a laxative.”

“It has that effect too.”

He handed it off to the female officer who patted me down again, this time over my entire body—she warned that she needed to touch some private parts, and offered to take me to a secluded area, but added that could add an hour to the process and she couldn’t guarantee I would make my flight.

When they concluded I was not smuggling narcotics they allowed me to repack my belongings.

We were off – vacation!

We boarded the flight to Arizona. The Grand Canyon had not been on my bucket list, but Logan had reached the point in life where he was feeling he wouldn’t be complete without such a trip.

After getting our rental car, driving to our hotel, and changing into more weather-appropriate clothing, I observed the Grand Canyon was exactly what I had expected: busloads of tourists with selfie sticks. We went to the Watch Tower, and I was impressed that the architect incorporated the designs of indigenous Americans and employed them to work on it. She also designed the Bright Angel and Hermit lodges in the park.

We managed to find a few off-the-beaten-path trails, but after two days I’d seen enough. Logan had us booked for four. Fortunately, the El Tovar Lodge had porches with rocking chairs. Tourists vied for the chairs midday, but in the morning and late afternoon we could read and nap in their comfort. When the porch became too crowded, we settled into the leather sofas inside, sketching the moose heads hanging from the log-covered walls.

One afternoon the only seating available was a bench overlooking the rim. We settled in, and I was perusing a book I’d found at the ranger station about edible and medicinal plants of the Southwest. A couple asked if they could join us on the bench. “Of course,” I said without looking up.

Soon the man was asking about the book. “I work for a company that sells a medicinal edible plant,” he said. I looked up, and he spread out the front of his bright yellow T-shirt so I could read the letters: FOREVER, in bold caps on the top line; the aloe vera company in smaller letters below.

Without any indication of interest on my part he began telling me about the benefits of aloe vera: everything from reducing dental plaque and lowering blood sugar to improving skin and reducing constipation.

I’d seen aloe vera juice on the shelf at Trader Joe’s, but noticed it contains a lot of sugar to make it palatable.

“At Forever Aloe Vera, we sell only one-hundred percent pure aloe vera juice,” the bench sitter said as if reading my mind.

“But how does it taste?”

“I like the taste,” said the man, and his wife added that she sometimes added tulsi. “We drink it every day.”

“It’s loaded with vitamins and minerals, and it helps control weight gain,” added the wife, herself on the chunky side. “It flushes toxins from the body.”

I was getting the nudge from Logan that usually came when he thought I was about to buy something. “It was nice meeting you,” he said, standing up.

The man handed me his business card. They had just come from a Forever conference  and were now touring the Grand Canyon with their group.

“Do you work for the company as well?” I asked the wife.

“I’m helping him,” she said.

I looked at the card. “You’re from Mauritius?”

The man nodded. “If you’re ever in Mauritius, please look us up. We’d love to take you around.”

“Bye now,” said Logan, taking me by the hand, pulling me into the El Tovar. “Can’t you see, it’s a pyramid scheme,” he said in a whisper I felt was a bit loud.

“So what? I’m not getting involved. I was just curious. Isn’t it interesting to meet people from exotic places? You need to be less stodgy and taste the flavor of things. How often do you meet people from Mauritius?”

“They’re just trying to hook you into buying a business from them.”

“But I’m not buying anything, what are you so freaked out about?”

I was trying to remember who it was who told me they’d met a couple from Mauritius who’d invited them to come and visit, and then provided them with their own house in which to stay for an unrestricted time period. It sounded like a tropical paradise.

The Forever couple appeared again in the lobby. “Would you like to visit our room?” he offered. “We can give you samples.”

“Sure!” I said, Logan scowling. At first he said he’d wait for me in the lobby but then decided to join me, I guess to made sure I didn’t get hooked into their scheme.

We walked through a maze of hallways and stairs, a route I wasn’t paying attention to because I was listening to the wife. “If you come to Mauritius you will want to visit the Pamplemousses Botanical Garden,” she said. “I know you like plants. You will want to see the giant water lilies, and of course the section on edible and medicinal plants. We don’t live far from there, and we can put you up in our guest house.”

I looked again at the business card. His name was Satish. “What is your name?” I asked her.

“You can call me Marie.”

Their room smelled like incense, and there were little statues of Shiva and Ganesh on the dresser. There were boxes labeled “Forever.” The closet door was slightly ajar, and Satish nervously slammed it shut.

“Don’t suffocate her,” Marie said, opening it a crack.

Satish took some white washcloths from the bathroom and spread them on the table, then unwrapped the plastic cups from the ice bucket and lined up four.

“Who’s suffocating in the closet?’’ we wanted to know.

“It’s Ponzie, our intern,” said Marie.

“Your intern is actually named Ponzie,” Logan blurted.

“Well, we didn’t name her. Would you like to meet her?” Marie opened the closet door. There was a sheet of Plexiglas enclosing the space. Inside was a young woman of indeterminate age, sitting on the luggage rack. There were breathing holes punched at the top of the Plexiglas. She had a few warts and moles on her face, and seemed to have a nervous tic.

“Why is she in there?” I asked. Out of the corner of my eye I could see Logan headed for the door.

“You know interns,” said Marie. “After a while they get a little power hungry.” When I stared at her she continued: “First they ask to be paid. Isn’t the training they’re getting enough? Then they want their name on the newsletter. Grant them that, and they want a bolder font. Garamond, for example.”

“Garamond isn’t even that bold,” said Logan, ever the copyeditor he’d been before retirement. “I’m surprised she didn’t request something like Braggadocio.”

“What gives an intern the right to have an opinion on a font for the newsletter?”

Logan was trying to open the door, but it appeared it was locked from outside.

“Don’t be in such a rush,” said Satish, pouring a clear liquid into the plastic cups. When all four cups were filled he handed one to his wife, then took another for himself. “No pressure,” he said, leaving the other two on the washcloth. I watched our new friends lift their cups and empty them ravenously, licking their lips. I lifted the other two cups, handing one to Logan.

“This is so bogus,” Logan said, embarrassing me with his rude behavior—I gave him a look that said so. Our hosts were being gracious to us, if not Ponzie. I lifted the plastic cup to my lips, then sipped knowing it was going to be a taste I would need to acquire.

 “Citrus-y,” I said. It was bitter, too. “Is Forever based in Mauritius?”

“It’s an American company, based in Scottsdale,” said Satish.

I like to hydrate with 64 ounces a day, so I continued sipping until my cup was empty. I’m often having to remind Logan to hydrate. “Drink up,” I said to him. He held the cup in one hand, and his other still attached to the doorknob.

Through the Plexiglas the intern began naming all the benefits of aloe vera, citing references to medical literature.

“Bogus bogus,” said Logan. “You can’t prove any of this stuff. There’s no scientific evidence for any of this.”

“You have to learn to harness the power of the placebo effect,” were the last words I recall hearing, as if an announcement at an airport.

I’m not sure what happened after that, but the next thing I knew, Logan and I were sleeping in the hotel room bed. The lights were out, Satish and Marie were gone. I looked at the clock; it was 3 a.m. Logan was on his back, snoring. I shook his arm. “What are we doing here?” I asked.

He startled awake, looked around, then hopped out of bed, turning on the light. “What’s going on? This is not our room.” He was as confused as I was. Then he remembered. “You drank that drink,” he said. “Why didn’t you listen to me. I knew those people were a bunch of crooks.”

“Crooks? Check your wallet.”

He did, and nothing was taken. “Do you have your phone?”

I checked my backpack; I seemed to have everything I came with. “OK,” I said. “They weren’t crooks.”

Remembering Ponzie, Logan opened the closet door. It was just an ordinary closet, no Plexiglas barrier. The luggage rack on which she sat was empty.

In fact there was nothing in the room—no boxes emblazoned “Forever,” no luggage, not even the empty cups.

“Did you drink the juice?” I asked Logan.

“I had to,” he said, then went to the door. Thankfully, the knob turned. “Let’s get out of here.”

We were still fully clothed, and our shoes were neatly lined up in the hall. We tied our laces and made our way back to our own room.

We still had one more day before our flight, so we headed out of the park to visit Indian ruins. “If we see that couple,” said my husband, “we’re heading the other way. Non negotiable!”

At the ruins, I enjoyed seeing the re-created garden and reading about the various medicinal plants. Then I remembered that, in all the commotion of waking up in someone else’s hotel room, I’d forgotten to take my psyllium fiber. I felt my phone buzzing; I was getting a text: “Forgot to tell you: At Forever, we offer a premium strain of psyllium.”

So they had taken something from us—our phone numbers!

“Just don’t respond,” Logan advised. “Don’t play into their game.” He was getting their texts too. They seemed to know that he was taking meds for high blood pressure, and Forever had a plethora of products to treat it.

We took our flight back to Philadelphia, and once in the car I set the GPS to get us on the turnpike home. The bitter taste of aloe juice remained in my mouth.

Logan tuned the radio to an oldies station. They were playing Beatles music. He sang along: “Aloe aloe, I don’t know why you say good-bye I say aloe.”

Our phones were buzzing with new texts. “By now I’m sure you are craving Forever. We ship anywhere.”

When I woke the next morning, everything seemed smaller. Our bed, for example, was a double. “Didn’t we used to have a queen-sized bed?” I asked Logan.

“I thought we did.”

“Maybe we got spoiled by the king-sized bed in the Forever room.”

I went to the hall closet and checked our sheets. Sure enough, they were double sized. I could have sworn we had a queen-sized bed.

Logan was in the bathroom. As I stood outside the door I heard the toilet flush, the water run, the doorknob turn. When he emerged and saw me standing there, he asked, “Why didn’t you use the hall bath?”

“Because we no longer have one.”

He went to check. “Are we in the right house?”

Both of us recalled having a five-bedroom colonial before the trip; now we were in a two-bedroom cape. We made coffee and took our mugs to sip on the front porch, but there was no porch. The street looked shabbier than I’d remembered.

Back inside, the kitchen seemed smaller than the kitchen I remembered. There were our appliances—well, at least some of them. I opened the cupboards. The dishes were a chipped set we’d replaced years ago. And what happened to the granite counters?

I looked out the window at our small lot. I couldn’t see the trees, the garden beds, the woods.

“Didn’t we used to be richer than this?” Logan asked.

I remembered all the non-profit boards Logan and I used to serve on.

That’s when we started hearing noises in the basement. Knocking noises. Our bodies tensed—was there an intruder?

“Let me out of here,” came a muffled cry.

Logan opened the basement door. There was Plexiglas covering the opening, just like in the Forever room. Appearing on the other side of the Plexiglas, like an apparition, was Ponzie. “Help me,” she implored.

Logan went to the garage, then came back. “My tool shed is gone!”

He was carrying a dirty spade. “Stand back,” he instructed Ponzie, who obliged. Logan hoisted the rusty implement and began banging, futilely, on the Plexiglas.

“You need to use a hacksaw,” Ponzie said calmly, as if she’d been through this before.

“Poor sweetie, you must be starving.” I was getting a text: “She needs to drink aloe juice, she’s addicted to it.”

Logan went back out in search of some tools, and then to the next door neighbor to borrow a hacksaw. At least our neighbor was still the same man, although he, too, seemed sartorially downgraded from his former self. He graciously came with the hacksaw.

I was a little nervous about him seeing Ponzie locked up down there—I didn’t want him to think we were her captors. But Ponzie had wisely retreated down the steps and wasn’t visible.

“Why’d you close it up?” asked our neighbor.

“You don’t want to know,” said Logan, trying to figure out how to make his first cut.

“Let me go back for a drill,” said our neighbor.

While he was gone, Ponzie re-appeared, crying. “Even if you get me out of here,” she said, “they’ll still find ways to mess with our lives.”

“Where are they?”

She looked up. “Everywhere.”

I asked Ponzie point blank: “Did the aloe juice change our house, or just our perception of our former lives?”

“A little of both,” she answered, then quickly disappeared when our neighbor returned with his drill. Plugging it in—the better outlets we’d recently had an electrician install were, of course, gone, so he had to use that old outlet down the hall—our neighbor inserted the drill into one of the little breathing holes. He turned on his drill, but the Plexiglas was too tough to drill. He was making no progress.

There was a knock at the door, and I went to answer it. No one was there, but on the front stoop, where there’d once been a porch, was a Fed Ex envelope. It was from the El Tovar. I opened it and saw a bill for the Forever room. I felt my phone buzz: “If you order 36 crates of psyllium today, we will waive the shipping.”

Back at the basement door, my husband was banging on the Plexiglas. Our kindly neighbor was now trapped inside with Ponzie. “Free me,” she said, “and I’ll grant three wishes.”

“She’s a bottle imp, don’t believe her,” said our neighbor.

“We have to get out of this place,” I said to Logan.

We took one last look at our neighbor. “We’re going for help,” Logan told him.

We piled into our Volkswagen Beetle—we’d had a Tesla before all this—and stepped on the gas. “Where are we going?” I asked Logan.

“Our dream vacation destination.”

I looked at him.


“From your bucket list or mine?”


I tried to think.

He ended the suspense. “Mauritius.”

Excited by the prospect of the Pamplemousses Garden, I opened Google maps to enter the coordinates, but it was already programmed.

About the author
Ilene Dube
is a writer, producer, curator, and artist. Her short fiction has appeared in more than a dozen literary journals and anthologies. Kelsey Review has published eight.

Marge Dwyer

Keeper of the Keys

Madge Outerbridge crouches under the desk in the dark, a plastic water bottle and some peanut butter crackers at her side, a German Luger stuffed into the elastic waist of her L.L.Bean jeans.  It is an unlikely place for her to be, given her age, 64, and her patrician bearing.  The gun was a war souvenir of her husband’s and probably hadn’t been fired since l942.  No matter. It would serve its purpose.

For the past twenty-five years Madge has walked proud and determined across the street from her home in the village, over the playing fields of the Rockleigh School, named for the hamlet surrounding it, to her office in the Field House where she attends to a variety of clerical duties, one of which is arranging transportation for the many teams that play games off campus. She takes her job seriously.

On a board next to her large wooden desk are hooks that hold the keys to the fleet of l5-passenger Dodge vans.  The faculty members who double as coaches have keys to the Field House and the outer office where there is a pigeon hole called the van key return slot. When a coach has a game he or she comes to Madge for the key to the van and at night after Madge has gone home, returns the key to the slot.  Under this system one who needs the key first thing the next morning would find it in the proper place without having to wait for Mrs. Outerbridge to arrive in her office at 9:00 a.m.

She tries to run this part of the department with the same cool efficiency with which she runs her home. For instance, if she is having dinner guests on Saturday, the table is set, silver polished, food purchased by Thursday night. On Friday night she cooks what she can in advance and arranges the flowers. This means, she is fond of saying, that should she die in the night the party can continue with a minimum of fuss.  If she is still alive on Saturday, she can devote that period to looking good.  Preparing her clothes, washing her hair, taking a power nap.  She believes in the economy of time. She thinks rushing ages a person. Now that her children are out of the nest and her husband has slowed down, she leads the orderly life she has sought since her youth.

In a more perfect world she could bring the same order to the Athletic Department, but that lack is a constant source of frustration. For some reason, (and only God knows how hard she’s tried), she cannot break through the academic inertia and reach the consciences of some of the faculty. The old guard are unable to learn new rules and the young ones simply have no sense of responsibility. This ongoing dilemma makes her weary and yearn for retirement but, until then she must persevere.

An aura of correctness envelops this dainty, small-boned woman and is evident in her office, with fresh flowers and candy on her desk, newly sharpened pencils in the cup, her crisply ironed blouses and dark gabardine skirts with the tasteful just-below the-knee lengths. Her medium brown hair, shot with gray, is softly permed and, appropriately for the business world, does not dare graze her collar. Everyone agrees she’s a nice lady. The nameplate on her desk says Mrs. Outerbridge. Nobody calls  her Madge.

Mrs. Outerbridge’s phone rings constantly from September to June. Many of these calls are from parents, athletic officials or fans.  They often have one thing in common. They want directions to the school, and she has to bring them across the state or across the country.  It seems that nobody uses a map and many are unaware of a GPS. These conversations often occur when some kid is pacing back and forth in front of her desk waiting for a lost locker combination or a coach has suddenly popped in for reimbursement of an unexpected meal on the road, both of whom are pushed for time… a fact that plays heavily with Mrs. Outerbridge’s supersensitive antennae causing notorious waves of heat to crash willy-nilly through her body. Nevertheless, before attending to them, she cheerfully gives the intricate directions and ends up having them take “95 toward Pennsylvania and get off at exit 14A. Turn right, go one quarter of a mile, bear left and take the first left onto our campus.”  She utters these words perhaps fifteen times a day.

Several things about this job conflict with her desire for order, but nothing so much as the problem of keeping the van keys straight. Every third day or so a coach will come in early for the van key and it won’t be back because yesterday’s coach forgot to return it. Mrs. O has spent the whole morning tracking down the coach only to find he/she is in class or otherwise unavailable. It is abhorrent to her to use a duplicate key.  This offends her sense of rightness. She does not feel it is good business to let people “get away with things.”  When she is forced to release a duplicate key rather than cancel the game she does so with suppressed postmenopausal rage. Often she can’t sleep because of this great frustration in her life. The keys and the faces of the offenders whirl about in a hide and go seek frenzy leaving her exhausted by morning. She finds herself losing her pleasant office demeanor after such a night. Why just the other day she was quite harsh with the new softball coach who wandered in at ll:00 am with a missing key.

“What do you think we would have done if the Art Department had scheduled a museum trip this morning?” Her words shooting out like bullets.

“I didn’t know they had a trip.” The coach stared at her blankly. No show of remorse.

“They didn’t have a trip,” Mrs. Outerbridge grew increasingly impatient, “I’m saying what if they had?”

“Well, yeah, I know.” The disobedient coach scanned the posters on the wall on her way out.

“No, you don’t know, because if you had you would have returned the key! That trip would have been canceled because of you. These keys MUST be returned immediately after you use them.” She stood to make her final point as she watched the coach’s back fade-out through the door. “This is school policy!”

Over the twenty-five years of her employment, almost everybody has blown it with the keys at least once, and nobody wants to “incur the wrath of Madge.”

It’s a joke around campus. But for all the carrying on, the keys continue to be a problem. New faculty are hired, the athletic schedule increases, more vans and busses bought, and Mrs. Outerbridge struggles valiantly to juggle it all without perfect success.

Alumni Weekend was the mere feather that toppled the tower of her frustration. When she left the office she taped, as usual, a neat list on the van key return slot indicating the destination of each van on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. She placed the keys there and went home.

On Monday her boss updated her with all the catastrophes that happened over the weekend. The maddening thing was that the keys were brought back to the box late Friday afternoon, (the coaches swore it), but on Saturday one of the keys wasn’t there. Her boss was called at home, roused from the shower and had to come down to the office to dole out a duplicate. By then the team was late and fussing and generally out of sorts over the delay.  Because of the slow start they didn’t warm up sufficiently when they arrived at their destination and as a result, they said later, lost a game they should have won easily.

She does not like to learn that her boss has been inconvenienced because of a matter concerning the keys, HER domain, but Mrs. Outerbridge has long made it a habit to not let the telephone dictate her life at home. A machine takes the messages and she determines when and whether to respond to them. By dusk she is usually enjoying a demulcent scotch and soda with her husband at the beginning of the inviolate dinner hour which often stretches from two to three hours, during which time calls are NEVER accepted.

The problem of injustice, though, continues to rankle. Someone is taking the keys without permission, and she has now devised a secret plan to find the audacious, irresponsible, selfish little s.o.b. who is so self-absorbed as to not give a hoot for the rights of others. Naturally she doesn’t use this kind of language, but she thinks it. Her plan is to lie in wait to gather evidence. She has already done it once before, hidden under the desk in the outer office at night, lurking in the dark, and has seen one person cavalierly take a key and walk out without skipping a beat. She knows he never took the time to read her careful instructions in red ink that say “Do not remove keys without proper authorization.”

It was the new young basketball coach Tommy Sullivan. She should have known it was him, winking at her playfully every afternoon as he bends to take one of her candies, forcing her to blush, melting her Episcopalian reserve with that wide, dimpled smile. He’d try anything, that one. She is not surprised that all the girls are crazy about him. It’s always that way. The beautiful people get everything without any effort, while the others slave away for the most meagre satisfaction.

The next day she does nothing. She needs to know if this is a random occurrence or if he does it regularly. She’s glad her husband nods off by nine o’clock and doesn’t miss her.

Mrs. Outerbridge has been staked out under the desk, her fine bones folded like an accordion in the kneehole, for three nights now since she first saw Tommy and hopes someone comes soon. Her slender legs are getting stiff and she can meditate only so long. Can’t risk reading even with a flashlight. This night she is getting discouraged and begins to wonder whether the solitary quest for the delinquent keys is worth the discomfort she feels in her arthritic joints. She begins to think maybe she should just get five duplicates for each van and give them out till they all get lost and duplicate them again. She laments that this laissez-faire attitude is not in her nature. Then she hears footsteps outside and the key in the lock. Tommy flicks on the light and, whistling jauntily, ambles to the box, takes a key, slips it into his pocket and turns to leave.

“And just what do you think you’re doing?” She has just managed to stand though her thin bird legs are shaky from the cramped position she has held for the last hour. Her hair is askew, pale eyes narrowed from the shock of the fluorescent light overhead.

“Jesus!” Sullivan falls back a foot when he sees her disheveled appearance. He has never seen her in jeans before and what’s more, she’s wearing a sweatshirt that says Co-ed Naked Lacrosse, a leftover from one of her kids. He squints and thinks maybe the beer he had earlier has clouded his vision.

“Mrs. Outerbridge! Is that you? Holy Christ, you really scared me.”

She is not in a mood to be conversational.  “Just where were you going with that key?”

He regains some composure. The corners of his mouth hint at a beguiling smile when she suddenly whips out the gun from her waist band, hidden till now by the hang of the large sweatshirt.

“Don’t try to sweet talk yourself out of this,” she says, her small aquiline nose held high. “I want to know what you’re doing with that key.”

“Well, cripes, I’m just going up to Dover with some guys for a beer. Are you nuts or something?”

His large blue eyes blank out in fear or anger, it’s hard to know which. His heavy lids drop slightly. There’s petulance in his voice. “What’s the big deal anyway?”  He shrugs his shoulders in an act of supplication. “Put that thing down, will ya?”

“No, the big deal is that you think you can have it all.” She shakes the muzzle in the direction of his face, still keeping a safe distance. Her indicting voice pierces the eerie silence of the empty field house. “What makes you think you can come in here and TAKE what you want. And you’ve done it before! I’ve seen you!”

“What do you do, live in the locker room or something?”  His handsome face is flushed and perspiring. “What do you want?”

“I want you to put that key back….NOW.”

He quickly throws it in the slot. “There, it’s done.”

“You know I should call security on this.” Arms akimbo but with a tight hold on the gun, she moves closer. “I’m not going to, but you listen to me, and listen hard.” Her voice drops to a menacing whisper. “If you ever come in here again to steal a key, I’m going to shoot your fucking balls off. Do you hear me?”

“Okay, okay.” He backs off, hands up, palms facing out in an air of surrender. “I swear, I’ll never do it again.”

She points the Luger toward the door with the authority of a general ordering a charge. “Get out!”

Driving home, Mrs. Outerbridge is quite satisfied with the success of the evening. Back at her house, her husband is still dozing in front of the TV and nobody had seen her coming or going. She is sure Tommy raced home as fast as he could and is at this very minute having a little nip to settle his nerves.

The next morning when she arrives at the office in her correct navy blue skirt, white crisp blouse and polished leather pumps, she smiles a cheery hello to her boss and unlocks her desk.

“Oh, Mrs. Outerbridge,”  her boss inquires immediately as he walks in and sits down in the leather chair reserved for visitors in front of her desk.

“Yes.” She nods slightly toward him, eager to please.

“Were you by any chance here last night?”

“Here? Here in Rockleigh? Yes, we were in last night. We didn’t go anywhere.”

“No, I mean here in the office?”

“Oh!” she laughs. “No, whatever for?”

“That’s what I thought.”

“Is there some problem you want to share with me?” She looks genuinely concerned.

He shakes his head. “It’s about this young Tommy Sullivan.”

“Oh, yes. The new basketball coach. Quite a charming fellow.” She smiles. “He seems to like the root beer barrels.” She points to the candy dish.

“Yes…well…something strange happened last night. He called me at home about ll:00 p.m. He was very disturbed. I think he’d been drinking.”

“Oh, dear.” Mrs. O strokes her chin thoughtfully.

“It seems quite silly, but he said that he came in to borrow a van key from the key slot and that you confronted him with a gun.”

Mrs. Outerbridge moves her hand to her mouth to suppress a giggle, her eyes wide with surprise. “A gun?” She continues to laugh, “My, that really is funny. Can you imagine me with a gun?”

Her boss joins in the laughter, his round belly shaking, shoulders heaving. He raises his hand toward her, sputtering, “That’s not all. He said you were wearing jeans… and a sweat shirt that said…that said… Co-ed Naked Lacrosse on it.”

They roar companionably over the absurdity of this till they both tire themselves out and are left finally with nothing but the hum of the electric typewriter.

“Oh, dear!” she sighs, attending to a loose thread on her skirt.

“Well, back to work,” her boss teases as he gets up and heads for his office. At the door he stops as if a sudden thought has occurred. He turns back hesitantly. “Mrs. Outerbridge, have you ever by any remote chance used the ‘f’ word?”

She looks stricken, her mouth forming an ‘O’ of surprise. “Well,” she pauses a while, looking away. “I have to admit I was very angry at my son who was visiting last week and I said ‘For God’s Sake will you please pick up your clothes from the floor?’  Is that what you mean?”  She looks at him imploringly. “I don’t think I should have to do that at his age.”

Having reassembled her pencils in the cup and smoothed the papers on her desk, she looks up again. “Nevertheless, I felt badly about it…losing my temper that way. He only comes home twice a year, you know?”

“I understand perfectly,” he says, a sympathetic smile gracing his loose pink jowl. As he turns to enter his office he adds, “Anyway, Sullivan’s on medical leave. I guess he has quite a little drinking problem. Could’ve fooled me. We just can’t have that around our young people.” He leaves shaking his head and heads for his desk.

“Of course not. How sad,” she speaks to the air as the phone rings. Picking up the receiver, she swings her chair around toward the window noting the keyboard is in order—all keys in and accounted for.

“Athletic Department,” she answers brightly.

Then, after an appropriate silence during which it can be imagined that the caller is requesting directions from such a remote spot as Peoria, Mrs. Madge Outerbridge assumes her finest school representative voice. Cheery. Helpful.

“It’s not really hard,” she starts in. “We’re just off route 95, Exit 14 A.”

About the author
Marge Dwyer
is a long-time resident of Lawrenceville and has appeared in Kelsey Review before. She’s an accomplished fiction writer and works diligently at the craft.

That Fall

by Daniel Picker

The previous summer, around the end of June, with the weather still cool in the morning, I joined two older kids in the neighborhood, both of whom lived on Twin Birch Avenue, the next street which our street curved and flowed into, on a bike hike to downtown.

I had a low black bicycle my father had put together from various bikes he had found, or were in disuse in our garage; my bike had twenty inch wheels and tires.  It was far from a new bike, but it served its purpose.  My dad had moved out of our house the previous year.

Finlay and Fenny were both at least two years older than I was then.  Fenny was originally from New England and I had never entered his house, but I had seen him and heard him shout from the second story window above his steep lawn; his house was similar to ours, but it was white and behind two sycamore trees.

But Finlay lived in the only house in the neighborhood that housed his family on the top two floors, and another family on the first floor.  He had no dad as far as I could tell, and I never saw his mom around either.

When I showed him the art books with pencil drawings of women he seemed very disappointed.  I don’t know why or how I ended up being friends with either of them; perhaps they were just lingering up their street one day where we played “Cross the Ice” in front of Finlay’s; I do remember one day walking to school on Main Street and walking beside them for a bit over the bricks and past a small colonial office building near the Town Hall, and Finlay rhapsodizing about “Lacey Brynne,” the daughter of a local realtor, as we walked past her father’s small office.

But this bright morning about 10 AM as we crossed Montcreek Street on Tulip Poplar Avenue, just one block from Fenny’s and Finlay’s street, Finlay shouted out, “Let’s race!” and they were off pedaling as fast as they could on bigger bikes.

I recall turning down their street and pedaling fast past first Finlay’s, then descending the steep hill at speed, then passing Fenny’s house and blurrily seeing them waiting for me at the flat bottom of the hill straddling their bicycles over the grey macadam.  Then my handlebars started to wobble and shake and I had a sick feeling in my gut of great fear and two seconds later I seemed to fly over my handlebars landing in such a way that I was soon crying and my mouth was bleeding.

Someone ran over and up our more gently – sloping hill to get my mom who was probably still sleeping on the couch in the living room.  I recall her rushing down the hill while wearing her purple bathrobe over her pajamas and helping me up as another mom was wiping my face with a damp towel.  Mom walked me back home after that fall; I had felt deep embarrassment seeing her rushing down the street, but I was glad she arrived to rescue me that bright Saturday morning.

Later, that fall I began my first paper route which was my very own.  I had handled another neighborhood kid’s route, but never handled my own route.  Fenny, whose middle name was actually Fenny, had abruptly decided to give up his route for The Evening Bulletin; I don’t remember why exactly.  Fenny’s first name was Theodore, and teachers called him Ted; once, early on the first cold morning that fall, Teddy wore a tan, fuzzy velour jacket; he had a big, round pumpkin head; kids, boys mostly, that day in school started yelling, “Teddy Bear!” or “Dancing Bear!” down the hallways at some distance in elementary school after he had walked by.  As that went on through most of that fall of fifth grade, he eventually asked school friends and teachers to call him “Fenny.”

“Fenny?” we said to ourselves in school and after.

After school, in the afternoon, below the orange-leaved maples, with a flame red maple across and further down the street from my house, I rode my bike from my street  the day before I took over his route;  that fall afternoon, Fenny didn’t seem eager to start folding his papers as yellow leaves scattered beside his feet.  Fenny didn’t seem interested in delivering his papers either as I watched him pull one paper from the middle of the bundle and open it, and begin reading the front page; my main interest in the paper was usually just the front page headlines and the headlines and photographs on the Sports page, until I had more time later at home to read the paper.

But after school Fenny would become so engrossed and read and read, all the while concentrating his heavy forehead and brows down on the paper as if he were up to something of great seriousness and importance.  He had a big, oblong pumpkin head.  He sometimes had this look of concentrated consternation on his face.

I asked that afternoon, “Don’t we have to get folding?  Aren’t you going to show me the route?  We are not going to finish the route before dinner time!” I exclaimed.

“That’s prescient of you,” Fenny said.

He enjoyed demonstrating his sophisticated vocabulary at odd times.

A few minutes later, sitting in front of Fenny’s house, he cut an audible fart as his father came out the front door of their white house and stood on the porch.  His dad, Mr. Van Grundy worked odd hours and seemed to be home in the afternoon often.  I had heard he had been an English teacher and coach in New England before they moved, but now he ran Fenny Glens Men’s Store downtown.  His dad came down the steps and heard Fenny’s fart and saw Fenny leaning over the newspaper spread out over his legs, and noticed Fenny’s reddening face and embarrassment.

“Do you have to go grunty Fenny?” he asked.

Fenny’s face turned even deeper red and he abruptly got up and ran up the front steps.  He returned some minutes later after his dad said to me, “He’ll be out in a minute.”

He seemed gone for over 10 minutes; he had the paper with him.

The next day, my first day handling the route the sun was still warm after school and the sky was still blue with those thin gauzy white clouds high up, cirrus clouds stretched far beyond the tallest oaks and tulip poplars and buttonwoods on which the orange turning leaves still danced from the cool wind through the high branches.

As I pedaled my bike I could hear the rustling leaves under my tires shoosing by the spokes.  This was the bike mom had bought me just weeks before for my birthday.  I recalled after my fall in the summer she and dad took me to a local Penn – Jersey Store; dad drove us; as we stood looking at the new bikes, dad asked, “Which one do you like?”

I couldn’t make up my mind, and felt sick to my stomach and dizzy.

“I don’t feel so good, couldn’t we just go home?” I asked.

But months later, a season later, now with my new green Columbia Sting-ray bicycle I enjoyed a low silver-grey banana seat and the handle bars accommodated my aluminum “horns” as Mr. Hidalgo called them.  The horns wrapped around my handlebars and I balanced my canvas newspaper bag upon them.  Earlier, just after school I saw the bundle of papers on Fenny’s street since the newspaper company had not yet switched the drop off address to my street, near my house, or in front of Driscoll’s past the top of our hill where Strawberry and Neil picked up their papers.  But earlier on this day I sat on the grass slope just above the sidewalk in front of Fenny’s, and with my box of fresh red rubber bands proceeded to fold in thirds and wrap that day’s papers: 29 of them, and at least one extra.

That day I looked down Fenny’s street to “the old man’s house.”  The house was a dull dark brown, the dirty windows dark with ragged lace white drapes; the wooden porch under the black shingled roof was a dull grey, completely devoid of any paint, just deeply grooved, dry, worn wood.  Fenny, with his younger brother Robert nodding beside him said very matter-of-factly that “‘the old man’ shot rock salt at us from his shot gun when he came out on the porch and would at anyone else who even approached his front walk.”

This story filled me with silent fear and I accepted what they said as the truth.  From the appearance of that dark, mysterious house it seemed entirely plausible.  I never thought to question Fenny or his brother Robert or their next door neighbors, those two brothers, Sean and Conor, who were nearly the same age, just a few years younger.  Fenny’s street was lined with old, strong towering buttonwoods with rounded bumps like ancient gargoyles on their peeling trunks;  Fenny’s street descended and curved down just as my street did, Buttonwood Lane, and both streets seemed similar to a witches’ glen.

Fenny and his younger brother were the first family I knew who kept rabbits, many of them in their wire-fenced pen in their backyard;  they sometimes picked them up and brought them in the house;  they handled them tenderly.  The rabbits were grey and brown and furry and friendly with noses which wiggled.  Fenny called their droppings, “rabbit putsies.”

I recalled as I folded papers all by myself, once, a few years before, when I was with my mother at the A&P Market downtown I had seen the old man near the back at the checkout aisle where I swung from the metal railings that divided the check out aisles above the green and cream tiles of the floor.  The old man wore old baggy denim overalls and his deeply creased face looked out below straggly white hairs across the top.  But his face was neither a kind face, nor an unkind one; but just an old face. I had heard from Fenny that his wife had died years before.

That afternoon at the A&P, a few years back, I saw him a few minutes later putting the brown paper grocery bags in the back of his old, faded green and dull white Studebaker wagon; that vehicle was of another era; there was no other car as old in the entire town.  We rode in a dull green Checker Cab of Main Street Cab Company; the cab was huge with two small flip up jump seats between the back of the front seat and the big back seat where mom sat.

Previously, I saw the old man driving his car beside and past the side of his tall dilapidated house which stood stark above the railroad tracks which ran alongside and below.  Those same railroad tracks where years before my older brother and his friend Corey at age five had walked and walked and then sat down, not realizing trains still traveled those tracks and one was fast approaching.  A police officer in his car saw them sitting on the burnished tracks that afternoon as he drove down the curving hill, and he flipped on his lights and siren and the train was able to stop above and before the curve of track that led to them.  They were oblivious as the officer ordered them to “walk on home and stay off the tracks.”

But now those tracks curved behind a tall wire fence.

The old man’s large backyard, the entire green expanse grew hidden behind these massive hedges of about 15 feet which were not only tall, but also thick; you could not see through them or around them as they wrapped around and enclosed the entire deep backyard.

The first day of my route, as I folded and counted, I liked seeing the crisp dark headlines atop the paper; the Philadelphia Flyers’ season had commenced and the Phillies’ season had come to a merciful close.  Once I had the bag full with folded papers I knew I still didn’t know my route by heart, so periodically I would sometimes slow and cease pedaling and stop below the shade of a large tree and study my small black spiral book for the next address.  Fenny had shown me his route just once the day before, his last day.  The first part of the route was not so difficult, riding my bike up and down familiar streets, one of which I walked up and down to and from school.  Even though this was my first week, I knew I would need to begin collecting this Thursday and Friday to meet my bill on Saturday with Mr. Hidalgo.  Fenny had quit in the middle of the week of the last week of a two – week cycle.

That first Thursday began as the day before, but after the first three houses, and stopping at each, putting my kickstand down, balancing my bike, and taking a paper from my grey canvas bag I realized this was going to be a very long afternoon.  Already, two homes of the first three customers yielded no response to my ringing the bell and knocking on the door.  I had a total of $4.00 in my red canvas collection bag that Fenny had given me.  There was with it one $1.50 tip in the form of that fourth one dollar bill.

Earlier, I turned down Montcreek Street, the first side street of my route, where I delivered just one more paper, before heading further down Tulip Poplar Avenue and pedaling past the huge houses set back from the old giant trees which lined both sides of the street. There the trees towered and over reached the street as they also did on the side streets.

The second house on the side street Montcreek, on the left, set back from some narrow stone steps that cut into the steep hill of the narrow front lawn belonged to the O’Fallon’s, and Kelley O’Fallon, I believed the prettiest girl in my grade, partially due to her long brown hair, and also partly due to her sweet smile, and her fair face with tiny freckles; the fact that she was not taller than I added to my fondness for her.  I hoped silently that after I rang the doorbell that she would arrive at the door and open it.  When I saw her through the screen door after she opened her big dark brown front door I chortled out, “Collecting for The Evening Bulletin.”

“Hi Billy,” she said.

I heard her mother’s voice call from the darkened living room.

“Who is it, sweetie?”

“It’s the paper boy; we have a new one.”

Kelley asked me conspiratorially in a lowered voice, “How much is it, Billy?”

“Two dollars and fifty cents,” I said and smiled.

I’m not certain my Keds were still touching the dark bricks of her front porch.  Her smile, her long softly shining brown hair and her bright green – brown eyes made me briefly lose a sense of where I stood, and I could not help smiling after she replied –

“I’ll be right back.”

“OK,” I said with my throat suddenly dry.

When she returned she pushed open the screen door and reached her hand toward me; the closeness of her forearm, wrist, and hand were striking to me, but then she did something unexpected; she pressed her hand with the folded bills in it deep into my open palm and smiled.  It was a smile that silently said “don’t worry about the change.”

Then she said, “I’ll see you in school tomorrow Billy,” and she smiled again.

“OK,” I said.

She had given me four folded one dollar bills.  I uncinched my bag and stuffed them inside.  As I turned and walked down her walk I was aware I was still smiling.  I recalled that she and I held a secret.

Two years earlier I discovered inside my small rectangular wooden desk in Mrs. Pascal’s third grade class a folded white paper; within it were two pale orange rubber monsters, one with a suction cup below its feet.  The other had wild rubber hair and protruding rubber eyes.  The note said, “These are for you Billy; I really like you.  Don’t tell anyone.”

I remembered that from years before and seeing her in school that fall because just before Christmas she and her family moved away and I never saw her again.

Before school, in the early morning during that year, we would sometimes stand near each other watching bigger, older kids playing box hockey.  There were two rectangular boxes of worn grey wood, and in the middle were square holes in the board that separated one half from the other.  We stood on the shadowed macadam in the still dark, dim early morning light behind the oldest brick school building with the small yellow and black Civil Defense sign just above the stone foundation of the Administration building.  With long, thin grey wooden sticks, usually a lanky blonde girl, a few years ahead of us furiously battled a boy in her grade.  Her forehead glowed and glistened below her pulled-back blonde hair where a few strands strayed.  Her cheeks were damp and pink.

Once they put their sticks down as their bell rang – the junior high kids bell began their day about five minutes before we were called into the school by our bell – Kelley and I stood looking at each other; we both picked up sticks, and there was a ball in the middle of the box.  She whacked it through the square hole and then smiled at me; I whacked it back, but missed the square hole.  The game seemed more interesting to watch than to play.  But when I looked up I saw Kelley was still there smiling, but then the bell rang loudly, and she threw down her stick and said, “Let’s go!”

But this afternoon, I started to kick up my kickstand, and then I remembered that I didn’t check the O’Fallon’s off in my book as “Paid.”  After Fenny introduced me to Mr. Hidalgo, the District Manager, Mr. H. as he told me to call him, said, “Always check who paid right after you receive the money; otherwise, you won’t remember who paid and who didn’t, later.”

As he said this he patted his stomach and then combed his wavy dark hair with his right hand.  He wore a fat brown tie that was tied too short, and his gut showed below it through his beige shirt.

But this fall afternoon I stood with my bicycle leaning against my side and opened my book and checked “Paid” in the small square for the third week of October for O’Fallon of 45 Montcreek Street.  I shoved the book back in my newspaper bag, kicked up the kickstand and swung my right leg over my bike seat, and began pedaling down the sidewalk of her street; then I rode down a driveway and crossed the street and began pedaling back toward Tulip Poplar Avenue, then turned right.

But before riding on toward Everett Avenue, there was one customer on Tulip Poplar.  The biggest house on the entire street had a side door in addition to the large front door.  The side door stood just past the wide overhang of the side porch that covered part of the driveway.  Fenny had told me to “always leave the paper just outside that door on a small brick porch.”

That afternoon, I rang the doorbell and heard a screechy, scratchy voice ask from far above the dark stairwell beyond the closed door: “Who is it?”

“Paperboy: The Evening Bulletin,” I called out.

I then heard footsteps clopping down and down and down what seemed an endless flight of stairs, and the door creaked open just about four  inches.  The shadowed face of an elderly lady was barely visible and I could see only dimly up this endless, dark flight of stairs which seemed to ascend to not just the second floor, but all the way up to the third floor.

The woman then said rather crankily, “Just give me the paper; I’ll have to pay you next time; I left my purse upstairs,” and then this thin heavily-veined right hand, like a vulture’s claw, snatched the paper from me, and she said, “Thanks,” and slammed the door with a thud shut.

I was relieved to soon be back on my bike and feel the cool wind on my face and the fresh, late afternoon air blowing through my hair and past my ears.  I made a left on Everett Avenue, and realized how long this was all taking, and how late it was already in the afternoon, and remembered what Mr. Hidalgo had said, “Start your collecting on Thursday; a lot of people aren’t home on Friday.”

But it seemed collecting was going to take hours, and some people were already not home on this Thursday, so I rode up on the sidewalk toward my next house on Everett, and threw a paper side arm on to the wooden porch of one of the duplexes, and then pedaled down a driveway, and up another, across the street, and did the same thing again; then it was on toward one of the busiest streets in my town, Woodrow Road.  This road seemed busy with so much traffic it really seemed not safe to ride a bike on it, so I stayed on the brick sidewalk and rode under the towering trees to my next house, a tall Victorian with a wooden porch, and steep, narrow concrete driveway that went back and back into the shadows and where I never saw a car parked.

I parked my still shiny green bike below the steep steps making sure it balanced, and pulled one folded paper from my canvas bag.  Surely these folks were home I thought to myself.  The wooden steps had some peeling paint and the house itself was a dull white, also peeling slightly in spots.

With a little trepidation I rang the bell; I noticed they had a storm door over the stout front dull white door, of dirty enamel without gloss.  I could hear the bell clanging inside and soon I could hear elderly voices calling out: “Is that the door bell Lois?” a man’s voice inquired.

“I don’t know, dear,” she said.

I pressed the small round plastic button once more.

“There it is again, dear; there’s someone at the door.”

I could hear feet shuffling inside and soon a white – haired lady stood just inside the door which was opened about a quarter way and an older man stood hunched beside her.  Their front living room was dimly lit, and the lady looked at me, and said, “Yes?” as if posing a question.

“I’m the new paperboy,” I said, “and I’m collecting; here’s your afternoon paper.”

She then turned to the man near her and asked, “What did he say dear?”

“He said, ‘He’s the paperboy and he’s collecting.'”

“Come in,” she said.

As I looked at the husband’s face behind her I started to realize something; his one eye had a dull blueish hue to it and it was half closed.  His other eye was completely closed, just a pale fleshy eyelid over his sunken eye.  He moved sort of slowly, but his presence was essential to his wife, as her presence was essential to him.  They were indispensable to each other.

She said to me, “Just a minute, let me get my purse.”

“OK,” I said.  “It’s two dollars and fifty cents.”

When she returned to the living room with its drapes over the windows part way open, she turned to her husband and asked, “How much did he say it is, dear?”

“He said ‘it’s two dollars and fifty cents,’ I think.”

“Yes, its two dollars and fifty cents,” I said, with my voice raised a bit louder.  I then realized something:  while these two were a good team together, apart they could not truly function.  As far as I could tell, the wife was completely deaf, and the husband was completely blind.

I had witnessed blind people; my grandmother was blind.

Then the wife turned to me and handed me a five dollar bill.

“This is too much,” I said, and “You’re only the third customer who’s been home this afternoon; I’m not sure I have enough change.”

“What did he say?” she asked toward her husband.

“He said, ‘He doesn’t have any change.’”

She turned back from him toward me and said, “That’s all right honey; you know what I mean, honey?  I do not have any change either,” she said as she smiled toward me.

I thought I had been in their house for what seemed about half an hour, and the sky was growing a deeper gray.  I felt a chill when I finally stood out on their front wooden porch again, high above the sidewalk and road.  The rush hour traffic sped by and I had delivered less than a third of my route.  I would have to forego collecting until Friday after all, and I could barely recall which house was next.  I just knew I must somehow pedal my new bike across this busy road and head up Everett Avenue, then turn down either Heath Avenue or Cloverhill Road; I couldn’t remember exactly which was first now.  But I had to get going, but safely too.  People might be upset that they had not yet received their papers, and now it was almost the dinner hour.  The sky had grown grayish purple as I finally pedaled across that road and up the Goodbrother’s driveway across it, then down the sidewalk and up Everett Avenue.

Nearly an hour later I turned my bike down my street.  The air was cold and the sky was near dark.  My bag was empty of all but one paper and my money bag held less than ten dollars.  I rode my bike down our empty grassy driveway and leaned my bike against the garage doors and trudged back up the driveway with my bag slung over my shoulder.

When I opened the front door I heard mom call out, “Where have you been?  You’re late and your dinner is cold.”  She spoke with a slightly lilting English accent and I could understand what this meant.

“I’m sorry mom, but I tried collecting as the District Manager suggested; it really slowed me down.”

“Oh dear heart, sit down.  This is all we have, a lamb chop and apple sauce.  Would you like a glass of milk?”

“OK,” I said.

“I’m going back to my typing.”

I sat alone in the kitchen chewing the small warm chop and shoveling the cool apple sauce down.

I thought to myself: it’s the end of the week nearly, and called from the kitchen across the living room beyond where my mom sat in her library: “I’m going for a bike ride downtown.”

“OK, dear. Could you get me a pack of Lucky’s from the machine in Homestead Restaurant? Let me give you a dollar.  Don’t be long.”

I walked out the front door and back down the mostly dark driveway as the kitchen light burned above and the wind reshuffled autumn leaves above me and at my feet.  I could hear them crunchy underfoot and see the strange grey cold autumn shadows before and beside me. I held the handgrips of my handle bars.  It felt good to push the bike without the horns and paper – stuffed bag over them.  I reached the top of our drive, swung my leg over the seat as I pushed down on the near pedal and began pedaling up our street.  I pedaled hard through the fall chill of buttonwoods, then down under the canopy of Tulip Poplar toward the school and past it toward the highway.  I crossed the street and pedaled toward the a couple in long coats, he in a tan overcoat; she in a dark wool coat; another identical, middle – aged couple was several doors behind them.  I rode past the lit Community Bookshop next to Lantern Lane; the Homestead Restaurant was dark behind me, but its many-paned front door emitted a dim light where I had walked back to the shadowed cigarette machine at the end of a long, dark, carpeted corridor to buy mom her Lucky Strikes.  Then I rode past and away from Fisher’s Bike Shop where mom had purchased my bike, the one I rode, which once stood jauntily behind the plate glass windows that fall, and recalled that late evening, not unlike this one, when we stood side-by-side in the mid-October chill, and she asked me, “What do you want for your birthday?”

“That bicycle, that green Columbia Sting – Ray,” I said.  “It’s the same brand as big brother Harry’s.”

And a week later she surprised me, with it parked in her library behind the big white heavy door.  “Happy birthday,” she said, and reached down toward me and hugged and kissed me.

“Wow!” I said, “Thanks.”

I think that evening and the one a week before when she asked me what I wished for my birthday when we stood together in front of Fisher’s Bike Shop in the fall evening were the happiest moments of my life.

This night I enjoyed the freedom of pedaling past the downtown people, and sang to myself the words of Petula Clark’s “Downtown,” the lilting up and down sing-song plaintive in my ears, and the pedaling cheered me somewhat, but I felt lonely, riding past the shadowed faces of adults in their long overcoats and I knew this was the only world I would ever know.


Author Bio:

Daniel Picker‘s work has appeared in Harvard Review, The Sewanee Review, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Oxonian Review, Poetry(Chicago), Soundings East, Vermont Literary Review, Sequoia: The Stanford Literary Magazine, Rune: MIT, The Dudley Review at Harvard, The Abington Review, and many more. He is also the winner of The Dudley Review Poetry Prize at Harvard, and a Fellowship from The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, and he is the author of a book of poems Steep Stony Road.

Young Brown Man and the Laundromat Werewolf

by Mark Galarrita

When Bonnie dumped me after gym class, I skipped the rest of school and went home to do my laundry.  It was two days overdue and it had to be done. Whenever something bad happens and I get anxious, I fold my shirts. It’s the least I could do. On the drive back to Pop’s apartment, I replayed the morning so I could get the memory right. She stood in front of me, hands folded over her stomach. The same way the ER doctor did when he delivered the news that my mother said sayonara to the world.

“We’re growing up and we’re growing apart,” she began, “I don’t know how to feel about you anymore. We should take some time alone.”

The hell does that mean, ‘We should take some time alone.’ I thought it was a line she took from a band. On the drive home, I Googled it, but nothing came up.

When I came home, Pops didn’t ask why I showed up from school three hours early. He asked if I was hungry. When I said no, he nodded, and I went into my room to get the hamper. It contained a mix of dirty gym clothes, crusty socks, and shirts that were overdue for a clean. As I made my way out the door, Pops cursed in Tagalog and I asked him what was wrong.

“Ay jusko po! The country’s going to hell! We have a crazy man running for President.”

I shook my head. “I wouldn’t worry about it Pops. America isn’t that crazy.”

“What?” Pops asked. “I’m talking about the Philippines. I’m talking about our home.”

I nodded to let him know I understood, but I didn’t. I knew nothing about my father’s home beyond a few hamstrung pictures of farmhouses and beaches. The Philippines was as far from New Jersey as my love life was away from reality. I took my hamper and made my way for the Laundromat, a two-minute walk in a basement underneath the landlord’s room. When I flicked the fluorescent lights on, they sputtered on and off.  The neighborhood kids used to call it the murder basement but those dudes grew up and weren’t around anymore so it’s just a dirty, creepy, place to wash your pants. The lights crackled for a good minute before they kicked into gear and stayed together as one. Once they were on for good, the washing began.

The art of laundry is soothing. It’s all about mindfulness. I have to keep the type of clothing separate, whether they’re towels, cotton sheets, or just a big ole pile of white socks. I have to watch the timer and add just the right amount of detergent for the washer and fabric sheets for the dryer. If I don’t do any of this right, a shirt could be covered in different colors or a pair of gym shorts would be tied up in knots. Before the heart attack took her away, my mother taught me this. She told me that all clothes have a purpose. Colors had a purpose. Bright colors stayed together, whites stayed together, and you couldn’t mix, because if you did it would mess everything up.

I liked to listen to music whenever I did this and since I was in a breakup mood I listened to one of Drake’s older albums. While I loaded the washer, I fiddled with my iPod until I stumbled upon a Drake and Jhene Aiko collab. I sorted colors and whites while the lyrics took me out of the present. It was after the second verse when Drake started talking about the Hooters waitress in Atlanta that a pale werewolf walked into the room.

He had a twisted, lanky body, like a boy in fifth grade who grew up too fast. More awkward than athletic. His legs were bony and jagged like a goat living in in the Alps, and his arms were thin but hairy with hands as big as webbed chicken’s feet. It was his chest that was the biggest feature about him. Without any clothes on, he looked like a giant overfed rat with a werewolf’s head. The werewolf walked towards the other end of the laundry room, to a small corridor where the storage room closet was. The thing noticed me once I took my headphones off.

I stood there, staring at it, and the thing stared at me back. Red eyes wide and all. I waved.

“Kamusta po kayo,” the werewolf said in Tagalog. Like fresh off the boat in Newark kind of Tagalog.

“Sup,” I said. Drake was still spittin’, so I paused my iPod.

The werewolf purred and got on all fours to stretch.

“What are you listening to?” The beast said as it cracked its back.


“Never heard of him.”

“He’s pretty popular. You listen to stuff on the radio?”

“I don’t listen to radios,” The werewolf coughed out a gray hairball the size of a jawbreaker. “I don’t listen to anything, except the siren’s call. She’s calling for me to find her.”

The werewolf turned his head into the corridor and the laundry room’s lights flicked on and off in a flash of seconds. I held onto my khaki’s as the lights flickered.

When the lights went back to a normal state, the werewolf was still there.

“What’s your name?” I asked him.

He smiled and I could see his teeth. Bony and sharp, every single one. A mouth of nails. “Peter,” he mumbled.

“Cool,” I said. “My name is-”

“Wala akong pakialam! You’re just a boy,” Peter hissed. “Tulong ako?”

“Help? You look like you can take care of yourself on your own. Better than I could ever help you.”

When Peter the werewolf laughed, it sounded like a snake’s hiss. It was uncomfortable for me to be in the same room but I stood still, trying to feel the back of pants for my iPhone.

“I know that, boy,” Peter said. “But I can’t do everything by myself. Especially when the siren calls for me to help her. Wala akong magagwa,”

“Everyone has a choice, man,” I said.

“Tulong, tulong, tulong-”

“Alright!” I shouted. “I’ll help you real quick, but I gotta finish my laundry. Then I have to do my homework.”

Peter stood up and howled. The hairs on his body stood up as if he had just been struck by an electrical current.

“Thank you, boy! Thank you!”

The werewolf got on all fours and told me to come with him into the dark corridor. I stepped from one end of the light and into the darkness; the fluorescents behind me sparkled until they shattered, sending flickers of light to the floor and disappearing into the darkness.

“Not to worry,” Peter hissed as he walked. “That happens sometimes whenever we enter the siren’s land.”

Rambling into the dark, I thought of my oxford shirts and the khaki pants unfolded. They were jumbled into the big pile I left on the folding table and they would have to be ironed by the time I got back. All I wanted to do was to do my laundry and listen to Drake. I wanted to forget Bonnie. But forgetting someone is never about how you plan on doing it, it’s what you do to forget them.

We traveled for half a mile in the dark until we reached a door colored like a stale, moldy, croissant.

“This is it,” Peter said as he stood on his pencil legs. “The siren’s just in here.”

“Okay,” I said, scratching an itch on my neck from a cobweb that fell. “I will be home later tonight, right?”

Peter growled low. “Yes, yes. Come on, we’re burning daylight.”

With his chicken hands, he turned the nob and pushed the door open. I was hit by a flash of light as I fell from a thousand feet in the air with the werewolf next to me. I screamed as the winds took me from a clear, sunny sky, and smack into a great ocean. It was crystal blue and clear, like touristy photos of the Caribbean. I plodded into the endless depth of blue, the water’s chill engulfed my skin, filled my lungs. I swam towards the sun’s light and reached the surface. The rays of the sun poured over me in a pleasant, warm, embrace.

The werewolf paddled like a grown dog next to me.

I spat water out of my mouth. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

He ignored me and pointed to something behind me. I turned around to see a great big island of jungle and rolling hills. The werewolf paddled past me, kicking his legs up and out of the water like a toddler learning to swim.

“Well,” Peter said, “come on then!”

There was nothing behind me but an endless, clear blue. I turned and swam with the werewolf to the island.

While the journey looked as if I’d have to swim half a mile, it took two minutes. I ducked my head and swam, and before I knew it I reached the shore with the werewolf next to me. Once I dumped the water from my ears and got a bearing on where I was, I heard a sad voice, a singer’s voice. The noise came from within the island and high above me, atop a mountain. I turned to Peter and he heard it too, sniffing with his huge pink nose as he got on all four of his webbed feet.

“You hear it too?” I said with a redundancy to make sure I wasn’t hearing things.

Peter sniffled. “Good, the siren is still with us. Let’s go save her.”

Save her? I wasn’t in the business of saving lives or knowing where to begin. We followed – or I should say I trailed behind Peter – deep into the island. It was a craggy land of endless uneven hills and jungle. With every inch I took, I spent the time swatting flies, mosquitos, and watching my step as I either tripped or fell into a pile of wet mud. I passed by empty straw huts and farm houses, like the ones from pop’s old photos. I wanted to stop and search them but Peter didn’t relent and I wasn’t about to be lost in the middle of a jungle.

Peter stopped in front of a mountain. The sad woman’s song echoed from the top, where I couldn’t see anything but the clouds. I reached Peter at the bottom, panting and begging for a break.

“No stopping now,” the werewolf grinned, “the siren calls to us to save her. We’re just the creatures for the task!”

“Save her from what?”

Peter looked at me with a grin. “From herself, of course!”

The werewolf jumped up and grabbed onto the mountain’s side effortlessly. He stopped short of his climb to nudge me towards the long path, a spiraling road that went around the mountain. I sighed and followed.  By the time I made my way to the top of the lush knoll, Peter was already there trimming his toes. At the top of the mountain was a circular, trimmed, lawn like the kind you find in front of a house in the suburbs. Across from us was a woman with flowing red hair and pale, pink skin, singing and starting at the opposite end of the island in a green summer dress. From the back, she looked familiar. Like the person who I thought I knew before.

“Bonnie?” I shouted. The woman jolted to her feet and turned to us. When she saw me, Bonnie’s brows raised together as she swatted her green dress of dirt. Her freckles shined in the sunlight and her eyes twinkled in anger as she asked what I was doing here. She looked cute, happy, like whatever happened earlier today didn’t mean a damn thing.

“I was doing my laundry and he asked me to come here,” I said, pointing to the werewolf.

Bonnie narrowed her gaze at Peter, who bowed his rat-faced head at her.

“I thought he would make you feel better, my queen,” the werewolf said. “I can make him go away if you want.”

Peters webbed fingers grew into sharp claws. On instinct, I took a few steps back but Bonnie placed her hand on his hairy shoulder.

“Peter, stay,” she commanded. The werewolf retracted his claws and his sneer turned into a whimper. Bonnie walked over to me and raised her lips in a half-smile.

“I should’ve told you all about this sooner,” she said, “I’m sorry.”

“You don’t have to apologize,” I said.

Bonnie turned her back on me and walked back to where she sat at the edge of the hill.

“Sit with me?”

From our seat on the hill, I gazed upon an endless ocean and a clear blue sky beyond the jungle island. There was nothing out there. The werewolf squatted behind us, eager for the next command from his ‘queen.’ Before I could raise the question of what it was, she started to talk to me about something else.

“I was hoping that by being with you, I could feel something,” she said. “Did you?”

“Did I what?” I asked.

“Did you feel something for me?”

I thought back to our relationship. Junior prom, where we had our first dance. Our first date at the AMC in Hamilton where we saw that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie in 3-D and how big of a mistake that was. Walking in crowded New York City in the middle of the night, looking at Manhattan as tourists and deciding that neither of us would apply for any city colleges.

“Of course I felt something for you,” I smiled. “You’re my girl.”

She beamed for a second and faded after another. “I wish I could tell you exactly everything I’m feeling. But I can’t. I have all of these thoughts in my head, all of these worlds, and places I want to visit. But I know I’ll never be able to go to all of them or ever see them with you…and it makes me sad to think about that. After the summer ends, we’re going to be in two different worlds.”

I felt a warm breeze blow through us, left to right, gentle as Bonnie’s body up against me on a chilly winter night. She grabbed my hand and traced her thumb around my knuckles. I noticed the cracks on my skin and I thought of how I should’ve put some lotion on them before I left.

“This is where I come to think,” she said. “And now you’re here. This place will end soon, like all of my places to dream, my places to breathe. When I enter our world, I go on autopilot. Classes, field hockey, band practice…even hanging out with you. It felt ordinary, small.”

I was hurt by the last statement but I didn’t let it show. At least, I thought I didn’t. I tried to ask again about the island but she blew past it.

“If this is it, if this is all we’re worth after we graduate and go on to college, is this what our lives are going to be like? On autopilot and not doing anything exciting because the world is cruel and-”

I didn’t know what to do so I wrapped my arm around her. I heard Peter’s growl behind me but she told him it was okay.

“Do you want to listen to something?” I said.

She nodded.

I pulled out my iPod mini and untangled the white cord headphones. Placing one headphone against her earlobe and the other in mine, I put on a Jhene Aiko and a Childish Gambino track with an easy beat. She bobbed to the rhythm and smirked at the Childish Gambino verse. When it ended, she rested her head on my shoulder.

“Do you remember when we first started dating and I asked you that stupid question?”

“Which one?” I asked her and she slapped my chest with the back of her hand.

“I asked you if you were Filipino or Mexican. I couldn’t tell. You gave me this look like you were offended-”

“I wasn’t offended,” I crossed my arms and squinted.

“You did that! Just that! You always do it when you’re mad, you can’t help it.”

I rolled my eyes.

She smiled a little longer and I had a feeling she was back, but before I could get my hopes up and maybe kiss her on the cheek, do anything to make her feel better, it didn’t work.

“We knew nothing about each other,” she said, “you told me about your parent’s home in Mindanao. The country of over seven thousand islands. It was so beautiful to hear you describe the water, the farm house your father grew up in. The small parochial school your mom went to. Where your dad and your mother met at the pharmacy in Manila. I wanted to see all of that with you.”

“We can still see that.”

She squeezed my hands.

“No,” she said, “we won’t.”

I shifted away from her. The grip around her hand slipped away like grasping a greased ledge, hanging on to the edge of a building.

“You’ll be on one Coast and I’ll be in the middle of nowhere,” she said. “But I want to go back to that. First times are nice. We were innocent. We had these thoughts of the world that anything was possible, so long as we were there together.

I turned around to see if the werewolf was facing the other side of the island. His chicken legs and arms faded in a slow, concise, shadow.

“Bonnie,” I said, “What are you doing?”

“We have to let go of our dreams and grow up, don’t we? We have to accept that our lives are not in our control but in everyone else’s.”

The island shook. The lawn on my feet crackled, spitting out dirt and grass in my face. The werewolf looked at me with a sullen look. He growled and howled at the sky.

“Thanks, lalaki,” he grinned with his mouth of nails. “You saved the day.”

He faded like a seceding fog, as did the ocean and the lawn and the hill in front of me. They were replaced by a white, endless, room. A ceiling and floor of all white. Only Bonnie in her green dress and I stood there. I didn’t ask where we were, what was the point?

“What are you afraid of, Bonnie?” I asked her.

She looked down to the ground and crossed her arms, her back to me.

“I want to tell you, but I can’t. I don’t feel anything for you anymore and it’s just best…best we go our separate ways. Thank you, though, for everything.”

I walked to her but as I got closer, she vanished. Poof. A light appeared ahead of me and I ran towards it. Once I reached the bright light, a door appeared, and I turned the knob. I came back upon the Laundromat where my clothes were astray on the folding station. Portly Mrs. Rodriguez and her two ninita’s saw me enter through the darkness. The big mother of two jumped first, pointing at my chest.

“Oh Mia!” She said as I rubbed my eyes from the light. Rather than shock them, I stuck my hands out but I saw what they were shouting about. Not me, well not totally me, but what I was in. I was soaked in water from my t-shirt, to my Nike’s. Mrs. Rodriguez asked if I was okay and I nodded. One of her girls gave me a bottle of water. The other gave me a warm, beach towel.

“Gracias,” I said.

I took my hamper, shoved all my clothes in, and headed back to the apartment. Pops was in the living room watching a Kurosawa film, not one I remembered at the time.

“Is that you?” He asked.

“Yes pops, it’s me.”

“Did you eat?”

“No Pops.”


I went to my room and sorted my clothes. When I looked at my computer I saw that it was Sunday, five days since Bonnie broke up with me. The world moved on without us.

I reached for my cellphone and called Bonnie but it went to voicemail. I thought about calling her a second time but I didn’t. I sent her a message on Facebook but she ignored that too. The next time I saw her was at graduation a month later. I waved to her but she glided past me, like I wasn’t even alive. I tried to contact her a few more times in the summer. Same results. Life passed on to a new current and she created her own distance from me and I guess, screw it.



Author Bio:

Mark Galarrita is a Filipino American fiction writer from New Jersey. He has a B.A. in Political Science and a minor in Creative Writing from Marymount Manhattan College. He also has a forthcoming short story with Bull: Men’s Fiction.

Taste & Odor

by Annabelle Kim

Maud Wiggins always bitched about the water. Therefore, nobody paid much attention when the old biddy called to complain that her tap water smelled bad. It is the policy of our water company to respond to each and every customer complaint – half of them from Maud Wiggins – in a prompt and courteous manner. I am the Director of Water Quality; all complaint reports land in my inbox. I knew this was coming.

My field service technician, Bob Brunner, hadn’t shown up for work. In his stead, I sent Tiny to investigate. Weighing in at three hundred torpid pounds, Tiny is the most lackadaisical bum on staff, which is saying a lot. Tiny returned from the old lady’s house with his typical lazy ass report: “I ain’t smelled nothin’.”

Maud Wiggins called again the next day. She griped that the water smelled even worse. I sent Tiny out again. The second time, Tiny surmounted his inertia enough to bring back a sample from Maud’s kitchen faucet. My lab chemist conducted the usual bench top tests:  pH, hardness, turbidity, iron, manganese, total coliform, fecal coliform. All levels were normal.

In the meantime, I confess, I ordered spring water, home delivery. I never told a soul. If my colleagues had found out, the recriminations would have never ceased. Bottled water to a water treatment professional is like writing to an engineer. I didn’t mind flushing the toilet with the tap water, or doing the wash, or even showering in it. I just couldn’t bring myself to drink it. I started bringing sodas to work so nobody would suspect what I’d done.

Maud Wiggins called again the next day. The receptionist notified me in sarcastic sing song, “You’ll never guess who’s on Line One.” We all regarded Maud as a crank, and that she was, but I knew the old woman had the nose of a bloodhound. This time, I conducted the site visit personally.

Maud lived on two acres of fallow farmland under the long shadow of the municipality’s two million gallon elevated water storage tank. A geometry of new construction cluster homes surrounded her property. These Lego chateaus had sprung up overnight, sold on the enticement of granite countertops before the ink dried on the architect’s plans. Having refused to sell out, Maud enjoyed a view of the development’s community pool and playground. No doubt she rang the association on a daily basis to complain about the odious ruckus of happy children. At least the water pressure was good.

I pulled the company pickup into Maud’s weedy driveway. Her split-level house hunkered with the neglect of the elderly: paint peeling, roof shingles curling. Maud’s corrugated face peered out from between the crinolines. It took her ages to get to the door and longer to get it unlocked. She squinted at me and her face puckered as if she’d taken a bitter pill.

“Hello, Mrs. Wiggins. How are you today?”

“No sense complaining.”

“That never stops anyone.”

“Are you with the water department?”

“Mrs. Wiggins, don’t you remember me? I’ve been out here at least a hundred times.”

“I didn’t know they let girls work there.”

“Times they are a-changing, Mrs. Wiggins.”

“You look very young.”

“You’re much too kind!”

“It wasn’t a compliment.”

The musty clutter inside the old woman’s house – crocheted doilies, tatted antimacassars, yellowed photographs of dead people, flaking piles of newspaper and magazines – bespoke a life lingering beyond its utility. I followed her to the kitchen which reeked of fermenting chicken soup and urine. Or maybe that was Maud. How this stinky fusspot could smell anything in the tap water was a miracle.

I opened the cold water faucet at her kitchen sink and timed the first flush with my wristwatch. I had calculated the residence time from the water storage tank to Maud’s tap, and I ran the water for twice that duration in case someone down the line questioned the accuracy of my measurements. Most customers will busy themselves with fake chores or retreat to their television while I’m working in their house. Not Maud Wiggins. She hovered over me like a specter.

“Do you know what you’re doing?” Maud asked.

Filling water jugs is not a complex procedure, and, yes, I knew what I was doing. Patiently, professionally, I delivered an impromptu speech on taste and odor – detection methods, potential sources of the problem, water quality changes in the distribution system, treatment alternatives – mostly to shut her up.

“I think you don’t know what you’re doing,” said Maud.

The decaying crone glared at me with rheumy eyes that oscillated in their sunken sockets. She was goading me.

“Be good, Mrs. Wiggins.  I’ll call you tomorrow with the results.”

“Tell them to send that nice young man next time.”

When I returned to the lab, I convened the taste and odor panel. Our four person panel comprised Tiny, Hope – the new lab assistant, a treatment plant operator, and Bob Brunner.

In the lunch room where the operators and maintenance men loiter, I asked the guys where Brunner was. Blank looks. Normally, Brunner manhandled any confrontations with management. In the absence of their alpha male, the pack was disoriented.

I asked if Brunner had been drinking again. The guys denied it. I asked if Brunner meant to sign out for vacation. The guys latched onto this idea, bumbling into a makeshift line of defense.

“Oh yeah, yeah,” one of the operators said. “Brunner mentioned a family emergency he had to take care of…out of town.”

The thought of Brunner caring for family struck me as incongruous. Then again, I wasn’t one to talk. The guys exchanged glances.

“Uh huh, that’s right,” said another. “I told him I’d sign him out. But I forgot.”

I asked them if anyone had any idea how long Brunner would be out.

“Yes, ma’am,” said one of the guys, sarcastic accent on “ma’am”. He looked around the lunch room for a prompt.

“A week,” said his cohort. “That’s right. He told me that when he called me. It was real late, like midnight, one AM when the family emergency come up. I was barely awake. That’s why I forgot.”

They were lying. But I had no choice but to fill in for Brunner on the taste and odor panel.

There’s always a bustle of excitement when the panel is assembled. Let’s face it. The life of a water treatment plant employee is not exactly scintillating; most of the time, we watch water flow. Each panelist had a form on a clipboard with a pen attached by a string. The lab chemist brought in beakers of water samples warmed to 45 degrees Celsius. In the blind test, each of us received an ideal sample, straight out of the clearwell, where the finished water receives its final chlorine disinfection, and a test sample from Maud’s tap.

I don’t enjoy drinking out of beakers and I don’t enjoy lukewarm water. But these factors had nothing to do with the nausea that welled up when I sniffed then sipped Maud’s water. I felt green. I put my head down and scribbled on my form till the wave passed.

Then we compared notes. The chemist confirmed that all panelists correctly identified Maud’s water versus the control sample. We discussed the taste and odor classification. Tiny thought the water was musty. The operator said earthy. In her characteristically timid way, Hope asked, might it be rotten egg? I said chemical. Hope hastily scribbled out “rotten egg” from her form and changed her description to “chemical”. Hope didn’t know it, but rotten egg was about right.

I distributed an internal memo recommending that we increase the chlorine by one milligram per liter for several days. My boss, the plant manager, dithered, not because high chlorine would increase the carcinogenic disinfection by-products, not because more chemical would cost more money, but because we would be inundated with customer complaints. Folks tend to be hyper-sensitive to chlorine. I insisted. The chlorine was cranked up. As expected, the customer complaints fried the phone lines. After two days of high chlorine, we resumed the normal treatment regimen. But the customer phone calls did not abate.

One afternoon, after all but the night crew had gone home, Hope tapped on the glass of my open office door and peered inside, clutching a manila folder to her chest. I motioned her in with a jerk of my head. She perched herself on the edge of the guest chair.

Hope irritated me. Like a mouse in the house.

“What have you got for me?” I asked, forcing myself to smile.

“Sorry. Sorry to bother you. This probably makes no sense. But I just wanted to run something by you. Something I noticed?”

“Sure, Hope. Shoot.”

“I’m sorry. I just…well, I plotted today’s taste and odor complaints on our service area map and I noticed, well, maybe it’s nothing, or maybe I’m missing something…”

“Show me.”

She opened her folder and positioned a water distribution system map before me. She had circled the location of customer complaints. Several concentric circles marked Maud Wiggin’s home, like a bullseye. The remaining circles were concentrated in the new development adjacent to Maud’s property.

“Hmmm. What do you make of it?”

“Well, I don’t know if this makes any sense, sorry, but I was wondering if there might be something in the water pipes near Mrs. Wiggin’s house. I mean, there hasn’t been an algal bloom yet and the finished water at the plant is perfect. The complaints haven’t been about chlorinous after we turned the chlorine back down to normal. It’s just an idea. It’s probably stupid?”

“Guess what, Hope?”


I took a map out of my top desk drawer on which I, too, had plotted the location of the complaints. I set our maps side by side. Hope’s face collapsed in humiliation.

“Great minds think alike!” I said, and winked at her. Her face lit up like a baby playing peekaboo.

“Oh my gosh!” she said, and giggled with her hand over her mouth.

“So. What should we do about this?”

Faced with this question, poor Hope squirmed like pinned insect. She was a problem finder, not a problem solver.

“You think we should try permanganate?” I asked.

“Yes! Potassium permanganate for treatment of stubborn taste and odor,” she quoted verbatim from the standard methods manual. “I was just about to say that.”

“Like I said, great minds…” I pointed at her to finish my sentence.

“…think alike!” she chimed in.

My solution utterly failed to address the phenomenon Hope had uncovered, but my neophyte was so eager to please that she jumped aboard. Hope was my new pet. I had a feeling she would come in handy somehow. I invited Hope to observe with me as the lab chemist conducted the bench top jar test to set the permanganate dose.

I remembered the first time I had performed a permanganate jar test.  It had been my first assignment as a new hire at the utility. I had gone overboard, conducting research, interviewing neighboring utilities regarding their permanganate experiences, projecting doses based on theoretical demand, entering data on spreadsheets, graphing scatter plots. Bob Brunner had been there. He had expressed his opinion of my work. You’re book smart but you ain’t got no common sense.

This time, I watched the lab chemist conduct her own seat-of-the pants jar test, dosing a range of oxidant concentrations in a series of jars with mechanical stirrers. As the contaminants in the water were oxidized by the treatment chemical, the characteristic pink color of the permanganate faded. The chemist recommended the dose tested the middle jar, corresponding to the highest dose exhibiting no trace of pink color, a logical choice.

“Let’s go with this,” I said, pointing to the jar one dose increment higher.

The chemist warned that we might get pink water.

I knew that. I also knew the complaints would be close to the water plant where the chemical was dosed, diverting attention from that troublesome Maud Wiggins. By the time the water reached her outskirts of the distribution system, the pink water would be gone. I turned to Hope.

“What do you think, Hope?”

She bit her lip. Wordlessly, she pointed to the jar I had picked.

We started up the potassium permanganate at the dosage I had selected. As expected, we were barraged by phone calls from customers near the water plant complaining about the pink water. One hysterical customer swore she saw blood in the water. I ordered the permanganate treatment terminated. As the pink water flap subsided, the taste and odor complaints from Maud Wiggins and her neighbors swelled.

Now my boss, the plant manager, got involved. He ordered the lines flushed. In the middle of the night, when usage was lowest, the maintenance crew opened the hydrants, wasting a million gallons of water into the storm sewers. It helped for a day. Then the taste and odor problem flared right back up. The problem was spreading beyond Maud Wiggins, beyond the new development.

We sampled dozens of locations throughout water distribution system, conducted taste and odor tests, and plotted the results on the map. The pattern would have been obvious to a cretin. The problem was concentrated immediately downstream of the elevated water storage tank. The plant manager ordered the water tank opened up for inspection. He announced that he would accompany me and my field service technician on the inspection, noting that he hadn’t been up to the water tank since it was dedicated almost ten years ago. I suppose every decade or so the boss feels compelled to demonstrate that he earns his fat paycheck.

Tiny drove us out to the site, grousing all the way about the impending two hundred foot climb to the top of the water tank. Up in the passenger seat, the plant manager fidgeted and rubbed his face. Then he cracked loud, stupid jokes.

“If at first you don’t succeed, don’t climb a water tank. Ha ha ha!”

The boss man’s initial bravado had obviously been undermined by Tiny’s craven whining. We pulled up to the gate of the chain link enclosure rimmed with razor wire surrounding the water tank. I jumped out to unlock the gate and waved the truck in.

“Okay if I leave the gate open?” I asked the plant manager.

Rarely called upon to make everyday decisions, he raised his eyebrows for a hint.

“Should be fine. Never any trouble here.”

“Leave the gate open,” he commanded.

Good: that’s what I wanted. It would be more efficient.

I unlocked the door leading into the water tank support structure, a reinforced concrete cylinder a hundred feet in diameter and two hundred feet high that supported the steel water tank overhead. Visitors are always surprised to discover that the pedestal is not filled with water. You’d think the personnel door would be a clue.

I flipped on the lights. A wan glow illuminated the dank cement walls streaked with crystalline efflorescence. Water trickled through the wall-mounted instruments continuously monitoring the water’s turbidity and chlorine residual. Reflexively, I glanced up at the dome where two million gallons of water, enough to fill about three Olympic swimming pools, were propped two hundred feet overhead, and hoped the design safety factors were adequately conservative.

I ushered the inspection party to the local control panel and opened the cover. Ignoring Tiny rolling his eyes, I handled every switch and announced aloud, “Low level, check. High level, check…” Utter nonsense, but it seemed to make the boss feel more secure. I shut the control cabinet and said, “Let’s go!”

We donned the body harnesses, which was some rigmarole because the boss could not remember how, yet refused any assistance, and because Tiny had to let the straps out all the way to encompass his immense girth. I led the way, largely because I was unconvinced the safety equipment was rated for Tiny’s load. I hardly relished the prospect of such a vast personage landing on me. Snapping my harness onto the safety rail trolley, I climbed the ladder. At fifty feet intervals, there were resting platforms where I leaned against the railing to wait and wait for Tiny and the plant manager to huff and puff their way up. Finally, at the top of the structural concrete wall, we reached the walkway leading to the four foot diameter, forty foot high steel access tube rising through the center of the water tank.

Mounting the ladder inside a steel access tube surrounded by forty feet of drinking water inevitably evoked a sense of claustrophobia. I wasn’t the only one. We all scrambled lickety-split through the access hatch and onto the roof of the tank, sucking air as if we had been suffocating. Tiny was flushed crimson and parabolas of sweat darkened the armpits and neck of his uniform. The plant manager clearly regretted his misguided boondoggle.

Adjacent to the access hatch from which we had just emerged was a second hatch that opened directly into the water tank. I handed Tiny the key to the padlock and he opened it. A puff of fetid air escaped from the air space above the water surface. Tiny made a face and stuck his head inside for about a microsecond.

“I ain’t seen nothin’,” Tiny said.

The plant manager gave it a go and recoiled reflexively.

He asked, “Is it supposed to smell like that in there?”

What a boob.

My turn. I spotted the corpse right away. On the opposite side of the central access tube we had just climbed up through, where the current to the overflow standpipe would have pulled flotsam during a high water condition, the body floated face down, its head dangling below the surface. I gathered myself, screamed, and toppled backwards.

“Call 911,” I gasped before passing out.

I heard the sirens in the distance and sat up. It didn’t take much to assure the boss and Tiny that I was good to go. They were giddy with excitement. An immense hubbub ensued when the firemen, police, and paramedics jostled their way to the top of the tank. After the initial chest thumping, the police stepped aside and allowed us to work with the firemen to drain the tank and remove the body.

The corpse, bloated and greenish bronze, was unrecognizable. Putrefaction had eaten the flesh and, even laid out in the open air, its foul stench permeated the atmosphere. The skin around the eyes and mouth had rotted away, creating a ghastly expression of horror.

“Can any of you identify the body?” asked the police officer.

Nobody could. I pointed to the nametag sewn to its shirt.

“Look. Brunner. It’s Bob Brunner. He worked for me.”

Then I covered my face and sobbed. The superfluous paramedic made himself useful by patting my shoulder. Tiny moaned, shuffled to the chain link fence, and vomited. The paramedic hastened to the more urgent patient and massaged Tiny’s shoulders as he heaved.

The next few days would be crazy busy. There would be a temporary water service disruption, boil water advisory, line flushing, super-chlorination, water quality sampling, managing the media. It wasn’t until after 24 straight grueling hours of damage control that I had time to reflect alone.

*     *     *

Over the previous couple of years, I had been collaborating with our consulting engineer on a research project modeling the formation of disinfection by-products in the distribution system. The consultant had noticed a discrepancy in the data. To clean up our results and make our graphs look prettier required additional sampling in the elevated water storage tank. I would have preferred to use someone else, but it was the end of the shift, the paper was due, and I could only find Brunner. He was none too pleased to be dragged from his comfortable lair in the control room on account of my “ivory tower gobbledygook”.

Inside the concrete support structure, Brunner snorted when I reached for the climbing safety gear, and clambered up the ladder. I had no choice but to hurry after him or be stranded in his wake. At the top, Brunner opened the access hatch into the tank. He held out his open palm and barked, “Give it.” I looked around and realized that we had left the long-handled sample dipper in the company truck.

“Can you go get it?” I asked.

“The hell I will.”

Brunner yanked up the telescoping safety post from the access ladder. He snatched the bottle right out of my tool belt and started down the ladder to collect my sample.

“You can’t do that. Your boots are dirty!”

“I ain’t touching the water.”

“Just wait. Christ. I’ll go down get the dipper.”

“I got it. Don’t get your panties in a twist.”

“Don’t go down there. You’re forcing me to write you up.”

“Okay. Have it your way.”

He climbed back out and laid himself over the rim of the hatch. Sliding on his belly, he went in head first.

“You won’t be able to reach, Brunner. The water level is down too low.”

“Yeah?  Watch me.”

He slid in further till only his legs were out of the hatch.

“You need to get out of there, Brunner.”

“Go change your tampon. Do you want it or not?”

“You’re going to fall in, you dummy.”

“Put a lid on it.”


“I got it. I got it.”

Then, with a great bellow, he slipped down the hatch and disappeared except for one work boot hooked to the top rung of the ladder. I heard my sample bottle splash into the drinking water. There was a moment of silence.

“Help me, goddamn it,” Brunner’s voice echoed from below the hatch.

I admit it was satisfying.

I assessed the precarious geometry of Brunner’s person. He clung upside down against the ladder having grabbed one side rail with both hands. Only one boot was hooked to the top rung of the ladder; the other searched about for a foothold. With half his body blocking access, there was scant room to maneuver safely in the 30 inch square hatch.

I have no explanation for what happened next.

I stepped carefully, deliberately, to the edge of the hatch and grasped the ladder safety post. Then, I kicked his boot. One. Two. Three kicks. And Brunner tumbled into the tank in a violent tangle of limbs. He sank goggle eyed into the water and thrashed his way to the surface.

“You fucking bitch!” he screamed.

That was a very rude thing to say to me just then.

In a level tone, I reminded him, “I told you not to do that.”

“Help! I can’t swim, goddamn it!”

What an ironic deficiency for a water treatment plant employee. The guys constantly work around open tanks of water. And what if I did climb down there in an attempt to save him? The man was no feather, nor was he particularly docile. We could drown together in the municipal drinking water. While I contemplated my options, Brunner launched a frantic doggy paddle toward the ladder. Observing this, I realized that if Brunner got out of his predicament, he might accuse me of attempted murder. The furious determination on his face irked me. Very slowly, because I was still deciding what to do, I put the safety post down. Brunner saw this.  His eyes bulged with rage. He propelled himself out of the water and roared. I slammed the hatch and secured the padlock in the hasp.

Then I flew down the tank access tube, down the concrete support structure, without stopping at the resting platforms. My mind must have been churning as fast as my limbs because by the time I reached grade, I knew exactly what to do.

I proceeded to the control panel which housed the local controls and a remote telemetry unit for on-site monitoring and control of the water tank parameters. I disabled the high level switch and overflow alarm and raised the water distribution system pressure set point. My new set point would be communicated by radio telemetry to the supervisory control and data acquisition system back at the water plant. The finished water service pumps at the plant would automatically increase production and fill the tank to a higher level to meet the high pressure set point, like a home thermostat turns up a furnace. It was Tiny’s shift in water plant central control room; he’d either be snoozing or gorging on a cheesesteak. I knew I was good.

It took an eternity for the water level to rise. I crossed to the opposite side of the concrete column and put my ear to the overflow pipe till I heard the water flow over the weir, into the standpipe, and down the drain line. Then I waited for the longest half hour of my life before returning the settings to normal.

I thought about climbing back to the top of the tank to make sure it was over. Maybe I would even jump in the tank and pretend I had tried to save Brunner. But what if I opened the hatch to find his livid face snarling at me? Stubborn bastard might have reached the ladder, climbed it to the top, stuck his face into the air space above the overflow weir, and hung on. I decided to go back to the water plant. I felt drained.

*     *     *

After the body was found, amidst the chaos surrounding the water service disruption, I called Hope into my office. I took out my calendar and pointed to the fateful day.

“Hope, where were you the day Bob Brunner disappeared?”

Her eyes popped. She shuddered and hugged herself.

“Oh gee, I’m not sure, but I’m sure I must have been here. Only, sorry, because I’m always here.”

“That’s right! You and I spent the whole day working on the water quality sampling plan together. Remember?”

The silly creature clapped her hands.

“Right. I remember now.”

“And we had trouble budget-wise, and we had to scale back. Which was hard. Because we wanted to do everything. But we couldn’t. It took us all day to work it out.”

“Yes, oh yes.”

“I just wanted to be sure. They might ask us. So are we sure?”


I knew a girl like Hope would come in handy.

The plant workers who lied to me about Brunner’s whereabouts came in for heavy questioning. They were driven to the station in police cars and grilled for hours. The guys returned to work ashen, shaken. I guess they won’t be trying to fool me again anytime soon.

Hope and I had our story solid. But the cursory questioning made plain that we were never suspects. Nobody thought to review the data that was automatically logged in our computer database recording the operational history of every piece of equipment, instrument, and sensor in our system. Why would they? It would be over their heads.

No doubt past scuffles with Brunner’s drunken binges colored the police department’s perceptions. The investigation wrapped in less than a week. Brunner’s death was ruled a rogue accident.

When water plant operations returned to normal, I made a site visit to Maud Wiggins’ home to take a sample from her tap for follow up testing. As I drove past the water tank, I averted my eyes. Navel gazing is not my thing. Honestly? Until now, I never thought about the accident, except in nightmares which, regrettably, I cannot control.

Maud opened the door with a puss on. She nagged me until I apologized for not listening to her in the first place. She was right, I was wrong. The concession was not enough to silence her.

“Do I have to pay my water bill?”

“Mrs. Wiggins, I will personally see to it that you get a break on your water bill.”

“Good,” she said, aiming a bony finger to my chest. “Because it’s all your fault.”

Suddenly, a hot flush burned my cheeks. Turning my face away from Maud, I found myself staring square at the water tank looming outside her kitchen window. From this vantage point, I could barely make out the railing on the top. Could an old bat like Maud Wiggins possibly have witnessed the incident from such a faraway distance through her smudged windows?

I faced her. I despised everything about Maud Wiggins: her sour odor, her vellum skin, her cottony patches of hair, her scrawny neck quivering with loose skin folds from chin to clavicle. A notion flooded over me. Nobody cared about her. How simple it would be to wrap my hands around that brittle neck and throttle it shut.


Author Bio:

 Annabelle Kim‘s debut novel, Tiger Pelt, to be published this summer, was awarded the Kirkus Star and named to Kirkus Reviews’ Best Books of 2015. Kim minored in English Literature at MIT and studied in the MIT Writing Program. Her previous writing has won contests sponsored by WritersType and Writer’s Billboard. Her short fiction piece “ICBM” appeared in the 2015 Kelsey Review issue.

The Beautiful Accident

by Ed Carmien

Every time Hana walked past the old Hyundai hybrid that nearly filled the small space behind the house, she remembered her father driving to the NKJ plant when she was younger. He had a better car now, all electric. The old hybrid had a bad muffler, and the engine smoked, too. She wrinkled her nose against the memory of the oil stink. Now that her father was a shift supervisor he left for work almost before she woke up for school, and when he came home he was too tired to help with her projects in the shed.

Hana ran her fingers along the faded plastic side of the car. The surface was smooth beneath the grit. The door to the shed opened without a sound. Hana waited for the light to come on, just a moment’s pause while the little sun-powered light decided how many watts it could provide to the bulbs. Impatiently, she flipped open the lid and overrode the programming, and the lights came on all the way. She snorted under her breath at the conservative algorithm that operated the sun-light. It had been one of her first projects in the shed. “Appa,” she’d said, “it is too dark to see.”

“Then you shall make a light, Hana da,” he’d replied, touching her briefly on the side of the head as he liked to do.

Hana let the old network terminal sit quietly. She’d salvaged it from a neighbor when she was ten, found the problem that had made it go dark. For a year it had provided a welcome diversion. Her favorite had been the technology group she’d joined using her Appa’s ID, but eventually she’d asked the wrong question once too often. Suspecting she was not Changeun Park, they shunned her. Unseen and unheard by others, all Hana could do then was watch.

Her current project was spread out on the work table, photo-electric pads and obsolete fiber-optic cables and an old bit of circuitry the size of her ID card, just smart enough to remember and execute instructions from her ped. Out of her pocket came four small magnets. She’d rescued them from the refrigerator. With a bit of glue she attached them to her project.

It should work. Before being ignored by the technology group she’d explained what she wanted to try. They’d told her it was a childish idea, it couldn’t work, wouldn’t work, that she’d be silly to carry out the experiment. One patient member had tried to explain about magnetism, about the spin of electrons and the charge of protons (or was it neutrons?), about the impossibility of lifting yourself off the ground by grabbing onto your boots and pulling, about gravity. The Earth’s magnetic field was a million times too weak! One had admitted she had an interesting way of applying electricity to magnets—using fiber optic cable and a photon converter was far from the most efficient way, but using copper would cause problems for her magnets.

Hana didn’t understand all of the things she’d been told, but she didn’t think anything she’d heard meant her idea wouldn’t work. She knew about magnetism, had made a special study about it for a school project, had missed part of gym class cleaning up the mess she’d made with the iron filings. Hana loved the double halo a magnet made, invisible to the eye but beautiful nonetheless, loved the process of tricking the magnet with electricity to change that halo into something with teeth.

Before she could plug in current, the radio crackled. That had been a project, too, made from an old radio and the monitor her parents had used to listen to her breathing when she was a baby.

“Hana? Hana, come inside now.” As always, there was a bite behind her mother’s voice, a little bit of frustration that her daughter was out in the shed, playing at being a boy.

Trying not to feel rushed, Hana connected the power. The fiber optic cable lit up. The small screen on the circuit board displayed the binary code for “functioning.” But the magnets didn’t twitch, didn’t move a centimeter.

Hana sighed. More study, to see what had gone wrong, would have to wait. It was time to leave for Mt. Naejangsan.


Hana waved at Chisato, their maid. She was smiling, for once, her narrow Japanese face almost pretty. Hana knew Chisato was smiling because she would have the house to herself until the end of the week and would probably have her friends from Seoul visit. Hana didn’t think they needed a maid, but her mother did, and besides all the NKJ managers hired maids for their families. Her father pulled out into the street, the car silent except for the sound of gravel under the tires. Her mother did not wave at Chisato. Hana knew it had to do with Great-Grandmother, and an old war with the Japanese. It seemed too long to hold a grudge to Hana, and besides, having to work as a maid to send money home to bankrupt Japan seemed punishment enough.

She turned herself around in her seat and pulled out her ped. It was a long drive to the park. Hana imagined how much more fun it would be to fly to Mt. Naejangsan, to see the brown ridges and dark grey rock from high in the sky. By the time the car left the tightly packed houses and apartment buildings and entered the farmlands framed in gentle curves she was deep into a twenty-year old text about physics she’d copied from the network. It was in English, but with her ped she could make sense of it. Her parents chattered about how much cleaner the air was now than when they were younger, leaving her to the ped and her project.

Hana drew diagrams with her stylus and tried to guess what she had missed with her model. When the car pulled up to the little cabin at the foot of the mountain, she was sure what she would do next, if she could find the parts.

“Hana!” her mother scolded as she started listing what she would need on her ped. “Come help with the luggage. We are here! Isn’t it beautiful?”

“Yes, Umma,” Hana replied. She needed to scoot fast when she heard that tone. Her ped had been confiscated more than once, and she didn’t want that to happen again.

The week passed quickly. There was nothing Hana could do to work on her project. She particularly liked hiking with her father, who over the days of their vacation lost the haunted look he’d worn since being promoted to supervisor at the plant. “Appa,” she’d say, then ask him a question that would help her with her list of parts.

Finally, he laughed. As big as she was he grabbed her by the waist and picked her up. Her braids swung down into his face as he peered at her. “What are you up to, Hana da? Do you need more toys for your projects in the shed?”

“Project,” she almost told him, but held her tongue. It was then she knew what she really wanted. She wanted him to join her in the shed for projects, like in the old days. He would bring home bits and pieces from the NKJ plant and they’d find uses for it, or stow it away for later. Sometimes he brought home broken things, and they fixed them together, first finding the problem and then figuring a way to work around it. Her favorite remained the robot hand that held her coat in her room. It understood the words “hold this” and “let go.” Sometimes while talking on the phone in her room her coat would fall on the floor, and she’d realize the robot hand had heard her say “let go.”

“Yes,” she said, laughing as he finally put her back on her feet. They were in a stand of pine. Down below was their cabin. They’d climbed so high on this hike the roofs were tiny squares. They would have to go back soon or risk walking home in the dark.

“Well, what do you need?”

Hana had thought hard about how to make this request. She didn’t understand why he liked the old Hyundai so much. It was up on concrete blocks and hadn’t run for years. Even when it had been running, the engine had been rough and loud, and it burned oil. The batteries had lost some of their ability to hold a charge, too.

“Well, I need some big batteries, and some big magnets.”

He frowned. “We don’t have those sorts of things at the plant….”

Long ago she’d learned to let him think out loud.

“Oh,” he finally said. “Let us begin walking home. Mother will have some dinner for us.”

Hana was very hungry when they walked up to the cabin, where the lights were already burning in the deepening dusk. The smell of rice and something else came from the windows, and she felt her stomach growl. “What is that, Appa?”

“Your Umma has made kalbi as a treat, Hana,” he told her. Grinning, he raced her to the door.

“Jiyoung, Hana here has a project in mind, back home,” her father said after the food was in their bowls, rice next to short pork ribs still steaming from the gas grill.

Her mother narrowed her eyes. “Yes?”

“She would find parts of the car useful. Since it does not run any more….”

“Oh,” said her mother. “Well.”

Hana watched her father pat her mother on the hand. What was it about that car?

“Don’t you think it would be appropriate for Hana to make something out of that old car?”

“Make something?” Her mother grinned. “Yes, it would. So long as she does not make something in the car, please.” Her parents both laughed, and her father gripped Umma’s hand across the small table.

“There will be no accidents,” he said, and they laughed even more, saying together as if rehearsed, “yes, no beautiful accidents.” They looked at Hana with these words.

She realized she’d been holding her breath in anticipation. “So I can use the parts?” she blurted out. Hana nearly always understood her parents, making small moments of mystery such as this curl her toes with frustration.

Her parents laughed some more at their little joke. Picking up their slim metal chopsticks, they nodded. Later, Hana marked off two important items from the list on her ped.


Back home, she heaved the last of the luggage into the house and ran to the shed. After a full week of charging and no use at all, the sun-light did not hesitate to make the bulbs nice and bright. On the work table sat her project. The magnets hadn’t lifted. The field was too weak, just as everyone had said.

Her father’s voice made her jump with surprise. “So this is the new project?”

Hana nodded.

“What does it do?”

She hesitated. Ever since the members of the group had told her it was impossible, she hadn’t told anyone what the project was supposed to do.

“You can tell me, Hana da,” he touched the side of her head.

“It should fly.” She almost whispered the words. “It should, but it doesn’t yet.”

Because he was her father, he did not laugh. “I see,” he said, and glanced at the network terminal.

“Did you know,” he said, looking serious, “that someone used my ID to join a NKJ discussion on the network? Whoever it was spoke about making a flying machine out of magnets.”

Hana’s legs wobbled. The technology group had been NKJ?

“When they asked me about it at the plant, naturally I said I hadn’t joined the group. It is all engineers and researchers, not a place for a supervisor, like me.”

She felt tears appear in her eyes. “I am sorry,” she said, and hated her voice for quavering. “I did not know it was people from your company.”

He raised his hand and she quailed, thinking he would hit her, but he only laughed and clapped her on the shoulder. “The funny part is it took them three months to catch you, Hana da. Three months! Those are the egg-heads with big degrees, they figure out what the plant should make. But Hana, please understand, you are only 12 years old. There are many things for you to learn in school, and at a university if you wish. If this does not work, well, it is not because you are not smart.”

She nodded and wiped the tears from her face. Hana wasn’t sure what felt worse, that she’d been caught, or that he’d known all along what she’d been doing with his ID and hadn’t told her.

I will make it work, Hana told herself. I will make it work.


Every day after school but before her chores Hana worked on her flying machine project. She was so sure she would find the fault in the model that she began taking the parts out of the Hyundai. The batteries came first, after a stern lecture from her father about the perils of electric current. The rear seat was a mess when she was done, but she removed  the heavy cells safely. After reading about reconditioning such old batteries on her ped, Hana followed the directions and finished by putting them on a trickle charge from the same panel that ran her sun-light.

The magnets were much harder. The car was equipped with a regenerative braking system that used magnets. Hana got herself very dirty pulling off the wheels and fiddling with the brake systems. Her father brought her tools from work, and even spent one happy evening helping her use a laser torch to cut a few cast metal components apart.

Every day, she fiddled with her model, but nothing helped. The magnetic field was simply too weak for the magnets to catch hold, no matter what tricks she used. Hana wired and rewired the little magnets, and she tweaked the control software that fed power to them. It would not fly, much less float.

Hana knew she was on the right course. If she held the top of the model and turned on the current the weight in her hand decreased dramatically. It was almost holding itself up. That alone was something the people on her father’s technology group discussion had said was impossible.


It was at the store that Hana realized what she was doing wrong. Her mother took her shopping in the vain hope she would learn some of the tricks of keeping house. “You are too much like your father, always fiddling with things,” her mother said.

“Yes, Umma,” Hana replied, like she always did.

The store reminded Hana of America, the America one saw on TV and on the network. Just a few years ago they had shopped on a market street where the goods were cheaper. She still remembered the noise and the crowds with a smile. This store was brightly lit, and everything was shiny and new. The floor was polished, the chrome-edged shelves full of foods she recognized and foods that came from far away. At the new store there were no food vendors with gas-fired woks selling rice rolls or minced beef dumplings, though sometimes there were samples of those things set out on round plastic trays.

They didn’t taste nearly so good as they had at the open market.

It was the clerk who startled Hana into thinking of her problem in a new way. She was a tiny person, wizened and gray, and hardly taller than Hana herself. One of the little people, she realized, from the north. Her mother had explained the little people to her once. They had been starved in the old times, before the country came together again. Not enough food kept them from growing as they should, and so they were tiny, little people, especially the old ones.

Her magnets needed more food. What could give it to them? They needed to be farther apart on the cable. Hana stood, dazed with the revelation, until her mother snapped at her to help with the bags.

Once home she could hardly stop herself from rushing to the shed. First she helped put away the groceries, then she helped Chisato with the laundry. Hana straightened her room without being asked and quietly went to the shed.

She cut a longer strand of fiber-optic cable, and transferred the other elements of her model to it. She was so eager her hands shook.

“Hana! Dinner!” It had gotten dark without her noticing. Hana went inside and ate her meal, then sat patiently while her parents finished. She worked her toes back and forth within her shoes with frustration. Fidgeting was not allowed, but no one could see her toes. At times like this, she remembered that in English TOE meant Theory Of Everything, that and other details from the books she’d read swam through her mind, keeping her calm while the seconds crawled by.

Back in the shed she finished assembling her new model. Closing her eyes, Hana connected the current. She heard a rustling sound from the table. Grinning, she opened her eyes.

Rising from the tabletop nearly to the shining bulbs of her sun-light, her model stood straight and tall, tugging against the power cord that held it in place. The cable was vertical, shining with a deep blue light. The magnets, swathed in copper wire, were spaced like beads on a necklace from the top to the bottom, where the power lead joined the circuit board.

Hana wanted to shriek with relief, with joy. It had worked! By placing the magnets farther apart they had more lines of magnetic force to “pinch.” Enough pinches, and they appeared to grab onto the air, holding themselves and the rest of the flying machine apparatus erect.

She wanted to dance and sing and yell and scream, but Hana did none of these things. She wouldn’t be done until she could fly, until she could show her father that her machine worked. There were things to prove, measurements to be made, software to write for her ped, which she would use as a controller. There were things to scrounge, starting with four hundred meters of industrial fiber-optic cable, the clear-shelled kind because that would be pretty.

“Hana da?” came her father’s voice over the radio. She panicked for a quick moment. A loud click came over the radio. “Hana da, it is time for bed.” Hana breathed in and out twice to calm herself.

“Yes Appa,” she said, voice level and even.  Hana unplugged the project, but it floated for a few seconds before falling limp into her waiting hand. “Strange,” she said to the empty shed.


It rose with such a jerk Hana was glad she’d taken the time to attach not one but two shoulder belts to the seat from the Hyundai. They crossed her chest and made her feel secure even as the wind rushed down upon her. It wasn’t until she reduced the current without changing her rate of ascent that Hana felt for a moment that she was drowning in fear. Her hands reached for the seat belt releases by instinct—if she could not stop, she must jump. The yawning sky surrounded her. Anything would be better than being lost in the clouds.

Thumbs poised over the orange-red release buttons, Hana forced herself to stop, to think. She’d hoped for a short test flight, just a quick rise to fifty meters, close enough to shout for her Appa to hear and come stumbling out upon the driveway to stare into the sky, see her dangling below the fiber optic cable. That wasn’t going to happen. Why not? Work the problem, she heard her Appa say, his hand touching her lightly on the side of her head.

Looking down, she saw rooftops the size of tiny squares and remembered her father say how high they had climbed that day on Mt. Naejangsan—two kilometers.

Checking her ped, she saw barely a minute had passed, and still she rose, the air pounding down upon her so hard she struggled to breathe. Her ped could check both the old American and the new Chinese positioning systems and both said she was higher than two kilometers and moving at more than 100 KPH. Her ped was out of range of the house network, and just for a moment she felt a flash of anger her Umma had not allowed her to upgrade it to a real phone.

Working the problem had not saved her, but Hana felt no fear. A lean exultation gripped her. She was probably going to die. That was sad. Appa would not see her fly. That was also sad. Then she heard her father’s voice tell her that “probably” was not science, data was science and maybe Hana should record some data. Dying for no reason would not only be sad, it would be stupid, so she went back to work, cradling her ped between her legs while the wind howled around her.

Another minute passed as she calculated the variables of her observations, and then another as she called forth the notes from the meteorology project she’d completed the previous year. One of the screens she clicked past suggested that if left to the whim of the winds she would drift across the ocean to North America before moving south to cross the ocean again—that was the fast wind pattern. If she was not found and recovered for years, she would end up moving north to the pole as part of the slow great cycle. Hana shook her head to clear it of such thoughts and spent another fifteen seconds querying her encyclopedia about the height of Mt. Chomolungma.

“Shit,” she said, the English word springing from her lips from somewhere she couldn’t imagine. Hana winced. “Sorry, Umma.” Mt. Chomolungma was the only mountain she knew that required oxygen to climb to the very top, and at the rate of her ascent she’d be approximately nine kilometers into the troposphere within minutes. Working on the terms of the problem had calmed her, at least. Even so, a grim feeling was in the pit of her stomach.

The air blasting down upon her was frigid, but Hana guessed she would pass out before she froze to death. She gave one minute to finding a solution to her dilemma. Even setting the power to “off” didn’t change a thing, and it was then she smiled despite the knives of frost she felt digging into her face. “I found something new,” she said, and the exultant feeling warmed her for a moment. The shape of the puzzle appeared vaguely in her mind. Controlled passage of photons through a strong electromagnetic field—Einstein, she remembered, and gravitons? Hana felt a pang of regret that she would not live to unravel the last mystery. Time to record her data.

Hands nearly immobile, Hana managed a few quick notes on her ped before her head reeled and her gasps for air made it impossible to write. Hands shaking, fingers clumsy, she tucked the ped inside her light jacket. With her project data hard-saved on her ped, someone, someday would solve the puzzle. The glowing fiber-optic line would be impossible to miss, and she trusted her father to look in the proper place, the air, when he discovered her project was no longer in the tiny yard, coiled like a dragon between the shed and the house. Even if she were lost forever, he would find her project notes on the shed terminal.

Narrowing her eyes against the blast, she looked up at the glowing vertical line that stretched above her, a beautiful accident pointing at the darkening blue sky. The seat swayed from side to side, and at the edge of each arc she could see all the way up the 400 meters of glowing cable, see each of the magnets from the Hyundai. There was an eerie deep blue glow around each one. Fighting the shivers that raced through her like minnows in a barrel, Hana pulled out her ped and aimed it skyward to take a picture of the phenomenon. Evidence of what it looked like, if nothing else, should the effect wear off.

Ped safely zipped away once more, Hana felt the shivers ease. She knew that should she rise high enough the air would warm again. A wave of dizziness swept her, and she closed her eyes. The darkness behind her lids expanded, and she forgot the pain in her chest, the cold fire on her cheeks. Now that she was done with her ped, Hana wondered what it would be like to die. She hadn’t left a personal note on it, she realized. Hana hoped—knew—that Appa would know her discovery, this strange new force, was her message. A tear, feeling hot for just a moment at the corner of her eye, froze on her face. She could not return home, but news of her project would. The noise of her passage ebbed away and soon all Hana could hear was her heart, each lub-lub coming more slowly than the last.

Hana felt warm, and she smiled.


Author Bio:

Ed Carmien is a writer and academic. His story “The Beautiful Accident” won first prize in the professional division of the Heinlein Centennial’s writing contest in 2007, and he’s pleased the Kelsey Review accepted it to be seen by a wider audience. He’s a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) and more can be found about him at