My Grandmother and a Bottle of Chardonnay

One glass.

She asked me how I expect school to go.

Two glasses.

She held my hand and told me she gets a feeling about me,

“A feeling that says you’re going to do great things,” she hummed.

Three glasses.

She pulled ivory statuettes off the shelf and tried giving them to me.

I declined.

She placed them in my hands anyways.

Four glasses.

She begged me to pick something from her shelves.

“I’m downsizing,” she said,

but I thought she was embracing

her death too soon.

Five glasses.

Her hands shook as she removed a

gravy boat from the shelf.

“Your mother and I used to be friends, once,” she said.

“So were we,” I answered.

The chandelier buzzed over our heads.

Six glasses.

She placed her chin in her palm,

her blue eyes staring into mine,

and said, “You were made to be loved.

Women were made to be loved.

You’re going to spend your entire life wanting to be loved.

I hope you’ll be loved by the right person.”

Seven glasses.

We started cooking dinner,

laughter bouncing off the ceiling

and reverberating in our ears.

Lemon juice splashed onto the counter

and tomato sauce stained the yellowed linoleum.

The bottle of Chardonnay tipped over,

pooling around the ivory statuettes.

Hello Again

Sorry for not publishing any work on here lately. My pathetic excuses are that over the summer I was out of the country and senior year has been whipping my ass. There will soon be some work published on here, as it is a new year and I have vowed to publish my work more often as a resolution. I’m also in a new class of writers, and I’m excited to share their work with you.

Thanks,
Hannah

Traitorous Veins by Lizzie Kearney

My fingers clutch the white sheets dangling off the cot, but despite my best effort I don’t have enough strength to hold and they slip away. Fire ignites my nerves as pain spirals it’s way up my beaten body. I shudder trying to rid myself of the agony, but it stokes the inferno. The rustling awakes a figure slumped over in the distressed chair situated in the corner.  His emerald eyes pierce my own and I’m taken back at how gaunt he seems.  Dark circles sag under his brow and his pink lips are chewed and worn, set in a grim line. Stubble coats his lower jaw and his pale shorn hair is sticking up every which way as if he’s torn his hand through it a thousand times.

            “Sean,” I croak, my voice wary from days of misuse. He blinks at me. “What are you doing here?” Sean shifts, clearing his throat. He appears uncomfortable.

            “Uhh…how, how are you?” I raise my brow at him and glance down my body before my eyes flit back to his face. A blush creeps up his neck, flooding his cheeks with color.

 “Right, right dumb question…” An awkward silence pursues his voice. I sigh, amazed at the change in the atmosphere. In my mind, a picture emerges, a camera angle peering at us from the outside:  a boy accompanies a girl wrapped in gauze and decorated in a rainbow of bruising and blood, the two sit separated, one not quite sure what to say to the other.

Only the constant beep on the monitors breaks through the noiseless barrier. The insanity of the stillness spikes my core, as if needles were piercing my skin. I have to ask him or the suspense will render me incapable of thought. The words burst from the tip of my tongue before I can resist.

            “Did you tell her?” Sean immediately snaps his eyes close and utters a grunt. His nose scrunches in tight concentration and he presses fisted fingers to his lips. He’s in despair and I pity the mess I made of him. I fiddle with the material my body lies limp in. “I’m taking that as a no…” I trail off.

            “Charlie, I tried. I…” He inhales a shaky breath. “We can’t do that to her. After all she’s already lost?” He begs for me to understand and I do. I get it, in the logical part of my brain and I’m scolding myself for screwing this whole thing up. But there is this doubtful little voice that nags, demanding attention. It demands that I stand up for this, for us, for something that might be salvable. It’s cutting me right down the middle.

I open my mouth to explain to Sean that I can’t forget that night, those words given to him by Jack Daniel, the ones he swore he’d stowed away for the sake of us all. He stares warily at me from the hospital chair, watching my thoughts flash across my face and shaking his head in a silent plea to not give him what we both want to hear.

The moment is shattered by the sudden pop of my door and Rachel, who swoops down to wrap what she can of me into her arms. Tears swim in her eyes and she holds back choking sobs. I try a smile on for size and pray it’s enough to disguise the turmoil broiling inside my body.

Voices whisper while she’s my sister in every way except one I can’t let her have this, that I’m in this position because I made a hasty exit to escape her wrath, that while it’s her husband sitting in the chair, Sean’s my everything. I don’t let her see the anguish they cause me, the secrets we’re keeping from her. I don’t let her see that I’m in love with him.

Running Raucous by Lizzie Kearney

Voices in the aisle invade my privacy. The company surprises me, considering the farmhands were called to lunch a half hour ago. One of the voices carries a northern lilt that rolls over my skin like a late day thunderstorm, pulling at the hairs on the back of my neck.

            I stilled the hose against my palm, straining to catch the direction of their conversation. Marlboro stomped her hoof, irritated at the disruption of her bath.

            “It’s been over forty-eight hours Jeremy. I thought you were capable.”

            “Evelyn’s been killing us with the workload, I’m managing alright? I just need a few more weeks.”

            “I don’t have a few more weeks, Jer- she’s almost stumbled across the truth twice already, I can’t afford to have another mishap. Two more days is all I can give you.”

            “What if I-“

            “There are no if’s, you’ve got no other option.” The discussion crumbles and silence returns to the barn isle. Blood pounds against my veins and my heart threatened to burst from my chest; the vague conversation has sparked my paranoia. Marlboro nips at the sleeve of my sweatshirt, reminding me that I’ve got work to finish. I wave off the voices; my anxiety was causing me to associate every moment with our situation. I was concerned over nothing.

            I flip the nozzle on the hose; the cool water gushing from the spout chills my skin. I run the stream over the paint mare’s back, attempting to replicate the movements Eli showed me. The water runs rivulets down her fur and drips onto the concrete. The pitter-patter of droplets reminds me of rain drumming against the window of my room back in Seattle on a lazy Sunday afternoon and I hum along to the beat.

            The soft snorts of the other horses are calming as I watch the sweat and grime disappear from the swirl of Marlboro’s fur. The mare stands patiently as I pull the scraper across her chest and stomach, winging water off her frame. As I reach towards her neck, Marlboro’s ears flick forward and her nostrils flare.

            My body slams against the cement of the wash stall, the impact rattling my teeth. A figure looms in front of me with a hat pulled low over their face but from the uniform adorning their body it must be a cowhand.

            “What the hell man, get off!”  I shove at their arms pinning me to the wall but they don’t budge. “Whatever I did, I’m sorry. I’m new here; I don’t know the pecking order.” I’m squirming, trying to free myself from the manacle grip on my biceps. “I don’t even know you!” I aim a kick at him, but he swings his hips in time to dodge my assault. Marlboro is dancing around the stall, pulling at her ties as she tries to escape the confrontation.

            The stranger lets out a snort of amusement, his chuckle transforming my blood to ice. It’s deep and ominous as it pierces my memory. He tips his chip up allowing me a glance beneath the brim of his hat. My stomach hollows as my eyes widen in recognition.

            “Aaron.”         

            “That’s right darlin’ didn’t think I’d be seeing you around these parts.” The northern accent clashes with the southern phrasing. I open my mouth to scream, but Aaron slaps his gloved hand over my lips. Aaron sneers at me and I grimace at his proximity. He reeks of stale beer, sweat, and manure. “I wouldn’t. The only person out here who even considers you anything close to a priority is Eli and I have a feeling if you call him over here, you’re going to be greatly disappointed.”

            My eyebrows shit in confusion. He smirks. “I have ties to him you can’t cut, they lie in the vein.” He slides a finger up the crease of my arm and I jerk from his touch. “You should know about that, what with your brother. Oh, and here’s the kicker: you’ve got another blood relative don’t you? A father all the way up in Washington.” Unease threads its way under my skin and my heart beats in a frantic rhythm.

            “Dammit.” I mutter from underneath his glove.

            “What was that? Couldn’t catch it.” Aaron lifts the glove from my mouth. I shoot him a glare.

            “First off, I’ve already told you, we’re from Wyoming. Not Washington. Second, I don’t what father you’re talking about. Third, you don’t have the right to address anything concerning my brother. Why are you even here?” Aaron slams my back into the wall again, ramming the back of my head against the cement. A sharp pain spreads and I grit my teeth against it. My ears ring as my eyes water, trying to process blurry vision. Marlboro paws at the floor, impatience agitating her body.

            “Don’t lie to me, it’s really not in your best interest. But if you must know, I’m here for pay, a certain family connection guarantees cushy living.”

            “I know you’re not here on Evelyn’s account.”

            “Sweetheart, it’s not really any of your business whose account I’m on.” Aaron pulls a cigarette from his pocket, but his grip on my bicep never loosens and the eye he keeps on my feet alerts me that he’s as well aware of any chance of escape as I am.  The cigarette dangles from his lips as he grins at me, a captive in his sinister embrace.

            “You’re here for Eli, aren’t you?” Aaron considers this for moment, his ebony eyes lighting with something resembling distain.

            “My brother and I don’t see on the same scale, and I assure you he’s harboring some feeling for you and even your brother that I would have to work around. If I need him, I’ll fetch him. But in the meantime, I’ve got a decent pawn right here.” Aaron sizes me up, looping his free hand through his belt buckle. I eye him, trying to sift through the information.

            “Bullshit.” I snarl.

            “Well I mean, I really can’t impose your free will, that’s unconstitutional…But I’m not against taking a life if there’s a reward that makes it worth its while.” He leans beside my ear, until his body is flush with mine and I thrash. Aaron squeezes my wrist till I cease, crying out in pain. “And from what I’ve heard, the names Chastity and Chance Williamson cash in at ten grand.”

            I can’t hold in the gasp at his comment. Aaron’s face glows with the realization that he’s hit home plate. I’m defenseless and he knows it. “Funny what you said about lying, considering that’s all that you can do to stay alive.”  His words are blows to my conscious, chipping away at my armor. I fall limp as he releases my wrists and stalks off. My back slides against the wall until I’m slumped onto the gritty floor, water seeping through the seat of my jeans. Marlboro dances around me, her slim legs carrying her above my despair as my world crashes down around me.

Chalk Street by Lizzie Kearney

The idea that we’d

grow up anything

but together

blew my mind.

 

The idea that my

driveway

would be a place

to smoke dope

rather than

stare at sidewalk chalk

cities

 

seemed more than improbable

but rather impossible.

 

Yet, it’s one of the rare frosty

summer nights

and my feet are planted on

either side of the Jose Cuervo.

And you’re watching

from across the

street

as I lie to a boy

who will

die within the week.

 

The idea that

we’d be anything but

innocent

never ceases to

amaze me.

The Personal Failures of an English Major by Aidan Ziliak

Jalen had always found the dichotomy of the Louisville bus system fascinating. Tight, dirty seats and cheap fare were the Great Equalizers.  Dickensian drunkards and white-collar stiffs shared bus seats, neither happy with the arrangement, but content in the discomfort they brought one another.  Technical-school phlebotomists and salaried graphic artists almost joined hands and sang Kumbaya in unison when the bus would crest a curb.

While the walls of the bus brought those in its belly closer together, it enveloped and quarantined them from the wider, outside city. The smudged windows blurred pedestrians into caricatures – no longer human, but vague emotion.  The sun, when it could be bothered to creep below the eaves of the skyscrapers above them, would highlight his face in the glass, a reverse mirror of the outside world looking in – but he hated seeing his reflection.

H e couldn’t shake the anger in the pit of his stomach when he saw it. There was a hole in his chest that gaped just a millimeter wider at the sight of himself, every time focusing on some other minute detail of his countenance – the slope of his cheekbones, the slight swirl in his hairline, or the fullness of his lips. As they passed beyond the late-afternoon skyscraper shadows, his visage faded from view in the window, replaced by the grassy lots and overgrown front stoops of his childhood.

There, on Jefferson County Communal Playground, on the monkey bars, he had broken his first bone; his left shin. The missing bar that had brought him to his knees that day was still missing.  They had painted over the flaking red of his childhood, though, in ‘earthy’ tones of green and brown.  His anger was forgotten, left to rot somewhere between his spleen and his appendix, as another sense took its place – this one of anticipation, and memory, and nostalgia, and a love so deep it can’t be called love any more, but incontrovertible truth.

His roommate senior year at UC Berkeley lived just across the state border, in Oregon, and went home every holiday. Over a 2 a.m. study break at the McDonald’s two blocks over from the townhouse they shared, his roommate confessed to nearly breaking down in tears every time he returned home, even though it was only a five hour drive there and back.  Jalen hadn’t known what to expect on his own return.  He wasn’t feeling particularly weepy at the moment, but six years was a long time.

There, on that bench next to the bus stop with the upside-down sign, he would sit on the late summer days when the air was so thick fans would slow to a crawl and do his homework. The tips of his fingers rubbed together in the memory of the pencil stubs he would write with until only the metal tip remained.  The city had replaced the old, open concrete bench with a shiny, new metal one, covered with an overhang advertising for ‘Checks Ca$hed Now!’, however.

There, under that streetlamp, he had watched Elijah, fifteen to his own twelve, begin to abandon their family as he joined one of his own, with a self-aggrandizing oath and a cigarette burn. There, by that fire hydrant, he had watched from across the street, not daring to raise his reedy voice in protest as his brother was broken and carried off under hard and inscrutable blue eyes. There –

The bus driver hit the brakes too late; the bus slid a few feet past its stop, all squealing axels and burning rubber. Propelled by inertia, its passengers fell forward as one, once again bonded in camaraderie, this time a well-developed sense of loathing towards the bus driver and his ilk, to whom the usage of the brake pedal was only an occasional nuisance.  Jalen composed himself before grabbing his meagre luggage.

Jalen took a moment to draw back in the scenery. Each plot of land was wide, made wider by the small size of each house.  Lawns, some brown and dead, watered by beer and piss, decorated by leaden children’s toys; alternated with green like Crayola watercolors, under the heavy boughs of hundred-year trees.  The neighborhood was more proud than it was rich, and more poor than it was proud.  Old foundations rotted, the already-low houses sagging even closer to the dirt.  Muted colors shared space with bare, peeling wood.  Generations of Tom Sawyer summers had left many a fence languishing under an inch of whitewash.

Soon enough he came upon one facade, indistinct when selected from its neighbors and peers, front lawn green but not luxuriant, front porch mat welcoming but frayed, that nevertheless gave him pause. He turned, facing up the front walk, and stared – stared at the wonderfully familiar deck chairs, the peeling lawn gnome, the stained Virgin Mary on the front step, the cracks in the sidewalk that the neighborhood girls would draw over with chalk when they would play hopscotch, the dim warm glow from inefficient light bulbs that filled the front window.

“Jalen! Is that you?  Why you just standing there, come on in!”  The same dim warm glow now outlined the thick curls of Momma like a chocolate Mrs. Claus, smelling of Saturday supper and Sunday church, leaning out the window, calling him in like nothing had changed since the days in which she would call him in after a long day of play, smacking his knuckles when he’d reach for a little nibble of that night’s dinner.  

“Coming, Momma.” Jalen pushed open the screen door – noting where it peeled back, frayed and thin – and stepped into a memory of a dream.  The same pictures still sat on the small table under which they would keep their shoes.  The same throw rug filled their sitting room, from the same fat armchairs (now a little lower and a little wider) to the same boxy television.  She had changed the curtains – once a soft yellow, they were now a white, lacy and voluminous.  To his right, the hallway led to the same kitchen with the same off-white tiles, a little cleaner than remembered, but still familiar under his soles.

He heard a small sniffle from Momma, above the cast-iron pot that was once as tall as he was, as he stepped into the kitchen. She turned, still stirring, bright-eyed but grinning, her thick cheeks bunched in the corners.  Before she could speak a word, Jalen smothered her in as big an embrace as he could manage. “It’s good to see you, baby,” Momma said into his collarbone.

When he pulled away, her eyes were hard. “Six years.  That’s six straight Thanksgivings, Christmases, Easters, and summers.”

“Momma! I called you every day!”

“Still coulda been in jail.” She pursed her lips and took him all in, from the damp shoe leaking onto the floor to the short twists bobbing around his head. Then she grinned, and grabbed him in another hug.

 “Is there anything I can do, Momma?” Jalen said, his eye on the little nicks and scrapes and burns on her hands.

“Yeah, you can get those dirty shoes out my kitchen. Didn’t they teach you manners at university?”  She laughed at his frown.

While stowing his shoes underneath the picture-table, he noticed another pair alongside his own – a man’s, they were old and worn, but not old in the fashion of older men. Straightening up brought him eye-level, for a moment, with a single picture that had been pushed forward.  Jalen remembered this particular picture; forced into a constricting bow tie and claustrophobic shiny black shoes alongside his brother. Years later, there was anger in his fist as he smashed the glass; the small cuts he had left in the picture itself remained still.  There were tears in Momma’s – as well as his – eyes when she saw what he had done.  He remembered the hiding he’d taken, without a sound, afterwards.  She’d repaired the glass in the intervening time.

In the kitchen again, shoeless, he peered over Momma’s shoulder. “Burgoo?” he inquired, after a deep sniff.

“Of course! I knew they wouldn’t feed you right –“ she ran her hand along his face, pretending to look for a cheek to pinch but finding nothing but bare bones – “out West, so I made something that’ll weigh you down enough you can’t leave.  Maybe then I can keep you here a while!”  Momma laughed at her little joke, but underneath the mirth, Jalen could sense a hurt – not a personal hurt, but a hurt nonetheless – that, maybe, drew on six years’ worth of lonely holidays while Jalen was burying himself in a book in the always-balmy California air.

Jalen smiled. “Did you get mutton?  You won’t get me to leave if that there’s mutton.”  Jalen winced, internally – without warning, he could feel his speech beginning to relapse into the “hick talk” he’d worked so hard to shed while ‘out West’, as Momma called it.

“How’d you guess? You been spying on me, child?”  Momma looked sideways at him.

“No, I saw an eyeball bobbing around in there.” Jalen danced away from her playful slap – he’d once showed her an episode of Man vs. Wild and she’d never forgiven him.

“Go drop your stuff off, and maybe, if you stop annoying me, supper’ll be done before midnight.” When he continued to dawdle about the kitchen, she rolled up a towel and chased him out.  

His room was as he had left it. Two twin beds, thin sheets pulled tight across the mattresses every morning.  Jalen pulled his tiny suitcase inside, tossing it on his bed.  As he left, in the half-light from the hallway, he noticed that the covers on the other bed – which was once his brother’s, but had been vacant for almost a decade – were properly folded, creased neatly, even on all sides.  His mother had refused to touch that bed, as if by leaving it exactly as it had been when Elijah had left, it would somehow draw him back.  She must’ve decided that enough was enough and made it up.

Momma set two bowls at the dinner table, one across from the other. Her head was already bowed when Jalen entered, and he dropped into his chair, hands clasped, in one movement.  If there was one thing Momma wouldn’t tolerate, it was messing up supper prayer.

“In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Hail Mary, full of grace –“ the front door slammed, and Jalen broke off.  Momma continued, louder now, her knuckles tightening their grip.

“Sorry I’m late, Momma, Shelly was late again to get Darnell. I know it’s not her job that’s keeping her, and it’s not my place to judge, but it’s getting to the point where I’m going to meet with her in person.  It’s not fair to Darnell, being the last kid there.  Are you eating already?”  Jalen heard, with ears disbelieving and angry, the thump of shoes being thrown off, the soft padding of thick socks, the voice – deeper, kinder, with better grammar and elocution – of a man that hadn’t been heard since Jalen was a teenager.

The man entered from Jalen’s left side. He was grinning.  Momma’s eyes were squeezed shut.  Jalen was frozen between his chair and outward explosion.  The grin faltered, eyes focused on the face before it.  Jalen and his brother locked eyes.  Momma’s prayer, quick and low and hoarse, trailed off.

“Elijah.” Jalen mouthed the name, but a cancerous lump in his throat plugged all noise.  The hole in his chest was plugged by a roiling betrayal.

“Jalen.” Elijah’s cocoa face was solemn.  Its eyes were deep, dark wells.   His skin was old, older than his twenty-nine years.  Then the grin broke out again; was that a droplet in the corner of his eye?  “It’s good to see you again.  You look so much like Dad.”

The lump in his throat melted like fat on the grill as fire rose in his gut. Jalen turned to Momma, a vein in his jaw jumping.  “You didn’t tell me he was out,” he said, accusation forking his tongue.

Elijah, still grinning, turned to Momma as well. “You didn’t tell me Jalen was coming home today.”

“Shut up,” Jalen barked. “Why is this asshole not still in jail?”

“Hey, Jalen, language!” Elijah took a step closer.  Jalen exploded out of his chair, palm outstretched, pushing into his brother.  His open hand clenched around Elijah’s shirt, drawing the two close.

“Don’t talk to me,” Jalen spat. He pushed his brother to the side and hurtled out of the kitchen, stopping at the front door to slip on his shoes.  As he did so, turning to leave, he caught a glimpse of his reflection on one of the picture frames.  He ran, now faster, from the house.  The face in the mirror was the same face he was trying to escape, back in the kitchen with Momma.

When the stitch had filled his ribcage and breath came hoarse and ragged in his throat, he stumbled to a halt. A bus stop bench breached the concrete, a wave floating in the thick air.  Jalen laid out on it, his feet dangling off the end, heels scraping the pavement below.  Sweat slid from the center of his forehead, down in rivulets through the cavity of his eye, sweat stinging at the corners, mingling with a softer liquid as it fell from the tip of his earlobe.  No stars were visible to him; the night laid its humid hand over his face, obscuring his sight.

His sentence had been twelve years. It was now twelve years since Jalen had forced himself into the too-small suit Momma bought for him at the courthouse, pulled from its plastic smelling of starch, and sat with his hands knotted in his lap as Elijah abandoned them for the cold hug of an orange jumpsuit.

Footsteps could be heard now in the empty neighborhood. Jalen sat up halfway, clearing his nose, dragging his shirtsleeve across his face.  The grimy light was dim and slow.  A shadowy outline approached tentatively through it, sluggish in the syrupy air.

Jalen turned on the bench, his feet flat on the ground, hands clasped on knees, eyes gathering every crack in the pavement in obsessive detail. The shadow stopped, distinct arms now visible, tucked in its pockets.

“What do you want, Elijah?” The shadow didn’t move.  “There isn’t anything you can say to me.  Twelve years is too long for any words.”

The shadow sighed, stepping forward to the edge of the light, light pooling in the holes and dips and curves of Elijah’s face. “You shouldn’t make Momma cry like that.  Your beef is with me.  Don’t take it out on her.  She just wants to see her sons happy again.” The half-light made him look old; old and tired and beaten.

Jalen sucked his teeth; he knew his brother was right. Momma didn’t deserve his anger.  “When was the last time we were happy together, Elijah?”

Elijah stopped. “You had just finished eighth grade.  Momma made breakfast for dinner.  Chocolate chip pancakes, bacon, biscuits, sausage gravy.  I remember.”

“That was over a decade ago. If you remember it so well, you should remember whose fault that was.”

Elijah stared at the ground until after Jalen left.

Sleep came but late, slinking back on soft paws in the slow drip of time before dawn. Jalen took its head in his hands, its singular yellow eye a harvest moon in the darkness.  He let it jump to his chest; pawing at the sheets, it drew a nest about itself, smothering.

Jalen was awoken by a barking dog and a slamming door. One was faint, beyond the peeling fence outside his window, ecstatic in its bouncing.  One was close, hurried like a missed deadline.

The musk of sleep took its time lifting; by the time he could force his head above his shoulders, the weight from his chest had lifted, disappearing until another night. His sheets, dense like rope around his ankles, came undone with reluctance.

He flexed and stretched, rolling his shoulders, feeling the cold of night sweat slide off his back. Momma was cooking bacon, the fatty smell mingling with the harsh milieu of cigarette smoke from the neighbors.  The smell of home.

Jalen grasped Momma’s arm as she set a plate before him. “Thank you,” he said, smiling wider than normal.

“You’re welcome, baby,” she said, grabbing his shoulder and shaking it gently. She sat down next to him, a grapefruit half and a cup of coffee for her.

“What’s that for, Momma? Eating healthy?”  Jalen looked sideways at the minimalist breakfast before her; this commitment to heart health was certainly not remembered.

“Elijah’s telling me about all the horrible diseases you can get at my age from all the bad stuff we eat. So, I decided, I’m a woman of a certain age, and I want to outlive Mrs. Lundorph – you remember that dog she got, the year before you graduated, how she would let it do its business in our yard?  Still!  It’s been six years and it’s still relieving itself in my yard.  When she goes, I want to get myself a dog and take it on a walk past her grave every day.  Show her how it feels.  So started eating with, what’s the word he used, ‘longevity’ in mind.  So – “ she tipped the grapefruit bowl – “ grapefruit and coffee for breakfast.”

Elijah’s dietary expertise was also something lacking in the memory bank. As far as Jalen could recollect, Elijah had always been partial to the junkier of the junk foods – Taco Bell, KFC, instant ramen and Twinkies all came to mind.

Jalen forced himself to smile in spite of the hollow pang he felt at the mention of his brother. “That’s great, Momma.  I see you still made me cheese eggs, though.  Don’t care about my longevity, huh?”

“You’ve got time to ruin your arteries.” She tilted her head in his direction, a grin dancing about her wide lips.  “Get on it, boy!”

“I won’t let you down, Momma.”

Momma happily sawed away at her grapefruit. “What’re you thinking ‘bout doing today?”

“I don’t know. I’d like to see the neighborhood again, during the day.   Unfortunately, the most important thing for me right now is findin’ a job.  The market just stinks, though.”

Momma grimaced at the grapefruit and reached for the jar of sugar. She stopped herself from heaping it on, instead staring wistfully at the jar.  “There’s too many people out in California.  Jesus knows, you’ll have more luck here.”

When he was finished, he took his plate to the sink, reaching for the soap and sponge. “Don’t worry yourself, baby.  I’ll get it,” Momma called from the table.  “You concentrate on finding yourself a job.”

Jalen sat back down. Momma took his hands in hers, looking him in the eye.  “Ain’t nobody for miles with a college degree, much less a Masters.  They’ll love you.”  He gave her a small smile, so she knew her words meant something, although he knew different.  “And, Jalen, Elijah wants you to know that there’s always an opening at his daycare.  He’ll pay you a full salary, hourly.  It’s very nice.”

Jalen was stunned into silence for a full moment. “A daycare?  Parents let him near their children?  Do they know who he – what he’s done?”

“Jalen! Your brother never did anything to children!”

“I was a child, Momma.”

“That’s not fair. Who Elijah was and who he is now are different people.”

“It’s hard to turn a new leaf when the old one is so heavy, Momma.”

Momma took her hands from his, frowning at him. “Go.  Forget I said anything.  But you need to recognize that twelve years is a long time.”

Jalen stood, pushing his chair back. “Not long enough for me.”

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Hiring For: We are currently recruiting for the position of ‘Online Reading Tutor/Teachers’’.

There was a burning behind Jalen’s eyes that may have been from too many hours staring at his laptop’s pale glow, but then again, it may have had nothing to do with that.

‘Hourly rate of $12/hour with high number of confirmed hours of instruction.’ Twelve an hour wasn’t too bad, he told himself, as he checked the yellow star in his browser bar.

Three hours of scrolling, clicking, reading, scrolling, reading, and then clicking, had resulted in a hundred-odd bookmarked applications and a cookie trail of wasted time.

‘Faculty Level II (A), General Education/Composition; Brown Mackie College’ – that sounded like something more up his alley. ‘The instructor facilitates meaningful learning of the course competencies in the curriculum and proactively supports all facets of the learning environment.’  Well, teaching wasn’t so horrible.  His tenure as a TA had been decent.

                But he’d be damned if he’d end up working for his brother.  ‘Bachelor’s degree in a field related to the classes to be taught with a Master’s degree preferred.’  Not an issue there – 20th century Southern literature.  A Master’s degree at a daycare could be funny or pitiful, depending on how you looked at it. ‘Outstanding conflict resolution skills’ – maybe he could gloss over the ten-year-running feud with his brother on that account.

He sighed and bookmarked the page. College had been fun, but he hadn’t pursued a Master’s for the same reason he wouldn’t end up pursuing the Brown Mackie offer – the classroom just wasn’t his favorite place to be.  The monochrome linoleum and oppressive fluorescent lighting killed all joy in him.  Not to say that he didn’t enjoy learning, far from it; but he hadn’t spent these last ten years accruing knowledge for knowledge’s sake.

 He’d done it to be purposefully unlike his brother.  To be anything but a disappointment.  Yet Momma seemed to have welcomed Elijah back with open arms, unconditionally.  In spite of all he’d done.

  If sins could so easily be forgiven, then what was the point of trying so hard?

But maybe that was just mothers in general – no evil could be done to diminish their love. Even if Momma was blind to Elijah’s failure, he didn’t have to be.  Elijah couldn’t vote for the rest of his life, and yet she still sees him as a fundamentally good person?  But Jalen had attended college; not just attended, but graduated, full honors, and had written his Master’s thesis on Faulkner.  Elijah probably thought Requiem for a Nun was a Bluegrass song!

Jalen closed his laptop, maybe a little too hard. He checked the time on his clock; lunch came and went without a tummy rumble.   Maybe a walk was what he needed.  He’d check up on that online tutoring later; human contact wasn’t something he was too interested in at the moment.

That night, Jalen waited, prostrate on his bed, head buried in the banality of YouTube, until the sounds of Momma and Elijah at the dinner table had subsided. Eiderdown filled his skull. Thought was slow to come, and apathy held his legs in a half-hearted grip. Once the last dish had been scrubbed, he peered out his door.  Elijah was nowhere to be seen.  His stomach growled; Elijah had been late again and they took their time with dinner.

He inched out down the hallway, passing the living room as he did so, where Momma watched the television from her recliner.

The kitchen was empty. Fortunately, the fridge wasn’t.  He leaned against the counter as his bowl spun in the microwave.

“Why didn’t you eat with us?” He turned, startled.  Momma had snuck up on him under the hum of the nuke.

“I wasn’t hungry,” he said, exaggerating his shrug.

She was leaning against the partition separating the kitchen from the dining room, just out of sight.   “It’s rude to your brother, ignoring him like this.”

They waited in silence for a moment. Jalen popped the microwave open. He began to eat.

“I’m sorry I brought it up,” Momma said, not sounding sorry at all. “Elijah said you could have to bedroom all to yourself.  He’s sleeping on the couch.”

When they were kids, it was never ‘their’ bedroom. It was Elijah’s room, where he permitted Jalen to sleep – most nights.  He still recalled one night, the day after Elijah’s sixteenth birthday, he pounded at the door for over an hour for Elijah to let him in.  Elijah was entertaining his girlfriend at the time.  Jalen had to sleep on the couch.

 “Just thought you should know,” Momma said.  Jalen scraped his spoon along the bottom of his bowl.

So your telling me that he porked his mom and killed his dad?  I hate this class.

Jalen couldn’t decide whether to throw his laptop out his window or go down to Coin Laundry and let it bathe in a spin cycle or two. This kid – hell, she wasn’t even a kid, she was eighteen – had absolutely no grasp of literature.  And the typos!  How hard is it to remember the difference between ‘your’ and ‘you’re’?  In theory, her inadequacy made sense; no wonder she was taking an online tutoring course, but this level of disinterest was something he couldn’t work with.

  1. The Oedipus complex draws from Oedipus’s experience.

What??? You mean thats a real thing??

Freud certainly thought so, but more recent psychoanalysis tends to discredit his theories.

Whos freud.  Sounds like a sick guy to me.

He grabbed both sides of his computer and almost smashed it across his knee before brain function caught up. He quit.  There was no way he was going to tutor someone so ignorant, so obviously uninterested in the world.  Maybe Brown Mackie was still hiring.

Jalen rubbed his belly while he yawned, dark hands feeling the once-taut skin turned soft under the iron shadow of Momma’s skillet. He was shirtless, letting the humidity of oppressive sleep soak out of his skin like a wrung shirt on a clothesline.   Late-morning sun, motes gently bobbing like a spawning summer in the Sargasso Sea, turned his skin to amber when the two touched.

Momma was sitting at the table, eyes unseeing in concentration as she divided her grapefruit. The warm light filtered through thin curtains, loose strands of her thick hair highlighted with an internal glow; a faint halo about her chocolate face.

He stopped by the door, grabbing the small pile of mail Momma had brought in during her morning constitutional. He thumbed through it as if the object of his inspection could be found with only a bit more work – who knows, it may have been hidden between two larger envelopes, or swallowed by a GAP Kids catalogue, and he never would’ve known.  When there was nothing, he dropped it back where he had found it.

Jalen was sorely missing that $12/hour. Not so much the student, but the money more than made up for it in hindsight.

He passed Momma at the table on his way back, once again yawning and scratching his belly. But this time, Momma watched him, eyes and head tracking his uncouth travel.

When he had almost made it through the dining room, she called out to him.

“Yes, Momma?”

“Jalen, you are unsightly and I’m not gonna have such a train wreck in my house.”

Jalen looked askance at her, muttering low enough as just to be audible: “You let Elijah live here.”

“Elijah works for a living, respectably! You look like you don’t have a living.  You,” she paused, for dramatic emphasis, “look like a bum.”

‘You look like a bum’ was always one of Momma’s favorite sayings, even as she had many to choose from. If Elijah and Jalen’s shirttails were untucked on their way to church?  They were ‘little bums’.  If they came home dirty from play, they were ‘little bums disturbin’ the peace’.  If they fought with one another, they were ‘little bums bout to get the fear of God put in em’.  It wasn’t her highest insult – that was composed of words Jalen wouldn’t dare think in her vicinity – but it held plenty of force from lungs unmarred by the tobacco habits that had dulled the voices of many a friend’s mother.

“Momma, I don’t know what to tell you! I’ve sent out maybe a hundred applications, and I still haven’t heard nothing back.  Not a follow up interview, not even a ‘no thank you’ letter.  Not a blessed thing.”

“Well, you still got one option left. Elijah says nothin’ would make him happier than having you work with him.  And I really think it’s unfair for you to complain about not having a job when there’s a job right here in this house for you.”  Momma was almost pleading with him; Jalen was sure that Elijah wouldn’t be the only one overjoyed if he started working at his daycare.

Jalen squeezed his nails into the palms of his hands. Elijah’s words came unbidden, reminding him of Momma’s innocence in crimes against Jalen.   “Momma, I will never, ever, help Elijah with anything.  Ever.  He ruined his life, he ruined your life, he ruined my life, and he ruined this family.  How you can forgive him for that, I don’t know.”  Jalen tried to restrain the emotion in his voice, tried to keep from screaming to the world.

“How could you say that? Does this family look ruined?”

“He abandoned us! He just up and left, like it was no big deal!”

“Jalen, that’s not how it happened, and you know it.”

“How did it happen, then? I don’t remember him saying goodbye.”

“The boy made some mistakes! He was- he was a boy.  He acted out.  He didn’t have a father to tell him better.   And he was punished for it.”

“I never made those kinds of mistake. I didn’t have a dad to tell me not to.  Hell, I didn’t even have an older brother.”

Momma looked him dead in the eye, and there was a glimmer in hers. “And where you got that drive from, I don’t know.”

They stewed in silence for a while.

“You telling me you were never mad at him?” Jalen looked up from his nails.

“I was angry at him, for a while. But then I remembered that he was just a child.  He was young and full of vinegar.  So forgiveness came quick.  That’s how we learn; we forgive and teach to make sure it happen again.  And then he was released a grown man.  So I was mad, for a time.  But he don’t deserve your hate.  He blames himself for your attitude, and he doesn’t need that on his conscience.”

Words leapt to his tongue and died in mid-air. For a moment, a large-mouth bass threw itself wildly about the deck of a fishing boat floating down the Mississippi in his place.  “G-good, he sh-should,” he sputtered, flabbergasted

Momma drew herself up. “Jalen, you stop being a little bum to your brother if you want to keep living in my house, eating my food, and running up my ‘lectricity bill! You had six years to come home and laze about my house, but you kept yourself at Berkeley – you can’t come back now and lord over everybody.  You’re gonna get yourself a job with your brother, or be living in a cardboard box downtown!  And that’s my final word on it.”

Jalen groped for a chair and sat down, hard.

There was no way this could be healthy for a body. He couldn’t recall the last time he was awake before the sun.  Night still smothered the earth, midsummer air lacking even the hum of cicadas.

Jalen pulled at the constricting collar of his new, company polo shirt. Elijah had insisted he wear the uniform.

He had managed half the bowl of Elijah’s preferred oatmeal when said health nut pulled away from the table. Elijah looked down at Jalen’s bowl, then at his watch.

“We need to be gone by six-thirty, so if you don’t finish your bowl quick you’ll be at a pretty bad caloric deficit by lunch, and then you’ll eat too much at lunch, which isn’t good for calorie distribution.” Jalen wanted to throw his spoonful at Elijah.  He ate it instead, glancing at him out of the corner of his eye.  His brother, always the skinnier of the two, now had a physique that would be the envy of any Abercrombie & Fitch model.  He also had an encyclopedic and obsessive knowledge of the body’s musculature, which he was far too willing to share with Jalen.

They sat in almost-silence for a while. Elijah watched the minutes flicker by on the microwave’s clock.  Jalen watched the foul mush disappear, spoonful by spoonful, never raising his eyes from the bowl.

“You done?” Elijah asked when the bowl was empty, whisking it away before Jalen could say ‘no’, emphasis on the biting sarcasm. Deprived of that small catharsis, Jalen grabbed his coffee mug.  Jalen had fond memories of early Southern California springs spent on the campus quad, nursing a giant cup of coffee and his laptop.  So Elijah didn’t do himself any favors when, returning from the kitchen, he stopped in the doorway, staring at the hunched form of his younger brother.

“We gotta get gone, Jalen. Can you finish your coffee in the car?”  Elijah gave him a small smile.  Jalen stood with feigned stiffness, shuffling his feet to the front door while he sipped his coffee, making sure he took just long enough tying his shoes that the microwave clock read six thirty-one before they left.

Jalen slid in the passenger’s side, holding his coffee at an awkward angle to avoid spillage. Elijah sat in the driver’s seat, fiddling with his thick keychain.  When the car kicked to life, the radio dropped them in the midst of a NPR report on Northern India’s economic development.  Jalen waited, as they pulled away from the curb, for Elijah to change the channel to something more his speed – WFPK 91.9 FM, maybe – but he found Elijah was listening intently, nodding along with the reporter.  Elijah turned to Jalen as the report ended.

“I think that’s really interesting. It’s kind of like how the Rust Belt is so economically depressed right now, while Silicon Valley is doing really good.  What do you think – what’s the college man’s opinion?” Elijah seemed animated, like he knew what he was talking about.  Jalen didn’t believe it for a second.

“I studied American literature in college. Not economics.”  Jalen stared straight ahead, feeling the stickiness of the seat against his lower back.  “Do you even know where India is, Elijah?” The man was obviously trying to impress him, talking ‘economics’ like a ‘college man’.  What an asshole.

“Yes, Jalen, I know where India is.” Elijah watched the dark road for a while, his face flickering between hidden shadow and discolored yellow as they passed under the streetlamps.  “American literature, huh?  I just finished In Persuasion Nation.  It was great.”

Elijah couldn’t know who George Saunders is. He probably Googled ‘modern American writers’ or something to try and impress him.  

“Saunders is fine, I guess. Pastoralia was okay.”  Jalen wished for the rest of the drive to be completed in the whining silence of rubber on pavement.  “My Master’s was on Southern literature of the early 20th century.”

“That’s cool. You read Requiem for a Nun?” Jalen spilled a little of his coffee, spattering across the top of his shoes.

Groping for tissues in the back seat to mop it up, he muttered something about speed bumps to Elijah. This was the longest Jalen had spent with Elijah in more than fifteen years.  Even so, he couldn’t remember his brother reading a letter – he certainly never read the letter of the law, much less obscure World War 1-era Southern literature.

They pulled up to the thin strip mall where Elijah’s daycare was sandwiched between a ‘Mister Money USA’ and a Wing Stop. Jalen clambered out first, emptying the end of his coffee on the asphalt.  The air was as cool as it would get in a Kentucky August; already heavy with the heat of the day.

Jalen looked down from the expanse above him to the tiny front before him. He could see through plate-glass windows the darkened daycare, thick and stained carpet hiding foul linoleum, toys stacked high in the corners.  The door jingled when Elijah unlocked it.

The inside felt miniscule to Jalen. The toys, the chairs, the tables, the amateurish graffiti autographing in crayon along the walls – all shrunk to kneecap-height.  The Munchkins of the Wizard of Oz must’ve lived on furniture much like this.

Elijah disappeared in the back, a harsh fluorescence filling the room soon after. “If you could set out the chairs, Jalen, that’d be great,” he said.

The door jingled again as Jalen was pulling the last chairs apart. A thin woman in her early thirties pushed her way in, swinging a backpack off as she did.   She had one of Elijah’s branded ball caps thrust over her ponytail, but she didn’t spare Jalen a second glance as she hurried into the back.  Muffled sounds of gratitude greeted her arrival out of Jalen’s sight.  “I get blue berry and chocolate chip mix like you ask.  I get gluten free for Sammy too so no more mix-up.”

Jalen settled into one of the tiny chairs, scootching around in a vain attempt to find comfort in a seat a third the size of his posterior.   “Shit.  Sorry, Claudia, but could you run out real quick and get more maple syrup? Jarabe de arce?”

Claudia reappeared, looking straight ahead and down, hurried and harried-looking. “Ass hole, always repeats word in Spanish.  I know what maple syrup is.”  The door jingled for a while after she left.  Inexplicably, Jalen felt far happier than he could remember being for a while.  It was nice, knowing that it wasn’t just him with a grudge against Elijah.

“Jalen, could you come in here for a moment?” Elijah was standing over a large bowl, striations coloring his forearm as he stirred the pancake mix.  “Could you get the blueberry on the griddle for me?  I only have so many arms and it’s already – “ he turned on the spot, still stirring, for a quick glance at the clock behind him – “seven.”

Jalen fumbled in the myriad drawers for a spoon. “And why are we making pancakes?” he said, brow furrowed as he struggled to get a scoop off the spoon and onto the small electric griddle.

“Most of these kids don’t get a chance to eat breakfast before they’re dropped off here. Some of them can’t afford breakfast.  So we’ve got them covered,” Elijah said, handing Jalen his bowl of batter.

The pancakes were browning. The smell of breakfast filled his dissatisfied stomach.  It was Elijah’s fault he was so hungry; how anyone could live on something as foul as that oatmeal, he didn’t know.  It must be a jail thing.

“Hey, Jalen, since this is your first day here, would you like to greet the kids as they come in? I can do the pancakes; I do them normally, anyway.”

The sun was rising now, golden fingers grabbing the knotted curtain of night and pulling itself above the horizon. Unsure of what exactly to do – should he hold the door open, like some kind of valet – he sat in the chair closest to the door.  He didn’t have to wait long.

The first thing he saw was a bobbling run through the parking lot, half-visible. A dark palm slammed into the door, followed by the rest of the child.  He looked at Jalen through the smear he had left on the glass with the eyes of a messiah, inscrutable and yet knowing.  Jalen watched back.

“Jalen, that’s just Darnell, let him in! Is his mother with him?”  Jalen opened the door with reluctance, pulling it just wide enough that the kid’s outsized head could fit through.  He hunkered down to face Darnell.  “Where’s your mom, Darnell?”

                Darnell pointed to the parking lot.  “Can you go get her?”

                He shook his head.  “Why not?”

                “Dropped me off across the street.”  Darnell’s voice was oddly deep, husky like he exhaled secondhand smoke.  There was a four-lane highway that separated this strip mall from the one across the street.  Jalen frowned.

                “He says his mom dropped him off across the street!” Jalen called back to Elijah.  “Does she always do that?”

                Darnell shrugged.  There was no exasperation, or anger, or even apathy in his expression.  It just was.  “You want to sit down?”

                Darnell looked past him for a moment, and then sat down in a random chair.  He winced a little as he shifted in his seat.  Once he had found a position that seemed comfortable enough, he stopped moving.  The only sounds in the room were the faint sizzle of pancakes from the back and Darnell’s soft, raspy breathing.

Jalen stood still for a while, watching Darnell contemplate the Higgs Boson or the fundamental thematic undertones of the universe or whatever Newtonian process was going on underneath that shaved-bald head. “Would you like pancakes?” he managed.

Darnell took his time looking up at him. “Chocolate chip.”

Jalen welcomed the opportunity to escape his presence. He walked quicker than intended to the back, where Elijah was flipping pancakes like he was born to do it. “This kid is weird. Very, very weird.”  Elijah looked up from the griddle, still sliding pancakes around.

“Yeah, that’s Darnell. His mom always drops him off across the street.  I’ve told her before that it’s not okay, that he could get hurt – hell, I’ve waited in that strip mall for half an hour to catch her dropping him off before, and he just shows up!  He doesn’t seem to mind it, though, so I don’t know what else I can do.  He doesn’t seem to mind much, in all honesty.”

“I can tell.” Jalen looked around for a plate. “Shit, Elijah, that’s a lot of pancakes.”  Elijah had made more pancakes in one sitting than Jalen had eaten over 24 years.

Elijah shrugged. “Twenty kids can eat a lot more than you’d think they could.  They don’t all end up inside them, but they’re generally more than willing to help clean up afterwards, so I don’t complain.”

Jalen threw a couple on a plate for Darnell. “Do we have any maple syrup?”

“No, and Claudia needs to hurry. Most of our kids get here around seven-thirty.  Just go ahead and give him the pancakes, they have enough sugar in them anyway.  Juice is in the fridge.”

Jalen poured a cup of juice and took the breakfast back to Darnell. He ate slow, bites taken with his fork held between thumb and middle finger.

It was almost cordial, the way they spoke to each other. Jalen didn’t like it.  If he was too friendly, Elijah might mistake professionalism for forgiveness.

The front door rung, shrill in the contemplative silence. A girl around Darnell’s  age stood on her tiptoes to reach the door handle, almost at a height with the untamed reddish fro that framed her face. Jalen stood, grabbing the door from her.  He looked outside for a parent – there was a Ford Taurus pulling out of the parking lot, but other than that, once again, nothing.

“Elijah, there’s another kid here. Ginger.  Girl.”  Jalen yelled.

 “Sarah?”

“Yup, Mr. Elijah.” Her voice was demure, quiet like a middle child.

“You want any pancakes? We don’t have any syrup right now, but Miss Claudia should be here soon enough with some.”  Elijah’s words boomed – something jail hadn’t changed.  His voice was always commanding, which Jalen envied. His own voice, while far from meek, couldn’t command a room like Elijah’s could, even when they were both children.

She shrugged, digging a palm into one eye. She looked at Jalen as he walked back from under heavy lids; whether out of disinterest or drowsiness, he couldn’t tell.

He didn’t say anything as he filled a plate for her. Elijah had put the pancakes in the microwave to stay warm while he scrubbed the griddle.  Jalen snuck a pancake in one bite – there were more than enough to go around.

Jalen had just set Sarah’s plate in front of her when Claudia tackled the door, both hands struggling with a gallon jug of syrup, a Sam’s Club receipt flapping from the bottom. She once again ran to Elijah, the container plopping on the counter out of sight.  “Gracias, Claudia. Could you take this out to Jalen?” he heard, hearing Elijah’s condescending smile.  Claudia emerged from the back holding a much smaller bottle of syrup, rolling her eyes.

“Here,” she said, smacking the bottle down in front of Sarah. Jalen nodded his thanks, reaching for the syrup.  Sarah got there first, filling half her plate with the amber fluid.  Her fingers came away sticky.  Jalen took the bottle, turning to Darnell, but Darnell had finished and was now staring off into the middle distance, his fork upside-down on his plate.

Jalen put the bottle back in front of Sarah and surreptitiously licked his fingers clean. Sarah had taken a pancake and squished it into a little ball, rolled it in the syrup, and was chewing happily.  A bead of syrup hung from her chin already.

The door rang again, and in walked the first parent. There was at least one person who cared enough about their kid to drop them off in person – or so he thought, until he saw the child.  Dragged in on a full-body monkey child leash, the kid’s head spun.  Not looking at anyone in particular, the mother said, loud, slightly strained, “He ate a whole box of Cocoa Puffs.  Only call me if he grows a third arm or something.” She dropped the leash on the floor and left, her sloppy bun bobbling as she walked.

The androgynous kid remained on the floor for a minute or so, looking at everything. Jalen felt apprehensive about approaching – what if it bit? – but the child had been disposed of so brusquely that he felt sorry.  “Elijah?  Claudia? There’s a kid in a monkey costume sitting on the floor.”

Claudia poked her head out of the back. “That’s Michael. Don’t not look at him.”

“Don’t not look at him? What does that mean?”  There was a warm weight on his feet.  Michael was squatting on his shoes, examining a shoelace he had just untied.  He fiddled with the plastic tip for a second.  Then he put it up his nose.

“Eugh!” Jalen grabbed Michael by the armpits and hoisted him to his feet. Michael seemed nonplussed, his new toy snatched away as soon as it had been given.

 

 

 

 

 

Miss Conception by Sophie Harrison

                “ Alright Miss James, we’ve already located Mr. Lynch in an apartment uptown which has you listed as a cosigner on the lease. I can tell you what we know and we can play some cat and mouse bullshit where I try to fill in the holes or you could just go ahead and tell us what actually happened.” Chief Rollins had always addressed life with this same black and white tactic. You’re either guilty or innocent. Those insanity pleas and “guilty by association” verdicts were just copouts to pacify an angry public when officials had no idea what the sam-hell actually happened. The chief was a product of the fifties and he grew up on trusting his gut and reading people at face value. When he felt right about something he went forward unshaking.

                “It’s Mrs.”

                “I’m sorry?”

                “I’m a married woman detective and I’d appreciate it if you’d acknowledge that.”

                “Alright then, Mrs. James, is there any light you’d care to cast onto the recent events?”

                “Are you trying to blame his murder on me?”

                “Mrs. James, I can promise you that I hadn’t cast blame on anyone up to this point.”

                “And now you have?”

                “Well you see, we told you we found him, not his body, so when exactly did you determine for yourself Mr. Lynch was dead?”

Enemies in Plain Sight by Sophie Harrison

Mark

I’ve been waiting on this job for a long time. Once I set my sites on moving to the city I knew I’d have to work at the same firm as Jessie. Me and Jessie have been friends since elementary school and we were especially close in high school but after graduation we all kind of went our own ways and I haven’t seen her in six years—well six and a half. But first I had to get a degree and I naturally assumed that if I got the same degree as her, and from the same school, that I’d be appropriately eligible for the same job. She was my motivation the whole way. Whenever I got buried under debt or lost sleep to keep up with the extra classes—I had to take 18 credits per semester so I could finish in three years since she got a head start. But I knew it was inevitable that I would end up here.

Now I’m sitting in the over-plush waiting room of what has to be the hottest lobby in New England with a faux designer suit and bunched up gold toe socks. My appointment with Jeffery Jacobs was scheduled for 1:15 sharp and it’s currently 1:45. I’m sure that once I get back there they’ll give me some lavish apology and explain the last-minute, overly important meeting Mr. Jacobs had to attend, but I won’t care. I will smile and nod, hoping that the sweat from my hairline doesn’t trickle down my nose to blot the sign in form. I will be polite to the receptionist and I will kiss ass all day, even to the janitorial staff, I will give Myers & Jacobs absolutely no reason to overlook me. I have one shot to get this job and no other options.

 

Jessica

I’m literally swamped right now. I have a massive event to plan for Covergirl Cosmetics for next Saturday and it’s one of the most impossible events. They throw the same gala every year and expect more extravagance and glitz every time. If I managed to get them the hippest DJ one year I was expected to have a live performer in addition to a DJ the next year. It was like the snowball of anxiety that just rolls right out of my grip and the further it gets the faster it flees and bigger it grows.

Thankfully I’ve already taken care of the entertainment dilemma for this year—and don’t worry it was the biggest hassle they could’ve possibly made it—but now it was time to find the visual entertainment. Covergirl expects to not only have a full wait staff from the catering company but also a fleet of models. I’m not sure what I’m actually supposed to be looking for other than a pretty face but apparently there’s something since the position requires a full panel interview. Literally, they get their make-up done and mingle. Am I supposed to test their typing skills to find job eligibility or something?

Either way it’s 1:30 now and Nina usually drags me to lunch by noon so I’m officially rotting from the inside out with hunger. I was going to go down the hall to Nina’s office to figure out why we weren’t eating yet but she’s coming into my office already before I got the chance.

“Thank gawd. I’m starving what are you doing? You are the foodie how did you even make it to 1:00 without eating?”

“Sorry, I’ve been dealing with this new security company all morning. Apparently I’m supposed to have more than just a driver’s license to prove that I am who I am. I mean if I can fake a license then I can probably forge my name on some incoming mail.”

“I didn’t even know you had a security system.”

“I didn’t before. But last night right before I went to bed I heard some glass break or something and when I went downstairs my front window was totally shattered.”

“Ohmygawd Nina, are you okay? Did you figure out if it was an accident?”

“Well I thought it might have been but I wasn’t sure so I peeked out the side of the curtain and I realized that there was a rock in my living room floor. Someone threw it in to purposefully crack my window. Who does that?”

“Did you actually stay there all night?”

“I was more freaked out to walk outside to get to the car. I didn’t park in the garage ‘cause my new dresser just got dropped off so I would’ve had to walk right through the dark part of the yard where the rock was probably thrown from. So I just called the police station. I didn’t want to call 911 cause no one was trying to get in or anything and then Joe just stayed over with me.”

“I hate to sound insensitive, and we can keep talking about it over lunch, but do you want to head on down? I’m starving and I don’t have much time, I’m swamped with Covergirl as usual.”

I decided to take the file with me to the café to look over. I wouldn’t really have time or focus to delve into it or anything while we were eating but at least I could mentally log what I had left to do. But our office is so overcrowded with applicants that I want to lock my door first once I scope the room and see some of the “characters” who would like the job.

Holy shi….

“Nina, get in here.” I have to drag her back into the doorway with me. It’s like the teachers holding up the small stack of papers by their mouths to block what they’re saying, I feel hidden by the six inch door frame. “It’s Mark. What is he doing here?”

“Okay….I don’t know who Mark is or was to you but he’s one of Mr. Jacobs’ 1ish interviews. I scheduled it. If I remember his resume right he kind of has the same qualifications as you.”

Oh gawd I’m doing the awkward eye dart thing. I always to it when I get nervous and then I make accidental eye contact and that person knows the rest of the room sweep is just to pretend you’re not actually watching them and just giving you a second excuse to look at them when you glance back across.

“That’s literally impossible. He was a totally freak in high school. Not like the nerd freak who seems distant but is secretly acing all of the classes and is gearing up to be valedictorian, but like the Radley recluse who pretty much stopped going to school senior year altogether and kind of did whatever he wanted on the days he did show up.”

“Jessica what is the big deal? What is it some middle school crush become high school heartbreak? Ha.”

“No. This kid was so cute when we were in middle school. Which was kind of hard to admit at first since he was also our elementary school booger eater, but he was actually our most popular guy. He was the quarterback of our football team too, and that actually carried a little bit of weight around the school even though our team didn’t actually win…”

“Okay I thought you were the one that didn’t have much time?”

“Well long story short senior year he had some creepy obsessive crush on me and ended up staying after school one day when I had to make up a pacer test for gym so that he could meet up with me alone in the locker room when I showered.”

“Seriously? You’re this stressed out because some nerd in your graduating class had a crush on you?”

“Don’t make fun of me. He got suspended and everything. He had to stay a certain distance away from me and even got switched out of our English class because we weren’t allowed to be in the same classes either after that. They made it kind of a legit ordeal. It was stressful.”

Oh seriously. I did it. I did the eye contact thing and now he locked in. We made the uncomfortable eye contact and now he knows I’m talking about him. Oh my gawd….

“Okay well he’s the most likely to get the job because on first round of panel he got five out of six approvals to be hired. So you might as well just go up and say something. Well actually I will…”

 

Mark

            Oh Lord. She is starring right at me. I wonder what she’s talking about—probably my Gucci suit. I forfeited an entire month’s rent on this and I haven’t used warm water in three weeks just to save some money when the bills come in.

            I should probably go say something. We’ve made eye contact four times and if I keep redirecting she’ll think I’m the same creepy kid from high school. I’ll just maturely walk towards her and extend a firm but gentle handshake. I have to be business professional but I can’t let my nerves cripple her metacarpals.

            Alright just calm down…

            “Hey. Jessie. How have you been?”

            “It’s Jessica now. Just like it’s always been actually…how are you?”

            “A little nervous actually. I, uh, I worked really hard to pay for school so now I hope that all the money was worth it. I just need a solid start to help cover some of the loan debt.”

            “Oh yeah I’ve been there. Still there actually….This is my friend Nina.”       

            “Oh yeah I talked to her on the phone. She actually set up the interview for me.”

            “Alright well were going to head out for lunch.”

            “Would you like to come?”

Wow, that’s what they were talking about I guess. Jessie really does want to eat. Girls know each other and they know the code or whatever it is. Nina wouldn’t ask unless she knew Jessie wanted to and Jessie would only make someone else ask if she wanted to distract from the fact that she’s interested.

“I would but I still haven’t gotten in with Jacobs. I’d die if I waited this long just to lose the job for eating when he’s finally ready.”

“Don’t worry about it. I’ll just leave him an invoice that we took the newest potential employee out for lunch to save face since you’ve been waiting for so long.”

Alright, this is my in. If this goes well I don’t even have to get the job. The job would still help, but we’ll just exchange number and stay in touch. We’ll actually become friends for once.

“Sounds great. I’ll buy?”

“Oh absolutely not. It’s on Mr. Jacobs today.”

Jessie has hardly talked at all. I wonder if she’s nervous. Nervous girls usually use their friends as a crutch, let them do all the talking and awkward starter conversation until they can piggy back and say something witty and flirtatious.

Jessica

            “Nina, are you insane. I can’t believe it. What were you thinking?”

            “Really Jessie it cannot be this big of a deal. He’s a grown adult now I’m sure he’s out of his awkward creeper phase. You have got to let this go.”

            I mean it is just lunch. It’s not like were alone and at least this way I can feel him out a little and see what he’s like especially since he might get the job. I might have glimpsed at his file before we left the office just to see. Apparently he’s over qualified for the position we have open. But he did mention that he just needed any job to get the ground work out of the way. Maybe he wants to start especially small to learn all the ropes before he tries to apply for the big leagues.

            Either way this has left me at a high top table on the back patio of mine and Nina’s favorite bistro. We always come here whenever there is a reason to swipe the company card. It’s not fine dining or anything close. Just a splurge compared to the salads we usually get from the first floor cafeteria.

            Well actually I hate to be the one to admit it, but he looks really good. His cheek bones kind of arch up right by his ears, not in the over pressed I’ve had Ken-doll inspired surgery, but the way that looks like he’s been airbrushed for the cover of People. His eyes are Bradley Cooper-esque and he’s rocking the hair that’s long enough to shuffle around that can look a little bed-head but at the same time look perfectly styled.

            I’m really actually having trouble focusing on this lunch. His teeth are literally perfect and he just keeps smiling and kind of chuckling when he talks. No chuckling is wrong, that sounds cheesy or awkward. It’s like a polite small ha at the end of witty commentary.

            “Yeah, I was actually Norman Bates in high school. I didn’t quite get to kill anyone for my mom yet, but I was basically as appealing as good ‘ol Norman. I even gave Jessie here quite the scare. Right?”

            That Jessie thing was catching. I’d never let anyone give me a nick name before but wow when he says it it’s so demure and sophisticated. I was getting pretty well acquainted with the idea of being Jessie.

            “Oh stop, you were not that bad.”

            “Oh really Jessie? Then why were you so nervous to join us for lunch?” Oh dear gawd Nina. I sometimes think I might literally kill her. She always does this. She’s so much more forward than I am and she loves to push my comfort zone.

            “I was not nervous! I was just….” Oh great, my voice just went up ten decibels and I’m pretty sure my face in consumed by red—no that that will show anyone I’m embarrassed and caught off guard or anything.

            “No really, it’s fine. I wouldn’t have even agreed to it if I was you. I was a creep. I followed you into a locker room. I don’t think there’s really a further violation of privacy than that.”

            “Really though, I was a dramatic high school girl I’m sure I managed to over-dramatize at least some part of it. But I really have to get back and finish some of this party I’m so far behind where I technically should be by this late in the day. It was nice seeing you. Nina, you’ll pay and help Mark find his way back?”

            “Yeah that’s why I’m here.”

            Oh gawd. Why is he standing? He could just give a completely appropriate and suffice business hand shake from a sitting position. I swear if he goes in for a hug I’m just dodging it. I’m not just letting it happen. I’ll just lean out of the way, kind of smile with a slight wave and then I’m gone.

            “Nice seeing you again Jessie.”

            Good. It was just a firm handshake with eye contact. A little bit more intimate than if it were strictly the first meeting but nothing too intense to make her think about the years she did know him—fortunately.

Mark

            She looks amazing. I should really be focusing on what Jacobs is saying but I can’t get the image of her pink shining lips out of my head. They were shiny but not sloppy like when some women try apply lip gloss right before a meal and it just slurs everywhere.

            Even better she rushed away from the table and left the manila folder under her plate. I’m not really sure why she even brought it because she didn’t look at it a single time while we were at the table but Nina didn’t make note of it being there at all, so I just slipped it into my bag.

            Lunch went very well so I’d assume that if I just got a short chance at conversation to partially make plans—plan on meeting but not in so many words as a date, just a cup of coffee or quick lunch break later this week—so I’ll just walk it down the hall when I’m done here.

Jessica

            “I’m going to head out early and take this Covergirl project home. I freaking lost my update file so I’m going to have to go home and redo the entire write up so that tomorrow when I get in I can show Meyers what all I’ve actually gotten done. Even though it feels like literally nothing.”

            “Didn’t you have the file in your hand before lunch?”

            “Yeah. I was going to take it with us but then I got totally distracted by Mark and I have no idea what happened to it after I went back to lock my office. But thanks for that by the way, calling me out in front of him.”

            “Ha, I did not call you out. You just have to chill out.”

            “Well ill kill you for that later, but if you want to just head to my apartment after you get off. Were the same size suit and we’ll order Chinese for dinner. We can be right out of a rom-com sweet sixteen party. Instead of going back to that creepy boarded up window of yours.”    

            “I have to go home a little bit early too to meet the security company to install the system and set a password and everything so I might as well grab some clothes and stuff but yeah that definitely sounds better than staying at my house.”

            Now that I’m actually in my apartment I’m second guessing inviting Nina over, it’s kind of a wreck in here. If I just throw all my clothes in the laundry closet and do the dishes though its pretty much okay. It’s not like I have bugs or anything, just a few too many clothes and some not-yet recycled pizza boxes. It’s not my fault. I’ve been really busy lately and working all night. You wouldn’t believe some of the demands this job can make.

Mark

            I’ll just walk up to her door and knock. That’s the simplest thing a person can do. Knock on a door, wait for it to be answered, then relay the message. But she’s not answering. That’s got to be the second easiest thing: open the door when it is knocked on.

            Oh great Nina, she probably knows where Jessie went.

            “Hey, I have to give this file to Jessie, it seems pretty important. Do you know where I can find her? I think she’ll probably want this file today for that work she said she had to get back here for.”

            If Nina thinks the file is important, which it is, she’ll probably be more apt to help. Not that she wouldn’t be helpful otherwise, but if she thinks it’s for personal reasons she might not care as much, she just met me, versus if it’ll help out her friend’s career.

            “Oh she had to leave early today for…oh my, is that the Covergirl file, let me see that.”

            Did she just take that? She just ripped that out of my hand? That’s not very businesslike, I’m pretty sure that she’s supposed to be more professional towards applicants.

            “You’re a life saver Marcus. She just went home to redo this entire file. I’m staying over with her tonight so I’ll just take it with me. I’ll be sure to let her know you brought it back. Good luck on the job.”

Jessica

            Shit. I’ve already been home for two hours and I haven’t started the file at all. I mean the apartment is almost presentable, so that’s good. It would be goo of me as a host to go ahead and shower too. I don’t want to make her feel like she’s taking up my warm water or in the way of me getting ready.

            So that’s what I’ll do, shower and then hope that she doesn’t get here before I’m done.

            She didn’t. I showered and I’m halfway through this update file and I went ahead and called in the food. I’m a host but she’s also my best friend so she knows me better than to expect me to wait much later than this to eat.

            She’s finally here and even brought me my Covergirl file—yay—except I already finished redoing it about twenty seconds before she rolled in. Apparently she only remembered she had it after she saw me typing up the last page of the new report.

            I need to get up and exercise and now that I’ve done the same report twice in one day I think I have suffient reason to go to bed before late night TV even starts. But Nina doesn’t care. I told her she can stay in the living room and do whatever she wanted and come in to the room whenever she got tired.

Apparently that didn’t ever happen because there’s some incessant banging right now and I rolled over to grab her because I’m terrified and she’s not even here. In the living room she’s on the couch staring at the door like the missing costar from Poltergeist and tells me not to move.

Obviously I’m going to look. She may be the more outgoing one socially but I have to know who’s caving in my door in the middle of the night. You don’t live in a high-rise in downtown NYC and stay skittish about freaks roaming the halls at night.

I’m not an idiot. It’s not like I’m going to open the door and invite the crazy in, but it’s probably just the drunk guy that lives on the floor above me because he does this all the time. And at the same time, if it isn’t some drunkard or crazy neighbor I’m going to be a little nervous and probably call someone.

I just bang back on the door and then hurry and look in the peephole and I can barely see the figure of someone as they bolt out of the way and down the hall. They didn’t look particularly threatening but they didn’t move like someone who’s just had a few extra shots. I’d seen them leave so I thought I’d just leave the chain on the door and crack it open to peek.

When I saw the oversized rock on my mat in a pile of glass I slammed it shut. I don’t have any glass on my front door.

Mark

I can’t believe I missed her yesterday. That was the perfect excuse to talk to her. But the office left me a message this morning to call Jacobs today and hopefully that’s with good news. Or at least news that will give me a reason to go back.

A week? Seriously. They said I have the job and they need me to come in a week from today. What am I supposed to do for an entire week? I really want to ask Jessie to hang out but if I just show up at the office for no reason it’ll freak her out.

Jessica

“So are we allowed to talk about it now?”

“Jessica do you not get it? Obviously someone is trying to do something. I mean I didn’t examine the rock it’s not like some serial rock thrower but someone left that there. They got another rock dented your door with it and left it in glass? They’re showing me they knew where I was. When is the last time I’ve ever stayed at your house? How would anyone know where you live and that I’d be sleeping there if they hadn’t followed me?”

“Nina, really? Who would’ve done it? You don’t have any crazy ex-boyfriends or delusional competitive employees. I’m sure it’s someone from the office freaking us out. I mean admittedly the damaging of so much property isn’t exactly that funny but….It’s fine.”

“I don’t know. I just hate it. I don’t feel comfortable. If they know where I live but they know when I’m staying with someone else too…where do I even go? I’m staying at Joe’s tonight. At least I’ll keep you away and he’ll be protective ‘because he’s a man.”

“Yeah just let me know if you need anything.”

I know I’m imagining this. It’s got to be one of those dreams where it feels so realistic when you think you’ve woken up from a dream and you get really involved as if it were reality but then the dream keeps happening to you. There’s no way that I’m waking up to this noise again. I flipped on the lights and even sat there for a second to see if I felt woozy enough to pretend it was a dream.

But don’t worry, this is real life. It’s been literally every night this week. Literally five consecutive days since Nina stayed over and some freak has come at 2ish every night and crashed through my front door. He must not actually want in because he could have definitely gotten in by now.

Apparently I have some concerned—or easily irritated—neighbors because the cops knock on my door about thirty seconds after the banging finally stops. But when I actually open the door, the normal rummage isn’t at the door.

I try to explain to them the story Nina has come up with, but it’s a rock. It’s hard for me to be genuinely terrified of a rock. Repeating the word itself to the NYPD so many times in a row makes me feel laughable as it is. But at the same time, why would they keep doing it? And if they really were trying to freak out Nina and knew where she was why were they sticking around my apartment now that she’s gone.

Mark

Finally. Monday morning. I wonder if she’ll notice that I’m wearing the same shoes. I’ve noticed that even men around here are expected to change their shoes far too much. We’re men. Why do I need designer shoes and why would I want so many to choose from if they’re all black. That’s just more of a chance to mess it up.

But it doesn’t matter. I have on a different suit, well the same suit, but it’s a different color, so it’s mostly a different suit. And I will take her to lunch today. Man up and just ask.

Jessica

I can’t believe he actually asked to go out for lunch. It’s his first day on the job and he’s still being trained on what his job actually is. More than that, I’m his supervisor so I probably shouldn’t have agreed but I kind of really wanted to.

Nothing surprised me more but I actually looked forward to getting to talk to him alone.

“So how is it? Your first day on the job I mean.”

“It’s actually not too bad. The guy who’s training me is a little dull, but I think I’m actually going to enjoy it.”

We really aren’t talking about much important but I’m flirting. Not just some of the accidental flirty moments—which, don’t worry, are happening too—but I’m trying to flirt, to let him know I want to be here. With Mark Graven. Seriously? The booger eater turned jock mutated back into a swamp thing? And now he’s back in my life as Mr. GQ.

“I really need to get some of my notes for this meeting I have in about an hour. My apartment is about one block passed the office. You can come if you want. Or when we pass you can head on back to work.” I know it’s super obvious that I’m trying to extend the date and that I’m hinting at getting him familiar with my apartment but I actually don’t even care. I just want him to keep being around.

“Yeah that’s fine. I’d like to see how the well-established half lives.”

“Oh whatever.” Okay, now I might be over-flirting just slightly.”

My whole door is buckled into the center. We barely got to the stop of the steps and I could see my mangled yellow door dangling from its hinges. I painted it yellow when I first moved in because I thought it made the city seem less rough, more southern and safe like back home.

My lock cringing from the pressure that apparently blasted it from where it’s normally plated inside the frame. The couch is flipped backwards and all of my windows are open. The frigid air just adds to the fear that I’m working on. But what is it for? Everything in the living room has been rummaged through, but nothing is missing. I checked everywhere.

The police officer said that it’s not an option, I have to sleep somewhere else tonight. I don’t want to even tell Nina, let alone drag her down with me since she’s already freaked out, so when Mark offer his place I didn’t hesitate too long to say yes. He even offered to take the couch so I could feel safer locking myself into his room.