Joan Dark – Welcome to the Masquerade

Joan Dark
Welcome to the Masquerade

Here, where I am, everyone wears a mask. The doctors are masked, the nurses, the staff, and the patients, the non-intubated ones, that is. This one, the one I am tending to now, is on a ventilator; he has tape around his mouth to keep the tube in and his tongue out of the way.
      To care for him, I have to don an isolation gown and gloves and bunny shoes and put a personal air-purification respirator over my head, a big white dome with a respirator hose going to a machine that’s strapped around my waist. It makes me feel like an astronaut treading on the surface of the moon.
      I keep my mask on underneath the helmet. I wear a surgical mask over an N95 mask that fits my face so tightly it leaves lines and creases on my skin. My fellow nurses and I call them ‘mask wrinkles’ and wonder if they will be permanent. We’re afraid we’ll look old before our time.
 
‘You’re no beauty rose, either,’ I tell my patient. He’s exhibiting signs of macroglossia, meaning his tongue is pretty swollen. It protrudes out of his mouth, lolling off to one side of his breathing tube. It looks like he’s sticking out his fat tongue at me. ‘Read my lips, buddy,’ I tell him in response, which, of course, is impossible because I am masked. Seriously, though, I am alarmed by Dan’s appearance. I am concerned that his swollen tongue may compromise his airway.
 
Covid-19 brought him to my hospital. Dan was transferred to the ICU after his pulse oxy declined precipitously and he became hypoxic, meaning his brain cells were beginning to die. We had to get him on a ventilator right away. He was given a sedative before we threaded the breathing tube down his throat and past the vocal cords into his chest. Now, he’s poised somewhere between delirium and unconsciousness.
      Sometimes Covid patients build up a tolerance to the sedatives we give them, causing them to go in and out of consciousness. When this happens, when they enter this twilight zone, they grow agitated and anxious. Some may even need to be restrained to keep them from pulling out the breathing tube. They place a constant strain on nurses like me who are dealing with an overflow of patients during this pandemic and can’t always be at their bedside to boost their medication.
 
Agitation is in the air. You can feel it. I feel it. Dan is its poster child. His arms chafe against his bed restraints. His body shudders with every breath he takes.
      ‘Takes’ is the operative word. The ventilator pushes air into his lungs and it pushes air out. The diaphragm and the intercostals don’t play the same role that they do in normal breathing.
 
I murmur some words of encouragement to my patient. He just keeps sticking out his tongue at me.
      I understand where he’s coming from, but it’s not like Dan and I are pals. We haven’t had a chance to talk, to really get to know one another, and his blinks don’t correspond to any code I know. I wasn’t born yet when that American POW used Morse to blink out ‘T-O-R-T-U-R-E’ during a North Vietnamese propaganda video, but I’ve read about it, and that guy could teach old Dan a thing or two.
      In lieu of that kind of nonverbal communication, or a heartfelt chat, what I’ve come to learn about Dan, I’ve gathered from his chart.
      His chart says he’s 36, a year older than me, but still quite young for a coronavirus patient.
      The first one, the very first Covid patient they brought here, was 84. He and his wife contracted the disease in a nursing home. The wife survived; the husband didn’t. She was still in quarantine when he passed; consequently, he died alone.
      I infer that Dan is single: his chart lists his sister as his emergency contact. Because of Covid, she isn’t allowed to see him.
      I pat Dan on the arm with a gloved hand just to let him know someone is here.
 
Unless he’s especially intuitive, which I rather doubt, Dan knows even less about me than I do about him. All he sees of me are my eyes. The eyes are supposed to be the windows to the soul, but I’m not sure Dan thinks I have one.
      I’m the warder who keeps him imprisoned here. I’m the evil bitch who shoved a plastic hose down his throat and put him in bed restraints.
      Dan doesn’t know my name because he can’t see my badge. It’s pinned to the scrubs I’m wearing underneath my isolation gown. He can gauge my height and my weight, I guess.
      I’m not as fat as I look in all of this PPE.
 
I used to care about my appearance. I used to really care. I used to look forward to changing out of my scrubs and putting on something chic and sassy once my shift was over. I looked forward to letting down my hair. I used to like to go out with friends after work, have a couple of drinks, and flirt with guys at some bar.
      Not anymore. The bars are closed, and all of us are afraid of catching Covid.
 
When I was new to nursing, I used to worry about needlesticks. They can give you hepatitis, HIV, and a bunch of other diseases. Over time, I learned to relax and didn’t worry so much about getting pricked. Now, patients like Dan have given me something brand new to worry about.
 
Now, after my shift is over, I go straight home. I don’t even shop at the grocery anymore. I have the store deliver or I do kerbside pickup. Most of the people I come in contact with wear masks, thank God, but there’s still plenty of risk. Sometimes, the masks slip, revealing the dorsum of the nose, the columella and the philtrum. Sometimes, people just don’t know how to wear them, forgetting to cover their noses or letting the masks dangle below their chins.
      Then, too, there’s always the danger of bumping into an anti-masker, one of those real fun-loving types who think personal freedom is a licence to spread disease.
 
I don’t know how Dan caught Covid. He probably doesn’t either. Maybe he got it at some super-spreader event. Maybe he caught it from a colleague. Maybe he just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
 
I hope and pray he doesn’t pass it on to me.
 
I’m starting to think Dan and I are a lot alike: We’re both living inside each other’s nightmares.

I live alone. I live in my own separate solitude. I was married once, but it didn’t work out. Fortunately or not, my ex and I didn’t have children. I used to think I’d like to have kids, but now I’m not so sure: the pandemic has heightened my fears for the future.
      Meanwhile, my biological clock is ticking. I would like to meet someone, to be in a new relationship, but it doesn’t seem likely now that Covid is rampant and I’m working 12-hour shifts.
 
In my free time, when I have some, I am learning to speak Italian. I had planned to visit Italy before the pandemic started. Now, of course, that’s on hold. In March, I was listening to News in Slow Italian when I heard about a nurse who killed herself after she developed symptoms of the virus. A fisherman found her body in some reeds in the Piave River. The nurse worked in an infectious disease unit at a hospital near Venice, which is one of the places I had planned to visit – the city, not the hospital.
      I wonder how she killed herself. I know she drowned, but I wonder how she did it. I wonder if she put stones in her pocket to weigh herself down like Virginia Woolf did when she walked into the Ouse or if she threw herself off a bridge like the poet Paul Celan did when he jumped into the Seine.
      I don’t wonder why she did it. I don’t wonder about that at all. Burnout is at an all-time high in my profession. We’ve all sunk down, as Paul Celan said, into the bitter well of the heart.
 
When I’m not studying Italian or brooding over fate, I read. My tastes, as you might guess, are eclectic. I’m drawn to Gothic novels and hysterical, I mean historical, period dramas. I’m currently reading The Betrothed, an English translation of a famous Italian novel. It’s a love story set in Milan against the backdrop of the 1630 plague.
      Go figure.
      I don’t think I will find romance during the coronavirus pandemic.
 
‘Hey, buddy boy,’ I say to Dan, ‘Covid has brought you and me together.’
 
When I first became a nurse, I worked bedside on a trauma unit. Later, I did a stint in the ER. I also spent some time in a telemetry unit before coming to the ICU and getting certified as a critical care registered nurse. Surveying my career, it occurs to me that I’m a bit like Prince Prospero in that Edgar Allan Poe story, the one about a fancy masquerade ball. In Poe’s story Prince Prospero walks through a series of rooms in his castellated abbey, each room packed to the gills with costumed guests, until he arrives at the last one, where the avatar of Death, robed and masked, is waiting. For me, the ICU is like the last room in Prospero’s abbey: I hope to finish my career here, but for some of my patients, it’s the last place they’ll ever see. Death stalks the room, waiting to take its mask off and reveal itself.
      Just not today.      AQ

Pia Bhatia – Reunion

Pia Bhatia
Reunion

‘There’s nothing we can do’ would have been far too final for the Bharadwaj family, too conclusive, not enough loose ends.‘There isn’t much’ suited them far better. If they only had the language to make fun of themselves and each other. Ravi, the oldest, was perhaps the one their parents could pride themselves most on, was a chartered accountant. From his three failed marriages spawned nine different children—nine—and he confused their names and ages frequently. Next in line stood Arjun, an animal rights activist who had, for the entirety of his life, puzzlingly resembled a pig. Worst of all, however, was Neesha, wildly creative and supremely sharp, for whom their parents had spent years paying for gifted and talented student classes. When she missed the Ivy League by what was generally understood to be a hair, the parents could neither hide their shame nor the other siblings their satisfaction. The Bharadwaj’s, defying norm and comfort, had put all their eggs in one basket, and they began to crack open, one by one, spilling wastefully onto the floor. She locked herself in her room for six days, coming out calmly on Sunday. The family never spoke of it again, and she abandoned her pursuit of academia, trading it in for a rich foreigner and a steady supply of new clothes.
      Should they have chosen to laugh about the awkwardness that came to define them, perhaps they would have been close, even exceptionally so. Instead, they had only their hands for language, their fingers to speak. For Arjun, one is stuffed in pockets and the other scrolling through Twitter, and there is a broad palm on his shoulder, patting slowly before being withdrawn, rejected. Ravi’s. Ravi himself places his elbows at the front desk, then remembering it is considered rude, holds its edge like he is hanging off a cliff, then remembering it is unhygienic, gives up and opens his phone as well. Neesha sniffs, painfully aware that they have nothing to say to each other. She looks at her feet, crimson block-toe heels on a hospital floor. Nothing glamorous about that.
      After a few silent hours in the waiting room, they shuffled into Room 105 of the hospital’s west wing, wholly unprepared to see their mother. Mina Bharadwaj’s friends, had she had any, would have described her as selfless. More candidly, they would have said she made her selflessness known at every available opportunity. Her children responded to this in different ways—Ravi was wracked with guilt, Arjun practiced millennial indifference religiously, and Neesha—Neesha wasn’t sure what to make of it. She would never understand the choices her mother had made, often resenting her for making them, but now they mirrored her own. They gathered around their mother’s bed now, watching her lie comatose, seeing her no longer as their mother but as herself. An old woman, who, Neesha knew, was once unmistakably beautiful. Her mind gets to work, smoothing her face, lining her eyes, painting her lips a deep plum. Before she can see the finished product, the disgust takes over, erasing her canvas. “I wonder if she can hear us,” says Arjun, regretting it instantly. She had always slept like the dead, with stone eyelids. The doctor tells them she’s doing well, as well as she can be. One of the nurses said she saw her smile yesterday afternoon. A most peculiar thing.
      Mina, of course, knows exactly why she was smiling. She wants to laugh like a child, reassure her children that they shouldn’t be worrying. What a boring life she led, she thinks, and listen to what it produced—listen—to her spoilt darlings argue from somewhere above the clouds. Like the Gods, she giggles. If the Gods’ lives revolved around real estate. More than anything, she wants to tell them how happy she is here. She is lithe and free, her surroundings changing by her own invention. Mina sits in a strange garden, the tall grass sighing above her in a gentle archway. The flowers are alive as well. They kiss each other wantonly, stems twisting around each other. She has not felt desire like this for years. It rained last night, and saplings open their eyes out of the soil. She has to tread carefully with them, careful not to step on them like those crabs on Digha beach from a lifetime ago. Otherwise they cry out, and then there’s hours of inconsolable tears. This is a part of her mind that she lost long ago, a pain-induced numbness from her childhood she may never trace nor understand.
      Now she hears the doctor’s voice from the sky, and so she tunes in. And there it is, the unacceptable nothing they are able to do. The pulling of the plug, a religious ceremony of modern medicine. It was a good thing Mina was measured, timid when she reached this place. Nothing dies here, everything is forever, only open to metamorphosis, which is enough. She does not have company yet, her mind is unable to devise a perfect person that isn’t infuriatingly predictable. This is a place for artists, she thinks.
      Back at the hospital, the Bharadwaj’s read their mother’s decision. She wrote it in her thirties, so no matter what it says, it isn’t fair, she was a different person then. After trying for years, she had her children late, when all the women in her life battled new demons. This was another thing that kept her from their company. The hardest time, though, was high school, finding condom wrappers and love notes their bedrooms, trying to piece together the secret worlds they kept from her. Once, Arjun remembered her storming into his room and finding him with another young boy, trying her hardest not to react, sealing a ridge between them indefinitely. If she had been angry, like she was with the others, things would have been different, but her face was pinched. He only ever saw her make that expression again was the evening after Holi, when their father played cards his friends and drunk too much, and Arjun had helped her clean up the mess he had made on the carpet afterwards. Her eyes squinted slightly as she scrubbed, mouth twitching. Then he understood. It was revulsion.
      And so it was there in writing that their mother wanted to die, and under no circumstances were they to stop her. If only they were so close as to have discussed this at some point, if only there was little to be said and be repaired. Their mother, who superstitiously clung to their lives and took paranoid care with her own, chose death over miracle, and worse, she requested it immediately. Ravi walked out of the room, his lawyer on the phone, already discussing loopholes. His knees bounced, a habit that was once the reason he was denied a job offer in an interview. Neesha and Arjun stare blankly. There is too much they share with their mother for them to feel the disorienting pain of grief, too much pride to cry. They are adults now, calm and stoic, old enough to have learned that no feeling lingers longer than embarrassment.
      But still, there is too much pain to be indifferent. Mina strains to hear the rest, but it’s strangely quiet. There is a lemonade-pink beach here, and sleepy mountains. The sand is soft, endless. It’s so perfect, she almost forgets the way she begun to die—friendless and alone in their house, freezing cold, her husband long gone and her children deliberately scattered around the globe. It was probably the dog who noticed first, she thinks bitterly. Her insecure, doting Doberman, another contradiction to its breed. He was a good guard dog, though—having a dark, muscular creature bound towards you with its teeth bared was enough of a deterrent for anyone. She smiles. Apollo could have been immobilised by anyone with a belly rub, but of course no one knew that. The smile turns sad. Where is he now? She wonders. In the first few weeks of her being here, she created hundreds of puppies, and some follow her as she walks over to the water. The waves part, and they begin to run, making a beeline through like a school of fish.
      As a schoolgirl, Neesha had been her mother’s favourite. She woke up early every day to help her with her homework and braid her hair. They were beautiful women, and like many beautiful women, they shared an understanding of what it meant. They loved to be envied, to be disarming. For her daughter, Mina made special allowances. It would be easy to say that their relationship began dying when she didn’t get into those schools, but she knew it hadn’t mattered enough to break her mother’s heart. No, it was her fault, Neesha knew. With her husband and their friends, she became a different person, a girl who’d indubitably been popular in high school, whose degree made for dinner party conversation and little else. It was too painful to switch back, and so she made excuses to avoid her home on holidays. It was as if none of her old clothes fit, and she was indecent without them. She wondered what her mother would have said to her now, what her parting words might have been. Would it have been pity, she thinks, or contempt? It was hard to tell. Memories of their mornings together had blended into one, but they existed, she knows. Her mother’s voice has become her mind’s, and Neesha knows this is how she will remember her.
      Her mother had specially requested, the document reads, to be ‘let go of’ immediately. There is no reason for anyone to wait anymore. “What could she possibly have been thinking…” Ravi mutters, and the other two smile privately at his furrowed brow. He looks like their father reading the news in the morning, struggling to make sense of the acronymic parties and policies splashed across the front-page headlines. Their father, who never trusted nurses with painted nails, who joked to the world about having such a big heart he needed to be large to hold it. At home, he was vacant, a stranger to his children, then his wife, then himself. On her birthday, Mina’s mother-in-law had taken it upon herself to tell the children how her son had died as if they had not already known. Lost in her story, she had forgotten to finish it, and began to stare into space, quiet, until an aunt of theirs had taken her to her bedroom to lie down.
      Perhaps they had been an unhappy family, and not just a distant one, as Mina had always described. But she and her husband had not been an unhappy couple, at least not to begin with. They sacrificed for one another – she her ambition, he his wandering eye. It worked, the thin thread that tied them together, sparse but sturdy, but the weight of becoming parents had snapped it at last. She wonders where he is now. Without realising it, this world she has created has become a tribute to him, an attestation to what their lives should have been. Without noticing it, she has been waiting for him all this while.
      And so they stand together at the foot of their mother’s hospital bed while doctors come in silently, gently removing tubes from her sleeping body. It is mechanical and fluid, their condolences are solemn. Now, there is nothing anyone can do. To someone watching, they wouldn’t look like a family—individually, each has the capacity to be stared at, businessman, peacock, and pig, but together—together, they’re unremarkable. Arjun considers asking them to breakfast at Ayaz’s, where they always went for birthdays, the only family tradition they really had. Perhaps it is too early still. Neesha and Ravi might have considered agreeing to go. Instead, no one says anything, and Ravi mumbles and leaves, patting Neesha on the back in a distinctly avuncular way. He will make the funeral arrangements, he mentions over his shoulder, as he walks out of the room. Arjun is the next to go, not bothering to pretend he has to. Neesha stays until the nurses return. In a movement, she slides off her wedding ring, slipping it onto her mother’s finger, whispering a promise.
      Mina, of course, knew none of this. She guessed. It poured again at night, and in the morning, the voices in the clouds were too faint to hear. To feel this invincible, to inhabit this beautiful body, was wondrous. Of course she had been pretty, but now her body curved and flattened like a goddesses’; some women would be willing to lose years off their life for this sort of thing. She had taken up cliff diving, amongst other dangerous pursuits, knowing nothing could touch her anymore. Stripping down, she poised and fell, cutting the water with her hands. It slid off her skin like the pain did.
      There was never any traffic this early in the morning, and so the three Bharadwaj’s found themselves driving their cars in a line, a row of ducks. Slowly, they sectioned off. Once more, Ravi was first, already on his way to his parents’ house to sort their belongings. Arjun followed, turning left into Ayaz’s, ready to eat the meat he had sworn off for three years alone in silence. Neesha did not make it through the whole length of her driveway. Turning, she steered into a street she had never been before, looking for unchartered territory, driving until she recognised nothing and couldn’t find her way home.
      Something shifted. Mina gasped for air, paddling desperately, feeling for the warm embrace of the water, wondering where all the salt went, why she was no longer buoyant. Up above, the clouds are gone, and the sky is clear. Through her spluttering and the crash of the waves and the wind, she heard a familiar laugh behind her. An old friend, now a young man, holding a new ring that looked familiar, too. AQ

Nate Ealy – The Unfortunate One

Nate Ealy
The Unfortunate One

Of all the dates Leah Hempfield had been on, none of them ended by walking out of the police station. Sure, when she’d gone on dates with Mike their car broke down, the movie skipped at the theater, and it’d rained on their picnic, but nothing like this.
      ‘Our string of bad luck continues,’ Leah said.
      She walked with her arms crossed careful not to step on any cracks. The night air made the hair on her arms stand up. It reminded her of the weather the night she graduated college two years ago, and the fearful dread of the unknown that followed. Instead of her early twenties cap and gown, tonight she wore a tight red dress with a high slit up her thigh. It was the perfect dinner tease, not suited for a late night walk through Pittsburgh.
      ‘You still look beautiful.’ Mike kissed her on the cheek.
      Leah placed her hand on her cheek and smiled. ‘You always say that after something goes wrong.’
      But that wasn’t true. Mike told her she was beautiful every time he saw her. Leah liked that about him. He treated her better than all the other guys in her past.
      ‘It’s just another adventure.’ Mike hit the walk button for the crosswalk even though there wasn’t any traffic.
      He turned and pulled Leah in close giving her another kiss, this time on the lips, and squeezed her butt.
      A car sped by and the passenger yelled WHORE out the window.
      Mike flipped them off, but they were too far gone for it to matter.
      ‘I can’t believe that,’ Mike said.
      ‘It’s just our luck.’ Leah grabbed his hand and crossed the street.
      They continued walking down the street until they got back to the restaurant. It wasn’t one that magazines would feature as to why you should visit Pittsburgh, but for locals, it was a good night out. They then grabbed the rest of their belongings that the kind officers wouldn’t let them take in the cruiser, and then left. The wait staff offered coupons for them to come back another time, but Leah refused.
      Mike walked Leah back to his car. It was still sitting in the parking garage racking up a bigger bill by the hour.
      ‘At least the old Ford’s still here. I’m glad it’s not towed or something,’ Mike said.
      ‘After everything that’s happened to us, I wouldn’t be surprised if it did,’ Leah said.
      Mike then opened the door for her and she got in. Not until she started riding with Mike had a man ever done that before for her. Leah didn’t even know she wanted that, but now she’d experienced it, she realized that she did. A few minutes later, and one long goodnight kiss, she was in her apartment.

###

      Leah walked in and threw her handbag on the couch before slumping down. Her chest almost fell out of her dress, but she didn’t care anymore. They only person who could see her now was her roommate Steph, and she had her own boobs to look at.
      ‘Steph! We need to talk,’ Leah shouted.
      Not even two seconds later her brown-haired roommate emerged from the kitchen, without pants, and eating a bowl of cereal.
      ‘Tell me everything!’ Steph said as she sat down beside Leah. The cereal in the bowl sloshed to the side but didn’t spill over. Steph muted the TV that had the hockey game on.
      Leah sighed. “You’ll never believe what happened this time.’
      ‘A bird shit on you?’ Steph said.
      ‘Do you see any on me? No. We were accused of being accessories to theft. Arrested and taken downtown like criminals.’
      Steph blinked a few times, and then it hit her.
      ‘Wow. That’s gotta be the top of the ladder for you,’ Steph said.
      ‘Don’t worry. The manager and security cameras cleared us. But I think Mike’s bad luck. I mean, something always goes wrong when I see him,’ Leah said.
      She then kicked her shoes off and watched them spin through the air. They smacked the floor across the apartment with a loud THUD. One landed perfectly upright, while the other fell onto its side.
      ‘You guys get all the fun stories.’ Steph downed the milk in her cereal bowl and got up. She went back to the kitchen and returned with her phone.
      ‘I think the bad luck is a sign,’ Leah said.
      ‘Oh what?’ Steph set her phone down on her lap.
      ‘That maybe Mike and I aren’t meant to be. We’re bad luck for each other,’ Leah said. She curled up on the couch.
      ‘Have you asked him about it? I bet he just enjoys everything. He probably tells all of his friends everything that happens when you two meet up,’ Steph said.
      ‘Maybe.’
      ‘Don’t be stubborn about it. You know he’s better than any other guy out there. I’d kill to have a guy like him.’ Steph said. She then got up and returned to the kitchen.
      Leah sat on the couch and looked at her phone. Maybe this bad luck stuff was just nonsense after all. Maybe.
      ‘But look. I can get you back on Tinder too or whatever app you want. There’s tons of dick out there to get on. I just don’t think there’s better than Mike for you.’ Steph came back from the kitchen with a glass of wine this time.
      But would those other guys want to see her? Would she be good enough for them? If the past was any indication of the future, Leah most certainly would not be. If she wasn’t good enough for Mike, the best guy she’d found thus far, she couldn’t be good enough for a swipe right. That’s why she was chronically single at age twenty-three.
      Leah shook her head. ‘No. I just want things to go right. I’m getting tired of it all.’
      ‘Don’t be tired of it. Things are going right.’
      ‘That’s not what I’m starting to think. These smaller things are warning flags for bigger things down the road,’ Leah said. She looked down at her own phone. The background was a smiling picture of them laughing on their third date a month ago. That was when the movie projector slipped and they had to sit in the theatre for an hour waiting for repairs. She knew that all of her friends from school had wedding pictures as their backgrounds.
      ‘I don’t want to break up with him, but he’s totally bad luck,’ Leah said.
      ‘Then keep being stubborn and text him and be over it. Don’t let your fear of being an old maid stop you from finding something great. I think you’re your worst enemy here though.’ Steph stared at her phone swiping left and right.
      But Leah couldn’t do that. She’d gone out too many times with Mike Aster to up and leave him so mercilessly. He’d given her a chance when so many other guys hadn’t. The strings keeping her attached to this man didn’t come from her head but from her heart.
      She genuinely liked him, and if given the time, could grow into love.
      Leah didn’t want to leave Mike. She wanted the leave the bad luck.
      ‘I think I’ll just talk to him about it,’ Leah said.
      ‘Would you want my grandma’s lucky rabbit foot? She gave it to me before I moved out of my parents’ house to keep me safe and I ended up with you as a roommate, but she had it when she met my grandfather, too. So I guess there’s a little bit of good juju in it. If you want I can let you use it the next time you see him,’ Steph said.
      Leah smiled. ‘I’d like that.’
      She got up from the couch and started to strip on her way to her bed. By the time she’d changed clothes, Leah had two Snapchats from Mike, one telling her she had a good night and one where he had no clothes on. Both made her smile.

###

Two days later on a sidewalk in Point State Park, Leah hugged Mike Aster. He scooped her up in his arms and swung her around like an Olympian throwing the hammer toss. He met her with a kiss at the end.
      ‘I’m so happy to see you,’ Mike whispered in her ear.
      Leah smiled and took his hand. They started to walk down the sidewalk passing by older Pittsburghers walking their dogs. The rivers were high and dirty with springtime muck just a few feet from the sidewalk, but the sunshine falling down was warm.
      Mike had on a simple outfit: t-shirt and shorts.
      Leah had on a white long sleeve shirt with khaki capris. In her pocket was Steph’s lucky rabbit’s foot.
      The park was green with the late April rains, and Leah loved the way the trees smelled. It was a nice break up from the urban concrete that lined the rest of the city.
      ‘So you said you wanted to chat a bit?’ Mike asked.
      ‘Yes,’ Leah added. ‘It has been a whole two days since we left the station together.’
      She was careful not to step on any cracks in the sidewalk but tried to keep Mike from noticing. He hadn’t said anything yet so she figured she was in the clear.
      ‘What’s up?’
      Leah took a deep breath. ‘I’ve been thinking.’
      ‘Now that’s a scary way to start a conversation.’ Mike locked eyes with her.
      ‘Well, I’ve just been thinking that every time I see you, something bad happens. It just feels like we’re bad luck.’ Leah said.
      ‘Nah. I think it’s been fun. I’ve never had a boring time with you. Bad luck doesn’t exist anyway.’ Mike smiled.
      ‘It does. Luck, good and bad, really does exist out there,’ Leah said.
      ‘C’mon, seriously?’
      ‘Yeah! Bad luck is a thing and we really have it.’ Leah said.
      Mike shook his head. ‘No, I don’t agree with you.’
      ‘How? It’s like the universe is telling us to stop seeing each other,’ Leah said.
      There. It was out. She could exhale.
      Mike carved his face into a thinking man’s scowl and looked away. ‘I have to admit that things usually do go wrong when it’s the two of us, but as for luck? That’s bullshit. Luck doesn’t exist like that. The universe isn’t in complete control here either. It’s you and me.’
      ‘Luck had been pretty good for me until you came along,’ Leah said.
      ‘Luck’s like a saying. It doesn’t really exist though. Like when people say “oh my god!” They’re not really calling out to god.’ Mike said. He then stopped and grabbed Leah’s other hand. ‘I think we make a good couple. I was hoping you wanted to see me today to make things official.’
      Leah felt a jolt inside her body. That was exactly what she wanted, but she wasn’t ready for the consequences of it. What more things could go wrong in her life? Would she potentially lose her job for this relationship? If she became Mike Aster’s girlfriend would their rent go up and she lose the apartment with Steph? It would all point her to the same thing: heartbreak.
      But what if she did become his girlfriend? Her mind saw infinite smiles, endless kisses, and passionate sex. The positive possibilities all pointed to one thing: love.
      Leah squirmed her hands out of Mike’s grip. ‘I think we should try a few more dates.’
      ‘A few more? Leah, we’ve been seeing each other multiple times for months now. I’m ready to go the next step.’ Mike said.
      I’m not ready for my car to get repossessed or my mother to have a heart attack. I don’t know what’s going to go wrong today because I saw you, but I can’t even imagine what’ll go wrong if I go further with you like that. I think we should just stay friends for now.’
      Leah crossed her arms. She had to let her thoughts out. She couldn’t risk all the bad luck in the world for a single lover. Even so, she could feel the heartstrings that connected her to Mike pulling tight, too tight.
      ‘Are you that scared of me?’ Mike asked. ‘Or just that crazy stubborn?’
      Leah had to let a young man on a bicycle go by before she could answer. The biker sped by in a neon flash.
      ‘I’m not scared of you, Mike. Maybe I am stubborn, but I do really like you. I just think that bad things happen when we’re together,’ Leah said.
      She leaned in to kiss him, but Mike turned his cheek. He then started to walk away.
      ‘Mike, please, say something,’ Leah asked. She wished now that she hadn’t let go of his hands.
      Mike kept walking down the sidewalk under the shade of the trees. Leah knew that if she let him go in a city as big as Pittsburgh, she’d never see him again.He’d never answer her texts or Snaps. So she grabbed the rabbit foot in her pocket tight for second, squeezing all the good juju out of it she could. Then she went up behind Mike and wrapped him in a big hug.
      She then heard a whisper, a faint, almost imagined whisper.
      I love you.
      Leah let go of Mike and waited for him to turn around. She didn’t say anything. She wasn’t sure of what she heard, but Mike didn’t say anything more. He only began walking.
      Right then a big, fat horsefly bit her neck. Leah slapped the bug and watched it fall to the sidewalk below. When she looked up, Mike Aster was gone and her heartstrings snapped. AQ

Camilla Holland – Two Tickets for the Resurrection

Camilla Holland
Two Tickets for the Resurrection

Her fingers sift through layers of tissue paper to free each crystal droplet, jewel and pendant. Frilled edges of glass scatter prisms of light across the room, bright reflections bounce off the multi-faceted, glinting diamonds. Even in the weak winter sunshine rainbow shapes waltz on her living room walls.
      Her brother Paul is travelling by train to visit. A trip to the portrait gallery and then some music will appeal to him, especially Mahler’s Second Symphony. A concert in the grandeur of the century-old, sandstone-built Usher Hall will evoke memories and nostalgia. She bought a pair of upper tier tickets in a frisson of extravagance when she was passing the box office a few weeks ago. An orchestra plus the massed vocal ranks of a choir, with a sprinkle of international soloists, will certainly indulge the senses and conjure up escapades of the nineteen-seventies teenagers Paul and Joyce.
      Joyce fondles the cold pieces of coruscating glass and hums the symphony’s slow movement to herself. Once mounted on the black iron frame the baubles will speak of dark matter, swirling galaxies and twinkling stars. They were both fascinated with the cosmos and had watched and dissected the television footage of Aldrin and Armstrong as they walked on the surface of the moon in 1969.
      Paul’s birthday is February the fourteenth, a romantic date that no-one would forget. She remembers Paul taking her to London on the train, a three-hour journey, when she was sixteen and he was celebrating his eighteenth birthday. He’d got tickets for the film ‘Gone with the Wind’ and she wept, it was so enjoyable.

*

Paul’s only daughter teaches in California. She doesn’t write to Joyce, not even a birthday card, but Joyce always sends one to California.
      Joyce and her husband had no children, but she feels the faint pang of two disappointing miscarriages. Now she is a widow and she has just celebrated her first Christmas alone.

*

Joyce prays that her big brother Paul approves of her impetuous Gothic chandelier. When she saw it in the antique shop she imagined it suspended from the elaborately-corniced ceiling in the living room of her nineteenth-century Edinburgh apartment.
      One Christmas Day she recalls that Paul ridiculed her traditional Christmas dinner of turkey and kilted sausages with Brussels sprouts and roast potatoes. In a meandering telephone conversation he had extolled the virtues of the nut roast and hummus they were cooking hundreds of miles away in Devon, iconoclast that he was. And perhaps still is.
      Joyce doesn’t want the chandelier to spoil his visit. But wait a minute.
      It’s my apartment, she thinks, the beds are comfortable, the view is pretty good for a European city—Edinburgh Castle tracing the skyline in a ribbon of gold at night, and her company will be spirited and sisterly. The Usher Hall concert will be a triumph. Excitement is building in her chest. Their shared love of Mahler, his Resurrection Symphony indeed, will reignite their sibling intimacy on his birthday.
      They were raised as Roman Catholics so the Gothic symbolism of her chandelier will be familiar. He served as an altar boy while Joyce, in the congregation, inhaled the incense, recited from her missal, and knelt for the Credo.
      The hard glass components tinkle and clank against one another as she sorts them according to size and follows the plan of where each will hang on the skeletal black structure. On the dining table she marshals the jewels into neat rows of soldiers, a kaleidoscope of brilliance impatient to be slotted into the dazzling overhead array.
      Joyce places a chair below the ceiling-mounted chandelier and steps up to attach the glimmering treasures one by one. She polishes with a lint cloth each crystal before she slips the thin wire into its assigned slot on the iron frame. The chandelier hangs right above the table where they will drink a champagne toast on Paul’s arrival. Prismatic beams will mosaic across their faces. Joyce smiles, anticipating Paul’s smile.
      Optimism swells and her fingers dance as she drops scintillating shards one by one into place.
      It’s nine years since her brother visited. He came for their mother’s funeral.
      Not a visit. No, it couldn’t be called that. He stayed less than twenty-four hours.
      Joyce has made eight trips to see him in the past fifteen years. She’s just counted them in her head.
      But he’s never come to visit her.
      Her stomach churns. She slots a rhomboid diamond into place. It glitters.
      His interest in his only sister is an illusion.
      Not one phone call.
      Fifteen years of rejection.
      How stupid I am.
      The chandelier sparkles through the tears as they seep from her eyes, refracting the radiant ranks.
      Dusk has fallen as she finishes her masterpiece. She steps down from the chair. It is ready. In the darkness she gropes her way to the light switch by the door.
      The moment has come. She breathes deeply and the switch illuminates the chandelier.
      She gasps. Her hand rushes to her mouth.
      A blaze of mottled colours fleck the white walls. She walks to the table, reaches up and nudges one droplet – it tinkles against its neighbour, sending a wave of rainbows dancing around the white walls. Iridescence flickers on the pinkness of her hands, flashes on the black window glass and reflects back.
      Her spirit lifts in the presence of such Gothic glory. Surely she is wrong? The parents who raised them were intelligent, compassionate and inculcated a sense of love, family and justice into both of their children.
      A bottle of good champagne chills in the fridge. Slices of French Brie and a pile of nutty oatcakes sit on her favourite silver tray. When she has collected Paul from the train station they will chink glasses, tuck into the little feast and reminisce.
      She selects two crystal glasses from the sideboard and places them on the silver tray. Joyce invokes her blessed mother’s soul to join them as they commune in her chapel of light.
      The phone rings.
      Her sister-in-law. ‘Paul’s gone down with the flu.’
      ‘Oh.’
      ‘He won’t be coming to visit.’ AQ

Juliana Johnson – The Lake

Juliana Johnson
The Lake

In the summers, you stay with your aunt, who lives in the middle of the woods somewhere near a lake. Most of the time, she would leave you alone, but this summer is different. She confronts you in the kitchen one morning, saying she heard you crying last night. You tell her you’re fine because if you tell her the truth you’ll cry again, and when your boyfriend left you he said you cry too much, so it feels so shameful to do it now, though you know it isn’t. Then again, some nights you cry hard enough you think your heart just might stop. So maybe he was right.
      You start going out to the lake after that, sitting on the edge of the dock. It’s better than crying inside anyway. Inside, the walls reverberates the sadness back to you. It clings onto you. It becomes the wallpaper and the blankets you sleep in. The grief becomes the air. Somehow, you think if you are outside, it will all go elsewhere. It could stop being yours to bear alone.
      You walk out to the lake one night, trying to learn how to let go of the past. You cry and the tears fall into the lake and the water ripples. This time, you will not sit. You want to swim.
      You walk to the edge of the dock and sit for a second before pushing yourself into the water. The initial crash is thunder and then nothing. There is no sound except the blood rushing in your ear. You sink for a second and then come back up the top, breaking the surface. The moon above you lights up the whole lake.
      You float on your back, the silver water holding you like he never could. The water doesn’t say it loves you only to say it never really meant it. The water doesn’t break you. It just keeps you afloat.
      You’re surprised it can. You have felt so heavy with grief lately.
      You read somewhere once that when you die, you go back to the earth. Your body rots and becomes nothing more than dirt.
      Instead, you like to think the dead become water. They become the vapour in the air, which becomes the rain in the clouds, which become the oceans and the rivers and the lakes. Maybe right now you’re floating in a pool of other people’s stories, and that’s why the lake can hold you and your story up so well. Maybe they’re listening to you. Maybe they think you’re silly for being so sad over some boy, or maybe they sympathize.
      You’re crying here, on your back on the lake surface, but he was wrong. You don’t cry too much. It’s just enough. The tears, filled with memories, run off your cheeks and become nothing more than lake water. He becomes nothing more than water. Meanwhile, you can hear your heart beating steady as you float. AQ

Gracjan Kraszewski – Footprints is a work of genius!

Gracjan Kraszewski
Footprints is a work of genius!

I nod, nod, nod, nod. My interior self, ‘Bob’, is just about off the knob relative to the plod and trod concerning all things metaphysics, mimesis, and sub-atomic machinations of the most muscular, deft diplomatic stripe.
      The doctor keeps scribbling. He does not look up once, not even when taking a break for a breath between the furious pen pressing.
      Footprints is a work of genius! I think, and hear myself internally say, in preamble to an immediately forthcoming discourse, if he allows it, concerning this very same topic. The guy put women’s shoes and boots on his hands and feet, dipped them into many buckets of various colors, and just plodded (ah, right, that’s why that word) around his studio until he was done and was ready to display it and ready to have someone bid six, maybe seven, figures plus sincere praise and pedantic sycophantism gratis.
       ‘Okay, but, doc, but, bro, dude but listen, okay? Okay if I speak on one more thing before we finish out here? Right. Good. Post modern art, bruh. I’m talking at the time like called mid-century, you see from all the French students in the streets ’68 plus Dubcek east of us plus MLK far to the west, that time, like ’68, like late ’60s where we just flushed about like a waterfall swirled in the historiographical revolutions toppling top-down analytics into bottom-up, bottoms up celebratory drinking parties for the common man, soon the common ‘person’ because this and that always eats its own, like look what then happened about all types of identities and identifiers decades later, right?, this time, ’68, where we say mid-century and we know 20th, where we say fin de siècle and we know 19th, so this time to my timeframe being framed as we speak, here, frames like those things that maybe even they can’t make all this shit look even passably painting-like, a frame of mind, nothing, it’s nothing because nothing itself means jack shit, we’re past the void here, post-nihilist, because when you can’t explain if the painting is upside down, or right-side up, or left, or right, or what color is that color there on the canvas, or that it is, what is, and really is that anything?; or, okay, but that’s not part ‘of it,’ okay…so this time, doc, feel me when I try and keep it on point and just to the facts. Modern art, five things of import: One, the first thing, is that you have be good at playing the ape game, the imitation game, and, because it’s fundamentally about subversion and inversion, literally in the latter inverting like 180 degrees ideas of good, beauty, form, transcendence, truth, meaning, logos, unto, like, bad, ugliness, scattershot shitstormtroopering, imminence, falsehood, absurdity, and, bro doc bro doc doc, cod, cape cod, doc, cape cod league bro, bruh-doc, dawg, and especially, most especially chaos. So that’s number one: Art used to mean something and that thing, those things, were both objective and objectively good so if we want to be effectively subversive—and that’s the whole fucking fuckcluck pointed point; to fight against, and ultimately destroy, try to destroy at least, die trying, die hard, die hard 2, die…you, you get it, to try and destroy all that is solid, sensible, sane and sacred—we need to effectively develop new ‘schools of art’ that say things we all know are shit are actually good and they’re the ‘new thing’, the new avant-garde whateverthefuckever who cares so long as people are effectively fooled by this ape-imitation to say, in effect, the old ways are out, the new way is here. Okay, so then #2 is to start backing up the trucks full of cashlootdimenickelstacksstcakedcoinage and just straight filthy, dirty, expletive-ridden suscio as fuck facil dinero and start dumping it all over this ‘new art’. It’s just insider trading in Oligarch finishing school. If all these art collectors get together and agree to buy endless piles of this shit pseudo-art then—because people worship money, am I telling you something new?—the prices go up, the buzz goes up, general interest climbs and peaks and keeps buzzing all the way unto what they’re really after: legitimacy. If all these rich people are paying like $20m a painting it must be good, right? I mean, to me it looks like shit but, but that guy just paid $20m so, well it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been wrong; silly me. Legitimacy. Legitimacy. Bruh-doc, Doctor Brother, legitimacy is what we absolutely need, so these they do say, kay? But to really seal the deal the money just won’t do. We need three and four. #3: get these pieces into the museums. How silly does silly me commoner feel when, already rebuked form his absolutely correct first impression that the urine-stained (by the artists’ own sample! The visionary character is found in an impregnable dedication to authenticity) detached toilet seat was, indeed, as valueless as it appeared/appears/will continue to appear to be, he sees said seat hanging in prime real estate within MOMA? And then, #4, something for the true holdouts, the hardest to get common sense critics for whom money and (all) integrity-(and honesty)-for-sale museums won’t bring across the divide, the chasm, that separates art from not-art. #4: Get some academic(s)—if you have to ask does this academic, forcement, forcement as in see: by necessity, have to have a PhD from Harvard or Yale and an undergrad degree from Brown or Berkeley and a current endowed chair at Dartmouth or Princeton? you’re really f***** beyond hopeless, brother; here, for this type of work, even Northwestern need not apply—to write impossibly dense, wordy, inscrutable articles, really as impossible to comprehend as the artwork they’re writing about in the first place, the subject matter (now that, finally, is art), and have it published in the most reputable, most scientifically screened and hyperbonk peer reviewed journals with one message: THIS IS ART AND IT IS GOOD AND YOU MUST LIKE IT AND APPROVE OR ELSE YOU’RE WRONG OR, WORSE OF ALL, A COUNTRY BUMPKIN-LIKE FOURTH RATE FAUX-INTELLECTUAL LIGHTWEIGHT MUCH TOO LIGHT IN THE HEAD TO UNDERSTAND, TO ‘GET’, REAL ART. And there you have it, my doc. I cannot, will not, but, again can not, I do not posses the requisite hairsplitting skills to stop the disco-dancing of all those angels on the pinhead to better, I mean more precisely, cannot any better explain this whole con game to you than that, than I just did, kid; ah, okay, but chu-wanna rid, me, wanna put a lid, on my arguments? Not so fast. A review? One: Perfect imitation game making what was once good bad, and what was once bad, ugly, abhorrent the new ‘good’; two: money to prove legitimacy; three: museums to prove legitimacy; four: a treasure trove of the best and brightest academics and critics proving legitimacy in legitimacy is thy name legitimate journals that only a fool would doubt are in fact legitimate. Five is just one: Step five is the con completed successfully; confirmed; the Z back to A completed loop, 5, Z, that’s all of us, the sheep publicly fleeced for their pleasure certainly not ours, we wearing the itchy wool sweaters of shit ass fake art without the slightest complaint, no, not even a peep, not even a murmur of discontent, rather, an approving and docile smile of passive submission.’ AQ

Mandira Pattnaik – Bustle

Mandira Pattnaik
Bustle

Days before my eighteenth birthday, I met her at the ramshackle hole-in-the-wall shop in old Kolkata. The place was merely a rendezvous point sandwiched between the cinema hall that screened cheap song-and-dance capers and the grocery where Mum maintained a running account. Ivanna she called herself. But I strongly doubted her. Auburn hair, crimson headband—she was a foreigner, and foreigners in these parts meant only one thing.
      ‘Ivanna from Greece. Want some?
      I stuffed her palm with cash I’d stolen from Mum’s purse. She pinched my cheeks as she’d a toddler and fished out some grayish-silver tablets from her batik-printed bag, careful not to be too conspicuous.
      Cash was supplanted with tablets.
      I went home to the drone. Most times it was a cacophony; only sometimes got denuded to a static. Those were the rare minutes I could count my life without having to deal with my head.
      I had lived with that soup bubbling inside the orb balanced over my neck for quite some time, but found it boiling over on Friday last, when thousands of us, students in our jeans and tees, spilled onto the streets, without flags or banners, the air thick with cries of, ‘Enough is Enough’. We had taken the abuse and injustices for far too long. Something had snapped somewhere.
      Our peaceful marches rattled the citadels; we stood defiant against sturdy walls of power. We were crushed, we fell, were born again like amoeba, ready to face more water cannons and rubber pellets.
      I began to return home to more voices; more drums beating, directing me. Now there was no stopping. I was slipping more and more into my own dark canyon.
      Someone suggested the tablets. They eased me into sleep for a few nights. Later on, I dreamt of grey skies that were surrendering to the rumblings within and slashing themselves with a silver blade, pouring out torrents. I dreamt I lived in a saucer which clouds filled several larder-full, me devouring it one moment, filling my canvas with idyllic peasant homes, rustic women working in verdant paddy-fields, and the next instant I was drowning. How I cried for help in the quiet of my room!
      The second time Ivanna invited me to her rented place on Sudder Street where tenements were stacked precariously like they were forced upon one another to prove some formulae on gravity or equilibrium, and held together by the roots of wild creepers growing in their crevices. Miscellaneous flags, festoons, cable wires hung over them, but they stood in stoic silence unmindful of the intervention of time.
      Just at the bend, she had come to receive me for I didn’t know the way. The skies had opened their wounds again, this time for real, and we were caught in the sudden shower.
      We stood without words under the awning of a shop, evaluating each other. She was older by at least a decade; I showed off the thin hairline on my upper lip, brushing it with the tip of my index.
      When the clouds were done, spent on an unrepentant afternoon, she led me into her tiny apartment; into what had drawn her to this city; into the details of a mundane job as a store clerk back home that had allowed her to buy this trip.
      To return the frankness, I told her about my family, my landscapes, the bustle in my head which no one seemed to hear, before I paid for what’d suffice to shut those voices for the next few days.
      I turned to see her waving at her door when I left.
      But that was it. There was no third or fourth time. She had disappeared.
      The rest of my years at Art College were spent looking for her. Not that my supplies weren’t coming, but I had lost all interest in them. My mind used to dwell on where she might be. All I wanted was—closure.
      During this time, the silver lining in my rudderless life were the colours of the rainbow stashed in my satchel that helped bind the voices within, that held me together.
      Immediately after college, I left for Europe, living for some years faintly aware that if I ever met Ivanna, I owed her gratitude. I’d easily have been pulled into a bottomless abyss where a racket would be pounding my ears, playing uninterrupted, and opium only blanketing the drone for some time.
      Instead, she chose to remain the girl in crimson headband waving to me, framed by a dark-mahogany door. AQ

Judy Upton – Urban Foxes

Judy Upton
Urban Foxes

Life’s hard on the streets of Brighton. It’s the constant uncertainty of getting enough to eat, and finding somewhere to sleep that’s both safe and reasonably dry and warm. I worry about Esme. She’s alone, she’s pregnant and she’s a fox.
      I once heard a celebrity pet owner say the thing she loves about animals is that they don’t judge you. It’s not like that actually. At least it’s not with foxes. They’re actually judging you all of the time. Every moment you’re in range of one of their senses, they’re making tiny assessments. Like why are you offering food? Is it poisoned? Is it a trap? When those golden eyes lock on to yours they look for the slightest signs of aggression, hostility or deceit. Foxes live in a world of deceit, but then don’t we all?
      It was all so different when I first met Esme. It was early last autumn, the start of my ecology degree. I went on a freshers’ pub crawl, wearing the same beer-company sponsored t-shirt as everyone else. And like everyone else I drank too much and ended up skinny dipping at 4 a.m. I’m not a person who likes to stand out from the crowd, so I did my best to blend in.
      Esme has never felt the need to conform. She does exactly as she pleases. She doesn’t skulk or keep close to the walls and hedges. She’s bold and swaggering; sass personified. Her fur shines like burnished copper, her brush is full and ermine tipped. She’s the vixen queen and she knows it.
      I tried to make friends with the other two girls I was flat-sharing with. I probably tried too hard. I thought I was lucky to get that room. The third girl in their group had decided to take a year out from her course, so there was a vacancy. Only then she changed her mind and returned, wanting her room back. She and her flatmates wanted me gone and stupidly I hadn’t insisted on any kind of contract. It meant I had to find somewhere else to live in the middle of term when there weren’t many vacancies and the few there were, were out of my price range.
      I did find somewhere. I do have a roof over my head, even if the circumstances aren’t ideal. I suppose in that sense I’m better off than Esme. My beautiful Esme. The first time I saw her, I was walking home, slightly worse for wear, and she was a little way ahead of me. She must’ve heard my footsteps behind, as she turned and looked. Her gorgeous eyes met mine. She stood transfixed, just staring at me, as I looked back at her. And I felt something I can’t put it into words. This beautiful wild animal, with her tawny fur, sharply pricked ears and confident poise—it was love. From my side anyway.
      I saw her again the next night. This time she was dragging the remains of a KFC box under a hedge. When I peered through the branches, I discovered a big, overgrown garden, a sort of mini wilderness. The house was a large detached one and it looked like it hadn’t been lived in for some time.
      I can tell Esme by sight from any other fox. But I also know nearly all the foxes in this neighbourhood by sight now. They’re all subtly different—in colouring, face shape, and one has a nicked ear and another has a long scar on its chest. With Esme, the black smudges at the side of her nose reach almost up to her eyes, as if she is wearing mascara that has run in the rain.
      I often spend hours crouched in the street, or in a shop doorway watching Esme. Some nights I stay out until dawn. It’s awkward now there’s the lockdown, but I’m as stealthy as a fox. I clamber through the hedge into the wild garden and there’s no one to notice me. That way I don’t see Tim, he’s the owner of the flat I’m staying in. He works at a DIY store and they’re open again now, thankfully.
      When I first met Esme she would sometimes stand or sit with her head pointing at the sky, and screech. At first I thought something was wrong, that she might be in pain or some kind of anguish, but it’s actually a mating call. Fox sex is brutal – the male bites the back of the female’s neck and his penis is barbed and sticks inside her. She screams at every painful thrust. I’ve seen many foxes mating, though not Esme, I don’t think I could stomach it. Not with the way things are in my life.
      Male or dog foxes tend to stay with their partner while the cubs are young, bringing them food. It’s a relationship built on raising young together. I’ve named Esme’s mate George. Sometimes she can be short tempered and nippy with him, but often, after a long night apart foraging in different locations, they greet each other excitably like dogs.
      My parents live in Australia and I couldn’t afford to go there at the start of lockdown. I didn’t like to ask them to send me the airfare as I know their business is struggling at the moment. Now of course it’s too late anyway until normal flights resume. I’m stuck in this situation, even if it is one of my own making. And I can’t tell anyone about it, but Esme.
      When I answered Tim’s advertisement, I knew what I was doing, and it seemed like no big deal. It meant the room was rent-free and he wasn’t repulsive or anything like that. In fact he seemed quite normal, and I suppose he is really. He said he’d only want sex a couple of times a week, and I thought that was fair enough, I could handle that. I’d had a few loveless encounters before, who hasn’t? I didn’t fancy him, but as I say he didn’t really turn me off or anything. But I hadn’t really thought about how it would make me feel. I hadn’t thought about that at all.
      Tim isn’t rough, he doesn’t rape me, but it’s meaningless, it’s mechanical. I’m just an object to satisfy him. He has a girlfriend who’s teaching in India at the moment, and our arrangement is, he says, just a convenient way of getting what he needs in the meantime, without it being a relationship. But living like this is killing me. It’s creeping into my soul and eating it away day by day. It’s not I feel ashamed, used, dirty or worthless. It’s more that I feel as if I am no longer whole.
      Now though I’m turning into a shadow. I’m learning invisibility. I’ve managed to avoid Tim seeing me at all for two weeks. I’ve been staying out all night with my fox. Perhaps I’m gaining some of Esme’s spirit. I’m becoming a wild creature. I trust no one. I show no one my vulnerabilities. If any human comes near I shrink back, muscles tightening, ready to fight or flee. Like Esme when under threat, my hackles rise. I bare my teeth.

****

Esme has had her cubs! There are four of them. Her den is under the decking in the overgrown garden. I think it must’ve been their first time popping up above ground. They’ve big blue eyes at this age and they’re into everything. One chased a grasshopper, another tried and failed to eat a worm; the living spaghetti curling around her muzzle.
      Tim is having an illegal party tonight. He’s invited friends around despite the risk of Covid 19. He wants to introduce me to some of them. Actually what he wants to do is share me with them. He’s even offered me money. I said ‘yeah alright’ in a little meek voice, like the cunning ghost I’ve become. I took his stinking money. I nodded and forced a smile when he told me to ‘dress up for once, not those grungy jeans.’ The fridge was full of food ready for the bash: pizzas, burgers, sausages. He’d ordered it all in earlier. While he was in his bedroom getting ready, silent as Esme, I emptied it all into two big bags. My belongings were already stashed in a suitcase in the front garden. All I needed to do was slip out of the door.
      Foxes cache their food to make it last. Esme will have enough to feed her cubs through their most vulnerable weeks. Me, I’ve been caching cash, and with the extra money Tim has given me in advance of tonight’s activities, I reckon I’ve enough to live on for a while. The first things I’ve bought are a sleeping bag, and a chisel to loosen the basement window of the empty house. I can live here. It’s far enough away from Esme to respect her family’s privacy, but near enough to keep each other company. She knows I mean her no harm. She knows I’ll provide for her whenever I can. Together, living on our wits, and what we can scrounge, I know we’ll both survive, wild and free.
AQ

Constanza Baeza Valdenegro – A young tennis player makes a decision

Constanza Baeza Valdenegro
A young tennis player makes a decision

The usual tennis rigour became incompatible with the hours of science and history at some point in his daily activities. A strict schedule controls every single moment in a tennis player’s day, and an abyss between his passion and school was rising in front of him. His grades weren’t poor but showed the figures of someone who was making early efforts in his life. Sometimes you could see him very concentrated on a book, but two hours later his desk was empty. The tennis hours started before the school duties ended. Nights were filled with homework and obsessive analysis of tennis videos, and he was dealing with the small pieces of free time in quiet resignation.
      Some of his classmates practised sports too, but none of them had reached his level of commitment. He played football and basketball in pursuit of infantile power, feeling strong and mighty with the idea of being good at many sports, but team experience wasn’t interesting and soon he went back to the solitary moments brought by the small yellow ball. His middle-class background made him question the road he was taking, but his parents never complained, and when they were told he had talent, they knew that they had to give everything to help their son chase his dreams. His poor federation and the neglected tennis courts of his country weren’t obstacles either. He used to think that all these things made him stronger and aware of the effort one makes in tennis.
      He saw many junior players falling to the pressure of tennis life. He heard many professional players saying how much they hated tennis. He saw promising players give up and study a degree, in a radical change of plans. All those stories were a reminder of the importance of having more options beyond tennis. Not every junior player becomes professional. It took him several years to admit it. He used to think that it wouldn’t happen to him. His parents had talked about the possibility of university life if he felt overwhelmed. To hear that was very irritating for him, but over the years he accepted the idea of a backup plan if tennis was too absorbing. But there was no reason to think he would choose university. He was never really focused on the subjects he had to study in school. Only history kept him interested. He enjoyed learning about his own country and the world. But he knew he wouldn’t be a historian.
      The time to make a decision had arrived. The juvenile passion was becoming a certainty, the very first certainty in his life. After a long conversation with his parents, the idea of leaving school became a solid resolution from his young will. Every day he had to deal with the heavy routine dictated by too many activities and he could see the moment when he would have to choose the road he was looking for. It was a definitive idea: he had to leave school to focus on tennis only. The trophies and medals that decorated his room with their shiny presence were the backup for his commitment to tennis. He was ready for the next step.
      His classmates threw a small party for him. There were jokes about being the world number one and winning Grand Slams. Always aware of his effort, they were supportive and helpful. They knew they had different lives. ‘I have no time’ was the usual answer when they invited him to parties and activities. It sounded like an adult language they didn’t know yet. He became a man too soon, being taller and stronger than his classmates, and everything made them think that he would choose other things in life, not the future they were waiting for. The nationwide tournaments and the first trips abroad gave him a certain degree of maturity. He could see the world with fresh eyes, the eyes of a young soul who has to grow up too fast. The skinny legs and the pimples on his boyish face were a reminder of his youth, but there was an adult spirit inside him, waiting to show the world all the dreams, all the things he could do.
      He knew they would forget him. They would follow another path, towards the graduation party, a busy university life, soporific offices. They would have yearly reunions and would talk about marriage plans, sorrows, success, parenthood. He didn’t even know if he would ever have a friend on the court, considering how solitary a tennis player is. He was on the road to the uncertainty that sports offers. But there was no way back. He had everything and nothing. He had to try and chase his dreams.
      His compromise was to keep studying the things he wouldn’t learn in school, getting the basic knowledge required and taking exams. His school would help him through online learning. There were also tutors working for the tennis centre, with the young players catching up on all the things they were skipping. But learning had a different significance for him. He learned to hit a yellow ball and run to the net before he could even read. The serve, the score, the tennis legends, that was all he knew.
      The Monday after the party he showed up on the national tennis centre with his usual walk, fast and awkward. There was nothing else in the world to do. No school, no more breakfasts in a hurry, no homework. He was ready to enjoy that breeze of freedom, but something scared him too. A strange feeling paralysed his movements with an unknown cause. Was he scared? He didn’t know where he would go, but he was ready from the very first time he held a racket. He took a deep breath and felt the fresh air of the sunny morning. The other players were warming up. They saw him and waved enthusiastically. He smiled and walked towards them. He was prepared for what was coming. There was no way back. It was too early to feel the weight of his decision. But there was no time to think about it, because the very first thing he had to do that morning was to improve his weak serve! AQ

Greg S. Johnson – Caprice

Greg S. Johnson
Caprice

The man, not yet as white-haired as most would remember him, put a hand through his unruly mop of frizzled hair and scanned the surface of Lac Léman. He could not detect a single ripple of movement all the way across to the French side; it was a mirror of the flawless blue sky. The late August sun, creeping over the tree line, warmed his cheeks. He closed his eyes.
      He sat near the end of a long stone jetty covered in gull dung, its mid-point crook skeletal and akimbo. With little effort he could still remember the first day he set foot in Geneva. Those pinching, patent leather shoes he wore and how each step down the cobblestone streets made him wince and hop as if on the coals of a firewalker. Holding the hand of his father—who must have been younger than he was now, but who seemed ageless and towering and invincible at the time—they made their way through Old Town to find a bakery. His father, looking down at him through his pince-nez, scolded him for jumping about like a monkey.
      A woman of about sixty approached and stood in front of him blocking the sun: ‘Loafing about again, I see.’
      ‘Bonjour, Professor,’ he said, opening his eyes and squinting to get a better look at her. ‘That’s all the French you’ll get from me. The whole of France shudders when I try to say even a few words. How long has it been, liebe?’
      Marie shrugged. ‘A year, perhaps more?’ She nodded toward the wooden sloop tied to the stone jetty. ‘This is yours, Professor?’
      She helped him to his feet. Her features were as stony as he remembered them: high forehead, blunt nose, lapis blue eyes that pierced falsehood like a needle through skin.
      ‘A pocket cruiser as these boating types say.’
      ‘Splendide! And the wood, what is it?’
      ‘Mahogany,’ Albert beamed.
      ‘It seems to me you are now one of these boating types yourself.’
      ‘They say there is an eternal arc to sailing, unfortunately I fear I’m a parabolic projectile launched into this strange, new world.’
      ‘And modest, non?’ she said.       ‘Alors…where do you want this?’ She pointed to a large, finely embroidered carpetbag at her feet.
      Tugging on the stern line, he brought the sloop close enough to step into; he took her carpetbag, then nearly dropped it in the water it was so heavy.
      ‘You’re building a house later?’ he asked with a wry smile.
      After stowing her bag below deck, he let his gaze fall across the lake well to the south. Toward Geneva he saw a few ripples across the still surface. He looked up at the black vane atop the mast, which gave a slight twist.
      ‘There is not much wind just now, but it’s building, bit by bit. I think we can sail toward Chateau d’Yvoire on the French side.’
      ‘I’m in your hands, Capitaine.’
      ‘And I yours,’ he said, taking her hands and pulling her toward him into the cockpit. He rubbed his thumbs over her fingers and noticed how rough they were. ‘You are smart to wear dungarees. Do you know much about this type of rigging? They call it Bermuda.’
      ‘Less than nothing, I’m afraid.’
      Marie eased herself onto one of the two parallel cockpit benches that stretched from the cabin to the stern.
      Out on the bow he grabbed a line and brought it back to the cockpit. She watched him move smartly around the mast and straighten the rigging there.
      ‘Your enthusiasm…it’s almost contagious,’ she said.
      He raised the main sail with steady hand-over-hand tugs of the halyard. Once secured, he repositioned himself at the helm and with some luck was able to catch enough of a south-southwest breeze to move them free of the jetty.
      ‘Have a go at the helm?’ he asked with a wink.
      ‘Would you like me to crash us into anything particular?’ Marie said, tilting a shoulder back to look at him. Often her face had the countenance of a statue so that when she smiled it was like sunshine peaking from under a dark cloud.
      Albert laughed. “Here, come, let me show you.”
      She slid into the helmsman’s seat, and he guided her hand onto the tiller. Her hands were large for a woman’s, but her knuckles were delicate as the nested heads of baby birds. Mottled with coppery spots and sores, they were the hands of an elderly woman.
      Albert was surprised at how the wind had jotted up since they left the jetty. With a nod to Marie, he raised the foresail and watched it ripple, cobra-like up the forestay. The stiff breeze grabbed the white sailcloth of the main and foresail with such force that he had to ease the main sheet a bit to keep from heeling too far over. The wind was building almost to ten knots, which gave him plenty of lift, and he moved out on a reach that put them on a gliding line toward the distant beach at Hermance.
      Albert leaned his back out over the water, hand once again on the tiller. He breathed in deeply, the uneven wind slapping his face then backing off, pushing then retreating. He looked around at the worn green hills and ashen cliffs that unfolded into this drowning pool of long retreated glaciers. How similar it must have looked to those early nomadic tribes, centuries ago, with their embers alight on the shores. Long before there was a Geneva. Long before those same tribes were forced to bow to Caesar.
      ‘Hungry?’ Marie asked.
      ‘I had nothing this morning. Sometimes eating is such…mühe.’
      ‘Come visit me in Paris. I’ll feed you chocolat and croissant, beef, and shellfish. You’ll shed your ambivalence.’
      Off the bow to port he saw the foresail going slack. Wiggling the tiller back and forth, he tried to bladder it, will the wind into it. He looked up to see that the main sail, too, hung like a wet sheet on a line. The bow turned slowly to starboard, into what had been the wind. They were now facing due south.
      ‘Take the helm again, bitte,’ he said, and crept out toward the bow. The drop in the wind made the boat unstable, and he had to steady himself against the side of the cabin as he went. Gaining the bow, he grabbed the jib and luffed it a few times. They had moved too close to shore, and they were trapped in a windless calm, blocked by the mountains he had been admiring.
      ‘We seem to have stopped, haven’t we?’ she said.
      Leaning out, he grabbed hold of the foresail and gave it a few shakes. Albert tried to lure a pocket of wind into it. His right foot slid out from beneath him, and he clutched the forestay just in time to keep from tumbling in.
      ‘Are you all right?’ Marie called.
      Albert struggled to get his breathing under control as he stared down into the black water. He cursed his stupidity for never learning to swim.
      ‘Here, come and eat,’ she said, hauling her violet and crimson carpetbag out from below deck. ‘It’ll do you some good.’
      From the bag she removed several pears, a few apples, some Brie, and a baguette. With an adept touch she sliced the bread and spread the cheese across several pieces.
      He ate all that was offered.
      ‘I suppose we can always use the auxiliary,’ she said, taking a bite of sweet pear. The juice dripped onto her fingers and she fluttered them over the water.
      Smoothing his bushy moustache from the center outward, he scanned the southeast shore, the lush, green hills past Chens-sur-Léman. His eyebrows coiled.
      ‘We can start the auxiliary, non?’ she asked, curious.
      ‘Perhaps not.’
      ‘Pourquoi?’
      ‘No fuel.’
      ‘Did you forget?’
      ‘No, I didn’t forget. To hell with them!’ Albert’s face turned red. ‘They are noisy… abominations! They destroy the beauty of all of this,’ he gestured with his arms to the surrounding water. ‘The peace and the solitude and the…the quiet.’
      Marie sat like a statue for a few moments and then couldn’t control it any longer. She put a sudden hand over her mouth and failed to stifle a laugh.
      ‘Funny, yes!?’
      Albert looked like a child staring into the abyss of a fractured toy.
      ‘Non…non, Je…’ she said, sitting up straighter. ‘Oh, my dear, Je suis désolé. I didn’t mean to insult you.’
      He shook his head and took a deep breath of fresh summer air. ‘It’s fine. Nichts. Nichts.’
      ‘Here, give me.’ She folded both her hands around one of his.
      With his other hand he traced one of the large, damaged circles on her hand. ‘What’s happened here?’ he asked.
      ‘Nichts.’ She dropped his hand and looked away. Somewhere deep within, she knew it was the pitchblende, the metallic rock of radium and polonium that she had worked with for so many years.
      Some swimmers bravely danced into the water at the beach in the distance and then came dancing right back out again.
      ‘Tell me, ’ he insisted.
      ‘Nothing I need to worry about. No one cares about these…ugly things.’ She turned back toward him showing her palms. Her heavy-lidded yet startling blue eyes caught him cold. ‘Certainly not you.’
      Her gnarled hands trembled.
      ‘Did I do something? Say something?’
      ‘You won’t recall,’ Marie said. She rummaged through her bag, and in a few seconds pulled free a green bottle of wine. ‘When I told my friend Jacques about my sail with you today, he recommended this Beaujolais from a nearby vineyard.’
      He looked at her in profile. Marie’s hair was a kinetic knot bunched up on the top of her head. It shielded the massive bluff of her determined forehead.
      ‘I don’t care for wine,’ he said.
      Marie continued as if his voice was a stray puff of wind. She put the bottle between her legs and worked at freeing the cork with a pocketknife. ‘Do you remember that hike we took in the Alps some years back, me with the girls and you with your son?’
      He shrugged. ‘Of course. We hiked for hours. It was a beautiful day.’
      ‘I thought so, too. But then I overheard something from a friend who was at one of your cocktail parties.’
      He closed his eyes, sniffed for a breeze. ‘Marie, it was so long ago.’
      ‘Alors, you do remember. Tell me.’
      Albert’s brown eyes sprang open, alive and furious. ‘What difference does it make!?’
      ‘You said, ‘She’s very intelligent, but has the soul of a herring.’
      ‘I did not!’ He stood up but nearly fell over backward. He grabbed the boom to steady himself.
      ‘What did you say then?’ Her lips were pursed, seething.
      ‘I couldn’t have said that.’ Albert pondered the deck of the cockpit where one of the slats was cracked. It would need to be replaced before winter came.
      ‘It makes no difference to you,’ Marie said. ‘Because you don’t have to care. How easily the conqueror embraces ambivalence.’
      ‘I’m afraid my wives have often bullied me for my temperamental tongue. It was some time ago. I’m sure I thought I was being funny at the time. You’ve always impressed me with your strength of character and your…tenacity.’
      ‘Alors…flatterie? Non?’
      ‘It’s so long past, Marie.’
      ‘Wars have been fought for less.’
      As they drifted closer to the French shore, the calls of the gulls became more distinct and defiant. The jangle of the halyards and the tiny slaps of water against the sides of the wooden sloop made the silence even more galling.
      ‘I don’t suppose you have any glassware?’ she said, nodding to the suddenly open bottle of Beaujolais between her legs.
      They both laughed.
      ‘Let me look,’ he said.
      ‘Don’t bother.’ Marie tilted the bottle back and took a healthy swig. She wiped a red bit of wine away with the back of her hand. ‘Mmmm. Demi sec. Try some.’ She held out the bottle, but he stared at it, unmoving.
      On the morning of that hike, along the trail, her daughter was continually tripping over her hiking boots, and the laces were knotted like cobwebs. Marie pulled a knife from her satchel then used it to rip through the knot and re-string her daughter’s boots. There was no head patting, no ‘there, there, child’; she was matter-of-fact, quick to the point and resolute. After all these years, that was the most prominent memory of their hike. He shook his head as if to wipe it away.
      ‘It won’t bite you, mon ami,’ Marie said, finally.
      Albert took the bottle and looked at the label, then gulped a quick shot.
      They passed the bottle back and forth and listened to the rhythmic slapping of the water below and the halyards in the mast above. The air warmed as the sun reached its apex.
      Marie finished the last of the Beaujolais and set the bottle on the deck of the cockpit. She rubbed her hands together.
      ‘Oh, Albert, we’re as stuck in ourselves as we are in this boat,’ she said.
      He moved closer and attempted to settle an arm around her.
      She tilted away.
      ‘I don’t understand you,’ he said.
      ‘What is it about men that makes them unforgiveable when they won’t see the most basic thing there is? The most…oh, sacrebleu! Forget it. Just…’ She shook her head, closed her eyes.
      Albert stared up at the top of the mast; a feeble breeze fluttered the vane there. He looked again at the sole of the cockpit. He gazed across the flat water of the lake. Without looking at her, he reached for her hands. They were clammy and cold. He massaged them. Staring across the sun-dappled water, back toward the jetty they somehow needed to reach, he stumbled over a few words. A pained expression told him he was still far off, and then, as with a breeze that can build out of the clear blue, rippling the water as it takes on momentum, he regained his balance, braced himself, swallowed hard on his pride and offered her the apology so long deferred.       AQ