Amber Beck – Fiction

A Sharp Scale

Two thin, bright lines burned her leg as she sat naked on the cold tile floor. The wet red spotted Aria’s knife. She usually found it to be beautiful. Sometimes, she’d let the blood dry on her skin, and in the morning, it would disappear, flakes of dry blood lost among her bedsheets. But now she sat on the hard floor and felt no beauty, just burning.

Pete’s eyes on her made her feel beautiful until they’d made their way down to a scar that was new to him. He knew – he’d seen her, hours after the first time she’d dragged the knife through her shaking body. Aria liked to imagine he’d thought she stopped after they broke up. Now that could be nothing more than a wild and impossible fantasy.  

Aria’s fingers began to tap, tap, tap, the floor with the scale of her old musical instrument. Her mind followed the path of C, D, E, F, G, stopping before she hit the high harsher notes. Slowly her fingers brought her back down to the low notes of C, resting there, fingers not touching the ground.

Don’t blame yourself.

That was stupid. Why had she said that?

Just, stop thinking about it. He wouldn’t.

The silence between them had been worse than the absence of music so her hoarse voice had tried to fill it again, imagining she was using an instrument to speak instead.

It’s all on me.

The look Pete gave her when she said that gave her chills. Aria transferred from the low, open C to the high C, fingers still not touching the ground. It was like a form of torture, not pressing a specific note.

When will you let this all go and forgive yourself? Five years, Aria. How much more will you punish yourself?

Her fingers slammed down on the hard, shriller notes.

Forgive myself? she’d snarled, suddenly just as angry. I have nothing to forgive – I’ve done nothing wrong.Lies, lies, lies. She’d done everything wrong.

It was like being separated from her body, standing in that mall courtyard. The hot sun was bearing down on her, suffocating her, but it was nothing compared to this accidental run-in with Pete. She hadn’t seen him in years since their breakup when he’d lied and said he understood that he played no part in her cut skin. But she’d seen through it just like he’d always seen through her.

Aria scooted away from the wall and laid herself fully out on the floor of her bathroom. The harsh cold burned her back. Did she need to forgive herself for this, too? The blood had already dried.

She just wanted to forget the way he’d looked at her.

            When will you let this all go and forgive yourself?

Aria slowly shut her eyes to her bathroom’s blinding lights. She hadn’t lied – she’d never blamed Pete for the blood that stained her hands. It was a choice she made at her lowest and one that slowly became a crutch for her weakening state. She didn’t deal in absolutes – Aria believed and trusted in a lack of permanence. Things wouldn’t always last – she wouldn’t always have these friends, she wouldn’t always have this home, she wouldn’t always hurt herself. And while the ending existed, Aria could never imagine it. Not the breakups, not the leaving, not the forgiveness.

What did forgiveness look like? She imagined it came in the form of this guy from work – she had been near tears after a family death and working a long shift when he’d grabbed a marker and drawn a smiley face on his arm, using two of his freckles as eyes. He’d smiled at her and Aria didn’t feel like crying anymore. Or maybe forgiveness was a distant city that she’d spend hours driving to, only to realize she’d missed her exit miles back. It didn’t look like a naked girl lying on the floor playing an old scale to empty air.

How did forgiveness start? Aria pictured herself getting off the floor, dressing, and calling up her mom. Maybe holding her hamster and, for once, not using him as a tissue. His fur would probably be soft against her cheek when she kissed him. It might involve a meal – she hadn’t had a full one in so long.

She didn’t get off the floor. She didn’t do any of those things.

Instead, she played the scale with her fingers on the floor and imagined his eyes forgiving her. But they didn’t and she knew they never would because she’d hurt someone he once loved and to him, that was the ultimate crime.

Once, Aria saw a limping duck at a gas station, alone. She’d been struck dumb, unsure of what to do. Leave it, or take it to the vet? Another person, maybe a student, walked out of the gas station, took a photo of the duck, and left.

 If she were injured, she’d have never gone to a gas station. She’d have gone into the woods and nestled under a tree, preferably with some cover, and waited to heal or die.

Aria wouldn’t let someone take a photo of her and then walk away.

Aria opened her eyes slowly and eyed the blade she clutched in her left hand. It was her pride – bought after haggling with a vendor at a flea market, she’d walked away unaware of the detriment it could cause. Aria had been filled with admiration of the way the handle felt in her palm. She considered using it again but the thought of the duck made her too sad to lift her hand.

“Are you the duck, the student, the person who saves the duck, or the one who leaves it?” she whispered to the ceiling.

Aria switched to a different scale in the flat key. Those always made her feel mournful, like she was letting the purity that haunted the natural notes go. She never practiced the sharp keys without an instrument – those felt too alive for her, too bright. It felt wrong.

Once, when she was young, she was playing in the park on the monkey bars with a friend and she’d been too afraid to climb on top of them. Her friend had shouted down from up high, “Will you just be more brave?”, as if Aria were a hero in a book on the verge of something.

Aria climbed atop those monkey bars, shaking the whole while. But the view, once she got there, made her feel like the savior of the world. And now she was too afraid to finger a silent scale on the ground. She couldn’t help the smile that shaped her lips – kids were always braver. It wasn’t from a lack of knowledge about the world, but a lack of caring. Kids knew they had more to learn but they didn’t care – they trusted themselves regardless.

She wondered what her younger self would do if she saw a limping duck.

Her back was starting to ache from the harsh tiles and she began to shiver. Suddenly this felt stupid – lying on the floor naked. What was the point? What did this accomplish? Was she going to lay here until she starved to death? She couldn’t let her hamster starve.

Her hand tightened on the knife and she stared up at the ceiling. This was stupid. But she couldn’t move.

The duck’s eyes had pierced Aria but maybe, worst of all, was that she wasn’t alone. There was one more person next to her, filling his tank, stuck with the same conundrum as her. Torn between ignoring it or helping it. And maybe he’d had a different answer than her. She’d driven away before he had. Did he shoo the duck into the woods? Did he help it? Or did he take a photo? Was he upset she left first, as if placing the responsibility onto him?

Maybe he had a different answer, and she would never find it out because she’d left them behind.

Pete would have probably stayed and helped.

How could he ask her to forgive herself and yet be upset at the same time? He was infuriating. Could she forgive herself and be angry as well? It didn’t make any sense to her.

Slowly, as if dragging it from her bones, Aria began to play a sharp scale. Each tap stung the pads of her fingers, but once she ran through it once, twice, three times, like preparing herself for battle, she decided to get off the cold tiled floor.

🍃

Amber Beck

E.F. Hay – fiction

The Gospel According to Mr. Eric 

Where to apportion blame?  

Anchored deep into a storm-tossed Atlantic Ocean, festooned by humungous oceanic garbage gyres, bent, drenched, & twisted under near permanent rain clouds, some of us (that’s we/not them) are now fully marooned; our sole succour lies in sampling whatever poxy sanctuary there remains dotted around these flood sodden isles, in order to catch our breath, & temporarily shelter from a noxious miasma emanating from arseholes all around. Initially a tasteless whisper, oft repeated, broadly recognised, & in the fullness of time vaguely accepted- it drifted, until its realisation, albeit still nebulous, appeared somehow inevitable. Quickly, a confederation of opportunists coalesced to embrace claim & media stewardship over this new false dawn, with its hybrid discontents, drawn from deep multifarious bowels of irritability. Adroitly, manoeuvring across a rudderless, floating, faux democracy, a patchy fear of dishonourable global redundancy was evoked by numerous perfidious sophists; self-pitying bilge aside, a dilution of national identity, & most alarmingly, general fears of losing personal benefit entitlements arose (just so many dependent on this bloated state)– so, soon such querulous voices, rallying behind a renaissance of sovereign power, became deafening (tellingly Blighty’s fabled lost intellect from yesteryear wasn’t recollected as having been of much value, or any great loss– only its muscular exertion of Imperialism). This reactionary notion, now epidemic, congealing ubiquitously, settled & most grossly manifest as an endemic sickness, rooted deepest beneath those heartlands, where flag-waving-buffoons happily-cheer on an undisciplined, over extended military, huge gulfs between indebted, vulnerably weak billions, & the unassailably strong (awarded anointed human forms in monarchies, hereditary, aristocratic oligarchs, home-grown VIPs, & tax avoidance emperors). These insensately patriotic, primarily English areas remain fertile ground for state-surveillance agencies seeking to increase staff membership, via gullible volunteers. Subjects of suspicion, find ourselves awkwardly ensnared, within a shrinking island culture; rampant historical revisionism, & overbearing bad-faith, affecting fellow subjects, into protracted, idiosyncratic bouts of Folie à deux, itself playing havoc with state-orchestrated, gnarled, ancestral, & ever mutating Stockholm syndrome– we ache for respite, from acute strains applied from left (if you think there’s nothing scary about tomorrows world, abandon hope now) & right (wallop, that’s for nothing son– now do something). Have we done something wrong? 

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Catherine Arra – fiction

Baby Car

Dad bought it for $25.00, a 1949 baby-blue Crosley station wagon. In the mid-‘60s an outlay of cash for him, but he needed a utility vehicle and this was a solution. It didn’t run. He hauled it to the house with his papa’s tow truck, said once Papa got his hands on it, it was running in no time. Carburetor needed cleaning, that’s all. He kept it under the elevated front porch.

He cut off the roof so it could serve as a pickup truck. He installed a hitch and attached four gang mowers to cut the lawn on the acre-long backyard hill. This was him, his imagination. No matter a high school education, less than perfect street English. He had this gift: ingenuity, a playful, musical mind, and a gangster’s perception for all the angles. Second-generation immigrant, a survivor.

It became our fun car. He named it the “baby car.” Indelible, those summer nights after dinner when he’d sneak out and start it up, rev the engine. It could have been a Formula One racer the way the porch vibrated. I remember the rumble and burping roar all at once, the faded brown leather seats, the floor shift like on school buses, and the huge steering wheel.

He was again a teenager at 34: thick earthy hair disheveled at that point in the day, white crew-neck tee shirt, sleeves rolled up like Marlon Brando tough guy ready to raise hell, and that full-faced smile sitting in the driver’s seat waiting for my two brothers and me to scurry out of the house. He’d rev it a few more times, wave us in, remind us to take care where we put our hands; the edges where he had cut off the roof, though filed down, were still rough in spots. It was a score to sit in front, next to him. We had to take turns.

Take-off was a rush, up the hill, down the side, sometimes up and down and around old Mrs. Bone’s field, adjacent to the backyard. Soon the neighbor kids would show up, stand at the top of the hill, and wait for the next lap around. They’d hear the rumble in the distance, rush from the dinner table yelling, “The baby car, the baby car, hurry up, let’s go!”

We’d stop and they’d climb in. Some nights the kids across the street showed up too. We’d ride down Nana and Papa’s driveway, across Main Street and behind the Methodist church, rough, rugged, gyrating, jumping humps and bumps. Five to seven kids bounced and bopped about, with one big kid behind the wheel.

We were hot shit, especially him, the magic driver.

Catherine Arra is the author of Deer Love (Dos Madres Press, 2021), Her Landscape, Poems Based on the Life of Mileva Marić Einstein (Finishing Line Press, 2020), (Women in Parentheses) (Kelsay Books, 2019), Writing in the Ether (Dos Madres Press, 2018), and three chapbooks. Arra is a native of the Hudson Valley in upstate New York, where she teaches part-time and facilitates local writing groups. Find her at www.catherinearra.com

www.facebook.com/catherine.arra

Robert P. Bishop – Fiction

Eviction Notice

Carol put her spoon on the table by her cereal bowl. “Xander, I want a cat,” she said then folded her hands in her lap and waited for his response.

            Xander, on the opposite side of the table and hidden from Carol’s view by the morning newspaper he held open at full spread with both hands, didn’t respond.

            “Xander,” she said, louder this time, “I should like to have a cat.”

            He lowered the newspaper and peered over the top of it at her. “A cat? For heaven’s sake, Carol, did you say you want a cat?”

            “Yes, I did.”

            “A cat is out of the question.”

            “Why?” She sat with her hands still in her lap, an expectant child-like expression on her face.

            Xander folded the newspaper, put it on the table then took a drink of coffee. He put the coffee cup down before saying, “Our lease agreement does not allow pets.”

            “It will be an indoor cat. No one will know.”

            “We live in a one-bedroom apartment, Carol. We don’t have space for a cat.”

            “Cats don’t take up any space at all. Cats are almost invisible.”

            Xander sighed, got up, fetched the carafe and filled his cup. “More?” He held the carafe toward Carol.

            “Yes, please.” He filled her cup, returned the carafe to the brewer and sat down.

            “Pets are difficult. They require attention. Especially cats. Nobody ever owns a cat; you only borrow them.” He drank some coffee. “Besides, we will be violating our lease agreement. Do you remember what happened to us the last time we violated our lease?”

            Carol waved her hand in dismissal and continued to stare at him, the child-like expression still on her face. The vivid blue of her eyes startled him. He did not remember them being so intensely bright, or so fevered, this early in the morning.

            “We got evicted, Carol. We were lucky to find this apartment after that ordeal.”

            Panic grew in him as he recalled being evicted from their previous apartment because of her increasingly erratic behavior. Why did it have to be bagpipes? If she wanted to play a musical instrument why couldn’t it have been the harmonica? Xander groaned at the memory of that nightmare.

            Carol’s father had been an enthusiastic piper and played in a pipe and drum marching band. She had shown little interest in following in his footsteps, even though she kept the pipes when he died. For years the pipes were stashed in a box, forgotten in the back of her closet. After the economic collapse of 2009 wiped out their assets and reduced them to living on their Social Security income, they sold their house to have access to some ready cash. When they moved into the senior-living apartment complex the box surfaced and Carol discovered the pipes. That’s when their life took an unexpected turn.

            Carol decided she was going to play them.

            Every morning Carol went to the concrete deck surrounding the swimming pool and marched back and forth, playing the pipes. The shrill music ricocheted off the four-story buildings surrounding the pool, bounced back and forth, growing in volume until the noise shrieked like a jet engine at take-off speed.

            The morning sessions in the courtyard annoyed the other residents. When they asked her politely to stop, Carol said, “Bagpipes are always played in the morning as homage to the gods of creation and to the rising sun that sustains life. No one who is a true piper ever plays any other time of day.”

            Carol continued to ignore the complaints. In response, the residents banded together, rose up and demanded she cease that hideous goddamn noise immediately.

            Xander implored her to stop. She ignored his pleas. Nothing he said could convince her to give it up.

            Xander reminded her the economic collapse of 2009 had ruined them financially and nearly reduced them to living in their car, or worse, in a tent under a bridge or on the street. They were so strapped for money they could scarcely afford to pay their bills now. Additional bills, like legal fees fighting an eviction notice, would be the tipping point from which they could not recover. Carol ignored his explanations and pleas. She continued to play the bagpipes. She even accused him of joining forces with ‘that group’ whom she thought was nasty, unfriendly, mean-spirited and completely lacking in music appreciation.

            When it became clear Carol was not going to give up the bagpipes, the group met with Mr. Metzgar, the apartment manager. Chérie, leader of the vigilantes, forced the issue when she said, “See,” shaking a piece of paper in front of him, “it says right here in our lease agreements that anyone deemed a nuisance by a majority of the residents can be asked to vacate the community. We took a vote. Carol and her music are a nuisance. She has to leave if she won’t stop playing those fucking bagpipes!”

            Mr. Metzgar met with Carol and told her she could be evicted if she continued to annoy the other residents. “We are, after all,” he said in an unctuous voice, “a loving, caring community and we must make every effort to get along with our neighbors.”

            Mr. Metzgar’s pleas did not work.

            Xander told her getting evicted was a serious matter and would be disastrous for them. “We might not find another apartment we can afford.”

            Carol continued to play the bagpipes.

            Several calls to the police were not enough to make her stop. During the last police visit she said to Sergeant Garcia, “Why are you badgering an old woman who is playing beautiful music? Am I a criminal now?” Then she held out her arms. “If I’m a criminal, you better put handcuffs on me and take me to your jail.”

            “Mrs. Jenkins,” said Sergeant Garcia, a look of desperation plastered on his face, “we are not going to take you to jail.” Small beads of perspiration salted his upper lip. “We don’t want to take you to jail, but we do want you to stop annoying other residents with those bagpipes.”

            “You may as well put me in jail and lock me away in the dark.”  

            Sergeant Garcia turned to Xander, who was standing next to Carol. “Who are you?”

            “I’m the husband, Alexander Jenkins. Folks call me Xander.”

            Sergeant Garcia turned pleading eyes on Xander. “Can you help?”

            “I’ll try.” Xander took Carol’s hand. “Let’s go inside, dear.”

            “Yes, Douglas,” Carol said.

            He was shocked at being called Douglas. He blamed her mistake on stress caused by the police presence, but a worry-worm began to wiggle in his brain.

            When Xander suggested she might see her doctor for a wellness check, she scoffed at him. “There is nothing wrong with me. I’m perfectly fine.”

            The police stopped responding to calls from the apartment manager. The 911 dispatcher said to Mr. Metzgar, “The city police department is two hundred officers short because of the current economic downturn, low pay, and early retirements. Recruitment numbers are off to boot because nobody wants to be a cop anymore. A complaint about bagpipe is not considered an imminent loss-of-life situation requiring an immediate response by armed officers.” The dispatcher added, “But if she bludgeons someone with the bagpipes and inflicts grievous bodily harm, or death, of course the police will respond immediately.”

            Two weeks later Carol and Xander were evicted from Quiet Life Senior-Living Apartment Community.

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Sean Padraic McCarthy – Fiction

A Late Winter Dusk

            

I went to Mass that Sunday.  My parents went in the morning, but I wasn’t up,so I walked on my own to the five o’clock. I cut through the Island Grove Park on my way. To get to the Island, from my side of town, you had to cross a long concrete bridge that spanned the pond.  It was a Civil War Memorial bridge with an enormous archway at the head of it, crested with a bronze eagle, as you reached the actual park.  Inside the park there was an old roundhouse bandstand, and a small swimming pond with a sandy beach. The Island had been a meeting/speaking place for abolitionists prior to the Civil War and several spots were marked for historical significance. It wasn’t really an island at all though, and if you cut through you would come out to the road that led to the church. 

The ground was crusted with frozen crumbled leaves, and a thin layer of winter sand.  I lit a cigarette with little fear that anyone would see me.  The drunks and kids and lifeguards would be around in the summer, the rumbling Park Department trucks, but not now.  Now it was mostly deserted. This time of year you usually only saw people walking their dogs up here.  I was now smoking pretty much every day, and I kept my cigarettes in the rock wall that separated our yard from the woods behind our house. 

I hadn’t seen Alistair nor Danny since we had exiled Chad, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to yet.  We had hung out with Chad for years, and now we had ruined him, ostracizing him from our group of friends. He had often been a bully himself, picking on the weaker kids, and I had thought I would enjoy seeing the tables turned on him, but I didn’t.  I just felt small.

I had spoken to Danny on the phone.  We were usually inseparable but he had said he had to spend the whole weekend helping his father do some work under their house.  The work was filthy, something to do with the toilet pipes and the septic tank—something was overflowing or leaking–and Danny’s father couldn’t fit beneath the house so he would send Danny under with five gallon buckets. Danny’s house always smelled like sewerage and apparently the project was an ongoing one. Winter or summer, Mr. Hurley would sit in his lawn chair, cigarette in one hand and Bourbon in the other, supervising, as he sent Danny in and out with the buckets. The eventual goal, Danny said, was to dig a trench and lay some pipe to drain the septic tank directly into the stream that ran by their home. You had to be careful doing it though, he said, because if the town caught you, it would mean a lot of trouble.

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