Sunday, March 23, 2014

Fiction #50

New half-century fiction! Issue #50
Submissions now open for #51!

Special thanks to all who have been submitting. Enjoy.

Fiction #50: Joshua Levy

At the American Border

I turned the car radio way down.  


United States of America Border Patrol Officer: "Hi."

Me: "Hello."


I showed initiative and handed him our Canadian passports.


Border Patrol: “Where do you live?”

Me: “Montreal.”

Border Patrol: "How long do you plan to be in the United States?"

Me: “Just the night.”

Border Patrol: “Where will you be staying?”

Me: “In a hotel. Burlington, Vermont.”

Border Patrol: “What’s the name of the hotel?”

Me: “It’s the Hilton.”

Border Patrol: “Do you know anyone in Burlington?”

Me: “No.”

Border Patrol: “So, you don’t know anyone in Burlington?”

Me: “Not that I’m aware of, no.”

Border Patrol: “And what, exactly, do you mean by that statement?”

Me: “I didn’t mean anything by it.”

Border Patrol: “Why did you say it?”

Me: “It’s possible that I know someone in Burlington.  An old classmate could have moved there years ago, or an ex-lover, you never know, right?”

Border Patrol: “I see.  Mr. Levy, what’s the purpose of your visit?”

Me: “To see a concert.”

Border Patrol: “Why?”

Me: “Because it’s a nice thing to do.”

Border Patrol: “Why?”

Me: “Because I like the band.”

Border Patrol: “Why?”

Me: “Um, because they meld Beatlesque melodies with innovative instrumentation and clever lyrics that get to the heart of loss and grief.”

Border Patrol: “I see. Let's move on. Do you know the man that you're traveling with?"

Me: "As well as I can know another man, yes."

Border Patrol: "You mean that you're friends?"

Me: "Usually."

Border Patrol: "Not always?"

Me: "There were a few weeks in high school where we didn't talk to each other. I ate his brownie and he was mad. He had a right to be mad. But I don't regret eating his brownie."

Border Patrol: "Why did you eat his brownie?"

Me: "He came to school with it. His mom is a great cook. At least, she used to be. I haven’t tried her cooking in years. Maybe she’s not so hot anymore in the kitchen. Anyways, I suggested at lunch that we trade brownies. So, he gave me his brownie and then I tore out a sheet of paper and drew the letter ‘E’ on it with a brown marker."

Border Patrol: "You gave him a brown 'E’?"

Me: "Yes. That’s correct."

Border Patrol: "So you tricked him with word play?"

Me: "No, I delivered on my promise."

Border Patrol: "But you're still friends?"

Me: "Yes, unless he's secretly waiting for a moment to get back at me."


The border patrol officer leaned forward to make eye contact with Ryan in the passenger seat.


Border Patrol: “Are you planning on getting back at him while in the United States of America?”

Ryan: “No, sir.”

Border Patrol: “Even though it sounds like he kind of deserves it?”

Ryan: “Yes, sir.”

Border Patrol: “So you’re going to let him get away with it?”

Ryan: “I’ve made peace with that moment in my life, sir. It was 1997. I’m in a different place these days. I feel good. ”

Border Patrol: “I see. What about you, ma’am? Do you know these two gentlemen?”

Kimber: “Yes, I do.”

Border Patrol: “You’ve been awfully quiet back there.”

Kimber: “You haven’t asked me anything.”

Border Patrol: “I see. “

Kimber: “What do you see?”

Border Patrol: “I see.”


A sticky silence set in. The car engine was the only audible noise.  I took initiative and said:



Me: “Officer, can we go?”

Border Patrol: “No. How long have you known the girl?”

Kimber: “Excuse me, but I’m a woman.”

Border Patrol: “How long have you known each other?”

Me: “We’ve known each other for almost two weeks.”

Border Patrol: “How did you meet?”

Me: “At Ryan’s girlfriend’s art exhibit.”

Border Patrol: “Why is she going to the concert with you?”

Me: “I invited her to come.”

Border Patrol: “Why?”

Me: “I thought it would be a good idea.”

Border Patrol: “Why?”

Me: “So we could get to know each other better.”

Border Patrol: “Why?”

Me: “Because I like her.”

Border Patrol: “Why?”

Me: “She’s very likeable?”

Border Patrol: “Why?”

Me:  “Well, she’s pretty, as you can see.  And artsy, and spunky, and she makes me laugh. She’s different than my ex in all the right little ways.”

Border Patrol: “Why?”

Me: “I just really wanted to invite her.”

Border Patrol: “Why?”

Me: “I don’t know why!”

Border Patrol: “Why?”

Me: “There’s so much I don’t know...”

Border Patrol: “Why?”

Me: “Because humanity is flawed! Because I am flawed, officer! Because we’re only on this Earth for a few blinks of history. Because I’m alone, and scared, and tonight I want to dance to good music with my friend, kiss this girl in the backseat on the lips, and mooooo at Vermont cows from my car window. Because the sun will rise tomorrow and then it will set and then it will rise and no day on Earth will ever find the same batch of people living in it. And not so long from now I will die, and you will die, and all of my traveling companions will die. The Universe will go on, officer! It will go on without us and without reason and without why!”  

Border Patrol: “I see. You can proceed.”

*



Joshua Levy is a Canadian male. He is often amused, sometimes bemused, occasionally used, but has never, to his knowledge, been anyone’s muse. He is a fan of chocolate, cheese, and human rights.  His fiction and poetry have been published, incredibly. Credits include: CBC Radio, Maisonneuve, Event, Carte Blanche, Feathertale, and The Globe and Mail. Joshua is a regular story contributor to The Moth(up) and to This Really Happened.

Fiction #50: Finn Clarke

Prick Tease

I'd been lonesome so long the call was almost a relief.

Not at first. At first I didn't recognise it for what it was. I'm not at my best at four in the morning. Half asleep, I mistook the heavy breathing and incoherent words for distress and thought someone, crying and in trouble, had called the wrong number.

"What's the matter?" I asked. "What's happened?"

But as my head cleared, the caller's gasps turned into strained breathing and the groans congealed into one word. I still didn't understand it, but now only because my French wasn’t up to obscenities. I changed my question.

"Who are you? What's your name?"

He didn’t answer. I hung up.

It was the following morning that relief sank in, fuelled by the crisp, clear sunlight and people in the streets outside. Something had happened to me, something interesting and dramatic that I could tell others. I practised while the kettle was boiling.

"I got a dirty phone call last night."

"Are you all right?" they’d ask. "Were you scared?"

I’d shrug and describe it, turning it into a funny story. Everyone would think I was pretty cool and... But that was as far as my fantasy went. In the first place there was no one to tell. In the second, my French couldn’t manage the nuances required. I tried, but even to my ears it sounded more like a cri de cœur than a humorous anecdote. I could imagine the looks. When you're a foreigner people already think you're stupid: start a conversation with this and they'd decide I was crazy.

So instead of talking about it, I thought about it. I wondered if he'd phone again. What I'd say to him. How I’d put him down. As I did, my relief grew. Someone out there was aware of my existence, someone a lot lower on the scale of things than me. It was good to know.

The next call came late in the afternoon about a week later, the cold nights of a Québec fall already drawing in. I was lying on my sagging bed in my damp basement apartment, gazing up at the thin slits near the ceiling that the landlord called windows. The light was orange from the streetlamps and hazy from my cigarettes and I was rehearsing a familiar theme of hating myself for smoking again, but not knowing what else to do when the phone rang.

It was the hour for sales people and I picked up on the second ring, my heart surging at the thought of contact.

"Allô," I said.

Instead of a smooth talker, I got a weird sound.

"Allô," I said again. "Are you all right?" I'm such an idiot.

The noise stopped, followed by a pause. Then the heavy breathing started: in; out; followed by a word I still couldn't get. It sounded like ‘trahail’. He kept going: innn; ouut; trahaail. Innnnnnnnn, ouuuuuuuut, trahaaaaaaaaail. It was deep and husky like it's supposed to be, but much less scary than at night. I wondered when he’d start coughing.

After a bit I hung up. Then I got up and locked my door. You never knew.

There were a few calls after that. I never spoke, but never hurried to put the phone down either and I suppose it encouraged him, because one day he spoke to me – properly, as opposed to his trahailing.

"Bonjour," he said.

"Bonjour," I said back. He’d taken me by surprise and it was only polite. Then suddenly, in English, without me having any idea it would happen, my mouth added, "I've got a lovely fanny."

I hung up, my hand clamping the receiver to the phone as though he might jump down the line. I couldn't believe what I'd just said. Then I jerked the receiver off the hook again, knocking it onto the floor. He mustn't ring back. I watched it until the high pitched whine kicked in, then stood up and pulled out the plug. What had I done?

I'd made my life even more miserable than it already was, that’s what I'd done. How, now, could I leave the phone connected? How could I receive job offers, survey requests, rare calls from rare acquaintances who rarely asked me out? How could I ever dare answer the phone again?
An even worse thought struck me. What if he knew who I was? Where I lived? What if he watched my door? I'd have to move. I'd have to tell the police. I'd have to kill him.

That last thought wasn't me, any more than my mouth shooting off about my fanny. I wished my body would stop working without me. Not, come to think of it, I’d been doing that great a job before. As I stared down at the phone it occurred to me that maybe this was where I’d been going wrong. Maybe I should be spontaneous more often; let my body take control. Perhaps killing him – well, no – not killing him – perhaps maiming him, or severely frightening him, would blow away the cobwebs. Boost my social life. Help me make friends and influence people. In a good way. It wasn’t as though I had a lot to lose.

For the next few days though, I stayed in victim mode. The threat of a voyeur wasn’t a problem: the windows were so high, small and dirty that keeping the blinds down didn't make much difference. Besides, outside my windows were level with the sidewalk and he'd have had to contort himself pretty obviously to look in. Unless he had a periscope casually hidden inside his dirty raincoat. But the transition zones were something else. Who would be standing outside the door when I left? Who might be following me, ready to pounce? If I survived my outing, who might be waiting for me when I got home?

It created door dilemmas and I began to get seriously jumpy. So much so that after a few days I plugged the phone back in. Reality, I decided, couldn't be as bad as my imaginings. Could it? Besides, I wanted someone to ring me. Someone from my past, my country, my friends – anyone who might bring some comfort down the line. He, after all, might never ring again.

He rang after a few hours.

"Bonjour," he said.

I said nothing, my heart beating in a strange way, almost as though someone I fancied had finally phoned to ask me out. I felt excited, but cautious – and very curious. What would happen next?

"Vous avez été occupé longtemps," he told me.

I waited.

"J'ai cru que vous aviez changé d'avis, que vous ne vouliez plus me parler."

He waited for me to answer, but I couldn't. Nor could I hang up. After a pause, he got down to business.

"J'ai été bien excité par ce que vous avez dit l'autre fois," he said. "J'aimerais bien voir votre 'lovely fanny'."

My heart sank. In French his voice was powerful and smooth – even charming. But 'love-er-lee fain-eee' sounded awkward and cliché, curdling my curiosity into contempt.

"It'll cost you," I said.

This time the silence was different. He hadn't expected that.

"Combien?"

What should I do? Name a price? Hang up again? This time my mouth and I worked together.

"The usual,” I said, trying to sound blasé. "Maybe even a discount, if I like you."

There was another pause, but this time he was thinking, back in control.

"Per'aps we could meet?" he suggested. "To discuss this further."

"Sure." I didn't hesitate.

"Where?" he pushed. "When?"

I didn't have a plan, but this time I wasn't thrown. "I don't know," I said. "Let me think about it. I'll tell you next time."

I hung up before he could insist then pulled out the cord, feeling the first stirrings of power. It looked like maybe I was going to do something after all: that my body and mouth might actually work together with me on this one. Sure, I wondered briefly if I should go to the police. But that was like wondering if I should give up smoking. I knew I should – it just wasn’t going to happen. I’d gone to the police before. This time, I needed to come up with a plan of my own.

By the end of the day I’d come up with three options.

Plan A involved turning the tables – watching him without letting him see me.

Plan B revolved around hurting him, preferably with plenty of humiliation thrown in.

Plan C comprised murder.

Plan A was tempting, but cowardly – hardly a sure-fire way to make new friends.

Plan C was strictly a last resort.

Which left Plan B: solid as far as it went, but a little short on detail. How to do it, for example? Where to carry it out? All my usual places – the library, the shopping mall, the park – had pros and cons, but while having other people around felt safer, it also introduced an element of risk. How would they react? How might he use them? I was making supper, watching the cheese writhe and bubble on burnt toast when it came to me. I’d use my apartment. It was confined, I had control over it and, let's face it, I was going to have to move. This could be my swan song.

From then on it was easy. I fleshed out a plan, double-checked the details and made a list. The next day I went shopping. Then I plugged the phone back in and waited. He called me the following morning.

"Allô?" I answered.

Silence.

Relief surged through me; he was hooked. "Vous avez été occupé bien longtemps" I told him, mocking his last chat-up line. "J'ai cru que vous aviez changé d'avis."

He heard the smile in my voice. I heard the suspicion in his. "You too ‘ave been busy," he told me. "I wondeur why?"

"Il me fallait décidé où," I told him smoothly. "You're not like my other clients. I want to keep the money for myself."

"Ah oui?" It was only two words but now the suspicion was softened with interest. Did he believe me? Playing safe, my mouth kept it brief.

"En tout cas, je l'ai réglé. I've fixed it. Can you come to my apartment?"

There was a pause. Then he said "That depends where it is.”

"Surely you know." I hesitated in turn. "You've got my number."

"Yes, but - your numbeur - I made it up, I composed the numbeur spontaneously. It was a lucky chance, that's all."

I felt giddy. Was I safe after all? Should I change my plan? Could I just hang-up, change my number and forget about him for ever?

No. There was the risk he was lying, the constant fear he'd turn up. Not to mention my revenge. My new feelings of power.

"Down town," I said. "Near rue St-Joseph."

"Oui," he confirmed, "I could come there."

"This afternoon?" I asked.

He paused again. "This afternoon is difficult. This evening?"

"Out of the question." The dark would be too scary. "I'm working. It has to be before six – you have to be gone before six."

He thought about it. I looked at my watch. 10:30. He was probably at work, ringing during his coffee break.

"I will leave at four," he told me. "I will be there by four and a half. Your address?"

I gave it to him. "There's no number on the door," I added. "It's a basement flat. I'll leave the door on the latch –”

"Euh?"

"Open – I'll leave the door open, in case I'm asleep. There's no bell."

"OK. Ça marche." After the smallest pause he added, "I'm very much looking forward to see you. We will have very good fun together, n’est-ce pas? For not really so very much money."

"If I like you," I replied, and now my voice was off on its own again, honey sweet and inviting, "it might not even cost you at all."

As soon as I’d hung up I set to work. First, I stripped my bed, took out the plastic sheet and wrapped it around the mattress. I had nothing against my landlord, after all, despite the tiny windows. Then I got out my shopping bags and started fitting together the bits I’d bought. They’d cost a fortune and there'd been a couple of moments, especially when the cash register had dinged its final total, when I'd considered dropping the whole thing. Revenge may be sweet, but it’s also frigging expensive. When I’d finished though, I was glad I’d seen it through. It was perfect.

I checked the time – 12:45. Already? My heart jolted in a spurt of panic. Only three hours to go. Trying to keep calm, I double-checked all the windows, making sure they were locked, then put the key in my pocket. Next, I unplugged the phone. Mobile reception in the basement was lousy, hence the landline, and I'd have loved to watch him answer it and listen to my obscene threats. But he could have used it to call for help. Instead, I left him my digital alarm and mp3 player. Then I packed my clothes, picked up my bag and nearly left. It was only as I glanced round the kitchen for a final check that I remembered the stuff in the fridge.

Shit.

When my heart had stopped hammering I put on my washing-up gloves, opened the fridge door and took it out, taking care not to spill any blood. At 1:30 I’d finished for real, but time was tight now, as was my breathing, my hands moist with sweat, my new power precarious. If I blew the timing, I’d blown everything. Forcing myself not to panic, I double checked one last time then pulled the door to and dragged the doormat forward from underneath, stopping it from blowing open. It held. Taking a deep breath I picked up my bag, turned, and walked off down the road.

Two hours later I was back.

Getting changed had taken longer than I’d thought, but I didn’t feel panicky anymore, not the way I had in the apartment. In fact, safe outside, I was almost enjoying myself. My disguise was good – I knew that from the shock I'd got when I’d looked in the mirror – and no one at the tool-hire shop had batted an eyelid. If the pervert had been lying, if he did already know what I looked like, he’d never recognise me in this. I was on edge, sure, but my adrenaline was working properly – I could see clearly, hear every detail, move fast and decisively – I was cool, calm and in command. Who wouldn’t want to be my friend now?

I looked at my watch. It was a bit soon to start my scenario, but I was afraid he’d turn up early. I needed to be out there, working, when he arrived. I tried to wait another thirty minutes, managed fifteen, then put on my fluorescent jacket, stuck on my hired earmuffs, and picked up the leaf blower. Just another municipal worker, gathering the leaves into piles.

I was coming up the side of the apartment block when he arrived. I stayed there, blowing leaves in all directions, trying to watch him without seeming obvious. He was early, but it was him all right – an ugly man from the glimpse I had of him, but not unusually so. Not a dirty, miserable, little cliché of a man – just an ugly bastard with a squashed-in face, a strong barrel of a body and thick, powerful arms. My heart started pounding again and I clenched my legs so as not to pee. This was it.

He looked at me and I turned my attention to a stubborn pile of leaves. When I dared look up again, he’d gone. As quickly as possible without running I headed for the corner. He was knocking on the front door, which pushed slowly open as he banged.

“Allô,” he called. “Je suis arrivé.”

He looked at me again and I looked down at my feet concentrating intensely on the leaves. He knocked once more, hesitated, gave me a final glance and went in.

Resting the leaf-blower against the wall so he didn’t hear me coming, I started after him, taking the key from my pocket. Timing was everything now. He had to get far enough inside to give me time to lock the door, but not far enough to discover the surprise I’d left and run out again. My eyes had switched to tunnel vision, my hearing was muffled, everything around me was moving in slow-mo. Now. I had to do it now. Reaching the door, I pulled it closed and tried to lock it.

I dropped the key.

Inside, I heard a cry. Quickly I picked the key back up, put it in the lock, half turned it – and it stuck. Stifling a sob I yanked the door towards me, as his footsteps came running, tried again, and turned it all the way. I was still holding the knob when he wrenched it violently from the other side.

It didn’t matter. I’d done it. He was trapped.

Moving quickly away from the peephole, I ran back down the side of the apartment to my bedroom window and got out my pièce de résistance. A periscope: perfect for watching people in basements without giveaway contortions.

He'd thrown back the duvet, exposing the skeleton to full view, the wig on its skull twisted at an odd angle, its jaw gaping open in a classic skeletal smile. Inside its ribcage, the pig's offal was bloodily convincing. I'd turned the heating up before I left and the stench must have been pretty bad too. As I watched, he came back into the room, doubled over and vomited onto the carpet.

When he’d finished, he straightened up, wiped his mouth, and stumbled out again. Going back to the front, I heard him pull on the door, trying to get out. Then he started banging. I hung up the leaf blower on a small tree nearby to block out the noise. With luck, no one would notice for ages – people in this city didn’t tend to get involved.

Walking slowly now, light as air, I went back to my ex-bedroom window and waited for him to return. The alarm clock had started right on time, blaring out rock music at four pm precisely, and soon the mp3 player would get to my speech. I was keen to watch his reaction. After that, who knew?

Buses to Montreal ran every hour. A new social life was just around the corner – friends and acquaintances waiting to greet me, jobs only one step beyond the ads in the paper, night-clubs heaving with potential lovers and creeps. The future beckoned, cheerful and inviting as a coke commercial. Power, finally, lay in the palm of my hand.

Settling down to watch, I felt myself smiling. I could get into this.

*

Finn Clarke has a tiny house on Dartmoor, which she explores far less than she’d like, and returns regularly to Quebec where she lived for many years. Past jobs include assistant psychologist and prison project worker - both of which she preferred to shelf stacking - and she currently works in social services. Her short stories have been published in anthologies such as Endangered Species, edited by Val McDermid, as well as in British and North American magazines ranging from Big Pulp to Descant. Her first collection of short stories, Grim Tales of Hope, was published in December 2008 and her crime novel Call Time won the 2013 Debut Dagger.

Fiction #50: Thomas Sorensen

L&L

We met four times through common friends before he started liking me. I was just a calm and conventional unit of the evening, nothing very strong or vivid, but I quickly sensed the edge of him among the rest. He had a quality of separateness you could not chalk up to any quirk or mannerism. It was hard to say at first what made him stand out so strongly. He spoke and moved like anybody else, yet somehow was distinct from us. It was pure presence, as if he lived within a denser moment of his own in casual contact with the general sense of place and time. Everything he said and did was tailored to the contours of the talk. He was never awkward or out of place, the tenor of his personality never once gave out to the sass or flair of the minute. He was always cleanly centered on the axis of his poise. It made it easy for us to be honest. People liked themselves better with him there.

He was kindest to me at the start, before he had respect for me. Those early nights feel sharpened from their fun when I recall them now. After our first drive alone, those nights all felt like I had watched them through a hole. But it seemed much simpler when it was happening. I don’t know how it ever could have felt so standard. He came and talked with me, and I remember thinking he was very nice, self-assured, and simple. Now the memory has gone queasy with the swing of things. If he ever spoke to me just nice and easy like that again I couldn’t stomach it. But when it happened I remember that I was impressed. He could break you in at once to the momentum of his rapport. He could get along with anyone at any time, and he was always the same person no matter whom he was talking to.

Then on that fourth night he picked up on my caliber. We were sitting with some other people and I said something very good. The others there each gave me one approving laugh, but he only looked away. He looked serious and uncomfortable. I had never seen him look uncomfortable before. And then for the next three minutes he was strangely sharp, aloof, and mean. Though we sat with other people, he ignored them and directed all this rude and clever attitude of his at me. Then he abruptly left our group around the table and didn’t talk to any of us for the rest of the night. I watched him as he stood with other people, all the honesty and verve of his charisma back in place. But every time he passed me by he made one playfully insulting jab, like “you’re not manly enough to put your arm up like that,” and continued on to another point and person in the room. It was his way of liking me at the start. Respect was not something he had for other people. Neither was it something that he gave. For him, respect was a clearing he staked out between our places in the room, borders marked and guarded by his weird, impersonal cruelty. But I stayed longer that night than ever before, and so did he. I held out because I was lonely, and in those three minutes he had become strange and interesting. We stood or sat in separate corners while the numbers thinned out between us. Then, when the night had tapered off into four small clusters of two or three, a girl at the fridge yelled back that they were out of milk. He heard her call and called out across the room to ask if I would like to go get milk with him.

And in that way we left the light and bustle hanging in its fist of ease. Outside, the air was cool. He walked silently ahead.

If I had been alone or with any other person, the night would have felt clear as water is clear, as something ever-present, all surrounding, and transparent. But with him it was as empty things are clear, and we passed through night as down a tunnel.

He led me to his car, got in, and waited. I passed before the hood, and as I passed I caught his gaze through the glass. And under the weight of his steadier stare, I remember feeling girlish and embarrassed, though even now I don’t know exactly why.

I opened the door and got in on the passenger’s side. Within, the car smelled like him, but stronger. And as I sat down, his odour in my nostrils, he felt suddenly strange and distant, as if I were meeting him for the first time all over again. The strange and awkward intimacy of the situation stalled and mouldered there between our heads. It felt like he had something he wanted to say. For a full half-minute he just sat there staring out the window. Then he just turned, looked over his shoulder, and started backing up without a word. And then as he was backing up, he said, “We need to work on the way you make eye contact,” presuming once again that same heavy, even harshly candid intimacy—intimacy which, for him, did not bind you closer together, but marked out the turf between your social posts, as in football or a duel.

He was calm and focused after that, and as we talked I realized that he was different from anything I suspected he would be that first, second, third, or fourth time meeting at the house. I have never heard anyone speak like he did that night. We had lunch the next day and then again the day after.

The better I got to know him, the stranger and more distant he became. And I became more separate and distinct myself, as if all the nebula of my personality took on a form and centre of its own within the orbit of his mode. All the casual flaunt of habit sounded played and forced against the blankness of his front. I started to realize how stupid I was for laughing at something I did not think was funny. And in all the small exaggerations, even just, “this curry is amazing,” the overflow resounded awkwardly between us, until even the redundancies of “I’m glad to see you” or “how are you” wavered between my face and his. I spoke less and less, while he spoke more and more. He thought brilliantly out loud to me while I thought to myself alone. Very little real conversation happened. And yet that is when we were at our closest.

He was most critical to me then, when he had the most respect for me. He was quick, acute, and exacting. He had a way of calling me out on every subtle pretense and affectation. If I made a joke we both knew was bad and laughed all the harder out of compensation, or if he criticized me and I tried to smile through the criticism so that my smile only propped me stiffer into my mistake, he would always point it out. He coached me out of all these casual delusions jellied in between my slabs of social habit. Our existences were more concise and to the point than those of other people.

And we resented other people more for it. I no longer felt inadequate when someone spoke to me and I couldn’t think of anything to say. I no longer groped amid the flutters of the chat with stork-like strokes in my struggle to be at ease. At the time I came to believe that it was not out of weakness, but because of my superiority that I could not relax and be spontaneous. “Extreme perceptiveness is debilitating,” he once instructed me me. “You are more acute than other people, so you fumble over all the subtle social implications and ambiguities normal people smooth over in the ease of habit. But they hold it against you, like it’s a bad thing. Don’t waste your time on them. When you try so hard to be spontaneous and have fun at a party, you are degrading yourself to appease their self-resentment. But you can’t allow yourself to really go down to their level, because you are proud and you deserve to be proud. Accept your distinctness and superiority. It’s the only way to go.”

After that, his body cut a deeper figure in the place, as if he were engraved into the party rather than just one among the bunch. His expression from across a room upstaged the walls and other shoulders, and everything else took on a muffled cast, as ridges caught before the lowering glare are dimmed and blended in among the trees, rocks, and other slopes in a single flattened shade. Everything felt abstract to me. It was as if all objects and other people calcified out of the flow of life as humidity condenses from the air, so that it all took on a drier mental distance. The specific qualities of people, cars, fruit, and light dropped numbly into thought, while the uniform atmosphere of our affinity pervaded everything. Even at my parents’ house, the floral curtains and the porcelain were sick with the potential of our mode. It all felt clammy, buzzing, and restless all the time, yet it was also weirdly peaceful, like white noise, or the constant and consistent movement of trains or buses that is somehow more relaxing than the perfect silence and stillness of the bedroom. It gave me focus. It felt very good, but it was draining and persistent, piercing through everything and always there.

The idea of murder cut in through the pause, unchecked and vital in the hiatus of our tense. And scale had no traction in that clarity. The thought was bigger than it should have been. His vision had monopoly. It taxed us on our food and sleep.

It started as a kind of joke. Even in the breath of the act itself, it still felt like a joke. In a sense, we abstracted reality from our lives to the point where it was no more real than the theory, the idea of two brilliant young men so individual and independent that the tired laws of a banal community no longer applied to us.

The idea eclipsed you and the law. I knew that we were doing something wrong, but I did not feel it. The notion of guilt came to mind several times out of the gentle reflex of habit, and passed on through thought as abstract and foreign as a memory of a memory. I only felt the wonder of my own detachment.

And yet, it may never have happened if he had not started losing confidence in me. But there came a point when the mesh of our resolve lost the tension of the first intent. I do not mean we lost our faith. Over time the ideal simply spread too thin across the span of too much habit. It took so much out of us that we saw too much of ourselves in it for it to be perfect like before. And in the same way that the constant and consistent movement or the white noise stops and wakes you in the stillness or the silence, we were troubled in the lapse. It made him peevish. He started criticizing me on smaller things. One time, I took the last cupcake from his fridge. It was my third to his one and he told me to put it back. I thought he was joking and took a bite. He got upset and made me put it back even though it was half-finished. He tried to provoke me in these moods of his, and if I didn’t argue with him he made another issue out of something else. If we didn’t argue about anything at all, he would accuse me of not wanting to go through with the murder. But we both knew that wasn’t the real problem. We were equally committed at every stage. But he would still accuse me. He searched for signs of complacency in everything I said. If he asked a question and I didn’t have an answer ready, he would pounce, demanding to know why I wasn’t making a contribution without even giving me time to come up with an answer in the first place. He accused me of being too afraid to do it and too afraid to pull away. And I could never answer him. I only grew more and more reserved, and this made him more resentful. Yet no matter how irrational he became, he was never frantic. He never lost composure. He would sit there thinking himself crazy and then back again in a steady stream of talk, while I sat listening without saying anything. But even after he had talked himself back down, I still left him feeling distant and resented, though neither of us had done anything to be resented for. He made it feel like we were less stable than we really were, roughing up the texture of the situation so it could chafe between us and the night. There even came a point when I think he might have hated me. But he could not be alone. He called me over all the more the more lost respect for me, and more often it felt like he had called me over just to feel contempt for something in the room. He grated against the inertia of our drive to take the edge off of the pause.

But when we actually committed murder, in the fabric of the moment, all the restlessness and indecisiveness just fell away.

We left his apartment on the ninth of May. We chose someone at random and sat him in the passenger’s seat. I drove, and he knocked the boy dead from behind.

I felt no reluctance. When he told me we were doing it that night, I only felt a calmness settle in with my acceptance, as if all gaps of doubt were webbed dumb with the heavy static of the charge. Any reluctance just skimmed the glaze, trackless on my glassy stance of mind. I pictured myself in horror and despair, imagined doubts, but they could not take hold upon the rigor of our frequency.

We had decided he would do the talking. The window opened and the two spoke through the cooler air. I looked on through the glass ahead. It was an empty sidewalk lined with cars. Streetlights usually feel soft and bare at night to me, but at that moment they felt congested in their slots of air. The atmosphere of night had lost its lift and spread of ease, as if congealed in the bare and open span of our decision. He made a joke and they laughed together. The casualness lapped coolly beneath the lid of hood. I dug a smile in my face. He ruffled up the space between their looks, eased him in, and we were off. I asked the boy about his day, the other hummed the bluntness off the bray. The body bent and splayed against the seatbelt, frittered up the looseness around the waist. The word “retarded” came to mind, or it occurred to me that it could come to mind, from the way the body flopped and slid across the seat, along with the knowledge that it was a ludicrous idea to have at such a time, but what could you do. He hit the kid a final time, and the forehead started nuzzling the cavities.

Past clammy fronds hustling up the night’s damp focus the flashlight zoned our way. Looking up, between high holds of deeper black clouds matted dusk across the sky. And in the dead of night, thoughts burned out in my head that you would never think in open day, like “O God, you hover too much like a mother”—crazy thoughts, as if the mind could find no footing in that clarity and spun off into numb-shuttled giddiness while the rest of me, splinted up in cool trust, conveyed the heavy duty through what, at the time, felt like all the flab of life belted down by the path ahead.

We deposited the body in the woods. We had lunch a few times after, but he has since stopped seeing me. He says we’ve grown apart.

I write this not as a confession, but from a fatal initiative to move on from where this man has left me. I have divided him into words and spread them across the public scale where they will look simple and delicate. Where is there to go beyond murder? I hope he hasn’t left me where I can’t return. Please take me back from my violations. Alone I am as cold with correctness as you are.


*

Thomas Sorensen grew up in Atikokan, a small town in Northwestern Ontario. He received his BA from Carleton University, and is currently teaching English in South Korea.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Canadian Zombie Fiction

Richard Van Camp on Dead North: Canadian Zombie Fiction edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Dead North is different from other zombie anthologies because it focuses on the speculative fiction aspect of the zombie genre.

Speculative fiction focuses on the human aspect of what happens next to us as a species. (Science fiction focuses on humanity’s future with an emphasis on technology.)

For Dead North, editor Silvia Moreno-Garcia asked writers to take the zombie genre in ways that we’ve never read it before.

I shared my all-out Wheetago War story “On the Wings of this Prayer” from my new collection, Godless but Loyal to Heaven, but each writer really delivered on this challenge.

In the first story, “The Herd” by Tyler Keevil, we have a protagonist who’s learned that you can actually eat zombies and there’s a pretty gross menu of ways zombie or “dead head” meat can be prepared. It can be salted, boiled, barbequed. I’ve never read anything like this.

For me there are two that broke my heart.

Carrie-Lea Cote wrote a story called “The Last Katajjaq” and it’s about a young woman who finally gets to sing a song for her people with her mom. Their camp is attacked by zombies who are running over the ice. Nobody knows what they are and as the attack is continuing and more of “the people” are being bit, the mother of the young girls goes to comfort her daughter. It’s her daughter’s last words that broke my heart. She says it in a whisper: “…I…I was…so…proud…I…got to sing..the katajjaq…”

The last story in the collection, “Half Ghost” by Linda DeMeulemeester, is the one I think about daily since reading it because why wouldn’t you want to turn if you knew that survivors on the planet would keep bringing you fresh northern delicacies every day like fish, seal and blubber, so you wouldn’t feed on them?

The stories are from all over the country. There's one about a marijuana grow-up and that is set in Vancouver Island, BC. One is set in the Montreal bio dome. There's one in the Yukon, with airplane pilots. We have stories in Alberta, Newfoundland, but most of the stories take place in the arctic or sub-arctic.

In “Rat Patrol” by Kevin Cockle, the narrator, Arthur, a professional “Rat Killer”, which is code in the future of Alberta for Zombie Killer, Arthur speaks with Hank, someone who is turning slowly. Hank gives Arthur insight into what the spirit wants from the world, and it is so so creepy.

I love speculative fiction as it reminds us of what we have right now and it reminds us to cherish it. It’s interesting to me that it’s a fever or a sickness in so many of these narratives that kills most of humanity. Perhaps we fear where the world has already gone with our ancestors and that it may return to us so much stronger. We must be worried this sickness and fear will come back in our life time.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Fiction #49

New fiction! Issue #49
Submissions now open for #50!

Special thanks to all who have been submitting. Enjoy.

Fiction #49: J.R. McConvey

Little Flags

“I believe this is where the battle for civilization is being fought. I really do.”

Earl Sampson ambled along the border, thumbs jammed into his belt, fingers crabbed toward a huge brass belt-buckle forged in the shape of a Texas rose. Two newsmen followed him, one crouched behind a camera, the other, a reporter, poking a long microphone toward Earl’s face. Earl paused and flashed his best public smile, the one Helen had always said shone like the grille of an oncoming truck.

“Right here, along this border. Sure, we can build a wall – build the biggest wall you ever seen! And we’re doin’ it! Mile by mile, we’re building it, just like we’re building the drones. I mean, you take the fella they caught right here, just yesterday. Those were Shield Hawks that spotted him, yessir. Lord Almighty… Lopez, he said his name was. Well, they’re all Lopez, aren’t they?

“But my point is, you really want to fix the border problem? What you need is vigilance. Vigilance and will! And it ain’t me I’m talking about, neither. My sunset’s not far off. What I’m doing trying to ignite the spark of nationhood in the hearts of the youth.”

On cue, Earl drew from his back pocket a miniature flag, black plastic wand glued with a nylon flap dyed with the stars and stripes, a white cardboard label etched with tiny lines of text dangling from a string tied to its blunted spike. From the sidelines, his assistant, Ollie, spied the flag and leaned down to whisper to the wee pigtailed girl at his knees, who skipped over to Earl and looked up at him with eyes as wide as a Colorado sky. As though conferring a blessing, Earl pressed the toy flag into the little girl’s palm, squeezing her fingers around its holiness.

“This is my own kind of nation building, see? With each flag I pass on to kids like this little peach right here” – Earl patted the girl on the head – “maybe it helps ’em know what it means to be an American. What God-given rights they have, and why we can’t let the illegals take those rights away from them. Not to mention the jobs!

“Mark my words – this country is being invaded.”

He swung his arm in a wide arc across the scrubland behind the coils of razor wire, the desert rolling down to the bloodied cities beyond the Rio Grande, stricken drug hives that disgorged the desperate and ambitious in equal measure toward Earl’s watchful eye.

“La Reconquista. It’s on the way. Bolivar, Pancho Villa…  that revolutionary spirit is bleedin’ up through the border like a coming flood.”

He turned his face and stared straight into the camera, smile cranked up to chrome-plated 18-Wheeler, pedal to the metal.

“I’m just doin’ what I can to stop it.”

*

Every year, leading up to the Fourth of July, the American Shield received thousands of letters of support from across the country. They poured in by mail, by email, some delivered by hand, and from each one Earl Sampson selected a pithy excerpt, which he had printed on a white cardboard label and tied to one of the little American flags from his stockpile, thereby imbuing cheap Chinese product with a dose of real American sentiment. He would then, in person whenever possible, place each flag in the dirt along the border fence between Cochise County and the Mexican hinterland. There were thousands of them, planted for as far as you could see, a beautiful force field of red, white and blue fluttering against the bleached landscape. On one part of the wall, the flags had been pinned up and arranged to spell out the words Earl Sampson held as his own personal creed and mission: SECURE THE BORDER. STOP THE INVASION.

Earl could see the slogan from the bay window in his ranch-style living room, as fine a view as any cowboy could ask for. Same as every evening, he saluted the words and the dusky sky behind them, then sank down into his leather recliner and sighed. Tonight he was extra tired from smiling for the cameras all day, and was looking forward to a night in front of the tube. He liked the old westerns, Gunsmoke and Rawhide and The Virginian, and now with satellite TV he could watch them all the time.

Earl shifted his gut and wiped a palm across his hat-greasy head as the TV glowed on, the sound of canned gunshots filling the room. It was important to be settled just right before he called in Valentina.

In his mind, he called her his Only – as in, his Only Exception. To the boys who dared give him a look, he said the same thing every time, smiling at maximum throttle: “A girl as doggone pretty as that transcends the national interest, wouldn't you say?” In those words would be contained all the ones that Earl Sampson didn’t need to speak aloud: that he’d founded the Shield with money from his own goddamn pockets, and the Shield’s guns were his guns, and that Helen had been gone over a year now, so the wise thing was to shut the fuck up unless you wanted to spend a night discussing the matter with Earl’s nine German Shepherds. And the boys would all nod and shrug and let it go… because you couldn’t argue that Valentina was one pretty little prize. Young and svelte, with skin the colour of mocha chocolate. She’d been with him for just about six months now, shipped in from Nuevo León by a Coyote he’d got friendly with, and although she cleaned the house and prepared meals, her chief concern was to bring Earl his daily after-work bourbon, and to otherwise help him relax and shrug off the tension born of holding back the tidal wave of Mexican blood that threatened to engulf his beloved country day in and day out.

On the table beside him lay one of his testifying flags – message: Keep Up the Good Fight! America for Americans – and next to it, a little brass bell. Earl picked up the bell and gave a sharp ding. “Valentina, darlin’?” he shouted in singsong drawl. “It’s time!”

She came at his call, resplendent in a dress of purple lace, carrying a tray laid with a single tumbler frosted with cold and filled with cherry-dark bourbon. Her eyes were black as opals, her frame as petite and light as a bird’s. There were times when she looked mute, ignorant even; but Earl knew what kind of fight the girl had in her. She’d been a prickly cactus at first, but he’d taught her the ropes, soon enough.

“Well don't you just look adorable as all git’ out tonight,” he said, pinching at her behind. “So kind of you to bring me my little drop of medicine in such a punctual fashion.” He took the glass from the tray and brought it to his lips with a satisfied slurp. “Did you see me on the TV today? Then you know how tired my poor bones are. Yes indeed, another tough day for old Earl and his brothers of the Shield…”

Valentina stood still beside the chair, staring down into the silver tray held out flat in front of her. Earl looked up at her face. He liked the girl, for real. After Helen had passed, he’d found that no time patrolling the border, no amount of rifle practice, not even the affection of his beloved dogs could stop the day from coming to that hollow point of loneliness, just Earl and Rawhide on the TV, him getting up again and again to fill his own whisky glass even though the bourbon wasn’t any help, either. The house empty, the bougainvillea in the big pots dying because it had always been Helen who tended them. The hollow was nothing like Earl had ever known before. It made him feel old and strange and weak, and those weren’t feelings he could tolerate, not with the mission he was on. And so he’d brought Valentina into the house on the down-low, not sure exactly what her role would be, but confident he’d find a way to make use of her, all the same.

Earl smiled at her, not his semi-truck smile, but a gentler one, a real one. He was strong – loved being strong – but any man had times when he needed a break from the bluster. Every man needed someone to talk to, to share his pleasures with.

Her being Mexican… well, everyone had a tragic flaw. He’d asked the Lord for his forgiveness. And anyway, sometimes, lying in bed at night waiting for the desert moon to sink, he wondered if he might not be doing a good thing with it.

Although he would never admit it out loud, didn’t even like to say it to himself, when he looked at Valentina, he knew deep down that he could never stop them. The ones crawling across the desert, they had heart – but that wasn’t even it. What they had on their side, what he could never stamp out, was a longing to reach America, to taste its riches, to know the real meaning of freedom. How could you talk someone out of a dream like that? How could you even blame them? They’d keep on coming, thick and hungry as a locust plague, just as long as the States kept shining its beacon out over their hardscrabble lives. Hell, half the country was already Hispanic. Although Earl would remain vigilant, would stand by his banners like a good warrior, he could see full well that the old America – the one that loved Rawhide and Gunsmoke and The Virginian like he did – was getting as and thin and translucent as the Chinese nylon on his little flags.

He hated to know it, would hate it until the day he followed Helen into the arms of the Lord, but looking up at Valentina, such a lovely dark thing, gave him a thread of solace to hold onto. The whisky swirled round Earl’s his head, and he thought: If they have to come, at least let ‘em be like her.

“Now,” he said. “Let’s make sure I can recuperate in time for the fireworks shows tomorrow!” He took another swig of bourbon. “I know you don’t love this part as of yet, although I’m hoping you’ll learn, eventually. You know I’m always telling you to trust me. You’ll see it in the end – you’ll thank me for everything, for giving you a place here. Even for puttin’ some savings aside for you instead of letting you fritter it all away on that needy family of yours. Yes: remain in the care of Earl Sampson, my Valentine, and perhaps one day you’ll come to know the fullness of pride and pleasure that America at its best can truly bring.”

Earl heaved back and kicked up the recliner to emphasize the point.    

“Maybe having watched that young fella on the TV yesterday, the one we picked off a mile or so from the highway, will drive home just how lucky you are to’ve landed here. It ain’t nice to say it, but you know as well as I do that you could’ve ended up somewhere out there in the desert, feedin’ the buzzards.” He eased his polyester-panted legs a touch further apart and chuckled. “You know I love ya’ dearly and consider you a special case. I hate to think of you back out there, staggering around in the dust and dark.”

Without a sound, Valentina placed the tray down on the side table and came to stand in front of Earl.

“That’s it. And mind, no mischief, now,” he said. It was the thing Helen had always said to him before he headed out for border patrol. He’d learned it in Spanish for Valentina.

“Ninguna travesura. Old Earl’s had a hard day.”

*

She was the only one who knew how to comfort him. A terrible fever had come over him and he’d lain drained and sweating for days in the shadowed adobe room, and their mother had quailed and wept and prayed to God for his recovery, but only Valentina had stayed by his side, stroking his damp hair away from his eyes, whispering stories to soothe him into sleep.

Andres wished she were here now. The blue desert stretched out behind him, miles of brittle mesquite and old skulls and chittering rattlesnakes; but nothing was more terrifying than the crest of pink on the horizon, the first blushing of day. The nighttime was shadowed and tense, but the days were a crazed scramble through unbearable heat and blinding light, easy pickings for La Migra’s patrolmen and the assault rifles they aimed from the backs of their armored pickups.

His vision blurred with the delirium of sleeplessness. The air was already getting harder to breathe, thickening with encroaching heat. If she was here, she could put her hand on his forehead, cooling it with her touch. Could speak his name.  Say, Andino. You are almost there.

It was over a year ago that his sister had left Monterrey to go north in search of work. For the first few months, she’d sent money back. Then, without warning, it had stopped. His family waited, hoping to hear word, hoping the money would start coming again. But nothing came.
Andres, the closest to her in age, insisted on going after her.

“How will you find her?” his mother said. “She could be anywhere. She could be in Canada by now. She could be dead.” She wept, cursing the Americans and their money, cursing Mexico for needing it.

Andres knew his sister wasn’t dead. They were bound, shared an interior language forged in those long nights when she stayed by his bedside and they dreamed together of other places, magical futures. He could feel her whispering somewhere up past the Rio Grande. “Don’t worry, mama,” he said. “I know she’s alive. I will find her.” What he left out was the darkness he could also feel, the sense that his sister was somehow being choked, that she was alive but death was close to her.

The sun rose into a sky striped with long clouds. Andres slouched down behind an outcropping of cactus and orange stone, taking what rest he could before the morning was fully upon him. He looked out to the distance. He’d been walking for three days. Yesterday’s supper had used up his last bits of food, and he had only a half bottle of water left, which he brought to his mouth now for a few sparing sips. He had to be close. There was no other way to think.

He stood and began his slow, shuffling walk once more. The sun’s heat had clawed its way over the hills and was already beginning to bake his chapped lips. He kept stumbling, trying not to fall, to add more bruises and scrapes to the ones purpled and festering on his elbows and knees. Above him, a buzzard circled the griddled sky, watching. He lurched forward and threw his arms up into the air and croaked, and it flew off northward, crossing borders without concern.

Hours passed and the sun reached its blistering apex. He tried to keep an image of his sister in his mind – to hold onto the gaze he gave her as she stared out from his memory, soft but unbreakable. But the image blurred in the heat, her face turning to gnarled tumbleweeds, her dark eyes filled with the flitting tongues of snakes.

Andres closed his eyes and craned his face skyward, letting the sun turn the inside of his lids rust red. When he opened them, the buzzard had come back. There was another one with it. They circled and dipped, descending toward him. Something in their turning made him look closer. There was no patience in their curves; their hunger was harder, more urgent.

When he heard the whine of their motors he knew. Not birds, but planes with no pilots, eyes with no bodies. Not buzzards, but Border Hawks – drones.

Fear and adrenalin surged into his muscles and threw him into a run. Blind running, running anywhere, in search of cover that didn’t exist in this wide-open hell, running with whatever energy he had left in the direction he believed might lead him to safety. To his sister, still alive up there, stalked by darkness. The dust and grit and heat poured into him, and he began coughing, little catches to start, then huge, wracking coughs, his whole trunk convulsing and threatening to split apart and spill his organs out onto the baking earth. The power in his legs dissolved, giving way under the weight of his hurtling body, pitching him forward into the scrub. His cheekbone met the dirt and his vision went black.

Amidst the high ringing and the warm touch of blood he fixed her in his mind and his heart, fused his own pounding heartbeats to hers, so that each would know exactly when the other’s stopped beating. He opened his shredded mouth and although he made no sound, called to her.

Valentina.

By the time he rolled over and saw the green and white pickup truck bouncing over the horizon, dozens of little American flags lining its hood, he had to call it a victory. He would not die in the desert. They would send him back, but he would be alive. To wait, again. For her, or another chance to go after her. 

Two officers jumped down from the truck and hauled him up by the arms. A glaring light moved in, and they held him out like a trophy deer for the television camera it was attached to. Another man, this one wearing a big suede Stetson and orange sunglasses and an embroidered cowboy shirt bulging with his gut, waddled over and stood in front of him.

“What's your name, son?” he said.

Andres hung like a scarecrow. The camera light blazed into his face and he squinted and groaned at the pain in his head, like a metal cog grinding away at the bone under his eye. His sister’s face swelled up in his mind, and then folded into ripples and collapsed, like a stilled flag.

“Lopez,” he said. “Andres Lopez.”
   
*

She kneeled in front of him, rubbing, squeezing. There were veins and callouses and hard edges, his feet pale and misshapen from years stuffed into hot boots treading uneven ground. The last two toes on each foot were clubbed, the nails yellowed and thick. She heard him take another long, oily swallow of bourbon and sigh. Some TV western blared out behind her, all tinny orchestra music and buckaroo drawl. Valentina closed her eyes and kneaded his troll’s feet, reciting out, with each application of pressure, a mantra in her mind. Last time. Last time. Last time. 

She rubbed and pressed patiently, until the first twitch came, quick and sharp. Then another, a longer convulsion, the tension in his muscles tighter than a belch or a blissful shudder would provoke. She paused, holding his limp feet in her hands like a hunk of moist cheese, and now he wrenched and turned and pitched his glass rolling across the floor, emptied of the strong and fragrant bourbon, the extra little thing she’d mixed in. Above her, his face reddened and swelled like a morning sun, suffused with his proud blood, and as he thrashed she listened to the sounds of him choking, watched the streams of white foam begin dribbling from his lips. Even in the throes of death, he was so pink and fat, so much like a greased ham.

She thought about how thin her brother had looked, his smashed-in face recoiling from the cameras, golden skin whitened to ash, blue splotches darkening his eyes, making the ripped-open flesh of his left cheek all the more vivid as it streamed with blood. He was broken, defeated, and they held up his defeat like a banner, echoing the words that Earl Sampson had emblazoned on his beloved, accursed fence.

Valentina Lopez let go of the dead man’s feet. She reached over and picked up the little flag on the side table, which she waved once in a feeble victory cheer before sliding its cheap, wobbly stem into the pocket of Earl Sampson’s cowboy shirt. The sun was nearly set, and she would need to be far away before morning came. He would be expected at the parade. When he didn’t show, they would look for him. And then for her.

She grabbed the knapsack from behind the curtain, stashed that morning, and stripped off her purple dress, quickly changing into the dark sweats she’d plucked from the closet where his dead wife’s clothing still hung. The glass door slid open onto humid night, alive with the sizzle of crickets and of wind crawling over the dirt, the sound she knew so well, which she had heard like a song pulling her forward when she’d first set off into the nighttime, away from Monterrey, toward the silvered wonderland of America.

She thought about Andres, surely now slouched in the back of some filthy truck bouncing back down the rutted road to Monterrey. She thought about their crumbling house there with its claustrophobic adobe rooms, the time she’d watched her brother shiver through the fever for nine days, almost dying in the dust and heat. She remembered the stories she’d told him, about the land of hopes and dreams.

She was the one who’d made it. She was across now.

Above her, the stars were coming out, mirroring the twinkle of city lights visible to the north. She wanted to know it, all of it… the fullness of pride and pleasure. Behind her, a big spangled flag stirred atop the late Earl Sampson’s ranch, gesturing toward the horizon, whispering its promise.

*



J.R. McConvey is a writer based in Toronto. His short story, “The Last Ham”, was shortlisted for the 2012 Thomas Morton Memorial Prize, and is available as an ebook through House of Anansi Digital. His writing has appeared in The Walrus, The Globe and Mail, The Puritan, The Broken City, The Found Poetry Review and other outlets, and he has won several awards for his work as a writer and producer of documentaries. He hates winter. Find him on Twitter @jrmcconvey.