‘A Great Disturbance in Nature’ by Jason Bentsman

A Great Disturbance in Nature

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

(from The Orgastic Future)

The following is a self-contained excerpt from The Orgastic Future, a novella the author comepleted recently about consumerism, plastic pollution, climate change, runaway ego, and other threats facing the planet— in a sense the literary equivalent of a Bruegal or Bosch painting.

The excerpt deals with the ramifications of Climate Change, and asks what it will take for people to finally ‘wake up’ to our precipitous path?

 

A Great Disturbance In Nature

As I write this passage in late September, there has been an unprecedented heatwave in Montreal for the last ten days. Right now it is almost 90° Fahrenheit (32° Celsius), with 90% humidity. Feels like a suffocating hothouse in the tropics. Simply walking outside generates thin sheets of sweat and shortness of breath—I’m like a fish gasping for water. I’ve always wanted to know what walking through warm soup feels like, and now with the wonders of climate change, I do! Another goal accomplished. #lifegoals (This hashtag is a shout-out for the kidz. Not my kids; don’t have any. Just the kids at large. Very unliterary of me, I daresay.)

And this is Montreal, mind you—Quebec, northward part of the world—where for 375 years since its founding, and thousands upon thousands if not millions before, temperatures this time of year have been consistently chilly or wintry, sometimes snowing. A number of records have been broken: today is by far the hottest of this date on record (since 1742), and several other days have been as well.

The natural world is confused. The leaves change color and dry out, branches grow denuded, everything settles in for quiescence and sleep—and suddenly a rip-roaring heatwave and burning sun. The leaves perk up again, vacillate this way and that. Some of the plants and flowers begin to release pollen; suddenly pollen is in the air again. The bees—still mysteriously dying out, most likely from widespread pesticides, their leagues growing thinner and thinner—buzz about akimbo, this way and that, confused. Squirrels save up nuts for the winter, and then say, ‘Ah, what?! Fuck it.’ Flocks of migrating geese, long black V-shaped silhouettes far on the horizon, start flying backwards in rewind. Water freezes, liquefies, boils, vaporizes, condenses, freezes again. Fires burn over waters. Ashes dust across prairies. The whole body and innards of the planet are having trouble communicating.

Clearly, there is a great disturbance in Nature. Animals feel it, plants feel it, insects feel it…bacteria and viruses…the entire planet…even particles feel it. Anyone with even a remote connection to nature can feel it. It takes a great deal of disconnection from the natural world, and one’s own subconscious, and/or willful blindness and repression, not to feel it. Unfortunately, contemporary society facilitates all of the above. At this rate, John Keats would only be able to pen odes to Summer. Vivaldi would only write music about the One Season. The documentary Endless Summer will no longer be a fond metaphor.

These drastic climatic changes have come about in the last fifteen or so years, especially the last several. Before that, they were scarcely noticeable. In only my thirty some years on this planet, about a nanosecond (a billionth of a second!) of its age, I’ve watched the weather go from multiseasonal, regular, reliable, sane, and self-regulating—no one questioned this self-contained logic, it was taken for granted, seemingly self-evident—to quasi-seasonal, irregular, unpredictable, schizophrenic, spastic. How much it has changed in the last decade! The perennial, cyclical, intuitive, reassuringly fond processes have been upended and spliced about like a deck of cards adulterated randomly with extra cards and Jokers.

And then, incidentally, think of the monumental technological and informational changes. Inventions thought distant science fiction are already embedded fact. DNA manipulation. Cloning. Brain-computer interfacing. Bionics. Realistic holograms. Immersive Virtual Reality. X-Ray Vision. Self-piloting vehicles. Invisibility cloaking. Nanobots. Workable androids. Flying cars. Intergalactic travel. Jules Verne would bescumber himself! And all of this in but a nanosecond of the planet’s existence!

My generation likely has witnessed more exponential and radical change by far than any other in history. An eminently interesting time to live in: and eminently terrifying.

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. It was a strange time.

Half the planet lived in primitive poverty and disease. The other half in profligacy and technological disarray.

In fact, the prevailing social-economic system relied on producing innumerable products of every size and variety made to be disposed of as quickly as possible.

When for ages people had gone to cafes and coffee shops for conversation, they now did so to stare at computer screens.

When once books had been written mainly by persons of learning and read by the public, now they were written by the public and read by nobody.

 


When All Is Said and Done

What will it take for enough people, a critical mass, to wake up and a large-scale movement to happen? Wide-ranging cataclysms, near-Apocalypse? Or will nothing reverse the tide? Are we too irrevocably brainwashed by the consumerist system? Are the evolutionarily older parts of our brains, and even our prefrontal cortexes, just too bygone and maladapted to the exponentially changing conditions of the 21st century for us to be widely judicious, compassionate, responsible, and wise? And humanity’s fate is to be flotsam, shorn against the ruins?

One might say cavalierly: “but this is the fate of all things anyway.” Yet, what a shame for a run so promising—of some 350,000 years, or if one considers the ‘archaic’ and ‘proto’ ancestors ‘modern humans’ developed and branched off from, millions—that in spite of teeming horror, self-inflicted suffering, and wastefulness—particularly in the last ten millennia or so—also yielded so many beauteous artefacts, amazing artworks, magnificent architectures, inspiring attitudes, and acts of worth, to be snuffed out so obtusely and crassly. And maybe at the cusp of an evolutionary transition into something Finer. Maybe.

An absurd end. A black mirror. A whimper, not a bang. Although, yes: a bang for the buck. ‘Well, the world’s in ruins, and humanity’s decimated. But for one glorious moment in time, we sure turned a lot of profits for our shareholders!’

And indeed, when all is said and done, when all is buried and disintegrated, when the buildings, bridges, and tunnels have crumbled; when the businesspersons’ enterprises and empires have long since gone out of business, or been coopted and remade; when the new inventions long outmoded and assimilated; when the politicians long past flapping their lips and now fertilizer in empty graves; when theorems incorporated and far surpassed—what are humanity’s most vital and enduring contributions, which it can be proudest of and might like to show other cognizant species in the Universe?

These must be its deepest and most arresting artworks. Its profoundest philosophies. What could be called its genuine ‘spiritual practices.’ And in fact its secret noblest feelings, thoughts, and deeds. For all seems to aspire towards luminosity and rarefication. “As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being” (Carl Jung).

 


JASON BENTSMAN is a writer, philosopher, poet, and occasional humorist. He was born in Minsk, Belarus (formerly the USSR), grew up in the US, and has spent quite some time sojourning abroad, with Montreal as a periodic home-base. He recently completed The Orgastic Future, a novella about consumerism, plastic pollution, climate change, runaway ego, and other threats facing the planet. You can read (and listen to!) another excerpt here: (http://forwhatitsworth.be/prose/excerpt-every-bondperson/).

He is currently working on a long philosophical novel and two short novels, among other writings. He also takes fine art photographs. Some of his writing has appeared in Unvael Journal, The Real Us, Metamorphoses (Smith College), HirschworthFlaneur (NYC), FIRE (Oxford), and other publications; some of his photographic work in LensCulture, Feature Shoot,and the Ellohomepage. You can check out his Literary Website FWIW (www.ForWhatItsWorth.be), sign-up for his occasional Literary Email Digest (http://eepurl.com/cd81ZP), or purchase a fine art photography print (https://bit.ly/2MBazqd).

Copyright © 2018 by Jason Bentsman. All rights reserved.

‘Bedside Knife’ by Nils Blondon

Bedside Knife

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

After ten months of writing it was done. My first novella. I read through it twice, and thought it was pretty good. Strong enough to be published, but I could never be sure. What mattered most was my friend’s opinion. He was an author. There was an unspoken recognition between us. A gentle camaraderie fostered by a shared struggle: the artist’s impassioned toil.

He said that when I finished the first draft he would read it, and give me his thoughts. I told him that I wanted the truth: “Don’t spare my feelings,” I said. He promised that he wouldn’t. His opinion was the only one that mattered to me. I gave the draft a final read and emailed him a copy.

Ten days passed. I took a break from writing, and I even made the time to have dinner with a girl I had started seeing. I told her I had finished the first draft of my novella. She asked if she could read it.

“No,” I said. I was only letting one person read it, my novelist friend.

“Why not get a second opinion?” she asked. “What makes his thoughts the only ones that matter?”

“He understands,” I replied. “He knows what it takes to really make it, to get published.”

She shrugged. We ate our pasta in silence, dispirited and unsure of each other.

I got home that night and checked my email. No response from my friend yet. I opened up the draft on my computer, read the first few lines, and had to stop.  Reading my own words was like hearing the sound of my own voice. But what really mattered, all that really mattered, was what my friend would think of it. From his thoughts I would get an idea of how close I was to breaking through as a writer.

A few days later, I woke up at 6 am to give him a call. He didn’t answer. Everything in my room looked overexposed, a few measures too bright. I called in sick to work, and checked my email every fifteen minutes, hoping his notes on my draft would appear in my inbox. Any second now. Nothing came. But it will. He will get back to me. Soon.

I kept a knife on my bedside table. It was a gift from someone I hadn’t seen in years. I picked it up, and felt its weight in my hands. It had a real presence. I wiped the dust from the blade, and put it back down

What if the writing is terrible? Maybe that’s why he’s not getting back to me. He’s embarrassed. He’s hiding from me because of the manuscript. My pathetic manuscript.

That idea stalked me through the night. It was still in my head when I woke up the next morning. And then the phone rang. It was him.

“Hey man.” He sounded nonchalant. “How’s it going?”

“Great,” I said. “Just taking it easy, feels weird not having the novella to work on. It became a part of my routine, a real part of me.”  

“Oh yeah?” He told me to hold on for a second. I heard him chat and laugh with a female voice in the background. “Why don’t we meet today at the Coffee Hour? How’s four o’clock?”

“That works.” I hung up the phone. I tidied the trash and clothes from around my apartment, ran the shower until my bathroom was thick with steam and bathed for the first time since finishing my novella. The water washed over my soapy skin as I brushed my teeth –– all the tedium and irritations of daily hygiene.

 

The streetcar was crowded as I made my way to the Coffee Hour. I arrived at 3:30 pm to prepare for the bad news. I was ready to be told that my work was awful, that it needed to be rewritten. It was OK. That’s what the process was all about: building and destroying, killing and resurrecting.

He showed up twenty minutes late –– he had nothing to prove. He was an accomplished writer, after all. We sat down together and ordered black coffees. He started talking about a girl he met online, about her body and her face and the way she spoke. “She speaks like a baby, dude. She has a baby voice.”

I listened. I waited for a chance to ask him what he thought of my novella, but he kept talking about the girl. I felt something twist in my guts, a raw resentment. I watched his mouth move, anticipating the moment when he’d say: “I read your manuscript.” But it never came.

He finished his coffee and left. I stayed in the cafe alone. My phone buzzed in my pocket, and it was a text from him: “Sorry man,” it said. “I forgot. I wanted to tell you that I really hope things work out with you and that girl. I really do. Love you, bro.”

I sat thinking about all the things I could have asked him. I was angry at myself for not having the guts to bring up the novella. Couples in the café ate full bowls of fresh fruit and yogurt.  I watched feeling at odds with anything kind, anything neutral and easy.

I got home, and checked my email again. I was sure that he had sent me another apologetic message, this time about his failure to bring my novella up over coffee. This must be a trick of his –– an April fool’s joke delivered in the wrong month. But my inbox remained empty.

Another two days passed. He still hadn’t got back to me. I really needed some form of validation now, a bit of dopamine, a bit of serotonin for my brain. I called the girl.

“I’ll send you my novella if you still want to read it,” I told her. She told me to send it to her. She got back to me that evening.

“I read your novella. It was good!”

“Good?” I asked. “What do you mean by good?”

“I mean, it was pretty good. I mean, I think I liked it.”

Someone laughed outside my window. I heard a streetcar grind along the tracks.

“You ‘liked it’? That doesn’t tell me anything,” I replied. “That’s like something my mom would say. Be honest! Tell me what you actually think.”

“What?”

The laughter outside got louder. Shut up, I wanted to yell.

“Are you ok?” She asked. “Something has been really off with you lately. You’re acting kind of weird.”

“Weird? I’m not fucking weird. I’m pissed off. Tired of the bullshit. Just tell me what you think. I don’t have time to hear a coward’s critique.”

“God, what’s wrong with you? It’s good, OK? It’s not bad. I kind of liked it”

“Oh, so you kind of like it now? We’re getting closer to what you really think of my work. I know what you think, but you’re a coward just like him. You’re too scared to come out and say that you hate it. You think I’m pathetic, you think my writing is pathetic!”

She hung up, and then texted me: “Never call me again.”

The laughter outside was intolerable. I ran to the ledge, and looked down and out onto the street, but I couldn’t find its source.

I closed the windows, drew the blinds, ran the kitchen sink cold, and stuck my head under the tap to cool off a bit. Then I printed out a copy of my manuscript and read it in fragments, but never start to finish, scanning a paragraph here, a sentence there, the last page and then another page in the middle. My stomach hurt, so I skipped dinner that night and breakfast the next morning. I read my manuscript again, only this time I pulled my friend’s novel from the shelf and juxtaposed our pages in contrast, comparing our work line by line, word by word, and I felt sick again. “Fuck this, I shouted. “Fuck all of this!”

I grabbed the bedside knife, and stabbed the wall ten or twelve times, compelled by something ancient, a timeless blue anger. It felt good to stab the wall. It felt right.

I placed the knife in my pocket, blade out. I left my building, and walked towards my friend’s house. Only to talk to him, of course. Only to ask him, face -to- face, what he thought of my novella.

 


NILS BLONDON is a writer from Toronto, Ontario. His work explores his experiences with the human condition at its most raw, addiction, alcoholism, and loss.

Copyright © 2018 by Nils Blondon. All rights reserved.

 

‘Walking Long’ by Mark Mayes

Walking Long

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

see how they look at each other when they think I am not watching. My son and his new wife are growing harder with wanting. They study shiny catalogues for this or that. Wasteful things. A thousand varieties of nonsense. She expects a child and my small room would be suitable for the newborn. We had an arrangement. They would care for me in old age, and when the time came the house would be theirs. It is not much. Not enough for them, I am sure. They long for one of those monster cities on the coast, an apartment with a dishwasher and other gadgets. I saw a story about it. Tiny rooms high above the street, all shiny surfaces, so clean and smooth it makes you sad and lazy.

This village by Shenmi forest is no longer for them. The chickens running about, pigs snorting among the scraps, the few barefoot children, growing fewer each year. Traditions growing weaker with every season. Soon we will all be ghosts that no one can be bothered to honour.

With only three teeth I cannot eat the food my husband’s wife, Lan, offers me. It gives me no pleasure, and I can easily choke. I ask her to mash it up for me. Small pieces. But she slams the bowl down, defiant, hands on her hips. I cannot eat meat in the same way. Rice and soft noodles I can manage. And soup, of course. She is not a good cook. Not like my wife was. This one adds spices with no care for how they clash. It all goes in.

I can still defend myself a little. I have my father’s cane. But I foresee a time when she or both of them might strike me, without fear or shame, for their own amusement. Such things occur. They did when I was young, but there was a community back then to censure it, root it out. Closed doors could be opened. I have heard them whispering when they imagine me asleep. They long for my death. But death comes in its own time. We were always taught that. We were taught to honour and respect our elders. Much of that is gone now. 

I heard her talking about leaving me on the high road, where the trucks thunder by, trucks crammed with cheap plastic rubbish, and that if I am not run down, the authorities would take me in somewhere, to some facility, a warehouse for the unwanted. No. I would tell them where my home is. I still know where I live. Once you forget that, they can put you anywhere. I would make the authorities bring me back, and then my son and his wife would be shamed. There is still some law. Is there not?

The old ones are dying out. There’s still Liu, half-crazy with homebrew, and the widow Hua, and the Zhang couple—they never officially married, but she took his name. The village itself is dying. No one cares for their properties any more, and the paths are overgrown. A few of the unemployed young men might even be using drugs. I saw Ho looking ill. I asked him what the matter was, and he looked at me so fiercely. I still wanted to comfort him; he used to be a kind boy. In some ways I cannot blame them, the boys that this country prevents from becoming men. They too have found themselves unwanted and dishonoured. There are no local jobs to support this community. The young must go to the cities. Many do that and some never return or even write. They are swallowed up as by a great snake. My son was lucky to become a tax official for this and several other villages in the area. He had an aptitude. They even gave him a motorcycle. This does not make him popular with some, so his luck is tainted.

I must not wait until I lie in my own mess with no one to clean me or comfort me, until they let me suffer whole days without water or food. I do not wish to die insane or in a rage. The indignities possible are not to be taken lightly. My son is not my son. He is strange to me, rude. I always longed for a daughter, despite what most people think. My son, Chi, has shallow eyes. They flicker about, they will not hold my gaze. It was the same when he was a boy, he always seemed to be secretly plotting.

I worked my smallholding until age prevented me. The big operations swallowed me up. I can still cultivate a few vegetables. The cabbages were especially good this year, but she overcooks them. The soil, you see. It has been taken care of, at least our garden patch. It has not been leached. You cannot take and take and never give anything back. This is a deeper law. The land was sold for a pittance, the few animals slaughtered. My sister, Jiahui, lives over that mountain, beyond Shenmi forest. I have not heard from her in twelve years. Perhaps she has moved away or even passed on. Surely they would have let me know.

We used to play by the well near that tallow tree over there, the one hit by lightning near its base. The well is now dry. Once, my sister dropped a kitten into the well. I was shocked, but she made me promise to tell no one, she twisted my wrist. I think the kitten crawled out of the water and found a ledge, for I heard its cry from the darkness. My sister was two years older, you see, and our father’s favourite. I still hear the sound of a kitten crying some nights when I cannot sleep. That trick of hers has haunted me for over seventy years.

They say there is a great shortage of girls for our boys to marry, due to the Policy. Many men will never find a partner. So much for the Policy. You can say my son was a lucky one. You might say that. He advertised in some newspaper, and so she came here, from a mining town, East. A different sort, she is. No humility, harsh manners, little grace, except that which is done for show, like when the nurse came to look at my foot in the spring. I was never introduced to her family. I heard they were deeply disappointed with her choice. For my part, I say that like attracts like.

I never feared age. I was foolish enough to imagine wisdom would accrue, and thereby honour would be given, modest as my life was. The honour that only family can bestow. Honour: longer lasting than love and more reliable.

I have made a decision. Tomorrow morning I will walk out through the gate. I will enter the great Shenmi forest that bounds three sides of this village, and I will walk deep into the forest’s heart.

***

Fa woke very early the next morning, barely after dawn. His son and daughter-in-law could be heard lightly snoring as he shuffled quietly past their door. Bad weather had been predicted by the radio the night before, but when Fa stepped outside he found the day to be bright and crispwith no trace of wind. The sky was like pale blue milk. Above the line of trees the far-off mountains were adorned in mist. “Beautiful,” he said.

He had not prepared any food, nor had he taken any water. That would defeat the purpose. He would walk and walk and sit down to rest when the correct time came and the right place was found. By the gate he paused, thinking: ‘Am I really doing the right thing? Am I mistaken in their intentions?’ Then he remembered all the secret looks they gave each other when they thought he was not looking. His sight was not as good as it had been, but he was far from blind. His hand rubbed the smooth wood of the gate, a gate he made himself some forty years before. I was not a bad carpenter, he thought.

He passed by the silent houses. From the forest the birds were already calling. They blended into an odd music that obeyed its own laws of time and rhythm. There was woodsmoke in the air. Fa inhaled. Then he saw a thin line of smoke above the chimney of Hua’s house. She too was an early riser then. Fa had once considered asking Hua to move in with him. That was some years after both their respective partners had died. A decent enough period of time. They might have married, or simply acted as good companions. The boy, still at the village school then, would not hear of it. He played up, threatened to run away, told his father he was betraying the memory of his mother. He would slam doors off their hinges, would even break plates. Fa gave in. Now he bitterly regretted it.

Unsurprisingly, Hua had been very graceful over the matter. She was a person of character. They had discussed the preliminaries after all, over many a bowl of tea, usually in her warm kitchen. She was a good woman. She told Fa that she could not come between him and his son, a son of whom so much was once expected.

Why not knock gently at her door? Explain the situation. The correct words might be found. She might also appreciate the company, and he could still manage most things. He was not looking for a nurse. Was he? They had barely spoken since the idea had cooled. Nothing needed to be said; he felt she had understood. But now things had advanced, and not only their years. They had to stick together, did they not? He had something to offer still. Everyone always has something to offer. You must believe that.

Her face was round, pleasant. She kept the light of her girlhood in her eyes. Conversation can be likelove. And there is satisfaction in knowing someone will call your name in the morning. And when you call theirs there will be an answer. This is compensation.

Fa stood, trembling a little, at the foot of her path. He had not even left the village and his plan had been vanquished. Perhaps he really was a foolish old man, fit only for wherever foolish old men are sent by their well-meaning children. A hazy place of grey corridors, barked commands, indifference, a mad kind of loneliness, and the worst kind of food. Such did he imagine it.

Faint cooking smells came from Hua’s house. Why not invite yourself to breakfast? Perhaps she is yearning, too? Just then, the door opened violently, Fa felt it to be, and a man he had never seen before threw out a jug of dirty-looking water onto the ground. It steamed where it fell.

The man looked at Fa. “What?” he said in a rough voice. The man was perhaps in his fifties, hefty forearms, a blunt face.

“I was wondering how Hua is,” Fa began.

“She is in the hospital.”

“Which hospital? What is wrong?”

“Why do you need to know?” the man responded, narrowing his eyes.

“I am a neighbour. A friend, actually.”

“Never seen you before,” the man said, then turned and shut the door behind him. The steam from the water still rose from the ground where it had been thrown.

Fa took a few steps back. Looked at the house. Through one window, behind a thin curtain, he could see that furniture and boxes had been stacked against one wall.

It was time to go. A dalliance, that was all. An idea long past its freshness. Some once-living thing, dried and unrecognisable. A lost path. Fa hoped that whatever Hua was suffering from it would be swift to release her. Again, a bitterness swelled in him: his son, that complacent runt who did not know one end of a spade from the other. “How did his mother and I create him? Or was he created by something else, by history, or by some distant edict from the men in dark suits? Their version of progress. Always leaping forward they are, and never looking back to where they have leapt from. Deranged frogs. It might all be possible, and possible, too, that I am losing my faculties.”

Fa walked on. He came to the end of the row of small dwellings. The Shenmi forest beckoned. This particular path ended where the trees began. Pines, some oaks, a few varieties he had never learned the names of, or perhaps he had forgotten them—it all began here, giving no sense of its size, its grandeur, seeming almost parochial, a trickster, claiming nothing. The ground began to crunch beneath Fa’s feet. He had, of course, walked many times into the outskirts, looking for mushrooms, herbs, or just to gather his thoughts when times were difficult. As a boy, he searched out birds’ eggs, sometimes climbing high to rob their nests. He saw in his mind a thumb and fingers pressing against a bright blue egg, and the shell giving way, then the yolk and the albumen dripping down the fingers into the bowl of a palm.

This time it was different. This time there was only one direction. Going on was a controlled falling. With a somewhat blank look on his face, Fa slowly fell.

***

I had walked much of the day, deeper and deeper. The light was changing now. It had become as though I were walking through the same patch of forest, over and over. I noticed curious repetitions of shape and colour and spacing. The same grouping of fungi around a fallen bough. Perhaps they were not exact replicas, merely half-echoes. I began to wonder whether I was actually walking on the spot, upon some earthen treadmill. My hat had fallen from my hand some miles back. What use is a hat?

The thirst had come, had then lessened, only to return with a fierceness that frightened me. My limbs ached. Despite the lateness of the season, insects had enjoyed a feast on my exposed skin.

They say the fern is a prehistoric plant. One of the oldest and once one of the most common, it grew almost everywhere. It seems then that I am walking into prehistory.

Will my son and his wife contact the authorities? Or will they assume I have disappeared and hope for that disappearance to be permanent? Another statistic, another deranged old man losing himself among the trees, not even worthy of a photograph in the province newspapers. Perhaps they are giving it a little time to reach the point of no return. It is their lucky day.

I remember when I first saw him. It is difficult to admit, but I had a natural disgust. I wanted to retch. I pretended I was yawning through lack of sleep.  It was a difficult labour, and I sat by her, even though this was most unusual. His mother doted on him, as it is expected. I suspected, especially as he grew and revealed his nature, that he would extract some revenge for being born in this place and time to such simple people. His spirit is greedy and complex.

At last, I recognised the spot, put there as though it were just for me. The impressively large ginkgo tree. I looked up and could not see its crown. It was lost in the weave of other trees. In a triangular patch of purple sky I believe I saw a bright star. Either that or a satellite. Then a wind altered the canopy and the star was hidden.

I could smell a decaying animal nearby. At first the smell is bad, but with time it turns to a sweetness, then to a type of musk, then, gradually, to the remembrance of a scent. Animals will scent me. I suppose I may be torn and scattered. I do not begrudge the forest the gift of my body.

I sat cross-legged beneath the ginkgo tree. One thing I have not lost is flexibility. Early morning exercises, as we learned in school. I never missed a day. Well, except the day she died. On that day I did not move or speak. Some thought me hard-hearted because I did not weep. It was beyond weeping.

The leaves beneath me were a soft cushion. The trunk supported me well, consoled me, in truth. I closed my eyes. I counted my breaths. I asked for release.

***

When I opened my eyes the forest was there. I heard its sounds and smelt it. I tasted it. It tasted green and a little bitter. I felt neither thirst nor hunger. Indeed, I felt astonishingly rested and calm in myself. If I had to sum it up, I would say a few years had been lifted from my shoulders. Perhaps more than a few.

I got to my feet with ease. My knees and hip had not caused me pain as they usually did. Before leaving, I reached out to touch the ancient ginkgo tree. I blessed it in my heart. The bark was warm with the afternoon sun.

A bird called high in the canopy. It was a message of sorts. It told me to walk again. To return. And so I did.

After what seemed a relatively short time, I came to the village. Still I felt no hunger or thirst. My tread was steady and even. Even my eyesight had grown sharper. Some children passed me. A dog scampered around them. The children ignored me, as they often do these days. After all, what do the old know of the modern world? But the dog sniffed the air when it drew close. I thought of touching it, scratching it behind the ears, as it was not a fearsome dog. It whined as I put my hand out. It backed away. Then the children called it, and it followed them.

Eventually, I found Hua’s house. Smoke still curled from the chimney. I could see someone moving inside. Then the sound of a stringed instrument, badly played. 

“Are you there, Hua?” I called this from the gate, expecting no reply. But I did notice that my voice had regained some of its youthful timbre. My walk had done me good. The door opened and the man from before stood in the doorway in his vest. In one hand he held a mug of spirits. I knew this because I could smell it, even from the gate. The man looked about him, a puzzled expression on his sallow unshaven face. 

“Has Hua returned from the hospital? Is she well? I have something to ask her. Is she well?”

The man slowly shook his head, but this did not seem in answer to my question. It was, I am sure, more a response to his own thoughts. He took a gulp from his mug, shuddered, and closed the door.

At last I came to my own house. I stepped over the low wall instead of passing through the gate. Do not ask me why. It simply felt a better thing to do. I strode, light-footed, to the door and entered. Inside it was dark. I backed out of the door and noticed that all the curtains were drawn. That had not seemed apparent at first, or else I had not cared to look.

I found them in the kitchen, at the table. My son and his wife. She no longer appeared pregnant. An unfinished meal lay before each of them. When I stood at the threshold they did not look up. When I stood by the still warm oven, they did not acknowledge me. My son’s face was bloated and tear-stained. Just then, he pushed away his plate and his head fell to the table with a thud. Sobs racked his body. I had never seen such a thing from him. His wife looked on, seemingly unsure of how to comfort him. She, too, was pale and drawn, as though she had not slept for several nights. I looked at them both and, still as they were, and they became a painting, like one of those rural interiors by Li from the 30s. They went out of fashion, but I always appreciated them.

My son raised his head and wiped his eyes with his sleeve. He breathed deeply, then said: “I failed him. I failed myself.”

She lay her hand on his arm. “It’s not true. Not true,” she cooed, as if she were comforting a young child.

By then I had swallowed enough of the joke. I clapped my hands together. “Cheer up,” I told them. “I am back and better than ever. Lots to do in that garden, a few roof tiles to replace, a new coat of paint for the gate and this dreary old kitchen. It is time we spruce the place up.”

They acted as though they had not heard me. Not so much as a glance. So the rudeness, the arrogance, had remained in them. No lessons learned. I clapped my hands again, twice. “Wake up,” I said. “Wake up now.”

My son’s head fell once more to the table, as if a string had been cut. His arms covered his face. He made a sound which could not be distinguished between crying and laughing.

Then, despite the dying light, I scrutinised her face, and although the eyes were moist and puffy, the mouth held the promise of a smile.

 


MARK MAYES currently lives in Wales, where he enjoys writing stories, poems, and songs. 2017 saw the publication of his novel, The Gift Maker. Some of his songs may be found here.

Copyright © 2018 by Mark Mayes. All rights reserved.

‘LARRY & JACK’ by Todd MacEwen

Larry and Jack

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

In the summer of 1990, the curators of a new exhibit at the Royal National Theatre in London discovered something odd and unexpected. Steamer trunks and bankers’ boxes by the dozens had been delivered to the theatre from the estate of its most famous patron and performer.  A team of archivists began the task of cataloguing the costumes, scripts, props, notes, and hodge-podge of personal effects. The task of assembling a great man’s life was a solemn one to  them: placing items in context of time and place while creating a celebration of peerless work and acknowledging both the passion and precision he brought to his craft.

Sir Laurence Oliver had died the previous summer. His work and craft, both onstage and behind the scenes, was an inescapable  specter that haunted the Royal National Theatre while he lived, always the standard that others strove to meet. In death, he had become a ghost of the twentieth century:  maintaining respect and reverence through this transition.

In truth, it wasn’t as poetic as that. Arnold Kroken, the librarian at the theatre, had asked Lord Oliver in the early 1980s if he could see fit to donate a handful of items when the time came for posterity’s sake. According to lore, Olivier grabbed the man he had known since the early 1950s by the shoulders, smiled broadly, and said, “Oh hell, I’ll make sure you get all that shit.  The wife will be glad to be done of it and me at the same time.” True to his word, shortly after the time came, Kroken was contacted by Oliver’s barristers concerning a bequest to the theatre’s archives.

There was no master list to make itemizing easier; many of the trunks simply had a year scrawled on a piece of paper and taped to the side. The boxes tended to be labeled by project.  Henry V warranted two boxes, Hamlet four.  Within one of those boxes, which chronicled Olivier’s relationship with the ill-fated Prince of Denmark, the most curious of curios was unearthed.  A Hamlet box, labelled by name and  the numbers 46-47, contained several revisions of the play that would serve as the basis for Oliver’s film in 1948. Each script was rife with handwritten notes and comments as he tried to determine what scenes and characters could be omitted and yet retain its cohesion as it journeyed from stage to screen.

This box in particular contained seven bound copies of the script, the title page of each edition bearing the legend:

THE TRAGEDY OF HAMLET,
THE PRINCE OF DENMARK
BY
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE
ADAPTED BY
LAURENCE OLIVER

And written by hand beside the title were numbers one through seven and the initials L.O. Also in this box were four leather bound journals, each one brimming with entries dated over those two years, notes on the play ranging from philosophical and moral questions to stage directions, lighting suggestions, edits and critiques.

Kroken and his team were sidetracked for days in trying to determine the identity of M. Orson, who, over the span of two weeks in the summer of 1946, had earned Olivier’s praise (“a strapping sort with an honest face, perhaps Horatio more than Laertes”) and shortly thereafter his derision (“stage left entrance like a sailor on shore leave, stage right exit like a barge taking on water”).  By the end of the two weeks in question, Olivier pondered giving M. Orson another role (“second gravedigger might work but afraid to put a spade in his hands as he might kill the cast before they can do it later themselves”) before he disappears from Olivier’s journals and presumably a life on the stage.

The oddity was tucked into the back cover of one of the journals which contained entries from July 10th, 1946, to August 4th, and included the entirety of M. Orson’s career treading the boards. It was a program from a baseball game, dated July 24th, 1946, for a game in the city of Montréal between the hometown Royals and the visiting Rochester Red Wings. It was a simple document of eight pages: salmon newsprint stock, similar to what was used at the time by the Montréal Monitor.  Half of those pages were dedicated to the home team, poorly staged action shots side by side with player’s photos that ranged from portrait quality to convicted felon.  There was a page of statistics for the Red Wings and the rest was advertising for everything from Old Virginia pipe tobacco, Pepco motor oil and American Express Travel Services, offering ticketing for air, rail and steamship voyages.

The cover featured the not yet familiar face of the man who would in less than a year break the color barrier in major league baseball, but currently, is finding a look between bemusement and humility.  Jackie Robinson looks as he has always looked, a by-product of starting his baseball career, or at least this stage of it, later in life.  He is older than at least half of his minor league teammates, all dreaming of the day they can join the Dodgers in Brooklyn.  At 27, he is also younger than other teammates who have resigned themselves to minor league careers and those who have washed out. By most accounts, his teammates, young and old, grew to not only accept his position on the team, but gradually realize that his talent in the field, and his personage off it, marked him for success.  For the fans and the city no such progression was needed, it was love at first sight.

On the cover, written in a steady, flowing cursive, the following: “Larry, thanks for your support! Best for the future! Jack Robinson”

By 1946, Olivier had a dream project he wished to pursue, a filmed version of Hamlet that would maintain as much of the beloved original as possible and still succeed on its own merits as film.  The success of Henry V two years prior had given him almost unlimited cache in this area.  In addition to box office and critical acclaim, Olivier had earned Academy Award nominations for both acting and producing, as well as a special award for recognizing his achievement in bringing the play to the screen.  Churchill called it the greatest propaganda film of all time, its release coinciding with the push of the British army into Normandy.  It was revealed some years later that the British government had actually financially supported the production to a largedegree.

Olivier’s primary obstacle in fulfilling this ambition was none other than himself. Although celebrity has always attracted a following, Olivier by this point in his career had something almost entirely new.  Not only renowned for his work in the British theatre, he was now a sought after leading man for Hollywood thanks to movies such as Wuthering Heights, Rebecca, and Pride and Prejudice. And his 1940 marriage to Vivien Leigh did nothing to diminish his stature.  His every public move and endeavor was breathlessly reported by the emerging gossip industry on both coasts of the United States.  Ironically, the British press, never one to avoid sensationalism, accorded Olivier a more deferential treatment.

He and Leigh had been contracted for a run of theatre performances in New Zealand in the fall of 1946 and Olivier had agreed to three contemporary shows, a comedy and two dramas.  He did have six weeks unscheduled during the summer prior to departing to New Zealand which he dedicated to revising the script for Hamlet. He knew that despite the prestige the project would receive, very few backers would support a full, unabridged film that would exceed four hours. Olivier had been working on removing characters, scenes and subplots to whittle the story down to a potential running time of two and a half hours and now had a handful of scripts reflecting those changes. The best process, he decided, to determine which would work best would be to see each script performed on stage by actors under his direction.  As it turned out, he knew the perfect theatre in the perfect city in which he could workshop the play and largely avoid the limelight.

Acting, Olivier had been told as a young man, is a wondrous opportunity to fill one’s passport.  In the winter of 1940, that passport took him to Canada for a few weeks of filming on a movie called 49th Parallel.  Director and screenwriters Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger were initially contracted to create a propaganda story of warfare at sea, but instead decided to focus on a project that might sway the United States to enter the conflict by setting a story closer to home, their northern neighbor.  The newly concocted story now had a German U-Boat run ashore in Hudson Bay and the crew deciding to traverse through Canada to reach the U.S. At that time, the U.S. was a neutral party tothe war and therefore an opportunity for the sailors to reach the German embassy and return home.

The director and cast, which included Leslie Howard and Raymond Massey, convened in Montréal a few weeks prior to shooting in order to rehearse.  Many of the roles had not yet been cast, but most of the actors involved were prepared to defer to Olivier had he wished the standard heroic role of the Mountie or Canadian soldier who are on the trail of fugitive sailors.  Olivier, for his part, decided to take the role of Johnny, a French-Canadian trapper who originally encounters the Nazis in the wilds of Manitoba only to meet a tragic end.

Olivier spent some of his time in the city wandering the streets and keeping his ears open to the differences between the French speaking English and the English-speaking French. One evening he and other cast members attended a performance of As You Like It at His Majesty’s Theatre, succeeding in going almost incognito as no one in the crowd that night were likely expecting some of the greatest Shakespearean actors of the day to be sitting together at the back of the theatre.  Following the play, Olivier made his way backstage to meet and congratulate the director and cast, who were understandably taken aback by this unexpected visitor.  The theatre’s general manager, Frederick Dupleses, managed to capture a couple of photographs of Olivier meeting the cast and gave the actor his business card, telling him that if he ever wanted the theatre all he had to do was say the word.

Six years later, Olivier contacted Dupleses to see if the word was still good.  Olivier had explained that he was looking for a cast and crew to work through his variations on Hamlet, that he could see no issue with doing 4 or 5 threadbare public performances during the week for access to everything during the day.  He did make clear that his involvement was that of adapter and that his direction was to determine what worked in the context of presentation and not to plumb to deeper depths of the human soul.  And if possible, he would like his presence and work to be kept a secret and out of any publicity.

Dupleses was initially torn; having Olivier at his theatre, working on Hamlet, was the sort of prestige that rarely occurs in one’s lifetime.  The box office would explode, he thought, particularly with the growing competition for an audience, as many downtown playhouses had transitioned to movie theatres over the past decade.  This could single-handedly revive theatre in the city for a generation. Or it could mean that he would have the means to bring Olivier back in the future for a full commitment, so he decided to continue the  goodwill which evidentially lead to this call in the first place.  Dupleses agreed to Olivier’s requests, telling him that the technical crew was already in place and that he would round up suitable actors for a casting call without informing them of some of the specific conditions they could soon be working under.

Olivier arrived in the city on July 3rd, days after a massive storm broke a week-old heat wave that was deemed typically unseasonable for late June.  Olivier, on the recommendation of Dupleses, took up residence at the Windsor Hotel for the duration of his stay, amused at the providence that he was staying in the same suite that had once welcomed Oscar Wilde.  Although Dupleses had managed to keep a degree of secrecy surrounding Olivier’s work in the city, there was no such courtesy from the Windsor, despite the reassurances of management.  Staff had grown too accustomed to receiving a payout from local press to alert them when someone of note was in residence.  Although his wife hadn’t joined him due to prior commitments in England, she would no doubt have strolled through the lobby on at least one or two occasions. He, however, was there to work, and used his considerable charm and some cash to have the doormen direct him to some of the hotel’s other means of egress.

Casting took place at the theatre with approximately 75 actors brought through over two days.  He was looking for talent, of course, but also those who had experience with the play previously. Technical proficiency was not his highest priority, instead focusing his attention towards those who could take direction and adapt to changes in the script very quickly. He settled on a cast of twenty-eight, promising an opportunity to play multiple roles within rehearsals and performances, explaining his ultimate objective was to stage his adaptive variations to establish which would best achieve his goal.  He did ask that they try to keep knowledge of his involvement to a minimum, but at the end of the process he would certainly allow their participation and his name to be joined together to garner the actors future employment.

A week after he began rehearsals, Oliver meet with Dupleses to thank him for laying the groundwork and to confirm a handful of dates over the next four weeks to accommodate public performances of the work-in-progress. Dupleses furnished Olivier with a list of restaurants and lounges in the city, complete with the names of the  maître d’s and owners who could offer some discretion and privacy should  he feel like dining out or experiencing the city’s legendary nightlife. Surprisingly, Olivier asked about the Montréal Royals, noticing with some interest the coverage they had been garnering in the papers he perused every morning with tea and toast. Enthused by the casual turn in the conversation, Dupleses mentioned that Hector Racine, the owner of the team, was also a notable donor to many of the theatres in the city and, if Olivier liked, he could certainly arrange for Olivier to attend a game while he was in town.

The Montréal Royals began their existence just prior to the turn of the last century as baseball began its slow migration across the border from burgeoning hotspots in New York state and the parts of New England that bordered  Québec. The Royals joined the Eastern League, a development and rookie league that included teams in Toronto (ironically, also named the Maple Leafs), Newark, Buffalo, Baltimore and other medium-sized cities along the east coast.  Despite a largely losing record, the team remained sustainable for two decades before mounting travel and accommodation costs, as well as the loss of innumerable young men to the war effort in Europe in 1917, caused the club to cease operations at the end of that season.

A decade later, a group of businessmen, which included Charles Trudeau, father to the future prime minister, invested in both a resurrection of the club and a new stadium, Delorimier Downs, located in the east end of the city in what is now Ville-Marie.  This version of the Royals enjoyed almost immediate success and support. Within five years, the Royals were affiliated with Major League baseball teams, first  Philadelphia, then Pittsburgh, and ultimately a twenty-one year relationship with the Brooklyn, later Los Angeles, Dodgers.  As the minor league affiliate for the Dodgers, a number of future stars and Hall of Famers came through  Montréal, including Duke Snider, Don Drysdale, Roy Campanella and Tommy LaSorda, but there was one player  in the Royals’ 1946 season who would make baseball history: Jackie Robinson.

Following the U.S. entry in the Second World War, a number of prominent baseball players enlisted in various branches of the armed services, causing baseball to carry on without its biggest stars,  including Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio and Stan Musial. Team owners and management filled rosters with the injured and aged, struggling to keep interest sustained in the sport.  Even as the stars began returning to their clubs following their tours of duty, there was one general manager whose search for talent lead him to discover that the Negro Leagues were brimming with untapped potential; he knew that there would be a competitive advantage to incorporate some of these players into the Majors.  Branch Rickey, the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, found a player of extraordinary caliber to break baseball’s color barrier, Jackie Robinson.

Although he had been born in the deep south, Robinson’s family moved to California shortly after his birth. As a youth, through high school and university, he was an uncommonly gifted athlete, excelling in baseball, basketball, football and track. He was looking at playing semi-pro football before enlisting in the army following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Although the army had been officially desegregated, lingering racism persisted and following an incident where a bus driver told him to go to the back of the vehicle, Robinson refused, only to be later confronted by superior officers who charged him with insubordination which ultimately lead to a court martial. Robinson was ultimately acquitted, but the experience would serve him well just three years later when he crossed baseball’s color line.

Rickey knew he needed not only an outstanding ball player, but also someone with the character to deal with the pressure when he discovered Robinson, now playing the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues. Robinson was understandably weary of the offer and, during the interview, charged Rickey that they were purposely looking for someone who was afraid to fight back against the expected torrent of racial epitaphs. Rickey countered that he was looking for someone with the courage to not fight back.  They came to the agreement that Robinson would do so and he was officially signed by the Dodgers in the winter of 1945.

Branch Rickey was blessed to find the player he needed but also by the fact that the Dodger’s minor league team was in  Montréal, a city he felt would be much more accommodating to Robinson given its international and cosmopolitan reputation. Robinson would face enough pressure from players, on his own team and opponents, and didn’t need the additional worry of living in a community that might not be as welcoming.  Many major league teams at the time had minor league affiliates in places like South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee, and Rickey thought being away from those atmospheres  would allow Robinson the time to find himself as a ball player.

Although there were a number of racially charged incidents involving Robinson during the team’s spring training in Florida in 1946, by the time the team relocated to Montréal, the city proved to be more than welcoming to Robinson and his wife Rachel. There were some lingering issues with teammates and road trips could be harsh, but Robinson found solace every time the team returned to Montréal’s Delorimier Stadium  and the 20,000 seats full for almost every  game: more than a million people came through the gates during the season to see him.

The Royal’s owners, particularly Racine, were thrilled by this unexpected turn of events. The team had been competitive during its association with the Dodgers and attendance had been steady and impressive, but this was something new.  While the businessman inside him was delighted, as a person, Racine went out of his way to ensure that Robinson and his family felt the full embrace of the city, arranging things from transportation for Rachel, pregnant with the couple’s first child that summer, to  dinners and other evenings on the town.  Racine had seen the city host world leaders and royalty, celebrities and artists, but had seldom seen a more low-key yet all-encompassing welcome as the Robinsons had received.

That summer, the Royals were winning games at a blistering pace and enjoying sold out games regularly at Delorimier Stadium, the crowds cheering loudest every time Robinson made a play in the field: every time he hit the ball, every time he stole a base.  The stadium had added lights in 1935, a luxury for most minor league parks, so most games during the week were played in the evenings, but the weekend matinees left the nights free for players.  Most of the younger players would make their way downtown to the saloons and dance halls, taking full advantage of their celebrity when possible, but the Robinsons, thanks to Racine’s assistance, usually found a quiet restaurant and followed dinner with a movie or a play, at times awed and overwhelmed to be enjoying life in a city where they didn’t have to check windows to see if they were allowed entrance.

Olivier had decided to take Dupleses up on his offer to attend a baseball game.  He had given the cast and crew a weekend off as he made some revisions to the scripts. The high temperatures had made his apartment at the hotel unbearable during the day and he needed distraction from the play in order to attack it anew. Dupleses had given him Racine’s private number and told the owner that he may expect a call during the summer from someone of great import who might be looking for the opportunity to attend a game or two.

When Racine received the initial telephone call, he was skeptical that the gentleman calling was indeed who he said he was, but a mention of Dupleses’ name went a long way to clearing up the situation. Racine told Olivier that he would be delighted in hosting him at the stadium that evening and that it would be a pleasure to take him to dinner following the game.  Racine gave  explicit instructions to the chief of ushers to make sure that all the ushers knew Olivier would be arriving at the ballpark and to escort him personally to Racine’s box located close to the field, along the third baseline.

Racine recounted years later to the Montréal Gazette that Olivier enjoyed the game immensely but initially confused some aspects of baseball with cricket.  Almost twenty-thousand people were in attendance at the game on Friday evening, and, when Robinson hit a three run home run in the sixth inning, each and every one of them were on their feet cheering. Racine said he explained Robinson’s uniqueness within the larger framework of baseball and told Olivier that Robinson was one of the finest men he had ever met.  Later in the game, Robinson stole two bases and scored a run on an infield ground ball in the eighth inning and started the double play that ended the ninth for the visitors.  Olivier was captivated by Robinson, his reserve in being lauded by those in attendance, particularly under the circumstances that Racine had outlined to him concerning the lack of black men in the sport. Racine put forth the suggestion that heask Robinson to join them for their late dinner and Olivier quickly agreed.

It has been suggested that Olivier saw something of himself that night in Robinson: someone so determined in excelling in their chosen craft, someone who would always have a close yet distant relationship with those they are performing for, someone who could capture an audience’s attention and gain their love simply by taking to the stage or field.

At Bouchard’s Steakhouse on St. Catherine, Racine lead his guests to a private table in the back of the restaurant, away from the revelers on a Friday night in Montréal. Racine recounted that both men were socially polite but guarded, valuing their internal privacies, until Olivier rose from the table and demonstrated for Robinson his form for batting in cricket. Robinson doubled over in laughter and told him about teammates from the Negro Leagues who would try to hit in that manner with no success.  Robinson got up and demonstrated the proper stance for baseball, telling him that his focus had to be on one location, the pitcher’s hand, to pick up the rotation of the baseball as soon as possible.  For fifteen minutes, the two men were swinging a yardstick that a waiter had procured for them, knocking imaginary balls to and fro.

Olivier attended two more games that summer as Racine’s guest, delighting in Robinson’s prowess and grace both on and off the field. Following a matinee, Olivier saw Robinson signing autographs for children who had run down to the railing to try to catch the infielder’s attention. Olivier grabbed a program and joined the line, surprising Robinson when he looked up to give another signature.  Olivier invited Robinson and his wife to attend any of the performances that coming week at the theatre as his guest.

Upon learning that the Robinsons would be attending that very evening’s performance, Olivier doubled up on his duties and took the role of Hamlet for himself in addition to directing. The audience was shocked when they saw him take to the stage and gave him a rousing ovation that Dupleses claimed was the loudest and longest his theatre had ever been witness to. At the conclusion of the performance, Olivier made his way to the lobby to greet theatre goers as they were leaving, signing autographs for any and all who asked. Robinson and his wife waited through the line and the two men greeted each other as old friends, peers in the ways in which they could hold an audience’s hopes and dreams in the palms of their hands.  Robinson introduced his wife to the actor and held out a program for an autograph. They shook hands again and parted with a promise to see each other again.

Laurence Olivier continued to use his time in Montréal to work within the confines of Hamlet to find a presentation of the play that would meet both his standards and provide  cinema-goers with an accurate representation of the tragedy. In 1948, he directed and starred in his adaption, winning multiple awards and setting the benchmark for cinematic works of the Bard.

The Montréal Royals, led by Jackie Robinson, continued their strong play through the remainder of the season, ultimately winning the title. According to legend, Robinson was chased down the streets by thousands of fans, one writer noting that it may have been the first time that a black man was chased by so many white men with love, not hate, in their  hearts. Robinson would join the Brooklyn Dodgers the following season, breaking the color barrier and becoming one of the greatest players of all time.

The Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY, has had many exhibits and displays celebrating the life and career of Jackie Robinson. But it is in another museum, a thousand miles away in the outskirts of Kansas City, that a curious and little remarked item has been on display since 1971. In the Negro League Museum, there is humble tribute to the player, his glove, cleats, newspaper clippings and photographs from the stops he made in his career, including  Montréal. In the glass cabinet, alongside his Royals jersey and contract, is a four-page theatre program, dated July 24th, 1946, for a performance of Hamlet. Written across the width of the front page is a simple dedication: “To Jack, continued success and perseverance as I will be the loudest to cheer you. Larry.”

 


TODD MACEWEN has a background in journalism and communications, and recently moved into the world of fiction.

Copyright © 2018 by Todd MacEwen. All rights reserved.

‘Obsession’ by Jason J. Buchholz

Obsession

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

“For all men tragically great are made so through a certain morbidness…all mortal greatness is but disease.” – Herman Melville, ‘Moby Dick’

Blades of grass whipped around the solemn ceremony with ease, the blustery winds not towing the line for anyone. Clouds of a dark grey floated high above, as if they wanted to drop rain below, but were content just showing up and looking menacing. The priest from the local Catholic church had brought the service to conclusion. Some of the guests had left quickly because of the ominous weather, while others lingered to pay their final respects. The young man who had died in the line of his duty was well-liked and respected by many, navy officers and friends from his hometown had flooded the cemetery to salute him. He’d been taken from the world far too soon.

His father, Captain Robert Drexler, both loved and respected his son. A career navy man, Drexler stood alone under one of the large maple trees, remembering his son. He was in his early fifties, but he didn’t have as much grey in his hair or beard as others would have at this age. Instead, he had lines in the corners of his eyes and down his face, the lines of a man who had seen many battles, and who had been through many things in the navy. He had been put in command of a new class of warship and had been hoping that his son would be transferred under him, so that he could teach him everything he knew. Drexler knew his son could have risen through the ranks to get his own command one day, and he would have been so proud.

But that dream died with his son. His only son. Ryan’s death a week earlier had not broken him, not at all. He cried and grieved like any father would, but he had also lost a part of himself. The loss that he distanced himself from and kept subdued would only grow larger as time passed, none of which was his concern right now. Drexler would finish mourning and then he would do what he had always done in the face of adversity: be a navy officer as best he could. He would carry on with the career that had come to define him. Looking to the grave, he took off his aviator-style sunglasses and wiped his eyes. “I will avenge you son,” he said quietly. “When the time is right.”

Someone was walking up to him. “Rob,” said Admiral Charles Coxwell, the fleet admiral in charge of his navy’s Atlantic operations. “No matter what happens, we’ll get those sons of bitches that did this. Mercenaries have no place on the oceans!” He ran his fingers through his short grey hair to smooth it out. “This is all off the record of course.”

Drexler nodded. “Thank you, sir.” he replied. He put his sunglasses back on. “I’ll see you back on base.” 

“I understand. Take care.” said the Admiral, before walking away.

“We won’t get them.” Drexler whispered, once the Admiral had left. “I will get them, all of them.”

Five Years Later

“There is a wisdom that is woe, but there is a woe that is madness.”

The reinforced steel bow of his ship cut through the water like a hot knife through a block of butter. Waves rippled from the powerful vessel, the wake enough to capsize a small ship or boat easily. Captain Drexler smiled from the bridge of his war ship, the Ellesmere, a heavy missile cruiser and the second ship of the class. The captain’s arms were crossed as he stood between his command chair and the forward windows of the spacious bridge. Crew members milled about as the ship continued forward on its’ patrol route in the north Atlantic, like it had done many times before.

“Commander, you have the conn,” said Captain Drexler to his executive officer, Commander Clive Drummond. 

“Aye Captain,” Drummond replied confidently.  

Drexler grinned at his XO and walked around the weapons console on his way out of the bridge. “I’ll be in my cabin.” he said, before heading out the door. 

Drummond walked over to the space between the captain’s chair and the forward windows and clasped his hands behind his back. “Steady as she goes.” he said to the helmsman.

“Steady as she goes, aye.”

 Drummond had served with Drexler for almost ten years now, and he had spent the last three as Drexler’s executive officer aboard the Ellesmere. They had first met onboard a destroyer in the Pacific fleet when Drummond was a lieutenant and Drexler was the executive officer. Later, after Drexler had been  promoted to captain and had been given command of the Ellesmere, he requested that Drummond be transferred a board, which promoted him to full commander just a couple years ago. It was a great honour to be first officer under Drexler, and it was a duty he did not take lightly. He was very loyal to the captain, carrying out his orders to the letter, all while still maintaining the delicate tightrope that was his relationship with the rest of the crew.

Minutes turned into hours as he kept watch on the bridge, keeping the ship along its patrol route. Sightings of mercenaries and privateers had grown exponentially as of late, with two yachts being attacked and boarded in the last month. No one had been hurt, but there needed to be a solution to the problem regardless. The Ellesmere, along with a few other ships of various navies had been sent to patrol their own sector of the north Atlantic, in hopes that the sight of several heavily armed warships would deter anyone from commencing any more acts of hostility on the open seas. ‘If they come, we’ll be ready.’ thought Drummond.

***

“All that most maddens and torments, all that stirs up the lees of things, all truth with malice in it, all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain, all the subtle demonisms of life and thought…” 

Lights dimmed quickly all over the ship, with some turning a bright red hue as the alarm klaxons began to sound. General quarters had been sounded, with every member of the crew snapping to attention and hurrying to their stations. Drexler was reading froma favourite novel of his when all hell started to break loose. He grabbed his jacket and left his quarters, already on his way to the bridge when Drummond’s voice summoned him there through the intercom. It took him seconds to reach the bridge from his cabin, and he emerged onto the deck ready for action.

“Status report, Commander?” he asked his executive officer.

Drummond was looking out the window with a pair of high-powered binoculars. “Sir,” he began. “Distress call received from a yacht ten kilometers away. They’re being chased by an unknown hostile vessel.” 

Drexler looked to his helm officer, Lieutenant Rick Barnes. “Rick?”

Barnes glanced at his instruments, then looked to the captain. “Speed is 24 knots, holding steady.” he replied. 

Captain Drexler nodded, then looked back to Drummond. “I want more information.” he said. “We need to know as much as possible before we get there. Contact that yacht again, and keep scanning on the radar.” He walked over to his command chair and took a seat. “Lieutenant Barnes, increase speed to twenty-eight knots.” 

Barnes nodded. “Twenty-eight knots, aye.” He made the necessary adjustments on his controls. The ship’s speed climbed as it continued to knife through the waters of the ocean, making its way towards the site of the disturbance with all due speed. 

Then, Drummond spoke up from the communications console. “Captain, we have just received confirmation from the yacht. They have identified the intruder as a mercenary ship.” 

Drexler’s eyes narrowed, and his pulse  sped up, Was it the same ship? Did these mercenaries belong to the same group that killed his son? “Right.” he said “Battle stations! Prepare for combat!”

Drummond didn’t think much of his Captain’s miscue—he turned to the intercom and issued the orders given to him. “Attention all hands! Battle stations, I repeat: Battle stations! This is not a drill!” He hung up the microphone as the alarm again sounded off, with more red lighting coming into being. A glance back to the captain told him that Drexler was distracted, but he assumed it was just a consequence of having the responsibility and stress of making the big decisions.

***

“Talk not to me of blasphemy, man – I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.”

“We’ve got company!” exclaimed one of the higher-ranking men on the mercenary ship, jumping up from his station at the radar and communications area. 

The captain got up out of his chair and walked over to his communication officer. “Do tell.” he said, a little annoyed at the lack of open conversation about these types of things. 

The young officer looked dismayed. “Spotted a warship heading this way at high speed! They may have picked up the distress signal from that damned yacht we’ve been pursuing.”

The captain nodded and walked back to his chair. He was in his late thirties and considered young by his ragtag crew. He had earned their respect and trust from many operations that he had led, and from distributing the spoils of victory to each and every one of them in ample amounts. He sat down in his chair. “We have the firepower to take them on, but I believe we can out run them.” he said. The had engines retrofitted onto their converted mini-cruise ship. He had stolen the vessel some time ago and kept her in a safe place until he had the necessary funds to refit her and hire a more experienced crew, not to mention add the complement of weapons to her. 

Since then, he and his men had made millions exploiting lesser ships, always staying one step ahead of the authorities. “Forty-five degree turn to starboard.” he ordered. “Let’s see if that floating pile of guns will follow us into the ice field.” He was betting on the fact that the warship wouldn’t take the chance to pursue his vessel into the dangerous pack ice and risk-taking damage to the hull. Suddenly, his communications officer spoke out: “She’s matching our maneuvers, captain!”

“The game’s afoot then.” muttered the Captain.

Drexler slipped his hand into the left pocket of his jacket and pulled out a photograph. It was of a white-hulled cruise ship that was pulling away from the camera, a ship that had markings that would be reserved for pirate or privateer vessels instead. He compared it to the image on the communications monitor on the console. The ship was identical to the one in the picture. And since he didn’t know of any other small cruise ship converted to fight and pillage on the oceans, he concluded that this ship was the same one that caused his son’s death. 

He knew what had to be done now. “Mirror their course, helmsman.” he ordered. “Take us into the pack ice.” He took a seat in his chair. 

Drummond frowned. “Sir, may I remind you that our hull isn’t designed for icebreaking?” 

Drexler smiled. “I appreciate your input, commander. But we’re going after them.” 

Drummond nodded. “Yes sir.” He turned around and went back to doing his job. 

‘I’ll be damned if I let that ship get away!’  thought Drexler. “I will avenge my son, if it’s the last thing I ever do!” His anger and hateful thoughts about the privateers and their ship began to swirl around in his head. He was no longer a rational man.

“Commander,” he said to his first officer. “Fire a warning shot across their bow with the forward gun. Let them know we won’t stand down.” 

Drummond nodded. “Yes captain.” He issued the appropriate orders, and the Ellesmere fired a burst from her forward Bofors cannon. The shell splashed down right in front of the enemy vessel but was unable to provoke a reaction or hail of any kind. 

“No change in their course,” said the commander.

 Drexler’s eyes narrowed. “Oh no,” he said quietly. “You’re not getting away.” He focused on his quarry. He would not let it out of his sight until he witnessed its destruction.

***

“To the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.”

Ellesmere shook slightly as she took some fire from the enemy vessel’s rear guns, her reinforced hull taking the brunt of the hits, the damage minimal. Captain Drexler got up out of his chair and looked out the windows. His anger was rising. 

Drummond rushed up beside him. “Minor damage sir. The hull is holding. Suggest we move out of range and regroup. We can contact the rest of the task force and then—”

“NO!” yelled Drexler. “We go after them and take them down. They must not be allowed to hurt any other vessels!” Some people from the bridge crew started to look up from their stations.

“Very well sir.” replied Drummond. “What are your orders?”Drexler looked to the window port, then back at Drummond. “Return fire!” he ordered. 

Drummond issued the commands, and the forward Bofors turret let loose several shots, all of them striking the enemy vessel amidships, smoke starting to swirl out of it. The Ellesmere rocked again. They had been hit by more cannon fire from the mercenaries, and this time they had incurred some damage. Drummond waited for the damage report to come in before informing the captain, who was already issuing new orders and trying to out-maneuver the enemy vessel.

Before Drummond could deliver his report, the ship lurched violently. He heard an explosion. A couple of the bridge windows cracked, but they did not shatter. Crew members that had been thrown off their feet picked themselves back up off the deck and hurried to their stations. “Captain!” said Drummond, turning to face Drexler. “Forward Bofors cannon destroyed! Looks bad!”

Drexler got out of his chair and looked down to the gunnery deck. “Damn!” he said. “Get some men on the fifty caliber machine guns! Activate Harpoon launchers! Those bastards are going to pay for this!” 

The Ellesmere lurched again, shaking from another hit. Just as Drexler was about to ask where they had been hit, he heard the chief engineer’s voice on the intercom. “Bridge! Engine room! We can’t keep taking hits like this!” 

Captain Drexler activated the intercom control and spoke to the engine room. “Engine room, bridge. Keep her together and give me all available power! That’s an order!” 

Drummond felt they should pull back and regroup. He was about to suggest this idea to the captain, but an explosion knocked him to the ground. It was an impact from a weapon that had delivered a direct hit to the starboard wing of the bridge.

***

  “And he piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the rage and hate felt by his whole race. If his chest had been a cannon, he would have shot his heart upon it.”

Smoke filled the bridge compartment. Fires were starting to rage all over. Captain Drexler coughed and wheezed as he regained consciousness. When he opened his eyes, he could see how big of a disasterthe bridge was. Control stations were wrecked, there were bodies lying on the deck nearby. He crawled over to the nearest body on his hands and knees, only to find Commander Drummond. Drexler put his fingers to his commander’s neck. No pulse. “No,” he muttered, looking across the bloody uniform of his first officer. Drexler coughed again as he struggled in getting to his feet, using the nearest console as an aid.

The smoke was pouring out a gaping hole in the bridge, giving him enough visibility to look out for what was left of the forward windows. The mercenary ship was ahead by a few kilometers, “Not getting away.” mumbled Drexler. He noticed his right hand was covered in blood, and it was also dripping from his forehead. On the weapons board, he saw that one Harpoon missile launcher was active and locked on target. The key was in, and power was still available. “My turn.” he said, turning the key all the way, and pushing the red launch button with his index finger.

A single Harpoon missile lanced out from its launcher, the flames of its engine the only thing visible. Drexler watched as it struck its target with efficiency, wiping out the whole upper rear deck, and mangling their weapons and other vital machinery. The explosion blew pieces of the mercenary ship into the water, and as he watched. Drexler smiled maniacally. He saw the ship start to turn and try to get away, and he started to scream. He was losing his grip on reality. “No!!” yelled, moving back to the helm controls. He was starting to lose consciousness again.

“The line must be drawn here! This far! No further!” he yelled, the grin on his face now sinister. “And I will make you pay for what you have done!” He slammed the speed control to full, power still routing to the engines. The ship started to move forwards, and as it did, he got to his feet and looked out ahead. The mercenary ship was now dead in the water, its white hull and decks now a mess of fire damage and smoke, men scurrying back and forth on her main deck. Drexler looked around his own bridge at the dead, and the damage done. Fires were still burning, and the ship was almost beyond repair. He calmly sat down in his command chair and gripped the armrests as the ship careened towards the mercenaries. “For you, my son” he whispered. He thought about his boy and slipped into unconsciousness for the final time.

***

“Thus, I give up the spear!”         

“Tell the men to amp up their efforts on the engines! If we can’t get her going, we’ll have to—” 

The captain’s order was interrupted by another one of his bridge crew. “Sir!” yelled the man. “She’s going to ram us!” 

“What?!” 

The captain rushed to the bridge’s starboard viewport. He gasped and was left speechless as he saw the damaged warship heading straight for his vessel, smoke billowing from the battle damage, fires burning all over her. The forward Bofors gun was bent and its housing destroyed, and yet the ship continued on its heading on a collision course with his own vessel! 

He knew that there was no time to move his ship. “Brace for impact!” he yelled, running for his own chair in vain. Ten seconds later, the warship’s hull tore into the mercenary’s converted cruise ship, ripping it apart like it was made of paper. Men were thrown onto the deck, or into the water. As the captain crashed into the deck, the deafening sound of metal against metal filled his ears. Then, explosions tore through both ships, and the unused armaments caught fire. Fireballs ripped through both ships, before two massive explosions blew both vessels to pieces, sending debris and fire shooting in all directions, oil slicks surfacing and igniting as well.                                          

Not a man was left alive, as the two burning wrecks slowly slipped below the waves of the ocean, along with one man’s hatred, sorrow, and obsession.

“And the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.”

 


JASON J. BUCHHOLZ has been writing fictional works and such for quite some time now, and has finally made the decision in regards to becoming a published writer. The story Obsession is a modern day take on the classic Moby Dick.

Copyright © 2018 by Jason J. Buchholz. All rights reserved.

‘A Man Of Unimpeachable Credentials’ by Mark Fenton

Impeachable Credentials

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

Vernon Seymour watched Tillsonburg, Ontario shrink in his rear-view mirror. Barring any unfortunate twists, it should be his last view of the city.

Not that he hadn’t enjoyed his time in that quaint little town; Vern’s employers tended to his needs as much as he tended to theirs throughout their collaboration. Significantly more so in fact. There were many who knew and respected Vern. He had quickly melded into the small community, and had been welcomed into the most esteemed and prestigious organizations. The power in his words and the ability to shift his message depending upon the audience drew both the liberal and conservative minded to his speaking engagements. Equal parts philosopher, counsellor and sage, the masses viewed him as a leader, and the moral compass that the community should follow.

Those who knew but didn’t respect him were a quiet, embarrassed few, but not so quiet that the odd whisper didn’t escape. These people, some of the women of the community, viewed Vernon Seymour in an entirely different light. They compared him to Rasputin, some tones reverent, others disgusted.

So great was the power wielded by this demigod in their midst that when those who had regretted their entanglements shared their stories to others, the resultant backlash was swift and severe.

How could you say such things about this great man?”

“Why would you lie about Vern? He is above reproach!”

Shame quickly silenced the victims. Those few who saw through the wolf’s mask found themselves isolated, even from their lifelong friends who believed this man on the pedestal over them.

You see, good old Vern opened his doors to people, and they opened their hearts and souls to him, telling the trusted counsellor their darkest secrets, and most intimate details; those things women would dare not share with others. He listened patiently, providing sage advice and tactfully drawing out the most intimate details. Then, when meeting these same people privately as friends, he would throw these details back in their faces, the way a monkey will throw shit at its enemies, deriding them and crushing their spirit when they didn’t bow to his wishes. That is, until they did. Once in his grip, he lorded over his victims at every opportunity, the master manipulator always in control. But in the public eye, the Angel Vernon was always on display.

Eventually though, whispers grew louder and even his greatest defenders conceded that where there was smoke, there had to be fire. In the fourth year of Seymour’s residency in this charming town, things finally caught up with him. His employers met with Vernon privately and told him it was time to leave. His attempts to charm, sway and deny almost worked, but they held firm.

Most men would have conceded their fate and disappeared before the fire burned their ass any hotter, but when it came to balls, Vernon Seymour had big brass ones. He demanded and received a paid move to his next location, a severance package, and a glowing reference letter. This was on top of several ‘loans’ he had received from multiple women of high standing in the community who would never see a penny back. His employers were only aware of a few of the women left conned, swindled, and broken in his wake, but there were dozens. With few notable exceptions, financial loss was their only punishment for becoming caught in Vernon Seymour’s vacuuming vortex.

Vern thought of one of those notable exceptions as he drove down the highway, distancing himself from Tillsonburg. I should have drawn the line at my secretary, he thought. Then he started laughing. It’s right in the Bible. Though shalt not use thy rod on thy staff. My apologies to King David and the twenty-third psalm.

After noon on day three of his westward travels, Vern saw his new home in the distance, and smiled when he saw the sign. Welcome To The Friendly City.

“And on the third day, he rose again,” he said aloud.

Vern couldn’t move into the house he’d purchased for two more days, so he checked into The Temple Gardens Hotel And Spa. After supper, he drove around town for an hour, getting familiar with the layout and his new place of business. He walked through Crescent Park, following the serpentine creek where ducks paddled, introducing himself to those out enjoying the summer day and striking up conversations.

After supper, Moose Jaw’s newest resident returned to the hotel and changed in to his bathing suit. He took the elevator to the large mineral pool on the fourth floor, and did what Vern does best– schmooze and learn a bit more about this place he’d chosen as home. It was important to get to know people, but more important that they knew him.

Back in his room, Vern poured himself a scotch on the rocks, and opened his laptop to prepare for the next day. Facebook and Instagram provided most of what he needed. Profiles of married people with mostly solitary photos, or some with everybody except their spouses told one story. Snapshots of couples together told yet another depending on how close they were, how they touched, their smiles or lack thereof. He took notes, memorized faces, names, and whole families, then Googled specific people of interest to him.

The next morning, Vernon Seymour dressed and ate breakfast in the hotel restaurant, after which he brushed, flossed and preened himself for the most important meeting he would ever have in this town: the first one with his new employers at nine a.m.

Vern arrived twenty minutes early, parking several spots back from the entrance. He watched the people who went into the building, sizing them up, putting names to faces. At five minutes to nine, he added the last touch to his wardrobe, affixing his white clerical collar. The Reverend Vernon Seymour left his car and walked up the stairs to the building where he would meet his new employers, The Church Council. He opened the door, and walked in. The fox had found a new henhouse.

 


MARK FENTON is a writer who was born in Niagara Falls, Ontario, but now lives in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. He is a husband, father and grandfather. Mark has been a passionate writer since childhood, and is a member of The Moose Jaw Night Writers.

Copyright © 2018 by Mark Fenton. All rights reserved.

‘Miss Marigold’s Self-Portrait’ by Danielle Eyer

3

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

The summer I turned ten was filled with church bells and local choirs singing the town’s sorrows. The news blared from every television and radio –– they were investigating a death near my old house. A kid had died falling off a rocky cliff on the shores of Lake Erie, and the accident had awakened our small town. That night, police sirens screeched past our cottage. It took the entire fire department to retrieve his broken body by the rocks at the bottom. It had only been a dare. After the boy died, cliff jumping decreased in popularity.

I found Miss Marigold a year later on that same cliff. It was a day in early October, so it was too cold for swimming. The waves were too rough, and the clouds were too low. Miss Marigold sat facing the lake, her back against a boulder.

She was a colourful stain in a grayscale landscape. She looked like she had emerged from a mound of fabric swatches –– the textile equivalent of a scrapbook. Red and green ribbons in her hair, denim and suede patches to cover tears in her dress, a wide-brimmed yellow hat tied to her chin with twine. She balanced an oversized sketchbook on her knees and, trailed charcoal across the blank page in a sweeping motion.

I approached her from behind, half-hidden by the rocks. Her shoulders tensed when I stopped. I held my breath, stood still for a full minute. When I ventured upward again, she was back to sketching, her hat flopping in the wind.

She never acknowledged me, but I knew that she was aware of my presence. She waited for me. I waited for her. The sun waited for no one, and continued its slow descent behind the layers of clouds.

I closed my eyes for just a moment. When I opened them again, it was dark and she was gone.

I returned to the cliff the next day after school. Miss Marigold was back at her boulder with her sketchbook. Today she wore a red baseball cap and a skirt, layered like a wedding cake. A paint-splattered shawl was wrapped around her shoulders to keep warm.

I stopped a few feet before her and rolled up the collar of my turtleneck to keep out the wind.

“What are you drawing?” I asked.

She set down the piece of charcoal, her fingers smudged black. “It’s a self-portrait. Do you know what that is?”

I stepped forward to peer at the drawing. “That’s like, when you draw yourself, right?”

It was unfinished, but I recognized the image of a young lady’s profile, her small nose pointing upward, her eyes soft and shining, her lips full, smiling. It was only the start of a portrait, but it was radiant, even in black and white. I almost wished I could climb inside the picture just to be in the Beautiful Lady’s presence.

“So?” she asked. “Does it look like me?”

“I can’t tell with your hat on.”

She removed her hat. My initial reaction was to step back in horror, but my curiosity overcame my shock, and I inched forward to peer into her face.

Her murky eyes were wide-set. Her nose sank into her face. A deep scar ran from her hairline to her mouth. Her teeth were crooked and yellow, and her crayon-drawn lips were smeared across her face.

I grimaced. “That doesn’t look like you at all!”

She frowned at my words, her lips pressed together. Her eyes flared up as she glared at the image. She tore the page out of the book and crumpled it up, saying: “You’re right! Oh god, you’re right. She’s beautiful, she looks nothing like me!” She flung the crumpled paper over the side of the cliff.

“No, don’t!” I cried. I raced to the edge and watched it sink into the water. My eyes stung. Never again would I see those smiling eyes, the lady radiating on the page. “Why’d you do that? You didn’t have to throw it away.”

“Yes, I did.”

I softened when I heard her voice, high-pitched and near sobbing. She sunk her face into her hands. “I will never look like her,” she muttered. “Never.”

I stuck my hands into my jacket pockets and sat down, close but not too close. I saw the hurt I had caused, and needed to repair the damage I had done.

“You’re not ugly,” I said, and even as I said it I knew it wasn’t true. “Maybe you just need more drawing practice. My daddy says you can get good at anything with practice.”

Lifting her face from her hands, she asked, sniffling, “Really? You think so?”

I gulped and nodded. She smiled at my answer and wiped her face with some loose fabric on her sleeve.

Even now, I don’t remember if she ever introduced herself as Miss Marigold or if I baptized her myself. Her name came to me as I sat with her every day. It suited her, with her brightly coloured hats and clothing.

I’d come home from school every day and find her at that same boulder like a stray dog. I didn’t know where she came from. My classmates shrugged when I brought her up at school. Perhaps she never left, never stood up and stretched her legs. I sat with her as she sketched.

As the month wore on, the lady in the portrait grew clearer. Her delicate features sharpened as Miss Marigold added detail to her sketch: her curled eyelashes, the blush in her cheeks, her slightly upturned nose.

But just when the lady became real, Miss Marigold screamed and tore up the page, whimpering as if she were in physical pain.

It became a pattern. With every attempt, she grew more furious. The mere existence of the image hurt a deep part in her, and she wouldn’t keep quiet until it was destroyed.

The destruction of the image pained me. The lady’s existence, or perhaps her inexistence, haunted me. I woke up in a cold sweat from dreams in which she was burning, writhing in the flames. Her arms flailed like tree branches in the wind, reaching toward me. I watched helplessly.

Perhaps two weeks into this endeavor, whenever I felt one of Miss Marigold’s fits coming on, I would ripped the book from her hands before she could tear out the page. I stood up and held it behind me, stepping back. I thought that after a few seconds, she might calm down from her fit. She would see that she and the picture could coexist in peace.

Instead, Miss Marigold pulled at my hair and scratching at my face until I returned the sketchbook. I tried to push her away, but she was stronger than she looked. I stopped struggling when my chest began to hurt from the weight, and only then did she let me go. Once I had regained my breath, I found her a few feet away from the ledge, staring at the water below. I stayed back until she turned to me, smiling.

“Well,” she said with a contented sigh. “Let’s try again, shall we?”

My parents wouldn’t allow me to go out when it rained. “Your Miss Marigold will survive one day without you,” Mom would say.

I wondered if she sketched then, too. I’d ask my parents if she could come inside from the rain, but they laughed and told me not to be silly.

The day after a bad storm, I found her by the waves. I noticed that her picture was a smudged, watery mess. The pages of her sketchbook were wrinkled and deformed. But Miss Marigold only smiled and continued sketching.

I don’t know why I kept returning. Perhaps it was because I wished to see the Beautiful Lady again. I was drawn to her. At school, at home, in bed, I felt a string tugging on my heart. She called to me. So I returned, day after day, just to see her portrait be torn apart or crumpled or soaked in the lake.

The pain that came with her destruction only increased. I knew what would happen if I tried to stop Miss Marigold from destroying it, but something within me still made me want to try. The Lady stared at me through the paper. She called to me, begged me to save her. I cried at night, wishing that I could.

Snow began to fall. We went to the city for the holidays to visit family, and those two weeks I spent away from the Lady were spent in pure agony. I grew irritated at my cousins and snapped at family members. I spent most of my time in any empty room I could find, lying on my back and staring at the ceiling. Only then could I attempt to visualize the Beautiful Lady. Still, it wasn’t enough. Her image liked to slip away from me just as I began to get comfortable.

When I returned from the city, I rushed back to Miss Marigold’s side and sat by her as she put the finishing touches on the picture.

I knew what was coming. I knew that in just a few moments, Miss Marigold would lose her calm and wouldn’t regain it until she had destroyed the Lady.

It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair that Miss Marigold got to choose whether her artwork lived or died, whether she existed or didn’t. I wanted to decide, I wanted the Lady to be mine. That’s what she’d say in my dreams.

I’m yours, she’d call as she folded in on herself in the flames. I belong to you. Why would you let a stranger do this to me?

“She’s pretty.”

“Yes,” she frowned. “She is, isn’t she?” Her lips twitched. “Too pretty.”

Her body recoiled like a spring preparing to be released. But before it happened, I grabbed the sketchbook from her lap.

“No!” I screamed, sprinting away from her.

“Give it back!”

“Stop it, it’s mine!”

She ran after me, but I tripped on a loose stone and fell onto the rocks. Sharp pain shot up my leg, and my palms tingled when they hit the ground. The sketchbook slid on the icy floor toward the edge of the cliff. The world froze. If the Lady fell over the edge, into the water, it would all be over. But it stopped a few inches from the side, and I jumped up and raced toward it, Miss Marigold a few steps ahead of me.

She stopped at the edge and leaned down to pick it up. Pick it up or push it over. She seemed to catch fire before my eyes, her skirts billowing about her in reds and oranges, a blazing sun silhouetted on a grey sky. In the back of my brain I thought, water.

I slammed into her thin body. Her weight dragged her over the edge.

I didn’t hear her screaming. I didn’t hear her bones crack on the rocks or her body hit the lake below.

Instead, I picked up the sketchbook, and gazed at the Beautiful Lady. She was nearly finished, but a few curls at her shoulders were only outlined, not filled in with charcoal. I didn’t trust myself to complete it. It was enough.

I kicked the charcoal over the edge and tossed her yellow hat away like a frisbee. The rock ledge was just as I had found it that first day in October. Only this time, Miss Marigold had been traded for her artwork.

“Where did you get that?” my parents asked later that evening.

“Miss Marigold gave it to me.”

“Aren’t you getting a bit old for that imaginary friend stuff, Sweetie?”

“Don’t worry, Mom. I’m done with Miss Marigold, now.”

I hung the picture in my room, and the lady watched over me at night. Outside, tree branches tapped on my bedroom window. The rest of the world was quiet.

 


DANIELLE EYER is an emerging writer and playwright based in Montreal, with a fondness for musical theatre, big cities, and typewriters, although she’s never used one and doubts she would enjoy it. Roman Payne said that “all forms of madness, bizarre habits, awkwardness in society, general clumsiness, are justified in the person who creates good art.” Luckily, Danielle benefits from every one of these.

Copyright © 2018 by Danielle Eyer. All rights reserved.

‘A Sense of Dread’ by Mark Towse

2

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

Tom has been waking up the last few days with a sense of dread. Always very anxious, but recently experiencing severe bouts of panic, Tom’s heartburn has been almost unbearable. Today is no exception—Tom feels that this impending feeling of dread will manifest itself in some shape or form, and it’s making him even more anxious than ever.

He leaves the bed and pulls the covers back over his wife, telling her he is going to make a drink. He leans over, turns off the alarm clock and heads down to the kitchen to grind some coffee beans. He grabs the pestle and mortar from the cupboard, deciding that he needs to alleviate some stress, and starts grinding the coffee with an unnecessary ferocity. Most of the coffee spills over onto the floor, so he gives up, unable to cope with the prospect of picking it out from the already dirty tiles. He sighs, grabs the teabags and shouts, “I’ve made a small mess, but don’t worry! I’ll clean it up.”

The pots are piled high, so he rinses two dirty cups and fills them with water once the kettle boils. He begins to dip the bag into the first one, but it bursts, so he empties both cups in the kitchen sink and then bends down to spoon the powdered coffee into the filter.

He starts to sob.

Eventually, he gathers himself, pours the coffee and takes the cups with him through to the hallway and up the dimly lit stairs, towards the bedroom. He stops halfway up to look at the picture of him and Judith on the wall, their wedding day, and a snapshot of history when everything was okay—before the accident. He studied the photo as he had done many times—her skin like porcelain and a smile that just drew him in from the moment he saw her. She had Chrysanthemums in her hair. On the day itself, he thought they were daisies until Judith had laughed and corrected him. His own face too was one of genuine happiness; after all, he had just landed the love of his life, and nothing could stop him.

Christ, I love you, Judith.

As he reaches the top of the stairs, he tries to elbow away an annoying bluebottle fly that is buzzing around his head, causing him to spill some of the coffee as he trips over the damned vacuum once again. Tom rushes to the bathroom, puts the coffee on the edge of the tub and grabs a towel from the rack to wipe himself down. He sighs, leans over and turns both taps, watching her as the water rushes in, filling the tub. When it’s half full, Tom turns off the water and heads into the bedroom to help his wife out of bed. She’s heavier than usual, but Tom doesn’t comment. He knows it will only get him in trouble.

Tom carries Judith into the bathroom and helps lower her in the bath. He asks if the temperature is okay, not bothering to wait for a response as he lights some scented candles and pours in some bubble bath—the lavender one she likes. The colour contrasts nicely against her pale skin.

His mobile phone begins to ring, and immediately his pulse quickens. He knows it’s his boss—he didn’t go in last week and ignored the e-mails. Questions were being asked, and it would only be a matter of time before they found out. It had started small, a little bit at a time from a couple of clients, but a few bad bets and he started to get careless. Once a gambler!

He lets it go to voicemail.

Tom checks his reflection in the bathroom mirror and even through the steam, he can make out his sallow skin that frames the large dark circles under his eyes. He has seen better days. His mostly grey hair is matted and unwashed, and he hasn’t shaved for nearly a week. He contemplates showering, but the thought of the required effort distresses him, and so he splashes some water on his face instead and swallows some toothpaste straight from the tube. His wife recently told him that toothpaste causes cancer. He had laughed at this, pinched his nose and asked for a kiss. Tom enjoyed the times they fooled around like that.

He walks through to their bedroom, lifts up his dressing gown and, for the next few minutes, masturbates furiously—a habit he has picked up over the last few days. Once he’s done, he goes back downstairs with his coffee, being careful not to trip over the vacuum. He puts some bread in the toaster and opens the fridge to find he has no margarine left. In fact, there is nothing spreadable at all. He sits and waits for the toast to pop up. Eventually, it does, and even though he prepared himself for the pop, it still startles him, and he estimates his heart rate increases by at least ten beats per minute. He takes the toast and places it on the cleanest plate he can find from the dirty stack of pots, but when he reaches for his coffee, the toast slides from his plate onto the kitchen floor.

He wants to cry again but refrains as he bends over and collects it from the dirty floor and gives it a quick shake. He takes a bite and chews solemnly, washing it down with a swig of his coffee. He stops to pull some hair from his teeth, no doubt gathered from the floor and then pours the remainder of the coffee down the sink.

Tom looks down at his overhanging belly and suddenly feels the impulse to go for a run. He considers it very seriously for a few seconds before deciding it would be quite an upheaval, so he switches on the television instead. He flicks through the various channels until he finds a nature documentary. Settling into his chair, he begins to pick at his immature beard and pulls out a huge dark hair with the follicle still attached. Tom chews off the follicle and begins to think he is losing his mind.

On TV, the deer is running for its life, closely followed by the jaguar that is hungry for its dinner. Tom changes the channel quickly, suddenly contemplating how savage existence is.  He convinces himself that if reincarnation is real, he would no doubt come back as a deer. Or worse, he’d come back as himself.

In his melancholy state, he finds himself wandering back to the early years, before marriage and back when he and his wife told each other everything. Judith said she once ate a worm when she was nine, and that was pretty much the worst thing she had done. He confessed to her about a few things from his not so clean past, including his previous gambling problem and how he had kicked it well before they met. It was true, at least in the way you can ever really kick an addiction.

Tom snaps out if it just in time to see the jaguar bring the deer down.

He shouts upstairs, “I’m just going for a lie-down love. Let me know if the water gets cold.”

No reply, but that’s standard when Judith bathes. She hates to ruin the experience with chatter and normally scolds him if he tries to talk to her before she’s out the bath. He lies down on the couch—eyes closed but his mind is wide open, and the bad thoughts come. He pulls more hair out and realizes there is zero chance he will be able to get any sleep, so he gets off the couch, does one press up, and walks back to the kitchen to put the kettle back on.

Someone knocks at the door.

Tom runs back into the living room and ducks behind the couch, as though the knocker has x-ray vision.

“Tom!”

His breathing increases rapidly, he is very conscious of it, and he is sure they will hear it.

“Tom! It’s Irene from the apartment next door. Are you okay?”

She knocks again, and Tom tries to squeeze into an even smaller shape. Irene shouts through the door, “Tom, I’m coming back with a key. I haven’t seen you or Judith for a few days. I’m worried.”

There is some relief that it’s only Irene, but he doesn’t want the nosy old bag coming back. He curses Judith for giving her a key and estimates that it’s been nearly a year since they went away and left it with her. They still hadn’t got it back.

He straightens up and shouts from behind the couch “Irene, it’s all good. I’m not decent though, and Judith has gone to stay at her sister’s for a while.”

“Oh… okay. Did you take your garbage out by the way?”

When he hears her footsteps moving away, he gets up, moves back in the kitchen and makes two teas with unwashed cups: one for his wife and one for himself. He takes them up to the bathroom and places them on the edge of the bath, next to the cup he made earlier.

“Have some tea darling. You look cold—this will warm you up,” he says.

He smiles at her before disrobing and stepping into the water, “Room for one more?”

As Tom squeezes in on the opposite side of Judith, being careful not to disturb her, there is a loud knock on the door—one with a sense of urgency.

“Tom, are you in there?” a male voice shouts.

He takes a gulp of tea and swills it around his mouth.

He had considered calling it in as an accident when it happened. That’s why he put a dead bulb in the landing area and moved the vacuum to the top of the stairs — tripping over it three times since. In a way, it was an accident. He tried to convince himself of that anyway.

“I think we are going to need more scented candles,” Tom says as he leans over and kisses his wife on the forehead.

The thought of living without her, though, was too much to bear. Not to mention the additional lies and deceit that would be required.

She died for nothing.

Work are onto him now anyway—the emails from his boss and the voicemails asking to see him urgently. He feels like the deer from the nature documentary.

It was a dead cert!

There’s another loud knock at the door, “Tom!”

Tom stands up and reaches across to the cabinet to retrieve the small brown packet and then sits back down on the edge of the bathtub.

He didn’t mean for her to fall down the stairs—he was only trying to stop her from calling the police. He had grabbed the arm of her nightgown, and when she yanked it away, she lost her balance and tumbled all the way down. She moaned for a while—an awful wail that has stayed with him over the last few days. He won’t miss that.

“Tom!”

He just wanted to unload, share the burden—work through it before it got out of control. If they came up with a plan, they could probably find a way to put the money back before anyone noticed and then he could get help again. Going to prison wasn’t an option—he wasn’t cut out for that.

He should have known. Judith was always so black and white.

She is now, he thought.

“I love you, Judith,” he says as he empties the packet into his cup before taking a large gulp of tea.

 


MARK TOWSE has only been writing short stories for two months now, but his passion and enthusiasm are unparalleled, and this has recently resulted in his first paid piece in the publication Books N Pieces along with imminent publication in four other prestigious magazines. Mark currently works in sales and is ready to sell his soul to the devil for a full-time career as an author. He resides in Melbourne, Australia with his wife and two children.

Copyright © 2018 by Mark Towse. All rights reserved.

‘An Annual Affair’ by Désiré Betty

1

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

In the small town of Hamnia, a healthy baby girl named Melissa was born to proud parents, Mr. and Mrs. Denver Campus.  She would be their only child. Their life together was anything but ideal, yet Melissa managed to bring joy to a loveless marriage.

Denver, a handsome and successful man in his mid-thirties, had recently been promoted to Vice-President of a new and progressive IT Company called Viral X.  Despite his arrogance, he was well-liked by his co-workers. His wife Taborra was an unattractive, stay at home mom that was at least thirty pounds overweight.  As an adolescent, she suffered from severe acne, which had left her with facial scars that contributed to her low self-esteem. She was a loving soul that lacked self-respect; allowing herself to be treated disrespectfully by others, especially her husband.  Denver used to find her humbleness endearing, but over the years became annoyed by her lack of intrigue for excitement and new adventures. Taborra never had many friends and when she resigned from her career as a construction manager to become a stay at home mother, her world became very small.  Denver distanced himself and lost all respect for his wife; seeking adventure outside of their marriage. Many often wondered why a man of his standing would marry such a lack-luster woman, as he was clearly unhappy.

Two years later, on a beautiful sunny day in July, the birds were chirping and the light breeze was blissful.  The Campus’ left with their beloved daughter, to attend the annual Viral X company picnic. They reached their destination just before noon and made their way to where the employees and their families were gathered.  Denver was greeted by his pal and colleague, Steve Adams, a genuine guy. Taborra had become accustomed to accompanying Denver to events, only to not be introduced and abandoned the entire night. The first time this happened, Taborra continued to stand by Denver, introducing herself as his wife and trying to interact, but quickly noticed that he would shut down any of her conversation starters and solely talk business to exclude her.  Within minutes, others would join the group conversation and Taborra would be left to fend for herself.

She was often accused of being an overprotective mother that devoted all of her attention to her daughter.  She instinctively refused to leave her side in fear that something bad would happen to her in her absence. While other mothers sunbathed on the beach and their husbands tended to their children, Taborra built sand castles with her daughter.  When Melissa tired of that activity, she made her way towards the beach. Taborra followed behind, cautiously introducing her to the water. She never left Melissa out of her sight, not even to socialize with other people. Unbeknownst to her, she was nicknamed, ‘the weirdo’ by the other employees and their spouses, simply because her priorities were different.  Her insecurities prevented her from confidently mingling with the other women, allowing her shyness to often be mistaken for mental instability due to her excessive introversion.

An hour later, Melissa fell asleep in her mother’s arms.  Taborra laid her down to sleep in her playpen, situated in the shade, away from the incessant chatter and loud music.  She planned to take this time to relax, but to her dismay, she realized that Denver neglected to bring her straw bag with the book she intended to read.  She spotted her husband walking along the beach with his secretary, andfrantically tried to get his attention, but to no avail; he was clearly preoccupied.

This led Taborra to act completely out of character. She did something that still haunts her to this day.  A young woman she had noticed earlier was walking her way, and Taborra assumed her to be an employee of Viral X.  Taborra politely intercepted her, “Excuse me? I wouldn’t normally ask this of a total stranger, but I am getting rather restless now that my daughter has settled down for a nap.  I was wondering if you would be willing to watch her while I run over to my car to retrieve my book.” The personable stranger did not hesitate to accommodate her request.

As Taborra thanked her and walked away, she felt a chill run down her spine.  Her gut told her to go back, but she ignored it. She felt obligated to go through with her initial request because she feared the gossip that would ensue should she change her mind.

***

The woman eyed Melissa in the crib and a surge of hatred rushed through her.  Never in her wildest dreams had she suspected Denver, the man she had spent countless evenings with while eating Chinese food and drinking cheap wine, to have a wife, yet alone a child.

She looked down at the infant with disgust, and felt something come over her.  Hatred resonated through her and she quickly reached down, grabbed the teddy bear, and smothered the child with it.  It was quick, and the child fell still without a sound. The woman placed the teddy bear back the way she had found it, smiling to herself as she took in the child’s soft, sleeping face.  Then, she slipped away before allowing herself to feel an ounce of remorse.

***

Taborra hurried, her heart beating faster as she failed to shake the fear triggered in the pit of her stomach.  She kept thinking that her daughter was in danger, but had no concrete reasoning behind her indescribable fear.  She hoped that she was simply overreacting. She made it to her car, quickly retrieved her book and raced back, all while allowing her mind to wander through the possibility that her daughter would not be present when she returned.  With tears in her eyes, she ran madly through the crowd. Denver spotted her in the distance and he instinctively made a mad dash after her.

As he got closer to his wife, he shouted, “Taborra, Taborra stop!” demanding her to come to a halt.  It did not stop her, in fact, she sped up. He had never seen her run so fast.

Out of breath, she finally reached their daughter’s playpen, still asleep in the same position she had left her.  The young woman was nowhere to be found.. At that moment, Taborra’s intuition led her to believe that the kind stranger was more than just a stranger.  It was not out of character for Denver to attract the admiration of a female employee. Nevertheless, it was rather irresponsible of her to leave after gladly accepting to watch her child.  Taborra swore she would never leave her precious daughter with a stranger ever again.

Denver’s cheeks turned pink from embarrassment and Taborra could tell he wanted to scream at her, but was restraining himself so as not to draw more unwanted attention.  She had demonstrated such erratic behavior in front of his friends and colleagues. She could not bring herself to tell him the truth. Instead of explaining the situation, she allowed him to believe she was crazy.  All was well, their daughter was fast asleep.

Denver sat down by the playpen, put his head in his palms and let out a long, frustrated sigh.  Taborra sat beside him and rubbed his back, but he instinctively moved away from her touch. She apologized for her behavior.  She explained that she had experienced a terrible premonition that had not come true. He snapped and said, “You’re ridiculous.  What is wrong with you?”

Taborra just stared blankly at him as tears filled her eyes.  She got up and walked towards the playpen as her daughter always seemed to alleviate any tension.  She noticed that Melissa remained undisturbed despite all the commotion. She softly touched her daughter’s face and it was then she noticed that Melissa was not breathing.  “Oh my God! Denver!” she screamed.

Denver looked at Taborra with such discontent while shaking his head in disbelief as he retorted, “Holy shit!  What now?”

She picked up her daughter’s lifeless body in her arms and screamed, “Something is wrong.  She isn’t breathing!”

Denver jumped up and took Melissa from her arms.  He cried, “My baby! What happened? What did you do?”

He attempted CPR and told Taborra to call an ambulance.  As her hands shook uncontrollably, she dialed as fast as she could.  Minutes, felt like hours, before an ambulance arrived. Melissa was pronounced dead at the scene.

Denver screamed and fell to his knees.  He could not look Taborra in the eyes. He despised her with every ounce of his being.  The hatred he already felt towards her was now tenfold. He wanted to hurt her, his eyes wide and raging, but she was already dead to him.  Taborra did not mention the woman as she was in too deep and feared speaking one more word during this calamitous moment.

An autopsy was conducted and determined that Melissa had been asphyxiated.  Despite being the doting mother she was, her unstable behavior witnessed at the party and previous work engagements easily led her to be the only suspect.  This was not the first time that her love for her daughter proved to be too intense. Denver often confided in his secretary about how he worried about his wife’s unhealthy attachment to their daughter.  She could easily testify to solidify Denver’s position on the matter. There was no further investigation, and without any support from her husband or witnesses, Taborra was found guilty.

It was an unfortunate reality for Taborra, as Denver had long lost his admiration and respect for his wife; desecrating her true love and care for their daughter into a vile representation of her unfortunate demise.  A judge sentenced her to life in prison, with no chance of parole. Melissa’s death had sucked the remaining life out of Taborra. She did not possess the energy to defend herself, and silently accepted her fate, as she knew that no one would believe her.  She held herself responsible. The mystery woman at the beach had disappeared into thin air. Given all her self-doubt, she believed the accounts that maybe she was the crazy one and that the woman was in fact a figment of her imagination.

Denver was at the lowest point of his life.  He was relieved to see his wife put away for the devastation that she had caused, but incredibly broken by the loss of his precious daughter.  For Stella, his mistress, her eerie fairytale had come true. She stood by her lover throughout this difficult time; consoling him, despite being the cause of his endless misery.  

Denver would never know the truth about that fateful day or his merciless mistress.  Stella had won, she had solidified her spot as his one and only.

 


DÉSIRÉ BETTY is a Mississauga, Ontario based artist that began her innovative journey at an early age.  Her passion for the arts, led her to pursue a career in Architecture; broadening her quest for constant creativity from the canvas to the built environment.  Although content in her profession, there is nothing more fulfilling than creating art, in all its forms.  In 2009, she vowed to complement her architecturally based career with her artistic pursuits. Désiré has since exhibited in several solo and group shows, had her art and poetry published in several magazines and sold pieces to art enthusiasts around the world.

Copyright © 2018 by Désiré Betty. All rights reserved.

‘Unburden’ by Michael Formato

4

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

“What are you waiting for?”

“What do you mean?”

“We’ve been over this.” I snapped my fingers a couple of times. “Hello? You listening?”

“What the hell are you talking about?” The man in front of me had his arms glued to his sides like a dead old tree stump, and his hands were shaking like all hell.

“It’s the only way you’ll ever get better. What are you waiting for?” I couldn’t believe he was doing this to me. Not again.

“I don’t even know who you are. Where am I?”

Marcus.” I said his name the way a person would speak to a misbehaving dog.

“Who are you?”

“A friend. I’m here to help you, remember? You don’t remember me?” I walked over to him and forcibly raised his right hand up at a ninety-degree angle, the cold metal of the gun in his hand leaving its residual sensation on my skin. The brightness of the room was beginning to annoy me, but not as much as my client was right now. Perhaps I should have selected a different setting.

“It’s easy.” I smiled and turned away from him then. I stepped a couple of paces back to where I stood earlier. “We’ve been through this.”

“Why are you doing this to me?” he yelled.

“You’re losing yourself again.” I remarked, facing him again. “You’re the one that requested these sessions, right? You’re the one who said you were ready. I’m just the one you enlisted to help.”

He screamed again, covering his face and sobbing. “Wh- hu- why do you keep doing that? Your face!”

I sighed. I kept switching through faces in his memory –– enemies, rivals, people he wouldn’t think twice about shooting in the face within the confines of a controlled setting. It usually helps, but this wasn’t a usual case.

“I don’t know what to do!” He fell to his knees, the gun falling out of his hands and clacking across the blank white floor.

I couldn’t help but sigh. I walked towards him again. “I’m telling you! All your fears and anxieties will be gone! You just gotta take that leap! That’s what I’m here to do: to make you take that leap. It’s what you wanted, more than anything in this world.” I crouched beside him, reaching for his shoulder as my skin changed from white to black. “When I asked you what you wanted most in this world, what did you tell me?”

He started sobbing again, not paying attention.

I shook my head. “You’ve made so much progress. We are at the divide now, the one we have both worked so hard to get you to. There is nothing more I can do. Nothing other than encourage you to take that leap.”

He peered up at me again and let out another cry.

Maybe the face changes weren’t the best idea. I picked up the gun again and nestled it into his grip. His hands were wet. I urged him to his feet, and once he was there, I dropped to my knees. I looked up at him, hands and fingers crossed as if in prayer. “Don’t throw it all away now,” I said. “It’s your last chance. Take the shot.”

He shook his head.

“Would a change of scenery help?”

The blank room turned into a vast grassy plain, rolling hills. New Zealand. The first thing that came to mind.

“That doesn’t help me! No amount of face-changing or room-changing is going to help. It doesn’t work that way. You’re asking me to kill a part of myself!”

“A diseased, corrupted parasite that happens to reside within the boundaries of your existence. Sapping away at your delicate life, your happiness. I am the personification of this parasite, this tumor, that needs to be cut out. I am that tumor! And you are holding the scalpel. This is what it’s all about!”

I saw him calm down a bit. He wiped away a few tears, and I decided to change faces one final time. He didn’t flinch, thankfully.

“You asked for this. We’ve worked for this. I’ve counselled you, trained you, and now you’re here, on the cusp of it all. I’m right here. Please. Take the shot.”

The wind felt so real on my face as it must have felt for him. The new-found warmth in the air filled me with its wonderful scent, as I hoped it did him.

“Marcus. Time is running out.”

It really was, and I could mentally see my pay-check getting picked up by the breeze behind him and fly out of eyeshot. I was glad he didn’t see that. My own blips of thought making their way into the projection I had created for him.

He took a moment, then slowly raised his arm at an angle, pointing it at my forehead. Finally.

“That’s it. Take the shot. You got this. One more step, and it’ll be done. You’ll be free!”

His hands were shaking now, branches in the wind.

“Take the shot, Marcus.”

“I can’t.”

“Do not give up on this now. Take the shot.”

“I can’t!”

I yanked his arm and pressed the barrel against my temple. “Take the shot.”

“I–”

“Take the shot.”

“Please!”

“Shoot me!”

“I don’t know if I can!!”

“You’ve told me yourself: you hate me with all of your heart! You would do anything to get rid of me. I ruined your life! I did! And now you can end it all! The gun is in your hand. Shoot!”

“I–”

“Do it.”

Darkness. The gun went off, and the sound almost made my ears pop, which was scary, even for me. I quickly deactivated the layer of mental projections and waited for him to get to his senses. He had collapsed onto the floor in a slobbering heap. When he would open his eyes again, the room before him would become familiar. The house he stood in, the room he resided in… it had to be perfect.

This had to be her room. This had to be the year 2047, sixty years ago.

When he stopped crying, I hooked my arm under his arm and tried to lift him up. “You did it Marcus.”

“I…what?”

“Get up!” I grinned at him, and urged him to look down at what he had done. “Look! You did it!”

Flustered, he looked down at the small bed before him. A child lay within it, a bullet through the side of her head, blood spewing from her open skull, pieces of her brain adorning the pillows. He fell backwards, recoiling as far as he could, his back hitting the wall behind him. “Oh my god, what have I done? What have I done?

“All that hard work, all this time, and you actually did it. I’m so proud of you.” I sat down next to him. My smile was beginning to hurt my jaw. “This was what you wanted, remember? Clear your mind, and remember.” I projected my own face this time, my true face, and suddenly his own began to turn. He remembered it.

“Wha–”

“It’s me Marcus! Look! Stand up and look at what all those sessions and all that training has done for you! Don’t be scared!”

He got to his feet, and looked at the corpse, like a small child analyzing a lizard.

“You took the shot, buddy!”

“I did it.”

“It’s what you wanted.” I stole a glance at my watch. Right on time, too. “You wanted this, and you went out and did it, my friend! A success.” Thank fucking Christ.

“Yeah!” He was beaming now. Fully remembering the task he had laid out for us both, and realizing that we had succeeded. He turned swiftly to the girl’s nightstand and brushed all the toys and pill bottles and machines off the top and watched them fall onto the floor.

“How are you feeling?” I asked him.

“Relieved.”

“Like a weight has been lifted?” I rested a hand on his shoulder. “You won’t be needing those machines anymore, or the pills to keep her alive, right? No more expenses or bills. The minivan you hate. The physiotherapy, that wheelchair you needed to push around. All that money you threw away. It’s over now. You have what you wanted. Calm. Peace.”

He ran from the room and tossed the wheelchair –– the one he had once bought for her comfort –– down the flight of stairs outside her room, past the electric lift he had once installed along its length for her. He was on top of the world. The happiest I’ve ever seen a person. I suddenly felt a vibration on my wrist, the kick, and with a final look of what pure ecstasy felt like –– perhaps something I’d never feel –– I removed my physical projection from the environment.

I watched like a ghost, as Marcus returned to the little girl’s room, completely forgetting my existence altogether. He picked up the corpse like a doll, and began dancing with it, laughing as only the happiest man in the whole world could, blood pouring from the open wound, the child’s body flailing limply as he shuffled across the room. I stared at my watch again. I let him enjoy one last moment of ecstasy, the last he’d ever feel, before I cut the simulation.

I quickly removed the diodes from my temples and the Halo Mechanism from my head, setting it on the table beside me as I put the real world back into focus once again. I was greeted by a myriad of medical machines blaring, all to their own tunes. A solid flat line across the heart rate monitor. I found my tablet and peered a my watch once more.

Time of death: ten minutes to 5:00pm.

I leaned over and snapped the heart rate monitor off, along with the life support machine, before standing and removing his own Halo from its mounting points, and the diodes that sent the projections from my brain directly into his, hijacking his dream and implanting my own. I nodded, and one of the nurses who oversaw the operation began removing the tubes from his nose and the IV from his arm, and prepared the body to be removed.  I looked to my tablet again, filling in the rest of the post-mortem information necessary to satisfy the mediators, who by law had the final say over the success of the operation.

Time within: ten and a half minutes.

The time on the outside world was minimal. It always feels longer on the inside, where hours within accounted for minutes in the real world.

Target: reached with success. Transmission sent to base. 

With everything off him, I looked down at the elderly corpse of Marcus Ball, ninety-eight years old, and dead of multiple organ failure. Even in death, the cutting out and the replacing of his memories had done its job. He died smiling, believing that what he had done within his own mind had happened in reality. The faintest of grins etched across his dead lips.

Notes: died happy.

Without another thought, I shut off my tablet and left the hospital room, closing the door behind me.

“Doctor!”

I froze. My pulse sped up. I turned around, and a woman with tears already streaming down her face approached me. I had hoped to avoid this confrontation.

“They called me, they… they said he was dying, and I came as fast as I could. I ––” She burst into tears.

I lowered my head. “I am sincerely sorry for your loss. I want you to know that the staff and I took every measure at our disposal to make sure he died peacefully.”

She nodded, regaining some resolve. “He was the only one I had.” She chuckled, trying to see the bright side of it all, and wiped her eyes. “When I was young, he was the only one who took care of me. After my mom passed away, I mean. I loved him so much.”

I nodded. “He was a great man. He was so proud of you.”

She turned her electric wheelchair towards the door. “Can I see him?”

“Of course, Ms. Ball.”

She didn’t move from her spot, peering at her father though the glass slit in the door. “What were his final moment like?”

“We made the preparations to make him comfortable. I’m afraid he was asleep in his ––”

“No. I mean his final moments.” She wheeled back towards me, the small electric motor humming softly in the silent corridor. “I know he had the procedure done.” She smiled. “You gave him once final experience. You fabricated a memory, a moment he believed he lived. His final moment. I know he did.”

“I see. I apologize, Ms. Ball. He requested to keep the procedure private. He didn’t want to alarm you. The operations can be quite intense.”

“I understand. You reconstructed a memory, right?”

“That’s correct.”

“Was it about me?” she asked. “I always remember him telling me that he would see me walking and sprinting and jumping in his dreams, and that it would make him so happy. Was that it? Was that the memory you constructed for him in his final moments? Me getting up from my chair and running into his arms one last time?”

My lips parted, but no words came out.

“You don’t need to tell me.” She nodded and reached for the door handle. “I loved him so much, but deep down, I knew he always loved me even more.” She pushed through the door. “Thank you, doctor. I appreciate everything you’ve done for him.” She disappeared behind the partition, the door closing behind her.

I stood there motionless, and after a few moments I walked towards the door and laid my fingers on the handle, peering through the glass. I stopped myself. Ms. Ball was holding the hand of her deceased father, a fresh fountain of tears streaming down her face.

I stood at a crossroads. Ms. Ball believed that her father loved her. Was she blind to how he truly felt? A burning hatred, masked by a façade of unwavering love and support. Would knowing the truth even change the way she thought about him? Would it change anything? Would it change everything? I felt my hand slip off the lever.

It was in that moment, through the small slit of glass in the hospital door, that I witnessed what love truly is. An illusion. To the eyes of the beholder, and threshed within the lies we tell ourselves on a daily basis. It is the cage that imprisons us all. A cage to which we hold a key that we have swallowed long ago.

 


MICHAEL FORMATO is a science-fiction writer born and raised in Montreal Quebec. He is currently a student at McGill University in the faculty of Education. As a writer of fiction, he is obsessed with twisting and contorting what we as a society take for granted in life. Things like technology, family, relationships, the very idea of love, and bringing out the subconscious anxieties that reside just below the surface of our paranoid thoughts.

Copyright © 2018 by Michael Formato. All rights reserved.