Category Archives: Fiction

Saint Jude’s Medallion

“That is a medallion of San Judas—Saint Jude, no?”

I had ignored her when she first slid into the seat opposite me in the club car, keeping my eyes focused on my copy of Brideshead Revisited while I sipped mediocre red wine from a plastic cup. Now I had no choice but to acknowledge her presence. Even I can’t be that rude. I fingered the medallion hanging from my neck. It had been a present from an aunt for my Confirmation, one of those relics from adolescence that ends up buried in the back of a nightstand drawer. I’d found it while sorting everything from my childhood bedroom into the three categories of keep, donate, and throw out. I’d slipped it over my head without thinking and continued my task, trying to forget that it was my father’s recent death that had led to the task of cleaning out my room. Continue reading Saint Jude’s Medallion

A Million

Pops

Pop was everything I thought was great about the world: funny stories and being able to whistle any tune you wanted.

He had two large aquariums that lined his basement wall. He said he walked right into the store and asked the young lady what were the largest tanks she could sell him. Their largest was about the size of a bathtub, but she would be happy to give him the number of a gentleman who specialized in custom jobs. It wasn’t long after that Pop was populating his new room-lining aquariums with fake coral and little, plastic sunken ships.

He reached into a tank with his little green net and scooped up an orange-shouldered tang. It resisted, flipping and wiggling its way out of the net before he could pin it against the glass and drag it up. I held my breath as he lifted my favorite fish above the water. Continue reading A Million

There Lay the Spoils

“But it’s love.” Eileen laughed at her own words, using her shoulder to hold the telephone to her ear. She hunched over the jigsaw puzzle and pecked at the pieces with her knobby fingers like she was browsing through chocolates. “That’s what she’s telling everyone,” she said. “Can you believe it?”

Owen walked to the kitchen window and stared out across the way at the Donnelly’s roof, the third time doing so since being yanked from sleep that morning. It was the ridiculous noise of it all, the incessant pounding and sawing since well before seven. The man knelt with his back to Owen, reaching the hammer practically to his shoulder blades and bringing it down with a force that sent echoes like gunshots. Continue reading There Lay the Spoils

The Mighty Dove

“I knew you was a pussy, Ian. Come on, I done it – right, boys?”

Sonny turned to the young tribe leaning on surfboards. They clapped his back and nodded, testified to the bravery of their chief. Riptide waves were swirling below, heaving the fragrance of salt over the coast. This scent of renewal blanketed the boys, but it could not preserve them.

Far away in Spain, centuries ago, this tale began. A mariner there took something priceless. Yet, that moment was not truly the beginning, but rather an upwelling and continuation of the gale. The winds are still blowing. Continue reading The Mighty Dove

Zenith

The Story

The story was that a young man had gone missing in the mountains. Not odd, not for this part of the country. People had gone missing before, but they were always found, sometimes even alive. This one was different, though. And two things bothered people more than the young man’s disappearance, for that was a given. What concerned people was that he was from out of town, a stranger, and despite people searching for him, for weeks and then months, he was never found. No trace. Even the ones who had been found dead, though it wasn’t any less traumatic for the families, had at least been found. Or years later something was found that suggested that person. Even then the missing had always been a local and some fragment of clothing or other object—a backpack, a shoe, a wallet—had been found and positively identified. But this stranger, he had never been found; it was as if he had simply disappeared, vanished, vaporized in the thinness up there.

The Reporter

“Right behind me,” the reporter said. “You can almost make out the top of the mountain where our town holds the annual trail run on God’s Trail.” He picked up a pencil and held it eye level, then rotated it with his hands. “It goes straight up about two miles. I’d been fairly new to the area—a stranger myself—and I’d immediately participated in the race. I guess you could say I was drawn to it by the sheer idea of the challenge, the camaraderie, of going up where the air was fresh but thin. If you can believe it,” and he slapped his belly, “I even finished as runner-up one year. But now, nope,” he said and leaned back in his chair and gazed out the window. “Now, I’m too old.” He put the pencil down on his desk. “I’m just a spectator who writes about it every year now. It’s crazy how much it’s grown. We even get runners from outside of the country. Can you believe that?”

The Ranger

“5,000 feet up,” the ranger, a big barrel of a man with a hat, said. “Hell, I imagine by the time they reach the summit, their minds are practically fried from the elevation gain. It’s only about, what, two miles up?” He put his leg up on the edge of a rock by the trailhead to support his large frame and revealed new work boots, the kind that most likely held the ankles in place but the tops were hidden by his pants. “But,” he said, then spat and rubbed the area a bit with his boot. “It’s not the ascent that’s of concern. It’s the descent, the free fall down.” As he said this, his hand seemed to mark the apex, then cascade downward. “Hell if I know why people feel the urge to do it; I’ve lived here my whole life and never had the desire.” He turned slightly and looked up, then said, “Nope, never.”

A Local

“Yeah, I’ve run it twenty times, nearly every year,” the man said. “No—no, I’ve never broken anything. Sprains, for sure. But never broken anything. Actually, I’ve never had a broken bone, even as a kid. I’ve certainly had my fair share of tumbles. Who hasn’t, right?” He was sitting on the ground and tying his shoes. “Even had one guy this year grab my shirt as he fell past me,” he said, with a smile, then stood up and looked at his watch. “I hated that he was beating me by falling like that. He almost took me out. But, I got loose of him. And I made it down in one piece. That’s a victory right there.”

The Report

It is noted that a male, possibly in his early to mid-twenties, not local, went missing on XX-XX-2015 during the annual God’s Trail Run. Height: N/A. Weight: N/A. Eye color: N/A. Hair color: N/A.

An Old Man

“It—it must have been dark up there,” the old man said. He grabbed at his faded brown hat, pulled it down a little as if to adjust the fit. Or maybe it was just his way of handling the mysteriousness of the events like someone tapping their hands on a table, their leg beneath it without ever being aware of it. He took a sip of coffee, now lukewarm, seemed to roll the liquid around in his mouth, then swallowed, his Adam’s apple suddenly disappearing, then reappearing.

“…from wherever he was looking,” he added, blinking his eyes hard. Then he coughed, looked out the café window. Someone was backing a truck out. “You ever go hiking up there at night? No, probably not. Probably not a wise idea.” He leaned in closer, then said. “Me, okay, so sometimes I can’t sleep. This one night, maybe a month ago, for some reason I left the house and walked. You know, like the guy in that Frost poem. Anyway, when I got near the edge of main street…” he said, then looked around. “I mean, between you and me, I swear… I mean I saw lights up there.” He sat back a little in the worn booth. “Not like a UFO or anything like that. I don’t believe in that stuff. But, just, you know, like a flashlight, a singular flashlight.”

The Ranger

“You mean John,” the ranger said, then took his hat off, looked at it, scratched his head a bit then put the hat back. “Look, between you and me, the old man is fine. Too much time on hands since his wife passed. But—it’s just, I mean we’re limited in resources. We don’t exactly have people e-mailing us their resumes to work up here. And I can’t be jumping in the jeep and heading up the mountain every time John says he saw a light. Besides,” he said, and rubbed the stubble on his chin a bit. “Three months is a long time to be lost. I hate to say it, but I don’t think the guy survived.”

The Priest

“Oh, I imagine there’s a religious element to it for some,” the priest said. Isn’t that man’s hubris?—to reach the summit, to be closer to God? Maybe if we’re closer, he’ll hear us. But, no matter how hard it is to reach the top, and it’s always hard, isn’t it ironic how quickly we come down? No, no, I’ve never participated myself. I’ve never had the need.”

The Mountain

It sits or perhaps it rests or it merely exists. The sheer size of its materiality invokes both fear and calm; its presence felt for generations. When the men and women come every year, they do not bring offerings or incantations anymore. Instead, like children, they run and bound, their feet nearly imperceptible to the separation of the mountain’s exterior landscape and interior layering. Possibly, there are caves, nooks, virgin ground—secrets. Life and death.

The Reporter

“Most years, it’s the usual write-up, mentioning the craziness of the participants, the top male and female runners, the rather hallowed and ambiguous trail name,” he said. “The locals—they enjoy it because it’s their race. When there was talk of the sanity of the participants, the regulars knew outsiders were talking. But they wouldn’t have it any other way. Let them think we’re crazy—we do live in the northern most part of the country. Here,” he said and leaned back in his chair, “everything is harder, colder, more demanding on one’s ability to utilize common sense. But that’s fine with us. We’d have it no other way. Sometimes, I write about the injuries: the sprains, the breaks, the concussions. They’d always say the same thing, ‘It was really hard to go up, to even breathe. And then, coming down; it’s more like falling down. Sure, sure,’ they’d say, ‘I’d do it again. Craziest race ever,’” he said, then, “More often than not, I write dialogue into the piece after I interview a few regulars, the few visitors. I mean, now, it seems there are more and more new faces each year. The hotels are packed. It’s great for the local businesses,” he said.

“I tried a couple of different titles actually, things like “Man’s Disappearance Still Unsolved” and “Search Now Called Off for Missing Runner.” It seemed worse that I couldn’t even put a name to the runner in the actual article. I kept writing “he” or “the runner.” Police investigated the local hotels, searched for an errant vehicle, but found nothing, as if the man had fallen from somewhere and used the mountain to find his way back up. If this were the case,” he said, “that man must have wondered why so many people were racing up. Between you and me—it’s child’s talk, fiction. I went out again and interviewed people who had been there and even seen what had become of this now mythological man. That’s what the locals are calling him now.”

The Lost Runner

Running is such a simple action: one foot, then the other. Continual motion. A natural lean forward and the body falls. In that falling, the body is then propelled, albeit slowly. But it’s natural, the most natural movement for a human, a movement from childhood, when the body is perhaps its freest and most fluid. The secret, easy: run like when you were a child.


Mark L. Keats was adopted from South Korea at the age of three and raised in Maryland. He earned his MFA in fiction from the University of Maryland and has received fellowships from Kundiman and The Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Minnesota Review, Cosmonauts Avenue, Aquifer: The Florida Review Online, Joyland, Smokelong Quarterly, and others. He is currently a PhD candidate in English and Creative Writing at Texas Tech University.

 

After the Bull

Hem thinks time is like a river. Though it always flows from source to outlet, it has no course that he considers natural. Years ago, he was a licensed vet, with his own practice and his own way of doing things. Now, he is miles away from home, and on his way to see a cow.

Despite some early showers, the day has turned out to be sunny and exceptionally warm. Hem walks in front of his son and their dog, Sonny, on a narrow plank bridge.

They found the dog a week ago, cowering inside the barn—wounded, bleeding, hollow-eyed. He must admit that if the dog had not appeared the way it did—if he had seen it in a local shelter, or if it had been admitted to his former practice, he would probably have put it down instead of suffering through the pain of watching suffer through the pain that he would have to force on it to make it survive.

He reaches down to help his son scale up the muddy bank. Up on the ridge, the dog whines and disappears.

“I don’t see Sonny,” Trevor says. He slips and slides in rubber boots at least one size too big.

“He’s gone over the hill,” says Hem. They continue up the path together, fingers swaying, touching one another now and then.

“He’s a good dog,” Trevor says.

“They’re all good.”

“Not the ones you killed.”

Hem stops. If he were honest, he would say that this was different—that he didn’t save the dog because he thought it in the dog’s best interest, or the family’s, or his own—he saved it because, in that moment, there was only one.

Instead, he reaches out instinctively toward his son, who flinches.

Trevor trudges on, and for a while both are silent.

Hem says, “We’ve talked about this. Animals can’t be bad. Only people.”

He can see his son’s thoughts moving, and is proud of how he thinks. It doesn’t matter that he never seems to come to fast conclusions. These will come in time.

They cross the ridge into a wash of sunlight. On the far side Hem can see George Eubanks’ farm, covering the valley. All green grass and tiny buildings, every one of them built with a clear and simple purpose. This is what Hem thinks he wanted—life that is inevitably true and honest, where the natural world is a thing to fear and to revere—where all the stakes are set, and do not ever move.

Scanning carefully, he finds the dog crouched at the tree-line, its attention focused on the Eubanks’ cows.

“There he is,” he says. “Let’s go.”

As soon as they start down the ridge together Sonny breaks his cover. When it is apparent that the cows don’t see him, or don’t care, he slows and starts to slink around them in a ragged circle.

Hem leads Trevor out across the field, along a path that runs beside a drainage ditch filled with runoff from the mine. Its orange color makes Hem feel, for a moment, as if he is living on another planet. Sonny and a Guernsey cow are staring at each other in the middle of the field.

“Call him,” Hem says, and Trevor does. His voice is shrill, but gains authority from being an anomaly in a broad field of silence. Sonny pauses for a moment, staring down the cow, then turns and starts back toward them. He is running all out, and Hem feels a kind of comfort at the sight of all that gather and release of wild muscle, at the locomotive huff between caged teeth.

The dog runs straight at them until he is halfway across the field, then plants his feet and cuts off to the right, in the direction of the Eubanks’ house. George’s daughter, Mica, has just stepped out on the patio. She holds a cardboard box in one hand and a pair of heavy garden shears in the other. When she bends down to say hello to Sonny, he ignores her and goes straight for the box.

“Must have something good in there,” Hem says as they walk into the yard.

“Just tomatoes.”

She wears beige canvas trousers and a faded men’s shirt. Her eyes are on Sonny, who sits down, panting hard.

“I’m sorry,” Hem says, “We haven’t had the time to train him.”

“That’s all right.”

Mica is Hem’s daughter’s age, and he has never noticed until now how similar youth makes them. Despite the many differences between their personalities, there is no way to ignore the same uncertain flicker in their eyes, the same wary arrangement of their neck, shoulders, and hips. He feels a startling attraction to this girl, a fluttering in answer to the slow flash of her lashes. He carefully shutters it away.

“We found him,” Hem says. “He’s still thin. He’d eat anything about now.”

“Not tomatoes,” Mica says.

“Try him.”

She takes a tomato from the box and holds it up so Hem can see.

“Maybe smaller,” he says.

She laughs and kneels down with the box. Her hair falls down around her face. Sonny takes the tomato from her hand and eats it.

Trevor says, “We came to see the bull.”

Mica looks up at him, smiling. “Eustace?”

Trevor nods.

“He’s in the barn.” She glances at Hem. “But I think my dad’s inside. I’ll send him over when I find him.”

George keeps Eustace in a shed beside the house, separate from the long, steel-sided barn in which he keeps his cows. The shed is painted fire-engine red with white trim, colors George says makes the bull feel most at home.

Trevor runs ahead with Sonny, leaving Hem to stroll along alone. He is imagining the scene when Mica finds her father, maybe in the milk barn, mixing feed or helping clean the hoses. George will be a little tipsy, but not worse for wear. He will ignite the chaff between his palms into a sudden golden blaze, and swagger to the shed, where Hem and Eustace wait. He will be thinking of simple things—the early summer heat, the foreign car he saw in town, some local gossip he has heard—things that he will want to talk about before he ever gets to cattle, before he evencomes around to what is wrong with his prize bull.

But now, the shed is silent. Hay spills from a small loft overhead and various tools hang neatly on the yellow walls, interspersed with oil paintings of the bull’s forbears. They are identical apart from the occasional brown forelock or black nose. Eustace stands inside his pen, uninterested in his own distinguished ancestry.

“Come here,” Hem says to Trevor. They stand attentively, watching the big bull’s chest heave.

“See the eyes? That’s where you’ll first see something wrong. People only look for cloudiness or cataracts, but there’s more to it than that. You have to look more carefully.”

“Did you see Sonny? He ran off.”

Hem runs his palms over the bull’s neck, then over its shoulder and down the prow of its chest.

“He’ll turn up.”

Trevor moves to the other side of the shed, where the glossed doors stand open to the breeze. He sticks his head around the jamb and calls the dog. They hear a whine from far away. Trevor sets off after it, still calling, though he knows it will not help.

Hem continues his examination. By the time George arrives, he has already circled twice around the bull and stopped beside its head again, considering his own reflection it its murky brown eye.

George Eubanks is a big man, and his size is overstated by his brash and crowding personality. He holds a plate of thick ham sandwiches in one hand. From the other hangs a pair of long brown bottles.

“The doctor finally arrives! I thought you’d at least hit the gas for old Eustace.”

Hem straightens up. “You didn’t sound too concerned.”

George laughs and sets the bottles down on the edge of the bull’s pen. “Not like he hasn’t been sick before. But you know how I love him.” He squints a little as he lines the bottles up beside the sandwiches. “I brought beer. Forgot you had the kid with you.”

“He ran off after the dog.”

“You got a dog?”

Hem grimaces. “Some bastard tried to neuter him. Looks like he got sloppy with the knife, or whatever it was he used.”

“Terrible,” says George, clicking his tongue. “Though I can tell you that my father did do the same to more than a few.” He takes a bottle and tips it toward Hem. “Never got sloppy, though.”

Hem looks away, back into the bull’s heavy-lidded eyes. He says, “You only lose their trust that way.”

George drinks his beer. When he finishes, he wipes his mouth and sniffs. One nostril, jutting sideways, slowly widens. “I guess maybe he got tired of feeding pups. No vets around here anyway. Not until you showed up. Then again, there are people who just don’t take care of their animals.”

He nods toward the bull. “Poor boy doesn’t look at me the way he should. His eyes are all muddy.”

Hem’s bag is open on the railing of the pen, and he already has the long digital thermometer in his hand. “I think he has a fever.” He hooks the wand into the display box and holds it like a radio while he probes the bull. The thermometer reads a full degree too high.        “Liked to think that it was just his allergies. He always gets them this time of year. Then I let him out one morning and he starts circling. You can’t move the old boy straight unless he’s being led.”

“That’s Listeriosis.”

George drinks with one hand while the other spreads out like a caul across the bull’s forehead.

“We just call it circling.”

Hem digs a bottle and a syringe from his bag. Eustace stomps and snorts when he feels the prick of the needle.

“That’s right, sissy,” George says. “Let Hem fix you up, now.”

“Once a day for a week,” says Hem, handing him the bottle.

“All right.” George nods seriously. “You think he’ll make it?”

“You know as much about it as I do. You could have treated him yourself.”

“I don’t take any chances with Eustace. Let his line die out and I’ll have my father’s ghost to deal with.”

Eustace swings his head toward George’s voice, pulling the halter taut. Hem drinks, watching dust drift through a shaft of pale light from the open door. There are no ghosts except for those we choose ourselves.

“Hey,” George says, “There’s that dog of yours.”

Sonny comes into the shed at full speed, skidding as he tries to change direction on the hard floor. Trevor runs in after him, laughing, all of his attention focused on determining which path the dog has taken.

“Stop!” Hem yells.

But maybe it is never possible to be entirely at peace. Perhaps this is the nature of the universe in which we live—a universe in which all things are constantly in motion: dust motes falling in the light and hay-straws twitching in the breeze, the sudden shudder of a wooden slat as Eustace kicks it in frustration, and the muffled snap as he kicks out again and catches Trevor on the shin. Now Hem knows that nothing in existence ever truly stops. It all keeps reeling forward, in a gradual decline into disorder.

Just before the bull kicks through the slats, Hem curses his son’s blind obedience. Trevor’s eyes widen and his mouth trembles and distorts into a scream. Then his body falls, despite him, like a puppet losing tension in its strings.

George throws a rope around the bull and pulls him to the front of the pen. Hem sees him staggering against the animal’s weight; catching himself on the railing as he slips into the hay.

“He caught?” George shouts, and Hem does not reply because his brain has taken over where his mind once ruled. All he knows is that his son is badly hurt. Trevor’s calf is swelling, rising tight against his jeans.

“How bad?” George asks.

“Just get the scissors from my bag.”

Hem holds his son’s leg in his hands as George kneels with the bag, scrounging among the instruments and looking much too long at everything that he pulls out before he drops it back into the bag or to the side.

“Scissors!” Hem yells. George picks up his pace. He finds the scissors.

“Keep your head on,” Hem says, and begins to cut the jeans away from Trevor’s leg. Halfway the scissors slip and touch the swollen skin. Trevor screams. He starts to struggle.

“Hold him,” Hem says. Then, to Trevor, “Listen, let me get this done. I’ll get this done, and then we’ll fix the pain.”

“Okay,” says Trevor. He is sapped of strength and full of rage. His eyes roll wildly at George, who holds his shoulders firmly to the ground.

Hem keeps on cutting Trevor’s jeans away up to the hip. The leg has gone pale, though not quite as pale as Trevor’s foot, which has been twisted up until it almost points directly at the ground. Hem touches it, and Trevor does not seem to notice.

“Can you feel that?”

Trevor’s breath comes faster. He shakes his head no. He has bared his teeth like a dog—small ivory chips clenched so tight his breath whistles as it tries to pass them.

“Eustace didn’t mean it,” George says,  returning Trevor’s white-eyed stare with a red-rimmed one of his own. “He didn’t mean it. Don’t move, now. You’ll be all right. He was frightened, that’s all.”

Hem believes he feels the foot turn cold. It gives him the sensation that it has already left his son, that it has died and been reborn into a new life as an object. He imagines Trevor standing in the barn one-legged, horribly off-balance, while his phantom foot lies cold and bloodless on the floor.

“Just frightened,” George says, “that’s all.”

Hem digs in his bag, searching for a bandage suitable enough to make a splint. There is a rustle as the dog comes creeping back into the barn. Lying low, he pokes his nose past George’s heels and flicks his tongue at Trevor’s sweaty hair. George pays him no attention. All of his is given to the bull, which looks serenely back at him over its shoulder.

Trevor’s teeth part and he says, “Dad, I can’t feel it.”

“He’s so sorry,” George says. “Aren’t you? See, he’s sick with it.”

Hem starts to wrap the leg as tightly as he can. He starts up at the thigh and works his way down. “George,” he says, “Can you call us an ambulance?”

There is a wretched look in the eyes of men who no longer believe in justice. George’s face folds inward at the eyes and mouth as though he is attempting to collapse it, as though he intends to use his outward flesh to fill some void within.

“George!” Hem says.

“Hospitals?” says George, and shakes his head. “It’s just a little break. It’s too far. Too expensive.”

“Jesus, George! Just call an ambulance.”

“You’ve set how many legs? Just set this one—what do you think you need to do with hospitals?”

“It’s different and you know it. Trevor’s not an animal.”

George laughs. His face unfolds and he acknowledges the situation with his eyes—from Trevor’s sweating forehead to Hem’s trembling knees.

“You want to tell me what’s different?”

Trevor turns his head aside, raising puffs of hay dust with each breath. “Look,” Hem says, “Just go in and call an ambulance. I know this may be how you do things way out here, but my son—”

“Shit, ‘your son’. You think you’re good enough for working on my animals and not your son. That fucking bull is worth more than your son will ever be.”

Hem shuts his eyes and breathes deep. When he opens them, he sees Sonny looking back at him, and George staring down at Trevor, who stares wide-eyed at the bull, and he is filled with the awareness of a unity of minds. He sees the dog’s in Trevor, in the way he grits his teeth and waits for what will happen, and in how he strives to twist his body out of George’s grasp as though, if he could manage it, he would run into the brush, to nurse his wound alone in wild growths of bramble. And he sees the bull’s in George, and George’s in the bull. George has spent so much time in this barn, drunk or tired out, rubbing at the bull’s broad head, kissing its cold snout, his arms around its neck the way he cannot ever hold a woman’s—openly, unencumbered by emotion.

The foot lies stiff in the hay. Its skin is blue and marbled; a corpse’ foot. It would have not been here if it were not for Hem’s innovative moral compass, for the thoughts and visions that have led him and his family here, so far from their past lives in Providence. But it is here; this foot; his son. He digs into his bag and fills a clean syringe with Telazol.

George bends down to set his head against Trevor’s. “You be brave,” he says. “There’s worse than this. You’ll see.”

Hem has no trouble finding a good vein. He gets the needle in and out, and in a minute Trevor’s head is rocking absently aside. A minute later, and his jaw goes slack.

“All right George, hold him.”

George locks his hands on Trevor’s arms and looks at Hem, who nods. They both rock backwards on their heels, George hugging Trevor’s body to him and Hem pulling on the leg, stretching it until he feels no give. Then he cries out as he rolls his shoulder and directs his son’s leg back into the place.

The foot is in its proper place now and already Hem can see the flush of life returning. While he kneels there, breathing over it, George goes into his bag and finds some tape to make a splint. Hem is tired, but ecstatic. He believes that there is nothing he cannot do.

When the splint is done, he asks George for a ride back home. He is already thinking of the cast that he will have to make.

George frowns, stands up, and shuts his eyes tight.

Hem does not think he can carry Trevor across the field alone. He knows that he should call his wife, Lorraine, but he believes that she will only make a mess of things. This is, of course, his finest moment; she will never understand.

It may be only a coincidence that Mica enters just now, having heard their screams. She pauses in the doorframe, gasps, and says, “I’ll call an ambulance.”

“No!” George is already back to doting on the bull. “He didn’t know what he was doing. You don’t have to be afraid.”

“Dad!”

“That’s okay,” Hem says, “I set it. It’s okay now. But we need a ride home.”

Mica stares at George. “Alright. I’ll get the truck.”

George and Hem try to carry Trevor without moving his leg. It is impossible to do so across the broken field, but Trevor is too drugged to protest. George says “Sorry, Hem” again and again. He says, “He wouldn’t have kicked out like that if he weren’t so afraid of dying.”

Mica waits for them beside the truck. She does most of the loading, climbing up into the cab and guiding Trevor over all the bench seat’s lumps and tears as though she is well-used to this task.

“I’ll go get the dog,” she says. “You just hold him still.”

Hem nods and climbs on to the passenger seat. He places Trevor’s head on his lap and waits.

It is quiet inside the truck. Hem is wildly impatient, turning every second to look out the window, willing Mica to return. But every impatience has its limit. It is like a storm which, having spun itself away into oblivion, disperses all its energy into the wind.

After a while, Hem stops looking out of the windows and begins to notice things. There is a spot on Trevor’s forehead where his sweat has plastered two fine strands of hair in parallel, down toward his nose. He wipes these to the side, and Trevor does not move. In Hem’s mind, he relives, as best he can, the setting of the bone. He thinks that Trevor will be pleased when he wakes up, to find out that his father is the one responsible for saving him. Everyone will have a reason to be proud of him. He has done an awful lot of saving lately.

Twenty minutes pass before Hem hears the scrape of Sonny’s claws behind him on the truck bed. Mica slams the tailgate shut, climbs on to the cab and starts the engine.

“What took so long?” Hem asks.

Her eyes keep straight ahead as she backs down the drive and guides them out to the road.

“I had to make sure Dad was all right.”

By this time the sun has dipped behind the hilltops to the west. The road is stippled with a brake of red and yellow beams.

“I’m sorry,” Mica says, “But you should never have allowed that dog to get so close.”

The trestle bridge across the creek sounds like the clattering of armor as they speed across it.

“Slow down. There’s no rush, now.”

“Of course there is.”

“Well, your father’s a drunk.”

The hillsides are all ragged, black and tan. Hem knows that George has found his bottle and will take it with him to the barn, where he can be alone with Eustace. They have lots to talk about: the bull’s illness, all the cows that are now scattered across the fields, the bull’s sheer power and his lack of human sentiment; stupid dogs and slow kids, the whispering of rats, chipped paint, the break, what happens when one comes to life, and anything but what might happen when one leaves it. They will talk of these things, but they will not ever get around to talking about George.

“I’m sorry,” Hem says.

“It’s all right.”

The truck sways as it slows, and they continue in silence. There is gray mud on the windshield and on Sonny’s nose, and there is gray dust suspended in the hair that fills his ears.

“Sorry,” Hem says again.

“It’s all right.”

Sonny sticks his head through the back window, into the cab. His tongue unfurls like some indecipherable alien flag.


Ryan J. Burden is a graduate of the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers and the former Managing/Fiction editor of Four Way Review. He is the winner of Redivider’s 2016 Beacon Street Prize for short fiction, with work appearing in or forthcoming from Crack the Spine, Foundling Review, Gulf Stream, and JMWW, among others. He is currently a doctoral candidate at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he is finishing his first novel.

Exile

Your new friend has red fingers. When you ask her about it she shrugs, the ruin of a half-dead creature still screaming in her gap-toothed smile. She wears Doc Martens and a ragged flannel and in your head one very small voice whispers “lesbian?” while another sighs, long-suffering, and says “art student.”

She has two blond pigtails and a mouth full of blood. You are not sure why this doesn’t concern you more.

“So, uh,” you start, and quickly realize you have no idea how to initiate this conversation.

She crooks one manicured eyebrow, so blonde it’s nearly nonexistent. “Go on,” she says, and her voice is like the deepest sleep, or maybe it’s just a little too raspy for someone so young.

“What’s with the-” you gesture vaguely at your own mouth.

 

     craggy black dirt, muddy tracks on the kitchen floor, red rain boots stained deep brown, the smell of rain, the smell of formaldehyde

 

Her eyebrow continues striving upwards. You imagine it could just keep going, up through that powerful forehead, perhaps grow wings of its own. You find yourself rather invested in this idea. “Go on,” she says, and you have the feeling of skipping in time like a scratch in vinyl-

 

     you are all empty space, lover, just the memory of a thing built around a hollow center, a planet without a star to orbit

 

“The teeth,” you say, finally, and hope it will be sufficient.

She smiles at you- broad and malicious- and says, “They are sharp and good for biting.” Really, it’s the confidence she says it with, as if you’re the one who’s crazy for thinking this is not a perfectly acceptable thing to say in casual conversation.

You take a sip of your drink. “I believe you, hipster dracula, but I was more concerned about the color. Haven’t you ever heard of a toothbrush?”

She blinks, once, and then touches a red finger to her red lips. “No point to it,” she says, chewing absently on her fingertips.

Of everything, you are curious as to why this upsets you the most.

“No point to dental hygiene?” You’re not sure if the overwhelming strangeness of this encounter hasn’t registered yet, or if you’ve just become accustomed to strange things. “I’m, uh,” you bite your lip, “not sure that’s correct.”

“Eventually,” she says, and reaches her hand into her mouth, casually, “your teeth will turn black and rotted, and fall out.” A sound like car tires spinning on damp gravel forces itself into your ears. She smiles, her hand sunk all the way up to her elbow. “I see no reason to prolong the process. Ah-hah!”

 

     god of the instruments, god of war, god of sharing toothbrushes, god of shame, god of abandon, god of ‘i love you please don’t leave me,’ god of ‘i love you please tell me this isn’t happening,’ god of ‘i love you, i have to go,’ god of broken mirrors and snake oil, god of cinnamon toast crunch, god of castaways and pirates and all the hidden unloved creatures- god who pulled you from the garden and set you trembling in the streets of Brooklyn, the whole treacherous world ablaze at your feet-

 

She smiles like murder, bloody-mouthed, and extends a flat palm in unstained, communion-cloth white. Resting on the exact center of her palm is one red tooth. “For you,” she says.

She lays the tooth in the exact center of your palm, very carefully, and then guides your fingers closed around it. “For luck,” she grins. There is a new hole in her smile.

“Thanks,” you mutter. There is something in your eye. “I’ve been, uh, fresh outta that lately…”

You blink hard a few times, finally reaching up to rub your eye, dropping your new good luck charm in the process. “Oh-” you start to reach for it, but it never hits the ground.

 

The girl next to you has pale fingers wrapped around the stem of a glass half-full of red wine. “Hey, dude,” she says, only a vague sort of concern in her voice, the kind reserved for strangers acting a little suspiciously, but not enough to be afraid of, “you alright?” You blink, and she stays put.

“Oh,” you say, and take her wine glass from her, downing half of the heady liquid in one fell swoop, “just checking.” You hand her back the empty glass. “Can never be too careful, these days,” you pay for your drinks and nod once to her. “Take care of yourself, now.”

 

     The road is dark and it has been that way for a while now. You remember what it was like to walk this highway in daylight, and the stink of sun-warmed tar: it had been more like dreaming, back then. Desert surrealism, sand in your mouth, drum sergeant heartbeat, days of endless wonder. In the nighttime the dreamscape is abandoned. This land of pavement cracks and the world captured in spilled gasoline ripples into nothingness.

 

     And what? The girl you will kill is walking beside you in bare feet. She leaves bloody footprints on the blacktop. The girl you will kill is crying on the shoulder of the highway. You have smashed each streetlamp as you passed and now your hands are bloody and she has seen this already, she knows what it means. 

 

The girl with the pigtails finds you slumped on the steps of the church, a bottle on the ground at your feet, whispering the words to a prayer you knew when you were some other girl in some other life.

She grabs you by your shirt collar and yanks you upright, slamming you into the wall. You are not afraid. You have not been afraid for a while now. “You think he’s listening?” She demands an answer, her eyes wine-dark and churning. “You think, out of seven billion, he’s listening to you? An addict who can’t even say her prayers right?” She kneels in front of you, or maybe she falls. Her palms are bloody. She carries tragedy underneath her fingernails and leaves the tar-stink of it on you with every lingering touch. “Tell me, Harper. So many times he hasn’t come when you called. Why do you still ask?”

“I’m not asking.”

She grabs your hand and drags you to your knees, tangling her fingers in your hair. “Do you even realize how many times I’ve had you in my jaws? Something in you- I don’t even know what to call it- keeps dragging you away from the edge.”

“Primal survival instinct?”

She laughs, once, jagged. Her expression is as unfathomable as atoms. She holds your face in her unclean palms, tenderly, with a strange buried kindness you can’t begin to understand the cruelty of. “Maybe,” her voice is tired. “But-” she sighs, and looks away for a second. “There’s nothing protecting you, Harper. No divine right. No perfect destiny. It’s just you and me, kid. And I-” she laughs, again. “I hope you run as far and fast as possible.”

“Oh, believe me,” you say. “I’ve got quite the pair of legs on me.” “I can see that,” she just looks at you, strange, beholden.

“I did track in high school,” you offer, and your mind is a carousel long after the fair is closed, your body is a weapon to be utilized by whatever power can contain it.

She smiles, looks up at the sky. “Looks like rain,” she says, and touches your cheek with the back of her fingers. When she lowers her hand, her palm is bleeding. “Harper?”

“Yes?”

“Do you have any matches?”

 

     piano tiles shattered on the floor. bent strings across the altar. the shards of wood strewn like palm leaves on consecrated ground. your savior comes. your savior comes. your savior-

 

     we buried you in the garden behind the church, sweet, misguided girl, where we once played cops  and robbers with the sunday school kids. games of make believe and warm honeyed days are your rest eternal, we hope, for you who carved her name from where it was written and replaced it with the words of another. i don’t beg for forgiveness, anymore.

     if i could i would have kept you warm somewhere unseeable within my chest, beside the rib from which you glimpsed your creator. if i could i would have killed you more softly. if i could i would not have killed you at all.

 

You and I and the girl with blonde pigtails are sitting side by side in a church pew, bony knees knocking together. You and I and the girl with blonde pigtails are humming the Battle Hymn of the Republic. You and I and the girl with the skeleton fingers are watching you die, are three background characters in some cosmic comedy making the most of their unwritten fates.

The you who will be me makes a face as the you who won’t be anyone wheezes, like a marathon runner with a bad cold, or a dog hit by a car. “God, I wish I would just shut up and get on with it.”

In response, the you who is more blood and ruin than living creature coughs, an ugly sound like drowning, almost certainly to spite the you who sits beside me with clean white hands.

Death sighs, having discovered a flaw in one of her blonde braids, and begins to untangle the knot. “God’s not listening,” she mutters, and you and I roll our eyes in unison.

“We know.”

She purses her lips and looks sideways at us. “Just thought you could use a reminder.” She has all the snobbish disinterest of a preteen suddenly too old for games of make-believe. I imagine blue mascara and bubblegum lipstick and begin to feel better about the whole situation.

“If anyone needs a reminder, it’s that one,” you say, and nod towards the you broken on the marble steps of the altar, a certain familiar disgust in your gaze. I reach out to pat your arm and feel rather like my own grandmother.

“I think she’s had all the reminders she needs, yeah?”

Death looks askance at us, but for once doesn’t speak, instead developing a studied interest in the half-ruined wood of the church pew in front of ours. After a second she reaches out, peels back a strip of wood, and takes a bite out of it.

You and I, and you, turn in unison to look at her.

Oblivious, she crunches happily on it.

“That can’t taste good,” the you that will be me says.

She looks at us, finally, her mouth red with splinters. “Mahogany,” she says. “Fruity, with an aftertaste of smoke and undertones of manufactured shame.”

“Oh,” you say, “my favorite.”

I laugh, but she continues to study you intently. “It should be,” she says, pausing to chew for a second, “seeing how often you indulge.”

You look at me, one eyebrow crooked, and I wonder if mine is doing the exact same thing at the moment. “I’m beginning to think I need a summary of our dietary habits,” you tell me. “I don’t recall church pews making the cut.” She frowns and disappears.

We look at each other.

Death reappears, now on your side, and kicks you hard in the shin. You yelp and jump about a foot in the air, slamming your knee into the pew.

The you that is dying on the ground and I laugh together, though I’m not entirely sure you’re not just choking.

 

     we are choking, we are drowning, i remember this, i remember this, i don’t want to remember- the crack of boots on ribs- sing, oh goddess, she who holds the wolf between her teeth and teaches it mercy-

 

“I meant the shame, and you know that.” Death snaps. “Don’t make yourself seem stupider than you already are.”

“This is why nobody likes you,” you rub your shin.

“I can think of a few other reasons.”

 

     god of betrayal, we watched you die, and your ribcage breaking was the sound of a violin dropped on a concrete floor. god of sweetness, we made you out of the hyacinths in the backyard and the acrid ache of incense, we wove your statutes from the law of the creek and the streetlamp, we wrote your commandments in the gravel and watched as passing cars were transformed into holy soldiers- spreading the word of the one come to save us- your savior comes, in a white kia sorento, and on her brow is a sparkly pink tiara from party city- 

 

Wet coughs draw our attention to the body on the steps.

 

     your savior comes. you tear her out of the strains of berry-ripened august. you worship her in a laundromat, on a clifftop, down on your knees with a knife in your hand. you sing her praises in the heathen moonlight.

 

Death tilts her head towards the you that is staining a white marble altar to crimson. “Don’t worry,” she says, chewing on her lip, “you had to do it.”

 

     your savior comes. a club bathroom rings with music. the ocean crowds the edges of your vision. you choose. you choose. you choose. 

 

“What?”

 

     the killing of something sacred should be beautiful, and so there are candles on the altar and flowers in our hair when we tie the ropes around her wrists and undress her as carefully as a child prepared for a bath by loving hands. 

 

“It wasn’t like that,” when I don’t say anything at all, you choke on the silence. “Wait-” your eyes shatter, like glass, or streetlamps. “I didn’t do that,” you whisper, “tell me we didn’t- please-”

 

     the killing of something sacred should be beautiful, and so we strip you naked and watch you shiver, and we think about truth and death and beauty and worship and love and love and love and love and love and 

 

Around us, the blaze is catching. The pews are gone. The church is a ruin. We three are kneeling beside a girl with broken ribs and blood in her mouth and orchids painting her body black and blue.

 

     the killing of something sacred should be beautiful, and so we call your bruises flowers, and we call your broken ribs snapped violin strings, and we call your death a sacrifice, and we call ourselves holy no longer-

 

“Harper,” Death says, somehow addressing all three of us at once, “remember.”

 

The you who will eventually be me covers her mouth with her hand. She appears to be choking. After a second it hits me, and I remember that we are sobbing. “I did this?” She asks.

 

     how could we forget? it’s simple. bury your god in the garden, and then shut your eyes.

 

The you on the altar is a masterpiece as she dies, but not the kind you admire. The kind from which you would like to turn away. A car crash. A tragedy. A church burned to the ground. An addict dead on the pavement. She twitches. She begs for air. She suffers.

 

     how could you forget? it’s simple. sow wildflower seeds in the fresh new soil. watch the young creatures bloom. dream about her sometimes, or-

 

You try to turn away, shivering like an alcoholic too long without a drink, but I grab your arm. “No,” I say, gently, “don’t.”

how could I forget? it’s simple. I didn’t.

 

“I don’t want to see,” you sob. “I don’t want to- don’t want to watch her-”

“Her?” Death asks, and for once her voice is soft. “Call her by her name, child.”

Shaking, terrified, creating and destroying yourself every second, you turn back and look yourself in the eyes and whisper, “Harper.”

The you who will not exist in my time gurgles. Maybe she is trying to say something. Maybe she is remembering our betrayal. There are only holes where her eyes should be.

You reach out, and- listen- I love you for this- you reach out, and you take this dying creature, this rotted thing, in your arms, as if she is the lamb carried from the field of slaughter, as if she is the child lost in wartime, and love carries us aloft on her shoulders, three Harpers and between them, the world-

 

I hold the hand of the you who is long since dead, and the church burns down around us, but we remain untouched.


Clio Jabine is at least thirteen feet tall and morally opposed to writing bios that don’t make her sound like an insufferable human being. She introduces herself as a writer because she’s hoping if she convinces enough people of it it’ll be true. When she isn’t writing, she can be found swing dancing, throwing down some sick freestyles, and eating mac and cheese. Her taste in music is better than yours, but she’s open to recommendations nonetheless.