Blydyn Square Review
Fall 2022 – Kenilworth, New Jersey
Fall 2022 – Kenilworth, New Jersey
If you’re a regular subscriber to our monthly Blydyn Square Books newsletter, you’ll already have read this letter (sorry about the “regifting,” but the topic just felt like the right one for this issue of Blydyn Square Review). And if you’re not a subscriber, feel free to join us by signing up here. We only email once a month, and you always get a chance to win a prize!
The autumn is finally here! I don’t know about you—and I seem to be alone in this feeling—but I HATE the summer. While everybody else is baking their brains on a sizzling beach and somehow pretending they’re ENJOYING it, all I can think is: When is fall going to get here?
For me, fall isn’t just the much-needed end of the worst season of the year—the long, hot summer and those three to four months when I can’t stop sweating and can’t get enough oxygen past the humidity in the air to think straight. Fall is also a new beginning.
As the (glorious) cooler weather sets in and the leaves begin turning colors, I feel like the world is full of possibilities again, after being convinced all summer that I was about half a degree away from spontaneous combustion, which would kind of put a dampener on any future plans I might have.
Maybe I haven’t been in school since the Dark Ages, but I still greet September like a giddy first-grader, eager to try out my new lunchbox and sharpen some pencils. (Yeah, I get it—I’m old and nobody uses pencils anymore, but I SO miss that smell of that freshly sharpened wood!)
There’s nothing like a crisp fall day to do a little reading, so I hope you’ll make the latest issue of Blydyn Square Review your autumn companion this year. Enjoy!
Use the links below to jump to the different articles
If Carrie Birde isn’t at one of her writing stations, with a good view of the outdoors, she is most likely on the side steps, plying chipmunks, squirrels, and blue jays with peanuts; trading raisins for song with her seasonal friends, the gray catbirds; or prowling the garden with watering can and camera. She translates these direct experiences and her dreams into poetry, flash fiction, and novels, as well as decoupaged Spirit Boxes. Carrie is from neither here nor there, and most likely from somewhere in between; she considers it a good day if she hasn’t left the Boonton Bubble. You can find her work at Nightjars & Damselflies.
the web’s complexity
those anchors of support,
the strands that spiral
in & down;
Grants the space to see
the pattern of the weave—
the warp & weft of whys,
wherefores that catch
Grateful of perspective—
room to feel & breathe;
Anxiety of being held
forever fixed in place,
Jeffrey Hantover is the author of the novel The Jewel Trader of Pegu and the forthcoming novel The Three Deaths of Giovanni Fumiani (Cuidono Press, 2022). His poetry and short fiction have appeared in many literary journals. His short story “A Good Kid” was published in the Winter 2022 Issue of Blydyn Square Review.
When Mort Saltzman got tired of shuffleboard, bingo, and pickle ball, he drove from Ocean View Retirement Village to the nearby Sunrise Mall for some action. He wore a clean, ironed polo shirt and a pressed pair of linen slacks. Nothing too fancy or flashy to draw attention. He had always been a sharp dresser, and being seventy-six was no excuse for looking like a schlump. He didn’t go too early when folks would be fresh, attentive, and sharp-eyed. He wanted them a little tired from being on their feet, pushing their strollers, looking after their kids, or putting up with their wives and girlfriends going from shop to shop looking for just the right outfit or shoes they could barely afford.
Mort Saltzman knew where opportunities lay, what ground was the most fertile: wherever there was a line or a clump of shoppers. McDonald’s, Starbucks, Cold Stone Creamery. The Apple store, with its anxious shoppers lined up two hours before opening for the latest iPhone; sneakerheads waiting for their chance to buy the newest Nike; gamers imagining their moves in the new game they were about to buy; shoppers at Whole Foods clustered around the table offering free samples of the latest wheat-grass elixir. Their minds were on the newest hot thing they just had to have, the discounts that would make all their waiting worthwhile. Their minds were on their future pleasure. They were inattentive to the present moment. Mort Saltzman didn’t have to distract them. They distracted themselves.
There were farmers’ markets to go to on Wednesday and Saturday. He never missed a parade. There were plenty of parades in patriotic Florida. The more floats, the better. The flag-waving crowd raised their heads and looked up—a natural distraction. Some weekends, he went to an outdoor music festival in the downtown park if the music wasn’t ear-splitting loud and the bands played oldies from the sixties. He walked among his fellow citizens slightly slumped shouldered—Marge was always on him about his posture, telling him to stand up straight—like an old man struggling against a stiff breeze. His reflexes were good for a man his age. His fingers nimble, his hands smooth from the lotion he slathered on after his morning shower and evening bath. There was nothing in his appearance that aroused concern or suspicion. He blended in. Just a senior citizen on his mall constitutional. Another, one among many, New York retirees wandering through the last years of his life, taking all day to run two errands. Mort had perfected the art of the jostle, the stumble, and the bump. A quick apology, and he was on his way.
His uncle Herm, a Borsht-Belt magician in his younger days, taught him the tricks of the trade. In the days of suspenders, garters, and tie pins, Herm was the Michelangelo of the distraction, diversion, and smooth lift. Pens disappeared from shirt pockets and inside coat pockets to reappear in outer pockets and pants pockets. Pocket squares vanished with a quick, decisive pull of Herm’s nimble fingers to end up in an inside breast coat pocket. Herm, a motormouth of patter spiced with Yiddish, pressed his left hand on the shoulder of the willing mark, who felt the pressure even after Herm moved his hand away. Same with the watch that he thought was still on his wrist but had been jerked away and now nestled in Herm’s coat pocket. Herm taught Mort how to work the secrets of straps, buckles, and wristbands of leather, metal, and chain. Herm sold insurance on the weekdays and picked up extra cash at weekend birthday parties to help with his two kids’ college tuition. In high school, Mort was the Great Hermatini’s assistant, and when he went away to college, he was on his own, the Magnificent Mortini in a red velvet jacket and red and black plaid trousers that he bought at a vintage store on the Lower East Side. But he wasn’t going to get rich working bar mitzvahs and bridal showers.
“Security, someone get security.” His face was a throbbing red; the muscles in his neck, taut as rope. “This son of a bitch stole something out of my wife’s purse.” Mort didn’t say anything, playing the silent, slightly bewildered victim. Mort had been a bit careless, a little slow. He had a stomachache: Maybe the milk he’d poured in his cereal that morning had turned. The smell of food court French fries and spicy chicken wings hadn’t helped. She had caught his eye, standing in line at the McDonald’s. He guessed she was in her late twenties, thin, pale, in a loose T-shirt and shorts, with badly dyed blond hair—stringy, and in need of a shampoo. She seemed fragile and jittery, waiting for a cascade of anger, another belittling curse. He was medium height with angry tattoos running up both his muscled arms. His hair was buzzed on the sides with a clump of hair on the top like a black rag—one of those popular haircuts that announced your class like a neon sign. Mort imagined her the victim of his impatience, short temper, and anger at a life that was not turning out to be the one the world owed him. Mort was good at imagining the stories of his marks—that was half the fun of the action.
She rummaged through her well-worn black leather bag. “Lloyd, it’s okay. Nothing’s missing.” She held up her wallet for him to see. “The fella just stumbled into me, that’s all.”
“Shit, Marlene, I seen it.” He glared at Mort. “I got your number, buddy. You’d better watch yourself.” He turned and walked away.
She looked down into her purse. Her eyes widened. She raised her right hand. In between her fingers was a crisp, neatly folded twenty-dollar bill. She broke out into a broad smile that lit up her face. She looked at Mort. He winked and made his way out of McDonald’s with an exaggerated, theatrical shuffle.
Mort had done well for himself. He took over his uncle’s jewelry business in Manhattan when he was thirty-seven, and when he sold the business at sixty-six and moved to Florida because of Marge’s arthritis, he had two other stores on Long Island. He could sweet talk a customer and give a supplier hell in a nice way. He ran a clean business. He never bought goods off the street from anyone with a sketchy story or someone in the business with a dubious reputation. There were times when he was tempted: the stock-market crash of ’08 and the business downturn after 9/11. A supplier had extended him credit in ’08 but was feeling a pinch himself. Mort felt he had no choice. He went to Belmont. Not to pick some winners but to find a few marks who had.
He was shouting, waving his ticket in front of his friend’s face. “Fifty to one, Jesus, fifty to one, Jesus Christ.” Mort watched him as he made his way through the crowd to cash in his ticket, thinking only of the money that would soon be in his hands. A bump, a stumble, a quick jerk from the pocket of the guy’s windbreaker. The beaming bettor got to the window. His hand went into one jacket pocket, then the other, then his right trouser pocket, then his left. The blood drained from his face. Frantically, his hand did the cycle of pockets again. His face scrunched with pain. The bettors behind, restless, anxious to cash out, told him to move to the side. Somebody laughed. “Let the winners through, pal.” Mort, standing by the trashcan full of crumpled tickets and dead-ended hopes, watched the man trembling, afraid he would collapse onto the concrete. He didn’t move, unwilling to accept the nightmare of his loss, whiplashed by euphoria and dejection.
“Hey, pal, you dropped your ticket,” Mort said, and handed the man his ticket. The man stared at the ticket in his hand. He struggled to say something but couldn’t. As he got back in line, he mumbled to Mort, “Wait.” He got his winnings and came over to Mort. He peeled off a twenty and handed it to him. He slapped him on his back. “The last honest man in America.”
Mort played ten to show and ten to place on two horses that he picked out of the air in the next race. He won $107. Mort Saltzman went home a happy man.
Mort Saltzman had a good eye. He could distinguish the blond teenager ready to buy her fifth blouse in the window of Gap from the young girl looking at the price tag for her first party dress at Nordstrom’s. The father who told his daughter to order whatever he wanted versus the young mother who told her young son he didn’t need his own order of fries, that they could share. Newlyweds on a budget hesitating at the price of their first cast-iron skillet, the young couple buying linen for a real bed after years of sleeping on a futon, the grandmother convincing her granddaughter that the cheapest teddy bear was really the cutest, the middle-aged husband in a short-sleeve shirt missing two buttons telling his wife they didn’t have time to go in the store—maybe next week. People with money walked differently from those watching their budgets. They took their time strolling past shop windows and restaurant menu displays.
He went to the mall with a hundred in crisp twenties, sometimes a fifty or two. He put them in the pockets of hoodies, in purses, wallets, shoulder bags carelessly left open and unattended, the pockets of cargo pants, and shopping bags flapping against shorts and cotton dresses. Sometimes for fun, he dropped a dollar bill into a diaper bag or a baby’s stroller. It took more skill in sunny Florida than in chilly New York. There were no overcoats or sport coats with breast pockets, fewer pocketed shirts, just polo shirts and T-shirts. Some marks who were less distracted than others would reach for their wallet and smile embarrassedly, relieved that it was still in their pocket or purse. Later they were baffled to find a twenty they didn’t remember having. They felt guilty even for a moment thinking that the well-dressed old man could have been a thief.
Mort Saltzman thought himself an ordinary, decent man who just happened to have a special skill. He had been a good boss: He gave paternity leave before it was a big deal, let his employees off early to go to a school play or sports day. A brother, a parent, or even an uncle died—he told them to take all the time they needed. He wrote checks to a few charities in December: operations for kids with cleft palates in Central America, clean drinking water for refugees in Sudan (though he wasn’t sure he could find it on a map), food for malnourished children in Somalia after a locust invasion of biblical proportions. Mort never knew the names of the beneficiaries of his skill. He didn’t want to know. Not that he embraced Maimonides view that one of the highest forms of charity was that the giver and recipient were unknown to each other. Nothing so philosophical or religious in his mind. He didn’t even think of it as charity. He liked the action. It was a game. He didn’t want to get involved in the lives of his marks—though he did like to imagine the smile on their faces when they discovered money they didn’t know they had.
He did it because he could afford to do it. He and Marge never had kids. They tried but it never happened. Would the money change someone’s life? Not likely. But maybe the beneficiary believed that their luck had changed and set off with a bounce in their step, ready to take on the world or at least buy that blouse, pedicure, or steak they thought they deserved. Marge didn’t know why he enjoyed going to the mall—he never came back with anything. She was just glad to get him out of the house.
He never slipped or gave straight up even a dollar to the scruffy young white guys sitting on the corner with their cardboard signs claiming they were trying to make their way back home. They always had a dog crouching at their side. There must be a central rent-a-dog agency for these guys. They didn’t want a home or a bed for the night, they just wanted drugs or were just professional moochers in his book. Mort only gave to those who didn’t ask.
A young girl in a Florida Gator T-shirt and shorts waited by the ticket booth of the Mall Regal Cineplex. A young man came up behind and tapped her on the shoulder. She turned; they kissed. “Was it a good hamburger?” She laughed. They moved too quickly toward the ticket line for Mort to reward them for the sweet moment they gave him to start his afternoon.
A small boy, ten or eleven, was coming out of the theater with a man Mort was certain was his father. The man was pinching the boy’s ear and leading him away. The boy pursed his lips tightly, trying not to cry. There was a dark stain in the crotch of the boy’s khaki pants. He had peed himself. With his free hand, the man fumbled in his pocket for his car keys. He bent over and jabbed the boy in the ribs with the keys. Mort couldn’t make out clearly all the man was saying. He heard his scornful tone: “It’s just a movie.” The boy’s ear was turning red. His public humiliation would remain long after the physical pain had disappeared. The man, in his late thirties, was dressed smartly: navy slacks, pressed long-sleeve checked shirt, black loafers, no socks. Mort knew that he was painting a stereotype, imagining a picture of the man that went beyond the evidence of his appearance and his behavior. This was a man used to telling people what to do and not being questioned or disobeyed.
“Excuse me, that’s no way to treat a child.”
The man turned. “What?” He barely looked at Mort. “It’s none of your business. He’s my son.”
Something snapped. The man’s dismissive tone, the pain in the boy’s eyes. Mort moved next to the man before he could walk away. He moved his hand in an arc in front of the man’s face toward the boy as if he were going to pat him on his head. A big move always covered a small move. Mort pretended to shake, upset by the confrontation. He steadied himself against the man’s shoulder. While the man’s eyes follow the arc of Mort’s hand, Mort slipped the man’s car keys out of his pants pocket and stumbled away.
Mort hurried out into the mall parking lot, hoping the father might show a sliver of remorse and take the boy for an ice cream or a milkshake. He kept pressing the car finder till he saw the flashing lights and heard the beep of the metallic gray Lexus. He opened the car door and rummaged through the glove compartment until he found an envelope with the man’s name and address in what Mort knew was an upscale neighborhood nearby. A garage remote was attached to the visor in front of the steering wheel. A number was taped to the remote. Mort figured it might be the code to the gated community where a man who dressed up to go to the mall and drove of the latest Lexus might live. Mort put the key in the ignition and locked the car.
Mort found a parking spot in eyesight of the Lexus and waited for the man and his son to return to the car. He watched the man, face red with anger, pound the hood of his car while he waited for the slow-moving fellow from mall security to amble across the parking lot with a car-door-lock opener.
“Watch out, don’t scratch the door.”
“You want to do it, sir?” The last word drawled with undisguised disdain.
“Just do it.”
The boy stood on the passenger side, afraid to lean against the door. His head was bent, looking down at the concrete, trying to make himself disappear. A twenty-dollar bill wouldn’t help him. As Mort drove by, the boy looked up, and he imagined the boy caught his eye. Mort drove home, wondering what the hell he had done and what he would do next.
Mort couldn’t remember the last time he lifted anything from a mark rather than slipping something smoothly into a pocket or purse. He had to admit, it thrilled him. This was real action. Maybe the father was just having a bad, short-tempered day, but Mort doubted that. He was good at reading a mark. This guy was an asshole.
In the town square in Ocean View there was coffeeshop–cum–old-fashioned ice cream parlor with an eight-seat counter and swiveling red plastic seats. Most of the staff was made up of young college kids picking up extra money for school. Edith Levine from Parsippany, New Jersey, was an exception. She was a sixty-three-year-old neighbor who didn’t play bridge or tennis and had a husband who spent his days at home, a nickel-and-dime day trader who drove her crazy with every up and down of the market. She had been a waitress in her younger days. She didn’t need the money. She just wanted to get out of the house. She was the village know-it-all. She knew the medical condition of every resident and even their grandchildren, who was playing around, and who was on the verge of leaving their spouse. She showed too much cleavage for a woman her age and bent over deeply to give out packets of Splenda as freely as unsolicited advice. Mort enjoyed her tart tongue and the apple crumble. But this morning, it was dry to his taste. He ate the crumble topping and left the cake below untouched.
“Honey.” Everyone was “honey” to Edith. “Stomach problems?”
“I wish. I caught the bus and now I don’t know what to do with it.”
There were no buses, just cars and golf carts, in Ocean View. She looked at Mort like he might be sliding into Alzheimer’s.
“You know, the dog who finally catches up with the bus he’s chased down the block. Now the mutt doesn’t know what to do?”
“Contingency. Honey, what’s his contingency plan? Everybody needs a contingency plan.”
“I don’t have one. No Plan B. Not even Plan A.”
Mort hadn’t told Marge about his confrontation at the mall. He knew she would only worry. Instead, he told Edith about the boy and his father, leaving out the stolen car keys and how he had rummaged through the glove compartment. He fudged the story, saying that he had followed their car so that’s how he knew where the man lived, and oh, by the way, he had peeked in the mailbox to find out the man’s name.
“Whoa, John Wayne.” It was a slow afternoon. Edith sat down across from Mort in the booth.
“The boy was in pain.”
“Mort, I didn’t know you were such a softie. So, what do you want to do? Guys who drive a Lexus and live over in Palm Valley don’t get investigated by Social Services.”
“What would you do?”
“I’d give the kid an extra scoop of ice cream and spit in the guy’s soup.”
Mort shrugged and shook his head, knowing that Edith was right. There was little he could do. At best, an anonymous call to Child Protection Services would go nowhere. He couldn’t go in person; that would be awkward, given what he had done. Edith poured him another cup of coffee. She patted him on his arm, “Sometimes a mitzvah in our heart is all we have.”
Mort had never slipped anyone at Ocean View any money. He got up, put his hand over Edith’s shoulder, gave her a slight hug, and pulled a quarter from behind her ear. “Thanks for the advice,” he said, and slipped a twenty into her apron.
Three weeks later, at the mall, Mort had just put a twenty in the back pocket of a teenager waiting in line to pick up his order at California Pizza Kitchen. The kid slowly counted out the dollars and coins. He could use some help, Mort thought. Out of the corner of his eye Mort saw the boy—he looked like the same one—walking toward Foot Locker. He was next to an attractive woman in a skirt and blouse who was likely his mother. Mort walked quickly to get behind them. He wasn’t thinking of slipping him anything. He didn’t know what he would do. He just wanted to make sure it was the same boy.
The woman draped her arm around the boy’s shoulder. “Not today, Josh. We don’t have time. Your father wants us back by two.”
Mort stopped and let the boy and his mother walk ahead, disappearing among the other shoppers. He didn’t know until that moment what he wanted to do. The next day, he called the owner of his old store in Hempstead. They schmoozed for a minute or two. Business was picking up, the owner said.
“What can I do for you, Mort?”
“A favor, Sol. A good deal on a watch for an old friend’s grandson’s bar mitzvah. Something under a thousand.”
“I can give you a deal on a Hamilton Khaki Field Stainless Steel. Brown leather band. Smart-looking. No kiddy’s watch. Fit for a mensch.” He gave him a good discount and said he would pick up insurance and shipping, even though Mort offered. Even then it would wasn’t cheap. He would make sure to hide the credit-card statement from Marge. The owner took down the boy’s name and address.
“Anything on the card?” Sol asked.
Mort thought for a moment, then told him what to write.
“That’s a good one, Mort.”
“But no name. The boy will know it’s from his Uncle Mort,” he lied.
“Time heals everything.” Maybe. Mort wasn’t sure, but it was nice to think so.
Mort put on a clean shirt and a new pair of pants and headed to the mall for some action.
“God and Life never shout. Truth always comes in a whisper. But few people hear it. I hope I am always one of those who listens. Then the words that are born from within, will need no introduction to the human ear.” —Rebecca Miriam
The Myth: If one individual is kind to another individual, then the world will be a better place for it.
A pleasing idea. But an utterly false one. And grossly misleading. A myth with dangerous, even psychological, consequences, all the more so because the Myth has been and continues to be perpetuated in philosophy, extolled in religion, and pressed by societal norms.
The reason the Myth has thrived for so long and remains vibrant today is due to its alluring simplicity. It places the most wonderful desirables within the realm of the possible, the attainable, and the not-too-distant. Peace on Earth. Good will among men. Empathy and understanding between loved ones. Tolerance and acceptance between antagonists. And how simple the catalyst that can bring all this about: “Be kind to one another!” It’s the central component, the missing ingredient necessary for building healthy relationships, both on a personal and supra-personal level, for ushering in peace between neighbors and neighborhoods, between communities and nations—simple acts of kindness.
Yet it is an expectation with no basis in reality.
To understand why this is so, let us begin by first analyzing the Myth itself. It stands on two unstated and only sparingly acknowledged principles. The first is that kindness breeds kindness. And the second, as penned by the Scottish minister and author John Watson in an 1898 Boston periodical: “Be pitiful [or kind], for every man is fighting a hard battle.” If these two pillars or principles cannot stand up against the test of logic and experience, then the Myth they support will come tumbling down. Such is the case.
The first supposition, especially, lacks all credence, a fact too often evidenced on a daily basis. Kindness may breed kindness, but it may also engender any number of other things: resentment, misunderstanding, or—nothing at all. The truth is that kindness is no more an infectious condition than it is the agent of unconscious coercion or conscious indebtedness. To maintain otherwise is to deny the element of human choice and situational blindness. Practically speaking, if you are kind to someone, there is no guarantee that he or she will ever return your goodness. He or she may choose to ignore it. Or worse, the person may be so blinded by circumstances in his or her own life, that he or she is not even aware of it.
As for the second premise—that you ought to be kind to people out of consideration that they, like you, are facing their own personal battles—this, likewise, is replete with error. It sets up a system of comparative judgment whereby people are entitled to forgiveness or justification, but only in proportion to the severity of their personal struggles, or rather, your understanding of those struggles. This lends itself, either consciously or unconsciously, to a very critical analysis of other people’s lives, which you, as an outsider are often ill-qualified to make, yet it is a privilege that many exercise nonetheless, because, at this point, you will probably feel you have a personal stake in the matter. After all, it is your kindness you are extending.
But kindness is not an act. It is a state of being. The Myth and its two pillars are false precisely because they seek an outward manifestation of the good realized when, in actuality, the good is and can only be completely internalized and enjoyed by the one who is being kind. Kindness, forbearance, tolerance, forgiveness, mercy—all of these have the capacity to alter the chemicals in the human psyche and raise the soul’s vibration to that of nobility and self-transcendence. Kindness, in its purest form, requires no reward and seeks no justification. It simply is.
The Maxim: If you are kind to another individual, then your world will be a better place for it—that world that is in you.
Treat others as you would have them treat you. But don’t expect it of them. Be lenient toward other people’s shortcomings, not because they are human, but because you are. Because being kind to others is the surest means of being kind to yourself. You might find this last point objectionable on the grounds that kindness ought to be a philanthropic virtue, and that by turning it into a self-serving device, a means to self-betterment, is to defeat its entire purpose.
On the contrary. If kindness is to have any real, lasting effects on human relations, it must first be cultivated on an individual level. And if this is your ultimate hope, then you must begin with yourself. Instead of focusing on outward actions and appearances, nurture the state of mind and heart that is kindness. Then, after it has grown and permeated your character and colored your outlook to the point that all your actions and interpersonal encounters carry its aroma, then other people will regard that virtue with greater respect and desire it all the more for themselves.
The first time that I flew on an airplane was a revelation. Flying had become mundane by then, but it certainly wasn’t mundane for me. It was only a few years ago, but when I stepped aboard that 707, with its swept wings and those futuristic-looking engines, it felt like freedom to me. Like the promise of something exciting.
I had spent the Korean War stateside, bored out of my mind and looking for ways to get out of the army. As it turned out, I’m glad I didn’t go. From what I heard, it was real hell for the boys who were there. I wanted my chance at glory, just like anybody else, but there was no glory in Korea.
After the war, like a lot of guys, I ended up in sales. It was a profession that seemed like it could give me a fair shot at a good life. I won’t kid anybody; I was not a great salesman. But I could hold my own. A lot of these guys have the gift. They could sell ice to an Eskimo. I’ve sat next to some of them on airplanes. At first it would annoy me—jeez, not another salesman!—but eventually, inevitably, I’d be charmed. I never understood how they did it: One minute you’re ready to knock their block off and the next, you’re laughing at their corny jokes. I guess I was envious of them.
Joan and I had been married for about five years by the time I started going out on the road, but we didn’t have any kids yet. I’m not sure why. It just wasn’t in the cards for us, I guess. Joan didn’t seem to mind, which I was grateful for. Most girls would have been going out of their minds, but she was content. She didn’t mind my traveling, either. A lot of the guys I know can’t wait to get away from their wives. They sow their wild oats on the road without a care in the world. I didn’t care about any of that. That wasn’t my escape. I liked Joan. But I also didn’t mind leaving her, either. If you had asked me then, I probably would have said that I was happy.
I got to meet a lot of people on my flights. It always seemed like another adventure to me. As you can probably tell by now, I’m a corny romantic. Always have been. When I got on those airplanes—707s, 727s, DC-9s—I would enter a new world entirely, filled with interesting people going to interesting places, even if none of that was actually true.
I saw him more than a few times before I spoke to him: on a flight to San Francisco, on a flight to Dallas, and other places, too. He was easy to spot—debonair, like he’d been there before—and whenever I saw him, he seemed to be looking right at me. Like he’d been looking at me the whole time. I’d always avert my eyes quickly, but there was something comforting about knowing he was there. And that smile. Well, what is there to say about that?
I guess it was inevitable, but one morning I climbed aboard my 727 to San Francisco and took my seat right next to him. We nodded knowingly at each other, slightly embarrassed, I guess. I was glad he seemed to feel the same way. He put out his hand and said, “I’m Juan.” He was smooth, real smooth. Juan wasn’t a salesman. He told me he was a technician for a chemical company and that he traveled to different places around the country to “solve problems.” He spoke with ease and confidence. I was envious of him.
By now, Joan was pregnant. We had done what was expected of us, I guess. My job was going well, but I hadn’t been promoted yet. I was still on the road a lot, which worried Joan with the baby coming. We didn’t have family nearby, and Joan was concerned that things would get too difficult for her if she were on her own much of the time. I know I should have cared more, but if I’m being honest, I really didn’t. I guess I was distracted. I wanted to be on the road. I didn’t want to get promoted and stay grounded in the office every day, trudging back and forth like some robot. My life on the road—in those airplanes—was the life I wanted to live. It was the life I always wanted to live.
We kept running into each other, Juan and I, on flights and at airports. I started to expect to see him. We eventually began making plans to meet at restaurants and bars in the terminal, before flights and sometimes even after flights. The conversation was easy, natural. We discussed everything—our lives, our careers, our ambitions. He listened. That’s what I remember the most. He listened to what I had to say and he asked questions. He wanted to know what I thought. And it didn’t matter to Juan that I hadn’t figured it all out yet.
I remember when he brought up the idea. Joan was eight months pregnant by then and I was anxious for something—anything—that would keep my life from crashing. Something that could fend off the approaching gloom of domesticity that I was facing. When he first explained it to me, he smiled and brought up Hemingway. I remember feeling a little disappointed at Juan for that. Hemingway? It was a reference that a silly romantic like me would make. I guess I’d have done anything to keep what we had going. Even something like this.
Juan told me that he wouldn’t be on the flight. He wouldn’t even come with me to the airport. I understood why. It made sense, of course. But it made me uneasy, too. Airports, airplanes—these were our places. This was our world. “You will be a hero for the revolution,” he told me. “And soon we will be free, together. You’ll see,” he said to me. I wanted to believe him.
It was supposed to be easy—elegant even—though looking back now, I wonder how I could have believed such a thing. I guess I just wanted it so badly. Juan told me that some of the passengers might even look at me with admiration in their eyes, enthralled by the romance of it all. (“A hijacking to Cuba!? How exciting!”) Juan certainly knew what buttons to push. I always worried that romance would one day be the end of me, and here it was.
Now, I’d give anything for the normalcy I was trying so hard to run away from: a life with Joan and the baby, the white picket fence. How’s that for irony? Why couldn’t the stewardess have laughed when I slipped her that note—brushed me off and given me another martini? Sure, I had the serious, thousand-yard-stare of a revolutionary (I had practiced so hard with Juan—“It’s important,” he told me; “This is how you really convince them that you mean what you are saying.”—but I’ll never know how she didn’t see right through it all. Why did she take my note to the pilot? Why did they believe I had a gun without so much as a question? As usual, Juan was right. It seemed to be the easiest thing in the world. And the romance of it. I’ll never understand how they could have bought it all coming from a guy like me. Somehow, they were putty in my hands.
I made it to Cuba all right, just like Juan said I would. But I didn’t get the freedom that he promised. Not by a longshot. I’m just a political pawn now, left for dead by my own government. I imagine Joan reading about her “Salesman Commie”’ husband, rotting in a Havana prison in the newspaper. I’m sure the newspapers are having a field day: “Suburban Salesman Turns Red for Castro.” What could my Joanie be thinking? Maybe she suspected it all along? Maybe my being a silly rube duped by a Cuban revolutionary was not that far from the mark for her. Who knows?
I do think about Juan, though. Clocking another hapless mark in his war for the revolution. It’s pitiful, really, but I miss him. Ain’t that pathetic of me? In spite of it all—the embarrassment, the ruin, the uncertainty—more than anything else, I long for the exhilaration of those airplanes. Being with him on those airplanes. I’d give anything to have that again. To feel what I felt then, just one more time.
Juanita Andrade Pardo is a 23-year-old actress living in NYC. She loves writing, specifically about the metaphysical and personal experiences, and is grateful to be published. You can follow her on Instagram at @juanitaa87 for updates on a future writing.
cerebral misfirings let off exhaust fumes
from its dense darkness
spiraling in the tornado
of is this it
red light green light
’til it’s a single muted color
my earthly attachments
fade into the background
leaving a void in my stomach
you look substantial
solid and vibrating with life
a parasitic love
confused with enlightenment
your words sermons
catered to my ears
feeding me popcorn love
marks my jagged movements
if i eat slowly
maybe i’ll feel fuller
compulsion drives me
when peace evades me
i’m a daydreamer
enthralled in a world of illusion
awareness in the core of me
crying out for help
depression and anxiety
of a long-distance relationship
between illusion and enlightenment
D.C. Briley is an author living with his family in Ridgefield, Connecticut. He can be contacted via his website at www.dcbriley.com
Bobby had had enough.
He was hot, sore, angry, and—frankly—downright miserable.
Spring days like this don’t come around very often. Days when the birds have deep, meaningful conversations about philosophy, the future, the past, where we’re going, and where we’ve been, all through their beautiful singsong—all resulting in a melody. A melody that you know has never been heard aloud before, and would very likely never be heard again, and you feel privileged to know that you are the only human being ever to bear witness to the raw exposure of these birds’ souls. It was a hauntingly beautiful harmony of life, love, and everything in-between.
Beyond the chatter of the birds, the neighborhood children could be heard frolicking, laughing, as if nothing life had in store for them could ever be too bad. How could it, when God had granted them this beautiful day—a day in which all they had to do was run around, invent games, go on adventures, do flips on their friends’ trampolines, and make memories that they would be telling their grandchildren about one day? Memories that would inevitably create lifelong bonds between Bobby’s classmates—memories Bobby was sure would be the talk of the school come Monday.
It was those sounds that made Bobby the angriest.
“Why can’t I go have fun like the rest of the neighborhood boys?” asked Bobby, massaging his hands after violently decapitating yet another dead flower head and jerking it away from its former body.
“Because,” replied Mother, “it’s time to deadhead.”
Bobby already knew the answer to his next question, but he also knew that asking it would mean Mother would have to stop to talk to him, and he relished any opportunity to rest his ten-year-old hands. After two hours of gardening, it had become such an arduous task that his frail body was begging for a change of pace—to rest, drink some water, or even just sit on the grass and enjoy something of this perfect spring day. Plus, he liked hearing the answer.
“But why do I have to do it? Why can’t Nicky help?”
“You know why,” Mother replied, annoyed that she had to pause her work to speak with her elder son.
Though she was also getting tired, she knew this was a job that had to get done, and it would get done today. “This is a very dangerous job,” she told him as she knelt down and placed her gloved hands on Bobby’s small, bony shoulders. “Plus, it takes a special boy’s eyes to spot which flower heads are dead.”
Bobby always liked that line. He never could tell if she was saying it just to make him feel better, or if he was in fact special, even if not in any quantifiable way. Bobby was average in school, average in sports, average in height, weight, and in seemingly everything else you could measure.
That’s why he always pressed his mother into explaining why he, and not Nicky, was the one who was required to complete this task.
“And you know Nicky is studying for his gifted exam.”
That line Bobby always hated.
“Besides, deadheading is a very important step to maintain a well-kept garden,” Mother continued, returning to the task at hand. “We have to remove the dead flower heads to encourage the blooming of the better flowers in the garden so that . . .”
Mother, as she so often did, trailed off before she could finish her sentence. As usual, something caught her eye, and this time it was that one particularly large head that had always given her trouble. No matter how hard she tried, she had never gone through with snipping off that one last dead head.
“You know what? Today is the day I’m going to do it. Though I’ll need my shears for this one,” she exclaimed, seemingly to herself, as she disappeared into the direction of the potting shed.
Bobby barely acknowledged her, as all of his attention was now on that one particular flower that Mother seemed to be having such trouble with.
“Just close your eyes and squeeze,” Bobby told himself, repeating his mother’s mantra.
So, with all of his might, Bobby spread the gardening scissors around that thick stem and squeezed.
And he squeezed. And continued to squeeze until, like the battle between fish and fisherman, Bobby knew that only one would be crowned victor. And it was going to be him.
So, with one last clench, Bobby closed his eyes and squeezed harder than he ever thought possible, until, like the unexpected pop of a champagne cork, the flower head shot off into the sky.
Bobby watched as the flower head drifted in the wind—almost majestic in a way—like watching the feather fly off a newly flighted bird and slowly descend back to Earth.
After what seemed like an eternity, it landed.
Bobby excitedly ran to his fresh kill and scooped it up with elation, ready to show off his accomplishment to his mother, who had since returned from the shed with the larger shears.
“I did it!” Bobby exclaimed, brandishing the flower head like he was Nicky holding up one of his dozens of trophies. “Just like you taught me; I just closed my eyes and squeezed!”
“That wasn’t the head I meant,” Mother replied, and in one swift, brutal motion, Mother finally went through with snipping off the last remaining dead head in her garden.
As Bobby’s lifeless body fell to the ground, his tiny hands still clutching his one accomplishment in life, Mother tossed his head over onto the pile.
There, it joined the other obsolete heads, all of whom were unfeelingly detached from their former bodies so that better flowers in the garden could flourish.
“Nicky needs to bloom.”
Christine C. Heuner has been teaching high school English for over twenty years. She lives with her family in New Jersey. Her work has appeared in Narrative, Flash Fiction Magazine, Philadelphia Stories, The Write Launch, and others. She is the author of the novel Fifty-four Holly Lane (Blydyn Square Books, 2022). Her work can be found at christineheuner.com
My seventeen-year-old son shakes hands with his opponent on the mat. Their bodies lean toward each other, poised for attack. The ref blows the whistle. My son and the boy move in a circle, reading each other’s bodies like prey. My husband has coached him: Shoot first, on the whistle. But my son keeps circling.
It’s my son’s first season wrestling varsity. He lost the one-hundred-sixty-five-pound spot to another teammate in a wrestle-off, so he’s been bumped up to one-ninety even though he weighs one-hundred-sixty-eight fully clothed with a packed stomach and three bottles of Gatorade in him. Last night, he had steak at ten p.m.
The opponent shoots in, grips my boy around the waist as if he’s drowning and my son is his lifeline. They both fall to the mat. My son struggles to get up, but the opponent—thick-thighed, biceps bulging—has him in a hold. Writhing, my son wiggles away and stands up. The other boy grips his waist.
My son breaks the hold. Cheers! One point!
Last meet, Goliath reincarnate pinned my son in thirty-six seconds. “I felt it in my spine,” he said later, a feeling he also experienced in boxing from a hit resulting in a concussion. Both sports presage a future of multiple injuries and chiropractic care. I cheer him on, call him by his last name like his teammates and coaches.
The two-minute buzzer sounds. End of period one. My son has made it this far. I’m proud. I cross myself quietly and think my routine prayer: Let him go the distance and not get hurt. I don’t pray for wins.
Period two. My son crouches on his hands and knees, the other wrestler behind him, holding his elbows. There’s the whistle. Immediately the boy shoves my son forward. He puts his arm at a right angle and bears down on the back of my son’s neck.
I wince and turn to my husband. “Is that even legal?”
The three coaches and his teammates yell out instructions. My son looks up, unsure whose voice he can trust to carry him to victory. I want him to trust his instincts, to shut out the noise the same way he shuts out my nagging.
At eighteen months old, he was diagnosed with necrotizing pneumonia that kept him in the hospital for a week. My husband and I kept vigil, I in the day, he at night, sleeping in a chair half his size. Our boy was taken down by an opponent we couldn’t see. At least now, this adversary is in the flesh, muscles taut and visible against the thin singlet. He’s taller than my son by at least four inches. He has a linebacker’s shoulders.
This adversary turns my son over, holds him down.
I want my son to steel his spine. I don’t care about the opponent’s well-being. He clearly doesn’t care about my son’s. This is a battle. As witness, as Mom, I’ve committed allegiance to the fight.
My son can’t break free. “Getting out from bottom is the hardest thing,” he said once, and I see that now as he squirms beneath the other wrestler’s weight, his face red, his headgear a mangled mess.
The ref swings his arm out once, twice, three times, the whistle poised upon his lips. He smacks his hand on the mat. The whistle bleats. My son is finished. Six points for them. A woman not far from me says, “Shit.”
My heart drops five floors.
As my son leaves the mat, one of the coaches shakes his hand, the other pats him on the shoulder. I want to hug these men.
My son pulls down the top of his singlet, exposing his pecks, the sharp angles of his collarbone. His arms ripple with muscle. In street clothes, my son is a calm boy, gentle and sweet. He cares for our dog, plucks at his guitar, goes to church with Grandma, draws, creates cards with warm messages inside. His welding sculpture project is a chest-sized heart with rivets.
The beginning of love is fear, and I want to protect him from all harm, even the terrible danger of his own feelings.
I text him: You okay?
A while later, he responds: Of course. I see how I can improve.
You’re a champ.
He sends me a red heart.
Greg graduated from Seton Hall University with a degree in English and studied journalism at the City University of New York (Weissman School of Arts and Sciences). He can be reached via email at email@example.com
Now, when I think of my Dad, the first thing that comes to mind is an image of him driving. Cars tight to us on one side; concrete Jersey barriers squeezing us on the other. Me, in the backseat, watching his face in the rearview mirror. Him, nonchalant, one hand casually draped over the steering wheel, eyes focused on the road, somewhere far ahead. The Caprice Classic gliding smoothly along the ruts and broken pavement of Route 9 South.
If I try to focus in on the details, the image dissipates and I see him instead behind the wheel of his work truck. A big white behemoth, a repurposed “Snap-on Tools” truck, bigger even than a UPS delivery truck. The steering so loose that he needed both hands to turn the wheel and steered it like a helmsman guiding a ship against the current. In the summer it would get so hot from the engine, he would slide the driver’s side panel door half open and the wind would blow through the cab, tinged with the fetid smell of the brackish marshlands that line Highway 35, and thrumming with the sound of the tires on the asphalt. Loose papers would dance in small cyclones and he would guide the truck, serene, one arm across the entire span of the wheel, his hand lightly resting atop, the other upturned on his knee, gently feeding the bottom of the wheel through.
The summer I was to turn seventeen he taught me to drive. After dinner we would take the Caprice out for leisurely drives while he looked at telephone poles to get location numbers for permits that he was filing, or he would have me drive him to one neighborhood or another while he looked for a house where he had to give someone an estimate to hang a ceiling fan, or install a line for an air conditioner or dishwasher.
Once we were driving through Laurence Harbor to look at a job. Laurence Harbor is one of the old, small shore towns that line the New Jersey coast. In the 1900s the town was a destination, but over the years, the summer set moved further and further south, and the small cottages that were meant for summer use were repurposed and converted to year-round accommodations. Simple shotgun shacks with electrical systems woefully undersized to handle year-round living. Old Harbor Road bisects the town and runs west to east, ending in the proverbial harbor, which in reality is just a cul-de-sac behind the Laurence Harbor Pharmacy and Deli where a set of weathered wooden stairs leads down to the thin band of sand that passes for a beach. The road winds into an S curve, which leads to a narrow straight bridge over the train tracks, and then curves back down and away, as it heads out across Route 35 to the shoreline and the Bay. As we approached the curve I saw a blur of red at the other end and sunlight reflecting in bright bursting spangles of light. I slowed, both hands on the wheel at ten and two.
“Just follow the white line on your side,” my dad said.
The blur crested on the rise over the train tracks, approaching us and moving fast. A Jeep. Open top and overflowing with softball players coming from a game. Loud and laughing. Guys in the seats with their legs dangling out and guys in the back, clutching the crossbar and steadying a keg in a blue tub. As they were just about to come even with us, the Jeep drifted across the yellow line, the wheels chirping as the driver muscled the Jeep back over to his side of the road. I moved further right, across the white line, into the loose sand and debris on the shoulder. Their music, an indistinct cacophony, clarified for a moment as it snapped into audible focus so we could make out the lyrics, then it passed, and trailed after the Jeep, gradually fading and dissipating in the air.
I got the car back between the lines and watched them in the rearview mirror, the driver still wrestling with the steering and the Jeep pinballing from one edge of the lane to the other, and before they disappeared from my view, I saw . . . something.
“What the fuck . . .” I said, the words slipping out.
“What happened?” My dad looked at me, then turned in his seat to look behind us.
“I think.” I paused. “I think they threw their bat bag from the Jeep or something.”
I was easing the car over the train-track bridge and down into the other side of the curve. Nice and easy, turning the wheel gently, hand over hand.
“Turn around, let’s go see,” my dad said flatly.
I pulled into the parking lot of Harbor Liquors and began a K-turn. Small stones and sea shells crunching loudly beneath the tires as I slowly executed each leg of the turn.
We went back up over the S and as we came around the last part of the curve I saw him.
An old man, lying prone across the street, his feet on the two yellow lines dividing traffic, his arms lying placidly next to his body. As if he had just decided that this would be the perfect place to lie down and take a quick nap.
I slowed the car.
“Shit. Pull over,” my dad said. “No. Wait. Stop here and put the hazards on.”
I was half off, half on the road.
I could see the old man. Lying still. Not moving. Not even a little.
My dad ran to him, waving at an oncoming car to stop.
The car slowed haltingly bit by bit, the driver approached slowly, giving a wide berth to whatever he had come upon, but did not stop.
“Hey,” my dad called to me, “leave the car and run back to that store and tell them to call an ambulance.”
By the time I had done so and returned the cops were there, lights flashing around incongruously in the bright sunlight.
People were milling about on the shoulder in groups of twos and threes.
A heavyset woman mouthed, “Oh my god,” and then placed her hand over her mouth, as if surprising herself by what she said. My dad was kneeling by the old man who kept trying to lift his hand up, as if to wave hi or good-bye. Each time my dad would gently take it and hold it for a second and then he would place his hand on the man’s wrist and guide the man’s hand back down to the pavement.
I stood by the car. A uniformed policeman approached me somberly.
“Were you driving?”
“Yes, sir,” I answered.
“You okay to drive now?”
“Yes, sir,” I answered again.
“Okay, good man, move the car off the road. The ambulance will be here in a second.”
I slid behind the wheel and fastened my seatbelt. Through the windshield I could see my dad stand as the cop approached. The old man’s hands remained motionless by his sides on the pavement. My dad talked to the cop, the cop wrote in his little notebook, and then my dad came back to the car and climbed into the passenger seat.
Back in our driveway I put the car in park, turned off the ignition, unbuckled my seatbelt, removed the key from the ignition, opened my door and got out of the car. My legs went weak and wouldn’t support me, and I stumbled and barely caught myself. A queasiness flooded my stomach and my mouth went warm and sour.
My dad let me take the car to college, and when I left, the car packed tight, I remember looking in my rearview mirror as I eased down the driveway. He wasn’t standing there watching, waiting to wave, he was lugging a ladder over one shoulder and carrying a coil of 14-3 over to his truck. My visits home over the years became fewer and fewer and farther and farther in between. Until now, when I found myself outside his hospital room.
A diagnosis of congestive heart failure and an ever increasing number of futile treatment procedures brought him here, lying in a bed staring up at the ceiling, intubated, a tube running from a ventilator into his mouth (and down into his lungs). He had no choice but to stare at the ceiling as his head was strapped down into place. I noticed his arms were strapped down as well.
“We have to do that, otherwise they try to remove the breathing tube, it’s for their own safety, you understand.”
The whirr and thump of the ventilator pushing air into my dad’s lungs filled the silence in the air.
I nodded blankly.
“We have your father on painkillers and a minor sedative to make him comfortable, but he can see and hear you if there is anything you want to say to him. I’ll be right outside at the nurse’s station if you need me.”
I approached the bedside. My dad’s eyes slid to the corners so he could see me.
“Hey, Pop,” I said lightly, moving closer.
“How you doin’?” I said automatically and without thinking.
He tried to raise his hand but it was held fast by the strap. I reached down to take it.
“You can’t,” I said taking his hand in mine, holding it for a second, then gently guiding it back to the mattress.
He gripped my hand tightly for a second, then relaxed his grip, then tightened it again.
I relaxed my own grip and he changed his hand position to slide his palm into mine as if we were shaking hands, and then we were. He gripped my hand firmly and lifted our hands up as high as the strap would allow and then lowered his hand to the bedside and relaxed his grip.
He returned his gaze to the ceiling and closed his eyes.
I stood beside the bed, listening to the hum and thrum of the ventilator, watching the air bag on the machine accordion in and out; in and out; in and out. The heart rate monitor traced each heart beat in a blue line across the screen, left to right, that faded and slowly dissipated, before being brightly etched over again from the start. I could hear the low murmur of the nurses at their station outside in the hallway and unintelligible codes being announced over the loudspeaker.
He had an IV line taped to the top of his hand and his arm was purpled and bruised from previous connections.
I don’t know how much time passed, five minutes, an hour. The nurse was standing next to me.
“I’m sorry, visiting hours are ending now, but you’ll be able to come back this evening, of course.”
“Right,” I said, coming out of my reverie.
I leaned over my dad.
“I’ll be back tonight.”
He didn’t open his eyes, but I saw the lids flutter slightly.
The heart rate machine continued to trace its blue lines.
The ventilator continued to whirr and pump, a foreign metronome keeping a time of its own.
I walked down the hall toward the elevator, my legs weak and rubbery, a queasiness churning in my stomach, a warm sour taste in my mouth. I pushed the call button and the elevator doors slid open. I thought of him driving that big white truck. The panel door eased half open. The wind roaring in. Him with one arm casually draped over the top of the wheel and his eyes focused, serenely, somewhere, far down the road.
Peter Shaheen is a high school teacher and a wannabe poet. He lives in Michigan with his bride of forty years and two Havanese pups. Peter has three grown children and two grandchildren.
Sing. O Muses, Sing!
Of God, and drawing to His side
many Legions of Angels,
and none of this fake news bullshit.
Tell us not of valorous battles,
Of valiant warriors wielding shining swords
Of the forces of light overcoming evil
And darkness to cast fallen angels
With their ignoble leader into a lake of fire
Thunder-struck into utter darkness and chaos.
Sing. O Muses, Sing!
Cut the crap,
And spill the tea.
We want the real skinny.
It’s not like we don’t already know.
At least most of us anyway.
We just want straight talk, for once.
Okay, you can fill in the gaps
The parts we think we know
But don’t have quite right.
Sing. O Muses, Sing!
God vs. Satan, for sure. That much we know.
But Satan really wins, doesn’t he?
Sending God packing.
Not surprising when you look at His (God’s) body of work—
Sure, He created the world and all
But He did pretty slipshod work
Earthquakes, Hurricanes, Tsunamis, Floods
Wildfires, Droughts, Hitler, Stalin, Vlad the Impaler,
Flint, Michigan, the AMC Gremlin, and the list goes on.
Sing. O Muses, Sing!
Tell us true. Tell us that the God of goodness and light
Has been supplanted by forces of havoc and tumult.
How else do we explain Trump, Biden, Putin, Kanye?
Spill the beans. From time infinitum, we have worshiped
Not the creator of heaven and earth,
But the interloper who dispatched that original God.
Explain to us how this world became upside
Down. Show us how to live as rational beings
In an irrational world.
Sing. O Muses, Sing!
Dagny Randall is an editor and freelance writer, who splits her time between Pennsylvania and New Jersey. This is her first novel.
Thirty-five years ago
Sometimes it seems
it’s tearing apart at the seams
I look in the mirror and
the person I see is a stranger.
But at least I know her name.
It’s as if I never knew his.
When he looks at me,
I no longer see
the full moon in his eyes
that used to greet me
with the first light of day.
He may not love me anymore.
“Damn it, Suzy. How is it that you don’t even know how to do laundry without shrinking my shirts?”
Suzy looked up from her notebook and a knot formed in her gut as soon as she saw Roman’s face. “I’m sorry,” she said.
He threw the shirt in her face. “I don’t want your apology. I want you to stop acting like a spoiled brat and start acting like a wife. For God’s sake. How stupid are you?”
She cringed. “I’m sorry . . . I mean, I’ll try to do better. It’s just—I’ve never . . .”
“I know, I know,” he said with a sneer. “You’ve never done anything. That’s become abundantly clear.”
He opened the refrigerator and pulled out a carton of orange juice. He gave it a strong shake then looked back at her. “You’d better damn well have this refrigerator stocked by the time I get home tonight. And none of that store-brand crap. I don’t care what people say. There is a difference.”
“But it’s so expensive . . .”
He took a long swig of orange juice right out of the carton, then slammed the nearly empty carton back onto the refrigerator door. “Well,” he said. “I guess you better call your mother and ask for some more money, then, shouldn’t you?”
He didn’t glance back at her as he walked out the front door, leaving her alone in the silent squalor of the studio apartment. She waited until she heard the squeal of his tires as he drove away, then covered her face with her hands and wept like a child.
She wasn’t sure when things had started to go wrong. The elopement had been so romantic—like something out of an old movie. They stood before a justice of the peace, she in the same white lace gown she had worn five years earlier when she made her confirmation in the Catholic Church, he in a well-made if not quite new dark-blue suit with sophisticated pinstripes. He had surprised her with a little bouquet of pink roses, her favorite. When he slipped the thin gold band over her finger, she thought she would burst with happiness. It didn’t matter that her parents didn’t approve, that she and Roman would have to go it alone, at least until Ivy and Ken came around—which Suzy knew they would, someday. None of it mattered because she and Roman loved each other so very much.
That had been only three months ago. And now everything was different. She had moved into Roman’s tiny apartment near the campus of the community college where they first met. It was small, sure, but she thought it was perfect—just the right amount of coziness for a newly married couple, who pretty much needed no more than a bed to be content. It took only a few weeks for cozy to turn into cramped and their bed to become more of a boxing ring than a love nest. Not that Roman ever hit her. He had other ways to make her suffer. Sometimes, she almost wished he would just beat her—it seemed like a broken bone or a fat lip would hurt far less than the wounds his words opened within her psyche.
She knew she had too much time on her hands. Maybe if she could take some classes, or even get a job, she would have less time to dwell on their disintegrating marriage. But she wasn’t qualified for anything. Sure, she had a secretarial certificate, and (at least in theory) she knew how to type and take shorthand, but she felt too intimidated to answer any of the ads Roman circled in the classified ads. She knew she couldn’t handle any of the jobs that were available. The only thing she was any good at was writing (and even that was only a pipedream, she knew). Besides, there didn’t seem to be too many openings for “poet.”
Roman was working, if you could call it that, as a teaching assistant for one of the professors at the university where he was studying for his doctorate. In truth, it was almost a volunteer position. Less than minimum wage, no benefits. But he insisted it was a good way to gain some recognition within the art history department, where he planned to teach one day. That left Suzy to find a way to pay for their apartment. After the first time the electricity was shut off because they couldn’t pay their bill, she broke down and went to her parents for help.
They were angry, naturally, that she had defied their wishes and gone off to marry Roman without so much as letting them know the wedding was going ahead. But when she was actually there, standing on their doorstep, their little girl, with tears and desperation in her eyes, they agreed to lend the newlyweds some money.
“It’s only temporary, I swear,” Suzy told them. “Just until Roman gets a full-time teaching job.”
Ivy sneered. “And when might that be? Be realistic. That man is nothing but a deadbeat.”
“Mommy, he’s my husband. You need to treat him with at least a tiny bit of courtesy, if only for my sake.”
Ivy just shook her head. “I’ll treat him like a man when he starts acting like one and supports his wife instead of making you come here begging.”
Suzy turned and ran for the door. “Forget it. Forget the money. Forget everything. I don’t need you.”
Her father caught her in his arms and held her as she burst into tears. “Shhh, sweetheart,” he whispered. “Don’t cry. Your mom is just angry. She doesn’t mean what she’s saying.”
“The hell I don’t!”
Ken glared at his wife. “Ivy, can you just please stop it for now? There’s plenty of time to fight about this later. For now, let’s just be grateful our daughter’s back home. Don’t you realize that we could have lost her forever?”
Suzy sniffled. “You’ll never lose me, Daddy.”
He planted a kiss on the top of her head. “You’re a good girl. Now, come sit down and I’ll go get the checkbook.”
The money she came away with had paid the bills for the next month or so, but Roman seemed not to realize that it was not a never-ending source of income, as he spent lavishly, almost drunkenly, on art supplies and new clothes, which, he assured Suzy, would help him land that dream teaching job. Now the money was gone, all of it. She didn’t even think there was enough left in her wallet to buy another carton of orange juice, as Roman had demanded.
She folded her arms across the kitchen table and laid her head down on them. Tears dribbled down her cheek, splashing the lined page of her notebook and forming a puddle of blue ink mixed with saline, smudging out the start of the poem she’d been trying to write. She sat back up and dragged her fingers through the pool of inky water, fascinated by the wet smudges, like watercolors, that swirled all over the paper.
She sighed, wiping her blue-stained fingers on her faded jeans. What was she going to do now? It was either go back to her parents and beg for money—again—or face Roman and the worst of his ire. Either possibility would be excruciating.
She peered down at the words, barely legible, on the notebook page.
Does he love me or does he hate me?
Will he kill me or will he rape me?
When did it all fall apart?
A chill ran through her. Her heart was pounding as she tore the page from the notebook, crushed it into a ball, and threw it into the overflowing garbage can. She knew she had no choice about what to do next.
She got up and lifted the phone from its rusting cradle on the wall. With slow, deliberate motions, she dialed her parents’ phone number. If it came down to this—facing her mother or facing Roman—her mother seemed to be the safer option.
When Ivy’s voice came crackling over the line, Suzy burst out sobbing.
“Suzy? Is that you? What’s wrong?”
Suzy had almost forgotten that sound, the genuine note of concern, that she was hearing in her mother’s voice. It made her long for her childhood, for the safety and warmth of her little bedroom and the tiny student desk on which she had penned the poems and stories that gave her an identity, if only in her own mind.
“Yes, sweetie, what’s wrong?”
“Mommy, I want to come home.”
And that was the end. Even before Roman had returned home that evening, she was gone. She knew that he had to know where she was, but he never called, never stopped by her parents’ house to beg her to come back to him. After a few weeks, her father made an appointment with a lawyer and began the process of getting Suzy an annulment. Everything happened so fast. Less than six months after the night they had sworn their eternal love, ’til death did they part and all that, Suzy and Roman’s marriage was declared null and void.
In a way, it was a relief. But then, the pessimism Suzy had developed over the past few months began to eat away at her, making her wonder whether she had been wrong, if maybe Roman really had loved her. Sometimes the terrible thought that only his pride (and maybe hers, too) stood between a tearful, joyous reunion crept back into her brain, and she spent entire days crying into her pillow as she’d done when she was a little girl.
Her parents left her alone for the most part, letting her work out her feelings about the dissolution of her marriage and find her way back to sanity. They assumed she would eventually come around, start taking an interest in things, maybe even look for a job as a receptionist in a nice clean doctor’s or lawyer’s office. But the weeks stretched into months and Suzy only came out of her room to eat or to take a shower once a week or so.
One night, everything reached a tipping point, and Ivy called Suzy out of her room and made her sit down at the dining-room table, across from her parents.
“Sweetie, your dad is fixing up the room over the garage. He’s putting in a bathroom and a kitchenette, and when it’s all done, you can live there. It’ll be like having your own apartment—you can come and go as you please, without having us underfoot all the time. I know it must be hard, being a young woman and having to live with your parents. This will give you some freedom. Maybe then you can get on with your life.”
On some level, Suzy knew it was a generous offer, especially coming from the mother who had overprotected her since birth. But instead of feeling excitement—or even alive—at the prospect of getting a place of her own, Suzy just nodded, got up, returned to her room, and laid back down on her bed, staring into space.
She moved into the new apartment when it was finished, and she forced a smile as she hugged her mother and then her father, and thanked them for being such devoted, understanding parents. Then she closed the door of the new apartment, and stayed there for months, without bothering to come down to the main house for anything.
Her mother bought groceries every week and left them outside the door to the apartment, knocking once to let Suzy know her weekly supply of food had arrived, but then leaving Suzy alone. Even in her depressive haze, Suzy couldn’t help but feel shocked at how standoffish and understanding her usually brittle, angry mother had become.
It was her father’s patience that wore out faster. After Suzy had kept herself secluded in the apartment for three weeks or so, he pounded on the door. When she didn’t answer, he let himself in and stood over her as she lay sprawled on the couch, staring blindly at the television.
“Suzanne,” he said, and she could tell, even without looking up from the TV how hard he was working to keep the tone of his voice even and under control. “It’s time for you to get up and stop this. I know you’re sad, I know it’s a terrible thing when a marriage breaks up, but you have to move on with your life. I’m going to ask around at the office and try to find you a job, something to get you out of here at least for a few hours a week.”
Suzy closed her eyes, wondering if maybe she could wish him away if she didn’t look directly at him or acknowledge him in any way.
“Go ahead and ignore me,” he said, “but I swear to God, I’ll stuff you into a suit and drag you to a desk if I have to.”
She waited until the door slammed behind him on his way out before she opened her eyes, only to let them glaze over again as she numbly watched the flashing images on the TV screen without comprehension. For a moment she wondered: Was he serious? Would he really force her to work, even if she wasn’t ready? A bolt of fear jabbed the base of her spine.
She dragged herself up to a sitting position and ran her fingers through the tangled web of her greasy hair. It was possible she would never be ready, not just to work and lead a “normal” life, but to do anything at all. Maybe she needed to tell her parents that, make them see that she wasn’t qualified to do the kind of work they expected her to do, not matter what it might say on that cheap piece of parchment paper from the community college. She didn’t know how to be an employee, how to follow someone else’s rules each and every day. The only orders she had ever followed had been the loose instructions her parents gave her as she was growing up: Clean your room, wash your face, be home by ten. Responsibility had never been an issue in her life. She’d always either gotten her way or followed instructions blindly, without question. How could anyone expect her to suddenly change twenty years’ worth of habit in an instant? How could she turn into a different person, when she had no experience being anyone or anything but little Suzy, simultaneously the apple of her parents’ eye and the target of her mother’s bitter tongue lashings? It was impossible. She wasn’t going to do it. That was that.
She let herself stretch back out along the length of the couch, hugged a throw pillow beneath her neck, and closed her eyes.
I didn’t want my mom to know about the little altercation I’d had with Suzy. As annoying as Suzy could be, I knew my mother felt sorry for her. Frankly, I couldn’t see why. There are plenty of people out there who really deserve compassion and charity. But Suzy—a woman who had essentially never worked a day in her life, who had burned through almost two million dollars with nothing to show for it, who had no expertise or experience in anything yet somehow had an opinion or criticism on everything—she didn’t quite warrant my pity. The longer she stayed at our house, the angrier she made me. It was people like her who made government aid programs a drain on taxpayers, and who made other citizens believe it was wrong to lend anyone a helping hand. She was the poster child for abuse of the welfare and social work system. And I wanted her out of our lives.
After our argument that morning, I went to work energized, feeling braver and stronger than I had in years. Under normal circumstances, I’m actually rather shy. I’m not the type of person to complain if my food is cold in a restaurant, and I’m more likely to let a cashier short me on my change than go back and argue over a few pennies (or even a few dollars). Standing up to Suzy had been a rare, exquisite act—something that proved to me that I would be able to take care of myself if it ever really came down to it. I had to admit, all the time I was growing up, and even when I was away at college or working for a living, I’d always harbored a nagging doubt about my strength of character—or lack thereof. I worried that, deep down, I was still a child, that I’d always be dependent on someone else, whether it was my parents or my boyfriend or even a boss, to tell me what to do and take care of me. Truth be told, I’d been worried that I was turning out to be just like Suzy. Now, suddenly, I knew I’d been wrong. Even if I was still (pathetically) living under my mother’s roof, at heart I was a grownup and I could handle whatever came my way.
When I got home from work that night, Suzy was in the kitchen (it was almost like she was living in that one room alone). But instead of lounging at the table, swilling beer and smoking, she was at the stove, cooking something—and for once, it didn’t smell like potpourri.
“What’s cooking?” I asked.
Suzy flinched when she saw me. She quickly turned her attention back to the pot on the stove. “Um—it’s—um—a stew.”
“Lovely.” I sat down at the table and stared at her back until she visibly began to twitch. “So,” I said, keeping my voice casual, like nothing at all had happened between us just a few hours earlier. “How was your day?”
She stepped away from the stove and hurried over to the table. She pulled the dreaded notebook out of her purse and flipped it open to a page marked with that day’s date. She shoved it toward me.
“There’s the name of the social worker woman and her number. We talked for an hour. She says she’s got some leads on jobs for me.”
I squinted at the page, then pulled out my phone and typed the information into a fresh note. “That’s good,” I said, sliding the notebook back to Suzy. “I’m sure this—uh—Maryanne Crandall—will be happy to explain everything to me.”
Suzy’s eyes widened as she stared at me. “You’re going to call her?”
I held her gaze. “Do you honestly think I have any reason to believe that you called her without getting some proof beyond some scribbles on a pad?”
“I did call her.”
I smiled. “Then you should have no objections to my calling her, too.”
She looked down. “I don’t. Go ahead.”
I tucked the social worker’s name and number inside my bag and let out a deep breath. “So, what time is dinner?”
Suzy shook her head, defeated, and went back to the stove. I got up and took a bottle of red wine out of the liquor cabinet. As I was pouring myself a glass, my mother walked in. She smiled at me, but her lips quickly turned down when she glanced over at Suzy.
“Hello, all,” Mom said. “Did everyone have a good day?”
I lifted my wine in her direction. “Fabulous day. How about you?”
Mom was still staring at Suzy, clearly distracted at the sight of the useless moocher suddenly being helpful around the house. “Yeah, yeah, good day. Sure.”
I poured a second glass of wine and handed it to my mother. “Suzy is cooking dinner,” I said brightly.
“Wow,” Mom said. “What are we having?”
Suzy turned to look at us and gave a smile. I could tell she was forcing it. “Like I just told Madison, it’s stew.”
“Sounds great. What time are we eating?” Mom asked.
Suzy clicked off the burner. “It’s ready now.”
I shot Mom a look. I wasn’t exactly keen on eating anything Suzy had cooked, not after the fight we’d had that morning. With my luck, poisoning would be the one talent the bitch possessed.
I leaned over and kissed Mom on the cheek. “Actually, I picked up a little something on the way home. Plus, I’ve got to meet Scott in a couple of hours, so I’m just gonna head upstairs and try to get a little work done before I have to leave.” I drank down the last of my wine and set the glass next to the sink. “Thanks anyway, Suzy. Smells great.”
I turned to leave but made sure Mom caught my meaningful glance as I went. Then I pulled the kitchen door closed with my foot as I passed through into the living room.
I went to the landing at the base of the stairs and waited, listening to the sounds of the table being set and the stew being distributed. Once I was certain Mom and Suzy had settled into small talk, forgetting about the strange closing of the door, I crept back into the living room and pressed my ear against the wall adjacent to the kitchen. The sound was muffled some, but I could hear the conversation well enough. Now I just had to wait to see if Suzy would tattle on me to my mother.
I heard the tinkle of wineglasses and the throaty screech of wood chairs on the linoleum floor.
“Thanks for cooking, Suzy,” Mom said. “That was very nice of you.”
“It’s the least I could do, since you’re being kind enough to let me stay here.”
“Speaking of that, any luck getting through to the social worker?”
I heard another chair squeak and then the ruffling of papers. Christ, she was pulling out that damn notebook again!
“I did get through to her today,” Suzy was saying. “She sounded like she’s going to be very helpful.”
There was a long silence. I assumed my mother was looking at Suzy’s pathetic notations in the infamous notebook. But then she said, “Tell me the truth now. Have you actually been calling these people, or are you just pretending so I’ll let you stay here longer?”
“Wendy! How could you even say something like that to me?”
I smiled. For a brief flash, I actually felt a little sorry for Suzy. It was possible—not probable, but possible—that she was telling the truth this time. I pulled away from the wall, grabbed my bag, and hurried up the stairs to my room. I took out my cell phone and dialed the number Suzy had shown me.
It was after hours, of course, but I did get through to a voicemail that supposedly did belong to someone named Maryanne Crandall. I shook my head. It was still possible that Suzy had just found the name somewhere in the phone book or online and pretended to have a conversation with this person.
So I left a message.
“Yes, hello, Ms. Crandall. My name is Madison Holbrook. I’m calling in regard to my cousin, Suzanne Lieurance, who has been staying with me for a few weeks now. She told me she spoke to you about getting some help finding a job and a place to live, or any other government services that might be available. I was hoping to get an update on whether there’s been any progress in her case. I’d appreciate it if you would give me a call at your earliest convenience.”
I gave her my number and ended the call. Now we were getting somewhere. I tucked the phone back into my bag, then headed downstairs, back to my place at the wall between the living room and kitchen. So much for being a bona fide adult, I thought. I might as well be pressing a glass to the wall.
The voices were louder now, loud enough that I could easily hear without pressing my ear against the wall.
“Damn it, Suzy,” Mom was saying. “It’s not like you have a great track record when it comes to responsibility.”
“You’re one to talk,” Suzy said. “Aren’t you currently living off alimony payments? Everybody knows that little job of yours at the library is nothing but a hobby.”
Mom let out a laugh that sounded sarcastic, even through six inches of plaster and drywall. “At least I was smart enough to marry a man who could afford to pay me alimony.”
There was a long pause before Suzy said, almost too softly for me to hear, “That was a low blow.”
“But well deserved.”
“Why are you being so cruel?”
“I’m not being cruel. I’m being a grownup, something you’ve obviously never learned how to do.”
“It isn’t fair, Wendy. I just can’t get a fair break.”
There was a sound like a fist slamming on the top of the table. “You’ve led the cushiest existence in history. You wouldn’t know a fair break if it was polishing your toe nails.”
“So what do you want?”
Mom sighed. “It’s not about me, Suzy. It’s about you. It’s about you finally taking some responsibility for your own life. It’s about you taking care of yourself and not always sponging off some sucker. Yes, I realize that I’m one of the suckers. Always have been. But I’m done now. I swear to God, I’ve had it.”
I wanted to let out a cheer, but I clapped a hand over my mouth like a cartoon character would do and repressed the urge.
Then came the whimpering. Suzy was a pro when it came to conjuring up the fake tears when she wanted to get her way. Don’t give in, Mom, I thought, trying to will an iron backbone into my mother’s body through the barrier of the wall and physics.
“Crocodile tears,” Mom muttered. “You’ve always been good at that. But I’m not your mother or your father. I honestly don’t care all that much if you’re unhappy. It’s not my job to make sure you’re happy. It’s yours. And if you don’t know that by now, you probably never will.”
“You can’t make yourself happy,” Suzy argued. “Not without help from other people.”
“It’s not like I haven’t tried. I have. I went to college, I got married, I did everything I could think of to find happiness. But I’ve always been disappointed.”
“Believe it or not, sometimes you have to work at being happy,” Mom said. “Sometimes you just have to work, period.”
Mom burst out laughing. “Oh, yeah, I remember. You were a squirt girl at the mall for about five minutes.”
“It was over five weeks!”
“That just makes it even more pitiful.”
Suzy made what sounded like a cross between a sob and a gulp, then degenerated into sniffles and whimpers. I heard Mom sigh, then the creak of a chair—she must have been leaning back and watching Suzy put on her little show.
I don’t know what came over me, but suddenly I felt like I needed to defend Suzy—not for everything: not for the laziness, the cheapness, the self-centeredness. But I had to let my mother know that Suzy probably had actually spoken to the social worker. I dialed the home landline on my cell phone and waited for my mother, her voice airy with exhaustion, to pick up the phone on the wall.
“Mom,” I whispered. “Make some excuse and meet me up in my room.” I rushed back upstairs, struggling to make as little noise as possible.
I sat down on the bed and waited. It only took Mom a minute to arrive. She stood with her back to the closed door, arms folded across her chest, and said, “Well?”
“Don’t get me wrong, here,” I said. “I’m in no way taking Suzy’s side. But I think she actually did finally call the social worker today, so it’s probably not the ideal time to be attacking her.”
“How would you know that?”
I bit my lip. Damn. It hadn’t occurred to me that Mom would want to know how I knew what Suzy was up to. I had no choice but to come clean.
“Because I flipped out on her this morning, and told her she had to call and get this social work crap started immediately.”
The edges of Mom’s lips twitched. I could tell she was trying not to smile. She came over and sat next to me on the bed.
“And how did that happen?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. She was being her usual nasty self, and something inside me just snapped.”
Mom laughed. “I guess that’s the same thing that happened to me down there just now.”
“She does make it easy to freak out on her.”
“That she does. She’s always had that talent. Unfortunately, very few people have ever actually said what they wanted to say to her, so it’s coming as quite a surprise now that we’re confronting her, I’m sure of that.”
I shook my head. “So what do we do?”
“I don’t know. Maybe I should call the social worker . . .”
I sucked in a hissing breath through clenched teeth. “Actually,” I said, “I already did. Left a message just before.”
Mom smiled. “I knew I raised you right.”
“You’re not mad?”
Mom shook her head. She had a wistful kind of smile on her face. “I’m actually very proud of you. You’ve managed to stand up to someone who’s gone fifty-some years without having to answer for anything she did.”
“Suzy claims to be forty-three.”
“She’s full of shit.”
We smiled at each other. It felt, to me, like a weight had been lifted. By confronting Suzy, we’d set something in motion, Now all we had to do was wait and see what Maryanne Crandall from Social Services had to say.
Twenty-six years ago
It’s dark in the room
It’s dark like a womb
Every day the same
Every moment a drain
I haven’t the energy
to recall my own name.
Suzy was lying on her side on the tattered couch that had once been plaid but was now so ragged, its upholstery was unidentifiable. The only thing that ever changed here in the garage apartment was the TV. She asked for a new one each year at Christmas. Apparently, keeping a television on all day every day for years on end took a toll on the innards of the machine. By the time she unwrapped her new Christmas TV, the old one was literally smoking or hissing or otherwise ready to die a horrific mechanical death.
There was a dull knock at the door and then her mother came in with a steaming Tupperware container. Ivy stepped over the debris—soiled clothing, wrappers from candy bars and other junk food, crumpled balls of used tissue, and several clotted lumps of some substance Suzy knew Ivy preferred not to identify—and set the Tupperware down on the counter of the kitchenette. She had to push aside several greasy paper plates to make space.
Once she had officially delivered the meal, she gathered up in her arms several pieces of mismatched Tupperware—the remnants of meals past.
It had been almost ten years since Suzy’s marriage to Roman had fallen apart, but she had never snapped back from the sadness that had come over her when she left him. Not even her father’s occasional threats to get her a job had stirred her. She knew the threats were idle, that Ken would never do anything to cause his sweet Suzy any discomfort. And working, in Suzy’s mind, was the ultimate discomfort.
Ivy let out an audible sigh, which Suzy knew was her way of trying to get Suzy to look away from the TV. It wasn’t going to work. “How’s it going?”
“I left some ziti on the counter there. And I’ll take these empties back to clean.”
Suzy didn’t answer, but her mother continued to linger. Out of the corner of her eye, Suzy would see Ivy searching her brain for whatever magical words might bring her daughter back from the dark place where she’d been living for the past decade.
Eventually, Ivy sighed again. Suzy forced herself not to smile at the victory over her mother’s attempts at meddling. “Can I get you anything else?” Ivy asked.
Suzy shook her head, an almost imperceptible motion that required no energy to be expended. Over the past few years, she’d come to hate movement of any kind. Maybe it was because of all the weight she had gained. It was understandable—when all you did was eat and watch television, you were bound to pack on a few pounds.
Ivy sighed yet again. “Well, I guess I’ll go. Let me know if you need anything.”
When the door clicked shut behind her mother, Suzy dragged her eyes away from the TV screen and watched her mother’s shadow descend the stairs outside, a silhouette bouncing down, down, down. She waited to hear the sound of the kitchen door slamming closed downstairs, then pulled herself up to a sitting position. Even this tiny bit of exertion left her breathless, but it was worth it, she told herself. She took out her notebook, balanced it across her bare, dimpled knees, and began to write.
They’re still trying. I guess I should be grateful for that. Even after all this time, Mommy and Daddy haven’t given up on me. Anybody else probably would have left me to my own devices a long time ago. I know they love me, but it’s just not enough. Everybody’s parents love them; it’s not like that gives you a reason to live.
I’ve been thinking about Roman again. I know that’s stupid. I know he’s gone and that it’s probably for the best. But I can’t help wondering what might have been, if I had just stayed and tried a little harder. If I had done like he told me and gotten a job. Maybe I’d be happy now. Maybe we’d still be in love. Maybe I’d still be thin and beautiful and talented. Maybe I’d be a famous writer, and the kind of seclusion I live in now would just be the kind of idiosyncrasy people expect from a tortured artist. Everybody would want to be just like me. But it’s no use wondering what could have been. What is, is. There’s nothing you can do about it. No matter how we try, people don’t change. We are what we are.
She laid her pen down and stared at the blinking TV screen. On the left edge, a bar of pink was slowly creeping into the field of the screen. Eventually, she knew from experience, it would reach halfway across the screen, where it would be joined by a green bar creeping along from the right side. Once the two bars met, the TV would be a pink and green, no longer a color set, or even a black and white. She sighed. At least it was October. Christmas would probably come, and with it her new television, before the two bars took over. At least she hoped it would.
Sometimes, at night, she could hear her mother talking to friends on the telephone, her voice carrying through the air vents from the main house and up to the room over the garage. Over the years, Ivy had gone from angry to despondent to complacent as she watched her daughter become a virtual hermit. Not that she hadn’t tried. Unlike Ken, Ivy’s main priority was to get Suzy out of the house and back in to the dating scene, where, eventually, she would have to find a husband—this time, a good one. Ivy would tell her friends how Suzy was too pretty, too special, not to get out there and share all the feminine gifts Ivy had instilled in her during Suzy’s childhood. For a while, a few months after the divorce, before settling into full-on hermit status, Suzy had humored her mother and agreed to go on a few blind dates with young men who were the sons or nephews or neighbors of women in Ivy’s bridge club or something. The dates were always disasters.
On one of them, Suzy had decided it would be fun not to speak for the entire evening, just to see what the guy would do. The plan backfired when the man thought she had had a minor stroke and lost her hearing during their dinner, and insisted on taking her to the emergency room.
Another time, Suzy had played the vixen, tossing her hair and laughing gaily, head thrown back, mouth wide, just as her mother had taught her to do. Apparently, that young man was rather shy—a computer programmer or something—and he appeared utterly terrified of Suzy’s boisterous personality.
He was visibly relieved as he hurried back to his car after dropping her off at the end of the date.
To Suzy’s surprise, a few of the men her mother set her up with were actually appealing. They were good-looking, had interesting jobs—one was a lawyer devoted to protecting human rights around the world, another a graphic designer who created logos and all sorts of packaging. The artistic aspect of the second guy’s job should have been a point of mutual interest. Instead, it made her think of Roman and sent her into an immediate depression, which prevented her from keeping up her end of the conversation. Unsurprisingly, the man reluctant never called for another date.
After a few months of these abortive dating attempts, Suzy decided that she had already found—and lost—the one man God had put on the Earth just for her. If she couldn’t have Roman, then she didn’t want anybody. That was when she closed off from society, and by the time she had been living back at home for around a year and a half, she had locked herself inside her tiny apartment and stopped venturing out for anything. Her mother brought her meals, and her father fixed anything that broke around the apartment. They became her only links to the outside world.
She knew that her mother thought she did nothing all day but watch television and eat the hearty meals Ivy carried up twice a day, at midmorning and late afternoon. And that was mostly true. But, despite her refusal to leave home, to speak to or see any human beings other than her parents, Suzy still kept up her prolific habit of writing. She jotted down her every thought and composed poetry that seemed to get a little worse, a little more purple and trite, with every line. Her notebooks were her only friends, her only social outlets. And for the past nine years, they had been enough for her. Between writing and television—which gave her an eye onto the world she was not longer willing to face herself—she had everything she needed. She couldn’t foresee anything that might happen to jolt her out of this well-formed routine. It was more than a routine. It was all she had.
It took almost two weeks of playing phone tag before I finally got to speak to Maryanne Crandall, social worker. Apparently, the woman was as reluctant to talk to people as Suzy was. When I finally got her on the phone, she had some very interesting things to say.
“Ms. Holbrook? So glad I finally reached you. Now, how can I help?”
I was at work, so I stepped out through the glass doors at the front of the building and stood outside, leaning against the brick building as I talked.
“I just wanted to know how it was going, you know, looking for a job and a place for my cousin Suzanne Lieurance to stay.”
There was a long silence, and for a moment, I thought the line had gone dead. “Hello?” I asked.
“I’m still here,” Crandall said. “I’m just confused. I don’t have any record of speaking to anyone by that name.”
I closed my eyes and threw back my head, letting out a long, angry sigh. I knew it.
“Can you check once more?” I asked. “Suzanne Lieurance. L-I-E-U-R-A-N-C-E. She told me she spoke to you a couple of weeks ago.”
“I’m very sorry. I don’t have any clients by that name at all.”
Fabulous. I forced a smile, forgetting that this woman couldn’t actually see me through the phone. “She must have forgotten that she never got through to you,” I said. Great. Now I was lying on Suzy’s behalf. “Do you think I could give you her information and get things started that way?”
“It’s not procedure,” Crandall hedged.
“I’m sure it’s very strange, but Suzy—well, she’s got a tendency toward agoraphobia—doesn’t like to go out, doesn’t even like to speak to strangers if she can help it. I’m sure everything will be much simpler if I give you the initial details myself.”
It took some doing, but I finally convinced Crandall that I was Suzy’s next of kin and could speak on her behalf. The social worker took down our contact information, along with Suzy’s personal data, such as birth date, former addresses, and all that stuff (I was so proud of myself for wrangling all that info out of Mom’s address book weeks ago, just in case). Finally, she said she would look into the case right away, and let me know what kind of government benefits Suzy might be eligible for. I thanked her and went back to work.
I was completely unprepared for the news Crandall gave me when she called back a few hours later.
“I’m so sorry to tell you that your cousin doesn’t appear to be eligible for unemployment benefits. From what I can tell, she’s never held a paying job.”
I don’t know why that had never occurred to me as a potential problem. It should have been obvious. If you’ve never worked, you’ve never paid into the unemployment system, and hence, were not able to collect benefits.
“Huh,” I said. “That’s strange.” Another lie. “I thought she worked briefly at a mall in Ocean County. Selling perfume or something?” There’s no polite way to say perfume sniper.
“I can’t find any record of that. Is it possible she never received a paycheck?”
I smiled to myself. Of course it was. Very possible. I sighed. “Yes, I suppose that’s possible. I’ll have to ask her tonight when I see her. But what about other benefits? Disability maybe? Some sort of welfare? I’m sorry—I don’t really know how these things work.” Of course I didn’t, because I’d been working at paid jobs since I was a teenager. It occurred to me that I’d earned more money before leaving ninth grade than Suzy had done in fifty-some years.
I could practically hear Crandall shaking her head through the phone. “No, not really. Not without a doctor’s written description of the particular disability. And again, if she’s never worked . . . it’s difficult. I can look into some of the other hardship benefits we have available, but—”
“Yes, yes. I understand.” I ran my hand over my forehead and back through my hair. I couldn’t believe even this wasn’t working. Was there no way to get Suzy out of our house? From what I saw online, hardly anybody was bothering to work these days, but were managing to feed themselves (and, apparently, their heroin/fentanyl addictions) just fine living off the government teat. Why not Suzy?
“I’m sorry to be such a pest,” I said. “But if there’s anything at all you might be able to do . . .”
There was a long pause, then she said, “There is one other thing I can try. I can go through our job listings and see if there’s anything your cousin might be qualified to do. Does she have a college degree?”
“I think she got a secretarial certificate.”
“Any other skills?”
Slopping potpourri all over a white stove? Criticizing others without justification? Stealing cigarettes? Mooching? “I’m not sure,” I finally said. “I honestly wouldn’t even expect her to be all that current on her secretarial skills.”
“Can she use a computer?”
I wracked my brain, trying to recall if I’d ever seen Suzy do anything on my mother’s laptop or tablet at home besides play solitaire. “Sure, I guess so,” I said.
“But I imagine she’s not an advanced user?”
“No. No chance of that.”
“Okay. Well, it’s something. Let me take a look and see what I come up with. I’ll give you a call as soon as I have some information.”
I smiled as I hung up the phone. It was the first sign of (possibly) a bit of light at the end of this tunnel.
Instead of going right inside the house when I got home, I parked half a block down and waited for my mother to come around the corner on her way home from the library. She saw me before I had to honk and pulled up next to me so we could talk through our open car windows.
“What are you doing out here?” she asked.
“I wanted to catch you before you went inside and saw Suzy. I talked to the social worker today.”
“That’s great! What did she have to say?”
“Well, for starters, Suzy never called her.”
“You have got to be kidding.”
“Nope. So, needless to say, nothing had been done on her case, since there wasn’t one.”
My mother sighed and let her head droop down, looking defeated, over the steering wheel. “What do we do now?”
“I turns out Suzy’s never worked enough to qualify for unemployment or anything. But the social worker was nice enough to offer to look into other stuff, like the job listings she has, to see if she can find something for Suzy.”
Mom snorted. “Oh, I bet there are tons of jobs Suzy would be just perfect for.”
“I told the lady Suzy didn’t have any skills, but we’ll have to see if there’s something out there you can do even if you’re a moron and hopelessly lazy.”
Mom smiled. “I assume there is—hell, your father’s got a job.”
“Low blow, Ma.”
She gave me an apologetic wave. “You’re right, sorry. Well, I guess we should go inside.”
I waited for her to pull away, then followed her to the driveway. As we walked up the sidewalk together, Mom said, “Let me handle this, okay? I don’t think we should say anything to her until we’ve heard back from that social worker. No use having her pitch a fit and get even more stubborn than she already is. Got it?”
I rolled my eyes, but then I nodded. “It’s your call. I’ll let you know when I hear back.”
For the rest of the night, I couldn’t stand to look at Suzy, so I made excuses and went to spend the night at Scott’s. Thanks to the Suzy situation, on top of our busy work schedules, we’d hardly had a chance to be alone since we got engaged. He was being great about everything—probably because he had decided to create a new comic-book character based on Suzy—sort of a cross between “The Thing That Wouldn’t Leave” and “The Beast That Wouldn’t Die.” Sometime sit felt like, even when we did get time alone, Scott was spending half our time together picking my brain for choice Suzy conversation snippets to use in his comic. It was so unfair. Suzy had taken over my home, forced me to be part of the quest to find her a job, and now she was even taking over my fiancé’s mind. She had to go—soon.
It only took Maryanne Crandall a few days to get back in touch with me. She sounded upbeat, which I took as a good sign.
“I think I may have something,” she said.
“Lay it on me.”
“There’s an older gentleman, mid-eighties, who’s looking for a live-in companion. And if that sounds like ‘prostitute,’ I swear I don’t mean it that way!”I laughed. “Okay, I believe you. I wouldn’t think the government would be interested in pimping out the poor.”
“Exactly,” she said. “Anyway, the man isn’t disabled or anything, but he has some health issues, and his only child, a daughter, is moving away for job reasons, so she’s concerned about leaving him alone. He’s adamant about staying in his own home and not going to a nursing home, so he’s looking for someone to come stay with him, do some light cooking and cleaning, pretty much just help him out with anything he needs—driving him places and so forth.”
Could there be anything more perfect? This would give Suzy both a job and a place to live, and it really didn’t require any skill beyond the basic functions of human existence. What could possibly go wrong?
“So,” Maryanne said. “He just wants to meet her before hiring her. If she could come down to his place tomorrow afternoon—say, around one?—that would be terrific. I can email you the directions, if that’s okay.”
“Sounds great,” I said. “Go ahead and send them and I’ll make sure Suzy is there. And thanks—thanks so much for all your help.”
I could hardly wait to tell Suzy about the opportunity. I took the afternoon off work and rushed home to debrief Suzy and make sure she had clothes and gas in her car for the interview the next day. I should have known it was all working out much too easily.
That’s all she said—just one flat word—when I told her about the job.
“No? No?! You’re going to have to do better than that,” I said, fighting not to shout.
She took the piece of paper on which I’d printed out the directions to the old man’s house and read it over. “I can’t go there,” she said, pointing at the address.
I flopped down in the armchair that faced her as she sat on the couch. Lying back against the tufted fabric, I let out a long sigh. “Would you mind telling me why not?”
“Don’t you see?” she said, thrusting the paper at me and pointing at the text again. “I would have to go across the Driscoll bridge.”
“So . . . I can’t drive over that bridge.”
She leaned back, letting the paper flutter to the floor. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
I stood up and began to pace the room. “Well, I don’t give a shit what you want. You’re going to tell me.”
I lunged at her across the coffee table and she scrambled into a fetal position, tucked into the far corner of the couch. “Goddammit!” I screamed (so much for not shouting). “Tell me right now!”
She threw up her hands, as if trying to protect her head from blows, even though I wasn’t actually throwing any. I fell back onto the chair and stared at her, fuming, with my arms crossed over my chest. Suddenly, she leaped up and ran up the stairs. I heard the slam of Tracy’s bedroom door. Great.
She’d hide in there until my mother got home and then she’d come creeping out and try her best to turn my mother against me.
I let my head fall back, exhausted, and stayed there for the full half-hour it too before the front door opened and my mother walked in.
“Wow, you don’t look good. What’s going on?” Mom asked.
I lifted my head and slapped a sarcastic smile on my face. “Oh, everything’s just jolly.”
She came over and sat down on the couch. “What did she do now?”
It was then that Suzy came thundering down the stairs, making a shocking amount of noise for someone who looked more like a bag-lady skeleton than an actual human being. She pulled up to a stop in front of my mother and pointed accusingly at the piece of paper that contained the directions, which was still lying on the floor near my feet.
“Just look and see what she’s doing to me!” Suzy’s voice sounded like a bestial screech, something you’d hear at the zoo.
“Right,” I said. “Tell her all about how I’m torturing you by finding you a job and a place to live.”
Mom’s face brightened. “The social worker called?”
I nodded. “She did, and she has a great opportunity for Suzy, but your genius cousin refuses to go to the interview.”
Now Suzy pointed her finger at me. “She wants me to drive over the bridge!”
My mother closed her eyes and shook her head. “Goddammit. The freaking bridge.”
“Yeah! Yeah!” Suzy cried. “She actually expects me to drive myself—myself!—over the bridge!”
I stood up and threw up my hands. “Okay, I give up. What is it with the bridge?”
Nobody spoke for a long moment. Then Mom looked up at Suzy and said, “Actually, I’ve been wondering—how did you get up here without driving over the bridge?”
Suzy turned on her heel and started wandering in loopy circles, like a drunken chicken.
“What about the bridge?” My voice was teetering somewhere between whining and fury.
Mom ignored me and stared at Suzy. “Well?”
Suzy stopped moving and wrapped her arms around herself like a blanket. “I drove over it.”
Mom smiled triumphantly. “I thought so. If you could drive over it to get here, then you can drive over it to get to a job interview.”
Suzy let out another inhuman wail and started spinning in circles again.
I sat back down and said quietly, “Will somebody please tell me what is wrong with that bridge?”
Mom sighed and Suzy stopped moving. For a second, I thought time had actually stopped. Then Mom whispered, “I think that’s Suzy’s story to tell.”
Twenty-three years ago
Black and blue
Black and blue
Black and blue
My soul is turning black and blue
How long did I wait,
wait in vain for you?
Your absence is turning me
All black and blue.
It should have been simple
It should have been nice
You should have been back
before I could think twice
But a decade has gone
And I lie here alone
Just thinking of you
Black and blue, black and blue.
One day, two things happened to turn Suzy’s world upside down. The television broke—before its scheduled Christmas deadline—and then something even more tragic: She ran out of paper.
She hadn’t even noticed that her supply was running low. She always found something to write on—old notebooks, less than half-filled, from the classes she skipped in college; legal pads stolen in bulk from her father’s office; colorful, squat pads in rainbow colors, stuffed into her Christmas stocking every year by her mother. There was never a shortage of blank sheets, even if she had to scrounge a little, or recycle by scribbling on the backs of old takeout menus. When, suddenly, that one morning she had to get up and look for a piece of paper—to no avail—she didn’t know what to do.
First, a burning rush of terror moved over her skin, turning her cheeks into prickly pincushions. Then, sweat exploded from her pores and she felt the nape of her neck begin to drip. Finally, she found herself down on her hands and knees, tearing through ancient clots of dried-out leftover food and sticky crumbles of things she could no longer identify, ignoring the bloody gashes she was making up and down her arms as she shoveled through the bulky piles of trash. When she had no choice left but to give up, she sat back on her heels and looked around, unable to comprehend where all this garbage had come from. She noticed suddenly that her arms were wet with blood and she wondered vaguely how that had happened. She lowered her rear to the floor and sat there among the trash Indian-style, gaping at the thin rivulets of blood swirling down her forearms. She smiled—the first time she had lifted the corners of her mouth in longer then she could remember. Then she pulled her left arm close to her face, blinking at the slick red puddles close up. Before she knew what she was doing, she ran her tongue along the length of her arm, savoring the metallic flavor of blood mixed with sweat and a light but unmistakable coating of filth.
She sighed and let her arms fall to her sides. The blood was beginning to dry up now, and with it, her fascination. She ran her fingers absentmindedly through the nearest trash, looking for anything flat, anything blank, that she could write on. Her eyes fell on her bare legs, twisted below her. A smile smoothed over her cheeks as she reached for her pen and popped off its cap. Then she leaned over and begin to write down the length of her thigh.
Darkness blackness lightness heat
Water vegetable mineral meat
She grinned. Her writing was even worse than usual when she didn’t have paper to write on. Then again, maybe the problem was the combination of pen and skin. They just didn’t blend. She capped the pen and tossed it aside. It immediately sank beneath the piles of loose debris. She let her back sag as she clapped her fingers together lightly while she glanced around for some other writing implement. Her eyes lit up when she saw it: a jagged, untwisted paper clip lying halfway inside a bashed-in Styrofoam coffee cup.
She reached for the paper clip and pinched it between her fingers, holding it up to the light and watching its slender edges shine. It was perfect.
She hunched over her other thigh and began to carve the words pouring forth from her racing brain.
North South East West
Who’s the girl that we love best
The edge of the paper clip didn’t penetrate deeply into her skin. Instead, it scrawled a ragged-edged white line dotted with tiny bubbles of blood. Maybe she needed to dig deeper.
Roman, where are you
Friends, Romans, countrymen
When in Rome
The sheep are roamin’ through the fields
She realized she was writing nonsense, and that once again, inexplicably, she was thinking about Roman, even after all these years. It made sense, she argued to herself. She had never had the chance to see him after that morning when she left. She had never been able to tell him why she left, had never given him a chance to beg her to come back. And that meant she’d never had any closure.
She looked down at her left arm, which was coated with a fine layer of dried blood. She licked her finger and dragged it through the blood, making a white swirly pattern over the rust-colored background. Her fingertip came away tinged with dried flakes of blood, so she stuck it in her mouth and sucked the blood off.
She realized suddenly that she was acting crazy—or, at least, crazier than usual. Normal people didn’t sit on the floor surrounded by garbage and writing on themselves, carving up their limbs with a paper clip. Normal people didn’t lick blood off themselves like it was chocolate sauce or the residue from an order of hot wings. But just as suddenly as she it occurred to her that she was losing her mind, she understood that she didn’t care. And that made her smile.
She lifted the paper clip again and began to jab it, hard and deep, into the flesh of her calf. Rather than the light gashes she had made by dragging the clip, the jabs brought forth larger, shinier droplets of blood. She felt a warm glow at the thought that they looked like tiny rubies trembling on her skin. She jabbed and jabbed again, each thrust the touch of a tattoo needle spelling out the words swimming laps in her mind.
It’s time to die.
By the time she made the last jab—the period at the end of her what she knew now was a goal, not just a statement—the rubies had merged to form a thick, flowing river that rushed from her knee to her ankle, branching off into tributaries that leaked over the edges of her shin and dripped onto the beige pile of the carpet, forming small crimson pools. She dropped the paper clip and surveyed her work. After all these years, she had a piece of writing she was proud of.
She took a deep breath and let it out through her nose, a smile playing on her lips. Then she got up and located her purse, which was still hanging over the back of one of the kitchen chairs, the same place it had been since she left it there years before, after the last of her disastrous blind dates. She fumbled inside for her keys. When she found them, she headed for the door, wondering whether her car would start after all this time sitting idle in her parents’ driveway.
Before she opened the driver’s-side door, she took a quick glance around to make sure that no one was watching—not her parents, who, luckily, were still at work; not some nosy neighbor who might hurry outside to have a chat with the notorious recluse. Satisfied that she was alone, she popped open the door and slid inside. It was all just as she remembered it: the same strange scent of stale cigarette smoke miraculously mixed with lingering remnants of new car smell, and the sparkly peace sign sticker on the dashboard, which had been there when her father bought her the car, slightly used. She turned the key in the ignition and felt a rush of relief wash through her when the car started right up. It was all working out just right. She had been right all along—this was fate; this was what she was meant to do.
She put the car in reverse and pulled out of the driveway. It had been a long time since she had cruised this neighborhood, much less ventured beyond it. She only hoped she could remember the way—and that her destination still looked the way it did in her memory.
The Driscoll bridge. Built during the late 1960s to accommodate the growing number of vehicles flocking to the Jersey shore every summer weekend, it wasn’t much of a bridge, if you really looked at it. Other than the fact that it curved up and over a small river that Suzy couldn’t name, it was little more than a highway with multiple lanes in each direction. It didn’t even have a bridge shape or any sort of fancy metal latticework or suspension cables; it was simply an ordinary road piled high on top of concrete pillars.
That’s what would make it easy to jump from.
Suzy eased the car into the slow lane and began the ascent to the crest of the bridge. It was a bright, sunny, windy afternoon, and there were plenty of cars speeding across the bridge, probably people heading home at the end of the workday. Suzy let the cars that seemed to be in a hurry pass her, hugging the right shoulder as she stretched up in her seat, trying to peer over the concrete meridian that served as the side rail of the bridge.
When she had almost reached the top, she hit her brakes over and over, trying to simulate car trouble. She flipped on her hazards and slowly pulled out of the lane and onto the narrow, gravel shoulder. She killed the engine and leaned back in her seat, feeling the swoosh of air shake her car as other vehicles sped by with only inches to spare.
She looked at herself in the rearview mirror. It had been a long time since she had last examined her reflection. The person looking back at her was a stranger with puffy cheeks, hair that hung in greasy clumps like haphazard dreadlocks, and purple moons beneath her eyes that looked more like shiners than the faint circles caused by a bad night’s sleep.
She was not going to miss this person. Nobody would.
Suzy leaned over and watched in the outside mirror as the cars kept coming, faster and faster, up from the bottom of the bridge. She waited for a gap between two vehicles before opening the door and popping out, then rushed around to the passenger side of the car. From where she stood, just a foot or so away from the short concrete wall at the edge of the bridge, she could feel the wind whipping her body back and forth and had to fight to stand erect. Despite the rush of traffic, the air up here was almost silent. All she could hear was the beat of her own heart and the occasional mournful whistle of the breeze.
She turned around and watched the cars pass by for a while. Few of the drivers even paused as they flew past her car, but there was bound to be a Good Samaritan out there who might try to help, so she popped the trunk and pulled out her jack and spare tire, so it would at least look like she had the situation under control.
Keeping the trunk open, she moved around to the front of the passenger side of the car and leaned forward over the edge of the bridge just enough to see the water below. Whatever this river was, she didn’t think it was a major body of water—just an inconvenience that you had to get past before you could reach the Jersey shore (or return from it). She sighed. What did it matter what river it was? She knew someone would be able to name it when the time came to fish her bloated body out of its depths. She wouldn’t be there to hear the river’s name, but so what? At least she would finally have what she wanted.
It was time to do this.
She took a last look around, then lifted one leg over the concrete wall. There was only a thin lip of black top on the outer edge of the bridge, but it was wide enough to hold her, as long as she balanced on her tiptoes. Slowly, she brought her other leg over and leaned back, holding onto the concrete wall with her fingertips and staring down at the whirling waters below. For a minor river, it certainly seemed to be brewing today.
She didn’t know how long she perched there, but it was longer than she should have. Before she could abandon the thoughts racing through her brain and just tell herself to jump, she heard the crunch of gravel behind her as another car pulled up.
Although she had heard and registered the arrival of the car, she was still surprised when the driver spoke to her, his voice far too cheerful for the solemnity of the moment.
“Car trouble, miss?”
She didn’t want to turn around, but there was something about the man’s voice—a fullness, a refreshing honesty—that made her smile in spite of herself, and in spite of the fact that she was currently holding on to the edge of a bridge, trying to convince herself to jump. Against her own wishes, she snapped her head around to look at him.
For a moment, she felt her body go limp as her mind shouted silently, It’s Roman! Her fingers came away from the concrete wall and she felt herself begin to sway. There was a cold tornado in her belly as she felt herself lean, a little more and a little more, away from the bridge. It was then that she decided she wanted to live. But it was too late. Her fingers brushed uselessly against the warm roughness of the concrete, and she knew she was going to die.
She didn’t see the man come toward her. It was only afterward, when she was clutched in his arms, safely on the bridge, that she realized he had saved her and that he was not, in fact, Roman. As she stared into the mossy green pools of his eyes, she realized that Roman had killed her, but his doppelganger, here on the bridge, had brought her back to life.
END OF PART II: Part III will follow in the next issue.