Dreaming, Aurelia spends an eternity in formless darkness, long after the voices have faded. No sound but for the roaring in her head, the musty smell of pent-up clothes: hangers ruffled with her mother's dresses, jackets, scarves.
She puts her hand on the door, pushing ever so slowly, opening up the world. Her parents' bedroom, curtains drawn, a bright sky beyond. They are there, both of them, and the smell is overpowering. In evening formal wear, Mother in a green satin gown, Father in a purple-tied tuxedo. Holding hands, but only because she, Aurelia, has posed them like that.
In her mind's eye, Aurelia sees it happening again, the harsh voices of the men barking their commands. Mother crying, pleading with them. The first shot impossibly loud, and then the second, Aurelia trying to make herself invisible, infinitesimal.
If they open the cupboard door . . .
But they do not, they did not. This really happened, but days ago. She doesn't want to leave them, their soupy, meaty smell, growing ever more pungent. But there's a clarity in her head that's been lacking, a vector leading through the bedroom door.
It's bright in the house, every blind thrown open, every room in disarray. But she will not replace a single cushion or right a single upturned stool. She takes water from the faucet and a packet of crackers from the pantry, puts them in her backpack. Goes out on her voyage without even a jacket.
Vista of the sea below, almost never as radiant as it is today, incandescent. The sheer cliff-face, the salty spray, deep cracks in the mansion's foundations where lichen grows. Running her hand along the coarse rock-face, she spies a splash of color, a hoppity fluttering, the erratic flight of an azure-colored not-bird. It descends the rock wall and lands on her outstretched palm. "Where are you going, little one?" Aurelia asks it, but of course it cannot answer. More than a phantasm but less than a flesh-and-blood thing, the not-bird fills her with an alien warmth. Perhaps it intends to accompany her.
The vector leads over the precipice.
Terror grips Aurelia, pushing her down to hands and knees. Good dirt, black dirt. The not-bird seems to taunt her with its nonchalant hopping, bringing it ever closer to the edge. Aurelia crawls, listening to the muted boom of breakers on the rocks below. She peers over the lip of the chasm. It's unusually calm down there, the angry waves for once quieted.
There's a stone staircase carved into the rock, rarely used by anyone and never by her. Dangerous in all weather and suicidal in some, the zigzagging staircase is slippery and slimy with moss. Aurelia sits on the top step. The rush of air is invigorating and the not-bird seems to be waiting. She can do this, not spindled on rickety legs but sliding, inch by inch, on her rump.
It's surprisingly tiring, this undignified progress. Reach, slide, plop down. Reach, slide, plop down. Her pants are rubbing and the steps are only getting wetter and slimier. Salt fills her nostrils, stings her eyes. By the time she's a third of the way down, she's having second thoughts.
Reach, slide, plop down. The barnacle line comes and goes, the steps now more green than black in color. She's getting cold despite her exertions. In her struggle to stay warm, she speeds up, scooting down the furred steps to the quickening beat of some inner drum. The not-bird remains forever one step ahead, apparently impervious to wind and splash and spray.
There's a bright orange door in the cliff-side, hidden from view until now. "Is that where I'm headed?" she wonders aloud, the only answer a howling tempest. The door is almost down at the wave line. The wind is fierce, the ocean broiling, each boom quaking her core. She's wet through, tremoring with cold. The door's surface is made of some plasticy material. Even if she had a key there's no keyhole, no handle at all, but the not-bird won't go any further. So she knocks, pounds with puny fists, sobs. The not-bird tweets in a peculiar manner--
The door opens inward and Aurelia tumbles into darkness, the door closing behind her with a clang. The blackest pitch, a suffocating silence.
But then a miracle, light--
The not-bird's olive eyes have turned a gossamer gold, illuminating the tunnel ahead. And it's warm air rushing toward her, blessedly so. Some earthy smell, like ancient peat. Aurelia stoops, watches her head, shuffles along like that. The tunnel veers once way and then the other, never allowing her to see very far ahead. The not-bird eyes play a dancing light onto the flickering, rough-cut walls. The tunnel's getting hotter, more suffocating, her clothes plastered to her skin. She stops for a drink of water and to catch her breath. A loamy, decaying stench invades her nostrils and there's a distant, intermittent hissing, like an inhalation and exhalation of breath.
The tunnel widens into a small chamber. Sunlight shafts in from a crack in the earth above. Something's crunching underfoot. Aurelia looks down, sees that she's standing on a bundle of bones and torn pieces of fabric. The hissing is getting louder, the stench more caustic.
Something's alive down here and it isn't her.
She can follow the tunnel further or she can attempt to climb. The not-bird scoots up onto a ledge. Aurelia levers herself up and the not-bird shows her where to step next. Then the not-bird flies up and hovers some distance below the crack. No more footholds. She can see tufts of green, but it's far too high to reach. The not-bird's trying to show her something, a black rope almost invisible against the wall. She touches it, recoils. It's gristly, like a string of meat. She gives it a tug, sees if it will hold her weight. Apparently it will. But the wall's so smooth that there's nowhere to gain leverage. Aurelia doesn't have the strength, her feet scrabbling uselessly against the wall.
The rope goes taut and she hangs on. Inexorably, she's being lifted, but by whom? Up, up. Aurelia breaks the surface, brushes herself off and looks around. The pile of black rope lays unattended, her helper having vanished into the mist. Her hands are chafed and the sun's disappearing over the ridge. She's in a sheltered cove, cliffs rearing up on ever side. A small tugboat is moored down by a narrow beach of black sand. The not-bird zooms off in that direction and Aurelia follows in its wake.
the tugboat looks damaged, bent like a half-crushed can. It's cold here, a stiff breeze coming in off the ocean. She's damp and shivering, so she steps aboard and ascends the ladder to the wheelhouse. There's no one at the helm, no one on deck. She finds a heavy jacket, takes off her shirt and wrings it out, puts on the jacket and zips it up. Then she stares at the consoles. The not-bird flutters up to a particular panel, upon which there's a button marked AUTO. Aurelia presses the button and the tugboat's engines thrum to life. The tugboat begins to power away from the shore. She hunts in her sodden backpack for the crackers, finds them, but they've disintegrated to a pasty mush. She goes onto the deck and flings them over the side, wiping her hands on the jacket.
The sun is setting, but there's a yellow moon rising out of the ocean. Aurelia makes her way up to the prow, holding the rail while she tries to find her sea legs. She gazes at the moon, transfixed by its ghostly glamour. The tugboat's slowing down. The engines are straining but the boat's almost come to a halt and the water is gleaming in an unnatural manner. Something gluey and clogging has them entrapped. Seaweed? Oil slick?
A million bobbing globules, refracting the yellow light.
Jellyfish, a toxic plume of them, like a gigantic frog spawn. She goes back into the wheelhouse, beseeching the not-bird for help, but it's motionless, powered down. The engines are whining and the cloud of jellies is only getting thicker, coagulating around the boat as though it's a precious nectar.
If the engines fail, what then?
The consoles mean nothing to Aurelia. She is, after all, just a child. She can use just one button marked AUTO and she has just one helper with nothing further to add. She presses the AUTO button and the engines cease. Now she will drift with the jellyfish, come what may. Stars reveal themselves and the moon climbs high.
There's another light, winking in, winking out. A lighthouse. She's been there before, long ago. It seems to be calling, tugging, or perhaps that's the tide and the rocks she'll be dashed on soon enough. The clot of jellies is starting to break up in the waves, their ethereal body subdivided. She considers turning AUTO back on, but look--there's a darkened pier, a moonlit beach. If she's lucky, the tugboat will wash right up on the shore. Maybe there's a keeper at the lighthouse, some savior.
Cacophony, chaos, the tearing of metal. The deck lurches, Aurelia falls and hits her head. The tugboat has struck a reef and now it's sinking. There's a row of lights at the end of the pier. It isn't far. Aurelia scrambles to her feet, unhooks a life-ring, before toppling over again. The life-ring cushions her fall, bouncing her clear of the stricken tugboat into the icy black. She tries to swim but the jacket's too heavy, she can't lift her arms, but somehow she still has the life-ring. Sea and sky are intermixed and she's half-choked by the time she washes up on the beach, too weary to lift her head, let alone try to stand. But she'll have to or the waves will claim her back.
She's tangled, trapped. She manages to unzip the jacket, crawls half-naked and mostly frozen beyond the tide-line, but she'll die right here if she can't get dry. In the moonlight she can see waves washing over the side of the derelict tugboat.
Something shoots clear from the water, like a meteorite ascending to the sky. The thing curves around and beelines to Aurelia. It's the not-bird, awoken from its reverie. Now it hovers above her, spotlighting her with its golden eyes, its light warm, benevolent. She drags herself to her feet. Her legs are leaden, her energy sapped. She tumbles--
and it catches and holds her in some invisible grip.
Aurelia levitates, rising in some invisible bubble, by some hitherto unknown means of conveyance. The not-bird's taking her to the lighthouse. Aurelia will live on, thanks to it. She's warm now, her skin molten in the not-bird's light. It deposits her with infinite gentleness at the doorstep, and already she misses the cocoon of its protection, vowing to commit to memory exactly what that felt like.
"Do you have a name, little one?" she asks it. "How can I ever repay you?"
"Yettobe," the not-bird croaks tinnily in reply, but Aurelia never discovers which question it was responding to, for the not-bird leaves her, cavorting into the night.
Bereft, Aurelia knocks on the heavy lighthouse door.
Doors, forever opening, open for her once more.
Guy Salvidge is a Western Australian teacher and author of the dystopian novels Yellowcake Springs and Yellowcake Summer. His short fiction has been published in Tincture Journal, The Great Unknown and The Tobacco-Stained Sky. His story "Frank" recently won the City of Rockingham Short Fiction Award. Visit him online at guysalvidge.com or guysalvidge.wordpress.com
Sylvia was a recluse. She was just eccentric some would say, others would simply term her as "odd." She definitely was an interesting case study at any rate. She loved to speak in foreign languages no one else could understand, paint drawings with a realism and depth that drew an eye in to something quirky and strange, and beards. She only ever dated men with beards.
Fat men, short men, smart men, stupid men--didn't matter as long as he had a beard.
Sylvia didn't know how to explain this fascination. It was just one of her many quirks. Her mother once joked that she would have married the bearded lady had she been a man. She just might have.
Bruce was a zombie. He wasn't born that way, no, but in the aftermath of one of the many zombie apocalypses of 3048 A.D. he had been turned by his brother of all people.
Human Bruce had been angry about that, but the zombie Bruce couldn't care less. He only had one thing on his mind. Brains.
Sylvia was sitting alone listening to slam poetry with a shot glass in her hand. Just as she was about to take a swig she caught sight of Bruce.
Bruce was tall, lean and bearded. It was the longest beard Sylvia had ever seen. Without even giving him time to register what was happening, she walked over and kissed him full on the lips.
Bruce blinked. That was the first time anyone had approached him since he had become a zombie. It confused him, it horrified him. What kind of weirdo was this? "You're weird," he responded before running out the door.
"No, wait, you had the most beautiful black beard," Sylvia pouted. "Oh, damn, I even scare zombies away. Mother's right, I am going to die alone." She downed her shot. "Oh well."
Linda M. Crate is a Pennsylvania native born in Pittsburgh yet raised in the rural town of Conneautville. Her poetry, short stories, articles, and reviews have been published in a myriad of magazines both online and in print. Recently her two chapbooks, A Mermaid Crashing into Dawn (Fowlpox Press -- June 2013) and Less Than a Man (The Camel Saloon -- January 2014) were published. Her fantasy novel Blood & Magic was published in March 2015. Her novel Dragons & Magic was published in October 2015.
It waits there on a back shelf at the Dollar Store, a slim volume with tasteful cover, dust jacket intact, scarred only by an ugly line of bleeding black marker slashing its bottom edge. I am intrigued by the title (intellectual, yet playful) and I flip through the pages, give a modest nod of recognition as in reuniting with a seldom-considered friend, and place the book in my basket. With tax its value is one dollar plus five cents.
Although the stack of others-to-be-read threatens to topple beside my bed, it is to this novel I turn first. The cover is lovely, just the way such things should be. The author is middle-aged, and the crinkled eyes of her photo on the back flap smile out with expectant enthusiasm. Her mouth is a timid question.
"Do you like my work?" she seems to ask. "Would you want to know the characters further?"
My answers are yes to both questions.
I research her name and uncover precious little. This debut hardback is indeed her sole published work, and it has been out of print for any number of years, a paperback edition never issued. Silken lyrical prose. Haunting characters. A so-called "quiet" novel, not the stuff of blockbuster fame. One of those works for which word-of-mouth must prove the surest publicity, and when that dies, when all potential readers and all friends of potential readers have been alerted and exhausted, these bound words, this dream dies softly with neither a bang nor a whimper, only to face a brief resurrection on an industrial metal shelf cosseted between neon plastic flyswatters and kitty litter.
It is a June day and the sun is shining.
Mara Buck writes and paints in a self-constructed hideaway in the Maine woods. Awarded/short-listed by Faulkner-Wisdom, the Hackney Awards, and others, with work in Drunken Boat, HuffPost, Crack the Spine, Blue Fifth, Writing Raw, Pithead Chapel, Apocrypha, Maine Review, tishman Review, Carpe Articulum, Linnet's Wings, The Lake, Whirlwind, as well as in numerous print anthologies. A novel is forthcoming.
On the road outside his house was a dead rainbow. It might have been an oil slick that had separated into bands of color, but Hogarth had no interest in that explanation. He stopped and peered. Was there anything he could do to erase it? Then it twitched. It wasn't dead after all, just badly injured! He wrapped it in his coat and took it home, intending to nurse it back to health.
He used his bedroom as a sickbay and kept the rainbow in a cardboard box filled with fistfuls of cotton wool that resembled summer clouds. The rainbow regained its strength and soon was able to arch itself without assistance. Only now did Hogarth realize how young it was, not exactly a baby, but certainly a toddler. He fed it on fake raindrops squeezed from a sponge and beams of electric light.
When it was fully recovered, it followed him everywhere and became totally domesticated, sleeping against the ceiling over his bed. Hogarth felt it was his duty to reintroduce it into the wild and took it for long walks under vast skies. But the rainbow never strayed far from his side. Hogarth's friends began to frown with disapproval whenever they passed him on the street. Then the rainbow uttered its first word.
"Prism!" it cried loudly. "Prism!"
Hogarth was touched but also concerned. The rainbow was dependent on him to an unhealthy degree and wouldn't survive on its own. He had to make a renewed effort to loosen the bonds, to undo the damage. One morning he left the house earlier than usual, before the rainbow was awake, and he didn't return until after sunset. He found the rainbow in an acute state of agitation because of his prolonged absence.
"It's time we had a little talk," he said gruffly.
The rainbow quivered anxiously.
"I'm not your prism," continued Hogarth, "not your real prism. I adopted you when you were an infantile spectrum and raised you as my own, so in fact, I'm just your step-prism."
The rainbow remained perfectly still.
"It's true," said Hogarth almost defensively. Then he fumbled in the pocket of his coat and withdrew a transparent wedge of glass. "I went to all the curio shops, toured all the street markets, and finally I found this. Don't you recognize it?"
"My biological prism," said the rainbow. It was neither a question nor a statement and Hogarth sighed.
"Reunions like this don't come cheap. The owner of the antique store span me an improbable tale about the prism that Isaac Newton bought at Stourbridge Fair in 1665, a casual purchase that led to his discovery that white light is a mixture of all the other colors. That prism was an ancestor of this one, the owner said. I don't know how that could be. Do you feel it might be true? I think it's just a fable."
The rainbow sagged under its own barely detectable weight.
Hogarth set down the glass wedge with an audible click on the top of his bedside table. "I'll leave you alone together. You need time to get properly acquainted. But you can't live here any longer, I'm afraid. My friends think I've become some sort of pervert. Goodbye!"
He turned to leave, then paused at the door. "Take your sponge with you but leave the lamp. I can live without indoor rain but I enjoy reading in bed. I'm going to stay in a hotel in another town for a few days. Please don't be here when I get back. That's everything."
The empty streets were straight and grey. Crossing the bridge, he happened to glance down. A large prism was floating on the current of the river and a shoal of rainbow fish followed it.
"Adoption just isn't for me," said Hogarth finally.
Rhys Hughes has been a published author for the past 25 years. He has published more than 30 books and has been translated into 10 languages.
The moth's belly is plump and soft and if I reach with my finger, I imagine that I will break through it as though it were a ghost. I tell it that in a high school biology class many years ago I heard that moths' and butterflies' average lifespans are somewhere between eight and nine months. "That's only as long as I was in the womb."
"Yes, and weren't you happier then? Birth is the very first trauma that we experience."
"I guess you're right. I couldn't have known sadness in the womb. But at least I've had time to experience everything that I've experienced. Traumatic or not. Don't you worry that you haven't got enough time to understand the world?"
"I've seen a lot already. Last week, I saw a little girl drop her ice cream cone and scream out in glee when a stray dog approached to lap it up. I drank the dew from the leaf of a rosebush. I saw you yesterday make love to your other and eat citrus fried with your fingers afterwards. I understand."
"Humans live an average of eighty years in most parts of the world."
"That is a long time to be a human being."
The moth rests on the leaf of a houseplant who's genus I've long forgotten. She is green with long, veiny stems that are thick and strong and hold up all of the life coming from them as if that were no work at all. When the moth opens and closes its wings, the plant does not even shake.
Liah Paterson is an Interlochen Alumni as well as a long-time member of the Nosebleed Club writing collective. She has been awarded the Scholastic silver key in prose and has been published in Rookie Magazine. She is twenty, from New Jersey, and sticks her fingers regularly with embroidery needles.
Since waking that Sunday, April had been in a tizzy, anxious to reveal her creativity to her husband Jeff. She'd have snapped the laggard from his snores but, having found the bed empty, she'd hurried to the kitchen. She was crestfallen to discover that the room was deserted. Her suspicions that Jeff had ducked down to the garage to check out the new guy were later confirmed.
Having nailed down her inspirational words on a notepad, ready in the bedside table drawer as advised by a writer's magazine, April awaited Jeff's return, flitting impatiently from feeding chickens to vacuuming the upstairs hall.
The moment she heard the front door open, she grabbed her masterpiece, and rushed downstairs to corner her husband. As quick as she had been, Jeff was already crunched into his kitchen chair sipping coffee out of his Best Dad cup. The inspired poet cleared her throat and proudly recited her verse.
Red berry Ruth
They all had enough
For Mendelssohns eye.
After the final phrase settled into the room, only the sound of a persistent wasp, caught behind the ill-fitting screen, cut through the dead-sea silence.
April waited anxiously, aware that it would take her husband--who was no poet--time to digest the verse. But when, instead of words and wonder, a stilted heaviness descended, she despaired.
Always slow on the draw when replying to his wife, this time Jeff had been stunned into silence. He scratched his cheeks rough from his early morning shave and swished his coffee around. "Wasn't Mendelssohn they guy who said two peas aren't alike?" he asked tentatively.
"No, dough boy," April snapped. "He's a composer."
When she scribbled down the poem, she recognized that Mendelssohn was famous but for what she wasn't sure. She'd checked online to discover that Mendelssohn, although long dead, was a celebrated musician. Although she often listened to music when she was feeding the cows, she couldn't remember any of Mendelssohn's tunes.
"Would I know any of his jingles?" her husband asked suspiciously.
"No, but it's music poetry people know."
"You're sure you got the words right?"
"Of course, I wrote it down as soon as I got up," she said, handing him the paper.
Jeff tugged his glasses out of his shirt pocket, cautioning April not to nag about the two broken pairs
he'd similarly stored. Peering hopefully through the grimy lenses, he slowly picked over the lines.
Red berry Ruth
They all had enough
For Mendelssohns eye.
"Shouldn't it be Mendelssohn's eye with a possessive mark?" he finally asked.
Didn't that sum him up, April thought. Where she discovered poetry, Jeff was caged in a world of punctuation marks.
"Never mind," she'd snapped, snatching the paper from him and sailing out of the room. Fortunately, for all concerned, the crack of the screen door slammed shut muffling his query about lunch.
April headed across the field on a brisk walk to let off steam. Was she expecting too much of Jeff? After all, everyone couldn't be a poet nor could everyone appreciate poetry. Jeff did contribute to her art by driving her into town in stormy weather to attend her writing group. She wondered if Mendelssohn had had a wife and if so whether she had been understanding of his efforts.
Finally, her legs started to tire, and April decided it was best to go home and call a truce. As always, it was she who had suffered but, from all she read on the subject, that's what made artists great: suffering.
She'd make some waffles. That should bring Jeff back to the house. And she'd not even comment when her husband drowned his breakfast in Maple Syrup. She'd even join him--even though she was trying to cut down on her carbs. After all, it had been a hard day, and poets had to eat.
Melodie Corrigall is an eclectic Canadian writer whose stories have appeared in Litro UK, Freefall, Halfway Down the Stairs, Bethlehem Writers Roundtable, Six Minute Magazine, Mouse Tales, Subtle Fiction, Emerald Bolts, Earthen Journal, Switchback, and The Write Time at the Write Place. www.melodiecorrigall.com
You fell asleep with your socks on and had a bad dream. I watched you twitch, heard you call your mother a bitch. When you woke up, you asked me what's the point of life? I stared into the gloam. There were 22 slats in the blinds.
Phil Lane's poems and stories have been appearing periodically online and in print for the past decade. He lives in New Jersey, works as an English/Writing instructor, and is a Bob Dylan and Boston Terrier enthusiast. He can be found online at twitter.com/thephillane
Each time I saw him he seemed smaller, shrunken. The old man had nowhere to go, shoulders hunched against the snow that blew in off Lake Erie, he'd never belonged anywhere till nowhere was where he belonged.
I saw him a week ago last Tuesday where I'd seen him before, sitting on a bench at the Lorain Avenue bust stop tracing old age spots that spread across the back of his bony hands. I nodded and sat down wanting to ask him how he was doing but you never knew what would set him off in a downward spiral of self pity. I played it safe, unfolded a newspaper and turned to the horoscopes.
"I saw her staring at me this morning from 15,000 feet," he said.
I lowered the paper and looked at him. Not knowing whether he was talking to me or some imaginary friend that frequented the bench, I decided to ask. "Who?"
"Mama. She was in a cloud," he said. "My days are like a shadow that declineth," he recited. "I am withered like grass."
"Psalm 102:11," he said. "Yep, withered like grass. That's me, Clarence." he thumped his chest with his skeletal fingers. "Withered like grass," he repeated in a small childlike voice. "Clarence."
With the hungry look of the hollow eyed, he pulled his faded jacket tighter against the cold and yanked his stocking cap lower over his ears. "She'll be back," he said. "One of these days she'll get off the bus and Clarence will be right here like a good boy, waiting right here like she told me to." Existing in a night of his own loneliness he went back to tracing the old age spots. "I'll be good, Mama, I promise. Clarence'll be good, you'll see. Clarence'll be good."
I said nothing. There was nothing to say. He saw the buses approach, struggled to his feet, standing as straight and tall as his old age pain allowed and watched the third one in line. The door opened and closed. No one got off. Not today. I folded the paper, wanting to say something. But what?
His shoulders sagged with the look of the defeated. "Clarence'll be good Mama, Clarence'll be good. Just come back," he whimpered as the bus pulled away. Without a backward glance, shoulders hunched against the wind, he shuffled down Lorain Avenue like a drifting ghost and disappeared in the snow.
Barbara Tate is an award winning artist and writer. Her work has appeared in The Storyteller, Arizona Quarterly, Santa Fe Literary Review, Modern Haiku, Contemporary Haibun Online, Frogpond, Cattails, Bear Creek Haiku, and Magnolia Quarterly as well as Switch (The Difference), Objects in the Rear View Mirror and Element(ary) My Dear Anthologies. She is a member of the Gulf Coast Writers Association, Haiku Society of American and United Haiku and Tanka Society. She currently resides in Winchester, TN.
The girl was forgetting about the world as she danced and the desert was listening to her movements. Her naked feet flew above the orange sand and her ink-black hair spread out in the air behind her like the wings of a raven. She was singing an ancient lullaby, but she was the last on Earth who could understand its words. Yet, as I closed my eyes, I could see sentences falling into nebulae and soaring with shooting stars; diving into the depth of coral forests and spreading their sunflower petals on the cinnamon-colored palm of the girl. I wish I could describe all the other things I had seen, but the Indian girl was the last one who spoke the language of the Heart and as soon as she finished her dance, she turned into a raven and flew away.
Fanni Suto is a 24-year-old writer, poet, dreamer who believes in fairy tales even if they are dark, disenchanted and deconstructed. She writes about everything which comes her way or goes bump in the night. She has been published in Hungary, the US, the UK, and Australia.
I moved again this spring, just one more downsizing in a long line of re-locations spanning more than a decade. This one was different, however, in that it coincided with the month I began chemo. Friends and loved ones told me to wait, put off the move until I was feeling stronger. But everything was already in order, and there's really no such thing as feeling stronger once you hear the words: Stage 4.
It was a Thursday and quite warm the day I puked on the box in the garage. There was blood in the vomit, splattered thin and watery, darkest in the center where it landed heavy on the cardboard, lighter and rather pinkish where it dripped down the edge of the carton. I wouldn't have even taken the time to read the faded words on the side of the box, but for the spew of my dying lungs, soaking through the ancient package, sacrilegiously sullying what little remained of a scribbled message of love and loss.
Bassinet set, blankets, onesies, clothes. Booties and shoes. One shoe missing. Might turn up. Save. / April 11, 1991.
I pulled off my sweater and I tried to wipe the box clean. A stain remained. Bile rose in my throat as I turned and vomited again, this time christening the concrete floor. I didn't bother to clean it up. I simply moved away from the mess, dragging the box with me. The soaked cardboard caved in on itself, falling apart in my hands, opening up to reveal all the items packed away in the spring of '91, petite and precious, fancy and frilly, crisp and unused. All bearing the same size on the tiny tags: Newborn.
And there it was, placed right on top. One red shoe. Never worn. Saved for decades without its mate. Though I'd frantically searched before sealing the box, the companion piece was never found. Smaller than the palm of my hand. Destined for a little girl. She would have been 24 this year if I'd been able to carry her to term. I wonder, had she lived, would she be the one to help me now? Drive me to my appointments, help fix my meals, clean up the vomit when I don't quite make it to the bathroom?
One red shoe.
I wonder how tall she would have grown. How strong she would have been. Would she have been the one to help me pack, to help me move, to help me hang the rose-colored curtains in the little room in the facility at the corner of Acheson and Graham? Would she have been the one to tell me I'm not alone, to reassure me that it's all going to be okay . . .
I never expected to be holding it again, that little shoe, my heart wrapped so tightly around untold pain. One red shoe, not returned to a box this time. Now nestled under my pillow as I dream away each night, wondering which night will be the one where I finally get to meet her, sent on ahead all those years ago, now waiting so patiently to welcome me home. See you soon, little one. See you soon.
One red shoe.
Cristine A. Gruber writes from sunny, Southern California. She's had work featured in numerous magazines, including: North American Review, Writer's Digest, California Quarterly, Floyd County Moonshine, The Homestead Review, Iodine Poetry Journal, Miller's Pond, The Penwood Review, Pound of Flash, Pyrokinection, Red River Review, The Tule Review, Wilderness House Literary Review, and The Write Place at the Write Time. In 2014, her short stories, "Imprisoned," and "Stash," both received Honorable Mentions in the Writers Weekly Short Story Competition. Her first full-length collection of poetry, Lifeline, is available from http://buybooksontheweb.com as well as amazon.com. More of Cristine's work can be found and enjoyed at http://sierraviewjournal.blogspot.com/