Potluck

 

T H I S    W E E K

The Theorist by Bo Fisher

 

FOUR: Work by Marina Weisburg

 

Margaret Tickle

Margaret told me not to laugh when she told me her middle name. She used to wear a white down-jacket zipped all the way to the top everyday because her mom wasn’t ready to accept that she needed a real bra. When her mom, a writer, finally took her bra shopping, she wrote a short story about it. She called the story “iPex,” after the make and model of Margaret’s first bra.  Her mom submitted it to a local publication that was widely circulated around the neighborhood. Margaret continued to wear her white zipped up down-jacket. Margaret loved wearing clogs, she loved blueberry smoothies, and she was the clumsiest person I’d ever met. All of these factors considered, she often had a blueberry smoothie covered white-down jacket. Margaret Tickle  will always be a twelve-year-old girl wearing a too technologically advanced bra.

When a Butterfly Flaps Its Wings

'I’m sorry, I think you've got the wrong number.'

'OK, sorry to bother you. Goodbye.'

Lizzie stared at the number on the screen, the crushed hope too much to bear. What had happened? Had she keyed it in wrong? It had been noisy at the party; an 'oh' could easily sound like an 'eight.' Could she have been so careless? She slammed her fist down on the worktop. David Farquarson, chief editor of Top Style! Magazine: it had seemed too good to be true when Michaela introduced them. 

'You sound perfect for what we need,' he'd said, handing her a glass of sparkling white. 'I'll get you out of that call centre. Give me a bell sometime.' 

She'd have to call Michaela. Perfect, gorgeous Michaela, who'd landed her dream job after about five minutes. Ask – beg – for the right number. 

'Lizzie, sweetie. You're coming to the launch tonight? I've got loads of people you should meet. David will be there.' 

Lizzie's planned words froze in her throat. She could almost hear Michaela's smug, red-lipped smile. She pictured her perfectly curled, mascaraed eyelashes dropping down over her laughing, mocking eyes.

'Have you called him yet?'

She'd seen her friend leaning towards him, a slight smile on her perfect lips. They'd both looked towards her as she hovered on the edge of the crowd. He'd nodded, laughed and walked towards her. Had Michaela really sold her so well? Or had he deliberately given her a wrong number? She felt her face grow red. Had it been a joke? A vicious, spiteful joke? The bitch! How could she have done that? She pictured them laughing together, the in-crowd, laughing at poor Lizzie, still scratching at the door like a forlorn, stray dog. Let's throw her a bone, see if she picks it up. Her chest grew tight and she began to shake.

'No. I’m not coming. Go on your own, I've had enough.' She spat out the words before hurling the phone to the floor, where it skittered under the table. Then she started to cry.

***

Neil hung up and shook his head. Poor girl, obviously some bloke pulled a fast one. He dropped the phone onto the windowsill and looked out. Below him the world rushed on. What would Karen have done if he'd tried that trick? He chuckled. He'd regret it, that was for sure.
An explosion of sizzling came from the kitchen followed a second later by the smoke alarm. 

'Damn it!'

He ran and snatched the pan from the hob and threw it into the sink. Charring milk was bubbling over the hot plate and gelatinous sludge dripped onto the floor. The stink was awful.
When he'd managed to clean up the mess and deactivate the shrieking alarm he glanced at the clock. 

'Oh, God!' 

He grabbed his coat and sprinted from the apartment. Karen was going to kill him. 

The bus was due at twelve-seventeen. Two minutes. 

One minute. 

He rounded the corner. Four people still waiting. He ran faster. 

He waved madly as the right indicator flashed. He thumped on the door just as the bus began to move, got eye contact with the driver. The man was grinning. 

Half an hour until the next one. 

He ran for the taxi rank, but the queue was a mile long. She really would kill him. He groped in his pocket for his phone, then tried his coat. Where was it? Oh no, no, God, no! He checked again, uselessly. It was still on the windowsill at home. 

He began to jog towards town. He'd be half an hour late at least. The performance would be almost over. He reached the theatre and paused for a second to brush the sweat from his face. Maybe, if the gods were smiling on him, he could sneak in and she'd never know. 

But they weren't. That was obvious before he'd even stepped into the foyer. 

Black ties were merging with the departing crowd, violins and other instruments in hand. People deferentially made way for them. He tried to merge with the throng but Karen noticed him at once. 

'Karen, I can explain,' he started. The time-honoured words of the irrevocably guilty. 'This woman rang me...'

'And no doubt chatting to her was more important than listening to us play. Then you forgot to ring and tell me. Have you run out of believable excuses now?'

'Karen, please.' He put his hand on her arm. She shook it off.

'I'm sick of this. I've tried to believe you cared enough to actually turn up one day, stupid as I am. Every time, Neil. Every sodding time!' Her voice rose. People were looking at them. He saw tears in her eyes as she turned and walked away.

***

Lizzie stared out of the window. The world rushed past beneath her: all those people with jobs, careers, futures. She'd been fighting ever since graduating to make it, always getting nowhere. Where was she going wrong? She'd have to go and see Michaela. Grit her teeth and apologise for being a stroppy cow. Michaela had always been a bitchy friend, but she desperately needed her. 

She headed towards her flat, stopping to buy an eye-wateringly expensive bottle of red on the way. Pre-party drinks, just like at university, only far more upmarket now.
Michaela opened the door, hair straighteners in hand, and looked at her, unsmiling.

'Sorry, Michaela. I'm a moody cow today. Wrong time of the month, you know.' She forced herself to laugh self-depreciatingly and held the bottle up. 'How's the arrangements coming on?'

Michaela made no move to let her in. 'Look, sweetie, this is a bit difficult. David's invited some top-notch designers from Milan, he just rang to tell me.'

Lizzie gave a half-hearted attempt at awe, but Michaela was more interested checking  her freshly manicured nails

'I know you really want to come, but it's really important for me that this works. I pull it off, I'll make it big time. I can't really afford for hangers-on to be there: spoils the image, you know?'

Lizzie couldn't speak. She squeezed the bottle in her hand. That was it. That was really it. 

'I may well be employing my own staff soon: you'll be first in line for a job then,' she soothed, her eyes flickering between the stairway and her nails.

Footsteps, and they both looked through the bannisters towards the main door. 

David reached the landing, greeting Michaela before glancing at Lizzie. His eyes registered a flicker of confusion, as if he vaguely recalled seeing her somewhere before. 

'David! Do come in! I was just deciding the final timings for tonight, come and lend an ear.'

Michaela glanced at Lizzie as she ushered David inside. 'I'll call you later, sweetie.'
Lizzie stared at the closed door, wishing she could smash the bottle against it. She turned and walked slowly down the stairs. 

***

'Sorry, Neil, I'm in rehearsals until very late. I don't have time.'

'Please, Karen. Just give me a chance.'

Silence. She was thinking about it. He gripped the phone harder.

'Maybe I'll call you, when this concert's done.'

He felt like punching the air. 'I love you, Karen. Goodbye.'

He'd surprise her tonight, after the rehearsal. He didn't care how long he had to wait. Her favourite restaurant, Thai Palace, even though it cost an arm and a leg.

He sneaked into the back of the theatre, hoping she wouldn't see him yet. He caught his breath. She looked beautiful. Her dress was shimmering in time to the music as she played, the effect entrancing. He absorbed the intense concentration on her face, the sway of her body and her dancing fingers, until at last the music reached a crescendo. 

She stood up, a smile of tired euphoria on her face and the orchestra walked off stage. He smiled and clapped, but the sound was lost amidst the scraping chairs and she didn't notice him.

He went out into the main hall and hovered. She appeared through a side door and smiled at someone, and he started towards her. 

The other man went up to her, wrapped his arm round her waist and kissed her. Even from here Neil could see the gleam in his eyes.

Get your hands off my girlfriend, he wanted to shout. 

She smiled up at Mr Charming and said something with a teasing smile, the smile that drove him wild. She's not your girlfriend any more, is she. 

He turned away. As he walked into the street, a tear ran down his cheek.

***

Lizzie's phone buzzed. She grabbed it from her bag, so sure it was her. Then she saw the screen and sighed. After eight rings, she looked at it again and pressed answer.

'What am I going to do, Mum? I'm trying so hard. I can hardly afford the rent on the flat, I have to spend so much on clothes and hair and everything. Michaela was my one point of contact and now I've blown that. It's a nightmare.' She slumped onto a park bench and stared at the ground.

'I can't see the appeal of fashion anyway. When you were at school you always wanted to be a nurse.' 

***

The phone was ringing on the table and Neil ran. 'Karen?'

'No, mate. It's Tom. What's up?' 

Neil sighed. 'She's got a new bloke.' He was mortified to hear the tremble in his voice. 

'Well, to be fair, mate, you only had to make the effort occasionally.'

'I did make the effort! Why can't anyone just see that?'

'You want a drink?' Tom asked after an awkward pause. 'Take your mind off things? There's a wine tasting evening down my local. Fancy it?'

Neil laughed shortly. 'Me, wine tasting? I don't think so.' 

'Go on, it'll do you good.' 

The woman by the bar was searching through her handbag when a gorilla-like hulk knocked into her, spilling her wine across the bar and leaving the contents of her bag strewn across the floor.

He didn't even seem to notice. 

Neil left his table, knelt and helped the woman scoop up loose change, nail varnish, bus tickets, a teaspoon and the hundred other things that women deemed essential to carry round. He couldn't help but smile until it reminded him of Karen's collection of portable junk.

'Thanks so much, you're a star. Don't know why I even need the stuff, really.' 

The woman smiled at him, open and friendly. She almost looked like Karen, Neil thought. He smiled back.

***

Mrs Jenkins pressed her buzzer for the third time in an hour. 'Nurse! Nurse!'

Lizzie hurried to her bed, glancing surreptitiously at her watch. She was supposed to have finished the ward rounds half an hour ago.

'Nurse, where are my glasses? Someone's moved them, I can't find them.'

Lizzie picked up the glasses off the table and handed them to her. 'They're right here, Mrs Jenkins.'

'When's the tea trolley coming? I need my cup of tea.'

She sat down next to the bed. Mrs Jenkins had been involved with bingo, flower arranging, bridge, all sorts before breaking her hip. It was hard for her to adjust to the lack of companionship. 'Sharon will be round in ten minutes, she's just in the next ward.'

'Oh good, I do like that girl. I'm not sure about the hair, though.' Her eyes twinkled craftily. 'And all those earrings- she reminds me of a pin cushion!'
Lizzie laughed and took her hand. 'I used to have a friend with twelve in each ear. And that was a man, as well.'
Mrs Jenkins looked both scandalized and intrigued. 'Young people! I never would have dared, not with my father.' She giggled almost girlishly. 

'Well dear, you'd best get on. I've delayed you long enough. Are you enjoying nursing, dear?'
Lizzie smiled as she stood up. 'Best thing I ever did.'

***

Neil looked over the laughing crowd. He'd been to so many weddings over recent years, as one by one all his mates had renounced bachelorhood. How often had he wondered if he'd ever do the same? A lump came into his throat. 

'Neil, mate. Stop looking wistful. You've made your bed, you know?' Tom's stern face abruptly cracked into a grin. 

'She's put up with you for more than five minutes, so you're definitely onto a winner. Don't you dare balls it up.' Tom punched him on the shoulder. 'You know, Helen, he always said he hated wine tasting.'

Neil laughed and twitched his friend's bow tie straight. Then he reached out and pulled his bride to his side. 'Best thing I ever did.'

 

Hannah Spencer has short stories published by Cracked Eye, Scribble and Bewildering Stories e-zine, and won competitions in Writing Magazine and Writer's Forum magazine. Her novel, The Story of Light, was published in 2014 by Moon Books. Her websites are http://light-onecandle.blogspot.co.uk and http://hannahspencer.webs.com.

White With the Hidden Sun, Pt. 2

Read the first part of this story here.

***

Down the hallway, the TV threw flashing light onto the wall above the couch, and Brady could hear the sounds of a courtroom drama from the speakers. He swallowed the lump in his throat then turned round quickly and locked the door, spinning the deadbolt and latching the metal chain. Then as he started along the hall, he ran his palms up and down his forearms, where goosebumps had formed, and breathed in loud measured bursts to get warm.

On the couch, there was a big pile of blankets. At the far end was his mother’s head. Her bleached blonde hair hung down over her face. As per usual, she was asleep and probably had been for most of the day. On the coffee table, there was an overflowing ashtray, several open prescription bottles, and loose pills scattered between empty bottles of beer. Brady shook his head, but knew better than to wake her with his troubles.

Instead, he walked over to the TV and switched the knob, the dark gray screen shrinking into a white dot before it snapped quiet. His throat felt dry and like he couldn’t swallow his spit. But the pounding in his chest had slowed since when he’d first come in from the cold.

Looking around now at the dark and cluttered apartment, Brady felt sad, like he didn’t want to be there very long. He stepped into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. A half-eaten chicken from two days prior had stunk up the whole inside of the fridge, causing Brady’s nostrils to twitch in disgust. He snatched a large bottle of orange-flavored pop off the rack and hurriedly shut the door so that the odor of the chicken would be trapped inside, and so he would not have to smell it anymore.

Guzzling pop straight from the bottle, his Adam’s apple bobbed in his throat. When he had finished drinking he let out a loud sigh and set the bottle down on the countertop. Then he noticed the wound on his finger from where he’d poked it with the stick. The blood had congealed by now and formed a crusty smear on the tip of his thumb, which he squinted at, before sticking the whole thumb into his mouth to suck at.

“Brady? At you, Brady?” called his mother, her voice groggy and issuing from some strange realm between sleeping and waking.             

 “Yeah, Ma,” Brady growled, staring resentfully from the kitchen over at the mound of blankets. “Go back to sleep! …Jesus!”

 “Okay, honey,” replied his mother, shifting her weight on the couch and nodding off again.

Muttering curses and shivering with cold, Brady went into his bedroom and rummaged through the clothes hamper lying on the floor. Eventually he put on a loose-fitting, cotton Seahawks jersey, a gray fleece vest that he zipped up to his sternum, and a red Seattle Mariners hat.

When he’d reached the kitchen again, he put the orange pop back in the fridge, stole two bottles of his mother’s beer, which he stashed in his red backpack along with a bottle opener, and then headed for the front door. His intention in leaving was partly to avoid being alone with his mother, and partly to see what had happened to the boy that he’d stabbed.

By the time Brady could see the dumpsters where he had committed the crime, the ambulance had already driven the Indian boy and his mother to the hospital. The sky was growing darker and the bottoms of the clouds glowed white with the hidden sun. It was quiet again, save for the rush of cars on the road.

Wondering if there would be a spot of blood on the ground, Brady started over to the dumpsters. But he found no blood there, so he changed course and began walking past the dumpers, over the sloping patch of lawn towards the trees: the place that he usually drank the beers he’d steal from his mother.

Once Brady had vanished through the tree line; a man came down the steps from one of the apartments.

He was tall: about six-foot, three. He wore an orange bubble-vest over a flannel shirt – the sleeves rolled up to his elbows; a pair of dusty, faded blue jeans; mud-caked cowboy boots, and a green and white mesh baseball cap with a snapback, from which black and gray spikes of coarse hair shot out, like porcupine quills.

By staring down through the window of his unlighted apartment, the tall man had witnessed everything, from the argument to the attack; then he had even stuck around to watch the paramedics lay the Indian boy in the stretcher and drive him and his mother out of the parking lot. More than once, while watching, he had had to suppress his laughter.

Crossing the parking lot now, with his hands buried in his jeans, the secret witness stepped up over the curb and began casually to saunter after the boy, moving along the grassy slope for the woods.  

From his secret place in the trees, Brady could see all the colored lights of the tall buildings down in Bellevue. It resembled a glass city, rising like panpipes into the bruised plum-colored sky. It seemed to Brady a place of pure evil, chock-full of fools and money. He sipped the stolen beer, swallowed it down, and then spat in the direction of the glowing skyscrapers, his face twisted in a scowl. Then turning away from the view he ambled over the dirt and hunkered down upon a rotting tree trunk that was lying on its side in the brambles.

His knees bent up near his chest, Brady continued to nurse the bottle of bitter tasting beer. He didn’t love the taste but he knew he would grow used to it if he drank enough. More importantly he enjoyed the way it made his head feel light and goofy.

Once he had finished the first beer, he chucked the empty bottle off into the trees before reaching into his backpack to find the other. There was a rustling in the bushes behind him, and Brady was startled when a voice called out to him:

“Hope ya got another one of those brews fer me, cowboy.”

Jumping up from the tree trunk and craning his neck, Brady saw the tall man ambling out from the darkness, and moving towards him with a large toothy grin that lit up the shadows clinging to his face. The unopened bottle he’d taken from the bag was still rolling across the dirt.

“I’m just kiddin,” said the tall man, patting at his chest, “I got m’own.”

The tall man reached under his bubble vest, searching at the breast pocket of his flannel, and soon his hand came out with a metal flask, which he began to unscrew:

“Like my daddy’d say, ‘Never leave home without it.’” The tall man chuckled and then raised the flask to his lips for a drink:

“Ahhh! Damn that’s good!” he yelped. “Y’want some?” He held the flask out towards Brady who, by this point, had back-stepped to put a good distance between himself and the leering stranger.

Raising his long leg over the fallen tree trunk, the tall man stepped further into the clearing, coming to rest beside Brady’s backpack. By the lights of the city, Brady could make out the tall man’s features. His nose was long and sharp; there was a band-aid across the bridge to help him breathe better, or perhaps to combat allergies. He hadn’t shaved in a few days and there were grayish circles under his eyes – the whites of which were massive and shiny in the dark that fell down from his hat-bill, and inside each eye there was a black pin-prick that must’ve been his pupils.

“Nah-no thanks,” said Brady, stammering. “I gah-gotta go home now.” And he made a motion to leave.

Sudden and blunt, like the falling of a guillotine blade, the tall man spoke out:

“I seen what you did. I seen you stab that Indun boy. Seen him go off in an amblance and everthing…”

Brady stopped in his tracks, his eyes training acidly on the tall man.

“Yep. I seen it all…and I’ll even bet a million dollars there’s people’d like to know who done stuck that little Indun boy. Huh? Huh?”

Brady let fly a few very bad words.

“Whoa-ho-ho there buddy, what kind of a way is that to talk to someone who’s got something over on ya? Come on now. Why don’t you juss settle on down. We’ll have a drink and iron this whole thing out. What do you say to that?”

“I said I gotta go now,” Brady hissed, his voice ornery and covered in thorns. Then his eyes traveled down to settle on the backpack still resting by the tall man’s cowboy boots.

Watching the boy’s eyes, the tall man looked down too, and then he chuckled. “Well alright then. If you gotta go then you gotta go. But, say – aint this yer bag here?” Stooping from the knees the tall man gripped the backpack, to dangle by his side, as he stood up.

It was as if he was being dared to admit something he didn’t want to:

“Yes,” said Brady.

“Listen, I was juss kiddin you earlier about tellin on ya – fact, I got a real kick outta watchin you stick that other boy.” The tall man laughed and held Brady’s backpack out to him, stuffing the other hand inside of his vest pocket then rocking back and forth on his boot heels. “Shit, you ack like you never been teased before, boy! Here ya go. Here’s yer bag back – I won’t bite ya or nothing. Heh-heh. Seriously. Go on and take it, if ya have to leave so bad.”

The beer mixed with his hesitation and Brady started to feel lethargic, unsteady on his feet and in his judgment. As fast as he could, he debated on whether to take the backpack, or just leave it behind and try to run past the tall man for home. His logic felt clumsy, like a prosthetic he was still learning how to use. His mind swarmed with images of his mother and of the Indian boy bleeding on the ground. Brady’s every limb felt weighted down and feint, almost as though he could be pushed over by one finger. Suddenly he was jolted outside of his head once more, yanked from his stupor by the screech of anger now crackling through the tall man’s voice.

“Shit, boy! Take er already,” he said, snorting with impatience. “I aint got all damn night juss to hold this, while you stand there pussyfootin. Now take er!”

Brady hardly knew what he was doing before he raised up his hands and had done it; his fingers clutching at the backpack, he went to yank it free, only to find it didn’t come loose right away. The same instant that Brady felt the urge to pull the backpack harder, the tall man’s hand glided out of the vest pocket and, with a tiny crackling spark, dug the stun gun into Brady’s ribcage, releasing a 19,000,000-volt charge through the boy’s body.

Brady’s eyes bulged and rolled wildly in their sockets, his whole body twitching and convulsing like a trout on dry land. His legs went weak. The red baseball hat came off his head, as he plummeted forth into the backpack that hung still from the tall man’s grip. His frail body came down hard on the tree trunk, so that his arms lay strewn in the dirt on one side while his bare legs rested on the other.

Splayed and helpless, Brady heard the tall man mumbling and snickering above him, his voice hovering off, and then starting up again, louder, from behind. It all sounded vague, and like it was happening in some other place far removed from the conscious part of him. Like a dwindling flame, Brady’s eyes soon fell shut and his resistance was lost, carried off under the waves of black that poured down through the trees.

 Some time later, the tall man emerged from the woods and hiked up the lawn, putting himself in order as he walked, and whistling cheerily all the way to the parking lot. Then glancing up at the window from which he’d once spied, he found now that it was lit up with an amber-colored glow.

His head fell cocked to the side as he stared up at the lighted window, his mouth letting through a glimpse of a pearly white canine tooth. A shadow was cast on the wall inside, as of someone plodding around and tending to things about the apartment after a long, tiresome journey. He watched a moment more, and wondered if he should go up and ask about her trip to Florida. But figuring he would hear all about it at their mother’s house the following night, over turkey dinner, he decided not to go upstairs. His mind made up, the tall man turned to the side and resumed his whistling as he struck off to his truck. It was starting to drizzle.

A minute later the headlights of a pickup truck came on, casting a yellow glow onto the branches of drooping fir trees. The tall man put the truck in gear, pulled out of the parking lot, and headed off down the road.

 

Nick Wenzel grew up in the Pacific Northwest and has since relocated to Los Angeles, where he lives with his girlfriend, their dog, and three cats. He graduated from Evergreen State College in Olympia. His most recent publications consist of one story at Quail Bell Magazine, a poem in the Sixfold annual, and another short story in the Percival Review. And he writes because there are things in this world which require the writer in order to be heard.

       

White With the Hidden Sun, Pt. 1

The cars rushed up and down the steep, rain-slicked road, all in haste for Thanksgiving preparations. A group of children ascended the hill together. The sidewalks bordered numerous apartment complexes, each one separated by patches of grass and fences sloping downhill, until it leveled out in a thick clump of woods. The children were on their way home from school, and were about to turn into the next apartment complex on the right. All of them wore backpacks and puffy winter coats with hoods pulled up over their heads. And those that had no hoods wore wool hats.

 The rain had stopped falling hours ago, but the sky remained gray and cloudy. In the middle of the road were strips of grass, housing bony, leafless trees. Being that this was an area mostly populated by Microsoft employees, the majority of faces one could spot on the roadside, walking or waiting for buses, belonged to Indian people. The group of children walking was no different in that their smooth, cherubic faces were the light brown color of caramel. Walking along, they chattered in the language of their fathers and mothers. They were not the only ones hiking up the hillside, though.

For following behind them at a distance of twenty-odd feet was another determined figure. From a bird’s-eye-view this lone, encroaching form resembled a hungry wolf as it lopes behind an oblivious herd of buffalo calves.

 The wolf in this case was actually a human boy: perhaps fifteen or sixteen years old. He was lean, and somewhat tall for his age. Unlike the children whom he trailed, his skin was the color of Appalachian cream. And though the boy himself had never set foot on West Virginian soil, he retained a blood-echo of all the grit and stubborn character of his not-so-distant relatives. By one look into his surly dark eyes it was clear that the boy came from a rough line of stock, and furthermore that no amount of socialization would alter what bizarre attitudes and leanings murmured within his veins.

 Nor was it these brooding eyes alone that gave away the boy’s outlaw ancestry. His appearance, as a whole, spoke volumes – and in rather deafening clarity too – so that any a curious passerby that laid eyes on the boy might easily find some cause for alarm.

 He had a short round head, the hair buzzed down to mere peach-bristles. Two large ears, like an ork’s, stuck out beside the boy’s sharp and prematurely wizened face. In fact, he resembled more of a spry old man than a teenage boy. However the distinction became obvious in the way the boy dressed. That is not to say he dressed like an average youth, but there were clues. Namely the saggy, silky red basketball shorts and the red and white high-top sneakers. As far as a shirt or coat was concerned, the boy had none; his torso was bare except for the single strap that ran along his spare ribs and held the red backpack in place upon the sharp blades of his shoulders. Bouncing as he hiked up the hillside, a wooden baseball bat was tethered slantwise to the backpack by two cords of elastic. Thus giving him the strange distinction of being some displaced warrior sent forth from the past to stalk deadly through the modern world, likely in order to conduct some grievous task. And though these details alone ought to have been enough to warrant concern, it was the business of his hands that may help to escort home the menace of the boy’s practically naked march up the hillside.

His head bent low over his chest so he could better scrutinize their work, he held a long stick in one hand, while the other hand furiously scraped the stick-end with the blade of a hunting knife, whittling it down, until it formed a suitable spear-point.

His name was Brady Gumtree. And for what purpose did he prepare this weapon; it was anybody’s guess…  

 And so on he went – walking and sharpening, sharpening and walking – his deranged progress not once molested by a telephone report to the police, nor by the bravery of some worried mini-van owner…

 Having turned into the parking lot of the Pine View apartment complex, the group of bundled up school kids wandered over and settled by the big community dumpsters to talk and pass the short while before they would separate, and go back inside to the warmth of their family apartments for the night. Giddy and free from strict observation, the voices of the children now formed a clear, shrill chorus that resounded like nested birds into the air. It was as though there was not one point of discussion, but four or five loudly sung soliloquies scrapping for dominance.

 Brady turned the corner and was moving towards them. His spear good and sharp now, he thumbed the steel blade of the hunting knife back inside of the handle and slipped it into the side of his shorts, the shape of the knife now jostling against his knee in the great depth of the shorts pocket.

 The noisy school kids were too absorbed in their own activities to notice Brady approaching. He strolled closer, eyeing them suspiciously. Until finally he stopped beside them and listened: leering, unobserved, over their heads. The foreign language acted like a discombobulating poison on his mind. His face frowned and creased at the brows as he tilted his head aside and squinted with one eye only, his plump lips parting to expose a questioning darkness. As he strained to make sense of the words his frustration increased, causing him to press his thumb down, unthinkingly, upon the sharp end of the stick.

Then when he realized he was doing this and that his thumb had already begun to bleed, he grew angry, flung his wounded thumb down to his side, and snapped at the gabbling school kids:

 “What in the hell is you sand-niggers talking bout, anyways? You all sound like a bunch of cartoon monkeys.”

The only sound after that was of the cars growling up and down the road, like a river of mechanical sludge.        

 Not liking the silence, Brady kept on the offense and filled the stunned emptiness with a fierce, antsy cackle: the kind a hyena would make after cornering a group of neglected lion cubs.

Relishing this superiority, he was suddenly taken aback when one of the Indian boys from the group answered him with a curse, in English, to which he was familiar. It was a boy of nine or ten years old, and the nobility of the boy’s face coupled with the eloquent coldness of his delivery caused Brady to scramble for a rejoinder, one that he hoped would be equally piercing in its simplicity. But this proved an uphill battle, for now he was shaken by the tidal wave of jeering laughter that rushed out at him from the united front. And the more Brady looked on them the more his mind and vision seemed to blur into a nightmarish tableau of laughing brown faces and brown fingers pointing up at him from the puffy sleeves of winter coats.

Outnumbered and desperate, he countered with the first thing that popped into his mind:

 “Yeah? Well your mothers a stanky, ol, pumpkin-breath!” Immediately upon hearing his own words, Brady wanted to flagellate himself: Pumpkin-breath? Why, that’s the damn dumbest thing I ever said, he told himself.

 The leader of the school kids paused, turning the insult over in his mind to see if it held any weight. Meanwhile his friends waited for the verdict. A second later, after deciding the insult was meaningless, he replied in a cool, sure voice:

 “Yes. But this is better than your mother, who is a prostitute, and who sleeps all of the day and does not love you.”

 The words stung at the Brady’s mind. His cheeks grew hotter and hotter, like the smooth side of a teakettle. Staring back at him now, Brady’s enemy retained the same leisurely hateful expression his face had made the moment he’d said it, his thick, dark eyebrows slanting and his arms crossed to give him a solid and steady appearance; all the while, the row of cinnamon-colored faces, behind him, pointed and laughed at Brady for having a dissatisfactory home-life.

 Brady didn’t know what to do, his mind was moving in many directions at once – feeling one more bitter feeling after the next. And before he knew what he was doing Brady had plunged the sharp stick into his enemy’s stomach.

 So well had he sharpened the stick that it pierced first through the puffy winter coat then entered the victim’s stomach muscles, about an inch and a half deep, where it stayed suspended even after Brady had let it go.

 The air suddenly felt charged by a tense electrical current.  And there followed a moment of pure confusion while every one, including Brady, but especially the victim, tried to make sense of what had happened. The stabbed boy’s eyes grew huge and white, each with a perfect brown circle of terror floating in the middle, as he looked down at the stick jutting out from his belly.

 The girls all screamed when a dark flow of blood ran out from under the winter coat and onto the victim’s pants. The victim staggered then fell onto his backside, like a man too drunk to stand, his mouth open in a noiseless scream. One of his braver friends stayed with him, but the rest of the kids, including Brady, ran off across the parking lot like startled cats, until they had all disappeared inside their families’ apartment to hide.

 Slamming the front door of his mother’s apartment shut, Brady leaned his back into it, panting hard from having run up the steps, and still looking pale and startled by what he’d done.

* * *

To be continued tomorrow...
 

 

Nick Wenzel grew up in the Pacific Northwest and has since relocated to Los Angeles, where he lives with his girlfriend, their dog, and three cats. He graduated from Evergreen State College in Olympia. His most recent publications consist of one story at Quail Bell Magazine, a poem in the Sixfold annual, and another short story in the Percival Review. And he writes because there are things in this world which require the writer in order to be heard.