Gidget’s Smile

Blame my frustration on That Uncertain Feeling. Burgess Meredith asks Merle Oberon who needs a shrink more: the person who has little happiness or the person who has too much? It’s black and white comedy – nothing unusual about that in 1941 – but it’s frustrating because black and white in my book means noir. And there’s nothing funny about noir. Yet …

“What’s bothering you Catherine? You’re like the sea without a breeze.”

Morgan Upton was wearing his commodore’s jacket and white deck shoes. After twelve years of marriage he didn’t expect his wife to put wind in his sails, but felt slighted that she no longer gave him so much as an “ahoy!” when he lounged in his boxers.

I have a noir life, I told my shrink, although Morgan doesn’t look like a noir guy – a Robert Mitchum or a Fred McMurray – so I’m uncertain about what attracted me to him. He’s more like a Rex Harrison or a Van Johnson. He doesn’t understand why I like to spend my Saturday afternoons in the film room when he’s out sailing the 15 foot Gidget’s Smile. My shrink says his boat’s name speaks volumes about our marital difficulties. My shrink may be right. I wanted to name the boat Ebony Eyes.

Morgan brought Catherine a blender bowl of Margaritas and a long stemmed glass into the film room and poured the green concoction into the glass. “For you, my Love. Only poor people cry into beer.”

Noir isn’t tear-jerking melodrama, it’s martini real. Bleak as vodka on the rocks. “Thanks, Dear,” I said because my shrink said happy is as happy does.

“What’s on the marquee today? Another showing of The Lady Vanishes?”

Morgan doesn’t know the difference between British mystery and post-war nihilism. He bought out a salt shaker from this jacket pocket and set it on the table. “For the rim.” He kissed my cheek. A kindergartener’s kiss. The door had closed behind him, and all that was left was a line of light, but I knew he was smiling a cheery California Vitamin D smile. “Anything that could entice me away from the sirens waiting for me just past the jetty?”

Maybe you should show him how pleasurable a femme fatale can be, my shrink said. I guided Morgan’s hand to my breast and searched his mouth for his tongue with mine, glad he’d persuaded me to buy a plushy recliner instead of a red velvet backed antique from the now-defunct Bijou. “Spellbound,” I whispered, and Bergman’s doors began to open one by one.


The sirens were jealous. They watched Morgan cast off from the pier, and hid a swell behind a ruse of sunshine dancing on a calm blue stage . They let him sail past them, then grabbed his spinnaker and pulled him back, crushing Gidget’s Smile on the jagged rocks.

“Did he drown?” I asked through short gasps.

“He was tossed like a corn-hole bean-bag onto the stones,” the Coast Guardsman said.

Morgan lay in a white hospital room disconnected from black artificial life machines. staring at the world with glassy ebony eyes. Catherine went home to her movie room, a long-neck Bud Lite in one hand and a bag of Cheetos in the other. There is such a thing as comedy noir. It’s called irony.

The Wrath of the Grapes

She wore a soiled white uniform and her duty shoes were worn-down and scuffed the color of dirt. Every time she passed the mirror she stopped and examined herself, tucking her long gray hair behind an ear or checking her teeth. She swatted at the furniture with a rag in an approximation of dusting and emptied the ashtrays into a bag. She threw the loose clothing and towels into the closet and closed the door.

“I’ll put those in the laundry next time,” she said.

“Hmm?” the woman on the chaise longue said. She was dozing and had forgotten for the moment that she wasn’t alone.

“Anything else before I go?”

She opened her eyes and pulled herself partway up. She was haggard, old beyond her years. “I must get up,” she said.

“I wouldn’t get up if I was you, dearie,” the pickup woman said. “You’re wobbly on your feet.”

“Bertha Belvedere is coming to interview me for The Hollywood Beacon. They’re going to do a lavish treatment of my life in advance of my next picture.”

“If you say so.”

“Is Neville still here?”

“I ain’t seen him.”

“If you see him anywhere about, tell him I’m not to be disturbed for the next little bit.”

“I don’t think he’s here, but if I see him I’ll tell him what you said.”

“Thank you for cleaning my room. If I need you again, I’ll call.”

“You owe me fifteen bucks. I ain’t doin’ this for fun, you know.”

“We’ll settle up next time. I’m a little short right now.”

The pickup woman sighed and, with a clink of empty liquor bottles, she was gone.

The woman on the chaise longue was Nema Gerova, the famous film actress. Life hadn’t been very kind to her lately. Her last four pictures had lost money. Her kind of Old World sex appeal was worn out, passé. The public wanted jazz babies with fresh faces, youth and vitality. The studio unceremoniously canceled her contract, informing her in a five-word telegram.

Almost overnight, it seemed, she went from Monotone Studio’s brightest young star—a string of impressive money-making hits to her credit—to a drug-addled, drunken floozy with four ex-husbands and a hundred pounds of unwanted weight. The picture business had built her up to heights she never dreamed possible and then brought her crashing down to the black abyss. What an ugly, cruel world it was! A world all too willing to forget she ever existed.

She looked over to the table and felt some comfort in what she saw there. As if they had been part of the set design of one of her pictures, a nearly-full bottle of gin stood artfully beside a glass. She poured two fingers of the delectable nectar into the glass, drank it down, and poured again. When she was beginning to feel herself going into that fuzzy world of not caring or feeling, she remembered that somebody was coming. Who was it? Oh, yes, a female journalist to talk to her about her life and her upcoming picture, The Wrath of the Grapes.

She needed to make herself more presentable. She stood up and made her way across the room to the dressing table and looked at herself in the mirror. She hardly recognized the person looking back at her. Her face was pale and puffy, her eyes merely two slits. With shaking hands, she dabbed some rouge on her cheeks and lipstick on her lips. She ran a comb through her hair and, going back to her chaise longue, had another drink, just one, to steady her nerves.

An hour passed and more. She was in the delicious gray area between waking and sleeping when she heard a tiny knock at the door.

Entrez,” she said cheerily, pulling herself upright.

The door opened and in came Bertha Belvedere, a pig-like woman of great dignity. She wore an expensive-looking suit, a fox fur piece and a black hat trimmed with feathers.

“How do you do, dear?” she said in her simpering tones.

“Bertha, darling!” Nema said. “How wonderful to see you! Please forgive me if I don’t get up.”

Bertha squeezed both of Nema’s hands in hers before seating herself on the love seat facing the chaise longue. “I’ve so been looking forward to my interview with you,” she said as she took pen and pad out of her bag.

“As have I,” Nema said. “it’s just been ages since I’ve seen you. You’re looking so well.”

“As are you, my darling!”

“And I was so thrilled when I heard your paper wanted to do an article on me and my next picture, The Wrath of the Grapes. I’m sure it will help to get word out to the dear public about what a splendid picture it is and how much they shouldn’t miss seeing it.”

“Tell me,” Bertha said, grasping the pen in her hoof-like hand, furrowing her brow. “When will the picture be released? I haven’t been able to get any definite answer yet to that question.”

“Well, we haven’t actually started on the picture yet,” Nema said, “but I’m told it will be any day now.”

“What? I understood it was just wrapping up!”

“Well, there were delays, as there usually are with these things, but we’ll get going with it real soon.”

“And do you really believe you’re right for the part of Caroline in the picture, who sacrifices her lover for the greater good?”

“I feel it right down to my bones. I was born to play the part of Lady Caroline.”

“I heard several other actresses were vying for the part.”

“That’s true but I beat out all of them.”

“And who will direct the picture?”

“We don’t actually have a director yet, but my husband, Neville Marks, will produce. He’s in negotiations in with several of the top directors, all of whom want to do the picture. It’s just a matter of ironing out the details.”

“And who will be your leading man?”

“Well, we don’t know that yet, either, but you can bet it’ll be somebody top-notch, with not only the physical presence to carry the part but also the acting experience to convey the deep emotional torment of Captain Witherspoon.”

“Can you tell me who might be in consideration for the role so I can inform my readers?”

“Well, so far as I know, there’s Herman Dare, Dalton Dixon, Matthew Robinette, and a couple of others.”

“Oh, my, but that is an impressive pool to draw from!”

“Yes, we want only the best,” Nema said, placing a cigarette in her holder and lighting it.

“I hesitate to bring up an unpleasant topic,” Bertha said, “but your last few pictures haven’t been as successful as you might have wished. I’ve heard that Monotone Pictures lost money last year and will lose even more this year. Do you believe The Wrath of the Grapes will be successful enough to lift the studio out of its financial doldrums?”

“I have the utmost confidence that The Wrath of the Grapes will be the biggest hit of the year and will restore Monotone Pictures to its rightful place of prominence in the motion picture industry.”

“Not to mention what it will do for your own career.”

“Of course! A motion picture career is a roller coaster ride of ups and downs. Although my last couple of pictures haven’t sold well with the public, I assure you it’s only a temporary aberration and The Wrath of the Grapes will put me right back up there on the top where I belong.”

“And you don’t believe that Monotone will cancel your contract?”

“Of course not! That’s just an ugly rumor being perpetrated by the hordes of people in the industry who are jealous of my success. There is absolutely no truth to the rumor that my contract has been, or ever will be, canceled. Just the other day, Mr. T. T. H. Gottschalk, head of the studio, assured me that my position there is inviolable.”

“How reassuring it must have been to hear that!”

“Yes, yes, yes!”

“Now, getting on to other matters, I wonder if you might tell us something of your early life and of how you got your start in pictures. It’s a well-known story, of course, but I thought it would be fun to hear it from your own lips.”

(The truth was that she was born, out of wedlock, to an alcoholic mother in a tenement slum on New York’s Lower East Side, but that wasn’t the story she liked to tell.)

“I was born in Budapest to an American mother and a Hungarian father. My father was a physician and my mother a magazine illustrator. We moved to New York when I was ten years old. In school I performed in amateur theatricals and eventually enrolled in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. When I was seventeen years old, I entered a beauty contest in Atlantic City at the urging of friends and, when I won the contest, was given a screen test in Hollywood. My mother and I went by rail across this huge continent in the middle of July. Can you imagine?

“The screen test turned out well and I was offered the lead in a film they were just then preparing entitled The Call of the Virgin, even though I had no acting experience. The producers took a chance on me based entirely on my looks and my personality. And I had such a wonderful director—Carleton Fiske—that it didn’t matter that I had never acted before. He extracted—there’s no other word for it—the performance from me as if it had always been inside me. I became an overnight sensation and a big, big star and married Carleton Fiske, even though he was thirty-eight years older than me.”

“Bless your heart!” Bertha said.

“He died soon after but I always felt that he was the one person, more than any other, who was responsible for my success in films.

“My first year at Monotone Pictures, I starred in four pictures. My next picture after The Call of the Virgin was Night Wind and it was just as big a hit as the first one. Then came Queen of the Dust Bin and The Lady is Indiscreet, all making vast amounts of money for the studio. And everything had come so easily to me, as if it had always meant to be. You hear about people struggling to achieve success, but I never had to struggle at all. It just seemed to come naturally to me!”

“It happens that way sometimes,” Bertha said in her knowing way, “but it is very, very rare.”

“Yes, very rare.”

“Now, if you will indulge me for a bit, I want to ask you about your domestic life. Our female readers especially love knowing about that side of the lives of our Hollywood luminaries.”

“What side is that?”

“How is your marriage with Neville Marks?”

“It couldn’t be better. He and I are very, very close. Soul mates, you might say. I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t have his strong shoulders to lean on and his wise counsel guiding me in my career.”

“Is he at home today? I was hoping to get his take on The Wrath of the Grapes and to get a couple of snaps of the two of you together in your happy home.”

“I’m sorry. He’s out scouting locations for our picture.”

“Of course. Well, perhaps next time.”

“Yes. Next time.”

Here she fell into one her dozes and when she awoke she was alone, as she had been alone ever since the pickup woman left. She had another drink and then another, and then she stood up and made her way across the room, the act of walking a delicate balancing act for her.

She went to the window overlooking the back of the house and from it saw the open door of the garage and the empty space in the garage that had recently held the car of her husband, Neville Marks.

He left her three days ago for a much-younger woman, a twenty-one-old ingénue who had recently made a splash in her first picture, just as Nema had made a splash in hers all those years ago. And his leaving her had been the cruelest cut of all, the one thing she could not tolerate and go on living.

She went into the bathroom and, standing at the sink, swallowed an entire bottle of sleeping pills that her doctor had told her to take sparingly because they were very strong and dangerous if not taken according to directions. She washed them down with plenty of cold water and, when she was finished, she went to the bed and lay on her back to await the coming of the blessed blankness, weeping, as she did, for the poignancy of her own passing.

Safety Came for Me

It hurt.

Each smack that fell upon my already stinging red skin sent electrical shocks throughout my body. I wanted to scream. No, I couldn’t scream otherwise another smack will land on me. What I could do now was wait till he was done, leave the room and drink his life away.

He kicked my right side and the pain from his steel-toed boots felt like a knife going through my right side and out the other. I muffled a cry. He shouted at me too. The words stung like a poison. Words that made me feel weak, senseless, terrible, useless, and unwanted. Like if I were to die right now no one would care to realize. He’d probably drag my body out into the woods and bury me deep in the ground to never be seen again.

The kicks, smacks, shoves, and yelling was dying down. After one more kick in the stomach, which felt like I was going to upchuck my stomach from my mouth, he left the room. The door slammed shut and there was a click from the lock. He placed it there so that I couldn’t run away while he drank himself to sleep. He didn’t want to go to jail.

Laying in that corner I stared around my room. It wasn’t much of a room anymore. Everything was a mess and I owned barely nothing. My closet was only filled with enough to last me a week. My bed was covered with enough to keep me warm at night but sometimes I couldn’t make it there. I was too tired to move and so like the days before I fell asleep in the corner of my bedroom.

Early the next morning I got up to make that man breakfast. He sat at the table looking very hung over. Twenty dollars sat in front of him to go get groceries. Quietly I crept to the table and grabbed the money like I would whenever it sat there.

“Come straight back,” His voice had made my skin crawl with nervousness.

Leaving the house wearing only jeans, old sneakers, and a hoodie my feet headed in the same path down to the store that sat at the end of the street. It was the closest one but I had to make sure that no one took too much noticed of me. Like every time I went around and grabbed the things that he wanted. The list was a simple one: eggs, bacon, bread, sausage, and hash-browns. It was like this every time and I had just enough to cover it all with two dollars and sixty-three cents left over.

I was grabbing the thick-cut bacon. Someone went grabbing my upper arm. I flinched noticeably as my heart raced thinking it was him because the grip was tight. The hand had left and I heard them back away a step.

“Carry?” His voice was so soft, confused, gentle, and worried. It was ages ago before I had heard that exact voice. I was in school then, but now I wasn’t. That man back home had pulled me out of it. That following night he was beating me and telling me that I wasn’t good enough for school. I wasn’t smart enough. I wasn’t worth being taught. I have longed to go back because it was the only safe place to be from him. “Carry?”

“Leave me alone, Tony,” I mumbled softly placing the bacon in the basket before going to find the eggs. I didn’t want him here. If he found out that someone was talking to me besides the cashier he was going to lock me away. He might think that I was trying to plan to run away or turn him in. I’ve tried to do that many years ago but somehow he made people think I was crazy, they would whisper about me in the halls not knowing the actual truth. After that was I too scared to try again. He raped me that night.

“Carry, what’s going on with you? Where have you been?” I ignored him though so badly I didn’t want to. He was such a good friend when we were children. He cared so much for me. That man though had threaten me to not to talk to Tony anymore. “Carry, answer me.” I have forgotten how demanding he was after he asked a question. Without a word I went to the cashier and paid for my things before leaving the store.

He followed, my heart started to race. If he was looking out the window or heard Tony I don’t know what would happen then but I knew that later that night I’ll be sleeping my pains away in the corner of my bedroom like the night before.

“Tony, please leave me alone.”

“Carry, what the hell is going on with you?” He grabbed my upper arm again and I bit my lip from the pain that he was causing by touching the bruises. He noticed, “What’s wrong?”

“It’s nothing.”

“You think that I’ll believe that?” No.

“Go away Tony.” Please, please leave Tony. I don’t want you getting hurt too.

“Tell me.” I tried walking away but he continued to follow. “I’ve been looking for you for months now, please Carry tell me what’s going on.” Tony grabbed my arms again and I wanted to cry out from the pain but bit my lip from letting it out. He saw the pain in my eyes and stepped closer to me. My feet took an instinctive step back. He pulled me to him before I could do anything to react. I crash against him with more force than needed. Waves of hot pain shot through me and a small cry left my lips. Tony wasn’t going to give up.

His embrace was warm and comforting. Something that I have longed for the last couple years. It was gentle and he held me with care, like I was a fragile china doll. Slowly I leaned into him. The warmth was something that I needed. Thoughts of what could happen if I was caught faded from my mind while the only safety that I have could be the one holding me right now.

“Please, tell me Carry. Something is going on. This isn’t you.”

Safety was holding me right now.

I didn’t want it to slip away from me.

It was probably the only chance I had.

“My father’s been abusing me,” Those words were so hard to speak. My throat had tighten up, tears filled my eyes, and my mouth had felt dry. That feeling you get when you’re just about to cry and know it. It was impossible to hold back. Tony held me closer to him as I cried. He took his phone out of his back pocket.

Safety came for me.

Without my pleading or cries for help, it has come to me because I took that chance to tell someone.

The Visits

Through the passenger window of a taxi Katy saw him. Or was it him? Traffic was moving briskly despite the time of day. So just when she caught a glimpse, he was past. She looked behind through the back window. The sidewalk was crowded.

Then she saw him; head down, shuffling through the maze of people. His height and build were right; his moustache and hair were the same albeit with flecks of gray. Aging hair made sense; it had been several years since she last saw him. He shuffled into the parking garage. Suddenly she became convinced of the identity. It was him. Now she knew basically where he worked and what time of day he got off. That’s when she plotted the visit.

That first visit was a near miss, too. On the predetermined day Katy slinked through the parking garage several times before finally spotting his familiar car and vanity plate. Thank goodness he was frugal and a creature of habit. If he had purchased a new vehicle since she last saw him this visit may not have transpired. Katy checked her watch and then hid beside a van in an adjacent parking spot. She watched wordlessly holding her breath as he trudged from the street into the garage. His head was down. He would not see her. Like a stalker, she stepped forward as he raised his key to unlock the car. He was ambushed.

Despite growing up together, he failed at first to recognize her. When he realized who she was, he was not happy. She didn’t expect he would be pleased. For years he had never returned a phone call, email or snail mail. When one would make the long drive to his home, he was never home. Or just wasn’t answering the door.

Katy felt an ache in her heart, much like their mother felt so many times. A brother, a son, a godfather, an uncle had abruptly fallen off the face of the earth and didn’t want to be found. He mumbled a response to her greeting, got into his car and didn’t even say goodbye. Katy shouted, “We love you, don’t cut us from your life!” as he pulled away. But he didn’t hear her. At least that’s what Katy told herself.

The rest of the family would claim to have no idea why Derrick abruptly left the fold. After all, they were a large robust family that always included the younger brother despite his air of aloofness. His mood swings were legendary. But he was still loved and invited everywhere. At first, he attended every family gathering; seldom speaking, but a physical presence. Then, he just stopped going. Siblings would say they were at a loss at his sudden departure. That is everyone except Katy.

“It was the relentless bullying and teasing.” Katy said to her mother. “Especially about being a sensitive.”

Mother refused to believe it at first. As far as the teasing by his brothers went, boys will be boys was her motto. “He brought on the teasing,” she would say in defense of her other sons. The “sensitive” aspect was personal and best kept quiet. After all, Mother was a sensitive and very few knew. Most people – especially family – would not understand. In the past such a gift was swept under the rug or else held to ridicule. Mother encouraged Derrick to keep his gift quiet. And he did. Until he saw the man hanging in the rafters of the attic. Derrick was just a child and his reaction was commiserate with his age. He screamed and ran down the stairs to tell his mother. His brothers were in the room. They laughed and heckled him. Mother said he was imagining things. And so began the relentless bullying began.

“The longer he stays away the harder it will be to come back,” Mother would say at family gatherings. His absence broke her heart.

The children in the family noticed he was gone, too. “Why doesn’t Uncle Derrick ever come to our reunions?” a niece asked. Katy knew but simply shrugged. Later she would recount to her mother the last reunion her brother Derrick attended.

It was Christmas Eve years before. Family members had traveled far and near to the parent’s home. It would be the last gathering in the old house where they had grown-up.. The home was filled with joy and spirit. And was the place where Derrick as a child had seen the hanging man.

The picture Katy kept from that night was haunting. On the many faces of the photographed relatives was powdered sugar smeared amply around each and every mouth and face. Even Derrick had a white face. Except he wasn’t smiling. 

Mother had put on a feast, as usual, for all the guests. Following a turkey with all the trimmings came all the goodies. But the cookies, divinity, fudge, peanut brittle, candy and cakes that were passed at the end of the meal fell short to some. Inevitably Mother was questioned about the one treat that had graced the table each and every holiday that was now absent.

“Where are the rum balls?” one of the brother’s asked.

Mother shrugged. “There’s a ton of goodies here,” she replied.

“Your mother has been cooking and baking for a month,” replied Father.

The brother grumbled. “I look forward to those all year. I can’t believe that you didn’t make any.” Mother looked away with raised eyebrows and a strange grin. Then the crowd all teasingly grumbled.

The teasing continued as the dishes were cleared from the table. While putting away the fudge in the refrigerator, Katy saw a suspiciously sealed Christmas tin. Upon opening it, the familiar aroma filled her senses. Taking off the lid, revealed Mother’s elusive powdered sugar rolled rum balls.

Katy started to laugh and popped one in her mouth. “Great Mom, now I know where they are hidden.”

“Hey, hey,” Mother said. “I didn’t put those out because there are not enough for everyone.”

The complaining brother had gone to the porch to checkout Mother’s stash of holiday goodies. Katy found Mother’s powdered sugar and quickly instructed the nieces and nephews to spread powdered sugar on everyone’s faces. They had just finished dabbing the last person, when complaining brother/uncle returned, chagrinned.

“There are no rum balls,” he groaned. Suddenly he saw a multitude of white guilty faces. “Hey!”

Chuckles greeted him.

Complaining brother powdered his face white. Then the final retort. “Hey Derrick look – I see dead people.”

The laughter was deafening. Katy’s husband snapped the photo. All the brothers and sisters were there along with parents laughing at Derrick’s expense. He abruptly left.

“That was his last time with us,” Katy said privately to her mother. “You and Dad moved to assisted living and he never visited. When dad died Derrick came and left the funeral home without words. Our family now calls him a crazy recluse. Mom he is not crazy. I saw the hanging man – ”

“I saw him many times,” Mother interrupted dismissively. “But you just don’t talk about those things.”

“He was just a kid. Why didn’t we defend him?”

Mother turned away. “I have had to live with being a sensitive my entire life. He needed to learn how to deal with it.”

“Mother, what kind of gutless wonders are we?”

Katy again watched as her brother trudged into the parking garage. This time her face didn’t bring him to anger. Instead, it was total apathy.

“Can I get in the car and talk to you?” She asked. “It’s cold out here.”

“Suit yourself,” he mumbled. It was the first words she had heard him say in a decade.

She climbed in the front passenger seat and began to talk. She rambled on about his siblings, their spouses and children. She told him how mother was doing in assisted living and missed him terribly. He stared ahead out of the windshield and said nothing. Then she apologized on behalf of herself and the family. She thought maybe she saw tears in his eyes, but she wasn’t sure. His face was expressionless.

“And I want you to know that I saw him, too. The hanging man in the attic. I went up there to get a toy and he was there. I told mom that I saw him and she said to be quiet or that I would be teased. So I kept quiet.”

“There was no man,” Derrick said softly.

“No man physically, but his spirit was still there hanging. He had on rumpled baggy brown corduroy pants with a grayed button down shirt – “

“With rolled up sleeves,” Derrick said. “The shirt used to be white but was grey from all the washings.”

“He had on worn dark brown shoes,” Katy said.

“There were holes in the soles. You could see that because he was hanging,” Derrick added.

“He had a full head of dark blonde hair and it was messy.”

“His clothes and hands were dirty, like he been a laborer and just came in from outside …” Derrick said quietly.

“Those glasses haunt me,” Katy said.

“Black horn rimmed,” they said together.

“And his eyes were opened – they looked like glazed marbles,” Derrick said sadly.

They were quiet for a few moments. “That house was over a hundred years old with many different occupants. Originally it was a farm until the land was subdivided and sold off.” Katy had done her research.

“I always thought he was a young farmer with a family who simply grew despondent,” Derrick said suddenly.

“There are no records of a death in the house,” Katy said. She shrugged. “I was always so terrified to sleep at night. Had to have the light on. Now as an adult, I see the man as tragic not scary.”

They sat quietly before Katy said her goodbyes. She kissed his cheek. He didn’t respond.

Katy visited Derrick every few months, ambushing him in the garage keeping her brother updated on family events, inviting him to every activity. He never came.

The last summer reunion the family traveled to the Lake Inn. On the final night of the reunion, a campfire was lit near the lake. Ghost stories were told. Then, Katy’s husband brought out night sky lanterns. There were enough lanterns that each individual family was designated their own light. As the lanterns were lit and floated up over the lake, that family would silently place all their burdens, cares and worries on the lantern and let them float away.

The busy chatter and laughter stopped suddenly when the first lantern was launched. They watched in wonder as the cares and burdens were lifted and carried away before disintegrating harmlessly into the lake. One by one the lanterns floated up, up and away leaving everyone teary and awestruck on this perfect night.

In the end, there was one extra lantern.

“To Derrick,” Katy said softly. And watched as the final lantern floated away.

 

Nailed

Tess Mcgonery

I was biting my nails again.

I just couldn’t help it though. Every time the teacher gave a surprise recitation, I felt so nervous that I couldn’t stop myself. Even though I knew my mom would hate me for ruining her latest creation on my nails, I couldn’t stop it even if I wanted to.

On the plus side, it somehow got under the skin of one very moody Christian Sanders. And I just love getting under his skin.

“Hey!” He half shouted, half whispered. Speak of the devil.

Our teacher was in front slowly murdering one of my classmates with her stare, and I didn’t want to be in the receiving point of that. I tried to ignore him, biting into my nails deliberately. A crumpled paper flew to my desk, and I bit back a smile as I opened it.

Stop that.

I wrote him back, carelessly throwing it over my shoulder.

 

Christian Sanders

Bite me.

I groaned, throwing mental daggers through her head. If only she stopped biting her nails like that, then maybe I could concentrate on what the teacher was saying. I was afraid she’d call me all of the sudden while I was busy getting furious with Tess Mcgonery. That girl was impossible, and she was biting into her nails like it was her lifeline made me hate her more.

If only she knew that I wanted my lips to be the one she’d be biting, then maybe she’d stop doing it too much.

I smirked as I wrote another reply to her, hopefully making her stop biting her nails.

 

Tess Mcgonery

Another crumpled paper made it’s way to my desk, just as the teacher turned around to waste chalk on the board with her pointless lecture. I breathed out a sign of relief that she was distracted for a moment.

I’d gladly will. Shall I start with the ones you’re using to bite your nails?

A blush crept up my face when I suddenly imagined his lips on mine, and I tried to bury it down my deepest subconscious. The teacher began to babble on in the background, calling the guy who was half asleep at the back. Poor guy.

I tried to think of a smart retort to what he said, but I felt another surge of blood threatening to fill my cheeks.

I crumpled the paper and threw it in my bag, determined to put Christian Sanders out of my mind. He was too handsome for his own good, and flirting with him will only be trouble.

 

Christian Sanders

I watched as she kept in her bag the note, then proceeded into biting her nails again. If only I could kiss her, if only I could feel what her nails feel right now, then maybe I’d stop thinking about her all the time. I’m loosing my edge, thinking about a girl who has strawberry art on her nails.

I mean, who paints their nails a different artwork every week?

And who bites them so she needs to change them every week?

No other than Tess Mcgonery.

 

Tess Mcgonery

The poor teacher almost had a heart attack when one of the students raised their hands. No one dared to raise his or her hand in class. It was a silent agreement between all of us.

I didn’t know if it was a look of surprise or despise when she turned to the hand calling her attention. And of course, it was Christian Sanders.

“Yes Mr.?” She tried to focus her eyes to the culprit of the class disruption, something we have dubbed as ‘zooming in’.

“Sanders.” He answered.

Of course she didn’t know our names. I bet she doesn’t even know what subject this is!

“Is it hygienic for someone to keep biting their nails even though every week they get a new design on it? I mean, the chemicals from the nail paint must be dangerous.”

I felt all blood from my body suddenly rush to my face, as I noticed the already chipped strawberry. I looked down as the professor seemed to actually contemplate on Christian’s question.

“Well young man, what do we suppose we should do with that?”

 

Christian Sanders

I inwardly panicked, trying to figure out why the hell did I raise my hand. The professor, whom I never did catch the name, looked at me quizzically.

Think fast!

“Honestly? They deserved to be kissed senseless so that they knew that there was something tastier than their nails.” I smirked as I watched Tess make herself invisible, slumping down her seat.

The whole class roared with laughter, most of them being awake because of the word ‘kiss’.

“Quiet down!” The professor commanded. When everyone settled down, the professor turned his attention back to me.

“Well Mr. Sanders, would you demonstrate that?”

“Certainly.”

I instantly saw the other girls bite their nails, trying to get my attention.

But there was only one girl I needed to kiss.

One girl who got me nailed.

 

Tess Mcgonery

I tried to stop biting my nails for the next few minutes. My professor looked bored and went with it, my classmates were now wide awake, and here I am, hoping he isn’t talking about me.

But when he stepped forward from his desk and stopped beside mine, I actually quivered.

And not the bad type either.

He grazed over my hand, caressing it in a way I couldn’t understand. I’ve never been so close to him before, so when he pulled me up, I wasn’t expecting to see his attractiveness in full bloom.

He had this faint stubble and firm pinkish lips that made him look like a man, yet his cute nose and dilated eyes made him look like a boy.

And when he kissed me, every cell in my body agreed with him.

There were tastier things than my nails.

 

Christian Sanders

I kissed her for a while longer, her hair tangled in my fingers. I was literally lost in her lips, and when she bit me, I thought I was going to melt in the middle of the classroom.

That’s when the professor cleared his throat.

I leaned back, seeing Tess’ face closer than before.

She had a button nose and brown eyes that seemed to be sparkling at me. Her lips were swollen, her cheeks red. I think I like her better this way.

As I stared behind her once again as class resumed, one thought was clear.

I’m never getting her out of my head.

The Next Breath

As Sophie staggered through the front door of her apartment, she caught a whiff of fresh cigarette smoke, more pungent than the stale stench clinging to her clothes and hair. Flying through the living room in four-inch heels, she whipped her head around, searching for the source of that acrid odor.

She stopped short in the kitchen doorway. Her roommate sat at the table, a cigarette clutched between his lips as he peered at his laptop screen. Cash glanced up at her, sheepish as he straightened in the chair. “Good morning, Sophie,” he said.

“I told you not to smoke in here.” She tried to sound stern, but her voice was reduced to a low rasp. “Put it out right now. You’ll set the smoke alarm off.”

Cash took a deep drag, closing his eyes to savor it. “No, I won’t,” he said, “because I removed the batteries. I was going to put them back as soon as I finished this.” Reluctantly he ground the cigarette into a glass ashtray she didn’t know they still had. She thought he stopped smoking after his father died last year.

“What’s the matter?” he asked, focusing his large blue eyes on her again. “You sound like you’re catching a cold.” His stare swept over her red dress and the snags in her stockings.

Sophie’s hands flew like startled birds to her throat, but Cash saw the violet ring of bruises mottling her skin.

“Jesus Christ.” He stood and started toward her.

Sophie stumbled backward and held up her hands. “Don’t.”

Cash froze mid-stride. “Okay,” he said, speaking as though she were a frightened animal he wanted to soothe. “Do I need to take you to the hospital?”

“No.” Her voice broke on the word.

He swiped a hand over his face, never looking away from the bruises. “Who did this to you?”

She brushed stringy hair out of her eyes. “It doesn’t matter. I’m not going to see him again.”

“I sure as hell hope not.” Cash reached for her arm.

The moment his skin touched hers, he was no longer Cash but the man who had choked her senseless just hours before. Sophie jerked from his grasp. “Leave me alone,” she snapped.

“Hey.” Cash pointed a finger at her. “Don’t try to make me one of your nameless fucks. You took care of me last month when I had the stomach flu. You stood beside me at my father’s funeral. You think I’m going to let this drop, when you come home with bruises on your neck?”

“Please,” she whispered, tears scratching her eyes like powdered glass. “I just want a hot bath. We’ll talk later.”

Cash’s shoulders slumped, and his slender body appeared to fold in on itself. “Can I… do you need any help?” he asked.

Sophie shook her head and forced a smile. “No, I’m okay.”

She kicked off her heels before making her way to the bathroom. Not bothering to lock the door, she stripped out of her clothes, refusing to look at her reflection in the mirror above the sink. She ran hot water until the glass steamed. Lifting a leg over the side of the tub, Sophie eased her foot into the bath and hissed at the scalding temperature.

She wanted to lather her skin and hair, wash away all traces of the night before, but she was too tired. Instead she leaned back and closed her eyes, the water so hot it muddled her senses and made her shiver.

A soft knock sounded on the bathroom door. “You okay, love?” Cash called.

“Yeah,” she said. “You can come in.”

He opened the door and stopped short, averting his gaze. “Sorry,” he stammered, his face flushing. “I didn’t know you were…”

“Naked? It’s fine,” she said, unable to hold back a grin.

Cash pulled the shower curtain closed. Sophie heard him put the toilet lid down and then sit on it. He let out a sigh that sounded as weary as her bones felt.

“Why do you keep doing this?”

She settled deeper in the water. “I don’t know.”

“It won’t stop until you figure that out,” he said.

Sophie snorted. “You should have been a shrink. You missed your calling.”

“Why do you let these men hurt you?” Cash persisted.

“I ask them to,” she replied.

Even the meekest of men, the ones who twisted their wedding bands and trembled like scared rabbits as she approached them in bars—even they could be goaded into hurting her when she got them alone. Some required nothing more than a submissive look and a plaintive, “Please, sir.” Others lashed out only after she hurled insults at them, snickering at their cocks.

“Why do you ask them to hurt you?” Cash’s voice was just above a whisper.

Sophie gingerly touched the bruises at her throat and thought of what she could wear to the office on Monday to hide the marks. “It’s the only way I can come.”

She heard the low hiss of air between his teeth. “What happened last night?”

She squeezed her eyes shut and thought of the man she met at the bar two towns away. He sat by himself, nursing a gin and tonic. Mid-forties, balding, a bit of a belly on him. He was quiet, but he laughed at her jokes, and as the evening wore on, he leaned closer. His hand was on her thigh when she suggested they go to a hotel.

The man turned out to be one of the nice guys, at least at first. He wanted to kiss her mouth, her neck. She took his hand in hers and forced him to squeeze her breast.

“What …” The man stepped away from her.

She stood in the dimly lit hotel room and took off her clothes. He couldn’t stop staring at her as she slipped between the sheets. “I like it rough,” she told him. “You think you can manage that?”

“How rough?” he asked. A layer of sweat coated his cheeks.

Sophie started to climb out of the bed. “If you have to ask, you’re not up to it.”

“I am,” the man insisted.

When his naked body weighed her down, the man tried to kiss her again. “That’s not what I want,” she said, turning her head away.

He pinched her left nipple hard enough to make her gasp. “Be careful what you ask for,” he said. Then he slapped her face.

As he fucked her, panting from the exertion, she realized he was close to coming. “Hey,” she said. Her sharp tone brought him from his trance. “This isn’t doing it for me.”

His features contorted in rage. “I’m fucking you as hard as I can.”

Sophie burst out laughing. “You can fuck me into next year, pal, but that tiny cock of yours still won’t do the job.”

His large hands wrapped around her throat. Still she smiled as his stare locked with hers. He squeezed hard, his jaw clenched, and the veins protruded at his temples. The edges of her vision darkened as blazing flares popped like flashbulbs before her eyes.

So this is how it ends, she thought. She always believed she would welcome that final release, but the reptilian part of her brain scrambled into action, and she struggled like a mouse with its leg caught in a glue trap, her small fists hammering the man’s head. Her lungs screamed in agony. It felt like the inside of her chest was being scraped with a dull knife.

The man relaxed his grip just before she lost consciousness. He pulled out of her, whispering, “What am I doing?” Then he jumped from the bed and ran to the bathroom.

Sophie rolled onto her side, coughing and sputtering. She drew in a deep lungful of air, tears streaming from her eyes. Over the sound of her labored breathing, she heard the man vomit into the toilet.

Sophie turned her back to him as he dressed. Just before he left the room, he said, “I’m sorry. Please—I have a family.”

She couldn’t tell any of this to Cash, so she dunked her head below the bathwater. When she resurfaced, Cash’s voice filled her ears.

“Is it because of your brother?”

Sophie began to shake so hard the water sloshed over the side of the tub. “You asshole,” she said. “That’s low, bringing him up now.”

“Sophie, I’m sorry,” Cash said.

She climbed to her feet and pulled back the shower curtain. “You want me to say I’m completely fucked up because my brother used to sneak into my room at night?”

Cash held out his upturned palms in supplication. “You’ll end up dead if you don’t stop this.”

Sophie shrugged. “I don’t care.”

Cash stood and yanked at his hair. “Let me help you,” he said. “Please.”

Sophie curled her lip in disgust. “I’ve asked you to help me before.”

“No.” Cash shook his head violently. “You wanted to use me.”

She stepped out of the tub and reached for a towel. “I asked you to fuck me,” she said. “How is that using you?”

“I’d jump at the chance to fuck you.” Cash’s breathing grew heavier. “But not the way you want. Even if I were to tie you up, get rough with you, it wouldn’t be enough.”

Sophie wrapped the towel around her wet hair and pushed past him. He followed her into her bedroom. “You have no right to lecture me about my problems,” she said. “Let’s talk about how you haven’t dated anyone in years.” She slumped on the edge of her unmade bed. “You keep yourself holed up in this apartment, wallowing in your own shame.”

“That’s not true,” Cash said.

Sophie hurled the wet towel at him, and he caught it with one hand. The tendency to bare her fangs and lunge for the jugular began to well in her chest. “Thomas told me about your roll in the sheets,” she went on, smirking at the way Cash’s eyes widened. “You didn’t think I knew about that, did you?” Sophie leaned forward. “I know he told you the next morning that it meant nothing to him—you just served as a hole for him to fill.”

Cash’s face drained of color, and Sophie saw the panic leeching into his skin.

“Now do you want to hit me?” she taunted. “I bet you’d just love to smash your fist in my face. But I’ll let you fuck me the way he fucked you.” The words spilled from her in a ruthless stream. “Thomas said you make a great bottom. So do I, Cash.”

He didn’t ball his fists or advance on her with a raised hand. He only gave her a sad smile. “You won’t win that easily, but keep it up if it makes you feel better.”

His pain was so raw she had to look away. “It doesn’t,” she said, her voice thick with unshed tears. “I’m sorry.”

“You don’t have any more knives you want to twist in my gut?” he asked, closing the distance between them.

Sophie fell back against the bed. As Cash loomed over her, she lifted her legs and wrapped them around his hips. “Please help me,” she whimpered.

Cash took a shuddering breath and covered her body with the towel. “No,” he said. “Get some sleep.”

When he pulled away, a sob erupted from her lips. “If you loved me, you would hurt me.” She covered her face with her hands, the way she did as a child when she wanted to hide.

Cash sat beside her on the bed and gathered her in his arms. “I do love you,” he whispered, his lips against her hair. “That’s why I’m saying no.”

As they huddled together on the dirty sheets, he held her so tight it made her ribs ache. Sophie found it hard to breathe, but she remained still, terrified he would loosen his grip if she moved.

Leaning Towards Love

Walking briskly along the Italian cobblestoned street, Valentina knew she would see the top of the Tower if she just looked up. She knew how it would look from this very street corner by heart, sticking out over the tops of the other buildings at a slight tilt, the white marble standing stark against the bright blue sky. She also knew it would remind her of all the walks she had taken down this street with her father many years ago. For that reason, she kept her eyes on the ground.

She crossed the road and pushed through a dingy, half-broken swinging door into a badly air-conditioned convenience store. The heat outside made the air in the store thick and heavy. Flies buzzed around soft fruit and two large whirring fans made groaning noises in opposite corners. The man behind the counter, with his thick black mustache and small spectacles half down his nose, grinned when he looked up and saw her walking in.

“Valentina!” He shouted over the noise of the fans. He threw his hands in the air like all the Italians she knew as he rambled out compliments and greetings to her in his rapid speech. She leaned over the counter and kissed both his cheeks.

“Alberto,” she said and she could feel herself smiling as she said his name with easy familiarity. “How are you? You look great.”

That wasn’t entirely true. He looked like he had shrunk considerably; his whole body hunched over. Her dad would have been 60 this year so she had to assume Alberto wasn’t far behind. They fell into easy conversation, exchanging stories and laughing at old memories. Valentina bought a sparkling water and a pack of gum just like her father always did and Alberto tried to make her take it for free, just as he always had.

Valentina felt comfortable here in this tiny store in the middle of Pisa. Alberto had owned it for longer than she had been alive and was friends with her father for even longer than that. Valentina grew up in a neighboring Tuscan village, around 30 minutes by train from Pisa. Once a month, without fail, her father would take the train into Pisa, stop by Alberto’s before heading to the steps in front of the Tower. He could sit there for hours. Sometimes he would bring a sketchbook, other times nothing at all. She started tagging along when she was only eight but hadn’t been back since his death 6 years ago. For her father the Tower represented something, though she had never been sure what exactly. He used to say it was a landmark that brought people together.

“Are you married, bella? In love?” She rolled her eyes at his question.

“No. No love for me Alberto.” She didn’t mention the fact that her boyfriend of nearly five years had broken up with her last week, prompting her to finally make this journey back to Pisa in the first place.

“Ah well, you see my nephew just divorced – he’s young …”

“Alberto,” She interrupted a story she hadn’t been listening to. “Listen, it’s so lovely to see you, but I should head on.” She indicated her head in the direction of the tower and he nodded knowingly.

“Of course, of course. You come back before you leave though!” She agreed to stop by again and headed out the door on her way.

Valentina wandered past the street vendors, pushing half-broken watches and other shabby items in her face. She followed the lines of tourists, posed with one hand in the air and finally, she looked up.

It was laughably leaning, she had always thought. Leaning so far to one side, that as a child, she was certain it was just going to fall over. She walked across to the steps and took a seat, holding a hand to the sun to shade her view. She never thought it to be a beautiful landmark like her father did, but she was intrigued by the Tower, by its story and all the stories she had because of it. She waited so long to visit, scared of how the Tower would look to her now without him and nervous how she would feel standing in front of it alone but now here it was, standing directly in front of her like nothing had actually changed at all.

A bump to her elbow shook her from her thoughts.

“Sorry, didn’t mean to come in so fast.” A man, probably around his late twenties with dark hair and a boyish face, sat abruptly next to her. “You seemed lost in your thoughts and I was just wondering what you could possibly be thinking about at The Leaning Tower of Pisa.”

He was definitely American. Valentina stared at him, at a loss for words.

“Hi, I’m Alex,” He finally said, sticking a hand out to shake.

“Tina,” She replied slowly, grabbing his hand and giving it a small shake. “I was just thinking about how funny this Tower is actually.”

He threw his head back with laughter. “You know what Tina? I thought that exact same thing. This Tower is funny. Have you had lunch yet?”

To the Girl Going to Floor Eight

To the Girl Going to Floor Eight,

I want to apologize for addressing you so strangely. You see, I don’t know your name. You never told me. You never said anything to me, actually. All I know about you is the day we shared this elevator, you hit the eighth button.

On the surface, we were only strangers sharing a moving box, traveling from one point to another. And yet, somehow, in a few silent moments, you saved me.

I don’t live in this building. The night I came here, the 28th of May, I went to a friend of a friend’s cousin’s party on the twelfth floor. I drank good liquor. I kissed pretty girls. I felt completely empty.

It’s not the first time I’ve done this. It’s a pretty usual cycle – feel sad, drink to feel better, feel worse about drinking, drink some more to feel better about that.

Mid-party, around 10 p.m., I decided I was going to leave. I had to break the cycle somehow, you know? I was losing my mind. So I took the elevator all the way down to the lobby.

For some reason, I couldn’t leave this stupid building. Leaving this building represented quitting drinking, which scared me to death, so I stayed. I just sat myself down in a lobby chair for a solid hour, pretending it was completely natural for me to be here flipping through crinkled magazines.

I thought I couldn’t quit. I thought I’d fail. I couldn’t bear fail something else, you know? I just failed the bar exam for law school. I failed my brother the day before by being late to his kid’s baptism. I failed my girlfriend by cheating on her.

So I decided quitting life would be better than quitting drinking and failing. Numbly, I pressed the elevator button and decided I would go to the roof, hop and just end it all.

But someone came in with me. You. You, with your vibrant pink-streaked blonde hair and red lipstick. You, with your flowing, colorful sundress. You, with your confident walk. You, with your real smile. You.

You just had an air to you, like you knew you were special, but you weren’t cocky about it. You knew you were a bit strange, but you weren’t ashamed about it. You wanted to be nothing but you, and you didn’t care about anything else.

You’ve probably done something wrong, I suppose, because you’re human. But I didn’t see that. I didn’t see the pain that weighs on everyone else’s minds, with their heavy shoulders and drooping eyes. You had forgiven yourself of anything wrong you’ve done. You didn’t let that hold you back; you didn’t let that make you sad. You were happy. You were the happiest person I’ve ever seen.

When you got off on the eighth floor, I was only a few floors away from the roof. But when I got there, I thought, if she can be so content, why can’t I let myself be happy? Why was I just chasing sadness – the drinking, the empty parties, and this suicide?

So I got in the elevator again. I rode it to the lobby. I walked straight out of this building, with my head a little higher than before. On the taxi ride home, I joined an AA meeting on my phone. I’m not perfect. I’m not as happy as you are, but I’m getting better.

I wanted to thank you, but I didn’t know how to contact you. I’m sorry if leaving a letter tapped to the elevator is obnoxious. I’m sorry if I embarrass you, but I needed to thank you.

So, thank you.

Sincerely,
The Man No Longer Going to the Roof

Katherine’s Shadow

Why are my pants on backwards?

Sarah felt the tag of her pajama bottoms itching against the bottom crest of her belly. She tried to lift her head and pop-rock whiteness exploded behind her eyes. She’d never had a hangover before, or she would have known what to call it.

Vaguely, Sarah remembered stumbling home. A girl from her class had supported her the full four blocks back to the dorms. Her armpit and the underflesh of her triceps still ached from where the other girl’s shoulder had held her up. Sarah stretched, raising herself up slowly. She remembered feeling acid, the taste of batteries, at the back of her mouth. Had she thrown up? She didn’t know. Her tongue felt dry and stale, but that was to be expected after such a night of hard drinking. Wasn’t it? Sarah pushed the heels of her palms against her eyelids in an attempt to stop the pulsating of her vision. What did people do in these situations? This was all new to her.

Sarah was aware of the emptiness of her dorm room then. It was just big enough for two twin beds, placed directly opposite of each other as close up to the cold, red brick walls as possible. In the extra space there were two three-feet-by-three-feet desks with matching shelves overhead, and two shallow closets flanking the one door. It was sparsely decorated with Third Eye Blind posters and neon throw pillows.

Sarah’s roommate was hardly ever in. For the fourth week in a row, she had gone home to her parents’ house in Aurora for the entire weekend. Sarah practically had the room to herself, most of the time. She wouldn’t say that it was lonely. It sure gave her plenty of room to work. She just had expected more from her first dorm experience. It would have helped to have someone much more…present, in a situation like this.

A knock on the door.

“Sarah? Sarah, did you make it back okay? Sarah, its Siobhan- let me in, please.”

Siobhan was a freshman, like Sarah, who sat next to her an early morning three-hundred level statistics class. She had been Sarah’s guide to the local house party the night before- down to fiftieth and King street, where the party there had already been a bust, up to forty eighth and Osceola, where they were some of the first to arrive- as part of a group of their classmates who had wanted to go out and get loose.

A burgeoning math major, Siobhan was pretty and moderately popular. Sarah had figured she was someone who was safe enough to cling to, this early on in her college career. Not unreachably perfect or overshadowing, but also not a hole-in-the-wall troll who would weigh Sarah down in public. A good stepping stone, to begin with.

“Hold on, I’m getting there,” Sarah said as she fixed her pants the right way ‘round. She was embarrassed by the amount of effort it took to slide out of her lifted bed, to steady her legs and shuffle slowly to the door. If this was what hangovers were always like, Sarah was never going to drink again.

Siobhan stood at the door, her eyebrows drawn together with concern. She had a small cup of McDonald’s coffee in her right hand, a tightly gripped, greasy meal sack in the other. The smell of it nearly made Sarah want to retch, at the same time that it made her feel urgently the emptiness of her own stomach.

“Figured you wouldn’t be heading over to the café today. Could barely handle the sun myself,” Siobhan said. Her tone was an uncertain apology, as was the way her clean green eyes swept Sarah’s room. What was she looking for? Siobhan set down the breakfast bag on Sarah’s desk, still looking uncomfortable. Sarah hauled herself back onto her bed, where she could rest the back of her throbbing head against the cold, hard brick. She patted the purple comforter next to her.

“It’s more comfortable up here,” she invited.

Siobhan clambered up beside, snugly sitting Indian-style, holding the small cup of coffee like an anchor between her hands. Her pixie short, flame colored curls were pinned down close to her head, emphasizing the soft freckles of her round, friendly face. Her hair was slightly damp and her features fresh, as if she had recently showered. Had she really come over right after waking? After that and getting breakfast, of course.

“How’s your head?” Siobhan asked.

“Like the inside of a broken strobe light,” Sarah laughed.

Siobhan wordlessly handed Sarah the dollar coffee. Sarah didn’t know if it was supposed to help her hangover, but she also couldn’t just reject it. So Sarah took the coffee, warm between her palms.

“I’m sorry if I made an ass out of myself last night,” Sarah said after a small pause, “I don’t know when I passed out but it couldn’t have been good.”

“You…don’t remember?”

“I remember wanting to throw up. I remember waking up on someone’s couch. I think Mikayla walked me home. You know, Mikayla Martinez? She almost had to carry me. Don’t think the D.A. noticed, though. I’m not in trouble, anyways.”

“That’s it?”

“Yeah, that’s all I got. I suppose I might have thrown up on something. Someone? Woke up clean, though. Did you wipe me off? Or Mikayla?”

Siobhan pushed the heels of her palms against her knees. Sarah closed her eyes, letting the coldness of the brick wall seep through the nape of her neck. The colder her skin got, the less the room wobbled.

“You don’t remember anything, do you?” Siobhan said. Her Southern tone was strangely leaden.

“What do you mean?” Sarah asked.

“You called me Katherine.”

Sarah’s eyes flew open. Katherine. Her mind sharpened like a knife, and froze.

“What happened?”

“Well, you did throw up in the backyard around eleven. Cleaned yourself up, there. But you kept on going. Danced on the tables, almost broke a few plates before some guy pulled you down. You kissed Tammy for a dollar, though I don’t think she paid you. Slapped Kevin’s ass, too.”

“Holy cow, really?”

“Yeah. He seemed to like it, but you were way too drunk to be going home with him.”

“Shame.”

“You’ll thank us later.”

“I’m not allowed to thank you now? Did I pass out then?”

“No. Then the cops came.”

“Seriously?”

“Seriously. You were pretty gone. We didn’t know how gone yet, but you didn’t want to leave. I had to drag you out, basically. Almost put you on my back.”

“Wow. I’m sorry.”

“It’s alright. It’s alright.”

But Siobhan didn’t sound alright. Sarah took a deep breath and tried the coffee. It was, by then, lukewarm, tasting stale and bitter without cream. Sarah swallowed.

“You said I called you…”

“Katherine. Yeah.”

Siobhan looked down at the floor of Sarah’s dorm- the tacky, marbled blue carpet spread thinly across it.

“You screamed when you said it,” Siobhan continued, “You threw yourself to the ground and grabbed your stomach.”

“Did I?” Sarah’s voice was as flat, as empty as she could make it.

“You sounded…scared. Scared of me. Scared of me as Katherine, I guess. Who is Katherine?”

“Did I say…did I do anything else?”

“You told me you were ready.”

“For what?”

“To die, Sarah. You asked me not to hurt you and you told me you were ready to die with me. With Katherine. Sarah, you were screaming on the ground, you were curled up on the ground, and you were crying. So hard.”

Now Siobhan was crying, her skin mottling with a red flush deeper than the flame of her hair. She sniffled loudly, pressing the heels of her palms up to her eyes to stem the flow of tears.

“I’m so sorry, Siobhan.”

Sarah took another sip of the coffee, slurping loudly as Siobhan wept. It was cold, now, and flat. But Siobhan had brought it to her, had brought it when it was hot right after waking; to comfort her. Sarah would drink every drop.

“Katherine was my step-sister,” Sarah said when the coffee cup was empty, “She lived with us until I turned fifteen. She was never really…right in the head, but she was the only sister I had, you know?”

“She hurt you.”

“I don’t know if she really knew what she was doing, to be honest. Neither did I. I just wanted to be a good baby sister. She was so lonely and hurt. Our dad’s a bit…distant. He’s all she had, apart from me. Or so she always said.

“She wanted to kill you?”

“She wanted to kill herself, but she didn’t want to go alone. I promised her that I’d follow her, when she was ready. That she could take me with her.”

“Did Katherine hit you?”

“She was always so angry, and I was always there. She ran away when I was fifteen. Got caught in Utah stealing food and Monster from a Conoco. My mom wouldn’t let me go to her. She’d found my diary by then. Found out what Katherine had been doing. Made me go to counseling- me, her and my step-dad. Haven’t seen Katherine since, you know. But I still have dreams.”

“And you thought I was her.”

“I guess I did, Siobhan. I don’t remember a thing.”

Siobhan began to cry harder. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand as if she had hurled. Sarah sunk down into her position, letting her legs dangle over the side of her bed, pushing the top of her head against the cold brick.

“I didn’t know, Sarah, I didn’t know. I was so scared, so worried, I….” Siobhan hiccupped and covered her mouth.”

“It’s alright,” Sarah said, closing her eyes. She folded her hands over her chest and breathed deeply. “It’s not like I go around announcing it. How weird would that sound? ‘Hey, my name’s Sarah, my sister used to hit me, what’s your major?’ I’d rather just forget about it, if it’s all the same to you.”

“I’m so sorry,” Siobhan repeated, though her breathing had started to descend from hysteria.

“Well you didn’t run away, at least,” Sarah conceded, “You don’t need to be sorry.”

“When you did pass out, we took you to Mikayla’s,” Siobhan protested, “and I came back. Without you.”

Eyes closed, Sarah grabbed the empty coffee cup and shook it. A smirk spread across her face.

“You brought me breakfast, didn’t you? I’d say that’s a good enough apology.”

“But…”

“You think those sandwiches are still going to be good?”

Sarah could hear Siobhan’s hesitation and the freeze inside her bones stiffened with fear. Siobhan had gotten up early, had gotten her breakfast, had come to see if Sarah was still okay. Siobhan had seen the darkest of Sarah’s memories, seen worse than just Sarah’s scars, and still had knocked on her door. Sarah squeezed her eyes shut tight, waiting.

“Which do you want- the sausage or the bacon?”

Sarah smiled as she thawed. Siobhan was the answer to her prayers. Maybe now the nightmares would be over.

“I think we’re going to be the best of friends, Siobhan. I really do.”

One More Shot

It’s early in the morning, the gym is cold and the lights are on. One, two, three dribbles and then silence. The ball flies through the air, into the basket and onto the floor, creating the empty gym’s only sound. The daily ritual continues. Coach retrieves the ball, walks back to the free throw line for another shot. He blows into his hands and rubs them together for warmth. He steps up to the line: one, two, three dribbles. Each bounce echoes through every vacant seat, to the high vaulted ceiling, around the brick walls and back to the unforgiving floor. He visualizes the ball going in, bends his aging knees and shoots. Forty six out of fifty: not bad, he thinks, but he can do better.

The leather ball smells like high school, like Saturday nights and teenage anticipation of what might happen at the after-game party. Who’s going to be there? The familiar smell extracts sweaty memories of past games: that game. That game, a razor sharp knife that sliced his life into equal halves: the time before and the time after. He steps up to the line. Coach dribbles the ball three times and eyes the front of the rim, and visualizes it going in. He shot 96% at the line his senior year. This was cake, automatic. There were two seconds left, his team down by two. The State High School Championship was at stake against Cedar Heights, the team that had beaten his school last year in the same game. It can’t happen again. Focusing on the rim, he imagines the ball going in the net. The talented athlete bent his youthful knees, careful to transfer energy up his body, through his arms, to his hands and out his fingers in one graceful motion. The ball felt his skillful strength and obediently flew up into the air and down into the net. They were down by one.

The crowd cheered wildly. One more free throw would send the game to overtime. His girlfriend Lisa sat on the front row behind the player’s bench as always. He caught a glimpse of her bright blue eyes shining proudly. She gave him a wink and a thumb’s up, yet smiled nervously. He heard his mom cheering from somewhere in the stands. The crowd was chanting his name. He loved to hear it. The referee handed him the ball. He stepped up to the line, dribbled the ball three times and focused on the rim.  Every eye was watching, every breath held. The air seemed sucked from the gym, the tension palpable. The crowd with wide eyes and hopeful faces was silent as the ball flew through the air, in what seemed like slow motion. It hit the left side of the rim, hit the right side, and bounced off. Cedar Height’s rebounded. The game was over.

The sun rises slowly, casting its comfortless beams on the bannered wall showcasing county and regional titles, but no state championship.  Shadows creep across the friendless gym floor. Coach steps up to the line, bounces the ball three times and focuses on the rim. “Visualize it going in,” he whispers to himself. “See it going in.” If he hadn’t looked to the stands, maybe he’d be a champion. He can still see Lisa sitting there, in this very gym. Was it her nervous smile? It shouldn’t have mattered. He bends his old, sore knees, releases the ball from his tired fingers. It soars through the air toward its destination. He slowly retrieves the ball and steps up to the line for one more shot.