Frey Curran

Sun Rays

I don’t know why it has taken me so long to do this.  I don’t know what has been keeping me from finishing.  O.K., maybe I do know, but still why didn’t I just sit down years ago and get this all on paper?  But, how exactly do you capture in words the greatest things, the worst things, the best things, and the important things that are your life?  How do you relate your story and make it relevant to someone halfway around the world and make it poignant?  How do you translate your hopes, your fears, your needs, your desires, and your spirit?  Better yet, how do you tell someone that you have lost all hope, all desire, all of your spirit?  How can you expect a total stranger to care about you or what you feel?  How can you reveal everything about you, leaving yourself completely vulnerable?  How do you explain that your heart feels like it is being ripped apart and life itself is secondary to your grief?  How can someone else understand the peace that this brings? How?

***

It was a lazy afternoon.  The gray of the sky made the tall buildings of the city stand out like humongous cardboard cutouts.  The slowly moving mass of gray rain clouds circled overhead like a menacing vulture waiting to swoop down on unsuspecting victims.  There were no flies, the temperature was getting colder, and rain clouds were an everyday occurrence now.  Searching the sky it looked like the gray was taking over, it seemed not even a shimmer of light broke down into the city.  Sitting on a bench, in West Hollywood, I thought this was perfect for my life.  All gray, cold and fake.  I went outside because it was just too depressing to stay inside all day.  My fingers ran along the gray and silver scarf that my mother had knitted for me back in Scottsdale.  I wondered if I would ever see her again; ever see any of my family again.  I went over in my mind how the telephone conversation had just gone.

“Hey, Ma’!  Yeah it’s me Bastian.”

“Oh, so the son who never call or write finally appears from nowhere.  So what do you need?  Money, food, -what?” trying to speak her best English in a thick voice, cascading her Russian heritage.

“Gee ma, it’s nice to hear your voice too.”

“I’m sorry Sebastian, I just a little busy right now.  You need a something?  Or you just want to talk?”

“I-uh, kind of wanted to talk ma’.  Is dad around?”

“No, he out working to support your five brothers, the ones that still live here you know?”

“Yeah.  How are they?”

“Maybe you call more often, you know how ‘are they?’ “

”Sorry I asked ma’.  So how are you doing?”

“I alright, my back acts up every now and then, but otherwise my life O.K.  And you, how you doing?  You get arrested or something, that why you call?”

“No ma’, I just wanted to talk.”

“So talk.  Tell me all about your awful life and then ask for my help, like I said you would when you leave to go to Hollywood and be movie star.”

“Gees mom, I didn’t come out here to become a movie star.  I went to school here, remember?  College, so I could make a better life for myself.  You were the one who told me to go.”

“Yes, but why you must go so far away.  Plenty of good trade schools here in Arizona.  Your father could have trained you.”

“Shit, every time I call mom, every time.  Same story, same guilt trip.”

“Well, I sorry, I just think that since we sacrifice our savings so you can go on vacation-”

“Vacation?  Is that what you think I’ve been doing for five years,” I wanted to yell, then got myself back in control and started again, “Anyway, I have a business now with my friend from film school.  I own a coffee shop and he runs it.  The shop’s called ‘Bastian and Mickey’s’.  I have some postcards of it if you’d like to see a picture.”

“A coffee shop?  What, people in California buy so much coffee they must have separate shop for it?  Or is that why you call because you need money to pay for coffee?”

“Jesus Christ mom.  I don’t need any money.  I didn’t call for money.  I have plenty of money!”

“So, this not about money, then what?”

“It’s about me mom.  I needed to talk to you and dad,” I paused here and my heart nearly leapt out of my chest, my mind raced at what I was about to do, I could feel tears stream down my cheek.

“Are you O.K.?  Are you hurt, you sick?”

“No.”

Mom breathed out deeply, “Please don’t scare me so.  So what, what all this for.”

“I’d rather wait until dad gets home to tell you.”

“What?  Some big secret you can not tell me, but can tell dad?”

“I would rather only to have to explain it once, mother.”

“Well, I think you tell me and I tell your father.”

“No, I wouldn’t feel right asking you to do that . . .”

“Oh, so now I stupid and can not be trusted with news.  Or is there even news?  This is just another one of your ways to hurt me, huh, to kill me more.”

“No, mom . . .”

“Oh go away, just let me be, I too stupid to trust.”

“Mom, it’s not that, it’s just that I think it would be easier if dad was there to help you to understand,” I was getting really worked up now, she knew just what to say to make me go berserk.

“Oh, now I too stupid to understand what my son say!  Well maybe I go then since I too dumb, so I don’t make you dumb too.”

“Stop it!” I screamed into the receiver, “Just stop damn it.”  Tears pouring from my eyes as I clenched my teeth and shut my eyelids hard.  I couldn’t help but choke down a full on bawling I felt coming up.

“This sound too serious to wait.  What is it?”

“No, mom I can’t,” between sobs, “Not without dad there.”

“I think you tell me now, or I hang up and you never call me again.”

“Mom . . .”

“No, that is how it is.  Tell me now.”

I drew quick short breaths in to regain my composure, then said, “Mom, I can’t.”

“Sebastian, now.”

After a long pause I finally broke down and let it out, “Please don’t interrupt me once I have started.  If you need to ask me questions, wait until I’m done.  I didn’t want to tell you like this, over the phone, but I can’t stand it any longer.  Mom, remember my friend Mickey, the one who I have the coffee shop with.  I told you we were living together to save money and all that, the truth is, we moved in together because we had been seeing each other for two years.”

Mom said, “An? Of course you see each other you live together.  This the big news, oh I knew was trick to hurt me . . .”

“Mom, we were married.”

Mom stopped dead in her words, like she had been struck with a cast iron skillet.  “You and who are married?” she said very slowly.

“Me and Mickey were married.  We have separated now.”

“I don’t quite understand, was this for play or something?”

“No,” I nervously responded, “We were really married, to each other, and only each other.  Mom, I’m trying to tell you that I am gay.”

The words rang through my head as I sat there on the bench.  After that last line, there had been a long pause from the other end of the line and then I heard my mother set down the phone and begin sobbing out loud.  In all of my 26 years of life, I had only heard my mother cry one other time, when my older brother died from Diabetes eleven years ago.  After a few minutes of that, I thought I heard the receiver being picked up and Jeremiah my youngest brother got on the line and asked what I had said and what was going on.  I told him I would explain to him later.  Jeremiah said, “O.K. bro, but it looks like you killed her this time Bastian.”

“I gotta go Jim,” was all I could utter.

What the fuck was that?  Why did I feel bad, she was the one who never listened, who never cared about how I felt, who always shooed away my feelings and told me to lump it like a man.  Why should I care if she ever wanted to talk to me again?  I should be glad that she was finally reduced to an emotion that did not revolve around pride, strength, or duty.  I could see her all curled up on the floor next to the brown corduroy couch with the orange and brown crochet blanket on the back to cover the cigarette burns where dad had fallen asleep and nearly killed us all.  Curled up there on the green shag carpet, in my childhood home, crying, bawling, heaving great big sobs over her gay son.  Her heart cleaved in two by the great gay bandit that was I.  I felt worse now, than ever before in my life.  Not poverty, not disease, not any worldly thing but the death of her oldest son and my homosexuality had made this rock of a woman reduce herself to a human emotion such as tears.  I did not even want to think about what my father would say, how many chickens would have to suffer needless beheadings now because of me.  My family used to mean everything to me, my mom a great source of strength and incredulity, my father wisdom and diligence, my brothers – hapless idiocy.  Now I had shattered all that.  All this disorder just because I chose to be gay.  Well, Monty, can I see what is behind curtain number two now, just to rub it in?

I let a heavy sigh out loud and slumped down into the graffiti and fiberglass bench and pulled my jacket tightly around to warm myself.  What the hell was I thinking, what had I just done?  There was no need to tell her like that, no need to make her cry, I could have waited, and I could have not told anyone.  Man that sure was a selfish thing to do, I thought to myself.  My mom was not the most open-minded person in the world too; I knew how she would react.  Now I would be banned from the holidays, she would disown me; things were going to be rough with her and the family.  Mom ran our house with an iron fist, nobody breathed without her approval or permission.  I was completely alone now, and it was my own fault.  It was then that I noticed a single ray of light breaking from the clouds.  It made it’s way down through the smog and rain, pushed aside the cold grayness and shot itself down at my foot.  Then I saw him – and Joseph said, “Hello.”

***

“Excuse me for interrupting,” came the low, soft voice of the stranger in the blue leather jacket and brown corduroy pants, “Can you tell me where the ‘Persian Cafe’ is?”
I was stunned and sat there for a moment in silence, and then I realized the man’s deep brown eyes were staring down at me, waiting for an answer.  “The…the what?” I finally managed to stammer out.  I was staring like some teenage schoolgirl talking to a teacher she has a crush on, or a teenage schoolboy.

“The ‘Persian Cafe’?  It is supposed to be on this street, at least that’s what this brochure says,” the man said still looking at me and then he showed me something in his hand – a somewhat weathered pamphlet titled ‘Seeing L.A.’.  Taking the brochure from the man’s very tan and muscular hand I turned it around so I could read it.  “It says it should be right on this corner, but I can’t seem to find it,” the dark haired stranger continued.

“Uh, no actually that place has been closed down since last year, they don’t update these very often,” I blurted out setting the brochure down on the bench next to me.  I was too nervous to continue speaking; I looked away and then back at my feet.

“Damn, I really could use a good cup of cappuccino, and that brochure said it had the best in town.”  I kind of half shrugged, half ignored his comment.  My palms started to get clammy, my mouth was going dry, and I had not felt this way since the first time I went on a date with Mickey.  The stranger waited for a few seconds and then saw that I was avoiding his company and turned to leave saying, “Well thank you for your help anyways.”

Finally getting my bearings I stammered out after him, “Well – they used to have the best Cappuccino in town, until my place opened up.  That’s why they aren’t in business anymore.”

The tall stranger chuckled, “O.K. then, are you saying I should try your place?  Kind of odd to sit on a bench in downtown L.A. advertising coffee by talking to strangers, is that how you put them out of business?  Most people would just get a billboard or something.”

For the first time in a long time, I laughed, really laughed.  Somewhere deep inside me, something warmed.  “Yeah, I guess it is odd to do it that way, but I get a lot of dates from it!”

We both laughed, and the man reached out his hand and smiled, “My name is Joseph, and you are…?”

“Oh, forgive me, how rude.  I am Sebastian, Bastian.  Of ‘Bastian & Mickey’s’,” grasping Joseph’s hand, I could feel a tingle shoot up my arm, through my chest and out my throat.

“So, Bastian, how about getting some of your cappuccino?”

“Sure.  It’s this way,” gesturing down the sidewalk I turned to go, “It’s very close, we can walk there in a few minutes.”

“Great.”

The young man, who had introduced himself as Joseph, was quite striking.   Endless brown eyes, dark and neatly combed hair, a well-built physique hidden beneath very tasteful and I guessed, expensive clothes.  Joseph looked like a New York model.  As we walked down the sidewalk, Joseph told me that this was his first time in Los Angeles, and that he was planning to live out here now.  “Did you at least find a place to stay before you came out here?” I questioned gazing into the young man’s chiseled facial features.

“Well,” Joseph began, “I left my old hometown of Gary, Indiana very suddenly, and hadn’t expected to make it all the way to California.  I will make it out here, somehow.  Somehow, I always make it, I focus on the now and never worry about the past or the future.  Although both are important, why should I worry about things I can’t change or foresee?”

“You sound very level-headed and confident, I wish I was that sure of myself.”

“I’m not really either, I may end up worse than when I left Indiana!  Never know, but if I sit around and never try anything I may regret it someday.  So I just go and strive for the best.  I have a saying that goes ‘Move on to it’.  It is just a little saying that I repeat to myself whenever I am having a tough time.  It reminds me to ‘just get on with it’ whatever ‘it’ is.”

“If you don’t mind me asking, your life in Indiana didn’t sound bad from what you told me, so why did you leave?”

“The truth?”

“No, please lie to me.  Of course the truth.”

“I was engaged to marry someone I did not, and would never, love as spouses should.  I felt trapped in a life that had been created for me.  I was sick of people telling me what and who I was or wasn’t.  I was dying inside, lying to myself and others, and headed directly for a mental breakdown and eventually worse.”

I stopped and stared at Joseph, without saying a word after that about it, we both knew why he left Indiana and was in California now.  “My, uh…my café’s right here,” I motioned to his right.  It is a small, open fronted café with black marble floors and rosewood bench seats and green sofas that line the crowded spaces that butted up to the striking Salmon pink walls.

“Um – take a seat here and I will go and get us some cappuccinos,” I managed to stammer out.

“Oh, great.  I love the decor of your place, so very early fifties, with a twist of the current century,” replied Joseph.  Stopping in front of Joseph for a moment in amazement, I realized that in the past four years that my shop had been open, not one person had ever noticed that I had simply, but elegantly combined the two eras in the shop decor, not one until Joseph.

“Be right back” I managed to get out and walked over to the counter, crossing the black marble inlay of a Celtic sun in the floor of the entryway.

Swimming in disbelief about how my day was going, how it had started and was now progressing, I turned in front of the long wooden counter at the back of my store and walked up to the young man tending to customers.

“Hey baby,” came the smiling greeting from the bronze and silver man behind the counter.  “Who in the world is that with you?” questioned the young man motioning towards Joseph.

“Oh, um hi Mickey.  Him?  Oh that is just some guy who wanted to know where to get some good coffee, and of course I told him yours was the best in town.  Now give me two cappuccinos please” I said and leaned over the counter and gently kissed Mickey’s lips in our friendly greeting.

I grabbed the drinks and quickly made my way back to Joseph, I had lived far too long in WeHo1 to let a gorgeous guy like him sit around by himself for any amount of time.  As I rounded the corner back to the front of my café, I saw that Joseph was already in trouble.  An old hyena had spotted my young friend and was moving in for the kill.  As I slipped up beside the tragically clueless fresh meat from the Midwest, I cocked my head to the side and listened to the end of the bullshit this prowling old scavenger was weaving, “ . . . yeah so anytime you want to stop by and take those head shots I am sure I can get you some work.”  The hyena made a move to give Joseph his card, but I intercepted with a look and let him know, “He’s already got representation.”

As soon as we were alone again, I told Joseph that he had better be on guard, “There are a lot of people out here who will try to take advantage of you.  I know how it feels, I come from a place where people are nice and treat each other with respect, that doesn’t work here.  Men, especially old men like that smell fresh meat from miles away, be on your guard.”

Joseph shot me a sideways look and asked, “Kind of like guys who sit on park benches and pick up on young innocent men?”

“Oh sarcasm, we don’t get much of that around here.  Funny,” was all I could say back and quickly turned my face to hide my flushing cheeks.  I could see where this was going, and I was scared – glad, but scared.  Hopefully things with Joseph would be on a different level than Mickey.

***

I didn’t know how to react to his death.  I had loved him, but when he died, I was not in love with him – God that sounds so cliché.  Let me express it this way then.  I would always love him; he always has a place in my heart.  I was very upset when he died I had not expected it to be so sudden and for him to look so healthy.  I had always heard from friends and from overhearing things at the coffee shop that people with AIDS died slowly.  That people who were infected died agonizing prolonged deaths after years and months of battling the disease endlessly.  I had watched specials on MTV about it and 20/20 in-depth stories with Sam Donaldson, or whoever.  Look, I cannot even say the words, I keep referring to it as “it”, even just then.  It is AIDS, “acquired immunodeficiency syndrome”.  A website I read said that it starts off as HIV, “the human immunodeficiency virus, and eventually weakens your systematic immune responses to attacks until you are left virtually defenseless against even the most minor virus, which can cause death.”  Man, that is some fucked up shit right there.  Whoever came up with AIDS is one wicked bastard.

What that website didn’t say was that AIDS has taken some of the greatest friends I have ever known from me.  That AIDS took my first love, my best friend, a lesbian I knew, a little girl, and may come for me someday.  So far, I have tested negative for HIV/AIDS, but it has only been two years since Mickey came up positive.  Let me tell you, for anyone who wants to know, the day you find out your ex-lover of two years has tested positive for AIDS, is the day your sex life dries up.  My little warrior might as well have dried up and fell off because he was not going to see the light of day or any more action for a very long time.  When Mickey called it felt as though someone had punched me in the stomach, all the air rushed out of my body.  Joseph was lying in bed next to me and he could see it in my face that something was horribly wrong.

“What is it?” he eventually blurted out.

“I think I am going to be sick,” and I was.  I threw up on the bed, on the tile floor, on the rug, at the bathroom doorway and stopped just as I got to the toilet.  Joseph later said I looked like one of those old sprinklers, puking here, there, here, there, rat-tat-tat-tat-tat.

“What the fuck is it?” Joseph nearly screamed.

We sat on the bathroom floor and he rocked me as I told him, I was still in shock.  I told him what Mickey had said, that he had tested positive, that I need to get tested, so did Joseph.  The whole time he just sat there looking intently at me and when I finished he said, “Get dressed,” very calmly, “we are going to the clinic now.”

Second only in ‘bastardocity’ (sic) to the person who created HIV/AIDS is the lab genius that invented the test for determining if you have these diseases.  You go and give them a sample of your blood and think to yourself reassuringly, “At least it will all be over and I will know today or tomorrow.”  WRONG.  You have to wait at least a week for the results to come back, and if you live in a big ‘mo2 city like I do in WeHo, then the shear volume of tests mandates at least a two week waiting period for your results.  Let me tell you, those were two of the worst weeks of my employee’s lives, imagine if you can a man that operates a coffee shop that barely breaks even waiting for test results that his life may depend upon.  I was definitely not up for any boss of the year awards those two weeks.

The greatest word in the English language, besides orgasm, has to be negative.  I nearly passed out from worry when we entered the room where they were to deliver my life or death sentence.  The small cubbyhole of an office was drably painted in salmon pink, accented with fiberglass orange chairs from the set of “Laugh In”, and anchored by a large pressed wood desk against the wall.  The corkboard behind the desk was obviously used and abused, missing large chunks in certain areas, it had posters and fliers attached to it, all mocking me.  “Play it safe, keep it under wraps,” read one poster with a picture of an unrolled condom.  “See Dick Drink, See Dick Do Drugs, See Dick Have Unprotected Sex, See Dick Get AIDS. Don’t Be A Dick,” read another.  “A dental damn may save your life, or your partners,” was another antagonistic brochure.  I wanted to stand up and shout, “O.K., I get it!  Quit rubbing it in, I’ll use condoms from now on, I won’t do drugs or drink, I’ll get a damn dental damn (although I did not know what one was), just please let me be o.k.”  My pulse quickened as I sat there and waited, and waited, and waited some more.  I will give these clinics one thing; they are not rushing through anything, tests, appointments, lunch.  I was starting to become a nervous wreck.

I nearly fainted when the nurse walked into the room.  She opened up my chart, blurted out, “Sebastian?”  I replied with a slightly paranoid head nod gripping the orange chair so hard I could feel the fiberglass tear.  “You are negative for HIV/AIDS.  Have a nice day,” with that she got up from her chair and wiggled her large round white butt out the door.

I should have shouted, I should have stood up and grabbed Joseph to kiss him and tell him that I loved him.  I should have thanked my lucky stars I was negative.  All I could do was sit there in amazement, nothing to say, awestruck.  Joseph gave me a little nudge, “Are you ok babe?”

All I could muster was, “Have a nice day?  What a bitch.”

***

That was the biggest relief of my life.  I can’t tell you how much weight and stress that moment lifted off my shoulders.  I shuddered silently and nearly lost myself into an emotional heap, but I steadied and held myself together.  I was so ecstatic that I was not positive.  I loved being negative, I wanted to get a big button that said “Kiss me, I’m negative.”  Life seemed to be looking up finally; I had dodged a real nuclear sized pile of dog shit this time.  I vowed only to have safe sex, and to get tested more often.  Things had never been better than the last few months of my life, with the exception of Mickey having HIV.  No more wondering what thing life would throw at me next, no more worrying about what if this happens or that, no more drama.  It seemed as though life finally said, “You know what Sebastian, we have been kicking your ass for a while now, take a breather bro you deserve it.”  I should have known that nothing in my life comes without a price this one would be the worst ever.

Joseph did not test positive until months later.  We had decided to go every three months and get an HIV test and a general STD check-up.  I had to go into work on the day we had scheduled to go in and get our results; stupid employee blew up the milk-frothing component on the new machine.  Don’t ask me how, I think my employees get progressively more stupid as they work for me, the coffee must have that effect.  Joseph said he would stop by later after hitting the clinic and we could do lunch.  When he did not show up two hours after lunch, I got worried.  When he did not come home after work I was panicked.  When he was not home at 1 am I was sick to my stomach and vomited.  At four fucking am I heard the key inserted into the lock and I shot straight out of the bed and was ready to unleash hell.  He strolled into the apartment and I was ready to let him have it, but when I saw his face I knew something was wrong.  He didn’t smell of cologne or other men, he did not reek of cigarette smoke or alcohol, he smelled like – like the wharf.

My emotions got the best of me and I began to cry, “Where have you been?”

“I was down at the wharf watching the fishing boats come in.  Did you know they run pretty much all night, even still?  It is amazing.  I could sit there all day and watch them, like little ants pulling into the harbor scurrying around unloading their ships then back to the sea.”

“You were there all fucking day, and night!  I want an explanation.”

“I could just sit there and stare for hours on end,” there was a glassy, far-off look to Joseph’s face.  He was not even in the same room as me.

“You prick, you are not even listening to me!”

“I heard you Bastian, I just can’t tell you.  I can’t tell you I am leaving you.”

“You’re leaving me, what the fuck is this.  You goddamn bastard who is it, what is it.  Fucking tell me!”

“I am dying.  I have AIDS.”

It took a moment for that to sink in and then my knees buckled, my whole life drained out of me, I went numb all over.  I must be dreaming.  This had to be a very bad, however realistic, bad nightmare.  I slid down to the floor staring straight at him, unable to speak.  Please, please let this be over soon.  I want to wake up now I don’t like this dream.  I wasn’t dreaming and Joseph was really going to die.  He sank down the wall next to me and wrapped both arms around my frame; we stayed there that way for many hours.  After the first few minutes I cried loud, shuddering, life ending sobs.  He cried too.  That was over within the hour but still we stayed like that, bundled up together against the front hallway wall, until I felt him rousing the next afternoon.
This time, the disease did what I had always imagined it would do to a person.  First, Joseph refused to take the seemingly endless amounts of required medicines that could prolong his life for months, or even years.  Since he had already developed AIDS he already had to learn to be careful to avoid even the smallest of colds or contaminants.  Joseph began to look gaunt, he lost nearly twenty pounds the first four months after learning he was positive.  His clothes hung off his body now like a rag doll and his familiar wide smile was replaced with an expression that anyone could see was turmoil and exhaustion.  The littlest things were now the hardest to do.  Getting out of bed in the morning became a later and later ritual.

“I hate this.  I want to die,” he announced one morning about five months later, “I am exhausted, too weak to even slit my own wrists.  I can’t eat anything because it all comes back up.  I can’t even take a shower because the water is too hot and too cold all at once.  This is a living hell.  I am a prisoner of my own stupid body, I want to die.”

“Babe, please don’t say that,” I begged, “If you would only try to take your medicines-“

“Why, so I can hallucinate, or get gas so bad I can’t stand myself, or a rash from the medicines, why would I want to do that?”

“Because it might make you live longer, think of me babe, do some for me at least?”

“Think of you?  Think of me Sebastian.  I am the one who is dying here.  I am the one who can’t walk more than two feet because my legs are so weak and brittle that they may split.  I am the one who coughs and vomits everyday till only bile and blood spill out of me.  Think of you, all I think about is you and that is why I don’t put a gun to my head.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t know what to say Joseph.  I love you too much to give up on you.”

“And I love you too much to give you false hope.  Realistically, I only have a few more weeks, maybe months, let’s just put our energy into enjoying that time together.”
That reality was too much for me, my mind had to push it out.  I didn’t want to face the truth that I was losing the best thing that ever happened to me.  The next few days I went through the motions with Joseph pretending to see the reality of this situation, pretending I had accepted it and wanted only to comfort him.  Secretly, deep in my soul, I hoped and prayed that some miracle would happen and even without medicine he would get better.  That did not happen, Joseph only got sicker.

I don’t know if anyone else has had the unreal misfortune of having to be present while their life, their future, their happiness slowly dissolves into nothingness, but I cannot imagine a worse fate.  Joseph became another person the last few weeks.  His face looked like it was a thin layer of skin stretched over skull, his chiseled features were replaced by sharp bones, his beautiful tan skin turned yellow as his kidneys and liver failed.  I dreaded seeing him like this, I dreaded being around him.  I know I am horrible for that but this forced confrontation of reality and death was too much too fast.  I sometimes found myself wishing it would just happen, then he wouldn’t suffer anymore, and neither would I.

One day, very close to the end, Joseph suddenly looked up from his hospital bed and in a moment of pure lucidity told me, “I know you hate to see me like this Bastian, I know it hurts, it kills me to put you through this.  I think maybe you should stop coming around, maybe it will make it easier for both of us.”

Oh my God, was I really being that transparent.  I have to be the worst person alive.  I couldn’t believe that I was acting this way.  In that moment I saw that I was being completely selfish, a complete bastard, I needed to be the one reassuring Joseph, making him as comfortable as possible and here he was consoling me, giving me a way out.  “Don’t you dare say that,” I told him looking right into his eyes, “I have been an idiot and running to hide from this whole situation, but I love you.  I will not stay away; I will be here more from now on.  Joseph I can’t stand the thought of losing you, but even worse, I can’t stand the thought of not having you all to myself for even a little while longer.”

Joseph didn’t respond, he put his head back on the pillow and smiled that wry little smile, and went back to sleep.  In that moment I woke up, not literally from sleep, but from the numbing self-apathetic stupidity I had recently found so comforting.  This is it, I told myself, Joseph is going to die whether I wanted to admit it or not, I can’t change that.  What I can do is show him how much he has meant to my life, how he has changed me forever, how he will live in my heart from now on.  I went home as he slept and wrote him a poem that expressed how much he meant to me, I put it on the front table and went to rest for a few hours.  Tomorrow when I woke I would show Joseph I was going to be there for him for anything.  Tomorrow.

The next morning I woke up early.  I went down to the hospital with a springier step, a new lease on seeing the love of my life.  When I rounded the corner to Joseph’s room things seemed different.  His mother was standing outside his room and I nearly collapsed.  She had come out a few times to visit Joseph, but never to the hospital, she said she couldn’t bear the sight of her only child hooked up to all those machines.  She had been crying and started in again when I came up to her and said, “Hello mom.”

“Oh, Sebastian, hello.  Honey Joseph got real bad last night.”

“It’s ok, mom, I know I have been an idiot.  That is all going to change starting today, I am a new man totally devoted to Joseph.”

“Oh god,” she wept, but these were not tears of belief, but something else, “Bastian, I didn’t want to call you, it happened just a little while ago.  Honey Joseph passed in his sleep this morning, after I came to visit him and we talked.  He couldn’t go on dear he was too tired.  He said to tell you that he ‘knew’, and it was ok.”

The paper and flowers I had been carrying slowly dropped from my hand and landed softly and neatly on the scratched white tiles of the floor.  I turned towards the door of his room, and there Joseph lay, no tubes, no breathing machine, no nurses or doctors annoying him with heart monitors, or blood tests, or arguing with him to eat.  I stood there for a long time thinking about all the things I had wanted to say as I slowly stroked his hair, things that would have to go unsaid.  It is amazing how many things become meaningless in those moments where you are forced to face death head on.  Joseph lay in his bed, much the same way as when I left last night.  He was dead now.  He had died and I had been at home sleeping.

Something that his mother had said suddenly struck me, Joseph had wanted me to hear that “he knew.”  He knew? He knew how much I loved him, how much I would miss him, how hard it will be without him?  He knew that I was crushed, that I was unable to move literally rooted to the spot in front of his bed?  He knew that I hated everything, that I blamed God and everyone around me for not saving Joseph?  He knew that I wanted to rip down the stupid starched curtains and turn over the cart beside his bed?  He knew that my love for him would never allow me to forget him.  He knew that our time together was not wasted, that we had made that connection that people always dream of.  He knew I had held him in my heart like no other and he felt the same way.  He knew it would be ok.

I left he hospital that day and took his mom to our apartment.  I showed her all of our pictures.  I made coffee and we sat and talked about his childhood, about our trip to Hawaii, about Joseph.  We made plans for his funeral and called all the necessary relatives.  We cried together many times but we laughed more.  She had to get back to her house, things must have been in “tatters” as she said, but she would be back soon, and this time his dad would accompany her.

“Joseph was a one of a kind man, mom.  You should be proud,” I said as I led her to our apartment door.

“So are you, Sebastian, so are you.  My son saw that special something inside you that told him you were two spirits of the same accord, never forget that he loved you and you loved him.  I expect you to carry on his memory long after I am gone, I trust you to do that.’

That was the moment that I never looked back.  I cried many times, remembered the good and the bad, and shared his story, as I share it now.  The most important thing I did after Joseph’s mom left, I picked up the phone.

“Mom?  Yeah, it’s me Sebastian.”

Frey Curran is a secondary English teacher and Speech and Debate Coach. Frey earned his BA in English Literature from CSUSB in 2001, his MA in Composition with a focus on literature from CSUSB in 2013, and a single subject credential in English from CSUSB in 2010. Writing is more than cathartic for Frey; it is a soulful remembrance of lived experience and painful lesson. Frey lives in Grand Terrace where his whole immediate family and husband live.

B. G. Kinney

Darling Eddie

He sent a letter she hadn’t opened yet. She wasn’t ready. They left on bad terms– insults, shouting.

Standing by her car, the windy rain hit her head like a million people spitting from the clouds. Charred ground confronted her with the blackened skeletons of tumbleweed, beer cans, tire shreds and dead house pets. Cars rushed by at her back, spraying her with their wake in a curt mechanical sound.

The fire burned some of the freeway lanes. A chain-link fence stood between the auto dealership and Interstate 10. Wilted bouquets lay at the foot of it with white streamers woven into the links to make a cross and a person’s name– “Eddie”… darling Eddie.

She looked over the scorched earth leading up to the makeshift shrine. His time came too fast. Eddie was invincible, impervious to death, like any headstrong, cocky boy, awkwardly overwrought with his own youth.

She wasn’t sure what bothered her more– what was gone, or what was just beginning.

The rain stopped and the sunlight broke through the clouds sending down beams of light that looked so ethereal against the darkened clouds. Some might have taken this as a sign from heaven, but to her it seemed like God was mocking her. How could the sun warm such an ugly spot of earth?

She resented the fact she could not be alone, hundreds of speeding intruders watching a lone girl with wet stringy hair and worried eyes. She only hoped nobody who knew her was going by.

She didn’t know what to do with herself. And that was before any of this happened. Ready to graduate high school with nowhere to go. Friends and family now called at all hours to offer their support and prayers. But she grew tired of their awkward platitudes.

“You must be strong, move on with life and persevere,” blah, blah, blah. Her mother set up a meeting with the priest at St. Rose’s, a stodgy old-school cleric who spoke in calm, measured tones but like others in his profession loved God, everyone, and no one.

She thought about hopping into her little red Toyota and just driving to nowhere in particular. But she had no money and the car was making strange noises.

She fought with Eddie for hours and hours about the pregnancy. He wanted an abortion, but she wasn’t so sure, especially since it would constitute a cardinal sin. Now the little embryo slowly growing inside her was all she had left of him. Her mother’s Catholic pride would be shattered.

She could see Eddie in his Ford Rambler. A car he rebuilt with his brother, Richie. It rumbled down the street like an angry steed fueled with nervous energy combusting under the cool veneer. He sat in the front seat, sunglasses on, flashing his freshly tattooed deltoids.

But she knew everything that Eddie the tough gangbanger tried to hide. The Eddie who cried when they watched West Side Story and Maria cradled the dying Tony. Eddie the romantic, who dreamed of taking her away to some quiet town as far from gangland as he could go. He saw this house he wanted in a magazine, cut out the page and put it on the wall of his bedroom. It was a two-story house with dormer windows topped by a quarter-horse weathervane behind a while picket fence in a tree-lined neighborhood. It looked like nothing in his neighborhood of stucco bungalows and dilapidated Ranch-style surrounded by rusting iron fences and snarling pitbulls.

His family moved out to the Inland Empire to get away from the bad influences, but the bad influences just seemed to follow them. Or, maybe the bad influences were already there but his parents just saw what they wanted to see. Eddie kept talking about moving to the East Coast because he couldn’t think of any place farther away than that, and it looked almost otherworldly on television, like Narnia or Middle-earth.

Poor Eddie. Speeding down the rain-drenched highway, he ended up lodged beneath a tanker truck full of fuel that spilled everywhere. The fireball could be seen as far as Fontana.

Back at home, her mother was still at work and the letter lay on a candy dish like a sealed verdict.  It was time.  She couldn’t let it sit there any longer. She could feel his energy around the envelope like a holy aura.  She could see his hands as he wrote the words that she read silently. It contained a lyric from a Bruce Springsteen song:

Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact
And maybe everything that dies, someday comes back
Put your make-up on
Fix your hair up pretty
And meet me tonight in Atlantic City.

B.G. Kinney has lived and worked in and around the Inland Empire for much of his adult life. He is a marketing and communications professional for a higher education institution in the IE.

Ruben Rodriguez

A Craving

The whole place smelled of beef—bloody meat.  Tammy had come to the carniceria six days in a row.  A back corner griddle sizzled and popped with meat spared from behind butcher glass.  They double stacked the small corn tortillas to cover with healthy bunches of chopped meat, cilantro, and onion.  Five dollars bought five tacos and a tall plastic cup of jamaica.

Tammy’s cravings brought her here.  A loud place full of commotion with two plastic tables and three plastic chairs crammed against the wall nearest the cooker and opposite the long meat case.  She’d munch tacos and watch the people shop.

Some, she saw everyday.  An old woman in a familiar blue dress looked at her, and then squinted at Tammy’s round belly.  The first couple of times, Tammy worried that the woman might be cursing her baby, but the tacos were so good, Tammy ignored the thought and tried to ignore the old woman too.

A handsome young man with a reversed ball cap and scar across his lip would come in for his daily tall cans and a bag of chicharron.  He smiled once at Tammy, and she returned his smile wondering what his name might be. She wished she could reach out and grab the young man, feel his rough worn hands in hers, but he was out of her reach.

The woman who kept permanent sovereignty behind the counter initially cooed at Tammy, for a pregnant woman is adored in all cultures.  As Tammy’s cravings brought her back again and again, the woman behind the counter only forced a smirk.  Her narrowed eyes asked, What are you doing here, wedda?

In the parking lot, Tammy often stood a moment next to her car.  She looked across the street into a park.  The jungle gym covered in frisky little monkeys their mothers huddled together or displaced upon benches.  She’d hear the high pitch squeals of the children leap across the road.  The baby would kick, and Tammy would lay a hand on her belly and whisper, Soon child, soon.

An MFA student at CSUSB, Ruben Rodriguez writes, paints, and wastes his time at the foot of the San Bernardino Mountains. He is the fiction editor of The Great American Lit Mag. Many of his stories have been deemed fit for consumption by the likes of Reunion: The Dallas Review, TINGE, The Nassau Review, ZAUM, theNewerYork, and others. He is the author of the chapbook, We Do What We Want (Orange Monkey Publishing, 2015). You can find him at www.rubenstuff.com.

Christian Shepherd

Red Sunset

Part One

Adam stood a precautionary three feet away from the edge of the grassy hillside. This distrust of heights had very recently snuck up on him; he used to hang his feet over the ledge without a giving a single thought to the consequences of a misplaced step. It was quite the contrary now, as he looked over the edge, he had decided that it was at least a six-story drop to the bottom, riddled with plenty of rugged weeds and stubborn shrubbery to ensure ample amounts of scrapes, gashes, and bruises if you found yourself falling down the steep incline. The thought of it intensified the usual tightness of his chest.

The sunset had already fallen below the mountain range in the distance, but that didn’t bother him. Adam had always preferred the subtle red hue of a post-sunset/pre-nightfall sky to the blinding yellow that the sun was always so eager to offer. The red sunset had fallen onto a nearby mahogany tree and highlighted small withstanding carvings that he had made with her when they were kids.

This hillside was a place where all the neighborhood kids gathered to play and fight despite numerous grim warnings from their parents to avoid the cliff. Not many of them listened. The path they used required a hiking and squeezing through terrain that adults were to unadventurous to take to ensure their children were having no misadventures of their own. The path had become even more overgrown and unnavigable since his generation had abandoned the cliff side haven.

Adam remembered the evenings that he would spend with her on the cliff side alone when all the other kids in the neighborhood had gone home. Memories he had forgotten about, jokes between the two of them, moments of weakness, anger, and sadness; countless occasions came resonating back to him and he smirked when he remembered that they spent more nights together on the hillside while they lived here than nights they didn’t. He was just a boy back then, with short black hair and light skin. He was average height for his age, but was in good shape from playing sports. Adam had always felt as if there was nothing distinctive about his appearance; no freckles, birthmarks, or other physical attributed to separate him from everyone else.

It had become their tradition, even a secret between the two of them. Adam would often leave early and come back when she was alone to avoid explaining their daily routine to their friends, who, as most kids their age would, would give them a hard time about spending so much time together.

It had started by accident one evening when Adam had climbed to the hillside alone. He had just moved into town a few months prior and this hill had become one of his favorite parts of the move. This particular evening, he was surprised to see a young girl he recognized from the neighborhood brigade of kids sitting right next to what he had become to think of as his personal tree.

Adam wasn’t sure how to react that evening. He hadn’t made any friends in his new neighborhood and lacked the courage to walk up to the kids he would see outside every day. In fact, if it hadn’t been for her hair, a deep, soft red with curls running past her shoulders, he might have turned around and left without muttering a single word.

As it was, Adam stood immobilized by the way her curls matched the faint red in the sky. Before long the young girl had turned around and noticed Adam behind her. No syllables came to mind for him to utter, let alone fully formed words or sentences. He unwillingly left any chance of conversation between the two of them up to the red-headed girl.

“Well hi there,” she said, catching Adam off-guard despite the fact that a few sizable moments had passed since they had made eye contact. “I didn’t know anyone else came here.”

Adam wasn’t sure how to respond. Her tone and body language were non-existent and he couldn’t be sure if she was upset that he might have intruded on her what could have been her spot for a lot longer than it was his.

“Yeah, I actually just started a few weeks ago,” he managed to wrench out. “I moved
here not too long ago.”

The young girl smiled, but Adam could barely recognize her expression through the shadows on her face from the sunset behind her. It was hard for Adam to look in her direction without being blinded from the last bit of the day’s sunlight.

“It’s nice isn’t it?” the young girl asked through her smile. “I have been coming here for as long as I can remember. I grew up in this town.”

Adam again found himself at a loss of words. The blinding light was doing its fair share of diverting his focus. To remedy the situation, he began walking towards the girl and took a seat next to her. When he finally found his seat on the cliff side he turned his gaze and was able to focus on reciprocating the conversation.

“I grew up in a bigger city than this one,” he began. “I never really got to see anything like this where I used to live. I doubt there was a spot like this there anyway.” She turned her head away from his direction back towards the sunset when he tried to look at her. When he realized she wasn’t planning on looking back, he matched her gaze and focused on the hills that were fading into a darker green as the sunset made its way down.

“Well you can come and see it every day now,” the girl said to him as she placed a hand on his far shoulder. It felt warm and familiar. He had never liked the old city he used to live in. It was too busy and chaotic for his taste. The slow pace and serenity of this small town was a much better fit. She looked at him intently and gave him his first chance to examine her face.

She had clusters of even spaced subtle red freckles throughout her nose and cheeks. Her teeth were straight, but like most kids their age; they were too big for her face. She wore big squared black glasses that slid down her nose regularly and her lips were the same tone as the freckles that decorated her face, chapped from playing outside in the wind. Her skin was the same tone as his: a light complexion, making the red accents throughout her face apparent. The large square glasses left plenty of room to see her hazel eyes, which were focused right at him.

“Yeah, I can,” Adam murmured under his breath as he returned a small smile. “What is your name anyways?”

“Emily,” she said as she once again turned her face away from Adam, replacing the veil of shadow across her face. “The other boys call me Em.”

“I like Emily. I think I’ll stick with that.” Adam had caught himself leaning forward to get another look at her face when he realized he was dangerous close to losing his balance on the cliff side. “My name is Adam,” he said, finding his balance as he spoke.
Emily brought her half-clenched hand to her mouth as she smiled. “Adam, I like that name too.”

“How old are you Emily?”

“Fourteen. My birthday just passed a few days ago.”

“That means you are older than me.”

“I guess so! How old are you?”

“Thirteen, my birthday is in about a month.”

“Aw, the little baby!” Emily joked as she lightly pinched Adams cheek. “Are you looking forward to your birthday party?”

“You are barely older than me,” Adam said. “I already had a party in my old neighborhood. It doubled as a going away party, so I don’t think I’ll have another one.”

“Why not? Maybe your new friends want to celebrate with you!”

“Well…I haven’t made too many new friends here yet, since school hasn’t started and I haven’t been able to meet anyone. You are actually the first person I have met from this town.”

“Why haven’t you come outside? We are out here every day.”

“I don’t know,” Adam mumbled. “I have been busy unpacking and helping set the…”

“You should come out and meet everyone else tomorrow. We usually team up and play baseball or hike through the hills.”

“That sounds like fun,” Adam said as he smiled. “You guys usually meet up at the bottom of this hill right? You sure they won’t mind?”

“Yep, right at the bottom where you first have to go through to come up here. No I’m sure they won’t. Just a fair warning though, you better get used to losing to a girl in baseball. All the boys have a hard time with it at first.”

Adam laughed and stood up to brush the grass that had collected on his jeans. “I think I will be alright, especially since I was already planning on letting you win anyways.”

The two sat and enjoyed the rich red tint of the fallen sun, occasionally glancing towards the darker, bluer side of the sky to spot a falling star, or what they would later figure out to be airplanes flying at dusk.

“Looks like the sunset is almost gone. I should probably get back home,” Emily said.

“I didn’t realize how late it had gotten. My parents are not going to be happy…”

“Mine either! I have been late a lot lately. How about we meet back up here tomorrow to watch it again? Only this time we will make sure to leave earlier,” Emily said as she headed down the path.

“Sure, as long as we aren’t grounded. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“You are going to come tomorrow right? To meet everyone else? Don’t make me go and ring your doorbell.”

Adam smirked, “Don’t worry, I’ll be there.”

“Good bye Adam, see you tomorrow.”

Adam stayed for another few minutes. “How could I not come?” he smirked to himself.

***

The morning of anticipation had arrived and Adam found himself walking towards a large group of people he did not know. He scoured the group looking for the red head of Emily to introduce him as he got closer and closer to the edge of the hill.

“Hey there,” a tall, pale boy said. “Are you the one who just moved in?”

“Yeah, just down the street. I have only been here for a little while.”

“Well, what took you so long to come out?”

“What does it matter? I’m sure he doesn’t want to answer a thousand questions,” said a petite blonde girl from the back of the group.”

“I’m not picking on him or anything Elizabeth,” the tall boy. “Anyways, what’s you r name? “

“I’m Adam.”

“Oh good, you don’t have the same name as anyone else here. That would have been annoying. I’m James,” he said as he waved to Adam.

“Nice to meet you,” Adam said, returning the wave and looking at the other fifteen people who were standing behind James.

“You are kind of shy aren’t ya?” said a black haired boy who was standing next to Elizabeth.

“What makes you say that?” Adam said, a little annoyed at the boy’s comment.

“You took longer than a month to come out and meet us. I was sure you would never come out at all.”

“Well, sorry to disappoint you. I ran into Emily and she told me to come meet up with everyone. Where is she anyways?” Adam directed the conversation back to James, who he had already decided he liked a lot more than the dark, bold person in the back.”

“She is probably coming late like always. That’s Peter by the way.”

“Have a crush on her already?” Peter asked.

“What do you mean?”

Peter walked up close to Adam and shoved his finger into Adam’s chest. “I said you have only been here a day and you are already crushing on someone?”

Adam was thrown off. “It’s a little fast to crush on someone isn’t it? Why would I have a crush on her anyways…”

“Why wouldn’t someone have a crush on me?” Emily panted as she ran in from behind the crowd. “You met everyone already? Don’t pay attention to Peter. He is an idiot.”

“Way to back your boyfriend up,” Peter said as he walked slowly back to the crowd of kids, who were now engaged in other conversations.

“I haven’t met everyone, but I have met these two.”

Emily went on to name all of the people who were waiting on her arrival. “Now that you know everyone, what are we doing today?”

“I think we decided on baseball today right?” James said.

“Or we could go ride shopping carts again…” Peter chimed in.

“That was a stupid idea last time. It hasn’t gotten any better,” Emily said.

“Let’s just head to the field. We still need to pick captains,” James said quickly, stopping what seemed to be an inevitable battle of words between Emily and Peter. They all started walking together, grouping up in twos and threes to fit on the sidewalk.

“I’m glad you came. You are going to like everyone here. We always have a lot of fun. Sorry about Peter, he can be a little dumb at times.” Elizabeth had followed Adam to the back of the group.

“It’s fine, and thanks. I’m glad I came too. It’s been a while since I’ve played baseball.”

“Have you played on a team?” James asked.

“At my old school I did. I was planning on joining the team when school started.”

“You should, a lot of the boys play for the school. You will know plenty of people there.”

They continued to talk about Adam’s old town and a few of the people Adam would come to know very well. It was only a few blocks to the field.

“Alright let’s break up,” James said.

“Make sure you aren’t on my team Adam,” winked Emily. “I have to make sure you let me when remember?”

“Yeah, I don’t think I am going to let that happen after all. Elizabeth just told me you haven’t lost a game in a couple months. How are you getting so lucky?”

“Who said anything about luck?”

Adam was the first to bat on his team. He walked up to the small hole in the sand that marked home base and Peter lined up with him at the pitcher’s mound. Adam watched the ball release and hit the ball cleanly over the fence. Emily threw up her arms as the ball passed her overhead. Adam looked at her and smiled.

“Yeah, Emily…I’m definitely not going to let you win.”

Part Two

Adam and Brendon made their way to the usual spot where everyone met up after everyone had a chance to go home and unload their backpacks and folders. It was a sunny day in the middle of May, so Brendon had opted to change into some shorts and a tank top to enjoy the weather. Brendon was taller than Adam by an inch or two, but was noticeably thinner all around. His brown hair was brushed to the side in a messy, impromptu comb-over.

Adam had decided to stick to his jeans and t-shirt, but did pick up a plain black baseball cap and threw it on backwards as he walked out. The hat had kept his grown out hair in place. He had bulked up from playing baseball in high school and from growing a “non-human” appetite, as his friends had branded it. Emily had often gotten annoyed how he could eat whatever he wanted without losing his tone.

“Where is everyone?” Adam asked.

“Probably up in the hill drinking like they have been doing for the past few months,” Brendon answered. “They are up there more often than not nowadays.”

“You would think they would get tired of it after a while.”

“It seems to be all they care about lately. You can’t even suggest doing something without one of them offering to bring alcohol.”

“It’s starting to get old to be honest. At least it isn’t everyone caught up in the mix though,” Adam said as a few of their other friends turned the corner to meet them.

There were three of them. Elizabeth, the kind blonde girl who now had a few of the same classes as Adam, was among them. They were all within a year or so from 17, Adam and Brendon’s age.

“I guess we should go up there, now that we are all here,” Brendon said.

“Do we have to go? Why don’t we just head over to the park or something instead?” one of the boys asked.

“They are still our friends, we shouldn’t just avoid them,” Adam answered.

“I’m not really in the mood to deal with it today…” the boy protested.

“Let’s just head up there. Maybe they are up there waiting for us,” Elizabeth said as she put a hand on Adam’s back. Adam took a keen note of the gesture. Elizabeth always knew how to cheer him up when there was an issue amongst the group or when he was obviously troubled. Lately, Adam had been pretty outspoken about a lot of things his old group of friends were getting into and he often found Elizabeth comforting him when Brendon wasn’t up to the task. They exchanged a subtle smile before Adam gestured for her to go on ahead before him.

They walked up the hillside where their group had been meeting since their elementary days. They began hearing the loud and obnoxious voices of the rest of their gang. Adam was the last in the line as they joined their tipsy friends on the hillside.

“Hey! Just in time, we are about to open the next bottle!” said James, now a tall, lean young adult who many would have pinned as one of the leaders of the group a few years ago. Since half the group started partying and drinking, the usual group of twenty or so neighborhood kids had split in closeness.

None of the freshly arrived took James up on his offer. Each of them mumbling a “No thanks, I’m good,” or a “Not tonight” as they took found a comfortable boulder or trunk to sit down on.

As Adam walked into the fray, his sight was immediately shifted to a red-headed figure behind James. It was Emily, and she was chugging a can of beer from the hand of another old friend of theirs, Peter. Adam never really liked Peter; he was always getting the group to go along with his plans to cause trouble around the neighborhood. When they were younger he had convinced most of their friends to run out to different pay phones in town and hang the phone up while they were still being used. Adam looked away as Emily finished the can and as she turned around and noticed Adam she choked on the last bit of the drink in her throat.

“Careful Em,” Peter said. “Don’t go drinking like a girl now.”

“Shut up Peter, no one asked you to talk,” Emily snapped as she set the can down and found a seat directly across from Adam and Elizabeth, who were sitting next to each other on the same log. Once the noise from Emily and Peter’s scuffle settled down they started their usual routine of picking on and joking about each other as alcohol was passed around for those who chose to drink it. Emily did not take another drink, and

Adam had avoided eye contact with her throughout the length of the evening.

When the street lights came on over the hill everyone began to lift from their spots to leave for the night. This was more out of habit than necessity now that they were older. Adam stayed in his seat and said goodbye as everyone passed by him; he exchanged the customary fist bump with Brendon and Elizabeth leaned over to hug him and he noticed that the hug lingered longer than a standard farewell hug. He stayed and waited for the red sunset to come in over the mountain side.

“Hey.” Adam heard the familiar greeting. It was Emily, here for their usual meeting. “Oh you are here; you wouldn’t even look at me today.”

Adam didn’t say anything. He kept his view on the sunset with his arms in his pocket.

“You could have at least said hi.”

“Emily, you know how I feel about how the half of our group has been acting lately.”

“Then why do you still talk to them?”

“What do you mean?”

“I’m not the only one doing it. You still talk to everyone else who is. You are even talking to Peter, and you didn’t like Peter to begin with.”

Adam didn’t respond. It bothered him that his other friends were drinking, partying, and getting into trouble, but it tore into him deeper whenever he would see Emily involved.

“Emily, you should know I care about you more than them.”

“Well, we are best friends aren’t we?” Emily said as she wrapped her arms around him.

Adam smirked and turned his head back towards the sunset. Best friends; the brand of their relationship since a few weeks after they met.

“By your choice, not mine.”

“Well, look what a grumpy boyfriend you would be right now if you had it your way.”

“As opposed to the grumpy best friend you love dealing with?”

Emily giggled as she rested her head on his back. “You know I care about you, I told you that already.”

“Oh yeah, I remember clearly,” Adam began and he started chuckling. “I remember I told you that I cared about you about a dozen times before you finally understood that I meant in a ‘more than a best friend’ kind of way. Sometimes I worry about you Emily.”

“Well, how was I supposed to know? It was the same as any other day we come up here,” she said as she shoved his back in, her default reaction when she didn’t have a witty response for someone teasing her. “I hope you remember how I replied as well as you remember how long it took me to understand what you were saying.”

“Don’t remind me,” Adam replied as he put a dramatic hand up to his forehead and pretended to lose strength in his legs.

Emily laughed and caught his weight, “You are my best friend and I feel the same way about you, but you don’t like it when I go out to parties and drink now. You will be even more upset if we got together.” Adam grumbled and picked up his own weight again. He slung his head back to Emily’s shoulder behind him and Emily kissed his cheek, a habit she had picked up ever since Adam confessed. “Besides, Elizabeth seems to be close to you lately. You probably would prefer a girl like her anyways…”

Adam ignored her comment. He looked back to the sunset, which was now deep in its color and casting the final shadows along the hills. He grabbed her arm and pulled her in front of him, wrapping his arms around her shoulders. She put her hands on his arm tried to keep poking at the topic of Elizabeth. Each time, he would squeeze just hard enough to make extra air come out mid-sentence and continued to ignore the comments through her laughter.

***

A few weeks later, Adam walked into the graduation party at James’ house with his hand in his pocket, fiddling with the note he had written for Emily. He looked around to see his close friends gathered together as well as many other people from their year at their high school. Most of them were either holding a red plastic cup of ambiguity or tightly gripped a can or bottle of beer to show off. He had decided to have a drink himself to celebrate with his friends.

“Glad you finally made it,” James snuck up behind him as he finished pouring the contents of a cold, wet can into a plastic red cup of his own. “I was starting to think you weren’t coming.”

“I just got caught up,” Adam said. “Why would I miss one of my best friends graduation party? This is going to be one of the last chances we have to hang out together.”

“I wasn’t sure if you would be okay with the drinking part,” James replied, smacking Adam on the back. “You have been giving us a hard time about it, but it seems like you are over that now.” James pointed to the red cup in Adam’s hand.

“I’m making an exception for our graduation,” Adam said as he lifted the cup up to eye level.

“I like it,” James said. “Glad our little business woman is letting her hair down.”

Adam rolled his eyes at James’ joke. “Where is everyone anyways?”

“Well, everyone is mostly out in the backyard…”

Adam could read the discomfort in his friend’s voice. “Is Brendon out there too?”

“Yeah he is,” James said, pushing Adam towards the door. “Want to head out there?”

“Why are you shoving me out?” Adam said, wearily. “What’s going on?”

“Well…”

“Spit it out, James.”

“Emily is…upstairs.”

Adam’s stomach clenched. “Passed out?”

“No…Peter is also upstairs.”

Adam’s fingers began to tremble. He felt cold and furious. He mechanically began his ascent up the stairs into James’ bedroom.

There’s no point in going up there.”

He continued until he found himself holding the doorknob. He knew it wasn’t locked; James’ lock had been broken for at least a year when he had stayed the night at his house. His heart raced and he opened the door swiftly.

“WHAT the hell…” Peter had said. He had jumped off of the bed. His shirt was missing and his pants were unbuttoned and falling off his hips. Underneath him was Emily. Her red hair sprawled around untidily. She had no shirt on and was doing her best to cover the white bra she was wearing. Her skirt was hiked well above her waist lane as she did her best to scramble it back down. When she looked up to see who had barged in, her eyes began to tear. She threw on her white blouse over her skirt and stumbled to him as she pushed Peter aside.

“I didn’t think you were coming Adam…” is all Emily said. Adam could smell the liquor and beer on her breath, bringing him even closer to vomiting.

“What the hell are you doing Adam? Can’t you tell we are busy?” Peter wasn’t drinking heavily tonight. Adam could make out that much. He was buzzed from what he assumed was a few beers. Peter began to walk up to Adam once he had put his shirt back on; he came close enough for Adam to realize that he had put his shirt back on backwards, revealing the white tag below his neckline. The next thing Adam knew, his fist had caught Peter right on the nose. He followed Peter as he fell down and struck him once more in the mouth when he hit the ground.

“ADAM!” Emily had yelled.

James had managed to make his way to the room already and was able to keep Adam from delivering anymore blows to a lethargic Peter. Adam looked down at Peter who was bleeding from his mouth and nose and up to Emily who was sitting on the bed crying. He shoved off James and paced out of the house. Downstairs, he found himself ducking his tears away from the curious crowd of onlookers. His fist and wrist throbbed as he opened the front door and left the party.

He didn’t want to go home this upset. He made his way towards the cliff side where he always went when he was upset. He pushed through the dry shrubs that the group had yet to knock down. He finally made his way to the top and looked up at the dark sky and hills that looked violet in the moonlight. He grabbed his wrist as he fell onto a log near the cliff. He wasn’t there for long when he felt someone’s hand on his shoulder.
Adam jumped at the touch. He hadn’t noticed anyone had walked up here. “I figured I would find you here,” a soft-voice said.

Adam looked up to find Elizabeth’s face. “Were you at the party?”

“Yeah, I was.”

“I’m guessing you know what happened.”

“Well, Peter walked out bleeding all over the place and Emily couldn’t stop crying. I left pretty quickly after that, but I can guess what went down. I’m sorry you had to see that.”

She took a seat next to Adam and put her arms around him.

“Wasn’t prepared for that,” Adam replied, chuckling a little bit.

“Was there something between you and Emily?”

“There was, but there definitely isn’t anymore.”

“You deserve better than that Adam.”

Adam didn’t respond. Her hand had grabbed his and was now holding it tight. He had always felt affectionate towards Elizabeth.

“I wanted to tell you on graduation day, but I never got a chance to say it…” Elizabeth started. “I sort of…like you?”

Adam was caught off-guard and couldn’t help but chuckle at her phrasing. “You like me? Like the third grade kind of like?”

“Shut up Adam. I don’t know how else to say it.”

He noticed the soft blush of her cheeks even in the soft moon light. “Elizabeth…”

“I know. You have feelings for Emily. Everyone knows.”

“Well…that’s news for me.”

“After tonight it’s pretty much confirmed for everyone.”

Adam laughed again. “I guess that’s true.”

“Have you ever had feelings for me?”

“If I am being honest,” Adam started after a few moments, “I have. I just have only seen Emily in that way for a long time.”

Elizabeth smiled and looked away. He looked at the blonde girl who had just confessed to him. He had always been comforted by Elizabeth and they had always had a good time when they were together. They got along well, and Adam couldn’t help but notice how pretty she had grown over the years.

“What if we tried giving us a shot?” Elizabeth asked.

“After everything that happened today? You know about Emily and everything is going to be awkward in the group after today as it is.”

“I don’t really care about that. If they want to make it a big deal let them. It’s completely up to you. I have feelings for you and if you said you have felt something for me…maybe it could work.”

“I don’t want to do that to you. What if it ends up bad for you?” Adam had to fight the urge to just say yes. He wasn’t sure why he wasn’t more against the idea. “I can’t just get together with Elizabeth. I might get hurt in the long run…I’m not even sure what those feelings for her mean,” he thought to himself.

“At least we tried right?”

Adam stood up from the log and walked away from the edge of the cliff. He couldn’t stop smiling at the idea. “Elizabeth, will you be my girlfriend?”

She turned around and smiled. “Will I be your girlfriend? Is this the same guy who made fun of me for saying ‘I like you’ ten minutes ago?”

“Cut me some slack, I’ve never asked this before…” he said putting his arm up behind his head. Before he had a chance to lower it, Elizabeth had made his way to him and leaned her face into his. She left a less than an inch for Adam to travel. He leaned in and coupled his lips to hers. She softly grabbed his swollen hand in hers as they spent the rest of the night at the cliff side, finally leaving when the bright yellow sun had risen.

Part Three

Adam woke up to his phone alarm’s obnoxious disaster siren. The sun was had risen enough to seep through cracks in the curtain right into his eyes. It was a daily reminder of how he much preferred the soft red it emitted in the evening, but in did help him wake up faster. As he turned off his alarm he looked over to his left and was once again blinded by the reflecting sunlight from her blonde hair. He looked away and rolled out of bed.

“Up already?” Elizabeth mumbled. “You were up late last night. It’s only 7:00 in the morning. Come back to bed.”

Adams eyes had finally adjusted to the light enough to look over at her on his way to the closet. “I have a group presentation before lecture today. We are meeting up to put some final touches on it.” Elizabeth rolled back over as Adam finished tucking his shirt into his slacks.

“What time are you done today?”

“I have to go to work afterwards. The hospital has a lot of procedures planned today, so I won’t be home ‘til around six.” Elizabeth tucked her head deeper into her pillow and curled up tighter in the blanket she was now in sole possession of.

“Don’t pout at me,” Adam said as he walked up to her side of the bed. “I don’t want to go any more than you want me to. Besides don’t you work today?”

“Eleven to five. So I’m going to be here all alone for the most of the morning.”

“Ellie, we both know you are just going to sleep it away,” Adam chuckled. “I have to go. Do you want to go out to dinner when I get back from work today?”

“You aren’t getting off that easy. You’ve been gone this entire week. One dinner together on Friday night isn’t going to cut it. You aren’t allowed to do anything work or school related this whole weekend.”

“Oh I’m not allowed?” Adam laughed, catching her playful humor. “Alright, fine. No work or school stuff this weekend.” Adam knew he couldn’t get away with what he was promising. He would just have to stay up after Elizabeth fell asleep and sneak some work in.

“This isn’t going to be like the last time you made this promise. Where you were answering emails throughout the day and staying up late to finish work. You need a break.”

Adam got a little annoyed. Finishing up a Master’s Degree and working nearly full time at the hospital wasn’t exactly a care-free task. He just couldn’t unplug himself the way she was asking. “I’ll try and finish as much as I can today. Hopefully I’ll be able to finish it all and have the entire weekend to spend,” he said as he reached over and kissed her. “I’ll see you tonight alright?”

“You haven’t told me where we are having dinner.”

“I’ll text it to you during the day,” Adam said, tying his tie as he ran out of the door.

***

Adam had yet to fill out the last round of patient updates before he was able to leave for the day. He might have been able to finish everything properly if he would have been able to get to work on time, but he ended up being the last of ten groups to present for a class that went forty-five minutes over-schedule.

“I’m running behind at work. Finishing as fast as I can…be there soon,” he texted Elizabeth, the time stamp read 6:53. He glanced over at the last message he wrote to her: “Let’s meet up at Little Italy at 6:30.” Little Italy was 20 minutes away from him. He hated himself for picking such a distant location, even if it was her favorite restaurant.
His phone immediately buzzed back, “Okay.” she responded. It took ten long minutes for Adam to finish and he wasted no time racing to Little Italy to meet Elizabeth. When he arrived, her water cup was empty and her usual soft smile was nowhere to be found.

“Hey Ellie. Sorry I’m so late,” he said as he found his seat in the crowded restaurant. The low grumble of conversation and small tinks from the silverware filled the air as he took off his coat and checked his watch, now reading 7:27. Almost an hour late. “Have you ordered yet?”

“Adam what took you so long? I have been sitting here for an hour.”

“I couldn’t leave work without updating patients’ files. I was late as it was since my class ran forty-five minutes after it was supposed to.”

“Same old thing then, huh?”

“I’m afraid so,” Adam said, noticing an above average irritability level. “Are you okay?”
She waited a few moments before responding. “No Adam. You seem to be too busy for anything other than school and work lately, not that it’s your fault. I understand what you are trying to do and how much strain it is putting on you. It’s been an issue for a long time now, and it isn’t going to stop any time soon, is it?

“No, it’s not. It isn’t going to slow down or get any easier any time soon,” he said solemnly. “It isn’t fair to you. I know that. I can’t blow off school or work, the only place I can pull time from is from home.”

“Maybe you should be focusing on those then, without distraction. You don’t have the time to be close to anyone right now. I am going to school too, remember? I also work a job. It may not be as demanding as yours, but I make sure to have time whenever you make your own.”

“Elizabeth…” he muttered. The cold tinks of the silverware and grumble of conversation quieted as he listened. They weren’t spending any time together and weren’t as close as they used to be. He had silently come to terms with this long ago. “You are right. I don’t want to drag you along. It’s been tense between us for a while now and I figured this was inevitable. If you aren’t happy where you are, I understand completely if you want to be somewhere else. It’s going to be hard if you do leave, but you do deserve to be happy.” Adam saw the tears trickling down her face. “Don’t think I don’t care about you Adam. We have been together since we graduated high school. Six years now right?”

“I know,” Adam said, feeling a throb in his own throat. “I hope you know I care about you too.”

They managed to leave the restaurant before they lost a hold on their emotions. On the way home they talked more than they had in the last few months. Adam told Elizabeth about new colleagues he had been hanging out around at the hospital and Elizabeth had updated Adam on the newest developments on her co-workers and their complicated and intricate relationships. Elizabeth packed her stuff that night while Adam had left to take a walk around their city. She left early the following morning.

***

“Adam, can you cover the patients on East Wing? No one is over there to check on them,” Dr. Freeman, the Resident Doctor of Adam’s group of interns asked.

Adam had just set down a large stack of files he needed to organize before he took his lunch. Normally, he would have asked if there was someone else to cover it, but since it was Dr. Freeman, he figured he could earn a few points and keep his paid internship safe with a little extra work. “Yeah, no problem. I’ll get right over to it.”

“I appreciate it Adam. You have been doing good work around here.”

“Thanks Doctor,” Adam replied, hiding the disappointment of his lost lunch from his face. The rounds took him around an hour to finish. It was around 1’oclock when he was finally able to take his half hour lunch.

Adam went through his email and responded to a few messages as he walked past the hospital’s parking lots and onto the crosswalk. He was headed to an Indian restaurant he frequented during his lunch hour. As he looked up as he was about to cross the street, a streak of long red hair caught his peripherals. He straightened his gaze toward the red and found himself staring at Emily.

She was dressed in short heels and a black office skirt paired with a white, tucked in blouse. She wore a black cardigan and a lanyard was roped across her neck. A small bag with what looked to be an SLR camera was hung from her left shoulder and her right hand was gripping a small notepad.

Emily didn’t notice Adam, who hadn’t moved from the sidewalk until she was halfway across the street. When she across the sidewalk she ran up to him and hugged him, making sure to not stab him with the long lens of the camera. “Adam!”

“Emily? Wow, it’s been such a long time. I thought you were out of town?”

“I was for a couple years. I was in New York. I finished my degree and went over there to do an internship. I just finished and decided to come back here a couple weeks ago.”

“I don’t even know what you do! Are you a hot shot photographer now or something?” he asked pointing to the large SLR camera.

“I’m actually a Journalist. I’m here covering an event at the hospital in the children’s wing.”

“A Journalist? When did you decide to go into that field?”

“Around halfway through college. I just sort of stumbled into the field and fell in love with it. So what are you doing? You seem to be pretty important yourself,” Emily said as she gave him a nudge across the chest, looking down to his button up shirt, tie, and slacks. “I never took you for a suit and tie kind of guy.”

Adam laughed. “I didn’t expect to be either. I am actually doing a paid internship here while I work on my Master’s Degree. My Undergraduate Degree was in Microbiology so it was a good fit. I am looking to eventually be a medical researcher and writer. I have to look the part.”

“Wow, pretty ambitious career choice you got there.”

“Yeah it eats my time pretty dramatically. It’ll be worth it in the end though I hope.”

“I’m sure it will be. It was for me. I went practically two years without having a weekend to myself. I loved all the experience I got from it though. This new job is almost as demanding.”

“Well hopefully you will have some more time to yourself now that you are back.” Adam lost track of what he was saying. “Are you free this weekend at any time? We should go have dinner.”

His stomach dropped as he realized what he had just suggested. He had almost started to rectify his mistake by suggesting lunch instead when she replied. “Sure, I actually have Friday night free. How about then?”

Adam pulled out his phone to look at his calendar: Friday night 5-10, Meeting with Dr. Freeman and other interns. “Sure, how about at six?”

“Sounds good to me. Here take my number so we can decide where at later on. I actually have to get going though. Make sure you call me and let me know where at!”

She scratched her number on a piece of the notepad, ripped it off, and handed it to Adam. “It was really good to see you!”

“You too,” he said as she ran off towards the hospital. He looked at his watch, 15 minutes left for his lunch. “Worth it,” he smiled to himself.

***

“Wake up Adam. You are going to be late.”

“How is it possible for anyone to wake up earlier than I do,” Adam mumbled as he wrapped a pillow around his head.”

“It’s 6:45, barely earlier than your usual time, plus I have been waking you up at this time for like a month now. Don’t you have to be at your school early?”

“Yeah, but they can wait the fifteen minutes…” An accelerated pillow found its way to Adam head.

“Wake up,” Emily said through squinted eyes, weaponized pillow at the ready.

“Last time we did this you lost.”

“A fluke.”

“Put the pillow down.”

“Then get up. Let’s have coffee before we have to leave.”

“You are leaving early too?”

“I have an early morning event to cover. News doesn’t sleep in.”

Adam propped himself up out of bed and out of the beam of sunlight that was managing to find his eye. “I have to find better curtains,” he thought to himself.

“French Vanilla or Hazelnut?” Emily asked as she sat on top of Adam. Adam grabbed her waist and threw her back into bed. He kept his arms around her so she couldn’t leave. He looked up to Emily’s hair, which was reflecting the sunlight that broke into Adam’s apartment. It wasn’t the obnoxious yellow he couldn’t stand, but a subtle red.

“French Vanilla,” he said as he got up to get dressed. It took him ten minutes to get to the kitchen.

“No World War 2 siren alarm today?”

“I turn it off when you stay over. Your pillows are alarming enough.”

She nudged him on the shoulder as she handed him his coffee. “What time will you be home today?”

“I should be done early today around five. Want to go out to dinner tonight?”

“I have an event to cover this evening at five. It’s sort of an upper class wine party. I have to go to make contacts.”

“So you will be there all night?”

“Probably. You should come with me to it. I could use a date.”

“I don’t know, it sounds like a stiff crowd.”

“You are a trying to be a medical researcher. This is right up your alley.”

Adam laughed at her sarcasm. “Sure, I’ll go. Where at?”

“I’ll text you the address. Finish your coffee so you aren’t late.”

Adam arrived to the address Emily had messaged him at 5:30.

“Hey there cutie,” Emily greeted him as they met up outside. “I’ve already been inside talking to some people.”

“Yeah, sorry about running late. I was stuck dealing with a stubborn patient. Are these people hard to talk to or…?”

“Compared to the other people who will be here you are early so don’t worry about it. Thank you for coming though.”

They walked inside to the party where the first thing that welcomed Adam was the sound of a string quartet. A gentleman took Adam’s coat and a few steps later a glass of wine was offered to the pair of them.

“Thank you,” Adam said as he took the large glass of wine.

“No thanks, I actually don’t drink.” Adam looked over to Emily. It was the first time they had brought up the topic and Emily smiled at Adam’s surprise. Nevertheless, Adam went on to sip his glass of wine throughout the night.

They only stayed for about an hour, long enough for Emily to meet everyone and introduce herself as a new reporter for the newspaper. Luckily, no one at the party was in the medical field, so he was saved from having to actually communicate with anyone for too long. Adam managed to finish his glass right on time and placed the empty glass down as they walked to Adam’s car.

“Did you drive?” Adam asked.

“I took a cab; I figured I could just go to your place again tonight.”

“Yeah, of course. Wait right here, I’ll pull the car up.”

Adam jumped in the car and drove to the sidewalk to pick up Emily.

“You sure you want to drive after the wine?”

“I don’t really feel anything. I should be fine.” Emily didn’t protest it any further.

“I’m happy you are back, Emily.” “I’m glad to be back.”

“You know, your apartment is kind of expensive. You could save money if you found a roommate.”

Emily looked over to him curiously. “Are you suggesting something?” she asked through squinting eyes.

“I think I could use a roommate too. Any ideas?”

“Are you asking me to move in?” Emily grinned.

“I’m saying you could if you wanted too, you don’t have to feel pressured-“

Emily took off her seatbelt, leaned over, and kissed him. “I’d love too.” Adam let out a sigh of relief and looked down to Emily. He hadn’t felt anywhere near this excited when Elizabeth had moved in.

“So you don’t drink anymore?” Adam asked.

“I haven’t since my first year of college.”

“What made you want to stop?”

“I just got focused on other things. There wasn’t really any time to drink with how busy I was keeping myself. I definitely don’t miss it though. When did you pick it up?”

“My last year of undergraduate studies. It’s only ever been wine and champagne.”

“Wine and champagne? Seventeen year old you would cringe!” Emily joked.

Adam smiled. “Seventeen year old me didn’t know the meaning of stress.” Adam looked at Emily who kept a subtle smile on her face. In the next moment, her smile turned to panic.

“Adam!” she screamed as she pointed out of the windshield.

He had let the car swerve into the opposite lane while looking at Emily. They were now staring a diesel head on, just yards away from each other. Adam slammed on the brakes and tried to swerve out of the way.

When Adam woke up the airbags were deployed and every window on the car except for the backside window was shattered. His head was bleeding and his chest throbbed. He looked to his right and Emily was not in her seat. He shoved his door open and ran in front of the car. Emily was lying on the ground to the left of the scene.

She had a large gash along her forehead and was lying on a blanket of shattered glass. Her arm was wrapped unnaturally behind her, motionless. The diesel driver had not suffered any injury and was already checking her neck for a pulse. The look he gave Adam could only mean there wasn’t one. The driver called 911 in a panic as Adam stood unable to move.

He looked down at Emily and watched the blood as it ran across the ground. It was a deep red. The sunset had just begun to go down. The light shadowed across the wreckage and across Emily. The blood, her red hair, and the sunset blended together as the tears started welling up in his eyes. He went down, wrapped his arms around her, screamed, and then cried.

He did not let go of Emily until a police officer pulled him away. He was forced to recall what had happened for the report, and was asked to blow into a breathalyzer. He was halfway to passing the legal driving limit.

A few weeks after the crash he decided to go visit the place him and Emily met. He took her small notepad with quotes and scribbles that were never used, and a picture of them as kids that she had put up in Adam’s apartment. When he finally made it up the hill he walked to the tree they had carved their names into. He put the picture and the notepad there at the bottom of the same tree and walked within a few feet of the edge of the cliff. He looked on as the red sunset cast its final light over the hillside.

Christian Shepherd is a student, writer and journalist working out of the Inland Empire. “The Red Sunset” is his first published fiction short story. He is currently working on a fiction novel that he hopes to see finished by the end of this year. At the completion of his degree, Christian wants to document the unique stories of the residents of the Inland Empire. He has been published in traditional and online newspaper outlets and online e-sports blogs.

Aaron Bagnell

The Byrd of Orson Wells

The Byrd parked his bike and cut the motor in front of an old wreck of a factory on the outskirts of a little town called Orson Wells, CA, just east of the Salton Sea. The town’s population was 58 and falling. There wasn’t even room for him to stretch his wings anymore, but he stayed there anyway.

The chain-linked fence that defined the property did little to set it apart from the encroaching desert. The steel had rusted to the color of oxidized earth; weeds protruding from the ground wound their way through the links until the two were as good as one; gaps along the fence allowed all forms of sinewy creatures to walk and crawl across the barrier with little hindrance, until the factory remains became no more than another piece of a hardened landscape.

He scanned the warehouses and offices and two pillars that were the old smokestacks. 
Nothing really looked like what it was, but The Byrd had visited this site enough times to know what everything once had been. His father had died in the spring of 1982 working at this factory and The Byrd was drawn every year to the same spot.

It had once been a nitrogen fixation plant, which took the element from the atmosphere to make nitrates both for agriculture and for war. It was funny how a single substance like that could create or destroy depending on whose hands it was put in, like how an accident might result in a place where these highly virulent compounds were synthesized by men who often didn’t even possess formal educations.

Joseph “Jo” T. Byrd was one of half a dozen men killed in an explosion at the plant that occurred in the early morning hours before general operations commenced. And due to the close proximity of the buildings to each other it turned out it would be difficult to determine where the explosion had originated, so the investigation really went no further. The cause was never determined either. Someone had probably been negligent, but it did no good to go sullying his family’s name now.

The Byrd was born Edmund J. Byrd in November of that same year to the recent widow Martha Marie Byrd. His only inheritance was a few pieces of his daddy’s bike that hadn’t been completely blown to bits with the rest. These had served as the basis for the bike The Byrd rode to this day.

Jo Byrd had worked at the plant for twelve years as a foreman who oversaw the deliveries of workplace essentials, like toilet paper and antibacterial soap and copy paper and coffee creamer. His family, like the other families of the victims, received a small pension that provided five hundred dollars a month to the main beneficiary for the rest of his or her life. It was a pittance, but nobody tried to sue for more. Everybody just wanted to forget it, even though they couldn’t, what with the burnt out husk of the factory visible from their backyards.

It never did get rebuilt. The company that owned it allowed itself to be absorbed by a large energy conglomerate to avoid bankruptcy. In less than six months it had been fully liquidated, its assets sold across the border where cheap Mexican labor kept fertilizer manufacturing tantalizingly profitable. The remains of the factory lay undisturbed, dry-rotting in the desert air. To the old they served as a gruesome memorial, but to the young they were no more than an ash and steel playground. Every few years a group of high school kids would get wasted and sneak on out there to look for ghosts, and one or two would always end up seriously injured and have to be taken to a hospital over in Indio or Palm Desert.

The Byrd had a tender recollection of losing his virginity in one of those half collapsed storage buildings splayed out before him, in a room reeking of ammonia, rolling around on a floor littered with debris, with a girl whose name he wanted so badly to say again. Her family sent him letters from time to time, but he never had the nerve to reply. He chose not to remember the sterile lights and smells in the months that followed their first night together, all the hospital visits that ended with him sobbing at her bedside without any idea how to stop. He did remember the shard of glass that he accidentally rolled onto on that particular occasion of love making. To this day part of it remained stuck in his left ass cheek, reminding him with a little sting.

Taking one last look at the rotting desert, The Byrd started the motor of his bike and headed back for town.

***

The bar was empty except for The Byrd, Scarlett and Noela. Scarlett had a rag in her hand that she constantly ran up and down the counter, trying to get a nice shine out of a surface that was nicked and scratched from over a decade of serving patrons with idle hands, jaded men living in a town with no work and no escape, who didn’t mind carving their frustrations into senseless wood so long as Scarlett wasn’t looking.

The Byrd sat at a table against the far wall with Noela, saying nice things about her hair, how it looked like she must have gotten it done, insisting that she must have gotten it done even after she told him several times that she hadn’t, how it made her look like Meryl Streep. He liked making women feel pretty. He thought it was about time they realized that they were.

Noela, giggled at what The Byrd had just said, forgetting for a moment that she was twenty years his senior. Reaching across the table, she grabbed his hand and squeezed. “Byrdie, be my Valentine.”

“I would, but it’s May.” he said.

“It’s a better time to ask. Before anyone else.”

“There’s no good time.” He pulled his hand away. “I’m no saint and you’re no sick kid.”

“But I’m love sick.” she said.

The Byrd pushed his chair back and rose out of his seat. “Well I’m just sick of this.” He swept his arms around. “All this.”

“Hey, Ed if you don’t like the place you can get out.” Scarlett said as she bustled over to the table to wipe it down.

“Scarlett, you know I like your bar. It’s the only decent thing left here.”

“I wasn’t talking about the bar.” She worked her elbow furiously, trying to polish away years of wear in moments.

“I’ve got nowhere to go.” The Byrd said.

He had everywhere to go. Now that his momma was gone, nothing kept him tied to the town. It was dying anyhow. Give it another decade, wait for all the old timers to pass on, and Orson Wells would cease to exist. It was like the Salton Sea itself, everything that gave it life slowly evaporating away until nothing remained except dust.

Scarlett looked ready to say something as she abandoned her work and threw down her rag, but then the screen door flew in with a clatter, wire mesh fluttering as the door finally caught on the warped wood floor. She sighed and went over to drag it shut.
“It’s getting worse, this wind. I know it, and I’m sure you all can smell it.” The air carried the scent of the Sea, a smell like no other. It wasn’t just the perpetual rot. The Sea smelled like a factory, chemical, industrial, but it was not well ordered, controlled, so maybe it was more like a warfront, mustard gas drifting in every direction, indiscriminately killing. Who knew what long term cancer rates would look like? Asthma already occurred in the town at twice the national rate.

“You know they can smell it in Los Angeles and San Diego now, from time to time I mean.” Noela said, looking through the chicken wire that segmented the front window into a thousand empty stares.

“I don’t smell anything.” The Byrd brushed past Scarlett and pulled back the screen door. Sticking his head through the doorway he surveyed the empty street and all the empty buildings lined along it, waiting for people and things, for motion and light, to fill them. In an hour or so the sun would set and the dark would be absolute. Already the shadows had fully overcome the vacant storefronts. Next would be the bar. The wind threw up dirt, tossed his hair around. He breathed in, heavily. “It’s going to be a good night.”

***

The night settled in quickly. No matter how much light and heat the day brought, the night always stifled these in a jiffy. Without the hot press of living, breathing people, quartered close and snug, just a few feet from each other in their apartments and homes, darkness prevailed in cold, lonely silence.

The Byrd lay on the couch with only the television to light the house. It was a 1987 Higure Brand television with a 17 inch screen. The knob stuck and the clicker was broken so it only came on when he could stand to watch Mexican soap operas. His Spanish was getting pretty good. He understood when Carla called Hector a canalla presumido for cheating on her with their maid, Lucia. Then again, it was pretty clear from the pig noises she made at him.

In one sudden movement The Byrd was sitting up and leaning towards the television screen. Carla had got him thinking about his momma, the way she used to act when she’d walk into a bar filled with at least twenty intoxicated men and be able to handle the situation all right. Nobody ever got fresh with her twice. On the T.V. screen Carla slapped Hector across his face and he fell to his knees in a plea for forgiveness. She slapped him again and then kicked him in his rear as he fled from the room.

When he and his momma received the results of her tests and the doctor told them she had stage four lung cancer she just shrugged and said to him, “There ain’t nothing that ain’t dust or that won’t soon be.”

She died a little over a month later and he buried her using the last five hundred dollar check she ever received.

***

He rode over to Bert’s Place around noon the next day. Bert’s was a store that sold whatever junk you needed, sort of like a general store in the old west. Except the nearly empty shelves never got replenished anymore. Once a thing was gone it was gone for good. So Bert only traded with care. A person had to need something especially bad for Bert to give it away.

The Byrd entered the store without knowing what he needed. He only had this inexact feeling that Bert had something for him. It had occurred to him last night, while thinking about his momma, that the only person he had ever seen her friendly with was this squat old man called Bert. He could only recall a single instance of this happening but it was enough to get him thinking about it since it had happened only a week or so before she died.

He and his momma had been sitting in the shade of their front porch on one of those days when it was hot enough to get a person to risk breathing the outside air. Bert had come rolling up to their driveway in his dusty pickup, gotten out without even closing the door of the cab and walked over to the bed of his truck. “I found it,” he said, his voice trembling like a stalk of Burro-Weed. The Byrd’s momma told him to go fetch Bert a drink, which was her way of telling him to get out of their way, so he went inside and watched them from the window, half concealed behind a drape. His momma jogged down the driveway, clutching her chest in the way he had grown accustomed to seeing her do, all the way to where Bert was standing. He patted her on the shoulder with a big, calloused hand that made her withdraw her own hand from her chest for a moment and place it on top of his. Then they moved over to the rear of the truck, where it became difficult for The Byrd to see much of anything, except the bobbing of Bert’s head as he threw down the tailgate. And his momma had appeared a moment later walking back up the driveway with little arroyos winding through the dirt on her cheeks, hands planted square on her waist and a smile threaded on her lips. When she reached the porch she turned and waved as Bert got back into his pickup and drove off.

The inside of Bert’s place was perhaps even dustier than the desert outside. As he walked over to the counter every step The Byrd made left an imprint on the floor clear enough to read his brand of boot. Bert didn’t see him. He was too busy reading a volume on the carburetors of mid-century vehicles. The Byrd got his attention by ringing a bell placed in clear view on the countertop with a sign scrawled in marker taped in front of it that read Ring for Service!

Bert looked up on the second ring. “Sorry, finishing my sentence,” he said and rose to greet The Byrd. “What do you need?”

“Dunno.” The Byrd looked around the shop. “Not much left.”

“Yeah, well.” Bert moved around the counter to get a better look at The Byrd. “I don’t have much time left either.”

The Byrd leaned against the counter and focused his gaze on Bert so that each man saw the other’s face dead on. “You remember me?”

“Naw.”

“It’s been a few years.” The Byrd said, bringing his face a little closer. The lighting was bad, so he thought it might help. “You knew my momma. Mrs. Martha Byrd.”

There was a pause.

“Yeah, I did.” Bert said.

“I came here for something.”

“You haven’t told me what you need yet.” Bert scratched his head. “Feel free to take a look around but I wasn’t really planning on parting with anything today.”

“I want to see whatever you showed my momma.”

“What’s that?”

“That was the first time in a long time I’d seen her smile or cry.” The Byrd said, edging closer. “It was the last too.”

The two men looked at each other unblinking, each waiting for the other to speak. The Byrd’s hands pushed into the edge of the counter as he leaned back against them, trying to focus on this pressure instead of on the one inside him.

“All right.” Bert led The Byrd down an aisle to a door at the back. It was marked with the same sort of sign as the countertop, except this one read Storage. No Peeking! Bert pulled a key from his pocket, jiggled it into the lock and turned it. Behind the door lay a dark gash that healed into dim shapes as Bert flicked on a single light.

The room had very little in it. There was a ladder and a hose, some old paint cans and not much else. Bert moved into the room and The Byrd followed, hesitant to believe that any of these objects could have had an impact on his momma but curious nonetheless.

“I found this when I was out scavenging in the desert.” Bert said, crouching in front of something The Byrd couldn’t identify. “It happens sometimes, where something that we think is lost comes back to us.”

“What?” The Byrd stooped over next to Bert and peered at what could only be described as a hunk of twisted metal.

“Help me get it into the light.”

The two men grabbed the object and carried it beneath the single overhead bulb. “It’s a motorcycle chassis.” The Byrd only realized this because some of the suspension was still intact.

“Found it almost a mile east of the old plant in a big patch of scrub.” Bert wiped his hand across his brow.

“This is what you showed my momma?”

“Yessir.”

“Wait.” The Byrd said. “I know what this is.”

“Took you long enough.”

“I thought it was destroyed.” The Byrd leaned down and touched it, feeling the cold metal as if checking it for a pulse.

“Nope. The thing rode the pressure wave right up into the sky.”

“What do you want for it?” The Byrd rose and dug his hand deep into his front pocket.
Bert looked straight at him and said, “I tried giving it to your momma but she refused. She said it was enough just to see it one last time.”

***

The Byrd stopped at the bar to say goodbye to Scarlett and Noela. Neither woman could believe that he was actually going. Scarlett chuckled and continued to rub down the bar with her rag. Noela straddled her chair and pouted her lips at him. “I really mean it,” he said.

“Really?” Scarlett stopped wiping for a moment. “No shit?”

The Byrd held up his leather knapsack as proof.

“What?” Noela looked ready to faint.

Scarlett moved over to the cabinet behind her and started rummaging around inside. “I know I saw it… here.” She pulled out a bottle of whiskey and thumped it down on the counter. “This is for you. A going away present,” she said. “It’s good stuff, so you better really be going.”

The Byrd took the bottle and nodded at her.

“Goodbye, Noela.” he called as he walked out the door.

“Byrdie?”

The Byrd walked over to his bike and looked it up and down. He’d asked Bert to bury his daddy’s chassis where he’d found it and Bert had agreed. There would be no marker, no trace. It had gone back to the dust. Now The Byrd only had to put the whiskey in his knapsack and ride off into the desert.

Aaron Bagnell is the son of a librarian who spent his childhood rambling around San Diego, CA. He currently studies Earth Science and Creative Writing at University of California, Berkeley.

James Silberstein

Auspice

The bird will tell his future, most likely what his heart already knows. She’s gone three days now—to town, or to Mary’s, or to some hairy arms—wherever madness goes. But she’ll come back.

A crow caws in the distance, too far to know for sure what it’s trying to tell him, so he walks the mile and a half to check the mailbox. His footsteps crunch the frozen gravel—the sound, dependable company. The cold mountain air helps him forget. For now, he can pretend the cold is only on the outside. He opens the mailbox to find it empty, except for the rust.

Mistletoe thrives in the stand of oaks across the highway. “Bloodsuckers,” he spits. Whenever he sees the parasite, he tries to cut it out with the chainsaw. But it’s been too long too late for those scrubs. If left after the kissing, mistletoe kills the tree.

Caw

He spots the black feathers and notes the direction, northeast—the crow perched among the ravaged oaks. He knows the time but checks the Omega Seamaster on his wrist anyway, finding comfort in the most reliable thing his father ever gave him. With this data—time, direction, and type of caw—he knows what crow is saying: A woman will come.

Caw: Later, her pickup will raise dust.

He’ll go to the truck to meet her, but he’ll wait for her to open her own door.

“I’m sorry,” she’ll say.

“I know,” he’ll say, not done believing her.

He’ll invite her inside, take her into his arms, and smell her for evidence, the soap not strong enough to cover the sweat from the long drive and the truck’s heater, but enough to wash away any other sins he wouldn’t want to know about anyway. She won’t wear perfume, like a dare to take her as she is.

“You’ve been chopping wood,” she’ll say, removing flecks from his hair.

“The splitter is broken. I’ll go get a new hydraulic line, tomorrow.”

“Maybe it can wait. Maybe we can stay in.”

“Maybe.”

“It’ll be cold tomorrow.”

“It will.”

“Yes,” she’ll say.

“I better take a shower, since I don’t smell as nice as you.”

“No, I like it.” She’ll move to him.

He’ll pull her in, tighter than he should, both of them trying to protect whatever tenderness they have left. They’ll barely make it to the bed, her hands tearing at his flannel, pine splinters in its fibers. He’ll feel the sticky of pitch between his hands and her skin. Her dress too thin for this weather, even inside by the stove, restraint will give way to heat, yield to fire, until they burn into that moment.

“Soha,” she’ll whisper, an inside joke from the first time they made love.

“Soha,” he’ll repeat after her.

They’ll lie quiet awhile.

“Did the birds tell you I was coming back?”

“They did.”

“How come I never met that old woman?”

“You did your own laundry.”

“I couldn’t afford to pay an old Tibetan witch to wash my undies.”

“She wasn’t very expensive.”

“Not everybody’s daddy leaves them enough money to—”

He’ll interrupt her, “Let’s not fight.”

“I’m not fighting.” Her eyes will widen.

Trying to reconcile, he’ll say, “Besides, she said she was repaying a kindness from a past life.”

“So that’s why she taught you to talk to birds, why she transmitted the ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-ja-ka…”

Kakajarita Sutra. Please don’t mock.”

“I’m not mocking. Remember I went to Dharamasla looking for moksha too.”

“And you found me.”

“It was you seduced me with all those big Sanskrit words.”

“You said you were my yogini,” he’ll say, remembering how her darkness brightened only when he held her.

“You should have known I was a crazy dakini,” she’ll say, and he’ll read the sorrow in her eyes.

“Maybe it’s not too late to fulfill our bodhisattva vows.”

“Maybe.” She’ll nestle in to him and they’ll fall asleep.

He’ll dream of Dhauladhar, the snow-capped range rising out of the Kangra Valley, once a symbol for what he thought he wanted—a far-out place to practice the meaning of the words he learned, karuna, shunyata, mahamudra.

For a while they’ll sleep soundly on the six acre California retreat, nestled at tree line among the Manzanita and mourning doves.

But Crow knows the difference between dream and reality. After being eaten by its shadow, the bird lost time—present, same as past, same as future. Crow knows what they’re capable of, always has, always will.

Caw: He’ll wake to hear her tearing up the closet for a lost glove, karmas and kleshas the conditions for her crazy.

He’ll get out of bed to shower. When he’s done, she’ll still be ransacking the closet.

Knowing she won’t stop until he says something, he’ll ask her to pass him a clean pair of pants.

“You never understand,” she’ll say.

“But I do.”

“Stop it! Stop saying that. You never let me feel the way I do.” She’ll have stuffed away the dress and be wearing his shirt, too big for her, making her furious action seem inconsequential, comical.

“You’re too busy telling me ‘I don’t understand’ to see how I always let you feel however you want.”

“I’m so tired of this.” She’ll leave the closet, strewing clothes behind her.

He’ll follow her. “You never give it a chance.”

“It’s not working.”

“You have no faith.”

“You don’t believe in me.”

“We should sit.” He’ll wave a hand toward the cushions on the floor before the hearth.

“I don’t want to.”

“Come here.”

“No.”

“It’s not too late to practice,” he’ll hiss through a clenched jaw.

“Means nothing.”

“You’re wrong.” He’ll reach for her.

“Don’t touch me.”

“Stop.”

“You don’t want me here.”

“Just stop it.” He’ll grab her.

“You’ve said it before—you wish I would leave.”

“Please,” he’ll say trying to soothe but merely agitating her more.

“Let go!” she’ll say, pushing, clawing.

Not sure whether to tighten or release, he’ll do both—one hand opening as the other stays tight around her wrist. She’ll fall to the floor. He won’t let go as she kicks.

The two will scream, never to be doves.

Shunyata means the essence of everything and Mahakaruna means great compassion. And the only thing he’s learned out here is how to listen to birds. The black wings flap but refuse to fly.

Seeing no other way, he closes the mailbox and walks back to the events he knows will come. His heart the kind of thing only a crow would eat.

James Silberstein writes and teaches in southern California. His grandparents owned and operated the Idyllwild Dairy in the 40s before settling Baldy Mountain Ranch off Highway 74 just before the turn to Pine-to-Palms. In her 90s, his grandmother still operates the ranch. It is a place of great inspiration for him.

Richard Luftig

Fishing for Pumpkinseeds

Chuck-E-Cheese was created for guys like me. Divorced men who see their kids on weekends. Men with children who as they get older don’t want to leave their friends in order to spend boring time with their fathers.

In my case Seth is six, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise, since Kathryn and I have been divorced since he was three, that he is more like his mother than me. I’m an outdoor guy; I work as a line repairer for a cable company. An office job would drive me crazy. I hunt and fish—typical of a guy raised in northern California.

It’s like Seth was dropped to the wrong house by the stork. He stays indoors, playing videogames or doing God-knows-what on the computer, although Kathryn says she monitors where he goes on the web. He was born with lazy eye and has worn glasses since he was two. Maybe that’s what makes him hesitant to play outside. Yes, I know you’re supposed to accept your child unconditionally and really I try, but Seth has to know the rough-and-tumble kid I’d like him to be. I’ve tried hard to hide those feelings and be supportive. But maybe I haven’t tried hard enough.

Which is how I came up with the idea. I’d get permission from Kathryn to get Seth for the weekend and we’d spend time in some remote cabin on a lake. We’d take a boat out for a day of fishing. It would get us out of the video game-for-prizes pizza rut. And I guess far in the recesses of my mind, I hoped that getting Seth out of the city would help him develop an interest in the outdoors.

Of course, there was one gigantic, immovable obstacle to my plan. I had to talk Kathryn into letting him go.

I don’t want to make my ex sound like a witch. She’s a good mother. But she’s never let things go since the divorce. In a way I can’t blame her—I was having an affair with Lisa, and Kathryn found out about it by looking at my text messages. All hell broke loose. But I guess what really sealed it was when I refused to break it off with Lisa or go to counseling. I just gave up on the marriage. You know what they say about pissing off scorned women and Kathryn was scorned squared. Its great living in California: got half of everything, kept the house, took me to the cleaners in alimony and child support and tried to get full custody of Seth. At least the judge didn’t give in to her on that.

So, I swallowed hard and called to see if I could have Seth for the weekend. Let’s just say my worries were well founded.

“You want to take him where and for how long,” she literary hissed through the phone line.

“To a lake cabin in the mountains,” I said. “For the weekend.”

“You only have custodial rights for Sundays.”

“I’m aware of that,” I said. “I’m asking a favor.”

“Hell, you can’t even manage one day. Seth is all upset when you bring him home.”

Damn her, she was up to her old tricks, twisting everything against me. “That’s not fair. You know as well as I that Seth is obsessed about winning some big stuffed animal at the video parlor that’s going to cost me three-hundred dollars’ worth of prize tickets. I’m a good father.”

“Yeah, father-of-the year,” she said. “Except for the part about walking out when he was three.”

“That’s a long time ago. People change. I changed. Things move on.”

“Is your tramp going to be with you? I don’t need my son listening to sex orgies coming from the other bedroom.”

I wanted to reach through my cell phone and throttle her. “God damn it, Kathryn. Lisa is no tramp. I’m tired of you making cracks every time you and I talk.”

“She has everything to do with everything. She’s the person who broke us up.”

This wasn’t going well. “It’s just going to be Seth, me and the fish.”

I added a word I hadn’t used with her much since the divorce. “Please.”

There was a long silence on her end of the line. “Fine. You can pick him up Friday after school.”

She hung up before I was able to say thanks.

***

Like usual, I was late picking up Seth. I took a half-day of vacation time but even so I ran behind. I knew the cabin was furnished so I didn’t worry about bedding or camping gear, but I went to the toy store and bought some jigsaw puzzles and board games that I thought might interest him. Then I spent a long time in the grocery trying to buy foods that he might enjoy. I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t have a clue what my son liked. I settled on frozen pizza, canned ravioli, Count Chocula cereal and hoped for the best.
It was after five when I pulled into the driveway. Kathryn was pissed. I wasn’t much happier. We were facing a three-hour drive, much of it in the dark up a winding road. I figured Seth was tired after a full day of school and wondered how well he would sit for the long ride to the cabin.

He was in the hallway when Kathryn let me in, buried under a pillow, blanket and the IPad that his mother had bought him for Christmas over my objections. I was always amazed over how small and thin he was, now tiny under the pile of objects he was holding in front of him.

“I bent down and found an open spot on his forehead to give him a kiss. “Hi sport, ready for our big trip?”

“Like usual, you’re late,” Kathryn said, in a stage whisper. “He’s been waiting like this for over an hour.”

“Sorry I’m late, big guy. But you look ready to roll. Let’s get started. We have a long drive ahead of us.”

He handed me his things. “Seth, they have blankets and pillows at the cabin. You don’t need to take these.”

“He likes his own stuff,” Kathryn said. “It makes him more comfortable. He’s not used to sleeping in strange places.”

I looked at his IPad. “Son, I’m afraid this won’t work at the cabin. They don’t have internet where we’re going.”

He looked confused. “What are we going to do then?”

“We’ll be fine. We’ll fish and hike during the day. At night we’ll do a puzzle, play some games. And I brought marshmallows and hot dogs to roast over a campfire. It’ll be fun.”

He seemed unconvinced, and to tell the truth, I was beginning to lose confidence as well. I figured that once he tried it, Seth would become as enthusiastic about the outdoors as myself. But what if he wasn’t? This trip could turn out to be a disaster.

Kathryn handed me a suitcase as well as his sunhat and sunscreen. I was beginning to feel like a Sherpa in the Himalayans.

“I’m letting him go on two conditions. First, he wears a life jacket anytime he’s even near the water. It was on the news about some kid who drowned up there. Second, you call me at every day to let me know how he’s doing.”

I nodded.

“Phil, listen to me,” she said. “I’m not kidding. If I don’t hear from you I’m going up to get him myself.”

“Okay,” I said. “I’ll call you first thing tomorrow morning. I promise, we’ll be fine.”
I wished my feelings agreed with my words.

***

Seth fell asleep thirty minutes after we started. That was all right with me because I didn’t have the skills of keeping a six-year-old occupied on a three-hour ride. Plus, soon after nightfall a thick, gray fog descended, cutting visibility to zero. I strained to see the yellow double line separating traffic and the white one on the shoulder so I wouldn’t drive into the mountain on some turns or off on the others.

Sometimes, when I was on a straightaway, I stole a glance in the rear-view mirror at Seth. He looked so small, almost delicate, asleep in the car seat, holding his pillow and blanket. I don’t know why but he was wearing the floppy sunhat that Kathryn had told him to put on. It was just like him to take her instructions literally. I thought how I had failed him. I wondered what Kathryn had told him about why I left. The marriage had been rocky from the start but the rules had changed the minute he was born. Did I owe more than I had put in? Should I have stayed no matter what? And how much pressure was I putting on my son to be like me? I refocused my attention to my driving in this all-encompassing fog and wondered if this whole trip was a mistake.

We finally pulled into the gravel drive after ten. Seth, bless him, was still sleeping soundly. I was exhausted. I carried him inside and was instantly hit with the musty smell. I cursed. This was going to bad for his allergies.

I staggered from room to room trying to find lamps. Half the bulbs were burned out or missing. Also, the place was freezing. I found a bedroom that had lights and decided that it was Seth’s room. I tucked him in, thankful now that he had brought his blanket from home.

I found the furnace. It was off. Damn, this owner had wasted no effort on my comfort, But wasn’t this what I hoped for, a weekend in the wild bonding with my son? I thought wistfully of a Holiday Inn with a heated pool. Maybe I was getting old.

Luckily, there were matches nearby. This was hopeful—at least the furnace probably worked. I lit the pilot, and it caught.

I cranked up the thermostat to stun and collapsed on the bed in the other bedroom.

***

Morning came cold but clear. Mist lifted off the lake in white tufts. I could see the rowboat tied up at the dock at the bottom of the hill. I sipped the steaming, black coffee from the vintage mug I found in the cupboard. I felt good and the day was cooperating.

Things were going to work out.

I woke up Seth and he wandered sleepy-eyed into the kitchen. “Geez, it’s early Dad,” he complained. “Mom lets me sleep as late as I want on Saturdays.”

I smiled, “Sorry sport. Fish get up early. So do fishermen. We have to get out there before it gets too hot.    He sat down at the table. “So, what do you want for breakfast?”

He looked up. “Mom makes me waffles on Saturday.”

I felt a surge of panic. New problems. “Sorry, big guy. Nobody told me. I can make you scrambled eggs.”

“Yuck, I hate eggs.”

I thought for a moment. “How about cereal that turns the milk into chocolate milk?”

He brightened. “I can have chocolate for breakfast?” He hesitated. “Mom won’t allow me to eat that.”

“Then we won’t tell her. It will be our little secret.”

Seth smiled “Deal!”

We were all decked out and ready to go to the boat when I remembered that I promised Kathryn I’d call. The last thing I needed was her sending up the Mounted Police to haul Seth back to the city.

I turned on my cell phone and got the “out of coverage” message. That was something I hadn’t considered when I booked the place.

I searched every room for a land phone. There was none. Jesus, who rents a cabin without a phone?

I tried to remember if we passed any payphones last night. Maybe there was one at the camp store but that was on the other side of the lake. I didn’t want to waste an hour of prime fishing time looking for a phone and then arguing with Kathryn. Maybe one of the neighboring cabins had a phone. It was worth a shot.

I got lucky on the second try. The lady who lived there let me make the call. I almost couldn’t breathe from the cigarette smoke that permeated the place.

“Thanks,” I said, rejoining her on the porch. She was probably in her forties but looked older from the smoking. She was dressed in a red robe with blue sneakers. I wondered if she was a nut case or some sort of survivalist although in my mind the two weren’t mutually exclusive.

“No problem”, she said. “Looks like you and your boy are going fishing.”

I really didn’t feel like hanging around talking about the details of my life, especially if the fish were biting. “Trying to,” I said. “But I had to make that call.”

“Just the two of you then?”

I wondered what she was getting at but wanted to avoid further small talk at all costs.

“Yeah, sort of. Anyway, we need to get going while the fish are still biting.”

She rummaged through her robe pockets. I thought she might be hunting for a cigarette but she took out a newspaper clipping instead. “You make sure he wears a life jacket. One dead kid is enough.”

“A dead kid,” I repeated dully.

She handed me the clipping. “Yeah, three weeks ago. Some eleven year old boy takes his father’s boat late at night for a joy ride, the next day they find the boat floating empty in the lake. They’ve been dragging the bottom for the body, but as you can see, this is one big-assed piece of water that drops off into the dam. Kid can be anywhere.”

That must have been the kid that Kathryn had heard about on the news. I hope Seth hadn’t heard about this. He was wary of the water as it was. I didn’t him scared about the fishing trip even before it had begun

She took back the clipping and put it in her cavernous robe. “So, just a word to the wise; this lake can be more dangerous than it looks.”

I loaded up the rowboat with rods, reels, worms, every sort of lure imaginable to man. I also made sure to pack important survival provisions: soft drinks, Goldfish crackers, Gummy Bears and Little Debbie cakes. I figured if we didn’t catch any fish, I could still keep Seth entertained with the junk food. I’d deal with Kathryn’s wrath later.

But I couldn’t get the drowned boy out of my mind. He was eleven—Seth would be that age and it wouldn’t be that long in the future. Why did he take the boat? Did he have a fight with his father? Maybe he was estranged like I felt myself from my own son. I looked at Seth in the back of the boat. He was absorbed in dipping a twig in the water, watching it make small ripples and waves as I rowed. In his bulky life jacket he looked like an orange marshmallow.

I tried to push those thoughts away by rowing harder and faster. Now, more than ever, I wanted Seth to catch a fish, have a good time, and tell his mother about the special time he enjoyed with his father.

I found a small indentation in a cove that looked promising. The bank had a dead, rotten log laying in the water about two feet from shore. On both sides of the log, duckweed sprouted. All in all, a perfect hiding place for panfish.

I took the oars out of the water and rested them in the oarlocks. “This is perfect,” I said.

“Perfect for what?” Seth said

I thought he was joking. “Perfect for fish, silly. What do you think we’re out here for, elephants?”

As soon as I said it, I knew I had put my foot in my mouth. Was he serious? Had he forgotten what we were out here for or didn’t he care? It made me realize again how little I knew about what made him tick.

“What kind of fish are we looking for?” His voice was in a whisper as if he was afraid to ask anything stupid again.

“Pumpkinseeds,” I said, taking out his rod.

“Pumpkinseeds come from pumpkins not from the lake. Anybody knows that.”

“No, pumpkinseed is the name for a type of fish.”

“Why?”

“Did you ever carve out a Halloween pumpkin?”

Seth nodded.  “Well,” I said, “they look like the seeds inside a pumpkin, fat and round.”

He still looked confused so I took one of the Goldfish crackers from the box. “Sort of like these,” I said.

“And are we going to catch them?”

I baited his hook and cast the line near the fallen log. “If you’re a good fisherman and do as I say.”

“What do I have to do?”

“Well,” I said, “most importantly you have to sit very still and be very quiet.”

He nodded gravely. “What else?”

“Do you see that red and white long thing sticking halfway out of the water? That’s called a bobber. If it starts moving fast up and down it means you have a fish. When that happens you reel in your line as quick as you can.”

I pointed to his seat for emphasis. “But until then you have to sit very still and no talking. You have to be patient. Okay?”

I would have had better luck telling a kitten not to chase a ball of yarn. Seth was up and down. When he wasn’t poking the tip of his rod in the water trying, as he said, to make the fish come closer, he was pulling on the line to make the bobber jump and reeling in the hook. I tried to remain calm and supportive but found myself more annoyed every time he did it which was every two minutes.”

Damn it, Seth,” I yelled, “You’re never going to catch a fish this way and will end up turning the whole boat over. If you can’t do like I say you’re never going to make a good fisherman.”

As soon as I said it, I wanted to hook myself in the mouth. Nice going, asshole, I thought. This is exactly what you didn’t want to happen.

Seth looked down at his feet. “Sorry, Dad. Maybe we should just give up.”

My mind raced, trying to save the situation. This day, this weekend, maybe the relationship with my son, seemed to be spiraling into the toilet. “Tell you what, why don’t you try casting the line. Then when you catch the fish, it will be really yours.”

He looked up, eyes wide. “Really?”

I knew I was taking a big risk but I had to do something. “Sure,” I said, trying to sound confident. “Just do it gently. You want to have your hook fall in front of that big log.”

I demonstrated with my rod. “Pretend that you’re tossing an egg so softly that the egg won’t break.”

Seth imitated how I held my rod but instantly, I could see disaster unfolding. Even before I could scream “no!” he brought the reel all the way behind his ear and let fly with a cast more appropriate for a deep-sea fisherman. Within seconds his tackle was past the fallen log and a good six feet up into a huge oak tree standing in the water a few yards from the embankment.

“Shit,” I hissed. “Now look what you’ve done. I told you to cast softly. What were you thinking about?”

He started to cry. “I want to go home,” he said.

The day had all turned to ash. I sat there totally lost, not sure what to do.

I looked up into the oak and tried to spot his line. I could see where it had gone in but the hook disappeared in its thick foliage. Almost any other time I would have simply cut the line and set up new split-shot, bobber and hook. But I thought I could dislodge the rigging from the tree. I knew it made no sense, but I believed that if I could save his tackle I could save the day.

I pulled in Seth’s line and that drew me closer to the tree. When the bow of the boat was against the fallen log I stood up and followed his line into the leaves.

I parted the branches. I could see now that Seth’s line had actually made it through the tree and was resting in the water about six inches from shore. All I had to do was guide his line back through the tree and out the other side to the boat, difficult but not impossible.

As I struggled to guide the tackle through the leaves something moved along the shore.

It was definitely an animal of some sort, maybe a large dog or a deer.

But something, I couldn’t make out what, made me reject both those theories. I struggled to see better. Then it hit me, the thing was upright and looking right back at me.

The thought struck me like some message from God that those evangelists on television always talk about. The dead boy.

I closed my eyes to clear my vision. When I reopened them the object was gone.

Nothing but tree, leaves and more leaves all along the embankment. I watched for a full twenty seconds but there was nothing.

I remembered Seth in the boat, and pulled his line up over the bank and into the tree. It felt heavier than usual but I figured there were dead leaves or some small branches attached to the hook.

I guided the line almost completely out. Then I saw it. A pumpkinseed. A large, fat, full panfish.

I brought the line into the boat. “Seth, look at this. You caught a tree fish.”

“I did?”

I laughed. “Yes, you did. You caught the first tree fish in recorded history.”

He stared at the fish. “What do we do now?”

“Well, I said, “first we take the hook out. Then we take a picture to show your mother.”

There was a silence. He seemed to be thinking. “Will the fish die?”

“If he stays out of the water,” I said. “But that’s what fishing is all about. We catch it and eat it for dinner.”

Seth didn’t hesitate for a second. “I don’t want him to die.”

I looked at the fish and then back to Seth. There were a lot of things going on here and I didn’t understand all of them. But I did know, maybe for the first time in a very long while, that how I responded was going to go a long way in defining my relationship with my son.

“I don’t want him to die either. Let’s put him back in the water and hope he has a full, long life.” I unhooked the fish as gently as I could and released it back into the lake.

I turned back to Seth and opened my arms. “Come here.”

“You told me not to get up.”

I embraced him tightly. “Just this once let’s break the rules.”

“You don’t like fishing very much, do you?” I asked. He shook his head.

“Neither do I. Not anymore. Tell you what? Would you like to take the boat back to shore and then drive somewhere and have a big pizza?”

He smiled. “And play video games?”

“And play video games,” I said. “After that, maybe we can watch a movie.”

He seemed to relax for the first time since the weekend began. I moved to the middle seat facing the shore and took up the oars.

But first I peered one last time into the woods where I had seen the strange figure.

There was still nothing there.

I began to row. I didn’t know what was on that shore. Maybe it was something, maybe it was nothing. I would never know.

Whatever it was, I was grateful.

“Fishing for Pumpkinseeds” originally appeared in The Literary Yard.

Richard Luftig is a former professor of educational psychology and special education at Miami University in Ohio now residing in Pomona, California. He is a recipient of the Cincinnati Post-Corbett Foundation Award for Literature and a semi finalist for the Emily Dickinson Society Award for Poetry. His stories have appeared in numerous magazines including Bloodroot, Front Porch Review, Silkscreen Literary Review, and Pulse Literary Magazine. One of his published short stories was nominated for a 2012 Pushcart Prize.

Ryan Garcia

Rather Than Making You Go To School

You look over to your baby brother to make sure that he hasn’t lost his grip on his bottle.  Your mother paces from room to room, throwing blouses and shoes every which way.  She hopes that the interview promises her the job, the one she’s been telling you about for weeks.  The job she’s talked about so much and with such passion that you begin to think that prepping and pounding out masa for a local panaderia is the best thing you can do in America.

Your brother, mijo, she says.

You look over to Miguel.  He fell asleep with the nipple of the bottle hanging off his bottom lip, formula running down his little chest.  You slowly take the bottle from him, and gently dab at his body with the bib.  He’s wearing a plain blue shirt, and one of your baseball t’s as a diaper – a dark blue center, and black sleeves.  Mamá ran out of diapers just this morning, and when she had asked you for a shirt for Miguel you handed her one thinking that she was going to be using it as a pillow or blanket.  Not a diaper.

I’ll get the job, chiquito, she said as she wrapped it around his tiny bottom, we’ll get you more shirts.  Okay, let’s get going.

You pick up Miguel’s carrier, trying to keep it steady with your 13 year old flaquito arms.  Mamá turns to lock the door, then the gate, and walks in front of you.  Her chanclas slap the cement the whole way out.  You two approach the bus stop that stands just outside the complex and wait for the 38, heading towards the Fashion District.  The little hole in the wall apartment you call home sits around the corner from Hollenbeck Park.  You hear the quick hissing of the bus’ shifting gears come down the street, and lift Miguel’s carrier up off the bench.  Mamá brings her purse up to her chest and begins to shuffle around for a couple dollars.  The black rubber that lines the doors pop open right before you two.

Main and 12th, says the driver.

Mamá looks over to you and nods towards the door.

Up up up, she says.

You bring Miguel up to your chest and stretch your legs out in search of the first step, remembering to not put so much of the carrier’s weight on you that you go falling backwards.  The sun begins to peer over buildings and beam into the bus as you walk down the aisle.  Its color isn’t yellow, nor orange, but rather a multitude of citrus hues and shades that have swallowed each other, producing a color somehow only found in Los Angeles.  You spot two empty seats towards the back of the bus and lift Miguel up as you inch your way over to the window.  Mamá takes the aisle seat and helps you situate the carrier on your lap.  As your bodies sway and dance with the turns of the bus, you watch the city come more alive with each passing block.  Iron shop gates are lifted, owners begin to sweep entry ways, and the thump of mariachi rises and fills the air.  On this side of L.A., it’s never too early to start blasting the mariachi; your own instrumental rooster, cock-a-doodle-doo’ing from shop to shop.

You grab ahold of the carrier’s handle as the bus begins to slow down along the curb.  Mamá sits up and makes her way through the knees and purses that protrude into the aisle way, and you follow keeping a firm hold of the carrier.  You both step down from the bus onto the sidewalk and, for a moment, take in the smells and sounds that swirl through the air just above your heads.  Knock off colognes and perfumes are sprayed generously by shopkeepers onto tiny sticks of paper and practically shoved into the faces of passerby’s so as to allure them into a purchase, then you catch the scent of your favorite treat, one that you have always thought was made of the most oddly combined ingredients, but still produced a masterpiece.

Mamá, elote? you ask.

Aye, chiquito, come on we’re late!

You frown and look down to Miguel, hoping he’d feel your disappointment, wake, and start crying.

In a few years, you whisper, you’ll cry for elotes.

You walk in front of mamá for a few minutes before you come to the panaderia.  She reaches into her larger bag and pulls out a pair of sneakers – immaculately white.  Sneakers that she’s kept white and clean for such occasions; gently dabbing bleach on the soles and canvas after each use.  She puts her hand on your shoulder as she reaches down to slip off her chanclas, one by one.  Then steps into the sneakers she laid on the floor.

Okay, chico, she says as she stuffs the chanclas in her bag, let’s go inside.
She opens the door, and you find a small table close to the counter.  You set Miguel’s carrier up carefully in the middle, trying your hardest not to rock him so much that he wakes.  Mamá walks up to the counter and sets her items on top.

Hola?  she says, Hola.

A small woman walks from the backroom to where mamá is standing.  Their introductions are short before they start to take their conversation to the backroom where the woman had come from.

Thomás, she says, watch Miguel.  Stay right here.

They walk away.  You look down to Miguel, still asleep, and see your baseball-T coming undone.  You reach in softly, placing one sleeve over the other so as to loop them around each other and knot them up again, bringing the shirt higher so that it doesn’t fall and wrinkle at his waist.  He shifts gently.  The bass from the mariachi outside continues to thump, the accordion now beginning to chime in on what feels like an impending solo.  With your fingertips still grazing the t-shirt, you look over to the clock that hangs over entry way.  8:48 am.  You exhale, stomach beginning to growl for elotes, and look down to Miguel whose hand now wraps around your index and middle fingers.  You cross them in his palm.

Fingers crossed, carnal, you say, fingers crossed. 

Ryan Garcia is a 27 year old MFA Fiction Candidate currently attending Cal State San Bernardino. His work has appeared in The Pacific Review.

Jeff Mays

Mode of Transportation

You could take the car, but then you wouldn’t notice the hawks circling
overhead, nor the current of black ants terminating inside the semi-translucent
grasshopper carcass. You wouldn’t see the sun-blanched, tailless lizards
running for safety ahead of your footfall, the lobules of dog shit trying to hide
in the grass, nor the bee belly-up, scooted by the breeze.

Blind-sided

All I could see
as I turned to answer his question,
“Do you stay in Rialto?”
was the rage in his face
the peeled back eyes
the horse’s nostrils
the small spheres of sweat
the templemuscle clench
and that he didn’t care if I
answered yes or if I answered no.

Not daring to look over my shoulder
I frantically ran to her
the woman walking towards her car
with a single key stretching
from the pinch of her fist.
I came closer to her with blood
on my basketball, with crimson drops
that have not stopped, with a numbness
in my ear that I’m afraid to touch.
There is a question on my face,
but I can see she is forcing
thoughts of gunshots away
from her, sweeping these crumbs
off of her blue and white dress,
and in mid-step, I realized
I shouldn’t even bother to slow down.

Waiting at Walmart

for an oil change
where people pay for tires
and new car batteries
with paper money, twenties dealt out
like cards;
the grubby waiting rectanglar prism
hidden between the greycloud-smeared
garage and painted cinderblock
storage room reverberated with loud
tv reports of a gunman
on the loose in the snowy wilds
of the Big Bear Mountain; it pulled
my concentration
away from Thomas Jefferson,
The Art of Power, so I walked
through the air filters
and paint guns,
the index cards and manila
folders, past people without a
purpose shuffling through the discounted DVDs;
surrounded by the slow pushing of carts
and half empty scuffed metal shelves;
I felt a wave from far away
come slow-rolling towards me
lifting my feet from the ground
a momentary crest-rider
floating on the swell
the linoleum far below my feet
and me far away from the plastic handle
in my hands with its colorless blue
in the stale and scentless air

Jeff Mays is a native Inlander who has lived in the Empire for 47 years now.  In addition to poetry and photography, he is also an avid baseball fan and has recently published a book about the miraculous ’62 Angels called The Spectacular Case of the 1962 Los Angeles Angels.

J. Ryan Bermuda

Foster

Your mother       is all hips and song, blonde
bob brushing cheek bones     step-
father, sore wrists and elbows calloused     losing
thirty hairs every thirty days     home
smells like Sunflowers except on
Sundays when brimming with popcorn and parched
Blue Note records     cousins
hum       discovering new streets in
familiar cities through each window       Grand-
father speaks in crisp bell chimes, stories of       Grand-
mother burning
bread on the day you were born

J Ryan Bermuda lives in Redlands, California, where people panic if it rains. Bermuda has been published in local journals such as The Sand Canyon Review, PoetrIE’s Tin Cannon, Dead Snakes poetry blogzine, Stone Path Review, The Camel Saloon, and The Wilderness House Literary Review.