Just This - Ingrid Alana Silverstein
More than Enough - Mia Cartmill
Shadowboxing - Mark Dickinson
The Witnesses - Brian Pennington
One little girl had three bites on her neck—three! He counted the puncture wounds while waiting in line. They looked like a rash or deformity, the skin swollen like reddish ant mounds. She couldn’t have been older than nine. What Keeper would feed on such a young thing?
The line shuffled forward one dreary step. William lifted himself up on the balls of his feet, to catch sight of a worn-looking young man standing in the frame of the voting booth, hand resting weakly on the lever. A sudden snap! and the curtain closed, affording the voter his privacy.
William sighed. He shifted his weight between feet, stared at his shiny shoes. In the adjacent line, he saw slender female legs, and he let his eyes skate up their gorgeous length. Black skirt, cute butt, flat stomach, great chest. His desire crackled like a new flame—
—and then he saw her neck. Old scars, newer bites. The Keepers seemed to prefer human women, though they professed a lack of sexual interest. They had certainly never tried to mate with us, William thought uneasily. At least, he had never heard of anything like that.
The young man in the booth opened the curtain. He trudged out, eyes downcast. The man barely glanced at the attractive leggy woman as he left, despite the fact that he had to move right past her to the exit.
William swallowed the lump in his throat. He wondered how the election was going. A human party was running against the Keepers. Again. It was the seventeenth year in which political opposition to the bloodsuckers (Keepers! he told himself, expunging the vile blasphemy from his mind) had appeared on the ballots. There was even election transparency, presided over by a joint human-Keeper task panel. No rigging. No manipulations. No stacked deck. Even the blasphemers had to grudgingly admit that these elections were not being controlled.
The line crept forward again. William remembered an article he had read in the newspaper that very morning. An editorial, striking a rare balance between party lines. The Keepers, it stated, had made the lives of some people less... well... less pleasant. But this was not their fault. From whatever corner of the universe they had come, evolution had built into them the necessity for drinking lifeblood. And humans possessed that dietary requirement. It wasn’t all that different, fundamentally speaking, from the relationship between humans and mosquitoes.
The curtain snapped aside. Another voter—this one a silver-haired woman in a black raincoat, clutching her pink purse like a shield—went in and snapped the curtain shut.
Though the line moved forward to accommodate her absence, William restrained himself from that automatic next step. The leggy woman next to him moved up, her shoulders hunched. She should be standing upright, William thought. Funny how a slight adjustment of posture makes such a difference.
This morning’s editorial flashed again in his mind. Conceding that not all was perfect with the new social arrangement (and giving a few choice words about the way Keepers now constituted 81% of all political, corporate, and law enforcement capacities in the nation) it did point out how much safer everyone was. For the Keepers weren’t the only extraterrestrial race to arrive on Earth these past twenty-five years. Another race, invisible and horrible, also lurked on the planet now. There was a long scientific name for them, but the public just referred to them as devils. No device could warn of their presence. No one had ever seen one up close. Almost nothing was known about them, or what their relationship might be to…
William shook his head, burying the blasphemous thought. You could be going about your day, no worries, and suddenly a devil would attack. And no one really knew what the ultimate purpose of their attack was. They liked to... to rip people apart, like bloody taffy.
William had seen footage of it once. Someone was crossing a street, a man with a briefcase, when his coat was sharply tugged in the opposite direction. Then he was being held aloft, screaming, his briefcase falling. His face was peeled off first. Then the limbs were twisted off. The guts were opened. The bones cruelly pulled out and flung into the quickly-deserting street. The mess was left there. For hours. No one wanted to be the first to clean it up, for fear that the devil was still in the vicinity.
The line moved again. The space ahead of William widened.
The Keepers were able to fight off the devils, for the most part. And the results spoke for themselves, since Keeper involvement had reduced devil attacks by almost 90%. If not for the Keepers, the paper pointed out, society would collapse and the species would go extinct and, really now, who wanted that?
Someone behind William finally asked if he was in line or not. He apologized and closed the gap. The person ahead of went next, and he was now the head of the line.
A burst of panic suddenly filled him. Blasphemous graffiti, pamphlets, calls in the dead of night, wheeled madly through his head and conjured a slumbering mound of uncertainty.
The curtains snapped open. William took a step, faltered. He looked back at the lines.
So many bites on so many necks. Pale skin with livid sores. Dozens of eyes blinked glassily at him, seeming to plead in wordless desperation.
William entered the booth. He shut the curtain, swallowed, and considered the choices before him.
No, he thought finally. His hand clicked a lever into place. He snapped the curtain open, finalizing his ballot choice.
Outside, the night was very dark, but he felt a little better now.
I can’t be the one to allow devils to destroy us, he thought, and headed for his car.
Brian Trent has been a professional writer for fifteen years, with recent work appearing in The Humanist, The Copperfield Review, Strange Horizons, Populist America (columnist) and awarded by Writer's Digest and Glimmer Train. He is a journalist and teacher, and a recent panelist at Yale’s literary symposium “Literary Visions.”
His leg drapes over her hip, the pressure pushing her deeper into the feather bed. The steady rise and fall of his torso softens all the sharp edges; her world is round and whole right now. The fan in the window stirs the tendrils of her spider plant, its fronds caress in the subtle breeze. She savors these moments, relishes each and every nuance; she is compiling a catalogue of details in which to wrap herself during the empty nights to come. His plane leaves at noon and she is already anticipating his departure so that she can relive and reflect upon this impromptu encounter.
"What are you afraid of?" he asks, quite out of the blue. His voice rich and creamy, soundly smooth. Considering the question, in her nakedness, in the exclusive openness between intimate strangers, she wonders what kind of a man asks this. She couldn't be expected to know. Although she'd like to respond from the artless space they've created, wants very much to be honest with the man that she brought into her one-bedroom apartment and down between her thighs, she knows the price of reckless rejoinders runs high. So she contemplates before answering his question in full.
What is she afraid of? She's afraid that she could fall riotously in love with this man simply because she wants to fall, that it has little to do with him; that she only let him in because he doesn't know who she is and she'll never give him the chance to learn; that she still doesn't understand what she feels, even after taking him deep into her mouth, after begging for more, more, more with her legs thrown over his persuasive shoulders, her orgasm flowering his face.
The man straightens his draping leg and scratches his groin. His fingers trek easily through the bristly hairs, settling to rest in the seam between his sex and his stride, a contour she finds sublimely expressed. Her wayward pelvis pulses back and forth as her nipples gather in taut salute, yearning toward his full lips, his half-open mouth. She is stricken by her gratuitous desire, her always wanting more, all she can get, until there is nothing left.
She studies his face for a sign. His eyes are closed; the thick lashes outline a mini-smile on each lid. In syrupy steadiness his chest rises and descends. She cannot bring herself to impose upon such innocent rest with her carnal needs forever unmet. The situation is ludicrous, she absurd. Her spider plant wags a chastising finger at her. She releases the weight of her head into the downy pillow, directing her thoughts to his query once again.
What is she afraid of? Getting hurt again, or worse, discovering that she is no longer able. Images of her premature marriage—a gruesome miscarriage of vows—threaten to rise up from the wreckage of her past. It is these memories that leave her careening recklessly from man to stranger man; today, she's a loose canon at best, at worst, just loose.
It seems long ago that she stopped listening, ceased paying attention. She handpicked the man reclining beside her because it would never get to the point where listening is meaningful and paying attention requires more than documenting details. He lives quite far away. Where exactly, she cannot say.
"Tell me what you're afraid of," he insists. There is menace in this, and yet not enough. A new urgency in the pit of her longing thrashes against its chamber walls. She hasn't any clue what can fill a place so cloaked and vast; she wants him to want her even if she doesn't want him and if and when she gets him to want her she will only find that it isn't enough. It will never be enough.
She wishes he would leave right now and as soon as he is out the door she will change her mind, but then it will be too late. She'll be forced to batter her brains against the plaster walls of her bedroom once again, attempting to knock all memory of their merger out. Her flesh, however, doesn't relinquish its recollections so readily. He is still here, right next to her, touching her, and she is missing him already—missing the point completely.
His fingers, callused with the texture of his life, begin kneading, ushering heat into her body. They travel down the valley of her lower back, pausing briefly in her slope of her waist before flanking the rounded hill of her right buttock and pulling her toward him, closer still. She surrenders and burrows into his swelling chest, breathing in his incense of success.
As soon as he is gone, she will tell herself things like: "He had major issues with intimacy," or "I don't want a long distance relationship," or even: "He wasn't that good in bed." Any of these might suffice.
She lingers in the cache of his collarbone before spiraling downward. His back arches in acute angles, provoking her fervor. After suckling him greedily one more time, she sits back to better appraise the view—what she could do with this property!
He kneads her lower back while rising up to address her breasts, tending to her pining nipples. Palms pressed against the compelling ebb and flow of his torso, she moves to the rhythm her body sets. Cupping her hands at either side of his face, she tilts it up to hers and looks hard into his dark eyes, just long enough to see a world so much larger than any her mind can create. She draws the intimate stranger to her lips and in for a long, sweet kiss, knowing what it means right now, and later, how she will inevitably revise it.
"Just this," she admits. "Just this."
In Jan. 2008, Ingrid Alana Silverstein received her MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier. "Just This" is a short short from her collection: A Suicide Artist and Other Stories. She lives in Chestnut Hill, making things up as she goes along, her muscled and tattooed soul mate, James, by her side.
Rueben slouches over a mug of coffee. He runs his finger around the chipped edge of the rim and stares at himself in the mirror over the counter. He equates himself with an unmade bed, but he really looks like he's wearing a larger person's dirty laundry. It's not just the clothes... nothing in his life fits. His hair is too small, shrunk to the back of his head, leaving a few threads tacked above his brow. His ex- wife was too big for him, tall and heavy, weighted with enough ambition for both of them. The kids left with their mother before they got big enough to know him. The last time he worked, he had a small menial job. Bored into quitting, he hardly missed his meager paycheck and made his way on the streets.
He sits perched on the stool like a bird on a fence post. He empties the mug, pays for a refill and lights a cigarette, crumbling the package. The fan overhead stirs the smoke and oily film on his coffee. He takes his time, knowing the change in his pocket isn't enough for another round. The waitress comes by with the pot, tops it a little and winks. She likes Reuben, and knows when he finishes, he'll be outside in the cold, long day, killing time before he sneaks into St. Stephen's to sleep on one of the pews. In the morning, he washes up in the men's room downstairs in the church hall, then looks around the candle stands and under the pews for loose change. He slips out, hoping no one notices his entry through an unlocked basement window. If he has enough change, he begins his day again, on the same stool, behind the same counter.
Reuben drains his cup and gathers himself together sliding off the stool, bracing himself against the cold. Before he can open the door, it swings inward and hits him in the face causing his nose to bleed. An elderly woman carrying two shopping bags drops them and helps Reuben to a booth. She apologizes several times, handing him wads of napkins to stem the flow. She picks up her things and slides into the opposite side of the booth. Her name is Marianne, she tells him, and she's on her way to a nursing home where her friend Rachel was just admitted with terminal cancer. She had gone around the block a couple of times and stopped at the diner to get directions. She offers to buy him a cup of coffee.
Reuben sits waiting for his coffee to cool, pinching his nose with a napkin. When the bleeding stops, he drinks it. He goes by the nursing home every day on his way to the library, and offers to show her the way. He carries her bags a few short blocks when she asks him if he would be kind enough to come in and say "Hello" to Rachel, who, she explains, has no one. Having nothing else to do but stay warm, he agrees, and for the next several months they repeat the pattern, meeting at the diner, walking a few blocks together to the nursing home to visit her. When Rachel dies, an attorney contacts Marianne, informing her that Rachel has left a considerable estate to be divided equally between her and Reuben.
Marianne and Reuben still continue to meet every day at the diner for coffee, taking a walk to the park afterwards. Without Rachel, they have little in common, talking only of the moment, the trees, the weather,... just passing time in each other's mild, pleasant company and getting through the long day.
Reuben still goes to St. Stephen's, but only on Sunday nights. Entering through the same unlocked window, he goes up to the chapel and lights a candle, then lies down on one of the pews and falls asleep.
Mia Cartmill was born in Boston, MA and lived in Freeport, Maine for twenty five years. Her essays have been published in the Christian Science Monitor, and The Boston Globe.Her poetry has appeared in the Aurorean, Spring/Summer 2008, and Fall/Winter 2009 issue. Her work is forthcoming in Journey/ Eden Waters Press, Cambridge, MA, and Main Channel Voices. She currently lives and writes in the small southwestern town of Casco, Maine.
"Pop," I announce, "I turned thirteen last week."
My grandfather lowers his newspaper and regards me with a mixture of disgust and something that is not quite sympathy. "Ninth inning," he says, nodding at the television, "go play outside."
"Pop, you told me to wait until I was a teenager and then we could start. Mom says it's okay now." No response. "Pop, I already told you I'm smaller than every guy at school. What if I get beat up? I need to be able to defend myself. You promised me that you would do this. Please."
He takes a swig of milk and runs his tongue across the front of his teeth. "You sure you're thirteen now?"
"Yes, Pop, you know I am. Ask mom when she picks me up later."
"Come on, then," he sighs, hoisting himself out of his La-Z-Boy, "Phillies are losing anyway."
The site of my first lesson is the garage. Behind some bottles of cleaning solvent on the workbench, Pop's '59 welterweight title belt is covered over with sawdust and cobwebs. It hasn't been touched since my younger brother Russell found it in Pop's storage closet a couple months ago. Always the ham, Russ brought the belt out to the garage and spent the afternoon hoisting it over his head in imitation of a professional wrestler. "Professional wrestling is phony bullshit," Pop told Russ to his face before jerking the belt out of his hands later that night. My mother caught wind of the incident when we got home and called her father to scream at him, not for his aggressive seizure of the belt, but for using foul language in front of Russ. She told Pop on the phone that she wasn't going to leave us with him anymore, not that this bothered Pop, but as soon as her next double shift rolled around, the plan went out the window. Today I am here alone while my mother runs Russ to the doctor for a sore throat.
"First things first," Pop says in the garage, "sit down." He overturns an old aluminum bucket that he uses for collecting weeds in the garden. I sit on the bucket and ready myself for some sage instruction in the art of massacring somebody's face.
"Boxing—forget it," he says. "You're not ready to hit anybody. Before you can box," he pauses at length to hack some phlegm into a handkerchief, "before you can really box you have to learn how to shadowbox. That's the trick."
"What's that, Pop?" I don't like where this is going. For months all I've been able to think about is a new pair of bright red boxing gloves and my own custom embroidered silk shorts, maybe in green like Pop's used to be, but with my nickname on the waistband instead. He was Jack "Bear" Baxter and I will be Lionel "Thunderclap" Baxter.
"When you shadowbox," he continues, "you're finding your rhythm. All you're really doing is roughhousing with the angels, you know, taunting them a little, saying come and get me, I'm fighting the champ tomorrow, sure, but first I'm gonna take care of you heavenly sons-a-bitches, rid you of that heavenly glow, knock off those halos."
I'm lost, but I nod my head anyway.
He keeps on, "Listen, shadowboxing is easy. It gives you a foundation. Learn it first and then we'll get you in the ring. Here, watch." He gives the push mower a little kick to roll it out of the way then unbuttons his flannel shirt and takes it off. Underneath he is wearing what my grandmother used to call his Guinea tee. I can see the blue veins running through the loose flesh of his forearms. On his right bicep is a faded tattoo of an anchor with a circle of stars wrapped around it and a date scrawled on a banner underneath.
First thing he does is suck in a few breaths, bend his knees, bounce on them a little, and raise his fists up, just like I imagine a boxer should do. He keeps the bounce going then gradually starts to shuffle around the garage. He tries a couple jabs, then a short left hook, and starts his head moving from side to side. The punches come faster and with more velocity and once he finds his groove he starts ducking haymakers, gritting his teeth, and squinting his left eye shut with every uppercut. He does this for a couple minutes, working up a good sweat, and it becomes easy for me to imagine how imposing he must have been in the ring.
Shadowboxing, I think, I can do this.
As the routine winds down Pop punches and shuffles his way over to the black heavy bag hanging from the steel rack at the front of the garage. By now he's looking gassed and every punch requires a special effort. The thought crosses my mind that he could have a heart attack and it's just the two of us. He ducks and dodges a couple more times, shakes off the last of what must be the angels, and then for good measure he steps to the heavy bag and delivers a final wallop with one of his bare fists. The punch lands with the smack of flesh against leather.
"Shit," he whispers immediately, shrinking away from the bag. He cradles his punching fist in his other hand and stands grimacing for a moment. Then he turns on me and barks, "You don't hit anything when you shadowbox, goddammit, do you hear me! You do that and you're done!"
"Yes, Pop," I say, feeling a knot tighten in my throat. I want him to turn and go inside, but he just keeps standing there with his fist in his hand, trying to catch his breath and not saying another word.
Mark Dickinson grew up in New Jersey and spent four years as an undergraduate in Providence, Rhode Island. He recently graduated and is looking for a new place to call home. This is his first story for Boston Literary Magazine.
Gary looked up and down Park Avenue for the subway, as he crossed 31st street. He forgot if it ran along Park Avenue or Lexington south of Grand Central. In this unfamiliar part of the city, Gary had spent the day at a training session with other regional group managers. He liked the neighborhood, often glancing up at the low building tops, reading the store signs. But he felt more comfortable with the tidy neighborhood of square houses in Queens, out by LaGuardia, where he lived with his wife and teenage daughter.
Gary recalled that Becky, the pretty, twentyish secretary, from his office lived in this neighborhood. Just after five o'clock, it was reasonable that he could bump into her on the street. He'd act surprised, they'd chat about the office, and she'd joke about Gary being in her part of town. He'd pray there'd be no awkward pause in the conversation. Would she get the wrong idea? Gary, though twice her age, was still handsome and athletic, and married for twenty-one years. Becky, unmarried, spoke offhandedly about some guy, who managed hedge funds and took her to Florida during the important holidays.
As he stood on 33rd street, waiting to cross Park Avenue, he spotted Becky popping out from the subway. How did he conjure her up like that? She hurried into the intersection ahead of the pack, looked serious, and when Becky noticed Gary approaching, she angled her walk sharply toward him.
"Just, hug me, she whispered. "Pretend you're my boyfriend, please." He did, and she kept her arms around his waist longer than was customary. She looked up at him, with her face under his. "This creep on the subway kept talking to me, saying weird stuff, and he followed me from one train to the next, and out of the subway," she explained. Gary looked over her shoulder. "He's tall, has sunglasses on, wearing a dark shirt," she said. To play his part, he kissed her on the cheek. Becky titled her head and afterward looked up at him. He smiled at her.
"Let me walk you to your building," he said.
Her face loosened, smiling. They turned, arm-in-arm, and walked.
Gary's wife thought little about it when at his usual six o'clock, he hadn't come through the door; if the trains were slow, it was six-thirty at the latest. About seven when the phone rang, and Police Officer Dugan introduced himself.
Her legs buckled and she slumped down and forward onto her knees, rocking back and forth, pressing the mouthpiece against her cheek, the moment the officer told her that Gary had been killed in an accident; she pushed her forehead down into the white living room carpet. They needed her to come down to the hospital on First Avenue. She arranged to have a neighbor wait for her daughter to come home from volleyball practice.
At a side room in the hospital, officer Dugan explained that the driver of the DHL van that hit Gary had been released from custody, because according to the report it was an accident. The driver and witnesses said that they were in the middle of the crosswalk on a green light.
"They. Oh, dear. Others?" she asked.
"One other, a Becky Goodwin," officer Dugan said. "Do you know Ms. Goodwin?"
Gary's wife shook her head and was told that she lived three blocks from the scene of the accident, and that she worked in her husband's office. She stared at the officer through puffy red eyes. "Not Gary, not my husband. No," she said to the officer. He handed her the report, explaining that sometimes details tend to find their way into the daily newspapers.
One witness stated that the couple was embracing and kissing in the street when they were hit. Another pointed out that he had his arm around her, and they were walking side by side. A third witness observed the way they were laying in the street, limbs entangled, bodies seemingly attached. They looked like happy lovers, and it was best they went at the same time, and added that it looked like something out of Shakespeare.
Brian Pennington is a writer and teacher residing in Brooklyn, a borough so teeming with writers that it's a struggle to get a cafe table in the late afternoon. He teaches English at private school in Manhattan, and has been published in the Oklahoma Review. When he's not taking care of his new son, he writes for a New York newspaper.