Here are some highlights from my fiction collection — Enjoy!

A Good Quiet Woman
By Susan E. Briggs

He showed up today in our August heat and walked into the air-conditioned heaven we’d created in our place. We operated a roadside gas-and-food on I-70 just west of Topeka. I stood behind the bar and crossed one arm over my chest, feeling with my other hand the stubble that hung on my chin from the morning. I could see his Mack truck to the side of the cafe where he’d parked it.

He sat down in front of me on a bar stool, took off his black rancher’s hat, and asked me for a Molson Golden. He had a thick, round nose and a flat face that didn’t say much at first. I flicked on the T.V. and got him his beer. An ad came on for a movie they’d be playing tonight: “The Wizard of Oz.” They showed a couple scenes from the movie, a little girl and her dog, a tornado, a dark forest, a witch.

When they got to the scene with the witch, he asked me to turn off the T.V. “Anything wrong, mister?” I asked him. Most people liked the T.V.

He looked off across the empty bar toward the door of the cafe where he’d come in. His dark hair looked greasy under the fluorescents, and his red checked Pendleton lay open down to his sternum. He looked back at me and pointed to the T.V., and he just started telling me about this life he’d had.

“Ever seen a witch before?” he asked me. “Ever been with one?”

“I’ve never seen one. Never been with one either.” I picked up a dirty beer mug and wiped at it with my rag.

“Well, I married one. Do you believe it?”

“I guess I do and I guess I don’t.” I thought of calling Maggie out from the back where she was making pies. Maybe the two of us could convince this man that one beer would be enough for today. I wondered how many he’d already had.

“‘Course, I didn’t know she was a witch at first. She looked just like the sweetest thing over on the other side of that cash register at Stuckey’s. I betcha even then she was better than any woman you’ve ever known. I asked her out on a date one night when it was late and she was closing up. She up and kissed me right then. I tell you, I was sold. We got married soon after that, but I still didn’t know she was a witch.”

“That’s nice for you,” I gave him my professional grin and turned my back to him. I began to rearrange the bottles of Bacardi and Stolichnaya. I’d wanted the rum over closer to the Cointreau for a while now but hadn’t gotten around to doing anything about it till then.

The rest of the cafe was empty. Tables and chairs I’d made three years ago of rough pine sat quietly, spread out across the room. Though it was after one, no one driving down I-70 seemed interested in a snack. Maggie was probably working overtime for nothing. The Denny’s just this side of Topeka attracted some of our customers who didn’t want to piss in the city but could only wait those few extra miles and the Denny’s was right there with a john and a piece of cake. I’d always known we were placed poorly, but we made it all right. If we had an overpass like Denny’s, we’d be catching them coming back too. Maggie’s apple-rhubarb would keep them looking out for us as far away as California.

Behind me I heard the man start up talking again.

“I remember when we were first married I took her on a walking trip across these Plains States, pretty fine, I just wanted to show her all those fields of wheat, those empty fields of moist wheat that blow in the wind and show like golden ripples of blankets of gold and they’re gold in the air and gold on the ground and they just ripple. And I wanted her to see that. I wanted her to see those wonderful storms that crack open the sky on an open lonely night out in these Plains States where there isn’t anything but cold moist wheat rippling in the wind and tornadoes and plain thunderstorms cracking over the ground. You ever rolled in the wheat with your woman, those cool fields of wheat, and then lay there looking up at the stars?”

“Can’t say as I have.” I thought of Maggie sweating it out in the kitchen and I thought of that big red and white sign that had my name on it outside the cafe: CARL’S. This was my place, mine and Maggie’s. This guy was talking strange and getting personal about my woman. I didn’t like being harassed. I turned the air-conditioning off in the bar. Fifteen minutes and it would hit 90. I knew he wouldn’t last. Unless he was from Arizona. “Where you from, mister?”

“Arizona. Just outside of Phoenix.”

Well, Kansas is a sweat heat, I thought. Maybe that’ll do him. “Is that where your wife’s from? The witch?”

“Yeah. She’s a cashier at the Stuckey’s on I-40.”

“I never knew witches had to work.” Keep him talking. Let him work up a sweat.

“Oh, she didn’t always work.” He paused and stared at me with pasty eyes. Then he grinned suddenly and continued, as if he had something highly valuable to say.

“One day on our trip across these Plains States she saved my life. When we got to Missouri we had to cross a river without a bridge and the water was deep and we got in that water and walked into it till it was up to our chins and we kept on walking till we started to swim and then she pulled me along because I’d forgotten how to swim a stroke and then we reached the other side and she pulled me up on the dry land and we sat there quiet holding onto a log that stuck out into the water. She was wearing a pair of canvas shorts and tennis shoes with a white button-up blouse that stuck to her chest like her breasts had suction to them. Her brown hair curled up under the breeze that blew over us and cooled us, although we were already cold from the water that we’d just got out of.

“I knew I really loved her then, right then and there. I really loved her, but I still didn’t know she was a witch. I found out that night as we sat in our tent with the campfire before us and she took off her white blouse and I saw again those markings down low by her belly button that she’d never explained to me before then.”

“What kind of markings, mister?” I didn’t want to be hog washed with some devil worshipping line.

“Well, that’s what I asked her. I said, ‘Won’t you tell me now where you got those markings, Mary?’ And she just said, ‘Oh, my aunts up in Oregon gave them to me when I was just a babe and there ain’t no way of me taking them off. I’m a witch, you see.’

“I threw back my head and laughed. ‘There isn’t a better story to be heard in all of these Plain States, Mary, except for the one you just told. A witch. Christ Almighty. Don’t you tell me that.’ I was worried then because I didn’t know if she was telling me the truth or not, and those genuine markings on her lower belly told a story all their own. There was a picture of a coyote just howling up at a moon with two stars on either side of it and there was a dark red rain coming down all around the ground under the coyote but he wasn’t going anywhere. He just stayed and howled and watched in the rain as a snake of monstrous proportions glided ever so gently into view. That was the picture I saw on her belly, just below the button and it was carved out in scarring like she’d been marked with the slow, deep incision of a woman’s fingernail.”

I leaned against the Formica counter right in front of the man. I felt the sweat pumping out of my temples but he was as cool as a pound of ground round before it’s fried. It was at least 85.

“You got a woman?” he asked me.

“Yeah, I got a woman,” I stared at his thick nose. I didn’t tell him where she was.

“Well, then I guess you know what it’s like to be bewitched,”

“Can’t say as I do.”

“You don’t know what I mean, do you?”

“Can’t say as I do.”

“Well, you find yourself a woman who won’t let you sleep at night because she says the wind is howling outside when it isn’t. And then you watch her dance. By God, that wind will start howling and shoot in through the spaces under the door and the sky outside will crack open with the thunder and lightning and a tornado will carry your house up into the air and twist it around while you’re watching this woman dance and the red rain on her belly will be like your blood coming down to the groin.”

I thought of my Maggie making pies back in the kitchen.

“Are you saying my woman isn’t exciting like that?” I leaned in closer to the man and watched his calm, stupid eyes look back at me.

“I’m saying that by your own admission you’ve never been with a witch before.”

“Why the hell would I want to be with a witch? I just want a good quiet woman.”

“You want a witch, believe me. My wife is the high priestess of love in my bed, and you ain’t ever going to find that with a good quiet woman.”

“Oh, yeah?” I said, grabbing the man’s collar. “Just cause you tell the whole world what you do with your woman in bed doesn’t mean I don’t do jack with mine, mister.” I let him go and went through to the back to see Maggie.

As I left he said quietly, “I didn’t tell the whole world. I just told you.”

In the kitchen I found my wife rolling out dough on a long flat cutting board. Her thick arms pressed down the roller, then picked it up again and brought it back down. The pies she’d already completed were spread out on the counter and she’d rippled the edges of the crusts to make them look fancy.
Her yellow hair was pulled back in a bun and her full breasts rested on her generous frame. Her face looked intent on her work and sweat formed in a blanket on her wide forehead. I thought of the first time I’d kissed her lips. I remember she held on to me tight. She’d never kissed anyone before that, she told me.

I looked at her now, as I stood just outside the doorway. I thought to myself, how beautiful she is. And I stood watching her arms going up and down and back and forth and her whole body swaying with the motion, stood watching her dancing.

I knew I really loved her then, right then and there. She’d never saved my life in a river, but she had stopped my hair from burning once when I’d leaned too close to watch the pilot on the stove light up. She wasn’t a witch. I knew that.
I didn’t believe that man about his wife. Some hogwash. I walked back to the bar and turned on the air-conditioning for my own comfort. The man would be leaving soon anyway.

“You about done drinking for one day?” I asked him. He had his elbows up on the counter with his face resting in his hands.

“Guess so. Why? You kicking me out?”

“Gotta close today. Not enough business to make it worth my while. You understand.”

“Guess so.” He took out three dollars and left it all for me. Then he got up and slowly put on his black rancher’s hat and headed out the door. I watched him every step and I listened for the start of his Mack truck, the power of those engines. Through the windows I watched him move his machine off my property.

I leaned against the counter and waited a good ten minutes. When I felt the urge finally overtake me, I walked back to the kitchen and stood in the shadows outside the doorway. I took off all my clothes and stepped into the light.

Maggie looked up and exclaimed, “Oh, my goodness.” And then in a whisper,

“What about the customers?”

“We’re closed, closed for the day.”

She smiled, and her features underwent that strange transformation I was familiar with by now. I wasn’t shocked to see her eyebrows rise and twist in natty clumps, and her teeth shine forth with a bewitching sparkle. She gestured to me with her flour-caked hand, a suave encouragement that tickled the hairs on my head and the stubble on my chin.

“Come here, honey,” she said. “My apple-rhubarb’s been waitin’ for you all day.”

That was why I loved her. My wife: Staying at home, baking pies. A good quiet woman.

Escape Hatch
By Susan E. Briggs

Miss Rita Clark stepped from the curb at the busy intersection in the suburb, Westchester, in the city of Los Angeles and felt a good deal better than she’d felt all day. It was a Saturday and it was the day she had planned to go to the top of the Robert Kennedy Medical Plaza, some twelve stories high, on the corner of Sepulveda and Manchester and, at a moment when she could rush out onto the roof alone, filled with a desperate energy, jump off.

She wore a woolen suit of deep crimson, and carried a black death shroud, folded, in her purse. She’d chosen the red suit for reasons of aesthetics, for it would match the blood stains from her fall, and the death shroud she planned to hold, opened and fluttering, over her head as she sailed through the air on her way down. As a final touch, she wore lace-less white tennis shoes which she would kick loose as she ran across the roof of the Robert Kennedy Medical Plaza.

She carried in the breast pocket of her red woolen blazer her driver’s license so that her body could be identified when she was discovered on the pavement, and also the pink card she’d received from the DMV allowing her, by her signature, to donate her organs to science. She’d lost an ovary in surgery when she was 27, but she knew she still had a good bladder if anyone wanted it. On her lapel she wore the small pin they’d given her at last year’s Blood Drive. “I donated blood in ’90,” it said. Rita was 29 years old, and at 28 she’d considered donating blood a crucial civic responsibility. Today she still hoped that, as she lay sprawled and shrouded on the sidewalk, there would yet be some way to catch the blood that spilled from her body and give it to a needy hemophiliac or car crash victim.

Early that morning she had stood over her bathroom sink, as the water from the tap dribbled over a wash of rust stain at the bottom, and she’d flossed her teeth while looking intently into the mirror for facial blemishes. She wondered then if it might be simpler to slit her wrists than to jump off the Robert Kennedy Medical Plaza. She wouldn’t even have to leave the house if she slit her wrists. She could do it in bed if she wanted to. She took a moment to drag the dental floss back and forth across her left wrist, a rather difficult thing to do with only one hand and her teeth. She wanted to experience the sensation of a fine pressure on her pulse to simulate the delicate slicing motion of a razor blade.

After she had experimented in this way for a few moments, she abandoned the idea of using a razor blade. She didn’t think she had the guts to carry it out. If she slit her wrists, the blood shooting from her veins would go everywhere, and she would be alive to see it. Somehow, she didn’t want to watch herself bleed, and the sight, besides, would probably weaken her resolve until she’d run in a panic to her neighbor, Mrs. Bainbridge, who would of course call the paramedics.

Jumping from a roof was attractive, on the other hand, because all the bleeding would happen after she was dead. Once she’d made that dive from the Medical Plaza she would be momentarily suspended in the air, as if she were flying, a wonderful feeling, she anticipated, and she would have the comfort of knowing once she leaped there was no rescue. She was committed.

When Rita stepped from the curb at the corner of Sepulveda and Manchester and began walking toward the Robert Kennedy Medical Plaza on the opposite corner, she forgot to look both ways. She forgot, in fact, to make certain that the light was green for her to go. As she took her first white tennis-shoed step from the curb a black-checked Ford Mustang that doubled as a taxi- cab and was headed toward the airport shot past her and the dust from its revolving tires skinned her knees. She jumped back in horror and climbed onto the safe curb. She waited, chastened, for the light to change.

Across the street at the opposite corner stood a melon-robed servant of Krishna. He stood there beneath the tall light fixture, beating his tambourine and occasionally waving at Rita with a curling motion of his fingers and an exuberant smile. He seemed to say to her, “Come on, come on. You have nothing to fear. We are all equal in God’s eyes.”

Rita looked down at the pavement. She knew the man must be a throw-away from the crowd of these types that gathered at the airport. She looked up again and he was still beckoning, and then the light changed and she had to go across.

The devotee at the opposite corner beat his tambourine at her approach and began to sing in a high whine which cut above the noise of the traffic and pierced the drums of Rita’s ears. She ran, then, towards the man and when she reached him at his corner of the intersection, she grabbed his melon robe at the neck and demanded he stop singing.

He looked at her as if he’d never seen her before, and in the act of looking, stopped his piercing whine.

“Hare, Hare?” he asked, looking stupidly at Rita.

Rita walked past him. She was on her way to the top of the building to her left, the Robert Kennedy Medical Plaza, 12 stories high. She wanted to end it all. But the man followed her. He fluttered his tambourine in her ear.

“Hare, Hare?” he asked. “Krishna, Krishna?” “Hare Krishna?” “Krishna Hare?”

There were only so many ways of saying the same thing, Rita thought. She tried to ignore him, but the flap of his pinkish garment in the wind and his bald head culminating at the back in a tail of rubber banded curls, became so distracting to her that she put up her purse between her face and the man so she wouldn’t have to look at him. He continued to beat his tambourine, now in a rhythmic pulse that marked her steps on the pavement, until she reached the double glass doors of the Robert Kennedy Medical Plaza and went in.

He followed her inside, but here he ceased his tambourine playing and hid the instrument among his robes. A long-nosed receptionist sat at a desk by the door and beat her fingertips upon an ink blotter. As Rita walked past with the devotee behind, the woman stopped her finger tapping and adjusted her glasses instead.

But Rita didn’t stop to chat, though the woman called after her, “Can I help you?” and the servant of Krishna stayed close by Rita as she walked down the corridor and tried to find an elevator that would go to the roof.

The best she could get was a ride to the 12th floor, where she assumed there would be a trap door, or something like an escape hatch that would let her onto the roof to do her final business. She was hardly aware of the devotee, so concerned was she with her own mission. He scurried into the elevator with her and stood beside her, keeping very still, but looking up at her, for he was rather short, with inquisitive eyes.

Rita thought of all the things she’d left behind. Two cats, Jake and Ed–she’d given them to Mrs. Bainbridge, who had always admired them and who already had seven cats of her own.

Mrs. Bainbridge didn’t press Rita for an explanation. She appeared to be satisfied with Rita’s story that she was going on a long vacation to Bermuda and wasn’t sure when she’d be back.

Rita stuck to that story when she explained to the unemployment office that she wouldn’t be able to pick up her checks, and could they send them instead to her mother in Ohio. How could she afford a vacation to Bermuda, came the inevitable question? She’d won it in a prize on KMBG radio the week before, she lied, and lying strengthened her resolve, for its antisocial quality increased her already keen sense of being cut off from the rest of the world, of being an outcast.

The elevator wasn’t moving, but she discovered it was simply because she hadn’t pressed the number 12 until it lit up. She pressed it. There was a deep hum and a slight lurch and they were in motion. The devotee soundlessly retreated from Rita’s side and knelt on the floor in a corner of the elevator. He raised his hands above his head and then brought them down to the floor before him. He did this repeatedly, and each time he came down to the floor he let his lips touch the well-waxed linoleum tiles in a kiss.

“What are you doing?” she asked. “This is an elevator.”

She stopped watching him and thought instead of her mother. It was at her mother’s urging that she’d come to Los Angeles two-and-a-half years ago.

Her mother had said simply, “You can go to New York or you can go to Los Angeles. New York is dirty, crime-ridden and cold; Los Angeles is dirty, crime-ridden and warm all year round. If you want to learn about the world, you have a choice: New York or Los Angeles.”

Rita had wanted very desperately to learn about the world when she was 27. She’d been out of high school for nine years already and she wanted to leave her job as clerk at the public library in Dansville, Ohio to go to a big city, if just for a short time.

So here she was in Los Angeles. She had opted for the warmth of the California sunshine and had arrived on a rare day of wind and hail and cold. A day in February. But she was undaunted. She found an apartment in the community closest to the airport, Westchester, and within a short time she found a job as a reference clerk with the Westchester Public Library at the corner of Will Rogers and Sepulveda Eastway.

They reached the twelfth floor and stepped out of the elevator, the devotee scrambling to his feet to make it out before the doors slid shut in his face. Rita saw, just to the right of the elevator, a door marked STAIRS. She attempted the knob but it was locked.

“Damn,” she muttered. The devotee regarded her with concern, but then produced a credit card from some deep pocket of his melon robes and set to work opening the door.

“What are you doing?” Rita was more upset now than she had been before. Earlier, as she’d stepped from the curb at the corner of Sepulveda and Manchester, she’d been strong in her resolve to get this over with. She’d lost her position at the Sepulveda Eastway branch of the Westchester Public Library three months before because the economy was in a recession and her job had been determined non-essential. All dead wood had to be cut away.

Her mother was unsympathetic and would not allow Rita to return home for a respite.

“If it doesn’t kill you, it will make you stronger,” she told Rita over the phone.

Rita could see her mother was giving her two options, and, again, they were as far apart as New York and Los Angeles. But she took her mother seriously and put together this plan for her own demise, as the second option, that of growing stronger, was anathema to her depressed state of mind.

There was a click and the devotee looked up at Rita with a confident smile. The door was open. There was a short staircase before them which ended in a rectangular patch of light that beamed down and encouraged Rita to go forward. She took her first step, and the devotee was right behind. They moved in tandem up the stairs, and when they reached the top they hit the blinding light of day. Rita for a moment wondered if this was anything like being born.

Once freed into the light the servant of Krishna pulled out his tambourine and beat it loudly, singing praises to his God in words Rita could not comprehend. He danced around the roof in haphazard movements, bumping into wind turrets and air conditioning vents, and coming very near to the low concrete wall that rimmed the roof.

Rita was not concerned with this man. She had reached her goal of climbing to the roof and now she would jump off. She opened her purse and removed the folded death shroud. With a swift movement of her hand, she unfurled it and it fluttered stoically in the slight breeze.

Rita would be 30 in three days. She didn’t want to see that birthday and be reminded that she had no one to share it with. No friends. Except Arnold. Arnold was a young man who shelved books at the library and was missing part of his brain, or so Rita thought, because he had difficulty speaking in complete sentences.

He would regularly approach her at her desk at the library and start a sentence such as, “Rita, I wanted to ask …” and then turn a bright red, for he had that Irish complexion, and retreat once again among the shelves of books. But Rita thought he liked her even so and might be at least one person who would remember her birthday.

But 30 was such a traumatic place at which to arrive, and without a job, without even a husband at this late age. Her mother said not a word on the subject of husbands. On the phone there was only a labored silence whenever Rita would tell her mother she wasn’t dating anyone. Well, it was impossible. In a city as huge as Los Angeles there wasn’t anyone to date. All freaks and weirdoes, homeless men who came into the library to use the toilet and read magazines. The world Rita had learned about was limited primarily to the activity within the library walls, and then the long walk home to her apartment and the people who lived in her building.

She stepped out of her lace-less white tennis shoes and felt with her bare feet the harsh black asphalt that covered the roof. Her toes grabbed sharp clumps of the gravelly surface that had been laid unevenly and now cut into her flesh. She clutched the expanse of black death shroud in her hands and held it, undulating, above her head. She let out a short cry and dashed toward the low wall that edged the roof.

There was a strange whistling sound coming from her left as she ran and suddenly, lying right in her suicidal path, was the devotee’s tambourine. It caught on Rita’s foot and she went flying. She landed in a sprawled and shrouded mass on the harsh asphalt, pieces of sharp black gravel digging into her face, her hands, the exposed parts of her legs, her ankles. Small trickles of blood flowed from innumerable cuts and scrapes on her body and her crimson suit was now lightly stained with blood.

That same high whine that had so infuriated Rita when she first saw the devotee now pierced her eardrums again, but this time she couldn’t move to stop him. She covered her ears and burrowed her head under the death shroud. He came closer with the sound and walked a deliberate circle around her prone body. Rita peeked out from beneath the death shroud to see him stop by the tambourine which she had kicked a little distance away in her fall. He picked it up and, still continuing his piercing whine, threw it like a discus over the edge of the roof. At the moment the tambourine left his hand, he ceased his noise and watched the place where his instrument now disappeared.

With a great effort, Rita raised herself into a sitting position and slapped her hands together to knock the gravel stones from her skin. Her body ached wherever it had come in contact with the asphalt during her fall, and now she glared at the devotee, who had foiled her plans. She reached up her hand to her right cheek and felt blood there in a long line just under her eye. She looked at her legs below the knees and saw only a network of scrapes and cuts oozing blood. Her palms were red from their contact with the unforgiving gravel as they’d slid across the roof in an attempt to bring her body to a stop.

And now the devotee stood quiet, staring at the roof’s edge, and Rita didn’t know why he’d sacrificed his tambourine in that way.

After a moment or two he turned to Rita, with his small, inquisitive eyes, and said, “The elevator is a better way down.”

By Susan E. Briggs

His Holiness the Pope sat solidly in his pontiff’s chair with his withering buttocks pushed back against soft crimson pillows and his tired arms raised up with his hands resting quietly at the chair’s outer perimeters, ready to grasp its frame quickly if he should feel his balance threatened.

Time was, he didn’t feel so vulnerable. Time was, he didn’t feel so old. Time was, he didn’t feel that the end of all his days of passion and exuberance was drawing near. But somehow, there it was: time. Staring him in the face. Telling him to pack up his things and get ready to go.

His ministers were gathered all around him, as they’d gathered around him every hour of every day of his long tour of duty. He’d come to hate them for their obsequiousness. And the cardinals who came and went, who all dressed alike, in their gold and crimson robes, their silly hats, waiting for him to die. Them he feared.

He closed his eyes. Blackness, warm and familiar. What had he always seen there? An image of God, or an image of nothing. A space, blank and terrible, an absence. Would someone find him there, in the end? Would someone come to him when it was all over and find him in the blackness? And who would that someone be?

He felt a compulsion to hold his lids shut. None of the activity around him interested him anymore. He heard only the gentle tick tock of the huge clock on the wall. He braced himself as he always had for the pealing of the bells of St. Peter’s on the half and the quarter and the full hour. The half-life of an instant would stretch into eternity, never resolved to the next instant. He’d always felt that to be true, but now even more so.

The quarter hour approached. He could feel its coming. But he never heard the bells.

By Susan E. Briggs

From the beginning of my life I thought often of my mother, whom I had, of course, never known. At birth I took a mental snapshot of her dying face and held it in my mind thereafter.  My mother’s face was the one constant image in my unfeeling upbringing.  I mourned her death at my birth and knew her end was the beginning of mine.

I think perhaps I chose to die when my mother died. I had little to live for. My father, bless his soul, was in an institution for the mentally disturbed. I was an only child.  My father’s mother took me in and raised me.  She was good to me, but rather prone to mental disturbances of her own.  After all, I was dead, and that might have thrown her off a bit, raising a dead child. Outwardly, I appeared normal.  Inside, I was a dark cave, black and devoid of feeling.

I visited my father occasionally.  The hospital where he lived was large and intimidating.  I tried to get him outside as much as possible.  I feared he didn’t get enough fresh air.

We sat by a lovely pond on the hospital premises, sat right on the grass so he could feel the green blades massage his palms.  He was often very quiet.  Sometimes I thought he was dead, too. Like father, like son.

He would turn to me at moments like this and say, “I’m sorry I never taught you baseball.” I would put my arm around him, dead though I was, and offer him comfort.  We couldn’t all be what we wanted to be.  Look at me, I’m dead, I would think to myself. That seemed to be enough for him.  His anxiety quieted and he stared into the pond. The lilies skimming on the water’s surface fascinated him.

But when I left him I felt nothing.  No sadness at parting, no real understanding of who we both were in the context of the cosmos. I didn’t try to feel. I didn’t know how to feel. I crawled deep into my cave and relished the darkness.  I shunned natural light and only allowed myself an occasional burning match in that dark cell to ward off the bats and the threatening damp.

My grandmother died when I was twelve years old. She’d been the last relative alive fit to take care of me.  So I ventured out alone. I wandered the streets of the town with only a canvas knapsack, which held a bit of food, and the clothes I wore on my back. The food only lasted a few days.  I decided, out of hunger, to visit my father for an extended time. I stayed and sat with him, eating the cafeteria food and sleeping on the upper bunk in his room. After a while, the staff at the hospital, a large impersonal place, considered me as one of the patients and I was given my own meal card and my own set of towels.

Life in the mental hospital had its ups and downs.  Being dead, I fit right in.  There were many patients with as little facial expression as I had. They were required to take sedatives, a fate which I escaped. I didn’t need them, especially since I was already dead.

The psychiatrist assigned to my case was a tired-looking asthmatic man who was never far from a box of Kleenex and an inhaler.  He nevertheless recognized that I was dead and had been since birth.  I counted his perception as a sign of brilliance.  We became good friends.  He would let me sit on his lap and play horsy.  At age 12 this seemed a little beneath me. But he got a good deal of pleasure out of it.  I wouldn’t deny him that.  He often gave me good insights into my condition.  He thought I should take cold showers twice a day to get my blood pumping.  He encouraged me to ram my head against a brick wall repeatedly to stimulate my brain. I followed all of these instructions for several months. Unfortunately, the head ramming brought me closer to death than I had already been.  He told me to stop it.

We often walked the grounds of the hospital, many times with my father.  My father held my hand when he walked with us.  The doctor held my other one. We were a happy threesome, a rollicking silhouette against the vibrant green hills, manicured impeccably by our staff gardeners.

And yet I was dead.  There was no external cure for my malady. It was a self-imposed condition.  I forced myself to remain dead through pure self will.  I became fixated on darkness. The walls of my cave provided security, a safe haven against feeling and light.

By the time I turned twenty-one I’d been living in the mental hospital for nine years. An impressionable child, I had adopted many of the mannerisms and general behaviors of the insane.  Naturally, I wanted to survive among my social peers and only felt comfortable when I imitated them. It worked well, so long as I remained within the hospital grounds. But in my twenty-first year I was allowed to venture out into that formidable place called the real world.

My psychiatrist and I had become close. We stopped playing horsy when I was thirteen, but he often found warmth and comfort in my bunk in my father’s room. In my growing up I had little exposure to mentally healthy females, so I was left with this middle aged, panting pedophile who took care of some of my needs.

In any case, he had the idea that, at twenty-one, I should be exposed to the outside world.  In increments, of course. He became my guide on numerous strolls outside the hospital gates.  He even took me for long drives in his car.  I loved riding, going forward with the back of my car seat pressed up against my spine. I felt tied in by my seat belt, tied down and safe once again, but allowed to view through his sparkling windshield the town and surrounding countryside.

One thing I noticed was the greenness of nature, especially on a brilliant sunny day.  The greenness of everything.  The outside world at first seemed like one green blur. I gradually distinguished forms, people, dogs, women.  But I did not want to touch anything because I was still dead.  I was afraid of sensation, afraid feeling might burn me, burn my flesh and my heart.

One day, I asked my psychiatrist if I could take the wheel on one of our drives. He pulled the car over, got out and let me unbuckle my seat belt and slide over to the driver’s side. He then got in where I’d been sitting, buckled both of us firmly, and I, being very good at imitation, pressed on the gas and took off down the road.

Not far from the hospital there lay a beautiful park in which the local citizens strolled and ate their lunch and played with their children.  I headed in that direction, feeling a new surge of power and energy with the wheel of the car in my hands and my shrink at my side.

When we arrived at the park, we got out of the car and ambled over to a pretty fountain that was nearby.  I felt a little unstable on my feet, for this was my first time walking on ground this far away from the hospital, and, of course, my father wasn’t there, so I experienced a heightened feeling of insecurity. My psychiatrist understood this.  He put his arm in mine and walked with me over to the fountain.

The fountain itself was constructed of marble and housed at its center two large statues, one of a woman, and one of a man.  Both naked.  I believe it was entitled, “Adam and Eve.” I, of course, having never gone to school, and having only received small bits of information about the world and its history from my shrink, whom I now believe was trying to shelter me from the harsh realities of a frightening globe, had no idea of the significance of this naked man and woman, nor of the title of the piece.

Further, I had never seen a naked woman before; however, this did not distress me, though I was intrigued. We walked up to the fountain and watched the water ripple over the bodies of the two individuals.  The two were bathing, as though they were in a waterfall, somewhere in a place that my shrink told me was called, “Eden.” They did not touch each other but in fact simply leaned back away from each other, their spines describing small arcs headed in opposite directions.  They were laughing, playing around the fountain, now drenched in water, after several years of exposure to it. I was especially conscious of the smoothness of their skin, the shape of their bodies, the curves and contortions produced by their laughter, the fact that they were not touching.

My psychiatrist now held my hand and we found a spot at the edge of the fountain where we could feel the soft spray of the water but still remain dry, for the most part.  He started to explain to me about Adam and Eve. I listened carefully, though I often glanced at the curious roundness of certain parts of Eve’s body.  It was my first historical, theological, metaphysical, and yet totally physical experience of the collective human consciousness.  I wanted to grab Eve.  My psychiatrist sensed this, and at what seemed the perfect moment he let go my hand and I suddenly felt free. I felt no one was holding on to me. I was floating, though I didn’t rise from my seat on the edge of the fountain.

My shrink described my sensation as that of the Buddhist experience wherein waterfalls are no longer waterfalls and fountains are no longer fountains.  He assured me that, after a time, waterfalls would again be waterfalls and fountains would again be fountains. This was of little comfort at the time. I hung on for my life.

I suppose one could say that at this moment I sensed a living presence within me, a different feeling than all that death that had preceded it. I tried to comprehend this feeling, but couldn’t.  I longed to return to the hospital, though, to the safety of its quiet campus, and to my father, with whom I had been unable to share this journey.  I pictured him, sitting alone, most likely, either by the pond or under the jacaranda tree near the registration building, a spot where the two of us, and sometimes my psychiatrist, too, had shared picnic lunches and intermittent conversation.

My father was an inspiration to me. He had survived all these years and had lived so humbly within the walls of the mental hospital.  I suddenly realized the intensity of his life, for somehow I was beginning to feel the stirrings of life within myself.  A strange sensation. My psychiatrist sat next to me and observed my transformation. I sensed that he was wise, beyond any level of wisdom I had hitherto attributed to him. I was happy to have him as a companion and a guide through what, to this day, I remember as my first awakening from a deep darkness.

But the Fates were not on my side.  In the midst of my epiphanic experience my psychiatrist’s cell phone began to ring.  He answered it.

“We must go,” he said.  “It’s your father.”

“What did he say?” I asked.

“No, it’s your father,” my shrink said again. His face had changed, though he continued looking at me.  “We must go.”

He took my hand and we walked quickly back to the car. I let him drive. We arrived at the hospital in just a few minutes, and as we drove in the gates at the entryway an ambulance sped past us from within the hospital with its siren screaming.  It headed off down the road toward St. Vincent’s, the regular hospital at the center of town.

I had gone numb once again.  My father was in that ambulance, I knew.  My psychiatrist turned the car around and followed the ambulance down the street.  When we arrived at the hospital, I could see the emergency workers pulling the cot containing my father from the back of the ambulance and rushing him into the building. “Code blue,” I heard one of them shout just as the doors closed.  We raced toward those doors but were told once we got there that we were not allowed inside.

“Next of kin!” my psychiatrist shouted.

“Please wait in the emergency room waiting area,” said the attendant who refused us entry.  I noticed he was dressed all in white. In a similar way, I felt blanched, once again stripped of color and identifying features.  Once again, I was dead.  The taste of life I had been given in the park, at the fountain, was fading quickly, was in fact gone by the time they pronounced my father dead and the doctor walked out to where we were sitting and told us. My psychiatrist tried to rub some life back into me by stroking my arm vigorously and then shaking me at my shoulders.  I would not come back. I could not come back. This was too much.

We went in to look at my father. The doctors had done potential visitors the courtesy of stitching up the gaping hole in his chest where a working heart had once beat, but which now sat there in morbid stillness.  My father’s face showed no expression.  He’d been anesthetized, just as he had been for so many years by the drugs distributed by the psychiatric nurses in the mental hospital. I would remember his face, just as I had always remembered my mother’s face, in those moments in my living death when I needed a reason to continue my commitment to the dark.

We drove back toward the hospital in silence.  My psychiatrist, without asking me, made a detour which took us to the cemetery where my mother and my grandmother were buried. He parked the car at the edge of the lawn and we walked past tombstones on our right and our left. No names I knew, until we came to the McKeegan’s. My mother, Mary Turner McKeegan, “loving wife to Joseph, mother of Michael, died in childbirth. 1942-1966.” My father’s mother was described on the tombstone next to my mother’s, “wife to John, mother of Joseph, cared for Michael.  1900-1978.”  Next to her was buried her husband.

My parents were to be buried next to each other, as well.  The marble of my mother’s tombstone was wide enough to include another name. In fact, my father’s name had already been etched there, “Joseph McKeegan, 1940-.”  Apparently, my grandmother had spent a small fortune on gravesite materials before her death. She knew she would be the last one in our dysfunctional family to understand the need for such things.  She was wrong, of course, for I, too, was vitally cognizant of the need for a place to lie once it was all over.

My shrink and I continued our walk among the graves. I hadn’t known this, but my grandmother had provided for me in this regard, as well.  Not far from my parents’ stone stood a stone with my name on it.  It stood erect and proud, by itself in a small square of grass, a beautiful light burgundy marble, smooth as glass on its surface with lovely beveled edges around its perimeter.  “Michael McKeegan, 1966-,” it said.  Well, I thought to myself, someone is expecting me to die. Someone, perhaps more than one person, considered me at one time to be alive so that I could die.  Whoever these people were, my grandmother and perhaps others, even put up this monument to that belief.  I was grateful.  I felt like lying down beneath my tombstone right then, stop pretending.  I could make myself comfortable in my rightful home. Instead, my shrink and I returned to the mental hospital and held each other in my bunk for several hours.

And so it continued.  My life in the mental hospital went on, but my psychiatrist’s attempts to help me were not successful.  I allowed him to try, and try he did, in as many ways as he could think of.  When I turned thirty I left the hospital, completely unprepared, of course, for life in the real world, but, honestly, unable to bear the thought of dying there, as my father had. My body had developed and I had become a grown man of rather intimidating physical stature.  My shrink thought this might help protect me once I was “out there.”

So out I went.  I had decided to take a train into the city in order to find some means of employment.  The mental hospital was located in a small town in the country and offered very little that would sustain me. The two hospitals in town, mine and St. Vincent’s, where my father had seen his last minutes, were the primary employers in the area, and I felt strongly that I did not wish to associate myself with hospitals of any kind, much less be employed by one of them.

The city was, of course, terrifying to me. Too much life.  Too much stimulation.  I was fearful at every moment that this experience or that would jar me back into feeling. I was able to find employment soon after my arrival delivering newspapers to doorsteps in the surrounding suburban areas by means of a bicycle the newspaper provided me and let me keep for my own use, as well.  I wore stacks of newspapers on my back, stuffed into a cloth satchel with the emblem of the newspaper stamped on its outside. The bike itself was a racing bike, so in my off hours I took up riding long distances through the suburbs, picking up tremendous speed at times. My legs became toned and muscular, and my lung capacity increased as I worked my body, over time, into prime physical condition.

I could not afford an apartment of my own with the paltry income of my newspaper job, so I took up residence in a boarding house near the center of Downtown. Most of the men who lived there were drunks.  I found it amusing to watch them gather each morning on the front stoop, each with a suspicious paper bag in his hand, and talk about their plans for the day. It reminded me of times in the mental hospital when, after meds distribution, the patients often gathered in front of the television set in the game room to watch MTV and discuss topical issues.

Then one day the inevitable happened.  I met a woman.  Her name was Janet.  I didn’t plan it, I just met Janet.  I knew my shrink back at the mental hospital would have been proud of me, proud that I had been able to open myself up to another human being to the extent that I could introduce myself, have a conversation.  That was how it began.  I had seen her on the train, actually, on that first ride into the city, and been struck by her. Not literally, of course. I mean, she didn’t slap me but she did get quite angry at me for spilling a small amount of the coffee she was carrying onto her eggshell-colored dress when I awkwardly boarded the train and bumped into her.  At the time, I felt it inappropriate to continue the conversation because of her obvious distress, so I snuck to a seat at the rear of the car and trembled in fear of the feelings the experience had inspired in my heart.

But once again, as I had done twice before in my life, I was able to memorize this woman’s face, indeed, not just her face, but her entire being, her beautiful long hair, her skin, those eyes, that neck, the long slope of her eggshell- colored dress which draped in a flattering manner over her slim body. The coffee stain would probably ruin her day, I surmised.  The guilt and embarrassment that this thought engendered within me drove me quickly back to my cave.

In the beginning, of course, I did not know her name. That came later. I saw her occasionally after that first meeting because she lunched in the central café district in a gentrified section of Downtown near where I lived.  In order to reach her lunch spot she often took a route from her office building that took her directly past my home. I was embarrassed that I was forced to live among the drunks and the drug addicts, but she walked past the boarding house each day and looked upon the men gathered out front as, perhaps, a real woman would look upon them. A woman who, perhaps, had known men.  I wanted to know her.  I began to stalk her.  In my off hours, of course.

She liked to eat at two or three different restaurants in the café district, all of them ethnic, and would choose among them each day, I guessed based on her mood and appetite. After a while I noticed a pattern.  She never ate Italian on Mondays, often enjoyed a Mexican meal on Tuesdays, found herself eating Thai or Chinese on Fridays, but always ate alone.

I tried to anticipate her choice of restaurant on a given day and seated myself in the correct one before she arrived.  I was often accurate in my predictions and I soon learned where her favorite table was in each café, so I placed myself near her every time. I don’t think she noticed that I was always there.  Many people lunched in the café district who worked in the surrounding area, and I was able to make myself appear like any of the others by dressing on these occasions in the dark suit I had purchased before leaving the mental hospital. My psychiatrist had suggested I buy a suit because he felt that that kind of sophisticated attire operated as social currency in the class-conscious world of the city.  I followed his suggestion and bought one, but, instead, for the reason that I knew I would eventually be buried in it and was happy to have that provided for in advance.

One day, when we were both seated at lunch, she looked up at me from her table, which was situated in a corner by the window in the only Italian restaurant in the café district, Pizza Napoli. I was seated at a table just opposite hers, also along the window, and my chair faced hers.  She smiled.

We were close enough to engage in conversation, so I asked her name.

“Janet,” she said.

“Michael,” I said.

“You’re the gentleman who bumped into me on the train.” “Yes, I am.”

“Well, I’ve since forgiven you.”  She was wearing a navy blue dress on this day.  It looked like it could manage any stain I might inadvertently deliver upon it, so I screwed up the courage to ask,

“May I join you?”

“I’d be delighted.”

I moved my awkward body over to where she sat and fit myself onto the second chair at her table.

“That’s a nice suit,” she said.

“Thanks. How’s your dress doing?”

“Unrecoverable, I’m afraid.”

“Oh, sorry.”

“That’s all right. I’ve got others.”

“Like this one, for example.”


“That’s a very nice one, too.”

“Thank you,” she said.  It suddenly occurred to me that I could buy her a dress to replace the one I ruined and it would make her very happy.

“What are you having?”  I said, remembering the menu.

“Today, Ravioli.”

“I think I’ll have that, too.”  A waiter came, we ordered, and I felt closer to her knowing we would be eating the same meal.  She didn’t know this, but with every moment we were together I worked to flesh out my mental picture of her face and body so that when we had parted I could paint it again in my mind.  I needed her to be real for me, a real human being.

She had eyebrows the shade of silver, eyes a gold mist blue, delicate earlobes of a pinkish white from which dangled earrings of such character and grace, of green feathers and silver that sparkled in the light from the window of the restaurant.  I had never felt such attraction to a woman before.

We talked about the weather.  We talked about the street outside the restaurant, wherein a diversity of people strolled and relaxed, or hurried. We held onto this moment together which had so much meaning for me.  I found out that she was a secretary in one of the major accounting firms nearby. But little did I know at that time that she’d had a life, and oh, what a life.  In contrast to my life, filled with constant thoughts of death, her life was just that, life, and perhaps only life.  But that information was to come later.

This day, at lunch, we sat, we smiled, laughed, caught a shared sparkle in each other’s eyes, and wanted.  The pain of this wanting hit my gut and stayed there, unmoving, stayed there as we talked and I watched her face, her soft lips parting to form words, magical words that I had never heard before.  The words of a woman.  The words of a woman who, for me, would never end.

Gradually, we got to know each other better.  I would find her at lunch more regularly. She would welcome me.  We would sit and talk.  I could not invite her over to my home because I was too embarrassed by it. So we got to know each other in the café district and took walks, after eating, out in the fresh air.  But I wanted her. This was such a new feeling for me that I did not know how to express it.  I did not know how to tell her my feelings.  So I continued to listen to her, watch her as we talked, imagine my arms around her.  I imagined the pain that I was feeling to be mine alone.  This ache.  But then one day it all changed, and I knew, somehow, that we both existed in this.  We each knew the other’s thoughts, or, perhaps, just one thought, one line of communication that was so pure, it did not involve words at all.

The day on which this change happened was a Friday, which was, of course, Chinese.  I suppose I could say that what marked the change was the fortune cookie that we shared at the end of the meal, the same fortune, because the waiter had only brought one cookie for the two of us: “You will become famous.” We both agreed that it was curious that we’d only been given one cookie.  I suppose I could say that the charm of that occurrence and our mutual reaction to it was what tipped me off to our shared awareness of something deeper going on.

But, honestly, I knew much earlier, perhaps the moment we sat down at the table in the tiny Szechwan Kitchen, that this was right, and she knew it was right, and there was nothing we could do about it. Just hold on.

But neither of us had any power over the accidental. One day she was crossing the street in front of her office building and was hit by a bus. I had heard of this happening to other people, people in some kind of far-off land called reality from which I had for this too- short period of time removed myself.  I had heard that one could walk across the street and get hit by a bus.  I suppose it was my psychiatrist who had told me this in one of his lectures to me about being safe in the city. Look both ways before you cross the street, I’m sure he told me. I don’t think anybody ever told Janet that.  She, of course, did not survive.  I did not either.

After her death, I put on my suit and went to her office building.  I needed to know her, everything about her life and who she had been in this world.  She had told me that she worked on the twenty-second floor of the high rise in which the accounting firm where she had been employed was located.  I asked the firm’s receptionist where Janet’s desk had been. She told me I could not go in to see it because someone else had already taken her place. I asked the receptionist if there were anyone I could speak to in the firm who had known Janet well.  She shrugged.  No, no one.  Janet had always been rather quiet, she said.

I left the building.  Outside on the street I encountered a newspaper stand just a few steps from the front of the high rise. The stand was small but sold an extraordinary variety of national and international newspapers, magazines, in English, but also in many other languages.  The Morning Star, the paper for which I worked, and which I delivered daily, was displayed prominently at the front of the stand.  I never read this paper. I delivered it, but somehow could not bring myself to pick it up again and feel its weight after carrying so many copies of it on my back early every morning.

The owner of the stand stood behind the counter. He had gray hair and a stomach paunch and eyed me with the cautious but focused intention of a salesman.  I stood there browsing for a moment, distracted by thoughts of Janet.

“Morning Star?” I heard the owner say. I looked up and saw that he held a copy of my newspaper in his hand and extended it to me.

I hesitated, but then an article on the front page caught my eye.  The headline read: “Sudden Rise in Bus Accidents Concerns Local Officials.”  I bought the paper and stood reading the article in front of the stand.

“That’s a sad story,” the owner’s voice jarred me. “Too bad about that nice young gal. Worked in this building, you know.”

“You mean Janet?”

“Beautiful gal.  Came by here every morning, got her Morning Star.”

“Did you know her?”

“Some,” he said.  “U.S. News and World Report?”

“No, thank you,” I said.  “What did you know about her?”  The man seemed to be moving away from the subject.  I felt myself becoming somewhat frantic.

“Newsweek?  Kiplinger’s? La Opinion?” he pressed.

“Yes, yes, okay,” I said and bought a copy of La Opinion though I had no knowledge of the Spanish language.  “Now, tell me, what did you know of her?”

“She lived in the country, in a small town called Merriweather.  You know, the one with the mental hospital,” he said. “Used to take the train in to work everyday.  Long ride, but she couldn’t stand to live in the city, she told me.”

Merriweather.  My home town.

“Terrible accident.  Saw it happen,” he said.

My God.  I had only heard about it afterwards.

“No blood, really.  She was just crushed,” he said.  “The bus driver called 911 immediately.”

911. That seemed to be the answer to everything in this city.

I needed to get very far away from this man and this place.  I pictured her in this street before where I stood, her beautiful body crushed but not bleeding.  How that was possible, I didn’t know.  How I could not have been there with her to help her, I also did not know. It was time to go back home, to Merriweather, to visit my shrink, to find out more about her. I took a leave of absence from my job and caught the next train back to the country.

When I arrived in town I walked straight to the mental hospital, which was located about a mile from the train station. I had called my psychiatrist in advance to let him know I was coming. He greeted me at the gates to the hospital. He put his arms around me, though he was only half my height, and we held each other very sweetly for a moment.

After we pulled away, he looked at me and said, “Tragedy in love, my friend, is the very worst kind.”

“Did you know her?” I asked.  My shrink knew many people in town, so I thought I would begin my search for information about Janet by questioning him.

“Of course, I did, Michael.”

“Who was she?”

“She was my daughter,” he said.


“By my marriage to Fiona, long since ended.”

“You were married?”

“Many years ago, before you came to the hospital.”

“You never told me.”

“I know.  I wanted to leave the past behind.”

“Do you mean you never spoke to her, your own daughter?”

“No.  Not since the divorce.”

“And you’re a psychiatrist?”

“Please don’t judge.”

“I was in love with her.”

“I know.”

“Don’t you know anything about her?”

“Oh, I know everything about her,” he said.  “She was my daughter.”

He looked very sad at that moment. We walked over to the jacaranda tree in front of the registration building and sat down together.  Suddenly he started crying.  He put his hands to his face and tried to cover it up, but the huge tears burst through the spaces between his fingers and made his whole hands wet on both sides.  I sat watching him, but I felt nothing.

“Michael,” he finally said after his crying subsided a little, “Do you see me sitting here? I am all you have left of her, and you are all I have left of her.  Do you see that?”

I saw it so clearly, but I could not speak.

Then my shrink began to talk. After a few moments of talking he regained complete control of his voice, and he continued talking, and talking, and talking, and talking. He talked for an hour, and that became two, and then three, until the sun began to set over the pond not far from us, and its lily pads, shining lotuses in the fading light.  He continued talking after the sun went down, and we sat under the jacaranda tree, which was full of lavender-colored blossoms that provided a living canopy over us. He talked and gestured, sometimes stood, sometimes sat moving from side to side, sometimes holding his body still, while only his lips moved and the sound continued to come out.

He had only one subject in all his talking: Janet.  Gradually it became clear to me who she was, how she had lived her life, beyond the small fraction of it I had known. As a result of seeing this, I loved her more.

By the time he stopped talking the sky was dark, no stars.  We sat in the shadows.  I could barely see my psychiatrist’s face, though I could hear his last words as he spoke them.  I knew he could only barely see me.  I got up from the ground and began walking.  I didn’t know where I was going, but I walked across town, into the neighboring forest, tripping over roots and bunches of pine needles that conspired against my feet in the darkness, and then up to the top of the craggy hills that overlooked the farmland and woods, lakes and rivers, in the valley below, though I could not see them now through the black, and then down into the valley for miles and miles, kept walking until I began to feel something.

And I have begun to feel. It is life shooting into my cold veins like a warm serum distilled from everything I have lived but never felt.  She has asked me to come alive. So here I am. A crow calls in the night wind and I follow.

The Good Thing
By Susan E. Briggs

We are not meant to be here, none of us. We’re standing in line in the orphanage cafeteria and it looks like they’re planning to feed us, but little Mickey at the front of the line doesn’t look very well so we’ve all jammed up behind him while they check him out. I’m standing next to Rachel, who told me this morning that she had a bad dream last night, something about rocket ships going to Mars and never coming back, something about finding a piece of candy she’d lost long ago and losing it and finding it and losing it and finding it and losing it.

I clutch the thing I want to show her tight in my fist, hidden in the front pocket of the skirt of my uniform. I had to break curfew and climb the old maple last night for it. She won’t miss her candy one bit once she sees this.

A slight gasp at the front of the line and we can see that Mickey’s breathing normally again. The line moves and they’re putting food on our plates, mashed potatoes, chicken, gravy even. You’d think we were at the Ritz. I sit down next to Rachel once we’re all loaded up. The tables are long and each holds lots of kids, some nice, some mean. We sit with the nice ones.

“I thought of you last night,” I tell her with my voice lowered. She looks at me with eyes wide.

“Did you get it?” she asks. I pull my clenched fist out from my pocket.

“Let me see,” she says, hardly breathing. I open my hand and let what’s in it sit there on my palm. The good thing is I haven’t crushed it, robin’s egg blue, still with a chance of being hatched.

When Hope Dies
By Susan E. Briggs

 Perhaps he’d been affected by the rough blow to the head he’d received just after leaving work three nights before. Of course, it was a mugging.  Of course no one saw the perpetrators in the darkness of early evening.  He should be thankful the episode hadn’t escalated into a truly dangerous situation. They got his wallet, they hurt his head. He tried to forget about it.

But now he couldn’t see. He could see the world around him, yes, the normal, the ordinary, the flat world around him.  But he’d lost sight of what lay behind it, the supporting reality he knew was there.  He’d always thought he would find there the one thing that no one else saw because no one else was looking.

But that other reality seemed gone, and time was running out.  No longer was he a spring chicken who could turn over a new leaf after every fall from grace. He had to face facts. He couldn’t shake all the dead metaphors now running through his head. He needed a new one, or he’d be dead, too. Dead as a doornail.

On his lunch break from the office, he walked the hedge-lined street near the scene of the mugging, and, inexplicably, a thought came to him. Not the ordinary, run of the mill type. Instead, a real thought. One that he knew only he could ever conceive. It went something like this: I am. Once he’d thought it, he had trouble not thinking it, and this continued.

He returned to the scene of the mugging over and over again.  Each time he stood at the opening to the alleyway where the crime had occurred, and peered into the half-darkness at the two brick buildings forming the sides of this seemingly endless tunnel, his one real thought occurred to him: I am. And then he felt better. He felt immeasurably better, until gradually he could see again, yes he could see again.

Wild Night
By Susan E. Briggs

The night was becoming darker and a wild wind swirled around her head, but to her left as she headed back from the pier a strip of orange red remained just at the horizon, above the sea. Out of the new darkness came a witch walking toward her, then a fireman with a bunny for a wife, sporting ears a foot high, pushing a stroller. Along the edge of the Strand stood houses graced with jack-o-lanterns, lit and smiling big-toothed grins.

She glanced down for a moment and saw something lying on the side of the walkway.

She stopped to look at it but didn’t want to touch it at first. A glove. It was made of such a fine, dark leather that she couldn’t resist: She picked it up.

She held it tentatively, and then satisfied an urge to thrust her hand inside. She felt the soft fur of its inner lining as the thing hung big and almost falling off.

She put the soft leather to her nose and breathed in a musky aroma, strong, solid, male. She felt herself swooning; an unbearable elation came over her. She stumbled slightly along the pavement, then lost her balance and fell, sprawled on the sidewalk.

A moment later her erotic delirium was interrupted when she heard a man’s voice close to her ear, a kind voice. She felt a strong hand grasp her ungloved hand and pull her from the ground. The touch of warm skin against hers brought her back to semi-consciousness. She glanced up at her rescuer:  Batman.

He placed his other hand on her shoulder. She looked down and saw that it was encased in a dark leather glove.

“Are you all right?” was the next thing she heard as she lay sprawled once again on the pavement.