Category Archives: Short Story

The Rarest Kind of Mermaid by Katrinka Mannelly

“I think she’s the one, Dad. Please try to be open minded, okay?”

“I’ll try, Dawson, but you’re not making it easy, insisting I meet her out by the swimming pool.”

            “I told you, she’ll be more comfortable this way. She’s nervous about meeting you.”

            “If that’s the case, wouldn’t it make more sense to meet over dinner at Joe’s? Or grab a cup of coffee somewhere? Or a drink, even?

            “Dad.”

            “All right, all right. Let’s just get on with it. How is she not freezing, anyway?”

            Dawson slid the patio door open so father and son could step onto the concrete terrace leading to the backyard. The inground pool beyond their lounge chairs and barbeque glimmered. “I cranked up the heat.” 

            Underwater lamps and knee-level lights around the pool created a soft glow. Wisps of steam curled up from the surface. Paul saw a shadowy figure in the furthest corner, a few feet to the left of the diving board.

            Dawson’s smile stretched across his face and his eyes twinkled. He swept a hand toward the pool. “Dad, this is Penelope.”

            A gentle splash sent ripples across the surface and Paul watched as a silhouette glided toward them—arms outstretched, hands together, hair flowing, and tailfin pumping up and down.

            Penelope broke the surface in the shallow end of the pool close to where the to two men stood. She rested her arms on the tiled lip and let her body float behind her. She looked up at Paul’s face. He saw pleading in her eyes.

            “Hi Paul. It’s nice to finally meet you,” she said in a quiet voice. She lowered her eyes as soon as she finished talking.

            Paul gawked. He scrambled for something to say, but he rejected statement after statement as quickly as they came to him.

            “Dad?” An expectant look flashed in his son’s eyes.

            “Ah, hi. Penelope. That sure is some get-up you got there.”

            “Isn’t it?” Dawson gushed. “Completely custom made. She got it online. It’s one of a kind, just like her.”

            Boy, was it ever. Below her waist, overlapping, quarter-sized, silicone scales sparkled in graduated shades of blue. They covered her lower half and culminated in a feathery fin at least three feet wide from tip to tip. An ornate corset made up of synthetic shells, pearls, and swirling seaweed filigree covered her torso. Classic white clamshells shrouded her bosom.

             Penelope wore a shimmering tiara swathed with pointy whorled shells, sea stars and scallops. Glittering beads and little polished cowries dripped off it over long pale pink tresses.

             This is the one? This shy little thing playing dress up in the back yard? Paul continued to stare.

            “Isn’t she beautiful, dad?” Dawson prompted.

            Paul had to admit, she was. Weird, but definitely attractive in a sweet sort of way.

            “Dad, don’t you have anything else to say?”

            “Uh, I’ve got dinner. Inside. If you’re hungry.”

            “Okay, dad. Let me help her out of the pool. We’ll catch up.” Dawson unfolded the towel and silky garment draped over his arm.

            “Is she going to change?”

            “Of course not. We’ll be there in a minute.”

             Paul waited at the table. He opened the chardonnay and gulped down a glass. He knew it was rude, but he needed to calm his nerves so he didn’t do anything worse. He thought of how ashamed his wife would be of his ill manners. And then wondered what Melody would have made of this whole situation. Maybe he’d found a consolation at last—she was spared seeing their only child not only fail to launch, but now going gaga for a wannabe mermaid. He huffed to himself, amused. Ha, I’m glad meeting in the pool made her comfortable, because it’s made me a wreck.

            Dawson walked in carrying Penelope. She was small but with the rubber tail and all, Paul guessed she was at least one-thirty, one-thirty-five. He didn’t remember his son being that strong. Dawson carefully lowered her into a chair across from Paul and then took the seat between them.

            Penelope wore a long robe. She appeared dry everywhere except her hair.

            Paul cleared his throat and held up the bottle of wine in offering. Penelope nodded slightly so Paul stood and poured her a healthy serving. He moved to fill Dawson’s glass as well, but his son covered it with his hand. “I’ll be driving her home later. None for me.”

            Paul’s eyes opened a little wider. His son was not one to turn down a drink.

            Paul sat. “I made salmon. Do you eat, uh, fish?”

            Penelope smiled for the first time and let out a little laugh. “All the time.”

            Much to his surprise Paul found himself charmed.

            At some point, Paul complemented Penelope’s tiara. Before she could thank him, Dawson cut in. “Isn’t it great? She makes them and sells them online. You wouldn’t believe how much she gets for the fancy ones. She has a waiting list a mile long. My Penelope is a world-class jeweler when she’s not busy being a mermaid.”

            “Does being a mermaid keep you pretty busy then?” Paul ventured with a smile.

            “Yes,” Penelope answered with a modest nod.

            “I wasn’t serious…”

            “Dad, she’s part of a mermaid community. They do a lot, a lot of public service.”

            “Really?” He arched an eyebrow in Penelope’s direction.

            “Well, it’s not all good deeds. We do photoshoots and get togethers. We support each other, but we also stage meet and greet environmental swims in public places to teach kids about protecting the planet and its creatures. And we volunteer for a couple of children’s charities. Visiting kids with cancer. Stuff like that. It’s actually fun. They get us. They have a way of seeing through to a person’s true self.”

            “Oh.”

            “Dad, Penelope and I have big news.”

            Paul braced himself. What would it be this time? Was she pregnant? Were they buttering him up for an investment in some business scheme? Was Dawson going to whip out a fin of his own? Paul opened a second bottle of wine.

            “We’re moving in together.”

            “Penelope’s moving into the basement with you?”

            “No dad. We found a place, an apartment. It has a courtyard with a huge indoor pool. We got a two bedroom so there will be space for Penelope’s studio. It’s perfect for us.”

            “How are you going to pay the rent?”

            “We could afford it on Penelope’s income, but I need to do my share, so I talked to Blaine and got back on at Craftcade.”

            Paul stopped drinking mid-gulp. Blaine was the most recent in a long line of Paul’s clients who had done him a favor by offering his deadbeat kid work. It never lasted long and the gig at Craftcade was no exception. “Blaine agreed to take you back?”

            “Yeah. It’s not exactly my old position. He’s opened two new stores and really needs the help. I’m working as assistant manager at the newest location on Eighth. I know I’ve got to earn his trust again. It’s long hours helping with the rollout, but it’s worth it.” Dawson smiled at Penelope and took her hand in his.

            Paul found this shocking. More shocking than his son’s girlfriend’s tail.

            “I’m gonna clear some of this away. I’ve got dessert. Key lime pie. And I can put on some coffee.” Paul stood and gathered a few dishes.

            “Did your wife paint that?” Penelope asked, gazing toward a large sandcastle painting in the living room.

            “She did. It’s number five in the series that really launched her career.”

            “It’s beautiful. Do you have the others?”

            “No. Two are in museums, three are in private collections, and the last one she donated to the downtown library where it’s on permanent display.”

            Sandcastle #5 was a masterpiece and had been Melody’s favorite. The subject was a sandcastle on a beach, but a trick of perspective made it unclear if it was a small castle viewed from a close distance or a large castle viewed from further away. It displayed either an enchanted palace jutting out of the ocean or a magical castle further up shore separated from the sea, depending on how the observer saw it.

            “It calls to me. I’d like a closer look. Dawson, do you mind?”

            “Of course not.” This time Dawson lifted her, chair and all, and carried her across the room. Penelope examined it closely. Paul stared, impressed.

            “I’m going to give dad a hand with these.” Dawson grabbed some cups and silverware and followed Paul into the kitchen, where he pounced. “Isn’t she great dad? Don’t you just love her?”

            “She seems nice enough, but don’t you find the whole mermaid thing weird?”

            “No.” Dawson slammed a glass onto the counter.

            “Don’t get upset, son, but what kind of grown woman goes around pretending she’d a mermaid?”

            “She’s not pretending, dad. Jesus. I thought you’d understand.” Dawson’s jaw tightened as red started creeping up his face. “How many times have you, yourself told me, Mom was born to be a painter? You said that. Could you even imagine her being anything else? She was nothing like the other moms. She wasn’t like anyone else and you loved that about her.”

            “That’s different.”

            “Is it? What do you think her life would have been like if Grams and Gramps had forced her to go to nursing school? Or pushed business on her? What about you? What if someone said, ‘You’re not really an accountant. It’s all in your head. You’ll do fine as a builder. Or a lawyer. Or a god damn party planner.’ Do you think you could just turn off being an accountant and be a party planner because people expect it of you?”

            Paul looked at his son, slack-jawed.

            “She’s a mermaid, dad. As sure as you’re an accountant, Mom was an artist, and I’m a man in love. I think we’ll skip the pie. And don’t wait up for me. I’m staying at Penelope’s tonight.”

            After Dawson stormed out, as much as one can storm while holding a mermaid, Paul brought the wine into the living room and finished it as he scrutinized Sandcastle #5.


            Paul spent a couple of long lonely weeks waiting for the other shoe to drop, but it never did. In spite of all the years he lamented his unemployed, basement-dwelling son, he missed Dawson. He called Blaine to check up on him and got a glowing report. “He’s a new man, Paul. He’s happy and hardworking. I’ve promoted him to supervisor of all three stores.”

            “Dawson willingly took on that kind of responsibility?”

            “He jumped at the opportunity. Said he’s saving for a ring. He really loves Penelope.”

            “Blaine, don’t you find the whole mermaid thing strange?”

            “Well, Paul, my oldest and her wife are raising their kids pagan. My middle son pays good money to jump off bridges tied to a giant rubber band, and my youngest practically lives in some online space realm, so who am I to say?”

            There was no denying Dawson’s new lease on life. Paul felt proud and knew he needed to make things right with his son and his future daughter-in-law. Marshaling his strength, he marched to the kitchen, grabbed a glass and fresh bottle of red, and headed to Melody’s studio.

            Paul stood in front of the door for an eternity. He had closed off the room on the day of the funeral and no one had set a foot inside since. Paul squeezed his eyes closed, held his breath, reached for the knob and turned it.

            Paul inhaled the chemical smells of oils and acrylics and felt Melody’s presence. Everything was exactly where she had left it, canvases, paintbrushes of all sizes, and shelves covered with knickknacks—driftwood, shells, and sand dollars. Paul picked up a big bleached conch and put it to his ear. Whispering waves transported him to happier days—romantic moonlit strolls with chilly surf tickling their bare feet, tidepool explorations with their excited young son, and blazing bonfires on the beach.

            He poured a glass of wine.

            “Our son is in love with a mermaid,” Paul announced to the room. “He’s going to marry her. I didn’t make a great first impression.” Paul took a sip, put down the glass, and started sorting through stacks. “I kind of messed things up. Oh, hell. I blew it babe. I’m going to need your help to make it right.”

            Paul spent the rest of the evening rummaging, reminiscing, and drinking. It wasn’t nearly as painful as he expected. Around midnight he found his prize—three rough sketch studies for Sandcastle #5. They weren’t as pretty as the final work but they revealed thoughts, plans, and dreams behind the painting. Paul wrapped them in craft paper, texted the framing company Melody always used, set them on the front porch for the courier and went to bed.


            A sensor chimed as Paul walked into the frame store. A stocky woman with maraschino cherry hair styled into a mohawk fin greeted Paul from behind the counter. “You here for the sandcastle sketches?”

“Yep.”

            “They turned out great. Take a look.” The three drawings shared a single frame, laid out side by side, matted in dark green.

            “It’s fantastic.”

            “Thanks. I do my best work when I’m inspired.”

            “You like them?”

            “Love them. They feel like home. I have a thing for all subjects aquatic though.” She stretched her arms forward and rotated them. Reef tattoos covered every inch like colorful sleeves. Drawn in, Paul spied eels poking out from rocky caverns, orange, yellow, and purple fish darting here and there, swaying corals, and an octopus extending tentacles in all directions.

            “Wow. You’re a regular mermaid.”

            “I sure am. I’m the rarest kind of mermaid. The two-legged variety.” She winked. “There are more of us around than people realize. But we’re easier to spot when you know how to look.”

            Armed with his peace offering, Paul headed to Dawson and Penelope’s place.

            The minute Paul walked through the door, warm air and the clean smell of chlorine hit him. It was just as Dawson had described– a large courtyard with an enormous swimming pool surrounded by two levels of numbered apartment doors. It reminded Paul of a Holiday Inn Holidome they stayed at when Dawson was little.

            Penelope was cowering in the far corner of the pool, turned away from Paul. Something rained down on her. She covered her head with her arms. Paul followed the projectiles to their source and saw two boys on the balcony. The older one tossed Ninja Turtle arms, legs, heads, and shells and yelled, “Get out, weirdo.”

            The younger one launched hard plastic Happy Meal toys and shrieked, “freak, freak, freak.”

            Paul leaned his parcel on the wall and turned to the boys. “What are you doing? Stop it, now,” he thundered.

            The boys paused their onslaught, but the bigger one challenged. “Why should we? She says she’s a mermaid. My mom says she’s looney. Get out, looney. We don’t want you in our pool, looney.”

            “Your mom’s wrong. She’s no looney. She’s a mermaid.” Paul said it with such conviction a questioning look crept into the boy’s eyes.

            Paul doubled down. “You have a real, live mermaid in your pool. Do you know how rare and lucky that is? They’re magical creatures, you know. Offending one is stupid.”

            He extended his arms down so Penelope could grab hold and pull herself out of the water. With a splash, she perched on the ledge next to Paul’s feet.

            The smaller boy looked downright worried. The spokesboy, uncertain. “How would you know?” His voice wavered.

            “I was married to one, although it took me a long while to realize it.” Paul turned to Penelope. “Can I help you to your apartment? I brought something for you and Dawson.”

            Penelope nodded. Paul leaned down, placed an arm around her back and one under the bend in her tail and scooped her up. Paul looked back up at the boys. “Don’t waste time. Learn to spot mermaids now, fellas. It’ll serve you well.”

            He turned to Penelope. Gratitude shone in her eyes.

            “I’m an old guy still figuring things out. I do okay, but I’m not as bright as my son. He’s an enterprising young man with his eyes on the real prize. He knows treasure when he sees it—the rarest kind of treasure.”

Katrinka Mannelly writes and lives in Fircrest, Washington with her husband Brian, daughter Tigist, dog Queenie and cat Riptide. “Triangulation: Extinction,” Parsec Ink’s 2020 annual speculative fiction anthology includes her short story “No One Needs a Chiweenie” Her flash fiction “Twinkle,” is currently featured on https://www.metastellar.com. Her book, “Section 130” is available at barnesandnoble.com and amazon.com.

New Family by Paul Barach

Charlie’s parents couldn’t see DeeDee and neither could Charlie, but he was Charlie’s best friend because DeeDee loved to play.

Charlie loved his trains the best. His dad would play trains with him. When Charlie got bored running them along their wooden tracks, he and his dad would run them all over the floor and around the crib of Charlie’s baby sister, Holly. When Charlie got tired of that, he’d ask his dad to run them high across the walls, way above where Charlie could reach.

But Charlie’s dad wouldn’t make them run across the ceiling like DeeDee, or fly through the air while Charlie jumped up to catch them. His dad didn’t even know how, but DeeDee did. DeeDee made playing with the trains so much more fun than anyone.

DeeDee had been playing a new game for weeks after his parents went to sleep. Charlie was already laughing when it started. The train flew through the air, rolling across the ceiling so high up and then down the walls wavy like a snake. Charlie jumped on the bed giggling so much it felt like he’d never catch his breath. Then the train floated down, spinning like a snowflake until it was right in front of his hands.

Charlie loved this game. He clapped his hands together as fast as he could, but the train jumped out at the last moment like a fly and all he caught was his palms.

The train rose again, a little farther away. Charlie leaped off the bed, landing softly on the footies of his PJs and snatched at the air again. The train bobbed just to the left, then down as he clapped his hands again. He danced across the carpet, but the train kept jumping up as he snatched at the air.

DeeDee never kept the game going this long and Charlie was getting mad.

“Give it, DeeDee!”

Charlie stubbed his toe on the chair of his drawing desk. Crayons rolled off the edge and fell onto the carpet and Charlie would have to pick them up because DeeDee was being stupid and his toe hurt so bad.

“DeeDee! I don’t wanna play anymore,” he whispered.

The train floated at the window. It had stopped spinning but DeeDee wouldn’t bring it over.

Charlie limped toward the train. Tears welled in his eyes, but he wouldn’t cry and wake the baby. He liked that Holly slept in the same room. He loved his little sister the best. He knew it already. More than Mom and Dad and he loved them very much too.

The train was still too far up to reach and DeeDee wouldn’t drop it. Charlie pushed the chair over to the window and climbed onto it, grasping for the train on his tiptoes until he finally snatched it out of the air. Relief flushed through him as he curled his fingers around the wooden weight, cradling it to his chest. It was his favorite one, the bright red locomotive with the green chimney that Dad gave him for Christmas. Without it, the other trains wouldn’t know where to go.

He was glad DeeDee opened the window. The breeze felt good, cooling his skin that was damp from chasing the toy and chilling the tears that had spread down his cheeks to his chin. The fall colors were fading from the oak trees outside his window, the first crystals of frost had spread across the dirt.

Ice water gripped onto his back across his shoulders, hands as big as his dad’s. It drove the breath out of him, so cold that it froze through his chest and he shivered. He gasped. The world tumbled forward. He floated above the flower bed below his window, saw the leaves of the oak tree rustling in the breeze. Then the dirt rushed up to meet him, the frost glittering in the moonlight.

He was back inside the house. Inside his room. Holly was shrieking. He looked out the window and saw a little boy wearing his pjs crumpled onto the ground. He yelled for DeeDee, who was gone. He yelled for Mom and Dad and Holly. He yelled for Grandma.

Charlie yelled until the last snows melted. The noise would leave his teeth and be swallowed by the air at the end of his fingers, or where he remembered his fingers had been. No one ever heard him. He heard everything. He heard the yellow paint on the walls crack and the lightbulb that hung in the basement hum. He heard everything all at once, especially the long groans the house made.

The new people who lived there said that the house was settling. It took Charlie six winters before he learned they were words and seven more before the words made sense. The words scared him a lot and made him cry.

Stupid DeeDee never came back. He hated Stupid DeeDee.

Charlie thought he still had a face, but he couldn’t remember what it looked like. The mirrors only reflected back the walls. Charlie could see everything else inside the house. He would stare at the food the new people who lived there brought in. He could see the gleaming frosted edges of the donuts, the tiny caves and crumbs that made up each cookie. But he couldn’t smell them.

When he’d learned to pick the cookies up, he couldn’t feel them, but they lifted off the table and into his mouth. He was so happy. But he couldn’t taste them. He threw them on the floor and cried and screamed until the flowers came back up again. He learned to grasp other things later. He could move them wherever he wanted.

It wasn’t something he could explain, but that was the thing; Charlie couldn’t explain anything.

He couldn’t leave the house, but if he looked very hard out the window, sometimes he could see his sister. She would be walking around the park with her son, showing him the ducks in the pond. She looked happy most days. She looked like Charlie’s mom now.

Then one day, Charlie couldn’t see his little sister anymore.

Charlie missed her more than anyone. More than his mom and dad. He wanted to leave the house and see her. The doors and windows wouldn’t let him out, no matter how much he pushed and kicked and screamed.

The men who moved in together talked to Charlie after they saw the small handprint smashed into the cake they’d brought. Alex and Stan weren’t afraid of Charlie. They’d tried to get him to talk back, bringing a board game into the house. It had a bunch of letters on it and numbers, and a little car with a window like a magnifying glass. But Charlie didn’t know what letters went where. He remembered his name started with a big C like Cat, but it had been so long he’d forgotten what the other letters were supposed to be.

When Patricia and Clark moved in after Alex and Stan, they didn’t talk to Charlie. Patricia talked to Jesus all the time, but he wasn’t in the house. Patricia always asked Jesus for the same thing and it made Charlie tired to listen so he stayed away. She talked to Caroline on the phone about the same thing. Clark left and Caroline came over a lot. Patricia left, and Caroline stayed for good.

Caroline wasn’t afraid of Charlie. She pretended Charlie wasn’t there. If she saw something move, she’d pretend she didn’t see it.
Charlie learned new words as each person came through. VCR. Computer. CD. Internet. Laptop. Smart Phone. Wifi. He liked the music all the people played. He always got excited when someone new moved in but ignored them after a while. None of them made him happy.

Hannah and Peter moved in after Caroline moved out. Hannah had curly black hair, like Charlie’s mom used to have. When Peter smiled, Charlie could see the wide gap in his teeth that made him look like a Jack O’ Lantern. Peter was always playing games on his computer, wearing big headphones.

Charlie wanted them to be happy. When Hannah yelled at Peter for not keeping the bathroom clean, Charlie would clean it while they weren’t looking. He did the same with the dishes. Peter didn’t notice when he was playing on his computer. Charlie watched them as they laid in bed together. He could see what their bodies were doing. The house had told him it was to make a baby. Caroline never made a baby with the men who laid in her bed. Alex and Stan never made a baby. Patricia and Clark didn’t either and sometimes Patricia cried about it and it made Charlie sad.

Charlie knew when Hannah had a baby inside her tummy. When she told Peter they danced in the living room. Charlie danced too.

Hannah wasn’t like Alex and Stan or Caroline. Hannah was scared of Charlie. She saw him moving the chairs once to sweep and ran away. Charlie didn’t want to scare Hannah. He wanted her to be happy. He would be extra quiet around her after that so she wouldn’t be scared.

Charlie liked watching the laundry tumble in the dryer the best out of everything in the house. The clothes looked like they were dancing and jumping and flying around. He liked the loud ding at the end, but he didn’t like how they all fell down and laid still after it. The door at the top of the stairs opened and Hannah turned on the basement light. It flickered, which was never Charlie’s fault although everyone who’d lived there had blamed him for that. It was the wiring. Charlie could see that, because Charlie could see everything. If he looked hard enough, he could see inside people. He could see the flickering of thoughts. If he really tried extra hard, he could see a little into the future.

He knew the baby would be a girl. He knew she would be born in the spring like Holly was.

He knew there were fifteen steps leading down to the basement. He knew Peter hadn’t fixed the fourth step leading up from the basement like he promised and Charlie wasn’t old enough to fix it.

Hannah piled the laundry into the basket, then placed her head against it like a warm pillow. She inhaled deeply. Charlie did too, even though he couldn’t smell anything. Hannah started up the stairs. The basket rested on her swollen belly.

The fourth step snapped from its edge. The laundry fell down all over as Hannah went backwards grabbing at the air. Charlie pressed his hands against her back. Hannah gasped as the ice-cold water sloshed through her chest, into her belly. She shrieked, cradling her arm under her tummy.

Charlie pushed harder, pushed until she fell forward and caught herself on the stairs. Hannah scrambled up to the kitchen crying. Her knee bled. She didn’t stop crying all day, even when Peter asked what was wrong. She just cried and shook her head and held her belly.

She was crying so loud that Charlie hugged her. She recoiled at the icy embrace, shivering and shrieking even louder, curled up on the floor around her big tummy.

Charlie hid for the rest of the day, the hands he couldn’t see mashed over the ears he couldn’t feel.

They yelled a lot that week. Peter couldn’t just move them out just because Hannah was being crazy. Hannah was going to live with her dad. Peter slept downstairs for a bunch of nights. Hannah didn’t sleep. Charlie cried.

Hannah finally said that she would stay in the house. Peter hugged her. Charlie promised not to touch her again.

They left the house one day after all the frost was gone from the ground. When they came back, they were holding a baby. Charlie danced around the living room, careful not to knock anything over.

Charlie would float over Hannah, watching the baby sleep on her chest. The rise and fall of her breath was a lullaby he hadn’t heard sung in so long.

They named her Sarah. Hannah and Peter would lay Sarah on her back. They would hide their faces and uncover them. It was a stupid game. Sarah loved it. Charlie couldn’t play.

Peter and Hannah gave Sarah a lot of new toys. Charlie had never seen them before. They had lights all over that made all kinds of colors and some made noises like the animals outside. There were toys on wheels and plastic rings to chew on.

Sarah loved her bright red ball the most. Charlie saw the gleam in her deep brown eyes when she first saw it. Her chubby, empty mouth gaped open and giggled. Charlie giggled too, the noise swallowed by the air. They would play with the ball every day, Charlie making it jump up and down as Sarah lay on her stomach in her playpen, feet kicking with delight.

When she could sit up, she would roll the ball to Charlie and he would roll it back. Sarah laughed all day and by bedtime she was so tuckered out from playing with Charlie that she didn’t wake up all night.

‘She’s such a happy baby,” Hannah would sigh as she went to sleep.

“Such an easy baby,” Peter would say. “We lucked out.”

When Sarah could stand, she would toddle after the ball, chasing it across the hallway where Charlie rolled it. It was still her favorite game and they played it all the time. All Charlie had to do was make sure the gate to her room was open and keep her away from the stairs so Hannah and Peter didn’t see her out.

“I can’t believe she’s walking already,” Hannah would smile.

“What an amazing kid,” Peter agreed.

The oak leaves were turning red outside, even though it was still hot. Peter had all the windows open. Hannah had just gone downstairs to get the laundry and Peter was deep into the game on the computer, the headphones blaring.

Charlie unlatched the gate and rolled the ball all the way down the hallway. Sarah giggled as she chased after it. She could walk so far now. The ball stopped, then fell down the stairs.

Sarah watched it bouncing away from her, then turned to Charlie, then back down the stairs. She started crying as it rolled onto the floor. Charlie had to do it fast.

Long ago, the house had told him how he could go outside again. It didn’t make him sad anymore. Charlie would be better than Stupid DeeDee. He knew what Stupid DeeDee didn’t. Charlie had been too old. A baby would never figure it out.

Charlie raced forward.

 

Paul Barach’s work has been published previously in Creative ColloquyLitroThe Trek, and in the forthcoming collection Inaka: Portraits of Life in Rural JapanFighting Monks and Burning Mountains: Misadventures on a Buddhist Pilgrimage is Barach’s first book. He currently lives in Tacoma, Washington with his wife, Michelle.

Leda and The Swan Hat by Kat Ogden

“Oh, bother.” A sharp, cold wind knocked into Leda as she stepped outside the library. Her mood, which had been quite reasonable, shriveled to two cranky lines between her brows. The promising spring day had disintegrated into a leftover piece of February. Wind gusted up and down Sixth Avenue, blowing garbage down the street like tumbleweed.

“Ouch,” Jane yelped. She’d come out right behind Leda, and the door hit her. “Why’d you stop like that?”

“Look at this,” Leda gestured dramatically, waving her hand. “What a mess. I’ll have to go home and change.”

Jane stared dutifully in the direction of Leda’s flapping hand.

“I don’t see anything but a fake Jamaican selling incense.”

“The day, the weather, it is awful. I have to go home.”

“Go home? Because of a cloud over? That’s ridiculous.”

“I have to change. I’m inappropriately dressed and underdressed to boot.”

“We’ll jump on the subway.” Jane scrabbled out of the way of an imposing older man with an aquiline nose. As he exited, he brushed against Leda aggressively. He was so close she could smell his cologne.

Excuse me,” Leda said pointedly. His answer was simply to turn and stare at her again, a slight leering smile tugging at the corner of his mouth before he turned and walked towards Union Square.

“You’re an ass!” Jane called after him. As if on cue, the sky darkened noticeably.

“It is so going to rain,” Leda said.

“Oh, come on,” Jane pleaded. “We have a whole day planned. What about the gallery, the music in the park?”

“I’ll meet you down there. I can’t go dressed like this.”

Jane’s face fell. “If you have to,” she said reluctantly. “Just don’t let it take you an hour to pick a new outfit. You’ll miss the band playing.”

“I won’t,” Leda assured her.

Jane rolled her eyes. “Sure you don’t want to come along now? I have a hoodie in my backpack.”

Leda gave her a withering look. “A hoodie? It will ruin the outfit entirely.”

“I tried,” Jane shrugged, tossing her skateboard down, “See ya there.”

Maybe it was a bit silly not borrowing Jane’s hoodie, if only for the walk, but Leda was fashionable. She’d put so much thought into exactly how the outfit looked that she couldn’t face the disruption of the hoodie. She crossed the Avenue, heading toward Union Square. The wind was really sharp now, whipping Leda’s hair around her face. A few fat raindrops fell. She hoped it would hold just a few more minutes.

Halfway across Union Square the rain began to break. Leda stopped to pull a scarf from the bottom of her bag to cover her library books.

From the gray sky of Manhattan, a white cloud plummeted. As it approached, the shape of a swan could be discerned. He flew with neck outstretched; his beak pointed like an accusing finger. Leda stared with astonishment and then the swan smashed into her with brutal force.

Leda screamed as she fell, landing on her back. She frantically pushed down at her skirt, attempting to defend herself, but the swan responded with a savage ferocity. Its heavy beak pounded her thin legs, leaving numb welts. Feathers sliced against her soft skin. He dealt a blow to her shin that landed with the force of a baseball bat.

It hurt so badly that Leda stopped struggling. The swan watched with no small satisfaction as Leda gasped and tears welled in her eyes. A sob escaped her. The swan – triumphantly, and with a slow show of absolute power and confidence – lowered his head and put it under her skirt.

The world seemed all in wild motion around her. Her skirt rippled with the movements of the swan; the trees were torn through by the ripping wind. In the distance, pedestrians hurried along the wet sidewalks, their heads down. Life moved on. It would not stop for this; it would not stop for her. None of this, she realized, was going to stop.

With her free hand, Leda scrabbled in her bag. Her fingers brushed against the heavy library copy of Agnes Gray that she’d checked out for her book group. With precision born of fury, Leda clutched the book and bludgeoned the swan.

His head dropped to the pavement, unconscious. Leda wasted no time. She shoved the body into her book bag. He almost did not quite fit, but Leda’s bag was purchased with the intent of some very serious library trips and had a drawstring top in addition to two buckle closures. Her hands were shaking as she coiled his neck, shoved it inside, and pulled the drawstring tight.

Momentarily safe, Leda curled up on the sidewalk beside her bag. Every piece of her ached; her legs were scratched, bruised, and bleeding. A huge knot was forming under one eye and her mouth tasted of blood. She sat there for a very long time, crying a little and shaking. Her cell phone rang; she watched it buzzing on the pavement.

Slowly she got up and began to collect the broken, scattered contents of her library bag and her soggy books. Her dress was ruined, split almost up to the crotch, hanging in ragged strips. When she passed her hand under her runny nose, she discovered it was actually bleeding. She tore off a piece of her skirt and pressed it to her nose.

At her apartment she paid the cabbie, who peered curiously at her battered face but didn’t offer help. She unlocked the door, and was resting just inside, when she saw her bag stir gently, and then begin to thrash furiously, a cacophony of honks issuing forth. Rage flushed through Leda like a hot drink. With the full force of her one-hundred-and-twenty-pound body, she slugged the bag against the heavy New York door. The bag wiggled once more and lay still.

“I hope I killed you,” Leda said viciously.

She staggered into the tiny kitchen and emptied out one of the heavy, plywood kitchen drawers. With aching, tired fingers, she undid her bag and dumped the swan into the drawer. Unconscious and limp, he seemed smaller than when he’d attacked, but she still had to push down on him to get it closed. Slowly she took out her library books, stacking them neatly on the table as was her habit. They were ruined, even the copy of Agnes Grey had blood and feathers stuck to it.

In the bathroom Leda summoned the courage to face herself in the mirror. She looked like a different person entirely. A terrible red welt was beneath her right eye. Her mouth was swollen.

She squeezed peroxide into the cuts on her face, the many small scratches all across her nose. They bubbled and hissed. Tomorrow she’d get some scar treatment from the drug store and hope it worked.

She took the hottest shower she could bear, scrubbing herself all over. She was changing into her dressing gown when she heard the buzzer go off. She jumped and shrieked. It buzzed again.

“It’s Jane! Let me up.”

Leda pushed the button and heard the buzz and the click that meant the downstairs door was opened. She had no idea what time it was.

“Oh my God, what happened?” Jane gasped. “Let me look at you. You were attacked. Oh my God. Are you okay?” Jane crowded into the tiny entrance, dropping her skateboard and backpack.

“I’m thinking it through,” Leda said a bit faintly. “I fought him off.”

“We should call the police. And get you to a hospital,” Jane said, taking in Leda’s skinny, bruised legs sticking out from the dressing gown and her pale, battered face.

“No, no,” Leda said calmly, settling on the futon couch. “I’m fine. I don’t need to go anywhere. I just need to rest a bit.”

“Where did it happen?”

“Union Square.”

“Right there in the open? No one helped?”

Leda thought about this for a moment. It was odd that no one had helped, but she’d hardly had time to reflect on it. She shook her head.

“This guy, what did he look like? Was it that guy from the library?”

Leda couldn’t help it – she started to laugh. Jane looked shocked, her face creased in worry. Leda laughed harder. The whole thing was so ridiculous.

“Leda?” Jane said softly.

“I have him. I have him right here in the drawer. No, Jane, don’t look at me like that, really truly, I do. Do you want to see him?”

Without waiting for a reply, Leda went to the kitchen drawer. It wouldn’t do to open it and set him flying around the apartment. Who knows what he’d do in an enclosed space? She couldn’t let him loose. That wouldn’t do,

“Hang on a minute, Jane.” Leda limped to her coatrack and, from one of her best hats, extracted two long, vintage hatpins. She cautiously opened the drawer a crack. The swan struggled to uncoil, but Leda was ready this time. The hatpins sparkled dangerously in her small, thin hands.

Jane screamed just before they went in.

*          *          *          *          *

“However did you think of it?” Fawn leaned in to look more closely at Leda’s hat.

Fawn had spotted them at lunch, and Jane had felt bad and had invited her to eat with them. As much as Leda loved the Village, this was the hazard. There was always some graduate student or teacher acquaintance from Jane’s work that could divebomb what had been a perfectly good gossipy, boozy lunch.

Leda shrugged, “I think of clothing all the time, so it seemed fitting. I so wanted a hat.” She tugged a bit and straightened him on her head, “Granted, he’s smaller now but it is still a bit heavy. He goes so nicely with so many things and the materials are so…”

“…lux,” Jane said.

Leda nodded, “Yes, exactly.”

Fawn was less thrilled. “Well, I think it is cruel.”

She would, Leda thought. You could always count on Fawn to climb on any bandwagon rumbling by. From the look of her outfit today, which consisted of some sort of sweater possibly made from a yak, she was very likely a vegan this week.

“Cruel how?” Leda demanded.

“Leda wanted a hat,” Jane explained.

“He’s a living thing,” Fawn retorted, “and you’re treating him like a fashion accessory. It’s worse than cruel, its, its…” she trailed off,

“Practical?” Leda replied, “Just? Not to quibble, Fawn, but I am not treating him like a fashion accessory. He is a fashion accessory.”

“You didn’t see what that bird did to her,” Jane said.

“Irregardless of what he did…”

“Regardless,” Leda corrected.

“…he does not deserve to be worn. Soon everyone will want swan hats.”

“If they do, it is only because I made it fashionable,” Leda replied. “And I wonder what you think the alternative should be? Should I turn him loose so he can attack other women? I have an obligation. To the city. To other women.”

“To wear him?”

“Well, it is not as if I get free rent,” Leda pointed out. “Space, as you know, is a premium. So, at the very least, he must pay for his space in my domicile, and this is the way that works best for me. And he has amends to make for running my dress.”

“I can’t believe you’re party to this, Jane,” Fawn said. “I’d expect it of her, but she’s a narcissist and we all know it. I expected better of you. Aren’t swans endangered?”

“I don’t know, but that one is, as far as I’m concerned,” Jane cracked dryly, and tapping one of the hat pin’s decorative ends. “He’s only a hat because it turns out he’s a little hard to kill, aren’t ya, buddy? Got a pin straight through you and still not dead.”

“That’s horrible! You have no empathy,” Fawn huffed.

“Better lacking in empathy than lacking in common sense,” Leda retorted.

They finished the rest of their lunch in silence and went their separate ways.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *            *          *

Truthfully, at first, Leda had harbored hesitations, but she had grown to enjoy wearing the swan. It was so soft and white, so plush that she almost forgave the funny orange feet and the furious struggle it threw forth every time she drew it out to wear it. Sometimes it would hiss like an annoyed teakettle and she would snap her fingers and pop it alongside its long neck to make it stop. She’d gotten so used to thinking of him as a hat that it was sometimes funny to think of how she’d come by him. Her conversation with Fawn had upset her greatly.

“Am I being indecent?” she asked Jane. “Shouldn’t I let him go?”

“Not in the slightest,” Jane said darkly. “I think you’re showing mercy.”

“Am I? To make him into a hat?”

“Okay,” Jane said, “You made him into a hat. But what did he make you into, in his mind, when he attacked?”

Leda did not know how to answer that question. Sometimes she almost pitied him, trapped by the dual hatpins, and dared herself to be large enough to set him free, to trust him that he’d learned his lesson and would cease attacking young women. Then she’d look into his furious black eyes and remember the greedy triumph that had roasted there when he’d made her cry. How satisfied, how deliberate.

“I would let you go,” she explained to him, “but I’d have to be certain you wouldn’t try that again.”

The swan hissed contemptuously. Leda shivered.

*          *          *          *          *

A month later, Leda was enjoying her Sunday treat of French pressed coffee and a pastry at the local bakery. Leda wore the swan hat matched to a chocolate brown coatdress that complimented both the swan’s creamy plumage and the copper lights in Leda’s hair.

Leda had just settled in at a table for one when, to her chagrin, Fawn sat down opposite her. Fawn wore a shapeless, sack-like dress that would be perfect attire if one had to harvest turnips. Leda could not figure out why people like Fawn lived in Manhattan. Wasn’t there a commune somewhere in Maine that needed her on a committee collective board or something? She was so close that Leda could tell she used ineffective natural deodorant.

“We’ve always been very different, Leda, since we became friends.” Fawn said, in slopping tones that sounded as sincere as the vendors who sold real gold watches for ten dollars.

Leda had absolutely nothing to say to that, as she could not disagree that they were different, but she didn’t want to agree that they’d ever been friends.

“Perhaps I should have explained my viewpoint rather than attacking you personally.”

“Perhaps,” Leda said, “but I doubt it would have changed my mind much.”

Fawn was silent for a moment. Leda pressed the coffee and poured herself a creamy cup. She loved her coffee; it was such a pity that Fawn was there.

“Perhaps it was accidental.”

Leda felt the swan all but nod its imprisoned head from its adorning spot. She removed the hat and put it on the table between them.

“This creature? Look at him. There’s nothing dumb or unintelligent there. It was quite deliberate.”

The swan’s black, beady eyes glanced off Leda’s unrelenting face to Fawn’s warm and tortured one.

“Everyone makes mistakes.”

Leda thought about this. “You know,” she said, taking a tiny sip of her coffee, “you’re correct. Everyone does make mistakes. There are consequences for mistakes.”

Fawn opened her mouth, but Leda waved her hand for silence.

“If I make an error, and calculate the wrong time for the subway, I have made a mistake, yes? Does this prevent me from missing the subway? No.”

Fawn was already shaking her head in disagreement. “It is not kind to the poor bird. He should be taught better, not punished. You have to think of it from his perspective. He’s learned his lesson.”

“So, have I,” said Leda. With a firm grip, she replaced the swan on her head, patting it perfunctorily.

The swan honked, a dramatic on its part, for it was immortal and no harm came to its flesh. The dramatic had its desired audience. Fawn leapt to her feet, capsizing the table and sending hot coffee down the front of Leda’s dress. She ripped the swan from Leda’s head, hatpins and all, and fled the street and into a subway opening, the deceitful creature cradled in her triumphant arms.

Leda started to go after Fawn in no small temper, but the waiter, thinking she was fleeing a tab, arrested her flight. He demanded fifteen dollars: the price of her breakfast and Fawn’s, as well as another twenty to replace the broken crockery.

All in all, it was an awful Sunday.

*          *          *          *          *

“Here.” Jane pulled the two jeweled hatpins from her bag.

“Thank you,” Leda said tightly. “And the bill?”

“I don’t think she can afford it just now,” Jane admitted. “She had to miss work for a week while her face healed.”

“Hmph,” Leda said, which was part sympathy, part scorn. She pressed a band-aid back into place over one of the fresh cuts on her hand. “Was she badly hurt?”

“She says its fine, but she’s not really. If you ask her, she thinks she’s a martyr.”

They sat together for another long minute. Leda had a pile of laundry beside her on the couch. She took a shirt and began to fold it. After a while, Jane picked up a hanger.

“So much for your smashing hat,” Jane said, in a flat attempt to raise some humor, as she carefully smoothed out one of Leda’s many cotton dresses. “What did you do with the body?”

“Swan pie,” Leda said, “with a pastry crust. It was delicious.”

“Seems in you he’s met his match,” Jane said.

“No, not his match,” Leda smiled. “More like his nemesis. So much for the good name of gods and swans everywhere.”

Kat Ogden (she/them) is a storyteller who writes, directs, produces, and acts. Kat has worked on numerous television series and films, such as Z Nation and Safety Not Guaranteed, and also was awarded a Tacoma Artists Initiative (TAIP) grant to write, produce, and star in the original short, Infested. Currently residing in the Pacific Northwest, Kat is a member of the Director’s Guild of America and loves the community and camaraderie of the Seattle Film Community. Another lifetime ago, Kat was on one of the first reality shows. Kat was once in a roller derby league and is an avid quad skater, known to haunt the various cities she visits at night with signature pink and teal roller skates. Kat likes ballet and modern dance, can read a book in a single bound, is a left-handed blackberry picker, and holds the unofficial record for highest bungee jump off a building. www.sabotageanddialogue.com

Calculated by Nicholas Stillman

StillmanThe barrel of a Colt .45 tastes like a handful of nickels. As a kid, I would shove change in my mouth and suck on it like caramels. I loved the taste of money. Today, I woke in my hotel room to the barrel of a Colt .45 checking my tonsils. I dreamed I was choking on my mom’s change again.

I opened my eyes. On the other end of my steel lollipop was the blank stare of Dominique. I hadn’t seen her since the casino job, and the two days hadn’t treated her well. Her cheeks were hollowed out, her body shaking like a small dog left in the rain. Didn’t look like she’d so much as closed her eyes, let alone slept.

“3,604; 584; 20; 2,” she muttered out a string of numbers like a calculator suddenly granted the gift of speech. “3,604; 584; 20; 2.” Continue reading

The Legend of the Shadow People by Lawander Thompson

WandaTThe legend of shadow people goes way back from the passing down of a story which is steeped with tradition from the descendants of the Seminole Indian from one generation to the next.  You can say this is partly true for those people who believed and say they witnessed the shadow people figures, for others, perhaps it is just myth. They were often called upon in desperate times as the protectors and guarded over you, and those highly evolved were endowed with their spirits to be powerful warriors against evil doers, as the legend goes. No one really knows the exact origins, or era or period of time, it just always was and always will be.

Every child, girl and boy, learned about the shadow people who follow you to protect you against evil spirits, those known as the evil-doers or otherwise known as our enemies in life. They learned that enemies are not just the obvious haters but are those who challenge, oppose, possess or may even envy you. It started when they were young learning about superstitions of what not to do and who not to trust, it was always about what not to do but never what to do when faced with adversity. Bobby Jean believed in the shadow people and was never threatened but was insecure that possibly one day they would desert her, and leave her to her own devices. You see, she was not that emotionally strong, she trusted everyone and doubted very few. She was naïve to a fault. Continue reading

The Accidental Labyrinth by L. Lisa Lawrence

LisaL(Part I)

She stood in the shadows.

There was a perfectly safe, well-lit space to wait in the Peace Garden. Only a moment ago, she stood for a brief moment in time, gazing at the pillar with the word “Peace” illustrated in several languages contemplating what the world could be if people embraced this concept. That was the place that safety experts would say an unaccompanied woman “should” stand at night. It was the center of the garden, exposed to the city streets, well illuminated; a place where no potential attacker could approach without being seen and any call for help would be noticed an answered.

But it also exposed her to a world that was mostly foreign to her; a place that held no secrets and no adventure, and that displayed conspicuous consumption. She watched the valets parking the luxury cars that came to dine above the city and the eager sports enthusiasts heading towards the arena for a game. She saw the lights of the city and the hustle and bustle of crowds wandering by, and she felt naked and exposed. Continue reading

The Unbearable Weight of Silence by Gregory Knight Miskin

  1. Three years old. Nap time for Jeff and me, seventh and sixth of seven, in my parents’ bedroom, the never-finished garage on the blueprints. Bare studs, concrete floor, some stick-on blue gregshag carpet tiles curling at the corners, a sheet hung on a line forming a crude anteroom between the kitchen door and the bedroom.

Jeff and I are one person, known as The Boys, so rarely called by name it comes out jumbled as Grjeff or Jreg. The big kids say, “The Boys did it” to get themselves out of trouble without having to say a name.

My older brothers and sisters, CarrollLynnConnieNormSylvia, are in school but we are too young. Jeff is two with light brown curly hair. We are stripped to underwear for sleeping. Continue reading

Get Out of Your Car by Morf Morford

“Get out of your car” should be the first Commandment of summers in the Pacific Northwest.

Local gems, wonders and treats are out there, but you’ll miss most of them if you don’t get out to see, hear and sometimes taste them.

Tacoma has many distant vistas that dazzle visitors, but a much closer – and slower – look has its own rewards.

Tacoma has a rich history expressed in its building and parks. Continue reading

Pink Petal by Tien Taylor

tienLondon, 1874.

“Your duty is making sure Mrs. Brandon is well cared for,” said Agnes. “There is a pain in her body that grows worse everyday.”

“Does she not see a physician?” I asked. I tucked my wooden suitcase under my arm and sped up, trying to keep up with her.

“She saw dozens,” she answered. “They can’t cure her. She requires medication.”

Being new as the Brandon family’s maid, I should’ve wrote all of this down, but I was too mesmerized by Agnes’ gray braided hair swinging like a handle of a grandfather’s clock.

“And Mr. Brandon?” I asked. “Does he require anything?”

Agnes turned around. She stared at me and took my luggage. “Privacy. Only focus on caring for Mrs. Brandon for now.” She continued walking. “Once Mr. Brandon gets use to you then you’ll be in charge of the house chores, and I’ll finally retire to be with my grandchildren.”

“How many?”

“Eight.”

I stopped when I saw a framed painting on the wall. It was a portrait of a black-haired woman wearing a pink dress. The woman’s blushing face was smoothly pale.

“Who’s this?” I asked.

“Mary. Mrs. Brandon,” answered Agnes as she exited down the hall and into another.

I compared my old yellow floral dress to Mary’s. I pulled my shoulders back and straighten my spine. I wished I were beautiful and elegant like her.

*** Continue reading

Practice Makes Perfect? by Chelsea Vitone

hot dogI peeked around the corner and saw him staring into the microwave, tapping his index finger on the counter as the seconds counted down. I heard that was bad for you, but with that pretty face, he should be fine with a few micro-radiated brain cells. I ran through my lines in my head, Hi I’m Sarah from advertising, I couldn’t help but notice you around the office. Chad, is it? I love your tie.

I smoothed my skirt, ran my fingers through my hair and stepped into the break room. He looked up at the sound of my heels clacking against the tile and gave me a nod of acknowledgment.

“Hey Chad, I like plaid,” I said, pointing at him. “I mean, your tie…bold choice.” I mentally slapped myself on the forehead and tried hard to keep the cringe I felt coming hidden from my face.

“Uh, thanks,” he said, turning back to the microwave. Good God, he’d rather watch Cup O’ Noodles boil than talk to me. I couldn’t let it end like that.

To continue reading Practice Makes Perfect? click here