Kelley J. P. Lindberg

The Last Red Wine on Earth

The promise of shade was a lie. The heat inside the makeshift tent was every bit as bad as the heat outside in the sun, and it smelled worse, like overheated engine parts. Probably because of the box of overheated engine parts in the tent. The crew had found an auto shop earlier in the day while on patrol and had salvaged what they could. Fortunately, that was all they’d found. No Space-Trolls today. Just the decimated landscape where they’d been.

Ford tied up two sides of the tent to get some air moving through, leaving the west wall down for shade and the east wall down because it was too bloody much trouble to tie up, and he was already sweating buckets. Gander and Shannon followed him in and took up lounging positions on the boxes, somehow without Gander taking a breath. Ford knew he should be paying attention to what Gander was explaining—leather he wanted for a new holster or something—but it was too damn hot to think about leather. Although if Gander could figure out some way to tan the hide of a Troll, Ford would let him talk all he wanted. Those squat, six-legged, spore-farting mutant beasts had to be good for something besides infecting humanity with their damned alien plague.

Ford finished a knot and sank into his camp chair. That’s when he noticed Helena standing in the so-called doorway, the tent pole beside her playing a major role in keeping her upright. She looked wilted. Her hair, where it had escaped from her ponytail, which was pretty much everywhere, clung damply to her neck and temples. Sweat made small crescents at the armpits of her tank top.

Gander and Shannon noticed Helena at the same time, and thankfully Gander shut up. Ford was pretty sure that alone dropped the temperature a couple of degrees.

“Boss,” Ford said.

Helena rolled her eyes but didn’t rise to his usual bait. “Ford.” Her smile was too tired-looking to sustain. According to her, they were equals. But he had ten in his crew. She had around two hundred. He kept threatening to take his crew and split—smaller target and all that—but for some reason he hadn’t done it yet. Maybe tomorrow.

“What can I do for you on this lovely summer’s evening?”

Helena didn’t answer right away. The heat had drawn red to her cheeks, and she remained motionless, as if the slightest movement might fracture her. A droplet of perspiration tracked down her cheek from her temple. Finally she spoke. “I don’t suppose you have a nice bottle of old-vine zinfandel stashed somewhere, do you?”

Ford blinked. “Sorry, fresh out.”

She seemed to give that some thought. “Then how about a really good cabernet sauvignon?”

A smile quirked at Ford’s lips. “Don’t think so.”

“Fine, I’ll settle for a really lousy cabernet.”

Ford sucked at his teeth in a “’fraid not” sort of way.

“Pinot noir?”

“Delivery’s late. You know how that goes.” Ford watched her closely. He’d never seen her so fried. Ms. Perfect had her limits. Who knew?

Gander and Shannon were still quiet, thank God for small favors. With a nod Ford sent them out of the tent to forage for their own shade elsewhere. When they were out of earshot, he asked, “Okay, so why are you really here?”

“For some peace and quiet.”

“Yeah? And you came to my side of camp for that?”

A fleeting smile. “Honestly, I had a whole story about something I needed to ask you, but now I can’t remember it.”

Ford raised an eyebrow.

“Truth is, I just needed to get away from everyone, someplace where no one would think to look for me.”

“You know, a lesser man might take offense at that.”

She managed a wry smile. “I don’t have the patience for lesser men today, Ford.”

After a second of trying to figure out if that was an insult or a compliment, Ford stood and moved the box of engine parts off the rickety metal chair he’d salvaged from what might have been a café once, back before.

She settled into it like butter melting. The wry smile returned as she waved at the clothesline strung overhead, draped with his socks. “I see we use the same interior decorator.”

“Yeah. Her sense of style sucks, but her rates are reasonable.”

Helena nodded, still smiling.

“So, why are you hiding?” he finally asked.

She shook her head. “Just tired of problems.”

He snorted. “You might have made a poor career choice, boss.”

“Yeah. But still.”

“What problems?”

“You name it. Everyone has one, and they all seem to think I’m the only one who can solve them. Every time I turn around, someone’s standing there asking me to pull off some kind of magic trick.” She dragged the back of her hand across her cheek, wiping away the trickle of sweat. “I swear, Ford, if one more person brings me another problem, I’m gonna go sign up with the Trolls. They’ve gotta be less aggravating than this.”

Ford laughed out loud. “So, the Energizer Bunny finally ran out of juice, eh?”

Her look might have been a glare on a more temperate day. But today it didn’t even rate as “annoyed.” In fact, it was just shy of “vacant.”

“Didn’t know it was possible for you to look tired. Let alone waste a single responsible moment of your life.”

She stared straight through his drying laundry. “Responsible isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I mean, sure, there are perks. Like long hours. Low morale. Headaches. But still, sometimes there are downsides.”

“That’s why I avoid it.” He waited for a reaction, but got none. “Did something happen?” He paused again. “What makes today different from all the other days that people dump their problems on your lap?”

Before she answered, Ford heard footsteps scuffing the dust in front of his tent and raised a finger to keep her silent.

“What?” Ford demanded gruffly, stopping the young man just outside the tent wall, before he got close enough to see Helena. Like half the camp, the kid was too young to be fighting. He was wearing a t-shirt for some video game, for hell’s sake. He should have been sneaking out of his parents’ house looking for a kegger, not fighting six-legged invaders for the right to go on breathing for another day.

“I’m looking for Helena. Is she here?”

Helena rolled her eyes, took a deep breath, and began to push herself out of the chair.

“Nope, not here. I did see her a few minutes ago, though. She was headed to the other side of camp.”

“Okay, thanks,” said the kid, and he backed away from the tent.

Helena settled back into the chair, very quietly, but looked worried.

Ford sighed. Reluctantly he called after the messenger. “What’s the crisis?”

“What?” the kid asked.

“The crisis? What do you need Helena for?”

The kid looked like he wasn’t sure he should be divulging state secrets to the enemy. “Uh, there’s a truck that won’t start.”

“A truck?”

“Right.”

“That won’t start?”

“Yeah.”

“Helena’s a mechanic now, is she?”

“Well, no, I mean, I don’t know.”

“If she’s not a mechanic, what can she do about this problem?”

The boy looked slightly panicked, like he’d just been surprised by a pop quiz from his least-favorite teacher. “I guess she’ll find someone to fix it.”

Ford nodded slowly, waiting for the kid to see where Ford was headed. But he didn’t. Ford sighed. “So, you’re looking for Helena, so that Helena can look for a mechanic. Is that it?”

“Yeah?” said the kid, turning it into a question.

“Then aren’t you looking for the wrong person?”

The boy blinked.

“Why aren’t you looking for a mechanic instead of looking for Helena?”

Ford saw Helena bite off a laugh.

“Because I thought she’d want to know?” the kid asked.

Ford scratched his ear. “Okay, listen. Man up here. You already know you need a mechanic. So show some initiative and go find yourself a mechanic. Then you can take Helena a solution instead of a problem. She has bigger things to worry about.”

“Um, okay. Yeah. Okay.” The boy backed away a step, then stopped. “The only mechanic I know is Derrick, and he’s out on patrol looking for gas. Do you know anyone else?”

Ford was tempted to applaud the kid’s discovery of a spine, however embryonic. “As a matter of fact, I do. Most of my crew know their way around an engine. Take your pick. Tell ’em I said it’s okay.” Ford waved a hand toward the other side of his small compound, where Gander, Shannon, and the others were trying in vain to stay out of the slowly creeping sun.

When the kid was gone, Ford looked directly at Helena. “I see what you mean. And so much for your theory that no one would look for you here.”

Grinning, Helena shrugged. “But they didn’t find me, did they? Thank you.” She sagged in her chair, closed her eyes, and used both hands to make a futile attempt to smooth her hair back off her forehead. The movement did interesting things to her breasts, and Ford noted that it was a testament to the heat wave that he didn’t much care. Nevertheless, he watched her until she opened her eyes. Then he suddenly became interested in a rusty bolt lying on the tent floor—an escapee from the box of engine parts, no doubt.

“What was your favorite kind of restaurant, back before?” she asked him.

That was certainly out of the blue. “I don’t know. I mostly ate fast food. What about you?”

She answered almost too quickly. “I liked those places that got all creative with food—where everything on the menu had at least one ingredient you’d never heard of, or they put things together in ways that defied logic, but somehow worked.”

“Paul’s food defies logic sometimes.” Paul headed up the mess hall, based on the flimsy qualification that he had once worked at an Applebee’s, back before.

“Yeah, but it doesn’t work, does it?”

“Got me there.” Ford felt sweat drip down his neck. “Helena?”

“Yeah?” She pulled her eyes back to his for just a moment, but before he could frame his question, she beat him to one, as if she knew she wouldn’t like his. “What about hobbies? What did you do to relax?” she asked. She was staring through the socks again.

“I did some motocross racing, so I spent most of my free time working on dirt bikes. I guess you could say my favorite hobby was putting Band-Aids on my knuckles.” He didn’t mention that he spent a month’s rent on books every year, too. His little house must have burned like a furnace with all that paper lining the walls. God, he missed his books. “I suppose you had like a zillion hobbies. Let me guess: you rescued homeless pets, you were on the board of a bunch of noble charities, you knitted hats for orphans in Afghanistan, you speak sixteen different languages, and you painted masterpieces in your spare time, right?”

“Close. Except for the part where I didn’t do any of those things.” There was that flash of smile again, and for a brief moment she was back in the tent. “I did read, though.” Ford reconsidered telling her about his books. “And I traveled. My son and I had a goal to get a passport stamp from every continent. We still needed South America, Australia, and Antarctica, though.” She picked at the frayed threads at the bottom of her cut-off shorts. “I wonder if they still exist.”

Ford held still. He hadn’t known she’d had a kid.

When she spoke again, her voice was barely audible. “Today’s his birthday.”

So that was it. After a very long minute, Ford asked, “How old?”

“He would have been twelve.” Her voice was still soft.

“That’s a lot of traveling in eleven years.”

She tried for a smile, but it didn’t last. More seconds stretched between them. “I should go,” she said, standing and turning away quickly.

“Hang on.” Ford came to his feet.

Her back was to him. “No, really, I’ve wasted enough of your time. Thanks for letting me hide out.” Her voice sounded oddly flat.

“You haven’t even been here ten minutes yet. That’s not much of a break.”

“It’s fine,” she whispered.

Ford reached out and touched her upper arm. “Listen. You’re on my sovereign land now, and I’m the boss here, not you. And I say sit your butt in the chair and take a load off. Besides, I’ve got something for you.”

He was almost afraid to take his hand off her arm, lest she scamper away like a rabbit. But after a second, she nodded and he stepped back. He rummaged in a box and brought up a bottle of off-brand whiskey.

“It’s not quite a cabernet, but it’s technically liquid.”

Her hands were covering her face. Suddenly he realized she was crying, or maybe trying very hard not to. He looked away quickly and dug through piles for a couple of mismatched coffee cups. His was dirty, but the one he got for her was…well, the alcohol would sterilize it. He splashed whiskey in both cups and stood awkwardly, his back to her, waiting for some kind of signal that it was safe to turn around.

“Sorry,” she said after a minute.

He handed her the somewhat cleaner mug and hazarded a quick glance. She had composed herself again. They toasted each other wordlessly—not much to toast, really, when he thought about it—and the clinking of chipped ceramic was the only noise for a moment or two. Until she sipped, gasped, and tried to catch her breath.

“You’re sure this is liquid?” she squeaked through highly offended vocal chords.

“I said technically. Although it does share a lot of characteristics with a chemical burn.”

She nodded, and he was sure the tear running down her cheek was from choking on the alcohol, not from crying. Pretty sure, anyway. But she took another sip, so it couldn’t have been too bad. He took another sip of his—nope, it was still that bad.

Then Ford surprised the hell out of himself by saying, “My boy would have turned fifteen two weeks ago.”

Helena stared at him for a moment, then nodded. “Where was he?” Her voice was low, but matter-of-fact. He wasn’t sure what he’d expected. Pity, probably, which would have pissed him off. “Denver. Lived with his mother and his sister…my daughter. She was thirteen. Her birthday’s in April, but I can never remember if it’s the 22nd or 23rd. Guess I’ll never know for certain now. No one left to ask.” He swirled the whiskey in his cup, then downed it. “Well, crap,” he said after a few heartbeats of silence. Then, “Where was your boy?”

“At school. I’d made him stay after to talk to a teacher about his grades. We lived way out of town.” She was gripping the handle of her whiskey mug tightly. “If I hadn’t been so worried about a damn C, he’d have been home with me when they hit. I was just leaving to go pick him up when I saw the flash.” She pulled in a ragged breath but kept it together. The flashes had eliminated most of the population. A fast-moving alien infection had done the rest. Only a few humans had proved resistant to the plague—probably something genetic, but the scientists were gone, so who knew?

Ford poured another splash of whiskey into her glass, but she didn’t notice.

“Well, crap,” he said again.

“How do you do it, Ford? How do you get out of bed every morning?”

Ford shrugged. “Roll out, mostly. Feet first. I’ve tried head first quite a bit, but it’s not my preferred method.”

There was that smile again. Maybe it lasted a little longer this time, and her shoulders seemed to relax the tiniest bit. Perhaps the paint thinner they were drinking was working.

“You’re the one I don’t get,” he said. “How do you walk around so damned positive all the time? We’re in the middle of an apocalypse here, and you’re always smiling, and laughing, and…and encouraging. It can be raining bodies and ash, and you’re standing there rallying the troops with thoughtful and inspirational saccharine. Where does this Pollyanna crap come from?” The minute the word Pollyanna left his lips, he knew he should have shut up. Then it occurred to him that maybe he should have shut up well before the word Pollyanna. Whatever.

But she didn’t look too irritated. “Do you know what I did for a living, back before?” she asked. In fact, she was smiling again.

He thought. “No.”

“I was a writer. Freelance. I wrote marketing materials for corporations. I got really, really good at making stuff up.”

Ford laughed out loud, then reached over to toast her. She met his mug with a clink, then cradled the mug in her lap.

“I thought it would be easier by now. To get up in the morning, I mean.” Her tone of voice was so ordinary he almost missed the wistfulness of her words.

“It’s not?”

She shook her head. “For the first couple of months, every morning when I’d wake up, before I even opened my eyes, I would start to cry. Because I’d woken up.” She avoided his eyes.

“And now?”

“Same feeling. I just ran out of tears.” Then she smiled ruefully, obviously remembering that she’d been on the verge of tears just a few minutes ago. “Well, mostly.”

Ford noted the way rubbed-in dirt drew dark lines around her fingernails. Her hands were clean, as if she’d recently washed them, but her fingernails were beginning to remind him of his own. The nails of someone scrabbling hard for traction.

“If you don’t believe in the Pollyanna crap you tell everyone else, how do you get up in the morning?”

She thought for a moment. “It’s not that I don’t believe there’s hope. Or…that’s not right. Let’s try this: at least I believe we should believe in hope. I may not feel it myself, but that doesn’t mean hope is wrong. And if I can help other people feel it, that’s good.” She tapered off as Ford cocked his head.

“Huh?”

“Okay, that sounded stupid to me, too. I guess I’m saying I personally don’t care if I live through another night. But enough of me cares that the human race survives, so I’m willing to get up in the morning and try to make a dent in the battle.”

“So…revenge is your motivation?”

She shook her head. “Not at all. If it were about revenge, I’d quit right now. I don’t have the energy for something that…destructive. If revenge was all I had, I’d lie down and let the bastards take the world and welcome to it. No, I have to feel like what I’m doing is positive somehow—building or saving something, not destroying something. Of course, if the bastards happen to vaporize while I’m building something constructive, that’s just a bonus.”

“Okay. Pollyanna with a vindictive twist.”

She shrugged. “If you say so.”

Ford chuckled.

“Your turn. What makes you get up in the morning?”

“What makes you think I need help getting up?”

There was something about the way she was looking at him that felt too intimate. Like she was plumbing his soul for depth. Boy, was she going to be surprised when she realized his soul was barely skin-deep. “It’s pretty easy, really. Get up, shoot some stuff, go to bed. Repeat.”

She continued to watch him, looking almost amused. In a frog-dissecting sort of way. “That’s it? No driving ambition? No burning desire for revenge, or power, or anything?”

Just like that, he was staring at the burnt-in afterimage in his head of Jamie covered in pustules and falling to the ground. A school bus swarming with flies, dead kids scattered inside like discarded laundry. A smug look on a turd-shaped face as the twenty-foot-long alien ran down and trampled an old woman, its six legs deceptively fast in Earth’s gravity. The woman had just given Ford a battered can of beans. Anger flared in him, and it took a few seconds to tamp it back down to its regular smolder. He swilled the last of his whiskey.

“Nope, I got nothing.”

As he reached for the bottle again, she said, “You’ve got a whole lot of anger for someone who doesn’t care.”

Of course she knew he was angry. Everyone knew that. It was the key to his survival. From the time he woke up until he fell asleep at night, he was angry. And most nights, in his dreams he was even worse.

“Okay, I’ve got anger. I’ve got boat-loads of anger. Mountains of it. Enough anger to power a good-sized star for a few eons. What’s wrong with that?”

“Nothing.”

He stared at her. He’d been ready to unleash on her. “What? No Pollyanna rah-rah speech? Aren’t you going to tell me to calm down, everything’s going to be alright?”

“No.” She shrugged. “Why would I do that?”

He felt slightly disoriented without an outlet for his outrage, and it dissipated as quickly as it had risen. “Because you just said that’s what you do. Give people hope. Calm them down. Channel them into constructive endeavors. Right?”

“When they want it, sure, I can try. You telling me you want that?”

“No.”

“Didn’t think so. So what do you want?”

What he wanted right this minute was to hit something. Maybe throw his mug at the wall, except that two walls were tied up and the other two were made of cloth. Shove a knife into an alien eye, right up to the hilt. Suddenly he felt tired, exhausted even.

“What I’d really like is to wake up someday and feel something besides anger.”

For a long while, they sat in the meager shade of the tent, saying nothing, dripping sweat, and sipping rot-gut. Eventually they began to talk about nothing. Patrol schedules. Food supplies. The half-starved dog with the absurdly waggy tail that someone had adopted and dragged into camp. How drying underwear had become the official camp flag. Finally, when the sun burned into the horizon and the western sky bled copper, Helena stood up to leave.

Ford stood up, too—a strange, nearly forgotten habit from a time more concerned about manners.

She paused at the tent’s doorway and smiled at him. “Thank you for the…whatever that was,” she said, gesturing to the half-empty bottle on his desk. “And for the hiding place.”

“Anytime. And don’t worry, I won’t tell a soul you cried.”

Her smile turned into a grin. “Good. And I promise I won’t tell a soul you were nice.”

“I’ll deny every word. And don’t make me be nice again, or I may have to kill you.”

Her grin didn’t waver. “I know. I might be depending on that.”

As she pivoted and ducked out of the door, he said, “On me being nice, or me killing you?”

She paused and flashed him a downright mischievous smile. “Well, I don’t think you’re capable of the one, so that must leave the other.”

As she stepped into the darkness, Ford puzzled over which was which. Then he walked out to find his crew sitting around a cardboard box that had been pressed into service as a card table.

“There must be one more bottle of decent red wine on this earth. Two days R ‘n’ R for the person who brings it to me.”

 

——

When freelance writer Kelley J. P. Lindberg isn’t writing, reading, hiking, or sailing, she’s traveling as far and as often as she can. If there’s still time left over, she’s blogging at www.KelleyLindberg.com.

——

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Tommy Dean

Everything in Nature Longs for Safety

A father and daughter stand at the edge of the lake. Early May, the sand is still gummy from the spring. The breeze cold and sharp, the water too frigid to even put their toes in. The orange ball buoys rock back and forth sealing them in, demanding that they go no further. They’re not here to swim, but to run.

The father puts his arm around her shoulder, but this feels wrong to both of them. Their moments of familial intimacy were over the day her mother entered into hospice care.

The father drops his arm, shoves his hands into his pockets and kicks at a bottle cap wedged in the sand.

“I guess there are some things I’m supposed to say.”

“What can anyone say?”

“About life. And death, too.”

“We could pretend. Pretend we already have. I’d be okay with that.”

“Would your mother?”

The girl bent at the waist, stretching, touching her toes. “Not sure, actually. But Daddy…” her voice breaks, water, even on a lake, climbing over itself to reach the beach. Everything in nature longs for safety. “How much longer will it matter?”

“Days, I guess. Though those doctors have been wrong before.”

“I hate them a little. Is that wrong?”

“No, hate’s good. It’ll keep you warm, keep you moving even when you want to stop.”

“That’s what I should do? Move?”

A track scholarship. Division II but it will pay the tuition.

“I’ve been wrong about a lot of things. I’d like to be right about this.”

The girl pulls her ankle back, still stretching. She switches legs and counts to ten. Both feet back on the ground, she bounces from the balls of her feet to her toes like a rocking horse recently dismounted.

“Could we run now?”

“Go ahead. I need… Go on now just watch your step.”

He reaches out a hand to pat her on the head, to pull her close, but even as a child she was too busy to ever sit for long. She’s halfway up the beach, his hand balancing between sky and sea, trying to grasp a ghost.

 

——

Tommy Dean is the author of a flash fiction chapbook entitled Special Like the People on TV from Redbird Chapbooks. A graduate of the Queens University of Charlotte MFA program, he has been previously published in the Watershed Review, Wilderness House Literary Review, r.kv.r.y, Boston Literary Magazine, Foliate Oak, and Gravel. Find him @TommyDeanWriter on Twitter.

——

Richard Weiser

Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem 
or 
A dream about The Lady and The Unicorn

The sad fact is we are running 
out of blue. So we'll use red 
instead and a thousand flowers
to bedeck the gaudy sky. 

The trees are striking, but draw your 
attention here to the cool smooth 
spiral of horn, mouthwatering tang 
of a tourtelete, heady fragrance 
of daisies, the plaintive toot 
of a portatif, your inverted gaze 
returned in a mirror. 

Like monkeys we are, in all but 
this, my sole desire: to know 
the unprovable. In truth, our 
systems cannot see themselves.


——

Richard Weiser is a musician and playwright. His work has been produced at The Toronto Fringe Festival. He’s written ads for almost 20 years and recently won a Cannes Lion (advertising’s version of the Oscar). Richard studied creative writing at York University with Don Coles and Robert Casto. He’s written a biography of the Canadian painter Tom Thomson (unpublished) and is working on a novel set during the First Crusade.

——

Linda Jaye Bonafield

Winnowed

Don't make a pregnant woman peer:
lips, fingers gnarled...
Uptight with future tantrums,
               pubescent prospects 
                           bait her rousing yell, 
when babe's crooked finger, 
cedes a fated squeeze of steeled 
                 flint.

 those bathtub squirt guns litter a grime, and crusty tile.

his prison walls shower lime, squeezed bitter
on her sliver-cut, painted fingers prepped
to visit vestiges of childhood,
              puerile sprinklers, 
                              in the Yard, Court of Weary
memories baked into lime-frosted cupcakes, 
shared by winnowed friends, innate
                   Inmates.

She sees, and bites her gnarled, teary lip... uptight.


——

Linda Jaye Bonafield has been published in Five Poetry Magazine, Scarlet Leaf Review, and forthcoming in Bluestem Magazine and Panoply. She has two bachelor degrees in Communication-Journalism, and Spanish from The College of Charleston, SC. More of her work is available at: moothalo.wordpress.com

——

Don Noel

The Watchmaker

The old man peers into the case. “I worked on this watch.” He says it ‘vorked on this vatch.’ He screws the loupe from his eye. “A good timepiece. Your grandfather’s? He is still living?”

The fusty workspace, redolent of watch oil, is smaller than the one Henry visited with Granddad, at street level on Main Street, its sign in Gothic gilt letters: D.A. Gordon, Watchmaker. This is in a tired building in a decaying downtown block, neighbored by social-service providers, lawyers, tax preparers, a home-loan agency, a cell phone shop. Like all clients and customers, Henry announced himself on an intercom outside the street door to be buzzed in. The plain-box elevator, as slow as time passing, deposited him in a dim sixth floor hallway. He found the door, the name in smaller Gothic letters, plain black on a frosted-glass window with mesh reinforcement.

“Yes, my grandfather’s. He died last year. I came here with him at least a dozen years ago. No, more.”

Granddad had called it a conductor’s watch: an Admiral, nearly two inches wide, open-faced, filigreed silver case and gold numerals, initials THM engraved on the back. Every railroad conductor had one, he said, checking trains’ progress by drawing watches from vest pockets, fob chains looped through vest buttonholes and anchored by tchotchkes in opposite pockets.

In Henry’s early teens, Granddad wore it—an idiosyncrasy—in his jacket breast pocket, the chain looped through a lapel buttonhole. In Grand Central Station, he would look up to check it against the great stationhouse clock. Later, after twice lengthening the chain and finally unable to bring the watch into focus, he gave it up.

The watchmaker screws the loupe back in. “Yes, I see that. Twenty-two years. 1989. A simple cleaning.”  His face is as deeply lined as a Dürer etching. The bushy Harpo Marx hair Henry remembers is thin now, bone-white: Einstein or a Harry Potter wizard.

Henry was in his teens when Granddad brought him downtown to visit Mr. Gordon. Maybe the watch just handed across the cluttered counter, each visit scrupulously engraved inside the case in Lilliputian characters, a chronographic health history.

“You wear a wristwatch?” The old man’s gimlet eyes have noticed the white on Henry’s suntanned wrist.

“I’m embarrassed. A digital.” He has it in his pocket. It shifts time zones seamlessly when he visits Grandma in California. It has an alarm, stopwatch, timer.

“Everyone has them now. But you use this sometimes?”

“Now and then in Granddad’s memory. I might take it to visit Grandma next month. She’d like seeing it. But it’s stopped running. Didn’t keep exact time when it was working.”

“Of course. Even the best lost or gained a few seconds. A small price for wearing such intricate craftsmanship.” The old man makes it seem a virtue to keep up with neither the crowd nor the precise time. He peers again, pries the back with a tiny screwdriver, cups the works in the palm of his hand. “Mmm-hmm.”

Henry remembers a plate glass window displaying unusual jewelry: earrings of semi-precious stones, one-of-a-kind artisan bracelets. Passersby would stop to admire, Granddad said; then, looking deeper into the shop, they’d see the watchmaker and remember where to come when a watch needed repair. The jewelry helped pay the rent for a man who wanted nothing more than to mend clocks and watches.

Granddad occasionally bought something for Grandma. Walk-ins are unlikely up here, but there are a few necklaces and brooches in a dusty glass case. Loyal customers may still buy to support a last-of-a-kind craftsman. Henry will look closer later. Carol has seemed distant.

There can’t be many new customers. The yellow-page listings under Watches Serv & Repair could only replace a strap or a battery. A listing would probably cost Mr. Gordon more than new customers brought in. Henry found him in the white pages.

“An excellent timepiece,” the old man says. “Needs a mainspring. A collector’s item. Watches like this command a high price, perhaps several thousand. I can look around. You’d sell it? After your trip to your grandmother, of course.”

Several thousand? Carol’s home renovations required a second mortgage. Grandma, thank goodness, offered to buy his plane ticket. But he hasn’t come to sell a legacy. “Noooo. I don’t think so. Hadn’t thought of that. Granddad had this from his father—my great-grandfather. It’s worth repairing?”

“Of course. If the parts are still available. It will be worth more in working order. Pocket watches like this are scarce.”

“The parts aren’t all the same? Not standardized?”

“Ha!” the old man laughs mirthlessly. From a drawer he extracts a flat case with a dozen vials the size of a pinkie finger. He uncaps one, pouring its contents into a triangular ceramic dish, and peers through his loupe to seize a tiny screw in his tweezers.

“They never standardized. Different companies, different threads. Sometimes different from the same company.” He holds the screw up for Henry’s inspection with a rock-steady hand, then pours the screws back into the vial like a pharmacist funneling pills. From a drawer below he takes another case, and again pours out the contents of a vial. “My leftovers.” A thin smile: “Bastard sizes. My orphanage.”

Even without a loupe, Henry sees that they are all different. “Imagine! I had no idea. Yes, let’s bring Granddad’s watch back to life. I’ll think about selling it, but I certainly want it working. How long will it take?”

“Two weeks, three at most. Are there more?”

Henry visualizes the old jewelry box. “Yes. A silver wristwatch. And a gold from his retirement. And one of those self-winders.”

“Bring them when you come back, if you’d like.”

“Perhaps.” He glances at the jewelry case. A trinket for Carol might do what $40,000 of renovations hasn’t. “I may.”

Mr. Gordon pencils his phone number on the stub of a numbered cardboard tag that he ties to the watch, carefully tearing off the stub. “I’ll call and leave a message. Telephone first, please; I arrive late and leave early nowadays.”

The elevator down feels like a time-warp machine. Henry walks out, blinking at bright sunlight and shiny cars in what seems a different century. He is tempted to do a street poll: Anyone wearing a wind-up watch? He finds his car and drives home.

˜˜˜˜

That evening, the watches are in the time-cracked leather jewelry box along with cuff links, tie clasps, and a tiny scimitar — an ivory crescent embracing a minuscule gold star—that once had been on the fob. He can hear Granddad: Gently, young man. That’s a delicate piece. Your great-grandfather’s. A Masonic symbol.

Three watches. Like having your savings in a mattress. Heritage doesn’t pay the bills. He might keep just one to remember Granddad by.

Two weeks later, the watch is ready. Henry arranges to come at mid-morning Saturday. Buzzed in again, he takes the time capsule back up to the wizard’s inner sanctum.

“Ah, Mr. MacNamara.” Mr. Gordon rummages in a drawer, winds the watch, checks the time, hands it over.

“Guaranteed another twenty-two years?” Henry jokes.

“Of course, if you can find me among the living.” That thin smile. “And did you find another of his timepieces?”

Henry takes the silver wristwatch from his pocket and puts it in the old man’s hand.

“A Longines. A fine piece.” He winds it carefully, takes off the back with the twist of a blade and studies it through the loupe. “I saw it in 1985. Needs cleaning. Otherwise seems in good condition. Old enough to be a collector’s item. Did you want to sell it?”

“I might. What’s it worth?”

“There is a small private market I can explore. I act as middleman for a ten percent commission. I’ll show you what the buyer would pay; they respond in writing.”

Henry learned to tell time with this watch. Granddad would hold it up for the little boy on his lap. Now, Henry, the big hand is at the top and the little hand is at four. What time is it?  “That sounds reasonable. In any case, let’s put it into shape. Could you find out its worth and accept an appraisal fee if I don’t sell it? Something on a slip of paper, so my own grandson will someday appreciate it. Or I might sell it.”

“Won’t charge much. Give me a few weeks. Did you want me to look at others?”

Henry takes out a gold Elgin, the back engraved—Terence H. MacNamara—to mark Granddad’s twenty-fifth year with the company. Radium hands and dots on the hours. Hold it to a light bulb, Henry, then hurry into the closet to read the time. The numbers glowed green. Seven or eight years old, he’d spent an afternoon in and out of the closet.

Mr. Gordon winds, examines its face, opens it. “Also a wonderful timepiece. I can probably still replace any worn parts. Not as old as the pocket watch, although probably of significant value. I last had it twenty-four years ago. It is clean; perhaps not used much after that. You’ll sell this, or just have me restore and appraise it?”

The gold secondhand sweeps around the face. Granddad’s testimonial was black-tie. A family table in front, he at the head table to receive a standing ovation. At home two weeks ago, holding it to his ear, Henry had heard muted applause behind the ticking. Maybe this would be the one to keep.

“For now, let’s restore it. And find out its value. I mean apart from sentimental value, with the inscription and all.”

“Of course. I see that you have another?”

A stainless-steel Seiko automatic. Granddad, a gadgeteer, had hardly worn the retirement watch before finding this. Look, Henry, it winds by itself!

“Definitely a collector’s item. The quartz soon came, then the digitals. You would sell this?”

“I think so. For now, though, let’s just restore it. Determine its value. While you have it open, could I just see how it winds itself? I mean, I know in theory—Granddad explained it to me—but I’ve never seen the inner workings.”

He’d been in his teens. It has a little flywheel inside, Henry, whose weight is off-center so it goes around when you move your hand. Granddad slipped it off his wrist. Hold it to your ear, rotate it. Each rotation had produced an audible clunk.

Mr. Gordon unscrews the back. “Take it in your hand. The winding mechanism is quite visible.”

Henry sees the off-center flywheel rotate, sees a cog transmit the impulse to wind the mainspring. “Fascinating. It winds in either direction?”

“Yes, of course.”

“And how many revolutions to wind fully?”

“Walking briskly for an hour, arms swinging, was supposed to wind it for a day. You should consider selling it. Collectors love these. It has less sentimental value than the others?”

“You’re right.” Henry could pay down some of the mortgage, perhaps find something for Carol in the showcase. “Absolutely. I don’t need them all as keepsakes.”  The pocket watch is still on the worktable. “Might I take a look into the railroad watch? Borrow a loupe?”

“Of course. Here. Squint as you screw it into your eye socket. Good.” He opens the watch and puts it into Henry’s hand. “The magnification can make you giddy. Bring your hand up until it comes into focus.”

The wheels and cogs are huge, like the machinery in Charlie Chaplin’s parody of modern times. Henry peers; gears swim into view, meshing with others. Gears still deeper in.

And there, as though in Grand Central, is Granddad. He takes this very watch out on its extra-long fob, checks the time. Gives Henry a thumbs-up, then steps behind a gear and is gone.

No, not gone. Just out of time.

——

After retiring from four decades’ prizewinning print and broadcast journalism in Hartford, CT, Don Noel received his MFA in Creative Writing from Fairfield University in 2013. “The watchmaker who inspired this story,” he says, “kept my Seth Thomas clock chiming cheerfully and my watches ticking quietly for many years.” 

His work has so far been chosen for publication by Calliope, Shark Reef, Drunk Monkeys, The Tau, Indian River Review, Midnight Circus, Oracle, Clare Literary Magazine, The Raven’s Perch, The Violet Hour, Literary Heist, Dime Show Review, Yellow Chair Review, Meat for Tea, The Penmen Review, 99 Pine Street, Darkhouse Books, Simone Press and Zimbell House.

——

Juanita Rey

Bounty

I thought he was a sailor
though I never saw him
ever leave the shore.

But other men 
who looked like him
went out to sea,
caught fish,
didn’t hang out at the bar.

My mother never said
a thing about him
in my presence.
He could have been an astronaut
for all I heard from her.

And he,
those few times when 
he made an attempt to see me,
never told me how 
he made his living.
I didn’t know then
that there were people
who didn’t have 
a living to make.

So I kept on believing he was a sailor
because, being young,
I needed all the beliefs
I could get.

And he once gave me a shell
he’d picked up from the beach.
That was as near as he got to salt water,
as near as bringing bounty home to me.


——

Juanita Rey is a poet from the Dominican Republic, residing in the USA. She has been published in magazines such as Pennsylvania English, Petrichor Machine, Pinyon and online at sites such as 2 River Review and Madcap Poets.

——

Andrew Bertaina

The Finger and the War

The woman disappeared into the crowd, leaving him in the crush of commuters—perfumes and plumes of cigarette smoke. He’d never seen her before, and he couldn’t imagine what might have possessed her to press the small wooden box into his hand, now tucked beneath his thumb and forefinger.

He left the station and walked into the early morning chill of the streets. The buildings downtown made wind tunnels, and a few purple crocuses appeared hopefully in median strips. His life, like many, lacked something essential, something he could not define but knew, deep down.

The box carried with it, a feeling that he should open it. He wanted to delay that pleasure, and he crossed over three streets, passing pigeons and overturned trashcans, before sitting on a dew-covered bench in the park.  He opened the box. It took him a few seconds to comprehend what lay on the black velvet bottom, the hinges inlaid with gold, an elaborate decoration of a dragon flying low over a river, sketched on the side. It was a child’s finger.

 

It was morning in Poland, and rain fell from a low scrim of sky. They’d walked along the Vistal River looking for survivors, picking among the debris of houses and shops, bricks and smashed wood. Dogs roamed the streets, whining and sometimes sitting dolefully, looking at the sky, as if they, too, knew where death came from.

He couldn’t be sure whether he saw the girl’s finger first, or whether he heard the whine of incoming planes. But there, beneath a pile of rubble, he saw a child’s finger, moving almost imperceptibly. Overhead, the thrumming of a plane’s engine caused him to hit the ground at his sergeant’s command. And they lay beneath the ruins, taking fire. The sergeant asked if they’d seen anything. Had anyone been alive, and the words caught in his throat. His patrol moved out, and he didn’t look back. By nightfall, the dim sound of anti-aircraft fire in the distance, he decided that the movement had been a trick of his imagination, one more thing to be forgotten when he returned home.

 

He slipped the box into his coat pocket and started home—with a weight suddenly lifted from him. He called his boss and asked for the morning off. He got coffee and watched the steam dissipate like the fog of the years.

He realized now that he’d been living two lives since that day: one, where he walked back amongst the wreckage and pulled the child, maybe dead, out, and this other one, where he worked downtown, had married, and had three children. The two lives were now united through the recovery of the finger, and he to himself.

He was newly awakened to life—the pinkish underside of clouds, dark windows holding morning light, small red buds on trees, the piles of last fall’s leaves in the eaves of houses. Yes. He had made the right decision. He could feel it, deep in the marrow.

——

Andrew Bertaina currently lives and works in Washington, DC. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in more than thirty publications including The Three Penny Review, The Open Bar at Tin House, Hobart, Fiction Southeast, Sierra Nevada Review, Apt, Isthmus, Prick of the Spindle, Bayou Magazine, and Catamaran. He is currently a reader and book reviewer for Fiction Southeast.

——

Fabrice Poussin

Dreaming of Bubbles

Into the Black Hole

Systems

To a Far Away Dawn

Welcome

——

Fabrice Poussin teaches French and English at Shorter University, Rome, Georgia. Author of novels and poetry, his work has appeared in Kestrel, Symposium, The Chimes, and more than two dozens of other magazines. His photography has been published in The Front Porch Review, the San Pedro River Review, and more than one hundred other publications.

 

——

Abhishek Sengupta

The Rhythmic Progression

A maddening music of the mist
dispersed
spread like dreams
of a child
knew nothing but his gifts
wrapped in golden ribbons
on his birthdays
celebrated annually 
every week or so
with vacuum-filled balloons
and only two invitees -
one, a solemn clown
another, a multitude of guests
all rumored to be lost
together
went waltzing, like a breeze
into
a maddening music of the mist
that was
                           #
a nightmare 
wrapped in golden ribbons
for a child
realizing
music is a window
has two sides to it
each side darker than the other
and choosing sides is an option
you cannot choose
not to repeat
until
the maddening music of mists
stops
and you realize
you were the nightmare
wrapped in golden ribbons
dreamt by the solemn clown
invited 
in your birthday bash
celebrated annually
every evening after dark
you kept turning hundred
there.
                              #
Here.

                            *END*


——

Abhishek Sengupta is imaginary. Mostly, people would want to believe that he writes fiction & poetry, which borders on Surrealism and Magical Realism, and is stuck inside a window in Kolkata, India, but he knows none of it is true. He doesn’t exist. Only his imaginary writing does, and has appeared or is forthcoming in Sheepshead Review, Sonic Boom, MidnightCircus, and Literary Heist. If you’re gifted, you may also imagine him in Twitter @AbhishekSWrites.

Website: https://abhishek-sengupta.com

——

Ashira Shirali

Left Behind

I stepped out of the cab into the blinding sunshine, hastily putting a hand up to my forehead. The day was the kind of bright which made you scrunch your eyes till your nose was ridges and valleys and left magenta spots behind your eyelids. I stumbled towards the café I was supposed to have reached ten minutes ago.

The milk pink ring I had put on so carefully was slipping off my finger without a care for the effort that went into finding it. I held it tightly in my fist, suddenly sure that it would fall through the metal grate into the drain below. The ring simply said ‘best’ and had two little hearts made next to it. Today, after three years my pink ‘best’ would be reunited with Neha’s blue ‘friends’ and Vaishali’s purple ‘forever.’

Neha had visited America in the summer of sixth grade and chosen the trio from a huge rack of accessories with shouting colours. The day she had given them to us we had held them in our hands like pearls retrieved from the deepest ocean, locking the pastel ceramics in our desks before we left for P.E.

As I stepped into the oval of shade under the café awning my eyes were assaulted by more abstract art. Neha and Vaishali were sitting at the farthest table in the café. For the next five minutes I tried to weave my way through the little white tables and overburdened waiters, all of us feeling like we should say something to acknowledge each other but realising that we wouldn’t be heard over the noise, so we kept cement smiles on our faces till our cheeks were two orbs of pain.

When I finally reached the table Vaishali leapt up to hug me, her papier-mâché earrings swinging wildly as if they too were excited to see me. Neha’s silky hair was a river under my chin. We sank into our chairs and started talking of our school days through the cheesy sandwiches and fruity drinks in our mouths.

I noticed mid-chew that neither of them had brought their rings. I slipped the pink circlet quietly into my bag.

Our stomachs were happy knots of pain as we bent over laughing, remembering those high school days which had seemed like viscous gel then and were easy water now. I was always the first to volunteer for any production, waddling around hanging posters; Neha was the only one to have completed any homework assigned to our class, and Vaishali would glue together things she found in unseen corners to make delicate gifts for us.

Somehow Neha always ended up with more papier-mâché dolls than me.

I don’t know when exactly it happened, but at some point I began to feel like my seat was tilting. I noticed that we weren’t sitting in a triangle, but facing each other, with me on one side. When I asked Neha what she had been up to lately, Vaishali chirped in to add details.

I began to feel like I was intruding on something. I looked at the lady sitting at the next table as if I expected her to have a conversation with me, but she just pursed her lips and ordered the lasagne.

Neha and Vaishali continued to ask me questions – How is my roommate? Is the food in college that bad? Do I still like red velvet cake, and if so, should it be ordered for dessert? I felt like I was answering for someone else. I shifted several times in my seat.

At one point Neha reached for the salt and I was sure her hand would hit something in the middle.

Cobalt blue started descending onto the sky outside. Neha and Vaishali hugged me again. We promised to keep in touch. The words felt like cut plastic in my mouth.

When I stepped out onto the street I felt a cold wave wash over me even as heat burned at the edges of my chest. I looked for several minutes couldn’t find a single cab. I walked down the blank street, the pink ring somehow in my hand. I heard a clink as it fell into the drain. I didn’t stop walking.

——

Ashira Shirali is a high school student from Gurgaon, India. Her work has been published in Germ Magazine, Teen Ink and Moledro Magazine and is forthcoming in Parallax Literary Journal. You can find her reading with a cup of tea on most days.

——