Child Logic

Child Logic

by Peter Ngumbah

It cometh like an ice-cream truck cometh, but the song from its mounted speakers is low and sad and drawn out in the more melancholy places. Their vibrations permeate the walls of a hundred sleeping houses, fall into the ears of a thousand adults, stirring them from their slumber. The same song lulls the children into a deeper sleep, induces sweeter dreams than any they could hope to have unassisted.

Through his open window, Matt watches it coming down the street. Its sad bass and falsetto incantations have drowned out the sound of the early bird’s song, even the rustle of leaves, but he hears his neighbours’ door click open and then slam shut. People are emerging from their houses to stare at the boxy vehicle rumbling down the street.

“It’s here,” Matt tells his wife. She sits up in bed and clings nervously to her pillow.

In the house across the street, the curtain flutters and a wrinkled lady’s face appears on the other side of the glass, rollers and pins still in her hair. She sees Matt before she sees the truck; their eyes meet, a fleeting moment of understanding passing between them. She gives him a sympathetic nod and then retreats back behind her beige drapes.

Matt leaves the room and hurries down the stairs, taking them two at a time. At the landing he halts and peeks into Denver’s room. The little boy sleeps, as he should, his little head resting on a pillow, the rest of his body slumped limply against the wall on the other side of the room, sparks occasionally flitting from his neck.

Matt rushes back up the stairs to put on some outside pants.

* * *

As the truck rolls past, a hundred pairs of slippers whisper over their lawns to get to the produce it carries. It pauses in the middle of the street, an odd visitor to the uniform rows of gentrified houses. From his high driver’s perch, Monty observes the approaching horde and nods satisfactorily. This will be a fine place for today’s business; probably home to hundreds of children, and if only a quarter of them got injured this past month—

He checks that his cash till has ample room.

When the truck’s steel shutter goes up a cold mist goes forth from it, enveloping the feet of the nearest man, the very first customer of the day. The man is disheveled, wide eyed and sleepless. Monty takes in all the pertinent details, each observation telling a little more of the man’s story.
“What can I do for you today, sir?” Monty asks.

The man tiptoes, his nose an inch from the counter-top.

“My little girl—” the man pauses and looks around nervously. Everyone else patiently awaits their turn, each keeping a respectful distance from their neighbour. No eyes meet. No words are exchanged; the only sound is the sad song from the speakers, and it goes on and on, never-ending.

The man hands Monty a card.

“I see,” Monty says, examining the card. “Car accident. Broken ribs and femur, bipedal locomotion currently impossible. This is a relatively recent unit. I have the parts in store.”

The refrigerated unit in the back hisses when Monty muscles it open, and beeps when he puts the card into a receiving slot. A whirring follows, gears grind, and the required parts flow out of the cold mist, held and drawn forward by gentle gripping arms on conveying machinery. A single pudgy leg, detached at the hip, and a series of slender rib pieces shine dimly in the light of the morning sun.

Monty packs them in a bag, accepts payment, and the queue moves forward.

Matt hands Monty a card.

“My son had an accident in the tool shed. Axe fell off a high shelf. Grizzly business.”

Monty examines the card, his brow furrowing deeply at what he is seeing.

“This is no good,” he says, shaking his head. “With the physical logic bus damaged to this extent, it will have to go back to the factory. Looks like you’ll also need a new power relay to relink the head. It’ll cost you.”

“How much?”

“Too much,” Monty opines. “It might be cheaper to get another child in the long run. Perhaps one of the newer models.”

“We’ve had this one for over ten years now! We’ve sunk thousands into new parts every other year. We can’t just start over.”

Monty shrugs. This kind of this had been happening with increasing frequency, particularly with the older models as they approached their teens. They just weren’t as many safeguards build into them.

“I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do,” Monty says. After a moment of thought, he reaches below the counter and produces out a pamphlet. “Here’s a company offering some top of the range models. It might give you some idea of what to look for when you shop.”

Matt takes the pamphlet and looks blankly at its colourful pages. Children smiling, running around, playing amongst themselves. They looked exactly like human children. Only better, cleaner, more cooperative. Just like the company motto inscribed on the top of the page: Better than the real thing.

“Alright,” Matt says evenly, turning back to his house. “I—I’ll inform the wife.”

His neighbours part to let him through, some tapping him consolingly on the shoulder.

“Perhaps,” Monty calls after him, “you can try a girl this time.”

After all, Monty thinks as his next customer steps forward, if you don’t like it, you can just change out the parts.

◊ ◊ ◊

Peter Ngumbah
Peter Ngumbah, is 26 years old, born and raised in Nairobi, Kenya, where he spends most of his time working on his first young-adult novel and more comic and TV scripts than is probably acceptable. He tends to lean into the dark and macabre side of fiction, and now, voyaging into the world of flash and short fiction, that appears to stay true.

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Lost Boys of Cancun

Lost Boys of Cancun

by Jahla Seppanen

It was the end of the day and the local snorkeling guides let their bottoms sag below their hips. A gradient pale to blush like the Mexican sunset took camp on their backsides. Fading dark coco to coffee, caramel, tawny then light beige below the hip. I wondered how many years they had spent in the sun, hauling tourists to and from the reef.

The head guide’s name was Angel, and those of us in the boat tried to mimic the pronunciation of his name without a harsh ‘g’. For the most part we sounded wrong, but Angel laughed at us and it became a sort of game. The fat British man who weighed down the other side of the boat continued trying when the rest of us stopped. I watched Angel for a change in his face that would signal annoyance. It never came. Instead he wrangled the lever sticking out from the motor and turned the boat toward the shore. A woman’s name was written across his left chest. Either she had two first names or it was both the first and middle, I’m not sure. It could have been two different women with two different names. I didn’t ask. All I said was “Thank you, gracias”, and “I need another mask, mine’s leaking”.

The second guide, who led our group through the water to a remote patch of coral and sting rays, was skinnier and taller than Angel, older perhaps, but with the same young face belonging to a tribe of lost boys. At first glance I thought he was flirting with me, but the look remained all day and in his looks with other women and men too. There was a lightness on his cheeks. An innocence only kept by living so close to the ocean. I felt it in myself after only one day. A frenzy quieted by the underwater roar. Expansion I couldn’t put into words. I felt very comfortable in the boat with Angel and the other—his name I don’t remember.

As we returned to the beach from hours at the reef, Angel’s swim trunks drooped showing a stretch of his crack, reminding me of the painted cherubins of the Renaissance. Just above his hip, below the woman’s name, was another tattoo outlining two dancing skeletons with heads too large for their bodies. The drawing fell away at the bottom, unfinished.

While Angel maneuvered the motor from the back, the other guide lay belly down on the forward of the boat, leaning starboard. His shorts were ripped in the rear seam. I saw a nettle of dark hair before turning away. Facing the ocean, water kicked up from the speed of our barrelling and splashed on my lips, puckered from hours at the reef. My arms were cold, but redness burned on my neck where the baby hairs grew still through my mid-twenties. I covered the area with my hand and watched Angel. He looked sad returning to shore, like it held some quiet execution. Perhaps trouble with the girl on his chest. Skeletons wading in the sandbar searching for their feet. His eyes were wet like they were made of glass and I could picture him crying very easily, over a girl or lost comrade. Over simpler things too. But he soldiered us to dock without cowardice for whatever doomed him.

The guide at the front of the boat was laughing with a group of black women- their nails painted the colors of different fish. They watched him and he watched the ocean, all with the same desire. Suddenly I wished to return to the reef, feeling I hadn’t looked as hard as I could at the circular inlays of coral and schools of passing fish. I might never be back and had thought the whole time of my mask and the rubber flippers rubbing the knuckles of my toes raw.

My husband watched as Angel helped me from the boat.

“Good job, lady,” he said.
Gracias,” I said.
“You did it,” my husband said. “I didn’t think you would.”
“Of course I did it,” I said. “It was easy.”
“Now back to the resort,” my husband said, putting his arms through the sleeves of his pineapple shirt.
“We have a little while, don’t we?” I asked.
“Only twenty minutes before the bus comes.”
“Let’s tip them,” I said.
“We didn’t bring any cash.”
“I’ve got a little.”

I dug through the small backpack I brought to the cove and withdrew five American dollar bills. I thought of giving it all to Angel. Then, of giving all to the other boy for a new pair of shorts. I didn’t know who needed it more, or whether it would insult one to give it solely to the other, or whether their flirtations and sadness were untrue, and I had been manipulated very finely to feel this way.

The strange thing about Mexico is I always felt I was cheating or being cheated. I fingered through the dollar bills, damp and scratched with sand. It didn’t feel like enough.

◊ ◊ ◊

Jahla Seppanen
Jahla Seppanen grew up off-the-grid in the small town of Madrid, NM. She was born and raised in Santa Fe and moved to New York where she received a BA in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. She currently writes for SGB Magazine in Colorado. Her fiction has been published in Fourteen Hills, Bookends Review, and Litro UK, among others. Her vices include long runs, tequila with mango juice, and men with large shoulders.

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Living Necropsy

Living Necropsy

by Kellee Kranendonk

One year after humans. Or is it ten? I don’t know. I do know that this planet has been abandoned. Have I also been abandoned, or just forgotten? That can’t be possible, the other Matayans have to be here somewhere.

I walk down a plant-covered passageway and try to imagine what kind of cataclysm could have driven Earth’s inhabitants away. But I don’t know the planet well enough, I’ve only been here once before, for a short time. I recall my time here then, standing on a street corner playing my sithara. Each strum of the strings told a story but no one seemed to understand. A few humans stopped and dropped coins into the sithara’s case. A nice gesture, but not what I wanted. I soon left the planet, frustrated.

But upon return to my own planet I found it being attacked, my people leaving in sizeable groups in whatever form of ship they could find. Is that what has happened here on Earth? It doesn’t look war-torn or assaulted, just empty. I wonder what happened in the time I’ve been gone. It seems mere days to me yet the passage of time here on Earth has been obviously far greater.

It occurs to me that I could have been the upheaval. Had the music of my sithara damaged them in some way? Had my leaving caused turmoil. It doesn’t seem likely but I recall the story of the rezati’s wings. Just pulling off one can change monumental things in your future.

I reach the end of the passage, where the most luxuriant greenery grows. I kneel and gently push the vines apart, looking for a clue as to what had caused Earth’s abandonment.

Insects scramble away from the intrusion, of light, of possible danger. My stomach growls so I rub my fingers together then thrust them into the leaves. I’ve never actually eaten any of Earth’s insects because very few humans did that. Instead I’d managed to choke down salty potato sticks and ground-up animal patties stuck between dry bread slathered with colourful condiments, then washed it all down with a fizzy drink they called pop.

Humans seemed to enjoy it but I’d much rather have been dining on Earth’s huge variety of insects. Now I had my chance.

Attracted to my body heat and the oils in my skin (brought to the surface with the rubbing), the bugs gather on my hand. I curl my fingers slowly into a cup, draw my hand up, then choose the biggest insect, the juiciest. I bite down, savouring the flavour. It had been too long since my last meal.

I carefully choose another insect and its taste drives me crazy. I rip into the lush greenery searching for more, wanting that taste on my tongue again. Pulling bugs from their safety, I reject a few and sample a few others. There are many good flavours, but nothing that matches what I desire. Soon, the various tastes don’t matter. I just need to fill my empty belly. I shove them into my mouth, even swallowing some whole.

When I’m finally sated I lay on top of the torn vines to rest. It only takes a minute to hit me. . . the cramps, the ache in my muscles. In my hungered frenzy, I’d eaten something that didn’t agree with me, maybe even poisonous to me. Stupid! I remind myself of how little I know about this planet, and recall what I do know: perhaps there’s a reason the people of this planet don’t consume their insects.

As suddenly as it began, the pain stops. But now I can’t move, can’t even open my eyes. I hear rustling footfalls, voices. There’s silence as fingers poke and prod at me. A dear friend from the ship calls my name. I make every effort to reply, to move a body part, even just a finger, but nothing happens.

“We must do a necropsy,” says a voice I recognize as the ship’s doctor.

“Now? Here?” his assistant, whom I knew well, replies.

“We need to know what killed her.” The doctor again. “This is as good a place as any.”

But I’m not dead, I scream, only they can’t hear me. More rustling, other noises. No! Please, no. I beg but my plea is in my mind only. Terror strikes through me, but my heart, like the rest of me is now paralysed. If their knives don’t kill me, surely this will. Tears stream down my face, or at least it feels that way. I know there are no tears for if there were, they wouldn’t do this terrible thing to me.

A knife slices my flesh.

I scream again . . .

◊ ◊ ◊

Kellee Kranendonk
Kellee Kranendonk is a Canadian writer, a wife, mom, and the editor of Youth Imagination Magazine. She’s been published most recently in such magazines as Voluted Tales, 365 Tomorrows, Aurora Wolf, The Fifth Di, 101 Words, and Flash Fiction Press. Her non-fiction has appeared on the Write Well, Write to Sell websites.
https://sites.google.com/a/silverpen.org/kellee-kranendonk—canadian-writer/

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Expiration Date

Expiration Date

by M.C. Neuda

The way I see it, all of us have a built-in expiration date, a combination of synapse and sinew. We’re taught to think the brain is all-powerful, that what happens, happens because of our minds. Think it through, that’s the watchword.

The fact is, our minds don’t decide anything. Our synapses and sinews decide for us.

Johnny worries about his high cholesterol. The best minds have come up with a drug for that. Johnny takes it faithfully. “Not going to have no fucking heart attack,” he says. He’s not uneducated. He just likes talking that way.

Johnny came home drunk last night. He’s been doing that a lot lately, ever since he lost out on a construction contract. The beatings have gotten worse.

“He’ll kill you one of these days, you know that, don’t you?” said my sister.

I know that. My brain says go. My synapses and sinews stay put.

“The trouble with you is,” my sister says (my sister always knows what my trouble is), “you think you need someone to protect you.”

I do need someone to protect me. I’m scared all the time. My sis won’t admit she is too. She has someone to protect her; he just doesn’t beat her.

“All you need,” she adds, “is a good sledgehammer.”

Johnny doesn’t need a sledgehammer. His arms and fists do just fine. He came near to killing a man one night when he was drunk as a skunk over a dinged fender. It was Johnny’s fault, too. I finally pulled him off the guy and got a fist in the face for it. Knocked out a couple of front teeth. As I sat on the ground holding my mouth, he said: “What are you crying for? I’ll get you new ones.”

See, Johnny isn’t all bad, and he thinks he can always make it right. He bought me new teeth, both of them, and that can set you back an ugly penny.

Besides, Johnny does protect me. That’s how I met him. He was friends with my first love, Glenn. One day, he saw Glenn hauling off on me, pulled him aside, tried to talk sense into him, and ended up with punching him into my past.

Too bad he took up a while later where Glenn left off. The difference was, Glenn didn’t need to get drunk to be nasty. There’s that to be said about Johnny. Also, Johnny knows how strong he is, so he makes sure not to do too much damage to me at any one time. He’s careful that way.

Last night, though, when Johnny came in drunk, it was too close to the last time and I hid. I’d found a crawl space in the attic, and in any case, I didn’t think he’d make it up the rickety ladder. When he couldn’t find me, he went into a rage and killed my cat. That lovely creature that never hurt him a day in his life. I loved that cat, more than Johnny and Glenn combined.

Something happened to me. I don’t quite know what. My synapses went wild and my sinews spasmed.

Now, tonight, I’m waiting up. Johnny comes in the door, roaring drunk. “This is your night, bitch,” he yells. I know he’s itching to get hold of me, since I cheated him of it the night before.

I come into the room carrying a pail. I’m so surprised how calm I am. I wind up and sling the contents over him.

He staggers back. I flick a lighter, toss it at his feet.

“Welcome to the end of your life, Johnny,” I say as he lights up like a Christmas tree.

Funny how Johnny always worried that his expiration date had something to do with cholesterol. He didn’t understand. Johnny couldn’t not be a bully. That’s who he was. Born or made that way doesn’t matter. Nor could I help that I was born or made in a way where I stood up less for myself than for a cat. Synapses and sinews.

I know what my sister will say. “You’re free now.” But of course I’m not. All I did was exchange one prison for another.

Makes me wonder about my own expiration date.

◊ ◊ ◊

M.C. Neuda
M.C. Neuda honed her skills writing such corporate page-turners as training programs, sales copy, and business articles. She focuses now on exploring other subtleties of the human condition in short stories, and the more compressed the form, the more she delights in it. She has previously been published in The Bellingham Review and The Piedmont Literary Review, and Shotgun Honey has just published one of her flash fiction pieces.

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A Nobody

A Nobody

by Luigi Pagano

The rain which had been coming down in a steady light drizzle developed all of a sudden into a downpour. Umbrellas mushroomed over the heads of the bereaved gathered at the graveside.

The officiating priest had been caught out by the cloudburst and stood helplessly like a drowning rat, holding his soggy breviary, until a compassionate soul leaped forward to give him shelter. Only then was he able to compose himself once again and resume his mournful dirge in a monotone voice: Earth to earth, ashes to ashes…

“Mud to mud,” Freddy found himself whispering under his breath, looking at the freshly dug mound of earth which was being transformed into a quagmire under the onslaught of the weather.

But he could have, equally, been referring to the dead man’s murky past; for, although some onlookers believed that they were witnessing the final journey of an ordinary man, his past had been far from ordinary. As if to emphasise this point, various men, wearing sombre suits and dark glasses, were watching the proceedings from a respectful distance and trying to appear unobtrusive. To untrained eyes the plainclothes policemen were indistinguishable from the ex-confederates who had come to convince themselves that Don Girolamo Quaglione had not done yet again one of his disappearing acts.

* * *

The phone rang as Freddy Quigley stared at the open window in front of him thinking of a bleak future. He now understood why so many people, facing financial ruin in the times of the Depression, a situation which confronted him now, had chosen to jump to their death rather than submit to the indignity of defeat.

His business enterprises had always been a roller-coaster ride of successes and failures, but up to now he had been able to overcome difficulties. This time, due to the vagaries of the world’s economics, he seemed to have plunged back into a crisis from which he would find impossible to extricate himself, unless a miracle happened. He often told his clients: “The impossible I can do. Miracles take a bit longer.”

But the divine intervention he was seeking came almost instantaneously in the form of a call from his bank manager.

“Congratulations,” the man said, trying, but not succeeding very well, to conceal the excitement in his voice. “Your bank balance is healthier by a cool five million, you lucky dog.”

Quigley was puzzled. “What do you mean, Jim, how can it possibly be?”

“An inheritance, dear boy. You better come round at once; there are important matters to discuss.”

The four-letter expletive which sprung to Freddy’s lips was diplomatically suppressed to spare the feeling of his secretary, the demure Miss Flinton, whose coral pink ears would have turned crimson red had she heard the profanity. Instead he kissed her fully on the mouth. In his euphoria he failed to notice how enthusiastically she had reciprocated.

All the way to the bank he kept speculating as to the provenance of the legacy. Since his parents had been killed in a car crash, he had been raised by his Aunt Betty and she had died a few years back, penniless.

Inside the conference room of Jim Beresford’s bank, in addition to the manager, representatives of the legal firm of Sedgwick & Sedgwick were also present.

“We are here to execute the last will and testament of the late Girolamo Quaglione,” one of the partners said.

Then, noticing the blank expression on Quigley’s face went on to explain that Freddy’s father had not died in a car crash, as his son believed, but that he had gone into hiding following his agreement to testify against some bosses of the Mafia, of which he was also a member. In return he was given a new identity and promised round-the-clock protection.

“If he was, as you say, a gangster,” Quigley interjected, “then his money is tainted.”

“No, it is absolutely legitimate,” the banker said hurriedly—conscious perhaps that he was on the verge of losing a very wealthy customer—“hundred per cent kosher.”

“You see,” Sedgwick senior elucidated, “your father was handsomely rewarded for his co-operation with the authorities and made very shrewd investments which grew into the tidy sum you are about to inherit. So you needn’t be concerned about ethics.”

“There is only one condition attached to the will,” he added, “and this is that you should attend the funeral which will take place in his native village, where your mother still lives.”

Learning that he was a mobster’s son and that his mother was alive was a double whammy for Freddy, but all he could think was the absurdity that he had been requested to be a witness to the last rites of a man of whom he had only distant memories. He could not reconcile the portrayal of his father as a callous gangster with his hazy recollection of him, serenely reclining in a leather chair in his library with a cigar in one hand and glass of brandy in the other while at the same time nursing a fluffy white cat on his lap.

Finally, having satisfied all the legal requirements, he went back to his flat unaware that Miss Flinton was still at the office waiting for his return in the vague hope that they would resume where they had left off.

Freddy had been given a bulky folder of documents which had belonged to the late lamented—although he doubted whether that was the appropriate terminology. Among the contents he found several newspaper clippings and a letter addressed to Alfredo Quaglione. He felt he had no right to read other people’s correspondence until he realised with a jolt that he was the intended recipient.

“Of course,” he thought, “Freddy is not a diminutive of Frederick but of Alfredo.”

He too had acquired a new identity.

The letter was very terse and a bit of an anticlimax, not adding anything to what he already knew:

“Dear Son,
When you read this I will no longer be on this earth. Even though I neglected you during my lifetime, you have been constantly in my thoughts. Please forgive my past indiscretions. My last will and testament, lodged with the firm of solicitors Sedgwick & Sedgwick, will show how I intend to dispose of my fortune. The executors should by now have contacted you.
I hope you will be able to avail yourself of my bequest.
Your loving father, Girolamo.”

The press cuttings were more revealing and gave him some insight into the world of organised crime.

He began to scan the reports of drug busts and internecine wars in the criminal fraternity, but the name of his father was never at the forefront although his presence, a kind of Mr. Big, lurked in the background, always hinted at but never spelled out. The few times he was mentioned were in relation to the trial in which he had testified, although his part had deliberately, and understandably, been underplayed given the sensitivity of the case. Another minor item of news referred to his ‘disappearance’. Despite all this information, Don Girolamo’s character remained as elusive as ever.

* * *

Freddy was the last to leave the cemetery; all the other guest had already gone ahead for the wake and to pay their respects to Donna Carmela.

As he approached the spacious villa, set in acres of ground long forgotten memories were rekindled. He remembered how the villagers seemed to be in awe of his family, an attitude which at the time he had interpreted as respectful to his father’s standing as an influential businessman and landlord.

He saw the long line of black limousines parked on the driveway and felt a sense of déjà vu. It reminded him of the fleet of cars which disgorged Girolamo Quaglione’s associates whenever he convened a meeting. They always displayed an air of bonhomie and greeted each other with big hugs. Even their sudden departure following an urgent telephone call had seemed perfectly natural: they were on their way to yet another conference. In retrospect Freddy could recall that these people had an aura of menace about them and he now knew that they were not the legitimate financiers they professed to be.

When at last he plucked up courage to go into the house, he was led to the study which he entered with some trepidation. His mother was regarding him more with curiosity than affection, Freddy sensed. Even in her old age, she retained the handsome looks and dominant personality of her youth.

Siediti,” she said, “sit down, Fredo, and let me look at you.”

“I am so glad that you didn’t take after your father,” she continued. “He was a nobody.”

There was contempt in her voice. “He managed to con people into believing that he was a capo, but he was just a foot-soldier in the organisation. He broke the law of omertá, the code of silence, and had to be punished. The piovra, the octopus, has long tentacles and in the end got to him. His was not a natural death.”

“So,” Freddy ventured to enquire, “if he was not the Mr. Big, who is the Godfather?”

For the first time, she smiled: “You are looking at her.”

She then delicately raised a china cup to her lips and took a sip of tè al limone.

◊ ◊ ◊

Luigi Pagano
Luigi Pagano was born in Italy and now lives in England. He have published three collections of poems, entitled Idle Thoughts, Reflections and Poetry On Tap. His work has appeared in several anthologies, including UKAuthors anthologies and ABCTales magazines and has also been featured in Take Five Poets and Kiss of the Sun (I*D Books), Land of Stories (BarNone books), Aged To Perfection (Gwanwyn). He is a regular contributor to the websites ABCtales.com, UKAuthors.com and a relatively newcomer to The Flash Fiction Press.

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Blind

Blind

 by Tilia Klebenov Jacobs

If Cecelia could have seen the apartment, she might not have walked in. If she could have seen the blinds, which had been drawn tight against the perfection of June sunlight, hastily snapped open and filling the room with swarms of grey dust; if she could have seen the crooked sofa, propped up at one end with half a cinderblock and covered with red cushions that were blotchy as bruised fruit; if she could have known that the framed print of “Ten Rules for a Happy Marriage” was hung deliberately askew to hide a hole punched in the plaster behind it; then Cecelia might very well have said, “Home, Ranger,” and strode swiftly away, one hand on the harness, while Ranger guided her along the sidewalk at twice the pace of the cane-tappers who didn’t have dogs.

But Cecelia did not see the apartment, and though she did feel the unevenness of the porch steps and the stuffiness of the room as the door opened, she found no reason not to enter.

“Melody,” said a voice, and Cecelia thrust her hand in its direction. It met another hand, and they clasped each other. The voice was cheerful, but there was something strained and tight under it.

“Cecelia,” she replied. “And this is Ranger.”

Melody held the door open. “Come right in. There’s a step here, so—good. Oh, he’s beautiful. Where do you leave him when you come to church?”

“He stays under the pew.”

“Amazing.”

Ranger, a gold and black German shepherd, led his owner in, Cecelia hitching up the strap of her bag so it wouldn’t fall off her shoulder. “Is the piano in here?” she said. “And where is my student? I brought some beginner books since you said you didn’t have any. I can leave the first one with you so Mark has something to practice from, but by next week I expect him to have his own.”

“Of course,” burbled Melody. ”The piano is—over here—.” She faltered, but Cecelia and Ranger followed her voice and Cecelia sat down on the hard bench, setting her bag and purse on the floor. Ranger curled up in a tawny circle next to them, and Cecelia let go of the harness.

“I wish I could get my son to do that,” chuckled Melody.

“Difficult kid?”

“Oh, no. Just high-spirited,” said Melody. “I think this will be just the right thing for him. I loved music when I was his age. Used to play for hours.”

“Piano?”

“Radio.”

“Ah.”

Cecelia waited for some indication that Melody was joking, but instead the other woman said only, “It meant so much to me.”

Cecelia stretched her hands over the keys and hit one note. It twanged. She frowned, but said only, “Where is he?”

“Mark? Oh, my goodness, I’m so sorry. He’s still asleep—teenagers—I’ll get him,” Melody almost babbled. “And—can I get you anything?”

“Just a student would be fine.”

While Melody vanished to get her son, Cecelia played a brief and abortive jingle on the piano. Each note was wrong in a different way. It was as though the keys had never spoken to each other. Ranger’s ears twitched. In a sitcom he would have sat on his haunches, tossed back his head, and howled. Cecelia frowned again. Could Melody truly have no idea how horrible this was?

“This is Mark.” Melody’s voice was bright and taut. Cecelia twisted, extending her hand; but this time no one took it.

Mark Garrick was a sullen boy of thirteen with an aversion to eye contact. He wore Vans and baggy jeans that barely clung to his thin frame. His tee shirt was long and loose, and he kept his hands jammed into his pockets as though afraid one of them might accidentally be polite on his behalf. His lank hair hung in his eyes, which were red-rimmed and squinted angrily at the dusty light in the living room. A teacher seeing him would have prayed, “Please, not in my classroom.” A counselor would have thought, “Hostility toward authority, attention deficit disorder, defensive-reactive syndrome.” But Cecelia waited for a voice, and when none came she thought, Shy or rude.

“Why don’t you sit down with Cecelia, Mark?” said Melody when the silence threatened to break like a stretched wire.

“It’s Mrs. Sharpe,” said Cecelia. “But yes, please sit down.” She slid to one side to make room for him.

Mark rocked on his heels, scowling. Finally, hands still deep in his pockets, he spoke. “This is stupid.”

Melody fluttered. “Just give it a try, sweetie. Please? For me?” Her hand touched his shoulder.

He jerked away from it. “I’m not five, Mom.”

Melody became crisp, but there was still a pleading quality to her voice. “Then let’s say you prove it and sit down.”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Because. It’s stupid.”

“Mark—”

“I never said I wanted music therapy. This was your idea. So why don’t you sit down, Mom?” He imitated her mincingly, a high, tight note in his voice that was so accurate it would have been funny had it not been so clearly intended to wound.

“I’m not a music therapist,” said Cecelia. “I’m not sure who told you I was, but—”

“He’s been in therapy since he was six,” said Melody reasonably. “The only thing missing now is the music.”

Cecelia reached for her books. “Look. I can see you two have some things to sort out, so why don’t you give me a call when things are more settled? No charge for today.”

“No—wait. Mrs. Sharpe. Celia. Cecelia.” Melody spoke in fragments, everything broken and wrong.

“Bye, Mrs. Sharpe.”

“Mark!”

“Let her go, Mom. This was your stupid idea.”

“I’ll see you in church,” said Cecelia.

“No, please. If you’ll just wait a moment,” said Melody. “Mark.” And they left the room. Cecelia sat on the piano bench in wonderment, the books on her lap.

Melody and Mark went into his room and shut the door. The bed was unmade, the bare mattress showing under a clump of sheets and a pillow without a case. The windows and blinds were shut tight against the June afternoon. It smelled of old sweat and smoke and something acidic. Melody flicked on the light and turned to face him. “Please, Mark. Just give it a try.”

“No.” He scowled, arms tight, fists clenched at his sides.

“Why not, honey?”

“Because this is just another one of your fucked-up ideas, Mom. Only stupider.”

“Mark—”

“Stupider than rehab,” he went on in a rush. “You know what rehab is, Mom? It’s where kids like me hang out so we can get even better at lying and getting high.”

“It was rehab or the hospital again,” she said.

“Oh, yeah, the hospital,” he snarled. “Staring at a white wall all day so all you can think about is doing drugs.”

“It was supposed to help. They said—”

“They said! They said! Do you ever listen to what I say?”

“I’m listening right now. Just tell me what you want.”

“I want you to leave me alone!”

Melody sighed. “And look what happens when I do.”

“Leave me alone, Mom.”

“Mark.”

“Music therapy, Mom?” said Mark. “Really?”

“What’s wrong with it?”

“It’s stupid,” Mark almost yelled. “Stupider than the groups. Stupider than all twelve steps put together. And stupider than that stupid shrink you love so much who tells you how to fix your problem child. Jesus, Mom, why do you do everything she says?”

Melody stared at him, eyes bleak. “I don’t.”

“Yeah, right.” He crossed his arms and stared back in disgust. But Melody did not look away.

“She says I should put you out.”

“What?” Mark’s head jerked.

“Out. Of the house. Change the locks, move without telling you. Next time you get arrested, maybe.” She sighed. ”Probably won’t be much of a wait.”

“She didn’t say that.”

“Not to you.”

Mark hesitated. “What did you tell her?”

“That I should do it.”

“But you won’t.” He grinned up at her, hard and angry. “You never will.”

“No,” she agreed, “I won’t. Because I’m weak. That’s what love does to you. It makes you weak.”

The walls were thin, and in the silence they could hear the discord of Cecelia testing more keys.

“Why should I do this?” he said finally.

“So you can get well.”

He snorted. “I mean, what do I get out of it?”

“Not money, if that’s what you mean.”

“Then forget it.”

She folded her arms so she and her son mirrored each other. “You’re not getting paid to be in therapy, Mark.”

“This isn’t therapy.”

“It’s part of the big picture,” she said.

“Your big picture. Your picture of perfect little me doing everything you want. Forget it.”

In the other room, Cecelia hit a single note repeatedly, as though willing it to be in tune.

“Don’t you love me at all, Mark?” Melody spoke pleadingly.

He rolled his eyes. “Yeah, fine, I love you, Mom.”

“Then please give this a try. Just for a couple of weeks. If you don’t like it we’ll do something else.”

Mark hesitated, and finally flung his hands at the floor as though flicking off something sticky. “Fine.”

They marched back to the living room and Mark sat on the end of the bench next to Cecilia. “Hey, Mrs. Sharpe, sorry about that.”

Cecilia swung her legs around and sat stiffly, facing the keys. She had replaced the books in the holder on the piano. “Are you ready to start playing, Mark?”

“You bet,” he said cheerfully.

“Oh?” Cecelia did not reach for the keys. “And why the turnaround?”

“My mom wants me to play piano instead of smoking weed and shit,” he said. “Guess music’s gonna be my salvation.”

“Is that right?”

“Nothing else has been.” Mark picked up one of the books and riffled through it, glancing at the titles of the beginner songs. “So let’s save this problem child, okay? You and me, Mrs. Sharpe. Soon as we jingle those bells and get those saints marching, I’ll be a whole new me and you’ll be my mom’s latest superhero.” He slapped the book into the bracket and smashed his hands down on the keys. A painful, twisted sound filled the air as he banged. “Man! I feel clean already.”

Cecelia sighed. “Melody,” she said over her shoulder.

Melody hovered in the doorway. “Yes?”

“We’re done here.” Cecelia gathered the books and bent to slide them into her bag. She stood. “Ordinarily I’d stick it out—I charge by the hour, after all—but this is ridiculous.”

“Oh, hey, Mrs. Sharpe, don’t give up on me now. Things were just getting good. I could feel the healing begin.” Mark stood, and as he did so he grabbed her purse and bolted for the door.

“Mark,” cried Melody.

Cecelia heard the clink of the two chain links on the purse strap as it swept past, and she felt the swish of air as Mark ran. “Ranger,” she said.

The tawny dog, who had not moved since lying down when they entered the apartment, rose in a single, fluid leap and flew between Mark and the door. He did not snarl, nor did he show his teeth; but neither did he move, and Mark stopped, purse dangling from one hand, his bloodshot eyes on the dog.

Melody was sobbing. ”Mark, how could you? Stealing from a—” She glanced at Cecelia’s sightless eyes. “From a woman. How could you?” She wiped her eyes with clenched fists.

Mark let the purse drop to the floor. Keeping an eye on Ranger, Melody picked it up and walked back to Cecelia. “I’m putting it on top of the piano,” she said loudly.

“Yes, I know,” said Cecelia. “And you needn’t shout. I haven’t suddenly gone deaf.”

“Call off your dog,” said Mark. “He’s gonna bite me.”

Cecelia gave a dark chuckle. “If Ranger wanted to hurt you, believe me, you’d know it by now.” She lifted her hand in a signal. “Ranger. Heel.” And the dog trotted past Mark, positioning himself at Cecelia’s side so that she could reach down and grasp his harness.

“Mark,” said Melody desperately, “isn’t there anything you’d like to say to Mrs. Sharpe?”

Mark looked as though there were any number of things he wanted to say to Mrs. Sharpe, but instead he turned an aggrieved face to his mother. “Geeze, Mom, I can’t believe you. This is part of my recovery.”

Melody looked blank. “What?”

“This is it, Mom. The ninth step.”

“The ninth…what?”

Mark’s lower lip trembled. “Mom. I can’t believe you would do this to me. You’re supposed to be keeping track of my steps.”

“Of course I’m keeping track of your steps, honey,” flustered Melody. “I know the ninth one is, um, about confronting your inability to stop doing drugs.”

“We’re supposed to be in this together.” Mark blinked rapidly. “I can’t heal without you, Mom.”

“Oh, Markey….”

“The ninth step is only, like, the most important one. It’s where I make direct amends to the people I’ve harmed.” He swallowed. “I was going to buy you a present.”

“But Mark,” said Melody in despair, “you can’t steal to make amends.”

“I know.” He stared at the floor. “But I feel like I’ve really turned a corner, Mom. This is it. And the thing is, I spent all my money on, y’know, drugs, and I didn’t know how to get any more, money I mean, not drugs, ha ha, and I just really want to make it up to you after all I’ve put you through. And then I saw the purse and I lost my head. I’m sorry.” He looked at Cecelia. “I’m really sorry, Mrs. Sharpe.”

Cecelia, who had been listening in fascinated silence, did not answer. Mark sighed. “I don’t blame you,” he said. “I guess I’ve been bad so long I’ve forgotten how to be good.”

Melody swept forward and enfolded Mark in her arms. “Oh, darling boy,” she cried. “You aren’t bad. You never are. Just your behavior sometimes.”

“This time is different,” he said, voice muffled.

She pushed away. “Really?” Mark saw the flit of hope in her eyes, and Cecelia heard it in her voice.

Mark gave a damp chuckle. “Scout’s honor, Mom. I’m ready. I wasn’t before.”

“Well, that is…wonderful news, sweetheart.”

“I think it might have been the piano playing,” confided Mark.

“Really?”

“No,” muttered Cecelia.

“So that’s why I wanted to get you something,” he went on. “To show you how much I appreciate everything you’ve done for me.”

“I don’t need anything, sweetheart. I just want you to get well.”

“Okay.” He smiled. “But…that ninth step is so important, Mom. And I don’t want anything interfering with my recovery.”

Melody smiled back as she reached for her purse, which hung on a hook by the door. “Oh, silly. There are plenty of other people you could make amends to, you know.”

“Good point, Mom.” Mark’s dark eyes fixed on the purse as his mother fished in it and extracted a small wallet with worn edges.

“So why don’t you start with some of them?” She handed him some bills, folded over. “I think you know who I mean.”

“I sure do. Thanks, Mom. You won’t regret it. This time it’s for real.” He shoved the bills in his pocket and opened the door. “You’re the best mom ever.”

“Be back for lunch—dinner,” she called after him as he jumped over the threshold and down the steps. If he answered, it was swallowed up in the noises of the street.

Melody shut the door. She turned to the piano teacher, beaming. “Look at that!” she exclaimed. “And after just one session with you. You really are a miracle-worker, Cecelia. I’m going to tell everyone at Al-Anon about you.”

Cecelia’s eyes widened. “You can’t be serious.”

Melody gestured at the door. “You heard what he said.”

“Did you?”

“Certainly.” Melody spoke with a firmness Cecelia had not heard before. “He’s gone straight. Finally. It’s been a long time coming, I can tell you.”

“I see,” said Cecelia acidly.

“He’s gone to buy me a present. Even though I told him not to.” She shook her head, smiling. “Kids.”

“He’s gone to get blind,” said Cecelia bluntly. She shouldered her bag and purse, and grasped Ranger’s harness with her free hand. “Do you really not see that?”

But Melody shook her head. ”Not this time,” she said. “This time it’s different.” She held open the door for Cecelia and spoke her last words to the piano teacher.

“You’ll see.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Tilia Klebenov Jacobs
Tilia Klebenov Jacobs is a graduate of Oberlin College and Harvard Divinity School. When Tilia is not writing she is teaching (aka “getting paid for bossing people around”). She has taught middle school, high school, and college; currently she teaches writing classes for prison inmates, and is a judge in the Soul-Making Keats Literary Competition in San Francisco. She is the author of Wrong Place, Wrong Time and Second Helpings at the Serve You Right Café. Tilia lives near Boston with her husband, two children, and two standard poodles. www.tiliaklebenovjacobs.com

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