Tuesday, April 26, 2011

"Anaesthesia" by Faye Blyth

Fizzing fervently, bubbles race to the bottleneck and spill into the throat of your despair. Your tongue swishes the infectious allurement around your teeth and pushes it down through your body to your wearing liver in an unrelenting gulp. Wash it all away.

Find another bottle. Smash the glass and watch your world fall to your feet. Crumble to your hands and knees and lick it up with the ferocity of your animalistic desire, howling amongst blood and shards of glass and pride lying broken on the floor.

Fire scorches your mouth and blazes through your neck and down your chest. A watery sheen forms over your eyes and you blink back the tears. Lift up your head and take a look at the world, rocking back and forth as your eyes chase the dizzying patterns of the world. Shift your weight from one foot to the other and tell the world you’re doing just fine. Twist the cap of your liquid anaesthetic and be numbed once more.

Monday, April 18, 2011

"Duty" by U.I. Ebiz

Of the decimated platoon, only George’s body had returned alive. Beside his hospital bed hung a Silver Star for gallantry in action, though he had no memory of an award ceremony. Perhaps he had received it for surviving.

There had been surgeries and periods of pain, eras of confusion too futile for nightmares yet too grotesque to be dreams. He had come to accept fluorescent light and the beep of machines as natural. Plastic tubes and bits of metal and smelly plastic bags had emerged from orifices and from expanses of body he had imagined were sacrosanct, seeming designed to pin him to the bed in outrageous postures. A rare moment of lucidity had caused him to recognize for an instant that he was in fact still alive. He had experienced a stab of excruciating disappointment, as he’d imagined, or hoped, that it might all have been over. When he tried now to recall his hospital course his mind hastily shuffled images of himself crawling, clinging, pleading, but mostly laying still and flat and lifeless.

And at last, George realized that he was feeling bored: under the circumstances, a spectacular sign of recovery.

One afternoon a young officer arrived at his bedside.

“Good morning Captain.”

“Captain?” George replied, “are you in the correct room, sir?”

“You are, McFelix, George?”

“That’s me –“

The young man smiled, revealing satisfaction. “I’m in the right room – and it looks as if finally you’re here too –“

“And, could you remind me -” George asked mildly,

“I’m Captain Manuel Rodriguez,” the figure grasped George’s hand to shake it in an oddly un-officer-like gesture, “Dr. Rodriguez – you’ve been here at Letterman Army Hospital over six months. We have spoken before – perhaps you have some memory of that?“

Dr. Rodriguez, psychiatrist, was part of the hospital team routine to any solider so badly injured. George had taken wounds to his head, to his chest, to one arm and both legs. Bones had been smashed, organs ripped. All were once again functioning, more or less.

“At least the blast to your brain was not penetrating,” Dr. Rodriguez explained, “MRI scans showed some degree of injury – which we expect to heal. It appears that you lost a portion of memory from somewhere before the trauma until some months after – I don’t imagine it will return. But now you’re able to organize your thoughts again, eventually I believe you’ll do fine.”

“I feel pretty good right now,” George offered, “I’m just glad to be back, sir.”

“I imagine you must miss your colleagues, your platoon -”

“Sure. They were great guys. Of course I miss them -”

“I’m sure you do,” the doctor murmured sympathetically. And then very delicately, he continued, “It might be difficult to imagine how it is that you survived and they did not –“

“I hadn’t thought of it like that,” George replied, interested but not defensive, “I was told we had no cover and that bullets were flying everywhere, that nothing anyone could have done would have raised or lowered their chances.”

“Do you have persistent thoughts about that firefight, any recurrent nightmares?”

“No, I’m just happy to be alive.”

“Some people might experience – discomfort, anxiety, some for a while might even feel guilt – over why they survived while others died –“

“I guess that would be a religious question,” George shrugged, “when it’s your time to go –“ and they reverted again to silence. Throughout his struggle towards a desperate and unlikely future, the past had been a solace of imagined childhood pleasures. Trying now he could find only the vaguest of images, and those only at the very start of that grim battle. “One thing, though,” he looked up at Dr Rodriguez sitting patiently beside him, “sometimes I have this dream, in which I hear American voices coming from the bunker –“

George could not miss the silent hesitation of Captain Rodriguez. So: not all of his dreams had been fantasy. Since beginning his recovery George had accepted his injuries as a natural consequence of war, and had not looked for explanation or blame. He’d had problems enough, and had not even thought of friendly fire. Doctor Rodriguez waited silently for George’s reaction. At last, George asked,

“Why did they give me a medal?”

“Well there’s no way you could have known! The bunker was an advance operation that was deeply classified, some considerable distance inside of Iraq – no one could have imagined that your platoon would have pushed so far behind enemy lines –“

“Weren’t we pursuing chemical weapons stashes?“

“Yes – and with such determination and courage! That’s why the medal, and the promotion, Captain – you led your platoon like a hero -“

George’s stolid concentration silenced Doctor Rodriguez in mid-sentence. The firefight itself remained invisible to him, but as he tried now he could picture himself gazing down below them some time before the assault. Yes, he realized, he had not been alone. Sergeant Garth had been there too, peering in the pale moonlight at the unexpected structure half-buried in the sand. The intervening months were a fog, but as he looked back beyond them he found that the mood, the feeling of that moment in the desert when he had made the decision to attack, was vivid. He remembered now that there had been something unspeakably seductive about the eerie dunes in the darkness, an intoxicating, magical quality to the stark other-worldly desert, which lacking a horizon at night had seemed to extend unbroken out into the stars.

Yes, and in this dream Sergeant Garth had suspected that the construction of that buried bunker seemed familiar, and George had over-ruled him.

Oh the flaw was clear to George now. Burying themselves in the sand by day and traveling exclusively at night, with no landmarks and in profound sleep deprivation, he had miscalculated their position.

George was a practical man – earnestness, a devotion to tangible reality, the well-being of his friends – all of these could be carried to extreme lengths, but not, at least not upon reflection, self-delusion. So he had killed his own men.

The notion of heroes had never sat well in George’s worldview. The idea of a man arbitrarily sticking up his head, outside the plan, was clearly an aberration – it meant something had gone wrong, an oversight, some lack of self-discipline or failure to follow regular procedures – a mistake.

George felt somehow relieved to know that the Army had not misconstrued his error. Any hint of pessimism at the start of a battle must be avoided, any suspicion of incompetence or doubt. Five dead colleagues – wasted in a pointless mistake would only damage morale for the survivors – but lost in a heroic act would galvanize those on whose behalf they had sacrificed themselves.

Very gently, Doctor Rodriguez murmured, “Your bravery was completely authentic, Captain. Your courage and determination, your willingness to place yourself front and center in the line of danger – “He shrugged very slightly, “You ran straight into the fog of war, and the Army understands that.”

George gazed thoughtfully at his Silver Star, hanging from the wall. He felt ashamed, he felt anger towards himself. This was a bitter reward for surviving. And clearly his duty now, if only to his dead colleagues, was to keep his mouth shut.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

“Simply Salazar” by Stephen Ramey

When his girlfriend dumped him, Salazar suppressed an urge to stalk her. That would only lead to trouble, maybe even a double-murder. She said she wasn't seeing anyone, but why else? It was probably that guy down at the hardware store. Sandy hair was a definite weakness of hers. It was why he'd worn a wig for the full week of their relationship. Had she seen him take it off? He should ask her. He picked up the cell phone and thumbed through to her number.

Rrrring! Rrring!

"Hello Salazar."

"Hi Claudia. I just wanted to ask you if the reason you broke up with me--" The line went quiet. He pressed redial.

Rrring! Rrring! Rrring! Rrring! Rrring!

Salazar closed the phone. Maybe she was driving. He should buy a hands-free set for her car. In fact, that's what he would do.

He rode his bike down to the strip mall. He'd thought about getting a driver's license many times, but had never made it through the DMV line. The bike suited him fine anyway. It was usually sunny in San Diego.

The Best Buy was at the far end of he mall, but the parking lot was laid out in such a fashion that riding a bike could be dangerous. He dismounted and walked it along the sidewalk. People bustled past, not paying him any attention.

He came to the hardware store. There was a bike rack outside and two bikes were already parked. He looked through the door and saw Sandy-hair at the register talking to a customer. As he spoke, his hands made expressive gestures, palms cupped and sweeping in small circles as if he were feeling Claudia's breasts. She hadn't let Salazar do that, but she would let him. He had that going for him.

"What the heck," Salazar said, locking his bike beside the others. It wouldn't hurt to ask.

He waited his turn, gaze casting about the store. The chromed top of a Rustoleum can caught his attention. How did they get that shiny finish to stick to a plastic lid? How hard would it be to peel it off?

Salazar walked to the display and lifted the can in one hand. It was heavier than it looked, but what wasn't? He rubbed at the chrome with his index finger. It was smooth and seemingly inseparable. He scratched with his nail. Nothing. This is one admirable can lid, he thought.

"Can I help you?" Sandy-hair was standing at his shoulder. His eyes were translucent green. Salazar saw what Claudia saw in them.

"Hold this," he said, pushing the can into Sandy-hair's hand.

Salazar reached into his khaki shorts pocket and pulled out a pen knife.

"You don't need that," Sandy-hair said. "Look." He squeezed the lid and popped it free of the can.

Ouch, Salazar thought. He opened the blade and took the lid from Sandy-hair. He scraped the blade across its surface. Chrome flaked to the floor.

"Dude," Sandy-hair said, "you can't do that. Now you gotta buy the can."

"Have you been seeing my girlfriend?" Salazar said.


"My girlfriend," Salazar said. "Have you been seeing her, dating her? You know what I mean."

Sandy-hair frowned, gaze falling to the open blade. Salazar nodded. He closed the pen knife and dropped it into his pocket.

"What's her name?" Sandy-hair said.

"You tell me."

Sandy-hair blew out a breath. "Are you for real? You know you're buying this can, right?"

Salazar watched Sandy-hair's mouth. He imagined those plush lips on Claudia's. It wasn't hard to imagine.

"I'm dating a girl from the Community College," Sandy-hair said. "Her name's Marcy."

"No," Salazar said. "That's not her."

Sandy-hair nodded. "Come with me. I'll ring you out."

"Do you have any hands-free phone setups?"

Sandy-hair shook his head and walked to the register.

Salazar motioned with his hands. It felt clumsy. "For cars."

"I know what you mean," Sandy-hair said. "We don't carry those. You should try Best Buy."

"It's for my girlfriend," Salazar said.

"That's cool." Sandy-hair scanned the Rustoleum can. A number came up on the digital display.

Salazar opened his wallet. It was empty. "I don't have any money."

"Credit card? We take all the major ones."

Salazar shook his head.

"Maybe that's why you're having girl problems," Sandy-hair said. The words were mean, but the way he said it was nice. Compassionate. Sandy hair, green eyes, compassion.

"Tell you what," Sandy-hair said, setting the can on a shelf below the counter. "Give me your name and phone number and I'll hold this for you until you have money, okay?"

"That's a great idea," Salazar said. Intelligent too. He certainly saw why Claudia was interested. "Can I have your number too? I'll call before I come in to make sure you're working."

"Here's a store card," Sandy-hair said.

"Can I have your cell number instead?" Salazar said. "I'll feel nervous if you don't answer."

Sandy-hair looked him up and down. "I guess so," he said. They exchanged numbers.

Salazar left the store and unlocked his bike. He walked it along the sidewalk, feeling better than he had all day. The sun warmed his head. He thought of Sandy-hair's gleaming eyes. The end of the sidewalk came up. He started to lift his leg over the seat bar, but thought better. He pushed the kickstand down and leaned the bike to rest.

He pulled the cell phone from his pocket and deleted Claudia's number. Hands-free sets were expensive anyway. Then he dialed Sandy-hair. It wouldn't hurt to ask when he would get off work tonight.

Rrring. Rrring. Rrring.


Tuesday, April 5, 2011

“Safety Patrol” by Merle Drown

“You want this?” my mother held up a folded web belt. The tired rubber band
that secured it burst, and it fell to the floor in a white tangle.

We’d just buried my older brother Keith, dead at fifty. Not unexpected, no matter
how my mother had tried to protect him—a bad heart and thirty years of smoking, drinking, and looking at joy as something to be avoided.

“It was like his wine turned to vinegar before he got to sip it,” I said

“Your brother never sipped.”

“He didn’t want anything to go stale,” I said, wanting to tell her, then changed my mind. I unstuck the blue captain’s badge from the belt. “Only thing he saved from his days of responsibility. Too responsible.”

“Not too responsible,” my mother said, “since he stole it.”

“All the boys lied about losing their belts, paid their two dollars, and kept them.”

“You weren’t on Safety Patrol.”

“Keith told me I was lucky I was a girl, couldn’t get on the patrol. Real mean about it. I figured it had to do with that boy Melvin, hung himself with a patrol belt.”

My mother snorted. “Fifteen year olds don’t hang themselves.”

“He was sixteen, same as Keith. That weekend I went to Washington for my seventh grade trip. They already had Melvin in the ground when we got back.”

“Melvin got himself tangled up with that Cain girl,” my mother said. “She
belonged to that clan lived in a trailer back of the swamp.”

“Keith had a crush on June Cain, too. A dark haired girl who made the boys shift
their hands in their pockets?”

“She gave the boys what they wanted,” my mother said.

“Not Keith, she didn’t. He had to go elsewhere.”

“June made him turn on Melvin,” my mother said.

“Melvin had been his friend.” “They hung out together—”

“His best friend.” She snatched the blue badge from me. “He came home with this and said, “Mom, I advanced through the silver, the green the red, and won the blue. Now I’m responsible for all the little kids plus the boys on the patrol.’”

“He kicked one of the boys off for running against the light.”

My mother tossed the badge on the floor. “Stickler for rules, Keith.”

“Then,” I said. “Never applied them to himself,”

“Keith was a stickler for rules before June Cain got ahold of him,” my mother said. “June relied on that and poor Melvin died.”

“Mom, you’re just like Keith, blaming the girls. They moved away, June and the whole family, even took the trailer with them.”

“They better had,” my mother said. “They took your brother with them too, the better part.”

“Sometimes you talk such nonsense.”

“I told June I’d burn that trailer to the ground with all of them in it.”

My throat tightened as I tried to swallow thirty years of lying.

“Did Keith admit—”

“He sat right there— She pointed, but of course it was a different chair. “Folding that belt over and over just like he’d been taught. I knew.”

“Maybe he was just in shock.”

“June told him a bunch of lies about Melvin, like Melvin broke the rules, and it was Keith’s duty to punish him.”

“Maybe they weren’t lies,” I said.


All those years I’d thought Keith had gone bad for what he did with me. I wanted to tell my mother that. Of course she didn’t know about it. Any more than I’d know Melvin hadn’t hanged himself. But I shut up, refolded the safety patrol belt and stuck the blue badge in it. I kept them and both secrets twenty more years, till my mother died, and I could throw them away.