The weather was just perfect. My oar chipped the river. The river greeted me. The sun winked over the tree line. My shoulders, my arms, I moved in smooth equal strokes. My life fell away as I paddled from my troubles. Faster and faster I went. This morning I was stiff. I pulled off the covers and my whole body protested the early morning. I wanted to curl into Tracy’s back. I wanted to sleep until Crystal and little Tommy woke up. I wanted to make monster pancakes. I wanted to see Tracy smile at me over her coffee. Things have been so much easier lately. But Tracy wasn’t asleep. Her body was hard, each muscle tense. I went to hug her and I froze thinking of what I could’ve done or said. Then she grew liquid in my arms. Snuggling in my arms, Tracy kissed me. “Hey aren’t you missing prime canoeing time?” Little kisses trailed down my neck. “I thought about canc—“ Her body stiffened again. “But you said you really wanted to go.” “Yeah but I can go to the river next weekend. Corey is available next week any ways. It’s our anniversary baby and we could get started earl—“ Suddenly my wife sat up and turned away. She exhaled harshly. Stung, I tried to read her back fishing for the right words. “Baby I don’t understand.” Careful not to touch her I got closer. Our bed is a tightrope. To my surprise Tracy leaned her back into my chest. She turned and kissed me hard. Hungrily, She pressed me back into the mattress. “Ryan, honey, I want you to go so you can come back sooner. You take such good of us, of me. I want you to have your time.” Her hands roamed under my pajamas. I held her face, my high school sweetheart, my first love.
On the river I churned. My muscles warm. Faster and faster I fly over the water steaming towards what. Happiness? I’m speeding away from what? Being a failure. I shook my head. The sun stood proud over the tree line. I’d calculated how far to go up river to get back for lunch with the family. Someone is on the shore near my point of no return. It’s Corey I think. He looked dead eyed. I yelled hello. He’s looking at me but not. Corey and I go back to pre-K. We know each like brothers. He introduced me to Trace for god’s sake and we’ve been through thick and thin and I’ve never seen him look like this. Shit I thought the kids. Someone is hurt. I paddled towards him. Cell service is spotty on the river. No one is ever really up here this early. Corey must’ve been looking for me. He’s a good friend. He’s family. “Hey my man what’s going on? What is it?” I was frantic. I saw the river rock in his hand. I saw my best friend’s arm raise and swing down hard. I grabbed, I fought, I think. I’m not sure. I saw my friend, my wife, my babies. I’m going faster and faster up the river. A Darkness leaked into the corners of my eyes. My wife. My best friend. Black waves rushed across my eyes. “Mom?”
In the street in front to the coffeehouse , people walked small excited dogs. Bent over overpriced coffees and underwhelming brownies, friends gathered at tables in groups of two and three. Everyone was pretending the weather was nicer than it because it had been nicer than it had been in a long time. Randy didn’t sit outside under the colorful awning and the threatening clouds, he sat in the coffeehouse. Its brick red textured walls and macramé wall hangings made him nervous. Was this place supposed to be Mediterranean or boho farmhouse? And why was everything boho farmhouse all of a sudden? The cashier sprayed down the counter. Randy grimaced down at his large cup of inky coffee. “Is it okay?” The cashier asked. She had straight dark brown hair with half moon eyes over full cheeks. Freckles, adorable freckles, lay across the tops of her cheeks and bridged her nose. Randy had memorized each one. He looked up at the music in her voice and smiled inanely. She returned his smile as if he was an addlepated urchin. Recognizing his own idiocy Randy replied, “no it’s delish.” Why did I use the word delish. I hate delish, he thought. He took a hearty swig and choked. Randy erupted into a series of throat wrenching spasms. The cashier hurried around the counter with a stack of napkins and poured him a cup of water from the dispenser. Another worker, an older man with a furious beard, came from the back and stared. The cashier handed him the water and napkins then backed away. She blushed up to her hairline. Her hair was in a careless bun with loose strands artfully spilling to one side. “I love you, I mean I thank you, I mean thank you.” Randy launched into another bout of coughing. A bespectacled guy with an ironic tee came in. “Hey Graham, I thought I would miss you guys. You got any of that granola left? Saturdays are a madhouse.” “Yeah, I was thinking where’s Nate, a whole morning and no Nate,” Graham said. Randy gathered his battered sketchbook and other belongings and retreated under the cover of small talk. Stupid, stupid, Randy thought. Heading into the street of dogs and friends and hints of rain, Randy stomped to his bicycle. He was loading his backpack when a bucket of half melted ice splashed beside him. “Sorry, man,” the cashier said. “No big deal,” Randy mumbled not daring to look at her lovely angel face again. He straddled his bike and hoped a convenient chasm would swallow him whole. “Dude, your backpack.” She stood bucket on hip watching him. Randy reached for his bag. “So why does a dude bike out of his way to a coffeehouse to drink coffee all afternoon when he doesn’t drink coffee? It sounds like a hell of a story.” Randy blinked. The cashier met his eyes. She wasn’t being kind just curious. That made talking easier. “It’s kind of a long story, long, humiliating, and a little funny.” The cashier’s expression sharpen. She raised an eyebrow. “Promising.” “It started with a woman called Cassandra. Really it started with a custom Lord of the Rings Nerf bow. I have a 3D printer and I carve and I sculpt. I run an Etsy store and I was contacted by this girl Cassandra, a potential customer, about a bespoke bow. She liked my stuff. We were into the same things. I really opened up about myself and I’m not that guy so. She got—and anyway we texted and texted. Her words were the first thing I read in the morning and the last thing before I fell asleep at night. I wanted….” Randy’s voice flowed and then ebbed. “You wanted what everyone wants someone who gets you,” the cashier said. She flipped over the bucket and sat on it. “Good beginning, continue.” She cocked her head to the side like an attentive cat. “But Cassandra never had time to talk or FaceTime. We made dates to hang but she never showed. This went on for months.” “Uh, oh, your Spidey sense must’ve been tingling.” The cashier covered her mouth with her delicate hands. Randy scrubbed at his neck remembering his own dumbassery. “I pushed down my doubts because she was so cool and nice and funny.” The cashier added,” and hot, right. Hot people get away with shenanigans.” Randy blushed purple in response. “Anyway, long short stupid I shipped the custom order and some other things I’ve made and the credit card came up stolen. The girl gave me the run around for a while. Turns out Cassandra was some old reprobate in Des Moines and I had to wrangle with Visa to recoup some of my losses. I had to prove I was duped. I searched and searched. The profile was faked with someone else’s photo and info.” Randy paused and searched the ground for that people eating chasm again. A hostile bishon frise yipped at him. “And. What’s the denouement? God I’ve always wanted to legitimately use that word.” “Tracked down Cassandra and I found the real woman in the photo lived in the next town over and worked in this coffee shop. I wanted to see the girl I fell in love with IRL.” This time the cashier blinked. “Hey Maggie, where’d you go!” A voice shouted from inside. The cashier rolled her eyes but stood up from the bucket. “The name’s Magdalena, you jack wagon.” “But I never met the girl I loved at the coffeehouse because that woman was only in my head. So cue the Incredible Hulk closing music and scene.” Randy adjusted his backpack and prepared to ride off. He had all emotions, embarrassed, bashful, sad, and happy. They rumbled in his stomach making him uneasy or that could have been the three black coffees. “Thanks for listening. It was cathartic and a little funny. Buh bye.” “Did you at least learn some heartwarming shit about yourself like your heart is now open to love or it’s only because you’re honest you couldn’t see the lie in other people?” The cashier and Randy shared a snort. They stared at each other after the laughter. The weather was more than hinting of rain. Graham poked his head out the door. “This guy bothering you?” “That’s my cue, thanks uh Magdalena. I’m Randy.” Randy pedaled away. “Come back some time Randy we have other things besides coffee!” Magdalena shouted as he began to turn the corner. Smiling, he wobbled on his bike and rode away.
The attic was clean and tidy. There were neat stacks of storage bins, labeled. Furniture enrobed in sheets, stood virgil in front of the tiny windows. Miranda turned in slow circles taking it all in. She had never been in Grammy’s attic. Even though she stayed here all summer and most weekends. Grammy had shown her the rope dangling from the ceiling of the linen closet. Every holiday Miranda watched Grammy pull the rope loop like a baby noose and slid the hidden staircase into place. She waited while her grandmother brought down Christmas balls or old Easter baskets. But she could never go up. Grammy said it was dangerous. It was a quiet Sunday. Some sundays were people crowded, cousins romping and rolling, aunts and uncles on the porch with red solo cups. This weekend it was just Grammy and Miranda. PawPaw and Uncle Mike were deer hunting and Aunt Miracle was having “me time.” These quiet Sundays were the best. Miranda paused at the attic opening listening taut as a bow string. The church station was still blaring in the doorstair parlor. Grammy had her bible, her bible highlighters, her knitting basket, a big glass of sweet tea. Miranda had time. She began opening bins. Miranda was systematic. There was china and quilts, ornaments and decorations. One bin was radium glass carefully separated with tight bundles of newspaper. She was tempted to take out a piece and hold it up to the bright brings from the tiny quarter moon windows. There was one electric green glass pitcher Grammy kept in the parlor. She had told Miranda it was a gift from her one true love. Fighting temptation Miranda covered the bin and continued searching. Something pulled at her mind. Miranda put one of her long braids into her mouth to chew think. She reopened the plastic bin of glass. Purples, oranges, and greens the glass pieces winked at her. Gently she removed slender vases and squat candy dishes. Beneath the glassware under thick white paper Miranda found what she was looking for. There were photos of her daddy. No one had to tell her. They had the same smile. All the photos that had be removed from the family albums, all the prints that had once been framed. There was a baby’s bracelet, a letter to Santa, a ribbon from a science fair, a wolverine comic. There was a yearbook. Miranda went through until she found her mother’s photo. The face was scribbled out but the hair was curly like Miranda’s. All of her mother’s photo were scratched out. Her daddy still smiled back at her from his football uniform. Miranda set down the yearbook to think about that. Next were the newspaper clippings. The headlines screamed. Young Mother Remembered, Bizarre Murder/Suicide. A long story of young love, arguments, and fights; breakups, make ups, and running away; slap, punch, knife. Miranda hugged her knees reading and re-reading. With each page she knew more and understood less. “Told you, it was dangerous.” Miranda jumped knocking over a glass chicken dish. Grammy was on the attic stairs. Her grandmother climbed up. Quietly they put away clippings and the photos. As they returned the glass Miranda saw the beak on the glass chicken was cracked. She kissed it and began to sob. Grammy walked Miranda down and lay her across her own bed to weep it out. Grammy returned to the attic putting away all that remained, slipping a too small bracelet in her pocket and heading back to tend the grandbaby.
I toyed with my pink rose, twirling the stubby throned stem in my fingers. I cut this from Old Man Courtney’s yard. I had walked down to my old high school and this yard across the street from my school was a signpost in my memory. He’s probably long dead and the ranch house has most likely changed hands, but the pink roses remain. Beautiful. This one is perfect. I shoved the flower in my laptop bag and return to my coffee. Five minutes later, Kayleigh walked up to the coffeehouse. She checked her reflection in the shop glass. Looping a stray curl behind her ear, she came in. My body went on alert, my chest tighten, and I fought not to hunch my shoulders. I pretended to type on my laptop. Kayleigh was heavier than she’d been in high school. I surveyed her over my Americano. Her makeup was contoured and skillful, her body softer than her shape during her cheerleading days. She wore a black turtleneck dress and denim jacket, strictly Walmart and cheap knee high boots. I smiled into my coffee, thinking of how long she must’ve took to great ready. I fake typed and watched her wait. I watched her eyes on the door. I watched until the glow of anticipation dimmed and her eyes were crushed stubs of cigarettes. After her second iced coffee I opened my Plenty of Fish Jordan account and pressed send. They had spent seven months texting. I came up with excuses why Jordan couldn’t call and reasons why they couldn’t meet up. After all this time I was an expert at giving enough to keep my online lovers on the line. I began to pack up as Kayleigh read the last text Jordan would ever send. As I slid my laptop into my bag, the rose from Courtney’s garden scratched my thumb. I squeezed the rose in my fist. I’ve done this so many times that I could feel her hurt gurgle up from the floor, fill the room, and drown Kayleigh. I worked through most of my yearbook meting out punishments. Spent, I stood up. I listened to Kayleigh stifle a gasp and head for the ladies room. I stepped in front of her and we bumped hard. I’m taller, thinner, and stronger than the pudgy freshman who ran to and from school because the cool girls wouldn’t let me have peace on the school bus. Without seeing, Kayleigh looked up at me apologized and scurried away. I realized I had bled on her denim jacket just a little. I dropped my crushed flower at her table and headed out.
I lay my hands on the dingy brown paper sack. “The question isn’t where I got it. The question is are you willing to pay the agreed upon price.” Big Dollar was a six foot four tower of muscle, covered in the Consho Cru tats and scarred from death matches at the Naval Yard. He stared at me radiating menace with hands like baseball mitts. And I would have been scared if I didn’t know he wanted what I had and he needed me for more. Those big fingers flexed yearning towards my sack. “Deal.” He slid a small cardboard box across the tabletop. “Deal, Biggie.” Peeking into the bag, the prizefighter’s face split into a toothy grin. I hid my own grin. I pretended to study the ceiling as the big man regained his manly composure. Big Dollar patted my shoulder as he tucked his precious under his arm. He bent down close to my ear. “Any update on the Yasmin with the accessories and the holographic poster, Baby?” I spread out my hands. “Bratz intact complete with accessories are rarer than hen’s teeth. I know a guy with a one armed Sasha hardly played with.” Big Dollar looked stricken. “Ok, ok, I can’t say no to those baby blues. Next week I’m heading over to what is left of Jersey to mine the warehouses. I will scour for you,” I said. The lopsided smile he gave me showed the child beneath the man. He clapped my shoulder hard enough to bruise. Big Clam disappeared in the night. Tequila sent me a bottle of water on the house. I made a few small trades, a few Lego kits, an unboxed My Little Pony, and an used American Girl with authentic outfits. The crowd at Chez Tequila’s was light so I decided to split before the murder gangs rocked the block. I blew Tequila a kiss and she caught it from behind the bar. Kansas and the Other Bob escorted me to EV. I tipped them a couple of Pokémon and they watched drive away safe. I scanned the streets and sang Dolly Parton to settle my nerves. I had protection wards from all the major and most of the minor street gangs but still. My satchel was empty of toys and full of vegetables, protein bars, and an actual fresh orange. In my secret jacket pocket the bottle of Metformin leaned against heart. I didn’t like to think what would happen without it. Closer to home I back tracked and false turned to throw off any potential tails. I had grown up ashamed of my mom as a hoarder and my dad as a doomsday prepper. Our family was that family, the weirdos. I parked in the garage, slipped in the door hidden behind tool shelf, and keyed in my passcode. My sister unlocked the release latch. Michaela pushed me out of the way to grab my satchel. There is only the two of us now and I guess we are still the weirdo family. “Broccoli! Shane tell me you got broccoli,” my little sister shouted. “That pony was mint.” I let her grab the groceries. I added the prescription medication to her bug out backpack. Laughing we headed back to the kitchen.
As the lemon sun pierced the veil of the sky Godarth knelt to receive the blessings of the fates. He rose his sword Angelus eager to bite. Godarth turned his noble visage and his noble soul to The Ascent. “Here’s your pack, I put in your ear drops and your special ointment. Don’t forget those drops. The Ascent is notoriously chilly at night,” Vara called out from their tent. Godarth grunted and returned to the rock laden path before him. “Did you hear me?” Godarth grunted louder. “What?” Vara asked teasingly. “Yes, I will take your potions. Hand me the pack.” Petite and heavy with child, Vara dragged the dragon skin satchel from their tent. “Would you like an extra blanket?” “No need.” “How about something to read? I have some nice scrolls—“ “Enough!” Godarth’s deep voice cracked like a whip. A flurry of wolravens took to the air in fright. Vara’s eyes blazed. A small bush behind Godarth caught fire. “Excuse me for caring but your last crusade you got a head to toe rash and your back seized up. I took care of you for weeks!” Angelus glinting in the sun, Godarth walked through the smoke to the Ascent. A few moments later the warrior of the Great North returned for his pack. With a small shovel Vara buried the bush fire. “Woman. “ Vara returned to the tent. “Woman. “ Vara collected the remains of their breakfast. “Woman.” Vara returned to the tent. Heralded by the Seven and blessed by Queen Nevah herself, the warrior now stood defeated. Godarth bowed his mighty head. The Zande winds raced down the cliffs and shook his shoulders. He opened his eyes as Vara stood before him on her tiptoes wrapping a scarlet hand knit scarf around his neck. The surrounding air warmed and smelt of hyacinths as the witch and the warrior stood together foreheads touching. Godarth patted Vara’s belly and returned to the Ascent. Each step drew him closer to his destiny. Each step his sword grew heavier. The Zande carried the floral scent with him. “Don’t forget your ear drops!” floated to him on the mountain wind.
“Girl, you scarin’ me. Come in, come in.” Within a few moments Tiana was ensconced on Shay’s comfy sofa with a blanket with a huge glass of red wine. Tiana’s hands shook as she held the glass. “TiTi spill it,” Shay insisted. Tiana downed the wine. “It started three months ago when I went to that big commercial furniture convention in Chicago. I stayed at the Hyatt and my hotel room was nice but it had an interior door with a little plaque that read Room 137 Inside Door,” Tiana said. Her voice sounded stilted almost mechanical. She stared into her empty glass. “I noticed this weird door wasn’t on the room map. But I didn’t think much of it. It was just a nice hotel to have such an old looking door.” “And…” Shay pushed. “Then in Atlanta for that Color Forecast thing I was at a Wyndham and the door was there again. Standing in the corner like a closet but not. The door, the plaque everything was the same. I took the lift to the lobby and tried to explain to the front desk lady but she just looked at me like you’re looking now.” Tiana broke down her body shuddering in tears. Shay held her friend brushing Tiana’s tears with her fingers. “We’ve been through too much together. I believe you. I’ve never seen you this frightened. Is there more?” Shay poured herself and her friend another generous glass. “ What happened when you try the door?” Taking slow breaths, Tiana drank deeply. “The first door I checked and it was locked. I never touched the second door. I can’t stop thinking about this. I called out sick for the Virginia trip but I’d have to call out dead to miss Lamps & Lumieres. I’m a mess. Then it happened.” Shay’s eyes widen. “Dude.” She held her friend tightly. “I was home right watching tv and then I heard something in my basement,” Tiana said, crying on Shay’s shoulder. “I thought it was the heater. Or maybe a window. The lights were out so I grabbed a torch to investigate. And the door was there. Dark oak, brass knob, and a brass plaque Room 137 Inside Door the same as before in my basement. In my basement.” Tiana squeezed Shay. “Something was knocking on the other side of that door!” Shay pulled out of the embrace slightly to look at her friend’s face. “You’re holding me so tight. You’re so scared you don’t even sound like yourself. You’re suddenly British and crap. What happened next?” Suddenly Tiana drew Shay back into her arms. Squeezing harder and harder Tiana said, “silly girl, I answered and let me out.”