Due to unforeseen events beyond both publisher and staff, Duckbill has been forced to close. All submitted stories should be considered rejected, with Duckbills publisher’s sincerest apologies. Staff no longer have access to the Duckbill email account–any inquiries will remain unread. Once again, our sincerest apologies.
The Girl With the Butterfly Hands, By Chelsea Hanna Cohen
When Ana was born, she weighed 8 pounds, 11 ounces and had beautiful monarch butterflies with brilliant orange hues where her hands should have been. How does this happen? we wondered. Nothing like this had ever occurred in our town before. No one knew who her father was except her mother, and she wasn’t telling. What will happen to her? we asked. How will she write, hold things, read?
Her butterflies grew with her body and thrived at the ends of her arms. She used their wings to pick things up, wrapped their legs around her pencils. There were, of course, some things she never did. She never played the piano, never played basketball. But still, she was happy.
Even as her classmates gawked, their stares and jeers never seemed to affect her. When Ana and her mother ran errands and we whispered, it was like she didn’t hear us. Her mother would glare, but Ana just kept smiling, kept laughing. And as she grew, the whispers ceased. Her joy was infectious. We found ourselves coveting her butterflies, her uniqueness. They really are beautiful, we’d say wistfully to each other over coffee.
She was eighteen, just graduated from high school, when we began to wonder about her plans for the future. Some children her age were going to college, while others were readying themselves for new jobs or internships. We didn’t know what Ana’s plans were, and whenever we saw her mother around and asked, her mother just shook her head. “Ana will do what Ana will do,” she said with a smile.
She did end up leaving, all right – just not the way any of us expected her to.
It was a Sunday morning when she kissed her mother goodbye, lifted her arms, and rose into the air. “We’re off to see the world,” she called, laughing as she flew. Her butterflies flapped their wings, pulling her behind them. As she shrank into the distance, we stood and waved, sure she had a bright future ahead of her.
She came back a year later, bloated, pregnant, landing in the town square as her mother ran to meet her and we crowded around the edges, eager to catch a glimpse.
“He loves me, butterflies and all,” she said.
Her mother cried, but we couldn’t tell if it was out of joy or out of sadness. “What if it’s like you?” her mother said, and we could see the horror on her face when she realized what she’d said.
“What’s so wrong with being like me?” Ana said, and we wept with her as she said it.
It was no surprise when she again took to the skies, leaving her mother below. We waited for her to come back, but we never saw her again. Every so often, though, we’d see a beautiful monarch butterfly with a color pattern just like Ana’s and we‘d smile, knowing that a part of her was still here with us.
Chelsea is a mythical creature who suffers from time dilation due to constant faster-than-light travel. She lives in a houseplant in Jamaica and dances on water. Her work has previously appeared in Freeze Frame Fiction, Everyday Fiction, and others besides.
The Beatboxing Boogieman, by Jennifer Todhunter
Dark hallways leading toward sketchy bathrooms always terrified me. This corridor had Assault Me shoved in the curves of angled graffiti vying for space between confessions wrapped in heart-shaped promises. The farther along, the faster my pulse raced. Ears cocked and sweaty palms, listening for footsteps. Like someone was gunning for me, coming for me. Halfway down, and in the middle of a slam-dancing beat taking up the space inside my head, the only light, covered with a smoke-stained shield, flickered and died. Fuck the footsteps. I couldn’t hear them anyway.
Instinct propelled me through the door of the men’s room, away from the dark and into the arms of my last one-night stand.
“Hello, Roger.” Disentangling myself was tricky. He wasn’t pissing but he had his dick in his hands like he was about to.
“Uh, Faith. Trolling for men?”
“The light in the hallway went out.”
“You’re scared of the dark?” A yellow stream arched into the trough below. He pushed his hips forward and scratched his ass.
“Screw you. It’s a thing—I have a hallway thing.”
“I remember. You spent the night because you didn’t want to leave until the sun came up.” He stuffed himself into his oversized shorts.
The smell of the sticky, urine-coated walls made my eyes water. Men were only good at aiming when you wanted them to miss. Silence passed between us. I grabbed the bathroom door with a sweater-covered hand and peeked my head out. Still dark.
“Fancy a fuck?” Always the charmer.
“No, but I have to take a whiz. Can you keep an eye out for me?”
“Whatever. Why the hell aren’t you using the ladies?”
“Because I didn’t make it that far. I was outside the men’s when the light went out.”
My bladder tipped past full, causing a Kegel to kick in. The practice was paying off. “It’ll only take a second.”
Roger shrugged, a lackadaisical move of nonchalance like the one that had attracted me to him in the first place. He held the crooked stall door closed, the lock probably busted by some peeper with a penchant for willies.
“Can you hum? I’ve got stage fright.”
“Christ. Seriously, Faith? After all we’ve been through.”
One night, two quarters of Russian vodka and three joints of Californian kush. That’s what we’d been through. Roger started humming, some ska-funk song. It clashed with the bass beatboxing through the floor.
My baggy shirt slunk off my shoulder while washing up. Roger pulled it up, his hand grazing my chest.
“Get your hand off my tit.”
He scowled. “It’s not on your tit. What’s up with you? I have half a mind to stick you back in the hallway with the boogieman if you can’t play nice.”
Always the hallway. “I’m pregnant.”
Roger choked on his tongue. The one with the piercing that flicked and furled.
“It’s not yours, you asshole.”
He leaned into the space that was meant to be mine — an imaginary hula hoop with a diameter of ten feet and a radius of fuck you.
“Then whose is it?”
Jennifer is a dinosaur, with feet made of spiders. Her seagull is called Charlie and she eats chocolate made of sock bunnies. You can find more information on Jennifer and her sock bunnies (not actually) here, or follow her on Twitter.
The Kid, by Michael Tyler
And you’re sitting there and it’s the final round. Sweat drips into your eyes amid rivers of blood. Your ears ring and your lungs cry out for mercy. Months have been spent honing muscles which have served their purpose and now cry out in revolt.
And then, “Thirty seconds,” Sal says.
Sal’s left hand wipes a sponge across your forehead while his right holds smelling salts beneath your nose. Your head rears back momentarily, the fog parts and “One more round!” resounds.
It’s the warmth that gives the tell between sweat and blood, and the blood’s been flowing since the right hand in the seventh. A straight right, angled just-so, a tear at the skin just above the eyelid and therein lies the rub. A cut below the eye is no problem — compression between rounds and you’re fine as long as the ref isn’t the squeamish type. Raise the cut a few inches however and it’s a different story. The blood drips into the eye and there goes your vision. You become a punching bag, your jabs are blind, hooks sent out with a wish and a prayer. These last four rounds have been blurred, at best …
Sal says “You’re doing good kid.” He calls you kid. Sal calls everybody kid though. You’ve been together three years, this is your fourteenth professional fight and the first time you’ve run red. A loss tonight and it’s all over. No one wants a fighter with a 13 and 1 record, you’ve gotta be unbeaten nowadays to be anybody, at least until you’ve made it into the big leagues. A loss is unthinkable, a loss ends it all, a loss and three year’s work goes down the drain.
“One more round kid, run, just run!” Sal yells. “Run, just run!”
You’re ahead on points. You’re a dancer, always have been, you’re the kid that can’t be hit. That one kid in the gym who frustrates everyone, not a great puncher but hard to catch and quick to reply with a punch in kind.
You’re twenty three now. You’re twenty three and you’ve filled out, a little more weight, a little more power and now you’re a threat. “Get’em drunk then mug’em,” Sal always says and that’s what you do. You pepper your opponents with punch after punch after punch, it might not be much but it all adds up and sooner or later the mind rebels and the guy starts to stand on legs less than sturdy. A few more and he’s shuffling toward you, a few more and then it’s time to chop him down.
That’s the plan, that’s the strategy and that’s what got you thirteen KO’s as a professional. But this guy is different. Stubborn. Bullheaded. This guy, he simply refuses to go down. This guy’ll last all night. It’ll be a decision. It’ll come down to points. It’ll come down to points and so you dance. You dance and dance, round after round flicking out that jab, scoring those points and moving to the left. Jab, jab, flick, flick…
And then you’re cut.
You’ve never been cut, not even as an amateur.
The cut’s not the problem, the bloods the problem. Blood in your eye and a guy can’t see. Blood in your eye and suddenly you’re flicking at a vision, a miasma, a mirage. You keep the jab out there though, let him know you’re there, find your way round the ring, feel your way round the ring. You’re ahead on points, just gotta make it to the end, the final bell.
But he knows you’re hurt. He knows you’re damaged goods. He knows you’re troubled and now, after round after round of chasing, he’s finally managed to trap the rabbit, finally he’s able to catch the rabbit and he’ll be damned if he’s not gonna’ give the rabbit a beating while time allows.
So for four rounds you take punch after punch. Fist to face. Fist to face, over and over and you bob and you weave but you can dance no more and he lands, and punch after punch rains down. For the first time ,you’ve just gotta take it. Take the beating, survive the rounds, count the clock down till the ref raises your hand. And it’s your first beating and it’s everything you ever feared it would be.
Slap to the face. You look up at Sal as he gives you another.
“Last round kid, last round. You got this, just stay standing. Be a man kid!”
And you stand for one more round.
Michael Tyler lives in a shack on a cliff at the bottom of the world. He has had several short stories published and hope to have a collection of his work published sometime before the Andromeda Galaxy collides with us and all turns to dust.
One Step Forward by A.W. Hill
Judy stares at the dying houseplant on the table. The last yellow leaf clung to the stem byits petiole, attached only by stillness. First the African violet, then the begonia, now the philodendron. She avoids any movement of the table, the pot, the air around it. Judy holds her breath, believing in hope, in resiliency, the regenerative power of nature. But she knows. Somehow, things aren’t working.
She lives a mundane life. She comes home from the same job she has held for 20 years, to eat bland food under cloudy winter skies. She longs for just the tiniest bit of colour in her life. A touch of green. The promises of spring.
Rose, at work, suggested a cat or a dog; Rose volunteers at the animal shelter. But Judy sticks to her rules: If she can keep a house plant alive for a year, she will get a fish. If she can keep a fish alive for a year, she will get a cat. She memorized the advice from the magazines: Take small, realistic steps. Set attainable goals. Envision success. She dreams of herself in a white dress; her husband-to-be waits at the front of the church. He has no face, not yet. If she gets a fish, she will add another goal—one after the husband. That goal is so precious she scarcely permits herself to imagine it. She doesn’t want to jinx anything. One step at a time.
Her secret compromise with herself is a stuffed cat. If anyone ever comes over and asks, she will tell them it is a beloved memento of childhood. It gives her comfort. Sometimes, for just a few moments, before she falls asleep, she pretends it is real.
Anthony in his overalls with the dinosaur on them. She in her favorite top, the pink one with the kitty cat. They loved watching the coyote chase the road runner off the cliff. It was only when he looked down that he plunged to the bottom of the canyon. Who doesn’t long to fly, long to hang suspended in mid-air? The key is to not look down. Now, sometimes in her night time dreams, sometimes on the bus to work, or in the shower, she hears her mother’s words: It’s a beautiful day. Turn off the TV and go play outside. Keep an eye on your brother.
Together, she and Anthony planned. The ladder lay propped against the wall of the garage, where yesterday the man cleaned the gutter. The soft grass will be the canyon. She held the ladder steady as Anthony climbed. “Don’t look down,” she said.
You had one job.
The stories in magazines and on television give her hope. They promise: Love will come when you least expect it, from an unanticipated source. Still, she wants to be prepared.
So she waters her plant every day. She reads that central heating makes apartments very dry so she waters it carefully, until the water runs through the hole in the bottom of the pot, just like the article said. Judy talks to the plant, strokes its leaves. She places it right up against the window, so it can get all the good sunlight it needs. She feeds it with the blue powder once a week.
No, the philodendron is a goner. She turns her back on it so she can think. The articles tell her: Trust your heart. Trust your gut. They do not say what to do when the two conflict.
The cartoon images from childhood come to her. The devil sits on her left shoulder, an angel on the right. It is the devil who tells her to get another one. She wants it. She must persevere. The angel suggests that perhaps she should take some time. Reflect. She should trust the angel. But isn’t the devil just a fallen angel? Just an angel who made a mistake? We all make mistakes. She can understand an angel who made a mistake.
She thinks: I don’t have time. At the DIY store, from the array of tabletop palms, succulents, and tiny potted tropicals, the lucky bamboo calls to her. With the faith of a lottery player, she puts the stems in her basket. This will be the one.
A.W. Hill graduated from Duke University in the mid-1990s with a degree in English. Today, she lives in Durham, NC, where she works as a consultant to higher education publishing. This is her first fiction publication.
Measure by Chaitali Gawade
in a blue pot,
he grows kisses
on my lips
makes wild wine
measure and whisper
with the naked caress
of perfumed tongues
the fathoms and nauts
Chaitali Gawade lives in Pune and is a freelance writer. Her writerly musings are fueled by tea and coffee. Her work has been published by Twenty20 Journal Daily Love, Postcard Shots and Vagabondage Press.
Jackie, by Lela Marie De La Garza
Oh my God! Trevor thought. I forgot to feed Jackie! If the Drakle got hungry it would go in search of food, not caring where or who it might be. Trevor hurried to Jackie’s room and found it empty. The door was always kept locked, but apparently the monster had simply broken a window and escaped.
He didn’t dare call the police. Owning a Drakle was illegal in the first place. He could be fined, or imprisoned or both. Certainly Jackie would be taken away. And if it had done any damage, his pet could be put down. No, he’d have to track Jackie himself.
Fortunately Drakles were easy to trace. They were extremely scaly and shed skin as they moved. Trevor found scales under the broken window and began following them. The trail led at first to Humphrey’s house. Humphrey was an unpleasant man, constantly reporting to the neighborhood association if a hedge was too high or a fence too close to the street. He knew nothing about Jackie, and Trevor didn’t want him to. It wouldn’t be such a terrible thing if Humphrey disappeared; still…
Then the trail led away from Humphrey’s house toward the Johnston residence. That was bad. The Johnstons were nice people. Also they had a new baby. A plump, rosy baby. Probably tender… Then Trevor saw with relief that the litter of scales veered away from their house. He followed it out of the residential district and finally it led into Charley’s Chicken Shack.
In a back booth he saw Jackie, chicken bones piled high in front of him. Quietly he approached the monster. “Jackie, what are you doing here?”
The Drakle smiled, light reflecting off his fangs. “Delighted to see you, old boy. Have a seat. You know, I was feeling a bit peckish, so I came to this marvelous place for dinner. Used your credit card. I hope you don’t mind.”
“How did you get my—” Trevor reached in his pocket and discovered his wallet was missing.
“You left it in my room last time you were there.” Jackie handed a worn billfold to him. “I noticed you have three credit cards. I’ll just keep one, if it’s all right with you.”
“Of course.” Trevor sighed. “Did anyone…notice you?”
“I got a funny look from the cashier when I first walked in, but when I showed her the credit card and ordered two family sized buckets of chicken, she was all smiles. You know, I’ve really enjoyed the raw chickens you’ve been bringing me, but it’s really much better cooked. I’ll have to remember this place.”
Trevor looked around, wondering what the other customers might be thinking.. He saw a couple of bored teenage boys, so jaded or stoned they didn’t recognized anything as being peculiar. A drunk mumbling to himself. A bag lady, shopping cart beside her, whose eyes had seen so much strangeness in the world that nothing was strange now. No. None of them would have taken the slightest interest in his Drakle. It was safe to leave now. Nobody had noticed anything in here; it was safe to assume no one on the outside would notice anything either. People were indifferent. “Well, I guess we should go now. Are you finished?”
“Quite. I’ll just get a snack for later on.” Jackie got an order of a dozen chicken tenders, and they stepped out into the night. I understand there’s a Chinese place just down the block,” Jackie said happily. I’ve always wanted to try sweet and sour pork. And there’s Roy’s Ribs, Pistol Pete’s Poppin’ Pizza, Tommy’s Steak House, a sushi bar…”
I’ve created a monster, Trevor thought. And then No, Jackie was always a monster. Now he has the appetite of one.
Lela Marie De La Garza has had work published in “Creepy Gnome,” “Passion Beyond Words”, “Black Denim,” “Yellow Mama,” “Bewildering Stories,” and “The Western Online”. Her latest novel, “Mistral,” was published in December of 2014. She was born in Denver, CO. in 1943 while her father was serving in WWII. She currently resides in San Antonio, TX. with three and a half cats and a visiting raccoon.
Purple Goddam Cup Heaven by Brian Hartman
Dave tossed his cheeseburger down, slapping the table. His plate wobbled, and the burger slid forward, landing upside down, a dark ketchup smear trailing behind. “Don’t even say shit like that. Why would you say that? It’s not funny, all right?” Several students at other tables turned and looked at him. He turned to one of them. “What the fuck’re you looking at?”
Liza shook her head. She touched Dave’s forearm, lowering her voice. “No. Seriously. Stephen killed himself. Why would I joke about something like that?”
Dave’s scowl evaporated. “What? What the hell?”
Courtney walked over, glancing at both of them as she set her books down. “Uh, hey, guys.” She paused. “What’s up?”
“What? What about Stephen?”
Dave spoke softly, not looking up from the overturned cheeseburger. “He killed himself.”
“What? How? I mean. Why?”
Liza sniffled and wiped away a tear. “Apparently, his parents found out.”
Courtney put her hand to her mouth. “Oh, God. Jesus! They did?”
Liza nodded. “Yeah.”
“Found out what?” Dave put the cheeseburger back on his plate.
Liza rolled her eyes at Dave. “That he was gay.’
“Fuck. I thought they knew. I mean, it wasn’t something he hid’r anything. I mean…” Dave shook his head. “I figured they must know.”
Courtney stared at the red smear on the table. “It’s wasn’t something he hid from us. Here. Outside school, no one knew. Nobody in his hometown knew anything. He felt safe here.”
Dave looked down. “Not safe enough, apparently.”
Liza stared at the salt and pepper shakers on the table. “You mean he wasn’t safe enough, or he didn’t feel safe enough?”
Dave pulled a napkin from the napkin dispenser, and wiped the ketchup smear. “Well, obviously he didn’t feel safe enough. I mean, why wouldn’t he have told any of us if he was having a problem with his parents? I mean, he had all our numbers and e-mails. It didn’t have to end like that.”
Liza stared at her salad. “I know. I mean, I dunno. He didn’t leave a note.”
Dave nodded. “I figured. I mean, he was never much of a talker.” He looked down. “Why start now?”
Courtney sighed, lowering her head. “Because it mattered now.”
Liza picked up her fork. “Yeah, well . . . It mattered then, too.” She stabbed her salad, looked at it, then tossed the fork back in the bowl. “Shit…”
Dave pulled away from the table, taking his tray in one hand. “I can’t fucking deal with this right now. I have a thesis to write.” He rolled up the ramp with his tray, switching hands, pushing with the free one until he made it to the top.
Son of a bitch.
Dave put the tray on the conveyor belt going into the kitchen and rolled out of the Student Center. He rolled up the hill, pumping his arms, trying to make sense of it all.
We were friends. Weren’t we all friends? Why wouldn’t he talk to us before doing something like … that? And how could he do that to us, and his parents?
Dave rolled into his room and shut the door. He turned on his monitor, staring at the screen.
Gotta get my thesis done this month. He had been trying to pull together a thesis on J.D. Salinger and his view of childhood innocence in Catcher in the Rye all semester. It seemed pointless now.
The phone rang. Dave wheeled over and picked it up.
“Hey. How’re you? I haven’t heard from you in a week so I thought I’d touch base.”
“Hi, Mom. Yeah. Sorry. I’ve been busy with school stuff.”
“You all right?”
Shit. I don’t want her worrying about me. About this… “Not really. I’ll be all right, though.”
His mother’s voice grew more concerned. “What’s wrong?”
Dave took a deep breath. “Do you remember my friend Stephen? Blond hair? Kind of a bowl haircut? I think you met him once.”
“The guy who brought you the power strip? That one?”
Dave nodded into the phone. “Yeah. That’s him.”
“What about him?”
Dave searched for words. “HHe killed himself.”
“Oh my God, I’m so sorry! Are you … okay?”
“Not really. I’ll be fine, though.”
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“No. It’s still too new. But thanks.”
“Okay. Call me if you wanna come home. Paul or I could come get you.”
“Okay.” She paused. “Well, I’ll let you go.”
“Thanks. I’ll call you later, Mom.”
“Okay.” She paused again. “You sure you’re okay? We could come get you. It’d be no problem.”
“No. It’s fine. I just have to think, I guess.”
“All right. Love you.”
“Love you, too, Mom.”
Dave hung up.
A knock on the door. Dave rolled over and opened it. Liza was standing there with tear-stained
cheeks. “You left. Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m okay.” Dave backed away from the door and waved her in. “Are you?”
Liza shook her head. ”I dunno. It’s hard. I mean, we used to hang out all the time, y’know? Me, Courtney, Jeff, and Stephen. We were together so much, people used to think we were couples’r something. But then, after Stephen transferred out, we didn’t talk. I mean, it was long-distance, and that’s expensive. Neither of us was working, y’know?”
Dave nodded. “Yeah, I know. I’m sure he understood that.”
“I just — I wish I could’ve told him I cared, y’know? That he mattered.”
Dave shook his head, putting his hand on her shoulder. “Look, I’m sure he knew that. You were a good friend.”
Liza looked down. “You remember the Tide joke?”
“Yeah.” Dave swallowed.
Early last semester, Stephen had been starting a load of laundry. He had reached for a box of detergent on a shelf, and somehow (which Dave was fuzzy on, because he wasn’t there) he managed to spill it over his head. For the rest of the semester, all his friends (including Dave) would wipe away the unseen detergent from his shoulder before they started talking to him. “Looks like you got something on your shirt there, Stephen…”
“Maybe we… Maybe we shouldn’t’ve done that. I mean, we weren’t trying to be mean…”
Dave lowered his head, then looked back up. “It was a joke. Look, we were all friends. I mean, Stephen was a little quiet, but you guys always included him in things. I mean, I was always off in the computer lab, or hanging out with Joe’r Cari, or whatever, but I was with you guys sometimes, and I didn’t see anything mean. I would’ve said something.”
“Would you have?”
“Well, yeah. I’d like to think so.”
“I just don’t get this. Why did he do it?”
Dave sighed. “I don’t know. I really don’t. The few times he and I hung out alone together, he’d usually read me his poetry. The words sounded nice an’ all, but I never quite got it, y’know? He was always just this nice guy, a little off, that liked to write poetry.” He shook his head. “The only other thing
I knew about him was he had a crush on Joe’s girlfriend at one point. Looking back now, I don’t get it, but maybe that was him trying to be straight.” He paused. “One time, when Joe and Christy were sort of broken up, he’d asked me if he should say something to her. He didn’t seem to understand it was inappropriate. I had to tell him to back off.”
“Do you think he’s okay now?”
Dave bristled. “Uh, you mean other than being dead?”
“You know what I mean.”
Dave nodded. “Yeah, I know.” He stroked his mustache with his thumb and forefinger. “You’re probably asking the wrong guy.”
Liza shook her head, hugging herself, looking down at the floor. “I know you don’t believe in God. You’re still spiritual, though.”
Liza brought her gaze back up. “When you had that dream about Cari – that she died – you told me you were scared shitless.” She shook her head. “People who don’t believe in anything don’t think like that.”
“Yeah, well … I dunno. I just don’t assume I know how things work.” He paused. “Maybe Stephen’s fine. I hope Stephen’s fine. For someone to feel so shitty about himself, I hope he found peace, and not just … nothing.”
Liza sniffled. “I think he’s okay.”
“I can tell you this:” Dave touched her elbow, and Liza’s arms unlocked, falling to her sides. “He’s not hurting anymore.”
She nodded and smiled faintly. “Thanks.” She paused. “Are you going to the funeral?”
“Funeral? Stephen’s … I mean… He was an atheist.”
“His parents’re giving him a funeral next week. Thursday at 11”
“So’re you going?”
“I’ve got a lot of work to do.” He hooked his thumb back over at the computer. “My thesis…”
“Oh…” For a few seconds, there was only the sound of the computer fan. “Well, I should go. I’ve got an eight-o’clock tomorrow.”
Dave nodded. “All right. I’ll talk to you later. Stop by again when you get a chance, or I’ll come up.”
“Sure.” Liza nodded and walked out the door.
Funeral? No goddamn way I’m going to a funeral for that selfish son of a bitch. Look how he left the people who care about him.
The elevator always smelled like piss. Old piss. Who the hell takes a leak in an elevator? Dave pushed the button for the second floor. He was pressed down into his seat for a second, and then felt a slight bounce as the elevator stopped.
“Come on. Open.” He felt the usual momentary panic when the doors wouldn’t open, and then heard the beep as the elevator stopped and the doors released him. He exited and turned left, through the air stained with the faint smell of pot.
Dave knocked on Jeff’s door.After a second, Jeff opened it, and stood aside, waving Dave inside. “Hey.”
“Hey.” Dave rolled in. “I heard what happened. How’re you holding up?”
Jeff sighed. “Still in shock, I guess. I mean, what the fuck?”
Dave nodded. “Yeah.”
“I heard you were pissed.”
“Who told you that?”
Jeff gestured towards the door. “I was talking to Courtney before. She stopped by.”
“She told me you got up and walked away from her and Liza.”
Dave smiled. “Okay, two things: First of all, I didn’t get up. And I sure as hell didn’t walk away.”
“All right. Good point, I guess. You okay?”
Dave shrugged. “I’m just pissed.”
“Yeah. Me, too. I mean, we were roommates for two years. How could he not tell me something was wrong? How could I not see it?”
Dave stared at the R.E.M. poster above Jeff’s bed.
GREEN WORLD TOUR 1989
A predictably green background was dominated by tall, thin trees in black silhouette. Maybe redwoods. A dirt path went through them, disappearing in the distance, overcome by the trees.
Dave shook his head. “No matter how well you know someone, you can only know them so well, I guess.” He motioned at the poster. “Good album?”
Jeff sighed. “Not their best, but yeah, pretty good.”
“The funeral’s on Thursday.”
“Yeah. Liza told me.”
“I haven’t decided yet.”
“Oh, okay.” Jeff paused. “I’m going. Stephen’d hate it, though.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“You know how his parents found out?”
Dave shook his head. “No. I just know they found out he was gay.”
“They convinced him to go to some Christian camp over the summer. Apparently, he and another camper got caught…” Jeff shook his head.
“Yeah. I mean, I’m sure he only agreed to go to make them happy, and it ends up…” He took a deep breath. “Anyway, I don’t mean to kick you out, but I’ve got Psychology reading to do. What time’re you going to dinner?”
“I’ll see you then.”
“All right. Cool.”
Dave finally made it down to dinner at 6:30. He would’ve been earlier, but he’d forgotten about a paper he had to write for a literary criticism class. Jeff had apparently already left the dining hall. Dave rolled up to their usual table and ate his cheeseburger and fries. There was some kind of rappish-hip-hoppish noise coming from the jukebox, and Dave’s chest started to vibrate, so he ate as quickly as possible, and made his way back up the ramp with his tray.
If Courtney thinks I was pissed, I should go up and see her. Don’t want any bad feelings…
Back to the pissavator. He pushed 3 and waited. When the doors finally opened, he turned right and rolled down the hall to 316, and knocked on the door.
Courtney opened the door. “Hey.” She crossed her arms over her chest.
“Hey. How’re you doing?”
“All right. Considering.” She motioned him in.
“Look, I just wanted you to know … I wasn’t mad back at lunch. Not at anything you’r Liza said.”
Courtney shook her head. “Yeah, I know. It was a big shock for all of us.”
“You sure you’re okay?”
“No. Not really. It doesn’t seem real. I mean, Stephen was the most gentle guy, y’know? He was so, I dunno… meek. This just doesn’t make sense. I can’t think of him as violent or destructive, even towards himself. And then… to hang himself.”
“Jesus Christ. He hanged himself?”
“Yeah. Jeff didn’t tell you?”
“No. I only heard about the camp.”
“Yeah. They stopped at a rest stop on the way home. Burger King, I think. He went into the bathroom, and…” She shrugged, sniffled, and wiped her nose.
Courtney nodded. “Yeah.” She waved her hand at a book on her desk. The lamp was on, with an overturned paperback under it. “He loved Thoreau. The one thing you could always get him to talk about was Walden. He used to go out into the woods, just find a quiet spot with his notebook, and write. I was in class with him last semester. We were studying transcendental literature. He was in,” she smiled, nodded, “heaven”.
Dave swallowed. He raised his hand to touch her shoulder, but thought better of it, and let his hand fall back in his lap.
Courtney’s eyes fixed on the crucifix hanging over her bed. “I know he’s okay. He’s at peace.” Her eyes sought out Walden again. “I mean, suicide’s a sin, technically, but he has to be okay. He was a good guy. Even if he didn’t believe.” She sniffled and wiped her nose.
Dave let his hand touch her shoulder. “I know he was.”
“And I know he wouldn’t’ve wanted a funeral, but he should be remembered somehow.” She looked at Dave. “Are you going?”
He withdrew his hand. Fuck. “No. I have … stuff to do.”
“Oh.” Courtney lowered her head, giving a slight nod. “I know you’re angry.”
He glanced at the floor, then back to her. “I’m not.”
“Yeah. You are.”
Dave sighed. “Okay. Yeah. Maybe I am. I just… I can’t deal with how selfish he was, and how he left everyone hurt and feeling guilty and abandoned. I mean… I dunno.”
“Yeah, I know. But it wasn’t him. If it was up to him, he’d be here.”
Dave felt the anger rise up in his throat. He waved his hand across the room. “So where the hell
is he? How can you kill yourself when you’re a goddamn atheist? Who the fuck would just jump into oblivion? What sense does that make? And to hurt all your friends?”
Courtney shook her head. “You’re not thinking about it the right way.”
“Rational people don’t kill themselves. Well, they do, sometimes, but not out of despair. Dying for nothing doesn’t make any sense. It’s crazy.”
“Yeah… I guess.” Dave shifted in his chair and looked down.
“Think about it, okay?”
“Yeah.” Jesus Christ! “Well, I’ll let you get back to your reading. Have a good night.”
“Yeah, you too.”
Thursday came. Dave spent it working on his thesis. Or, at least, looking at his thesis. The white space on the page stayed unchanged for hours. He glanced at the clock on his night-stand, and noted when the funeral would start. He tried to focus, but could only think of a black coffin with brown dirt. Son of a bitch.
Around noon, he decided he couldn’t do anything. So he slept. He turned his desk lamp off, laid down on his bed, and slept a dreamless, inert sleep.
A knock. He opened his eyes and glanced at the red LEDs of his alarm clock. 3:30. He pulled himself into his chair and rolled to the door.
Jeff was standing there. “Hey.”
“Hey. Sorry I didn’t go. How was — I mean, how’d it go?”
“It was a funeral. Lots of crying people. A priest. Open casket. Stephen looked okay. Realistic, I mean, not like someone else.”
Dave rubbed his eyes and nodded. “That’s good.”
“What’ve you been doing?”
“Trying to work on my thesis. Sleeping. Mostly sleeping, I guess.”
“Look, while we were there, I talked to Courtney and Liza about it. We’re going to hold a little ceremony, outside in the woods. A poe for Stephen.”
“I think he’d like that.”
“You’re welcome to join us, if you want to.”
Dave tried to smile and nodded. “Thanks.”
“It’ll be at 8, out in the woods. Stop by my room a few minutes before and we’ll go.”
“ Thanks. I’ll have to see. I have a lot of stuff going on.”
Jeff nodded. “I know. Just wanted to let you know the plan.”
“All right. Take care, and get some sleep. You look like shit.”
Jeff waved and left, closing the door behind him.
Dave looked at the clock. 7:30. He thought about Stephen, and how he’d given him the power strip – actually went out, bought, and given him the power strip. About the meals they’d all shared. About the times that he’d reached out, even if Dave didn’t understand him. And then, Dave thought about the terrible pain and isolation in Stephen’s last moments.
It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter why he did it, or why he couldn’t reach out to us. He couldn’t, he didn’t, and he died. He did something stupid and selfish, but he was still a good friend. And he deserved better from this life, even if his final act was an anguished “Fuck you” to everyone who loved him.
At 7:50, Dave knocked on Jeff’s door.
They met up behind the dorm, far enough away in a clump of trees that no one would see them. It was late September, and the cold twilight air chilled Dave’s wheel-rims.
The rules of the poe were simple. You ripped a page out – at random – from your favorite book. (It could be a photocopy, if you didn’t want to destroy the book itself. It just had to be a random page.) You cut the page up, line by line, then word by word. In the end, you had a random pile of words. Everybody brought their pile to the poe, and you dumped out all the words into the coffee can. Everyone picks a word out of the can, and the poem is made from the words.
They all reached into the can. Dave took the first piece of paper. Liza reached in, holding herself back, as if the pile could reach out and grab her. Jeff went next, then Courtney. They all stood in a circle.
Dave opened his paper. Liza tapped his shoulder. “Don’t look at it yet! We all throw them down at once.” She closed her eyes.
“Oh yeah. Right.” Dave sat with the paper in his hand.
Jeff whispered. “Ready?”
They all nodded.
Dave exhaled. “All right. Let’s go.”
They all dropped the words, and watched them flutter to the ground. Jeff squatted down to look at them, flipping the pieces of paper that had landed face-down, reading them as he went.
“Purple. Goddam. Cup. Heaven.” Jeff looked at the words. “So that’s the poem, then. ‘Purple goddam cup heaven’.”
Dave stared at the scraps of paper.
Courtney shook her head. “What’s it mean?”
A faint smile worked its way between Liza’s lips. “It says ‘heaven’. Maybe that’s Stephen.” She looked around at the others, nodding. “Maybe he’s okay.”
Jeff slowly rose to his feet, shaking his head. “Nothing. It doesn’t mean anything.”
Liza closed her eyes and shook her head, taking a step back from Jeff. “Don’t say that! Don’t … Don’t say that.”
Courtney wiped away a tear. “Yeah. What kinda thing is that to say?” She looked at the words. “‘Cup’. With ‘heaven’, could that have something to do with…communion?”
Dave turned toward Courtney. “No. Jeff’s right. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a randomly-assembled poem. What were we expecting?” He paused. “Look…” He held a hand up. “I don’t know if there’s anything after we die. I don’t. I’d like to think so, but…” He shrugged. “What I do know is that if there’s an afterlife, you don’t talk to people there through pieces of paper.” He exhaled. “It doesn’t mean a goddamn thing. Whatever talking to us he’s gonna do, he did while he was here. We don’t have to like like what he did. I don’t. I’m still fucking pissed off. But we have to accept it. Whatever talking he’s gonna do, he’s already done.”
Courtney wiped the tears from her cheeks with the sleeve of her sweatshirt. “I don’t believe that.”
Dave pulled his hand back through his hair. “Look, I’m sorry. It’s just… I don’t know.” He sat silent for a moment, looking at the scraps of paper. “I’m sorry.”
Courtney shook her head, turning away from him. “Forget it. Don’t worry about it.”
Liza picked up the can. “I don’t know if Stephen can see us, or hear us.” She scanned the dark silhouettes of the trees. “I don’t know if those words on the ground mean anything. I hope they do. All I know is, all of the other things that’ve gone on since he died – the viewing, the funeral – they were all for the people left behind. They weren’t for him. They were held in his honor, but they weren’t for him.”
Dave whispered, “Funerals’re for the living.”
Liza nodded. “Right. None of it was for Stephen. This is something for him. He loved poetry, and he loved doing these poes.” She turned to Jeff, holding out the can. “You wanna do the honors?”
Jeff nodded and pulled out his lighter. “Yeah.” He flicked the lighter on, its flame casting an orange, flickering glow against his face.
They picked up their pieces of paper. Dave, Liza, and Courtney put them back into the can. Jeff lit his word on fire, and threw it in. As the paper ignited, Jeff set the can down, and they all watched the paper burn. When the words were burnt up, Courtney knelt down, picked up the still-warm can, and scattered the ashes in the air.
Dave stared out into the darkness. The only sound was the wind filtering through the trees.
Brian Hartman lives in Scotch Plains, New Jersey. He has been writing short stories for as long as he can remember. He is currently working on a mosaic novel, Long-Distance Dedications, which he hopes to have finished this year.