Emotional Osmosis by Willem Myra

A man lies belly down on a flat rock in the middle of a freezing-cold stream. He woke up one morning and found himself here. Doesn’t know how, doesn’t know why. All he knows is that he needs to survive. Unapologetically bad at swimming and an optimist by upbringing, his only option is to reach into the waters hoping for a wounded or inexperienced fish to come his way. But there are no such fish around, or they’re already dead, so ninety-nine times out of a hundred he finds himself empty handed. That hundredth time, however, something does get stuck in the web formed by his branchy fingers. Not a river inhabitant, mind you, but rather — a bottle of sunscreen; a new pair of cargo shorts; a washed-out book; a toy soldier; car keys; a defective wheel for working his abs; a Polaroid picture of a deliciously looking ice cream. I am not real, the man realizes as he’s starving to death, lips parted, gaze skyward. I was birthed by someone’s mind. And, just before letting out his last breath, he whispers, “How cruel to be but a vehicle, a means to portray a
metaphor about the universe’s caprice to hand people a solution to riddles they weren’t even aware they were trying to solve.”

This is the scenario playing in Aleks’s mind. He’s stuck in a hotel room, sitting in a corner. Craig and Sonja are here, too. Aleks feels like he’s part of that Quasimodo poem — pierced by a ray of sunlight. It’s not an eureka moment he’s having; that would imply him understanding something no other man has ever thought of before, something humanity as a whole could benefit from. Instead, what he’s having is a– What’s it called? There’s a mechanism inside Aleks’s brain that records every word he hears, every word he reads. Aleks ignores the vastitude of vocabularies buried deep down into his subconscious, but whenever he needs a term, especially when songwriting, out of nowhere this voice would suggest him a few. Say he’s thinking, What’s it called when you press your teeth together and make a sound like grgrgrgr? The voice in his head would whisper, Grind. Would whisper, Gnash. Would whisper, Grit. To which Aleks would go on the Merriam-Webster website and check the entries for each word and realize that, hell, this brain chunk of his with an aptitude for linguistics was correct. And right now, what the brain chunk is saying is, Epiphany. So that’s what Aleks is having, an epiphany. He’s realized something that’s obvious to most people, if not everybody, something he himself already knew, but had forgotten about, taking it for granted, something that’s always been there, and thus making it unimportant to his eyes.

Aleks’s epiphany is — as technically all epiphanies are — about life. Life is a cobweb. The intersections between the strings represent the events befalling you, while the strings themselves are made of anything filler that happens in the meanwhile. It’s no ordinary cobweb, though. A few years back Aleks saw online the results of this science experiment in which they gave different drugs to spiders — How? He pictures lab personnel in white coats using miniscule spoons to force feed arachnids with their infinitesimal, toothless mouths agape — and had them craft webs to study the effects on the brain of said drugs. Following his epiphany, Aleks now envisions life as woven by a spider who’s had too much chloralhydrat, so its web comes out all shabby and asymmetrical and in some parts disconnected. Like the cracks in an armored glass after you’ve hit it with a steel bat. And that’s the way life looks if you take a step back and analyze it in 2D. A maze with many exists and one entry, with broken walls, with paths leading nowhere, with paths leading to precipices or PTSD-inducing black holes.

He can see now, Aleks can, that there are two types of lines connecting the events: causality and synchronicity.

Causality is: Event A leading to Event B which leads to Event C. Clean, linear, idiot-proof. In graphic form: A → B → C.

Synchronicity is also A → B, because that’s how the entire universe works, let’s face it, but in this case the person B occurs to willingly ignores A, believing that the catalyst for B was really, I don’t know, some fucker on the other side of the planet doing K instead of Z? It’s all “an elephant farts in India and an earthquake happens in Japan” kind of funky logic involved with synchronicities, so do yourself a favor and don’t get into it.

Applying this newfound knowledge to the situation unfolding presently, Aleks sees that:

Craig is in a coughing fit because Sonja is smoking indoors.

Sonja is smoking indoors because they were advised not to open the window.

They were advised not to open the window because there are at least a dozen people protesting in front of the hotel.

The dozen people are protesting because Aleks was not arrested (yet? at all?) after he punched that old man downtown.

Insert here a new variable: Alison. The question being: Is what took Aleks from Alison to the old man an honest to God example of synchronicity? You have thirty minutes to solve the problem. Time starting — Three, two, one… — now! Good luck.

“Shouldn’t he tweet something at least?” says Craig, hand over his mouth, nostrils pinched closed between index and thumb.

As Sonja puts out her cigarette, Craig’s facial muscles relax and his cheeks get pushed upward into a genuine smile. But this post-coital resembling relief of his is short lived, for Sonja lights up another cigarette before talking.

“No. He better keep his damn phone off. You have no idea how popular that hashtag has become.”

Craig nods his head a couple of times, then retreats by the closed window. He’s too polite to tell Sonja to fucking stop smoking indoors, while Sonja is the type of person who disregards others and only cares about her own needs, so even if she noticed Craig’s discomfort — which she doesn’t because she pays no attention to the rest of the world — she’d never renounce her smoke just for him. Usually it’d be Aleks to slap the cigarette out of his sister’s hand, shouting at her to learn how to properly behave in the company of other people, except right now he doesn’t want to stand up or talk or exist, really. He’s not thinking about the man lying in the middle of the stream anymore, nor about cobwebs. Instead, Aleks wonders how long it’s going to take before scientists invent a time-out gadget. Something akin to a small box with a big, flashy red button. A cartoonish remote, if you will. And the way this gadget is going to work is, you press the button and a mysterious force puts you out of time, like it literary grabs you and places you in an alternative prison-cell-big dimension where time doesn’t exist and where you can wear down or outsleep your unwillingness to live. How better would humanity improve if whenever you’re angry or depressed you could just up and go elsewhere where you need not worry about eating or going to work or bathing yourself, where you can think as much as you like, or idle around for entire eras and come back to the real world refreshed and smiling and ready to help and be helped? Yeah, someone should totally invent a remote like that. If Aleks could come up with a way to turn this process into really, now that would be a textbook example of eureka.

“And besides,” continues Sonja, blowing smoke toward Craig, “there’s nothing Aleks could tweet that wouldn’t appear like a justification for his actions. His next public announcement should be short and humble. It should acknowledge that what happened was a mistake.” She raises a bony index to the ceiling. “A one-timer. Not a habit. We need to punch the fact, no pun intended, that Aleks did not fail to manage his anger, but rather that something about the man… Hm… I don’t know how to put it. We should brainstorm a little. You get what I mean, though, right? The message should read like it’s Aleks’s fault but between the lines it should be clear we know the old man started it and we’re mature enough to take the fall for him.”

Craig is taking mental notes, still moving his chin up and down like when he’s backstage on tour.

Sonja turns to face Aleks, who notices her out of the corner of his eye and turns the other way, looking at the wall. There is no justification is the phrase on repeat broadcasted by the speaker in his brain.

Then someone knocks at the door.

Sonja rockets to her feet, pale-faced. “Angry mob coming for our heads?” she whispers trying to joke about it, nervousness betrayed by her shaking voice.

Craig side-steps to the door and slowly accosts his eye to the peephole, like a circus performer who’s supposed to insert his head in the lion’s mouth and now, with all the lights pointing at him and the audience taking suspenseful gasps, is having second thoughts.

“It’s Double T,” Craig announces with a smile and opens the door.

In comes Tim Tsu, Aleks’s agent, fancy suit and hair gelled back. A man whose smile could win him a million fans in the entertainment world were he not so keen on working away from the cameras.

“Tell us you have good news,” Sonja begs while fiddling with the lighter.

“I’ve got good news.”

“Now try and say it like you mean it.”

Tim Tsu laughs. “Relax, people, I’m on it, I told you.”

“Yeah?” asks Sonja. “And what did you do so far?”

Tim Tsu ignores her and instead points his iPhone toward Aleks.

“I just got off a call with the label. Their legal team is in full damage control mode, which means you’re in the cool. For what I’ve been told, in a few hours they’ll instruct us where to go.”

“What do you mean, where to go?” Sonja interjects. “Like, running away? In Mexico or something?”

“Nothing like that. I’ve been working with corporations for almost ten years now and while I’m not sure one hundred percent that this is the route we’re going down, chances are I’m pretty close to reality. So, like I said, the label will call back instructing us to go to a certain place.” Tim Tsu explains all this staring at Aleks, not once turning to include Sonja or Craig in the conversation. “A judge in incognito will meet us there and we will discuss what’s the easiest way to shake this whole mess off without you having to see even an inch of metal bar. A misdemeanor at best.”

Sonja is bewildered by what her ears are communicating to her brain. “You’re going to bribe a judge!”

“There are deals already in place between members of the justice system and, among others, recording labels. We will not pay the judge. Our legal team is right now getting in touch with the old man, convincing him to drop any possible charges. That’s who we’re going to pay, if anything. The judge? He’s just going to make sure no police will be involved in this.”

“Sounds like a shitstorm would be unleashed on us were public opinion to know what we’re about to do,” says Sonja.

But Aleks doesn’t care enough to hear her comment. He gets up, motions to Tim Tsu to follow him. They leave the hotel room, just the two of them, with Sonja shouting questions first and curses then and with Craig staring at them mutely. The back exit leads to an alley where Tim Tsu’s Audi is parked. They get inside and Tim Tsu drives away.

“Where to?”

“Wherever. I just need to clear my thoughts.”

The mob with their signs and angry faces shrink up in the rearview mirror. It’s a sunny day, mid-July, and Aleks hates not being in a movie, for then he’d have cloudy sky and possibly rain, with a dark-blue photography and some “all hope is lost” type of background music. He could pull off a “tough but melancholic” lead character face.

They drive for ten, fifteen minutes, complete silence reigning inside the car. Tim Tsu paying attention to the traffic; Aleks staring at the dashboard, thoughts bouncing around in his mind.

“You never asked me why.”

“What’s that?” Tim Tsu asks.

“The first thing everybody told me was, ‘Why?’. You? You asked me if I was alright.”

Tim Tsu nods, waiting for more. He’s a good agent, could be an even better psychiatrist.

“Thank you for that.”

“No need to.”

“I–”

“Yeah?”

Should Aleks say this? He needs someone to talk to, and Tim Tsu is the one who more than anybody else could understand him.

“I met someone the other day.”

“Someone like a fan or– ?”

“It wasn’t actually the other day but the event stuck with me so much it feels like it’s perpetually happening. Over and over again.”

“O.K.”

“I was invited to that podcast a couple months ago, remember? The one in Santa Monica. That’s when I saw her. Alison.”

“Doesn’t ring a bell.”

“I went to high school with her.”

“That explains it.”

“This Alison, she used to be a rage-fueled hurricane, you know? Always looking to start a fight with anybody — guys, girls, adults — over the most futile motives. The rebellious girl who would go on a date with a guy just because her parents said she shouldn’t, that was Alison. She would show everybody the middle finger and curse twenty-four out of seven even worse than we guys did. I mean, we all flipped the bird but never in front of the teachers. But Alison: her attitude spared nobody. ‘I don’t care,’ she’d say presenting the teacher her skull fingernail. ‘Send me home if you’re tired of me. Else shush it and go back to whatever bullshit you were explaining.’ Thinking about it now I find it sort of funny, though back then she was obnoxious. Always hearing her say fuck this, fuck that, while I was trying to learn that much needed not to fail the class.

“I remember this one time she got into a verbal fight with a dude, and of course being he a teenager, he ended up calling her a cunt. Wouldn’t you know it, she literally threw a desk at him. Pure raw strength, that girl was. The dude managed to jump out of the desk’s way at the last second, but Alison was furious. It took three sixteen-year-olds to keep her in place. Impressive and scary at the same time. Pretty sure most of us popped a boner there and then.

“Anyway, a couple months ago I saw her again after all these years and I was dumbfounded by how little she looks like her old self. Why is that, I wonder. All the guys I went to high school with are the same only chubbier, while the girls, the girls have all changed.”

“I believe it’s something to do with the difference in sexual desire. Wasn’t it that men peak around eighteen, while women later in their thirties or something? It explains the whole cougar-slash-MILF thing going on, but don’t quote me on that one.”

“I suppose. I should Google that, one day.” Aleks claps his hands together, just once. “Back to Alison. What was I saying? Oh, yeah. I saw her again a couple months ago. She had a calm, recollected gaze; and she smiled too. Hair well combed. Eyeglasses. A dress instead of sweat pants, which improves her as a whole immensely. She even had one of those handbags business women carry around on their bent elbow. She’s completely changed. Like, fuckin’ a, dude. She did a one-eighty. Such a hormonal stampede she was, and only a kind breeze is left. I feel melancholy taking over thinking about it.”

“Did you talk to her?”

Aleks shakes his head. “Was too caught up in my own thoughts to approach her. I must have stared at her for fuck knows how long that day. Like, if some passerby came and called me a creep, I’d have totally agreed with them.”

Car stops.

Red light.

Heat.

Waiting. Waiting. Waiting.

Green light.

Back into the traffic.

“And I realized something looking at Alison. Which is, I went through the exact opposite process, didn’t I? Back in high school I used to be a rock. Any problem, any offense, would leave me untouched. Like water off a duck’s back. I had learned from Dad that a man had be aloof, a Clint Eastwood-type of silent everything-solving cliché. And I tried my best to incarnate that ideal for oh so long. While now — now you can see anger lingering on my face, anger burning in my eyes, hell even my lyrics are sharp and mean and blown out of proportion. Which is why I punched the old man. It was after the signing. We were headed to lunch and then this herd of crazy tween girls came to us begging for a selfie. You can’t say no to that. But because of these girls there was no more room on the sidewalk, so the old man had no way to pass around us without stepping off the curb and into incoming traffic.

“Mind you, he didn’t say a thing. No, ‘The new generation is fucked’. No cursing. No spitting on the ground. It was just his gaze. We take our selfie and then head to the car and I tell the old man, like, ‘Sorry for that, it won’t happen again.” And the old man simply stands there, staring at me. Wordlessly. Ruthlessly. I saw it in his eyes. That he thought he was better than me. That I was garbage. Just garbage. I snapped. Next thing I know, Sonja is pulling me away, while the old man is lying on the ground, blood coming out of his nose. And the girls. Screaming like I’ve just killed their papa.”

“It’s alright, Alex, we’re going to get you out of this.”

“No. It’s not alright. I’m scared, Tim. How the fuck did I go from monk-like to teenage-Alison-clone? Was it a gradual process I didn’t notice; or was it more like somebody snapped their fingers and there I was, switching from blue to red? I can’t say. Can you? Do you know what made you into what you are today? What moments or people shaped your then self into the present you? ‘Cause I look in the mirror every night before bed and I see I’m twenty-eight and my soul is a burning Amazonia and most times I just ask my reflection where did the other me go and how come among all the many selves William James talks about only this one was washed ashore and still stands no matter what?”

There is silence now weighing down on the Audi. Tim Tsu is most certainly trying to come up with a response that’s both wise and pragmatic, and Aleks, breath coming short and his heart beating, beating, beating, like he’s back in college and an exam is imminent, Aleks is tapping a finger on the dashboard, waiting for his agent to say the first words of his little speech so he can interrupt him and say, finally say, No. Forget all that. I need them eggheads to move their asses. I need a time out somewhere where I can feel safe from myself. You know what? Just take me there. To the police station. Please, Tim, take me to a police station before I can’t recognize myself anymore.

Willem Myra’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in 101 Words, Litro, The Offing, and elsewhere. He lives in a modest Italian city where he shares his love for literature with two cats and a stubborn case of rhinitis. More about him at willemmyra.wordpress.com and he can be found @WillemMyra on Twitter.

Aiming For God by L.L. Madrid

An alert chimes on my phone. Like one of Pavlov’s dogs, I react instantly. It takes only a swift click to read the breaking news.

Active shooter. Fifteen to twenty hostages. Eight reported dead.

I feel a barb-sharp sting when I recognize the suburb’s name. The cell slips from my hand and kisses the travertine tile. The shattered screen, still aglow, resembles a spider’s web ensnaring a fly.

My brother lives in Ashland. Or at least he had. Marcus moves so often it’s hard to track him. I get calls from all over. He rings to tell me that the government is controlling the weather and is punishing California with drought. He leaves voice messages warning of chemtrails. Sends texts demanding to know how much water and dried goods I have stockpiled.

I don’t like lying to my brother. He doesn’t like hearing the truth—that I’d rather not survive the impending apocalypse. To pacify him, I bought a hurricane kit and the cheapest water storage tank I could find. One of the few times I initiated a call was to tell him of my doomsday preparations.

Now he says it’s too late. Fukushima is bleeding out nuclear waste. The oceans are dying. The world is toxic.

The research is solid.

I tell him that there’s nothing to do except live life. It’s a lousy platitude, but it’s all I have to offer.

His last call came past midnight two weeks ago. The big one was coming and he wanted to say goodbye.

“Are you taking your meds?”

“Those pills have nanobots in them. They’re trying to control me. You can’t trust the fucking VA.”

“You should take your pills. It’s part of your probation.”

We don’t talk about when he stood in front of his trailer waving his gun. Or the shots he fired into the sky. Or how he refused to put the weapon down when the police surrounded him.

He never aimed for anyone but God.

We don’t talk about how, that day, a cop recognized Marcus. Her brother had served in the same unit in Iraq. The officer’s brother and mine had been the two youngest. Their collective nickname: The Columbine Kids.

There would be no suicide-by-cop that day. Instead, they released a dog on him. Canine teeth sunk deep through Marcus’s calf leaving shiny dime-deep scars.

My brother never talks about it. Except once, when he was drunk after Thanksgiving, and even then he only said, “That dog didn’t want to bite me. He was just following orders.”

The screen crumbles around my fingers as I refresh the news. White male. Late twenties.

I can’t get the cracked phone to dial. “Siri, call Mom.”

Straight to voicemail. My father’s line too.

I turn on the television. There, a S.W.A.T. team crouches, cradling matte black guns. Huddling spectators stand along the peripherals. Tear-stained faces. Newscasters trying to look somber while covering their first national headlines.

“Siri, call Marcus.”

He answers on the third ring. I hear shouting, bullets firing, sounds of chaos.

My words come slow and gritty. “Where are you?”

“Hang on.” There’s a click and then silence. “What’s up?”

Relief releases my welling tears. “I saw Ashland on the news. I saw…I was worried…”

“It wasn’t me.”

“I know! I’d never think—”

“Mom and Dad called too.” Marcus’s voice is monotone, but I can hear the suppressed hurt. “I would never do that.”

“I didn’t think…”

“I’m not a killer. I only followed orders.”

The weighted air goes stale.

I want to tell him that I wish he never joined the army. Never went to Iraq.

He came back different.

I haven’t been the best sister. I didn’t write him much when he was overseas. Now, I often let his calls go to voicemail. It’s hard for me, but I know it’s harder for him. I want to apologize for forgetting who he was—who he still is—deep down, beyond the shrapnel scars, beneath the thick cowl of PTSD.

“I’m sorry,” I say at last. It’s not enough. “You should visit. It’s been a while.”

“Maybe. You can’t make fish, though. The radioactive particles give you cancer.”

I agree. “No fish.”

L.L. Madrid lives in Tucson where the rain smells like creosote. When she’s not writing, she’s busy editing a peculiar little journal called SPECULATIVE 66. Links to L.L. Madrid’s works can be found at http://llmadrid.weebly.com. She tweets @LLMadridWriter.

Epoxy by Chris Dungey

There wasn’t much daylight left after football practice. I rode home on my bicycle. The streetlights were coming on. My helmet hung on the handlebars making red reflections. We finally had Little League football in Celeryville–not Pop Warner or anything big like that. It was just a program organized by some dads because the Celeryville High Sabers had no junior varsity. Freshmen had to play and the dads were tired of always getting our butts kicked by North Branch and Almont. They didn’t say butts, you know, when we weren’t around. How were the Sabers ever going to compete if kids didn’t learn the basics early? And now there were enough 7th and 8th graders to make three teams–red, navy blue, and yellow.

I swung onto the sidewalk for the last few blocks. Traffic in the village picked up after five o’clock. On Fifth Street there were cars crowding the curb, even in front of our house. Something was sure going on. I turned into the drive-way.

Out in the back room, I pulled off my shoulder pads, the red jersey and all. I didn’t have cleats yet, but I kicked out of the high-top sneakers. I had painted them with black shoe polish so they didn’t look too dumb. No shoes were allowed in the house because my parents said the carpet cost an arm-and-a-leg.

“Have we got company?” I asked my mother’s back. She stood at the stove, browning something in the biggest black skillet–something that sizzled like a tap running hard. She turned. Her eyes were red. So maybe there was onion in there? She touched the corner of her eye with the back of a wrist. “No. No, Ladd. Mr. Milner died.”

My mouth fell open, waiting for that next breath you have to take sometimes after a surprise. Finally, I said, “I thought he was getting better.”

Maybe the news shouldn’t have been a shock. Wilbur Milner was in a car crash just after Labor Day. He and his wife were our middle-aged neighbors since we moved to Celeryville two years ago. I never saw him much because he worked night shift. Maybe a few times out in the yard with his little grandkids. I saw him when he hired me to mow their lawn last summer. He said never to fire it up until his car left for work and to have Mrs. Milner pay me.

“It was always touch and go,” Mom croaked. “Pneumonia got in.”
So then I thought about the scary stories that were a month old. After a few weeks, I had quit thinking about what it would be like to have a crushed chest. And how some drunk guy was passing in those hills by Metamora and slammed straight into the car-pool headed down to Pontiac Motors. One of Mr. Milner’s friends was dead-on-arrival. At the hospital, I guessed. At the time, my Dad said he was glad his company put seat-belts in all their service cars.

“Stir this for me, would you,” Ma said. “Now I’ve got make-up in my eye.” She turned a knob down and handed me the spatula, a dark tear trailing down her cheek. “Stand back. It’s still popping.” There was onion in with the ground-beef.

When she came back, I went into the den to do homework with Bowery Boys showing on the black-and-white TV. I saw Dad’s car pull in the drive. My little brother, Chick, rushed in just at dark from wherever he was playing. It got quiet back in the kitchen, like they were both getting the news. Chick came out whimpering and clomped up the stairs to our room. Supper seemed later and later. I heard my parents voices, even talking low, and then the plates and silverware dealt onto the kitchen table. They finally called us to eat.

There was goulash, one of my favorites because it was an excuse for me to use Frank’s Louisiana Red-Hot Sauce. They put the bottle right in front of my place-mat. There was a tossed salad that I hadn’t been ordered to cut up. Probably so they could talk, because after we sat down, Ma dropped the other shoe:

“We think you boys should go to the visitation for Mr. Milner,” she announced. “We think you’re old enough now.”

Right away, my brain panicked for how this might mess up my weekend. It was a fact that I’d never been to a funeral yet, or seen a dead body in person. They thought I was too little five years ago when great-grandma Callander passed away. But I had plans for Friday night and the red team was supposed to play a game on Saturday.

“What’s a visitation?” Chick asked.

“Sweetie, all you have to do is go into the funeral parlor and sit for awhile. You pay your respects, share memories, and tell Mrs. Milner how sorry you are.”

My dad scooped and passed the goulash. “It’s part of growing up,” he said. “You fellows are mature enough to handle it.”

“The dead guy’s there and you can see him?” Chick continued. He didn’t sound scared though. “What if I don’t got any memories?”

“Of course he’s in there, Chicky,” Ma said. “You walk up to the casket to say good-bye and think about how nice he was. If you guys go in with us and act like gentlemen, there may even be a little reward.”

I shook the red sauce onto my goulash, that peppery smell making my mouth water. “When do we have to do this?”

Dad finished chewing some lettuce. “We’ll get ‘er done tomorrow evening after I get home and have a shower. Free up my Saturday. I’ve gotta hang storm windows.”

“But I was going to the Saber’s game,” I groaned. “Aren’t you coming to watch me Saturday? They made me second-string center.”

Dad spiked up some noodles. “Well, sure. So I need to get my chores out of the way. Tomorrow night is the time for us to be good neighbors.”

“And I still don’t know about those high-school games,” Ma worked in. She had the frown that meant privileges might be lost at any time. “I think the younger kids just run all over the place and don’t really watch. Some of ’em, their parents aren’t very responsible.”

I chewed slowly, taking my time to decide what she might want to hear. “I haven’t got in any trouble yet, have I?”

“Nothing that’s gotten back to me,” she admitted.

“And, plus, Coach said red team should all sit together and watch to see how it’s done.”

My Dad quit stuffing his face. He raised a finger, finally swallowed, touched a napkin to his lips. “How’s this sound? You ride your bike to the funeral parlor. You do your duty and then you can probably make it to the field by halftime.”

That was probably the best I could hope for. Ma would make me wear a goofy, light-colored jacket and I’d have to ride on the sidewalk. But there was also that reward she mentioned and now I wondered what it would be.

“How long do I have to stay?”

“We’ll let you know,” she said. “But it’ll be a polite time and you better not act all impatient.”

I said it sounded OK and asked Dad to pass the goulash.

*

It wasn’t such a big deal, I didn’t think. Chick started bawling, though, almost when we came in the door. Ma and Mrs. Milner were both hugging on him. He went up to the casket and then they plunked him down in the folding chairs with a Chip ‘n’ Dale comic book. I hung back. More people came in like the dinner hour was over and now they had to do this. The Milner’s son and daughter arrived but without the grandkids. The place was muggy with flowers. I inched over to the big poster of family pictures: Mr. Milner as a young guy in his GI uniform; vacations and Christmas; a nice string of bass by a lake. I kept the body kinda in the corner of my eye.

Dad angled up beside me for a minute to look, too. Then he put a hand on my shoulder and steered me toward the casket. “Let’s get this done,” he whispered.

It was on some kind of table, roped off with those red ropes like in movie theaters. To give people a path through the flowers, I figured. I couldn’t think of anything to say out loud, and not very much in my head. Seemed like all I could remember was just the thing about not waking him up with the mower. He seemed like a decent guy–kinda serious, like most older guys from the war. God probably appreciated that, though. That was about it. There was a line behind us so we moved along. Dad prodded me toward Mrs. Milner. She was talking to another older lady. I waited my turn, minutes flying now on a clock at the back of the room. Probably near the end of the first quarter already.

After more hugs, the woman ducked away, sniffling into a hankie. I stepped up and held out my hand. “I’m sorry for your loss, Mrs. Milner.” I’d heard other people use that one but my voice came out raspy. All the sadness in the room decided go through me even after telling myself all day that I didn’t really know the man very well.

“Oh, Ladd. Thank you sweet boys so much for coming.” She wasn’t letting me off without more hugging. She smelled like more flowers but kinda sour underneath, and with mothballs. “Wilbur admired your ambition. He used to say ‘that boy is either reading on the front porch or flying off somewheres on his bike.’ He said no kid ever did a better job with our lawn.”

I eased away a little but she kept an arm around my shoulder. More visitors were waiting to have a word.

“Thank you, ma’am,” I said. “Sorry I never got a chance to talk to him much.”

She started dabbing her eyes with a tissue. “Well, he worked so many hours. Thank you again, Ladd. I’ll be counting on you even more. I can never get our mower started.”

“Any time, Mrs. Milner.” And, like that, I was released back into the crowd. I went back to sit next to Chick.

*

Dad let me loose pretty soon after that. He looked anxious to wrap it up himself. “Shouldn’t you get moving, buddy?” He poked some bills in my face–the usual dollar of allowance plus a five. “Good job. Don’t spend it all in one place.”

I folded the cash into a front pocket and headed for the door.

“You behave yourself,” Mom called. It was not so hushed in there anymore, people getting used to the body and the idea of Mr. Milner being gone. I waved without looking back.

My bike still leaned against the brick front of the funeral parlor. I never worried about somebody cobbing it. It was a junker without fenders. I looked for cars then walked it across the street. You weren’t supposed to ride on the sidewalk in front of the stores. Kids were always being chewed out by the constable and the one village deputy in his patrol car. Sometimes they’d even take your ride away for a few days if old people made a big deal out of it.

I lifted mine up the opposite curb, right in front of the Ben Franklin store. I was surprised they were still open. But it was Friday night and it looked like a sale going on. The Halloween costumes were in. The display on one side of the entrance had dummies dressed like Superman and Davy Crockett; Jackie Kennedy, I think the one with long hair was supposed to be.

Before I could leave, the showcase on the other side of the door grabbed my attention. It was still lit up. They had skates, hockey sticks and basketballs, for kids to think about with winter coming. And, against the back wall, a pyramid of scale models was set up–hot rods and fighter planes. I heard drums and a tinny drift of horns on the breeze. It must be half-time already. The unfamiliar money was suddenly burning a hole in my pocket. The B-26 Intruder skimmed over a deep green jungle, just like the ones Cuban exiles were supposed to be flying against Castro. I saw they had tagged the models Marked Down!! I laid my bike carefully against the glass.

Mr. Day was just cashing out at the front register, a spool of white paper draped over the glass counter.

“I’m closing, Ladd.” He peered over his glasses. He was the Assistant Scout Master so he knew me, plus he and my Gramps were volunteer firemen.

“Oh, sure. I won’t take but a second.” I hustled down one aisle, past the candy counter. The buffed floor planks always squeaked like a welcome, or to let the clerks know there were kids in the place. The popcorn machine was already emptied out.

I ignored the dragster jalopies with too many tiny parts that never turned out. It was hard to use just a little glue and then they got all crusted up. The bomber I wanted was right in front. Chick already had the B-25 Mitchell and a Liberator flying over his bed, hanging on some nearly invisible fishing line. They looked pretty cool because Dad did most of the work for a little kid. The decals were on smooth and in the right places. I grabbed a tube of airplane glue.

Mr. Day made change out of an open band pouch. “I’ll have to ring this up in the morning,” he reminded me, or himself. “How come you’re not at the game?”

He handed me more than a dollar left. I could still make it but after chips and a soda, I’d be broke. “I went to Mr. Milner’s visitation. I guess I’ll just go work on this.”

“Oh, that’s right. What a terrible thing.” He fit the model into a brown bag. “That guy should never drive again.” He dropped the glue in on top.

“Does Dad help you with these?”

“Nah, I can do ’em OK,” I told him. It seemed like a funny thing to ask. What did he care?

“Well, you be careful handling that epoxy. Some kids back east are sniffing it to have hallucinations. Crazy business. Some of ’em ended up vegetables.”

I looked into the bag. It didn’t make sense. I knew about hallucinations from Indian lore we learned in Scouts–the young men fasting on their vision quests. But I started to imagine the head-ache I’d get from that chemical smell.

“Chief Wheeler wants me to keep a list of who buys the stuff,” Mr. Day added. “I need to think about that.”

Now being a drooling idiot was something else awful that could happen, probably even worse than getting your chest crushed. I guess I had seen a newspaper clipping on the bulletin board in Science. It was next to some government suggestions about food groups nobody read. There was a picture of a kid holding a paper bag up to his face.

“I’ll be careful,” I told Mr. Day. Then I shivered, for real and not just faking it. “Makes me wanta barf just thinkin’ about it.”

When I went back out the door, he was right behind me to lock up. The Saber Marching Band was done and you could hear a ref’s whistle and the seashore noise of the crowd blocks away. Must be already in the third quarter anyway, so I mounted up for home.

*

I brought the model up to my room. If I spread the parts on the big den coffee-table, Ma would just make me clear it off before bedtime. There was no one else home yet. I forgot we hadn’t eaten supper. They probably went out for burgers.

I opened the box and unfolded the instructions on my study desk. I intended to follow them to the letter, and in order. I intended to spread the glue with a toothpick like Dad did, and to use as little as possible.

Always count ten to let it get tacky first and then leave it alone, not handle it and admire it into a cobwebby mess.

I punctured the applicator tip with a pin. The glue bubbled slowly out the top. I put a bit of cardboard under it. For Step 1, I stuck the pilot to his seat. I set him aside to dry before fitting the seat into the slot provided in the cockpit. I tested the two fuselage halves together, studs into holes but without glue. Same plan with the halves of the two big engine cowlings. I broke the clear cockpit canopy away from the plastic frame most of the small parts were attached to. I scraped the edges with my scout knife to smooth off the little nubs. It had to fit right and you sure didn’t want fingerprints of glue hampering the pilot’s view.

After trimming the top and bottom of the left wing, I reached for the epoxy. A little scab of glue had formed on the metal tip. I picked it off and laid a fine bead around the edge of the wing bottom. The glue clot stuck to my finger. I don’t know why I held it to my nostril, except I was killing time to do it right. The smell wasn’t that bad, like car exhaust that’s kinda pleasant but you know it’ll turn your stomach in a little while. You know there’s a headache waiting in there. I guessed you’d have to inhale a lot more glue for it to do anything. The silhouette of the bad kid on the science poster looked like the bag was over his mouth and nose. I put the two wing halves together and pressed. My bag from Ben Franklin was right there.

Our gym teacher, Mr. Granger, warned us all the time that we were getting old enough that we’d start to experiment. This was when we had to sit in a classroom and do Health units. We needed to resist these temptations especially drinking. It was all natural curiosity, nothing to be ashamed of, but could kill us anyway, just by messing up the one time. No one ever knew how they’d react. Well, it looked like I must have reached that age or something. So, congratulations to me. And if I could play center at only 138 pounds, why would I be chicken of a quick sniff, just to see?

I dropped the bit of cardboard into the bag. It had a thick ooze of glue on it where the tube had laid. The bag blew up at first, like when you get ready to pop it behind someone’s ear. But then I breathed in deep and it crinkled down. I did that three times. That would have to be my limit.

Nothing shocking happened right off. I lowered the bag and put it next to the model box, thinking it all must be a big dud. But, when I closed my eyes, the side yard between our houses kinda opened up like a flower–that one from Wide World of Disney where they show off for you if you have color TV? They filmed this blossom in a way that it takes the blooming part just a few seconds. Then Mr. Milner is stooping next to one of those toddler grandkids. “Pet kitty nice, Jeffrey. Don’t be rough.” He guides the kid’s hand along the kitten’s tummy. “Hear her singing? That’s the way.” Then I snap the ball and pow!– a linebacker blasts over top of me, his shoulder and helmet right in my ribs. There’s one of those cartoon bubble things they use for characters to talk in comic books? It open’s up in my mind just like that flower, just like Milner’s yard. The bubble say’s owwwfff!, only in Mr. Milner’s voice, as all the wind goes out of me and I stand up gasping.

Chris Dungey is a retired auto worker in Michigan. 58 of his stories have found publications in various litmags and zines. His collection, THE PACE-LAP BLUES AND OTHER TALES FROM THE SEVENTIES is available from Amazon and Kindle. He rides mountain bike, feeds two wood-stoves, and camps at the sports-car races.