In November of 2018, the Sudden Denouement Literary Collective announced its first Short Story Contest centered around the theme ‘Things Would Never Be The Same.’ We received 129 submissions from around the globe with incredibly diverse interpretations of the theme.
We took these submissions very seriously, going through not one, not two, but three rounds of judging that included publishing our 11 finalists on Sudden Denouement. We thank everyone who read, liked, commented, shared, and voted on these fine pieces of writing.
We are pleased to announce our winners!
Basilike Pappa – No More Than You Can Salt
2nd place: Wes Trexler – All Caps, No Spaces
3rd place: Stephanie Clark – The Chasm &
C.G. Thompson – Lies
Allister Nelson – Unholy Communion &
Riley Mayes – Las Luchadoras
The magician on the television invited his audience to discern how he worked his prestidigitation. Lying on his stomach in front of the screen, Little Timmy propped himself higher on his elbows. He was eager to learn.
The magician said, ”Belief is the key.”
So Timmy sat up and drew close to watch belief. The magician had already told him that the hand was quicker than the eyes, so Timmy took this as a clue and decided to pay attention to eyes of the magician. He knew magic happened quickly and he had seen close-up magic before and never learned anything about how the trick was done by watching the hands of a prestidigitator.
This time, however, he learned the vital secret, he thought, to the performance of magic. By watching the magicians face and eyes, Timmy realized what this performer was actually doing. He was acting! All his dramatic gestures were actually just helping him to get into the role he was playing. Showmanship, he realized was just convincing yourself that what you were doing was real. The magician was just a kind of actor who claimed to possess abilities, until he believed it, even if, at first, it was a lie. He could hypnotize his assistant into floating in midair, and he could hypnotize himself into making things appear and disappear.
Timmy began to practice belief, hypnotizing himself into a strong state of pretend. Then he originated his own flamboyant gestures for revealing the results. He thought that this probably helped the audience believe the lie as well. If everyone watching also expected magic to happen then it would. He was like a lightning rod that then channeled all their belief into a result.
The first step was to hypnotize himself into a strong state of pretend. Then he found that his dramatic gestures actually made things happen.
The first time Timmy attempted the trick, he found that he could restore something torn. He practiced for polish, to make it slick, to stand up to potential sibling scorn.
Although he and his brother got on well, he and his sister were at constant war. To “show her,” it would have to be, “real swell,” but this was magic that she couldn’t ignore, or so he thought, but when he went to her with his magic, she wouldn’t even look, until he tore the candy-bar wrapper.
Then, all she asked about was if he took the candy from Mom’s special hiding place and warned he’d be in trouble and disgrace.
And then she ran off to tattle on him.
He should have known this was what Donna would do, that his chance of impressing her was slim, but there was something, right now, that he knew was going to happen unless he could get rid of the candy-bar confetti. Donna would make sure he’d “get punished good.” Theft from Mom’s hiding place was not petty.
He closed his eyes and focused his belief that he could make the pieces disappear, then sprinkled them like a crushed autumn leaf. They fell from one hand to … no longer here. Though Timmy couldn’t say where they had gone, it was a lifesaving phenomenon!
He lied, of course, and said she’d made it up. Since Mom could find no evidence, he won; but Donna was entirely fed-up and vowed revenge upon him “for this one.”
“It’s your fault for being a tattletale,” he told her, “and you missed the magic trick.”
But Donna insisted she wouldn’t fail to make him suffer, if it made her sick.
Timmy took his magic act on the road to his brother’s room where he thought there’d be at least a less dramatic episode if not a better audience to see all the tricks that he was learning to do and this wisdom he’d begun to accrue. Though busy with term papers, Don agreed to watch a few minutes of Timmy’s tricks. Don loved Timmy and knew how he could plead and how relentlessly he could transfix. His experience with Timmy taught him, if he gave-in quickly, work resumed. Besides he needed the break, so he thought, and this would be amusing, he assumed.
So little Timmy, unaided by props or magical apparatus, performed a magic act that took out all the stops and left his older brother quite transformed.
“I don’t believe my sanity is gone; the kid’s performing real magic,” thought Don.
A thousand thoughts at once inside his head made him feel both euphoric and dizzy. He recalled what their Dad had always said:
“When you feel overwhelmed, just get busy.”
First, he’d have to think through priorities, and calming down was his first choice and then maybe he should call the authorities. But, might Timmy be made a specimen? This, assuming anyone believed him – either crazy or a comedian is what they’d prob’ly think. No, it looked grim, unless his brother could do it again. That’s it! He’d have to gather evidence before he’d get anyone’s confidence.
He’d need another witness, and why not drag Sally into this, since she possessed the video equipment he did not. Besides, she was his “Damsel-Never-Stressed.” If anyone could calmly reason out a situation this bizarre, surreal, it would be Sally without any doubt. There wasn’t a thing he couldn’t reveal to her. She’d always react calmly and rationally and in perfect control – all of her emotions kept well in hand.
“Who am I trying to fool with this rigmarole?” he thought. “When she hears, she’ll scream, suspect alcohol, or worse. Even she’s not that calm a soul.”
More immediately, what should he say to the six-year-old wizard before him? He decided it best to gain delay from this blue-eyed, towheaded cherub grim, who’d suddenly grown burdensome, but was still his brother. He also knew he wouldn’t want to see the heart attack this would give their mother, if sprung upon her as surprisingly.
“Timmy, can I make a few suggestions? Your tricks are great, but your routine could be worked on. I want to get this on camera, with an interview. Can I ask you a few questions about what you can do and how, maybe? And would you mind waiting before you play magician for anyone else today?”
With promises that Timmy was to star in a video of his magic act, Don got agreement and dashed to his car, but Timmy had missed the spirit of their pact. He’d agreed there’d be no demonstration, but not that he wouldn’t continue to practice and indulge his exploration of his special talents and what he could do.
Because of her revenging persistence, Donna gave him the opportunity to use his powers with impunity – that is to say, it was in self-defense.
She tried to mount one of her sneak attacks, and Timmy simply froze her in her tracks.
“Hypothermia,” the doctor called it, “I’m glad we could successfully revive her, but I quite frankly have to admit that she’s very lucky to be alive.
“The cold source with which she came in contact was so quick that no ice crystals were formed; all her internal organs are intact. Don’t ask me how this could have been performed.
“And though we’d like to keep her overnight, just thank God,” continued Dr. Brady, “she should suffer only minor frostbite. Your daughter’s a determined young lady, and should heal very quickly without scar, but I’ve never had a case this bizarre.”
By the time that Don and Sally arrived, everyone at home had already left. Mom phoned to tell him Donna had survived.
Of senses, voice and wit Don felt bereft. “O.K., Mom, I’ll see you when you get home,” was the only response he could muster; his faculties went somewhere out to roam, his mouth was dry and his eyes went lackluster.
Sally shook him to tell her what occurred.
Don tried to accommodate her demand, but his breath was short and his vision blurred, and he found himself unable to stand. Although he had never fainted before, he next was being picked-up off the floor.
The social workers interviewed the clan and found no indications of abuse. Donna couldn’t recall how it began, and how she quick-froze no one could deduce. Though there was gossip in the neighborhood, it died out quickly since it made no sense – vague suppositions no one understood, outside the realm of their experience.
Since Sally hadn’t really seen a thing, and Don didn’t insist that it was real, she let it go — no point in worrying — just term-paper stress she thought, no big deal.
Don spoke about responsibility to Timmy on his new ability:
“I don’t think you realize what’s at stake, Timmy; this was more than just a scandal. I mean, what if Donna had died? For God’s sake, is that something you think you could handle?”
Don was new to this sort of tutelage. He’d learned this “scared straight” tactic from their Dad, but he didn’t consider Timmy’s age.
Timmy knew that what he had done was bad, and his tendency was to misconstrue. In all earnestness to Don, he forswore: “Until I grow up and get smart like you, I wish I can’t do magic any more.”
And as surely as if he had cast a magic spell, his paranormal powers bid farewell.
Faced with the bright blaze of birthday candles, Tim focused on his wish and, for its sake, took a deep breath, so that he could handle the
conflagration on his birthday cake. Twenty-one today, college undergrad, well-balanced, focused, mature for his age, he had worked hard for all that he now had, even his humor — fun-loving but sage.
Though he wouldn’t reveal what he’d wished for (since that’s part of what makes a wish come true), if his guests had guessed, Tim’s wish was far more than any would dare guess that he could do.
Past wonders he’d performed would soon seem tame. Tim knew that things would never be the same.
And from somewhere (or when), confetti fell – small bits of candy-wrapper, strewn pell-mell.
Chosen for special recognition by NASA, James Ph. Kotsybar is the first poet to be published to another planet. His haiku currently orbits Mars aboard the MAVEN spacecraft, appears in the mission log of The Hubble Space Telescope, and was featured at NASA’s Centaur Art Challenge at IngenuityFest, Ohio. He was featured speaker at the 2018 EuroScience Open Forum in France and invited to return to the next ESOF2020 in Italy.
Most recently he has had poems published in The Bubble, Askew, The Society of Classical Poets, LUMMOX Press, Sixfold, Mason’s Road, Encore and Scifaikuest, and has received honors from The State Poetry Society of Michigan and the Balticon 48 Poetry Competition. He especially enjoys science poetry, because of its extended shelf-life.
Sister Philadelphia lit the candles in the vestibule and inhaled the rich incense wafting from the church. The pews were empty, and darkness yawned across the altar, its maw stretching up to the crucifix where an impaled Savior grinned arcanely at his dismemberment. The flames drew out the stained glass window and outside, an early snow. Sister Philadelphia heard a crow caw in the dripping pine, and she gathered her habit and red shawl around her shoulders as she fared the evening twilight and flakes of ice in the withering sky out to her small cell. Her sisters were fast asleep, tired out from worship, and she had had the evening shift on All Soul’s Eve. Sister Philadelphia gave a happenstance glance at the graveyard, full of weeping angels, and she imagined them singing alleluias in weeping Christ’s passion. How crucifixes and the crutches of Saint Lazarus and wounds of Mary Magdalene, though only of the heart, were strange soliloquies on temptation. It was said Christ harrowed Hell, and Sister Philadelphia was always afraid of the darkness, but so she braved the closing shift, shut the doors of the church, and entered the convent. Just a few footfalls walk to the end of the hall, her boots crunching snow, until she drew out a skeleton key and opened her cell. Inside, a small bed, a tiny nightstand with a Bible, and a candlestick.
A chill passed over the room as her boots, thoroughly soaked through and clinging with orange leaves, were taken off. The vents let in the warm air from the fire in the main hall and she arrayed them so they directed their heat at her bed. Shivering, she gathered herself and turned to the Gospels, her candle drawing out a facsimile of a smile from the cross on her wall. She tucked herself into her blankets and read over John miming the verses and parables on her memorized tongue. It was her favorite. She had always been an outcast in her small Rostock village for so loving study, in a time when women shouldn’t read and were expected to suckle babes then turn dirt in an early grave, half-sick from motherhood and needlework and butter churning. No, she chose the sisterhood, if only to learn to read. The rest of the trappings, from Christ to the Masses, she wasn’t too sure about.
Suddenly, a knock at the door, only she was dressed in her linen night shift. She gathered her skirts, smoothed her dark hair, and peered out the lock with eyes like amber bezels.
Darkness, writhing darkness, and beneath that, boiling red. Wicked heat came from the door’s entrance, like the furnace of a hellmouth.
Sister Philadelphia opened the door to find herself face to face with a man of red skin, ram horns, fineries she had never seen yet plain in the dress like some respectable nobleman, dripping gold from his pointed ears, and curled black locks oiled to shine boot polish bright.
He grinned like a cat arching its back. “Sister, I’m cold, would you but let me warm myself in your blankets?”
His eyes were infernos. All yellow heat and slit iris.
She would have screamed, but it died in her throat, and the Devil takes no prisoners, only the willing.
She saw the chance to test what the priests and sisters taught her. A devilish chance, as it were, but scripture nonetheless.
“If I read, will you listen, oh Dark One?”
The Devil laughed. “I’m a man of the book, Sister. A traveler too. Gypsy or not, I’m afraid I’m a rambler, and I always fancy a word with pretty girls. To hear the gospel from your lips would be celestial temptation most frightful.”
“Then come in.”
Sister Philadelphia was never much of one for God, more for he who taught humanity knowledge and to quote scripture in their sin. To have the Devil at her doorstep, why, on All Soul’s Eve? It was meant to be a test.
And he was a might handsome, as handsome as sin.
She locked the door shut behind them.
“In the Beginning was the Word…”
He draped a blanket around him like a cape, then examined the cross. “Grapes from the vine, yes. To be made into the vintage of wrath or mercy is simply up to the maker of the wine.”
The room was like a dragon’s womb, enchantingly hot, all radiating from the Devil.
He looked at her with obsidian and vice.
“Tell me, you were there. Is it truly as they say? God created the universe in seven days?”
“More like He gave a sneeze and we were all shat out on accident. You must admit, this Book is a bit lacking. Where’s the bit about where bellybuttons come from, their purpose, really? I invented them. I also invented opposable thumbs. And the pearly seat of womanly pleasure. That was my greatest one.”
The Devil examined his claws. “It’s all trite bullshit in the end, this Book. Now I would have written it differently: In the Beginning was a Woman, and she lusted after a Star.”
Sister Philadelphia’s eyes grew wide, curiosity after first succulent bite. The candle stubbed out, but he glowed like coals in the dark. “Eve, yes. I have always loved her, though Father Philip says she is Sin. I gave everything I had for Knowledge, for the Word.”
“In that, inquisitive Sister, we are joined. Woman is born hungry. Hungry for words. A last rib made of ink.” The Devil took the cross down from the wall and respectfully placed it in the nightstand drawer, if only so his Father did not witness corruption. The Devil is a gentleman, after all. “Tell me, Sister, was it worth it? Giving up life for this back country parish? All so you could be a learned woman?”
“We feed the poor. We tend the sick. In those duties, I rejoice. But to read, why, I would have become lame and dumb in order to understand language on the page. Someday, I will write my own books. Like Teresa or Hildegard or Catherine. I have it in my bones.”
“I’ve written many books in my time, sweet Sister. Would you like to taste a Star? It is the drink of poetry. The flesh of God is the Sun. He used to nurse us from His light.” And with that, the Devil pulled a silver pear from his breast pocket. Sister Philadelphia gasped at its succulent scent and without hesitation bit in. Its flesh was blood red but tasted like sugary providence. Fire warmed her belly, and the Devil cradled her head in his hands as she devoured it.
“Kiss me, I have never tasted a man’s lips, and what passes between a Bride and Darkness is best left to the day souls walk the Earth. It shall be our secret.”
“What is your name, sister dangerous?”
“Philadelphia. Just Filly.”
“So Filly, will you give me a prayer each night for my soul in exchange for a kiss? No one has yet to pray for me. I do so grow lonely down below. If you appeal to your God, perhaps Father shall grant me some mercy. You are supposedly a holy woman, after all,and your nightgown smells of frankincense and myrrh. I do so love holy things.”
“I will pray for you until you die, if you promise me you will tell me the truth: will I find what I am looking for here?”
“Than it was all worth nothing.”
“I can make it all worth it. Now be quiet, and know the Morning Star for who he is.”
They kissed like fire and oil, combustion embodied, and suddenly Filly found herself full of light, of burning, and she probed her tongue into his lush red lips and tasted damnation. It was like the chocolate she had once had at a Christmas market in the Black Forest as a child, one she had stolen when her poor parents weren’t looking and the vendor was closing up for the night. He smelled like cloves and oranges and ash. Grasping hands, soft hands, hard talons, cupping her breasts, skimming her back, and soon they were falling into each other’s arms and his broken halo cut her brow like shrapnel and there was blood at her mouth from her forehead. He lapped at the wound with a cat rough tongue, then eased her out of her night shift and was soon working her sex with that same forked tongue like a melody. She came like rain as he used his fingers in a come hither motion then lapped at her pearl like a wild thing.
His mouth wet with her, he suckled at her breasts, and she fisted handfuls of his curling black hair into knots as she apexed beneath him. Soon, his hot, eager member against her belly, wet with precum, and like swans flying north they joined in unholy communion, a sinuous movement bespeaking an ocean of sin. He was hot inside her, pumping and pleasing and caressing and teasing. She cried out as softly as she could so as not to wake the other sisters up.
“Filly, you are sweet,” he growled, taking his fangs and pressing them deep into her neck until he was drinking her lifeblood. “So sweet I could… fall… yet again.”
Words escaped her as their black covenant wrote a whole nother gospel on what not to do on a holy day. She heard the cross shatter as the drawer fell open and God turned away from her blaspheming.
The Devil came inside her in searing spurts, and she felt it pulse upwards to her womb, blinding her belly with serpent seed. He licked her wound shut with his saw paper tongue and then gave a sweet sigh, if the Devil could be said to ever be sweet.
“Come with me away from here, Filly. I will teach you witchcraft, the oath of the Witchfather. Let us travel Germania as Samiel and Brunhilde. The Black Huntsman and his Valkyrie. You are not a meek lamb of God. No, you are a lioness.”
She stroked his back, where his wings of plush leather joined his shoulder blades. “Yes, I think I would like that, Samiel.”
And so they left a train of ghosts behind them, bones rolled in their graves, and the Devil and Filly were ne’er to be seen in Rostock again (at least, not in daylight).
I am a PhD student and professor in Communication and have previously published several professional short stories and poems in venues ranging from Apex Magazine to FunDead Publications’ Gothic Anthology. Writing is my lifeblood.
At the bottom of the claw-foot tub, facedown, under an inch or two of water, lies the photograph. I say lies meaning “rests,” but the word is full of unrest, too, for in telling the truth the picture has captured falsehood.
Contradictions, irony – they’ve become part of my life.
It is cold in the room, the chill of the tile floor coming through the throw rug between tub and toilet, the rug that slips into corners or curls at one end, a canvas of sorts, to trace our footsteps. The tub is slippery, too, with a stain the color of fall leaves that runs in a ragged path to the drain. I kneel beside it, not caring that the edge is wet and my sleeves are damp. I kneel and see the reflection from the safelight break into pieces as I run my hand through the water, making waves to capsize the future.
I could keep this to myself, I know. I could confine my inspection to the back of the picture, the blank, white nothingness that in the semi-darkness merges with the white of the tub. I could write the future on that, and live a lie.
But reality beckons.
There’s an image on the other side, an image crudely printed, all blacks and whites, no middle tones, for I took and printed it under extraordinary conditions, technique not a concern. No finesse, just a mechanical clicking of the shutter that has mimicked my actions since.
I pull the stopper in the tub, beaded chain clinking, and watch the water as it flows out, slowly, slowly, quicker, picking up speed until the final gurgle. I stand, wipe my hands on my jeans, pad over to the light switch, flip it on. The room grows black for a moment, then resolves into its narrow range of color – gray wallpaper, white floor, off-white curtains. Spots of developer dot the tiles by the sink, the only real color, besides the stain, in the room. I gaze into the tub at the thin piece of paper, the reality that obscures all the images, filtered through mind or camera, that came before. I reach into the water to turn the paper over, to see the true image, the one that lies.
My wife sits on the park bench, leaning into the man, excluding all others. They are not just friends. He has a hand on her knee, his touch light, familiar. It’s a cold, overcast day, and the sky in the picture is bleached into nothingness. Their faces, too, are washed out, ghostly, for in printing them I spared the light. I don’t need to see the expressions. I saw. Following them, crouching behind a bush, my curiosity making me the outsider, I saw more than I wanted to. In the picture, the bench and the stubby grass of winter are dark, too dark. Shadow abruptly meets glare, no room for subtlety.
The photo lies limply in my hands a few inches above the tub. Letting it fall lifeless to the bottom, I turn off the overhead light and shine the light of the enlarger through the negative. I play with focus, blurring the picture until it could be a surrealistic painting, man and woman indistinct, representing a perfect love with no power to hurt.
But love and lies have power. I sharpen the focus, make another print, slip it into the developer. I agitate the liquid until falsehood again swims into view. I’ve printed carefully now, so specifics appear – my wife’s high cheekbones, the stripe in the man’s tie. The image is clear in its meaning. It’s time to remove the photo from the developer, slip it into the fixer, wash away the last traces of silver. But instead I switch on the overhead light, exposing the actions of my wife and her lover. When I look at the print again, no details remain. It has faded to black.
Two of my stories most recently appear in TL;DR Press’ Women’s Anthology: Carrying Fire. My fiction and poetry have also been published by North Carolina Literary Review, Prime Number Magazine, Fictive Dream, and Jersey Devil Press, among others.
Show me someone who doesn’t want to make their parents proud and I’ll show you a liar. Or, worse, I’ll show you a weakling who shies from hardship. Or, even worse, a heartless, ungrateful bastard. For it is a truth secretly whispered that, when parents bring a baby into their home for the first time, and the sleepless nights start, and the crying turns to howling for hours on end, one question keeps gnawing at their minds: Why did we do this to ourselves?
Strange as it may sound, no one puts someone else before themselves without expecting something in return. And what better way to make it up to one’s parents than to say one day: ‘Parents, your sacrifices were not for naught. I’ll make you proud.’
Such is the case with me. I can’t deny the fact that from an early age I had been burning with desire to make my parents proud. The seasons came and went, the years passed, and the conviction that only by accomplishing this task would I conquer my own happiness grew stronger. Then came the day when I stood before my parents as a young adult.
‘We haven’t raised you to be a heartless, ungrateful bastard, have we?’ father said.
‘God knows you haven’t,’ I reassured him. ‘No fancy talks about freedom of choice, living your life the way you want and such. Besides, mother is stunningly lifeless. There can be no doubt of my legitimacy.’
‘Or a weakling,’ he added.
‘Absolutely not,’ I said. ‘You must have noticed that, for a girl, I don’t cry as often as expected. And I’ve never –not once– fainted in my life or demonstrated excessive sentimentality of any sort.’
‘Or a liar.’
‘Every dictionary should have a picture of my face next to the entry Truth,’ I said. ‘Remember, parents, that every time you asked me how this or that went wrong, I always told you who was to be blamed. It’s not my fault that it wasn’t my fault but someone else’s.’
‘Then it’s payback time,’ father said.
‘Sacrificing yourself for your loved ones is the truest kind of love,’ mother said. ‘And cleanliness is next to godliness.’
I knew that making my parents proud wouldn’t be easy but, then again, how hard could it be? All I’d have to do was fulfill in their place whatever dreams they thought they had abandoned while playing the noble sport of bringing me up. At the same time, I’d have to not lead a life too different from theirs. Failing to repeat your parents’ mistakes is downright disrespectful.
It would be like adding salt to a dish without making it salty.
‘Parents, your sacrifices were not for naught. I’ll make you proud,’ I said.
And with that promise I went out into the world.
‘There is no such thing as boring mathematics,’ father had once said wistfully while watching TV. I was surprised to hear it. Until then I thought it was the devil who had invented mathematics, in the hope that people would get so bored by it they would have to sin in order to feel alive again. All the same father didn’t think so. Therefore I started thinking about general abstract nonsense; I became the monumental mathematician every newspaper in the world wrote about. I raised the art of numbers to such levels it couldn’t be seen with the naked eye. And though I often felt stiff and close to tears, not once a blasphemous word escaped my lips.
Lying on my bed one night, looking at the stars from my window and adding up my monthly expenses to lull me to sleep, I realized it was time I reached higher goals. After exposing myself to grinding training, I was ready to defy my weakness –motion sickness– and become the acclaimed astronaut whose handshake with an alien the whole cosmos watched on their TV screens. And though I was often sick during my conquering space, I was proud to be shooting all over the stars.
The order of the universe passed through my soul, turning me into an aesthete. I saw beauty and wisdom in the composition of human laws; I found escapism in loopholes. I became the laureate lawyer whose court epics were repeated word for word by every respected magazine on the globe. And every time I had to sit down and produce some work, I never uttered an obscenity while trying to achieve suspension of disbelief for the public.
It was during my first semester in medical school that I met a tall, dark stranger.
‘You look like a woman of principle,’ he said.
‘I owe that to my father.’
‘You also look like a spotless housewife.’
‘I owe that to my mother.’ It goes without saying that I never started a day without scrubbing every surface in my home with maniacal virtuosity and polishing my cutlery, counting it at the same time to make sure they hadn’t left me for someone else. Then I would look over all I had made and see that it was very good, but next time I would do it better.
‘Will you marry me?’ he said.
‘Are you also rich or just handsome?’
‘I am the owner of the world,’ he said, not without the appropriate mixture of pride and humbleness.
‘In that case the answer is yes. My parents couldn’t have asked for a richer and better looking son-in-law,’ I said.
The wedding ceremony took place in a fairy castle located on its own island, in the middle of an enchanted forest, and left our celebrity guests with a gaping inferiority complex. Exactly nine months later I became a mother. The baby cried and howled for hours on end and I kept thinking: Why did I do this to myself?
It was time to go back to my parents and collect some recognition.
‘Your hair is uncombed,’ mother said, trying to rearrange it with her fingers. I pushed her hand away.
‘Parents,’ I said, ‘I stand before you today as an accomplished promise keeper. You must have noticed how much I have achieved and in how many fields of expertise – hell, the whole world has noticed. I now want to see some tears of joy and to hear that I have made you proud.’
Silence held the house, broken only by the ticking of the antique clock over the fireplace and the buzzing of a bee around a vase of fake flowers.
‘Did you have to drop out of medical school?’ father said.
I performed all the movements in a perfect succession of balance and contrast. My parents’ heads were units of a larger piece of work, but could also stand by themselves as an independent composition on the mantelpiece. There was one thing missing – salt. I threw handfuls of it over their bodies to create dynamic whiplash motifs.
These were my most sensational headlines ever. But once again I wasn’t very pleased with the photos. I had posed with the fire iron and the chef’s knife, standing tall and grinning from ear to ear, but somehow I managed to look mad instead of happy. Even though things would never be the same, my unphotogenic face would follow me in my new way of life. Oh, well…
Sometimes I replay it all in my mind, to see if there is anything that I could have done better, a chance for improvement now lost forever. But no. The prickling of a thousand needles on my skin, the sweat that never breaks but boils under it, the vise gripping my head, the nausea – they aren’t here anymore. I always see father’s eyes in wide open praise before his body collapsed to the floor as if it were empty. I always hear mother crying out her last words to me: ‘Kill no more than you can salt!’ How proud would she be that I took her lessons to heart.
I replay it all in my mind, and tears of happiness roll down my face. I taste them with the tip of my tongue and find them saltless. I’m always on my best behavior after that.
Basilike Pappa lives in Greece, where she doesn’t work as a translator, a copy-editor or a historian. When she doesn’t write, she reads, walks her dog and cooks without salt. She fights anxiety by singing in a loud, bad voice. Her prose has appeared in ‘Intrinsick’ and ‘Timeless Tales’, and her poetry in ‘Rat’s Ass Review,’ ‘Surreal Poetics’ and ‘Bones Journal for Contemporary Haiku.’ You can read more of her work on her blog, Silent Hour.
It’s been a few years since I wrote a letter to you and it’s been 365 days since we last spoke, 8760 hours since we last saw each other. Do you remember? The long walks on the beach every Saturday morning before we headed to the café for some drinks and a long conversation. I always wanted to go jog on the sand, to meet the early beach goers and run along with the stray and leashed dogs, and you with your weak ankles never complained and jogged right next to me. I was livid when I found out.
“Chris why would you go jogging knowing this would happen?” I remember complaining once the doctor walked out. You smiled from the bed like your ankles weren’t tightly wrapped and your eyes weren’t trying to hide your pain.
“Because you wanted to go.” You might not have known it then, but when I turned away from you, my cheeks flushed and as I write and think about that time, heat rushed to my cheeks.
Do you remember when we first met? I think about it almost every day now. I wrote my first letter to you after our meeting. My phone was broken and all I knew was where you worked – the sketchy looking bakery next to the even sketchier looking alley way on Fitz Street. Our meeting was not as bright as I would have liked. I wished we had met on a hot summer day, where my skin freely showed from below my skirt and my hair was high up, away from my face so that you could see the treasured pools of bronze that are my eyes. I wanted to say years from then when we were old and grey, that I was amazingly attractive and it was painfully obvious that you could not turn your
eyes away from my body. To say you approached me with long strides and wide curious eyes, which were slightly hidden under your grey cap.
Unfortunately, our meeting was not the start of a summer Hollywood Blockbuster. It was not nearly as delightful as a Romantic Comedy. It was the ‘Once Upon A Time’ in a Grim Brothers tale. It was the grittiness of an 18th century novel written on the wet streets of our island’s infamous city. You found me in the fog of the misty rain that drenched me from head to toe. My skin did not freely show from beneath my skirt’s hem line and the curls I had set the day before were miserable waves against my neck and forehead and for some unknown reason, the buses were like the sun; a rare sighting.
I was a sight for your sorry eyes, with my frowns and glares and I must say, you were very brave to approach me. Was I attractive despite my drenched state? Or was I so pathetic looking, you came to make sure I wasn’t dying? If you had walked by five minutes later, that might have been the case.
My first impression of you was very simple. I was enchanted. You approached me with an infuriating grin that was so infuriatingly adorable that it melted my cold wet heart. You would be laughing if you read this, knowing well that I am lying as I was freezing despite your large grin, and the umbrella you so wonderfully provided, did nothing to help my already pathetic state. Nevertheless, I was quite thankful for your effort and the company while waiting for the bus was most welcomed; I hoped my face said all of this, but I highly doubt it.
When I delivered the letter to you, I recall that you called me old fashioned. Old fashioned for writing a letter. Old fashioned for my music choices and old fashioned in my fashion choices. It’s been 365 days since you called me old fashioned and I would like to hear it again.
I never returned your umbrella did I? Though, you never asked for it back. That was something about you I grew to admire, your tenacity, as irritating as it was sometimes, to always think of me before you. I did the same no doubt, but you obviously wanted it to be a competition. Congratulations, you won.
I’ve been well if you were wondering, as well as I can be. I moved to a new home near the old bakery. It’s been doing well, business is booming, the food is great and I still wear your grey cap from time to time. I even still have the scented candles your mother bought on our 2nd anniversary. She brought them from her trip to Canada with your father and your sister, am I right? The first night we lit them, our bedroom curtains caught on fire. Do you remember? You ran swiftly into the bathroom with an emptied plant pot and soaked half of the room, including the bed. We slept on multiple blankets on the floor that night. You were embarrassed, I was amused and it was definitely one of the best nights we spent in that house. She still buys some for me, but though, due to our first experience with her choice of candles, they’ve remained in their boxes, piling up
in my cupboards.
Tell me, where are you now? Are you still on the plane or have you floated so far away that even my thoughts can’t reach you? Do you remember that night? I had a nightmare, a nightmare you never returned. You, who kissed me on the forehead and continued to pack your bags, told me not to worry and left with one last gaze my way. I hate myself for not taking a photo, for my memory may one day fade that image away. Do you remember that day? When you hopped into your sister’s car and I waved at you until you were out of my sight? Did you happen to see my face? I watched you go while twisting the rings on my finger, my stomach full with uneasiness. I tried hard not to shed a tear, to not show my concern. Maybe if I had, you wouldn’t have gone.
I try hard each day not to reminisce. To not think of when I heard the news of a missing plane. I watched with my eyes glued to the television, ignoring the rings of the phone and prayed to a God I had forgotten. Maybe I should have prayed earlier. For when the news showed a plane in the ocean, I knew that my prayers were too late to answer.
Sometimes I swear I hear you call my name from time to time, and it’s funny because when watching horrors, I always used to yell at the characters for looking for the ghost and yet here I am hoping to see the phantom you looming in a corner somewhere. Maybe it really is you, laughing at me as I look around like a crazy person. It wouldn’t mind if that were true.
Yet even though I know you may not be here, I will still write to you. I will write about my day, about new things to tell you just as if you were here sitting on the other side of the table listening to my rambles. I will write about memories we can never recreate, about adventures you’ll never go on, pastries you’ll never taste and my hairstyles that you’ll never see – not that you noticed them before. Then maybe when that time comes, when I have written down everything I could ever say, maybe that will be the day I remember how to write with ink instead of pain.
I am an emerging writer and theatre enthusiast with a small upcoming theatre company based in Barbados. Dear You was inspired from walking the historic streets of Barbados’ capital and dreaming of a tragic love.
His hands shake, trembling on fragments of the cool autumn breeze, but the subtle quiver of his upper lip says it’s nothing to do with the dropping temperatures. Darting eyes, wide with anger and resentment, seek out a place to rest themselves but spy only treason and heartbreak. Pressing in on the periphery, memories of the street compound him and compress against his ribcage.
The gnarled apple tree on the unruly lawn, long barren and withered, is scratched and carved with the sounds of his youth – of unrestrained laughter and broken bones. Below the dying branches that continue to reach for God, a chipped mailbox stands, flag demurely flush against the wood. The red plastic flag had once pressed neatly against his lower vertebrae during his first kiss. Under his feet, now cramped with aimlessness, lay a universe of small stones. Each pebble perfectly round until, during a fall from a bicycle, cheek skinned against the asphalt, the eyes can spot the fissures in each stone that absorb a single drop of blood. He kicks the loose rocks, sending ancient helixes scattering across the street.
Through lacey curtains, a neighbour peers. She spots him, frozen at the end of the driveway his feet shuffling on the edge of suburbia. Her house is warm and yellowed, heated by an electric fireplace that dances meticulously in the exact same pattern- repeating, repeating. She cannot handle something as misaligned as a wood fire. Behind her the house groans with safety, with perfect lines and counted threads in all her sheets. But across the yawning chasm of the street, she spots a galaxy of scars and pricks that have tinted the man’s left arm to the hue of gluttony, of loneliness. There are no straight lines there – a cosmos of chaos and black holes. A tug in the lining of her stomach tries to draw her eyes away, the metered ruler of consciousness, but her curiosity is morbid. His clothes are loose, held together by gravity and bone marrow, resting on the sharp and crooked angles of his jutting elbows and collarbones. In the light of the coming evening, a shadow clings to his hollowed clavicle. She watches it shift, writhe; the absence of light dances a waltz, beat by the percussions of the thudding chambers and resounding valves.
The neighbour mentally tugs at the seams of the man outside, gently at first. Each thread is wound tightly in her mind between memories and judgements. She pulls lint off a thin golden string. Unknots a thick tangle of brusque and prickly burlap. Lets a thin shard of satin fall to the floor. She pulls him apart, from his childhood to the waif in front of the home of his youth, unravelling the life that always was. She watches him twist and strain his neck, unsure if he should turn around or step off the curb into oblivion.
The space between him and her is infinite. She is close enough to peel away the layers of coarse clothing, to slough off bruised memories, but the air that separates them is thick with prejudice. She sees his body, fallen and pitiful; she mutters to the empty room about shame for his father. She sees the ochre staining his cheeks and clinging to the sagging skin; she draws air through her clenched teeth, tutting to the window frame. She cannot see the clefts that have drawn themselves on his heart; even were she to be pressing her upturned nose to his, she could not see the depths of his pupils. Could she lift herself up on the tips of her toes, could she let everything fall away, she would see the rim of the pupil – lush green forests surrounding the edge of eternity, waterfalls pouring into chasms of memories. She would glimpse at the bottom the fading faces of those who shaped him, glimmering words of paternal advice, memories that fade and fracture. Could she let herself listen deeper into the man before her, swaying, in the stillness between heartbeats – that pertinent moment where life hangs in the balance – she would hear the deafening sound of a father’s whisper; ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ And the splintering, the shattering of a son.
Her breath fogs up the glass, obscuring him from view. For a brief moment, his shape is soft, his peninsular bones melt together. She turns away from it all, from his loneliness, from his abandonment, and sets her sights on the mug of tea sitting on the table. A skin has formed, the milk clinging to the edge of the stained porcelain cup. A clock chimes gently in the warm, heavy air – as it has on every afternoon that she has lived in the house.
His hands shake; the street before him, paved from his youth, has never seemed so foreign. He hesitated, wanting to climb the apple tree one more time, to press his spine against the firm mailbox before the very molecules in the air change. With a single step, he watches the world he knew, the memories he cherished, pour over him and dissolve into the parched earth.
Stephanie Clark has been a freelance writer for over eight years. She finds her passion in the pause one takes when looking for the right word.
I’ve seen him around playing at the park. Glimpses of him kicking the ball keeps my heart beating. I stand behind the fence noticing his blonde hair bouncing with each movement. At least he is safe and looked after. If I approach, would he blame me for leaving? A guilty sensation haunts me and I can’t understand why. Would anyone believe me if I told them I don’t remember leaving and the reason why? I could wait longer for my memory to come back but the more I linger on the subject the more I feel he is forgetting me. A sense of urgency rushes over me as a woman picks Noah up and I want to scream for someone to save him from her. Then the teacher helps him with his bag and it hits me that maybe my ex-husband has remarried. I stare numbly in their direction as I try to remember what kind of mother am I? How could I leave my child unexpectedly?
I follow them to the movies and the woman meets my ex-husband in the parking lot. Thunder roars from a distance and I stare at the ragged clouds. The sky releases few drops of rain and the woman gestures for my son to run inside. I wonder if I should follow them inside and before I finish that thought I find myself inside hiding behind a gigantic movie poster. I despise that I have to hide but I don’t have a plan yet on how to approach them so for now I prefer to watch them. I can see them at the concession stand laughing as they order Noah’s popcorn. I retreat and leave for the day allowing the idea of Noah loving another mother figure to sink in. This is going to be rough on him if I show up out of nowhere with no explanation. I wonder if it’s selfish to ask to meet him when he has adjusted so well to his new life and I decide to drop it for today.
Sometimes I think life is so fleeting and there’s this blinding light which I spot from time to time but it passes like a breeze, as if I’m passing near it in a car or it’s hiding behind a building. I’m not sure what it is, but as I get up this morning I know I have to try harder to get my son’s attention. I wake up with this sense of urgency that it has to be today, I need to talk to Noah today.
I get ready by noon, and head over to my ex-husband’s place but it’s too late they seem to be getting into the car and they go somewhere. I glare at his new wife enraged how they have kept me away from my child all these years. I’ve only seen the back of Noah’s head over the years; it’s as if they know I’m out there. As if they know, I’m desperate to steal one glance. I follow them to the park and wait for them to walk few feet away from me. I bend down on my knees and peer through the bushes my hand resting lightly on the wires. I stare at my little boy, my beautiful angel and I wonder if he still needs me. If he still remembers me, he turns around and I see his face. His baby features are all gone, and that frown on his face tells me he isn’t okay.
Dark clouds are growing ominous as I stand up fast whispering, “Do you still need me?” hoping he would hear and approach the sound. I have the courage to walk up to a clear space where everyone can see me. The moment I want to step closer I hesitate, the birthday balloons sway beneath my touch. My eyes water when I spot the huge banner I should have prepared and the birthday cake we could have baked together. I stare at Noah’s features again and I get a strange feeling that his sad, hazel brown eyes remember.
The day he was born flourishes into my memory as if had just happened. He clutched my fingers so hard as if he knew me, as if he was eager to meet me as much as I wanted to meet him. I spent hours, days and weeks counting these perfect little fingers and toes. I spent the nights dreaming of the day he’d run to me and drag me off my work so I could play catch with him. My idea of perfection was when he used to sneak into my bed each morning with his soft snuggly bear. He’d think I wasn’t awake but I was, I could feel his warmth against my cheek as he whispered, “Wake up, mommy!”
My memory is so groggy and I’ve felt sick for years that I have no idea if I have done anything wrong, could they have both moved on so fast? The step mum approaches Noah and she kneels down caressing his hair. I immediately feel myself float forward wanting to hear what she was telling him. I stare at the Spiderman birthday cake and the candle that says six. I look shamefully at myself knowing I shouldn’t have come without a present.
I’m practically behind them shoving my way to look and be present when the step mum whispers in his ear, “She’d be so proud of you.” She exchanges a pained glance with my ex and that is when it hits me. I stare at my hands which are turning transparent, and my feet that are no longer there. I watch myself wither before I get the chance to touch his soft cheek. It all comes back to me, the sick nights I was trapped in a fragile body. My husband comforted and lay near me. There was that one promise I begged him to keep, was to seek happiness, and search for stability.
The light gets stronger and I finally understand what it’s for. My son blows out his candles. I clap proudly and send him a kiss, which blows out his party hat. He giggles and picks it up. I notice the tears in my husband’s eyes. The emotion in the stepmom’s eyes freezes me; I bet she has been dedicated to my son’s happiness all these years because of the way he looks at her. I circle a ball of glow around the three of them which I know will protect them.
I hear a voice asking if I’m ready and I follow it through an endless foggy path. My concern grows as I float away from them, but as soon I step into the light, my son’s future flashes in front of my eyes. His future birthdays and milestones flourish in front of my eyes along with his teen years and even though I’m away now I’m certain he will be okay. A sense of belonging and peace overcomes me as if nothing is chasing me anymore.
The voice explains that I have to stay here until we are reunited one day and I accept it. As I watch their life reel, I witness my family’s happiness and my eyes water at their tribulations. As I stare at this beautiful, complicated world below me I ask the voice for one last request. I hear a low hum and then he asks me what I want. I clear my throat and speak out, “Each time my son encounters an obstacle or questions his faith… I want to send a whisper with a gentle breeze saying, I’m still here.”
I’m from Lebanon. I’m a photographer and I manage my parents’ photography studio. My passion for writing began since school days but I never acted on it until two years ago when I began writing a novel. I also have a blog where I write about life’s hardship. Writing with an Open Heart
Articulated. That’s what Dr. White called the brand new skeleton that moved joint by joint and was now hanging prominently in his private office. Henry Webster’s eyes were wide as he took in the skeleton, reaching out to stroke the ulna, to flex the phalanges. Most doctors didn’t have a skeleton, but then most doctors didn’t have their own apothecary shop or office. Dr. White wasn’t most doctors, and that’s why Henry liked him so.
Originally hanging in the front window, Dr. White moved the skeleton to his examination room under intense community pressure. The good people of Gilmanton, New Hampshire, were fervent in their belief that the dead should be buried as soon as possible and most certainly not desecrated, and that this monstrosity was simply not for the eyes of God-fearing people. Interested less in educating the masses and more in maximizing his profits with best-sellers like “Dr. White’s Soothing Syrup for Babies and Toddlers, pat. pend. 1873,” the doctor acquiesced to his paying public.
When Henry had tired of hearing his mother prattle endlessly about yet another ailment he stared politely past the brass mortar and pestle, past the small brass pill maker, and at Doc White until he received a knowing nod. Then, through the open door across from the apothecary’s cabinet, Henry wandered toward the skeleton’s new place of residence. He let his fingers trace the length of the examination table on his way to the adjacent private office. It was here that Henry did what he normally did under these circumstances: looked in on the perfectly preserved specimens floating in liquid. There was an eyeball, a heart, a lower jaw, a malformed foot, and, Henry’s personal favorite, an infant who died at birth—and its parasitic twin—on full display.
Henry could hear his mother asking for more laudanum. She was going on and on, questioning how people could have a funeral when they hadn’t even found the body to know he’s dead.
He’s dead, mother. He’s been missing for three weeks.
“I just don’t understand, Doctor. How can they do that? How can they give up hope?” Mrs. Webster’s voice rose hysterically.
Because they know he’s too stupid to last this long on his own. Henry snorted, then felt a twinge of guilt. It’s true. The guilt disappeared.
“I’m just not sure how I’ll get through Olin’s funeral without more laudanum, Doctor. It sounds devilish of me, but I’m thankful it’s my nephew and not one of my children. But these children–first Austin Bunker, then little Georgie Foss, then my dear niece Mary, and now–” She sobbed.
Henry closed his eyes tightly and allowed his thoughts to drown out his mother’s voice. It didn’t take long, for Dr. White’s office was a place of respite for him. He enjoyed making himself at home while he perused the specimens. Dr. White had given him free reign of the office long ago after learning of the boy’s interests. When Henry’s nosy sister Ellen discovered he was dissecting animals and told their parents, they promptly consulted Dr. White. The doctor dismissed their concerns about his mental well-being. In fact, he told them to encourage Henry’s curiosity. He even suggested they allow the boy to come round so that the doctor could teach him all he knew. Henry’s first lesson was how to make the mercury and alcohol concoction used in the preservation of specimens.
“You have a brain built for the scientific method, Henry,” the doctor told him one warm afternoon. “You aren’t bothered by the sight of the unusual, nor do you let our religious underpinnings trap you into thinking this is wrong. Your mind is open enough to see that our old ideas about the body being made of humors is incongruous with what we know–and can see.”
Soon thereafter, Dr. White presented him with a book by Andreas Vesalius called De humani corporis fabrica: On the Fabric of the Human Body. Henry was just ten but was fascinated with Vesalius’ depictions of the dissected human body. Bones, cartilage, ligaments, muscles–it was all there, and it enthralled Henry. He knew with this knowledge, things would never be the same.
Henry gingerly touched the bones one by one, flexing the joints to make each dance its individual dance. He thought back to the time when he feared the doctor’s office, before he’d found the human body fascinating, before Dr. White became his friend. Only three years ago, it now seemed to Henry like a dream.
A group of his classmates had walked home from school just behind Henry. As the group dwindled down to three of his cousins–Olin Mudgett, Samuel Whitehouse, and Josiah Webster–their abuse of Henry began. At 9, Henry was in the same grade as Olin, though Olin was 12. The boys usually picked on Henry about his intelligence, but anything was fair game to them, from Henry’s appearance to his sister taking a job cleaning for Dr. White.
“Henry, are you ever going to grow, or will you always be scrawny and skinny?” Olin started. Olin always started. He was pulling a small strip of leather through his fingers absentmindedly, like a mother would stroke her daughter’s hair.
“He’ll always be scrawny and skinny. He doesn’t even look like a Mudgett,” Samuel said.
“He doesn’t look like a Webster either,” Josiah added. “Maybe someone left him on Uncle Levi’s doorstep and Aunt Theodora felt sorry for him.”
Olin snorted. “Aunt Theodora wouldn’t remember if she gave birth or not, what with all the laudanum she takes.”
Henry kept his head down and continued walking. He didn’t stop even when he felt the crack of the leather sting his neck.
“You know your father really made mine mad, Henry,” Olin said, slowly drawing the leather through his fingers. It was attached to a stick, making the ‘whip’ part of a whip-and-top toy. He’d stopped playing with the top long ago and instead used the whip to torment weaker living beings. “He made it sound like our family’s not as good as yours, but father reminded him that we’re the same family.”
Henry rolled his eyes. He felt the leather take another bite of his neck. He kept going.
“I told my father our family is better than yours.” Olin jumped in front of Henry, forcing him to stop. They were next to Dr. White’s. “I think you’re a chicken, just like your father.”
Henry glared at him.
“Want to prove you’re not?”
“Too bad.” He flicked the whip at Henry’s face, but Henry jumped out of the way just in time.
Josiah added, “I heard he’s afraid of Doc White.”
“I am not,” Henry said, glancing sideways at the doctor’s office. The boys were right. He was afraid. His mother came home from there once and didn’t know who Henry was. And whenever she took spoonfuls of Dr. White’s syrupy liquid in the brown bottle, she often fell asleep so hard Henry couldn’t wake her up.
“You’re afraid of what goes on in there.” Olin pushed his finger into Henry’s chest. “So I think you should go in.”
“No.” In spite of his best attempt to slow it, Henry’s heart was racing.
“If you don’t go in, I’ll make you go in.”
“I heard Miss Oberhund after school saying that Doc White got called to Old Man Wissen’s farm to help deliver a calf. So guess who isn’t here?” Samuel taunted.
Henry grimaced, but his patience was extraordinary. The boys hadn’t laid hands on him up to this point, and he was used to their verbal abuse. He could wait anything out, just like his father’s punishments in the attic.
Suddenly, Henry felt several hands on him, pushing and pulling and forcing him to the door of the doctor’s office. The small leather whip bit into his face and neck. He saw the solid wood counter go by. The glass in the apothecary cabinet glinted in the sun. Before he knew it, the boys shoved him into the doctor’s private office and pulled the door shut. Henry’s eyes roved all over the room, looking for an exit, but something on a shelf arrested his eyes. He blinked and cocked his head. He gingerly took a few steps forward, shortening the distance between him and the oddity floating in liquid in a huge glass jar. He let out a gasp. He clenched his eyes shut, but they flew open in seconds.
Is that the devil? he thought. It looked like a baby, but it had part of another tinier baby growing out of it. Only part–two legs, an arm, and part of a head. Atop the head was a small tuft of hair and a single tooth. That’s not the devil, he told himself. It’s just not normal, that’s all.
It grew dark, but Henry didn’t notice, for all he could see were the parts and pieces of humans in the other jars, labeled and lined up beautifully.
“What are you doing in here, young man?”
The voice startled Henry back to reality. His stomach rumbled. What time is it? He turned to see Dr. White.
“I say, what are you doing in here?”
“I’m sorry, Doctor White. My cousins, they–” Henry hesitated. He didn’t want any more tricks from the boys if he told.
“Three of ‘em?” Doc White asked, his voice turning friendly. “Another Mudgett boy, a Webster, and a Whitehouse?”
“What’d they do, son?”
“They shoved me in here and shut the door on me.”
Dr. White nodded. “Ruffians. I know they’re your cousins, but they’re ruffians.” He walked over to the specimen jars. “Henry, isn’t it?”
“Do you find these interesting, Henry?” The doctor put his large paw-like hand on Henry’s shoulder.
“You don’t find them scary?”
“No, sir. Why should they be scary? They’re just, well, they’re–” His nine year old brain couldn’t find the right word. “Like me. Like my brain. Different.”
“Anomalies, Henry. Anomalies. Not usual, different. And you’re right. They should not be scary, yet many people find them so. There are worse monstrosities walking this earth than that poor baby there.”
From that point on, Henry respected Dr. White more than anyone else, and not solely because he understood Henry’s preoccupation with the human body or because he assured his family that boys dissecting animals was a sign of robustness. Medicine was on the cusp of changing. Phrenology was on its way out, and real medicine was on its way in. In England, Dr. Lister championed for cleanliness in surgery. Many doctors thought him a quack until post-surgery mortality decreased.
The feeling was mutual. Doc White looked at Henry as his potential protégé, a boy beyond his years in intelligence and maturity, a boy who was not surprised by medical findings, a boy who was not deterred by what others found gross or against God. Henry thrived under Dr. White’s tutelage.
“Henry,” Dr. White called, breaking the boy from his reminiscence. “Are you–there you are, son.” He smiled at the boy. “I think your mother is ready now.” Henry winced at the reminder.
“Did you give her more laudanum?” Henry asked. He’d told Dr. White about his mother’s attentiveness to the little brown bottle.
The doctor nodded. “But–” He put one finger to his lips. “It’s diluted.” He winked. Henry winked back. “Remember, Henry, your mother has many difficulties in her life. Few people are as rational as you. And now, with your cousin, Olin…”
“I understand, sir,” he said. “I’m an anomaly.”
Doc White patted him on the shoulder. “It’s not a bad thing, Henry. Say, Mrs. Oglesby’s sow should be giving birth in the next couple of days. Want to help?”
Henry’s eyes widened. “Really? I can?”
“I think you’re ready. Have you been studying up on Vesalius’ book?”
“Every day, sir. Every day.”
“I’ll send for you when I get the news.”
“Oh, thank you, Dr. White. Thank you.” Henry was beaming. He was on his way to becoming a doctor.
“Off you go, son.”
Henry had skipped all the way home, circling back when he strayed too far from his mother. He didn’t care who saw him. He didn’t care that he was supposed to be in mourning like his mother and the rest of his family. He was going to get to see the inner workings of a real, live pig. He was happy being an anomaly.
“Henry!” His father’s voice boomed up the stairs. “Change into your Sunday clothes. Olin’s funeral starts in forty minutes.”
Up in his attic bedroom, Henry sat on his floor and pulled out the small wooden box from under his bed. He opened it and smiled as he admired Austin’s favorite marble, Georgie’s sweater button, and Mary’s white leather glove. He carefully made space for the strip of leather from Olin’s whip. His collection was growing.
J.J. Fletcher is an English teacher, writer, and dog rescuer. “Anomalies” is part of a short story collection that re-imagines the childhood of Dr. H.H. Holmes–Chicago’s (allegedly) first serial killer. Fletcher is currently at work on a crime novel, The Devil Inside Me, in which a descendant of Holmes resurrects his duplicitous and murderous legacy in the Windy City. Learn more at www.jjfletcherbooks.com.