Welcome to our June 2022 edition.
In this issue, we write about summer. Brief and sometimes overwhelming events in our characters’ lives. And sweat. Lots and lots of sweat.
We are always looking for new faces and new writers. If you’re interested in becoming a regular contributor to the Review and do some back-office tasks, please drop us a line.
The A Muse Bouche Review Team
Feature: Wherefore Art Thou, Juliette? (Louise Sorensen) Fiction
One Hundred Rungs (D.W. Hitz) Fiction
Heated Conversation (Renée Gendron) Fiction
Before the Rain (Marian L Thorpe) Fiction
It’s Always A Mistake (Joseph P. Garland) Fiction
July Team Showcase
by Louise Sorensen (@Louise3Anne)
EVER NOTICE THAT YOUR rheumatism gets worse in the cold? Or the damp? I’m told by my older clients at least that that’s the case.
The old doll on the ledge? The home wasn’t too quick to call me—I got it from the grandkid, Addison. When I showed up, I saw that Julie was pretty mad and pretty determined. She said they’d forgotten her meds again. Specifically her painkillers. That the weather was playing hob with her knees and she’d had enough. Who or what hob was I wasn’t sure. I just knew it was time to take care of Julie. That was not only my job, it was my privilege.
These days, if she wasn’t climbing out the window and threatening to jump, she was wandering off. They always called me. I was her emergency contact as well as her legal guardian and I always found her. That’s what lovers and detecatives are for after all. I went out on that ledge to get her. It wasn’t a long drop, only three stories, but my vertigo set in and soon it was Julie helping me to safety and not the other way around.
We would have been two old broads in an old age home. Should have been if it weren’t for the fact that she aged normally, like everybody else, and I never looked or felt any older than twenty-one.
That she was the love of my life, no one would ever believe.
We’d met during WW2, hard to believe it was going on seventy-nine years ago. How time flies. And after our stint in a bomb making factory, we started up a detecative agency. It really was a detecative agency, because the kid we got to make the sign and paint the gold letters on the door spelled it that way and we never got around to changing it.
Kit and Juliette. Detecatives.
And now I looked young enough to be her granddaughter and she looked about a hundred years old.
She got me back into her room—I don’t know why they had windows that opened so easily in that place—sat both of us on the bed and said, “Kit, I’m getting too old for this shit.”
I patted her hand. “I know, Hon. But going out on the ledge like that …”
“I wanted to see you. I figured that was the quickest way.”
Julie wasn’t always so lucid these days and I probably didn’t visit as often as I should. The detecative agency was still going, under a different name to help pay the bills. But we didn’t really need the money, what with all our investments. Basically it gave me something to do while I waited for something to happen.
Not that Julie always remembered me or knew what was happening in the world. Once a week when everything was going good I was there, but the pandemic had been a bear to get through. I’d set up camp on the grounds outside and we’d talked on the phone for two years of visits during the deaths and lockdowns. And now that the pandemic was waning and I could see her in person and take her out, she was getting impatient. Said she wanted to make up for lost time.
I once feared she thought she was young again, but it wasn’t that. She’d always been the more adventurous one.
“I want to jump out of a plane,” she said, after the nursing home staff had assured themselves that she was alright and that she had indeed gotten her meds that morning, and left us alone.
“Why this sudden need to fly, Julie?”
“I’m feeling the years Kit. It’s now or never.”
That was a casual comment at the time, but it means so much more to me now.
There was a time during the war when she’d disappeared for a few months. Came back, eyes sparkling, cheeks flushed, saying she’d had the best time ever. But she couldn’t tell me about it. Admitted it involved planes, enemy lines, a little daring do, and skydiving. The closest she’d ever been to heaven, she said. My nose mighta gone a little out of joint at that. I thought I was perfectly capable of taking her to heaven. At least I’d had no complaints. And ever after, she was a huge James Bond fan and it wasn’t the girls she was looking at either. Not to mention she was pregnant, and wouldn’t tell me about that either. But we raised a lovely little girl and now we were grandparents. Soon to be great grandparents. It’s enough to make you feel old.
But at the words now or never, “Okay,” was all I could say. You never argued with Julie. Once she made her mind up something was going to happen, it would happen, one way or another. If I wanted it smooth, I’d comply. If I wanted Armageddon, I’d stand in her way.
“Make it happen, Kit. I have a strange feeling about it. It’s been bothering me lately. That’s why the Bat Signal.”
“All you had to do was call me, Hon, and I’d be there.”
“Where’s the fun in that, Babe?”
I sighed. Kissed her on the cheek, and took her down to the dining room for lunch. All was made up and I left her happy.
Three weeks later she went up in a plane. Skydiving. Who’d want to do that? I got nauseous just thinking about it.
She’d kissed me goodbye like she’d never see me again.
I’ll never forget that kiss. I got a sudden image of her young again. Of the way we used to be together. Her with roses in her cheeks and a classy silk dress, me sporting short hair, trousers and a snappy fedora. There was no need for that these days, but that’s what flashed through my mind the last time I saw her.
The guy who jumped with her said everything was normal. Everything happened the way it should. He strapped her in, asked her how she felt, did she want to go through with the jump, and she nodded and gave him a thumbs up. So off they went. He jumped. She was strapped into the harness in front of him. As far as he knew, she was having a great time. Enjoying the ride. Yahooed like a trooper. Except that at some point in the dive, he looked down and Julie, my Julie, was no longer with him. Her harness was empty. He couldn’t say whether she slid out of it or not. It was still fully connected together when he landed but there was no sign of her. Julie had disappeared.
He did recall they’d hit some turbulence and he’d closed his eyes for a second, but couldn’t remember checking on his passenger right then.
When he finally did, she was gone. He was distraught. Panicked. Phoned me the moment he hit the ground. I thought it was ironic that I should be the one to calm him down.
It’s been a week now, and no one has found her body. Maybe I should feel bad, but I think Julie knew whatever it was she was doing and somehow wandered off. That turbulence factored in somehow. That kiss, like it was our last.
I think Julie rebooted and is back in 1944 and waiting for me to catch up. It wouldn’t be the first time. Probably wearing a classy silk dress and tapping a dainty foot impatiently. She never was a patient person.
I never remember much of what goes on in our pasts. She’s the one in charge of that. We go together like ham and eggs.
Now all I have to do is figure out a way to get back there too.
But I’m a detecative. That’s what we do. Figure out what happened and what we should do about it.
I just hope it doesn’t involve skydiving.
by D.W. Hitz (@dustinhitz)
ONE HUNDRED RUNGS, EASILY. It didn’t matter that the building was on fire. It didn’t matter that it was the hottest night of the year, or that he was trapped between walls with only a ladder to the roof to escape. What mattered at this moment to Lance was that the ladder had more rungs than an acrophobe could handle.
Sweat streamed down the side of his face. His shirt was soaked in his salty excretions. The brick on his right cracked, and heat pounded him from every direction. It wasn’t like an oven, it was an oven. Fire on all sides, his own personal brick oven. If only he were a pizza and not some idiot afraid of heights.
It had to be a hundred and fifty degrees and he needed to climb. If he was going to live, he needed to climb.
He held his hand out to the fifth rung. A bead of sweat dripped from the tip of his finger and sizzled on the iron step.
His eyes went wide. It cooked his sweat. What would it do to him?
Lance gazed upward. At his only hope. The small shaft seemed to spin. At the top was an opening, and through it, a rotating view of brightly lit stars.
“Shit.” His eyes dropped to the ground, his knees numb, his legs buckling. His stomach lurched with his dinner along for the ride: broiled salmon with fresh cracked pepper, butter, lemon juice, a side of greens like his mother used to make, though he would have never told Clarice that was where he had gotten the recipe. It was the best meal he’d made in a long time. A crown on the tip of their brief dating experience. It had been a delight, up until she pulled the gun.
Lance grabbed the ladder to steady himself. Sssssssssss, his skin seared like the face of a char-broiled steak.
“Stupid, stupid,” he hissed at himself and danced, his stomach back in its place.
His hand was already shedding the burned white flesh, the skin below bulging in furious blisters. He clenched the other hand and wanted to punch himself for being so dumb.
The air waved between Lance and the wall. Heat warping his sight. Cooking his brain inside his head. He had to climb, that was the only way. Climb? Him?
He looked up again. The shaft spun immediately and he returned his gaze to the ground.
Dead. He was dead. There was no way he could make it.
Clarice’s smile flashed in his eyes. Red lips. Bright red, a red that would put fire engines to shame. They lit up the room, and when she pressed them to his, it was fireworks. Not the kind in the old movies that were a metaphor for sex. These were like none he’d ever imagined. He was inside the clouds, bursting, bright, popping, exploding with a magic that could have crossed time from that moment to here, to some other universe, and back. And then her red was smudged, her lips open a crack with no brain to close them—that had been splattered across the floor, flames inching closer, cooking them as tendrils crept in.
He reached down and pulled his shirt off. Maybe he could wrap his hands?
He held the collar between both hands, pain, and now blood seeping from his burns. He yanked, the overheated fabric tearing like paper. He repeated the act, his shirt now in two separate sheets. He wrapped each hand in one.
He pictured himself, some bargain-basement mummy, as he reached for the rung in front of his face. Blood seeped through one hand.
“Here goes nothing,” the voice in his head much tougher than the one that came from his mouth.
He set his healthy hand on the metal. He could feel the heat, but it didn’t burn.
Sweat ran in rivers down his chest, his back, his nose—holding and teasing then dripping over his lips. He felt his mind fading. He wanted to sit. He wanted to take a nap. Why was this happening? Why did he have to exert effort? It was all so—the flames touched Clarice’s hair. It flared; from hair products maybe? Lance didn’t know, but it burst into an instant ball of fire. The smell, just the scent made him choke, let alone the smoke. Her partners just laughed. Her head cooked like some prehistoric meat on an open campfire, and they laughed as they retreated from the room.
He touched his cheek. For a moment, he thought he was crying, but it was dry. His chest was dry. The more he sweat, the drier he seemed to be getting. The drier he got, the more the sensation moved from heat to pain.
“How hot is it?” His words barely escaped his mouth. They were softer than the crackling of brick and mortar around him.
“Climb,” something told him. It wasn’t his mind, it was something deeper inside him. Even if he was scared and out of his gourd from the heat, it still wanted him to live.
He closed his hand around the rung and placed a foot on the lowest one. He heard his sole sizzle.
Lance pulled and raised himself. He wanted to look up, to see how far he had to go, but held his head still. He stared at the wall in front of him. It was the only way he’d make it. He raised his foot and climbed.
He placed his blood-soaked hand on the next rung. He wrapped it around the iron bar with will alone—he felt nothing. He pulled and raised. Stepped, pulled, and raised.
His feet felt hotter and hotter with each rise. The burn ate through the shoe. His soles, melting, grew slicker and slicker.
His healthy hand felt it too. The wraps around him had grown nearly as hot as the rungs. Each placement burned. Each climb ate into his hands and devoured just a little bit more of him.
Sssssssss. The sizzle was all around him. It was on his hands, on his feet. It crept into his mind like the tendrils of the flames ate hers. That was a sizzle. It made the creep of a hungry predator as it devoured her skin, crackling at the thin layer of fat below her plump and delicate cheeks.
He remembered the look in her eyes as the man pulled the trigger. It was sorry. Not a sorry to them, or for getting herself into that position. It was a sorry for Lance, for leading them there, for making the entire chain of events a reality.
Or did he imagine that? Was it what he wanted to see?
The heat on his face burned in a way that was no longer simply painful. It was throbbing, pounding, a wave of irritation as his flesh cooked on his bones.
He groan and looked down. He didn’t want to, but he had to know, how far had he climbed?
There were a dozen rungs. One of ten stories. Nine more to go—and his grip failed.
The brick was an orange and red blur. It soared past his view, and he replaced it with her, her red, her lips, her kiss.
The fireworks exploded, enveloping him in a moment that defied the boundaries of time and space. Her gentle caress. Her curves below his hands. Her tongue against his.
The smell of her floral perfume overrode the peppery burn of the reality that unsuccessfully battled to get in. They were together.
by Renée Gendron (@ReneeGendron)
FEDIR MOROZ WIPED HIS FOREHEAD with the back of his hand. Sweat beads formed on his brow, and he ignored the sensation of them trickling down his temple. He set up the tripod to his camera, tested his microphone and put in his earpiece.
He adjusted his tie against his damp collar and stared directly at the camera.
“And now for the weather, we turn to Fedir Moroz on location in Port Stanley. Fedir?” news anchor Sita Patel said in his ear.
Fedir raised the microphone to this mouth. “Thank you, Sita. I’m just off the beach on Port Stanley. There are thousands of people trying to cool off. Temperatures remain in the high thirties, and the humidex rating is also in the mid-thirties. Everyone doing outdoor activities is advised to drink more water, children and the elderly need more fluids, rest in the shade, and take regular breaks from the heat.”
“What’s the forecast for the weekend?” Sita asked through his earpiece.
“We expect light showers, but they won’t break the humidity. The high-pressure system will be with us for at least five days with temperatures breaking forty-five degrees tomorrow afternoon.”
“Are there any precautions viewers should take?”
Wait for hell to cool off. “Drink plenty of fluids, and stay in shaded or air-conditioned areas. Children and the elderly need more fluid as their bodies don’t regulate temperatures as well. Be careful with pets and their paws on pavement and ensure they have plenty of water.”
“A lot of people are flocking to beaches, it seems.”
Fedir inclined his head and shifted a bit for the camera to pick up the beach and some of the thousands of beachgoers behind him. “There’s a party mood here at the beach. There’s a high UV rating. Make sure to use plenty of sunscreen and again, stay hydrated and wear a hat to avoid sunstroke.”
“Thank you for your report, Fedir. Now, onto a story about a girl who brought smiles to the residents of a seniors’ residence with cupcakes.”
Fedir maintained his professional expression, a slight smile, gaze front and level to the camera, and microphone to his mouth.
“And you’re off the air,” the director’s voice said in his earpiece.
Fedir shoved his hand in his pocket, removed a handkerchief, and mopped his forehead. He shrugged off his sports blazer, loosened his tie, placed the camera in the trunk of his car and disassembled the tripod. He unscrewed the cap of a bottle of water and downed it in four chugs, then opened a second bottle and drank half.
He undid the button on the cuff of his dress shirt and rolled up the cuff one turn to where his tattoos began.
A minivan pulled up beside his SUV. The driver was a woman in her mid-forties, black hair pulled back in a loose ponytail. She stepped out of her minivan, walked to the trunk, and opened it. She removed a weather monitoring station with a weathervane and electronic panel. She rummaged through her purse and removed her cellphone, and scrolled through things.
Fedir closed the trunk of his SUV. He was already late for a tv-dinner on the sofa with a round of binge-watching whatever was trending on Netflix. But the dimple on her chin and the curve of her jaw caught his interest. “What are you doing?”
Thick, red-rimmed glasses slid down her nose, but she didn’t push them up. “Research.”
“Research on?” Not that he didn’t already know.
“Weather.” Large midnight eyes framed by thick eyelashes met his.
Fifteen years on air with CFPL-DT Channel 10 CTV London, yet she didn’t recognise him. Or she pretended not to.
“What about the weather?” His tone was curious.
“I’m researching heatwaves.”
She looped her ponytail into a loose bun and held it in place with a scrunchy. The line of her neck was long and elegant. Her blouse had a v-neck, deep enough to see the smooth expanse of her chest but not the cleft of her breasts. “DST Consulting.”
The temperature kicked up a few degrees. “DST?”
“We’re a consulting group from Toronto that helps companies with site management. Weather patterns impact building maintenance and working conditions.” She removed the hand truck from the truck, loaded her equipment and closed the trunk.
“That’s an interesting job.”
She flashed a bright smile. “It keeps me on my toes.”
Sweat pooled around his underarms, and he unrolled his cuff and buttoned it. Gone were the days he changed from a dress shirt to a tee shirt. Twenty years and counting. “You like a challenge?”
“I didn’t study synoptic meteorology because I like linear, simple things.”
He laughed, more of a burst of laughter that caught him off-guard. “There’s nothing simple about the weather.”
“It’s why Vegas still doesn’t take bets on it.” Her voice was rich, sultry, adding another level of heat to an already sweltering day.
He chuckled and tied up his collar button. He drew in a long breath of humid air, then another, and it felt like he was breathing through a hot towel. He popped the trunk of his car, removed two water bottles from a cooler, and handed her one. “You like challenges, and you gamble?”
She took the water bottle and opened it. “Thanks. I’ve been known to take risks.”
She swigged her water. Gorgeous midnight eyes looked at him over the edge of the water bottle. “I’ve collected field data during a tornado, blizzards and gale-force winds while on a research boat in the Atlantic.”
“Those North Atlantic November storms are horrible.”
“I still get seasick just thinking about it.”
“What else do you take risks on?”
A seductive smile crossed her face, one that started with a slight tug of the corners of her mouth, then curved her cheeks and brightened the interest in her eye. “Men that chat about the weather.”
Fedir’s internal thermometer just about burst. He tightened his grip around the cold water bottle, but it offered no relief to the inferno in his chest. “Fedir Moroz.”
“There’s a pub around the corner if you’ve time for a beer.”
“On one condition.”
“You stop hiding.” Her lush lips were slightly apart, and she stood with her feet slightly apart, drawing the eye to the full length of her soft curves.
“What do you mean?”
“Your cuffs and collar. Why do them up?”
“I’m looking my best for you.” He shifted his gaze to her minivan. A late model with tinted windows, the colour of sable, it was a safe vehicle with a lot of carrying capacity. Couldn’t they talk about cars instead?
She shook her head, and the scrunchy gave up its valiant battle. Her hair fell in a mess over her shoulder, but the net effect gave her a lovely bedhead look. “You’re hiding something.”
He ran his thumb over his cuff button but remained silent.
“May I?” She reached for him but didn’t touch his cuff.
No. No one should see that. He wished he didn’t have to see it. He nodded. For some inexplicable reason, he nodded. Cold dread spread through his chest. He forced himself to watch her, just like he had forced himself to watch the medics dress his wounds.
She unbuttoned his cuff and rolled his sleeve to his elbow. She traced the outline of his dragon tattoo but didn’t touch the shrapnel and burn marks. She moved her hand to his other cuff. “And the other?”
She unbuttoned the other cuff and rolled it up to his elbow. Nia traced the edges of his forest tattoo and the peaks of the three mountains by his elbow. “Afghanistan?”
The explosion itself was nothing but a big hole in his memory. He stared at the gouge marks in his arm, where the doctors split the skin open to collect bone fragments, metal, and rocks. It was ugly and hideous, and its sight reminded him of the terrifying months of rehab and the fear of never regaining full use of his arms.
He nodded. “IED.”
“All right.” She backed away from him, opened her truck, and packed up her equipment.
“Yeah. I was going to do extra work tonight. It can wait until tomorrow.” She locked her minivan. “Lead the way.”
And just like that, he was sweltering again.
by Marian L. Thorpe (@marianlthorpe)
THE LAND IS DYING, and I can feel it.
I take the dogs out in the early morning, before the sun climbs too high in the relentlessly blue sky. Underfoot the path is rock-hard, the soil crazed with cracks. Beside it the grasses are burnt and sere, bleached to straw. It hasn’t rained since mid-June.
It’s August first today.
Even at 6 a.m. the temperature’s in the high 20s, the breeze hot. The dogs don’t run; they pad along beside me, tongues lolling. I carry water for them, and a collapsible bowl. I can’t let them drink from the forest pool; what little water is left is stagnant, green with algae.
The morning is nearly silent. A crow calls, distantly. Already heat is radiating off the dry earth: heat and despair. It’s that despair I feel, a wrenching inside, a scream coming silently from the land, the plants, the few birds, even the insects scuttling in and out of the fissures beneath my feet. It beats at my consciousness like a drum.
I tell this to Dev when I get back from the walk, kneeling to check the dogs for ticks. They drink copiously as I do, then stand patiently. I’m glad they’re short-haired.
“Don’t be stupid, Dee,” Dev says.
I crush a tick. It has to die, so I might as well take my frustrations out on it. “I’m not,” I mutter, too quietly for him to hear.
“Are we eating?” he asks.
I suppress a sigh. “Soon. Did you turn the coffee maker on?” He hasn’t, even though I left it ready. I press the switch. While it gurgles and hisses, I get out two mugs, put a frying pan on the stove, slot bread into the toaster. Break eggs into a bowl.
Five minutes later, we have coffee. Five minutes after that, breakfast.
Dev leaves for work, the rumble of the pickup on the gravel road audible for some minutes. Dust billows up behind the wheels: the calcium chloride sprayed by the county to keep it down has done little this year. It settles quickly in the still air, the roadsides almost as white as in the winter snow. I pile the dishes in the sink and go out to water the garden.
Even though I harvested yesterday, the tomatoes and zucchini and beans all need picking again. Another day to be spent over the stove, canning. I can’t do it in the relative cool of the evening; Dev hates the steam and the smell. But I have to water first, before the plants begin to wilt in the rising heat. If the tomatoes dry out too much before they’re watered again, they’ll get blossom end rot, and I’ll lose half the crop.
I’ve done half the garden, channeling the water into the shallow trenches between each row of plants, Sweat drips into my eyes. I raise a hand to wipe it away. The hose kicks in my hands, the flow stuttering, becoming a trickle, stopping. I swear, loudly; there’s no one but the dogs to hear. The pump has quit.
But no. In the cellar of the house, it still hums. I put my hand on it. It’s getting hot. There’s no water in the hose because there’s no water in the well. I sit back on my heels in the relative cool of the cellar, staring at the pump in horror. No water. No water for cooking, for the toilet, for showers, for canning. For the dogs.
I go upstairs, call Dev. Tell him what’s happened, ask him to buy jugs of water. “Why weren’t you more careful?” he barks. I apologize.
“But we need water,” I say. He mutters something and hangs up.
The people we bought this old farmhouse from gave us a number to call, if there were problems. A cousin of some sort, who knows the place. Yes, she says, our well’s dry too. Usually gets low in August when the canning factory starts up, processing the tomatoes, but never dry. A bad year. She tells me there’s a tank, and who to call to get water delivered. We all do it, she says, when the water gets low in the late summer.
She must hear how lost I am, because half an hour later she’s at my door. I hear the truck in time to shrug on a long-sleeved shirt and meet her outside. “Thanks for coming,” I say.
“I’m Janet. Dee, isn’t it?”
“Diana, really. But most people call me Dee.”
Janet shows me the underground tank, and its standpipe, and how to switch the pump to its intake. Tells me how much bleach to add to the tank. I thank her.
“City girl?” she asks.
“Well, town,” I say. She juts her chin at the garden.
“We’re trying to grow most of our own food.” I should offer her coffee, or something, but I can’t. Not without water. “Would you like anything? Tomatoes?”
She laughs. She has plenty, she says, and she needs to be getting back. From behind the seat of her truck, she hauls out a big jug of water. “Keep you going,” she says.
At dinner I argue with Dev. The credit card is his, and he won’t let me use it. But I need it, to order water. He’ll do it, he says. In the morning, from work. He’ll have to go in early to shower, anyhow.
That night, I dream of a stag. A big animal, dappled by shade and sunlight, standing by the woodland pool. Dark eyes full of sorrow looking at me, before it turns and disappears. While it held my gaze in the dream, my terror abated, just a little. The world stopped screaming. But when the stag disappears, so does the silence. Inside me, the pain of the world pulses in time with my heart.
The next morning, I lug the basket of harvested vegetables down to the cool of the cellar. Until the water arrives, I can’t process them. I can’t clean, I can’t do laundry. I have nothing to do, and the heat in the old house is stifling. I go out onto the back porch, hoping for a breeze. The whine of cicadas pierces the air. The porch isn’t cooler. The dogs dig dens underneath, where the shaded soil still holds a trace of moisture. I listen to the silence. No birds but the turkey vultures that circle over the fields, and the crows. It’s 32 degrees, at 9 a.m.
The water truck arrives midafternoon. When Dev comes home, I’m still canning. He swears, grabs a beer from the fridge. “I’ll eat on the porch,” he says. I haven’t even thought about supper.
I make a salad with some of the vegetables, leave some corn in the blanching pot long enough to cook. There’s ham. It’ll do. I carry the food and cutlery and another beer out onto the porch. Dev grunts, and begins to eat. I’m too tired to be hungry, plus the smell of the vegetables I’ve been chopping and blanching and bottling half the afternoon has spoiled my appetite; that, and the scream—not cicadas—I hear constantly now.
The heatwave and the drought drag on. I try to pick the ripe and almost-ripe vegetables in the evenings when it’s marginally cooler. Dev watches from the porch, beer in hand.
He showers at the truck stop where he works. I wash in a basin, so I can save the water for the garden; it gets the blanching water, too. It’s not enough; I still need to use the hose. I’ll have to ask Dev to order more water soon.
In the woods, the pond is dry, the algae turning brown on the cracking mud. Branches droop, and there’s no sound at all. The dogs walk slowly, panting, heads and tails down. In the pond of my dreams, too, the water level is dropping. The stag, when it comes, has an appeal in its eyes. What I thought was the dapple of light on its coat now reveals itself as moulting, clumps of its coat coming out. The new coat is white, like the dust on the roadsides, like the brilliant sun at noon.
Nearly September now. In the fields the leaves of the stunted corn are rolled and brown at the edges. Silk from the shrivelled ears hangs limp and blackened. Irrigation dugouts are dry. The radio speaks of record temperatures. Almost every afternoon thunderheads build in the west; often there is thunder, sometimes lightning, once, a few drops of rain. Hardly more than the drops of blood I wiped from the kitchen floor the same day, when I cut myself slicing zucchini for relish.
I call the water people; they have the credit card on record, right? They do, and the cistern is full again. But Dev pulls into the driveway just as they leave. He is shouting before he’s out of the truck. I shout back, knowing it won’t help. But neither will saying I’m sorry. He punches, hard, but only three times, before he swears and drives off.
After that I don’t see much of him. The truck stop has air conditioning – at least his office does. He comes home at dark, drinks a beer or two, says goodnight. I sleep out on the porch, leaving him our bed and the fan. The white stag haunts my nights. It stands by the dry pond, not bothering to lower its head. It’s more likely to raise it now, turn it to one side.
I realize it’s showing me its throat, pleading in its eyes.
I wake to a muggy dawn, thunderheads already massing, the land’s pain loud in my mind. I go into the kitchen to put coffee on. Dev comes downstairs naked, sits at the table. Waits for me to give him coffee. He hasn’t shaved, and his stubble has patches of grey. A few grey hairs, too, I notice, as I pass him to go to the cupboard for mugs
“Met this girl last night,” he says. He means more than met, but I won’t rise to it. “She’d hitched a ride from a trucker. Like a hippy from the sixties, y’know.”
I murmur something non-committal. There are beets to slice for pickling. I give Dev his coffee, pour my own, turn to the counter. The scream from the land rises and falls in waves, ceaselessly. I pick up the knife, force it into the beet. Pull it out, red with juice.
“She was babbling on about names. What they mean.” He slurps his coffee. I slice the beet halves into quarters. “Are you listening?”
I glance at him. He’s turned his head to look at me.
“Yes. What names mean.”
“Says Devin is Irish. Means ‘deer’.”
His head’s still turned. He starts to say something more, but I can’t hear. The pulsing pain and the pleading in the stag’s eyes merge, and I know what it wants, what the land wants, what it needs, and—
The scream becomes a gasp, a gurgle, and then it stops. Only my heart beats. The blood of sacrifice drips from my knife, pools on the floor.
Thunder, like a god’s voice, before the rain begins.
by Joseph P. Garland (@JPGarlandAuthor)
IT WAS A MISTAKE. This was a mistake. It is always a mistake.
There she is, sleeping very slightly on her back. The sweat creating a patina over her with beads of it slowly creeping down the valley between her breasts. A sweet cluster of hair is plastered on her forehead, and I can hear a slight whistling through her slightly-parted lips.
God it’s hot.
It happens more often than you’d think in a city of this size. New York City. Running into people you know. That she lived only five blocks from me meant it was more likely, of course, as happened an hour or so ago. I’d gone to the corner kiosk to get a copy of The Times and grabbed a coffee and cinnamon-raisin bagel with butter at the coffee place halfway down the block when there she was. She always made a good first impression, and she didn’t fail. She somehow looked cool in a bright sundress and sandals. She always did like hats, and this morning’s didn’t disappoint, straw with a thin brown band and a wide brim. Not the man’s fedora type. A real woman’s hat that you could imagine flinging like a Frisbee across a field of sunflowers if you were in the south of France.
We weren’t in the south of France. I’d never been and I doubt she had either. I mean, it might get really hot there, but not sweltering like it did here each August with the park or a movie theater or museum or bookstore being the only respite from the heat for those who lived in pre-War brownstones without air conditioning. I lived in just such a place. So, last I heard, did she.
Me: How are you?
Her: I’m good. You?
Me: Great. You look…very good?
Her: So do you.
This last bit, which is what she said, was bullshit. The former, which I did, was an understatement. It always was with her. Every time I saw her, I had a physical reaction to seeing her. I looked “all right” at best. I was never at my best, of course, when I went out just to get the paper and coffee and a bagel, especially when it was this damn hot, so I had on a race t-shirt, shorts, and sandals. A Mets cap on top and I hadn’t shaved. There was always the chance, long as it was, that I’d run into her and I still hadn’t shaved.
In the right light, though, I guess I could look good.
She smiled and lifted her left hand, stretching and wiggling her fingers.
“Nothing,” she said. She’d noticed that I had checked, and I felt compelled to lift my own, bare left hand and say, “same.”
We turned towards my street.
“Have you gotten a/c yet?”
“No, course not. You?”
“One of these days one of us is going to have to get an apartment with air conditioning.”
“What, and lose the charm of a sultry New York August?”
“’Hot time, summer in the city’?” she quoted as without another word we started down my block where at least the trees gave some measure of shade. We joined a flow of people heading to the park and a few runners doing the same, passing by in the street.
“You always loved a nice piece of ass,” she said as she slapped my arm when she caught me admiring a pretty young thing in boy shorts and a sports bra heading east, her blonde ponytail dancing left-to-right, right-to-left like a pendulum.
“I’ll do no more than admit that I’ve always loved yours.”
She laughed. This always happened. The magical moments when we’d run into each other, a flow of Bogart-and-Bacall banter. (Or Harry-and-Sally in these parts, though Bacall did live ten blocks to the south when she was a grand old dame).
It was so damn hot and it was only going to get hotter and the noise from the avenue hung over everything just like the humidity did and neither of us cared. We never did, these brief encounters.
And we didn’t this morning as we got to my place. A fumble for the key for downstairs and then the keys for my one-bedroom place. Once inside, I said I hadn’t asked if she had plans, where she was going.
“No plans. I just wanted to get out and…and there was always the chance that I’d run into you.”
This last part was punctuated by her right hand gripping my waist and pulling me, all of me, toward her.
I wasn’t lying when I said I always loved her ass. My own hands reached and grabbed it and as always happens and as night always follows day, we were in the hot, unmade bed making love and, as always it was glorious and delightful and fun in equal measures.
It was also so hot and sticky. The window was open with the screens in. The sounds from buses driving and taxis honking up and down the avenue came in and so did the voices and laughter of people going to or from the park and when we were done it was as sublime a space I ever knew.
Yes, one of these days one of us will have to get a place with a/c but seeing those beads of sweat flow slowly down to her stomach, which is rising and falling in a wonderful rhythm, and telling myself how much this is a mistake, I run a finger to touch the wetness and kiss it from my fingertip.
It rouses her, and she turns on her side to face me. My hand quickly brushes that bit of damp hair from her forehead. When it is back on my side, she asks, “Why does this keep happening? It’s like fate or something.”
“You admitted that you thought you might run into me if you ‘happened to be in the neighborhood.’”
“I did, didn’t I?”
She smiles and turns back to lay naked on her back. Her hand reaches over, awkwardly going I knew not where but I take it in mine and place it on my stomach and hold mine over it.
“I like feeling you breathe,” she says.
“I like watching you breathe,” I add.
I ignore this. We both know how true it is.
“Seriously,” she says, now turning to look straight at me. “Why do we always do this? And nothing more?”
“We tried ‘more,’ remember?” I remind her. “It was a disaster.”
She turns a little further and is now leaning against me with her lips not far from my ear and our sweat once again mingling.
“I remember. We’re in one of those relationship in which the sex is the thing that doesn’t ruin everything.”
She pushes away, and we’re beside each other on our backs.
“You want to take a shower?” I ask. She’s silent for several beats.
“I really don’t have anything else to do today. Can we take it together?”
“You know how small it is.”
“You’re talking about the shower, right?” she says to the ceiling. I can hear her smile; she is such a bitch. “What did you think I meant?”
She’s waiting. It really is a mistake. It is always a mistake.
“If we get real close to one another, I think we can fit,” I finally say. Then, I imagine but don’t say, maybe we can go for a walk—after I shave—and see how things go from there.
I turn to face her. Her finger runs down my nose and across my lips. I kiss it.
“I know you can fit,” she says, and her eyes have a bit of a twinkling and her tongue runs across her upper lip though I doubt she realizes it.
And so, not caring that the neighbors across the street can see us, we dash to my little bathroom off the kitchen, and she stands beside me, holding my hand, her arm leaning against mine, until I get the water just right for the two of us.
New This Month: Shopkeeper & Spoon, a collection edited by Renée Gendron
I Am Alex Locus and other novels and stories by Joseph P. Garland are described at his Dermody House site.
Jaded Hearts, Renée Gendron
Book 1 of the Outdoorsman Series, by Renée Gendron
Seven Points of Contact, by Renée Gendron
Heads and Tales. A supernatural/mythological anthology. Renée Gendron contributed a historical, supernatural, romance.