From the Desk of the Editor
Hello and welcome to another exciting issue of Larks Fiction Magazine! We are pleased to bring you two wonderful pieces of literature this week from up-and-coming authors. In this issue we are featuring an experimental contest winner and a quirky story of growing up.
We wish to apologize for our tardiness in responding. We are currently moving our office to a new building and we have been busy with repairs at the new location. Check out our videos and blog for Fox House—the new world headquarters of Larks Media Group!
Thank you for joining us and good reading!
Daniel J. Pool
The Bus Station
By Peter McMillan
Andy would wish he had never seen the young teenage boy walking towards the men's room.
It was well past midnight in the bus station. One of the officers had said "Don't go into the restrooms alone,” and his partner added “and whatever you do, don't fall asleep." That unsettled Andy. His bus to Salt Lake City was another 6 hours away, and he was tired and had drunk a lot of water walking up and down the hills, killing time. He'd missed the famous cable cars; they wouldn't be back until the following year, he heard.
He'd already seen more than he wanted to see in the Mission District and that was in daylight. In the dark, the city had an altogether different atmosphere—foreign and threatening. It was better in the bus station as long as other passengers were around. But at this time of night, there were only two—Andy and a young black soldier—Army, it seemed.
The mood inside changed for the worse when an old white-haired giant wearing a baggy and soiled mustard-colored suit lumbered in shouting loudly at an invisible companion. The old guy circled and studied the young soldier, who sat quietly staring unblinkingly at his Reader's Digest. On his second pass, the old guy stopped, wobbled a bit, and screamed in the soldier's face. The soldier must have been fresh in the service because his whole body screamed back in silent fear. The old guy kept screaming and then stopped as suddenly as a summer downpour and walked away.
Andy was angered but mostly stunned. What kind of person— What kind of place was this where a person could be assaulted for no reason whatsoever? And where were the cops ... security, anybody?
An hour or so later, a pleasant, round little man, deeply-tanned from his bald pate to his sandaled feet and sporting a brilliant pink polo shirt, walked in, passed the soldier, and approached Andy. He engaged Andy in friendly conversation about the weather, the city, and finally religion. After judging that the man wasn't recruiting for a cult, Andy put his religious upbringing to good use. After 45 minutes of theological discussion, the pleasant, round little man politely excused himself and said he had to go make some money.
Over the next two hours, more came in from the streets—some almost normal. One of the “normals,” in a business suit but without the tie, was looking for someone in particular, but it seemed odd that he didn't stop to ask the soldier or Andy for help. A second went straight to the lockers and took out something, which he tucked away inside his 49ers windbreaker. A scary-looking couple, maybe a man and a woman, went into the men's room. Meanwhile, an ancient woman, her back crooked so badly the floor was just two feet from her face, settled into an out-of-the-way corner for herself, her cat, and her overfull grocery cart.
Just after 4:30, Andy saw the freckle-faced teen walking in the direction of the restrooms. Andy couldn't recall seeing him in the bus station earlier, but he wasn't sure. The teenager was carrying a suitcase. His short-sleeve plaid shirt was buttoned to the top, and his blue jeans didn't quite reach the top of his white crew socks.
The cops hadn't returned and probably wouldn't. Andy looked across at the soldier. His eyes were glazed over—the magazine lay limp in his lap.
Andy couldn't help himself. He had to warn the boy. It was the right thing to do. That's how he'd been raised.
But what if it was the kid that was the dangerous. Maybe he had been an innocent, a runaway but had become an itinerant serial killer. Suppose he were to warn the kid, and the kid were to turn and give him that look—the look of a cold-blooded killer? And what if the kid had a serrated stainless steel hunting knife in that suitcase?
Out of the corner of his eye Andy glimpsed a head peeping out of the men's room, and quickly got up and walked over to take a seat next to the soldier.
About the Author;
Peter McMillan is a freelance writer and ESL instructor who lives on the northwest shore of Lake Ontario with his wife and two flat-coated retrievers.
A Guide to Rejoining the Universe
By Mimi Rosen
Onto the front porch a hobbled barn cat came creeping from dewy fields, woodpiles and prickly brown bushes. It looked at Zach sternly with haunting gray eyes, as it slinked along the step’s rail and into the rocker. A door inside the house clapped. Jeff’s footsteps descended the stairs and faded down the hall. Zach raised his snout towards the purple-gray sky and sensed with heart-pounding certainty that his life was about to change.
“All packed,” Jeff announced.
“I see that,” Rita said. “You do travel light, Mr. Baum.”
“A toothbrush, some extra socks, and a couple pair of clean skivvies, all a guy needs for a weekend away. ”
Zach’s perked-up ears turned towards the screen door.
“But you know, Mrs. Baum, I’m not opposed to a larger suitcase, if you happen to change your mind.”
“Hmm?” Jeff said, inside of kisses. “Come with me.”
Zach danced a little at the door, catching glimpses of Rita and Jeff inside.
“Uh-huh yeah, you got that thing. I get it.” More kisses.
“Yeah,” she said, in her cracking-bone voice. “That thing.”
“I don’t got a problem with staying home either. It’s just agility trials.”
“Are you kidding me? You and Zach have practically been married these past months.”
Zach cocked his head.
“Really Rita?” Jeff asked. “You see it that way?”
“Not really. I just know you enjoy spending time with him. Zach’s a great dog. Bet he wins for you, too. You can’t not go, Jeffy.”
“Rita, this me going and you not going places is uh…well, maybe the answer isn’t sitting home. Maybe you ought to try harder to get out, like Doc Howard said. You know, make plans to look forward to, push yourself a little.”
“Now you sound like my mother.”
“I don’t mean it like that. Baby, what happened, happened, but…”
“You know I’m not ready to talk about that, Jeff.”
Keys jingled. “We’re gonna have to someday.”
“I know, just not today. Farshtay, Pearl Fein.”
“Yow, I love it when you talk Yiddish.” Again kisses. “I’ll call you from the road, Wise Ass.”
More footsteps. Zach marched in place and watched the door, until it sprung opened and Jeff came through, then Zach looped-the-loop, and bounced and dashed all the way to the Bronco. When Jeff threw his bags in the back that heart-pounding certainty stopped Zach cold.
“Come on Boy, let’s go play.” Jeff’s eyes danced from Zach to the truck.
Zach backed away, barking.
“What is it boy?”
Jeff snatched the leash from the dashboard and clipped it to Zach’s collar. “Come Zach.” He gave him a tug and they walked to the truck. Then Jeff put his dog in the front seat and they drove off.
Six weeks later
Jeff stood on the rim of a dead fog. Rita shivered at the sight of him. The crimson gash that split his face from right temple to left cheekbone was black when Rita had identified his body. She knew it wasn’t really Jeff standing there, but even his apparition deserved more from her than bone-quaking fear. “Run,” she told herself, but her legs were anchored. She wanted to scream, but could only whimper.
A phone rang.
Jeff’s eyes scolded her.
Ringing, ringing, ringing.
Rita hated the bells.
I’m so sorry, Jeff. It happened because of me.
She blinked and he bounced closer,
She blinked again and his body-drawer essence loomed over her.
Jeff’s mouth moved – speak-ready
But the ringing grew louder and louder still.
Drowning his words
As Rita withered.
She opened her eyes, but couldn’t move, the shadowy ceiling, a reminder that she was home and still in bed. The phone rang and rang, stopped just before the answering machine - which was full anyway - would have picked up, then rang and rang again. “Leave me alone,” Rita screeched, jostling into a slumped sitting position. Whoever this is sucks, she thought. Her mother, who insisted on coming up from Florida to take care of her, could be that relentless. So could Doctor Howard, to chastise Rita for missing yet another appointment, no doubt. Then he’d deliver that same, “rejoining the community” speech that had been his mantra since her miscarriage. She rested her hand on the night table, careful not to disturb the pile of crusty dishes, empty Ben and Jerry containers and half-filled vodka bottle. Then she burrowed through a mound of scrunched up tissues, until she found the phone.
“This is Dr. Ratcliff from Hamilton Animal Hospital calling about Zach.”
Rita knew perfectly well why he was calling.
“He’s ready to come home.”
The doctor’s words spiraled Rita through memories of yet another unwanted call; “Hello Mrs. Baum, I’m sorry to tell you there’s been an accident,” and in that same instant she was shivering in the morgue, where Jeff’s scarred body was laid out on a gurney.
Rita spent the post-crash weeks drowning all thoughts of Jeff in food, booze and sleep - a painfully hollow endeavor. She and Jeff had been in love since they were teenagers.
She coughed back sobs.
“Yes.” Rita squeezed out the word.
“We’ve left you several messages. The trauma to Zach’s face was worse than any I’ve seen.”
“Right, we spoke before the surgery.”
“Yes, and back then I didn’t know what to expect, but he came through like a champ. Now, he does have a cranial malformation and is blind in one eye but…”
“Dr…uh…Ratcliff is it?”
“It hurts to talk.”
“I don’t even get out of bed most days.” The wrong words were fighting to come out. “I…I can’t think about that dog right now.”
“Oh…well, so what then…”
“Send me the bill. I’ll gladly pay it.”
“But…you know Zach can’t stay here.”
“It was my husband’s dog.” Her throat tried to strangle the words.
“Mrs. Baum, do you need help?”
“No, what I need is for you to find another home for Zach.” The word betrayal thunder-clapped through her as soon as she made the demand, but instead of taking it back, Rita hung up the phone and sunk to the floor.
On a nippy afternoon, Zach stood in the far corner of a dung-covered yard, watching an unruly pack of canines fight for Inga’s attention.
“Settle down now,” she said, and dropped one food bowl after another.
Her shifting eyes had Zach watching with dread as bowls clanged on the ground and dogs pounced on them.
Zach’s stomach panged. Prickling crept up his spine. His mind tumbled back to Jeff’s face with bloody eyes, to blaring horns, and screaming tires, and crunching bones and flashing lights.
“Za…Zach? I can’t see.”
Zach yelped, wanting to squirm free of the toothy door, while the man he loved - the bloody-eyed man - dangled beyond his reach. Jeff gurgled and wheezed and that heart-pounding certainty hit Zach once more.
“Guess you were trying to warn me, Boy.” Jeff trembled, rattling the Bronco. “Oh Rita,” he cried. “How’m I…who’s gonna help my girl through...” The man groaned and reached down, raking the leather seat and Zach wiggled and whimpered, until his broken snout bumped Jeff’s fingers. “Don’t know how much you understand, Boy. But if you can, hel…help her.”
Then Jeff was gone.
Zach scanned the yard with his good eye, tipping his head towards the sounds around him. A long stretch of dogs guarded food bowls, and others with sinking ears skulked away, and others came running from digging and scratching as Inga limped back to the sickly rear door. It creaked opened, she stepped inside, and then Zach launched. He climbed the fence and dove over it, as dogs barked, and sprung up and tussled with each other. He landed on a grassy slope and kept going; down the rural road, up a busy street, through the woods, and onto the highway.
Syracuse Psychiatric Center
“While this feeling of sinking into darkness is a normal reaction to the tragic events of the past year,” Dr. Howard said. “You have a responsibility to yourself to make choices that will push you towards light.”
Rita rolled her eyes.
“Your willingness to speak about Jeff’s death during session yesterday was not only brave, but an example of the kinds of choices that will help you work through your grief and self doubt.”
“Are you kidding me?” The follow up to Rita’s disclosure was an afternoon spent in a fetal position on the psych-ward cot. Yet, this was somehow less preferable than her succession of days curled up in her dark bedroom. She had mingled that with the Zoloft and vodka combination that put her in the hospital.
“I would like you to continue in that same light today,” Dr. Howard said.
Instead of appreciating the man who had saved her life, Rita registered her impatience with a loud tsk and slumped posture. The doctor ignored Rita’s disgruntled manner and meddled onward, as he had done when she missed so many appointments and wouldn’t answer the phone. He just showed up at her house - walked right in without knocking. He found Rita non-responsive and just in time, according the EMT. The ER nurse said that Dr. Howard had a sixth sense about
his patients. Rita had other ways of describing it. She fired off a barrage of them shortly after they pumped her stomach.
“Now, your baby was nearly full term when…”
“I’m not ready to talk about the baby or that other thing.” Rita waved off the notion.
“You mean the Post Partum Psychosis you experienced.”
“Thank you for spelling it out, Doc.” She wrung her ankles together and fidgeted with her plastic identification bracelet - her seventy-two-hour-hold badge of dishonor.
“I’m nothing if not a fairly-descent speller,” Dr. Howard said in a good-natured way that Rita wanted to smile.
“What happened to you would make anyone resistant to talking about it.” Dr. Howard tilted his head, repositioning the small suede kippah over his much larger bald spot and said, “But it’s time, dear.”
Rita picked at her cuticles. She had spent the past eight months keeping all of her dark feelings, lodged deep within her. Was it really time? Her eyes connected with the doctor’s. His patient yet hopeful gaze compelled her. She lowered her head and whispered the name, “Elijah.”
His was a quiet demise that came near the end of an uneventful pregnancy. Rita and Jeff had been preparing the nursery. He wanted a baseball theme and she, Beatrix Potter. They teased each other about it often and had inside jokes about not-so-funny topics as diaper-rash and baby puke.
Then, on a night when soft rain pattered against their bedroom window everything changed.
Canned laughter was bursting from their 24-inch Sony as the latest episode of Thirty Rock aired. Jeff crawled under the hand-made quilt that Rita’s mother had sewn for their fourth wedding anniversary. He loved the show and Rita loved the laughter it triggered from him. She had always worked hard to raise Jeff’s spirits. He was one of those people who grew up with money, but was never taught to see his own worth. So, when the heart-pounding realization that Rita hadn’t felt the baby at all that day rattled her, she kept it to herself.
She kept it to herself, after a doctor’s visit confirmed her fears. She kept it to herself and went through the motions of each day. She kept it to herself, but tried to abduct her neighbor’s newborn, believing with unyielding clarity that she was protecting her baby. The icy fetus she’d been keeping inside her, while evading doctor’s calls and Jeff’s concerns. The child she refused to give up on, because in her heart and mind she’d given birth to Elijah Sidney Baum, but he was out in the world, somewhere just beyond her reach.
Dr. Howard postured for analysis.
Rita felt the urge to block.
“Do you feel that people are angry with you, Rita?”
“Wouldn’t you hate me?”
Dr. Howard shifted closer to her. “None of this was your fault, my dear.”
“Tell that to my neighbors.”
“No one was harmed. It was an unfortunate and frightening episode, born of illness, not ill intent.”
“So, this isolation is your way of avoiding others?”
Rita opened her mouth, her thoughts swaying like a pendulum. “I feel like…” Her eyes welled up. “It could it happen again.”
Dr. Howard put his large hand on Rita’s. His warmth tingled through her body, nearly melting her. Then he said with certainty, “It won’t.”
Rita’s lips quivered into a crooked smile.
“When life altering events happen,” the doctor continued. “There may be a period when solitude is necessary. But isolation at this point is only delaying the healing tasks of facing your community, acknowledging the episode, and making reparation. In order to do that, my dear, you must rejoin the universe. Only then will you relearn how to trust yourself.”
A stick-wielding round man snuck up during Zach’s dumpster-breakfast. Zach climbed a mountain of wilted produce, hopped over a fence and dashed off. Then the man came cursing, over crisp fields and through train-car alleys. So, Zach leaped into a carnage-scented caboose and tried to diminish. There he remained, still and in shadows, panting, frothing, and most of all listening.
Footsteps crunched. The man crept in across hay-covered floorboards, and grunted and stood, and loomed in the doorway. Zach shrunk towards the slatted wall, the stink of cigar and bacon grease oozing in his direction.
“Come on, Boy. I ain’t gonna hurt you.”
Zach pointed his eye at the man, whose girth consumed his chance of escape. Beyond the doorway, crisscrossing train tracks and gray field and blocks of houses waited.
Zach hunkered down.
“That’s it,” the man said through teeth. “Just stay right there.” He slid out the stick.
Zach’s hind legs pulsed.
The man stepped right and Zach shot off, tangling with the man’s stubby legs as he tried to thread the gap between them. The man twisted and fell, raking Zach’s collar, but the dog squirmed free. He zigzagged across the tracks and into a ditch that smelled delightfully of carnage.
“Damn it!” the man said.
Zach stretched out in a hard run over weedy mounds and windswept rubbish, over fields, and roadways, and past blocks of musty houses and on and on into day’s amber end.
Three weeks after being released from the hospital.
Pearl Fein burst into Rita’s bedroom and began her ritual-10AM ruckus of letting in light. Rita, in keeping with her ritual, growled the word, “MOM,” and buried her face in a polka-dotted pillow. At 62-years-old, Pearl was a powerhouse with a vacuum, and not above disturbing the wee hours of dedicated quiet in anyone’s home. She had moved in right after Rita’s release from the hospital, and threatened to stay until her daughter stopped feeling sorry for herself.
“Is this really necessary?” Rita asked.
“Of course it is, Bubbe. Those sheets won’t wash themselves.”
Rita scraped herself out from under the covers and drifted through a wide band of sunlight, to a dim corner on the other side of the room. She slumped into a rocker, ignoring the sweaty feet smell from the piles around it. Her defiantly baldheaded mother folded the quilt, hung it on the footboard, and snapped the sheets off the queen-sized mattress.
“I almost feel guilty watching you,” Rita said, whiffing her mother’s jasmine body lotion.
Pearl raised an eyebrow. Then she marched over, cutting through a yellow-white sunbeam, and shoved a pillow into her daughter’s hands.
Rita cradled it against her bosom and asked in a creaky whisper, “How’d you do it, Mom?”
“After Daddy died, how’d you start living again?”
“You just do.” Pearl shrugged. “You think you’re the only one with troubles, Ritale?” She leaned against the bed and patted her smooth scalp. “Whatever has happened, you have to get up every morning and make each day the best that you know how, because the alternative is nothing to bargain for.”
Pearl Fein, who had endured the death of one of her two children, and that of her true love, and most recently triumphed over cancer, came to her daughter’s side. She pressed her thin lips to Rita’s forehead and said in a deep, rusty voice, “Now get up and go do something, Bubbe.” Her scolding eyes shimmered with a breathtakingly warm feeling of love for Rita. Then the stoic woman abruptly bent, picked a heap of dirty clothes up off the floor and carried it across the room.
Rita clutched her pillow and wondered how she could have had the audacity to bargain for the alternative.
Zach’s nails scraped pavement again-and-again. He turned a corner and another after that, then took off down a long street, as children that smelled of sour milk and earthworms gawked, and men in crusty clothes slid out of dented trucks. The yellow glow of street lamps brightened above lines of parked cars, and a succession of screen doors clapped through the neighborhood. Zach felt the sting of things like mosquito bites and longing, yet would not succumb to any opposing force.
He raced onward.
The putter of what Zach had come to know as the man’s boxy truck sounded in the distance. He elevated his snout, localizing the diesel scent, then sharply turned in the opposite direction. He’d not seen the man since entering the housing tract, but Zach’s heart pounded with prey-like urgency. There were woods up ahead, dark, uninviting woods that would conceal Zach. He picked up his pace, stumbled over a bicycle, and bonked head first into a telephone pole. He scrambled and scurried past fenced yards and eggy trash bins, until the zip and snap of the stick whipped him on his side.
“Gotcha!” the man said.
And so he had.
Two weeks after Pearl’s wisdom
Rita watched Pearl step out of the Corolla, walk around and open the car door. She had been worrying about her mother for the past hour, but worrying bled into panic upon seeing what the woman had done. Rita, so unprepared for the moment, gnawed the inside of her cheek, and stood blocking the doorway. She held her breath, her heart thumping with an odd, heaving rhythm.
The Australian Shepherd mix tilted his head, pointing his golden-brown eye up at Rita. Rita cringed. His silky coat - black, brown, white and gray - was filthy and
matted. His nose bent right, so that his lower fangs protruded hideously and only a milky starburst remained where his left eye had been.
“Mom, what did you do?”
Zach’s ears fell back.
“A shelter in Syracuse called,” Pearl said, pushing past her daughter. She hung the keys back on the hook by the door.
Zach skulked through too.
Rita’s eyes welled up. “Why didn’t you wake me?”
“I thought this would make you happy.”
“Do I look happy?” Rita turned her head, not wanting to cry in front of her mother. “It was Jeff’s dog, Mom.”
“Doesn’t that make him yours too?”
“He was…” Rita put her hand to her mouth. She glanced over at Zach, who stood in a far corner of the room, tilting his head and regarding her with his only eye.
“I can’t,” she said, then ran to her bedroom and closed the door.
The jasmine scented bald woman stepped out of the Corolla, onto the crisp grass, and to the rear door. The backseat crackled and plucked under Zach’s dancing paws, as he panted and watched her through the window. The latch clunked. The door swung wide.
Zach flew across the brown lawn and onto the porch, and nudged the aloof barn cat that remained curled in its rocker. Then he stood at the front door, yelping and marching, and staring at the wood panel, until the door crept open.
Rita stood in the doorway punchy and frumpy, her face pinched in anger as she blocked the way in. A whiff of melancholy and ammonia came rushing outside. Zach sniffed and waited.
“Mom, what did you do?”
The bald woman pushed through.
Zach’s stomach panged. He gingerly maneuvered between door jam and Rita’s leg. Then moved quickly to the periphery of discord.
“I thought this would make you happy,” the bald woman said.
Zach tried to diminish.
“It was Jeff’s dog, Mom.”
“Doesn’t that make him yours too?”
Rita quivered and huffed and her puffy eyes pooled and she scurried away, down the heavy dark hall.
The Jasmine scented bald woman, who Rita called Mom, smiled at Zach.
“Listen Hintela. You and me are now in cahoots. You understand?”
Zach didn’t, but he liked Mom.
So, morning after morning Mom would go into Rita’s room and let in the light, and morning after morning Zach would stay by Rita’s bed and whine, and whine through the sequence of postures that Rita would display, each and every day. She’d cover her head, growl and open her eyes and look past Zach for a very long time. Then she’d roll out of bed and stomp through the hall, as Zach cocked his head, not knowing what to do.
Then, on a not-so-different kind of day, something unusual happened. Rita opened her eyes, and looked past Zach for a very long time, which was nothing new. So, Zach scooted closer, and looked back at her, as he had come to do, but on this day her eyes shifted towards him. So, he rested his head on her pillow. Her sour breath made him drool a little, but he felt something good in her crusty-eyed gaze. He took her in and let her take him in, until her eyes filled with tears, and she said, “I know, you loved him too.” Then she stroked Zach’s face.
One week later
Rita opened the front door.
Zach sat and looked up at her, expectantly.
“I thought you had to go out?”
Zach glanced at his leash, which hung from a hook. He wagged his tail.
Rita sighed. “You’re not gonna make this easy are you?”
Zach, with his Rooster Cogburn-style of visual regard glanced at the leash and back at Rita one more time. His snout bent left, making his lower teeth protrude. He appeared to be smiling.
Rita smiled too. Then she clipped the leash onto Zach’s collar. “Might as well,” she said, as Zach led her through the door.
About the Author;
Mimi Rosen is an early intervention teacher by trade - a job she loves -but her passion is writing. If she is not crawling around on the floor with her toddler students, she is sitting at her desk working on her current writing project. Her stories have appeared in: The Battered Suitcase, Halfway Down the Stairs, Rose and Thorn Journal, Bewildering Stories, Corner Club Press, and The Copperfield Review.
She is currently working on her first novel and is a member of Backspace Online Writer's Forum, from which this piece is a contest winner.