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It’s You I Adore

It’s You I Adore ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp 

In a row of two-story houses all very much alike, Cedric Choke lives in the house on the end with his mother. He is forty-two years old and has never bothered to get married. Every morning at seven-thirty he leaves the house to go to work and when he gets home at four in the afternoon, he doesn’t go out again. On weekends he takes his mother grocery shopping and to church service on Sunday morning. His nearest neighbors don’t know his name and have never even heard the sound of his voice.

Lynette Giles lives next door to Cedric Choke and his mother. She also lives with her mother. She is forty years old, or close to it, and has been married and divorced two times. After her second divorce, she moved “back home,” as the saying goes, “to get her life in order.” She and her mother get along fine together as long as they are careful about which topics they discuss.

Lynette  watches Cedric through binoculars out the upstairs window as he cuts the grass in his back yard. He wears a sleeveless undershirt, khaki pants and tennis shoes. She likes the play of his bicep as he pushes and then pulls the mower. On his face is a look of concentration. She likes the neat, straight rows of his cutting. A man who cuts that precisely and evenly must have a lot of good qualities. He would hang up his own clothes and rinse his own dishes and not leave it for somebody else.

He shuts off the mower and sits in a lawn chair and picks up a newspaper and opens it. He likes to read (she surmises) and is a man who wants to know what’s going on in his world. He’s not the kind who would lay on the couch in front of the TV all the time. His mother comes out of the house and brings him a bottle of beer. She is a troll-like woman, about seventy, with stooped shoulders and hair dyed an awful red that hangs down to her shoulders. He takes the beer from his mother without looking at her, takes a drink and holds the bottle between his thighs so his hands are free to turn the pages of the paper.

Cedric is so quiet Lynette hardly knows he’s there. In the year-and-a-half that she’s lived in the house next door to him, she has never heard him utter a single word. The only things she knows about him—and that isn’t much—is what she has seen with her own eyes. He cuts the grass and sweeps the glass clippings off the sidewalks. In the winter he shovels snow. As soon as he finishes these little outdoor jobs, he goes back into the house. Lynette has thought on occasion that she would go over and introduce herself, but somehow she just doesn’t have the nerve. Maybe he doesn’t speak, or maybe there’s something wrong with him, like mental retardation, and she would only embarrass him and herself, too.

When a letter is misdelivered to her mailbox, a letter that belongs to him, she sees it as her chance to engage him in conversation. She takes the letter and knocks on his door assertively, but he doesn’t answer—nobody answers, not even his troll-like mother—so she drops it through the mail slot in the door and leaves. She is certain he is at home since his car in the driveway and believes he might have come to the door if he had wanted to.

At night she lies in her upstairs bedroom and thinks about him and imagines him lying in his own bed in the room just across the yard from hers behind the heavily curtained window. When his light is off, she’s sure he must be asleep. He’s the type who would wear pajamas. His mother would take them out of the clothes dryer and fold them neatly and put them in his dresser drawer for him. He’d wear them for a few nights and then take them off and put them in the laundry and get out a clean pair.

One Saturday night she is watching TV with her mother when she hears a car stop out front and the honk of a horn. Too curious to remain sitting, she goes to the front window and pulls back the curtain a little and peeks out. The car is stopped at the curb in front of the house next door, his house. The car is idling, its taillights gleaming in the darkness. The horn honks again and in a minute Cedric comes running out of his house and gets into the car and it speeds off.

Where is he going on a Saturday night and who is he going with? With this question burning in her mind, she can no longer concentrate on TV. Here she sits with her mother, while she should be the one going out having a good time on Saturday night. She feels lonely and left out, maybe even a little jealous.

“Aren’t you feeling well?” her mother asks.

“I feel all right,” Lynette says. “It must be something I ate.”

“Want me to fix you an Alka-Seltzer?”

“No, I’m going to bed.”

“Don’t you want to watch the late movie? It’s Joan Crawford.”

Lying in her bed in the dark, she realizes she must be in love with Cedric Choke to feel so miserable just because she saw him leaving in a car with another person. Yes, she loves him. Absolutely she loves him, in ways she didn’t love either of her husbands. She believes he would feel the same way about her, if only given the chance. They are just so right for each other!

The next morning is Sunday. She sleeps late and when she wakes up she begins drinking vodka martinis instead of eating breakfast. While she’s enjoying the lightheaded feeling alcohol always gives her, she goes into the kitchen and sets about making oatmeal raisin cookies. While waiting for them to bake, she cleans herself up and puts on clean clothes and a little lipstick and rouge to make herself look more alive than dead.

When the cookies are done baking and have cooled long enough, she puts three dozen in a tin box in a nest of wax paper and closes the lid. After a couple more quick drinks, she makes her drunken way out the door with the tin of cookies and over to Cedric’s house and knocks on his door.

She is certain he’ll answer this time but it’s the mother. Well, never mind! She goes ahead with the words she had planned to say if he had answered the door.

“G-Good morning! I live next door. I just made some oatmeal raisin cookies. I have more than my mother and I can eat, so I wanted to know if you’d like to have some of them.”

“Who? What?” the old woman asks, squinting at her in the bright light.

“I’m your next-door-neighbor!”

“The what? What is it you’re selling?”

“I’m—I’m not selling anything. I’m giving you some freshly baked cookies I just made.”

“Why are you giving me cookies?”

“Just feeling neighborly, I guess.”

“Well, I can’t eat cookies. I have the diabetes.”

“Oh! Well, is your son at home? Maybe he’d like to have them.”

“You know my son?”

“No, I don’t know him. I’ve seen him around.”

The old woman takes the tin of cookies and looks at it curiously. “How much are they?” she asks.

“I’m not selling them,” Lynette says. “I’ve giving them to you.”

“I could give you a couple dollars.”

“No, that’s all right. I don’t want your money. Is your son at home?”

“You know my son?”

“We haven’t been properly introduced.”

“He’s busy right now and can’t come to the door.”

“He’s here, isn’t he?”

She peers around the old woman into the interior of the house. When she hears a man’s voice coming from another room, she pushes past the old woman.

“I want to see him!” she says.

“Wait a minute!” the old woman says. “You can’t just go…”

She continues toward the back of the house until she lurches into the kitchen. Cedric is sitting at the table. He stands up and looks at her, a startled expression on his face. He is wearing a green robe and his legs are bare.

“What is this?” he says.

Lynette runs to him, enfolds him in her arms and puts the side of her face against his chest. “I’ve wanted to meet you for so long!” she says.

“Who is this?” he asks his mother, standing in the doorway.

“I don’t know,” she says. “She said something about cookies. She’s crazy, if you ask me!”

“I’m not crazy,” Lynette says. “I haven’t eaten all day and I’ve had a little too much to drink is all.”

She wraps her arms around his head and kisses him passionately on the mouth. He tries to step back, takes hold of her wrists and pulls away from her grasp.

“Hey!” he says. “Stop that! What in the hell do you think you’re doing?”

With those stinging words, he gives her a look of contempt and goes out of the room.

“I didn’t think you knew him!” the mother says.

“I’ve made a complete fool of myself, haven’t I?”

“If you don’t get out of my house in about two seconds, I’m going to call the police!” the mother says.

“All right. I’m going.”

She takes a step toward the doorway and her legs buckle under her. On her hands and knees, she vomits violently all over the black-and-white tile floor.

“Now look what you’ve done!” the mother says. “Now I’ve got a mess to clean up!”

“I’ll clean it up for you.”

“No! I want you to go now!”

She starts to stand up and slides in her vomit. Her face hits the floor.

“I want you to know I don’t ordi-ordinarily behave in this manner,” she says shakily. “I haven’t quite been myself lately.”

The mother reaches down to help her to stand up, but she waves her away. As she is pulling herself to a standing position on her own power, she feels a wetness down her front and she realizes she has inflicted upon herself the ultimate indignity.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

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Blood of the Lamb

Blood of the Lamb ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

The funeral was on Saturday. Vincent spoke to no one for several days, but on Wednesday afternoon the telephone rang.

“Hello,” he said sleepily.

“Is that Vincent Spearman?” a deep voice asked.

“Yes,” Vincent said. “Who is this?”

“Vincent, this is Timothy Nestlerode. I’m the pastor at your mother’s church.”

“Yes?”

“I just wanted to call and see how you’re getting along since your mother’s funeral and to ask if there’s anything I might do for you.”

“I’m fine,” Vincent said. “I don’t need a thing.”

“It’s hard to lose a loved one, I know.”

“Yeah.”

“Your mother was a highly regarded member of our congregation. She will be sorely missed.”

“Thanks for calling.”

“Well, Vincent, I’m going to be in your area later this afternoon and I was wondering if I might drop in and have a few words with you.”

“What about?”

“I promise I’ll only take a few minutes of your time.”

“Well, I’m pretty busy today.”

“Would tomorrow be better?”

“No, we’d better get it over with today. I might be going out of town.”

“Fine! I’ll be there in about an hour.”

After he hung up the phone, Vincent brushed his teeth and put on his shoes and sat nervously in his mother’s wingback chair waiting for what’s-his-name to get there. He couldn’t think of any reason why this man who preached his mother’s funeral would want to talk to him. Whatever it was, it couldn’t be good. He would hurry it along as much as possible. Why did people always want to  bother him?

Thirty-eight minutes after the phone call, there was a loud knock at the front door. He opened the door as far as the chain would allow and peered out, seeing part of the big face of the reverend Timothy Nestlerode, Doctor of Divinity.

“Vincent?” the reverend Nestlerode shouted. “Is that you?”

Vincent undid the chain, opened the door all the way and allowed the big man to come into the house.

“My goodness!” the reverend Nestlerode said. “How are you?”

“I’m fine,” Vincent said.

“Might we sit?”

Vincent led the reverend Nestlerode into the living room and watched as he placed himself in the middle of the couch. Vincent himself sat in a chair across the room in front of the window and placed his ankle across his knee.

“What was it you wanted to talk to me about?” he asked.

“I want you to know that we offer grief counseling at the church,” the reverend Nestlerode said. “Open to the public and free of charge.”

“Grief counseling?”

“Yes, if you want to talk about your feelings of grief in a group setting.”

“Group?”

“Yes, people who are experiencing the same kind of loss as you are.”

“Oh.”

“The group meets twice a month, on alternating Fridays. I believe this coming Friday, day after tomorrow, is their night to meet.”

“Oh.”

“Please feel free to attend if you’re up to it. The meeting begins at seven o’clock.”

“I don’t really like meetings,” Vincent said. “I don’t have anything to say.”

“Well, I’m sure the group will put you at your ease. They’re very nice people.”

“Okay.

The reverend Nestlerode leaned forward and locked his fingers together contemplatively. “You mother spoke of you on several occasions,” he said.

“Why would she do that?” Vincent asked.

“She was worried about you.”

“Worried?

“You’re about forty, aren’t you?”

“What does my age have to do with it?”

“She was concerned that, after her passing, you’d be all alone.”

“Oh?”

“Isn’t that right? You have no other family?”

“I have some cousins living in Minnesota. Or maybe it’s Montana. I get those two mixed up.”

“But no family nearby.”

“That’s right.”

“You see, most men your age have a family of their own, a wife and children.”

“Uh-huh.”

“You made it all the way through high school?”

“Sure.”

“Don’t get me wrong, Vincent. I’m not trying to pry. I just wanted to let you know that we have many lovely single ladies in our congregation who would be happy to get to know you.”

“Why would they be happy to get to know me?”

“It would be so easy for you to meet them. All you have to do is come to our next social mixer. We have one for the middle-aged—widows and divorcees and people like that—and also one for younger adults—people in their twenties and thirties who may have made a poor choice the first time around and are looking for another chance.”

“Another chance to do what?”

“What I’m saying is it’s no good being alone, Vincent.”

“Not everybody is the same.”

“I’m sure that’s true, Vincent, but I hope you will at least think about what I’m saying.”

“Okay.”

“The message is this: you are not alone.”

“Got it.”

“What are your plans now that your mother is gone and you live in this big house all alone?”

“Plans?”

“Yes, what are you planning on doing now?”

“I’ll do what I’ve always done, I guess.”

“Are you able to take care of the housework on your own? The cooking and shopping and laundry?”

“Sure, I’ve done those things all my life.”

“I just want you to know that if you need help we have ladies in the church, volunteers, who will come in a morning or two a week a help out with laundry or household chores.”

“Ladies?”

“Yes, they’re older women, retired, with plenty of time on their hands. They like to help out bachelors and widowers. People like yourself.”

“Do they get paid by the hour?”

“They don’t get paid at all. They’re Christian ladies. They like to help out where help is needed.”

“Like Superman?”

“Well, not quite like Superman. Superman’s a fictional character. These are real people.”

“Okay.”

“So, shall I send someone out for you?”

“No, I don’t think so. I don’t really need any help like that.”

“Well, I’m happy that you are getting along so well,” the reverend Nestlerode said.

“Yeah, thanks for stopping by.”

“We’re having a special prayer meeting on Saturday evening for people like you.”

“People like me?”

“Yes, the theme is going to be ‘succor for the lonely’.”

“Sucker?”

“Yes, ‘succor for the lonely’. The meeting starts at seven o’clock. We’d be happy to have you join us. Dress is casual.”

“Okay.”

“So you’ll come then? To the prayer meeting on Saturday evening?”

“I don’t think so,” Vincent said. “I’m planning on being out of town on Saturday.”

“All right. Well, if you should happen to change your mind, please feel free to come anyway. I think you’ll find it very enjoyable.”

“Okay, but I won’t be there.”

“There are times in life where it’s a good to keep an open mind.”

“I know that.”

“You seem to be opposed to everything I’ve said.”

“Maybe I just don’t like your church.”

“I find that difficult to fathom with your mother being the devout church member she was.”

“She only got that way after she got old. She was afraid of dying and going to hell. When she was young, she was pretty wild.”

“Well, she was washed in the blood of the lamb. All her transgressions were forgiven.”

“Maybe so.”

“That’s the message: no matter what you’ve done, you have only to ask for forgiveness and forgiveness will be granted.”

“Just like that?”

“Just like that.”

“Was that all you wanted to talk to me about?”

“Just one more thing.”

“What’s that?”

“Your house?”

“My house?”

“Yes, your house has many rooms.”

“Fifteen,” Vincent said. “I used to go through and count them every day when I was little, as if the number might change.”

“Does a young man living alone really need fifteen rooms?” the reverend Nestlerode asked.

Vincent shrugged and wished the man would go away and leave him alone.

“This house would be ideal as a halfway house for young runaways or recovering drug addicts.”

“Halfway house?”

“Yes, a place for people to stay a few weeks or a few months while they’re trying to get their lives in order.”

“I wouldn’t want that in my house,” Vincent said.

The reverend Nestlerode threw his head back and laughed uproariously. “No, you don’t understand. You wouldn’t still live here.”

“Where would I live?”

“We’d acquire the property from you and in return we’d swap you for a smaller house, more suitable to your needs, or a nice apartment in town.”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“Well, it’s something to for you to think about, anyway.”

“Okay.”

The reverend Nestlerode stood up from the couch. “Well, I must be running along,” he said. “I have other calls to make. I’m so glad we had this little chat today and I hope I’ve given you something interesting to think about.”

Vincent also stood up. “Thanks for coming,” he said.

“Would you like to pray with me before I go?”

“No.”

“Well, here’s my card. If you ever want to call me for any reason, day or night, don’t hesitate to do so. And I hope you’ll think about coming to Sunday service or any of our activities during the week. I know it would have made your mother very happy for you to become active in the church.”

Vincent took the card and put it in his pocket. “You think you knew my mother but you didn’t,” he said. “She wasn’t what you think.”

“All right! Well, so great seeing you again!”

After the reverend Nestlerode was gone, Vincent triple-locked the door, turned out the lights and went upstairs. He went into his bedroom, locked the door and pulled the curtains closed.

In his dresser drawer he kept a small gun that fit snugly into the palm of his hand. He picked the gun up and looked closely at it as if seeing it for the first time. He hadn’t fired the gun in a long time but he knew it was loaded because it was always loaded.

He stood in front of the mirror and watched himself as he pointed the gun at the side of his head. Then he lowered the gun and inserted the barrel into his mouth. When he saw how silly he looked, he took the gun out of his mouth and turned from the mirror.

“Such a cliché,” he said.

Standing halfway between the bed and the dresser, his back to the mirror, he pointed the gun at his chest where his heart was beating and pulled the trigger. Feeling surprise more than pain, he fell to the floor on his back. When he looked down and saw the blood that was pouring out of him, he said, to anybody who might be listening: At last, I am washed in the blood of the lamb.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

I Already Hear the Calliope Music

I Already Hear the Calliope Music ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

“I hate my name,” Ruth Ellen said. “It sounds like a farm girl. I’m going to change it.”

Mother turned from the stove, spoon in hand. “Change it to what?” she asked.

“I haven’t decided yet. I’m thinking of either Viva or Lucky. Maybe Roxanne. Something with pizzazz.”

“There isn’t anything wrong with the name you have,” mother said. “We’ll stick with that for the time being. When you get out into the world on your own and are making your own living, you can call yourself whatever you want.”

“I can think of lots of good names for her,” Clive said, trailing the tines of his fork through the egg yolk on his plate.

“There’s a girl at school named Cha-Cha and another one named Jeepers,” Ruth Ellen said. “Those are names with pizzazz.”

“Surely those aren’t real names,” mother said. “Who would name a child Cha-Cha?”

“I’ve seen Cha-Cha,” Clive said. “She has a harelip and she’s in special education.”

“She is not!” Ruth Ellen said. “You couldn’t possibly know anything about her.”

“She wears a black leather jacket with a swastika on the back and she carries a switchblade in her purse. She was voted most likely to end up in the electric chair.” He held out his arms and shook all over to simulate being electrocuted.

“You don’t know what you’re talking about, as usual.”

“She belongs to an all-girl gang of juvenile delinquents. They shoplift and smoke dope.”

“If anybody ends up in the electric chair, it’ll be you,” Ruth Ellen said. “And I hope I’ll be there to see it.”

“I think that’s enough talk about electric chairs,” mother said.

“I was asked to join a gang,” Clive said. “I said I’d think about it.”

“Would that be a gang of ugly losers?” Ruth Ellen asked.

“I think I’ll join. It’ll add to my prestige.”

“What prestige?”

“Who asked you to join a gang?” mother asked.

“Just some boys at school. I don’t know their names.”

“He’s just making that up,” Ruth Ellen said. “Nobody would ever want him to join anything. If they wanted him, it would just be so they would have somebody to slap around. ”

“Everybody’s got to start somewhere.”

“As long as you’re living under my roof, you will not join a gang.” mother said. “That kind of talk makes it sound as if you weren’t brought up right.”

“I wasn’t!”

“This is what happens when children have to grow up without a father.”

“He’s only been gone six months,” Ruth Ellen said.

“I don’t know that we really needed him in the first place,” Clive said. “I don’t miss him at all.”

“That’s a terrible thing to say about your father,” mother said.

“Let’s face it. Even when he was here, he really wasn’t. Some people just aren’t cut out to be parents.”

“He went off and left us without a penny,” mother said. “We’d be destitute if it wasn’t for the money my mother left me.”

“Destitute is a relative term,” Clive said. “You’d say you were destitute if you had to buy a cheaper brand of face powder.”

“He knew he wasn’t really needed,” Ruth Ellen said. “That made it easy for him to leave. When his business failed, he had no reason to stay.”

“Other men would think their family was reason enough to stay,” mother said.

“Well, I guess he wasn’t one of those,” Ruth Ellen said.

“He always wanted more than anything to be a clown.”

“You mean like in a circus?”

“Yes. He was always fascinated by clowns. He dreamed of chucking everything and going off and joining the circus and becoming a famous clown.”

“I can easily picture him as a clown,” Clive said.

“Every day I expect to hear from him,” mother said.

“To give us some money?” Ruth Ellen asked.

“No, to ask me for a divorce so he can become a clown without any encumbrances.”

“Are you going to give him a divorce?”

“I don’t think I will. I believe that when you marry, it’s for life. Marriage isn’t something you shrug off whenever you feel like it.”

“That’s so old-fashioned,” Ruth Ellen said.

“You may call it whatever you like. It’s just the way I am. Marriage is an eternal bond.”

“Maybe he’ll want to marry somebody else,” Clive said. “A lady clown.”

“As long as he’s married to me, he won’t marry anybody else unless he wants to go to jail for bigamy.”

“I don’t see him doing that,” Ruth Ellen said.

“What if you died?” Clive asked. “He could marry somebody else then, couldn’t he?”

“When I was eight years old,” mother said, “my parents divorced.”

“Oh, no!” Clive said. “I knew it was coming!”

“My father committed suicide a few years later and my mother was married many times. Can you imagine how confusing it is for a child to have one stepfather after another? After a while, you can’t keep them straight anymore.”

Ruth Ellen made snoring sounds but mother ignored her.

“My brother left home at an early age and ended up a drunkard, in trouble all the time, in and out of prison. I’ll always believe he had a wasted life because he was from a broken home.”

“How is Uncle Stanley these days?” Clive asked.

“My sister ran off with a married man who abandoned her in a cheap hotel room in a faraway city. She called and begged us to send her money so she could come home. She was broken and humiliated. She was never the same after that. Because of all this chaos in our lives, I swore that if I ever got married it would be one time and one time only. The last thing I want is to be like my mother.”

“She left you money, though,” Clive said.

“I’m going to make sure we all stay together as a family. Even if your father is far away and we never see him, there’s an invisible bond connecting the four of us together as a unit. The only thing that will break that unit is death.”

She went down to the basement to put a load of clothes in the washer, leaving Ruth Ellen and Clive alone in the kitchen.

“She gets crazier all the time,” Ruth Ellen said.

“I know something you don’t know,” Clive said.

“I doubt that.”

“No, really, I do. I. Know. Something. You. Don’t. Know.”

“Are you going to force me to make you tell me what it is?”

“I got a letter yesterday. In the mail.”

“Who from?”

“Who have we been talking about, dumbbell?”

“What did he say?”

“He sent me ten dollars and he said he hoped we’re all well.”

“Is that all he said?”

“No. He’s been to clown school. Graduated with top honors and he’s joined the circus.”

“As a clown?”

“He said it’s what he’s always wanted and he’s never been happier.”

“Why didn’t you tell mother?”

“I was waiting to surprise her.”

“I don’t think she’ll see it as a happy surprise.”

“The circus is coming to town this week. He sent me three tickets for the matinee on Saturday. One for me, one for mother and one for you.”

“Do you want to go?”

“Of course I want to go,” Clive said. “I wouldn’t miss it for anything.”

“Does the circus have a freak show?”

“I don’t know. He didn’t say.”

“Do you think mother will go?”

“We’ll have to persuade her,” Clive said. “He wants us to come backstage after the performance.”

“Do you think he’ll ask mother if he can come back home and pick up where he left off?”

“He doesn’t want to come back home. He wants a clown divorce. He says a clown has no business being married.”

“I suppose he should know.”

“I’m excited about seeing him perform as a clown in the circus,” Clive said. “I think mother will be excited about it too.”

“It might just be the thing that finishes her off,” Ruth Ellen said. “The ultimate indignity: Her husband ran off and left her—not for another woman—but to join the circus and become a clown.”

“You don’t think she’ll take it well?”

“She’ll make it into the most tragic event of her life. Everything else that’s ever happened to her will pale in comparison.”

“Are you going to tell her or shall I?”

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

Night Train

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Night Train ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

(Published in a slightly different form in Bartleby-Snopes.) 

Martin Haythorne disliked riding trains at night. They moved too slow and made too many stops. At one of the stops a woman boarded the train carrying a sleeping child. Martin was facing the door and as he saw her coming toward him, he hoped she wouldn’t sit in the seat facing him, but she did. He uncrossed his legs and sighed and pulled himself up straighter, thinking it’s going to be a long night.

The woman fussed with getting the child fixed just right in her lap and, after she was settled in the seat across from him, she looked searchingly at Martin until he looked back and gave her a wan smile.

“It’s so crowded tonight,” she said.

He could see all the way down to the other end of the coach and it was more than half empty.

“I think traveling at night is so lonely,” she said. “I like to find somebody I can talk to. It helps to pass the time.”

He looked away and picked up and began reading a newspaper that somebody had left behind, but that didn’t deter the woman.

“This is my little girl,” she said, looking down at the child draped across her lap. “She’s three. Her name is Ivette. She always gets sick to her stomach on a train, so before we left home I gave her a little pill to make her got to sleep. She doesn’t have any idea she’s on the train just now. Don’t you think that was the smart thing for me to do?”

He shook his head and looked at the child, who barely seemed to be breathing. She was tiny and pale, with scraggly blond hair and a throbbing blue vein in her temple. She was wearing a cowboy shirt with a horse embroidered on the yoke, blue jeans and cowboy boots.

“What about you?” the woman asked him. “You have any children?”

“Not me,” Martin said. “I don’t have time.”

“I always thought I would have three or four children, but Ivette is my only one so far. I guess there’s always a chance for more.”

Martin looked longingly at the empty seats, wanting to move but not wanting to appear overly rude. Instead he picked up the newspaper again, turned the pages and, not finding anything of interest, began studying a sofa ad.

“You’re probably wondering where my husband is,” the woman said. “You’re probably asking yourself  why I’m traveling at night by myself with a small child.”

“You need a book or a magazine,” Martin said. “Reading is what really helps to pass the time at night.”

“Oh, I don’t read much and, anyway, reading on a moving train would only make me sick to my stomach.”

He kept looking at the sofa ad with feigned interest, wondering how he might make the woman stop talking. After a while he refolded the paper and set it on the seat beside him. Remembering the pack of cigarettes he had in his pocket, he took one out, lit it and blew out a big cloud of smoke. That would surely make the woman want to take the child and move to a different seat.

She didn’t seem to notice. She moved the child off her lap onto the seat beside her until the child’s head was resting against her thigh and the cowboy books were sticking out in the aisle.

“Aren’t children just the most precious things?” she said. “God’s greatest gift.” She smoothed the child’s hair back from its face.

“Look,” he said, “if you don’t mind, it’s late and I would really like to just sit quietly. When I’m riding on a train at night, I like to just sit and think about things.”

“Oh, no!” she said. “I don’t want to bother you. Just pretend as if I wasn’t even here.”

He leaned his head back, turned his face toward the window and closed his eyes. He could go to sleep if only he was alone.

“You know,” the woman said, “when I’m riding on a train I love to watch the scenery, but at night all you can see is the darkness, unless you pass through a little town where there are lights. The towns always seem kind of lonely and sad, somehow, at night, don’t you think?”

He reopened his eyes and sighed. He was ready to move now to another seat, no matter how rude it seemed. When he started to stand up he saw the woman was crying.

She saw he was looking at her and said, “Oh, don’t mind me! I try not to cry in public but sometimes I just can’t help it.”

She took a handkerchief out of her purse and wiped her eyes.

“Are you sick or something?” he asked. “Do you need to get off the train?”

“No. Why would I want to get off the train all the way out here?”

“I just thought…”

“Look, would you mind getting me a cup of water? I need to take some pills.”

He went to the men’s restroom and filled a tiny, cone-shaped paper cup with water at the wash basin and took it back to her.

“Thanks,” she said. “I sometimes get hysterical, but I have these little pills that help.”

“Look, I’ll move to another seat and you can put your baby here and I’ll just get out of your way.”

“Oh, no, no, no! I want you to stay with me!”

“But I thought…”

“No, I feel better if you’re here.”

He looked at his watch, calculating how much longer the trip would take, and sat back down. The woman put the handkerchief over her face and let loose with a torrent of sobs, causing a throbbing in his head. A crying woman always brought unwelcome associations; his mother used to cry for no reason at all.

When he saw the conductor standing at the front of the car, he stood up and approached him. “I’d like to move to another car,” he said. “There’s a woman who keeps saying things.”

“What kind of things?” the conductor asked. “Indecent things?”

“Oh, no, nothing like that.”

“Well, what is she saying?”

“She’s just bothering me. I want to rest.”

“Well, you can’t move to another car because this is the only car carrying passengers tonight.”

“I see.”

“Why don’t you just move to another seat?”

“I think she would move, too.”

“Well, tell her to stop annoying you. Tell her to shut up. Sometimes that’s what it takes.”

“I will. Thanks.”

He went back to his seat and sat back down. If only he could sleep the rest of the way, blot everything out, he’d feel much better. The time would go by so fast that before he knew it the trip would be over. He wasn’t going to let the woman bother him anymore.

He tried closing his eyes again, leaning his head against the window and folding his arms across his chest. He could feel himself starting to drift off when another train passed by going in the other direction, letting  off a shrill blast.

The blond-haired girl woke up and began screaming. The woman picked her up and set her across her lap.

“My goodness!” she said. “That frightened little baby, didn’t it? Bad old train woke little girl up!”

She jiggled her up and down, but the girl kept screaming. After a while, the screams tapered away to subdued sobbing. “We make quite a pair, don’t we?” the woman said with a laugh. “I don’t know what they’re going to do with us, I swear I don’t!”

When the girl continued crying, the woman took a candy bar out of her purse, unwrapped it and gave it to her. She instantly settled down, making little cooing noises as she ate the candy, looking at the ceiling.

“Sometimes with children things are so simple,” the woman said.

“Look,” he said, “I’ve tried to be patient with you, but you don’t seem to be getting the message. I want to just sit quietly and not be bothered and not talk! Is that so hard to understand?”

“We’ve just been so upset because my husband ran off and left us.”

“I can’t say I blame him.”

“Of course, Ivette is too young to understand, but children know things instinctively.”

“Okay, I’m going to move to another seat now.”

“I wish you wouldn’t. I like talking to you.”

“Well, I don’t like talking to you!”

“He has a kind of recurring amnesia, my husband does. He’s fine for a while and then he has these spells come over him where he forgets things. He forgets he has a wife and a child, and he goes away on the train or the bus, and I have to go get him and bring him back home. He seems to have it in his head that he’s escaping from something.”

“I think I know what he’s escaping.”

“The doctor believes he has a kind of a growth thing on the brain that makes him act the way he does. If we could just get him to agree to have an operation, that might make him just as normal as anybody.”

“Maybe he doesn’t want to be normal.”

“Of course he does. Everybody wants to be normal and live a normal life.”

I don’t!”

“I love my husband very much and little Ivette loves him too, and I believe that in his own peculiar way he loves us just as much. I’ll go to the ends of the earth to bring him back home as many times as it takes.”

“You don’t seem to be getting the message, lady, so I’ll put it to you in very plain language: I don’t care about your troubles and I don’t want to hear about them!

He stood up, picked up his coat, hat and suitcase and moved all the way to the front of the car next to the window. He was so relieved to get away from the woman and the little girl that he felt close to tears and his hands were shaking. He put his suitcase on the seat beside him so she wouldn’t get it into her head to come and sit there.

Sleep at last came to him and he awoke to the sounds of the train pulling into the station. The sun was just coming up. The interminable night was over.

He got off the train as quickly as he could to avoid another encounter, but he didn’t see the woman and the little girl again. He took a cab to the hotel, checked into his room, changed his clothes and went downstairs in the elevator.

The hotel restaurant was crowded, but he didn’t mind it because he got a little table at a remove from the others. After placing his order for breakfast, he lit a cigarette and closed his eyes, feeling pleasantly fatigued. He was looking forward to a day of solitude and relaxation—visiting a museum or two and possibly seeing a movie, and then returning to his hotel room for a nap before dinner.

While eating his ham and eggs, he noticed a woman come into the restaurant. He wouldn’t have noticed her at all if she hadn’t been carrying a small, blond-haired child. She sat down facing him at a table about thirty feet away. She held the child on her lap for a while and then pulled a chair up close on her right side and set the child on the chair.

The woman looked closely at him and when he looked back she smiled at him and he saw then that it was the woman from the train, although she looked much different, dressed in finer clothes and wearing a hat. She reached over and said something to the child and then she pointed her finger at him to indicate to the child that he was there. He wanted to move around to the other side of the table facing away from her, but he knew it was no use. There would be no getting away from her.

I’ve seen her before, he thought, and not just on the train. I’ve seen her many times in many places. I forget about her, and then I see her again, in the least-expected places at the least-expected times. She is everything to me that I abhor in the world, everything I hate and fear, and she will not relent until she has overpowered me and forced me to her will.

He closed his eyes and wished the woman and the blond-haired child gone. He would kill them if he had to, to save himself. He’d buy a small gun that he could conceal easily in his pocket and lure them away from the hotel and kill them. Nobody would ever know, as long as he planned things out carefully. Yes, he could kill a child because this child wasn’t just any child—it was her child.

When he opened his eyes again, the woman and child, to his great relief, were gone. He finished his breakfast, paid for it, and went up to his room on the tenth floor of the hotel and locked himself in. He didn’t want to be disturbed.

The room was quiet and cool. The faraway sounds of the traffic on the street below were comforting. He kicked off his shoes and lay on the bed and put his arm over his eyes.

He fell into a deep sleep, losing track of the passage of time. He woke to the sound of a faint stirring, as of someone in the room with him. He opened his eyes and when he saw the woman from the train standing beside the bed, he jerked himself to a sitting position.

“What the…what the hell is this?” he said, not sure of what he was seeing.

“We’re here,” she said. “We’re both here.”

She touched the head of the blond child standing beside her and then reached down and picked her up in her arms. The child, seeing him lying on the bed, stuck her finger in her mouth and then pointed it at him and leaned far over toward him from her mother’s arms.

“She certainly has missed her daddy!” the woman said.

She placed the child on the bed beside him in a sitting position. It was the same cowboy shirt with a horse embroidered on the yoke, the same blue jeans and cowboy boots.

“Who is this?” he said to the woman.

The child looked at him knowingly. She had the same face, the same upturned nose, the same washed-out blue eyes. When she opened her dribbling mouth and smiled at him, he could see her tiny, animal-like teeth. He was sure he had never seen a more despicable child. He wanted nothing more than to put his hands around her throat and strangle the life out of her and then do the same to the mother.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

The Passionate Orphan

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The Passionate Orphan ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Miss Wagstaff belched quietly into her handkerchief; the Swiss steak she had for lunch didn’t quite agree with her. With the handkerchief over her mouth, she looked out over the thirty-two living souls that were in her care until five minutes to the hour. They were all fifteen years old and most of them she’d gladly strangle if she could. She didn’t understand children of that age and she was so old she couldn’t quite remember ever being that young.

Since it was Friday afternoon and everybody was waiting for the final bell that would unleash them on the world, this group of ninth graders was engaged in “silent reading.” Everybody must know that silent reading was serious business. You couldn’t write or giggle or daydream or think about what you were going to do when you got home or work on your algebra problems (it wasn’t study hall) or pass notes or whisper or gaze out the window or thumb through a magazine. You had to read a “good” book, preferably one from the reading list or one that Miss Wagstaff herself had approved. You had to put the fifty-five minutes to good use, reading every word on every page, and absorbing what you read as if you would be tested on it.

Halfway through the hour, Miss Wagstaff launched a surprise attack, suddenly standing up from her desk and walking the aisles between the desks, down one aisle and up another. If anybody was doing anything they weren’t supposed to be doing—reading a comic book or concealing a paperback of some kind behind a library book—she would catch them before they had a chance to hide it.

Wardell Freiholtz was an odd boy from an odd family. He was a quiet, aloof boy, dreamy in a way. He seemed to always be in a world of his own making. His clothes, though clean, were always too big for him and looked as if they had been handed down to him by an older person. He didn’t have a father; his mother worked as a prison matron to support herself and her three children, of which Wardell was the oldest.

Wardell was sitting in the row of chairs against the wall. Miss Wagstaff came upon him from behind, from the left, and her eyes fell upon the book he was reading, an oversized paperback with a pink cover.

“What is that you’re reading?” she asked.

He closed the book so she could see the front cover. The title of the book was The Passionate Orphan.

“Where did you get that book?”

He shrugged his shoulders and looked innocent.

“May I see it?” she asked.

He handed her the book and she flipped through the pages and read several passages, standing there in the aisle between desks.

“You’re reading this book?” she asked.

“Yeah,” Wardell said.

“It’s ‘yes, ma’am’.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“How far along are you in the book?”

“Almost to the end.”

“Do you know what this book is about?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

What is it about?”

By now everybody in class was looking at Wardell, listening to every word.

“I’d rather not say,” Wardell said.

“Don’t you know that this book is not appropriate reading material for ninth grade English?”

He shook his head and looked down.

“Who gave you this book?”

“I don’t remember.”

“You don’t know where you got it?”

“No.”

“Did you steal it?”

“No.”

“Did a grown man give it to you? Maybe a friend of your mother’s?”

“No. Nobody gave it to me.”

“A boy in high school didn’t give it to you?”

“No.”

“Do you know the meaning of the word ‘pornography’?”

“No.”

“Well, that’s what this book is. It’s pornography and if an older person gave it to you, a boy in high school, or a person out of school, that’s a crime. It’s called ‘contributing to the delinquency of a minor’. Do you know what I’m saying?”

“No.”

“We’re not getting anywhere, are we?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Well, we’ll go downstairs and have a little talk with Mr. Gribble. See if he can make any sense out of this.”

She put the class in charge of Maris Holland, a notorious snitch. The corners of her mouth twitching, she directed with her forefinger that Wardell Freiholtz was to stand up and proceed her out the door of the classroom and down the three flights of stairs to the principal’s office.

Principal Gribble was talking to his wife on the phone, so Miss Wagstaff and Wardell had to stand and wait for about five minutes until he was free. When at last they were ushered into the carpeted, wood-paneled office, Mr. Gribble took one look at Wardell and asked, “Has this boy been misbehaving in your classroom, Miss Wagstaff?”

“Well, you decide for yourself!” Miss Wagstaff said with satisfaction.

She handed the book to Mr. Gribble and he sat down at his desk and examined it, front and back.

“And just what is this?” he asked.

“Well, just take a look at the title and open the book and read a few sentences randomly and I think you’ll see right away what it is.”

The Passionate Orphan,” he read slowly, as if the words for difficult to him.

He opened the book and turned several pages, looking dumbfounded.

“It’s pornography!” Miss Wagstaff said helpfully.

“But it has no pictures!” he said.

“The pornography is in the words!”

“Oh, dear me!” he said. “Yes. Yes. Yes, I see what you mean. Where did you get this book, young man?”

“I don’t remember,” Wardell said.

“Did somebody give it to you?”

“No.”

“You can tell me the truth. Where did you get it? Did you buy it at a secondhand bookshop?”

“No.”

“Do you know what this book is about? Do you understand it?”

“Yes, I understand it.”

“Don’t you know that this is not an appropriate book to have at school where others might see it?”

“I didn’t think about it. I’ve been carrying it around with me all week and nobody noticed it until today.”

“Does your mother know you have this book in your possession?”

“I don’t think so. She never comes into my room except to clean.”

“I’m going to have to call her.”

“I’d rather you didn’t.”

“It’s important for you to know that we don’t allow books like this in our school.”

“I didn’t know there was anything wrong with it.”

“Do you have any other books of this nature?”

“No.”

“If a book like this—pornography, I mean—should come into your hands again, throw it away, but, more importantly, don’t bring it with you to school.”

“Okay.”

“Okay what?”

“I won’t bring it to school.”

“I’ll let you off this time, but if you bring another book of this nature to school, you’re in for a three-day suspension. A three-day suspension can affect your scholastic standing for the entire school year. Do you understand me?”

“Yes, sir.”

“So, go to the school library and check out The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway. It’s a good book but, more to the point, it’s an appropriate book.”

“Yes, sir.”

“It’s on the reading list,” Miss Wagstaff said.

“You may go now. First to the library to pick up The Old Man and the Sea and then back to class.”

Wardell Freiholtz stood up from the chair he had been sitting in and scratched his head. “Can I have my book back? Please?”

“I think I’ll keep it for now,” Mr. Gribble said. “I want to take a closer look.”

After Wardell left the office, Miss Wagstaff clucked her tongue at Mr. Gribble. “I’m afraid that’s not enough,” she said. “I think a more severe punishment was in order.”

“Well, he’s a fairly good student,” Mr. Gribble said. “I don’t want to be too hard on him. He’s never been in any kind of trouble before.”

“Too lenient,” she said.

“I think the matter has been settled to our satisfaction.”

She huffed her way back up the stairs to her classroom. She burst through the door to catch everybody unawares and was gratified to see that Wardell Freiholtz had The Old Man and the Sea propped up in front of him on his desk and appeared to be absorbed in it.

As for Mr. Gribble, he began reading The Passionate Orphan in the privacy of his study as soon as he got home. It stirred something in him that he thought was nearly dead. At bedtime, his mousey, middle-aged wife was surprised by his ardor.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

Time Enough for Champagne

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Time Enough for Champagne ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

The Saturday after Thanksgiving was a cold night in Boston but people were out celebrating anyway. Everybody was happy. Soldiers were on furlough, showing off their uniforms, flirting and dancing with the girls. Who would ever think the evening would turn out the way it did?

The tables were close together without much elbow room but nobody seemed to mind. A girl in a white evening gown with a big lipsticked smile and a camera passed among the tables and booths offering to take pictures. Only one dollar, please, payable in advance. Oh, well. What’s a dollar? You only live once.

Lorraine told Michael to order a bottle of champagne. The waiter brought it to the table in a bucket of ice, just like in the movies. He opened the bottle and filled the glasses, but when he started to fill Rosalie’s glass she smiled at him sadly and shook her head. “I’m only seventeen,” she said.

The picture girl stopped at the table and was going to take a picture of all three of them but Lorraine stopped her. “Just the two of us!” she said, moving closer to Michael and gripping his hand in hers and smiling her brightest smile.

Michael paid the dollar and wrote down his address so the picture could be mailed to him.

“This is so much fun!” Lorraine gushed. “I always wanted to come here!”

Michael smiled at Rosalie. “I hope you don’t mind the Coke,” he said.

“Oh, no!” Rosalie said. “I don’t want to get anybody in trouble.”

“There’ll be plenty of time for champagne later, when you’re older.”

“Sure.”

Michael and Lorrain stood up and went out to the dance floor. The orchestra had just finished Moonglow and melded deftly into Imagination. Rosalie knew from the way Lorraine moved that she liked having people look at her. Her dress was expensive and lovely, a filmy sort of pale yellow, the perfect complement to her auburn hair and rosy skin. She might have been a movie star.

Rosalie felt a little self-conscious sitting at the table by herself, but when she looked around and saw that nobody was paying any attention to her, she took a deep breath and relaxed. She hated the black dress she was wearing but believed it was no worse than what a lot of the other girls were wearing. Not everybody can look like a movie star.

The number ended and Michael and Lorraine came back to the table, but before she sat down again Lorraine made Michael admire her ankle bracelet with her name engraved on it, for the third time already that night. Michael had given it to her as a gift on Thanksgiving night and she couldn’t stop admiring it. “Oh, it’s just the sweetest little thing I’ve ever seen!” she gushed.

Michael looked flushed and overheated. He was uncomfortable in crowds and didn’t like dancing, but he was a good sport usually willing to go along with whatever the crowd wanted. He offered to dance with Rosalie, but she declined. “I’m afraid I’m a horror on the dance floor,” she said.

The waiter brought another Coke for Rosalie and it was time to order dinner. Lorraine wanted roast beef and Michael a steak and Rosalie fried chicken. When the waiter went away with the order, Lorraine regarded Rosalie across the table.

“Thank goodness one of us inherited mother’s fashion sense,” she said. “That dress is unbelievably dowdy.”

“I know,” Rosalie said. “I hate it.”

“Then why did you wear it?”

“It’s the only thing I have that’s appropriate for a place like this.”

“I think she looks very nice,” Michael said.

“You think everybody looks nice, and compared to you, they do.”

“I’m wearing a new suit.”

“Yes, and it looks just exactly like your old one. It looks like something your father would wear.”

“Most of the men not in uniform are wearing dark suits,” Rosalie said.

“People are probably looking at Michael and wondering why he’s not in uniform.”

“You can’t say I didn’t try,” Michael said.

“Oh, yes, it was a tiny heart murmur, wasn’t it, dear, that kept you out of the service?”

“You know it was.”

“Did you pay the doctor to say you had a heart murmur so you wouldn’t have to go off to the bad old army and leave your poor little Lorraine behind?”

“Yeah, that’s it. You guessed my little secret.”

“I would so have liked to have gone stepping out on the arm of dashing war hero.”

“Why don’t you see if Robert Taylor is available?”

“I would marry Robert Taylor in an instant. All he has to do is ask me.”

“I think he’s already married to Barbara Stanwyck,” Rosalie said.

“Well, we’ll just have to get rid of little Barbara then, won’t we?”

“You’re forgetting one thing,” Michael said.

“What’s that?”

“You’re married to me.”

“Oh, yeah. That keeps slipping my mind.”

Michael lit a cigarette and blew smoke toward Lorraine, knowing she hated it.

“Put that cigarette out and let’s dance again,” she said.

“I don’t want to dance anymore. My feet hurt.”

Rosalie, seeing that Michael and Lorraine were headed for one of their fights, sought a change of subject by saying, “This is the first time I’ve ever been in a nightclub. It’s very exciting.”

“The first of many for you, I hope,” Michael said, lifting his glass and taking a big gulp of the champagne.

“Don’t drink too much of that stuff, dear,” Lorraine said. “You have to get us home safely, you know.”

“Yes, sir, captain, sir!”

The waiter brought the dinner and they began eating. The fried chicken was the best Rosalie had ever tasted. Lorraine picked around the corners of her plate and didn’t seem interested in eating.

“I’d hoped we could have a little talk tonight,” Lorraine said to Rosalie. “Just the two of us.”

“What about?”

“Well, now that mother’s dead and I’m paying all the bills, I see there’s not as much money as I thought. I’m afraid we’re going to have to economize.”

“What do you mean?”

“We’re going to have to sell the house.”

“Sell the house! But why?”

“I just told you why. It’s too expensive to keep up and, besides, you can’t go on living there by yourself.”

“Why not?”

“You’re a minor.”

“So what?”

“You’re going to have to move in with Michael and me.”

“But I don’t want to move in with Michael and you.”

“Well, I’m your legal guardian now and I’m making all the decisions until you’re of age.”

“Are you sure this is the time and place for this kind of a discussion?” Michael asked.

“Stay out of this, Michael! It’s none of your business!”

“But what about school?” Rosalie asked, on the point of tears. “I can’t keep going to Cleary High if I live with you and Michael. It’s twenty miles away!”

“You can transfer. There’s a lovely new school less than a mile from where we live.”

“I’m in my last year of high school. I’ll graduate in six months. I don’t want to transfer now.”

“Mother always let you have your way about everything.”

“What’s that go to do with anything?”

“She overindulged you because you were sickly as a baby and she thought you were going to die. You were her menopause baby. You were never supposed to happen. Well, mother’s not here anymore and I’m telling you that things are going to be different from now on.”

“I think that’s quite enough of that kind of talk,” Michael said. “We’re supposed to be having a good time.”

“Well, I had to tell her these things some time. I didn’t want her to go on thinking she could continue to live in mother’s big house by herself.”

“I’m afraid you’ve just spoiled the evening.”

“Doesn’t the house belong to me now?” Rosalie asked.

“It belongs to both of us.”

“I’ll get a job and pay the expenses on the big house until after graduation.”

“And what would you do?”

“I don’t know.”

“What exactly are your job skills?”

“I can read and write.”

“Who’s going to hire a dowdy seventeen-year-old girl with bad skin and unmanageable hair?”

“I’ll babysit.”

“Yes, for a dollar an hour. I’m afraid that won’t do much good, when it comes to paying the heat bill and the electric bill, insurance and property taxes.”

“I can get a job as a waitress.”

“Nobody would hire you.”

“Don’t worry about it now,” Michael said to Rosalie. “We’ll think of something later.”

“I thought I told you to mind your own business, Michael,” Lorraine said. “When it comes right down to it, this isn’t any of your business at all.”

“Yes, I’m sure you’re right,” he said. “You always are.”

Rosalie was crying now. Her dinner was ruined. She pushed the plate away. She couldn’t eat another bite.

“I hope you’re proud of yourself, Lorraine,” Michael said. “Couldn’t this have waited until a more appropriate time?”

Lorraine stood up and threw down her napkin. “I’m going to the ladies’ room,” she said. She left the table and began making her way through the crowd. It was the last time Michael and Rosalie would ever see her alive.

A few minutes after Lorraine left, there was a scream on the far side of the room and then another scream louder than the first. The people drinking and eating stood up. The dancers stopped dancing. The orchestra stopped playing. Everybody turned toward where the screams had come from.

“Fire!” somebody yelled. “Fire! Fire! Fire!”

For a few seconds there was absolute silence and stillness and then people began moving wildly, unthinkingly. Some were turning around in circles, looking for a way out, not knowing what to do or which way to go.

Michael grabbed Rosalie by the wrist. “We’ve got to find Lorraine!” he screamed into her ear.

They began moving with the crowd. They were pushed from behind so consequently pushed those in front.

“Everybody calm down!” somebody yelled. “Just make for the fire exits!”

The lights went out. The far wall, fifty feet away, was illuminated by an eerie orange glow. The fire was making its way up the stairs from another part of the club. The crowd became a stampede. Those knocked to the floor never had a  chance to stand up again.

Some of the fire exits were chained shut and wouldn’t open. People pushed helplessly against them but weren’t able to make them move. When they saw it was hopeless in one place, they moved on to the next one.

Michael held on to Rosalie’s wrist. The two of them managed to remain standing, pushed along helplessly by the crowd. Soon a door was opened in front of them, miraculously, like a gate into heaven, and they found themselves outside in the freezing air.

They stood there, dazed and gasping for air. There were about twenty other people who had made their way out with them. Most of the women were crying and screaming. The men stood helplessly, stunned into silence. Finally a man from the fire department came along and told them they would have to move as far away from the building as they could.

Other groups came out in other places, three or twelve or twenty or sometimes more at a time. They were all herded around to the other side of the building, away from the smoke and flames. Michael ran frantically from group to group, searching for any sign of Lorraine.

The next few hours were a hellish dream, punctuated by sirens, screams, billowing smoke, walls of flame, confusion, firetrucks, ambulances, men running back and forth. How could such a terrible thing be allowed to happen?

Casualties were heavy. Firefighters began bringing bodies out and laying them side by side on the street or on the sidewalk, until a temporary morgue could be set up. Police kept onlookers back until the proper time for identification.

Every time Michael went away and came back again to the spot where he had left Rosalie standing on the street corner, she asked him if he had spotted Lorraine yet, but she already knew by this time it was hopeless.

Six hours after the fire broke out, Michael found Lorraine’s body in a row of bodies on the sidewalk. Her face was covered, but he knew it was her by the ankle bracelet with her name engraved on it and by the yellow dress. He started to pick her up but a policeman stopped him.

“She’s my wife,” he said. “I have to take her home.”

“You have to leave her here for now until positive identification can be made,” the policeman said.

He wrote down Michael’s name and address, along with Lorraine’s name, and put a tag around her wrist with a number on it, indicating that she had been identified by a family member.

Hundreds of people attended Lorraine’s funeral, many of them curiosity seekers. They wanted to see the body but the casket was kept closed. Michael knew it’s what Lorraine would have wanted.

More than eight-hundred-thousand dollars came to Michael as Lorraine’s husband. He arranged with his lawyers for Rosalie to get half of everything, since the money came from her family, and, since she had no family left, he became her guardian and let her remain in her mother’s big house as long as she wanted. He brought her groceries a couple times a week and took care of paying all the bills. As for Lorraine, he hardly ever mentioned her name again.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp   

Time That is No Time

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Time That is No Time ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Leatrice awoke and found herself in a strange place. It wasn’t morning and she wasn’t in her familiar room, in the bed where she had slept for the twelve years of her life. All around her was darkness, allowing her to see only a short distance in front of her; she was afraid of what the darkness might be concealing. “Hello! “Hello!” she called out for someone to help her but no one answered.

Finally someone approached her, an old woman. Leatrice had never seen the old woman before but she was somehow familiar.

“Where am I?” she asked. “Who are you? I want my mother!”

The old woman made a shushing motion with her hands. “Not so loud, child! You’ll wake the others.”

“What others?”

She noticed then that the old woman carried a glow inside her chest that allowed one to see inside her to her ribs and veins. The glow made the room a little brighter by about one candle’s worth. “What is that?” Leatrice asked in alarm. “Why are you glowing?”

“You’re glowing too,” the old woman said.

When she looked down she saw it was so. “All right, what is this? Am I dreaming?”

“In a way you are.”

“In what way? Am I asleep?”

“Asleep, yes, but not in the way you’re used to.”

“Can you please tell me where I am?”

“First things first. Tell me your full name.”

“Leatrice Geneva Fitch.”

“And in what year were you born?”

“Nineteen hundred.”

“What year is it now?”

“Nineteen-twelve.”

“That makes you twelve years old.”

“Yes.”

“You will always be twelve years old now. The year, for you, will always be nineteen-twelve.”

“What are you talking about?”

“My dear, haven’t you figured it out yet?”

“Figured what out?”

“You’ve made the transition that we all must make.”

“What transition? What is this place?”

“You have passed from one realm of existence to another, from the physical to the spiritual realm.”

“Are you saying I’m dead?”

“My dear, that word doesn’t mean anything here.”

“Well, am I?”

“If that’s the way you way you want to put it, then, yes, you are. Dead.”

Leatrice let out a breath, mostly to reassure herself that she could still breathe and said, matter-0f-factly, “I don’t like this place. I want to go home.”

“This is your home now.”

“What happened, anyway?” she asked, fighting back tears. “I don’t remember being sick.”

“You weren’t sick. It was very sudden. You got in the way of the streetcar downtown. The conductor rang his bell, but for some reason you didn’t get out of the way.”

“Funny thing, I don’t remember.”

“No, we never do.”

“And who are you, if I may be so bold? You look something like my mother.”

“I’m your mother’s grandmother, your great-grandmother. I’ve been here since long before you were born.”

“Here? Where?

“The family crypt.”

“What?”

“Yes, you’re in the family crypt, in the cemetery, surrounded by all those who went before.”

“Oh, no! That can’t it be!”

“Why can’t it be?”

“I’ve seen the family crypt and I don’t like it.”

“You’ve only seen it from the outside.”

“Yes, and it’s scary. It seems to me that, once you’re on the inside, you’ll never get out again.”

“Well, now you’re on the inside so you’ll know firsthand, won’t you?”

Leatrice let loose with the tears she had been trying to restrain. “I don’t like this place and I want to go home! Where are my mother and father? I want to see them.”

“Where do you think they are? They’re still alive. They’re where they’ve always been.”

“Will I ever see them again?”

“More than likely you will, but who can say for sure?”

“But I have cats. What will happen to my cats now that I’m no longer at home to take care of them?”

“Your brother will take care of them. They’re his cats now.”

“Will they come here to me when they die?”

“You’ll find out in time,” great-grandmother said.

There was a lapse then, a darkness, as of a veil being drawn. When this nothingness ended (and who knows how long it might have lasted because in this place there is no time?) great-grandmother was leading Leatrice by the hand, inviting her to meet the “others.”

Cousins Parry and Lomax, twins, were ten at the time they came to the family crypt. (They went over a waterfall in a rowboat and drowned on a summer’s day.) They looked at Leatrice with curiosity. She knew from their manner that they were shy of her and didn’t know what to say.

Great-grandfather was tall and broad, wearing a dress suit, with the elaborate mustache and side whiskers fashionable at the time of his passing. (He was the one who built the family crypt so he could have his family all together in one place.) He smiled at Leatrice and patted her on the head and then he was gone.

Uncle Evan, great-grandfather’s son, was handsome in his military uniform. He entered the spirit realm in Cuba when a bullet struck him in the neck during the Spanish-American War. He smiled at Leatrice and winked and touched her on the shoulder.

Aunt Ursula was a tall, thin woman with a sad face. She carried her three-month old son, George, in her arms. George entered the spirit world over thirty years before aunt Ursula. Since Aunt Ursula arrived, she had held baby George in her arms and refused to part with him. They would be together forever and forever.

And then there was aunt Zel, great-grandfather’s sister. She was a formidable woman, coiffed and bejeweled. By her side always was her husband, Little Otis. (People called him Little Otis to distinguish him from his father, Big Otis.) He was eight inches shorter than aunt Zel, with one arm missing. (He lost his arm not on the field of battle but from the bite of a skunk.)

Uncle Jordan was dressed in an expensive dress suit, with diamond stickpin and silk cravat. He kissed Leatrice on each cheek and then he was gone. He avoided being around the other family members for very long because they were contemptuous of him. In life, he had enjoyed himself a little too much, spent more money than he had a right to spend and died, deeply in debt, in young middle age of alcoholism.

Cousin Phillip’s appendix burst when he was only thirty-two. Immediately after he entered the spirit world, his young wife married a man she hardly knew named Milt Clausen. Odette was not in the family crypt and never would be. Cousin Phillip had renounced all women, bitter than his lovely young Odette had not honored his memory by staying a widow.

Cousin Gilbert was sixteen when he entered the spirit world as the result of a crushed larynx that he sustained in an impromptu game of keep-it-away with some of his friends. Leatrice immediately saw cousin Gilbert as a kindred spirit. The glow in his chest was a little brighter than anybody else’s. When he touched her hand, she felt a kind of connection with him that she hadn’t felt with any of the others.

“How do you like being a ghost?” he asked her.

She shook her head and looked down, again on the point of tears.

“I was the same way when I first came here,” he said. “I couldn’t believe that God would have me die so young. We learn not to ask why we’re here but just to accept it.”

She nodded her head to show him she understood and he leaned in to her and whispered in her ear, “I can show you around if you’d like.”

There were other introductions but the truth was that Leatrice wasn’t paying much attention after cousin Gilbert. He gave her a glimmer of hope, somehow; not that she could go home but that she might find death and the family crypt more to her liking.

The dark nothingness came upon her then and she and all the others slept peaceably for a piece of time in the place where time no longer existed but peace was in ample supply.

When next she saw cousin Gilbert, she was delighted to learn that she might leave the family crypt at will. He showed her how to press herself against the outer wall. Since the wall was solid and she was not, she could pass through it with the right amount of concentration, a trick of the will.

The cemetery was much larger than Leatrice imagined. Gilbert took her to visit some of his spirit friends: a twenty-seven-year-old policeman in uniform; a Civil War soldier who had exchanged words with Abraham Lincoln; a victim of the Johnstown Flood (“the water came roaring down the mountain and swept away everything in its path”); a governor of the state who one day hoped to be president but never was; a group of twenty girls who died in an orphanage fire (all buried in the same grave); a twelve-year-old boy named Jesse who stood just outside his vault until another spirit came along and engaged him in conversation.

“He’s lonely and seeks companionship,” Gilbert explained.

On one of their forays outside the crypt, they came upon a funeral on a hillside that resembled an aggregation of crows because all the attendees were dressed in black.

“This is the fun part,” Gilbert said.

He walked among the mourners, pretending to kiss or touch or put his arm around certain of them. He also demonstrated the technique of coming up quickly behind them and making the more sensitive of them turn around to see who—or what—was there.

“They sense I’m there but when they turn around they’re not so sure.”

He made her laugh when he floated over a couple of old ladies in large feathered hats and, assuming a reclining position over them, pretended to pat them on the sides of their heads.

“I, for one, love being a ghost!” he said.

“Can I fly, too?” Leatrice asked.

“We don’t really fly like a duck going south for the winter. What we do is float. We float because we’re lighter than air.”

“Can I try it?” Leatrice asked.

“If you want to do it, you can.”

He demonstrated his floating technique and they spent the afternoon floating all over the cemetery.

“Maybe there are some good things about being a spirit,” Leatrice said.

“Of course there are!” Gilbert said cheerily.

“No more head colds. No more stomach aches. No more trips to the doctor. No more nightmares, math quizzes, boring church sermons, liver and onions or squash.”

Gilbert laughed, but then Leatrice started thinking about all the good things she had left behind, such as her cats and her beautiful room at home, and she started to cry.

“I think it’s time to go back,” Gilbert said.

Leatrice began venturing outside the family crypt often, either with Gilbert or on her own. And then, on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in October, she saw them.

She recognized father’s automobile that he was so proud of, and then she saw who was riding inside: father, mother and her brother Reginald. She floated after the car—it wasn’t going very fast—and attached herself to the back of it.

Leatrice held on until father pulled the automobile into the driveway of the old house. She was happy to see that everything looked exactly the same. The first thing she did was to go around back and check on her kittens. They were all there and seemed healthy and happy, halfway on their way to being grown. She cried when she saw they recognized her. She longed to pick them up and nuzzle them against her face and hear their sweet purring.

Her room upstairs was the same. Everything was just as she left it, the books and pencils on her desk, the dolls and stuffed animals on the bed and the chair, the pictures on the wall, the lamp, the rocking chair, the clothes hanging neatly in the closet. Mother hadn’t changed a thing.

While mother, father and Reginald were having dinner in the dining room, Leatrice walked around the table, stopping and putting her hands on the back of each chair, experiencing the odd sensation of being in the same room with those closest to her in life and their not knowing it.

It felt good to be home, but she knew things could never be the same again. She could only observe life going on around her and not be a part of it. But still, wasn’t it better than nothing?

Since she dwelt in the spirit world, time, of course, didn’t exist. All time was the same. A minute was the same as an hour, a day the same as a year. In the time that was no time, her brother grew up, got a job in another state and left home. Mother and father grew old and frail. At ninety-one years, father died in his own bed and mother was left alone.

On winter evenings, while mother sat and read or knitted, or sometimes played the piano, Leatrice was nearby.

“I’m here, mother!” she said. “Don’t you see me? I want you to know you’re not alone!”

At times she was certain mother knew she was there but at other times she wasn’t so sure.

In the time that was no time, mother also died. The house was sold and all the furniture moved out. Another family took up residence, four children, two dogs and no cats.

She couldn’t stay in a house that was no longer hers, even if she was just a spirit, so she went back to the family crypt. Since time didn’t exist in the spirit world, cousin Gilbert and great-grandmother and the others didn’t realize she had been gone, although, in the world of the living it would have been decades.

There were additions to the family crypt, of course, in all that time that was no time. Mother and father were there with their own glows and they had a surprise for her: her cats were there, too—all the cats she had ever owned. Nothing else could have made her happier. She experienced a feeling of completeness, then, of going full circle and ending up back where she had always meant to be. Happy in life and now happy in death. She could never want anything more.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp