Fiction: Conchita

By Lazarus Trubman

The signs of the accident were still visible on this often-abandoned little street, with old slump-block houses and dilapidated mobile homes on both sides and well-used tires scattered everywhere unconsciously. Beyond the cracked sidewalk and the telephone pole with layers of flyers in a rainbow of colors, and the patch of dry brown grass, there stood a ten-foot high concrete block wall, caked with dozens of coats of paint. There was a small shrine at the foot of it, with burnt out candles and dead flowers and a few soggy teddy bears. One word of graffiti filled the wall, red letters on a gold background: Rejoice!

“Conchita Moreno? Name’s Ben De Luca. I’m your defense counselor provided by the state, which means that you don’t need to pay me and still get pretty darn good representation,” said a tall, slightly overweight man of thirty. “Let’s begin with a general question so to speak: how have you been treated so far?”

Conchita glanced at the man from under her dark, thinly trimmed eyebrows: he was the only one who walked into her cell knocking first. Prematurely balding, with a face shaved to a light radiance, he expressed nothing but unhidden curiosity. She decided to keep it short:

“Like a fucking princess.”

“Glad to hear that,” said Ben, opening her file to the first page and making sure that the guard was still outside the open door. “The charges against you and your boyfriend are heavy and not easily defensible, but I’ll try my best. Murder, for starters, attempt to escape the scene of the accident, some property damage. Your boyfriend, by the way, would’ve been in even deeper shit, so to speak, because he was driving under the heaviest influence of alcohol… Is he your boyfriend or husband? And let me forestall your obvious question: it makes a huge difference – from my point of view so to speak.”

His constant repetition of ‘so to speak’ bothered Conchita a bit, but not to a point where she would ignore him completely. Her lower lip was broken, she was all bruised, and the one on the left side of her neck hurt like hell!

“He’s my husband,” she whispered. “If a marriage in Las Vegas is considered legitimate.”

“It is, as a matter of fact!” said Ben. “I, myself, once drove to Las Vegas with a young woman. Was in love up to my ears so to speak, but it was meant not to happen: while I was getting a bite of food and some coffee inside the gas station, she was making out with a trucker of all people, and in his truck of all places! God was obviously watching over me,” he paused before asking, “Would it be safe to assume that your marriage happened about two years ago?”

“More like three months – we got married right after my baby Gabriela was born,” said Conchita, trying desperately to recall what had happened at that deserted part of town three days ago, but her memory only saved bits and pieces, which she couldn’t put together as a whole picture. She wasn’t driving – that she remembered very clearly. Danny was. The baby was in the car seat facing the rear of the van and surrounded by boxes filled with clothes, magazines and some kitchen utensils, which she deemed necessary in their address-less living.

“So, you had a baby out of wedlock so to speak?” asked Ben taking now a much closer look at his client. She was obviously a city girl, had a kind of a body that stops men of all ages in their tracks, and a face worth considering. City or not, Ben thought inopportunely, she was very attractive, which made him somewhat uncomfortable; ridiculously attractive.

“We did so to speak,” said Conchita with a fleeting smile on her face. “He was a great lover, you know; could keep me sleepless all night long. Once, and that’s when I got pregnant because we ran out of condoms, he kept pounding me way beyond breakfast time!”

“He’s still alive,” said Ben, hopelessly drowning in her dark shiny eyes. “Your husband so to speak… Not caught yet, but undoubtedly hurt, so his days of running are practically numbered,” he wanted to look away, but couldn’t, as though rooted to the ground by a poisonous rattlesnake somewhere in the desert. “You’re probably annoyed listening to all of this, understandably annoyed, but the sooner…”

“Alive?” Conchita interrupted unceremoniously. “This can’t be:  I saw him hitting the windshield so hard that it cracked like a fucking egg! This just can’t be!” she repeated in a suddenly angry voice, but there and then regained her casual, “tell it to someone who gives a shit” appearance and measured him from tip to toe. “I see what you’re trying to do here, Mr. Free Defense! You just want me to confess to something I haven’t done, so you can mark it as your solved case…”

Ben couldn’t take it any longer.

“He escaped, Conchita! By the time police got to the scene of the accident, he was gone!” he unlatched his suitcase and got out a pen and a few sheets of white paper. “Here, just write down the truth, nothing but the plain, unvarnished truth. And please remember: there is no one in the whole world to help you but me.”

“And what would you like in return, my pussy?” asked Conchita, invitingly spreading her legs. “Here it is, baby, sweet as raw honey, but I am warning you: you better be good or you’ll never get it again, you hear?” she closed and spread her legs a few times in a row and laughed. “Oh, my god, you blushed! That really turns me on!”

For a moment there, Ben felt at a loss, but took himself in hand and said, barely keeping his eyes away from Conchita’s legs:

“I understand you perfectly, just don’t make it difficult for me to do my job, because, as impossible and crazy as it seems to you, you might still be charged with murder of your own child, and from that perspective…”

“I don’t remember,” Conchita interrupted again, her legs now shut for good. “All I see is the smashed windshield and all I hear is my baby’s endless cry and my own fucking screaming!”

“OK, then,” said Ben latching firmly the lock of his suitcase. “I’ll be leaving now, and you just keep on trying: your memory is young and hopefully still uncluttered so to speak. I’ll make sure that lunch is delivered to your cell promptly, so nothing will interrupt your thinking. See you soon.”

Her appointed defense counselor seemed a thoroughly decent fellow, thought Conchita as soon as the door closed with a familiar click, probably from a well-to-do family, clean, groomed and unmarried. He seemed just, no doubt, desperately just, just out of an almost inborn conviction that justice exists, even in such a fucked-up place like the United States of America. She actually liked him; he wasn’t the lying kind, which she couldn’t say about any other man who ever appeared in her life before. His hopeless attempts to keep away from her legs made her smile…

“Your lunch, ma’am,” a guard interrupted Conchita’s thinking. “Rice, chicken and three pieces of bread – as suggested by your defense counselor,” he unloaded the tray and left.   

Ben Cooper’s suggestion that she might need three pieces of bread made her smile again. She ate a little, listening to humdrum noises outside of her cell. At the same time, she thought, he probably knew a great deal about the law, so she should really try to recall as many details of the accident as she possibly could…

“How’s the food, ma’am?”

The guard appeared in the door opening much sooner than she expected. He was a tall, skinny guy, with a sharp Adam’s apple, and what was on his mind was written on his face in bald capital letters. “I’ll be glad to arrange more – I love it when a woman eats well…”

“Shut your fucking mouth!” said Conchita leaning back against the wall and spreading her legs as wide apart as possible. “You’re talking too much!”

The guard shut the door and made it to the bed in two long steps, but that was as far as he went: her stretched out foot plunged into his groin, he bent in two and fell on the floor writhing with pain. She hit the same spot again, which rendered him unconscious, unhooked the bunch of keys off his belt, and left the cell locking the door from the outside. Her escape had been discovered an hour later, too late for a successful hunt.

A month passed.

As he was getting a file ready for his next hearing, Ben looked out the window, where the same boring view of the Arizona desert hadn’t changed in centuries, and thought again about Conchita. Where was she now? All attempts to find her failed miserably, as if she vanished into thin air. The case was assigned to Detective Jose Martinez, his high school buddy. Jose promised to keep him informed as to how the case was progressing.

Ben’s phone rang: unknown caller.

“Ben De Luca,” he answered having suddenly a bad presentiment.

“Howdy, Ben De Luca, miss me yet?” asked Conchita in a low sexy voice. “Sorry for leaving you without saying good-bye.”

“They’ll catch you, Conchita, they always do,” said Ben glancing at the door. “And this time you’d need a big shot defense attorney, because I’ll be way out of your league…”

“You’ll always be in my league, counselor,” Conchita interrupted. “We’re bound for life, honey!”

“What do you mean, we? You’re a fugitive from justice, a criminal, for God’s sake!”

“OK, then my pussy and your dick: my pussy is not a criminal, is she?”

“Oh, come on, Conchita, be serious, tell me where you are – and I’ll pick you up…” Ben couldn’t finish - his other line beeped: Jose! “What will it be, huh?” he asked, but she wasn’t there any longer. He switched to Jose.

“What’s so urgent, you located my client?”

“Not exactly,” said Jose, “but I checked again the scene of the accident, and there is a small shrine now at the foot of the concrete block wall with burnt out candles, dead flowers and a few soggy teddy bears…oh, and there is one word of graffiti written in red letters on a gold background: Rejoice!”

“And you’re thinking that Conchita has something to do with it? She’s smarter than that…”

“I’ve no doubts she is, but she’s also a mother who lost her only child, and she’s fucking pissed!”

“She won’t come, Jose, it’s too risky.”

“Well, risky or not, but I asked my thirteen-year-old niece Hannah, who lives nor far from the shrine, to text me if she sees anything suspicious – just in case…”

“You’re risking your niece’s life?”

“She’s there anyway, man, and Conchita will never suspect anything!”

“This conversation never happened!” Ben was really beside himself.

“I’ll call you if the broad shows up,” promised Jose and was gone.

Three days later an automobile pulled up and parked beside the concrete wall. The driver opened the door, but did not get out of the car. Although her face was in shadow, it was easy to tell that she was sad. There was something about how she turned away from the sun and rested the weight of her hands on the steering wheel, something about her silent composure that caused Hannah to sigh. She watched the driver lean out of the car and stretch her hand towards one of the burned-out candles.

Making sure that she is not seen in the rear-view mirror, Hannah began hurriedly texting Jose, keeping an eye on the still parked car: “There’s a woman in the car next to the wall!” “Did she get out?” “No, she just sits there.” “You did great, honey! Text me if she leaves” “I will, Uncle Jose.” “And if she leaves, I would need to know in which direction, OK?”

As soon as Hannah turned off her phone, the car door opened, and the woman, wearing black shorts, black t-shirt and a black hat, got out, glanced around suspiciously and placed a brand-new teddy bear on top of the soggy ones. Then she crossed herself twice and raised her hands up in the sky. Hannah wanted to see her face, and because she couldn’t bear such uncertainty, she moved across the street in order to have a better view. It was the saddest face she ever saw! She couldn’t see the tears, but the expression on the woman’s face told Hannah that she was crying. Suddenly the woman looked up, and their eyes met. Hannah wanted to run, but couldn’t take her eyes away from the woman’s tear-stained face.

“Drive away, ma’am!” she yelled. “Drive away!”

Within moments, the woman jumped in the car and took off in the direction of the airport, filling the street with light-brown desert dust.  

Jose braked next to his niece about ten minutes later, asked without getting out of his truck: “How long ago?”

“Not that long,” said Hannah, “maybe ten minutes.”

“Which direction?”

“Downtown…she was crying, Uncle Jose.”

“She probably feels guilty,” said Jose texting his partner at the same time. “Her daughter was killed in an accident that happened here a month ago, and she might know something about the accident.”

“So, you won’t harm her, right?”

“Of course, I won’t, honey! Go home now, I’ll talk to you soon.”

Driving away from the shrine, Jose dialed Ben’s number and said without a greeting: “She came. Dropped a new teddy bear and took off.”

“Did your niece…”

“She did, but I was a few minutes late.”

“How’s your niece doing?” asked Ben. “It was quite stressful for her, wasn’t it?”

“It was, and she did great actually: pointed us in the right direction.”

“Are you following her as we speak?”

“Collins is: he might’ve even gotten her by now,” Jose paused, thought about saying something about Ben’s stubborn belief in Conchita’s smartness, but let it go.  

The rest of the day Ben wasn’t himself. Thoughts, one scarier than the next, kept coming and going away. Then Michelle called. They haven’t seen each other for more than a week, which had never happened before.

“What’s going on, baby?” she asked, obviously pissed. “You don’t call, you don’t text? And please spare me the fucking “I had a very busy week” crap! It’s gotten suddenly very old, you know…”

“But I did have a busy week, Michelle…”

“Oh, and we haven’t fucked since last century!”

“I’ll make it up to you…”

“How about right now? Dinner at “Tony’s” and we fuck afterwards.”

“I need to take a quick shower and change,” said Ben: there wasn’t really an escape plan in the offing. “7:30?”

“7:30 it is, and you better be ready to perform, Benjamin!”  

All the way to “Tony’s”, an Italian establishment frequented by professionals and business people, Ben couldn’t stop thinking about Conchita, her carelessness in particular: what was she doing at the shrine in the middle of the day? But there and then interrupted himself: who is he really to judge her? It’s been weeks now since he abandoned any attempts to figure out the reason for her escape. After familiarizing himself with the case, he became certain that she wasn’t at fault, and the hand of the law wouldn’t descent upon her shoulder: at least he felt that he would be able to defend her successfully.

The place was a buzzing bee-hive, but Michelle always had a table reserved for them: one of Tony’s cousins married her sister.  

“I’ve taken the liberty of ordering your favorite bourbon,” she said. “A double actually.”

Ben thanked her.

“Tony told me that the veal tonight is out of this world, so I ordered for both of us.”

“Veal’s great,” Ben agreed and was about to try his bourbon when his phone rang. He knew who that was without looking at the screen.

“It’s work, believe me,” he said intercepting Michelle’s questionable gaze. “I’ll take it outside,” and before she said another word, answered the line, “I hope it’s urgent, Jose!”

“You’re probably dying to know why I disabled your fucking guard, aren’t you?” asked Conchita. “

“To escape – why else?”

“That, too, but mainly because he would’ve raped me, simply raped me and walked away unpunished!”

“So, it was a spontaneous decision?”

“To defend myself? You bet it was!”

“And you ran away because the law would’ve been on his side regardless?”

“No, because I rendered your pervert unconscious, and yes, because your fucking law sucks!”

“It does actually, but it’s better than no law at all,” While talking, Ben kept glancing at the front door; then asked, “Who built the shrine?”

“A couple of Mexicans I went to high school with.”

“Call me tomorrow, if you can: I’m not comfortable talking to you right now.”

Back at the table, Ben apologized in a sincere tone of voice:

“It was Jose Martinez: he’s helping me with one of my clients…”

“The veal just arrived,” interrupted Michelle, ignoring his apology. “Some Parmesan cheese on your pasta?”

“Yes, please,” said Ben after a sip of bourbon, then his phone rang again.

“Ignore it,” said Michelle, “or I’ll break her legs!”

Good luck with that, Ben wanted to say, but an entirely different phrase came out of his mouth: “It’s Jose again, look!”

“Five minutes – or I walk!” warned Michelle.

“Has anything exciting happened that prompted you to dial my number?” asked Ben, glad actually that it wasn’t Conchita again.

“Nah, just a quick question: have you talked to Conchita recently?”

“I wish…”

“I want you to text me as soon as she calls again or I’ll make sure you never try another case in your life!” Jose interrupted and disconnected the line.

“How’s the famous detective?” asked Michelle. “Still single and cooking for himself?”

“Both.”

“Such a good-looking guy?”

“I asked him once and he said, “As soon I find someone who cooks like my mother, she looks like my father!”

She laughed shortly, and they ate in silence.

“I’ve changed my mind,” said Michelle after the veal was consumed and the waiter refilled their glasses. “No fucking tonight: you seem too preoccupied, but tomorrow I’m cooking an early dinner at my place just for the two of us…”

“Early is good…”

“And you won’t get home by Sunday night – take my word for it,” she stood up and walked away, nodding to someone at the adjacent table.

Thanks to bourbon, Ben fell asleep fast and slept through the night, keeping his cellphone on the empty side of his bed. What was he hoping for? They more or less agreed that Conchita won’t call him until tomorrow, but her actions so far were completely unexplainable and, yes, spontaneous. She hadn’t though. He slept in, cooked himself an omelet and had a Bloody Mary. Felt strange and somewhat uneasy, didn’t know why. Close to midday he thought about taking a drive to the lake and feed a couple of dinner rolls to the swans, but the screen of his phone lit up.

“Where you glad to hear my voice yesterday, Ben De Luca?” asked Conchita in an unusually quiet voice. “I sure was.”

“More than you know,” said Ben. “Your timing was a bit off though.”

“What was that again? Sorry, but the reception over here sucks.”

“And where is that, if I may ask?”

“You may of course: in your backyard.”

Ben looked at the glassy back door - and there she stood, wearing black shorts, black t-shirt and a black cap. He hadn’t moved. The desire to unlock the back door fought a bloody war with the irrepressible one to dial Jose’s number, and Jose lost. As soon as Conchita walked in, she locked her hands around his neck.

“Are you sure the neighbors didn’t see you?” asked Ben, his lips suddenly dry as desert.

Conchita kept looking into his eyes, with her hands up now, and moments later, all clothes, destroyed by kissing, became ridiculous, a lie made of cotton and silk, which suddenly wasn’t so easy to take off, although to do so was demanded by the decorum of passion.

“I don’t give a fuck about your neighbors!” she said while Ben, engaged apparently casually in operations that betrayed his knowledge of ladies’ underwear and yet would have come to nothing without her mocking aid, thought to himself in sober solitude that he knew it would be completely different from the way it always was. He was excited, very in fact. A neighbor’s dog barked in front of his house, then the sun broke through the window and lit up the ceiling, and the ceiling lit up the living-room, as he, naked and unashamed, felt her unfamiliar body; with her eyes now closed, she read his smile with her fingers from his unfamiliar lips. Not to know one another to a degree that went beyond all possibility of knowing one another was beautiful!

It was almost four in the afternoon, when Conchita said, stroking the hair on his chest:

“I must go now, counselor, have unfinished business to attend to.”

“And what would that be?” asked Ben, still a bit short of breathing.

“A necessary one,” she kissed his eyes and his chin. “I’ll be as invisible as a ghost, I promise.”

“Any business of yours might take you away from me forever.”

“It might, counselor, but that’s the risk I’m willing to take,” she stood up and began putting her clothes back on, glancing at him with a soft smile, turning around for the last time before locking the three buttons of her light-brown bra.

“Why don’t you wait until it gets dark?” Ben tried for the last time. “I might even drive you…” he couldn’t finish: she pressed her lips against his and left through the back door, and he couldn’t stop her.       

Feeling suddenly sleepy, Ben made himself a cup of coffee. After his second cup he was awake, as though he had slept, and not tired at all. What he was sure about: their lovemaking, the words they said to one another, will never be forgotten. Even though she was gone, he didn’t feel alone. Her hand was still on his chest, his legs interlaced with hers. As if she never left. He recalled suddenly how Conchita admitted when they let one another go for a short while: “Not bad for a white boy.” “I’m a fourth generation Italian, ma’am,” he replied. “And that’s a fact.” “It is, huh?” “Don’t speak much Italian unfortunately…” “As long as you fuck me like that, I don’t need you to speak much of any language, baby,” she interrupted. He couldn’t tell that he was in love, but seemed unsure that he wasn’t.

He spent the evening watching some basketball, ignoring Michelle’s persistent calls. She was out of his life not knowing that yet. The game was over, he sat on the couch with his eyes closed, imagining Conchita’s smiley face and her unbelievably soft body; their sex, every moment of it, every touch. She could’ve been asleep now, he thought, and sleep is the most distant country there is; he didn’t think this, but felt: as long as she was asleep, she wasn’t in danger.  

It was almost ten o’clock, when he decided to go out for a drink, afraid suddenly to fall asleep himself; while he was awake, everything was still present, in front of his eyes. He didn’t need to drive his car: the night bar was within walking distance from his house. It was still pretty busy. He occupied a chair at the end of the counter, ordered a whiskey and looked around: casual people, truckers, taxi drivers, workmen; a few retirees. One of the truckers kept spitting on the scratched tiled floor, which hadn’t been cleaned for a while. Suddenly he felt like having a cigarette and asked a workman next to him for one and the matches, and was given one, but instead of matches, all that was held out to him, in a cracked oily fist, was a lighter, a little flame for this first cigarette in a long time that he decided to have in this dimly lit bar, nothing else. He thanked the back of the man’s head.  

The only face in this bar that watched him from time to time was his own in the mirror behind bottles, a round face without glasses and a slightly bald head. He didn’t know what there was about it that appealed to women. Only the two bright-blue eyes – they were looking out of the mirror as though they were really there in the mirror – were such that he recognized himself in them. His phone was silent, and he prayed that Conchita was really asleep and out of danger.

He left the bar close to midnight.

Awakened at eight o’clock as usual on Sunday, Ben checked his phone for messages and missed calls: none. Feeling somewhat disappointed, he had his first cup of coffee glancing at the front page of the newspaper. Half an hour later, as he was already into yesterday’s NBA scores, his phone rang.

“I found him, honey,” said Conchita, “and the motherfucker is practically unscratched!”

That’s what Ben was afraid of.

“Please, Conchita, listen to me,” he said, feeling suddenly more responsible for this practically unknown woman than he ever felt for anyone else in his life. “Don’t do anything we both might regret later. Let the authorities handle your husband, and I’ll make sure…”

“You were so sweet yesterday, counselor,” Conchita interrupted softly. “The sweetest man I’ve ever had, and I’ve had a few…”

“And you were the sweetest woman I’ve ever had, but please don’t interrupt me…”

“I must go now, Benny…can I call you Benny? I love the sound of it.”

“Yes, yes, just tell me where the motherfucker is, and I’ll have Detective Martinez and his partner there in a heartbeat! Aside from being a detective…”

“May I say something, Benny?”

“Yes!”

“My husband must be punished, and I’ll make sure that he is punished. After that, he can be judged by a jury and defended by a lawyer…”

“He’ll be put away for a long time, Conchita: I’m a lawyer, you should trust me…”

“Wait for my call, Benny…no matter how long it might take! And remember: we’re bound for life.”

Conchita clicked the phone off and glanced at the second floor of the “Motel 6” on the southwest side of town. She rented a room here almost two years ago, when she had just met Danny. She knew he’d be here. She also remembered now the accident, how it happened, and how it could’ve been avoided. She saw the truck, she warned him; he saw the truck, but didn’t brake – he had the right of way. It was even possible that he stepped on the gas, to show he was sure. She couldn’t remember that anymore. She screamed as soon as she knew that it was too late to change anything…

His room was the last one on the second floor. She unlocked the door using a couple of thin hair clips, walked in and stopped: Danny lay across the bed in his underwear, sound asleep. She looked around: empty cans of Coors all over the floor, a half-eaten ham and cheese sandwich, already dry. Her first inclination was to hit him in his sleep, but she really wanted to see his eyes before two pairs of scissors pierce them with ease.

“Wake up, motherfucker!” she said standing next to the bed.

“Conchita?” exclaimed Danny rubbing his eyes as if this was a dream. “You’re alive, baby!”

“I am,” said Conchita, keeping her hands behind her back. “But Gabriela is dead thanks to you!”

“I know, baby…”

“Why didn’t you save her, Danny? You had a chance. All you had to do was listen to me…”

“I screwed up, OK? It all happened so fast…”

“Faster than this?” asked Conchita and plunged two pair of trimming scissors into his eyes, pulled her hair clips out of the lock on her way out and ran away, ignoring his screaming.  

Apart from the fact that the door was left unlocked and the light in the room switched on, Jose found no trace of her; the room key was nowhere to be found, which remained inexplicable…

A year passed.

Global warming was at its highest, at least that’s what ran through Ben’s mind as he entered his downtown office located a short but torturous walk from the parking lot. He checked his morning messages and began preparations for the upcoming appointment with a new client. Then his phone sang. When he unlocked the screen, he saw a picture of a baby boy, who resembled no one else but him, Benjamin De Luca, leaving him in no doubt of who the father of the newborn was.

Reading the short note under the picture, he felt as if his heart missed a beat:

“Isn’t he adorable, counselor?”

The Fairy’s Ring

A Short Story by Johnny O'Brien

The soft sound of the hissing rain all around him filled his ears.  The night was dark and wet, but he knew he was getting close to the cave.  He could feel it in his bones, in his soul.  He paused under a tree to wipe some of the rain from his face and forehead and shake drop from his unkempt hair.  The man was a picture of a turn of bad luck.  His clothing had obviously once been fine, yet now was torn and dirty.  Much like the man who wore them, they were a shadow of their former self.  He was thin and haggard looking and his clothing, cinched around the waist with a common length of hemp rope, had been made for a man a few sizes larger.  He shuddered and pushed off from the tree, drenched immediately again as he emerged into the downpour.  He cursed the Goddess as he stumbled along, looking for the mouth of the cave that would lead to his freedom.  At least he hoped it would.  She was his only hope now, short of going to the Goddess who he had just called to the lowest.  With as much as he had cursed her during the months of his torture, he knew he had no chance of her help.  She was his only hope…and that made him shiver more than the cold rain did, with its hint of winter in it.

He pushed through brush and up against tree and rock as he searched through the dark gloom of the night.  It would be around here somewhere.  It was only a matter of time before he found it.  Her cave was known to be somewhere upon this mountain and he had been looking for two days now.  He had to be close…he had run out of food and water was being gotten from any stream or brook he came across.  He had to be close to her cave or he’d end up dying before he got any help.  That would be just like his life to end that way.  He stumbled suddenly, almost falling to the forest ground before he caught himself on a tree.  He sunk to the ground, as tears began to leak from his eyes to join the rainwater sliding down from his hair.  He lifted his hands to scrub at his eyes and scowled.  Damn the fae….how dare they do this to him.  He was a rich man and a pillar of the community back at his home.  He had wealth and power and influence!  It simply wasn’t fair that this happened to him!  He had done nothing to deserve this!

“You lie.  You lie.  It’s plain as the sky,” a soft, sing-song voice piped up out of the darkness around him.  He choked on a sob that welled up in his throat and grabbed for a stone from the ground and flung it out into the darkness.  He threw more stones into the night until he slipped and fell onto his side while reaching for a stone.  He lay there for a time before he got up slowly to his feet.  He felt so very weak these days and he knew why he did.  It was the ring.  It was sucking the life out of him day by day.  He had been bigger than this, more healthy and better off.  He had been a famous merchant, traveling all over to sell his wares to people high and low alike.  He even had begun to sell to the fae.  That had been his greatest mistake, for he had given them the chance to curse him like they had.  He could remember that day still, as if he would ever forget it.

It had taken him months to find the proper place and time with which he could meet with the fae.  And months more to make sure he had just the right items to sell to them, that they would want.  He had brought three full wagon loads to the standing stones and by the time the night was over most of it was sold or traded for other goods which the fae seemed to have brought with them or simply produced out of thin air.  He had found the fae to be as mysterious and other-worldly as he had expected.  They had passed over the small but expensive collection of jewelry and instead bought every bolt of cloth he had brought, whether it was wool or silk.  The fruit and the vegetables were bought up quickly as well.  As were the small toys for children and the copper cookware.  In return he had received gold and silver and jewels as pure as morning dew.  And the leader of the fae, the one they called the Prince, spoke to him privately when it was all over and the fae were preparing to leave.

“You have dealt with us fairly and honestly, Master Merchant, and for such a gift we give you this gift in return, so that you may remember this day and all it has given you,” the Prince had said and placed into his hand a small ring of beaten gold and amethyst stones.  It was clearly for a man’s hand, if slightly delicate looking.  He had thanked the Prince that day and placed the ring upon his finger, and watched them fae leave back to their world.  Then he had gathered up his men and his wagons and went home with his new riches, more than he had ever had before.

The ring still sat upon his finger, glinting in the darkness with an unnatural light of its own.  A gift he had called it, but it was really a curse!  They had cursed him to lose all he had gained and not only from them but in his life entire.  It was the only explanation for what had happened after he had gotten home.  He had paid his men off for their work guarding his caravan and listened to their complaints.  Saying he had claimed that they would be paid more for their guard work.  He had explained to them that is was conditional after all.  The fae hadn’t been a threat, so he didn’t need them so much; therefore they were paid slightly less.  He should have realized the sudden tight feeling of that ring on his finger was the curse taking hold.  He had ignored it, however, and thought it was nothing.  He had gone home and showered his wife and children with the new wealth he had acquired.

He had taken a few days off before going back to his business.  The ring had gotten tighter and tighter after he had returned to his business.  The more he sold the tighter it became.  He ignored the discomfort as best he could and by the end of the day it had gone away.  By the next morning he had put it out of his mind and returned to work.  By the midpoint of the day, however, the curse placed upon him had revealed itself completely.  During a sale he was making to a young nobleman the ring had piped up in its sing-song voice and told the young man that he was being lied to.  He had tried to salvage things by smoothing the young man’s ruffled ego yet the ring had piped up again and the nobleman had stalked out of his store.  And that was only the beginning of it all.  He had tried to remove the ring but it was stuck tight to his finger and wouldn’t come off.  He had tried lard and grease from his wagon’s axles but it wouldn’t come off.

He had tried to run his business but the ring continued to demonstrate its curse over him.  His business began to fail as people stopped going to him at all.  His savings were slowly used up as his business fell on hard times and his family began to look at him differently as well because of it.  He went abroad to seek out magical help to remove the curse.  He went to witches and wizards and paid what they asked for to remove the ring but none could help him.  He had finally returned home one day to find he had no home.  His wife had sold his home and business while he was away and left with the children.  Probably back to her mother’s home, he was sure.  Thus it was that began his true misery under this terrible curse.  He could not remember a single day of that time, clear and to itself.  Instead it was as if the days bled into each other and became one long period of torture he was being forced to endure.

He was no longer sure of the passage of days but he thought it wasn’t too long past the annual day of Samhain.  He stopped to catch his breath in the darkness and came to lean against a rough rock face, sticking up from the mountain side, taller than even his impressive height.  He thought it had been some while over a year in time since he had lost everything.  He had been reduced to begging for money and food and hoarding the money like the worst of misers.  He would spend it on anyone who could have magic and help him.  Magicians and witches and those whom it was claimed had fae blood within their veins.  He knew that it would take magic to remove the ring from his finger and so he searched far and wide for someone to help him.  All of it had been for naught, for no one could help him, even though they took his money readily enough.  He had been to almost every source of magic in search of help for his curse and none had been able to.  Though many had mentioned the one he now sought.  She was a fae, like the ones who cursed him and a powerful one at that.  She would help any who sought her aid, for good or ill, yet the price she charged was always high, and always higher than you thought it was.

Where was The Blue Hag?  Why wasn’t she easier to find?  He knew the answers to those questions lay within the questions themselves, but he had to find her.  He had to beg her to remove this cursed ring at any price.  It didn’t matter the price he had to pay as long as the ring was taken off.  “You lie.  You lie.  It’s as plain as the sky.”  The ring piped up in its singing voice once more to him.  Before he could respond with an invective to the piece of jewelry another voice, raw and coarse cut through the night from above him.  “Lie!  Lie!  Die!  Die!”  He stumbled back away from the sheer facet of the mountain side and looked up, searching for the voice’s origin.  There seemed to be nothing there but the night.  He heard the flapping of wings for a soft moment and whirled around.  Nothing but the dark forms of trees and rocks greeted his eyes.  A shriek suddenly pierced the air and he spun back to face it and found a rectangular opening in the rock face, spilling out light from within and a hunched form standing within the doorway.  The form was shadowed, standing as it was in front of the light of a pair of burning torches within the mountain tunnel.  It held a staff in one hand that it leaned on for support and its robes were tattered and old, yet the colors of white and blue could still be see on them.

“What is it you want here on my mountain!?  Speak up boy; I haven’t got all night to jabber at you.”  The creature spoke, its voice coming hoarse and ragged, yet distinctly female underneath it all.  A dark formed flapped down from the night sky and landed on her shoulder cawing the word ‘lie’ over and over until she snapped at it to be silent.  This was the Blue Hag.  This was Cailleac Bhuer.   If anyone upon this world could help him break the curse he had upon him it was her.  He moved slowly forwards until he was closer to her, though he then wanted to recoil in horror.  She was the ugliest creature he had even laid eyes upon.  Her hair was stringy and white and one of her eyes was covered in a yellowish film.  Her other eye was good and so sharp and clear he felt naked under its penetrating gaze.  Her staff was made of holly and topped with the skull of a carrion crow, much like from the same bird that perched now upon her shoulder.

“Cailleac Bhuer…I beg of you for help.  I have been living in misery for a long time now because of the actions of a group of the fae.  They have placed a curse upon me.”  “You lie.  You lie.  It’s as plain as the sky.”  “You see?  Because of this ring I have lost all that I had.  My wealth…my status….my family, all of them is gone from me forever.  I beg of you Cailleac Bhuer.  Please help me remove this ring.” He spoke to her with a tremble in his voice…from desperation or from fear even he could not say for both feelings rode high in him now.  The Blue Hag stood in silence watching him with her eyes, both of which he was sure now saw him even though one looked to be blind and useless.  Finally she turned and started to hobble down the tunnel away from him even as she spoke to him over her shoulder.  “Come in and close the door behind you.  I’ll not waste my heat on the outdoors, not when winter is coming to the lands so soon.”

He rose up unsteadily, feeling dizzy with relief or lack of food and stumbled into the tunnel.  The door was rock upon outside it seemed and wood on the inside.  It closed with a shriek of rusty protesting hinges and locked securely once closed.  He turned then and moved after The Blue Hag as she walked down the torch lit tunnel.  A cool draft told him that the place had air holes somewhere within it, even if he could not see it.  He had lost sight of her while he closed the door yet the tunnel had no branches leading off it so there was only one way he could travel.  He stumbled and walked down that tunnel in silence but for the crunch of his boots upon the stone and sand floor.  He finally arrived in a large circular cavern of a room as big as a small house.  Shelves had been carved into the walls themselves and a few wooden pieces of furniture gave the place a lived in feel.  A large cauldron made of some metal sat nestled among a roaring bonfire and the smells coming from it made his mouth water.

The Blue Hag was rooting around in a shelf and removed a glass jar from it.  Within was contained a large purplish colored organ, a liver most likely of some animal.  She threw it whole into the large cauldron before she replaced the jar on the stone shelf and looked to him.  In the light of the room she looked even more hideous than he had thought.  She paused to spit into her cauldron as she hobbled past towards him and snatched up his hand within one of her gnarled and withered hands.  She peered intently at the ring for a long time, turning his hand over for a while to look at the ring…or maybe it was his palm she looked at.  Finally she let go and he cradled the hand back to him and looked to her, swallowing the fear and the revulsion he felt just looking at her.

“You’ve been dealing with the Seelie Court.  They don’t go around cursing people, boy.  You’ve got what happened all turned around in your mind.  I can understand why it seems like a curse to you however.  This ring was given to you to help you abstain from lying.  Every time you lie it will tell everyone around about it.  The reason it won’t come off is because you had a grace period.  There were a number of days where all it did was tighten around your finger when you lied, until it became too tight to come off.  Typical human foolishness if you ask me.  Alright then boy, bring that hand over here to my table and we’ll get that ring off you.”  The Blue Hag turned and hobbled back to the table.  She leaned her staff against a wall and he followed her to the table as she rummaged in a small wooden box which rested on one of the shelves.  She turned around to face him, a large meat cleaver grasped in one of her bony hands.

“No.  I don’t want my hand cut off!!  Please…Cailleac Bhuer…anything but that!  I’ll pay any price…but I don’t wish to lose my hand.  Please, any price but that!”  He begged her and saw her eyes narrow sharply as she regarded him with an unimpressed expression.  Her good eye looked like a tiny diamond glittering in the depths of her craggy face.  She spat on the floor and slammed the cleaver down into the table where it stuck.  He flinched as she did that and stepped back as she approached and snatched up his hand once again, looking at the ring.  After a short while she thrust it away from her and looked to him closely.  “Are you sure you wish to pay the price for removing the ring this way?  It will be high to pay and I will expect you to pay it in full before I remove that ring.” She spoke and her voice was as chill as a new winter day.

“Yes Cailleac Bhuer, I will pay your price.  If you will remove the ring without taking my hand off to do it I shall pay your price in full!”  He said, relief flooding him…she could remove the ring.  He was finally going to be free of his curse.  Free to live his life once again.  Cailleac Bhuer frowned up at him and muttered something about “not listening” as she turned around and hobbled over to her staff grasping it up.  She held her staff up and over her cauldron and the fires burned brighter and hotter, changing color from red and orange to blue and green.  She chanted in a strange musical language, her voice seeming to lose its ragged roughness and rise above the mountain and the sky itself.  It soared from her lips with a crystal beauty that awed him to his very soul.  She swung the staff around and struck the side of her cauldron three times.  Each time the cauldron sounded like a huge great funeral bell, ringing out the mourning of those who lived while a loved one has passed on.

“Done, Done and Done!  Three times done and the deal is sealed!  For three years and three days you shall work for me.  You shall fetch and carry firewood.  You shall hunt for me, cook for me, clean for me.  All this you shall do and you shall serve me in whatever ways I request of you.  At the end of the three years and three days, I shall remove the ring from your finger and you shall then be free to leave.”  She spoke to him as the fire returned to its original hues and she rested her staff upon the floor.  His knees ceased to support him and he found himself falling to the floor.  Darkness encroached around him as his body simply took a much needed break from the days of no food and little rest.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

“Be careful with that you fool of a man.  Set it down, carefully, in the basin.  If it breaks open in your hands what is inside will eat you alive before I can stop it.  Gently now…set it in the basin gently.  Good, now stand back”, his mistress snapped at him, as she always did, and he obeyed as he had always done.  The egg he had placed in the basin was the egg of a salamander.  One which was without a mother any longer so his mistress took the egg in for whatever her reasons.  He was still unsure if she would eat it or raise it for the chances were equal for either choice.  He watched carefully as she laid some kind of magic around the egg and with a gesture a burning fire filled the basin and surrounded the egg.  She turned away from it, grabbing her staff from where it rested against the table and hobbled over her cauldron and tasted what was cooking inside with her large wooden spoon.

He had learned what she cooked in that pot and he had been violently ill all over the floor at the knowledge.  He had gotten used to the smell these days…it hardly bothered him at all to know she ate humans…or fae if the craving took her for some of her own kin.  He had even hunted down humans for her upon the mountainside, killing them and dragging them back to her cave for her.  He was more fit now than he had been when he first arrived.  He looked like a completely different man however.  His experiences here and before he came here had marked him.  Had made him different than the easy life he knew before.

“Has the sun set yet, boy?” Her voice came to him, sounding curiously casual to him.  He told her it had set a few hours ago and he thought to himself that she should know that.  She knew so very much about the world that the rising and setting of the sun was a minor thing for her to know without seeing.  She nodded and hung the spoon up on its hook, looking to him with a pensive expression on her face.  She stared at him and he simply watched her back and waited for her to speak.  “Come here boy.  Give me your hand.  Your time is up and I shall remove your ring now.”

He blinked staring at her in confusion for a brief moment before his memories supplied what she spoke of.  He looked down to the ring around his finger and then to her.  Three years and three days…it had seemed so much longer, or shorter depending on when he thought of it.  But the time was finally over.  He allowed himself a small tremulous smile as he walked over and held out his hand to her.  He had seen her work magic so powerful that it made him shudder in horror to see it performed and now she would perform magic for him and remove the ring.  Perform magic of the price that he had paid for three years and three days.  She rested her staff in the crook of her arm and reached her hands out, one taking hold of his wrist and the other taking hold of the ring.  She paused for a moment and looked him in the eye and then she pulled the ring off his finger and let his wrist go.  She tucked the small ring into her pocket and removed her staff from the crook of her arm, to lean upon it again.

“Mistress…I don’t…I don’t understand.  I thought…”  He trailed off as he looked at her bemused expression.  She turned and hobbled back to her cauldron and looked into its depths.  “Of course you don’t understand boy.  You thought I would use powerful magic to remove that ring from you.  I told you years ago when you first came here.  It was not a cursed ring.  It simply was a ring to help you prevent yourself from lying.  You have lied to yourself and to others every day since receiving that ring.  For one year and one day you lied.  You reap what you sow, so says the Goddess.  You sowed bad tidings for yourself with those lies.  You needed only to spend the proper amount of time to repay those lies with truths.  If you do evil to others you will receive it back threefold.  If you do well to others you will receive it back threefold.  To repay the time of lies you spent, you had to spend threefold it in a time of truth.  Then the ring would come off.  You have done that here, boy, and so the ring is now off your finger.  You are free to leave now and return to your world and your life.  Try and make a better one this time around.”  She spoke with a small hint of kindness in her voice and didn’t raise her head to watch as he uncertainly turned and headed for the entrance of her cave.

He had traveled the length of this tunnel countless times to leave on errands for her and yet now he was walking it for the last time.  He kept pausing and staring back over his shoulder to see if she was there watching him, but she wasn’t.  He reached the door and pulled on the beam, pulling back the door on its rusty hinges.  He stood then looking out at the moonlit mountain side spreading down before him.  The dark, shadowed shape of the trees and rocks spread out like a blanket before him all the way down to where the lights of the small town near the base of the mountain sat.  He was free now to return to the world out there.  He looked down to the hand that had bore the ring for so many years.  His skin was white underneath it, untouched by time and the elements.  He rubbed that spot where it had been and looked once more to the world outside that cave.  He shut the door and relocked it before he turned and headed back towards the cavern and to his mistress.  He had paid her price and it was higher than he thought it would be.  He had paid a price in time and the world beyond had no place for him any longer.  He knew he would never be able to rejoin it.  His time had been paid here, with his mistress and he knew he had to remain or he would be lost again.

He entered the room and looked about, finding that his mistress was gone somewhere for the time being.  Her cauldron and the basin with the egg in it still burned merrily but the rest of the room was silent and empty except for him.  He approached the basin and looked at the egg glowing now within the flames.  He turned and walked across the room to where his bedding lay upon the floor.  He sat down there upon the bedding to wait for her to return.  He glanced to his small pillow and blinked at the sight of his ring sitting there upon it.  He looked around the room, half expecting to see his mistress’ wry face grinning at him from across the room, but she was not there.  He picked up the ring from its cushion and held it up before him.  Gold and amethyst glimmered back at him as the firelight played across it.  Without a word he placed the ring back on his finger, the golden and gem-stoned band covering the white patch of skin.  He looked down at his hand with the ring upon it.  It was as if it was meant to be there.  He leaned back against the stone wall and closed his eyes, waiting for his mistress to return.  He was free to choose his life again, but this was the life he chose.

 

~Fin~

 

Bio

John O'Brien is a Canadian who spends a large majority of his free time getting lost in fictional worlds, or dreaming them up himself, when he's not making videos as a hobby.

Question Time

1. What, to you, is the story about?
To me, the story is about the trouble that can arise because of a lack of understanding or communication, either on the speaking end or the listening end.  In this story it is definitely the fault of the listener, the protagonist.

2. What is the plot?
The plot is that a merchant, once successful and influential, receives a magic ring from the Seelie Court of the fae in return for his fair dealings with them.  After returning home, the ring refuses to come off and begins to speak everytime he lies, telling everyone around that he is.  He slowly loses everything he had valued in life, either because of the ring or because of his spending resources to try and get it removed.  Finally, destitute and desperate, he seeks out the fabeled Blue Hag for her help.  She agrees to help him in exchange for years of servitude.  When he has served his time, she removes the ring and he is free to go but he chooses to remain.

3. Can you explain the ending?
The ending has the merchant getting what he asked for.  The ring is removed without him losing his hand (which would have been the easier but more painful way) but the cost to him was higher than he first thought.  He's been away from the world, all of humanity in fact, for a little over three years.  When he has the opportunity to leave, he chooses not to because he doesn't have a place in the world anymore...but he does have a place with the Blue Hag.  He chooses to put the ring back on because his time spent serving the Blue Hag was a time spent living in truth to himself.  He no longer sees the ring as cursed and understands and has come to peace with the fact it was his own fault.

4. Who are the characters?
There are really only two characters in this story.  The Merchant, who is nameless because I didn't feel he needed a name in order for his character to be portrayed.  The other character is Cailleac Bheur, the Blue Hag, a mythical fae type creature from Irish/Gaelic mythology.

5. What were your influences writing this short story? Were you influenced by philosophy, literature, author(s), life, music, etc...?
My influences writing this story kind of is fantasy literature and mythology but for the most part this story came about because I was taking part in a casual writing challenge where we were given a prompt to write a story about and the prompt I was given was "fairy ring" and instead of writing about the circle of toadstools that bears that moniker, I decided to take it literally and write about a ring belonging to a fairy and it just kind of flowed out from that point.

6. What are your intentions with writing this story?
Mostly my intentions with writing this story was just to write...as a creative outlet.

   a) Are you wanting to expand the short story into a longer work?
    I am not intending this story to be expanded into a longer work, no.

   b) Were you wanting to write a shorty story about a man and his struggles
    I think this story is less about a man an his struggles and more about how sometimes the struggles in your life are put there by yourself without you realizing it at the time.

   c) How are you wanting the audience to feel after finishing your story?
    I would hope that the readers would be feeling pensive and introspective after reading it.

7. Do you feel the story had an appropriate resolution/ending?
I have always been happy with the ending to this story so yes I think it did.

8. Similar to question 1, what are you trying to convey in the story?
I think what I'm trying to convey in this story is the need to listen, to communicate properly with those around you, to pay attention to signs that something might be wrong and that you may well be your own worst enemy.  I suppose that it is kind of a tale of hubris bringing someone low.

Boys Without God

A Short Story by Luis Del Angel


We were sitting on Dominique’s porch swing that overlooked her neighborhood. I looked straight ahead inspecting the houses around us. They all looked the same. If they weren’t all colored differently, every time I’d visit I’d probably have to knock on two other houses before I got to hers.

    I looked at Dominique out of the corner of my eyes. She was beautiful. Her black hair cascaded down ending with loose curls just a little past her shoulders and her bangs covered her eyebrows. The porch light was off and we were poorly lit by the streetlights which casted shadows on her face that hid the true potential of her blue eyes and pale skin that would have otherwise taken your breath away. It was as if I were not worthy to admire how angelic she could truly look.

    Dominique wrapped her hand around the neck of the beer bottle, bringing the tip to her lips then she tilted it slightly. Her throat danced as she swallowed the liquid. She passed me the bottle that was now half empty.

     “So…” She wiped her lips with the sleeve of her sweater. “He’s dead?”

     I turned my head to look at her then took a couple of small sips from the bottle.

    “Yes.” I said. It was a simple answer because I did not want to tell her how it had happened. I wonder if it would have been easier on me to explain it to her if he had died of natural causes. But to tell her it happened while he was driving intoxicated was different, or at least I felt it was. I could still see the pictures in my head that were posted in a Mexican news website of Santiago’s body. He had been driving dangerously fast which probably made him feel immortal. His car had crashed with a concrete lamp post and he had gone through his windshield. His body laid on the hood of his car with his arms outstretched and pieces of glass from the windshield that had managed to penetrate the skin of his forehead, his final resting place.

     “In a car crash.” I finally said as I passed the bottle back to her. No more explanations and it was clear that she didn’t need any. I spoke plainly like if I were talking about something that had happened to a total stranger.

      “Where?”

     “Across the border in Nuevo Progreso, Mexico… That’s where he spent his weekends with his family.”

     Dominique stroked a strand of her hair behind her ear and she went on, “We had just seen him last week…” Suddenly her eyes turned red and misty. Tears rolled down her cheeks, leaving a wet glistening trail. I pressed my hands on her soft cheeks, using my thumbs to wipe under her eyes.

    “You hardly knew him.”  I said. It upset me that even though she had only meet him a few times, she was already crying yet I who had known him for seven years had yet to shed a single tear.

    She squinted her eyes, giving me her stare of disapproval. “Whenever we saw him on campus he was so sweet and nice.”

     “He was flirting with you. It was kind of gross because he did it despite me being there.”

     “Just because he was nice doesn’t mean he was flirting.”

     “Trust me he was. He was loud, obnoxious and annoying. He was always bragging about his sexual conquests, and he would proudly proclaim if he had gotten a girl to cheat on her boyfriend. Back in High school, out of nowhere he honked Stephanie’s boobs. She reported him, but of course the administration didn’t do anything to him. I'm not a lawyer or anything but I think that’s sexual harassment. She didn’t talk to him after that, but now she’s posting how sad she is and how much she’s going to miss him.”

     She rolled her eyes. “It’s what people do though. The alternative would be trashing his memory and that would be so horrible…”

    “I know…I know…”

    “You know?” Then she added, “You’re being horrible.”

    I had to think about it for a while, but all I could think about where people’s comments saying how they ‘just knew’ that he was dancing with God and how he had gone to a happy place. All I could think about was how he had probably ceased to exist the moment his car meet the concrete lamp post. I felt horrible that I didn’t feel sad, but mostly shocked that someone I had known and spend time with was dead and he was probably rotting away in some morgue as we spoke. That made me so delicate and empty. I wonder if his kid brother understood was going on or maybe he didn't and was still expecting him to come back. That thought didn't make me sad so I cried.

    Dominique’s face was now filled with compassion replacing her cold stare. She wrapped her arm around my shoulders. Burying her forehead against the side of my head. She spoke softly against my ear.

    “So you are sad?” Sometimes she was good at knowing what I was feeling, but this time she was off. She was a compassionate person filled with emotions and she did not get my lack of emotions.

     “No.”

     “Then what’s making you cry?”

     I sniffled.

    “Everything.” I lied. I didn’t feel comfortable telling her that nothing made me feel sad. She pressed her lips against mine and through the compassion of her kiss I felt forgiven for feeling nothing, but I knew it wasn’t so. She began to cry with me.

            I had mentioned to Dominique that I had to dig through a ton of his Mother’s posts about their GoFundme page to find some actual information about the funeral service. I only told her that to point out the hypocrisy. She insisted that we should attend.

 “This will only take out a small portion of your time.” She said and I finally gave in. Four days later, Dominique and I were on our way across the border to Mexico to attend Santiago’s funeral service. She had her legs resting on the dashboard of my car. She was reading a paperback book while nibbling on the skin of her thumb. Without looking away from the book she asked me, “James, Is this your first funeral?”

“Yes. What about you?”

“It’s mine too.”

“Really? I thought you told me your Grandfather died.”

“Well yes, but I didn’t go to his funeral. He died on a Thursday evening and the funeral was that Saturday. Since it was spring break my dad had taken me and my sister to a weekend camping trip that Thursday morning. We were really excited, we had been planning it for months. So my mom told my dad that he should let us enjoy our trip and not tell us anything.” She had closed the book and looked out the window. She sighed. “My mom didn’t think it would be “healthy” for us to go the funeral. In hindsight I should have realized my dad was acting weird, but I was just having so much fun.”

 “When did you find out?”

“On Sunday, right when we were coming back home. We were ten minutes away and Dad pulls over and tells us. I remember that I started to cry then I opened my mouth but no sound came out. I guess my voice finally reached my mouth and I started to wail like a baby. Then my dad just hugged me and told me everything was going to be okay.”

“And was it?”

“Was it what” She looked away from the window. She reached into her purse to pull out her sunglasses which she put on then looked at me.

“Was everything okay?”

“Of course. He had been sick for a bit, so he went on to a better place.”

She had never told me that before. Her voice was very alluring and sweet, almost hypnotic and I enjoyed listening to her. It made me feel closer to her. She trusted me with her feelings, so why couldn’t I?

We arrived to the church a few minutes late and it was already packed so we sat at the back where a few of my friends had saved us a seat. I would be lying if I said I hadn’t stalled. I had tried to stall as best as I could. Taking the long way, saying I needed to go the bathroom, etc. Anything to get there late or avoid it entirely but we got there just in time to speed past the priest who was about to walk down the aisle.

     I fidgeted on my seat, my left leg shaking slightly. I looked around the small community church that was packed with people some were my old high school friends, others people I recognized from our college, the rest family members and friends of the family. Everyone, if not

crying, had red and moist eyed. It was a shame that this was my first experience with death. In some ways I had hoped that the first death I experienced would be symbolic. This was not symbolic, no matter how much Dominique, who already experienced a death in her family, wanted it to be for me.

     In front of the altar, was a large picture of Santiago dressed in a suit and besides it a closed casket. It made me sick. I couldn’t even get lost in my thoughts because either the Priest was talking or the mariachis were loudly playing hymns. Every church I seemed to go to was always too loud.

    “I have to go the restroom.” I whispered to Dominique.

   “Again?” She eyed me suspiciously. “Okay. Just don’t stall.”

    I nodded and made my way to the restroom. Next to the restroom area there was a glass door labelled ‘Prayer Room’, which was covered in a red drape.  I entered out of curiosity. Inside there was a prayer desk facing a statue of the sacred heart of Jesus Christ which was gilded completely in gold and was surrounded by floor arrangements and white candles. I approached the prayer desk and then knelt down on the padded kneeler. I put my hands together and rested them on the worn out padded armrest. I closed my eyes softly.

I said the Lord’s Prayer softly under my breath. I was taught in bible school to say it before praying so that God would know you were trying to talk to him. I would say the prayer in a certain flow and speed, if I was distracted and lost track of the flow, I would have to start over again. Since the music could still be heard through the walls, I was unable to focus. I tried to say the prayer a couple of more times but to no avail. I sighed and apologized to God, telling him I would learn better next time. Then I proceeded to pray my prayer. It was always the same thing:

“Jesus Christ, I pray that you bless my mom, my dad and my brother as well as Dominique. And that you protect my grandmother and grandfather. I pray that you keep my aunts, cousins and uncles in the path of light and goodness. I hope you tell your Father...or well yourself to keep them all safe. I pray for this to you, Amen.”

“Oh, yeah,” I added, “Also for Santiago's little brother, give him the strength to survive this turmoil.”

My eyes remained closed as I took a couple of deep breaths. My grandmother once told me that when she prayed hard enough she could feel the warmth of God’s grace. I hadn’t understood what she meant and I still don’t. In that moment, I felt nothing except the cold chill caused by the air conditioning. There was no moment of enlightenment that would show me that everything was going to be okay or an embracing touch that would tell me I was loved unconditionally. Anything that would make me feel sad or make me cry, so that I could feel what the people were feeling out there.

“Your child is lost, God. Where are you?” I laughed slightly and shook my head. I wondered whether God had moved on and forgotten about his creations leaving us to wills of evolution and our own demises or if I had simply forgotten him and he no longer deemed me worthy.

I formed my right hand into a fast and pressed it a couple of times against the open palm of my left hand. I got up from the prayer deck and left the room. Then without looking back, I walked out of the church. There wasn’t a single cloud in the sky and the air was chilly. I took in a deep breath. The bar or La Cantina I frequented was just a couple of blocks away and I decided to walk over there.

    La Cantina was a small place with just enough room to fit six booths and a dozen small tables, but large enough for the bar to be able to host twelve stools. It was a noon on Wednesday, the place was unsurprisingly empty except a man wearing a suit was asleep on a booth and another one sat at a table drinking a large glass of beer. I liked it here was because it always seemed to be quiet, even when it got loud. As I made my way to the bar, I patted the back of the man drinking a beer.

     “Salud.”

     “Salud,” I responded. I went to sit on one of the twelve stools.   

    The owner of La Cantina was behind the bar. He was a chunky man with tan skin and a wide smile that bore crooked yellowing teeth. He smiled when he saw me and asked me the same question he always asked me. I heard him ask it as if it were the first time I was hearing him. “Jaime, what will you be having today.” His accent was thick and heavy. He had gone to a university in Texas, but I never bothered to ask which one just like I never bothered to ask him why an educated man like him opens up a bar in a border town.

    “Scotch on the rocks.” I said like every other time before. He nodded as if it were the first time he had heard me pick that drink. He got a glass from under the bar and raised it up above his eye level before placing it in front of me. He put three chunky ice cubes in the glass that clinked as they hit the bottom. Then he got the bottle of scotch and rose it up as well before pouring it into the glass. He put enough so that the ice cubes would float.

    “Salud.”

    “Salud,” I responded.

    Suddenly he had a hazy look in his eyes and began to pat his chest with his fist. The first times I had seen him do it, I wasn’t sure what to think and I assumed it had to do with some health problems. Then I decided to follow along even though I was afraid he would think I was ridiculing him and get mad at me. He didn’t and from then I considered it  “our thing.” He looked happy as if for that moment he wasn’t alone.

Pat.

Pat.

Pat.

    After that he looked fine and so was I.

   “So what brings you here on a Wednesday?”

   “An old friend of mine passed away around here recently and they’re having the service.”

   “Oh. I heard about that. I’m sorry to hear he was a friend of yours.”

     I shrugged. “That’s the thing though. I don’t feel sad. I know I should but I’m not. He was annoying and obnoxious. He was a jerk. The church right now is filled with people crying for him. It makes me think…who’s going to come to my funeral if I were to die right now? Do I have to act like him to get people to want to be around me? God, I hope not.” While I talked, I was taking sips of my drink.

     He listened to me, his face without judgement and his smile made me feel comfortable and secured. He didn’t say anything and it was quiet and I felt satisfied with myself that I was understood. I grabbed my glass, and held it to my lips, letting the last of the warm liquid run down my throat.

     He asked me if I wanted a second drink and I accepted it.

    “Salud.”

    “Salud,” I responded.

     He reached over the bar and grabbed my shoulder in solidarity. I understood that he wasn’t perfect. That he didn’t know what would make me feel better. He understood that simply just being there for me was enough. I couldn’t help but cry.

    “What’s making you cry?” He asked genuinely.

    “Nothing.” Then I laughed. I grabbed my glass and tilted it against my lips. I finished it in seven short sips. “I’m crying about nothing.”

    “I understand.” He did not cry.

     He asked me if I wanted a third drink and I accepted.

 “Salud.”

 “Salud,” I responded.

     I drank this third drink more slowly. The bartender went back to cleaning glasses with a rag. As much as we wanted, we knew we couldn’t help each other. Because we both knew that we didn’t know everything. We knew nothing.

    He offered me a fourth drink, but I rejected it. Three was enough. Three was good.

    I told him I had been gone for too long and that my girlfriend was probably looking for me. He understood. I paid him for my drinks and left him a good tip, because he was worth a good tip.

     I walked out of the bar. Outside in all her glory was Dominique. Her arms were crossed and her eyes squinted in disapproval. In the daytime, she was angelic. God, she was beautiful. She was blessed by God but I was not.

     I felt ashamed and uncomfortable as she looked at me. My lower lip quivered trying to come up with an excuse. But I had none. So I walked up to her and wrapped my arms around her waist. Pressing my face against her shoulder, I began to cry.

    “Why are you crying?”

    “I’m crying because of Santiago. He’s not going to be here anymore. I’ll miss him.” I lied.

     “I understand.” She cried with me.

      I was lost and she was lost and the bartender was lost and even the lady outside of the church holding her bible was lost. We were all lost. Even you. We are all fucking lost.

 

Bio

Luis Del Angel grew in a small southern city of Texas. He graduated in 2017 receiving his BA in English with a concentration in Literature. He hopes to continue his education by pursuing an MA in Literature in the near future. Although he had always had passion for reading, he was motivated to start writing after reading the works of Ernest Hemingway and other writers of the Lost Generation. Luis draws inspiration from people he has encountered and situations he has been in. When he isn’t writing or reading, Luis spends his time listening to records, watching documentaries and having existential crises. Even though he has written several other short stories, Boys without God was his first attempt at getting his work published.  

Find Luis Elsewhere : Twitter (Luis_D_Angel)