KNOWING ALWAYS COMES TOO LATE by Michael Radon

It was a bright sunny day, the day of Roxanne’s burial. From across the road I could hear children laughing, playing even. Just another slight I’d take the Creator to task for when I got a chance. The sight of that box going in that dirt hole was enough to wear me down. Knowing something is a lot different than seeing something, and the sight of that killed a big part of me.

I used to fawn over her and tell her how perfect she was, which certainly was not true. Every time she broke my heart without batting an eye, or made me cross with rage by some comment crafted just so to pierce right through my resolve, it was like I was plucking those flower petals to get to “she loves me not,” and when I got there I packed my things and left. I know that wasn’t the gentlemanly thing to do, especially considering that meant leaving her to keep raising Melinda on her own, but know that flower metaphor had an awful lot of petals.

Word came to me through one of her old friends, who I kept in touch with through the odd holiday letter. I’d ask about her, and Melinda, and didn’t feel like such a monster then, and for my diligence, I’d get some kind of report about Roxanne as a footnote. I guess the sickness came fast, because it had only been five months since the last letter, and there wasn’t any news of it in there.

She told me Roxanne had passed and I had to stop reading for the night. She asked me to attend the services, said it was the honorable thing to do by her, and to hell with what anybody might say to me. She assured me that it wasn’t a ploy to take Melinda on, she’d gone to stay with Roxanne’s mother, and even if I wanted to make an effort to get her from there, I doubt the respectful Mrs. Stevens would have even let me on the property without calling for my head. I spent a long time thinking about what to do with that. I wrote back and said I wouldn’t be able to make it, but I arranged to send some flowers for the thought.

That only made me feel worse.

Tried drinking it away, tried to forget it and just move on. Death just happens. No sense in making a fuss over it. But that made me feel more the asshole. Finally, I resolved to go in secret, pay my respects, and leave town again. That would just be a chapter in my life I’d finally have to turn my back on completely, and live out my days treating that history like a war – significant, but better not dwelt on daily. I owed her a lot more than an apology, but that was all I could focus on without blubbering.

It got me to thinking that I hoped that when you die, you get to take in the knowledge of everything. Everything people thought about you, and think about you, and what all transpires. You get to take it all in like a sudden eureka and process it without any of the fuss of having to be alive to deal with it. The thought of that gave me a little peace, that maybe she knew I was sorry for giving up and leaving.

All was said and done very quietly and somberly. I saw her friends, her family, I saw Mrs. Stevens crying, and I know she didn’t see me or she would have stopped to give me an earful at best. I lingered around in the shade of an oak tree a good ways off from Roxanne’s grave in the hopes that maybe I could get a few moments alone with her to put it all to rest. I sat against the tree, lit a cigarette, and smoked it in sighs.

It was getting dark, and the last few cicadas of the season were stubbornly begging for more summer. There wasn’t much wind, and if the kids hadn’t gone home already, I wouldn’t have heard them playing over the tires kicking up gravel as all the cars were leaving. A few more minutes and I’d say my goodbyes.

“Annie told me you weren’t coming.”

Surprised, I turned my head quick and saw Melinda, her face looking a lot more composed and strong than mine. I guess after everything she’d been through, her mother dying was just another drop in the bucket for her. Then I noticed she was holding a sleeping toddler in her arms.

“Shit, Melinda. I’m a grand dad?”

“No, just a father of two.”

I flicked the cigarette away to the side. “Can’t say that provides me any more peace of mind.”

“You piece of shit.” Melinda whispered. “So what, you sneak in through the window to get your kicks with mom and not have to see me?” She looked ready to hit me.

“Don’t go makin’ it dramatic, Melinda. Show some respect for your mother.”

“Respect? Did you respect her by walking out and leaving her to raise me by herself? Did you respect her when you got her pregnant again without even being a big enough part of her life to know between now and then? Tell me, dad, when exactly did you respect any of us?”

“What do you want me to do? Take you both in, take care of you? ‘Be a dad?’”

“No.” Her voice started to shake. “Never.” She clenched her open fist and looked right in my eyes. “I just want you to go away.”

I stood up, brushing the dirt off the back of my pants and looking for the right thing to say, the fatherly thing to tell my daughter, but the words didn’t come and I don’t think she wanted to hear them. “Okay.” I took a last look at my young son and then walked away.

Melinda stood still. Didn’t run after me, didn’t want the last word, just wanted to make sure I was gone for good. I try not to entertain thoughts of her ever forgiving me, because that day may never come. I think about it a lot, though, the same way I saw Roxanne clearly when she fought with me; that’s the way I like to imagine Melinda as the years go by. Independent, fierce, her mother’s daughter.

Maybe when my card is pulled, I’ll know if she really hates me as much as she said.

MICHAEL RADON‘s lifelong obsession with digital media makes him an ideal addition to your local pub trivia team. His latest project is growing a beard in an attempt to make people believe him when he says he writes for a living. His irrelevant observations are recorded daily through his blog and twitter.

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NEGOTIATIONS by Seann McCollum

SEANN MCCOLLUM makes a living repeating the mistakes of those who have gone before him, especially those involving nudity. In his spare time he likes to yell out the passenger window at joggers wearing those barefoot running shoe things. He has self-published a number of books of drawings and poetry, the latest of which is Termites in the Petrified Forest. His comics have been featured in Toylit and most recently in apt literary journal. Check him out at carrioncall.blogspot.com.

RAPHUS CUCULLATUS OR EVERYTHING TURNS AWAY by Mike Maher

Coyotes and wolves are nearly identical
except the coyotes have developed the ability to adapt,
to learn to eat garbage
and sleep under your shed.
Tom says pigeon parents push
their young off bridges just to see if they are ready to fly.
And if they aren’t?
It is no surprise they are related to the Dodo,
millions of miniature Prince Prosperos leading their people to doom,
tiny Icaruses splashing into seas of New York City taxicabs,
though it is doubtful Breughel would take the time
to illustrate their unnoticed fall
nor Auden or Williams to sit down and illustrate the illustration.
This is hardly a dreadful martyrdom,
but is it an example of evolution, modification,
a malevolent twist of Darwinism,
of how most adaptations are less than beautiful,
far from practical?
The man with a coyote under his shed will most likely say “What is that damn coyote
doing under my shed?”
and not “What have we done to the world that coyotes are relegated
to sleeping under our sheds?”
And that is why,
when Tom tells me about the pigeons,
a girl in the room,
quite possibly with a coyote of her own in her backyard
and obviously unaware of the significance of these tiny birds,
merely says, “What did they do before there were bridges?”

MIKE MAHER is the founder and editor of Sea Giraffe, an online literary ‘zine. He currently reads, writes, edits, and walks his dog in Pennsylvania’s Pocono mountains. His poetry, fiction, and personal essays can be seen in publications like The Smoking Poet, The Ofi Press Magazine, Calliope, and Dr. Hurley’s Snake-Oil Cure. While earning his BA in English from East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania, he served as the Vice President and Forum Editor of The Stroud Courier, winning the Jim Barniak Award for journalism twice during his time there. He also won the Martha E. Martin Award for poetry while at ESU.

THE HAMMOCK by Amalia Dillin

“Faster!” “Harder!” “More!”

My cousins and I gripped the sturdy fabric with both hands, squealing with delight and laughter. Three of us in the hammock, two of us pushing.

“Higher!” my cousin called.

The birch tree swayed with the rhythm, calluses in the trunk where the hammock was tied and the bark had begun growing around it. It was young and strong, indestructible like we were.

“The hammock is not a swing!” my uncle shouted from the porch.

We ignored him. As long as he was still sitting at the table, we weren’t swinging fast, hard, or high enough. The hammock jumped when we reached the top of the arc and we all screamed.

“Keep pushing!”

My cousins and I jockeyed for the center seat, crawling over one another, climbing, twisting. The hammock twisted and one of them was hanging upside down on the outside, clinging like a monkey. We helped him back in, pulling him up like a sailors dragging a drowned man from the sea.

“Be careful!” my aunt called. “Don’t rough house!”

The hammock jumped and we all laughed, braced for it this time.

“It’s our turn!” our cousins said, the ones pushing us until we soared. From the top of the swing we could see over the trees as far as Albany, the mountains hovering behind.

“Just one more push!” my cousin said. The one who had nearly fallen.

She pushed, and we leaned forward. The hammock leapt, our stomachs dropping.

SNAP.

The rope on the birch tree gave and we landed hard on the ground with a shared cry of pain and dismay.

“Pop!” One of my cousins went running, before we had even shaken off the shock. “Pop! The hammock!”

“Is everyone all right?” my aunt asked.

But we were already climbing out of the wilted fabric. My tail bone felt bruised, but I didn’t dare even whisper it. If any of us got hurt, they’d never let us forget it. The hammock would be banned, and we’d be stuck playing catch and losing Frisbees in the leech field below the house. We’d already tried and failed to fly the kite three times, and we’d been forbidden from having another water fight. The hammock had been our last game that didn’t require shoes.

“Are you hurt?” my aunt called again, and we could see her silhouette behind the screen, standing and holding her hand up against the glare of the sun.

“No!” we shouted.

The screen door slapped against the frame and my uncle appeared, fresh ropes in hand. We held our breath as he looked over the damage, hoping against hope it was just the ropes. Don’t let it be the hammock. Don’t let it be the hammock!

He loosened the ropes from the trunk of the birch tree and looped new ones in their place.

“No more swinging,” he said, as he drew the ropes taut and the hammock rose back to life.

The two girls who had been pushing us were already climbing in, and my uncle tightened the ropes so the hammock rose another few inches above the ground, then knotted it. He glanced at the three of us, and we stopped rubbing our bruised arms and bottoms. “If I see you swinging again, I’ll take it down. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” we mumbled, not meeting his eyes. The girls in the hammock glared at us.

We waited until he had gone back inside, hands behind our backs. The girls reached down, grabbing clumps of grass to pull the hammock back and forth in a gentle swaying motion.

“Push us faster!” my cousin whispered. “Harder!” the other said. “More!”

AMALIA DILLIN obsesses over old gods and older heroes, but sometimes she breaks out and writes contemporary fiction, too. Her work has appeared in Birdville Magazine. You can find her on her blog and on Twitter.

KING RICHIE THE THIRD by Adam Sandiford

ADAM SANDIFORD lives in Ontario, Canada. He is old enough to know better. You can see his comics every day at www.peticanoe.com.

THE CANCER RIDE by James Valvis

My grandmother, rest in peace,
waited for us down below
while we rode the roller-coaster,
hands raised, screaming at her.
Too sick to go on, she stood
near the exit. The bandana
on her bald head flapped
in the wind like paisley hair.
A wave of her small hand, tears
on her face, though I can’t recall
if they were tears of happiness
or something even more painful.
She should have been made a saint
right there, cheering us while
she rocked and tumbled inside,
raced a thousand miles per hour
in the most terrible of all directions.

JAMES VALVIS lives in Issaquah, Washington. His work has recently appeared in Atlanta Review, Confrontation, Eclipse, Hanging Loose, Nimrod, Pank, Rattle, Southern Indiana Review, and is forthcoming in Arts & Letters, Crab Creek Review, Gargoyle, H_NGM_N, LA Review, Midwest Quarterly, New York Quarterly, River Styx, South Carolina Review, and many others. A book-length collection of his poems, How to Say Goodbye, is due in 2011.

AS THIN AS TWO LEAVES by Jeremy Ohlback

When Arnold brought his tablet to work on the day of the Christmas
party, people talked. They talked about how he’d been leaving later,
with emails from his work computer sent after midnight. They talked
about how he had lost weight, and the way that his navy trousers
barely stayed up over his hips. They talked about his relationship,
and how he’d taken down the picture of himself and his wife squinting
and smiling atop Macchu Picchu. They laughed and all looked at him
from their huddled group. Arnold finished the rice cracker he was
eating and went back to his desk.

The image on his computer screen, as always, was a leaf. It wasn’t
a picture or a drawing, but a three dimensional model; he hunched
himself over with his stylus pressed against the tablet to watch it,
rotating it to see the light green underside and the veins which laced
the surface. Towards its tip there was a blank space, where the dull
grey of exposed model replaced the intricate floral texture. He
brought this segment to the fore, zooming in and then out again,
squinting and tilting his head.

– You know we ship the week after New Year’s. What are you doing?
Here, just fill that and we’ll get it in before release. Relax. We’re
done. Arnold?
– Yeah. Sorry? Do you think the Botanic Gardens are open on public
holidays?
– Huh?
– The gardens. If the office is closed over Christmas, I might
spend some time there.
– I don’t think so, Arnold. Just get it done, or we’ll roll it
back to the last revision.
– But the last revision – the last revision was completely wrong,
it would look absurd.
– Arnold. It’s a leaf. Fill the damn model, email it to me and go
home. If you’re really still concerned go to the gardens over
Christmas and start thinking about the sequel. Alright?
Arnold looked back at the screen.
– How about I-, he said. I think I need to go for a walk.

The only birch tree in the area was between the carpark and the
highway, a scrawny and bent specimen that looked like it might have
been run over by a delivery truck and then propped carefully back up.
Its white and naked branches spiked up at the grey sky like bones.
Arnold kicked at the grass and flat dirt under it. There were a few
old leaves, but all were imperfect – soggy, dead, they had been torn
by footsteps and beaten by rain. He could only find one worth taking
back. Shaped like a heart, he held it to the sun to examine the slight
blush along its innermost cheek. He slipped it in his shirt pocket,
looked again at the tall tree and then trudged back through the
carpark with arms crossed high against his chest.

– You alright there, Arnold? I’m heading off. There’s some cake left
in the fridge and, ah. I guess I’ll see you next year.
– Oh, sorry Shelley. Yeah, I’ll see you next year.
– Have a good Christmas, okay? Arnold?
He peered up over his cubicle. Shelley was standing by the doorway
with a backpack slung over her shoulder.
– Oh. Merry Christmas.
– Will you remember to turn off the lights? I’m not sure when the
cleaners will be in. Goodbye, Arnold.

At nine o’clock Arnold remembered the leaf in his pocket. He slipped
it out carefully and placed it on the tablet. He traced around it idly
with his finger, then lifted it again and held it against the light of
the display. It was thin enough to see right through – its dessicated
veins thrusting out from the central stem in parallel. He noticed
something about the way the ragged edges merged at the tip; the way
the lines angled inwards until they met in a single spike. When he
went back to his stylus and tablet, he began to gently manipulate the
nodes of the model and brush on new textures.

By five A.M. on Christmas eve, the leaf was finished. It glowed
perfectly at the centre of a white canvas, angled slightly so the tip
was at the fore. Arnold rubbed his eyes. In structure it was a replica
of the one sitting on his tablet, but the digital version was alive.
Once dead and wet, it had been summoned up behind the tiny pixels of
the monitor and rejuvinated with green blood. The leaf would make it
to release. It would be multiplied countless times on a forest of
polygon branches, viewed from all angles and illuminated by the
coloured light of a hundred different sources. And each time, it would
be perfect.

He left his tablet and the leaf behind. He turned out the lights. On
the way home, he stopped at the convenience store to get ham and eggs
for Christmas breakfast.

As Arnold slept soundly in his silent apartment, and the bells of
strange magic tinkled outside the windows of children around the city,
the dead leaf on Arnold’s tablet rose up in the dark. His monitor
buzzed as it clicked on and the white light it created washed the leaf
and Arnold’s empty chair. The leaf began to spin and, in tandem, its
on-screen copy spun, too. It lasted for a long time – unwatched at the
end of an empty office hall. When the dance ended and the leaf finally
fell back down to the tablet it was green and real, as alive as when
it had first sprung from a curled bud. And looking over it from the
screen, behind a wall of tiny pixels, was its brown, soggy replica,
angled so its broken tip pointed to the fore.

JEREMY OHLBACK is the editor and administrator of birdville mag, and his first novel, Squire Nation, was shortlisted for the 2009 Vogel/Australian award. He’s currently getting involved with the Sydney Story Factory, working on a second book, and working himself up over the ice hockey playoffs.