Still reeling from the untimely death of her wife, Elaine, twenty-seven-year-old Kit Barrows is a ghost of herself. But Kit’s fractured life is about to take a turn for the unexpected when she wakes up one morning to discover a mysterious envelope and a notebook sitting on her nightstand, with a note inside—a note addressed to Kit—in Elaine’s handwriting.
As Kit is led on a heartwarming journey of self-discovery and healing, she encounters a homeless veteran on the brink of death, two eccentric old ladies, nine porcelain dolls, a large sum of money, and an anonymous benefactor. As she learns to process her grief, Kit learns that even in death Elaine still has so much to teach her.
As Kit steps out of the Uber into the howling wind and rain, the little voice in her head begs her to turn back. Wouldn’t you be so much more comfortable in bed, the voice asks, filling her with anxiety. Curiosity killed the cat, isn’t that what they say?
Kit shoves the voice into a box in the back of her mind and puts it on a shelf. Now muffled by her resolve, the voice continues to whine in the background as she fights desperately to ignore it. The urge to return to the car and head straight back home to her dusty, leaky apartment is overwhelming, but Kit gives the driver a quick wave and sloshes through the deep puddles to the sidewalk.
Ice cold water seeps through the worn-out soles of her boots as she clutches a little black notebook, no bigger than the palm of her hand, tightly to her chest. Kit has no idea how the book came to be in her possession, only that she had been meant to find it. It had been propped up on her bedside table when she had awoken this morning. Only four pages had been written on, the rest were blank.
The brief note scrawled in Elaine’s familiar, barely legible handwriting on the fourth page is imprinted in her mind. Kit had stared at it for so long that she had unconsciously memorized it:
Miss me? Eleanor Roosevelt said the purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience. So, go live. I love you; I’ll see you in Paris. – E
Paris, Kit thinks bitterly to herself, another dream we were forced to put away on a shelf, left up there to collect dust. It’s just like E to be so frustratingly whimsical. Already slick with rain, the leather-bound cover of the notebook sends tiny shock waves from Kit’s fingertips to her chest. I can’t turn back, she tells herself. I have to do this. For her.
The hospital looms ahead, a pitch-black monster silhouetted against the angry storm clouds clogging the evening sky. Kit hates hospitals, this one more than most. She has not been here since that day and had not planned on ever returning if she could help it. And yet here I am, all because of this stupid book. She curses her own morbid curiosity.
Kit steels herself against the stinging wind and trudges up the steps into the fluorescent lights of the hospital lobby. She shakes droplets of rainwater off the notebook in her hands and opens it to the first page, feeling her pulse quicken as she reads the name and address written there:
Ridgeview Trinity Hospital: 394 Ridgeview Rd. Room 317, Thomas Greene.
It’s eerie, seeing Elaine’s loopy, slanted letters written so plainly on the page. Haunting. It’s something that Kit had never expected to see again. A hollow pain begins throbbing from somewhere deep in her chest. Kit remembers how Elaine used to say her thoughts flew by too rapidly for her hand to possibly keep up. She wonders when Elaine had written the note and tries to imagine her wife’s dainty porcelain hand gripping the pen. A tangible memory to hold onto.
Somewhere in her mind, Kit wonders why Elaine had even bothered to write down the hospital’s address. They had both learned it by heart, by the end.
She approaches the nurses’ station. Ridgeview is a small hospital; Kit could likely find Room 317 on her own, but she figures it would be more polite to ask. The nurse seated at the desk looks up from her book with surprise.
“Kit! I wasn’t expecting to see you here so soon. It’s a terrible night to be out and about! How are you holding up?”
Kit ignores the question.
“I’m looking for Room 317. I’m here to see,” she checks the name written in the book again, “uh, Thomas Greene?”
The nurse looks confused for a moment; then her face lights up. “Oh, that’s wonderful to hear. Tom never gets any visitors! This will make his night. Technically visiting hours ended at five, but I think we can make an exception. Tom has no family that we know of. Not even a next of kin, the poor man. Let’s go see if he’s awake, shall we?”
The nurse stands and hurries down the hall, gesturing for Kit to follow.
Victoria St. Michael is a writer from Ontario, Canada. She has an Honours Bachelor of Journalism from the University of Ottawa and a Diploma in Journalism from Algonquin College, with bylines in various publications across Canada and the U.S. In her spare time she enjoys photography, horror movies, spilling her chaotic thoughts on her blog and going on adventures with her partner and their furbabies.
Stanley gazed into the fridge as he waited for his partner, Francesco, and their conquest for the night to stop smooching at the front door and come inside.
He checked for eggs and milk. He was thankful there were chives in a container so breakfast for their guest could be a tad more exotic. But he’d have to go easy on the toast as there were only three slices of sourdough left, and he didn’t want to open the boring old multigrain.
He closed his eyes to recall the night. Their plaything was licking his lips with just the right amount of tongue when he propositioned Francesco at the nightclub. He hadn’t even noticed Stanley.
But if the couple didn’t respond to the young man’s request, he’d move on to the next potentials and Stanley and Francesco would have to choose between those altered by alcohol or happy pills. And Stanley knew those sins outstayed their welcome like bad wallpaper. Fortunately, tonight’s pickup was only slightly wired.
Francesco stumbled in the living room, trying to make martinis. Their boy was giggling like a pre-schooler who’d heard a limerick. But the disco laden images of earlier that night were still haunting Stanley.
Francesco’s workmate, Graham, had joined them with his partner, Tony. Stanley recalled the look Tony gave them when they said goodnight. As if their hookup, who wrapped his arms around Stanley and Francesco, was the victim in some lost midlife scenario reminiscent of anxious porn. Yet Graham and Tony were only ten years older than Stanley and Francesco’s toy for the night. Surely Tony would be more open-minded.
“Dinky, the martinis are ready.”
Stanley frowned at hearing his nickname. It was his curtain call to re-enter this flawed three-character play.
“Elijah can’t believe you’re fifty soon,” Francesco said, handing Stan his cocktail.
“You look so good.” The lad gazed wide-eyed for more time than naturally required. “Your hair’s thinning a little, but I know guys half your age who are seriously bald.”
“See, Dinky. Even Elijah thinks you’re handsome for your age.”
“Thank you,” Stanley mumbled. He sat on the edge of the armrest of the large sofa.
Elijah sat with his legs stretched out, enjoying the comfort of their recliner as if it was his own. He grinned at Francesco like a patient kid waiting too long for dessert.
“I hope you like scrambled eggs,” Stanley said.
“Say what?” Elijah snickered.
“You said you were staying for breakfast,” Stan replied. “You said so on the ride home.”
“Oh no.” Elijah looked horrified, as if dessert were cancelled. “You’re taking me out for breakfast.”
“He wants to be paraded,” said Francesco.
“Like a gold medal.” Stanley tried his best not to roll his eyes.
“So, what made you choose us tonight?” Francesco asked.
“You’re an established couple,” Elijah replied. “You know your shit. And you’ve dealt with your shit. Older men are so much more fun.” He turned to Stanley. “Most times I go out, I pick up an older couple.”
Stanley couldn’t help thinking how rehearsed Elijah sounded. “Has that strategy always worked?”
Elijah stared blankly at Stanley. “Yeah, except when one guy is more uptight than the other.”
Kevin lives with his husband, Warren, in their humble apartment (affectionately named Sabrina), in Australia’s own ‘Emerald City,’ Sydney.
His tall tales explore unrequited love in the theatre district of the Afterlife, romance between a dreamer and a realist, and a dystopian city addicted to social media.
His first novel, Drama Queens with Love Scenes, spawned a secondary character named Guy. Many readers argue that Guy, the insecure gay angel, is the star of the Actors and Angels book series. His popularity surprised the author. The third in this series, Drama Queens and Devilish Schemes, scored a Rainbow Award (judged by fans of queer fiction) for Best Gay Alternative Universe/Reality novel.
So, with his fictional guardian angel guiding him, Kevin hopes to bring more whimsical tales of love, life and friendship to his readers.
After her mother dies of an accidental overdose, Alex takes leave from her job as a writer for a Washington, DC, lifestyle magazine to return home to Maryland’s Eastern Shore. There, she joins her brother Owen, a study in failure-to-launch, in sorting out their mother’s whimsical and often self-destructive life.
Alex has proposed to her editor that while she is home she profile Juliette Sprigg, her former high school fling, owner of a wildly popular local restaurant, and celebrity chef in the making.
While working on the story and trying for a second chance with Juliette, Alex meets Carolyn Massey, editor of the town newspaper, and wonders if there’s more to life than reheating leftovers.
Enter Alex and Owen’s Aunt Johanna, who arrives from Seattle to help with arrangements. When Johanna reveals a family secret, Alex may have to accept her family for who they are rather than who she hoped they would be. And just maybe apply the same philosophy to her heart and herself.
Even though Owen never calls her, especially at 7:30 on a weekday evening, when Alex sees her brother’s name in the caller ID, she drops her phone back into her purse and waits for her metro stop. She figures he’ll just leave her a message about his cat. It’s been almost the entirety of their relationship the past five years. The week before, he’d texted her a picture of Tortoise, his Himalayan. She was wearing a suit of herbs with terra cotta-colored felt legs. She looked like a chia pet.
I am my own catnip receptacle, Owen had texted underneath Tortoise’s picture.
The chia pet text had come after midnight, a time when Alex (like most people) was asleep and susceptible to tragedy, like a call from the hospital, from the roadside after a car accident, or, for Alex specifically, a call from her mother when her mother was completely wasted, one glass of wine away from falling down the steps or worse, keeping Alex on the phone for hours about years-old, completely fabricated grievances.
She hadn’t responded to Owen that night, either, mad he’d woken her up about his stupid cat. That he didn’t understand she got up at five in the morning for her job as a features writer at the Capitol Metropolitan or that her apartment in Adams Morgan was expensive as hell or that the amount of her grad school loans equaled a house mortgage. That she had a life, didn’t still live at home with their mother, and didn’t have a cat for a best friend.
As she gets up to make her way to the doors of the metro, her phone vibrates again.
“Owen, I just got off work—can I call you back?” She presses the phone to her cheek as she follows the other commuters up the stairs of the station.
“You know—I was just thinking about Tortoise—I was worried maybe it meant she had died or something,” Alex jokes, cutting him off, even as her hands begin to sweat. She wonders what their mother has done this time to warrant a call from Owen.
“Alex.” Owen is silent for a minute. “It’s Mom. Mom’s dead.”
“Dammit, Owen, you shouldn’t joke.” But she knows he isn’t joking. She stops in the middle of the sidewalk. People brush against her, clipping her leg with their totes, her shoulder with their purses and messenger bags, as she tries to remember what day it is again, when she talked to her mother last. What she wishes she could take back.
“You should come home.” Owen’s words have awkward pauses between them, as if he’s too choked up to speak. “Can you come home tonight?”
“I can’t.” What the hell is she saying? Still, she hears herself go on. “I really can’t. I mean—”
“What do you mean, you can’t?” She imagines Owen’s face on the other end of the line, scrunched like a balled-up tissue. “Mom’s dead. What’s wrong with you?”
“You’re right—all right, okay,” she hears herself agree, her voice far away and warbled, like she’s in a dream.
As she wanders from the Woodley Park metro station toward the general direction of her apartment, she feels suddenly like an alien life form. I am experiencing a tragic event, she wants to tell the dog walker with five French bulldogs who passes her or the woman jogger who pauses at the intersection, drinking from a clear pink plastic water bottle. She wants to grab on to someone, anyone, like a body snatcher, and switch places, away from the kettle ball in her chest, away her knotted intestines and her numb appendages.
Alex has never really done death before. She’s thirty-six and never met her grandparents; their father left when she was four. And although their mother had turned sixty a few years back, it was more like Madonna sixty than Medicare sixty. Were Alex and Owen supposed to call Aunt Johanna, other forgotten, faraway relatives in Wisconsin and Arizona, their father, wherever he was? Was some kind of funeral needed for a mother who had flitted between atheism, Wiccan, new age-y crap, and pharmaceuticals like she was at a metaphysics salad bar?
And beyond the details, which Alex is good at, what about the other, more feely things? Like the way her mother had made her feel? (Incidentally, like a neon sign, a composition of gasses and other toxic compounds compressed into a fragile glass tube that she has managed to bend into the words Alex Maas, Successful Person Who Does Not Give a Fuck.)
Except now she has to give one.
“Crap,” she says under breath as she waits for the elevator in the lobby of her building. She brings up her ex Kate’s number in her phone doesn’t press call, not only because she can’t talk to Kate anymore, but because she realizes she can’t talk to anybody. If she opens her mouth and voices the words my mom is dead, she knows any adrenaline humming through her from the shock will dissolve, adrenaline she needs to get into her apartment, throw a few days’ worth of clothes together, call Rowan at the magazine, and get to the Greyhound terminal at Union Station to catch a bus home early the next morning.
Did Owen even mention how she died? In her apartment vestibule, Alex digs her phone out again. She can’t remember how they ended the conversation, anything he had said after the words dead and come home.
“I’m so sorry.” Rowan, her boss, sounds like he’s outside. “Are you all right? Is there anything I can do?”
“No—but thanks,” Alex says as she walks in a circle in her bedroom, staring at her opened suitcase. “I just don’t know…I don’t know how much time I’ll need. A few days? I don’t know what’s supposed to happen—she always talked about being cremated. But it’s not like she wrote a will—she didn’t even believe in grocery lists.”
“But if you need anything, you’ll call, right?” he prods, as if they’re friends. Maybe, in some way, because she spends most of her time with him, most of her time at the office in general, he’s her friend. It’s not like she has many, anyway. Her fingers shake as she opens her underwear drawer.
“Yes, of course. I’m going to get off the phone, though, before I cry.”
“Sure, sure. Although you can cry on the phone—it’s okay.”
“Oh—I might need more time on the ballet company story. Can you give it to me?”
“Don’t worry about the story, Alex—we’ll find something else to run.”
She hears one of Rowan’s kids—his little girl—talking excitedly in the background. Then she thinks about the other person she had wanted to call after she got off the phone with Owen. The only person she’s ever been able to tell anything.
“Hey,” Alex says casually, as if she’s just thought of it. “What about Juliette Sprigg—didn’t you want someone to interview her?”
“You mean the profile about her restaurant? I thought someone else would cover that.”
“Yeah, but…” Alex moves into the bathroom, just in case she might throw up. “Sprigg Restaurant’s, like, five minutes from my mom’s house. I went to high school with Juliette.”
“Don’t worry about that. You’re going home to take care of what you need to take care of—not work on another story.”
“No, it’s okay—I can take it. I want to do it.” She knows Rowan will give in—he has before—four magazine awards for her stories will do that. “Can you e-mail me her contact information?”
“No,” he sighs. “I’m not. You’re taking time off. You work too much as it is.”
“Jesus, Rowan—are you really saying no?” Her voice rises, like helium, up an octave. “After all I’ve done for the magazine?”
“Alex,” he sounds defeated, like he’s speaking to his now-crying little girl. “Your mother just died.”
“Fine—I quit then.” She hangs up on him and turns on the faucet in the bathroom. As she splashes her face with water, her phone beeps. She hits the speaker with her wet hand as she reaches for the towel. “What?”
“You’re not quitting, and I’m not assigning you the story.”
She takes a breath and holds it a second before exhaling. “I’m doing the story, or I quit.”
“Hi, honey, what sweetie? Will you stop screaming? Daddy can’t understand what you want if you’re screaming.”
Suddenly there’s silence, and Alex wonders if Rowan has hung up on her this time.
“Rowan, are you there?” she whispers, her neck so tight her head pop off.
“Sorry, Alex, I’m just having some, uh—you know what? Fine, do the story. Only because I have to get off the phone. I’ll e-mail you the info of the editor at the newspaper down there—really nice woman. She paired us up with a local photographer when we did that feature on that horse whisperer guy.”
“Great.” Alex exhales and dabs tears out of her eyes as she sits on the toilet lid.
“—But I really don’t want you to do it at all.”
“I’ll be fine—it’s how I get through things.” It’s been how she’s been getting over Kate all these months. And now she’s offered, at the supposedly worst time of her life, to interview Juliette freaking Sprigg too.
As she hangs up, her stomach pushes up into her esophagus like peasants storming the Bastille. She sets her phone on the edge of the tub and wraps her arms under her knees, head on her lap, like people in the airplane safety cards do, and focuses on her breathing. Remain calm. Remain seated. Brace for impact.
Jen Michalski is the author of three novels, The Summer She Was Under Water, The Tide King (both from Black Lawrence Press), and You’ll Be Fine (NineStar Press), a couplet of novellas, Could You Be With Her Now (Dzanc Books), and three collections of fiction (The Company of Strangers,From Here, and Close Encounters). Her work has appeared in more than 100 publications, including Poets & Writers, The Washington Post, and the Literary Hub, and she’s been nominated for the Pushcart Prize six times. She’s also the editor of the online literary weekly jmww.
Captain Mike Kelley does not ignore his intuition, so when sexy bartender Will Hayes captures his heart, Mike embarks on a mission to win him over to a Domestic Discipline relationship. Will accepts with one caveat: Mike must promise not to renew his army contract.
Mike agrees, until the army invokes the stop-loss military policy to involuntarily extend his commission and send him back overseas, rendering him powerless and threatening everything he and Will have built. Will, left alone to cope with a new café, must rely on the support of old friends who may no longer be trustworthy.
A horrific terrorist attack on Mike’s outpost changes everything, leaving them both at a loss.
Mike awakens in a hospital with a devastating injury and no recollection of the attack. As the only survivor, his memory may be the key to national security. Mike struggles to cope with his injury and Will struggles with his new role in Mike’s life.
For Mike and Will, “No Flag” meant “come home alive.” Will has Mike back rather than a folded flag, but in the aftermath of war, can they rebuild the life they had before?
Bombs exploded on the evening news, one after the other. Body parts flew past the camera. The headline across the bottom of the screen read: “20 Army Intelligence Officers Dead.”
“Early this morning, a bomb exploded in the Army Intelligence building, killing twenty American soldiers from Platoon 518,” the blonde newswoman reported.
Will Kelley squinted as the fuzzy security images played behind the woman’s head, searching through the chaos for reassurance. Nothing. His heart pounded and he tried to swallow but found only dry air in his mouth and throat. The female reporter described the weapons used and structural damage done in vivid detail, which made for sensational television, but failed to answer any questions for the people at home. Victims’ families had to be notified before the media could release their names. So, Blondie would lose her job if she read the list in front of her.
“What the hell are you doing, man? We open in thirty minutes and you’re watching television?” Seth, his roommate, demanded from the doorway of the living room.
“Answered your own question, didn’t you?” Will responded.
“Are you ready?”
“No.” Will did not take his eyes off the screen. “I’ll drive myself.”
The report flashed to an increase in allergies in children, so Will switched to another station while typing “Attack on American S2 Building in Afghanistan” into Google. It wouldn’t be that easy though. So, Will tried several more combinations of search terms before finding a video shot by an insurgent involved in the attack. The camera shuddered. Focused on different areas of the chaos. Men ripping clothes off soldiers. Looting. Bodies blown to bits. A man removing computer hard drives. And only one face. On the severed head of Major Evans.
“Will!” Seth jabbed him in the shoulder with a pen. Will forced his eyes away from the computer. “What happened?”
“Mike’s platoon was attacked. Twelve survivors.”
“Shit,” Seth said. “Can you call…?”
Will took a slug from the nearby water bottle. “Who? No one will talk to me. I’m not my husband’s family.”
Seth stared at him for a long moment and said, “I’ll have Casey cover for you.”
Will stood and shook his head. “Why? I can’t do anything here except watch the same videos over and over. May as well see if I can make some money.” He shut his computer and set it on the side table. “Meet you there. I won’t be too late. Promise.” He had to stop himself from scoffing as the meaningless word left his lips.
“Will…” Seth began.
“You wanted me to move, I’m moving! Go. I’ll be there.” He walked toward his bedroom, Seth’s gaze burning into his back. Stopping to throw a glance over his shoulder, he added, “Don’t tell Casey. I can do without her mother-henning me.”
“Thanks.” Will climbed the steps and closed his bedroom door. He leaned against the wood cutting him off from the rest of the world. His gaze roamed the four walls decorated with art prints, a whiteboard, and his wedding picture. Will strode over and fingered the golden frame. Behind the glass lay a photograph of Will and Mike in tuxes in the middle of their first dance. Their smiles easily outshone the gold on the frame. Mike had always been handsome with broad, built shoulders and muscular pecs, leading to abs you could grate cheese on.
But none of that stood out to Will, not on their wedding day of the year before. Mike’s blue eyes radiated a strength and hope. Will removed his wedding band to read the promise inscribed: No Flag.
Please keep your promise, Mike, Will thought as he took a deep breath and tore himself away from the picture and the crushing memories it brought. He had a job to do tonight.
Liz Borino has been telling stories of varying truthfulness since she was a child. As an adult, she keeps the fiction on the page. She writes stories of human connection and intimacy, in all their forms. Her books feature flawed men who often risk everything for their love.
When Liz isn’t writing, she’s waking up early to edit, travel, and explore historic prisons and insane asylums—not (usually) all in one day. Liz lives in Philadelphia with her two cats.
When Henry Hughes and Cameron Jameson meet for the first time at a Coming Out Day party, it’s anything but love at first sight. In fact, it’s an unmitigated disaster, despite a scorching physical attraction.
Henry, whose social anxiety gets the better of him, humiliates Cameron, and when Cameron finds out about Henry’s past in adult films, he assumes he dodged a disease-covered bullet. Yet as Henry runs into Cameron again and again, he realizes he might have misjudged the younger man. He also realizes that Cameron won’t let go of his own initial view and thinks Henry is an unmitigated ass. First impressions are lasting impressions, and Cameron seems to misinterpret all of Henry’s words and deeds.
It’s not until Henry confronts Cameron that Cameron realizes just how wrong he’s been, but he thinks he’s lost his chance. Yet when disaster strikes Cameron and his friends, Henry rides to the rescue. Will Cameron be able to put aside his pride and shame to accept Henry’s help and his heart?
Henry Hughes nudged his Tesla Roadster into the second of his assigned parking spots beneath the Capitol Towers, the one in which he’d had a charger installed, praying he didn’t dent or scratch the pricey plaything.
He struggled to leverage his muscular frame out of the door, and finally just climbed out the top. There was no way this would work long-term. He was way over six feet tall and built like a linebacker. Maybe the other space was larger? He’d already noticed his assistant’s more serviceable SUV parked there. He made a note to talk to her about it, but then he realized if he did, she’d relinquish the larger space without a peep, or worse, buy a smaller car. Then he thought about the hassle of moving the charger. It’d be easier to keep climbing out of the top of the car.
The parking was a pain in the ass—and not the good kind—but to keep a place in Sacramento. Since it wasn’t his primary residence, a house with a yard simply wasn’t practical, not even one of the adorable bungalows in the neighborhoods east of downtown. So, there he was with a condo and the adventures in parking.
Even with the occasional headache, Sacramento still beat San Francisco, and it was the only city of any size close to Alpenglow, his spread near Lake Tahoe. What was his alternative, some village of less than fifty people on US-50? Now entering, now leaving!
The door opened at his touch, and he sighed. There could be only one explanation.
She had arrived early to freshen the place up for him.
It was thoughtful and so like her, and so unnecessary. He wasn’t helpless, just an emotional wreck. He lied to himself and pretended the joke was funny.
“Hello?” he called, shutting the door behind him. He walked into the foyer and through the French doors that led to the formal living space beyond. “Lillian?”
“In here, Henry.”
Lillian Desmond rose to shake his hand when Henry entered the room because she was respectful like that. She was tall, a bit shorter than him, at least, and while her face was lined by sun and a storied career in law enforcement and paramilitary groups—the details of which he still found improbable despite vetting them thoroughly—she wore her fifty-odd years lightly. He suspected she could put him on the ground in seconds if she wanted to but was nice enough not to demonstrate it. She kept her graying-blonde hair out of the way in a no-nonsense bun, and that plus the reading glasses perched on her nose made her look like a schoolmarm.
“Welcome home.” Her reading glasses slid down her nose as she looked him in the eye. It made him wonder what he’d done and what the consequences would be.
Henry looked around. “It doesn’t really feel like home. It’s more like a hotel suite I own, which is weird, because Alpenglow doesn’t look this impersonal and it’s actually a hotel. Sort of.”
“And whose fault is that? Maybe you should spend more time down here this fall. You work awfully hard.” Lillian gave him a stern look. “Take some time off.”
“I don’t work any harder than you, and you’ll take time off when you die.” He hated talking about his work habits because they inevitably led to discussions about his personal life. Or the lack thereof. “Who knows. A bit of a break might be nice.”
“There you go.” Lillian herded him away from her paperwork. “Let’s go into the living room. We’ve got some things to go over.”
“The winter schedule and programming?” Henry noted the leather portfolio with the Alpenglow logo on its cover.
Lillian laughed, sweet and musical. “You’re funny. No, we went over that months ago, as you evidently don’t recall. This”—she pulled out the portfolio—“is the material for next spring.”
“I guess there’s no putting it off.” Henry pretended to be reluctant, but he loved Alpenglow like nothing else, built from the ground up out of a moribund ski resort with his own money and tricky financing. It had started just with skiing, but he had added a variety of offerings to make it a desirable year-round destination.
Lillian had been an early part of Henry’s operation and had quickly become integral to it. He’d initially hired her to head his security team, but after her first diffident suggestion that perhaps opening the cross-country trails to local horse-riding camps might improve their nonexistent summer cash flow, he and she had put their heads together to make Alpenglow what it was, even if she wouldn’t accept part ownership. “Alpenglow’s all yours,” she said when he’d tried to sign over an admittedly minority share to her. “You pay me a prince’s ransom, and that’s more than enough.”
So now he sat next to her now on one of the leather sofas while they finalized their spring plans.
Lillian pushed her readers back into position. “I’ve got quite an agenda for us while we’re here, Henry.”
“I can see that.”
“First, routine maintenance issues. As you know, the outdoor swimming pools are showing their age.”
“That they are. Frankly, we’re lucky we got through the summer with them in the shape we did. In retrospect, they should’ve been done last winter.”
“Hindsight’s always twenty-twenty,” Lillian agreed. “Now, in the past, you’ve insisted on keeping one outdoor pool open and heated, but this year…”
Henry leaned back, paying attention with only part of his mind as they ran through basic upkeep issues. They’d done this many times before; only the specific details changed.
“Have you had a chance to look into the décor of the rooms in the south wing, like I asked?”
“Yes, of course, Henry.” Lillian flipped through her notes. “You were right. Those rooms have never been updated, and honestly? They’re not looking that good.”
Henry nodded. “That’s what I thought. I haven’t been able to get into every room, but the ones I checked need help, and soon.”
They should, he thought. They were the first rooms to accommodate guests, back when the south wing was the only wing and he worked the front desk.
“I’ll oversee it myself,” Lillian said. “Now, about—”
He shook his head. “No, I will. We can probably find designers and decorators whose work’ll do in Sacramento, but if we need to go to San Francisco I’m halfway there. Have the schematics for those rooms sent down here via courier, and I’ll start making calls.” Henry thought for a moment. “One other thing…don’t fill my dance card too full. There are people down here I want to see, people I hope will invest in the next phase of Alpenglow.”
Lillian nodded. “I’ve heard a rumor that Darren Jessup from Band of Brothers might be in town for a while. I’ll see what I can find out. Now, the last thing on the list, at least for today, is Camp Snowflake. Will you be taking your usual role?”
Henry frowned. “Of course, why wouldn’t I?”
She looked up from her portfolio. “Just checking. I wasn’t sure how long this hankering of yours for city life would last this time.”
“We’ll see, won’t we? It looks like I’m ready for company again, and despite the smaller size of Sacramento’s gay community, it feels like fewer people here know about my past.”
Lillian put down the portfolio with its list and removed her glasses. “People don’t care about your imagined ex-porn star notoriety as much as you think they do.”
“You’d be surprised what people care about, and thanks to the Internet, it’s still as fresh as yesterday.” Henry laughed without humor. “It’s only been five years or so. Hell, Badass still has most of the films on the website.”
“I know how much it bothers you.” Lillian touched his arm gently.
He appreciated the gesture even if it didn’t make him feel better. Early in their association, she’d taken on the role of mother surrogate. It hadn’t taken him long to figure out that he’d never convince her he could take care of himself, and it was nice to have someone looking out for him.
None of that meant he didn’t want, didn’t long for, didn’t need that someone special to look after him. And for him to look after in return, a real husband and not the string of trophy men his Uncle Benton supported, tagging along behind him like Mary’s little lambs, always bleating for more cash. He sighed and made a mental note to let Uncle Benton know he was in town.
Lillian snapped her portfolio closed, and then hesitated. She gave him a measuring look. “There is one other thing…”
Henry knew that tone. It always led somewhere, usually right into his private life. “Yes?”
“You need to get out more, Henry.” Amazing. She hadn’t even bothered to butter him up first. She held up a hand to hold him off. “I know what you just said about the imagined sins of your past, but you’re never going to meet Mr. Right—hell, Mr. Right Now—if you’re holed up in your pretty prison up by the lake.”
“Alpenglow’s not a prison,” Henry mumbled. He crossed his arms defensively, trying to ward off the truth of her words. On some level he knew he looked like a petulant child, but right then he didn’t care.
Lillian leaned forward and touched the side of his head. It was gentle, almost a caress. “I mean up here, in your mind.”
Henry jumped. That one slipped past his defenses. He tried to laugh it off, but it came out as a strangled gurgle. He coughed to clear his throat. “So…um, what do you have in mind?”
“Well, seeing how it’s early October…”
Henry looked at her expectantly, waiting for the rest.
“Early October, Henry. Ring any bells?”
“Not seeing any connections, Lillian.”
“National Coming Out Day, Henry,” Lillian sighed. Then, quicker than lightning, her hand flashed out and smacked him on the forehead.
“Ouch!” Henry yelped. “What the hell was that for?”
“You’re gay, you big fool. Hell, you made gay porn for years, and you don’t know when National Coming Out Day is?” Lillian shook her head.
“I came out—was outed, thank you very much—years ago.” Henry rubbed where she’d hit him. It still stung.
“My point,” Lillian said, “is that you could show a little gay pride once in a while, considering how much money the gay community’s made you over the years.”
“Technically, they made the money for Badass Productions. I was a contract worker at first,”
“Trivia, Henry. Once you bought into the company all those horny men put cash in your pocket. You’re coming with me so I can introduce you to Sacramento society. There are people you need to meet.”
Wasn’t Sacramento society an oxymoron? “All right.”
Lillian looked at him with suspicion. “That’s it? No argument? No mulish and obstinate resistance?”
“Would it do any good?”
“Then…wait a minute.” Henry glared at her through slitted eyes. “If I need to meet these people, why haven’t I met them sooner? We’ve both spent plenty of time here.”
“The time just didn’t seem right.” Lillian wouldn’t meet his eyes.
Interest, but Henry decided not to pursue it. “Why not? I can’t spend all my time on the redesign, and who knows? Maybe I can drum up some business. I do own a high-end resort, after all.”
He made all the right noises, but when it came down to it, Henry didn’t know who people would see when they met him, Henry Hughes or Hugh Jerection, a man and persona he’d long ago come to hate.
Christopher Koehler always wanted to write, but it wasn’t until his grad school years that he realized writing was how he wanted to spend his life. Long something of a hothouse flower, he’s been lucky to be surrounded by people who encouraged that, especially his long-suffering husband of twenty-nine years and counting.
He loves many genres of fiction and nonfiction, but he’s especially fond of romances, because it’s in them that human emotions and relations, at least most of the ones fit to be discussed publicly, are laid bare.
While writing is his passion and his life, when he’s not doing that, he’s a househusband, at-home dad, and oarsman with a slightly disturbing interest in manners and the other ways people behave badly.
Christopher is approaching the tenth anniversary of publication and has been fortunate to be recognized for his writing, including by the American Library Association, which named Poz a 2016 Recommended Title, and an Honorable Mention for “Transformation,” in Innovation, Volume 6 of Queer Sci Fi’s Flash Fiction Anthology.
After a bad breakup, Rasheed is determined to spend his last year of high school focused on his course work and to finish it with as little drama as possible. But when disaster strikes and his grandma ends up in the hospital, the threads holding his life together start to slowly unravel. Now, Rasheed has to deal with the return of his absent mother and sharing a home with her despite their strained relationship.
With old hurts surfacing and family dynamics shifting, Rasheed finds comfort and humor from his best friends, the Herman twins he’s tutoring, and his crush, Adam Herman, who’s not as unavailable as Rasheed had once thought. With more time spent together, Rasheed finds his feelings for Adam may never have gone away. And the feelings may not be as one-sided. Except, Rasheed has to confront old mistakes and come to terms with his own issues first, and a relationship may just complicate everything.
“Please tell me it’s mahamri,” I said enthusiastically when I saw Granma kneading dough that would hopefully be rolled, cut into little squares, dipped into deep frying oil, and covered in whipped cream to create a slice of heaven. Paired with hot chai, it opened the door to another dimension.
Granma pounded the dough, one-two, and flipped it over. “It is.”
“Should I start on the tea?”
“You should start by taking the trash out.” She straightened, wiped the thin film of sweat from her forehead, and pointed to the overflowing trashcan. I could have emptied it last night, but I had an assignment due and each second counted; the four minutes it would have taken had seemed like a lifetime.
“Okay.” I stepped farther into the kitchen and pinched some of the dough. Granma smacked my hand with her flour-covered one. I should have seen it coming; it was a dance we’d been doing since I was five—I’d pinch the dough, she’d slap my hand, and warn me about worms making my stomach swell.
Sure enough she said, “Tumbo lako litafura.”
I refrained from rolling my eyes. The way she used to tell it, when I was a kid my stomach would get as large as a balloon before it burst, spraying worms everywhere.
I tossed the dough in my mouth, grabbed a pot, filled it with water, and put it to boil for tea. One thing Granma and I liked was tea—tea in the morning, tea in the afternoon, tea before bed—and coming to America hadn’t changed that. As soon as she was done with the mahamri, she’d set herself up on her favorite floral armchair in front of the TV with her cup of steaming hot tea and catch up on some daytime soaps. Sometimes I joined her—TV dramas had some really cute guys.
“They finally gave up the dog,” Granma announced.
“Mrs. Kyle and that dog. The pepo chafu will not be terrorizing us again.”
Mrs. Kyle lived on the other side of the street, one house down from us. Her bulldog, Teddy—a name that maybe shouldn’t be handed out so easily to slobbering dogs—had the bad habit of chasing and attacking people, and she refused to put it on a leash. Granma did not like her. The whole neighborhood didn’t like her.
“Paul was right,” she continued, “Soon as someone threw in the word ‘sue,’ she became more accommodating.”
There’d been a lot of that lately—Paul this and Paul that. It would have slipped my mind if I hadn’t noticed her FaceTiming him two weeks before, and then a day ago. Paul only lived a fifteen-minute drive away, so why not text? Anyway, what was so important that she needed to video call?
“I’m guessing some are for Paul?”
She pulled a drawer open and retrieved a rolling pin. “Why are you saying it like that?”
“How am I saying it?”
“Like you mean to say something else.”
“It’s nothing— Okay, you and Paul are…friendly,” I teased.
“I don’t have many friends; another one never hurts.”
“True, but I don’t know many people who go around fixing other people’s houses out of the kindness of their heart.”
Granma fixed her eyes on the dough and started to roll it. “It’s called kindness. Looks like you’ve forgotten the meaning of the word.”
“I remember,” I said quickly before it turned into a speech about undugu. Yes, yes, love thy neighbor, unless it was Mrs. Kyle, of course. Lines had to be drawn somewhere.
I added a cinnamon stick and some ginger into the pot and turned to head back to my room. Granma pointed to the trashcan. “Usitume nikwambie mara ya pili.”
Right, the trash. I sighed.
Her eyes bored into me as I bent to pick it up, which usually made me more self-aware. Like, had I brushed my teeth or cleaned my room? “I don’t know where your mind is nowadays.”
I paused. “Just tired.” Second week of school, Granma!
I was still trying to shake off summer vibes and find my back-to-school rhythm. It wasn’t going great. On top of the mound of piling homework and the early waking hours that turned me into a zombie—sometimes even with growling, and on really bad days, I could bite someone’s head off—I was trying to dodge Scott, my ex-boyfriend. Whenever he weaved his way into my thoughts, my chest would burn with shame, and my body would turn into a bundle of nerves. That chai and mahamri better come quick. I needed a pick-me-up.
“You put your shirt on backward on Tuesday and didn’t notice.”
“My mind was elsewhere.”
Her eyes narrowed. “And you’re not on drugs?”
I refrained from sighing. “No, I am not on drugs.”
“What is it, then?”
“Not enough sleep.”
“Why? What do you have to stress about?”
I slumped. Things were off, and I couldn’t shake the oddness. Before I could get that out, Granma shuddered, exhaled loudly, and reached for the counter, clutching it tightly.
I moved toward her. “You okay?” But she waved me off.
Her mouth opened, closed, opened again, but nothing came out. I frowned in confusion. Finally, after a few seconds, she said, “Trash.”
“And check for your keys.”
“Ha ha.” Again, I was tired that day.
I shifted my eyes to her hands, still gripping the counter and repeated, “You okay?”
“I…haven’t pounded dough in forever.”
Her words were labored and breathy. She had been pounding away like an MFA fighter. Maybe that was it. Now I knew what I’d get her for Christmas—a stand mixer. Maybe that would encourage her to make mahamri more often and not break a sweat while doing it. I could do it, but I’d never gotten them right—soft and sweet but with a tinge of lemon and overwhelming taste of coconut. Mine usually came out too hard.
I lifted the bag and headed outside.
“And water my herbs for me.”
I huffed. I ought to have known going to the kitchen when Granma was there meant a one hundred percent chance I’d come out with a chore.
“Am I hearing you grumble?”
“Good because that would be disrespectful to your elders.”
I held back the eye roll and made my way to the garbage bins. I dumped the trash and went to water her plants.
Granma had raised-bed planters for her herbs that Paul had made for her. The day he did it, Granma had prioritized keeping him company to watching her TV dramas even though she was religious about not missing episodes. Then there was that time Natalie had been over for their book club—they were the only two in the club, and they read one book a year, spent five minutes talking about how they didn’t get a chance to read it, and gossiped the rest of the time—and I overhead Granma describe Paul as a fine, fine man. Sure, there had been some wine involved, but still.
I winced when the scent of mint made me think of Scott. He loved mint-flavored ice cream and chewing mint-flavored bubblegum. I’d made it another week successfully avoiding him—thank you crowded hallways and different schedules. It was exhausting. I was constantly in flight mode. There had to be another way.
Apologize, a voice echoed in my mind. Apologize? As in, like, say sorry and stuff? Hmm.
Not that I hadn’t thought of it before, but how did people do that? The idea sounded foreign. Save for when I stepped on someone’s foot or bumped into them by accident; that was easy because they were accidents. Honest mistakes. What I had done had not been an honest mistake. So how did someone apologize for dumbness?
It was easier to stay clear of him, avoid any more drama, and focus on school.
If I ignored it maybe it would have no option but to magically—
“Eedy!” I paused, spooked by how she sounded—like a rusted engine trying and failing to come to life. As I put the watering can down, there was the sound of a body hitting the floor with a soft thud.
My heart leaped into my throat, and my stomach twisted with dread.
I rushed back to the house and found Granma lying on the floor—flat on her stomach and still as a rock. The world tilted and blurred together.
“Granma?” I said in a shaky whisper. I fell to my knees and with weak arms managed to turn her over. My breath caught at the sight of her. Her dark eyes were wide open, unfocused, and unblinking. A chill snaked down my back. I leaned down and felt her warm breath on my face. Oh, thank fuck.
I grabbed her hand and recoiled at its limpness. “Granma, are you okay?” Of course, she wasn’t okay.
“Tafadhali amka!” Please get up. I tried to pull her up and failed. Granma wasn’t small, and despite my size, I couldn’t get her to move. My pulse started to race and a heavy weight pressed down on my chest; breathing became difficult. I gasped for breath.
No. No. It would be alright.
“Musa?” she whispered roughly.
The hope I’d been holding on to sank somewhere to my toes. “No, Rasheed. Eedy.”
Musa was my babu’s name—my grandfather—a man we’d silently agreed to never speak of, ever. To Granma, saying his name was equal to calling on the devil, which wasn’t that far off from the truth.
I needed to call for help. She lay on the floor, immobile, her empty stare on me. I did not want to leave her. My eyes blurred. I stood on shaky feet and rushed to get my phone still buried under books from last night’s homework rush. My palms were sweaty enough it took a few swipes before I hit dial on the emergency contact. The person on the other end promised the ambulance would be coming soon.
I returned to crouch next to Granma and took her hand. She slurred something unintelligible that I failed to understand. “They’re coming.” I squeezed her hand.
She grumbled. It sounded like a mangled animal. I blinked to keep the tears from falling, but that only made them fall harder.
“Itsfine,” she slurred. Her hand twitched in mine.
It didn’t seem fine.
Last time she had ended up in hospital, it hadn’t been fine. Three weeks after I turned eight, and the world had turned upside down. I fought off the gnawing helplessness and tried to cling to positive thoughts. It would be alright.
Granma would be alright.
She didn’t really have a choice. She had her dramas waiting for her, Christmas was a few months away—Granma loved Christmas, all those sales and store decorations hyped her up—and I was going to graduate from high school.
Aduma is an economics major at the University of Nairobi in Kenya, and the type of person who feels incomplete without a book in hand. When not reading or writing, Aduma can be found lost in spreadsheets and graphs with music for company. Follow A. on Twitter.
With paintbrush in hand, Nate Redfield takes a city full of ugliness and makes it beautiful. His quiet, empty life is a refuge from a harrowing past, and although he has nothing to love, he also has nothing to lose. Standing up to the syndicate is a good way to end up with a hole in his head, but Nate is not afraid to die.
For once in his life, he’s going to do the right thing, even if it kills him. And it probably will.
But the most dangerous criminal in the city—a man whose sadism and ruthlessness have become local legend—decides to spare Nate’s life. On the streets, Ras is a cold-blooded syndicate enforcer, and makes no apologies for it. But he pursues Nate with a tenderness like nothing Nate has ever known. While no amount of violence could compel Nate to betray his moral compass, love leaves him defenseless.
The vibrant portraits Nate paints tell every story but his own: a lost little girl who thinks of him as a father, a lawyer who tempers justice with compassion, a crime boss and an art thief, and the killer who stole his heart. Ras offers him the love he’s yearned for all his life, if only he is willing to close his eyes to the violent truth. But his story is not one of compromise. It is the story of an indomitable spirit, rising like fire from the ashes of his past.
Nate Redfield knows he’s going to die. He’s known it for a while now—woken up with it, gone to sleep with it, held it near to his heart. It’s not suicide, not exactly, but it might as well be. He might as well be putting a gun in his own mouth when he pushes open the doors to the Cat Scratch, the seedy strip club where Alan DiCiccio conducts his business.
He walks past the stage, strippers swaying, sliding their G-strings down their long, supple legs so a handful of men can spend their Friday afternoon appreciating the view. The bouncer at the back of the room gives him a nod and steps aside so he can push open an unlabeled black door and walk into what serves as DiCiccio’s office. Behind him, the bouncer’s heavy footsteps follow, and then the door clicks shut.
“You’re late,” DiCiccio says. “I hope you’s got some extra cash to make up for it.”
DiCiccio looks Mafia, through and through, with a New York accent and an unnecessarily formal black suit. But he’s not Mafia. There is no Mafia in this city, only the syndicate with a monopoly on crime and the muscle to keep it that way. DiCiccio works for them, so Nate does too. Or he did, anyway. Until today.
“I quit,” he says, and with those two words, his heart begins thumping, fast and heavy like someone’s banging the hell out of a snare drum in his chest.
“You quit?” DiCiccio leans forward over the scattered cash and bags of white powder on his desk to stare at Nate. “You fucking quit?” He looks up at the bouncer. “Bobby, am I hearing this shit right?”
“He said he quit,” Bobby responds. He’s a tall, beefy guy with stubble and a couple of big gold rings Nate imagines he wears just for the scars they leave on his victims. “You heard him right.”
“Okay…” DiCiccio draws the word out. “I’ll humor you, Nate. Why the fuck do you think you’re going to quit sellin‘ for me?”
Nate is silent for a moment, gathering his courage. “’Cause it’s wrong,” he says, standing still to give away no hint of the fear scrabbling inside him like some desperate animal.
“Oh, it’s wrong, is it?” DiCiccio puts his hands behind his head, leaning back in his chair. “You think it’s wrong, Bobby?”
“No, boss. I think it’s his fucking job.”
“That’s right. It’s your fuckin’ job. Which I gave to you as an especial favor to my friend Troy. And now you come and you throw it in my face.”
“You told me the pills wouldn’t hurt anybody,” Nate says. “You said they’re not real drugs, and it’s not gonna hurt anybody that bad. But that’s not true. And I’m not gonna do it anymore.”
He thinks of the girl who used to buy from him every Tuesday, dark eyes, a bitter laugh. She was found dead from an overdose just a few days ago, and since then, Nate has been building his courage for this confrontation. He’s not going to walk away alive. But better him than another person like her.
“Nate, look. I like you; I really do. You’re a nice guy. But you come here and you tell me you’re not gonna do your job, and you really leave me no choice. You get what I’m sayin’?”
“Yeah.” Nate’s high voice comes out rough and raspy.
“No.” DiCiccio shakes his head. “I don’t think you do. What I’m sayin’ is that you get out there and you do your fuckin’ job, or Bobby here’s gonna have to fuck you up.” He puts his elbows on the desk and leans forward. “You understand that?”
Nate looks at the glinting rings on Bobby’s right hand, so thick and heavy he might as well be wearing a pair of brass knuckles. Nate’s not afraid to die, but he wishes it wasn’t going to hurt so much.
“I get it,” he says.
DiCiccio shakes his head sadly and glances at Bobby, jerking his head at Nate.
Bobby nods, solemnly, like they’re making a bank transaction—not playing around with someone’s life—and that just pisses Nate off.
A hot wave of anger crashes over him, and as Bobby approaches, he lunges forward, driving his fist into Bobby’s gut and then bringing a knee up hard between the hitman’s legs. Bobby makes a sharp, wounded noise, going to his knees, and Nate drives a hard kick to his ribs. He’s been in enough fights to know how to move and how to make sure the other guy isn’t getting back up anytime soon.
It’s not DiCiccio speaking, but a low melodic voice Nate’s never heard before. He steps back from the groaning thug on the floor and looks up. A man stands in the doorway, his messy dark hair falling over his forehead, and he smiles at Nate. It’s the damnedest thing, this smile. It doesn’t fit the situation at all. It’s the kind of friendly, amused smile he might give Nate if they were walking their dogs in the park and the leashes got tangled together. It’s strange and surreal and almost familiar. And the adrenaline is stretching seconds into minutes into hours and highlighting every detail of this man who—Nate somehow just knows, from his arrogant stance and the tilt of his chin—now controls every aspect of the situation.
“Who would like to explain to me what’s going on?” the man asks.
“Jesus fuckin’ Christ, Ras,” DiCiccio says. “Make a little noise next time you walk in a room, you sneaky bastard.”
And Nate freezes, his earlier fancies iced over with fear because this is Ras, second in command to the syndicate boss and meanest motherfucker in the whole city. He’s heard a lot of talk about Ras—anyone who’s spent time in the criminal underworld has. The gossip rags love him. Their stories are sensational and exaggerated, but the rumors Nate hears on the streets—tales of sadism and deadly skill—make him think there is some truth to them.
“DiCiccio.” Ras doesn’t sound happy to see the drug dealer. “What’s all this?”
“Motherfucker attacked me,” Bobby moans as he picks himself up off the floor. “The little faggot fights dirty.”
Nate winces. He’s used to that word, but it still wounds more deeply than any other.
“He attacked you, did he?” Ras sounds unamused.
“He thinks he can quit,” DiCiccio says. “He comes in here givin’ me some bullshit story ‘bout how what we do is wrong, and he’s just not gonna do it anymore.”
The corner of Ras’s mouth twists upward, and he glances at Nate. “What we do is wrong. I can hardly fault him for being honest.”
“I’m not doin’ it anymore.” Nate’s mouth feels dry and sandpapery as he waits for Ras’s response.
“Great for you, you’re a big fuckin’ hero.” DiCiccio rolls his eyes. “You got any last words, big fuckin’ hero?”
“Fuck you,” Nate growls, anger coursing through him so hot he doesn’t feel the fear anymore—it’s burned away like a paper shell around something hard and relentless as iron.
DiCiccio raises his gun in one sallow hand. The bang of the gunshot is so loud Nate can almost feel it, a tangible burst of pressure. But nothing hurts. Nate looks down and is startled to find himself intact.
DiCiccio drops the gun and stumbles forward, collapsing on the carpet. A pool of red seeps out from under his head, a bright spatter painting the far wall.
Ras has holstered his gun, but clearly, he can draw so fast he may as well still be holding it. He turns to Bobby and raises an eyebrow.
“I swear to god I had nothing to do with it,” Bobby says, backing away as Ras approaches. “DiCiccio was the one who stole from you. I told him not to. I told him!”
Nate’s not stupid, he knows this isn’t going anywhere good. So while Ras pulls a little knife from his pocket, he darts out the door, sprinting for the parking lot. He draws in a shaky breath when the sunshine falls over him, so bright and carefree, but he can’t spare even a trembling second because he’s got to fucking run for it. He zigzags through alleyways, ducks into stores, and indiscriminately boards busses and trains, traveling across town in the wrong direction for a couple of hours before he feels safe enough to get on a train headed home.
He’s not an idiot—he knows that in this town, no one can watch a syndicate enforcer do a hit and walk away. He’s probably only delaying the inevitable, and as he watches the shining city outside the windows of the train, he wonders if he’s ever going to see it again. It seems fraught with fragile beauty, the blinding splashes of light reflected in storefront windows and the metal of the cars streaking by on the interstate.
In his entire life, he has only ever had one true love, so it makes sense that as he nears the edge of his lifetime, he has only one regret. He left her behind because he had no other choice, but he could no more stop loving her than he could stop his blood from flowing through his veins. And even when his heart has beat its final rhythm, that love will endure. He knows that much is true, even as he believes in nothing else.
Sarah Kay Moll is a wordsmith and an amateur homemaker. She’s good with metaphors and bad with coffee stains, both of which result from a writing habit she hasn’t been able to quit. She lives a mostly solitary life, and as a result, might never say the right thing at parties. She’s passionate about books, and has about five hundred on her to-read pile. When she does go out, it’s probably to the library, the theater, or the non-profit where she volunteers.
Sarah lives in a beautiful corner of western Oregon where the trees are still changing color at the end of November and the mornings are misty and mysterious. She spends her free time playing video games and catering to her cat’s every whim.
Two years after the end of the world, Cate and Marco have finally found a place for their people to start over. Sustainable and safe from zombies, the island is everything they hoped it would be. It seems the worst may finally be over; they can stop surviving and begin to live again. But the arrival of two new people sets in motion a chain of events that throw the island into unrest, and Cate must fight for her love, her people, and her sense of self. Can the inhabitants of Alcatraz Island find a way to come together when everything around them is falling apart?
Almost two years before their arrival on the island, just after the event that ripped their family apart, Marco began an aimless journey. With his foster family gone—some dead, some vanished—once again, Marco was on his own and sure it was for the best; other people only slowed you down, ended up as liabilities, or worse. Alone was good. It was what he was used to. But on his journey south, he collected other wanderers and began to consider the idea of a cooperative group or, maybe, a found family. There was, after all, safety in numbers.
Finally, together on the island, everyone assumes they are safe. But assumptions in a world run by zombies can be dangerous. Deadly. There is something going on in the city, terrifying and unnatural. Something that will change everything they think they know about zombies. And it’s coming to the island.
The Island is not a stand-alone. It’s advised that book one, The End, be read first.
Those are not people. The way they move, the fact that when we wave, they don’t wave back, and the way they are all shambling toward us down the paths to either side. It all collectively spells zombie.
“Hello,” calls Calvin.
No answer. Damn it.
None of us has the energy to fight any more. We spent the whole night fighting to get to the island. We watched our people get maimed and die; Calvin’s Nana Mae sacrificed herself to save him, my sister Mel, and their new babies. Five other people died too, though I didn’t know any of them well. They were all Marco’s people. Now we’re all one another’s people. What a way to make a family.
Toby is looking pale. His younger brother Jax, though much smaller than Toby, is doing his best to keep him upright. The place where Toby’s hand used to be, before it was clawed by an Abnormal zombie and then cut off by me to prevent infection, is wrapped in a bandage from what I’m guessing is a very limited supply. I think everything is probably limited. There wasn’t much time to pack or prepare after Mel’s labor screams drew in the horde last night. It’s not her fault. Birthing twins with nothing stronger than ibuprofen must be agony. But we had to leave in a hurry. We made it all the way to Alcatraz, barely. And now, apparently, we have to fight again.
I’m too exhausted to cry. We are broken, for the second time since this all started. It’s cold and drizzling. There’s a thick fog rolling in. At least it isn’t dark anymore.
“What do we do?” asks Sylvia, holding her kids close to her body.
“Same thing we’ve been doing,” answers Marco.
When he doesn’t offer anything else, Calvin steps in. “We should get the injured and the kids somewhere safe, right?”
“They’re still far enough we can probably slip by them on that road—” Calvin points to the right. “—and come back out once you’re all safe inside. Shouldn’t take long to clear the island; there don’t seem to be many here.”
“It’s a big island,” says Marco. “There will be a lot more up there than you think.”
“Can’t say I’ll be much use,” says Captain Jacob, stepping forward through the group. He’s cradling his arm. I can guess what comes next: He edges his sleeve up, wincing, to reveal a definite bite near his elbow. The veins around it are black, all the way up and down his arm, peeking over the collar of his shirt.
“Captain,” breathes Amy, our doctor, “why didn’t you say something?”
“Call me Jacob; I told you. I knew it wouldn’t do any good. Happened so fast. Had to get us here either way.”
Amy examines the wound, touches his arm where the veins disappear under his sleeve. “There’s no way this hasn’t reached a main vessel by now,” she says, feeling his face for fever and shaking her head. “I’m so sorry, Jacob.”
“I appreciate it, Amy. But there’s no need. I’ll have to show someone how to drive the ferry. Murray?”
“Of course, Jacob.”
“It has been an honor to know all of you,” Jacob says. “Marco, you take care of these people. You got us this far. Soon you’ll all be safe.”
“I’m sorry, Jacob,” says Marco, who looks on the verge of tears.
“Don’t be. I did my part. I can live with the result. Or, I guess I can’t.” He chuckles at his own dark joke, but it turns into a coughing fit that makes his whole body tremble. “Come on, now, Murray. We haven’t got all day.”
Murray follows Jacob, catching him as he stumbles getting back on the boat. Jacob looks back and lifts a hand in goodbye to all of us. He doesn’t have long. Another family member lost, claimed by the infection.
“We should go,” says Ana, ever the stoic. “They’re getting closer.”
We move up the wider path as quickly as we can, although every one of us is exhausted and several of us are in some way incapacitated, so we’re not as fast as we need to be. The path switches back and forth as it ascends.
“Stay together,” Calvin whispers as the first few zombies notice us.
We do as we did last night, shuffling the less capable into the middle of our huddle as we move. However, now, so many more of us can’t fight than can. When the zombies get to us, we are less efficient than we have ever been. It takes me two hits to take down one zombie, even though I sharpened my axe the other day, and I have to put my boot on its head to get the axe back. I haven’t had to do that in ages. Calvin gets one on the first try, but it takes him a second to pull his knife free. Somehow, we escape. But just up the path, more swarm toward us. Not many, but there are always more.
M. Rose Flores has enjoyed writing since she learned how to string letters together. She grew up in the vast green Pacific Northwest of the United States, which with its dense forests, four seasons, and proximity to the ocean made a perfect setting for The End. When she isn’t writing on her computer or in a notebook (though scraps of paper and the palm of her hand will do in a pinch), she works as a professional dog trainer and loves every part of it, even the copious amounts of drool. She believes everyone should be represented in literature and all other media. The End is her first novel.