Stranger in Paradise

Posted on: September 28, 2016

"Damn dark glass. I was convinced these were at least half full." Tom sighed and replaced the bottles carefully in his pack. He looked down at me, concern all over his face. "I'll go get a new one from the truck. I'll just..."

I could tell he was reluctant to leave; he sat next to me in the sand and tied and re-tied his Jamaican-flag bandanna over his beaded dreads until I punched him on the shoulder and said, "Go on, mate, I'll be fine."

"Yeah, that's what they all say in the movies - but the dude always winds up D-E-A-D!" He grinned, but I could see he was still uncertain.

"We're not in a horror movie, man." I glanced around at the tropical greenery that clicked and whirred with jewel-bright insects, at the tree-tops where birds of paradise darted to and fro, at the pool of crystalline water - its fabulous waterfall glittering with a million liquid diamonds.

I dredged up a smile for him. "This is quite possibly the least spooky place I've ever seen. I'll be right here when you get back."

"All right. But, Luke, you better be... You know. 'Kay?"

He took my thin hand in his powerful one. We interlaced our fingers the way we always used to when we were kids. Black on white. White on black. Just as it should be.

Swiftly and self-consciously (even after all these years), he leaned in to kiss me.

"I'll be back."

I listened to his footfalls growing fainter until all I could hear was the endless, organic hum of creatures going about their lives. I leaned against the nearest tree and closed my eyes.

I must have drifted off because I was woken by the sound of giggling and splashing close by.

As if in a dream, I walked until I could see the source of the disturbance: a young couple chasing one another around the edge of the oasis' pool. The man was making what he probably thought were tiger noises. The woman fled before him, shrieking. (I stifled a smile; she was taking care not to flee too fast.)

I tried hard not to stare, for neither wore a stitch of clothing.

The man spotted me first and stopped being a tiger in order to come and say hello.

He ambled up to me, quite unabashed. "Sorry about that, old thing," he said, extending a hand.

"Didn't spot you there what with...other things in view!" He waggled his eyebrows at me. "Sir Michael Smith. At your service."

I tried to pretend this was all perfectly normal. "Well! Another be-knighted Smith!" I beamed.

"Dad was ‘Sir Michael,’ too! I'm Luke, by the way. Doctor Luke Smith."

We shook hands as the woman - as unselfconscious as her companion - bounced up to us, shooting me curious glances from beneath her long fringe.

The erstwhile tiger introduced her with a flourish: "This beauty here is Julie Dempsey - my fiancée." Some deep emotion I couldn't fathom crossed his face. "I'm... really pleased you're the first to know."

I returned Julie's enthusiastic handshake. "Charmed, I'm sure."

"When did you find our little paradise, Doc?" she giggled.

"Oh, only a few minutes ago. The other half's around here somewhere."

"Aha! The more the merrier!" roared Sir Michael. (He put me in mind of one of those larger-than-life Victorian Major-Generals; I honestly couldn't tell whether he was hamming it up or not).

He continued: "So, what in Glory's name is a place like you doing in a man like this?" (Julie rolled her eyes - I supposed she'd heard this line many times before.)

I tried to explain. "This place has been on my bucket list for a while, now."

They looked blank.

"That's, like, a list of things you want to do or see before you die? I've...been stuck at the Minverabad hospital all year, but I've always wanted to visit the oasis because, well, I was curious. Dad was posted out here. After Mum died, that is. And local patients had some weird stories about this place..."

There was an awkward silence.

"Do you come here often?" I added, more cheerfully than I felt.

"Wouldn't be seen dead anywhere less classy!" winked Sir Michael, breaking the tension.

"You'd be seen naked pretty much anywhere, though," returned Julie, tartly. "We went to your hospital, I think, Doc." She turned to her fiancé again. "Is that where they took the bodies?"

Curiosity got the better of decorum. "Bodies? What happened? Um, if you don't mind my asking?"

Julie suddenly found the sky quite interesting, but Sir Michael was not lost for words: "We were on a day trip out here with some other tourists. Julie slipped on the rocks above the falls-" he pointed- "and broke something very important, didn't you, Silly Bean? As for me, I got bitten by one of those damned blunt-nosed mambas whilst trying to rescue her."

He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "One minute we hadn't a care in the world, the next we were in some dreadful melodrama!"

I nodded. "Gosh! Brave of you to return!"

To my astonishment, Julie started to cry.

Her fiancé put a comforting arm around her. "Don't, darling... Just think...we're so lucky to be here! Together. In our youth..."

"But we can't leave!" She wailed. "Ever!"

I wanted to question them further. What DID they mean? Who had died? But it didn't seem to be the moment.

We were interrupted by a crashing in the undergrowth. I turned, scanning the bushes expectantly.

"I... had a little boy named Luke," murmured Sir Michael, behind me. "Never saw him, though. My biggest regret..."

"Quite the coincidence," I replied, distractedly. "But you're forty years too young to be my old man. Also, you're alive."

I waved. "Hey, Tom!" Help me out, here!

Tom sloped past us, eyes eerily blank. Thorn-torn. Ignored us all. Something very wrong.

"He can't hear you. Not anymore..." Whispered Julie.

"THOMA-A-S!" I yelled.

I rounded on the others. “What’s happened to him?!”

“He’s just lost someone.” Replied Sir Michael, flatly. “That's morphine he's carrying. You were a patient, Doctor Smith?"

"Yes, but what did you mean earlier, when-"

"I mean we died that day. Hence, ‘not alive.’ Neither are you, by the look of it."

His eyes bored into mine. "...Son."

I watched in horror as Tom dropped the bottles in the sand and sank to his knees.

Written by: Alex Preece
Photo by: Blake Bronstad

I Am the Leprechaun

Posted on: September 21, 2016

Wedding anniversaries are challenging for anyone, but perhaps more so for my wife and I. We have been married since 1940, and what can you buy for a woman who literally has everything she wants? I hustled around Manhattan to a few stores we liked, but without success. It’s harder for me, because I am the Leprechaun.

Yes–the Leprechaun.

It wasn’t always so.

Walking down these crowded Manhattan sidewalks, I remember my life before the conversion. One day I was a modestly successful New York advertising man, going about my day of quiet frustrations like everybody else. I loved walking in Manhattan then on a hot day, deliriously anonymous and carefree. Then, up in Westchester, it was early June 1940, and the war hadn’t started for us yet. We had a picnic in the cool shade of a huge maple tree, Sadie and I, having a grand time on a classic red checkered tablecloth, minding our own business. And our business was us. We had dated for about seven months, with never a single whisper of argument between us. She was beautiful, I adored her, and I intended that day to ask her to marry me.

A wild storm blew up from nowhere and we took cover in a park shelter. It hadn’t rained for more than two minutes, probably less. The sky cleared to intense blue. The birds returned to chirp in time with raindrops falling from the shelter to the concrete. Sadie laughed and my heart smiled. And there it was.

You never see them in front of you, do you? Always far away and behind trees or skyscrapers. But it landed in the grass right next to us, so I went to look at it. Had to go out and touch it. Of course I did.

The end of the rainbow.

In conformance with the legend, there was a sizable pot of gold coins bathed in spectral Neapolitan glory there on the grass, validating the rainbow’s end (apologies to Vernor Vinge; read his book). It was soundless, but it pulsed in the color bands, just a barely noticeable glow that waxed and waned. And beckoned.

So, short story long (pardon the expression), the first thing I did was scoot out of the park shelter and go to the pot of gold. I stood in the rainbow, face and outstretched arms upturned to the azure sky and bathed in color. I felt warm, happy, saturated somehow in⎯what? Love? No, joy. Flooded with joy and the irrational certitude that I was in the right place at the right time.

The gold was like a magnet. The very moment my fingers closed around a coin, I received a mild electric shock, like you might get pulling clothes from the dryer. Just a tingle. Then the gold and the rainbow vanished, like flipping off a light switch. Instantly, my dark brown hair became Technicolor red, my tan skin became fair and freckled. Even my clothes changed into a green frock coat over green breeches, and a green top hat on my head with a Puritanical buckle. Poor Sadie, shocked, screamed and fainted dead away.

There are rules, I have learned. Some I can bend, some I must submit to. However I amend them now, my successor someday will have them back in place to discover on his own. Yes, regrettably, his own. Have you ever seen a legit female leprechaun? Neither have I, just drunk girls dressed up on St. Paddy’s Day. I tried to convert a few, through various means, but only one such wish ever took. This is a mystery of the rules I think I’ve figured out.

I can change my appearance from the default red-hair-and-freckles, though changes can only be temporary. If I don’t restore the default look within ninety-six hours, even for a moment, I snap back like a green rubber band. I set my watch timer with a margin to avoid surprises.

You’ve seen classic leprechauns, about three feet tall, more or less, all dressed in the team green uniform? They’re usually hawking a St. Paddy’s Day sale down at Mattress Warehouse, but they gotta eat, too. Those are traditionalists. Purists. I choose to be six-three and dress like a regular guy. I mean, I was six-one before, so the extra inches are just harmless self-indulgence. In all respects.

I needn’t hold the obligatory coins in each hand, but I must keep them ready in left and right pockets. In compliance with legend, I spend the left-side coins and they later are returned to my pocket. I spend the right-side coins, and they later turn to dust or stones. If anyone knew enough to “catch” me, they couldn’t make me do jack, actually. My subordinate leprechauns get “caught” from time to time, but that’s a game they play with humans to practice outwitting them.

I embraced the fair skin peppered with light freckles, and I really like the red hair in a Danny Kaye kind of way, but I’ve gone into bars as short as Peter Dinklage and to Renaissance Fairs as dark as Idris Elba, so I have a range of expression. I did discover, after too many Old Bushmills shots one night, that my transformative powers extend to gender. I tried that once. It was pretty exciting to run my hands over that body, because I didn’t hold back. I was freakin’ hot. But I made the mistake of getting a final check-out in a full-length mirror on my way out the door, and it was just too strange for my struggling 1940s sensibilities. God bless my human brothers and sisters struggling with gender identity, but mine is pretty set. I stayed home that night to satisfy some curiosities, but I’ve been my regular self ever since.

That’s enough for now, then. I succeeded in granting Sadie her wish in October of 1940. Turns out the magic ingredient is genuine love, something every songwriter knows. We’re celebrating its anniversary tonight with dinner. I love her red hair. We will grant each other’s wishes somewhat later.

That’s all, lad. May ye be in Heaven half an hour before the Devil knows ye’re gone.

Written by: Daniel Charles Ross
Photo by: Taj Lewis

Red Sky at Morning

Posted on: September 14, 2016

Carey stared at me from the corner of the room, chiding me for reading (The Strange Case of Jekyll and Hyde, which I never finished). I ignored her while she paged through my parents’ coffee table magazines: Nantucket Yacht and an untouched Parenting. She slammed them shut, stood up and glared at me.

“What’s the point?” she sputtered, exasperated and wild-eyed, watercolor sunburn splotches down her legs from a haphazard sunscreen application the day before. I looked up from my book. In her left hand, she held a plastic beach toy: a forlorn purple profile of a fish. It was a sad, bloated shape that ballooned and bulged a misshapen tumor tail, its lips puckered in expectation like the punks at our last middle school dance. It looked frozen in shock, with a final one-eyed look of powerless recognition of fate: Caesar’s final gaze as Brutus dealt the hardest blow.

Come on, Hen!” She shook my arm. Carey was strong: a skin-and-bone arm wrestling champion. “Hen”, short for Henry, simultaneously belittling and endearing, which she loved. She was older by a month and taller by two inches, information volunteered unprompted (“cross my heart it’s closer to two-and-a-half inches”) with enough vigor for both of us. Once, while eating our split ham and cheese on the beach, I pointed out a drip of mayonnaise on her chin. She replied that she intended it to be there and refused to wipe it off for the rest of the meal.

I smirked. “Fine.” Book closed. “What are we doing?” But we did the same thing every day. Summer vacation. Too young to do much of anything, too old to sit at home.

She clapped me over the head with the fish. “Follow me.” She spun on her bare feet and walked out with face-forward determination, knowing I’d run to catch up before she walked halfway down the street.

* * *

The beach was our kingdom. More accurately, Carey’s kingdom and she was king, not queen. With seaweed crown and driftwood staff she carried herself with an awkward, spasmodic regality, shouting orders and castigating her subjects: banishing pearl-less oysters, relegating king crab to court jester.

It was hard to distinguish most days from others. Sunshine, honeysuckle and turquoise sea glass; convincing my mother to pack lunch for two (one sandwich, a party-size bag of chips, a carton of OJ, two fun-size Twix bars), bruises that seemingly appeared from nowhere, round rocks we tried to skip but that often plopped in refusal, the smell of sunscreen and sweat.

We sat atop the steep sand throne and looked down below, across the stretch of beach and water. It was early in the season, a cool day in early June. I don’t think I would have jumped in even if my bones could stand it.

Carey paced the peak of the dune, surveying her dominion as if it were a hundred feet below. I made sad fish imprints in the sand with the toy; mute and purple with that cyclops eye wide, unable to warn you about the sea monster behind your back, impossible to change its hopeless view of things.

“Henry,” she commanded, inflection rising on the last syllable in a proper British accent. Wind swept the paint-splattered patches of seagrass along the dune. I looked up from my petrified fish platoon to see the staff lifted high above her head. I winced and held up my hand in defense. How had I offended the king today? And it was only 10am?

A moment. She rested the driftwood on the crown of my head and said, “Sir Henry, for courage so pure and deeds so bold. Knight of my Kingdom.” I smirked and grabbed the staff, throwing it aside (“Treason, Sir Henry! Treason!”) and jumped on her. She fumbled for footing, my arms wrangled around her neck and feet around her waist (“Guards!”). I seized her crown in hasty revolt and placed it askew on my head. She careened to the edge, left leg tangled up in right; we fell in slow motion (did my lips graze her cheek?) and thumped on impact, plunging down the hill.

We barrel-rolled, tangled, swirled images of sea and sand bled into one another. Blue sand, white ocean, red sky.

I landed with a muffled thud, the right side of my face glued to the beach. Lifting my head, I sputtered laughter, sand-spit spewing from my mouth. My right rib panged, and I looked down to see a viscous trickle of sand-blood flowing down my abdomen. I winced.

Carey lay limp beside me. I prodded her. “Carey.” Lifeless. I observed her. “Not funny, Carey.” I threw half-broken sea shells at her back. Nothing. Repeating, louder, “Carey.” And I wanted her name to be longer, to have a fuller sound, as though perhaps a third syllable would be the one to wake her.

The ocean continued to splash sea and salt, low waves crashing in a white noise that accentuated the silence on the beach.

I shifted to look back to the towering dune. Lifting my legs from my seated inspection, I stepped back, climbing the dune backwards to face toward Carey’s contorted form. At the top, I retrieved the plastic fish, my imprinted fortune-telling fish legion staring at me: “We tried to tell you.”

Back at the shoreline, bedsheet of white foam erasing my footsteps, I flung the fish into the water and watched the piece of floating purple plastic wash out to sea. A fish that couldn’t swim, only drift, climbing the crest of a wave in a dead man’s float.

I walked home alone. An unnaturally wide smile shined from the toddler on this month’s Parenting on the doorstep.

And then gray bedroom, blue fog sleep. Numbness: something and nothing, my entire body like a fallen-asleep foot.

Written by: Gregory Duffy

River in Time

Posted on: September 7, 2016

The river calls and I heed Her, my addiction. Once, a human load of clothes set to life-or-death. The spillway ravages my teenage body. I fight, but can’t win; sweet surrender. Then my hand bumps a rock. A hateful, unapologetic rock that put me into my predicament. One last fight to gain the murky light. I grab Gibraltar and propel myself to air, to heaven, to life. A sandbar oasis; August heat from a Midwestern sun. Her lust be damned.

* * *

The river summons and I gravitate to Her, my sun. Another time, a swan dive. Head first into quicksand. Stunned into stupor and paralyzed. I float downstream—a dead tree uprooted by tornadoes. Recovery, I’m not paraplegic. I’m sanctified, I’m whole, I’m vindicated.

* * *

The river begs and I barter, my sanctuary. A toppled tent, torn down by sweaty desire. Our voyeurs, a fisherman and Her. I can taste Her jealousy, Her fury, Her might. This time She’s indirect.

My beloved lab, Pardner, sucked into Her vortex.

Chelsea screams, “If he goes under, he’s dead.”

The water envelops me. His claws rake my shoulders and blood seeps from the gouges. I thrust him up into outstretched hands. Immense suction tickles the hairs on my legs.

Chelsea nurses my wounds. “You’re fucking insane.”

I reset the tent. A brown, furry lump lies in the sand; worn out. Does he know?

The tent collapses again. More sweat, more want, more flippancy. We lie under the vision of ten-trillion stars and She gurgles. A sultry siren crying out all night long. In the morning, dense fog. I pack up the Dasher, on edge. Her fishy eyes on every inch of me. Chelsea and Pardner cavort in Her wicked reach; She relents. We drive away without further incident. A mirror pond reflection in my rearview.

* * *

The river beckons and I run to Her, my abyss. Drunk strangers playing with danger. An infamous back current; their death between my fingers. She waits for Her meal, a crocodile in the shallows. Time to learn, to sort out transgressions, to let bygones be the truth. The early edition reads as day old news: Two Visitors Drown, One Local Teen Hospitalized.

* * *

The river commands and I obey Her, my true directive. A moonless night; revelers dance. Four old tires burn hot—Hades in July. On dare I take the fridge, rusted from age, for a canoe. It sinks into Her open maw, but not before I’m in too deep. A bootlace catches; turbulent water in turmoil. At the bottom, a loud thud. Then, whispering silence. Thousands of sounds muted; listening to intercourse through a wall. I scream, I thrash, I assail until my boot comes free. Surfacing onto a distant planet—salty, foreign, cool.

I crawl out of Her watery grip hundreds of yards downstream. Back in the throe I’m a god, a titan, the river lord. They chant my name; vulcanized rubber drifts skyward into blankness. The party rages and I fuck my first fuck, dab my first dot, fill up an unused tumbler, mark time; a legend begins.

* * *

The river cries out and I ignore Her, our separation. Houses blur, cars die and time recedes; an arrow to nevermore. At night in faraway lands She babbles. A brook bursting its banks. During the day a teasing allure, happy hour to an alcoholic. One day I’ll go back, return to sender, the melting ice of headwaters. How long have I been gone? Years, decades, but not a century that’s for sure—or is it? The call, the summons, the command nothing works. She cries out for me, a mournful moan. Wretches in heat, dinosaurs in bone, the whispering coughs of vagabonds.

I cheat. Swimming pools, lakes, seas and every ocean in between. My body’s escaped, but my mind’s shackled. It’s not my father that built me, nor the clergy, not my betrothed, not even every misstep along the way. The river, that damned North Platte river shaped me. She forged my soul, fired my loins, fed my hunger, and sustained me. In death’s embrace, life isn’t sweeter. It’s necessary. An ageless mandate, the ultimate order that causes chaos—a spark that ignited cosmic fire.

* * *

The river swoons and I come home, full submersion. Fishing pole, bait and a six-pack. On the bank under a searing summer sun, I’m scared and at ease. Things have changed, but it’s me…all me. I’m older, a shell emptied of all its turtle meat, a dead beaver bloating in the sand, the fleshless carp at the bottom of Her rapids. Still, She pumps me up, inflates my sails—the Hindenburg before Lakehurst. She flows downward and up, outward and inward; heaves to and fro. The windswept furrow blown back into a perfect line. Always in perfect alignment; Amazon, Yangtze, Mississippi, Nile, the Tigris-Euphrates.

The shiny lure skips across Her bosom and sinks into Her caveat. I tug the rod and then reel, tug and reel, tug and reel. Wham, fish on. Surprised, I stumble and slide down Her bank. Up to my knees; a wet, sloppy hello-kiss. I yank back the rod, but it’s a big one. Waist deep—a quick tryst under the oaks. One more attempt to land the monster. My head goes under, the pole drifts away. She’s there in front of me, behind, beside, every point of the globe.

* * *

The river lulls and I swim through Her, my reprise. My arms are fins, my feet the lateral line. Gills, if I had gills, I’d swim upstream to spawn. I stroke and it propels me downward. I stroke again—harder, downward more. I’m not disoriented or confused. Another stroke, deeper into the depths and then another, another, another. I hit the sandy bottom, my fist jams into the gravel and silt. Go with it; the other hand jabs even deeper.

I hold myself to the bottom, I’m a kid again. Her rushing current above, peace and serenity below. Pretend I’m Aquaman, pretend I’m leviathan, pretend I’m Neptune. Pretend … pretend … pretend.

Written by: David Grubb

Photo by: Daniel Vidal

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