Lost, and by James Hartman

Five years ago I lost my faith in people. I was sick. When I swallowed food it felt like a million swords sliced my stomach. My weight plummeted. Extensive testing revealed no abnormalities. I was hospitalized, a feeding tube implanted in my throat because I kept throwing everything up. The ER doctor, after reviewing all my tests, said to my husband, “What do you mean you don’t have a diagnosis?” Rob told him that none of my tests showed anything. The ER doctor pointed to a sheet of paper and said, “Your wife’s endoscopy shows three small cancerous tumors in her stomach lining.” Rob read the paper and screamed. He had to be restrained. I couldn’t speak. There was nothing so helpless. The endoscopy was the first test performed by my gastroenterologist who said my results were negative and referred me to a rheumatologist. I didn’t find out until after the operation that the ER doctor had told Rob of its severe risk. Too much time had passed. The tumors were wedged too deep. That operation cured me, and there is only a slim chance this type of cancer will return. Or so they say.

At my interview for consideration of admission into veterinary school, the director asked me why I chose to pursue this particular career. I said that even when the patient can speak, they are still screwed. I said excuse my language but human beings were shit, wielding more ability to produce harm than prevent it, and I did not want to devote my medical skills to saving them. Instead I chose animals. I said I needed to save as many animals as I fucking could.

After graduation, my director’s recommendation letter got me hired by one of the best 24-hour emergency veterinary hospitals in Michigan. My first year I got the overnight shift. Six straight nights without seeing one patient. The others played cards. I read my veterinary books. The others, I could tell, wondered why I didn’t interact with them, but they got used to it. On the seventh night, a woman came in with a badly limping Chihuahua. Aggressive questioning uncovered that she had accidentally slammed the pantry door on Lucy’s leg. I told her Lucy was very lucky not to have suffered any fractures. I gave her medication for Lucy’s bruise, and on the way out I told her to watch what the fuck she was doing. Maybe asshole was uttered. The woman called the next morning and complained. My manager agreed the owner was an asshole, but I couldn’t actually call her one and must control myself or disciplinary action would be taken.

On March 17th, around ten, I was reading when Sarah phoned me in back and said, “Prepare yourself.” That wasn’t procedure. Procedure was, “Get everything ready, now!” or “Look alive, it’s time to roll!” So I didn’t understand. The young man who brought Mister Samson in was hyperventilating. One second he and his young cat were napping together, the next Mister Samson’s breathing turned odd. He kept squinting at his back legs, confused. He couldn’t stand. He could only drag himself forward with his front paws.

And then I understood. At veterinary school, I had never witnessed this condition. This kind of thrombosis occurs when a clot breaks off from the heart and saddles the point where the aorta branches into each leg, blocking up blood until the lungs congest with fluid. Often the result of advanced heart disease, which cats are too good at hiding. It can also develop from congenital heart defects. Unfortunately it can’t be prevented, stopped, reversed, or cured.

I brought the young man back, something we are not allowed to do. Mister Samson’s breathing was severely labored, his legs without pulse. When he saw his owner he meowed with excited longing and this accelerated his heart rate, which accelerated his lung congestion, and he started gagging. The owner’s left hand caressed Mister Samson’s belly and his right massaged his head, his ears, telling him he was a good good boy, the best boy anyone could hope for, that Daddy was right here, I’m right here, I’m right here, as I administered the Euthasol.

It was the three of us for I don’t know how long. He cradled Mister Samson and murmured, between loud convulsions of tears, how much he loved him.

I had never seen anyone cry like that.

He said, “Do you believe they really go to a better place?”

I told him that, yes, Mister Samson was already there, running and jumping around, probably chasing a chipmunk.

“How do you know?”

“Because that’s what he deserves.”

I answered every additional question. No, there was nothing you could have done. No, you did not cause this. Yes, he felt you. Yes, he knew you loved him. No, you’re right, this wasn’t fair.

The sun was flushed above the trees. Sarah told me she called a taxi and waited with the young man for it to arrive, helped him in, and handed the driver cash. For days his car sat in the lot. I began to fear that he would call and file a complaint against me, demanding to know why I hadn’t done more to try to save Mister Samson. I feared I would be fired.

In early April the young man walked in and asked for me. I finally entered the room, and he did not look up. He in no way acknowledged me. I thought, This was it, he would berate me and I’d be fired.

“I just wanted to thank you,” he said.

I waited.

“You were very kind to me,” he said. “You helped me, in a difficult time.”

He started crying, trembling and spasming uncontrollably. And I hugged him. I don’t know how long we hugged each other, but when I came out to meet him it was very dark, and when he left, it was very bright. I watched him get arranged behind the wheel of his car, and as he pulled away he looked at me, and waved.

 


 

James Hartman’s fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best Small Fictions, and appears or is forthcoming in Blue Fifth Review, december, Gravel, The Airgonaut, New World Writing, and Jellyfish Review, among others.  His scholarly work is featured in The Hemingway Review.  He has several degrees, including a Master of Fine Arts in Creative writing, and lives in Michigan with his wife.

 

Touch Tank by Jan Stinchcomb

The showers by the filthy restrooms don’t work, but she presses the metal button and closes her eyes, remembering fresh water. She runs her fingers through her hair and pisses on the sand. Then she begins the long walk to the pier, which still bustles, but with a different kind of activity, the pushers and prostitutes having taken over. They give her weird looks when they see her baby bump. She smiles and explains that she is looking for the old aquarium. A woman with perfect eyeliner and no front teeth points north but warns her that all the fish are dead.

She walks on, past the old carousel and the now empty vintage candy stand. It is coming back to her. She remembers this place. She goes down the stairs to the aquarium and is reassured by a tattered banner announcing feeding times for the seahorse family. Yes, this is definitely the right place. She pushes open a cracked glass door and proceeds, waddling a little, down a ramp into humid darkness laced with decay.

A woman sits in an algae-lined touch tank that was once filled with pastel sea stars and squishy sea cucumbers, creatures that made little kids squeal. The woman is naked except for a halter top covered in little shells and anchor charms. She seems confused when she sees the baby bump but then she says, Ten bucks. Or any food you have.

I don’t have any food. And I haven’t seen a ten-dollar bill in forever.

Then I can’t help you.

Are you the mermaid?

Ha. Not exactly. Or I could be. But you need to pay.

There used to be a mermaid around here when I was a little girl. You could get a picture with her.

Nice. Listen, sweetie, you’re in the way. I might have a customer.

There’s nobody outside.

The woman sighs. This is no place for a pregnant lady.

But I’m going to have a seahorse.

Congratulations. Now get out of here.

Fine, but I’m coming back for this tank. I need it. The ocean is going to turn me inside out. Soon.

She goes back outside and sits down in the sun. Her back is aching. There is no way she can keep walking.

She wakes with a start after an unintended nap, but when she thinks of opening that glass door again, she feels like a little kid pestering her parents in the middle of the night. This is something she barely remembers, but there was a time when she lived in a house and had two parents who slept in a bed. Then there was the mobile home, but, as her mother insisted, it was in the classiest location ever, near Paradise Cove in Malibu, with a man who was not her father. Still, no matter where she lived, she always felt like she was on the outside. The kid who could never get her teacher’s attention. The tag-along who was invisible to the other little girls, even when she was invited to the party.

Her mother had warned her about everything. No mushroom clouds, no secret concentration camps, but they’ll keep pushing you further to the edge until you’ve lost all ground. It’s easy to be forgotten.

She opens the door and slips back into the warm darkness of the aquarium.

Little has changed. The mermaid looks at her in surprise, then recognition, then annoyance. There is a man with her now. He is wearing a sailor suit, but it’s impossible to tell if he’s really in the navy or if this is his fetish.

You, get out. Now.

The sailor turns and frightens her with his glare. Her dry lips quiver but form no words. She spends the rest of the day wandering around the pier until she settles, once again, on the aquarium steps. Late in the afternoon the touch-tank mermaid appears, no longer angry, and shakes out an old sheet.

Do you want me to help you take care of it? Is that it? Because I don’t do that anymore, honey. It’s too dangerous and you’re definitely too far along.

No. It’s not that. I’m not worried about that.

You’re not?

No.

She doesn’t know how to explain herself. She imagines a sea creature inside of her, never a baby, and when it comes out, she will give it to the ocean. If it’s even breathing. She knows nobody, nothing, lives long in this world. All she wants is soft fingers on her flesh, a warm palm, the sensation of another human body near hers. She has an idea.

Do you give massages?

Who told you that?

Someone on the pier, she lies. A woman.

The mermaid tosses her head, and then her expression changes so that it almost looks like she’s consenting. Is it your back? Is your lower back bothering you?

Yes. It’s my back.

I guess I could do that for you. Massage your lower back. But you’ve got nothing to trade?

Maybe we could trade massages.

The mermaid smirks but they end up walking into the dark aquarium together. They find an empty tank and climb in, pressing their bodies against tiny grains of sand as the salty dust kicks up around them.

What happens next is like drifting. She grows so warm that she could easily fall asleep, or better yet, drop endlessly through space. It’s pleasant yet disorienting to surrender to someone else, to lose consciousness knowing that another living person will stay awake. She wishes she could fall asleep forever.

As she nods off she is already starting to dream. She’s down at the sea with the mermaid, but they are both young girls and the world is back to the way it used to be. She feels hopeful. Even the light is different. The mermaid kisses her forehead and tucks her into the blanket of sand.


 

Jan Author Photo -bw

Jan Stinchcomb’s stories have appeared most recently in Whiskey PaperAtticus ReviewFive:2:One andGamut Magazine. She is the author of Find the Girl (Main Street Rag, 2015) and she reviews fairy tale-inspired works in Notes From Rapunzel’s Tower, her column for Luna Station Quarterly. She lives in Southern California with her husband and children. Find her at http://www.janstinchcomb.com or on Twitter @janstinchcomb.

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The Night Season by Evan Nicholls

When autumn came, the professor’s drought ended. He was offered a new office, and having curated things all his season, now brought with him an armada. Like the sequoia desk, which faced due north after much grunting. The hawk skull, placed gingerly on the lip of the wood, milk-colored and dry. And his two mismatched wingbacks, one green and patterned in sunflowers, the other slate. Last, the portrait of an indian blackbuck fixed to the eastern wall. But after arranging the collection with care, he heard chirping from the window pane and looked. There was a grasshopper on the other side. Later, he put his nose between two pages in a book of shinto. He had pressed there a cherry blossom, but hadn’t remembered it to smell so much like moths.

 


 

Evan w_ Farm Hat, Library
Evan Nicholls attends James Madison University (‘20) and is from Fauquier County, Virginia. He is involved with JMU’s literary magazine, Gardy Loo, and has work appearing in CHEAP POP, Penny, and formercactus, as well as forthcoming in The Jellyfish Review. Follow him on Twitter @nicholls_evan .