Category Archives: Fiction

Inferno by Andrew Bourelle

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Originally published in Issue #15,  June 2014

When I push Kayla’s wheelchair out of the hospital, the air is so thick with smoke my eyes water. She’s asleep, an oxygen mask over her mouth. I lift her easily into the car. Thirteen years old, but she doesn’t even weigh sixty pounds. I fold the wheelchair and wedge it behind her seat. I buckle her in and kiss her forehead. She radiates heat. The skin over her bald skull is soft, like a ripe peach, and so pale  it’s almost translucent. A web of blue veins stands out against the pallor.

A security guard is jogging through the parking lot, heading my way. I stomp on the gas and pretend I don’t see him flagging me down. I drive toward the hills, the sun an orange blob bleeding through the haze.When I see the roadblock ahead, I do a U-turn and backtrack to the old canyon road Dad used to take when he wanted to drive “the scenic route.” The scorched hills still smolder here. Charred-black telephone poles  stand along the country road, some of them burnt through and dangling from the phone lines like crosses awaiting a crucifixion. Firefighters—yellow ghosts in the gray fog—sift through the burnt remnants of roadside buildings. In the distance, planes take turns dropping clouds of chemicals on a burning hillside.

Kayla stirs, her eyes glossy like she’s been smoking marijuana. “Smells like campfire,” she says, her voice dreamy. She doesn’t even ask why she’s not in the hospital.

“How you doing?”

“Fine.” The word is thick with saliva.

“Guess what?” I say. “I’ve got a surprise for you.”

“Yeah?” She sounds genuinely intrigued, but she slips off to sleep anyway. I didn’t bother to change her out of the hospital gown, which looks like a baggy paper sack full of bones. Her head, a skull with skin stretched over it, seems perched so precariously on her shoulders that it might roll off.

My parents have known for a long time that she’s going to die, but they  never explained that to me. When I asked them what “hospice” was, I felt like I’d been duped. Like I was a kid who still believed in Santa Claus long after everyone else his age knew the truth. Like they’d just expected me to figure it out.

I went into her bedroom, lay on her bed, smelled her scent in the pillow. Looking around her room, that’s when I got the idea. On her bedside table, there was a photograph of the two of us in the front car of the Inferno, the rollercoaster at Mom and Dad’s amusement park. Mom had snapped the picture just as the train was pulling forward. Kayla is smiling with her whole face.

***

We’re through the worst of the burned areas when she wakes up again. She says nothing at first, just looks around, the hills fading into a gray fog.

“It looks kind of like the end of the world, doesn’t it?” she says.

“Yes,” I say. “Very apocalyptic.” We’re driving through a small evacuated community, just a few stoplights along a lake. One of the lights turns red, and I stop, even though there are no other cars around. A grocery store stands empty next to a bar with all its neon beer signs extinguished to an ashen gray. The lake reflects the sky, a cloudy slab of iron.

“It’s kind of like we’re in hell,” Kayla says.

The light turns green, but I don’t press the gas yet. I wait.

“There’s no such thing as hell,” I say.

“If there’s no hell, then is there a heaven?”

“Of course there’s a heaven.”

“Will I go there?”

I try to laugh, but it comes out sounding forced, uncomfortable. “Of course you will. Someday. But not right now. That’s a long way away.”

It’s Kayla’s turn to laugh.

The light turns yellow, and before it goes red again, I nudge the gas and roll the car forward. I press down on the pedal, picking up speed.

“What scares me,” Kayla says, “is I don’t think there’s any heaven or hell. I just think it’s blackness. Not even blackness. Just, you know, nothingness.”

“That’s crazy talk,” I say. “Your soul has to go somewhere.”

“There’s no such thing as a soul,” she says matter-of-factly.

“Kayla,” I say. “Listen to me. There is a heaven. And things work differently there. If you die before me, I’ll already be there. Everyone you ever loved will be there because time isn’t the same in heaven.”

“Will you be an old man and I’ll be a thirteen-year-old kid? I won’t even recognize you.”

“No,” I say. “Time’s different. We’ll just be, you know, us. Ageless. Our true souls. Who we are at all times.”

“That sounds nice,” she says. Her eyes start to sag, and she settles into the seat. “Make sure you go to heaven then. Don’t do anything that would keep you out. Don’t kill anybody.”

I chuckle.

“No more talk about heaven and hell and all that stuff. Okay?”

She’s doesn’t answer. She’s asleep again.

To my right is a sloping hill, once dense with pine trees, now full of blackened snags. I used to love this drive, looking out at the scenery, rolling down the windows and inhaling the clean air. All it took was one spark, infecting the dry brush and spreading like a disease, killing all the trees and grass and burning down houses. That’s what’s happening inside Kayla—the fire is spreading, scorching her healthy cells, and no amount of medicine is going to extinguish the flames.

I know she’s dying. I know it as well as I know there is no heaven and there is no hell. It’s a nice idea: good people live forever in paradise. But if there’s a heaven, then there must be a hell. If that’s the case, maybe I’m already dead. Driving through a burning world with my dying sister—what hell could be worse than this?

***

Through the smoke, the rollercoaster stands like the skeleton of some

strange dinosaur. The paint job, cartoon flames on a black background,

is faded, but the structure is imposing. The area is closed, but only out of

precaution—the fire hasn’t spread this far.

I nudge Kayla.

“Hey, check this out.”

“Woah,” Kayla says. “What are we doing here?”

I thought she would have recognized the scenery of the drive and figured this out, but apparently she is more out of it than I thought. I stop at the gate and get out to enter my code. I wasn’t sure the electricity would still be on, but I’m in luck.

I taste smoke, but the air is breathable. It won’t be good for Kayla, but she can handle it for the length of the ride. I don’t want to bring her oxygen canister on the Inferno; I want her to be able to shriek with joy as we race down the track.

My phone rings. Caller ID shows it’s my mom. Kayla looks at me through the windshield. I wave and smile, like nothing is wrong.

I turn the phone off.

Driving through the gate, I ask Kayla how she’s doing.

“I’m hurting a little,” she says.

“We’ll just take a quick ride, and then I’ll get you back to the hospital.”

I drive to the Inferno. When Mom and Dad bought the park, I was twelve and Kayla was nine. The first time we rode the Inferno, she was scared. I reached over, took her hand, and told her everything was going to be all right. As we flew down the hill, she threw her arms in the air and shrieked with joy, a healthy, high-pitched screech that was all happiness and no fear. We rode it at least twenty times after that, maybe fifty, enough that I got bored. But I kept doing it every time Kayla asked because I loved to hear her scream with glee.

The lift hill looms over us, fading in the smoke like the peak of a mountain covered in clouds. The hill is a hundred and forty feet tall, and it starts the coaster on a four-minute ride, up and down hills, through three tunnels, culminating in a 540-degree helix—a whirlpool of G-forces. There are no loops, nothing inverted, no overbanked turns. But it’s fast. Sixty miles an hour, all the time shaking you like you’re hanging onto a jackhammer.

And it’s loud, like pieces of metal and chunks of wood in a clothes dryer, clanking and crashing and drowning out the sound of your own pounding heartbeat. What Kayla and I always loved is that the Inferno isn’t some hightech coaster gliding along a smooth track. Forty years old and one of the biggest wooden rollercoasters in the world, the Inferno is a pure thrill ride, everything a rollercoaster should be. After I flip the breaker and power up the chain dog, I wheel Kayla into the base station and open the door to the front car.

“You ready?”

She smiles, but I can see she’s hurting without the morphine. By the time I get her back to the hospital, she’ll be in agony. But I know she wants to do this.

“You and me,” I say. “Like old times.”

She smiles and nods.

A tear spills down her cheek, gray in the muted light. I lift her into the seat, jog to the panel to press the button, and then run back and jump in the car as it begins to move. I pull down the security bar, locking us in. We listen to the clink clink clink  of the chain as it pulls us up the hill.

The rides below—the Octopus, the Grand Carousel, the Viking Ship—grow smaller and smaller and begin to disappear in the gray. We are in a cloud. Flakes of ash float around us like pollen on a summer day. Kayla’s chest heaves. Each breath makes a wheezing sound. She is crying.

I take her hand.

“I would do anything for you,” I say.

“I would do anything,” she says, her voice cracking, “for you.”

She looks at me with pleading eyes as we crest the hill.

Then we thunder down the track. The G force pushes us back, the bones in my shoulder blades pressing against the seat. The car shakes like an airplane in heavy turbulence. The first tunnel grows bigger as we fly toward it, a black hole so dark it seems like there can’t be anything on the other side. When Kayla starts screaming, I tell myself they’re shrieks of joy.

A Methamfairytale by Shane Stricker

 

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Originally published in Issue #14, December 2013

At first, you were only making enough for yourself. It was easy. A trip down to Wal-Mart. One to the farm supply store. A quick ride across the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers there at Cairo and you could get the Sudafed just by asking the pharmacist to take it from the shelf for you. No prescription needed. And you were smart enough to drive just a little further for it from time to time. Down past Wickliffe to Paducah, or a little further still over to Eddyville. You held onto a calendar you received from the Jehovah Witnesses who came by beating on the door, poking their heads in where they didn’t belong. You thought it was funny to keep your schedule in there, marking the dates when you got the Sudafed, where you bought it, in what town, and when you could go back to get more without catching any badges. But the money ran out. Gone, dried up. And you had friends who would pay top dollar for what you were making. They already knew you cooked it. You might as well stack some green toward bills, toward groceries. But even as you sat there arguing with yourself about where that money was going, you knew it wouldn’t be to groceries. You were educated enough to know the economics of a fix. It was either bills and groceries or the dope, and everybody knows which you chose. After the family all passed away, you were out there living alone in that house on the farm where you grew up. When you still held down a job, there were friends who didn’t even do dope swinging by when they were in town. Sure, you had loads of those kinds of friends, all of them there to pull you out of that big ole shit pot you had gotten yourself into. They came in groves— their buses parked end to end along the dirt drive leading up to the house— all of them fighting each other to see who could give up everything in their lives the fastest; all of them struggling over each other to reach down and give you their hand.

Truth is, there weren’t any of those kind of friends. But there sure were plenty to come by and pay for more dope making. That there was. And since that shit does do you different the calendar that worked so well at first got a little disorganized and before you knew it, you had thrown up a red flag at a Walgreens in Paducah.

They didn’t have a goddamn scrap on you but they said they’d go ahead and let the Sikeston cops know what you’d been up to and you know how

the police are in Sikeston. Lord yes, you knew those Paducah boys weren’t lying when they said they’d alert the locals and not two days passed before a couple of those Sikeston cops came out to the farm.

One of them you had known forever and had graduated with. The other had been a few years behind you in school. The one you had known your whole life was still knocking on the peeling wood of the screen door when you looked out through it. The one you didn’t really know asked if you minded them taking a look around. You eyed him, then the other, and told them both you’d had your problems. They knew that. You knew that. Everyone in town knew that. But you went on, telling them you were still an American and you had your rights.

That was enough for them to turn away from the door but as they stepped from the porch into the dirt of the drive, the one you knew turned around. “We’ll be watching,” he said. The man tapped his hat with his fingertips and the two cops sauntered to their cruiser and drove off, a cloud of dirt left in their wake. You stared after them, through the screen door, until they were gone and the dirt had settled. You didn’t need telling about their watching. No, they didn’t have anything on you but it made you cautious again didn’t it? Cooking small batches in that shed at the corner of the property.

Just a little for you, and a little for a buddy who’d been going to see his sick grandmamma in Little Rock quite a bit of late, bringing back the Sudafed you needed to keep cooking. When your buddy came by, the money was starting to run out again and you had been high for eight days. The way you had it figured, if you could just get a little money together you could pay off the back taxes on the farm, sell it. You could get out of this town, away from this life. You could get off this shit. Like now. Right now. For good. If you could only get your hands on a little bit of money. That’s when your buddy starts in, talking about this Arkansas gypsy woman that helped his grandmamma out a few months back. He’s got this story and he’s telling it and you can’t, for the life of you, hear a goddamn thing. All you can do is stare at that mole on his cheek, stare at its little mouth and the long gray hair growing out of the middle of it. The thing bounces up and down and then it stops. It’s just sitting there smiling at you. But then it starts bouncing again and this time you hear what it’s saying and it’s telling you to pay some goddamn attention, that it’s trying to help you. Its little mouth is flapping away so fast it takes a minute for you to catch up but when you do it’s telling you about your buddy’s grandmamma needing new shingles. She needed new shingles. Needed the sons a bitches up and down, every way around, forever. Just forever. So she’s down, way down about these shingles. But the carnival comes to town and this grandmamma goes down there to get some deep-fried Oreo’s or funnel cake, one or the other. Anyway, she’s down to the fair eating on something and she sees this beatdown trailer beside the VFW’s tent and it says something about the gypsy woman on the outside. His mole just keeps on eyeing you and it’s bouncing up and down but you barely even notice it now. Yeah, it’s there and it’s bouncing and you’re looking at it but you’re also listening to the story. She’s talking to this gypsy woman and the gypsy woman flat out tells her she’s gonna get those shingles she’s been wanting. The grandmamma didn’t even say a word about needing shingles and that freaks her out. She goes home. Wallop. Two weeks later she wins a goddamn drawing she didn’t even enter down to the Home Depot for, you know it, shingles. She thought it was a scam. Didn’t answer the phone for a week straight but the people from the Depot don’t give up that easy. They came to her house. Knocked on the door. Talked her into letting them do the work. She couldn’t believe the gypsy woman was right.

But you aren’t just a dumb shit of any kind. You know no old hoodoo, gypsy woman was out there in Maumelle, Arkansas or God knows where, telling folks about getting free shingles then it happening just like she said it would. But you can’t tell your introspective, dumb-shit subconscious that, can you? When you finally sleep, after those eight days awake, you crash like a derby car. And you crash hard. You dream hard too, don’t you? You dream about driving through Arkansas back roads. You alone. The car isn’t even yours but it feels like yours and that’s enough. You don’t know what you’re doing yet, but you know you’re on a mission. You can tell because you’re wearing cufflinks and you have never worn cufflinks before. Not one time has your life called for cufflinks, and so you know you’re on a mission. When the car disappears and you forget, for the moment at least, that you had ever been driving a car, you’re at the carnival standing in front of a trailer marked gypsy woman . It doesn’t actually say gypsy woman . It says gpsy womn  but you get the point.

You’re inside the trailer without walking in a door or sliding through a window and the gypsy woman’s sitting right there across the table from you, already talking. Her mole is smiling at you and bouncing up and down, up and down and you’re staring hard without feeling self-conscious a bit and it just can’t bounce fast enough or smile big enough for you until it stops bouncing altogether and closes its mouth. The gypsy woman tells you that if only you had listened you’d have heard the secret of life and you get that same oh shit feeling you had when those cops came by the house. But she slaps her hands down on the table laughing—laughs so hard she chokes and starts coughing something up. When she gets done with her fit and finally spits, there, lying on the table, is the head of a sugar glider. It still has its fur attached, the black and white stripes like a badger staring back at you. You try to slide your chair back, try to get away, but you can’t move. You look up at the gypsy woman to avoid looking at the head and her mole’s already settled back into the natural rhythm of doing business. She’s telling you about your farm. A long dirt road up to the house. A barn. Grown over pasture land. A shed that smells like the fires of hell. You’re not sure if the mole even opened its mouth for that last bit but you heard it just the same. She says she knows you need money. If only you had the money, she goes on—you’d have no need for that shed. And then she tells you to listen carefully and you hang onto her words like they’re the last bit of cliff and there’s sixty feet worth of open air waiting to engulf your life. “Walk two hundred and forty-three paces from the screen door, to the northwest corner of the fallow field, as the crow flies.” She tells you that when you dig you’ll strike oil, and then it’s your turn to laugh at her. You slap your hands down—full-well knowing there aint no oil in southeast Missouri—and when your hands smack table, you wake up in the bed that used to be your grandparents’, face-down in a puddle of your own spittle. The floor’s covered in newspaper trimmings, Kentucky Fried Chicken bags, hangers. So many hangers. Lucky Charms boxes. Window frames. Magnets that wouldn’t stick to the fridge. Ashes and burnt out cigarettes mound to one side of your head. To the other, a bowl of congealed chicken salad. This is the homestead that’s been in your family since before the Depression. But you aint like them, your family. They worked their hands until the skin grew translucent by the fire’s light. You’ve racked up a life that’s getting harder and harder with each day not to put a bullet through. They might have died by gunshot or with a bottle sitting next to them but they trudged the righteous path, as far as they could tell it. They believed in powers greater than themselves, in the role of dreams to guide the way. And despite you not agreeing with their beliefs, something about this dream feels so real it draws you in like an open sore. You don’t even bother putting shoes on. You walk out of the house, shoeless and shirtless. The sky is a painting you wouldn’t appreciate unless you were selling its beauty down to the pawnshop. The dirt cakes to mud on the soles of your feet as you pass across the dirt drive into the grass. After grabbing the shovel from the cook shed, you retrace your steps back to the screen door. You must begin there. Two hundred and forty-three steps later, you’re in the northwest corner of your property, just like the gypsy woman foretold. You know there aint no oil to be found and this thought keeps you from making the first strike at the ground. Five, ten, fifteen minutes pass with your bare foot pressed down on the head of the shovel, your forearms resting against the handle.

Finally, your patience—which has never been very long to begin with— goes completely and you strike down on the earth with a massive blow. The reverberation echoes from foot to teeth. You do this over and over. The thud of shovel meeting dirt is followed by the plop of dirt discarded on the pile. You’re at it thirty minutes, an hour, two hours. The foot that’s doing the work is bleeding and may be broken. The rusty spade of the shovel is covered in your blood. You’re ready to quit altogether when you hit something. It cracks loud enough for you to hear it and you bend down. A pickle jar in four jagged pieces. You manage to dig it out of the hole and cut yourself on the broken glass. Inside of it, there’s money. Loads of it, crisp like burnt magazine. And your blood stains the greenbacks.

But when you go to pull the money from the jar it’s so old it crumbles.

The bits of paper stick to your bloody hands. Now you really can’t help  yourself. You push that shovel into the ground, a hundred times if you ever pushed it once. With each strike of the earth, it becomes clearer that your foot is broken. Your hip feels like it’s going to snap off and become its own being, free from your bullshit. But you keep going. By the time you’re finished, you’re sweating all over and having trouble breathing. The blood on the shovel is dried black. In all, you’ve removed seven pickle jars from the hole, all of them filled with wads of money as big as your calf. But when you look closely, two of them are cracked just beneath the lid, small cracks, but enough to let moisture in. The others weren’t threaded right and all that money that could have been yours has been given over to years, maybe a century’s worth of dirt, and air, and wet. You go to pull the bills out of each one, jar by jar, but all that money turns to dust just like the first. It’s like you’re fighting that invisible bear in the woods again. You can hear everyone laughing. You can hear the silence between their laughs. The way their tongues click against the roofs of their mouths. You can hear the sound of every mistake you’ve ever made playing back on a loop. You can hear your grandmamma’s voice telling you to get to school, to get to work, to make something of yourself.