02 Jan

BEST OF EJR – Fiction: “Number Six” by Lauren Candia Salerno

Photo Credit: iStock

Number Six
By Lauren Candia Salerno

Content Warning: Mentions of Violence, Horror

Word was the guy stole hearts. A recent slew of murders had everyone on the boulevard talking.  Five girls had been found dead, their hearts neatly cut out but with no signs of any external incision, as if they had simply been born without this vital organ. No one even knew the heart had been taken until the autopsy. I thought the story was bullshit. Still, five girls were dead and maybe I could be next. I asked around about who the john might be, but no one knew what the guy looked like or what he was into. This isn’t the safest job, but the lack of information made me feel more vulnerable than ever. Lots of girls were taking it easy. I wished I could have done the same, but I had a rent check due at the end of the week and not nearly enough money to cover it. 

It was a slow night, and I was one of the only girls out. I pulled the collar of my coat over my nose to keep the cold wind from burning my face. I was ready to walk home when a guy carrying a small duffle bag approached. He looked around nervously as he caught up to me.

“I’m…I’m looking for a date,” he said. 

I uncovered my face and smiled at him and relaxed as much as I could without letting my teeth chatter. “Baby, I’m a sure thing.”

He blushed. “I was hoping that.”

I stepped closer to him, eliminating the space he left between us. We were close enough then that the steam of our breath mingled as we continued the conversation.

“What’s in the bag?”

An incredible shade of red spread from his collar to his hairline.

I smiled. I have a thing for the shy ones.

“It’s okay,” I softly stroked his cheek. “Tell me what we should do tonight.”

He struggled to get through the details, pausing and lowering his voice for words I imagine he didn’t say out loud too often. All he wanted was a night with no talking and no questions. He just wanted me to follow instructions.

“I don’t know, kid. That’s not really my specialty.” 

“I can pay,” he blurted out with an almost frantic look that quickly passed from his face.  “Anything you want. Up front even. Right now.”

I couldn’t refuse at that point. I took care of rent right then and there.

We got a by-the-hour room. He asked that I undress in front of him. At first, I made a dance of it. I imagined a smooth saxophone playing in the background while my body slithered out of my top. I opened my eyes to see what effect I was having on this guy. It pissed me off to see he wasn’t paying attention. He wasn’t even looking at me. He was just sitting on the edge of the bed, examining his hands and rubbing them together. I stopped with the theatrics and shed the rest of my clothes. I waited for his next order, all the while keeping an eye on the clock and reminding myself that rent was due.

He gave my body a quick look up and down before he stood from the bed. He held my face in his hands, brushed my hair behind my ears, and kissed me. His lips tasted bitter and my tongue went numb. I wanted to push him away, but he grasped my head and pressed his lips hard against mine, keeping my lips open. I got my arms between us and tried to get some distance, but he wouldn’t let go. My mind went into panic mode. I tried to scream but I couldn’t make a sound. It felt like my entire body was turning into stone. I couldn’t fight back. When he finally pulled away, I was helpless and immobile. My hands were frozen in front of my chest, palms out. My eyes were wide and unblinking. I became a grotesque statue.

He carried me over to the bed and laid my body down. He rolled me on my back and pulled my arms down to my sides. I don’t know how much it matters now, but he did all of this with an unexpected gentleness. He was about to push down my eyelids but then he stopped. He hovered over me, studying my face. He stroked the side of my cheek and whispered a name. Something with an A. He left my eyes open. I realized that I would have to see everything as it happened, and the first tear fell. 

 He moved out of my line of sight, but I could still hear him moving around. I heard the shuffling as he moved away from me and the canvas of his bag rustling as he stepped closer. The mattress bounced with the added weight of the bag and I heard a zipper unfasten. When the guy came back into my view, he was still fully clothed and holding a jar. He unscrewed the lid from the jar, and the chemical smell of the liquid inside was so strong that breathing in became another kind of torture.  

He straddled me and stroked my cheek one last time. I was breathing hard as he put his hand on my chest. I wanted to fight. I wanted to make him hurt. But I never got the chance. My chest burned and I felt some pressure as his hand went through my skin. My body instantly went cold and I never breathed again. 

The burning served to both cut away and cauterize the arteries. The heart pulled easily through the rib cage and out of my body. He eased my heart into the jar with such care, making sure to wipe the edges of the jar clean before fastening its lid. He sat there examining the specimen from all angles with a look of awe on his face. He seemed so far away as he twisted the jar around. Then he must have realized that too much time was passing because he returned to my body. A burn scar was the only evidence of foul play that remained. He glided his hand over the scar, and with each pass, the skin healed until it looked as if nothing had ever happened. So there I was, Number Six, and the man who stole my heart got away.

_______

You can follow Lauren Candia Salerno on twitter: @ParanormaLauren

02 Jan

BEST OF EJR — Fiction: Jaded Mirrors by Mercy Dhliwayo


JADED MIRRORS
by Mercy Dhliwayo

The smell of the over boiled chaumolia carried a nauseating stench of anger: an instant appetite killer. With their green boiled out, the roughly chopped and browned vegetables, served with an intimidating mountain of maize meal took class out of Mother’s expensive china. The one’s she received at a relative’s funeral during the distribution of the deceased’s belongings. The ones she kept in our glass display cabinet and only used when we had visitors. We did not have visitors, but because Njube, like many other places in Bulawayo had not had water in almost two weeks and we had exhausted all the clean dishes and had little water left for just cooking, Mother had no option but to use her special plates, even in the foul mood that she was in.

Mother was angry at Father and this was testament in her cooking. Father had bought me a new pair of shoes from Edgars using his overtime pay. In his defence, Father said that I had worked very hard at school and he felt that I at least deserved something new for our form four farewell party. Mother, on the other hand, found it extravagant for Father to have bought me shoes when we had mounting unpaid bills. What aggravated her more was where the shoes had been bought when there were other cheaper options like Chinese shops. Because I understood Mother’s reasoning, I felt guilty about the shoes and more especially about the fact that I loved them and was unprepared to let them go.

I glared at my food, feeling hungry, but lacking the appetite. I had not eaten since morning and now wished that I had volunteered to cook even if it was mother’s duty. I had, however, been too preoccupied with thoughts of the night ahead for me to be bothered about cooking. This was the night that I had been waiting for for weeks. Our farewell party and more especially my date with James. A night that I had fantasized about for ages. If my prayers were answered, by the end of the night I would be having a boyfriend and will be bidding farewell to all the years of invisibility.

Not wanting to aggravate Mother, who sat next to me seemingly struggling to digest her own food, I dug into my plate and scooped a lump of maize mealand a bit of the vegetables and pushed the combination into my mouth. I, on impulse, instantly spat out the food as a strong bitter taste of a granule of coarse salt that I had chewed stung my tongue. Mother was insulted. ‘My husband has never spat out my food. I guess those rich friends of yours have made you too good for my food.’ she said. I thought of apologising and explaining my actions but Mother had already worn her victim-face and knowing her, any word I would have said would have been countered by a stream of guilt provoking silence. A sudden knock at the door, rescued me from the lurking awkwardness. I immediately abandoned my plate and attended to the door.

‘Mandy.’ My heart pounded rapidly at the sight of the lean and beautiful figure that stood at our door step. ‘I’m coming just now,’ I said before slamming the door in Mandy’s face. Mother thought it rude. I did not. What was she doing at my doorstep when our arrangement was to meet in town?

I ran to my parent’s bedroom, where we kept our clothes and changed into the clothes I had put aside for the night. A brown leather skirt that I had found in an old trunk in which my parents kept old clothes from their younger days. I wore it with a black string top and my new shoes. Having dressed up, I knelt down to inspect my hair in the little triangular surviving potion of our dressing table mirror. Inspired by an image of Mother in an old photograph stuck on the dressing table, of her sitting on a high stool with Father standing behind her staring into her eyes, I had combed my hair into an afro and had worn a black elastic hair band above my forehead just as she had. I however did not look as beautiful as she did. Her face was clear and did not have a sign of a pimple. I on the other hand had a manifestation of pimples that never disappeared no matter how much I squashed them. They had a revolting character of their own. It was as if the pimples had a face as opposed to my face having pimples. The pimples made it difficult for boys to notice me. I really did not desire all the boys’ attention. All I desired was James’ attention, but he too never seemed to notice me, until Mandy and I became friends.

When I returned from the bedroom, to my astonishment, Mother had let Mandy inside the house. I was angry at her but angrier at Mandy for disregarding our arrangement and coming to collect me from home. Who did she think she was? And who had told her that I needed to be collected. Now she sat on Father’s sofa. The one that only Father sat on. Mother said nothing. Maybe it was her who had told her to sit there since she was angry at Father. Father’s sofa was the better sofa in the house after all. As much as I prayed that Father would not walk in and find her sitting there, I was glad that Mandy had not sat on the other two sofas. The worn out sofas that we had stuffed with old clothes, would have sucked her into their hollowness. Or worse, she would have heard the rattling movement of the fearsome rats that came out of their hiding and ran about the sitting room even climbing on the sofas as we slept. Noticing Mandy’s eyes zoom from my plate of food to the cracking plaster peeling off the wall of the interior of our house, I quickly announced to Mother that we were leaving and hurriedly walked out of the house with Mandy following me behind.

Mother also came out of the house and went to speak to Mandy’s mother who was in her car waiting for Mandy and I. Since I was to return home later at night, way after my usual six o’clock curfew, Mother had expressed her desire to speak to Mandy’s mother who had undertaken to bring me back home after the party. While I had foreseen then speaking to each other telephonically, I had not foreseen them talking face to face. There was Mandy’s mother. Having gotten out of her twin cab, you could see the Daniel Hechter floral dress that set well on her body and her neat matching court shoes. From afar, one could imagine how she smelt: like rich scented roses. And then there was Mother, wearing an old pink morning gown, that had not only grown khakish from over washing, and smelling a combination of sweat from a hard day’s work at the factory and soot from the fire on which we cooked from on those days when there were power cuts.

While I was still recovering from the trauma of Mandy having been in our house, Mandy requested to use the bathroom. Our bathroom was located outside the house. It consisted of a blare toilet and a shower. The room was dark as we hardly replaced the bulb and it maintained its stench no matter how much I cleaned or disinfected it. I thought of someone like Mandy inside our toilet and I wanted to die.

‘I think there is someone inside,’ I lied.

‘I don’t think so, the door is not closed.’ Mandy knocked on the bathroom door and proceeded to get in without waiting for a response. Despite always having desired to be her friend, I, at that moment hated Mandy. She was invading on my privacy just as she had when she set foot in our house. Although I had been at Mandy’s place countless times, I had been there on her invite and besides, unlike me, she was from a rich family and really had nothing to worry about. I therefore cursed the day that she got to know where I lived. I had just walked out of our gate on my way to school when our neighbour, maSibanda, from across our house, bellowed a greeting to me. When I looked back to respond, I was shocked to see Mandy walking out of maSibanda’s shabeen. I wondered what she was doing in my neighbourhood and with a person like maSibanda around seven o’clock in the morning. That, however, was the least of my concerns. Mandy had seen where I lived. No one from school knew where I lived; not even my closest friend, Shami. While I could live with being the invisible girl at school, I was terrified by the thought of people from school about the kind of house I lived in.

I was not embarrassed about where I came from. I was just not proud of living in the rented crammed space that we lived in; a two and a half roomed house which consisted of my parent’s bedroom, the sitting room where my younger brother and I slept on separate sofas and a tiny kitchen. Contrary to my fears, Mandy did not tell anyone about where I lived. She had instead requested me not to tell anyone about our encounter when we met in class after two days of her being absent. I found the request awkward but did not think much of it. I was rather overwhelmed by the thought of Mandy talking to me and her friendliness since she hardly spoke to me in class.

I did not need much convincing to keep our encounter a secret. In addition to being rich, Mandy was the most popular girl at school. Everyone wanted to be friends with her and her small clique of friends. Being friends with them enhanced one’s chances of being someone and even of getting a boyfriend. Thus, my sole purpose at Prestige College, apart from maintaining high grades to keep my bursary, had been winning Mandy’s friendship. Disregarding her request would have killed my chances of achieving this. My chances were already slim thanks to the unnecessarily numerous casual days and school functions that tended to reveal my poor background. Since my parents only bought us new clothes once a year towards Christmas, I often had to wear clothes that I had already previously worn at school and second hand clothes passed down on me by relatives while everyone else always wore something new and trendy. This made it difficult to be noticeable to Mandy and even the boys at school. Being maSibanda’s neighbour however seemed to have changed my fortune.

****

Mandy began to speak to me more often after her awkward request. I soon found myself hanging around her and her friends at lunch time and it was not long that I began to visit her house. I helped her with her school work and allowed her to copy my assignments sometimes. It was through our acquaintance that James began greeting me at school. The cherry on top was Mandy arranging for James to be my date at the farewell party when she realised how much I liked him. Before going to the party, we passed by Mandy’s house because Mandy had insisted that there was no way that I was going to the party dressed the way that I was dressed. This despite her mother having told me that I looked beautiful and unique. I however did not disagree with Mandy.

Mandy having been in our house, I, for the first time, felt embarrassed about being in Mandy’s house and in her room. The house was a lot neater than ours. Her room was much bigger than my parent’s bedroom and even bigger than our sitting room and kitchen combined.She had her own inbuilt closet, more spacious than my parents fully packed wooden wardrobe that had some shelves missing and the back board falling off no matter how many times Father hammered in new nails. She even had a proper dressing table with an intact mirror. The old dressing table that we had at home had uneven legs and therefore had to be supported by differently sized bricks strategically placed on the two shorter legs. Its mirror was broken and the wooden board that had been left exposed by the absence of the mirror had been covered with family photographs glued on to the board with chewing gum. The only surviving part of the mirror was a small rectangular portion at the bottom left of the dressing table board, that forced one to always kneel if they wanted to make use of the mirror which was only big enough to reflect ones face. I envied Mandy’s life and would have done anything to live in a house like hers and have as much clothes as she had.

From the clothes Mandy gave me to choose from, I picked a short green dress and matching pearls for the night. Mandy then produced a makeup kit and began working on my face without enquiring if I needed make up or not. I did not protest although my heart pounded at the thought of turning into one of those girls whom Shami and I often ridiculed because of their daily after school ritual of rushing to the bathrooms, as soon as the siren rang signalling the end of the last period, to secure a spot on the bathroom mirrors where they would smear their faces with vanishing cream or thick layers of cheap face powder that we called isibhuda.

Girls who would tweeze off their eyebrows only to replace them with thick eyeliner drawn where their eyelashes used to be. Although we often laughed at the effort these girls took to enhance their beauty, I saw nothing to laugh at when I glanced into the mirror and saw what Mandy had done to my face.

I was stunned by the reflection of myself. The makeup had concealed my pimples and I, for the first time, had a face of my own. A face I could own. I felt the beauty Mother said I possessed. I saw the beautiful eyes that Father said I inherited from Mother. I imagined James looking into my eyes the way Father looked in Mother’s eyes in that old photograph on our dressing table. Such a beautiful moment with James was possible for the young woman in the mirror as she was simply stunning. The green dress she wore looked lovely on her as though it were her own. Yet staring at her in that Cinderella moment, the initial embarrassment I felt when I saw Mandy in our house clung on to me like the foul breath of unbrushed teeth that overshadowed that fact that one had actually bathed. It was more than just shame. I felt  some sort of guilt that was different from the guilt I felt earlier over my new shoes. I felt guilty of something that I could not identify. Something that seemed to be represented by the mirror glass that separated me from the reflection that gazed back at me. That something left a sour taste in my mouth that reminded of the real life that the stunning girl in mirror had to return to when the night was over.

On arrival at the party, Mandy and I, having met with our dates, immediately drew the crowd’s attention. I could sense what my association with the company that I was with would do for my popularity. James invited me for a dance. Mandy and her date were already dancing and I eagerly accepted James’ invite. While he danced around me in circles, I nervously moved my shoulders back and forth without moving much of my body. After our dance, James took me to the kiosk where he bought me a soft drink. He, on the other hand drank something that was in a yellow water bottle labelled “Power Sport”. We stood against the wall with our drinks. James moved closer to me and brought his face close to mine. My body shivered as I foresaw what was to be my first kiss. I was glad Mother had finally bought some tooth pasteafter almost a week of brushing our teeth with just a tooth brush and salty water. My lips grew itchy with anticipation but James’ lips did not reach mine. Instead, I felt their hotness against my ear and they grew erect in anticipation of a romantic whisper. My lips were ready to whisper “I love you too,” but were instead compelled to shout out my name to correct James who had just shouted ‘Erica’ into my ear.

‘Jerica?’ James laughed. ‘What kind of name is that?’

From his laugh, I foresaw James finding ridiculous my explanation of how I got my name from the combination of my parent’s names, Jerry and Monica. I therefore did not respond. I blushed shyly and waited for him to shout in my ear again. Although not as romantic as the whispers I had fantasised the two of us exchanging, I did not mind the shouting as it was the only way I could hear him in the noisy hall. Besides, I did not want to miss a single word from his mouth even if it was the ridiculing of my name.

 

‘Anyway Jerica,’ James continued. ‘Tell me something about your friend.’ These words prematurely melted my Cinderella moment. No girl liked to hear such words from a boy she had a love interest in. I however stayed calm and asked: ‘Which friend?’

‘Mandy. Is she dating that guy?’

I did not know whether Mandy was dating the form six guy that she had brought as her date . nonetheless confirmed that she was.

‘I need to talk to her. Can you arrange that for me?’

Although I knew what that meant, to save face, I smiled and nodded my head. I was both hurt and confused. It was Mandy who had set me up with James, yet James was now asking me to set him up with Mandy. The anger I felt towards Mandy earlier returned. I felt alone and out of place. I missed Shami. I had not seen her at the party and I was not sure if she had even attended. It would have been sad if she had not attended, I thought to myself. We had both eagerly anticipated the party since our first day of form four and often fantasized about what we would wear and what it would be like. We had also both shared the same desire of being Mandy’s friend. For some reason that did not happen for her and since Mandy and I became friends, Shami and I hardly spent time together as we previously did. I now needed her company more than ever. Had she been there, we would have found so much to talk and laugh about and I probably would not have had to spend the rest of the night watching James watching Mandy closely and waiting for an opportunity to be alone with her. It was particularly torturous how he would now and again send me to her to ask for a private moment with her. Unfortunately for James, Mandy’s date stuck on her like glue and I did not send any of his messages to Mandy. I merely reported back to him how she had no interest in speaking to him as she was at the party with someone else. It nonetheless made me feel inferior watching him watching her.

While I looked beautiful in the borrowed green dress, I was not good enough for James, or anyone else at the party for that matter. I did not spend the whole night with James as he now and again disappeared and reappeared later and in his moments of absence, none of the boys approached me for a dance or a simple chat. After his last disappearance, James returned later rigging of alcohol and invited me for another dance. Because of the loneliness I felt and the fact that he seemed to have forgotten about Mandy, I again, accepted the invite. He put his arms around my waist as we danced. Although everyone seemed to dancing with their arms around their partners, I did not feel comfortable. I however continued dancing. James moved closer to me and began fondling me.

Although I had always dreamt and fantasised about being in James’ arms, the manner in which his hungry hands sunk into my flesh, especially after witnessing his obsession over Mandy, made my body shiver with discomfort. He brought his face close to mine in an attempt to kiss me. I moved my face away from his as a strong stench of alcohol hit my nostrils.

‘Come on; just a kiss,’

‘No,’ I responded trying to tear myself apart from his grip.

‘Loosen up. It is only a kiss.’ With these words, James’ lips forcefully covered my lips with a repulsive wetness that made me want to throw up.  His saliva wet my lips making them sticky with some unforgivable staleness.

‘I said no,’ I screamed angrily and tore away from him. This was not only a kiss. This was my first kiss and I had envisaged it to be romantic even if it was with him.

‘You crazy freak,” James yelled as he noticed the attention that my scream had drawn.

‘You think you are special, you and those borrowed clothes. Well you are nothing. There are a lot of girls out there, more beautiful than you.’

I hoped the music in the hall had been loud enough to swallow James’ hurtful words, but from the eyes that glared at me, I feared that everyone had heard him. Feeling naked and as stale as his kiss, I ran to the bathroom regretting having attended the party. Tears filled my eyes and I desired to just let them loose but when I reached the bathroom, Mandy was there, alone, shedding tears of her own.

Seeing Mandy in the bathroom was infuriating. She had everything and all I wanted was time alone to cry out my pain. Yet, even in a moment of pain, Mandy still had to have it all. Without noticing my pain or waiting for me to ask her what was wrong, Mandy sobbed: ‘Everyone knows.’

‘Knows what?’ I brushed away my own tears.

‘It was a secret. Only Catherine and Sammy knew. I thought they were my friends’.

I had no idea of what Mandy was moaning about but the thought of someone as infallible as her in tears was, in a way, intimidating, so I dared not ask.

‘You did not tell anyone did you?’

‘Tell them what?’

‘About maSibanda.’

I glanced at Mandy through her reflection from the bathroom mirror trying to comprehend her question. Her face was soggy with tears and snorts were almost running down her nose.  She wiped some tears off her face smudging makeup across her cheekbones.

‘You have no idea what I am talking about; do you?’ she sniffed. ‘You will soon find out anyway,’ Mandy added before confiding in me about an abortion she had had. This explained what she was doing at maSibanda’s house and her subsequent strange request for me not to tell anyone about seeing her with  maSibanda. It made perfect sense especially in light of the rumours that I had once heard in my neighbourhood, about maSibanda assisting young girls and even married woman in removing unwanted pregnancies.  I was not sure of how to respond to Mandy’s revelation, so I asked her the first thing that came to my mind, and that was whether her mother knew about it.

‘No,’ Mandy chuckled. ‘She wouldn’t have noticed even if I had kept the baby and maybe dumped it or given it away after giving birth.’

I thought of Mother and imagined hiding something that big from her. It was impossible. Mother could sniff a pregnancy from a neighbour’s child and living under her roof, she probably would know if I fell pregnant even before I myself knew.

When we left the bathroom Mandy wanted to go home. For obvious reasons, I too wanted to leave. Having failed to contact her mother, Mandy called a taxi that took us to her place, situated ten minutes away from our college. We entered the house through the kitchen and my attention was immediately drawn to the sound of smashing glass and Mandy’s mother quarrelling with someone in the house. “Not in this lifetime, Never,” she screamed. Ignoring the commotion, Mandy led me to her room. She switched on her music player and let the music play on high volume. She picked up a magazine and threw herself on the bed.  I, without saying anything, removed the borrowed clothes and wore my own. Wishing to go home, I sat quietly before the dressing table and waited for my host to say something. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and noticed the makeup I had applied. I certainly could not go home with it, but the prevailing atmosphere made it difficult for me to freely go to the bathroom to wash it off, or to even ask for permission to use the bathroom. I therefore pulled the top part of the string-top I now wore and wet the inside part with my tongue before vigorously rubbing my face in a bid to remove the makeup.

Although the music was loud, the commotion from the other room could still be heard, but from a distance. However, as the song that had been playing faded away as the disc that had been playing came to an end, Mandy’s mother could be heard screaming aloud: “Kill me now. Kill me if you want”. I grew highly uncomfortable and immediately stopped rubbing my face. I resorted to chipping off my finger nails using my fingers. Mandy did not change the disc or do anything to resume the music. I suddenly felt like an intruder and Mandy’s silence and prolonged gaze at same page of the magazine that she had been gazing at for the past five minutes only reinforced the feeling. I wondered if Mandy hated me as I had hated her earlier when she was at our house. I wanted to go home and could not help but wonder what Mandy was thinking of and whether she had forgotten that I needed to go home. Without anticipating it, I felt Mandy’s abrupt movement from the bed and out of the room. A few seconds later I heard her scream: “Stop it. The two of you. I am tired of this. I wish you were not my parents. I hate you both.” After a few seconds, Mandy stormed back into the room, threw herself on the bed and buried her head under a pillow. She was shortly followed by a man who appeared startled to see me. I assumed the man was her father. His shirt was torn and had blood stains on it. While I was speechless and still deciding whether to great him, the man greeted me. ‘I did not know Mandy had a friend sleeping over tonight.’ He added.

‘I am not.’

‘Oh, I see. I will take you home then.’

These words were relieving. The man disappeared from Mandy’s room and returned a minute later wearing a clean t-shirt. He asked Mandy if she wanted to accompany me home but she did not respond. We walked out of the room and on the way out of the house, we walked past Mandy’s mother in the lounge. Her face had a fresh scar and she sat with a bottle of whisky and a half filled glass. I did not greet her. I did not know how to. I just rushed out of the house hiding behind Mandy’s father.

  The ride home was quite uncomfortable. I was forced to engage in small talk when all I preferred was some silence to calm my nerves. Speaking to Mandy’s father was however inevitable since I had to give him directions to our house. I was relieved when I finally arrived home. It was just after eight o’clock; almost an hour earlier than the time I had been allowed to return home. My parents and brother were on the fireplace heating water for the evening tea. My brother sat on a log one side of the fire, arguing with Father about which team was likely to win the upcoming 2010 World Cup soccer tournament. My parents sat on the other side, with Mother squashed in Father’s arms, laughing at Father’s failure to counter my brother’s reasoning as to why an African team was unlikely to win the World Cup. Her earlier anger towards Father seemed to have disappeared. It was not surprising though. Mother never managed to stay angry at Father for long and I could not think of a time that I had ever seen Father angry at Mother.

I joined my family by the fire place. Everyone was delighted to see me and had millions of questions. In no time, the four of us were sharing some tea and the warmth of the fire place. A familiar warmth that surpassed the embarrassment that I felt over our house in Mandy’s presence. A warmth that replaced the hurt I had felt over what had happened with James. It was a warmth that I had known all my life. A warmth that I would not trade for anything in the world.

06 May

ANNOUNCEMENT: “Tell Me More” — New #MeToo Writing Contest

Sexual Assault Awareness Month may have come to an end, but the editors of The East Jasmine Review strongly believe in keeping the conversation going year-round. Being a literary magazine that prides itself on representing diverse voices, we are excited to announce our first Tell Me More contest of “Me Too” stories. We are asking for submissions encompassing the spectrum of sexual assault, including not only of the act itself, but also of the healing process and aftermath of such an event. Submissions in fiction, creative non-fiction, and poetry will be open from May 1st until June 24th. Winners will be published in an electronic and print version of our inaugural anthology series. We will not accept nor read submissions where sexual assault is treated as a “joke” or from the perpetrators point of view.

Poetry:

  • Submissions may encompass the spectrum of sexual assault including the trauma, anger, or healing.
  • Between 1-3 poems per submission.
  • Submission not to exceed 1500 words.
  • Only 1 submission per author.

Fiction:

  • Submissions may encompass the spectrum of sexual assault including the trauma, anger, or healing.
  • Submission not to exceed 2000 words.
  • Only 1 submission per author.

Non-fiction:

  • Submissions may encompass the spectrum of sexual assault including the trauma, anger, or healing.
  • Submission not to exceed 2000 words.
  • Only 1 submission per author.

CLICK HERE TO SUBMIT

05 Dec

Fiction: “The Afterlife” by Lena Zaghmouri

The Afterlife
by Lena Zaghmouri

It shouldn’t have surprised Kareem that his friend and former neighbor, Faris, had a heart attack last night. Kareem didn’t know much about his health, but Faris was over seventy and had just endured a trying decade: caring for a mentally ill brother and a mother undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

The manic outbursts from Faris’ brother and the pained ones from his mother often frightened Kareem’s young children. At night and during the day. The three of them would huddle under the tables or in their parents’ bed when a gut-wrenching cry or a blaring fit would break through the walls.

Kareem imagined that those outbursts must have frightened them more now that he didn’t live at home anymore, but they never mentioned anything during the weekends they spent at his two bedroom apartment.

But now they wouldn’t be scared anymore: Faris’ mother had passed a few months ago, and his brother would have to be sent to an institution because there was no family left to care for him.

And there was no family fit to perform the ghusl, or cleansing, of Faris’ body before his burial.

So the imam offered the honor to Kareem, who accepted dutifully.

He called in to work and met with the imam a few hours before in his small office at the mosque. Kareem tried his hardest to keep his hands folded and his feet still while they spoke. He hadn’t been in the mosque much in the four months since his wife changed the locks and threw his belongings on the front lawn; he figured it was best to let people discuss his broken home without fear that he would walk up and interrupt their conversations.

“Faris was your good friend?” the imam asked hesitantly as if it that was the uncomfortable matter to broach.

Kareem nodded. “Yes, of course.” But he wasn’t so sure he would define his connection to Faris that way; Kareem had only moved to this town two years ago to begin his career as a pharmacist. Faris’ house was the only one with more tension and resentment than Kareem’s, whose marriage had begun to disintegrate well before he had moved his family here, and the two men often used Kareem’s garage as a short respite from their homes. Faris had been a mechanic before he retired, and he would tinker with the engine of Kareem’s car while they discussed things like politics and their adolescent years back home in Palestine, which had been separated by a full generation. Anything but the lives they had right now.

The imam suggested they begin the ghusl soon; the funeral would only be in a few hours. He stood and led Kareem down the corridor to a separate room. “We’ll wash him together,” the imam promised as he opened the door to the room that held Faris’ body.

Kareem braced himself before looking so that he wouldn’t gasp or choke. He had seen many dead bodies in his childhood and early adult years back in Palestine, but it was a crushing experience each time. Besides, his fifteen years in the United States had softened him to such things; the threat of death was so much fainter here than it was back home.

But seeing Faris’ body wasn’t as horrifying as those he saw in the rubble back home who were often bloodied, mangled, and so young. Faris’ skin now was a slightly paler gray than his eyebrows and chest hair, but some of the lines on his forehead and around his mouth seemed to have disappeared, making him look closer to Kareem’s age than his own.

The imam wasn’t as serene, though. He stood more than two feet away from Faris’ body, and the color had drained from his smooth face. “I’ll let you do this,” he said as he rushed out. “Brother Faris would want a friend to do this.”

#

Kareem never thought that washing an adult body could take so much time and energy. It was different than bathing his children, who were squirmy as babies and loved to splash the water all over him and the bathroom floor; Faris’ limbs were still and heavy, and his skin was so thick and tough that it seemed like no amount of soap and water could clean it. Once Kareem had dried him off and wrapped him in a white cloth, the muscles in his arms and back burned from the effort of maneuvering Faris’ weight.

The imam had returned by then, his solemn composure regained, and offered Kareem a seat in a small folding chair next to the table that held Faris’ body. He took it, slumped and quietly panting. “Faris is with Allah, brother,” the imam said with his hand on Kareem’s shoulder. “You must make wudu to be clean before God.”

Kareem dragged himself up the flight of stairs to the washing sinks in the men’s bathroom. He scrubbed his hands, feet, and calves intensely, noticing how much lighter live flesh felt in his grip.

He inhaled deeply as he filled his cupped hands from the faucet, drinking in the air around him, and he only faintly felt the tears falling from his eyes when he doused his face with the warm water.

____________
Lena Zaghmouri
is a fiction writer.

Lena Zaghmouri’s writing has been published in Sinister Guru, KNOT Magazine, The San Joaquin Review, and Sukoon. She has also been nominated for the Pushcart Prize for her story “Al Walad” and was shortlisted for the OWT Fiction Prize; she has pieces forthcoming in Pulp Literature and First Wednesday Journal. She is currently working on her first novel.

13 Jul

Fiction: Fireflies by Nicole Sharp

Fireflies
by Nicole Sharp

Fireflies blink on and off in the overgrown Spanish moss trees outside my bedroom window. My brother used to tell me that if I ever got lost, all I had to do was find the fireflies that winked and blinked in the long green hair of my trees. He told me that the fireflies would be my own personal beacons of home.

When I was younger. When I sat on the front porch with my grandmother who told stories of her childhood. When my skin stayed sticky in the height of the summer months. When I had faith in my widowed father who liked to bring his dates home. When life was a perfect blend of all these things, I had faith in my fireflies.

Daddy’s found a wife since then, since I was younger. Actually, he found himself three wives since then. They were all the same. They loved him at first, smiled at him in the mornings over the kitchen table. With grandma sitting next to me, her head bowed in prayer, I watched the looks between my daddy and his new wives. They loved him at first. They would smile, unashamed about the night noises that banged and screamed from daddy’s room. Daddy used to stare at the red lipstick painted on his new wife and lick his lips like he could taste it.

“Amen,” Grandma would say. We’d all eat biscuits and gravy and grits with a lake of melted butter in the middle.

When grandma died we’d eat Captain Crunch or peanut butter toast or leftovers for breakfast. Grandma never taught me how to cook. I go to the grocery store and don’t know what to buy. The shiny wrappers look more appealing than the stacks of earth tones in the produce section. I buy the shiny packages. No one complains. But most of the time I miss steamy grits with a lake of butter and heavenly biscuits.

Doreen, who laughed like a frightened bird, was daddy’s first wife. After mama, so I guess Doreen was really daddy’s second wife. Carla, who chain smoked cigarettes in her bathrobe while sitting in the kitchen, was his third wife. Tammi, with an ‘i’, who rearranged the living room furniture every afternoon, was his fourth wife. I didn’t like any of them. What they thought of me I didn’t much care. We passed each other like strangers on a street.

Daddy spends most of his nights back at the bars now, looking for a fifth wife. I sometimes wish he’d bring home one that could cook grits the right way.

Somewhere in between the second wife and the third wife, grandma died. We put her in the back yard in a pine box daddy and my brother built. We could have buried her in the cemetery, but that wasn’t how my people did things. That’s what daddy said at least. We buried her next to my favorite dog that was killed when my brother was learning to drive the pick-up and my mama who died bringing me into the world.

A preacher came out and said a few prayers over grandma’s box. He held out his hand to daddy, to console him, to shake like a man, but daddy just grunted and walked away. I took the big hand instead. The preacher gave me a sad smile and I regretted putting my hand in his. I pulled my hand away and he asked me if I’d be okay, nodding toward our house. Nodding toward the screen door that was slamming with daddy’s anger. I didn’t answer, just turned and walked away. I wanted him to hear me slam the screen door closed too.

Soon after grandma the muggy swampy heat of the summer brought Tammi who rearranged the furniture. It also pushed at my brother who announced one night that he found Jesus and was going to become a preacher man.

Daddy just stared at him, the night he made the announcement. Daddy shook his head. I looked between them and didn’t know what to do, so I bit my lip and looked out the window at my fireflies. We stood in our silent triangle for years, weeks, moments. I looked out at my fireflies winking at me in secret codes I didn’t understand. My brother moved to leave and our triangle shattered.

Three days later, wife number four stood at the front door and looked at the furniture that had been rearranged so much I no longer knew where it had started. She sighed and told my father she was leaving. He muted the TV from the chair she was sitting on and nodded his head. I thought maybe he’d say something, but he just turned the volume back up then. She looked at me then, into my eyes and smiled. Then she asked daddy why he always forgot he had a daughter.

I didn’t feel forgotten. I had the house with the graves of the people I loved, I had my own room. I had quiet nights when daddy left to look for a new wife. I had my fireflies. I didn’t mind being invisible to him. I knew it was better than being as visible as Sally. Her daddy saw her all the time and reminded her of her existence every chance he got. Sally always talked about leaving while she hid the newest bruises on her face with her hair.

I’ll leave one day too, I suppose.

That’s what daddy said one morning when I stared at the back of the glossy Fruit Loops box. You’ll leave and go away and marry a man or get a job and move to a bigger city.
I thought about that for a long time.

Does it bother you? I asked.

He shook his head.

I didn’t think so. He had more important things to worry about, he needed a woman with red lips to sit across from him in the mornings.

But you can always come back here, this is your home. Not much of one, but it’s yours. You’ll want to come back and visit one day, he announced.

I thought then, I might leave. And if I got lost I could always look for my twinkling fireflies.

I was gone the day daddy brought home his fifth wife. I never knew what she did.

 

____________
Nicole Sharp
is a fiction writer.
nicolesharpwrites.com
She swigs coffee the way a dehydrated sailor with scurvy would whiskey. The writing of Arrested Development gave her faith in humanity once again. She is a purveyor of the perfect Italian Cappuccino and world travel. And after all these years of writing, she’s pretty sure she’s just trying to write one good sentence.

22 Jun

From Our Archive – Fiction: “Coconut Oil” by Ayobami Abedayo

Coconut Oil
by Ayobami Abedayo
(as printed in Volume I: Issue I – May 2014)

When you first said you were in love with me, I thought it was one of your many jokes. I thought you were trying to help me forget the boyfriend who had just ditched me because my scores beat his in class. So I laughed and thought that you were such a wonderful friend. You laughed too but when I turned to look at you, your eyes couldn’t meet mine.

They are not meeting mine again now, those brown eyes that have made me forget to breathe so many times. You face the door, running your hands over the tips of your dreadlocks. This short version sticks up on your head like you’ve just had an electric shock and I resent it. You cut the dreads low just before the first time we broke up. And as I ran after you that day, I longed for the tresses so I could pull you back to me with them.

You take a step towards the door and I am afraid you will walk right through it, creating a replica of the you shaped vacuum that is already in my heart. Then your shoulders heave and I realise you must be shedding silent tears that mirror the ones cascading down my cheeks. It soothes me that you are finally falling apart after months of telling me to get myself together and move on. I step closer and hug you from behind. I link my hands across your navel, thrilled that leaving me devastates you too, even if just a little.

‘We must do this for the future.’ You say, placing your hands on mine.

‘And what happens to our own bloody future?’ I scream so loudly that my words hurt my ears.

‘You know better.’ You reply moving your palm over the back of my hands in a slow caress that I want to feel every day of my life, a caress that I don’t want any other woman to experience.

‘We don’t need to have children.’ I say this to startle you. Though I have agonised over the thought for months, it’s the first time I am suggesting it.

You turn to face me. Your eyes are dry, calm. You have not been crying after all. I loathe you for this. This calm you have displayed since we both learnt that we share the AS genotype just weeks after our traditional engagement. This calm that you have the audacity to maintain even today, the day we had planned to get married, the day I should have become Mrs You. But then, do you even remember? I loathe myself even more for the tears that are welling up again in my eyes.

You wrap your hands around my waist, lean close and whisper into my ears, ‘Tell me you really mean that and I swear I’ll stay.’ I should lie to you, make you stay, but your breath is tickling the nape of my neck and my mouth forgets to mould the lies. I say nothing and just listen to the glorious sound of your breathing.

Good bye.’ You say and pull away, breaking my bliss.

We have acted out this scene so many times that I’ve lost count. It has always ended with me running after you, blubbering that I couldn’t let you go. You always came back in, and for a few weeks we would be together. Until one day you would say we couldn’t keep deceiving ourselves or that it was over and the drama would begin again. But not today, your dry eyes have drained me of the strength to chase you.

I wipe my cheeks with the back of my hands as I watch the door slam behind you. Then I go to my room and pick up the framed picture on my bedside table. My head is bent over yours in the picture, my hands are in your hair, your face is slightly upturned and your dreadlocks are going in every direction. Your roommate took this picture when we were in the university. You were about to graduate and I still had two years to go in medical school. It was the day you wrote your final paper and I had come to your room to congratulate you, to ask what you wanted as a graduation gift. You reached into your cupboard and handed me a bottle of coconut oil. ‘Rub this in my hair,’ you said.

Time slowed to a crawl while you sat on the floor with your head between my thighs. I rubbed the oil into the kinky roots of your hair, wondering why you were so quiet, wondering why my legs were shaky. Your roommate came in the moment you said you had something to tell me. He captured that moment for us with the canon camera he always wore around his neck. Later that night, you told me you had been in love with me since we were in secondary school.

I dismantle the picture frame allowing the glass pane to clatter to the floor and shatter. I rip the glossy photograph into tiny shreds. You are standing by the bed when I turn to throw the picture’s pieces in the dustbin. We stare at each other for a while.

‘Did you forget something?’ I ask, startled that you came back, stifling the urge to run into your arms.

You walk to the door briskly as though my words are propelling you away from me. You stop when your hand touches the doorknob and start wailing. You wail and curse. You hit the door with your fist and feet. And then suddenly you fall silent and come back to me with halting steps. You stop at the foot of the bed.

“Come. Please.” You croak holding out your arms.

I walk into your arms, hold your face against mine and your tears fall on my cheeks. I close my eyes and inhale the scent of coconut oil in your hair. In this moment, there are no genes, there is no future, no past, there’s only you, your tears on my cheeks, the scent of your hair intoxicating me and your arms holding me as though you would die if you ever let go.

 

____________
Ayobami Abedayo
@ayobamiabedayo
www.ayobamiadebayo.com
Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀’s stories have appeared in a number of magazines and anthologies, and one was highly commended in the 2009 Commonwealth short story competition. She holds BA and MA degrees in Literature in English from Obafemi Awolowo University, Ife and has worked as an editor for Saraba magazine since 2009. She also has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia where she was awarded an international bursary for creative writing. Ayobami has received fellowships and residencies from Ledig House, Sinthian Cultural Centre, Hedgebrook, Ox-bow School of Arts, Ebedi Hills and Siena Art Institute. She was born in Lagos, Nigeria.
____________
**Feature image used at the top of this story was sourced from this website.
01 Jun

Fiction: Ida Untold by Trista Hurley-Waxali

Ida Untold
by Trista Hurley-Waxali

I stop before I reach our hotel to admire a window display. I remember running into this men’s boutique by my husband’s request, to find a tie for a new hire for a dinner meeting. I met them in the lobby with the dark brown silk tie and folded it for the new hire in front of a hallway mirror. My husband watched as I glowed with pride. The gesture was always something I envisioned doing with our son, if he never grew wings.

I blink away the memory and keep walking, here is not about the once past but rather the present meetings to future gains. That’s what we promised each other when we booked this trip. We made a promise to work on ways to communicate and to reconnect to what we had at one time. We want a new pair of us, a pair that we can both be proud of.

“Hey babe, I was just thinking of you.” I say into the phone as it vibrates in my jacket pocket, picking up on my headphones.

“Are you at the room?”

“No, just walking back now, have some goodies for tonight.”

“Yeah about tonight…”

“Are you going to be late? Because that’s fine, I really am behind.”

“No, I can’t make it for aperitifs, I have a call that I have to do with the guys here and then a dinner got scheduled.”

“Oh, of course a dinner.”

“Look, you know this was work for me.”

“I know. It’s fine.” As the words leave my mouth, I know it is, I really do think it’s okay, “I’ll just have the room service we ordered then.”

“Oh shit I completely forgot.” I listen to him put his face in his hands, pinching his forehead. He did forget, I know that sound.

“It’s fine, I’m probably going to send out a few emails and read the English-only paper I found at the newsstand. Not to mention finish the champagne for two.”

“Well, why don’t you save me a glass for when I get back? And maybe a couple strawberries too?”

“Sure, I can do that. I’m going up the elevator, so we’ll text soon?”

“Okay, love you.”

“I know, I love you too.” I hang up. I’m not at the hotel. I’m not at the boutique. I’m at the cemetery.

I walk past the marble monuments, lined so close that there remains no gaps for the cats to squeeze through. Some have candles that remain unlit and pooling dust after months. Some have dried flowers hanging from the locks and some appear freshly laid. The tombs with candles are designed with a sliver for people showing respect to stick a lit end to illuminate. It’s a bright afternoon where any candlelight gets dwarfed but the gesture speak volumes. Some family names repeat and others have lines of poetry. There is a strong sense of pride for family name, where these grandchildren children are either grown or have too past away. I look in my grocery bag and see the chocolate ice cream bars are starting to get squishy. At the exit I bow my head to show respect to all the souls, never the religious type but always respectful.

A few blocks away I am back in our penthouse suite. I have just enough time to put my items in the fridge before room service rings at our door. The waiter comes in and arranges the items we ordered on the table and leaves the bill next to the coffee maker to be signed. I walk upstairs to change out of my jeans and into a black maxi skirt. I drop my purse on the bed and take out my lipstick to apply another coat. I may have no one to wear it for but I feel more beautiful with the matte red hue.

“Can you open the champagne, I really don’t want to make a mess.” I ask as I’m walking down the stairs, he nods and takes the bottle from the chill bucket. We are both standing anticipating the pop. I smile, “thank you.” I over-tip for the service and he smiles back. The door shuts and I hear nothing for the next hour besides champagne filling up my flute.

After I pour my 3rd glass I open the fridge door to take out a box of rose petals I bought from the florist. A cheesy gesture I knew would get an easy laugh. I miss watching my husband’s mouth, opening and releasing the scent of sour breath from after too many flutes of champagne. I sigh and open the box. The petals smell of summer romance, wreaths high on the walls of new homes and like our wedding boquet.

The day of our wedding seemed to have snuck up on us, spending weeks in bed comparing, him about my hair and my hands and me about his chest and bony nose. He told me he’d spend his whole life spoiling me with love and tokens from new cities. We made promises to each other, knowing we’ll evolve with some promises kept and others went broken. I feel my phone vibrate in my cardigan pocket. An emoji of a sad cat followed with the line: stuck in this meeting, rather be with you. I drain the glass and look at the time. He’s not going to make it for the arrangement of sweets or the petals, he’s not going to be back here till late at night.

The 4th glass I pair with the pastry basket and fruit that was set to ruin dinner, the spread that now became my dinner. I specified for the yellow tart over the blueberries and flan, knowing he doesn’t like items too heavy. He never relished in the weight of a good pastry like how he never relished in my affection of longing. I sit on the couch to admire the bright autumn sun hovering over the cemetery. The rays of the sun look as if they are reaching down and touching the tops of the mausoleums. It looks so warm, so comforting, so welcoming for those lost and past souls. A clear and present path laid out, if only they were ready to look.

Now on the 5th glass with a steady buzz, I respond back to his text:

“Sad face, I’m going to have a hot shower.”
5:50 pm

But I’m not going to be the one who showers, no, these souls in the cemetery will be the ones who get showered. That’s what I should do, shower them with fresh rose petals. I will raise them from their sleepy states and feel their warmth go through my body. I open the balcony door and step out 12 floors up.

 

“I’m sorry, I want to make it up to you.”
6:00 pm
“Brunch tomorrow? Somewhere nice outside of the hotel.”
6:03 pm

 

“Sure.”
6: 05pm

“ok I’ll make reservations tonight.”
6:08pm

 

Translation: he’ll find a spot nearby that we can easily walk in. We always walk in and we always order a bottle of win. Those gestures I know will never change but those gestures are in place so we don’t have to talk about the elephant in the room. So we don’t have to talk about when I want another.
With an hour left till sunset, I lift the 6th flute to feel the bubbles on my nose, the smell of luxury. The balcony table is small but stable enough to not move in the breeze, not a harsh wind like you get from the tunnels between buildings on the street and nothing cold that forces me to run back inside. I have the box of rose petals in my hand and I open it up to take out petals between my fingers. Soft like youth and still damp from the fridge.

As I drop each petal-one at a time, I watch the red notes float down in different directions. Some towards the cemetery, some towards the building across the street and some just straight down. Each dependent on the moment the wind blows. When the wind doesn’t blow- there’s no direction, leaving the petal’s destiny to rest on the sidewalk for one of the many small dogs in this city center to poop on. He calls when I’m a third of the way through the box, the time I stop wanting to hear the excuses. The phone stops ringing, voicemail. Oh, looks like he no longer wants to leave a message, perfect. I step back inside our room and finish a raspberry tart and pour out the rest of the bottle. I come back out for the sunset with the lipstick stained flute, leaving behind my phone.

As I’m leaning on the frame of the balcony door, I look at my empty dark green bottle, my half eaten strawberries and my pastries. I see the plates on top of each other on the table and only my napkin sprinkled with pastry shell flakes. Where two napkins were ordered to be together but only one gets used. The 2nd third of the petals I drop from the railing and I each land on the ground. My chest gets smacked with the shock of the fall, the fall coursing up my spine and into my frontal lobe. Where all I see is the end, where all I can envision is the pavement. I look for some air and move towards the edge to hang over the balcony. Lying there between the floor and the bottom railing.

I’m holding the last third of the box taking deep breathes. For I’m going to try and maybe guide these petals. Maybe give some souls an alternate path. I drop each one when I feel the wind on my skirt, hoping some petals will fall on balconies like this one or in neighboring units. It’s late and I hear the street stir with couples heading out for dinner. I don’t get up or move away from the edge, away from wandering eyes but rather I extend my arm to dump out the rest of the petals. As each one glides with the wind, moving by found souls who can smell the bouquet. I lean over the edge to follow the red matte blanket and grow my wings with ease.

____________
Trista Hurley-Waxali
@tristaisshort
is an immigrant from Toronto, who finally listened to her parents advice and moved South. She has performed at Avenue 50, Stories Bookstore and internationally at O’bheal Poetry Series in Cork, Ireland and a TransLate Night show from Helsinki Poetry Connection. She writes weird short stories and is working on her novel, At This Juncture.