Night Picnic_Cover_v3i3 eBook.jpg

VOLUME 3, ISSUE 3 

OCTOBER 2020

2020  •  ISBN# 9781970033137  •  198 pp  •  6" x 9" paperback

Night Picnic is a journal of literature and art. We seek to share and celebrate all that is strange, dark, jubilant, complex, confusing, scary, mystical, fantastic, multidimensional, and metaphysical.

This issue includes:
Tim Connors, The Melting Man
R.S. Wren, Pale Feet
Steven Thomas, He Walks Over Me
Skyler Melnick, Slightly Magical, Very Eccentric
Amanda Postman, Armchair Psychology
Mark Keane, Peter and June
Cassondra Windwalker, Let Down Your Long Hair
Beatriz Seelaender, The Near Death Experience Experience
Igor V. Zaitsev, The Advice
Mads Bo-han, Dead Men (Trilogy)
John Grey, George at the piano & other poems
RC de Winter, Undine & other poems
Radoslav Rochallyi, A Dozen & other poems
Tiffany Washington, Doubting Babushka

This issue also includes Russian translations of the above titles.

The Melting Man
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The Melting Man
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Pale Feet
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He Walks Over Me
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He Walks Over Me
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Enjoy a selection of work from this issue below:

POETRY

JOHN GREY

G e o r g e   a t   t h e   P i a n o

 

He could sit at the piano,

play for hours,

take over the room.

His melodies

fed every displaced heart

in that place

with strut and swagger.

And his syncopation

led to unexpected uses

of his audience’s hands and feet.

Not just tapping.

But a meld of beating time

and bending it

out of control.

 

He tinkled, tinkered with

and finger-strafed those keys

in such an unexpected, note-busting,

chord-humping style

that every song was himself,

his potency, his drama,

from his unglued,

wild-man expression

to the pernicious passion

delivered to the pedals

with mighty thumps.

 

There were no tunes as such,

only the man playing them.

No one could just listen.

One sense was never enough for him.

 

 

C o m p a n y   a n d   W a r m t h  

 

The man had a wooden leg

and a dog

in no particular order.

And a harmonica besides.

He sat on the sidewalk

with his cap in front of him,

blowing on that harp,

in hopes of cadging a quarter or two

from the passersby.

 

He knew his wooden leg

wouldn’t do much business

and his dog was a mutt,

safe from any patting by strangers.

So it was up to his music,

some bluesy stuff

that almost, but not quite,

settled on a tune.

 

A little spare change

did come his way,

but not on a consistent basis,

enough to feed dog and man

on the cheap

but a roof over his head

was out of the question.

 

So, once the foot traffic died down.

he found shelter where best he could,

with that animal for companionship and warmth

and that wooden leg as a reminder

of how unlucky his life had been.

He called it the wooden nickel God gave me.

 

By himself,

he never did play that harmonica.

It was the family breadwinner.

When not working,

it liked to sit back and drain his spit.

 

 

 

T h e   L u c k   o f   t h e   U n l u c k y

 

The convenience store is a wannabe casino.

Mostly men occupy the scattering of tables,

nervously hanging on the fate of their Keno cards.

But there’s one middle-aged woman

who runs a kind of relay from her seat to the counter

where she purchases a pile of dollar lotto tickets,

takes them back to her perch for some vigorous scratching.

At the urging of the side of a quarter,

the silver film flies off like Tinker Bell’s fairy dust.

It’s as if she’s getting to some arcane knowledge

that’s been eluding her for years

But mostly she curses her bad luck.

Or sets aside the occasional small winner

which is cashed in and, along with another

emptying of her purse, produces one more stack

to be rubbed down to the hard, indelible truth.

At times, she closes her eyes, tries prayer,

a plea to God to grant her a thousand-dollar winner

and she’ll believe in Him forever.

But He’s as deaf to her as He is to the Keno players.

Other gamblers come in, play their favorite numbers,

and leave with a quiet shrug.

Some take their scratch tickets home with them,

prefer to face their atrocious luck alone.

Then something strange happens.

I come in for a newspaper.

Two bucks. I get what I pay for.

A man fills his car for thirty and change.

A fair exchange all around.

We don’t offer a little and hope for a lot.

The woman’s behind me, says

“I never read that stuff. It’s all rubbish.”

Then she hands over more money

for more lotto tickets.

I can’t help noticing that her fingernails

are flaked with gray,

and her dress is shabby,

and she smells of that interplay of perfume and sweat.

“Got a winner in here for sure,”

she says to no one in particular. 

She makes it sound like a kidnapping.

Only she’s the one paying the ransom.  

 

 

 

T h e   G u y s                                                                           

Our job is to be seen,

especially at sunset,

out of school,

faces glowing like red masks,

t-shirts, jeans tight at the waist,

scanning for attention.

 

Whoosh, things get excitable

with nothing more than the five of us

strolling down the street,

hoping for some slack-jawed silence,

maybe even some saucer-wide screams.

 

Not a gang, not particularly tough,

but tuning up like we are both these things,

we aim for the nearest spotlight,

try to catch onto what the bystanders

surely must be thinking.

 

Someone passes, says hello to me.

I know the guy but don't acknowledge him.

He's the one who strung our lights at Christmas.

And the old man on the corner in the apron —

he's the greengrocer who puts food on my family's table.

But not now, not when I'm with the guys.

 

It's bound to be a moonless night.

A storm's coming in.

Frogs are restless. So are the dogs.

So why shouldn't we be.

There's some girls, sixteen, our age

staring in a boutique window.

We make fart noises with our arm pits.

They're unimpressed but we laugh hard anyhow.

 

We're supposed to be home by this.

But we're too busy working our pelvic bones,

doing our best to be footloose.

We need something to make us really famous.

so folks around the edges will keep on staring.

Can't sing, can't dance, can't drive in a nail or pull a plow

but Jerry has a shed snakeskin

worn around his throat like a boa.

Now that's something.

 

The first lightning bolt splits the sky.

It's threatening to rain.

Our ultimate in coolness may be called off early.

We'll tough it out for as long as we can

in the thunder and the downpour.

No one must see us make a run for it.

We're sixteen.

We panic on our own terms.

RC DE WINTER

U n d i n e

 

I rise from the dead to eat some soup, take a shower.
I look for all the liars, to shoot them in the back.
But the gun is a bar of soap. When I squeeze the trigger
night falls. And so do I.

Cheek on cracked tile. Mouth opening. Closing.

A blowsy mermaid — charmless, gasping, unable to move.
Remembering Ulysses, my innocent pink mouth widens in
almost but not quite a smile.

No man need be lashed to a mast to resist this wet, sloppy mess.
No man would be tempted to risk his soul for the likes of me.
There is no rescue.
I have no song.

 

 

 

D e s i c c a t i o n

 

There's been no snow to speak of this winter — a dusting here

and there and one insignificant 3-incher that melted next day in

the sun's stern vengeance. Part of me is glad not to have to shovel

the cracked cement steps and the parts of the pitted driveway the

plow misses, but part of me is worried about the groundwater,
wondering if we'll be so dry the garden won't bloom.

As I sit outside in unaccustomed February warmth I realize

this unlikely scenario is a metaphor. The sea of my heart

has receded, exposing its bed of dreams to the dispassionate sun

of reality. There’s been no influx of affection to replenish it. I can

almost hear that stubborn muscle beating against the prison of bone

that bounds it, a small bird desperate to escape its barren cage.

My reservoir of hope dried up when the dam was destroyed

by the thirteenth fairy in an inglorious explosion of sand and blood.
Now my hands mock me — sere claws deprived of any touch but

my own, and when I undress my breasts droop like dying roses.
If this drought continues I’ll be nothing but a dry desert of skin

and bone, unwatered by anything but tears.

 

 

 

B e y o n d   W o r d s

 

I never had a chance to talk you out of it.

You waited 'til you were halfway round the world

to tell me how you had to man up.
To prove you were still who you'd always been.
Not to me or anyone else. To yourself.

The frosting on this day-old cake is, when you were

too far away to touch with anything but words,

you told me it was something I'd said that put you

where you were. You would never tell me.

I couldn't imagine. I still can't.

The night you were leaving one exotic hellhole for

another you texted me from wherever it was you were.

You only had a few minutes, you said. It was foggy. The limo

was late. Things were odd. There were strange messages and

you had to go. I'll be loving you, always. And that was that.

I close my eyes and see you wearing your best impassive face,

a chesterfield and a fedora, walking out in that fog to that waiting

limousine, carrying a slender attaché full of everything I needed.
We never had Paris.

There were no goodbyes.

 

These days I anesthetize myself in the crimes of life,

the more horrible the better. The latest slaughter, the latest

betrayal, the latest plague. Trying to forget I'm living one in

the aftermath of whatever took the limousine, you and that

slender attaché to a place where even words can't touch you.

 

 

 

A f t e r   C o m p i è g n e

 

I

Lightning doesn't strike twice. Not this kind.
I’ll never be debriefed. Not in this life.
I gorged myself on fairy tales
for far too long.

I’ll never be debriefed. Not in this life.
Waiting for a happy ending, I held out a wickless candle
for far too long,
daring to hope for more.

Waiting for a happy ending, I held out a wickless candle,
an unpretty little girl
daring to hope for more.
Now I suit up, the faceless rivers retreating.

An unpretty little girl,
I gorged myself on fairytales.
Now I suit up, the faceless rivers retreating.
Lightning doesn't strike twice. Not this kind.

II
No one can sleep in a suit of armor.
The plates creak, rubbing the soft spots raw.
Scarring is inevitable —
the proof of love an ugly tattoo.

The plates creak, rubbing the soft spots raw.
As I stare into a dead mirror
the proof of love, an ugly tattoo,
my only adornment, mocks me.

As I stare into a dead mirror,
touching my face,
my only adornment mocks me.
My fingertips are flaming matchheads.


Touching my face,
scarring is inevitable.
My fingertips are flaming matchheads.
No one can sleep in a suit of armor.

 

 

C o w a r d ’ s   T a n g o

 

The night we
walked along the lip
of the shore,
barefoot but
bundled up in the awkward
silence of people


longing for
everything but too
afraid or
shy or proud
or whatever to admit
it, neither of us


willing to
undress, ask for it
with open
hands holding
out what we had to offer,
we stayed until our


feet were numb
from the kiss of the
icy sea,
exchanging
elaborate nothings safe
enough to reveal.


then, in an
anonymous room,
stripped off our
bodies and
tumbled into a wordless
arrangement of need,


thrusting the
words we couldn't say
into each
other with
the fierceness of the starving,
buttered with the hope


of something
more, a charmless dance
that fed our
bodies but
left us hungry in the heart.
and even after


exploring
everything we were
brave enough
to show, there
was no intimacy, no
ignition of trust —


only the
sour aftertaste of
lust’s leavings
in a room
thundering in the silence
of our defenses.

RADOSLAV ROCHALLYI

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TIFFANY WASHINGTON

D o u b t i n g   B a b u s h k a

 

White gowns, slowly seeping

syrupy stream water

down river from Chernobyl.

My Ukrainian mother

would not let me in.

“Cancer” she whispered,

her strong calloused fingers

wrapping around my arm,

as though I were going to jump in.

 

When I tried to explain

the pastor asked his “American guests”

to assist in the ceremony

she hissed at him in

a language so delicate and harsh

off her tongue, without translation,

we all knew she had won the argument.

 

“Cancer”, she nodded again.

eyes fixed on the 40 women knee-deep

in contaminated river.

 

And I still do not know if she meant the river

or the Baptism.

SHORT STORIES

TIM CONNORS

T h e   M e l t i n g   M a n

Erin was going to be late for the night shift for the third time this week. As she jerked a clean pair of scrubs out of a drawer, she thought of Miss Benway’s graying moustache, extended eyelashes, and bright pink lipstick parting dramatically when Erin arrived late again. “Oh Erin,” she’d say, “you’ve chosen mediocrity.” Then Miss Benway would loom over Erin as she took blood, recalibrated IVs, and changed catheters. Miss Benway would say things like: “If only those nimble fingers could set an alarm,” and “Don’t worry, patients love waiting,” and “We could have hired a Tufts graduate. You think she’d be on time?”

Erin plunged her hands into the hill of clothes on the bedroom floor that she and her boyfriend, Neil, shared. She couldn’t remember if the keys were on the floor, buried by clothes, or tucked into a pocket of her jeans. After palpating the mess, she found the keys poking out of Neil’s sweatpants’ pocket.

That meant he had borrowed her car without asking. That meant he probably hadn’t refilled the gas. That meant she wouldn’t have enough gas to get to work. That meant…

She could not lose this job. She was making enough money to start paying off her loans and she liked being a nurse despite Miss Benway’s best efforts. She liked bantering with the patients, even when they swore and released their bowels in her presence — she knew they were furious with their condition, not her. She liked performing the menial tasks that kept her patients comfortable; she thought of herself as the bandaging that covered wounds. She especially liked how quiet the halls were at night. Sometimes she could only hear the rhythmic sounds of heart-rate monitors, snoring, and her own footsteps briefly sticking to the vinyl flooring.

Besides that, it would be humiliating to explain to her parents and friends why she’d been fired. She wasn’t sure Neil would care. They hadn’t talked much since she started working the night shift.

Erin jumped into her scrubs. She grabbed her bag in the kitchen, but didn’t have time for dinner, which was tightly wrapped in tinfoil, sitting in the exact center of the fridge. When Neil came home, he would eat all of it while slumped in the living room’s recliner before the forty-inch TV. He would dribble crumbs and grease and smoke weed out of a bong while watching low budget sci-fi movies. Or maybe he would play Call of Duty. Or maybe teach himself computer programming — C++, Java, HTML — skills he insisted would catapult his non-existent career in marketing. Erin thought the whole programming thing was an excuse to spend quality time with pornography. Neil had been too careless to delete the evidence from his browser’s history.

She rushed through the hallway decorated with sci-fi posters, flea market landscape paintings, and celebrity mugshots from the nineties. If there weren’t any accidents and she drove fast, she might only be ten minutes late; then she could sneak by Miss Benway and pretend she’d been changing a patient’s sheets.

She shoved her feet into silvery clogs, reached for the doorknob —and the door swung open. She sealed herself to the wall as Neil rushed through the doorway and into the kitchen. At least...she thought it was Neil. The suit was his, as were the pants and shoes, but the shape inside of his clothes was shorter than Erin. Neil was five inches taller than her.

“Neil?” called Erin from the open doorway.

“Hmmm?” It sounded like Neil. She heard him open the freezer and rummage through it.

He was breathing heavily, the way he did after sex. Then she heard ice cubes bounce on the kitchen’s linoleum.

Erin closed the door and tip-toed into the kitchen. On the way her clog stuck to the hardwood floor. She took it off and held onto the wall, balancing on one foot. There was pink slime, blotted red, staining the clog’s sole. The same pink slime ran along the hardwood and linoleum like a dying slug’s trail.

She put her clog back on, straddled the pink slime, and made her way, splay-legged, into the kitchen. Neil stood with his face submerged in the open freezer, stuffing ice cubes into his pants.

“Neil, what are you doing?”

“What? Nothing. Aren’t you late for work?” A large puddle of pink slime was growing at Neil’s feet.

“What is this stuff?” asked Erin.

Neil, with his head still in the freezer, began unbuttoning his shirt. “What stuff? It’s just sweat, it’s nothing.” As he took off his shirt, she could see slime drooling from his arms. He ripped his undershirt off like a corn husk; his back and neck were the consistency of supermarket ham.

“That’s not sweat, Neil.”

“I know that,” he snapped.

“Well, what is it? What’s going on?”

“I don’t know. If I knew, I would say so.” He was un-cinching his belt now, pulling it from his pants like a parachute ripcord.

“When did it start?”

“Today. It started today.” He unbuttoned his pants and marched in place until they fell to the floor. “I think it did anyway... I don’t know.” He kept shoving ice cubes into his underwear.

“When? What started it?”

“Nothing started it,” Neil turned to face Erin. He was definitely shorter: up to her waist now. His features were mostly visible, but rivers of slime were flowing from beneath his matted red hair. Erin thought of a recently birthed baby.

“I was entering data from research reports, like always,” said Neil, “eating Cheetos, no, Doritos with one hand and typing with the other.”

Erin nodded. This was the first time she’d heard anything about his job.

“So anyway, my boss comes up to me and asks me to collect contact info for this list of people.”

“Ok,” said Erin, sneaking a glance at a novelty clock with an image of an alien from the movie Alien in the center.

“Yeah, he hands me this list. But I’m like, ‘How am I supposed to find that? I don’t know any of these people.’ And my boss says, ‘The internet.’ Just like that. Like I’m an idiot. So I ask who they are and why we need the information, and he says it’s for a survey they’re planning to do.”

“But when did it start?” asked Erin, her heels tapping the floor.

“It wasn’t my fault,” said Neil as he began to pace back and forth, leaking pink slime.

 

The rest of this story is available in Volume 3, Issue 3 of Night Picnic.

R.S. WREN

P a l e   F e e t

You turn the lights on once more, just to make sure everything’s in its right place, before turning the lights back off. No need to waste electricity, lord knows your energy bill was high enough last month. After taking another look at your entire set-up, you deem that you are not, in fact, forgetting something, and you assure yourself that the feeling is fabricated by your excited mind, as usual.

She’s late, but that’s alright. She’s paid by the hour, and you have nothing but time.

You lie down on your bed, scrolling through today’s headlines, but, in your estimation, nothing is so compelling to warrant a click to read the full article.

Finally, you hear a knock on the door. You get up to answer it.

You open the door. She’s beautiful — red hair, green eyes, symmetrical cheeks, large breasts, small waist. She’s shorter than you imagined, and has a sense of tiredness that was entirely absent in her online portfolio. You find that there’s always some minor surprise when you first see them.

“Hey, Jeffrey?” she asks. You respond yes. It’s not your real name, of course, but that doesn’t really matter. She knows it’s not your real name. And you don’t know hers.

You let her into your apartment, offer her something to drink, tell her to make herself at home. She ignores your half-hearted polite overtures, which you appreciate. Time is money, and she is making no attempt to waste yours.

You turn on the two bright lights and direct her to sit in the now illuminated folding chair. She removes her trench coat, draping it over her purse, and moves over to the chair. She’s wearing a short red dress that compliments her hair, not that it particularly matters for your purposes. She begins to remove her sandals, but you instruct her to stop.

“Not yet.”

You set yourself up behind the camera, bringing her entire body into focus. You tell her to smile. The corners of her lips curl upwards. Instantaneously, her face subsumes the fatigue in her eyes. She looks happy, hopeful, and eager. The type of model you would see in a clothing advertisement. She’s perfect.

Now you focus the camera downwards towards her feet. Her legs are crisscrossed, and her feet are intertwined, one foot on top of the other, the bottom foot resting on its heel. She’s wearing brown leather sandals.

“Take off your sandals.”

She reaches downwards, unstrapping the sandals, gently sliding each foot free. Her feet are considerably paler than the rest of her skin. They are unmanicured and unpainted, as you instructed. You can make out the semblance of a callous by the balls of each of her feet. A few wispy hairs protrude from her big toe. They’re perfectly imperfect, a delightful departure from the near physical perfection of the rest of her body.

“Rub them together.”

She does so, gently sliding her feet against each other. You take snapshots of the mobile feet in action.

“Wiggle your toes.”

She does so, and you capture more shots of the toes in motion. She knows exactly what to do without further instruction, she produces the perfect cadence of uneven wiggle, all the way out to her pinky toes — she’s a professional. This is the part that used to drive you crazy. A few years ago you could hardly stand to watch them do it. But it’s different now. The novelty is gone. There’s really only so many times you can see anything and maintain your excitement for it, even if it’s your greatest passion. Tonight you find yourself so bored, that you even sneak a look up from the camera, to look at her face.

She looks tired again. Now that your lens is focused on her feet, she’s dropped the facade in her eyes. She’s fascinating — the perfect sensual electricity with which she moves her feet is entirely lacking in the rest of her body. It’s like two different people, or energies, are existing within her at once. You wonder which one is really her, trying to make yourself believe that it lies in the movement of her feet, although you know that to be the more unlikely of the two options. Perhaps, you hope, the truth is somewhere in between.

The rest of this story is available in Volume 3, Issue 3 of Night Picnic.

STEVEN THOMAS

H e   W a l k s   O v e r   M e

 

1

My sense of self flees, my memory fragmented. Freezing wind and snow whips around, burning my skin, inhibiting my vision, all movement. The cold has also condensed under the forest’s trees, further dropping the temperature. I think of doing anything for a glimpse of warmth, to feel life again. Something dark appears in the distance suddenly. Real or not?

               The sight jogs my memory of something, as certain environmental factors do, and I remember him. Him, no one else. My beautiful friend. Dark hair, icy blue eyes like a wintery scene. He would fit in here. But those eyes, those striking eyes. They could be my last thought taken into death, as such a fate awaits me. But where did he go? How had he slipped away so quietly, slipped from my hands?

               I’m with him suddenly, in his ugly car during the summer.

               Late afternoon. His bare feet were propped against the dash, with me down below, the door left open for ventilation. Where were we? Perhaps parked in his backyard. Yellow grass was all around.

Something else came to mind: his frightening parents. Every second of contact with them was dreaded. His mother was pallid and unfriendly, frowning. His father was boring and uninvolved. They didn’t acknowledge me. I couldn’t believe such people created the beautiful young man I knew.

               We were in his filthy bedroom. But it also smelled of him intensely, his bed, used clothing, so I didn’t mind its dirtiness. He lay on the floor reading while I stared out the window in a daze. The sex had left me sleepy, numb. He didn’t seem affected, so I feared I hadn’t pleased him enough. I had also rattled the entire time stupidly, as it was only my second time, and I was terrified.

               The longer I recall his body lying on the floor, the more shadowed, indistinct the sight grows until he’s merely a silhouette, leaving. I gasp quietly while this happens before my eyes, sensing its importance. I don’t move, with my ankles buried in snow. I look around, afraid, lonely, starting to panic.

Something dark, a shadow flashes in the distance again. This fuels my legs, and without hesitation, I chase the figure. Dozens of frozen trees pass, my feet burn, and spidery branches scrape my face, as I have little stability in the thick snow. I doubt I will be quick enough.

               All I know is I should follow it. Whatever it is. I didn’t know or care.

2

I gazed down at the cascading river and thought of jumping. This thought slipped in naturally, and it didn’t bother me. But then I feared the drop wouldn’t be enough, leaving me splashing, calling for help in vain while freezing to death. Mist touched my face even from up there, on that old bridge. Trains once passed through it a long time ago, during the town’s prosperous days.

               But now it was a grey place. Most people, both children, and adults were pale and distant, perhaps resigned to the lifeless town. All shops and cafés I gazed into didn’t have customers nor anyone working the cash register. I wrapped my arms around my sides while I walked, feeling vulnerable and out of place. Then I began avoiding eye contact with all passersby, as the coldness of that place was getting to me.

               When I got back to the inn, I lay in bed with tired eyes. But I didn’t get any sleep until deep into the night.

               In my dreams, I saw human feces and an erect penis. I felt disgusted with myself upon awakening, and it took me a while to stir.

               I read a week-old newspaper clipping many times. Multiple deaths. This caused the university to shut down.

               The innkeeper’s daughter accompanied me at breakfast. She seemed intrigued by me, my foreignness, and she always had a devious smile. A pretty girl around my age, the beginning of adulthood, she was paralyzed and moved with a wheelchair. I would have shown her more kindness, but I simply lacked the energy. She didn’t seem to care. We sat together at a wooden table as white sunlight passed through the uncovered window nearby.

               After taking a minute to stare at me, she asked, “What do you think about the food?”

               I looked down at my half-eaten breakfast and replied, “It’s good.”

               A familiar smile, one that hinted at a secret. “You’re not from around here.”

               “No. I’m an exchange student.” I had told her the same thing yesterday.

               But my words didn’t seem to reach her entirely. She always looked clouded by thoughts. “You’re handsome. I like your blonde hair.”

               Unsure of how to respond, I forced a smile and reverted my eyes back down.

               “Not many can afford school here. You’re lucky.”

               I thought of the townspeople I saw the day before, their dark clothes and worn out expressions. Then I felt useless for loathing school. “Yeah.”

               “When do you return?”

               “Tomorrow.”

               “I’ll make your lunch. I’ll leave it in the fridge,” she replied earnestly.

 

3

The school lacked heating, and I trembled during my lessons. This snuffed any chance for concentration, forcing me to stare off into nothing. An old building erected centuries ago, it smelled of dust and decay, lacking the funding for any renovation. My classes also lacked students.

               Midday, I bundled up and sat on the bench in the courtyard. I didn’t care about the cold; I needed fresh air. The sky above was bright grey, overcast. Then I ate the lunch the innkeeper’s daughter had prepared for me.

               Truthfully, I didn’t know why I was back there. I had planned to quit school entirely. I was too overwhelmed, too exhausted to focus on my studies. I was unconvinced by getting a degree, no longer caring what kind of work I stumbled into or even if I became jobless. Leaving society intrigued me.

               When I returned to the inn later, I saw no one else. I went to my room silently and locked the door. After sunset, I drew a bath. My body was instantly comforted by the warmth, having craved it all day, not knowing how much longer I could take that cold place. Steam clung to the ugly wooden walls.

               I closed my eyes for a while. Then I sensed something changing in the room. He was there suddenly, by the door, expressionless.

               He stripped nude without turning and got in the bathtub with me, overflowing the water and spilling it onto the floor. I made room by holding my knees unconsciously. My heart rate surged, heavying my breathing, and I couldn’t react, shocked, frightened.

               I waited for an explanation in vain. My beautiful friend merely closed his eyes and rested his head back.

               We lay together in my bed that night, keeping each other warm. A deep haze had been cast upon me, dizzying, disrupting my ability to speak. My nose meanwhile rested in his dark hair. The entire situation was unbelievable, but I didn’t care, drunkenly happy, smiling, in love with his scent. Nothing mattered except for him.

               I mumbled something with no energy, “Don’t leave.” Even from my lips, this sounded miles away.

               No reply, he only moved his body closer to mine, rubbing. My penis swelled and I began massaging his arms, eventually moving my touch to his stomach under his shirt. This didn’t go any further, as I was exhausted suddenly, soon pulled into a dreamless sleep.

               When I woke, he was gone, as if vanished into thin air, leaving me alone, fragmented. Tears slipped down my face without my knowing.

The rest of this story is available in Volume 3, Issue 3 of Night Picnic.

SKYLER MELNICK

S l i g h t l y   M a g i c a l ,   V e r y   E c c e n t r i c

At 6pm, I sit at my antique vanity and inspect myself. My pale face appears to have grown even paler overnight, even more sickly, like a faded pearl in someone’s jewelry box that the maid forgot to shine. My entire body exudes the lifelessness of an empty sack, like I somehow managed to step out of myself and forgot to dispose of the old skin. I am strikingly haggard for a young woman. I mouth the word strikingly at my reflection, I hold onto that word. My lips need rouge. Chapped and cracking, they’re a bit more haggard than striking.

As I apply a light pink shade in preparation for the evening that is to change my life, Mother glides into my dark bedroom, darkening it even further with her seductive presence. She brings with her a cloud of perfume, Lavender Lover, and it wafts around my Victorian bedroom like a poisonous gas, enveloping me. I hardly smell it anymore, after all these years, but the scent still manages to carry with it something far more sinister that I’ve never been able to put my finger on. The perfume is like an extension of Mother, and I feel it sifting through my mind, searching for secrets.

“That, my dearest, is not your shade,” she croons, enunciating the consonants sharply. Words roll off her tongue like a glass chandelier swaying in the air-conditioned breeze. Frightening because at any minute they could shatter you completely. “Try the red one.”

“Mother, red is your color.” I say. I never see her without painted lips, or in her natural state for that matter, though I suspect she doesn’t have one. Even in the bathtub, she looks like a classic renaissance painting. Dark tendrils of hair bound gracefully atop her head, a cold gaze with hints of superiority, ivory skin so delicate that one light touch might crack it open.

“Darling, you’re white as a ghost and with those dark locks, add red lips and you’ll look like Snow White. Tonight belongs to you. You should look like a princess.”

Mother’s kindness is unnerving. “Genevieve and Laura were the princesses. I’m the gawky, lifeless one. I know this. You’ve told me.” My elder sisters got such beauty, I simply don’t think there was any left for me. Though our features are similar, mine don’t align quite right. Perhaps it’s my large forehead, or my crooked nose, or my thin line of a lip. I look out through my window at the gardens of our estate. An expanse of pale, washed out green. The sun has just set, all the beautiful colors of the sky fading into one monotonous gray. I, too, feel like one monotonous gray. Mother coughs delicately and my eyes dart back to her, afraid of what I might miss.

“Look at yourself,” she commands. I do, unmoved. She stands behind me, fixing my hair into an updo like hers. “Have Liesl do something like that before dinner.”

In an instant, she grows tired, melancholy, desolate. Her moods are like raindrops; I never know which one will fall next. She lets go of my dark mess of hair and drifts toward my canopy bed, sprawling out on the lavender king-size mattress, making her long and slender body as extensive as possible.

“Tonight,” she says, staring at the ornate ceiling, “my youngest little daughter—”

“I’m not young or little, I’m 17,” I remind her.

“—will finally be where she belongs.” she rolls over in the bed giggling, suddenly playful, like a little girl. The gesture is surprising, like a crack in her facade. Like there might be something warm and mushy if you manage to break the ivory casting. Except there’s something not quite right about it, a stale note to her laughter, a stiffness to her movements. A chill runs down my spine, and I want to run. But there’s nowhere to run.

“Tonight is the night,” she says.

Now, this isn’t a cotillion or anything like that. It’s more of a ritualistic ceremony. And by that euphemism, I mean, it’s the night I die. Dying is one way to think of it, but Mother prefers the term freezing. Tonight is the night I become frozen in time, frozen physically and biologically, for all eternity.

Mother examines the bookshelves lining my walls contemptuously. “You can read all you want darling, cultivate that mind and spirit and soul, but the beauty will still slip away.”

“I know Mother. But reading is still quite a nice pastime I should think.”

Mother smirks and saunters over to the books, caressing my first editions.

“That’s Alice in Wonderland,” I tell her, as the cover is a worn and faded red, with no indication of its contents.

“Alice,” Mother repeats, hissing the word disdainfully. “Alice is frozen in time too, isn’t she? Her beauty everlasting.” She clutches the book tightly to her chest, gazing out the window. “Beauty is valuable, dear, it is gold, it is currency, it is love, and don’t you forget it.” Mother’s right eye begins to spasm, her long lashes flickering uncontrollably. An attack of something, though I couldn’t say what.

It’s times like these that I feel sorry for her. She has never known anything else. Then again, neither have I.

The rest of this story is available in Volume 3, Issue 3 of Night Picnic.

AMANDA POSTMAN

A r m c h a i r   P s y c h o l o g y

 

March 22, 7:00 PM

Marisa is sprawled on the stained couch amidst dirty dishes and crumpled-up pieces of paper reading June’s diary, when June gets back to their fourth-floor two-bedroom apartment in the middle of campus. Marisa’s yellow braids dangle off the edge of the couch, touching the dirty floor, and her brow is wrinkled in thought.

June rubs her eyes. She’s been in classes (history, statistics, dance) and work (sending and answering mindless emails for the French department) without any sort of break the whole day. Her bun is messy, her dress is sweaty, and she does not have the patience for this. “What are you reading?” she asks.

“Your diary,” replies Marisa, as if reading your roommate’s diary is completely normal.

“I can see that,” June says.

“Then why’d you ask?”

June grits her teeth. “Sorry, my mistake,” she says, “Let me rephrase that. Why are you reading my innermost thoughts and secrets without permission?”

Marisa idly turns a page. “I’m a psychology student. It’s part of my studies to get to know the psyches of those close to me. And that includes analysis of their innermost thoughts and secrets. Speaking of, I didn’t know you were a selective mute.”

June takes two steps forward and yanks the diary out of her roommate’s hands. “Give me that!” And then, as an afterthought, “And I’m not! Not anymore!”

“Ahh, childhood selective mutism is common,” Marisa says. “So what caused it? Trauma? Or are you just autistic?”

June stomps into her room and resolves to find better hiding places.

 

March 23, 3:30 PM

“She was reading my diary yesterday. Can you believe the fucking gall?” June sips her macchiato despite it being way too hot. She’s out for a late afternoon coffee at the campus Starbucks with her boyfriend, Tyler, and she has to keep up the appearance that she’s enjoying the date. She’s been going out with him for a whole six weeks, and she doesn’t want to scare him away.

Tyler, whose hair is still that atrocious shade of bright green, wraps his arms around her shoulders. “That’s creepy as hell,” he says.

“Yeah, and when I tried to figure out why, she acted like she was entitled to read it! Like that was in the lease or something.”

Tyler shrugs. “You wouldn’t think that she was a creep just from looking at her. She looks like an… all-American teacher’s pet.”

June knows what he means. Her roommate wears mostly 50s style dresses and long braids. That, plus her round face and cheerful disposition, make her seem a lot younger than she actually is. “Yeah, when we were assigned to live together, I thought I got off easy.”

“Babe, if this shit continues, you should leave.” In the six weeks they had been together, June has come to realize that Tyler took pleasure in dispensing obvious advice as if she was an idiot for not thinking of it.

“And break my lease?” She raises an eyebrow at him. “I can’t afford that.”

“What’s more important, your money or your privacy?” he asks.

 

March 25, 10:30 PM

June is five hits deep on her weed pen. Smoking wax always makes her a little twitchy, but it’s all she has to keep her sane right now.

The munchies are hitting her hard, and so she heads out to the kitchen to retrieve her Frito-Lays Flamin’ Hot Munchies Snack Mix™. Unfortunately, Marisa’s also out there, waiting for the kettle to boil. “Chamomile tea?” she offers.

June nods dumbly, reaching for her chips.

Marisa reaches for another mug. “I’ll get it for you.”

“Thanks,” June says. “I’m kind of stoned.”

“I can tell,” replies Marisa, and June’s cheeks color.      

“Sorry,” June mutters, shoving a handful of spicy chips into her mouth.

“Don’t worry about it. How was your day?”

“I don’t know,” June mumbles. “Class. Work. Same as always. And I saw Tyler.”

Her roommate’s face twists into a scowl. “Let’s change the subject,” Marisa says briskly. “What caused the childhood selective mutism?”

June nearly spews crumbs all over the kitchen floor. “Jesus, I dunno. It was just what I was like. I was an only child, so it’s not like I had any siblings to talk to.”

Marisa’s eyes brighten immediately. “Parent trouble?”

When June does not answer immediately, Marisa nods. “Parent trouble. What was it, arguing? Divorce?”

“I don’t have time for this,” June says.

Marisa touches her arm. “You can talk to me.”

“I don’t have to,” June says.

“You should, though.”

“Well, you’re the psychologist,” June says. “Why don’t you tell me?”

Marisa taps her chin. “If I had to take a guess, it’d be that your parents have always been fighting over minor issues. As an only child, you felt caught in the middle of it all. Maybe you tried to mediate at first, but when that failed you just went quiet. Parents both blamed each other for that, and that’s why they got divorced. You were shuffled back and forth between houses, and you moved out the first chance you got. Did I get it?”

“Almost,” June admits, “but they never got divorced. They’re still at home fighting to this day.”

Marisa clucks her tongue. “Poor girl.” And then she steps forward and hugs June. June stays stiff and doesn't hug back.

The kettle whistles, and Marisa releases her. June says, “I didn’t ask for that.”

“No,” Marisa says, pouring tea. “But it’s what you needed.”

The rest of this story is available in Volume 3, Issue 3 of Night Picnic.

MARK KEANE

P e t e r   a n d   J u n e

Traffic at a standstill in Pilton, Peter tries to be reasonable. “We’ve started now, let’s just stick it out.”

“I don’t want to spend the weekend with you when you’re like this,” June tells him.

The lights change from green to red and back to green, but the cars don’t move. A soft February rain falls on the Pilton housing scheme, clusters of anonymous grey boxes on a wasteland of patchy grass.

“Imagine all those hellish lives,” Peter thinks aloud.

“I’d rather not," she says.

 

He watches a seagull peck at the ground. Wings abruptly extended and flapping, it lifts itself up, rising higher. Peter follows the seagull’s flight beyond the street lights, into the black sky. They sit in silence.

“This is very relaxing.” He drums his fingers on the steering wheel.

She pounces on that. “You can always turn back, no one’s forcing you to go.”

 

They are on their way to their second home, a stone cottage outside Arbroath, in the lee of Lunan Bay. They started late and Peter had insisted on a short-cut.

“I told you not to turn onto Boswell Drive," June reminds him. "Look where it got us.”

“I can see that. You really do excel at pointing out the obvious.”

“And you’re just hopeless.”

 

They bought the cottage using money he inherited after his mother’s death. June dealt with the transaction as she worked for a bank and knew more about financial matters. He didn’t have the time, what with lectures, university committees, student theses and research proposals. It still galled him the way she appropriated responsibility for the house purchase. After all, it was his money, his inheritance.

June makes a show of checking her watch. “It’ll be close to midnight before we get there.”

He stares at the brake lights of the car in front. “Look, there’s nothing I can do, we’re stuck here.”

 

The search for a second home brought them together in a shared purpose. Going through sales catalogues and web sites, they could meet on common ground. They wanted a house with history and character and the cottage had both. Negotiations were protracted and the seller put up countless obstacles. Peter went through highs and lows. Highs, when he was excited by the prospect of a second life in Lunan Bay. Lows, when he convinced himself it was a mistake

 

He twists in his seat and reaches for the case of CDs, catching a glimpse of the angry set to her jaw. The coils and whorls of her auburn hair are restrained in a choker and pulled tight at the back of her head. He takes a CD at random and slips it into the player. The strains of Chuck Mangione’s trumpet come from the speakers, the unmistakable melody of Feels So Good.

“What I can’t understand is why you had to read your e-mails before we left.” She turns down the volume. “What was so important? You know what the traffic’s like leaving Edinburgh on a Friday.”

 

After signing the house purchase agreement, she had said the change of surroundings would do them good. Peter clung onto that, everything new, no association with old grievances. Listening to her now, he doesn’t hear anything new.

“You complain how unbearable it is at work and how you hate everyone there. Yet you can’t survive ten minutes without checking your e-mail. I work too, you know, but I can leave it behind.”

 

A group in hoodies mess about on the footpath, kicking a football between them. One sets off on a bike, weaving in and out of the traffic. Raising the front wheel off the ground, he loses control and hits the side of a car. As he passes, he grins at Peter, hand raised with two fingers wagging in contempt. Peter blasts the car horn.

 

“What do you think you’re doing?” June glares at him. “Can you not control yourself?”

"Did you not see that moron on the bike?" He bangs the steering wheel. “Fucking moron.”

“Ignore him and watch the traffic.”

 

There was a time when Peter couldn’t bear being separated from June, because of work or when she nursed her terminally ill father. He made mental calculations of the days and hours remaining before they were together again. June took setbacks in her stride and got things done. He preferred to unpick and scrutinize. "You always over-analyze everything," she would say. At least it meant she recognized his need to understand the world around him. Those were the halcyon days, before she started raking over his shortcomings and refusing to side with him on anything.

 

The traffic starts moving. The car in front pulls off, then comes to a sudden stop. Peter presses down hard on the brakes.

“Fuck this, fucking ridiculous.”

“Watch what you’re doing, you almost drove us into that car.”

Overhead, the outline of birds gliding, effortless and smooth. Peter shuts his eyes and leans back in his seat. Mangione plays Chase the Clouds Away.

 

June's phone vibrates in her handbag. She puts on her glasses to read the message.

“Helen’s come down with flu,” she says. “They’ve had to cancel their skiing holiday.”

Helen is her sister. She and her husband and two teenage girls stayed with them in Edinburgh before Christmas. June telephoned him before they arrived. “We have visitors,” she announced as a fait accompli. He had been looking forward to a quiet weekend after a difficult week at work. "It's an imposition," he told her. "They're my guests," she said. "Why can't you get on with people?" He had stayed in his study. When it was safe, he went to the kitchen for something to eat and heard their laughter. June made no reference to them when they left. She used silence as a weapon. There had been so many disagreements and silences and truces. Each successive truce carried a heavier pall of failure.

 

She puts her phone away. “I hope the house survived the bad weather.”

Why did she say that? Is she planning on having her sister and family stay in the cottage? She’d suggested it before but nothing came of it.

“It’s been standing for over a hundred years,” he says. “I think it’ll survive some wind and rain.”

 

Lunan Bay was an obvious choice, secluded, with an expanse of beach framed by low cliffs and the crumbling Red Castle. They had picnics there in the early days. Simple affairs, a blanket, bread, cheese, cold meat, wine and coffee. It was blustery in Lunan Bay, the sand got into the food and stung their eyes. When it rained, they bunched everything in the blanket and ran for the car. There were days of sunshine and undisturbed calm when June went swimming and Peter read until drowsiness overcame him and he dozed. 

 

The logjam eases and the cars are released. The Mangione CD comes to an end but Peter doesn’t change it, daunted by the heavy stillness in the car. They drive through South Queensferry and onto the Forth Road Bridge. He has to break the silence.

“It wasn’t such a serious hold-up in the end.”

“Keep your eyes on the road.”

 

The windscreen streams with rain. The side to side sweep of water from the wipers is dispiriting. Regardless of what he said, Peter is worried about the house. January had been fierce and there’s a likelihood of burst water pipes or missing slates or smashed windows. A diseased elm, fungus on its branches, overhangs the courtyard, as June had designated the concreted patch in front of the cottage. Peter pictures a jagged bough embedded in the roof, water leaking through the hole, untold damage within. 

 

Passing through Carnoustie, the rain turns into a heavy drizzle. He can just make out the North Sea through the mist.

“There’s hardly anyone on the road, we should get there by half ten.”

A train travels parallel to the car, the lit windows revealing empty carriages. June looks straight ahead, hands folded on her lap. He thinks they have never been as far apart as they are now. 

 

Arbroath is quiet. One solitary soul stands outside a pub, hunched over a cigarette. The streets are taken over by seagulls, swooping down and congregating on municipal bins. Stopped at a traffic light, Peter watches one tearing at greasy bags and plastic cartons, spilling chips and scraps onto the street. He feels a sudden compulsion to step from the car and confront it. Loud sighing from June tells him the traffic light has changed.

The rest of this story is available in Volume 3, Issue 3 of Night Picnic.

CASSONDRA WINDWALKER

L e t   D o w n   Y o u r   L o n g   H a i r

 

She glares at me. “Where did that book come from?”

I wince but try anyway. “My pocket?”

“This is a trip. A journey. An adventure. It’s cheating to bring home with you.”

“I don’t think— ”

She snatches the offending article from my hand and shoves it in the beverage cart trash can as the flight attendant wheels by.

I don’t worry anymore what our strange fellowship looks like to strangers. At first it troubled me — the sidelong looks, the whispers, the edging away. Now I’ve all but forgotten how to listen to anyone but her.

She snuggles closer. “I want my words printed on your skin,” she whispers. “I want to stuff your pockets with pages we find together. I want to read every chapter as we write it.”

    

Her words are warm but her voice is cool, and I shiver as her breath runs over my skin. I am a writer, after all — this sort of sweet nothing should thrill me. It should. But as she traces my bare thigh where it meets the hem of my skirt, I fight the urge to cross my legs.

Still. I slide my hand to meet hers, lace my fingers in that fierce grip.

She sighs, nestles her head against my shoulder, her blood-matted hair leaving no mark on my cashmere sweater.

The flight to Greece is a short one. The farthest we’ve been from home since that night, but she is untroubled by distance. Untroubled by anything but my silence.

She’s a scavenger of my every thought. A vulture, a hyena, tearing apart the rot of my guts to devour the quavering morsels of my intentions.

When we first met, I was flattered by her adulation. It shames me now, to think how I preened and strutted for her, how I recounted plots and devices and constructs as if I were Dorothy Parker’s heir apparent. I ate my own words off her lips, lapped up poetry from the basin of her belly, plundered her thighs so I could taste myself.

She tore chunks of flesh from my breasts and fed them to me with her teeth. Too late, I found I was cannibalizing myself to sate a raven whose appetite never tired.

I don’t like to think about that night.

And she doesn’t hold it against me. Not once has she ever brought it up. Perhaps it is as horrifying to her as it is to me.

I suppose all writers enjoy tormenting their characters, contorting their limbs with a miscellany of agonies to see what new shapes they form. I’d thought it a diverting fiction, that anyone could become a murderer under the right circumstances.

It wasn’t as if the provocation was slight. I’d been wrung out like an old rag, my thoughts shredded with her incessant attentions. She’d ply me with ecstasies till my limbs trembled and my brain spasmed, drunk with pleasure-addled incoherence. While I slept, she’d drape her damp body over mine and read aloud from my manuscript. When I woke, she had a thousand questions. She’d feed me broken bread from her fingers and draw mysteries from my lips.

At first, I thought her my muse, cartographer of my imaginings. But day by day I wrote less and less. The borders of my mind were defended by her body, and too late I realized her armaments did not keep critics at bay — they kept me penned in, princess in a bower. I’d never understood before how deeply, how desperately the witch loved Rapunzel.

Or how madly Rapunzel loved the witch.

I did try to untangle my pages from her grip, but the papers tore and the words fell into an abyss. I couldn’t lose any more of my story. Self-defense, I thought it.

I can still feel the marble bookend slipping in my hand, hear the thick wet impact, the crunching of her skull. She didn’t fight me then. She kept her eyes on mine till the darkness came, an opaline curtain that took her vision away from me.

She wasn’t gone for long.

The rest of this story is available in Volume 3, Issue 3 of Night Picnic.

BEATRIZ SEELAENDER

T h e   N e a r – D e a t h   E x p e r i e n c e   E x p e r i e n c e

 

Father said hurry, Chaplin; the show starts at seven. It was Apollo’s fifteenth birthday, January fourth. (How old is Polly now? I suppose we stop counting after twenty-one.) He’s three years and seven months older than me, which I know by heart because such are the things we care about when we are children.

This was back when Apollo was going to be a surgeon, though — or was pretending he was going to be a surgeon. What’s the difference anyway. We all believed it, especially father who was exceedingly thrilled about it given his self-diagnosed hypochondria, even though Surgery School and Diagnostics School are hardly the same. Everything sounds alike to us, bound to the Humanities.

Anyhow, because of that, Polly had received a special treat of a show for his birthday. To be clear, this is just after that sort of thing had been legalized; father would have never risked a stain on anyone’s record. Having been to a show in Boston, some family friends convinced our parents that the whole experience was cathartic and we simply had to go see: fun for the whole family. Except for mum who hated blood and guts.

The show we were about to see was supposedly quite exclusive. The riskier the procedure, the more expensive it was to watch. Evidently that happened due to the cost of the procedure itself, a craniotomy in order to remove a tumor rather smugly entitled an olfactory neuroblastoma. That basically means that the tumor was up some guy’s nose.

After some more yelling about us being late for the show, we emerged from our bedrooms as father frenetically maneuvered the car. Mum stayed at home given her “weak stomach.”

“This is quite rare, you know? This type of cancer,” said father as he had been saying ever since buying the tickets. I would have felt half sorry for Polly for having to feign excitement, but I didn’t yet know the whole wanting to be a surgeon thing was an act.

“How long will this take, again? Provided it goes according to plan?” I asked.

“Five hundred and fifty-seven minutes.”

That seemed like an absurd amount of time, but my brain refused to translate it into hours. I would go on to regret this later, sometime after the five-hour mark.

We met up with our experience guide, Gayle Waiver, at the hospital entrance. In her trained robot lady voice, she told us she was a scrub nurse, which Father had already told us as if that would sell me on going; and that she was from Canada, which I did not know yet did not care about. Just before hour three, upon learning that Gayle’s middle name was Sabrina, I was marginally pleased to note her initials formed an acronym: GSW. Was that a cosmic coincidence, or some sort of stage name? Did other guides’ initials amount to medical acronyms, like MRI, CPR, or HPV? Around hour four I asked her, and she said it was simply a coincidence, though she had in fact once met someone whose initials were STD. She did not know, however, whether or not that person actually carried one. There was nowhere else I could move chat-wise from there.

Four hours earlier, upon handing us the program in the surgical gallery, Gayle had told us all about the patient so that we could grasp the climax of his narrative arc.

“Some entertainment hospitals will give you photos of their loved ones, to make you cry and stuff, but that’s not what the Near-Death Experience package is about. Ours is a more intellectually focused program, meaning we aim to do medical entertainment in both scientific and philosophical terms. Some of you are here for the opportunity to watch a great surgeon perform; others are here to vicariously and safely experience the risks involved in a life-or-death situation. We will not tell you how to react because that is not what True Art does. All I am here for is to clarify any medical questions that may arise, and narrate the most essential steps of the procedure… As you know…”

His name was François Haal, he was sixty-something, divorced, and revoltingly average apart from his one-in-a-million tumor. He found his sense of smell worsening a couple of months prior, and Dr. So-and-So had discovered the rarity up his nose.

Patiently, I waited for Gayle’s dry, matter-of-fact delivery before I asked for the menu. Family friends Oboe and Kate had spoken of it wistfully. The options for dinner were scarce, nevertheless, and I concluded that Oboe and Kate had enjoyed the menu due to its fun spoof on hospital jargon: Amnesia (a mind eraser), Napa Sunburn, Blue Motorcycle Accident, Old Fashioned Alcoholism, Codes Blue (Curacao and lime), Black (a Cuba Libre), and Red (wastefully, a Bloody Mary). I have pictures; we took some of the menu and of us looking bored before giving up on having any fun whatsoever.

I was quite disappointed at this development, as the main reason I tagged along was the supposedly interesting food — besides of course father having told me about the insurance company refusing to perform the surgery unless they got a full gallery.

It was indeed rather crowded in there. My foot stool was nearly brushing on Polly’s, which could have been unpleasant had he been a stranger.

The spectators were, from back to front and left to right:

 

- A LOCAL WEATHERMAN AND HIS DATE. While I do not remember his name, it was widely known that none of his forecasts should be trusted, which come to think of it actually made them the most trustworthy source on what was not to happen. His date was a Mid-Atlantic lady called Pixie.

 

- A FAMILY OF FOUR. Two mums, a sleeping baby, and an insufferable toddler who kept saying he was getting nothing out of the show and wanted to go home. It was later revealed to us that he was the whole reason they were there — his misbehaving had reached a critical point a week prior when he had pushed a classmate off the grownup slide, forcing his parents to take it upon themselves to teach him about the constant hovering of deathly things. The question on everyone’s minds, of course, was: did he not know that already?

 

- NONNY AND MERLOT. Two Surgical students who were really excited. Merlot kept pronouncing the patient’s name in English phonetics: “François” the way one would pronounce “moist” or “Boise”. That annoyed me greatly especially because he had heard the name’s correct pronunciation from Gayle’s mouth, without having read it on the program first. Also, he had a “French” name so he should know how French works — unless his name was spelled Merlo. This possibility had never occurred to me.

 

- A LONE, HUNGRY ITALIAN WITH WHOM FATHER TRIED CHATTING TO PROVE HE COULD SPEAK ITALIAN. As they mutually misunderstood one another, father would later claim the man spoke in an unseethroughable regional dialect, probably from the southern parts.

 

- A STRUGGLING MARRIED COUPLE PLUS THEIR INHOUSE THERAPIST. The patient, they kept saying, was a metaphor for their struggling marriage.

 

- A THEATRE CRITIC WHO REFUSED TO TELL US WHICH WEBSITE HE WROTE FOR. This led everyone to reach the consensus around hour three that the website was either really famous or completely irrelevant.

 

- A VERY OLD MAN TRYING TO GRAPPLE WITH HIS MORTALITY, ACCOMPANIED BY HIS BUTLER. Father and the butler had similar tastes in music, though the friendship soon soured after each began trying to prove superior erudition over the other. Father, then vice-Chair of the Erudite (read: terribly old) Music department at the local university, would have never admitted to knowing less than anyone apart from the very Chair to whom he provided occasional backup.

 

Father had written his doctoral thesis on early 21st century musicology, focusing on some rather obscure composers he now compulsively listed to the butler. Sure, anyone with a bachelor’s degree has heard of Jack Antonoff, but have you ever heard of his protégé, Taylor Swift?

 

Luckily father had paid the extra fee in order to deejay the show. He had brought a list of his most favorite erudite music, not only so as to “educate” the potentially uncultured youths in our company (looking at you, Merlot), but also because he was extremely likely to collapse if forced to listen to the “Crime Against Humanity That Was Modern Music” for nine hours. In truth, it’s probably for the best that he’s dead, since this week’s Top Ten probably makes those 30’s tracks he so despised sound like freaking Lorde.

Now, as I retrace the conversations had that evening while Dr. So-and-So attempted to extract the unpleasant gem out of François’ cavernous septum, I realize that time no longer felt like anything, and conversations are difficult to order. So bored was I, in fact, that it seemed whatever millisecond atoms that time as we understand it is made of evaporated into the gallery’s ceiling, in a manner of imprisonment not dissimilar to the drops of water in a water bottle when it sweats, hopelessly attempting an escape through transparent walls.

I have done my best to put the conversations in order, though by no means do I vouch for their accuracy. Of course, my auditory memory has always been far clearer than my visual (I suppose I owe that to father), and some of these notes I can still hear today, even if I cannot exactly tell what they were about in the first place. So without further ado:

Surgery started at 7:00PM, as scheduled. They did a whole bit for our benefit in which they confirmed the patient’s name and the surgical team’s names and what the surgery was. Then Gayle started narrating as if she were the commentator on a football match:

“Here Dr. So-and-So will require a certain kind of blade, so that it can hit the nerve that it should hit as opposed to one that it shouldn’t,” etc.

By far the most exciting moment happened at ten minutes; a crucial mistake in entertainment as it shows one’s hand early on and in this case the hand contained exactly one card: Dr. So-and-So removed the cap of old François’ head (or, dura) with a drill as father blasted some of his beloved Antonoff. His plan was to make the youths go “This is actually nice” so that he could say “Actually, that was Antonoff: erudite music may not be as boring as you think!” but everyone was too invested in the brain drilling to comment on the soundtrack.

The rest of this story is available in Volume 3, Issue 3 of Night Picnic.

IGOR V. ZAITSEV

T h e   A d v i c e

               Once upon a time there was a man named Frank. He had a wife, children, and a little family restaurant called “Our Smile.” As time passed, more gray hairs appeared on his head and a great fatigue would often overcome him. His children were growing up; his wife was aging; and the restaurant was becoming ever more unprofitable. Finally, the day came when there was just not enough money — not even for basic needs. With each new day their dreams of an unclouded old age and their hopes for their children’s education became more unreal.

               Frank bought the finest food for the restaurant, and his exquisite dishes were served in bountiful portions. Yet, Frank had hardly any customers. Who could say whether this was because of a poor, inconspicuous location on wide Hope Street or because Frank was just a natural failure. He did everything he could think of to attract people. It wasn’t for the first time that he had redecorated his small restaurant and replaced the sign with another. Nothing had helped. “It’s too fancy, everyone will think the prices are too high,” his friends said when he dressed the tables in snow-white linen and napkins with fine patterns and placed exotic plants in the corners of the room. “It’s too primitive now, unfashionable,” they opined after he changed the décor to a homier and cozier style. He even tried to change his demeanor towards his clients. However, when he was hospitable and solicitous his guests frowned and complained of lack of privacy and when he tried to be a little more aloof and proper they felt that the place seemed cold and lifeless. And when he simply acted in a natural manner he would sometimes shudder at the raised voices proclaiming, “There is no attention in this place!”

               His situation became increasingly painful. Our character began to despair. Suddenly, he saw with horror that he had wasted his life fussing over unimportant things, and felt ashamed of himself, of his poor life. He felt helpless and unable to go on anymore.

               Then, one frosty winter evening, he heard a knock on the door. After a minute or so, the “closed” sign hanging on the door shook. Outside the icy winter wind howled and there, on the threshold, an old mendicant appeared. This hoary pilgrim was tall and had a strange air about him. Snow covered his enormous beard, moustache, and flowing hair. He wore a black wool robe, and his hand he held a tall staff glistening with ice. On the tired, weather-beaten face beneath thick beetle-brows, his dark blue eyes shone with a kind light. Frank let him in and hastened to close the door. The mendicant introduced himself with a strange, foreign name which Frank did not understand at first. He asked him to repeat it, but the combination of unusual sounds seemed to strike his ear in disorder, allowing no familiar pattern to enter his head.

Frank understood from their short conversation that the mendicant had arrived in their city by chance and now, worn out from the journey and the storm, he sought shelter for the night. Where he going, and for what, the stranger refused to tell. The wind was becoming stronger and stronger, and had already broken all the streetlights. Night swallowed the city. Frank welcomed the old man to stay in his home.

               "May I?" The mendicant asked taking out a big dark pipe.

               Whenever Frank absently waved his hand, fragrant clouds would float about room. The smell of it was strange, unlike the aroma of regular tobacco. From the pipe came the smell of forest flowers and berries.

               "Tell me, what do you worry about, most of all?" The old man asked, staring intently at Frank's face.

               "What worries me? Why do you ask what worries me?" Frank repeated sarcastically. And suddenly tears filled his eyes. At first, he was taken aback. Bewildered and embarrassed, he tried to wipe them away but it was already too late to stop. It seemed as if fate had decided to play another bad joke on him — to humiliate him like this in front of a stranger. He never allowed himself to lose control. He always kept a firm grip on himself. And now, disgracefully, these damn tears. It was impossible to stop them. Aware that he had no strength left, he could fight it no longer and gave in. Searching for an excuse to camouflage his sudden weakness, he told the mendicant about all his problems. And the mendicant listened attentively.

               "So," he said at last, "I can help you. And if you take my advice your restaurant will flourish and you will never again know what need is." The mendicant drew deeply on his pipe and continued. "Go to a glassblower and order a round vessel of the most delicate and gentle glass. It should hold about thirty liters. Fill it with forest water drawn from a pure spring at dawn. Put this vessel in the middle of the restaurant's kitchen. It will not be easy to keep it from breaking, but the success you desire will not come without a special kind of effort. And while this vessel remains intact, good luck will be yours and success will crown your business. But remember: this vessel must not break!"

               "So, now you make fun of me? You think I’m a fool! Telling me such baloney... There are no miracles!" Frank exclaimed.

               "I have no need to make fun of you, I am too old for evil jokes. You were generous and hospitable to me and in return I gave you my best advice. Trust my gray hair and my wrinkles. But about miracles you are right. Miracles happen less and less in this world and perhaps one day they will disappear altogether. People will annihilate them with their lack of faith. They don't respect them."

               The mendicant did not look crazy. Frank was very tired after his long, hard day and did not want to argue with the old man. He walked the guest to the upper room, made a bed, wished him a good night's sleep and retired with the hope of falling into a deep sleep himself. But as soon as he lay down, thoughts about the stranger began to torture him. He tried to understand the meaning of what he had heard, and soon began to despair of ever understanding the meaning of the mendicant's words. He tried to recall his name. He tried to figure out where he could have come from and for what reason he had appeared. Eventually Frank became angry with his unexpected visitor and his taciturnity and all of his mysteriousness which he now saw as an insult and, even worse, as derision. With all these thoughts spinning in his head, he tossed and turned from one side to the other until the clock struck seven.

The rest of this story is available in Volume 3, Issue 3 of Night Picnic.

MADS BOHAN

D e a d   M e n   I :   R h a d a m a n t h u s

 

               Rhadamanthus didn’t much care for being dead. It wasn’t bad exactly; he had position, rank, purpose, of a sort. All the things his father had taught were virtuous and good. One of his fathers anyway. The Big Guy never did have much time for any of them, frankly. Too busy with fucking and thunderbolts. But, once again, you take the good with the bad. Asterion was a perfectly fine step-father, never really seemed to mind having been cuckolded, and he guided Rhadamanthus and his brothers well. Groomed them to be fair little princelings. Life itself wasn’t exactly a fairy tale. There was the business with his brother Minos. Shame. Exile. Still, Rhadamanthus had been a king in his own right, and besides they were all dead now anyway. Water under the bridge. Wouldn’t do any good to hold a grudge. After all, he did have to work with the guy.

               Death hadn’t been that hard of a transition, especially when compared to most of the poor schmucks he dealt with every day. Not that they didn’t deserve it. Justice must trump all other considerations. One of his first lessons, and never far from his thoughts. Was why he had the job at all, in fact. But dying itself wasn’t so bad. One day, you’re presiding over the kingdom, keeping up the fine work of maintaining order, monitoring the progress of your own stepson, Herakles, who, incidentally, is also your half-brother, because the Big Guy really does get around, and the next, poof, here you are, lounging in the Elysian Fields of Paradise. All the women and wine and song a guy could ask for, nice and temperate, a spacious palace with a beautiful view. The first thousand years were pretty great. Rhadamanthus caught up on his reading, learned the lute, the lyre, the pan flute. Gave the Zither a fair shot, but was forced to put it aside as a lost cause after a decade or two. Finally got to know his uncle Hades, heard some great stories about the Big Guy when he was a kid, took the grand tour a time or two. Hades was all right once you got past his chilly demeanor, and the whole God of the Dead thing. Aunt Persephone was another story, always complaining about this or that, marking days on a little hand-held calendar she kept nearby. Rhadamanthus didn’t mind, understood that she had gotten kind of a raw deal, tried not to take it personally. But paradise can only offer so much. He missed his wife, and Herakles had become such a big deal that they made him a God, if you could believe it. Throne on Olympus and everything. Rhadamanthus began to feel lonely. Constant pleasure just didn’t cut it anymore.

               So, he went to his uncle, asked if there was maybe anything useful he could do, something to break up the time, maybe something with people, some smaller kingdom to rule in the Underworld. Hades said that he’d get back to him, maybe something would open up, but Rhadamanthus wasn’t too hopeful.

Time passed, a year or twenty or a hundred. Rhadamanthus took up painting, tried his hand at some sculpture, nothing fancy, mostly pots and vases. There was a while where he fancied himself a poet, but Ovid never got back to him, and so he figured they weren’t very good. The sun rose and set over the immaculate fields. The fruit was sweet, the women ever more lovely. The perfection became unbearable.

Hades showed up in the morning, Rhadamanthus’ brother Minos and some other fellow in tow, right when the birds were beginning their daily songs. The fields fell silent as their king approached. The birds scattered. Rhadamanthus met the trio on the vestibule, coffee in hand.

               “Still looking for some work?” asked Hades, gesturing to his companions, “cause if you are, I got just the thing. Right up your alley.” 

               Minos looked disgruntled at this, kicking the ground a bit with his sandaled toe. He’d always been the jealous type.

               “Sure” said Rhadamanthus, “what’s the gig?”

               So that’s how he ended up here, a Judge of the Dead. Half of the dead. Specifically, the Dead of the East. The stranger with Hades that day, a sad and sour-faced man by the name of Aeacus, judged the Dead of the West. Minos played tiebreaker, judging those in balance, and occasionally countermanding the other two. Even in death Minos loved his power plays, sending a Glutton to the Unending Winds of the Lustful, just because he could. The work was steady, folks die every day, more and more it seemed, sinners every one of them. And Rhadamanthus had his purpose again.

The rest of this trilogy is available in Volume 3, Issue 3 of Night Picnic.

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