Alma de Humo
By J.R. Carson
In Argentina, Miguel had a problem. His wife, Gaia (who was not the problem), was in love with Miguel’s brother, Pedro. This, too, was not the problem. No, the problem was with Maria, Pedro’s fiancée. Maria was a practical woman, well understanding of the vagaries of love. She knew that Pedro loved her but she also knew the temptation offered by Gaia and she was determined to be married and take the name of Gustavo for all that it was worth. Pedro may have only been brother to the mayor, but he was brother to the mayor and that was good enough for any right minded woman of the day. To be Maria Gustavo meant doors would be held open, busy restaurants would make room for her, and no one would make snide remarks when she passed them in her Sunday best on Tuesday afternoon.
But all of this was threatened by the diminutive Gaia. The mayor, Miguel Alonso Gustavo, was far too busy to keep his bride happy between gifts and so her eye wandered to Pedro. Pedro may have only been brother to the mayor, but he was brother to the mayor and that was good enough. At least if she was found out, the embarrassment would be minimized. Gaia was smart enough, though, to keep her thoughts to herself, trusting no one with her secret desire. Unfortunately, the monster of jealousy gave Maria keen sight to spot Gaia’s thoughts as they slipped from her eyes to Pedro’s mouth like wisps of smoke. This sharpened awareness is where the problem started.
Maria was too calculating to let Gaia know that Maria could see her thoughts. But Maria was nearly bursting at the seams to scream it to the world. In order to vent this frustration, Maria turned her keen sight on others. First, it was the milkman. As he left two bottles on Maria’s doorstep, he gave her a nod and a smile. Maria could read him like a hymnal and she wasted no time releasing her pent up energies.
“You want to pour that on my naked body, don’t you, you dirty old man?” she snapped at him. The poor man’s face went sick with horror. Not the kind of horror where one has been thoroughly humiliated in front of the neighbors by some crazy woman’s accusations, but the horror of having his inner most thoughts swallowed whole and then regurgitated onto the street for everyone to smell. Making the sign of the cross hastily, the milkman ran to his truck and left the neighborhood at full speed. Someone else would take his route the next day.
Maria stepped inside quickly and shut the door. Her heart raced as the thrill of it all ran through her. She immediately decided she wanted to do this again. She went to the market and began shopping – not for vegetables, but for people. A young couple browsed the corn and caught Maria’s eye. She watched them for a few minutes but couldn’t seem to read anything. Finally, she noticed another man walk in front of the couple. She saw the thoughts of the couple, both the man and woman, as they seeped out of their eyes and wrapped themselves around the hips of the young man in front of them. Maria laughed out loud before she could catch herself. Covering her mouth, she waited for the couple to cross her path before leaning close to the wife. She whispered something in the woman’s ear and left. Behind her, she heard the woman turn to the man and shout, “Maraca!”
Months passed and Maria kept her eye on Gaia. Family dinners, official events, holidays – any opportunity to see Gaia and Pedro exchange glances and impure thoughts. Maria could tell from the nature of the thoughts that nothing had happened between them as of yet. Meanwhile, Maria continued to release her energies on strangers around her. She began to notice a subtle change in the townspeople. They kept their distance. They avoided eye contact. Even her friends seemed in a hurry to finish a conversation with her so they could go on with their travels. She began to notice that the thoughts she saw from people tended to turn from gray to black around her. Maria was gaining a reputation as a witch.
She was furious. These little people had no business judging her, accusing her with their minds. She knew their secrets; she knew what they hid from everyone else. Jaime cheats on his wife. Ricardo steals from work. Jesus watched another boy fall into a ravine and die when he was ten, but told no one where to look for the body. Didn’t these people know who they were dealing with?
Maria decided it was time to deal with Gaia.
It was the night of the annual Celebracion de la Ciudad. Maria wore a shimmering green gown with a three foot train. Maria wanted to be noticed. Maria the Beautiful, not Maria la Bruja – Maria the Witch. As she crossed the main floor, she noticed that the thoughts from the women were still just as black, but the men allowed theirs to slip slowly back to gray, back to thoughts of what lay under that shimmering green gown. Maria smiled coyly as the crowd parted and she made her way to the staircase. The guards moved aside to allow her entry and she stepped lithely up the stairs toward the balcony.
Waiting for her there, stood Pedro, Gaia, and the mayor himself. Pedro’s smile temporarily broke up the thoughts he had most recently endured in Gaia’s close presence. Gaia’s thoughts were steadily wrapped around Pedro’s shoulders. Maria and Pedro hugged and kissed and then everyone turned to look down from the balcony. The view was spectacular – hundreds of townspeople, dressed in their very best, spun and whirled around the dance floor below them. The band played with skill and the wait staff kept the food moving. The gold and silver fabric hanging lazily from the ceiling brought just the right touch to the room and encased the Mayor’s balcony with its metallic sheen.
Maria smiled and waved to those dancing but she couldn’t keep her mind off the thoughts that were swimming back and forth between Gaia and Pedro. She tried to focus on the Mayor, but, without secrets to hide, he was empty to her. Maria grew more and more uncomfortable as the balcony seemed to close in around her. She began to see the thoughts of the people below her drifting up in her direction. There were thoughts of scandal, thoughts of sex, and thoughts of Gaia and Pedro. They knew – all of them knew.
Maria could stand it no more. She waved her arms in front of her face to wash the thoughts away, to blow them into the night sky, but they kept rising to meet her. The more she flung herself about, the more she was consumed by their black thoughts. She had grown hysterical and hardly noticed when she ran into Gaia. Suddenly, the thoughts were gone. The room was still. Maria looked at the mayor, then at Pedro, hoping for an explanation, but they both simply stared down at the dance floor. Maria stepped up slowly and peered over the edge of the balcony. The dancers had parted and created a circle around Gaia’s limp body, her pearls still rolling to distant corners of the room. From Gaia’s head, one last thought arose. It floated upward like a leaf on an evening breeze, pure white and true in its aim. It came to rest on Pedro’s lips and he breathed it into his nose deeply. With his eyes closed and tears streaming, Pedro jumped.
Maria heard the scream in her ears before she felt it in her throat. Mayor Gustavo was yelling something about getting help, but his feet were glued to their spot. He and Maria could only watch with horror as Pedro’s body shook violently on the floor below. His head had split open on the clay tiles, but he had not yet died. The seizure grew more violent and strange sounds emanated from his throat – gurgles, moans, and hisses. Maria could see his thoughts but they were nonsensical and random. They flew about the room erratically and collided with one another. As Pedro’s seizure began to ease, the thoughts fell to the floor and disappeared. Pedro was still, his gray matter laid out for all to see.
The revelers looked up at the balcony. Half of them wanted the mayor to tell them what to do. The other half waited for another body, the body of the witch, to come down next. They looked on as the mayor made his decision. He pulled his ceremonial pistol out of its holster and handed it to Maria.
“She was my wife,” he whispered. “And he was my brother. That is all I need to know about it.” He turned to face Maria and he pointed to the gun she now held. “You can see things, I know you can. You see secrets; you see truths. You know what must be done.”
Miguel knelt at the edge of the balcony and rested his elbows on the railing. He fought back a fit of crying as he turned his face upward and began to pray. Maria watched in amazement. He still has no secrets. No lies to hide. Maria raised the pistol and the crowd below gasped as she pulled the trigger.
Miguel’s problem was solved.
“We are pleased to inform you that your piece, Glucose, has been selected to be part of our 2013 Best Of anthology, Storm Cycle. Storm Cycle is our annual anthology that reflects the pieces from both our print anthologies and our online journals that [we] felt were truly special and deserved extra recognition.”
Bob had a problem with children. That’s how his wife described it when her friends asked about their lack of off-spring, despite fifteen years of marriage. Her statement was the top coat on a thoroughly colorful cover-up that the world would despise if discovered. Though it was certainly true that Bob had a problem, it would take tragedy after tragedy to break his wife’s well-built wall of deceit. Her friends would never understand the hard work, love, and dedication she put into her marriage. They would overlook all of that when the time came.
Everyone loves their smartphones, I know. Why wear a watch when you can just look at your phone? It’s gotten to the point that many offices and conference rooms don’t bother with wall clocks, presumably because anyone in the room that might care about the time of day will just look at their computer or phone when needed. What’s the problem with those options?
It was cold, then – no one knows the bitterness of a gray Polish winter like I do. Animals burrowed for months, pipes burst, and the very moisture in the air froze and fell from ten feet off the ground; you could be in snowfall on the street, but find clear skies on the roof.
It was in this kind of winter that I found myself with a dying father and no hope for spring. For so many years, he had spent his days working in the lumberyard and his nights entertaining my mother and me with tales from his youth. Well, if not his youth, than the youth of someone as carefree and daring as we always knew my father would be, given the chance. He would swing in through the door of our basement apartment like an ape, singing a song or laughing loudly as he stomped the snowbroth off of his boots and grab my mother close for a kiss. He would share tales while my mother cooked and I set the table. He propped his bared feet in front of the wood burning stove to bring back their color after his three-mile hike home.
When I was fifteen and dreaming of marrying the Prince of Denmark, tuberculosis took my mother. With her went a piece of my father’s heart just as certain as a lost tooth takes some of the root – what’s left behind throbs with pain and emptiness. He still came through the door each night with a song or a joke, though it was then my job to cook the dinner. While I set the table, my father would warm his feet as before, but we switched from tales of his youth to playing soft songs on his accordion. There were love songs, of course, and sea shanties, and songs for the dead as well as the living. But each was for my mother. Regardless of the lyrics or the melody, everything he played sounded a touch forlorn, a bit melancholy. Spanish Ladies became a dirge of unfathomable sadness in his hands.
On my twenty-first birthday, I waited excitedly by the small window beside our stoop, arching my neck to see my father’s approach at the end of the workday. I was sure he would be bringing home a lovely present, like every year. Down the lane, as the street lamps were lit, a tired looking pile of rags slogged through the snow toward our building. I had never felt such pity for another human being and I had to hold back my tears. It was only a few moments before he was close enough for me to recognize him. My father stopped at the door and took a deep breath. He straightened his bent back and took the door knob in a firm grasp. When he swung the door open, ready to sing, he saw me standing at the bottom of the step, face awash in tears, and he took me in his arms as we both wept.
It was the next winter he fell ill. The seasons in between seemed to only soften the cold, but never break it. Though it may have been that, I think it was the shattering of his facade that finally broke him. With my mother gone, and his magic no longer believable by his only daughter, he accepted what he was: a tired, old man fighting against the seas of time and the coldest winters he’d ever know.
Before the solstice had passed, he was bound to his bed for good. It was then my turn to go out and spend the day working in a paper mill, bringing home the cough of deep lung thrombosis that I could barely hide. Each night I would stop at our door and take a deep breath before swinging into the basement in mid song. As my father lay in his bed near the stove, I cooked the dinner, set the table, and repeated all of the wonderful tales of his youth, lest he forget them along the way. After feeding him and myself, I would pick up the accordion and play a few tunes until he drifted off. Most nights, I would watch him breathe, slightly snoring, until I was certain his chest wasn’t going to stop rising.
Before spring announced itself, I knew the end was near. I had played my after-dinner tunes and was putting the accordion away when my father reached out to touch my arm. I jumped, thinking him asleep, but my brief slice of giddiness melted when I saw the look in his eyes. He waved me close with two fingers barely raised and I leaned in enough to hear him request Spanish Ladies. I smiled through the pain and picked up the box once again. It was the first time the song had been heard in our home since he fell ill, and it was the last time I played it. I watched his lips move as he tried to sing along to my shaky rendition. Every few words had him gasping for air. Before the third verse, his last gasp escaped. I finished the song, tears darkening the felt of the accordion, and put away my father’s instrument for the last time. I pulled him closer than my own skin and wept as he grew cold as a Polish winter.