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Beth Sherman

Three Stories:

Seven Minutes in Heaven

Altitude

Good Morning Max

On the Street by Matsumoto Shinsuke

Seven Minutes in Heaven

It wasn’t even Olivia’s turn. Shannon was supposed to go next. But Shannon was upstairs getting more Nachos, so when the Red Bull bottle spun, leaking brown liquid onto the fake wood floor, it pointed straight at Olivia. All the lights were out in the basement, Olivia’s parents away in Tulum at a wellness resort. For her 14th birthday, they’d taken her to Dos Amigos Mexican Grill. Three weeks later – the real party. Twenty-six kids, half of them boys. Olivia had lit a Seashell Candle, but instead of ocean summers, it smelled like stale sunscreen, acrid seaweed tumbling ashore. Olivia spun herself into the closet with Jack Mercurio and darkness swallowed her whole. She put her hand in front of her face, brushed her fingertip across her palm to make sure she was still connected to herself. Heard Jack huffing like he’d just run the mile in gym class. This was where her parents stored winter coats. Parkas, ski jackets, the fur her mother pretended wasn’t real. She knelt to get free of them. Keeping her eyes open, she saw a black sky interrupted by occasional colors – pale blue, red streaks, white swirls like cream in coffee. The scent of mothballs. She liked Jack Mercurio. Had liked him ever since third grade. Jack, she said tentatively. Yeah. That one word made her cheeks expand to a smile he couldn’t see. She wanted to know he was there, that she hadn’t invented him out of skin and wishes. Jack, what should we do? She reached both hands in front of her like a blind person groping without a cane. Her hands treading water. But all she touched were the coats, prickly, boring, a reminder that her parents would be home soon with a suitcase full of excuses about why she hadn’t been invited to Mexico. She opened her eyes wider, stretching her eyelids, as if that would help her locate Jack. The darkness was uneven, its’ immensity made her dizzy. Too much of it, too little of her. Her chest flushed, but not in a good way. Itchy as a rash. Outside the closet a hive of whispering kids. Her friends. Why did they hang out with her? Because hers was the house where parents were never home? Jack, she said again, thrusting her chin forward. Where are you? The silence was so loud it bothered her ears. He didn’t like her back. She wasn’t pretty or smart enough. An ordinary girl, thinking ordinary thoughts in the dark. Jack? She heard the desperation in her voice and winced. Crawled forward on her knees toward the back corner until she bumped into something pointy? His elbow? There you are, she said, and was reminded of the time her father hit a rabbit with his Escalade, that sense of something ending too soon. She curved into him, stretching her neck until her lips brushed his nose. Her teeth clicked against his, the taste of his saliva slick. I can’t, Jack whimpered, pushing her into her mother’s mink coat, yanking the closet door open in a mad rush to escape. The hive stirred. After she shut the door again, Olivia lay on her back, eyes closed, her stomach digesting hope, dissolving it into tiny chunks as colors bloomed in the dark.

Altitude

The first letter we find is a T lying on its side under a half dead oak. I almost didn’t notice because of the color, mossy green. “Look,” Cameron says. I crouch down, watch the moss bend and ripple. Creatures under there – bigger than ants, smaller than bees. A whispering. Wrapping my hand in Cam’s bandanna, I quickly grab the T and drop it in my backpack, where I can hear bristling, rubbing against fabric. Another explosion, closer this time. The sky turns pink, then belches dark smoke. Cam looks at the map, his face scrunched, concentrating. I used to like the way his eyebrows jumped, now it alarms me. “We’re so behind,” he moans. “One is better than none,” I counter, although really, who am I kidding? Cam wets his lips. Our water is gone. We split the last Kind bar four days ago. “Let’s keep moving,” I say, and he follows me deeper into the woods, past gutted logs and upside-down trees, their leaves smeared with mud. Hard to tell if the sun is up there somewhere beyond the smoke. Like being in an airplane blanketed by clouds and when the pilot reaches the right altitude, there’s the sun right where it ought to be. Cam and I used to picnic in these woods. Three, four years ago. We even had a checked blanket, brought cold KFC, made love as wind tickled our thighs. I see a sparrow trembling beneath a bush and wonder if I could hit it with a stone, wring its tiny neck. It would have to be me. Cam would rather starve. “Is that . . . ?” he begins, and I follow his gaze to the letter P propped against a willow split open by missile fire. The P is the color of old, dried putty. When I pick it up it feels slimy and wet, like overcooked linguini Nothing bubbles below the surface.. I fling it in my backpack, next to the T. Hope it can survive in there intact. “Where are the vowels?” Cam shouts and I pinch his arm to silence him. This journey has made me cruel, I know, but someone has to be resilient, someone has to take charge of the situation. Another explosion somewhere to our left. “There, there,” I say, patting Cam’s shoulder gently, remembering when words were meant to comfort, to sustain.

Good Morning Max

Magnolia

She sits by the window with its view of the parking lot, sunbeams bouncing off the roofs of cars, pretending the room isn’t drab and boxy, smelling faintly of Clorox and something beneath that, something unpleasant which bleach can’t erase, thinking visiting hours are over and she wasn’t expecting anyone to come but if they had they could have wheeled her into the garden to get a peek at the magnolia tree, and she thinks she could still get someone to take her, maybe Donna the nice one, if Donna’s shift isn’t over, but it wouldn’t be the same waiting for buds to unfurl alone because she’d have to leave before they start to pink open and besides, when the buds are so silky and innocent it doesn’t count unless someone else sees.

Parakeet

There’s a bird in a cage next to her bed, which is nice because she’s been teaching him to talk, nothing fancy, just basic words like mad _pudding _quiet, a gift from her dead husband, and she likes how he cocks his head and studies her when he thinks she’s not watching, though the thing is she’s always watching – his breast is the color of a swimming pool, his head striped and there’s a pink bump above his beak with a hole in it, which is how he manages to breathe – and she knows she should probably give him a name but when he dies, which is inevitable because even birds grow old and die, she will miss him more if this whole time his name was Max and each day she said_ good morning Max_ and he chirped a reply.

Window

The window isn’t locked, which is the first thing she checked when they moved her here last spring because the door locks her in automatically when you close it, Ryan saying isn’t this nice, Ma, your very own room, Olivia constantly checking her phone, and the screen’s been loose for a while now, it finally fell off this morning so there’s at least 12 hours until one of the maintenance guys comes to fix it, and she wheels herself over to the window, sliding it as far as it can go, the breeze shushing her face before she opens the wire cage, tilting her head toward what lies outside, says here bird go fly good bird, but he clings to his perch and won’t leave.

About the writer:
Beth Sherman has an MFA in creative writing from Queens College, where she teaches in the English department. Her stories have been published in Portland Review, Blue Mountain Review, Bending Genres Journal, 100 Word Story, Fictive Dream, Full House Literary, Flash Boulevard, and elsewhere. Her work will be featured in The Best Microfictions 2024. She’s also a Pushcart, Best Small Fictions, and multiple Best of the Net nominee.

Image: On the Street by Matsumoto Shinsuke (1912-1948). Oil on board. 45.8 x 35.7 inches. 1940. Public domain.

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