Smiley was ashen, skin dead like an elephant with darting stings for eyes.  He was long fingernails, cropped beard, and slicked hair like 1955.  His black suits shifted dark brown in the sunlight.  His ties, always chipper, colored lollipops that dangled unpinched at the collar.  They echoed the leaves' splashy tints. Standing on a corner, Smiley burned a cigarette at his hip.  She arrived.  Walked by him, back-pregnant with books and a click-clock pace.  Smiley grinned, canines overlong, and whistled. 

            Stick-stepping through the flat-light afternoon he tailed her through campus. The school was classic architecture, all scholarship and Western pillars. The lawns were dirty-blonde with fall and littered groups of males still played the summer scene. Rose, the girl with books and Smiley behind her, glue-footed through the frisbee throws and shirtless catches, dallying. Smiley could not dally.  His pepper hair stood out.  He slipped into shadows, Rose lingering. Smiley grunted, flicked a new fag to life, floated it past his lips, and dropped it to his side to burn. He watched the space between Rose and the discs, catching glance-lines and winks. He dropped the cigarette. Then a tick tattled in her mind and Rose continued moving.

            She geared to hair-bouncing pace, her shadow (the canine grin and tie) scuttling behind.  Smiley thought of her eyes and sneered past hands waving leaflets meant to save the world.  Quickening step to keep his girl, that red coat all mission once past the throwing torsos, he blended in with shadows less completely. Her towered dorm was before her and he would see her in.  Watch carefully as her guardian, her shade that clung to heels and falling hairs. She smiled past a student who opened the door and then smiled past the front altogether. Smiley reached for a cigarette but stopped, letting his fingers twitch still.  Rose hadn't gone in. He glanced ahead and saw the stabled cars, Rose’s hand already reaching for her keys. Weekend, he remembered, and prepared himself.


Gary steel-cut the afternoons, bending pipes to fit and flow.  He was long-hours muscled, tall, and beer-full at the waist.  Hardhat sitting compulsively straight, he breathed through his mouth and avoided sewer wafts.  Manhole gaping, he waited as his partner clinked up the ladder beneath the street. Residence areas were nicer, traffic a ghost that only haunted larger streets.  Swamp-sniffled, he sneezed into his sleeve then yawned. A yellow house, yard all trees so thick it seemed a forest, sat in the shaded dark. Gary saw a tree that angled odd.  He turned as his partner dropped a wrench, cursed, and began back down the ladder. The tree straightened on closer inspection.

            A car, too worn to be indigenous, pulled past Gary and on to the yellow house's drive.  Gary sat on his bumper as legs stepped from the car and brought better bits along.  Gary nodded his approval and Rose, straight from campus, winked a coquette's thanks.  A dark spot, a shadow from the tree, slinked through the house's window.


            Gathering her books, the petals she wore for school, Rose sauntered up the porch and through the door. Cookies and dentures were the smells she nosed for – thin smoke instead. She made sure nothing was burning and gave up the stench for a mystery. She fell onto the couch and waited for her grandma, who should be home. Hours passed and she slept, turning now away from the sunlight, now back toward its warmth.

            “Rose,” a voice whispered, but she dreamed it was the wind.

            “Rose,” and she woke.

            A shadow sat at her foot, rocking. Her grandmother’s chair. She leaned closer, shadows covering its head, but the chair was empty, had been nudged in her sleep. No person. No voice. Only evening, she realized, and the daydreams that lingered as drunken memories.

At her nostrils, thin smoke again. Her grandmother didn’t indulge, not for many years.

“Rose.” She turned. A silhouette at the end of the parlor, a small glow at its side. It moved and she screamed. She screamed and another figure burst into the small house, strong and thick. She screamed again as the man, the hero puffed with his own daring, made to chase away the startled glow, the thin smoke silhouette.

But two men barging, watching, weren’t better than one man. She reached for her purse, an arsenal, a trove of defenses her father gave her before the war, before his death. She felt the grip of the gun and plugged the smoking silhouette, who fell back on the coffee table. Her other intruder turned, surprised, and she shot him too. His fall was harder, louder.

Neither moved. Both bled.

“Grandma!” she called.

No answer, of course. She had checked on entering. The cry was only instinct.


                    J. A. Cuthbertson lives and writes in Denver.


This piece represents an effort on two fronts for me: style and subversion. I wanted to write a story that that sounded better aloud than in your head. I also wanted the ending to play with expectations. Being watched by two men is inherently creepy. I think Rose overreacts, but she also acts within a kind of reason. Is an over-watchful woodsmen-type any better than a stalker? Of course, but it might degrees more than categories. I also wanted her to save herself



Copyright 2009