This Show Case features five pieces submitted in response to our third Writing Prompt: Catharsis. We hope they stimulate your mind, spirit, and urge to write. Maybe they will motivate you to submit a piece for our next prompt, which you can find on the Show Case home page.
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Catharsis: A Chess Game, Interrupted
by Carl E. Reed
We sat hunched over a cardboard chessboard and plastic pieces setting atop an overturned box in the living room—me straddling a metal folding chair backwards; Tim’s lean flanks (as befits an honored guest) nestled into the stained cushions of the battered armchair I’d dragged up to my second-floor apartment from the alley.
“I thought you might have experienced some kind of catharsis at news of her death.” Tim nudged a white pawn forward; took my black pawn en passant. “You planning to attend her funeral?”
“No, and no.”
“Didn’t think so.” He set the pawn down alongside the chessboard where a half-dozen other cleared black pieces stood. “When’s the last time you spoke with your foster-mother?”
“Thirty years ago. The night I confronted her about . . .” I gestured. “You know. All that stuff.” I took his knight, set it down beside the chessboard alongside four other captured white pieces.
“How’d she react?”
“Said it never happened. Leastwise, none of it happened the way I was ‘misremembering it’. Her exact words: ‘You only remember the bad stuff.’ ”
“Evasion and denial.”
“Yep.” I cracked my knuckles. “I’m a liar. Or delusional.” I cracked my wrists. “Possibly on drugs.”
“Jesus Christ! You gonna do your feet?”
“Why; you wanna watch?”
He laughed. “You know,” he said ruminatively, “my mother still talks about the day the front door of your house flew open and Gloria started screaming at her and Sandra, our next-door neighbor. They were clustered together on the curb—mother with my brother Mike; Sandra with her two daughters—waiting for a slowing ice cream truck to pull over. ‘Barb, I think that woman’s screaming at us,’ Sandra said.”
Tim took my bishop with his queen, set it down.
“Sounds like her,” I said. “A jittery bundle of nerves and rage. Goddamn chain-smoker.”
“I’m a chain-smoker,” Tim noted.
“Yeah—not in this house,” I said as non sequitur, gesturing at the walls lined with plywood shelves bowed under the weight of books.
“This ain’t a house,” Tim noted. “This is a fucking hovel. Twisted coat hanger acting as a toilet flush-lever, black mold and bed bugs, fist-sized holes in the walls—”
“I didn’t put them there.”
“I didn’t say you did, jarhead. Your move.”
“I know; gimme a second.” I studied the board.
Tim mimicked load snoring.
“I said gimme a second.” I moved my rook five spaces, pinning his king.
“I remember you telling me how you used to flinch when she entered a room—and got hit for flinching. That’s messed up. I told my mom. What were we, ten?”
“Eight,” I said. “Your move.”
Tim took my rook with his queen, set it down. “Your mind isn’t on the game.”
“So you say.” I advanced a knight. “What did your mom say when you told her?”
He shrugged. “Same thing you just said—‘sounds like her’. ”
Tim reached out and moved a pawn forward one square but kept a finger on it, considering. Did you ever get counseling for . . .” He took his finger off the pawn.
“I joined the Marine Corps.”
Tim laughed again—a longer, higher-pitched peal of amusement. “Yeah you did.”
I took his pawn with one of my own, set it down. “You know the worst thing about her death?”
Tim looked at me.
“She denied me the satisfaction of killing her.”
Tim turned his attention back to the board. “You can always dig her up later.” He took my attacking pawn with his queen, set it down. “Fuck with her corpse a little.”
“Hope springs eternal.” I advanced my own queen.
“I’m hungry,” Tim said. “Let’s stop for a second. Wanna order a pizza?”
“Sure,” I said. “I could eat. Sausage, onion and green pepper?”
“Forget the green pepper. Add garlic.”
Through the closed windows and duct-taped shades came an extended car horn blare, followed by the sounds of people shouting and someone banging on sheet metal.
Neither of us had any kids.
Too fuckin poor. Unlucky in love.
The cycle was broken.
Ain’t any more to tell, sports fans.
The Kid from Zanesville
by GD Deckard
The young can be forgiven for seeing the world differently from how they were brought up when working in a war hospital eleven thousand miles from home. Perception overwhelms upbringing. The daily smells of blood and iodine disinfectant around open gunshot wounds can repel them into the fog of sex. Sex, as intense as the shock of pain and dismemberment they witness in men who suffer and die, becomes the cathartic that keeps them sane. It isn’t personal. It is a distraction.
“Let me die.”
The kid wanted to die. He wasn’t asking for anything that wouldn’t happen soon. The young soldier was going to die because too much inside of him had been violently disconnected. And he had waited long enough.
“I can’t do that.” Alan Smith took his finger off the opening of the tracheostomy tube and plugged the Bird respirator back in. The corpsman’s patient lay paralyzed from the neck down. The Bird noisily forced air into his lungs and silently held it there until a valve clicked open and the air sighed out and his chest fell. He had breathed again. A bottle of intravenous solution hung from an IV pole beside the bed dripping drugs and nourishment into his body. His bladder drained through a catheter into a bag tied to the bed rail. On the floor sat a Gomco aspirator sucking fluids from his swollen abdomen. He was in the best hospital in South East Asia, on the intensive care unit, in a private room across from the nurse’s station. Dedicated doctors, nurses and corpsmen attended him. But he was going to die and he knew it.
His eyes screamed that he wanted to say something. Al unplugged the Bird respirator from the metal tube in his throat. He placed his finger on the open hole so air from the kid’s lungs could reach his vocal cords. “I want to die,” came a throaty whisper. Al plugged him back in.
Two nurses bustled into the room. In a flurry of efficiency, they checked the patient and his tubes and his bandages. Lieutenant Kean applied a blood pressure cuff. “His parents just landed. They flew all the way from the States to see him.”
The kid became agitated. His eyes pleaded with Al, “No!” He did not want mom and dad to see him like this.
“How’s he doing?” Dr. Boyd rushed in. “His parents are on the way from the flight line right now.”
Lieutenant Kean glanced up. “His BP is erratic.”
“Let’s start another IV. Ringers lactate. How’s his veins?”
“Ankle, then.” The doctor lifted the sheet from the kid’s feet and patted both ankles, looking for his best vein. “Keep your finger on that Bird,” he directed Al. “Make sure it cycles.” To the patient he said softly, “We are going to make you look your best for your parents.”
The kid jerked his head. “Watch his tracheostomy!” Captain Evans ordered Al. “Don’t let that tube come out.” The doctor was having trouble starting another IV. Evans stood by him at the foot of the bed, ready to assist. She also watched the younger nurse monitor the patient’s blood pressure.
The head jerks continued. Terror, Al thought. The kid is terrified of his parents seeing him before he’s dead and peaceful. He held the trach tube in place and began triggering the Bird manually. “That’s it,” the doctor nodded at him.
Lieutenant Kean worked the blood pressure cuff repeatedly. “We’re losing him.”
They ignored the chaplain who stuck his head in the door. “His parents are downstairs. They flew in all the way from Zanesville, Ohio to see him.”
Al knew Zanesville. He had grown up in Newark, close enough for his parents to drive to Zanesville for Jack Hemmer’s Homemade Ice Cream on Linden Avenue. They parked in the back yard of Jack’s house and he waited in the car with his brother while they went inside. The kid must have eaten that ice cream too. Fresh cherry halves in vanilla was Al’s favorite. The trach tube began pushing against his hand, pushing outward. He pushed it back in, but it pushed outward again.
“Make sure he’s getting air,” Evans said.
Al was horrified to see the skin puffing up on the kid’s neck around his tracheotomy. His trachea had ruptured! “Air is pumping under his skin!”
“Turn it off.” The doctor removed his gloves. A resigned look reflected what his tone had said. “They’re too late,” he told the chaplain. Al turned off the Bird. The nurses looked at one another. They removed the tubes and covered the body. He dimly heard one of them say, “I’ll call the morgue,” and the doctor say to the chaplain, “I’ll go tell them.”
That memorable evening shift made memories he needed to burn out of his memory and sent Al wide awake into the night. Angeles City at midnight soothed him like a favorite movie watched again for comfort. It was festive. Music played through the open doors of bars whose bright signs spilled colors into the streets. Bar girls stood outside, considering the men walking by, chatting, laughing, adding their essential energy to the city’s husky siren’s call.
At its core, Angeles City understood these men of war who followed their own current through the spaces of the night. They moved in a fog of sex. Angeles City specialized in impersonal sex. The bar girls sold sex for more money in two weeks than their families in the barrios earned in a year and most sent money home. Many expected that after a while they would marry and raise a family. Some did. A few saved enough to buy a kiosk or a market stall and let their past fade into the city’s background. But none missed the poverty of the barrios. The girls and the men met each other’s needs without apology, often with respect, and sometimes love. They shared, in a mutual desperation that transcended poverty and war, this act of rebellion.
That night, in a room above a bar he could probably never find again, a girl whose name he forgot gave him six orgasms. None were personal.
by Mimi Speike
I am hounded, day in, day out. I feel like my loony ex-housemate, who is convinced someone is stalking her. She’s flipped her wig, as Maynard G. Krebs used to say. NOBODY IS STALKING HER. I guarantee it. But a bunch of zanies are sure stalking me.
To the passel of critters who have been on my back 24/7:
I’ve lived with you people for the better part of thirty years. Maisie’s the new kid on the block. She sprang to life (in her current form) only two-three years ago.
I have my sweethearts, and I have my villains, and I have folks who are still up in the air. They could go either way. I love ‘em all, but I especially love my trouble-makers.
Every story needs a villain, right? I start out writing me a good, nasty bad guy, then I begin to sympathize with him. He’s had a tough life. He’s been hurt. He’s been done dirt. I end up liking my creeps so much, I can’t chuck them out of the story when they’re done doing what I invented them to do. (My plots are overpopulated, but that’s part of the fun.)
The animal above, that’s Feo. Feo means ugly. And he is. I’ve built him up into the most adorably nasty critter you’ve ever met.
Feo made Sly’s life hell onboard a coastal trader, the Santa Clara. He’ll soon be off to England with Gato. (Gato, cat in Spanish, is, conversely, no cat. He’s a man.) Feo’s got to have a critical role to play up north. I wrote him a bit part, and he did a magnificent job with it. I expect him to do as well for me in book four: A Dainty Dish.
I can’t bear to ditch him, I adore him. (I’m woefully deficient in the ruthlessness an author, so I read, needs. Kill my darlings? Impossible!)
My problem, going forward: Sly is about to get himself gone, head north, leaving behind Jakome, Bittor, ZaZa, Zagi, Bix/Buttercup, d’Ollot, Igon and Eder Zendegi, and their father Belasco, the captain of the palace guard. OK, you crazies, I’m talking to you.
I expect you people to retire to a quiet corner of my brain and work out your destinies between yourselves, whilst I hustle Sly up to La Rochelle, on to London to save the Queen from an assassination attempt, then east, to Hameln, bickering with John Dee all the way; from there, to the multitudinous kingdoms of south-east Europe, in the company of a mentally-ill frog.
Eventually he’ll land back in Haute-Navarre. When he does, I want to see your Virgin-Mary-Visitation scam resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, loose ends knotted, the mess wrapped up and tied with purple ribbon like the expensive baked goods in ZaZa’s bakery on the Plaza de Catalunya.
Don’t give me your usual – well, I could do this, or I could do that. Settle your conflicts, and neatly, please. Don’t force me to add a book nine to my series because, like the Zen/Zams (Zendegi/Zambrano, two branches of the same pig-headed family) in my story, you can’t bring yourselves to compromise in a reasonable manner.
I don’t want to think about you people until Sly and I depart London. In London, I’ll have my hands full with John Dee. The research I’ve yet to do on him, it overwhelms me.
Book one is done. Next up: The Rogue at Sea. It’s complete, but it has problems with clarity. Too much double-dealing. I’ve been told the backstabbing is hard to follow. I haven’t looked at it in maybe three years. I’m hoping a read-through after all this time will reveal the truth to me. I can’t fix what I can’t see for myself.
While I try to whip my privateers into shape, you bozos in Haute-Navarre work out your squabbles without bugging me. I hereby cut you fools adrift, until I join you back in Haute-Navarre in The Prodigal Returns. I thank you in advance for your kind cooperation.
Thank you, you idiots, for letting me get this off my chest. No, you’re not idiots. I’ve given you free rein and, naturally, you’ve taken it. How can I complain? Many of my best ideas were your suggestions. Keep it up!
It’s time for me to move on. Allow me to give my full attention to my new set of goofballs, my pirates. Hasta la vista, my friends. Take care of yourselves. Don’t take no wooden reales.
Ha! I just kicked that can down the road. I don’t have to deal with that crew down in Spain for a good long while. A burden has been lifted from my shoulders. I feel better already.
My fellow scribblers: your word for the day is catarsis. (Spanish for catharsis.) A catharsis is grand, but a cat-arsis is even better.
by Curtis Bausse
A few weeks ago I started an affair with Jim Tottle’s wife. He found out of course, but he was philosophical about it, especially as we weren’t actually having sex. Every so often she’ll call me and ask if I fancy a game of Toe. She’s a foot fetishist, you see, so after a little chat over tea and biscuits, what we do, slowly and erotically, is take off our shoes and socks, lie on the carpet sole to sole, and play with our toes. I was sceptical when she said it would be cathartic, but it is. (She knows a lot about that Greek stuff – pathos, hubris, tzatziki and so on.) Lately Jim has taken to joining in – there’s nothing like a threesome for a good wriggle of the phalanges. And afterwards… wow! So cleansed, so purified! Really, you know, there’s only one way to release that pent-up tension: chat with Alice Tottle and play Toe.
by S.T. Ranscht
The second child wasn’t like the other four. Or like any of the other kids any of them knew. Sure, she had two of everything she was supposed to have two of, and one of everything else like most of the other kids, but her mind didn’t work the same way the minds of everyone who knew her worked. Except for her dad’s. More analytical. More precise. More inquisitive.
But even the two of them perceived life, its puzzles and problems, its values and goals, as propositions so different from one another that their perceptions might have been those of species as alien to each other as if one were carbon based and the other were based on silicon. Or antimatter. His admitted only empirical, rational, fact-based evidence as valid foundations for any answer, argument, or choice. Hers appreciated those aspects of reality, but also embraced the intuitive, feeling, and sense of justice and interconnectedness of all things that painted the biggest Big Picture possible in the vastness of the Universes.
But because he was older and more experienced, he made sure she knew there was something fundamentally wrong with her perception. Her understanding. Her questions. Her conclusions. Her choices. Her self.
And because she was younger and knew so little, she believed him even when a tiny, muffled voice in her head, incapable of screaming, muttered, “He’s wrong. Isn’t he?”
She stopped sharing her thoughts with him.
It was her shamefully, never-to-be realized potential, he said, that convinced the educational testing system she should skip a grade and spend the rest of her school career competing with students older than she was.
Was it any wonder, then, that in a house full of family, in a world full of people, she always felt alone? Unseen. Unheard. Unappreciated. Just like her dad.
Till one budding Spring day, sitting in Trig, as Mrs. Jordan — with a run in her nylons that one of the other girls referred to as “the run in her leg” — worked at the chalkboard to explain logarithms to her classroom of 11th grade advanced mathematicians, something inexplicable happened and everything changed.
She was fifteen and as pure as they say driven snow is. She was healthy and had eaten a nutritious breakfast. Sunshine poured in the windows. But the walls fell away and she was instantaneously surrounded by black sky and stars — with an electric blue e-curve floating in space like an out-of-body umbilical cord, and the unshakable certainty that humans did not invent math, but merely discovered it, and a sense of presence that imbued her with the knowledge that she knew what it was most people think of as God.
When the classroom fogged back into being, she couldn’t tell how long she’d been gone. Leaving the room at the end of class, she felt as though she were gliding six inches above the floor. She told only her best friend about what had happened, and she gasped, “You just experienced cosmic consciousness!”
Whatever it was, it purged her of self doubt. She kept asking questions and seeking answers for the rest of her life. Self-contained. Confident. Fearless.
She never told her dad.