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TARNISHED SILVER by Brian Koukol

Phyllis finished her last bite of crust and then dug into the soft insides of her sandwich. She always ate the crust first. That’s where all the vitamins were.

It wasn’t the best sandwich she’d ever made, but that couldn’t be helped. If they still made Wonder Bread, no store in La Jolla carried it, and the whole wheat stuff she was forced into eating gave her gas. Mayonnaise was mayonnaise, but she was proudest of the ham. She’d seen it in the paper. Two bucks a pound. It hadn’t been a market day, so she’d paid Darnell an extra dollar to pick it up for her. He was such a nice man, with the truest heart in the entire facility—resident or staff.

A chill ran across her back. She pulled her shawl tighter and took a sip of warm tap water. It was a quiet day. Most days were quiet around here, but this one particularly so.

And then she remembered why. She’d forgotten about the radio.

Phyllis rocked herself forward and pushed off the tabletop with gnarled hands, forcing her way to her feet. Bent in half at the waist from decades of itis’s and osis’s, she shuffled across the carpet of her one-bedroom unit to Buck’s cabinet, made by his own hand well before the cancer had taken him. She remembered the long hours he’d spent inlaying the walnut doors with the maple cruciforms. Buck had the patience of Job.

Inside the cabinet was the newfangled stereo her nephew, Stephen, had given her that she had never learned to operate. On top of it was a simple radio.

She turned on the radio. A local station played big band and swing music from eleven to noon. Listening while she ate lunch was a weekday ritual. It wasn’t like her to forget about it.

The Andrews Sisters came on, singing “Mister Five by Five,” and Phyllis laughed. That song always reminded her of her brother, Cap. They used to joke with him that he was as wide as he was tall.

He was dead too. Diabetes.

Everyone she knew from the old days was dead.

Thinking of family reminded her of the notebook. She walked to the bedroom to retrieve it, stopping at the thermostat on the way.

She squinted at the numbers and then frowned. Someone had set it to seventy-six degrees. No wonder it was cold in here. She raised it to a more respectable eighty and continued on her way.

The notebook was in her chest of drawers beneath the Bible her mother had given her when she’d turned thirteen. Phyllis collected the book, along with the turquoise glasses case on top of the wooden vanity by the bathroom door, and returned to the small kitchen table.

She opened the notebook and leafed through pages of her shaky handwriting until she reached an empty line.

All the other lines had an item matched with a name, but this one was a big blank. And it had remained that way for weeks. Today was the day she would correct that oversight.

She cracked the glasses case and peered inside. The emergency cash was all still there.

In the center of the table sat a framed photo of her children. She knew that tradition dictated that such a valuable item as cash should be passed on to her offspring, but they were both long gone. So long gone that the only pictures she had of them were in black and white.

John had been born with severe cerebral palsy, while Mary was normal. At least until she hit her teenage years and turned wild. She didn’t like the idea of caring for her brother and found a way to avoid it forever. She died in a motorcycle accident on her seventeen birthday. He died of pneumonia three years later. That was 1960.

Phyllis withdrew the pen nestled inside the notebook’s spiral binding and wrote “Important Glasses Case” on the blank line. Then she hesitated. This was the hardest part. Two hundred eighty dollars was a lot of money to give to one person.

That gave her an idea.

She indented beneath the new line and scrawled “Stephen Lawson” in shaky cursive. She’d once won a penmanship award at the junior college. How times had changed.

Beside Stephen’s name, she added “one quarter share.” The radio he’d given her had to be worth at least $50. There were a couple of music discs too. $10 each. He’d get his money back.

She added eighth shares to each of his children below. Except for Drake. She’d given him a can of the good peanuts and some household sundries when he visited a few years ago. That was worth a share.

Two more eighth shares went to Stephen’s wife, Julia, and Kendra, a distant relative on Buck’s side who had stayed in touch. Unlike the rest of her generation, Kendra saw the value of written correspondence.

That left two shares remaining. She gave one to Darnell and the other to the young minister at the Episcopal Church.

And then she was done.

She closed the notebook and sighed. Her affairs, as they say, were in order. An entire life relegated to the first three and half pages of a cheap journal. All that remained was to get it to the lawyer when he returned to the facility next week.

Phyllis took another bite of the soft interior of her sandwich. She worked it for a long minute as Eddy Howard took her on a “Slow Boat to China,” finally forcing it down with a sip of warm water.

Then she shut off the radio. It was only going on noon, but she was suddenly very tired. She wrapped the rest of her sandwich in clingfilm and limped into her bedroom with the notebook and glasses case for a nap. Just as she was about to lie down, there came a knock at her door.

She sighed, exhausted, but staggered out to answer it anyway. It was Darnell, wearing a wrinkled suit that was too long in the sleeve and strained at a single button in front. He carried a plastic shopping bag.

“Good morning, Mrs. Bevin,” he said, using his professional voice.

She frowned. “You know better, Darnell. Call me Phyllis.”

His face cracked into a smile. “I brought you something, Phyllis,” he said, removing a bulky package from his bag.

She covered her mouth with her hand, recognizing the item instantly. Wonder Bread.

“Wherever did you find it?” she asked between her fingers.

“At the dollar store in Chollas View.”

“It’s perfect,” she said, failing at holding in her tears. “Come in, come in. Such a good man you are.”

Darnell followed her in and placed the bread on the kitchen counter while she sat down at the table, wincing at an annoying pain in her upper back.

“I found this too,” he said, reaching into his bag and pulling out a music disc. “Roy Eldridge. Only cost me fifty cents.”

“Roy Eldridge? My, but that cat can blow.”

Darnell took off the packaging. “Should we give it a listen?”

“To be honest, I’m feeling a little woozy. I think I’m just going to take a nap.”

Darnell studied her, alarmed. “Do I need to call the doctor?”

“No, nothing like that,” she said, forcing her way to her feet. The room swam around her. She faltered, but Darnell steadied her.

“Let’s get you to bed,” he said, supporting her into the bedroom and then helping her beneath the covers. “You sure you’re going to be okay?”

“Never better,” she replied.

He tucked the blanket around her neck to stave off any drafts and turned out the light.

“I’ll be back to check on you this afternoon,” he said. “I don’t like this dizziness.”

Phyllis listened as he left the unit and locked the door behind himself.

She was alone. And hot. Sweat beaded up on her forehead, so she threw the covers off. It didn’t help. The air was stifling. She flexed her jaw against a new pain in its joint. The dentist would be coming back in a few weeks. She’d need to make an appointment.

Twenty minutes later, Phyllis was dead.

* * *

Drake glanced over his shoulder at the landscaping as the girls unlocked the door to his great-aunt Phyllis’s apartment. Roses and flower bulbs grew in the corners of a grassy area surrounded on four sides by apartments. There were benches too. And fountains. With fish. It was Sartre’s existential hell. He’d kill himself before he got old.

The door swung open and he salivated at his girlfriend’s tight little ass as she worked her ripped jean shorts over the threshold ahead of him. After a few seconds, a realization seized him and he laughed out loud.

The ass in front of him turned around. It was attached to his sister, Cadence.

“What are you giggling like a bitch for back there?” she asked.

Drake grinned. “I was just checking you out.”

“Oh yeah, you sick fuck? You like what you see?”

“I thought you were Mikayla. You guys dress too much alike.”

“And yet we have completely different colored hair,” Cadence said. “Keep your eyes out of the gutter and you won’t have a problem.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Mikayla said, appearing on the other side of his sister in the tiny living space. “The gutter has its perks.”

She grabbed Cadence’s face with an open palm and shoved her tongue into her mouth.

Cadence bristled in surprise at first, but quickly melted against her in reciprocation. She massaged the small of Mikayla’s exposed back and then slid her fingers inside her shorts.

Drake didn’t care if it was his sister. Instant hard on.

Mikayla squeaked and jerked away. “You naughty little girl,” she said. “You pinched my ass.”

Cadence turned to Drake. “Your girlfriend tastes amazing. Like strawberries.”

“That’s because you stole my gum, you bitch,” Mikayla said, feigning a pout.

Cadence gave a few tentative chews and smiled. “I guess I did.”

Drake crossed his arms and leaned against the wall. “You know,” he said, “I don’t think we need to go through Aunt Phyllis’s stuff at all. You two just keep doing what you’re doing.”

Cadence frowned. “You’d like that, wouldn’t you, sicko?”

“I’d like it,” Mikayla said, licking her lips.

Drake shook his head and wandered to the kitchen nook. “You’re gonna be the death of me one of these days, M,” he said.

“I know,” she replied. She found a Sunset magazine on an end table and collapsed into a hideous recliner to flip through the pictures.

“What the fuck is this?” Cadence asked, staring open-mouthed at a cabinet decorated in crosses.

Drake stopped his search for hidden valuables among the kitchen cabinets long enough to look over. “That thing’s always been there,” he said. “I think her husband made it a long time ago.”

Cadence touched the surface with her fingertips. “What’s inside? The head of John the Baptist?”

“Probably an anatomically correct wooden boy,” Mikayla said. “Or her dildo collection.”

Cadence opened the door. “Nope. Just a stereo.”

“Turn it on,” Mikayla said, dropping the magazine. “Let’s see what Grandma liked to jam to.”

“Great aunt,” Drake corrected.

“Look at you, Mr. Accurate,” Cadence said. “What are you doing in those cabinets anyway? Looking for more peanuts?”

“Shut up, Cadence.”

“Peanuts?” Mikayla said. “I don’t get it.”

Cadence grinned. “Our aunt here gave Drake a present a few years ago when he paid her a visit to borrow some money. She had this Costco can of mixed nuts and ate everything but the peanuts. She gave those to Drake. No money. Just the peanuts.”

“It wasn’t just the peanuts,” he said. “I got some batteries, an old razor, and a bunch of chewed wooden pencils too.”

“She must’ve really loved you, Drake,” Mikayla said with a giggle.

Drake frowned. “How about some of that music?” he said to Cadence.

Cadence shook her head. “It’s not even plugged in,” she said. “And most of the CDs are still sealed.”

“Anything good?” Mikayla asked, standing up.

“Depends. Do you think Anita O’Day and Helen Forrest are good?”

“Who?”

“Exactly.” Cadence flipped through a few more CDs. “Oh, here we go,” she said, pulling one out. “Killswitch Engage.”

“No way,” Mikayla said, hurrying over.

Cadence grinned. “Just fucking with you.”

Mikayla shoved her. “Bitch.”

Cadence absorbed the blow and then frowned. “It stinks in here,” she proclaimed. “Did Phyllis die at home?”

“That’s what Dad said,” Drake replied. “In her bed.”

“Sick,” Mikayla said. “What are we even doing here?”

Drake opened the fridge, looking for a snack. “I already told you. My Dad told us to look for anything valuable before the probate lawyer gets here.”

“Why doesn’t he do it himself?”

“Stephen’s in Mazatlan with his assistant or something,” Cadence said. “He didn’t want to stop fucking her to come home early.”

“I don’t blame him,” Drake said, grabbing something wrapped in plastic wrap from the fridge. “Odette is hot.”

Cadence glared at him. “And what about Mom? Don’t you care about how it makes her feel?”

Drake unwrapped the package. “She’s on too many pills to give a shit. And if she doesn’t care, I don’t care.”

“Whatcha got over there?” Mikayla said, eyeing Drake’s food as she sashayed toward him. “I’m starving.”

Drake glanced at the snack in his hands and smiled. “It’s all yours,” he said, passing it to Mikayla.

She took it and immediately dropped it to the ground with a shriek.

“What’s wrong?” Cadence asked.

“She ate all the crust and left the middle,” Mikayla replied. “What a crazy old bitch.”

Drake laughed. “How about some Wonder Bread?”

“What the hell is Wonder Bread?”

“No idea, but it looks terrible.”

Mikayla frowned. “Old people are so gross.”

“All right,” Drake said, clapping his hands. “Let’s shake a leg. Look for anything valuable.”

“There’s nothing here,” Cadence replied. “Unless you want John the Baptist’s head coffin.”

“No thanks. Try the bedroom.”

Cadence led the way, but Mikayla balked at the doorway.

“Somebody died in there,” she said. “I’m not going in.”

Drake came up behind her and grabbed her shoulders. “You’ve got a tramp stamp of a bleeding pentagram on a goat’s head and you’re afraid of dead people?”

She raised her hands and stepped out of the way. “I’m not doing it.”

“Fine,” he said. “Stay out here with the dead woman’s sandwich.”

Cadence pulled a Bible from a dresser drawer and shook it by the cover to see if any papers would fall out. They didn’t.

“It’s hot as balls in here,” she said, tossing the book into the corner.

Drake glanced at the thermostat by the doorway. “That’s because some asshole set it to eighty,” he said.

“Fucking old people.” Cadence wiped her forehead and opened a spiral notebook that had been under the Bible. “Here’s something,” she said, leafing through the pages.

“What’d you find?” Drake asked, walking over to her.

“A will, I guess,” she replied. The side of her mouth rose into a smirk. “Do you like Snowbabies, Drake?”

“Uh, what the shit is that?”

“They’re cute little figurines of babies dressed up for winter.”

“Then no, Cadence, I don’t like Snowbabies.”

“Well you’re getting one. The one rolling a snowman.”

“Thank you Aunt Phyllis,” he said, losing interest and heading for a chest at the foot of the bed. “It’s just what I always wanted.”

Mikayla giggled in the other room. “I think I found it,” she said. “And it’s beautiful.”

A small, white object flew through the doorway and Drake snatched it out of midair.

He gave it a quick inspection. “It looks like a lamb with a human face humping a snowball.”

“And I’m getting a fake English ivy plant,” Cadence said.

“Nice,” Drake said, tossing the little statue at the Bible in the corner. “What’s Foster getting?”

Cadence searched the notebook. “Our illustrious brother looks to be getting her collection of cozy mysteries.”

“What the hell is a cozy mystery?”

“No idea, but he’s getting them. Actually, check that. He’s only getting the Coast Guard series. Somebody named Kendra is getting the Amish detective series.”

“I’ve got an idea,” Drake said. “How about we just tell Foster that she left everything to him? Make him fly out from his fancy law practice in Boston to pick up an unopened bird feeder and a hand-knitted potholder.”

Cadence laughed and kept scanning the pages. “I’m not seeing anything valuable here,” she said.

“Dad’s gonna be pissed.”

“Who cares?” she said. “Oh wait. Here’s something. The last entry. ‘Important Glasses Case.’ It’s split into a bunch of different shares.”

Drake looked around and found a turquoise glasses case on top of a makeup table by the bathroom door. He walked over and snapped it open.

“Boom,” he said.

“What did you find?” Cadence asked.

Drake flipped through a wad of cash, counting. “Two hundred eighty bucks,” he said. “Wanna split it?”

“Hells yeah.”

Mikayla reappeared in the doorway. “Did I hear something about money?”

Drake flashed the cash. “Yeah, but you don’t get any.”

Mikayla pouted. “Why not? I came all the way out here with you…”

“Tell you what,” he said, thumbing off forty bucks and waving it at her. “Come into the death room and you can have this.”

Mikayla considered his words and then took a step through the doorway.

“Good girl,” Drake said. He launched himself onto Phyllis’s bed and dropped the two twenties on the pastel bedspread beside him. “Now you have to take it from here.”

She rolled her eyes and took another step forward.

Drake snatched up the money and stuffed it down the front of his jeans with a smile. “You know the drill,” he said.

Mikayla reached the side of the bed.

“With your teeth,” Drake said.

Cadence came up behind him and smacked him in the head. He convulsed in surprise and she snatched the rest of the cash from his hand.

“Hey, what are you doing?” he demanded.

She counted out forty bucks for Mikayla and passed it over. Then she took a hundred and forty for herself and threw the rest at Drake.

“That’s not fair,” he said. “I thought we were splitting.”

“We are,” Cadence replied. “But Mikayla gets part of your share for having to put up with you. Now let’s get out of here before someone realizes we’re not supposed to be here.”

She grabbed Mikayla’s hand and walked her through the front room, to the door.

A thundering crash echoed through the apartment behind her and Cadence spun around. Drake stood over the cross cabinet, which he had tipped onto its face.

“What the hell’d you do that for?”

He shrugged. “It was ugly.”

“Somebody probably could’ve used that stereo,” she said.

“Nobody wants that piece of shit. Dad got it for free when he opened a bank account or something.”

Her English ivy was on the kitchen counter an arm’s reach away, so Cadence picked it up and threw it at her brother. “You’re an asshole,” she said as he deflected it against the wall.

“And you’re a bitch,” he replied, grabbing a stack of cork coasters and frisbeeing them at her.

Mikayla screeched and ducked out of the way toward the little dining table as Cadence scooped up a nearby egg timer. She narrowly missed her brother with it and it smashed into the downed cabinet with a ring.

From there on, it was pandemonium. Objects arced across the room fast and furiously until Mikayla joined in on things.

She grabbed the two framed photos on the table and threw them at Drake. They smashed into the wall in front of his face and shattered into a dozen pieces.

“Jesus Christ, M,” Drake said, jumping out of the way. “That’s glass.”

Cadence walked over and glanced down at the photos. “Who are they?” she asked.

“No idea,” Drake replied. “Maybe they came with the frames.”

“Yeah. When she bought them in 1945.”

A knock came at the door.

“Time to go,” Drake said.

The three of them scrambled to the door and he eased it open.

“Hi there,” a black dude in an ill-fitting suit said, trying to peek into the room past them.

“Hi yourself,” Drake said. He stepped aside to let the girls force their way past the man and then followed, closing and then locking the door behind him.

The man extended a palm for a handshake, but Drake didn’t take it. “I’m Darnell Thigpen,” the man said. “Assistant director of the complex. I understand you are relatives of Mrs. Bevin?”

“We are,” Drake said.

“I think there’s been a little confusion,” Darnell said. “No one is allowed in Mrs. Bevin’s unit before her lawyer comes by to inspect it.”

Drake raised his hands. “We didn’t know that,” he said. “We just came by to water her plant.”

Darnell cocked his head. “Her fake plant?”

“That explains a few things,” Drake said.

“I need to make sure everything is okay in there before you all leave. Can you unlock the door for me, sir?”

Drake shrugged. “I don’t have a key.”

Darnell stared at him. “You just— Never mind. I have my own key.”

He stepped to the door and withdrew a key ring from his pocket.

“I have a better idea,” Drake said, putting his arm around Mikayla. “How about you take my girlfriend here back to your office to entertain you for a few minutes and we forget all about this little misunderstanding?”

“I don’t”—Mikayla started to say, but Drake squeezed her shoulder. Hard. She winced and tried to twist away, but his grip was iron. “Okay, fine,” she said. “But you owe me.”

Drake pushed her toward Darnell, but the assistant director took a step back. “I don’t want any part of this,” he said. “Mrs. Bevin was a nice lady. I just need to check on her unit.” He turned to the door.

“Hey,” Drake said.

When Darnell pivoted to look at him, Drake punched him in the face, dropping him to the concrete.

“Run,” Drake shouted. He and the girls hoofed it back to their car and sped off.

* * *

Darnell licked his top lip. Blood.

He stood up slowly and held a hand to his hot cheek. The dizziness eased after a few seconds and he unlocked Mrs. Bevin’s door. No. Phyllis’s door, company policy be damned. Or darned, more likely. She wasn’t one for curse words.

The door creaked open and he dropped his head.

The room was destroyed. What had those kids done?

He picked up a few coasters at his feet and then noticed that Buck’s cabinet had been tipped over. He shook his head and walked over to it. With a bit of effort, he lifted it to its feet. The CDs had fallen out, so he returned them to their rightful spot.

He spent the next few minutes cleaning up the unit, moving the egg timer and the silk ivy back to the kitchen. And then he saw the glass.

His hands rolled into fists and his pulse pounded in his head, but he quickly calmed himself. Phyllis abhorred violence of any sort. This room had seen enough things that would’ve shocked her in the last hour. He didn’t need to add his anger to the list.

Instead, he slipped the photos of Phyllis’s children from their broken frames and laid them on the table, in front of the spot where she always took her meals.

Darnell tried to take a deep breath, but found it hard to get enough oxygen. Phyllis’s absence had sucked the air out of the unit.

He’d always been able to count on her thoughtful words and sweet disposition to brighten his darkest days. They may have been decades apart in age, but they’d both lost children. They’d both lost spouses.

He really missed his friend.

Darnell found the CD he’d given Phyllis just before she died and slipped it in the stereo. A hot jazz number came on and he smiled. She would’ve loved it.

He slumped into the worn recliner contoured to her shape and listened as Roy Eldridge had his way with a trumpet.

Phyllis was right. Boy, that cat could blow.

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AUTHOR BIO:

Brian Koukol lives on the Central Coast of California, where he somehow finds time to write between soaking up rays and eating his weight in avocados. This story, like all of his fiction, is written with voice recognition software on account of his lifelong nemesis, muscular dystrophy.

Visit his author website: http://www.briankoukol.com/

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WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “Tarnished Silver”

We enjoy good character-driven fiction, and this one is certainly rife with interesting characters. This one tells two stories of a family: one of the selfless past and the good memories of a simpler time when family mattered, and one of the selfish present where family is forgotten.

Author Brian Koukol beautifully bridges those disparate stories with a character who plays a minor role in the scheme of the story, yet he’s there to remind us that the past still lives on even when those who experienced it firsthand are gone.