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ADELAIDE Independent Bimonthly Literary Magazine / Revista Literária Independente Bimensal, New York / Lisboa, Online Edition  

 

 

 

 

 

 

SECRETS
By Caroline Miller

 

 

 


I sank into an overstuffed chair, feeling as though I'd slipped through a time warp.  Forty-eight hours earlier. I'd boarded a plane in San Francisco.  The year was 1971.  Now, I seemed to find myself in the Middle Ages, looking at high-timbered ceilings, mullioned windows and brass fittings that gleamed in the firelight of a large hearth.  Nothing had changed since I'd last been here last, ten years ago, though my feelings about the village, located in the English Midlands, were less painful than when I'd fled the country in tears.

What a timid creature I'd been in those earlier days, an American of twenty-two who dared to cram English into the heads of blue-uniformed girls at the local grammar school.  That was the year I waited for my fiancé, Malcolm Gray, to finish his degree at university.  The moments he and I shared were all too brief in this land of Thomas Harding's.  The constant mists, the dark moors and grey, stone architecture all served to heighten my broodiness. Malcolm was often away pursuing his studies, so no one should have been surprised that I was dogged by loneliness and a dread some blonde, blue-eyed coed might lead him astray.

After one too many quarrels in the passing of a year, I'd cried my way back across the Atlantic.  If I half expected Malcolm to follow me, I was disappointed.  

"You were always Marilee's favorite."  Simone Pardy, the inn keeper, looked down on me.  He was a large man with hands dangling at his side like dead seagulls. "She's a teacher now.  I expect you had something to do with that. Classes full of fourth formers, just like yours, but in the south.  In Colchester."

I noted the pride shinning in the father's eyes and thought of my two children at home, Sean and Emily. Already, I missed them.

The inn keeper misread the frown that clouded my expression. "It'll be all right, Mrs. Sinclair.  We'll soon have news of her.  There's not much goes unnoticed in a village this size.  She'll turn up right as rain.  Now, is there anything I can do to cheer you up?  More tea? Another biscuit?"

When I shook my head, my host headed for the kitchen with my tray, leaving me alone with my thoughts. I was worried about Sylvia's absence, naturally.  She'd accompanied me to England but in protest, agreeing with my husband, Howard, that my travel was unnecessary.

"Besides, the Midlands in October?  It'll be so cold."

Born and bred in Florida, Sylvia was addicted to the sun, evidenced by her freckles and leathery skin.  What she'd look like when she reached middle age, I couldn't imagine.  But she wasn't the one with cancer. I was. So when my doctor didn't object to my trip, she was loyal enough to join me -- a relief to Howard who couldn't get away, as I well knew.

Sylvia and I always got on well. In many ways we complimented each another. She was a tall, leggy blonde who could make conversation with a lamp post.  I was small, dark and inclined to look inward. Money had given her a privileged life.  I was the first in my emigrant family to go to college.
If Sylvia had one failing, it was her choice of men.  At thirty-three, she'd divorced two husbands and was game for a third.  This lapse in her character I'd noted early, when we were roommates in college, and was the reason I was deaf to her complaints about Malcolm.  Malcolm had been an English exchange student during our senior year.  He wore cravats and carried  an umbrella in all weather, behavior which made him seem exotic.  Happily, he returned my interest and showed little in Sylvia, an indifference which may have explained why she'd disapproved of him.   

"Phone, mum."

I jumped at the sound of Simone Pardy's voice.  He didn't seem to notice.

"The squire would like a word."

"Malcolm?   But I've barely arrived..."

"The Manor's just across the Commons.  Word gets round.  He often stops by. Not shy about buying a pint for the patrons when he's here.  Lady Margaret's been poorly for the last couple of years. I suppose he gets lonely."

"I'm sorry."

I rose from my chair and followed the sweep of the proprietor's arm as he pointed to a private parlor where I could take my call. My hand trembled as I lifted the receiver and sank   into a rocker  beside a glowing fireplace.

"Anne, is it really you?" Malcolm's clipped manner of speaking hadn't changed. "I can hardly believe it. Why didn't you say you were coming?"

"Yes, it's me. I should have written... it was spur of the moment, actually.  Sylvia's with me."

"What's this about her gone missing?  Shall I have a word with the local bobby?"

"No, no. The moment we arrived, she dashed off in our rental car to look up an old acquaintance."

"In Leek?"

His dubious tone set my teeth on edge.

"She made a few friends when she visited us.  Surely you remember?  She still exchanges Christmas cards with one or two."

"All I remember are her complaints. 'Where's the dishwasher?  Where's the refrigerator?'"

"You settled the last when you opened a window to let in a blast of snow.  Remember?"

We laughed.  No doubt each of us was recalling Sylvia's stupefied expression when she discovered the drift had made hillocks of her slippers.

"We had some good times, didn't we, Anne?"

I wasn't quick enough in my reply, apparently, as Malcolm's next remark was business-like.   

"Let me ring the constable, why don't you?  With all the rain, she may have stalled somewhere."

His argument made sense.

"She's driving a red Morris Minor," I told him.

"Morris Minor?" The voice at the other end of the line registered surprise. "Not her usual style, is it?"

"It's my rental."

"Ah," he said. "That explains it."

Explained what, I wondered. Did he think Sylvia's was extravagant or that I was a penny-pincher?  

"As you're alone," he went on, "why don't I join you for dinner?  They do a fair steak and kidney pie at the pub. I'd have you here, but Margaret, my wife, isn't well. Are you staying long, by the way?"

"No, not long,  Yes, do  come. If Sylvia hasn't turned up, at least I'll be near the phone." 

A woman's voice filtered across the line and Malcolm's words became hurried.

"It's settled then.  See you at eight."

The hall clock struck five as the telephone went dead.  For a moment, I sat wondering how to while away the time.  Read a book?  Walk through the village?

Outside, autumn leaves, roiled by the wind, as if to reflect my mood.   Had I been foolish to revisit this place, after all these years? 

Hoping a nap would soothe me, I returned to my room. Howard's picture on the nightstand seemed to scowl from its shadowy corner as I entered, reflecting my anxiety.  Worse, the low slung beams and puffed up feather bed invited feelings of claustrophobia. I flung myself into the Queen Anne chair beside the window, instead.

Outside, the Commons was enameled with rain and beyond it, Gray Manor loomed like a fortress in the gathering dark. Its marble halls I remembered, vaguely, though seldom had I been a guest there. Even so, I could imagine Malcolm sitting opposite his wife beside a fire in the cavernous library.  He'd choose his moment to announce he was dining out, I felt certain.  But would he tell her with whom?  
    
A rap at the door brought me to my feet. When I answered it, the inn keeper stood looming in the hallway, clutching a bouquet of Blue Girls clutched against his broad chest.  A gift from Malcolm, no doubt. Blue Girls  had crowded in bunches outside the flat we'd shared at the edge of the village years ago.  I'd loved them for their hardiness, blooming from mid spring into fall, long after the mums and marigolds had lost their spirit.    

Malcolm had called me his "Blue Girl," because I'd made a habit of tucking a blossom into the button hole of my cardigan to enjoy the fragrance throughout the day.  Had I been blessed with their hardiness, I might never have packed my bags and run away.

Dressing for dinner, I plucked a bloom from the vase and pinned it to the neckline of my  gown, a blue crepe. Malcolm was partial to blue. I hoped the color would divert him from noticing the pallor of my complexion.

When the hall clock struck the dinner hour, I tossed a dissatisfied glance at my image in the mirror. Then I descended the stairs on wooden legs.

Malcolm was seated in a darkened corner of the dining room. Another couple huddled near the fireplace, opposite: a girl in a pink sweater and a boy with brilliantine in his hair.  They glanced up as I entered, then returned to their conversation, as if I'd been judged and found wanting. Barely in their twenties, by the touching of their hands across the table, I sensed they were in love.
Malcolm pushed back his chair, rising as I approached.

"Anne, you look wonderful.  You haven't changed a bit.  A littler thinner, but Mrs. Pardy's cooking will soon put that right. "

I was more than thin and we both knew it.  I was gaunt.  My hand brushed the back of my cropped head in a self-conscious gesture.  The last time Malcolm had seen me, I'd had long,  lustrous hair.  Chemotherapy had changed that.

"I like it," he offered, as if sensing my embarrassment.  "Daring, perhaps. But with your delicate features, you carry it off."  He bent as he pulled out my chair, time enough for me to notice his hairline had receded a little but the strands still gleamed like threads of gold. 
  
"I've changed, too," he confessed as he'd seated himself opposite me.  His statement sounded like a question.  
 
"Nothing dramatic," I assured him.  "More mature, of course but handsome as ever."

He flashed a smile of white, even teeth, and looked relieved.

His gaze dropped to the neckline of my gown. "You got the roses. The last of the season. I hope I'm given credit for remembering."

"You used to call them weeds."

"Only to  tease."  His fingers brushed the back of my hand, but he pulled away when I stiffened.  

"Good news," I piped, changing the subject.  "Sylvia called."

"She'll be joining us?" Malcolm's complexion grew rosy near the edge of his cable knit sweater.  Was he pleased or disappointed? When I told him we'd be dining alone and saw his  shoulders relax against his chair, I had my answer.

"She drove to the farm of an acquaintance," I explained. "When the storm broke  and the   lines went down, she stayed the night.  She'll be back tomorrow."

"She always could manage a bed."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

Malcolm's eyes widened.

"Nothing.  I'm glad she's all right.  We can enjoy our meal without worry."

"Are you sorry she's with me?"

"Good heavens, why should you think that?"  The crimson line around his throat grew brighter. "It's true she and I never got on. Too much alike, I suppose.  Both spoilt."  His gaze fell to his lap as if to break the flow of conversation, but I was unwilling to do so.  

"You did, once."

"What?"  He looked up, his forehead creased.

"Get on with each other." 

"How do you mean?"

"When she stayed with us. I felt sure you'd buried the hatchet.  In fact, I was a little jealous."

Malcolm's mouth flew open.

"How extraordinary.   Sylvia loves herself. No suitor could compete."  
 
"That didn't stop you from trying, did it?"

Fearing I'd gone too far, I bit my lip in consternation. Why did I never feel secure with Malcolm, never good enough...after ten years?

He brushed my barb aside as if I were an errant child.

"Look, we needn't concern ourselves with Sylvia. She's safe and chin wagging with an old friend.  Good for her.  Let's talk about you. I know you're married and living in San Francisco.  I do catch the American papers from time to time."

Learning he'd tried to keep abreast of me softened my mood.   

"Mine is an ordinary existence," I shrugged. "My husband, Howard, is a cardiologist.  We have two children.  A boy who's nine and a girl, seven."

Malcolm leaned forward with his eyes narrowed.

"So, you didn't become a career girl, after all?"

Inwardly, I smiled. I was about to  lose an argument ten years old. I didn't mind considering the way my life turned out.

"No.  Children have a way of changing plans. I couldn't give up mine to a babysitter."

His eyes crinkled with apparent pleasure.

"You know I agree, of course?"  

"And what about you?" I parried, unwilling to let him to linger on his triumph. "You wanted a large family."

To my surprise, Malcolm was slow to answer.

"Margaret's not been well...  No children as yet. But we do hope."

My heart knocked against my ribs. Here was the opportunity to open the conversation for which I'd come. Would what I had to say anger him?  Or make him happy? I hoped it would the latter.  Yet when my lips parted, what poured from me were watery banalities. "Yes, there is always hope." Inwardly, I cringed at my cowardice.

Malcolm accepted my sympathy with a nod, then let his eyes sweep the room as if he had a confidence to share and wanted to be assured of our privacy.    

"It's wonderful to be together like this, Anne. I've missed you."  His finger touched the  circle of my wedding band, almost wistfully.

"Your husband let you come alone. May I ask why?"

"Howard has a difficult surgery to perform," I  answered honestly.

The corners of Malcolm's mouth drooped a little.

"You're happy then?  Coming here isn't a sentimental journey?"

Malcolm didn't wait for an answer but took my hands in his with a force that surprised me.  

"Why did you leave me, Anne?  I was devastated.  No note, no forwarding address..."

"Malcolm, please..."

The man opposite me looked  embarrassed as he released me.

"I-I apologize.  I'm being a fool. But understand, after so many years.... "

The  tremor in his voice filled me with guilt, even though I remained convinced I was the one who'd suffered most.

"After our last argument I'm surprised you don't have a clue."

Malcolm frowned, confronted by words so much colder than his ardor. 

"We had lots of arguments. So much was at stake.  School.  My parents.  I never imagined you'd stopped loving me "

"Stopped loving you?" I sucked in my breath. "I never stopped loving you.  You  were bored.  Remember?"

Malcolm blanched, as  if he'd stumbled across a dead body while out for a stroll.

"I never said that.  And how could you think it when I was ready to break with my parents to marry you.  Did my intentions mean nothing?"

"What about Margaret?"

"Margaret was my parent's doing. You can't blame me for her."

" You married her, didn't you?"

"You're being absurd. Margaret was never a match for you."

"And I was no match for her money."

Malcolm's eyes narrowed.

"You think so little of me?"

I should have laughed outright.  How like Malcolm to imagine he could rewrite history.  And how like him to put me in the wrong. But before I could answer him, the inn keeper arrived with our salads. If he noticed Malcolm's white knuckled grip on his chair, the man didn't let on.  He poured wine into the Squire's goblet at a glacial pace and hovered, waiting for approval before filling mine.  

Once he'd gone, it seemed difficult for either Malcolm or I to know how to continue.  For the sake of peace, I considered offering an apology; but when I opened my mouth to speak, a squeal came from the far side of the room.

"Jeremy, you remembered!" The girl in the pink sweater stared down at a cupcake with a candled burning at its center.  
 
Aware he had an audience, the boy tossed a wink in our direction.  "A year ago today, that's when we met."

Malcolm and I smiled our congratulations and would have returned to our private gloom, but the young man had another surprise up his sleeve.  Reaching into his jacket, he withdrew a small box tied with a ribbon.  The ritual about to unfold was centuries old, yet one that never failed to gladden the heart.    

"Go on, Chloe, open it."

The girl tugged at the ribbon.  Her eyes, illuminated by the firelight, were already welling with tears.   
"Jeremy, it's beautiful." When she spied the ring, her free hand pressed hard against her breast as if she feared to breathe.

Still, the boy looked uncertain.

"I-Is it 'yes', then?  Is it okay?" 
.  
"Of course, it's okay, you idiot.  I love you." To convince him, the girl leaned forward and kissed her fiancé.

Malcolm signaled to the waiter and a bottle of champagne was delivered to the couple's table.  They smiled as they lifted their glasses in our direction to acknowledge the gift.  Then their eyes sought each other's and, for them, the world seemed to fall away.   
  
"A lovely gesture," I whispered to the man seated across from  me whose eyes had turned wistful.

"I should like to have a girl. I'd buy her pink sweaters and  give her ballet lessons..."

"Not a fishing pole or a baseball?"

A smile parted Malcolm's lips as he turned to face  me.

"Still a feminist, dear Anne?" 

"Having a girl strengthens my resolve for equal rights, if that's what you mean."

My answer was without rancor and Malcolm smiled to hear it.

"Your daughter likes fishing then?"

"No," I laughed.  "She loves ballet."

"Ah," my companion nodded, satisfied.  "I'm sure I'd like her very much."

"And I'm sure she'd be  happy to allow you to spoil her."

"What about your son?  Is he the fisherman?"

I shook my head.

"His passion is music, like yours."

"Really?   What did you say his name was?'

"I didn't.  Emily is my daughter.  And...."  We'd reached another delicate point in the conversation.  "I hope you don't mind.  His name is  Sean."

Malcolm shook his head as if water plugged one ear.

"My brother died before I met you."

"I know.  But I liked the name and you were so fond of him..."

"Hang on."  He held up one hand and looked puzzled.  "Help me to understand."

My face warmed under his gaze.  We'd reached an important juncture and I found I wasn't prepared for it.

"I liked the name.  That's all."

"No," Malcolm corrected. "That isn't all. You preserved a memory.  You knew how much I loved Sean.  And you also knew how different our lives would have been had he lived.  He'd be the Squire and my parents would have allowed me to do as I liked."  Malcolm took a sip of wine as if giving himself time to consider.

"Oh, Anne, what a mess we've made for ourselves."    
      
"Not so bad, really" I shrugged, not wanting to admit any truth to his statement. "You're not unhappy, are you?"

Always a proud man, Malcolm  threw back his shoulders and grew taller in his chair..

"I have my consolations, I suppose." He peered into his wine glass for a time, as if it were a crystal ball.

"Tell me about Sean, this son of yours," he said at last. "I presume he plays an  instrument?"

"He tortures a guitar and dreams of becoming a Rock Star." 
 
"What boy doesn't?" Malcolm smiled.   "Does he favor you or your husband?"

"He's blond, like Howard, but I'd say he favors himself."

"Any pictures?"

Realizing I'd left my wallet in my room, I grew flustered and offered to retrieve it. Malcolm waived me back into my chair, however..   

"Another time. Margaret would enjoy seeing the photo.  She's eager to see you again..   You understand...an old flame.  What woman wouldn't be curious?" Malcolm stabbed at his lettuce with a forced show of  nonchalance.

"So, if not me, what brings you to Leek? You always hated the place. Called it 'Bleak Leek.' "

"I cared for it even  less after you married."

I'd meant my words to flatter Malcolm but they had the opposite effect.

"I  married Margaret two years after you'd gone. She had nothing to do with us.  Frankly, I don't know what happened with us..."

To my annoyance, Simone Pardy's shadow fell across our table a second time.

"The missus makes a good steak and kidney if I do say so myself.  If the storm hadn't put 'em off, I'd be fitting customers into this place with a shoe horn."

He set the warm dishes before us, then peered down into our faces with his hands folded across his broad belly. Apparently, he was used to a bit of chit-chat with the Squire but tonight he would be disappointed.  We required privacy and our silence told him so.  After a few moments, he left us and headed toward his bar, looking, I thought, a little crestfallen.

"Tell you what," Malcolm began once we were alone. "Why don't we forget the past for tonight?  We'll talk as old friends. After ten years, there's so much I want to know."

"Agreed.  But we can't entirely escape the past.  In fact, I do have something I want to say." 
     
Malcolm looked up from his plate, looking wary.

"Anne, If you think I ever meant to hurt you, you're wrong.   I knew what you gave up for me. You could have accepted that scholarship to graduate school, become the writer you wanted to be.  Instead, you buried yourself in this grey little outpost. But I thought you believed we had a future together. I know I did.  I loved you.  And thought you loved me.  What more is there to say except we made a mess of things?"

"Yes.  But hear me out..."

Malcolm threw up his hands like a crossing guard.

"All right. If you need me to apologize, I will. I admit I may have been too preoccupied with myself. I was young.  It was in my senior year.  I needed to sow some oats.  You have to understand, so much rested on my shoulders at school... with my parents.  I felt entitled to blow off steam. That wasn't responsible of me.  I know that now.  But you played your part, Anne.  If I didn't rush home to our little love nest at every opportunity...  To tell the truth, I felt suffocated."

"Suffocated?" I thought we'd turned a corner in our conversation, but apparently we hadn't.  If Malcolm had thrown the contents of his water glass in my face, I couldn't have been taken more aback. "Well, that clears the air," I snapped.  "I gave up my life for yours and it made you feel suffocated.  I do apologize."

Malcolm fell against his chair, vindication flashing from his eyes.

"There you have it.  Guilt. Always guilt.  Did you never consider my needs?  I was working for our future.  That's what we wanted, wasn't it?"

Malcolm's words had a revelatory effect. Ten years had passed and yet nothing between us had changed.  We continued to lick old wounds.  He never listened and I was always the one to bear the blame..   
 
"What I wanted was for you to love me," I told him with an honesty that surprised me and left me feeling gutted. "But you didn't... not enough.  And then you were bored."

"That's a lie.  You were the one to leave, remember?"

"After all these years, why can't you be honest? Someone came between us. If it wasn't Margaret, maybe it was that Egyptian student.  She behaved as if she owned you."

"Nadia?  That's ridiculous."

"What's ridiculous is that you imagined I'd swallow your deception. The long absences.  The feeble excuses..."

"You're problem, Anne, is that you were always jealous. Always needed reassurance.   You made it hard for a fellow to breathe."

"Did I?  Yet somehow you managed. Who resuscitated you, I wonder.  Or was it only one?"

Malcolm threw his napkin on the table as if it were a gauntlet. In earlier times, this would be the point when he'd stomp out of our flat, puffed with indignation, and leave me to swallow my unspoken words.  But in this public place, with his fellow villagers in full view, such a display was unthinkable.  A proud man, he'd never take part in a scene that would expose him to common gossip. 
  
I watched as his eyes flitted across to the bar. Nobody seemed disturbed by our exchange, and the young couple had long since departed. Malcolm's relief was almost palpable.

"We should eat our dinner before it gets cold," he said, as with exquisite care he laid his napkin across his lap. His fork bit hard into his pot pie, spraying crust in a 360 degree circle. The evening which had begun with hope was officially dead.

At the stroke of nine I rose, glad to bring our charade to an end. Not only was I  exhausted, but I was equally certain Malcolm would be glad to be rid of me.  Yet when I pushed back my chair, he looked surprised.  His complexion paled and he appeared to be like a man awaking from a spell. The skin under his eyes and around his lips formed a tight mask akin to grief. 
    
"Anne, I'm so sorry.  I wanted our reunion to be special and  now..."

"Don't blame yourself, Malcolm," I interrupted.  "I've not been well."

He complexion turned paler, if possible.

"I'm sorry.  Is there anything I can do?"

Taking hold of my hand, he cradled it as if it were an injured sparrow.  The gentleness of his touch brought back memories, loving ones I hadn't expected to revive in this moment.  A tenderness enveloped me, one less easy to bear than my anger.  We had loved one another in the past and in a strange way, we still did -- perhaps too desperately, for despite the best we meant to do, we ended up hurting one another. My body trembled as it filled with sadness, threatening my existence as surely as if  poison had been poured into my glass.
 
How I managed the stairs without stumbling is a mystery.  My eyes were awash with  tears, and when I reached the confines of my room, I threw myself across the bed to give vent to them.  How long I wept, I don't know.  But it was late when Sylvia found me in my desperate condition.
    
Early the next morning, we packed our bags packed and climbed into the rental car, headed for Heathrow airport.  Having settled our bill the previous evening, not even Simone Pardy was awake to wave us off.

"I'm sorry it went badly" my friend said as the rural landscape flashed past us.  "You came a long way to get kicked in the stomach a second time."

"Something got resolved," I muttered without looking at Sylvia.  "I decided Howard was right."

"I'm glad you didn't tell Malcolm.  It might have been too much for you."

"That'll be Howard's job when I'm gone."

"Don't be such a pessimist."

I didn't argue.  We both knew the doctor hadn't held out much hope for a third round of chemotherapy.

"I decided I didn't want him in my life again, even for a short while.  Too much pain.... I really loved him, you know."

Sylvia nodded as she pressed her foot to the gas pedal, squinting through the rain washed windshield as she did. "He doesn't need to know, Anne. Howard is Sean's father by rights.  And what a shock for the kid.  Tell him when he grows up,  if you must."

The hum of the car engine blanketed our conversation.  Lulled by the hypnotic rhythm of the windshield wipers, each of us sank into our private thoughts.   Outside the passing farmlands glistened in the rain.  Nothing stirred.  No workmen or cows in sight.  But life was present in that still-life painting.  Worms waited with a seasoned patience to feed upon the shoots of spring.
 
From the opposite lane, a truck passed, splashing water across the glass.  Sylvia held the car steady without blinking.  I trusted her and allowed myself to sink deeper into the knitted  afghan she'd thrown over me.  I was glad to be leaving England.  She'd been right.  I never should  have returned.

My friend hummed quietly to herself, probably glad to be leaving, as well. What was that song? I knew it. "The Way We Were."  Malcolm's favorite.

My eyes popped open. The glint of satisfaction in Sylvia's smiling profile sent a chill through me, one having nothing to do with the wind and rain raging outside.  

 

 

 

About the Author:

Caroline Miller

Caroline Miller is a former elected member of the county commission of Multnomah County, Oregon in the United States, and a published author. Since leaving the political arena, Miller has been heavily involved with writing. She has published three novels: Trompe l'Oeil in 2012, Gothic Spring and Heart Land in 2009. Her short stories have been published in Children's Digest and Grit and Tales of the Talisman, and her short story, Under the Bridge and Beneath the Moon, were dramatized for radio in Oregon and Washington. Miller’s two-act play, “Woman on the Scarlet Beast,” was performed by the Post5 Theatre company in Portland, Oregon Jan 20-Feb.8 2015.

 

 

 

 

 

     
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