Leah Browning, “Elise in Austria”

Leah Browning is the author of Two Good Ears, a mini-book of flash fiction, as well as three short nonfiction books and six chapbooks of poetry and fiction. Her writing has recently appeared in The Petigru Review, The Ilanot Review, Necessary Fiction, Flock, and other literary journals and anthologies. “Elise in Austria” is the second of three linked stories. More information is available on her website: https://www.leahbrowninglit.com.

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Elise in Austria

by Leah Browning

She’s lying in a hotel room in Vienna watching The King of Queens dubbed into German. It’s the episode where Carrie is in her home office upstairs, busy for days on end with a big project, and Holly the dog walker—who usually “walks” Carrie’s dad—starts cooking for Doug.

Elise doesn’t speak German, but the body language is unmistakable. The dog walker spoils him, making elaborate pancake breakfasts. She catches him drinking straight from the orange juice. When he offers a sheepish apology, she says something that Elise doesn’t understand, though she seems to be urging him to do something; he grins and drinks the rest of the juice in one long swallow. Admiringly, she hands him a dollar.

It’s as if Doug has two wives, and the best of both. Carrie asks him to sleep with her—to relax her, it seems, or to clear her head—and afterwards, as they leave the bedroom—Doug smiling, zipping up the long neck of his pullover sweater, Carrie calling “Danke” as she goes back to her home office to resume her work—he walks downstairs and finds Holly in the kitchen, just finishing frosting a chocolate cake.

Back at home, Elise has seen this episode in English, and she turns the television off before the fantasy starts to unravel.

The next day, she wakes up long past the alarm. She slept terribly the night before, still jet-lagged though she’s been in Europe for days now. She eats a late breakfast in the hotel restaurant and goes outside, rushing past the gardens of Hofburg Palace. There is no time to see anything now. She has paid €5 for a standing-room ticket to hear the Vienna Philharmonic, but she gets lost on the way to the ticket office and is almost late for the concert.

The room is crowded, and Elise regrets the standing-room ticket almost immediately. She wore running shoes under her dress, thinking that would help, but it’s no use. During the intermission, a group of students moves to the back of the room, where they sit on the floor along the mirrored wall. An older woman trips over one of their legs as she crosses the room from one side to the other. A tall, elegant-looking man catches the woman and narrowly prevents her from falling, but she jerks her arm away from him. She snaps at the man in German, and he turns on the students. “This is a standing room,” he says angrily in English. The students say nothing that Elise can hear. They have stopped taking photos of each other against the backdrop of the Golden Hall and are texting and listening to music on their headphones.

By the time the concert is over, it is already dark outside. Instead of going straight back to the hotel, Elise stops at the Christmas Market on the Rathausplatz, the square in front of the town hall. The weather was milder in Italy, and she’s forgotten her gloves, but she buys a brat with mild German mustard and a mug of hot spiked punch and finds an empty spot on one of the benches behind the booths of candy and Christmas ornaments.

Elise notices a young boy skulking around the benches, waiting for anyone who is too drunk or distracted to return his mug and collect the €3 deposit. Before she even finishes her brat, Elise calculates that the boy has made at least €12 on mugs.

On her way to the hotel, as she’s leaving the grounds of the Christkindlmarkt, Elise walks past a little building where she can hear a recording of a man. It startles her: this deep, booming voice reading aloud in German. Whole families walk up and lean toward the light from the windows. Inside, an animatronic bear as big as a grown man is sitting in a chair, reading a book of fairy tales to an odd assortment of other, much smaller animals that have been arranged throughout the room.

The scene should be charming, but instead Elise finds it creepy. The recording of the voice, the misfit animals.

She backs away from the building. It’s windy. Her face and neck are cold and her feet ache. Still, for the first time in months, she feels grateful to be alive.

As she’s falling asleep that night, Elise thinks of Doug Heffernan, walking into his kitchen and finding, unexpectedly, a chocolate cake.

Jack Powers, “State of the Union”

Jack Powers is the author of Everybody’s Vaguely Familiar. His poems have appeared in The Southern Review, The Cortland Review, Poet Lore, and elsewhere. He won the 2015 and 2012 Connecticut River Review Poetry Contests and was a finalist for the 2013 and 2014 Rattle Poetry Prizes. He recently retired after teaching special education in Redding, Connecticut for 38 years. Visit his website: http://www.jackpowers13.com/poetry/.

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State of the Union

Now that they’re alone, Phil’s chewing sounds louder. And do you need
to scrape the plate for every last scrap? Clare asks. At least, he says,
I don’t put my shoes on the bed. Or say “et cetera” when I mean “et al.”

Our neighbor Eve tells us about her husband’s man cold, his dramatic sniffles.
Even when he takes her to the hospital to pass her kidney stone,
he begs the nurse for a lozenge. Men! I join in since I’m outnumbered.

You need to put the tines down for safety, June says, putting forks in the dishwasher.
Oscar shakes his head for the thousandth time. Tines down, they never get clean.

Our friends argue in the car. She shouts, Did you see that truck? Are you blind?
He swears, smacks the wheel. Shut up! We wonder: Can this marriage be saved?
He parks, they smile, he helps with her coat. She asks if she can carry his camera.

Now that I’m retired my wife has more time to stare at me. You yawn a lot.
she says. Your nostrils are too small. With the children up and gone, I distract her
with the dog, the TV, ask about her day. These nostrils aren’t getting any bigger.

Jack Powers, “On Turning 61”

Jack Powers is the author of Everybody’s Vaguely Familiar. His poems have appeared in The Southern Review, The Cortland Review, Poet Lore, and elsewhere. He won the 2015 and 2012 Connecticut River Review Poetry Contests and was a finalist for the 2013 and 2014 Rattle Poetry Prizes. He recently retired after teaching special education in Redding, Connecticut for 38 years. Visit his website: http://www.jackpowers13.com/poetry/.

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On Turning 61

For Katie

Consider this as your heart beats so steady for so long you’ve forgotten
you’re always counting to its steady bumpbumpbump. Listen to your lungs
swell and ease beneath your breast, companions from the moment
you popped into this world. You’ve known the fear,
the unfairness, the stranger in the mirror, the thickened tongue,
the distance from yourself and everyone, yet now you sit
at this table, your hale and good husband intent at his own good work,
your children off composing babies and song—
oh, that grandgirl grows so fast!

And here in this little pond where you spend your days, you are famous,
on a first-name basis with the only world that matters right now
as you quarter your avocado. Could you be any richer in this moment,
carving out its hard seed, peeling away its dark skin, dicing cubes,

green-yellow just-ripe meat, before dropping it on your greens,
and stealing a bite off the knife’s edge?

Veronica del Valle, “Q-t-π: A Children’s Story in Eight Slices”

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Q-t-π: A Children’s Story in Eight Slices

I did it because they deserved it. They had it coming for a while now. Besides, I guess that’s what happens to you when you can’t outsmart someone. 

            They used to call themselves leaders. But where did they lead? What power did they really have? None whatsoever, really. All they ever did was take advantage of their victims.

            I warned them once.

            STOP. MESSING. WITH. ME.

            They didn’t listen.

No one thought they could be defeated. They never thought their reign would end, but it did, and I’m proud to say I had something (or dare I say a lot) to do with it.

Welcome to my story. Hope you like it in here.

My name is Q-t-π, by the way.

* * *

Please allow me to introduce myself properly. My name is Quenby Talwyn. But everybody calls me Q-t-π. Not because I’m necessarily cute but because I’m a brainy nerd who once wrote not one but two yards worth of pi decimals. Do you know how many those are? Oh, a lot. Like, a lot lot.

That’s how much I like pi. Yes, π. The sixteenth letter of the Greek alphabet. Also known as the numerical value of the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. Quite a mouthful really, but in other words it simply means it’s a very curious number that can tell you quite a few things about science and nature and life.

          Most people peg me as just a geek. And I am one—I’m not saying I’m not—but I consider myself much more than that. A very select few know that I am a skillful tightrope walker, a somewhat decent tuba player, and I would say an average milliner—I’m working on this one.

          What else can I tell you about me? I’m twelve years old, I have soft pinkish lips, and November is my least favorite month—mainly because I don’t appreciate its rain. My hair frizzes up like nobody’s business. I also like the shades I can make with a graphite pencil, so I always, without fault, dress within the white-grey-black palette. Last but not least, I am a longtime fan of a well-thought-out plan. This can be proven by the following fact: the two biggest bullies ever known to mankind have tortured me for what has felt like eons and I have stoically put up with it. Now, having said that, I’ve been secretly and diligently mapping out my retaliation. This has taken time and great attention to detail. I strategized. I plotted. I scheduled. I tried and tested my master plan until it was nothing less than perfect: the quintessential anti-bullying operation. All I had to do was wait for the ideal day to carry it out.

* * *

Dear Diary,

I know I haven’t written in a while. Sorry about that. But a major thing happened in my life, and I needed to share it with someone. You are always my go-to friend in these moments.

By now I think probably half the world knows what happened. Not the whole truth, of course. But a good chunk of it. It’s funny to see how rumors spread and how the few facts that are out there become embellished and dramatised beyond what my imagination could have ever expected.

In my defense, I would like to state for the record that they truly downright deserved it. I’ll tell you why. I know you’ll understand me. You always do.

Their names are Puck and Perry Chesapeak. Twins, if you can believe that—as if one wasn’t enough. Two identical bullies. Their meanness was twofold. So was their capacity to commit the most ruthless attacks. With their pudgy faces and scaly elbows, they were wicked and shameless times two.

I kept it all to myself for so long. I told no one, not even you, dear diary, how I’d suffered because of those snooty, snot-picking twins. I know I am different, but they made me feel as if that was a thing to be ashamed of. They made me feel like an outcast, a disgusting one.  I got slurs constantly because I was into math and chemistry and because I could talk nonstop about Byron and Blake and Shelley. They shoved me in the hallways, they spread rumors about me, they called me “freak” and said things like “Why would anyone ever like you?” One day they even went so far as to pour a yogurt container over my head as they passed me in the cafeteria. For no reason—no reason at all. And they laughed. They laughed so loud. And I just sat there. My stomach clenched in a way that made it almost impossible to breathe. I couldn’t even look at them. I could only hear their laughter. I felt the tears rise up in my eyes. Sorrow of the meanest kind wrapped around me. I tried to push the heartache down—down where I could not feel it—but it was impossible. Do you know what that feels like, having your heart broken like that? It hurts. It hurts everywhere. It’s like wanting to cry and scream and run away all at the same time. Broken hearts do not only belong to lovers. That day in the school cafeteria my heart was broken. I couldn’t take it anymore. I had to do something about it.


* * *

Let me tell you a little bit more about why I did what I did. That day in the cafeteria I decided that enough was enough. I remember walking to the bathroom, washing the sticky yogurt off my hair and face and saying out loud, “I am Q-t-π and I won’t be a victim anymore.” I was done suffering.

Why did I have to wait until I’m a grown-up to start enjoying life? I hated listening to adults utter the phrase, “I know it’s hard now, honey, but you just have to wait. You’ll laugh when you’re in college.” I didn’t want to wait. I wanted to laugh now, not in ten years.

Besides, how come the bullies are always the ones in power and the smart kids are the lepers? Why do we have to feel like rejects seeking justice? Does that sound like fair play to you? Because it certainly doesn’t to me.

So, if a situation is unfair, you put your mind to work to make it just. That’s exactly what I did.

And I didn’t just do it for my own benefit. I wasn’t the only one who suffered in that school. After my master plan, things also changed for Nelson, Rita, Calvin, and many others. Fellow nerds. They all thanked me time and again because they couldn’t believe they could now walk around school without fearing that something dreadful awaited around the corner.

Even the teachers had a proud look on their faces when they saw me. Of course they wouldn’t say anything out loud. They couldn’t condone my behavior in public, but they all gave an approving nod whenever we crossed paths in the hallways.

* * *

Dear Diary,

            It’s amazing to see that Puck and Perry now walk the school’s hallways like two sweet, polite kittens. Nobody can believe that the twins now say Please and Thank you and Excuse me and I’m sorry.  Last week, Rita said she saw that Puck was helping the teacher tidy up the classroom. Today at lunch time Nelson told us that Perry chose him for the soccer team. “I don’t want you to feel left out.” That’s what Perry whispered to him before the game started.

And that’s just scratching the surface. Yesterday morning, in English class, this girl Violet was crying because she’d gotten a C in the pop quiz, and Perry walked up to her and asked, “Are you all right?” But the best part was that he seemed to really really mean it. And when she started telling him all about it, he knelt down beside her and listened to every word.

I’m so proud of what I did. Mind you, I admit it was rather outlandish, but it worked. The wrong-doers have learned their lesson.


* * *

“Are you all right there?”

“Yes, why?”

“You look troubled, dear.”

“Oh, that’s just my thinking look.”

“May I sit?”

“Sure. It’s a public bench.”

“What’s your name?”

“Quenby. Quenby Talwyn. But everybody calls me Q-t-π.”

“Cutie pie?”

“Well, I can’t read your speech, so I don’t know if I should answer Yes or No to your question. Just so there are no misunderstandings, it’s not Cutie Pie as in the pretty baked dish of fruit with a top and base of pastry. It’s Q-t-π as in Quebec-Tango and the Greek letter pi.”

“Oh, I see. Well then, Q-t-π, it’s nice to meet you. I’m Fiona. I live nearby so I always walk my dog around this park in the mornings. This is Rocky. He’s a—”

“A Basset Fauve de Bretagne. Yes, I know. Cute.”

“So what were you thinking about?”

“Just something I did.”

“What would that be?”

“I can’t tell you. It’s a secret.”

“Is it?”

“Yes, it is.”

“ . . . ”

“Why the smirk? I’m serious. It’s TOP SECRET.”

“TOP SECRET, huh?”

“Yes. Let’s just say I work for some sort of special agency.”

“You don’t say.”

“You don’t believe me?”

‘What’s the name of said special agency?”

“I can’t tell you. It’s classified.”

“ . . . ”

“You still don’t believe me, huh?”

“Well, how old are you?”

“I’m twelve, but I’m really smart, so they hired me anyway.”

“To do what exactly?”

“Face up to the bullies of the world.”

“Why would a special agency want to do that?”

“To empower good and clever kids.”

“Huh. That sounds fair.”

“Of course it’s fair. But we had to start small. It worked like a charm, though.”

“Wait a second . . . Are you the girl that’s all over the newspapers? Yes, you are! You are the one that fought those two bullies that go to the school here in town.You’re the nerd avenger! That’s what I call you anyway.”

“I guess you could say I’m some sort of avenger, yes. But I didn’t fight with them.”

“Oh, this is superb! I read all about it! I’ve been following your story! But the papers didn’t give any details. They just said that some students witnessed you with some sort of device on your hands? But no one really saw what happened because you went into the science lab when the Chesapeak twins were alone in there. What was it you did to them exactly? How did you get them to change the way they acted?”

“Do you really think I’m going to tell that to a complete stranger after only twenty seconds of skin-deep chit-chat on a park bench?”

“But I won’t tell anyone, I promise!”

“Lady, I told you: it’s a secret. And one of the reasons I was hired is because I can keep a secret.”

“Well, what can you tell me without betraying your promise?”

“Not much really.”

“It’s just that . . . I used to be a nerd, back in the day, and I suffered, you have no idea how much, at the hand of Harriet, the meanest girl in the playground. So when I read about you, I just . . . well, I felt avenged, even after so many years, you know.”

“I’m glad, Fiona.”

“So . . . what did you do to them? Were they scared?”

“I didn’t hurt them.”

“You didn’t?”

“Of course not. Violence is never an option. It was never about revenge. It was about making things right.”

“Then how did you do it?”

“Let’s just say I put my brains to good use and made them face their greatest fear.”

* * *


File Nº: 9-D521-N4

Sanctioning Agencies: C.D.A. (Central Directorate of Anti-Bullying) and N.I.B. (Nerd Intelligence Brigade)

Agent profile

Name: Quenby Talwyn

Alias: Q-t-π

Age: Twelve years old

Specialties: Applied mathematics / Counterintelligence analysis / Intellectual combat proficiency

Special agent training: Completed

Mission: “Operation Dominion Override”

Target: Puck and Perry Chesapeak

Objective: Bully conduct eradication and reinstitution of the nerds

Tactics: Reconnaissance / Data analysis / Unforeseen approach 

Device: The G.E.E.K. (Greatest Equalizer Ever Known)

Developed by: Agent Q-t-π.

Features: State-of-the-art technology. Highest bully-fighting engineering. Unerring. Easy to handle.


  • The user must point the gadget toward the bully in question and press the triangular green button. The subject will then be surrounded by a special electromagnetic field with unique quantized singularities.
  • Said field is harmless, yet it will target and modify specific areas of the brain that deal with sensory information, memory recall, behavior, and empathy.
  • The electromagnetic field will briefly paralyze the subject and put them through the following: In a span of 21.5 seconds, they are to experience every feeling ever felt by each one of their victims.

Results: Immediate.

Mission status: Executed.

Overall assessment: Successful.


* * *

“Can I sit here with you?”

“Of course.”

“This is the exact cafeteria chair you were sitting on when I poured the yogurt over you, isn’t it?”

“I think it is, yes.”

“Would you believe me, Quenby, if I told you I am so sorry about that?”

“I would, Puck. I believe you.”

“Perry is just as sorry as I am.”

“I know he is.”

“He wanted to come too. It’s just that he’s with Nelson now, playing soccer.”

“That’s nice.”

“Quenby, what you did . . . in the science lab, with your thing—”

“It’s a special device. It’s called the G.E.E.K. Stands for Greatest Equalizer Ever Known.”

“What does equalizer mean?”

“When you equalize, you make things equal, the same, balanced.”

“Oh, I see. And you made that?”

“I did.”

“Wow. That’s incredible . . . I mean, you’re like . . . a genius. Wow, Quenby, I’m sorry I couldn’t see how awesome you are.”

“It’s okay, Puck.”

“Anyway, what I wanted to say is that that day in the lab . . . what the G.E.E.K. did to Perry and me . . . I don’t know how long it was that we were—”

“Twenty-one point five seconds.”

“Oh, right. Well, during those seconds, I felt . . . I felt it all, Quenby, all. The heartache, the pain. Oh the pain I caused, Quenby! So much pain, for so many people. And I could feel that ache in my mind and my heart and my skin and my bones. I could see and hear and smell the sadness and the fear and the anger and the loneliness you all suffered. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

“I know, Puck. I know you are.”

“And then when I snapped out if it, it was like I was not Puck anymore. Or rather I was, but more like a different Puck. I don’t really know how to explain it.”

“You were still you, but you had understood, with your entire being, what you had done and how it had felt like for the other person. Every cell in your body grasped that. And you, Puck, changed, for the good. You became—”

“A better person?”

“Yes. And that is a seriously difficult thing to do.”

“What do you mean?”

“Most people don’t change. Not really. Many might want to, when they get a glimpse of their faults, but then they go back to their usual old selves with their usual old habits. It’s the way human beings are.”

“I hope that doesn’t happen to me.”

“It won’t, Puck. Don’t worry.”

“Anyway, I wanted to thank you. Thank you with my heart, if that makes any sense.”

“It does. You’re most welcome.”

“Hey . . . is it okay if I call you Q-t-π?”


“Awesome. See you around, Q-T-π!”

“See you around, Puck.”