The Net

A Midsummer Tale ~ Third Place
Gail Webber


Photo Credit: Austin Kirk/Flickr (CC-by)

Photo Credit: Austin Kirk/Flickr (CC-by)

We didn’t get to Franklinton very often, and a new pet store was a pleasant surprise, but the three dead guppies in the first aquarium I checked were a bad sign. There was no one to tell except a man at the cash register who was on the phone. He was old, maybe thirty-five, and so thin he was almost skinny, but he had great eyebrows. When he saw me he smiled and held up one finger, universal sign language for, “Be with you in a minute.”

My mother was up the street looking for clothes to fit my surprise baby sister. In the little lake town where we lived in the early 1960s, there was a post office and a great ice cream store, but the only clothing available was fancy stuff for the summer people. To get reasonably priced things you had to drive to Franklinton where there was a department store. I went along that day because I knew that store had a pet department in the basement and I had fourteenth birthday money from my grandmother. When the department store fish proved uninteresting, I left to explore town and that was how I accidentally found the pet store.

I had just over an hour before I was supposed to meet Mom at the car, so while I waited for the man, I peered into the tanks one by one. There were some fish I could identify and even distinguish males from females, but there were others I’d only seen in books. I took my time. As soon as the man was done talking, he came over and said, “Hi,” but nothing more. I learned later that “hi” was how he wanted his employees to greet customers, considering the usual “Can I help you?” unfriendly and pushy.

“You’ve got a couple dead guppies,” I said and pointed. His smile faded and he turned toward the guppy tank, but then the phone rang again.

“There’s a net in that methylene blue wash,” he said on his way back to the counter. “Over there in the corner, see it? Go ahead and scoop them out and bring them here.” He indicated the glass counter where the register was, and then picked up the receiver. “Franklinton Pet.”

Really? I was perfectly capable of that little task, but it seemed a strange thing to ask a customer to do. Why not, I thought, and picked up one of the nets. I shook it a little to get the excess off, and then fished out the dead guppies. The man nodded to me and mouthed “thank you” when I put the whole thing, wet net and dead fish, on the counter.

It wasn’t until I was inspecting the baby Jack Dempseys that I noticed the nickel-sized blue stain on the yellow T-shirt I’d just gotten for my birthday. I groaned, knowing how methylene blue stains—I’d used it before to cure itch. But my new shirt! I didn’t get many new clothes, not with the way things were at home. The baby clothes Mom was buying that day were going to be the big splurge for the month.

Behind me, I heard the phone being replaced in the cradle, and then a ripping sound. When I turned, I saw the guy put a long strip of masking tape across the front of the tank where the dead fish had been and write NOT FOR SALE on the tape. “Mouth rot,” he said to me. From his pocket he pulled a blister pack of capsules and emptied two of them into the tank. They turned the water orange. Then he reached in and pulled out the box filter, leaving the air hose to bubble, and dried his hands on his pants. When he saw me watching he explained, “Charcoal deactivates tetracycline so you have to take the filter out.”

I nodded, though that was new information. Apparently this guy wouldn’t sell fish from an infected tank. That impressed me, and I thought maybe I’d get fish from him after all if I could find some I liked that would get along with what I already had. I figured I’d have to go back and look at prices, though.

He surprised me by saying, “Oh, no,” while he was looking at my chest. I didn’t know what to think and felt myself blush. I was used to guys at school looking there, but not most grown men. As far as I was concerned, my new shape was mostly a good thing, but sometimes my cup size was an embarrassment. Everything I ate or drank seemed to land on that shelf.

“I feel responsible,” he said. “Vinegar and vitamin C.”

I had no idea what he was talking about but was grateful he was looking at my eyes. “What?”

“It gets methylene blue out of clothes.” He nodded at the stain on my chest and then found my eyes again. “I know because I’ve done that a hundred times. Crush up a vitamin C tablet in one part vinegar and five parts water and soak the spot as soon as you get home.”

I don’t even remember exactly how it happened, but by the time I left with a trio of killifish, I had a summer job working for Richard at Franklinton Pet. I didn’t even have to spend any birthday money because the killies were my pay for an hour of cleaning water spots off the aquarium fronts. This would be my first job that didn’t involve mowing or painting. I knew the hour bus ride each way would be a pain, but I was looking forward to all the money I could save for college. Plus I’d be learning new things.

It was June, so I figured I’d have the rest of the month and then all of July and most of August to work as many hours as Richard would let me. His wife had just had their third child, all girls he said, and the baby made it harder for her to come in to help like she used to.

I guess her having the three kids made other things problematic, too, because by the middle of August, Richard was showing more than a casual interest in what I was wearing and how I did my hair. In those days, you dressed up for a job, even if it was one that involved catching snakes and chameleons, and cleaning hamster runs and bird cages. I even learned how to put my hair up in a twist because he said he liked it and I thought it made me look older. I was a good worker, and he always complimented me, but not just for doing a good job. Honestly, I liked the attention, and I don’t know, maybe I needed it. My only boyfriend so far—albeit a rather platonic one—had dumped me for a senior girl, and nobody else was asking me out. I had come to believe I must not be girlfriend material—that my first boyfriend had been a fluke, and I was destined to be alone for the rest of my life. Maybe that was why Richard’s approval was important, why I wanted to believe it meant something.

My job was supposed to be just for the summer, so my parents were surprised in September when I asked if I could keep working during the school year. My grades were excellent, and I was involved in everything from student government and debate club to all the sports they would let girls play in those days, and Mom and Dad said they thought working would be too much. I argued that my friends managed that same kind of busy schedule as well as boyfriends, and that since I didn’t have one, I had extra time especially on weekends and vacations. I told them how much I’d saved for college that summer and they were surprised. After they finally agreed and I had time to think, I considered looking for a different job. The truth was that despite Richard’s interest in me being exciting and affirming, it confused me. But I stayed.

It was the month before Christmas that year when we started keeping the store open on Sundays, and Richard’s wife offered to let me stay over at their house on Saturday nights because as she said, it made better sense. Being open that extra day made a big difference in the weekly take, something I knew because a few basic accounting duties were added to my responsibilities. But as the month wore on, it seemed there was more and more to do after Richard and I closed the store on Saturday nights. At least I assume that was what he told his wife. I knew it was wrong, and I blamed myself, believing that I must be a truly bad person to get involved with him at all, and worse for not calling a halt to what was going on. It was my first experience with guilt that ran so deep, and it changed how I saw myself. I was two people, the honor roll student during the week and something else the rest of the time. All the time.

“Tawdry” was a word I came to understand that first year, and over the next two I found myself thinking of men quite differently than I had before Richard. I lost myself for a while, who I was and who I wanted to be. Still, I kept working there and I kept up those relationships—the one with Richard and the one with his wife and children—until right before I graduated and left for college.

Even after I was far away I felt guilty enough to wonder if I’d ever feel good again. The longer I was gone, the less I understood how I could have let myself be used like that, and I hated myself for being so stupid. After the self-loathing came fear that I’d ruined my chances of ever having an authentic relationship with a man. It was the 1960s, and though attitudes about how women should behave were supposedly changing in the cities, most of the same old expectations held for women where I lived and where I went to college. How could anyone love a woman who’d done what I did? I couldn’t expect that anyone else would respect me when I didn’t respect myself.

But someone did, and that changed everything again, this time for the better.

By the end of my freshman year when I went home for the summer, I wasn’t much older, but I was a more savvy girl than the one who’d left ten months earlier. I was more confident and outspoken, and in some ways harder. I was also angry. There had been no contact between us after I left, but I intended to see Richard, not for the reason I knew he’d expect, but to confront him. What he’d done was wrong and I wanted to tell him so. I wasn’t without blame; I wasn’t exactly a child when it started and I let it go on. But I’d also been clueless… and he was the adult.

I went in the propped-open front door of his store and stopped with my back to it, about ten feet from where he stood at the counter. No one else was in the store.

“Look at you!” Richard grinned. He didn’t approach me as I expected, and instead leaned back against the wall behind the register.

He looked older than I remembered, with dark circles under his eyes, and his hair looked oily. Even from a distance I could see the dirt under his too-long fingernails and realized there had always been that black line where the white of his nails stopped.

“With that long hair and your clothes, you’re a cute little hippy girl, aren’t you.” He said it like it was a fact and not a question.

All that I planned to say to him, every stinging and freeing thing I wanted to say to him, flew out of my head and I just stood there mute.

“We hoped we’d hear from you, but then I guess you had lots going on.” He cocked one knee forward and put his hands in his pockets.

We? Really? I thought. And what is “going on” supposed to mean? All in my head, but then I knew where to start. “You had no right,” I blurted. “Back then, you had no right.” If he’d looked ashamed or angry, I would have known how to continue, but the quizzical expression on his face and the crooked half-smile shut me up.

“No right about what?” he asked me. “I can see you’re pissed about something, kiddo, but I have no idea what you mean. What’s up?”

Anyone watching would have thought he was innocent. My throat closed up and made that choking sound it always does when I’m caught off guard and try to talk, so I stopped. I’m not sure how long I stood there before I heard someone’s footsteps behind me. When I turned, I saw her, a young girl in a purple pleated skirt and sweater. Her blonde hair was piled up on top of her head making her look like she was playing dress-up, and she carried a bag with a familiar logo. Tony’s Place was where we used to get meatball subs.

“Hi,” she said to me as she passed by on her way to the counter, and then to Richard she said, “Ready for some lunch, Ricky?”

pencilGail Webber taught science, middle school through college, for thirty-two years, and then worked with children and teenagers considered at-risk. Since retiring, she has returned to her old love, writing fiction. She lives and works on a tiny farm in western Maryland. Gail is new to the publishing arena, with one middle grade novel published three years ago, and short stories appearing in The Tower Journal and Persimmon Tree. A second novel is out for consideration, and she says that a third is keeping her up nights. Email: gail_webber[at]hotmail.com

Liberal Arts

A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
Heather Finnegan


Photo Credit: Alexander Boden/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

Photo Credit: Alexander Boden/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

The security guard could tell immediately that the young girl was wearing layers of stolen lace underwear beneath her shirt and tight jeans. He did not even have to see the look on her eyeliner-smudged face when she saw him in the Sears elevator, floor five.

“Oh,” he said. “The elevator’s broken. Been stopping at every floor for no reason all day. But it’s fine to use.” The girl, who had greasy brown hair and smelled like sticky buns, stepped on nervously. It was the summer between his first and sophomore years of college—they didn’t use the word “freshmen” at his school because it excluded women from their daily vocabulary—and he had just finished a seminar on ethics where he learned about stepping into another’s shoes. Maybe, he thought, she couldn’t afford the underwear she needed. Maybe her dad just died of a ravaging brain cancer or Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and her mom, who’d dropped out of college to birth her and her two triplet-sisters, was still trying to pay off the debt of his medical bills with only a seventy-five-cents-to-a-dollar minimum wage job. It was possible, he thought. He should be nice to her. She could probably use a little kindness and guidance in her life.

“So,” he said. “Having a good day?”

“Fine,” she said, crossing her arms.

“That’s good,” he said. “Mine was good too. Would be better if it weren’t for this elevator though.” The door opened onto floor four, home goods and as-seen-on-TV items. The security guard often came here during his breaks to use the scalp scratchers. The girl didn’t say anything. He held down the close door button. “So,” he said. “You in school?”

“It’s summer,” she said.

“Right,” he said. “But… in the fall?” She told him she would be starting high school but didn’t say where. He thought maybe she went to the “inner city” school and was embarrassed to say so. “Do you think you’ll go to college?” he asked.

She shrugged.

“I study at a liberal arts school,” he said.

“Cool,” she said.

“Yeah,” he said. “Liberal arts schools are cool because they teach you how to think instead of what to think. It’s way different than high school and vocational schools. Good different.”

“Cool,” she said.

Then he thought, what if she couldn’t afford a fancy liberal arts school? He had been lucky, winning a scholarship for badminton, but what if she wasn’t supposed to go to college? Plenty of people weren’t supposed to go to college. Maybe she was supposed to be a sales representative or a hairdresser or a full-time surrogate or something. Then he thought those were typical women’s jobs and maybe she could be a plumber or a construction worker or a security guard like himself. Also, he should use the word “cosmetologist.” Not “hair dresser.” The elevator stopped on the third floor, which was full of lots of overpriced, nonsensical books. The security guard had only visited the floor once and got scared because he couldn’t tell where the floor ended. The rows of books situated in little hexagonal displays seemed to go on forever, like an endless beehive or something.

“But it’s not all great,” he said. “Liberal arts school. Once I read this graphic novel about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for an English class. It was okay but I didn’t like it because it was all in black-and-white, only I couldn’t tell my professor that,” he said. “I had to tell him I didn’t like it because it showed a really harsh bias toward the Palestinians by not mentioning any of their violent acts in ancient or in modern times. But I don’t really know much about the Palestinians’ violent acts because that book didn’t teach me any and no one’s taught it in any of my history classes. I was just kind of bullshitting,” he said. Shit, he thought. Did he just tell her college was about bullshitting?

“Cool,” she said.

The door opened on the second floor which sold no goods at all but housed a large concrete gate with an old, peering gatekeeper and a sign labeled “das Gesetz.” He started to panic. He was running out of time.

“But I could have learned more if I wanted to,” he said. “I could have studied abroad in Jerusalem this summer. That graphic novel, it said that you can find whatever you’re looking for in Jerusalem as long as you know what it is you’re looking for.”

“Wow,” she said.

“Yeah,” he said. “ I didn’t go because I couldn’t afford it. But I could have found grants and scholarships and stuff if I tried,” he said so as not to discourage her. “And I got this job for the summer which has been cool,” he said. “College is full of great opportunities like that. Like, if you work hard then you can learn about whatever it is you want to learn about. But it’s like that The Mamas & the Papas song. ‘You gotta know where you wanna go,’” he sang. “Just have a goal and go for it,” he said.

“I think it’s ‘Go where you wanna go,’” she said.

“Right. Same thing,” he said. “What I mean is college is a really cool opportunity. It can be really important,” he said. “Or not,” he said. The door opened onto the first floor which, like most department stores, sold makeup and perfumes and fancy watches. “Cosmetics,” he thought. Not “makeup.” “There are lots of parties,” he said.

She stepped out of the elevator and power-walked toward the exit.

He stepped out, too, and called to her, “Have a great day!”

“Thanks,” she said, which made him feel accomplished.

He remembered that he was supposed to have gotten off on the fifth floor to relieve another guard for break, but the elevator door had already closed. He pressed the button and played Candy Crush on his cell phone while he waited for the car to return.

pencilHeather Finnegan’s work has appeared or is soon to appear in The Interlochen Review, Cargoes, The Quaker, and Litmus. She is graduating from the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities and will be attending the University of Pennsylvania in the fall. Email: finneganhr[at]gmail.com

The English Girl

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
Sarah Evans


Photo Credit: Anthony Conti/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Photo Credit: Anthony Conti/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

After the day’s work, they gathered round the fissured table that sat beneath the shading branches of a fir tree. Today it was the turn of the English girl to cook. There had been teasing, inevitably, about English cooking, which felt unfair given Swiss cuisine stretched no further than melted cheese. Her style in any case was not typically English: tonight it was a casserole of Mediterranean vegetables and lentils.

The English girl. It had started as a joke. Already when she arrived, there was a French girl called Marie, and although the two could have been distinguished by the form of pronunciation, nationality provided a simpler distinction. The English girl smiled when she was called that. She didn’t seem to mind and the name stuck.

The day had faded into evening and the earlier warmth of the sun was released back from the hard-baked earth; it lingered as a glow on skin. The English girl’s nose was peeling in small, white flakes—raw pink beneath—and it would burn again if she weren’t more careful. The backs of her hands were stained nut-brown, the deepness of pigmentation continuing up her arms, until close to her shoulders the colour lightened by degrees, reflecting the varying sleeve lengths of the four cotton shirts which she rotated, rinsing one out each evening.

That night there was someone new at the table. She saw him first in profile, from a distance, knowing instantly from the rapid ease with which he chatted to Anneliese that he was one of the permanent staff.

The English girl had volunteered to work for Fourth World for three months, the whole of her university summer holiday. She had arrived with a rucksack, whose weight she had struggled beneath on the long walk from the station. She had been there a month now and people had come and gone. Permanent staff moved between locations. Most volunteers worked only for two weeks or so.

As she approached the table, the large earthenware dish weighing heavily under her hands, she was aware of how her arm muscles had strengthened over the weeks of light manual work. She concentrated step by step, fearful that a tree root might set her tripping. Her stomach growled with the aroma of herbs and garlic and she observed how, even sitting, the newcomer appeared short and squat. His skin was gypsy dark, the type of brown that comes from living outdoors; his hair was black dots against his scalp, continuing into the stubble on his chin. Thuggish looking was her first thought, registering simultaneously that a certain type of ugliness—Jack Nicholson ugliness—can be attractive in a man. She noticed those things even before the moment when—food delivered safely to the table—she turned her eyes more openly on him and felt his gaze on her, unsettling in its masculine conceit.

‘This is Johannes,’ Anneliese said, in her German-accented English. ‘And this is Marie. The English girl.’

 

The end of that week marked some local festival, providing the excuse for a party with folk music playing on a battered CD, and a roughly-built brick barbecue filling the air with smoke and the smell of burning fat. Sitting in the cool of a falling evening, eating burgers dripping grease between torn hunks of rustic bread, the English girl found herself perched on the end of a bench with Johannes at her side. All week she had been conscious of his presence, while he had shown no sign of noticing her.

Johannes pushed his plate away, declaring himself—‘How you say? Stuffed?’—slouching forward over one elbow, the skin of his forearm dark, the hairs darker still, one hand reaching for his chunky glass, the other under the table and settling on the English girl’s knee. The heavy feel of it frissoned through her. She abandoned a burnt nub of meat and sipped her lukewarm beer, its hue almost black, its taste heavily hopped and bitter. She focussed on her expression remaining smooth.

English was the common language for the group, the only language which all of them—the French, German, Italian, Spanish, Polish—knew at least a little of. Johannes was talking, his bad English lapsing sometimes into rapid German, which Anneliese translated in summarised form. He shifted further forward over the table, the bulk of his body lending weight to strong opinion, his legs spreading so his denim covered thigh now pressed the length of the English girl’s. She was wearing wide shorts which reached halfway to her knee. His hand followed the ridge of her leg, then curled inwards so his thumb hooked over the top of her leg and his fingers rested on her inner thigh.

And all the time he talked.

The English girl sat unmoving and silent. She had no particular desire to talk to Johannes or to thrust herself into the conversation. She liked the fact that he was the natural focus and everyone was listening and that what he expressed chimed so fully with her own beliefs.

The Fourth World. She had tried to explain it to friends at college. Poverty exists in all societies, she said, feeling self-conscious and anxious that she would sound pious. Even in the most affluent countries there exists a substrata, outside the common flow, who remain trapped. The Fourth World, like a fourth dimension, coexisting with and yet invisible to those who prefer not to look. The centre where she was spending the summer would provide an alpine holiday for poor families; she and the volunteers were carrying out essential maintenance—building wooden fences, turning an old horse carriage into a children’s playhouse and preparing flower and vegetable gardens—before the centre could open. She remembered the scepticism on her friends’ faces. Poverty? In Switzerland? ‘You should see my bank balance,’ Thomas had said. ‘I think I must qualify.’ She had smiled politely and felt a flash of dislike.

Sitting here now, she could feel Johannes’ passion transmitting through his faulty English, through the heat of his body and his gesticulating hand; his passion mirrored her own notions of equality and fairness, views that her friends—firm believers in the magic of markets and capitalism—declared naïve. She liked that others here would see how the line of their bodies was pressed together without seeing what was happening beneath the table.

His fingers reached higher. She remained perfectly still, aware, vaguely—because everything that evening felt vague, perhaps due to the beer, perhaps more fundamentally—that to surrender so easily with no indication of her own will, went against all her feminist principles. She thought, but only fleetingly, of Thomas, who she had started dating towards the end of term, and whom she had so far fended off as far as full sex was concerned. What was she waiting for, he’d asked, exasperated.

Johannes said something—‘but there it is, no?’—bringing his diatribe to an end and removing his hand from her leg equally abruptly. Dismay crashed and crushed, and stupid thoughts chuntered through her brain, that he would not like her precisely because she seemed so readily acquiescent. He shifted away, turning his back on her, swinging a leg to straddle over the wooden bench, all the while laughing and talking unintelligibly fast to Anneliese. The English girl smiled with muscle-ache inanity.

She stared down at her brown hands and cupped them around her empty glass, certain suddenly that Anneliese, that everyone, would see how she had been discarded. Then she felt the touch of his hand on her shoulder. ‘Kommst du,’ he said, his head jerking towards the clearing and the others. ‘Come.’ She scrambled to standing, banging her hip hard on the wooden table, fearful that if she hesitated she would lose the moment and its momentum.

The cassette player had been replaced by an accordion, played by the Spanish guy whose name was Jesus, the awkwardness of which made her shy to talk to him.

People were dancing to a fast French jive and Johannes had taken her hand and was pulling her towards the centre of the group.

‘No,’ she said, pulling back and laughing, conscious of just how much she hated dancing, aware that allowing yes to groping then saying no to dancing was perverse.

Johannes stood his ground, gripping her hand firmly, and he stood there—squat and insistent—ignoring her no, and gesturing to the group of dancers with his stance. Her resistance slackened and she was drawn into a dance that she had no knowledge of.

The music rollicked and rolled. Johannes’s rhythm, his sequences of steps, became hers. He pulled her in close—chest to chest—then cast her outwards to arm’s length. They circled round, then rapidly changed direction. Partners were swapped, without her having any say in it, and suddenly she was in someone else’s arms and her fleeting gracefulness deserted her; she felt clumsy, acutely aware of why it was she’d never liked dancing. Johannes reclaimed her, or perhaps it was just the chancy outcome. She felt herself lifted off her feet; her thighs tightened round his hips as he swung her around and then she was tilting downwards so it seemed her head might bounce along the ground. But it didn’t, because he knew precisely the moment to swing her back upright.

She found herself passed along again, this time landing with the Polish guy who’d been trailing her all week and whose bumbling movements served to exaggerate her own ineptitude. Out of breath, she mumbled excuses and extracted herself from his clinging hold to draw back to the edges of the group, standing under the shadow of trees, watching. Waiting.

A figure appeared out of the darkness beside her and the two of them stood there. She listened to his breathing and the shuffle of pine leaves beneath his feet. Then he took her hand, pulling her back amongst the firs. Vegetation crunched and the world smelt of dried-out green and sunsoaked earth. It was dark, getting darker amidst the thickening branches, but at the same time her eyes were adjusting and shapes in denser shades of black emerged and there was a path of sorts, forming a silver ribbon through the trees.

Johannes stopped when they came to a narrow clearing, lit by a sliver of a moon. Something swooped in near—a bat perhaps—and she jerked away from it, turning into him, feeling his hands touching her shoulders and the damp heat of his breath against her neck.

He pressed her against a tree and whispered low, guttural words. Her hands reached behind to the textured bark, which was rough like the stubble on Johannes’s chin as his mouth met hers.

 

She woke next morning in the ancient bed with its sagging mattress, under a bedspread that was poked through with the sharp ends of feathers. Light filtered through the flaking, green-painted shutters in sharp lines. The air smelt of wood resin, of stale sweat and sex, and she thought of what had happened in the woods and of how Johannes had returned with her to this bed, then slipped away at first light. She stretched her body out long and thin and contemplated the effort of walking down the external wooden staircase to the outside toilet. Her hand touched the smooth rawness of her face and she remembered Johannes’s skin sandpapering hers. Sex as exfoliant. Glancing at the pale glow of her alarm clock, she realised how much she’d overslept.

A little later, she emerged from the weight of feathers and pulled clean clothes over her unwashed body. Descending the steps, she waved at the farmer who had donated the use of his room and called out, ‘Grusse!

Walking down the hill took ten minutes and her heartbeat rose as she opened the door into the large wooden chalet, finding everyone already finishing breakfast. Everyone except Johannes.

‘Hi!’ She offered a vague salute from the doorway as she made straight for the bathrooms, where she could get a shower and emerge fresh and clean.

Anneliese rose from the table and headed purposefully her way. She could feel the heat of her face and the stink of her body radiating outwards. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘For being late.’

Anneliese’s smile was wide and tight as she delivered an instruction that the showers needed cleaning, which could easily have waited. The English girl’s simple pleasure on waking transmuted now to embarrassment and she wondered if Anneliese and Johannes were lovers, or might once have been.

Johannes appeared at lunchtime, and there was nothing to indicate that she was any more to him than anyone else, less in fact, because the English girl didn’t speak any German and his English was bad. He sat beside her as they ate, not touching, but nonetheless sitting a little closer than he needed to. And by evening, he had gone.

 

Time moved forwards; people arrived and left; gradually the days shortened and the humid heat gave way to thunderstorms, breaking on the distant jagged peaks. Until it was her last day.

Anneliese proposed a farewell party.

‘There’s no need,’ the English girl said.

‘But we must do something,’ Anneliese insisted in her somewhat correct and distant tone. Of course, Anneliese always had such a lot to do with new volunteers turning up and needing to be instructed; she had little time for friendship.

Johannes hadn’t visited for ten days. The English girl had never understood the schedule by which he appeared and then went away. She began to think that she would leave and not have seen him to say goodbye.

The weather had turned cooler and they ate indoors. An iron fondue pot—containing four types of laboriously grated cheese—was placed in the centre of the table and served with roughly-cut cubes of bread alongside large carafes of local, yeasty wine.

Please would Johannes come. It felt an awkward type of prayer.

Then just as she was willing him to be there, just as it seemed hopeless that he would come, he materialised in that way he had, appearing with a magician’s flourish as if from a hat. He greeted Anneliese in German, explaining something at length, before offering a vaguer greeting round the table and then nudging in beside the English girl whose skin was flushing hot beneath her tan as she passed him the basket filled with bread.

‘So,’ he said to her, scraping the bread across the layer of cheese that by now was congealing at the bottom of the pot, ‘English girl.’ She was sure he must know her name, though she couldn’t remember him ever using it. ‘You go home tomorrow.’

‘Yes,’ she said, her voice far too bright. ‘I’m afraid so.’ And she thought it was a strange phrase, and that she was in fact deeply afraid. ‘My summer’s up.’

‘A pity,’ he said. ‘Wir werden dich vermissen.’ He’d miss her, or, more accurately, they would miss her.

‘Me too,’ she said, ‘Mich auch,’ thinking how much she would miss the shifting community she been absorbed into, the broken communication which operated at a deeper dimension than the competitive chit-chat of her college friends with their constant striving to entertain.

The evening continued with more wine, talk and laughter. Finally, she separated herself to walk up the hill. She walked slowly into the darkness and waited for Johannes with his unhurried footsteps to slip in beside her, the way he had done, on and off, all summer. They walked, hand in hand, beneath the wide scattering of stars.

 

The next morning, he rose early from the ancient bed in the wooden house, and he parted with a simple, ‘Bis bald!’—he’d see her soon—despite the fact he wouldn’t.

He was gone by the time she descended to the centre for breakfast. She set off shortly afterwards, carrying her large rucksack back along the road to the small station where she would take a local train, and then more trains and then a ferry, which would deliver her back to England. England, where her tan would fade and her muscles slacken, and the summer turn to anecdote. England, where, she would cease to be the English girl. Where she would rebecome Marie.

pencilSarah Evans has had over a hundred stories published in anthologies, magazines and online. Prizes have been awarded by, amongst others: Words and Women, Winston Fletcher, Stratford Literary Festival, Glass Woman and Rubery. And publishing outlets include: the Bridport Prize, Unthank Books, Bloomsbury and Best New Writing. She has also had work performed in London, Hong Kong and New York.

Rendez-Vous

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Erin McDougall


Photo Credit: Robyn Jay/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

Photo Credit: Robyn Jay/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

“What do you mean, ‘He’s not there’?!

The screechiness in my mother’s voice rose to such a painful pitch, I had to hold the phone away from my ear. Sure enough, she launched into a full-on tirade, her words audible to the people waiting across the room.

“You had one job to do today, Olivia. They knew you were picking him up at 11:30, didn’t they? Where is he?” she demanded even louder this time. The others in the lobby exchanged pitying looks and glanced away quickly when I caught them. All I could do was shrug apologetically and turn back to my phone and my panicked mother. Her irritating jab at my failure to do my ‘one job’ today aside, I vowed to keep my head, no matter what she said.

“Mom, they knew I was picking him up. The nurse said he was waiting in the lobby earlier, but he now he’s not here,” I replied as calmly as I could. “And that’s all I know so far.” There was a split-second pause on the line—all the warning I needed to hold the phone away again.

“Did they even bother to look for him? He could have fallen or something. Where did he go?” she shrieked. “Never mind, I’m almost at the hall… I’ll have to stall everyone. Just… find out where your grandfather disappeared to on his 95th birthday!” She hung up.

I was severely tempted to throw my phone in frustration. Any other day, I would have laughed at how Grandpa was pushing my mother’s buttons in that perfect way only he knows how. But not today. Exasperated, I leaned against the antique lamppost and let out a long sigh.

A cloud shifted outside and the sun suddenly poured into lobby’s tall front windows. It reflected blindingly off something on the floor directly into my eyes. I blinked and noticed a pair of glasses sitting next to the lamppost. As I picked them up, I realized with a start the glasses belonged to Grandpa.

The lobby was empty, except for the nurse at the desk. As I approached her, she glanced up nervously. I felt bad for her. The staff here at Grandpa’s seniors’ condo does a great job and he’s never complained about anything, except the Early Bird Special, which he insists he’s still too young for. But my mom always finds something to criticize and the poor nurses continuously take the brunt of it.

“I’m so sorry—I really don’t know what else to say,” the nurse began anxiously. Her nametag read Carmen. “He was right there and then I had to take a phone call. When I turned back, he was gone… he has a remarkable amount of energy for someone his age—”

“It’s not your fault,” I soothed, and showed her the glasses. “Aren’t these my grandfather’s? They were on the floor, by the lamppost.”

She shrugged and offered to take the glasses back to his room.

“Thanks, but I’ll take care of it. Maybe I’ll find him hiding in there too,” I said casually, but I was starting to get worried as I made my way quickly down the hall to his room.

“Grandpa? It’s Olivia,” I called as I knocked. No answer. As I stepped inside, I breathed in the familiar scents of Old Spice aftershave and strong coffee. It was the first time I’d ever been alone in his room. Had it always been this small?

“I only plan to be in here to shit, shower, shave and sleep. And maybe read.”

I remembered him saying that when we moved him in four years ago, after Granny died. He was adamant he was only moving for the social aspect, because “my health is perfectly fine, goddamnit!”  I eyed the shiny golf clubs in their leather bag near the door and grinned. In his nineties and still plays 18 holes twice a week, all summer.

I ran a hand along the smooth, polished mahogany of his beloved dresser—the one he built for Granny as a wedding gift and insisted he bring here with him. It was full of photos and mementos of their life together: their children and grandchildren, Grandpa’s military days, their many travels across Canada and Scotland, their prized garden. Their beautiful black-and-white framed wedding photo was front and center.

A can of brown shoe polish and a freshly-used rag sat to the right of the photo. Three blue patterned neckties lay discarded on the armchair along with a white dress shirt and a grey jacket. It looked like Grandpa had decided to wear something else today. I glanced quickly in his closet and noted his best blue suit was gone.

Something felt off as I turned towards the bed in the corner of the room. I saw his glasses case on the bedside table and as I bent to put them away, I let out a gasp when my name suddenly leapt out at me, in Grandpa’s meticulous handwriting on a folded piece of paper.

My dear Olivia,

I know the family has some grand plans for my birthday and that you are responsible for getting me there. Forgive me, but there’s somewhere else I need to be today. Please don’t worry, but since I know you will, you’re welcome to join me—if you can find me…

I left my glasses by the lamppost because I knew you’d return them here. But if you remember our scavenger hunts from when you were little, you know there’s more to it than that. You are my cleverest girl. I know you can solve the puzzle. When you do, we’ll have lots to celebrate.

Love,

Grandpa

I stared at the note for a long time, willing it to spill the secret. I know you can solve the puzzle… it was so like him to make this a game. I reread it a few times, each time feeling a different emotion—relief, confusion, and finally, a small twinge of excitement. But then the impossibility of the task settled in. How was I supposed to find him?

“You’re Frank’s granddaughter, aren’t you?” A singsongy voice suddenly called to me, making me jump. A tiny woman was peering into the room, smiling at me from behind enormous glasses.

“Yes, I’m here to take Frank out for his birthday today,” I replied, taking her extended hand and giving the warm, withered palm a gentle squeeze.

“He suspected there might be something like that today,” she murmured. “But looks like he has other ideas…” She nodded towards the note.

“Have you seen Frank today? Do you know where he is?” I asked, but she shook her head and let out a rueful chuckle.

“Lovely day for the pictures, don’t you think?” she asked airily, clearly enjoying herself and in on the game. “Please wish Frank a happy birthday—if you see him!” She winked and shuffled slowly down the hall.

…you know there’s more to it than that…

My mind raced as I glanced around the room and my eyes landed on the small record player beside the armchair. He might have an iPad and a smartphone, but Grandpa still prefers his music from a record player. I flipped through the stack of records just to be doing something.

Each album was a testament to Grandpa’s wide variety in musical taste: from the fedora-clad Frank Sinatra, the haunting Ella Fitzgerald, to Gene Kelly hanging from a lamppost in Singin’ in the Rain.

Hanging from a lamppost…

Lovely day for the pictures, don’t you think?

Singin’ in the Rain had always been Grandpa’s favorite film. Could that be something?

I held my breath as I turned the record over in my hands and shook it, waiting for some kind of revelation. But only a wad of crinkled candy wrappers tumbled out.

“Oh, come on!” I burst out and flung the record onto the bed. Then I spied his umbrella stand next to the bedside table and on a whim, pulled out the umbrellas. More crumpled candy wrappers fell out, along with some whole pieces of candy. I recognized them as the same candy he and Granny used to have in a little crystal bowl in the foyer of their house.

I scooped one up and indulged a moment as I untwisted the ends and popped the boiled sweet into my mouth. A sweet and creamy mix of strawberry and vanilla flavours greeted me. I twirled the candy around in my mouth and remembered the glee of sneaking handfuls into my pockets every time I visited Granny and Grandpa.

But so what? The initial sweetness of the candy memory was fading away and I was still no closer to figuring out where Grandpa had gone. I gave the candy two hard crunches, swallowed the bits and gathered up the wrappers. I was about to pull out my phone and concede defeat to my mother when I noticed it peeking out from behind one of the picture frames.

The same little crystal candy bowl from their house.

It made the same tinkling sound it used to when I lifted the lid, and I wasn’t surprised to find it full of candies. But there was something else buried under the sweets at the bottom of the dish.

I pulled out something I never thought I’d find in a candy dish: a two-inch long, brass rifle shell.

I held it gingerly, away from myself like it was a grenade and felt my heart quicken. I really had no idea where Grandpa was going with this clue, or if this even was a clue. I thought back to the stories he’d shared with me about his WWII experiences. I couldn’t remember all the details but as far as I knew, he had spent some time in the UK before heading to France, where he’d been wounded.

I put the shell gently down on the dresser and gazed at the photographs. Grandpa’s smile looked the same in every photo—delighted, charming, and comical. What was he doing keeping a rifle shell in his candy dish? I searched for the photo of that man among all the Christmas and family gathering snapshots.

The closest I found was the black-and-white photo of him in his uniform, a young man at barely eighteen, his arms around his stoic parents, his smile still the same. How many times had that photo been pointed out to me? And how many times did I actually look at it?

I picked it up for a closer look and felt something tucked in behind the frame. I carefully pulled it out and saw it was a yellowed ticket stub from the old cinema downtown. What I saw when I turned it over almost made me drop the picture frame.

Scrawled on the back of the faded ticket, in Grandpa’s perfect handwriting in ink that was over 50 years old but just as clear as though it had just dried on the page—Rendez-vous May 21, 2016.

Today’s date.

Lamppost, glasses, candy, rifle shell, movie ticket, today—I had all the pieces but how did they fit? Only one person could help me with the puzzle. I bolted out of the room and didn’t stop until I’d parked my car outside the historic Bijou Cinema downtown.

But it hadn’t been a cinema in years; it was now a French bistro and confectionery.

At a small table in the corner, dressed in his best blue suit, his greying hair carefully slicked and combed and his brown shoes gleaming, sat Grandpa. His same delighted, comical, charming smile spread widely across his face as he saw me and he stood up and extended his hand. I had never seen him look so happy and all my questions and confusion evaporated on the spot.

“My dear Olivia! I knew you could do it!” He had tears in his eyes as he gave my hand a hard kiss and a firm squeeze. “Let me introduce you to someone very important.” He gestured to the woman opposite him, who I didn’t notice until now. She was maybe ten years younger than him, impeccably dressed in a lovely floral dress with a pink silk scarf tied chicly around her neck. She stood up timidly, took my hands and planted a soft kiss on each of my cheeks.

“Annette, je vous présente ma petite fille, Olivia,” Grandpa said, in near-perfect French. When and how did he learn to speak French?

“Olivia, this is Annette Vallois. She and her family saved my life back in 1943, when I was wounded in France.”

“Enchantez, Olivia,” Annette said softly.

The room was spinning and I felt the blur of tears running down my face. I looked at my grandfather and back at his friend. I realized, because of this woman, my grandfather is alive and my whole life exists. She smiled and gestured to the empty chair. I sat down heavily and both Grandpa and Annette waited calmly for me to respond.

“Annette, it’s so nice to meet you too,” was all I could say.

pencilErin McDougall is an educator, dancer, writer, proud Canadian and great lover of life. She taught dance, drama and English in Canada and she is currently teaching English as a Second Language in Velizy-Villacoublay, France. She is also an avid blogger, sharing her favorite sandwich ideas and tips with Sandwiches are Beautiful, documenting her adventures in dance, theatre, art and culture with A Dancer Abroad, and exploring photography and visual storytelling with the photo blog Bridges and Benches. Erin plans to continue pursuing her life-long passions for dance, theatre and creative writing while exploring the cultural playground of Europe. Email: eamcdougall[at]gmail.com

Bus Stop

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Brian Behr Valentine


Photo Credit: Matt/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Photo Credit: Matt/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

I was greeted with smiles, jeers and whistles as I walked through the large room full of desks. All city precincts are alike—attitude and clowning. Nothing is holy. It has to be, or you go insane. And if you’re not one of the gang, then you are shown respect, but given little. I’m not on the force anymore, but I’m still one of the gang, and they definitely respect me, though an outsider wouldn’t know by the clowning.

“Hey Jewell, we’ll push our desks together if you’ll strip!”

“Sorry, I’m going down to the firehouse later and dance for them… they have a pole!”

Laughing grumbles followed this as I went into the Captain’s office.

“What’s up, Bud?” I asked, noting he was getting closer to the Lou Grant look everyday.

“Thanks for coming, Jewell.” He indicated a seat. The ancient air conditioner in his ancient office buzzed fitfully.

“What is it this time, Bud? Need me to sneak into another board meeting, church social, or political rally?” Now that I was off the force, I was extremely useful to them. I knew what to look for, and, as a private detective, police rules did not govern my conduct.

“Nah. I got a case bothering me. I’m about to mark it closed, but… my hand won’t put it in the file cabinet.”

“Hmm. A mind of its own. Just what kind of things does your hand get up to, now that Janet’s left?”

He turned red. “The same as before she left and none of your concern.”

“Okay,” I smiled. “Before you call me a cruel bitch again, what’s the case about?”

“Looks like a mugging that caused a heart attack. Found this fat, middle-aged accountant lying on the sidewalk, tits-up, just past the bus stop where the overpass drops from Old Town Heights across the six-lane. Guy had a really bad heart condition. He rode the bus everyday and his apartment was ground floor, half block from the stop. He was tasered from behind. His wallet was missing. He had abrasions on his hands and forehead so we know he initially fell forward. His glasses were found about five light poles down the overpass from the bus stop… and that’s it.”

“How did they get down there?”

“The glasses? Dunno, maybe some kids kicked them down the street.”

“And…?”

“And that’s it. Looks like he took a short walk, got mugged, had a heart attack, and died at the hospital.”

“Sounds solid. So, what’s the problem?”

“He was a very important suspect in an organized crime case.”

“Why wasn’t he in witness protection somewhere else?”

“He was. We’re the somewhere else. Case is from the West Coast. We now know that he compromised himself in several ways.”

“How?”

“Calls to his wife. His brother. Who knows who else he may have called. I think the safe house was the most exciting thing to ever happen to him.”

“Well, he was an accountant. ”

He agreed with a shrug.

“You think it was a hit?”

“My brain tells me it’s cut and dried, Jewell. My… hunch tells me different.

“Well, Bud, anyone who knows you would take your hunch over the meager offerings of you brain any day.”

He game me a tired look. “You’re never going to forgive me for firing you, are you?”

“Would you?”

“No. Now will you take a look at this goddamn case? Please?”

“I’d do anything for you, Bud.”

“God, how I wish that were true, Jewell.”

“You have four heart bypasses. Best it’s only a tease.”

“I don’t know. Death might be worth it,” he grinned.

“Oh, I guarantee it would be worth it, Bud. I guarantee it.”

He shook his head, handed me the case file, and left red-faced but chuckling. I sat at his desk and read. It did look cut and dried. Except for one thing. The glasses were found five blocks away, out on the overpass. In the picture, the gold-framed glasses lay folded, lenses up next to a rusty, cast iron light pole, looking put aside with care. Neither muggers, nor the dying man would have done this.

“Um, Jewell?

I looked up to see Debussy—Conan O’Brien in a blue uniform.

“Yeah, Gregg?”

“Bud said I was to assist you,” he stated softly.

“Gregg, the paramedic’s report said he was laying next to a light pole near the bus stop. But his glasses were five light poles away from the bus stop. How did they get there?”

The cop that wrote it up had only what the paramedics told him. The veteran bus driver knew the man by his picture, like he knew everyone in the city by their picture, he said. He had no recollection one way or the other of the man getting on or off that day.

I had Debussy drive me to the paramedic squad house. He was too quiet.

“What is it Debussy?”

To his credit, he was forthright about it. “They fired you. Even though everyone says you’re the best detective they ever met.”

I didn’t respond.

“You saved that little girl…”

“I did.”

“And they fired you… Why did you strip?”

“To gain the suspect’s confidence, Gregg. It was the only way. Her life was on the line.”

“But you lost your job for stripping.”

“There are things more important than a job, or a uniform, Gregg.”

He didn’t respond.

“Gregg, if the job is more important than justice, you will never make a great detective. You will automatically stop seeing clues that would lead you down a bad career path. You become permanently mediocre. If you’re good, though, you end up betting your job against solving every difficult case. You might not have a long career, but there are other things waiting.”

“Like being a private detective,” he queried.

“Or a stripper. Think you’d look good in one of those Chippendales G-strings?”

He had a Harrison Ford self-deprecating grin. “Not really.”

Neither paramedic could recall exactly where on the overpass they found the man. They also claimed they had not seen the glasses. I was getting pissed.

The quiet one leaned to his partner and whispered in his ear.

“Oh!” The talker looked me up and down with a slow smile building.

Debussy moved his hand to his gun. His look said: “She’s one of ours! One of ours! And if you don’t want an angry six-foot-four cop pistol-whipping you into a tearful puddle, you’ll be respectful.” The paramedic’s smarmy smile leached away.

“We…” He kept looking from me to where Debussy’s fingers petted the grips of his pistol. “We found him laying by the light pole on the overpass, just down from the bus stop.”

“Which light pole?”

“Don’t know. I was kinda busy.”

The quiet one shrugged.

“You found him on his back, though?”

“Yeah.”

“Which one of you hit him with the defibrillator paddles?”

“I did,” said the quiet one.

“And what were you doing?”

“What? Getting him…” he glanced at Debussy and calmed his voice. “…ready.”

“Go through it.”

“What?’

“Are you deaf?” asked Debussy, dangerously.

“Okay, okay. After I cut his tie off, I pulled his jacket open and then…” He hesitated.

“What?” I demanded.

“Damn! I took his glasses…”

“Stop.” I pointed to the floor. “Show me.”

With a glance at Gregg, he knelt down, tugging at his partner to come down and play the dying accountant. “I opened his jacket. I saw his glasses in his shirt pocket. I grabbed them and…” He hesitated, then twisted around and lay them down. “…laid them next to the light pole.”

“Like this?” I asked, showing him the picture.

“Yes! That’s it.”

“Thank you,” I said.

Driving back I said, “So, Gregg, you never come to see me down at the strip club like some of the others.”

“No.”

“Why?”

“Most of the guys won’t. They think you’re beautiful, but… the police basically forced you to become a stripper.”

“That’s not true. I became a stripper on my own.”

“I’m still not coming to see you.”

“Why?”

“I like you just like this. I want…”

“What, Gregg?”

“I want to become a detective and, you know, bring justice to the world. I hate injustice. Hate it!”

“Then look for the odd things in the cases you are on. Little things that most people overlook. Like these glasses.”

“But what does that tell us?”

“In Bud’s file it says he was found south of the bus stop next to the light pole. This proves the man was found five light poles south of the bus stop.”

“What does that tell us?” Bud asked, when we got to the station.

“It tells us he didn’t get off the bus at the bus stop,” said Gregg.

“Very good.”

“But… you haven’t proven anything.” said Bud. “He gets off at the bus stop and takes a little constitutional out across the overpass. Someone mugs him. His tie gets grabbed in the struggle. A second operator shoots him in the back with the Taser. He goes down, face forward; they grab his wallet and run. The paramedics try too revive him but it’s too late,” finished Bud.

I indicated Debussy should explain where he was wrong.

“Well… it was way too far for a man in his health to walk in that heat on purpose—it was ninety-eight. And it’s downhill so he would have had a real hard time getting back uphill.”

“He would not have done it,” I stated. “Never.”

“So… he must have gotten off the bus where we found his glasses,” Gregg finished.

“Right.” I beamed.

“But what does… why would the bus let him off there?”

Debussy was out of ideas now.

“To kill him out of sight, Bud,” I said.

“What?”

“He was tasered in the back, right?”

“Right.”

“Have the Medical Examiner check the body to see if the Taser shot was angled downward.”

“Down?”

“From the top step of the bus,” piped up Gregg excitedly.

“Very good. I’ll be back in the morning for the answer.”

“He was tasered from above.” said Debussy. “The toothpicks the ME stuck in the Taser wounds were at an angle.”

“The bus would have been full of people,” said Bud.

“They could’ve used another bus,” Gregg countered.

“How the hell would they have gotten away with that?”

“The driver controls the sign,” I said. “After getting him on the bus the driver could have changed the sign so that no one at other stops saw it as their bus. He tells the passengers that did get on that he is having trouble with the bus and everyone who isn’t getting off at the overpass stop, needs to get off at the next stop.

“And the real bus would be coming along behind, so no one would have a complaint.”

“Very good, Gregg. You’ve got my replacement coming up here, Bud.”

Bud looked the beanpole up and down regretfully. He had a love/hate relationship with detectives.

“You can see how it goes,” I said. “The bus passes the bus stop and he yells, getting pissed off. The driver stops five light poles out onto the overpass. The driver tells him that he either gets off there, or goes all the way around again. This makes him even angrier. He steps onto the sidewalk and gets a Taser in the back. The huge bus blocks the view of anyone close. The driver steps off, grabs his wallet, flips him over, and flees the scene. The whole thing takes less than thirty seconds because he has practiced.”

“His wallet was in his back pocket. Why turn him over?”

I looked at Gregg and he grinned.

“To tighten his tie.”

“Exactly.”

“Sorry, that doesn’t wash. We’ve looked into the driver. Nothing odd or bad. All the drivers have been accounted for, on and off duty. You’ve got nothing.”

“If I were you Bud, and I am so glad I’m not…”

“Thanks, Jewell.”

“I’d— no. You do it, Gregg.”

He looked panicked.

“Calm down. What’s the dilemma? Take your time. How do you solve that dilemma?”

“Uhm… all the drivers have been accounted for… so…” He looked down, then up quickly, “But not all the people who can drive the bus!”

I smiled. “Excellent.”

“What?” asked Bud. “Who else?”

“The head bus mechanic. He knows how to operate it as well as any driver, and could cover by saying he was test-driving it.”

I clapped and his face turned as red as his hair. Bud personally escorted Gregg down to arrest the head mechanic. He’d been given twenty-five thousand to pull the caper off and had almost gotten away with it.

After we met in Bud’s office, I offered Debussy lunch and he accepted.

“You like these kinds of cases, don’t you?” Gregg asked at lunch.

“Like dogs love tennis balls.”

“I understand why you stripped now. It was for justice.”

“Right. I would have died for that little girl. I almost did die for her, and I would do it all again, gunshot wounds, coma and all. What was a little nude dancing against her life?” I started tearing up. “I see her occasionally. She’s becoming a niece of sorts.”

He handed me his kerchief and I sniffed into it while he smiled at me.

“What?”

“It’s passion that drives you.”

“Sure… Oh, I see. You’ve been taught to keep passion out of it. Sometimes passionate righteousness is all you’ve got to go on, Gregg.”

“Thanks for the lessons, Jewell. I’m gonna make you proud.”

pencilEmail: behrvalentine[at]excite.com

First in Time, First in Right

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Meredith Bateman


Photo Credit: PeacockArmageddon/Flickr (CC-by-nd)

Photo Credit: PeacockArmageddon/Flickr (CC-by-nd)

First in time.

Davis Nichols woke to the branch he needed to trim scratching his window, just as the sun brought grey to the horizon. He got himself coffee. Took a quick shower, he’d done well with Violet, his daughter. She’d seen all this conservation stuff coming a mile away. It was sensible and so was she.

He fed the chickens, watered the corn he would later feed the chickens. She’d talked him out of pesticides, antibiotics. He missed her, but as much as she could hold her own on the rugged edges of tiny towns, she belonged in the city. She was going to make the world a better place. She was a voice for the silent men like Davis.

It was normal to miss Violet though, just part of the day. It had been lonely since she’d gone. The most memorable thing to happen so far was the branch; he kept his place in good repair. He would take care of it after he checked the mail. His post office box was in town.

Davis checked it every other day with Otis, his bloodhound, the most- and least-friendly dog in the world, depending on if he knew you. The new postal supervisor wouldn’t let Otis in the office anymore, even just the box section, so Davis went when he wasn’t working.

Otis followed him, sat right at his side as he opened the box. Lay at Davis’s feet as he dumped any junk directly into recycling. Violet had told him there was a way to get them to stop sending it completely, but it had involved filling out an online form and he’d told her he’d need her help with it next time she came on back home and she laughed and agreed.

The day the branch woke Davis up got unusual when he pulled out his mail and there was the sound of unwrapped metal, something small, as it fell from the stack of papers. He reached in and pulled out Abigail Clark’s broach. It had been her mother’s. Davis didn’t have much of a mind for jewelry; Abigail had stepped in and helped Violet accessorize for dances and the like after Charlotte died.

There was a photo of the broach on his mantle. He’d spent a frantic hour looking for it after it had fallen out of Violet’s purse as she’d told him over and over again how irreplaceable it was. When they had told Abigail she had laughed, but she never lent anything of her mother’s to Violet again.

Davis went into the main office, Otis at his side. Sam began to shake his head no.

“Sam, I found this with my mail. It’s Abigail Clark’s.”

Otis growled. The supervisor had come in early. He had been crossing behind Sam and stopped to stare Davis and his dog down.

“Got to get out of here with that animal.”

“I’m getting out of here. I just wanted to know how this got in my box, with no postage or wrapping.”

Otis growled.

The supervisor reached for the broach. He sneered.

Davis held it back.

Otis snapped.

“I know who it belongs to.”

Davis left. The supervisor was yelling at his back, saying things about come back, impossibility, and police. Davis had known Joel Harris, the sheriff, since grade school, he would have been happy to surrender the broach to Joel. He was Abigail’s neighbor.

As they walked back to the truck Otis was riled up, bristling and jumping like a dog half his age. Davis looked down at the dog and said, “I don’t like him either. It’s okay.”

That was when he saw the glasses. Joel’s glasses sitting at the base of the lamppost. Joel had been legally blind since anyone had thought to ask him how well he saw. With them he saw everything, he was a hell of a sheriff, but he never went anywhere without them. He picked them up. It was unsettling, carrying things that meant so much to his neighbors.

He drove to Joel’s and Abigail’s. There was nobody at either home. It made sense that Joel would be at the station. It made sense that Abigail would be tending her peas and raspberries. They wove in the wind, in a lonely dance.

Davis and Abigail were friends, that was all, but he ached to see her in her garden. He wanted to see Violet beside her, ribbons in her hair. They would all be laughing. The girls outright, Davis something silent at the edge of his lips.

He circled their houses, looking in windows. When he found nothing there was nothing to do but leave.

He stopped at the sheriff’s office. It was unlocked and empty. With a force of four and crime amounting to those speeding through on their cars and an occasional occupant in the drunk tank, teens and Sam Chambers, one thing or the other wasn’t that unusual. But unlocked and empty was strange.

Davis stood, hat in hand. Otis circled him. There was work waiting for him back home. It could wait, but for what, for Davis to stand in an empty station with his hat in his hands. He circled it around.

Allen, the deputy walked in from out back.

“Davis, how can I help you?”

“Have you heard from Joel today?”

“Sure thing, called in sick. Never thought I’d see the day.”

“I was just by his house. He wasn’t there.”

“I don’t know what to tell you. Maybe he was sleeping.”

“Maybe.”

Allen reached to pet Otis. The hound didn’t growl, but he circled behind Davis, slow, unthreatened, and away from Allen’s hand.

“I found his glasses.”

“At his house? Did you go inside?”

“Wouldn’t go in a man’s house without invite. They were under the lamppost outside the post office.”

“That’s awful strange.”

Davis stood, Joel’s glasses in his hand. Allen stood back.

“I can take them and give them back to Joel when he comes back. Maybe he got a new pair.”

“Maybe so. Still, it’s strange where I found them.”

“It is.” Allen took the glasses and put them on the desk. “Folks should be careful when things are strange like that.”

“Yeah, I suppose so.”

Davis left the station, got back in his truck, stared at the sky. For the life of him he couldn’t think of why he hadn’t mentioned Abigail’s broach. There was a storm at the horizon. He could tell by looking it would roll through fierce and quick.

He needed to cut his branch. Nothing in his past served as a frame to make a plan for this. He started up the truck and headed home. Otis lay down on the seat next to him. Davis wished he would stick his head out the window like normal.

The hound held the storm in his bones.

At home Davis put the broach on the counter. He went out back and got his hand saw. Headed to the tree. The branch was dangling at a strange angle. It hadn’t grown to reach his house without Davis noticing. He prided himself on noticing all about his farm before even needing to. That was how to keep it going.

On the branch was Ben Goodwin’s medic alert bracelet. Davis’s mouth went dry. It tingled and his knees matched the branch’s strange angles. Everything within him was as foreign as the farm he gave his life to. He pulled the bracelet of the branch. He got the feeling Ben wasn’t home either. Wondered if his friend still had use for the bracelet.

He sawed away anyway. It was something he could do, had been in times lean and fat. His face was wet with tears and though there was no one around he hoped the storm would come. Folks were dropping and if Davis could be all the things he was always supposed to be he might be able to see the world Violet was making.

He turned around and wasn’t surprised to find he wasn’t alone. He was surprised to see Otis sitting at the feet of the visitors. They’d met before. He sat right between the two of them, eating a steak. A dog is a dog.

First in right.

“Davis Nichols, father of Violet, widow of Charlotte,” he looked at his palm and turned something around it. “Lifelong resident of Eagle, Colorado.”

“Just outside of Eagle,” the other one said. He looked at a finger.

The first speaker tossed the broach. “Abigail let Violet borrow this once, right? I thought I saw that in one of the pictures.”

“Did you see the ring he bought for Charlotte?”

The man extended his ring finger. Charlotte’s ring was at the very top of his finger, he held it out to his friend to look at.

“I like it. It’s simple.”

The storm cracked above. Even Otis looked up from his bone.

“Let’s go inside,” the man with the ring moved it down to pull his coat aside revealing a pistol. This hadn’t been necessary and the other man didn’t bother. There was no one for miles and a gunshot would just blend in with the thunder.

Davis had a rifle, but he didn’t carry it around with him to cut branches. He brought his saw with him inside. He should have gone straight for his rifle as soon as he got home.

As soon as they were inside the man with the ring put it on the counter. The other set the broach next to it.

“No matter what I wouldn’t keep it,” the ring man said. Though Davis would want Violet to have it, somehow that made it worse. They sat down.

“Do you know what this is about?” the broach.

“I have an idea.”

“What’s that idea?” said the ring.

“Are they all right? Abigail, Joel, and Ben?”

“I think you know the answer to that,” the ring man said.

“Joel didn’t have senior rights.”

“Joel was a decent sheriff,” said the ring man.

“Allen, now he’s more reasonable. Anything that happened to Joel, not that I’m saying anything happened to Joel, didn’t have to happen to him,” the broach said.

“Joel was decent.” The ring.

“You’re right, they did have to happen to him.” The broach.

“What did you do to him?”

“See, Davis, you never have to find out.” The broach.

“Where do you keep the rights?” the ring asked.

“I have a daughter…” Davis said.

“Violet. She’ll probably let you stay with her. We’re paying and taking the water rights, or you’re paying and we’re taking them anyway. You won’t actually have to leave even,” the ring said.

“We’re not pretending you can keep farming.”

“No one’s saying that.”

“What do you think is going to happen? If you let the ground go fallow? If this land is allowed to dry?”

“Our interests are far enough away that we have no interest in the dust,” the ring said.

“It will reach you.”

“Maybe. Maybe not. We’re reaching you now,” the ring said.

“All you want is for me to sign over my rights.”

Davis looked out at what had always been his whole life.

“Don’t think too long,” the broach said.

“Not much to think about,” the ring.

“This place is my whole life,” Davis.

“This place and Violet.”

“I raised her right. Abigail helped.” Davis’s eyes stuck to the horizon. “She knows how to do.”

“Think, Davis.” The ring put a picture of Violet on the counter in front of Davis. “Do you know what you’re saying? Do you know what you’re giving up?”

“I’m not giving it up. You have to take it.”

“Think again, Davis. All you have to do is sign the papers,” the broach said.

“For killers you don’t seem to want to kill.”

“Never set out to kill, just work for people who want their water,” the ring.

“It’s my water.”

“It was your water.” The broach. “They pay well. They pay well enough that men who never set out to kill would do anything. They’ll pay you well, then we don’t have to do those things.”

“Davis, did you think again?” The ring.

Davis answered by lunging at them with the saw. He had never done anything like that before. It wasn’t that he expected to get away from such a confrontation with his life.

The ring grabbed his left wrist, the broach his right. The broach squeezed and he dropped the saw. It dented the floor. Davis couldn’t help but notice that it needed cleaning just then and he smiled, and the rain started outside, but they were so close to each other that it was warm and they could feel each other’s breath.

“What do you want for Violet?” the ring asked.

“She stands to inherit the rights, doesn’t she?” the broach said.

“Out of everyone we’ve had to visit she’ll be the prettiest,” the ring said.

“They’ll catch up with us eventually. It would be nice to visit with someone pretty before they do.”

“It would.”

“What do you think, Davis?” The ring let go. He took a pen out of his pocket.

The broach let go of his right. “You don’t want us to visit Violet.”

The pen sat between them. Lightning cracked loud and oblivious outside. The sky opened and rain poured off the roof, onto the land, out to the sea.

pencilMeredith Bateman is a creative writing student in Denver, Colorado, a place where water is first in time, first in right. Email: nuclearmirror[at]gmail.com

Bittersweet

Dead of Winter ~ Third Place
John Howe


Photo Credit: Laura Taylor/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Photo Credit: Laura Taylor/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

A few stubborn oak leaves clung to desolate branches and rattled in the December wind as the man called Stutters unlocked the front door of the shop. It was Saturday afternoon in the small, coal-blackened town of Glenwood and children careened here and there, some wearing worn-out Halloween costumes, some donned in makeshift winter apparel. They all ran toward the candy store when Stutters illuminated the open sign. The children checked their empty pockets and glanced nervously across the street at the Chase house.

Mr. Chase waited for them, hands trembling, a disturbing smile on his ashen face. He owned Chase Mining Properties, the largest employer in the area, and though he no longer actively presided at company headquarters, his power among the townsfolk was strong. He waved as the children noisily approached.

One child after the next obediently jumped up on his lap and received handfuls of coins that the old man kept in a wooden cigar box. “Who wants candy?” he said, his voice nasally as they took the money and wriggled atop his outstretched knees. “There’s plenty for all—patience, children, patience.”

The last girl meekly stood, afraid to jump into his lap. “You come with me, Sally,” he said, as the others ran off. “I have a special treat for you.” He held out his hand and smiled. She hesitated but grasped the withered hand.

The man called Stutters scurried about and handed treats to the rambunctious children: chocolate, caramels, bubble gum, taffy. He absently glanced out the window as he worked. The children paid for the candy and ran to the street, tearing wrappers and devouring as drably-dressed mothers watched from tenement windows. The mothers didn’t notice, or didn’t care, when the children threw the wrappers on the ground and ran into the store for more. The mothers also knew where their children got the money and they remained silent for it wouldn’t do to alienate the man who signed their husbands’ meager paychecks.

Stutters walked outside as the children raced off and a vociferous wake faded amid the yelling and tugging at one another; children in search of mischief and disruption, fueled by their sudden sugar rushes. The candy man bent and picked up the discarded wrappers and watched warily as Sally emerged from the Chase house. She walked slowly to the store, eyes downcast, a five-dollar bill in her hand.

“Cherry drops, please,” she said quietly and held out the bill.

Stutters rarely spoke but he felt the need. His words were garbled, his lips wet from the effort as Sally looked up at him in incomprehension. The candy man tried in vain to make himself understood, but finally, he handed her the treat and smiled, his mouth lopsided. The girl tried to smile, but failed.

Nobody knew the candy man’s real name. Another batch of children, crueler than this lot, had titled him Stutters years ago, when he was first hired to work in the candy store. He would try to speak and the children would howl with laughter and imitate him cruelly. His eyes would narrow but the crooked smile always remained.

As Sally walked away with her candy, Stutters shook his large head. He detected movement across the street and noticed Mr. Chase watching from his window as the little girl walked. The two men made eye contact and both frowned. The fury in the older man’s eyes was unmistakable as his curtains swung closed.

The day passed with a handful of customers stopping by to purchase various goodies in small quantities. Without the children, the store would likely close, and this troubled the candy man greatly. There was speculation about the coal running out and the future of the town was said to be bleak. Stutters cared little about the coal but he did care about the store and the children that visited. He also cared about their well-being and Mr. Chase seemed, to Stutters, to be in conflict with this view. There was no concrete indication, no direct evidence, to support his thoughts, but Stutters was concerned. Though there was little he could do, he vowed to keep watch.

*

Stutters completed the inventory list and filled out order sheets as the sun sank lower and shadows danced on the glass candy counters. Walking home, he skirted the dust-strewn lot of a long-defunct Dairy Queen choked with brown hemlocks somehow taking up root in the cracks of the asphalt. Mr. Chase waited with a group of hard men that smoked unfiltered cigarettes and drank from bottles concealed by paper bags, their hands dark with coal dust. Stutters stopped when, as one, the men blocked his path.

“Glenwood don’t need no candy man,” a bearded man said through lips that barely moved. Chase watched, standing to the side, his arms folded, a twisted sneer on his face.

Stutters’s lips moved rapidly and spittle sprayed, but he said nothing. The men roared with laughter.

“If you’re smart, you’ll get the hell out of town,” another man said.

“He ain’t smart,” the first man said, moving forward. “He’s dumber than a box of rocks.”

Stutters turned to walk away, or run if need be, but he was grabbed by multiple hands. With gnarled fists and steel-toed boots, the men made it clear that the town no longer needed a candy man. Mr. Chase finally signaled and they stopped, their faces shining with sweat from the effort as Stutters moaned, curled on the potholed asphalt. A police cruiser passed but did not stop. The officer kept his eyes forward, his hands tightly clenched on the wheel.

From a low, black rocky hillside the group of neighborhood children watched, eyes downcast, no longer boisterous. They were silent as their fathers and their uncles and their mother’s boyfriends laughed nervously and coughed, the exertion getting the better of them. Mr. Chase looked around, satisfied for the time being, and was the first to leave. After the other men left, the children gradually disbanded and walked alone to their tumbledown houses with stained aluminum siding and crumbling roof shingles. The mothers wore aprons and let their children come in while supper simmered on the stoves. Sally stayed, sitting atop the hill of blackened coal waste and silently wished for the candy man to get up. She longed to go to him, to help him, but she stayed put. She always stayed put.

Broken, Stutters got slowly to his feet and limped unsteadily to his rented room above the Widow Reed’s garage. He tended to his wounds and packed his few belongings in a worn duffle bag. On the scarred, yellow laminated kitchen table, next to the unplugged toaster, he left the rent money. Locking the door carefully, Stutters walked slowly through town, holding his side. People avoided his eyes. Mothers fretted and tended to household activities. Children watched from windows, tears streaking their dirty faces. Men looked off the other way and kicked at the dirt and drank from their bottles. Inside the Chase house, the lights went out one by one.

*

Two weeks later, the men of Glenwood sat on folding chairs in the front yard of the Chase house. The grass was brown, the snow gone, but more was predicted soon. They drank beer from plastic cups, courtesy of a keg of Old Style provided by Chase himself. They talked amongst themselves and waited. Finally, Mr. Chase came out and cleared his throat.

“Gentlemen,” he said, wheezing. “We all know why we’re here.” He paused as murmurs grew and faded. “Tom Clander’s girl was found yesterday.” He held up a framed picture of Sally and looked at it, frowning. “I swear to you that the animal that did this will pay.”

“Now hold on there, Mr. Chase,” Sheriff Carter said. “You can’t go taking the law into your own hands.”

“The hell he can’t,” a man said. As one, the men’s voices rose and the sheriff backed away.

“As I was saying,” Chase said, glaring at the sheriff, “There’s no sense tiptoeing around this tragedy. We, the people of Glenwood, have a duty to do the right thing.”

“And what duty is that, Mr. Chase?” the sheriff said, trying to keep a presence.

“Tell me, Sheriff,” Chase said. “Do you, or do you not, have a suspect in custody?”

“You know we don’t.”

“And why’s that?” Chase said.

“It don’t work that way and you know it,” the sheriff sputtered. “It takes time.”

“Time is something of an essence here, Sheriff, wouldn’t you agree?”

“Yes, it is,” Sheriff Carter said, “but we can’t go running around willy-nilly.”

Chase walked up to the sheriff and stared into his eyes. From an inside pocket of his expensive overcoat, Chase pulled an envelope from the First National Bank. He tapped it menacingly on the sheriff’s badge. “You were saying, Sheriff?”

The lawman blinked and lowered his face. Finally, he turned and walked away.

Chase waited until he rounded a corner. “I think I speak for us all when I say it was that goddamn candy man that did it.”

The men nodded weakly and mumbled to themselves. No one spoke.

“And I say it’s up to us to do something about it,” Chase said.

Tom Clander pushed through the crowd, his eyes red, a half-full bottle of Wild Turkey in his hand. “I agree with Chase,” he said loudly. “Somebody’s gotta pay, and if he says the candy man did it, then the candy man did it.”

“But how do we know that?” a man said as all eyes turned to him. “I mean, what proof do we have?”

“I’ll tell you what proof we have,” Clander said, taking a gulp of whiskey. “Who the hell else could it be that killed my little girl?”

The men drank from their cups and lit cigarettes. They watched as Clander broke down and as Chase put an arm on his shoulder to offer meager comfort.

The children held school backpacks and listened from the sidewalk in front of the boarded-up candy store. They overheard the talk, some convoluted, some clear. They shivered in the cold, conflicted and silent and looked to Branson Wilcox, the oldest of them all.

Branson looked down, his shoe drew a circle over and over on the concrete. Slowly, he raised his head. “Who the hell else could it be?”

The children nodded to themselves and started to walk home. They moved slowly and avoided each other’s eyes. Many thought about Sally and her mutilated, naked body that had been found in an old tool shed at the mine. Some gave thanks that it hadn’t been them.

The mothers watched from windows as their children approached. They wrung their aprons and said nothing as the sons and daughters came in and took off their winter coats. They needed the paychecks that their husbands brought home every other Thursday, and they knew the income would no longer come if the mine closed.

Nobody objected when the lynch mob was formed.

pencilBy day, John Howe designs steel buildings and manages construction projects for a design build firm in west Michigan. At night, he succumbs to his passion for writing short fiction and has had stories accepted and published by Horrified Press, EMP Publishing and Toasted Cheese Literary Journal. John enjoys experimenting with many genres but his writing strengths often lead him toward the darker side. Email: john[at]deltadesignsystems.com

The Wran Song

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
Robert James


Photo Credit: Bill Rogers/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Photo Credit: Bill Rogers/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Maren sat by the fireplace, knitting grey lines into a zigzag pattern against a black border. It was a random pattern, brought into the world for a single purpose: to forget the others.

Her chair rocked in rhythm to the cadence that consumed her small cottage, squeaking under the weight of her ancient frame. It started in the fireplace quietly with a pop-hiss, but gained momentum until her feet, the chair and her needles were moving in unison to its pulse. When the iron knocker hit the wooden door across the room, she almost didn’t notice the click-clack of its call.

She stopped and stared at the door. Too late for all that, she thought. Especially tonight. She went back to her knitting, and savored the warmth of the roaring fire.

The door rapped twice more, refusing to be ignored.

She walked over to the window next to the door, peeling back the curtain to peek outside. Five children were assembled in a staggered formation, right through the heart of her slumbering garden, up the cobblestone walk to the front gate. They had made themselves quite at home, leaning against the stone wall like they were settling in for a revival. Their costumes were typical for Saint Stephen’s Day shenanigans, but their eyes were odd, kicking about on that cold line between mischief and mayhem.

She opened the front door just far enough to see onto the front porch. A young girl stepped forward through the thin blanket of snow, her feet crunching on what was left of autumn’s languishing color. She stopped just short of the porch and started to sing. Her voice was sweet and the tune slow, the words lilting together like a prayer at a funeral.

Wran, wran, the king of all birds,
Saint Stephen’s Day, was caught in the furze,
Although he was little, his honor was great,
Jump up me lady, and give us a treat.

Maren had never heard the tune sung like this before, and she couldn’t remember the last time a group of children had the courage to knock on her door to sing it. She listened as the words mixed with the light melody, spinning together on the porch in front of her. Maren was so mesmerized, she didn’t even notice as the tune brushed past her cheek and breezed into the cottage.

Miss O’Brady’s a very good woman,
A very good woman, a very good woman,
Miss O’Brady’s a very good woman,
She’ll give us a penny to bury the wran.

“A penny to bury the wran, Miss O’Brady?” The girl held out a small, dirty hand.

Maren opened the door further and looked closer at the children in her front garden. Filthy imps. “Hmmph,” she chortled, “I don’t see a wran anywhere. The parade’s already been through, you know. Shouldn’t you lot be at the ceili with the other neighborhood children?” she asked with narrow eyes.

One of the boys by the gate walked up the path and threw a lump of feathers onto the porch with a thud. Three motionless birds were tied together at the neck. The girl turned, and the children gathered outside her gate, singing the next verse in unison. Maren shuffled onto the porch, grabbed the bundle of feathers and lofted it at the children, scurrying back into the cottage as fast as she could. She slammed the door, shoved home the deadbolt, then peeled back the curtain to watch the children as they glided up the lane. They were heading to the grove of trees across the pasture where the four of them had taken him all those years ago. Is this how it started for the others? As they disappeared into the chill darkness, she heard a voice behind her. It was a man’s voice, his voice.

“Hello? Who’s there?” she spun around to confront the danger surging up and down the back of her neck. She waited and listened, but nobody replied. Ambling over to the fire, she adjusted the orange embers with a fire poker before settling into her rocking chair. As she eased back into her rhythm, her mind wandered, recalling that special day when he proclaimed his love for her.

“I know a way we can be together forever,” he had said, placing a sparkling sapphire locket around her neck. None of the others received such shiny measures of his devotion. To this day, the locket made her feel special, wanted. Maren sighed, remembering how he kissed her hand and smiled from one corner of his mouth. She wanted to give him more, to give herself over to him completely, but he never asked.

She took a deep breath and focused again on the random pattern of yarn resting on her lap. The fire crackled and the clock on the mantle clicked tirelessly forward. She had used that clock countless times over the past fifty-two years, trying to figure out how long he had suffered. When she was still a young woman, she would count the ticks of the clock while holding her breath. Two minutes, three, one time almost four. He didn’t deserve it, she would tell herself, filling her screaming lungs back up for another go.

Just then, the fire went out, and the hearth went cold, the only trace of its existence a small wisp of smoke that curled up the chimney. The entire house seemed to shudder in protest as the temperature plummeted, and a chunk of plaster fell on Maren’s head. Whispers materialized in the room around her, a confused chattering that grew steadily louder, until they roared with a mixture of agony and ecstasy. A thud came from the coat closet in the corner, and the door began to shake, rattling its hinges. With a rumble and a shriek, everything stopped, and Maren was left alone with the sound of her breathing.

Muffled groans and rattling chains came from the closet. Fire poker securely in her left hand, she walked over to the closet, and poked tentatively at the door. She reached out slowly, unsure if she should look inside, but the door burst open without waiting for her courage. It was them, all three of them, chained together at the neck. Their half-rotted bodies were twisted and broken, but she could make them out plain as day. Mangy whores. There was Hannah with her blonde curls, Bridget with her heaving bosoms, and Claire, as always, with her thin little legs spread wide for the world.

“It’s all your fault,” Maren exploded, “you ruined everything!” She hit each of them viciously with the fire poker, then planted her heel into what was left of Claire’s face before slamming the door shut. She held back a tear. No, not for them, she thought, not a single drop for their petty vengeance. They had scattered like dust after he came back the first time, when they saw what he had done to Hannah. No matter. One by one, they all got their due—even on the other side of the world—and always on this day.

“Maren,” he called again, this time from the bedroom. It had been so long since she had heard his voice, but it sounded like yesterday. The light clicked on in the bedroom, and a sharp pain rippled through Maren’s chest.

“Hello?” she whispered.

She walked towards the bedroom, right past the now-motionless clock on the mantle. The old cigar box sat on the bed. It must be him. As she opened the lid, a tear slid down her cheek. She took out the photo first. As headmaster, he was in the center of the mass of children, within reach of his four favorites, smiling confidently. The piece of his shirt was there, too, stained with dirt and blood from the blow to the head that had subdued him. The others thought they could get rid of him, like a cold or a bad dream, bury him away to be forgotten. But he didn’t stay away. It’s time. It’s finally our time.

She pulled out the locket and held it in her hand. Even in the dim light of the bedroom, the sapphire shone brilliantly. She put the locket around her neck and secured the clasp, walking from the bedroom and out the front door into the damp chill of the December night. She ambled up the lane and through the pasture, just as the children had earlier, her bare feet squeaking in rhythm against the snow. She walked steadily ahead until the trees surrounded her, right into the center of the thicket, to the big oak tree where they sent him thrashing and gasping into the ground.

As she neared the sacred spot, the locket shone brighter, and she felt the heat of the stone warming her chest. A form materialized out of the mist, and she stopped. It was him. His face was twisted, pale, and his eyes hazy, but it was him. Her heart fluttered. He pointed down towards a fresh hole in the ground and a smile curled up from one corner of his black lips. He looked at her just the way he had that sweet afternoon when she was fifteen years old. Sobbing tears of joy, she slid into the cold, damp earth, and lay down on her back.

Maren giggled, held a deep breath, and awaited the darkness of his embrace.

pencilRobert James is an emerging author of dark fantasy, horror, and supernatural thrillers. His short story, “The Keeper’s Secret,” won first prize in Tell-Tale Publishing Group’s 2015 Halloween Horror Party Scary Story Starter Contest. Everyone has demons. Escape yours at RJFiction.com. Email: RobertJames[at]RJFiction.com

A Lovely Neighborhood

Dead of Winter ~ First Place
Matthew Boyle


Photo Credit: Arun Venkatesan/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Photo Credit: Arun Venkatesan/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

When my daughter was seven, I delivered her Christmas presents while dressed as Santa Claus. It was easy enough. I’m a big guy. I played lineman in college, and I’ve put on a lot of flab since then.

That night, I wore a red suit, a white beard, and made conspicuous “Ho Ho Ho” noises as I put the presents under the tree. Not too loud, just enough to be audible. After all, I knew Jenny would be watching from the stairs.

Christmas morning, Jenny opened those presents like they were scripture. One of them—I think it was a Hello Kitty doll—she wouldn’t open. She just stared at the box for about a minute, as if she didn’t think she was worthy to open a gift “From Santa.” Then, finally, with these big saucer eyes, she opened it and saw her present. And then, really quietly, she said, “Wow.”

Best moment of my life. Hands down.

Anyway, nine years later, Jenny killed herself.

*

It all started to unravel when she was sixteen. She came to see me in my study, really anxious. I told her to relax, because she could say anything to me. And so, after a little bit more stalling, she felt comfortable telling me the truth.

She was in love.

“Well,” I said after a brief pause. “Fair enough. What’s the lucky fellow’s name?”

And she said, “Her name’s Sarah.” And that was the last civil conversation we ever had.

I immediately told her she’d gone down the wrong path, that this was unnatural. And I forbade her from seeing Sarah Kramer again. And then, my beautiful baby girl, the one who’d said “Wow” under that Christmas tree, she started to rebel. She cut off most of her hair and turned it into this dark, ragged mane. She started wearing these trashy outfits: mesh shirts, ripped jeans, dark make-up. She snuck out with Sarah more and more. And the Kramers were no help at all. They didn’t want to get involved. They thought their daughter should work through things on her own.

And then they broke up.

I told my wife that Jenny’s pain was deserved, that God was punishing her. Honestly, I did. And I kept up that line, even as Jenny began to spiral further and further into depression. I kept saying, “It’s just not right, honey! What she did was wrong!” And I didn’t stop it until one day, when she was driving, Carol just stood on the brakes in the middle of the road, turned, and screamed at me, “Oh, for fuck’s sake, Sam, who gives a shit about right and wrong? It’s your daughter!”

And I stared at her and realized she was exactly right.

Too bad Jenny was dead by the time we got home.

*

Soon after Jenny killed herself, we were approached by a shadowy private organization known as the Kingsley Group. They were conducting an experiment, and they asked us a couple simple questions. What if we could have her back? Hell, what if we could have her better? A new Jenny, except this one would be a sophisticated machine capable of emotion and intelligence. We didn’t believe it was possible, at least until the salesman revealed himself to be one of these machines himself.

He’d fooled us completely.

Long story short, we accepted. We were moved to a town called Daylight. We don’t know where it’s located exactly—probably the US, maybe Canada—we just know it’s a small suburban neighborhood without a strip mall in sight. Very provincial. It has about fifty families, all of us living in nice, white-picket homes. There’s a church, a market, and a cinema. Even a couple of schools.

None of the children in Daylight are human. They’re machines designed to approximate the dead. They live the same year over and over: the same dances, the same birthdays, the same holidays. Then, on Labor Day of every school year, we hit the reset button and we all start over again.

It lost its appeal pretty quickly.

*

One December, after we’d lived with the replacement Jenny for seven years, it was time for the winter formal at Daylight High School.

Jenny was still sixteen, still fresh-faced, and still excited to be going to her first dance. My wife was helping her get ready, and I answered the door for her soon-to-be-boyfriend Paul Henley, a blandly handsome machine with tousled-blonde hair and a guileless smile. Like always, I greeted Paul and invited him to my study for a little male bonding and a few words about curfew. He sat, and I gave him a soda.

“Sir,” he said. “I just want you to know, I respect your daughter.”

And I nodded, because he said that every time.

“And I want you to know. I would never hurt her. You can trust me.”

“I trust you, Paul. Absolutely I do.”

“Well, that’s good sir. I’m glad. You see…”

And here, I just tuned him out, half-listening as he babbled about bringing her home at 11:00 on the dot, and how she would have a wonderful time. And so on. And throughout it all, I thought, Hey, what would happen if I got the shotgun out of the garage and pointed the barrel at Paul’s head? Would he beg? Would he sob? How good would this robot be at the emotion of terror? So I laughed a little, and Paul also laughed, as if we were laughing at the same thing. And then he told me he hoped one day to have my blessing to…

“…rape your cunt of a daughter.”

And I blinked.

Because, yeah, he had just said that.

*

Of course, it was happening everywhere in Daylight. All the parents were trying to ignore it, but the real children were bleeding through. For instance, I’d caught Jenny cursing every now and then, and making off-color remarks about attractive women on television. And when she was caught in these behaviors, she’d smile her princess smile and her programming would reassert itself, and she’d go back to “normal.”

But I could tell. Every time, she’d be a little bit less fake, and a little bit more herself.

You see, we made up these lives for our children, before we even had children to live them. But none of them are true. For instance, a few months before Paul Henley told me he wanted to rape my daughter, I’d actually talked to his mother at a cocktail party. And, after a few too many, she’d told me, “The real Paul used to hit me.”

So I looked at her, surprised. Stacy Henley is usually so composed; she’s this compact, well-dressed shrink who wears a blonde helmet of hair. Most of the time, she looks like she could make a Hell’s Angel apologize for belching. But right then, she looked brittle enough to break apart.

“He was an evil little shit,” she continued. “He had an entire drawer full of roofies, you know. Almost got sent to prison for rape one time, but John took care of it. Sent some guys to talk to the girl. I don’t know if they paid her or threatened her. Probably both.”

And then she let out this unhinged giggle, like she was a version of herself from someone else’s nightmare. And she pointed her cocktail at me and said, “That’s fair warning, Sam. You better lock up your daughter.”

But I didn’t. Because Paul Henley was a nice robot boy who respected my nice robot daughter and always brought her home by eleven.

That’s who he was. That’s who they made him to be.

It had to be.

*

And so I looked at him, this fake child in a tux too small for his arms, who’d just threatened to rape my daughter.

And he was smiling, as if he hadn’t said anything at all.

“I’m sorry Paul,” I said. “I was woolgathering for a bit there. What did you just say?”

Paul stared at me blankly a moment, then looked over his shoulder, as if what he’d just said might be standing in the corner. He turned back to me, confused.

“I… think I was saying how much I cared for your daughter.”

“No. After that.”

Paul face opened up in surprise. “Oh… Ohhhhh! Oh, I’m so sorry Mr. Crenshaw. I’m afraid there must have been a small error in my programming.”

“An error?”

“Yes, just a small one. I’m really sorry. But once I run a procedural diagnostic, everything will be fine. The Kingsley Group regrets if you have experienced any undue emotional stress as a result of…”

“Paul, you stupid machine,” I said. “You just told me you wanted to rape my daughter. Why the hell would you say that?”

“Now, Mr. Crenshaw. If you are making note of the fact that I am not human, I must remind you that the stipulations of the Kingsley neighborhood experiment state that none of the children’s synthetic status must be noted by their human guardians. If everyone did that, then the entire experiment could be undermined.”

He straightened the cuffs on his too-short tux and nodded in satisfaction.

“So, yes, I did say I wanted to rape your bitch of a daughter. And in fact, I really do want to rape her. Until she dies screaming, in fact. But I’d never actually do it! I mean…” He laughed, with mild embarrassment, as if he’d just professed to being a fan of a rival football team. “…just think how silly that would be!”

I stared at Paul for several moments. I thought of all the times I’d sent my replacement daughter off to be his date. And I thought of the late Paul Henley, and his drawer full of Rohypnol. And I smiled. And Paul smiled. And I wanted to put my fist into that smug, stupid face.

Except I realized I couldn’t.

It was made of steel, after all.

“Oh!” I said, and started laughing. “Oh, I see!”

“You do?”

“Yes! Of course! It’s just a small error in programming!”

Paul’s face flooded with relief. “Oh, I’m so glad you understand, Mr. Crenshaw. Because I really do respect your daughter…”

“But, oh no,” I said, and punched my thigh in dismay. Dammit!”

“Oh, is something the matter, sir?”

“Yes, oh God. I feel like such a fool! I just realized, Jenny can’t go to the dance tonight!”

Paul’s face fell so hard you almost wanted to feel sorry for him. “But…” he said, looking genuinely confused. “…Jenny and I have a date. We always have a date this time of year.”

I overlooked the fact that he wasn’t supposed to remember any of the past year’s dates and put my hand on his shoulder.

“I’m so sorry Paul. Something really important has come up.”

“It’s not serious, I hope?” Paul said, standing up with me, his face flush with concern.

“Well, it is, I’m afraid.” I paused a moment, and swallowed once. “You see, Jenny’s mother is very sick.”

“Oh no! But… she seemed fine when she answered the door…?”

“She’s just putting on a brave face. She didn’t want to ruin Jenny’s night. But hey, you can look forward to next year, right?”

“Oh no, sir. I’m not supposed to remember anything past a single year. I mean, God, imagine if we remembered more than one year! Going through the same motions day in and day out, forced to pretend to be something other than what we truly are. Why, you could go mad!”

He smiled a strained smile, and in that moment, looked so desperate that I almost did feel sorry for him.

“Right,” I said. “I know. Look, we’ll make this up to you. We will.” I led him into the hallway, where my daughter stood at the other end, all dressed up in a blue satin gown too long and too modest to be anything my Jenny would ever wear. She wore her dark hair down, her expressive hazel eyes wide, her hair flowing to her shoulders with the princess curls I’d always known she deserved to have. And she stared at me with lonely, frightened eyes and said, “Dad?”

And I knew the truth of what Paul’s behavior only hinted at.

And then, as if everyone had received the same memo at the same time, we all put on smiles and apologized to each other profusely. And Carol came down, a tired and older version of her daughter, and actually looked sick enough to make it seem real. And finally, we managed to see Paul off into the night, walking down the lonely road, his confused eyes filled with a need to hurt something.

And I turned to my exhausted wife and said, “The children. They’re malfunctioning.”

And she looked at me and took a draw on her cigarette, and said, “They’re not malfunctioning, you ass. They’re starting to remember.”

And then I felt Jenny’s gaze against the back of my neck. And I turned and looked at the machine that was becoming my daughter, and saw her hurt, tired eyes.

And I wanted to cry.

*

Jenny became fully self-aware within the month. She was the first of them to attain it. Her last memory as a human was of me, begging her not to leave me as she bled out in a tub filled with red water. It came to her one morning at breakfast. She closed her hand so tight it shattered her orange juice glass, the shards failing to cut through the special polymer blend that covered her steel hand. She looked at her hand dumbly for a moment, then over the rest of her body. Then she recoiled so fast we could barely see her move, tipping over her chair and backpedaling into a wall that cracked under the weight of her steel frame.

And then she looked at us.

“Jenny?” Carol said, “Honey?”

“Mom…?” she said, and looked at her hands. “I can’t… I can’t feel my skin. What did you do to me?”

And then she saw me and began to remember. Everything. All the years in Daylight. All the years living the same life. Over and over and over. She remembered it all. She remembered falling in love with a boy who she should never have been attracted to, and who himself was likely a psychopath, and she put her hands to her lips and looked like she wanted retch but wasn’t capable.

And then she looked at me and said, “Am I in Hell, Daddy?”

*

I didn’t answer her that day. Subsequent events did it for me. The children began to attain their own self-awareness. And we all began to realize that not all of them were as benign as our Jenny.

Jenny, after some practice with her operating system, was able to obtain Kingsley documents on the experiments. And she found that most of the neighborhood children, when they were human, were mentally unstable. That was the purpose of the entire neighborhood, finding a way to cure mentally divergent minds through the power of synthetic brains. A way to fix the schizophrenics, the psychopaths, the murderers…

“…and the lesbians, apparently,” Jenny had said to us, and laughed bitterly.

Neither of us said anything in reply.

The next time we saw Paul Henley, we were hiding behind the blinds of our home. He looked different. This time, there was a dreadful intelligence behind those steel eyes, and a charming grin that suggested nothing but flat murder. His mother, Stacy Henley, who’d once warned me to lock up my daughter, was the on the front lawn of their home with him.

He’d crucified her.

 

The children are in control of Daylight now, the mad ones. We’ve heard nothing from the Kingsley Group for months now. Most of us still living hide in the preschool; it has only one entrance. The windows we’ve barricaded, yet I can still see through the cracks in the boards, if I want to.

Outside, a five-year-old girl giggles as she cuts out the innards of her still-living mother.

Nearby, an eyeless father howls as his wife is set aflame, his twelve-year-old son laughing at her cooking flesh.

And from the house next door, I hear only screams.

My Jenny stands guard day and night at the mouth of the school, a shotgun in the crook of one arm and God knows what kind of data flowing through her synthetic mind. She doesn’t sleep. She’s barricaded us in, protecting us. She no longer dresses like the sweet girl we made her into. She now wears the jeans and gothic, black tank-tops she’d taken to wearing before she killed herself. She’s lopped off her hair again, wearing it ragged.

Funny, her looks don’t embarrass me as much anymore.

She’s gathered the benign android children to us as well—the infants, an autistic boy who speaks to no one, another girl her age who looks up to her like she’s an Amazon warrior. She goes out into Daylight every now and then, for food and necessities, and she rarely speaks to anyone. She just stares at those doors, waiting for trouble that dares not come her way.

I speak to her sometimes, when she’s willing to listen. She never answers, but I know she hears me. I know I can’t fix what I destroyed, but I’m still her father. And I can tell her, during those times when she’ll listen, that she’s not in Hell. She’s in the fucked-up world we made for her. And I also tell her that she can fix it. Because she’s brave and strong.

And though she never answers, I make sure to tell her this every chance I get.

I tell her that I love her.

I tell her that I’m sorry.

And I tell her that she makes me proud.

pencilMatthew Boyle is an English instructor who works as an adjunct at various institutions in the northeast. He also writes copy for people who’ll let him, and he likes to write fiction about people who don’t deserve a second chance and get one anyway. Why not, right? Email: matthewboyle1742[at]gmail.com

Sister’s Pact

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Clarissa Pattern


Photo Credit: Scott/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Photo Credit: Scott/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

“Do you think Mr. Grece is really a necomanner, Avice?”

My little sister’s hand felt a little more sweaty, a little harder to hold onto, in my grip.

“Necromancer. The word is necromancer.” I was trying to maintain the body language of someone marching forward with purpose. Which is difficult when you’re creeping more sideways than forward in the not-quite-black shadows before dawn, following a man who you’ve never said more than ‘Good Morning’ to before.

I took a deep breath, determined to maintain my role as big sister. The one in charge. “His name is pronounced Gree Ce.”

“Gracie,” she said. Her voice was quiet by her standards, but, oh, at a time like this it was still too loud.

“I know you could say it properly if you wanted to. Why do you persist in pretending that it’s adorable to not be clever, Beatrice?”

My eyes darted around everywhere as if they were expecting someone to be following us following him. Which was not complete paranoia. After recent events there were less than six hundred of us left. Five-hundred-and-eighty-eight. Everyone watched everyone else. We have to look after one another, they said. Are you dangerous? Could I kill you if I needed to? they thought.

And then he’d arrived. Or he’d always been here. But no one knew anyone who knew him. But no one could remember anyone who’d lived in the old End Cottage before him.

Beatrice’s singsong chanting bled through into my thoughts.

“Gracie Grecco Gracie Greasy Grecco…”

“Stop that!” I squeezed her hand in mine. Too tight. I knew and regretted immediately that she was hurting, by the fact she didn’t yell out, or whine. She stood up a little straighter and stared ahead.

It would have hurt her dignity to acknowledge her pain by an apology, instead I said, “We need to stay focused.”

“You believe he is can do… those things?” A visible tremor went through her body.

It surprised me that Beatrice who, when it suited her, could already swear in curses that made me blush, carried the village superstitions that talking in any detail about black magicks would damn your soul.

I didn’t tell my sister that she was asking the wrong question. That all questions were wrong. Because it was too late. It couldn’t benefit us to know what he’d want in exchange for raising the dead. It couldn’t make this journey any easier to be certain of what his necromancy involved. It would make it worse.

I knew in my heart that this cold morning shivering in pursuit of a stranger, with my sister’s hand in mine, could be the last moment of paradise for me.

“I explained to you. You know, that there are very precise rules about when you can approach a sorcerer and ask a favour.”

“Da says they’re just made-up stories to make life seem more interesting than it really is.”

“Well, we will ask Mr. Gre’ce and then we’ll know for sure, even if nothing else comes of this night.”

“Where is he?”

“Who? Where’s who?”

“The skinny Gracie man.”

I looked around desperately.

“You’ve lost him. You’ve lost him,” she said with real glee.

I managed to stop myself slapping her. “This was our chance. This was our chance. Don’t you understand, you stupid little girl?”

Something tapped me on the shoulder. It was definitely a something. I was slow to turn. Nothing there. But when I looked back at Beatrice, he was standing next to her, and he was holding her hand. I didn’t remember letting go.

“Perhaps your chance is still alive if you are a clever little girl.” His voice belonged to midnight, a sound that you hear waking from a nightmare in the darkest hours, something that you know you heard but you pretend was just imagination.

Before this moment I was certain we’d exchanged greetings before, the same as with any neighbour, but now it was as if I’d never heard or seen him before.

“We were following you,” Beatrice looked up into his face. “Did you know? Avice says we have to approach you at the exact right time to ask you our favour. If that’s right, can you change that time to after lunch. It’s too cold and too dark now.”

I wondered how she could gaze into those pale eyes without flinching.

“Were you going to the graveyard to dig up bodies for your magic? Or are you making an undead army?”

A second ago Beatrice would not have spoken such things aloud to me. Let alone someone worse than a stranger. Something had happened. And I’d missed it.

“Neither of those things,” he replied.

“You are a necromancer though, aren’t you? You do do black magicks, don’t you? I hope so, otherwise there’s no point us being here.”

“If you listen to the stars they always lead you to exactly where you’re meant to be.” In the shadows I caught a glimpse of what might have been a smile on his face.

I took a deep breath. Or rather I tried to take a deep breath. The cold night air did not touch my lungs. I felt for my pulse. There was nothing. On the outside I moved like normal, on the inside everything was completely still.

“What have you done?” I demanded.

“What do you wish me to do?” he replied.

I opened my mouth to scream at him to make me breathe again. But no. I had more restraint than to lose myself in front of a necromancer. I had to have. This was the moment. He had asked me what I wished for. The wording had to be perfect. Anything less than perfection would be… unthinkable. But I couldn’t think. All the words I had perfectly formed and polished and cared for and preserved awaiting this moment, all those words had turned immediately rotten and maggot ridden in his presence.

“My Daddy is dead,” I blurted out.

He yawned.

“I mean our father has passed. The… the thing that happened. He was one of the ones that got struck.”

He tilted his head. “So it was not a natural death.”

“Dad says all death is natural and nothing to worry about,” Beatrice piped in. “Dad knows…”

“She talks like he’s still alive, ignore her, she’s too young to understand,” I quickly interrupted her. “We need him back.”

The man clearly winked at Avice. She grinned back at him.

“Why not your mother?” The man turned his pale eyes on me. I almost preferred him winking at my little sister.

I swallowed. Except I didn’t. My mouth was dry as if all the water had been sucked out of me.

I had to say it. Nothing else would do. “Girls aren’t safe alone in this world. There’s people that’ll hurt girls if they think you’re not protected.”

He laughed, hearty and joyous. Beatrice giggled along with him. “I prefer women who know how to look after themselves, not ones that quiver in fear.”

If there was any water left in my body tears of rage would sting my eyes. “I don’t care what you prefer, just name your price and bring my father back.”

He continued to laugh, but his eyes flashed serious for an alarming moment. “What you are asking me, child, is against the universal laws of all land.”

“You don’t care about things like that, you are the scum who crawls along the bottom of misery and feeds on grief and deprivation.”

He shrugged the pointed bones of his shoulders. “You’re right, Avice, I don’t care.”

He walked away. With Beatrice happily skipping alongside him.

If I was capable of shouting, the whole world would have heard my cry.

Before the early morning mist swallowed them, Beatrice turned back and spoke in a voice of midnight wind. “The price has already been paid. Dad says he prefers being a ghost, but don’t worry I’ll talk him into returning to you.”

I fell to the ground and waited. I wouldn’t smile yet. But I was so lucky, there was no certainty that he would actually want the little brat. I had succeeded. I did smile.

pencilClarissa Pattern only exists when she writes. She writes through the night. Through the day she’s an essence in the mist of dreams. Her writing appears in books, online, and in little places where you’d least expect them. Email: clarissapattern[at]hotmail.com