A Bone to Pick

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
Kristi Petersen Schoonover


Fires can't be made with dead embers, nor can enthusiasm be stirred by spiritless men. ~James Arthur Baldwin
Photo Credit: Chinmoy Mukerji

When I said I wouldn’t get back together with Warren if he were the last man on Earth, I meant it.

For years—before the world ended—I was his go-to girl. He’d split with someone, track me down (consistently on the heels of my broken heart’s mending), swear he’d changed, beg forgiveness and promise picket fences. I’d been deeply in love with him since we met in a Robert Frost poetry seminar, so I’d always fall for it. As soon as I dreamt of a wedding, he’d run off with another woman, citing he wasn’t sure I was the one—he needed space.

Shortly after the last incident, I was thumbing through my Chic Chick and stumbled across the article “10 Signs He’s Using You”—and Warren exhibited every one. Simultaneously incensed and embarrassed, I texted him to never again find me, punctuating it with the “last man” cliché.

Then came what CNN (while it was still on the air) unoriginally dubbed Skullpocalypse—like the invented zombie disaster that’d spawned movies, anthologies, Walks for Hunger and The Walking Dead—only minus the virus-rotting-flesh-eating-of-brains tropes.

Deep in Haiti, a scorned voodoo practitioner cursed her cheating husband and his lover. Flesh melted off their bones, organs withered and turned to dust, and all that was left were skeletons. But it had an unforeseen effect: The skeletons were alive, and they possessed an obscene strength and harbored an evil so vile their vacant, tar-black sockets coaled with hatred. They set to biting every living thing they could find. And whoever or whatever got bitten followed suit.

They overtook and escaped the island, and there was no stopping them. You couldn’t bash them apart—they simply reassembled, stronger and more aggressive (I saw the bones of a squirrel re-connect and break his attacker’s legs before biting her). You couldn’t shoot them—bullets whizzed through. There was only one recourse: The skeletons fled from dead things. If you died before you were bitten, you’d never be condemned; if you had a dead body near you, they’d leave you alone.

I don’t know how people brought themselves to do it, but many shot themselves. Or others.

That was Halloween, when the New England air was rife with the smell of carved pumpkins, wet leaves, Sweet Tarts, and snappled in anticipation. By Thanksgiving, the air was redolent with the skeletons’ rancid milk and overcooked mushroom smell, and the gray skies weren’t just somber, but oppressive. By Christmas, I was, as far as I knew, the only living person in a debris-strewn Mystic, Connecticut. I spent the day below decks on the famous Charles W. Morgan drinking bottles of exquisitely-aged Amontillado and reading the only book I’d taken from my apartment—The Complete Poems of Robert Frost (a gift from Warren). The inscription inside read, Mel… something there is that doesn’t love a wall. Maybe one day we’ll mend.

I was sure he was out there, and he was one of them. Which meant any human skeleton I came across could have been him. Which meant that my fatal bite could possibly come from his mouth.

I’d be damned if he was going to get me. I had to cut town, go someplace remote—and since I knew that I’d meet death eventually, I considered where I’d want to be when it happened.

Armed with the dead body of a Mystic Seaport Security Guard and the gun he’d used to kill himself, I secured an abandoned pick-up truck and hit the road. By the January snows I’d arrived at Robert Frost’s farm in Derry, New Hampshire. Although it was now a museum and gift shop, his life there had inspired the poem, “The Mending Wall.”

In light of the circumstances, it was the most apropos location I could think of.

At first, there weren’t any skeletons around—the sparse population had likely succumbed, leaving none to bite, so they’d boned elsewhere. By Valentine’s Day, they knew I was here—my oil lamps’ glow through the sheer curtains and the smoke channeling from the chimney had probably given me away. By George Washington’s Birthday, the security guard’s body had decomposed enough so the skeletons weren’t afraid of it anymore. That was when I discovered, by defending myself with a flaming piece of firewood, that not only did they recede from fire, it was the only way to kill them: they couldn’t rise from their ashes.

With the help of equipment from the maintenance shed, I managed to penetrate the frozen ground and dig a trench around the house and barn. I only built a low flame—I needed to conserve wood—but I found that was enough. I keep fires going twenty-four-seven.

Day and night, in the woods beyond the smoking gash, they rattle around the hibernating oaks and maples, snapping branches beneath their metatarsals. When they walk, it sounds like banging drumsticks and shaking maracas—the thickets bristle with a snap-shhh, snap-shhh, and you can tell how close they are by its volume. Unless, of course, there’s an ice storm, because the clicking of the crystal-coated birches is louder.

During the day it’s easy to spot them, but at night, it’s dark as cloak, and they’re so white they blend with the field’s snow cover—if I squint, I can distinguish their gaping eye sockets, hovering like phantom holes.

Tonight, mist shrouds the field—the mud and vanilla smell tells me it’s warming up, for which I’m glad; but it’ll be March soon, for which I’m not, because the ensuing spring rains will most likely extinguish my line of defense.

I sip fresh coffee—it’s so hot it warms me instantly. I adjust my flannel blanket; then I hear something. I lean forward, cock my ear toward the woods—there’s a different sound, as though something is running. It could be a fast-moving non-human skeleton, like a rabbit or deer—but they’d sound similar to the others.

This could be a living creature.

Like a bear.

I reach for a gun and rise from the rocking chair, simultaneously shedding my blanket. I move to the newel post and focus at the edge of the forest.

A shadow bursts from the evergreens and books toward my fire.

It’s a person.

I race to the edge of the flames.

The intruder stops just short of the trench, pushes back his hood.

The heat prickles my cheeks. “Warren?”

“Mel.” He doesn’t look surprised. “Boy I’m glad to see you.” Hyperventilating, he slides a nervous glance behind him; then he looks back at me, nods at the flames below. “What’s with the fire?”

The back of my throat burns with anger. “They won’t go near it. It’s the only thing that destroys them.” Then I remember the gun. I train it on him. “I wasn’t kidding, what I said about the last man on Earth.”

“Now that I really am?”

I visualize our last break-up: he calls, can’t see me anymore because he’s just met Rose, doesn’t want to blow it with her, if she’s not the one he knows that I am, he needs space, thanks for putting him back together again, he’ll always be grateful, he has a bond with me he’ll never have with any other woman no matter what.

I taste rage—metallic, sour.

His dead body would ensure the skeletons don’t come near the trench for awhile. The spring rains issue would be solved.

I cock the gun.

“Mel. Put the gun down. Come on.” He peers over his shoulder. “I’ve got no one else and neither do you.”

In the woods, I hear the snap-shhh, snap-shhh.

“What happened to Rose?”

His eyes flash desperate. “Please. Let me across.”

I don’t move.

He turns completely to look at the skeletons—as if assessing whether or not he can make another run for it—then pivots to face me again. “She got bitten. Okay?”

“I’d like to say I’m sorry, but I’m not.”

Snap-shhh.

“You ever seen it, Mel? Gnashing teeth, running flesh, vomiting, withering organs, shrieking. Watch someone you love die like that is that what you want?”

Snap-shhh.

Love. So he did love her. I thrill to his anxious expression—he’s always been so brash, arrogant, cocksure I’d always be there when he needed me. Not today.

He clenches his hands into fists. “Mel, we’re it, here, for God’s sake, don’t wall me out!”

Snap-shhh.

The smell of rancid milk and overcooked mushrooms is suffocating. They’ll reach him soon.

As many times as I’d delightfully imagined him tortured, it’d been fantasy. In two minutes, it’s not going to be fantasy anymore. And I’m angry at him, but he’s right—I can’t watch him suffer what he’s just described.

I ram the gun into my pocket. “Follow me on your side of the trench.” I rush to the house and seize the ancient metal toboggan I’ve been using as a bridge. I slam it down across the ditch with a creak-ploof as it hits the opposite snow bank. “Hurry up.”

He reaches me and I retract the bridge just as one of the boners leaps, misses, and plummets into the flames. It erupts into an ember-spewing fireball; Warren crushes me against him, and I’m immersed in his familiar smell, something like almonds and bourbon. It stirs things in me.

When the flash dies down, we both look. An indigo plume of smoke rises from where the thing had met its end. The rest of them retreat to the woods.

“Imagine how many lives would’ve been saved if we’d figured that out months ago,” Warren says. “Rose would still be here.”

I pull away from him, start up the porch steps.

He’s quiet, then says, “Thanks, Mel.”

I poise and grab the railing. “Let’s get this straight. You can stay here tonight, I’ll feed you, we’ll heat water for a bath and wash your clothes, but in the morning, you take some supplies and go.”

Before I head inside, I retrieve my coffee.

It’s ice cold.

*

The fire in the hearth casts the framed photographs of Frost in flickering shadows; heating water for Warren’s bath, cooking his food has softened me, and I try to quell cozy fantasies as I clip his flannel shirt to a clothesline I’ve strung across the living room.

“Wow. You never do let that thing go out.” Warren, in my bathrobe, appears in the doorway.

My pulse quickens. I move to poker the coals. “The key is to stay focused, constantly watch. Of course, there’s not too much around to distract me.”

He steps closer; I smell the gift shop’s lavender soap. “It’s lonely here, isn’t it?”

I shut out the tactile memory of having been crushed against him outside. “It’s not bad.”

He rubs his hands before the flames. “What smells good?”

“Corned beef hash.” I slip into a rooster-patterned oven mitt and palm the iron skillet I’d had warming on the bricks, bring it to the table.

“I haven’t had that since I was a kid.” He settles into one of the rustic pine chairs.

“The stores are full of canned goods.” I shovel the food on his plate. “It’s scary to get ’em—I gotta go into town armed with a torch in my hand or a dead squirrel tied around my neck—but it’s doable.”

He eyes the red taper in a burnished gold candlestick. “Can we light this?”

I take my seat. “I’m out of matches and lighters.”

“Isn’t that risky? Being matchless?”

“As long as the fires don’t go out, I’m fine for now. I’ll get more on my next trip to town.”

He considers me for a moment. Then he says, “You’re not going to town alone—I’ll get ’em.”

I’m about to respond you’re gone tomorrow, but his sad St. Bernard-esque eyes disarm me; in this moment I see what I’ve always wanted: just us, a meal, a fire, a home. Desire, excitement, cliffhanging fear course through me. “How’d you find me here?”

He sets down his fork, shifts, and reaches into the robe’s pocket, extracting a piece of wood the size and shape of a large cookie. He sets it on the table as though it were Spode.

I immediately recognize it.

It’s from the maple that stood on this property—outside Frost’s bedroom, the subject of his poem “Tree at my Window.” Years ago, the tree had become feeble—a threat to the house—so it’d been cut down. The farm had sold these wooden mementos for fifteen dollars each. There are still, in fact, some in the gift shop.

I’d mail-ordered the one he has, given it to him the first Christmas we’d been together. I’d admitted my one dream was to marry him, here, on this farm, where that maple had stood.

His gaze intent on mine, he quotes the poem: “My sash is lowered when the night comes on, but let there never be a curtain drawn between you and me.”

There’s a knot in my throat.

“Do you still want to marry me, Mel?”

I blink. “But… you loved her. Rose.”

“I did.” He leans toward me. “It doesn’t matter now.”

The air is still, the only sound is the fire’s hisspop-crackle.

“10 Signs He’s Using You” seems farcical, stuff penned by bitter women, and right now I’m not one of them—joy burbles through my limbs, belly, chest, face. “Yes.”

He cups my hand. “Then we’ll do it. Tomorrow. We’ll just marry ourselves. Out by where the maple used to stand.”

I flush.

He’s on me; we land on my makeshift bed in the corner.

Suddenly, something jabs my hip. The gun. It’s still in my pocket.

I laugh. “Wait.”

He stops. “What?”

I pull the gun out, set it on the small table that serves as my nightstand.

“Just take everything off,” he says.

And I delight in his almond-bourbon-lavender taste and think something there is that doesn’t love a wall. Maybe one day we’ll mend and now that day is here.

*

I open my eyes. The drear of late-winter day leaks through the sheers; there’s a chill in my bones and a bouldering roar.

The fire in the hearth has gone out. And it’s raining. In torrents.

I jar the dead-to-the-world Warren. “Oh my God get up! Get up!”

He mumbles, stirs as I struggle into my jeans and flannel. I rush to the window. The fires in the ditch are dead; there isn’t even any smoke. Out in the gloom, the skeletons merrily funnel into and out of the trench like a river of white flesh-eating ants. They’re advancing on the house.

“What’s going on?”

“The fires went out, they’re coming!”

“Shit.” He whips his clothes off the line. “Just re-light the fire in here, we can wave burning logs at them!”

A claw seizes my heart. “We have no matches!”

He just stops and looks at me, his eyes wide. “We can run.”

But I peer out the back window and know better: the skeletons have encircled the house. “We can’t.”

He comes up behind me, brushes the sheers aside. For a few moments, we simply watch them approach.

Then he whispers, “At least I’m not alone.”

The words are hot pokers through my heart, cement in my lungs. My face burns; I can’t breathe; I can barely speak. Then I collect myself and face him. “Is that why you really came to find me? You didn’t want to be alone?”

He looks surprised, and I know immediately he hadn’t realized he’d spoken aloud.

He sets his hand on my cheek. “I knew if anyone was gonna still be breathing, it’d be you. You don’t give up.”

I sadly recognize this is true about more things than it should be.

“I had no choice,” he says.

The skeletons hurtle over the porch railing; the house shakes. A black object plummets from the small table that serves as a nightstand.

The gun.

All those people who shot themselves or others, I’d marveled at how hard a choice that must’ve been. But now, facing the only man I’ve ever loved, knowing that he truly had deeply loved Rose and the only reason he’s here with me is because the world ended, what kind of heartbreaking existence is knowing all of that, every day, loving him, knowing that?—now the choice isn’t difficult at all.

I fling myself on the mattress, reach for the weapon, aim it. “Step back, Warren.”

What?

“You heard me. Step back.”

I swear I see sweat break out on his forehead. “Wha—what are you doing?”

“I’m not you, Warren. I’m not afraid of being alone. Or anything else.”

A skeleton, its bony fingers reaching for us, crashes through the wall. I close my eyes and pull the trigger.

When I said I wouldn’t get back together with Warren if he were the last man on Earth, I meant it.

pencil

Kristi Petersen Schoonover’s short fiction has appeared in Carpe Articulum, The Adirondack Review, Barbaric Yawp, New Witch Magazine, Toasted Cheese, and others, including several anthologies such as Dark Opus Press’ In Poe’s Shadow. She holds an MFA from Goddard College, has received three Norman Mailer Writers Colony Residencies, and is editor for Read Short Fiction. Her most recent work, Skeletons in the Swimmin’ Hole, is a collection of ghost stories set in Disney Parks; her horror novel, Bad Apple, is forthcoming from Vagabondage Books. She’s also a member of the New England Horror Writers Association. Her website is kristipetersenschoonover.com. Email: petersenschoonover[at]gmail.com

Skin and Bones

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
Jake Gogats


ghost forest
Photo Credit: Chris Wenger

I woke to the sound of chanting. It wasn’t English; that was clear. It almost sounded like—

No.

I saw the sun rising outside of my cabin, so I shrugged off my fatigue and began to prepare for the day. My wife moaned as I opened the door and let the sun in. I chuckled and shut it behind me.

It was a sight, the village in the morning. The sun would rise from the East, our home. The frosted dew covered the cabins and the grass, giving the whole town a white glow. I said a habitual prayer to God, asking that the sun would carry the wealth of Britain along with warmth. Then I proceeded to knock on the doors of the men I would hunt with, their groaning audible through the thin wooden walls.

As I sat in the town center, I stared into the distant forest. We’d cleared far past the edge of town, past where it was already cleared, to make sure we would see them if they ever came. Not that we expected it.

That day, the forest seemed darker, as if the trees cast denser shadows. I could barely see past the first row of trees. I felt as if the forest didn’t want me to see into it, like it wanted its privacy today.

Suddenly, I realized that my men were around me, rubbing the tired out of their eyes and muttering words of hunger and cold.

“Everyone ate all the food last night; we’ll have to catch breakfast or ask the farmers.” This brought more groans; the farmers had a certain distaste for us hunters; we got all the glory and they got the complaints, and the modest rationing of food during the winter did not sit well with townspeople.

So we set off into the forest, but it felt different than the hundred times we’d done it before. This was a new a forest, a new spirit. The others didn’t seem fazed by the added darkness, so I ignored it and opened my eyes a bit wider.

The day started all right; we caught some beasts we knew were safe. It was a sufficient lunch for our section of the town, and there was some left over for dinner.

The second trip out was different.

We crept into the forest just as in the morning, this time with fuller stomachs. I knew that meant the men would be less motivated to catch dinner, but they’d soon feel hunger seeping back into their bones, an indelible part of our life.

I spotted a deer. The rule was to not stop walking unless you spotted something, both a way of keeping the hunt moving and alerting when something had been found.

They all froze, swerving their heads to the deer. I raised my gun, asserting this as my own. It was a huge buck; it could keep us eating for quite a while if shot and stored properly. My gun was already loaded, and I was the best shot.

It was clean, and everyone gave cheers as the deer fell with a mangled face.

The hunter was the one to claim the kill, so everyone stood back as I approached the deer. It felt as if the deer corpse was tugging me forward while my instincts told me to stay with my men. It wouldn’t help the respect I’d earned if I cowered from a dead buck.

The walk dragged on in my head, and I noticed the darkness of the forest again. This time it was real, though; night was approaching. We had to bring back the meat in time for dinner, and so I sped up in fear of a sudden winter nightfall. The trees blurred along with my senses, making me see bright colors of fall despite it being midwinter.

Loud chanting blasted through the forest without warning, causing me to lose my footing. I fell into a bush, and the chanting ceased. Only a low giggle was audible, but I couldn’t focus enough to find its source.

Through the leaves of the bushes, I saw a figure.

It was tall and dark, and the bright colors I had seen before weren’t there. I squinted and finally made out the figure of a woman.

Slowly, I stood to face an Indian with only long, dark hair to cover her body. There was a tree obstructing my view of the others, but they obeyed the rules and waited for my call.

I spotted my gun on the ground next to the woman, and at that moment she bent down to pick it up.

“Don’t touch that!” I whispered, as if my voice wasn’t allowed to alert the others. Her fingers stopped and she stood back up.

She took a step toward me, now so close I couldn’t see anything but her face, simple and hardened. Leaning into me, my world drifted into a trance of attraction and intrigue. I held the kiss, letting the feeling spread through my body; I put my hands on her waist and brought her closer. Through my heavy clothing, I felt her body. It wasn’t warm; rather, it pierced my furs with cold.

Only then as I became truly entranced by the forest and this woman, her mouth started to taste differently. I tried to ignore it, but then it became the taste of rotten meat and her tongue felt weak and dry. I opened my eyes and drew my head from the kiss, seeing the true figure I had osculated.

She was unemotional as her body rotted away from her. Her hair shriveled and turned a dirty greenish brown; her skin grew fungus; maggots seeped out from unseen wounds; her fingernails grew to freakish length. Worst of all was her face. Her slight smile grew as her lips fell away along with her receding eyes. Small bugs crawled through openings and chewed away at her skin until her body could not support itself.

All that was left of her was a skull and bones when I left. The woman I loved for just a moment.

I grabbed my gun, covered with insects, and turned away from the scene. The bugs flew off my gun as I ran to the buck, almost expecting it to be rotted away by the time I got there.

*

Supper was joyful, everyone shrugging off the cold with fire and good meat, although my wife was irritated because of my distracted gaze. I wasn’t guilty; I was curious. What happened in the forest? Why did even now the forest seem darker than I’d ever seen?

“James, how was the forest today?” I asked.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, was there something funny?” I tried not to look too concerned, staring into my glass.

“Hell, I don’t know. What’s got you?”

“Nothing… nothing.” I took the hard apple cider and walked listlessly to my cabin. At the threshold, I heard my wife’s footsteps behind me.

“I feel it too,” she murmured.

I stopped with my hand in the door, taking a sip from my drink. Before I turned, she spoke again. “What happened in the forest?”

At this, I poured out the rest of my drink and walked to my wife. “What are you talking about?”

“What did you do?” she demanded.

“What do you mean? I shot a buck.”

“Oh my Lord, do I believe you?” There was a strange combination of anger and curiosity in her eyes, fused in a way I’d never seen in her before. “Something’s been disturbed.”

“Will you get to the point?”

Letting out a long sigh, she managed to bring her eyes to my level. She was afraid of something. Was it me? Was I the one who frightened my wife so?

“You were tested today, Howard. I don’t know how; I don’t know where, but I do know that you failed.”

I didn’t say anything.

She took another breath. “And now we all have to pay the price.”

“Jesus, Marie, nothing’s going to happen. God has given us this land; don’t you remember the ready crops and brimming forest? Have you forgotten God’s preference?”

“Do you honestly think those crops were from God?”

“The Plague cleared the land for us.”

“And who grew the crops?”

I knew the answer, but before I could speak she continued. “The Indians, Howard. I know they were dead and gone when we came, but this is not God’s work.”

“Then whose? Who cleared the forest and gave us this all?”

“I can’t say… but I know God has no part in this New World.”

“Then who? What has done this to me?”

Marie walked past me to our cabin and went inside. I ran to her through the pitch dark. She sat on the side of the bed opposite to me, looking at the wall. She was shaking. “What’s going to happen?”

I know now that she is right; there is reason for me to fear. “I don’t know.”

*

Knocking, banging, rumbling.

These sounds surrounded the cabin, and for a moment I expected the hunters to come through the door, laughing at my fright. But no one came, and the sounds did not stop. The cabin, the New World, was consumed with this terrifying noise.

It was still dark, but I turned on the gas lamp, judging it appropriate.

The light shone on where my wife should have been in my bed, but instead I saw the rotting Indian woman I had loved. Abruptly, the light went out, and I saw nothing.

For a minute I sat, listening the banging getting louder and louder, almost expecting my house to cave in and kill us…

And then finally it stopped, leaving me paralyzed.

I was frozen for what felt like hours and hours, but finally I made my way back into bed. I turned to my left, to where my wife should have been.

“Marie?”

“Yes?”

“I love you,” I lied.

She chuckled and went to sleep.

*

The next morning, I woke up with the soggy feeling of blood in my clothes.

Panic. The blanket, my clothes, my skin, all soaked in blood; was it my own? I suddenly felt trapped in my bed, as if the sodden blanket had fused with my skin and the blood would never dry. I thrashed, the body of my wife convulsing along with mine until I finally detached myself. I stood and panted, still covered in hardening blood that felt like an unseen force grabbing me from behind.

My wife’s arms lay strewn awkwardly across her chest, covering her stomach where the blood was concentrated. I walked to my wife and bent down to her face, peaceful and clean.

I leaned down farther to kiss her forehead for the last time. When I was finally ready to leave the cabin, I turned away from her.

Her cold, wet hand jumped and grabbed my hand, turning me around. I twisted quickly, her hand pulling me with a force she did not have in life. I faced her to see her eyes wide open, glaring. Sputtering, she forced out her last words.

You will taste this blood.”

Panic rushed back to me as her head lifted to my arm, her mouth wide and soaked red. Smacking her arm with my gun, I got away and ran out of the cabin, knowing she would not follow.

I ventured into the town. The sun was rising from the East, but this time it was mocking. Britannia’s fortune had not extended to me, and now she was laughing at my misfortune. Our failure.

I knocked on James’s cabin first; his was the closest. No answer. Before intruding on him, I knocked on Frederick’s, then Tom’s. No answer no answer no answer.

Back at James’s cabin, I decided to knock again. Nothing. I did not take a deep breath; I did not prepare myself; I did not take one last glance around me. Nothing was wrong, and I did not need these last things.

I went inside.

When I shook James, nothing was wrong. When I told his wife to wake up, nothing was wrong. When I took off their thin blanket, nothing was wrong.

Until I opened my eyes.

The gunshots in their abdomens were wrong, very wrong. My friends were dead, and everything was wrong. Everyone else was dead, too—I checked—even the people I hardly ever spoke with. None of them came back to life, though, and my wife did not reappear.

All because of my confusing failure.

I vomited in the town center, not knowing what was left for me. Picking at frozen deer meat, I sobbed to myself for not knowing what I did wrong. Did I finally understand? I thought so.

In the midst of crying, they approached me. I froze and did not turn to them.

“It’s time you come with us.”

I quickly glanced at my nearest surroundings, trying to find a weapon.

“Why?” I asked them.

“Because you’re the last one.”

And at that moment, I decided I did not want to die. I did not want to end up with a gunshot in my abdomen or worse, because I had a feeling I’d been saved for a reason. My senses came alive, and the smell of old furs rushed into my nose along with the sight of seven Indians surrounding the stump I sat on.

They all wore a different beast, but the one speaking wore the fur of a buck, the antlers on his head larger than those we found on the buck the day before. This was a fearful man, but I could see his body rotting. Much slower than the woman, but a few maggots were chewing away through his stomach, causing me to vomit again.

I saw that between two of the seven chiefs there was a large gap, and without hesitation I ran into the forest. I didn’t look back, and I ran until I my legs gave out. My eyes had given up long before that, so I didn’t know where I was. I lay gasping, suddenly scared that the rest of my life would be like this. When I finally caught my breath, I tried to stand, but instead I felt my world fall around me. I hit the bottom of the pit with a crack. I felt something stab me, and my cries tore through the quiet atmosphere.

Then I saw what I was lying in: a grave. Seven skeletons lay in the pit, and I knew they were the seven chiefs. The rotting furs adorned each skull, and I tried to look away from the maggots that had thrived on their meat, now trying to find scraps on the bones.

My eyes peered upward, looking for hope that I would not die with insects crawling through me. Instead of hope, I found the seven, somehow below and above me.

Were they spirits of God or the Devil? Was there no connection?

The leader, the buck, glared at me more closely than the others, and he spoke words that I felt he had been waiting to say.

“We now have your pale skin. It’s time we gave you something of ours.”

Another, one with a raccoon on his head, threw down a single spear into my stomach, forcing me farther down through the skeletons. I didn’t flinch; I was too absorbed with the seven.

“What did I do wrong?”

The seven laughed at me like I was a mistaken child.

“You fell in love with one of us. How could you rejoice in the death of something you love?”

“I… I don’t understand.”

The man became very angry in my dazed confusion.

“You all owe us a debt. We will not extinguish a people like you have, but this is how you all will pay. It just so happens you’re the one who was tested. There needs to be as much terror in you as there was in all the native children that’ve died as a result of your people.”

Then he chuckled for a moment, reverting from the tense scene.

“Kissing a dead woman? I wonder where that falls on the spectrum of Christian sin.”

The pain of the spear shot through me suddenly, and through my screams I managed to pull it out. I did not answer the seven, but I willed my way up the pit. Dying in this pit would be my hell, and no punishment would be needed in the afterlife. I hadn’t done anything wrong, though; I didn’t deserve this.

Somehow, after hours of clawing and climbing, I breathed the air of the grass and Indians. My blood dyed the white grass red, but I did not look down as I stood, victorious. I was a blotch of crimson in a sea of dead, pale grass.

To my right the naked woman stood, as rotten as possible before collapse. I took a lurching step toward her, and in the distance I think I could see the people of the colony rushing toward me, their gunshot wounds seemingly ignored. They weren’t real, for at this point I was trying to distinguish reality, hallucination, spirit, evil… My wife stood behind the woman. Her lips were a dark blue, darker than they ever got in the cold.

“You failed me, Howard,” she whispered ignorantly as she threw the only woman I ever loved into the pit with the dead seven.

“Marie, I—”

“Howard, I don’t have to explain anything to you. Let’s just go to bed.”

I obeyed her, and I lay down next to her in the grass. The seven stood around us again, but they made no noise. I looked at my wound, and I could have sworn I saw a single maggot beginning to tear away at my flesh.

Tearing away at my soul.

Before I fell asleep, I whispered to the dead.

“Sorry for everything.”

pencil

Jake Gogats is currently a high school student in New York. He enjoys theater, reading, and learning history to inspire pieces such as this. He’d like to thank the Toasted Cheese staff for providing writers with a great place to read, write, discuss, and get published! Email: fishy4242[at]gmail.com

The Red Scarf

Dead of Winter ~ First Place
Anitha Murthy


wave
Photo Credit: Jamelah E.

The woman appeared in front of his car just as the traffic light turned green. Shailesh swore as he honked impatiently. As usual, the endless line of vehicles ahead showed no inclination of moving. He would be late for his 10 a.m. meeting—there was no doubt about it now.

Through the open window, the woman thrust what appeared to be a knitted scarf at him.

“Only fifty rupees, Sir,” she said in a rustic dialect of Hindi.

Shailesh recoiled in disgust. He couldn’t stand these traffic-signal hawkers; they were like oozing, pus-filled scabs in the city.

The woman seemed ancient, her weather-beaten face lined like parched earth. Her pink blouse was faded with tattered embroidery, her patchwork skirt was muddy, and she held the edge of a threadbare red veil in her mouth. Dull coppery hair peeped out from below the veil. She was the perfect picture of dereliction. But it was her eyes that snagged Shailesh; they were a murky green-brown, like mud stirred in a mossy puddle, and he had the feeling of being trapped in quicksand.

She waved the scarf at him. Her fingers dangled over the window inside the car like gnarled, grasping roots, their nails encrusted with thick black dirt. A tarnished ring with a grinning skull-and-bones hung loosely on her index finger. Her tinny silver bangle, adorned with the same grinning skull-and-bones, banged against the window and Shailesh felt a wave of nausea gather in his stomach.

He hated these traffic light nuisances. Sometimes, men sauntered by with piles of sunglasses, or cheap plastic airplanes, or animal-shaped balloons. Little boys hawked magazines, struggling to keep on display the chosen few from the big pile they were carrying. Smartly-dressed eunuchs slapped their hands together and uttered choice abuses if they didn’t get a handout. Shailesh had no sympathy for these folks. Why couldn’t they go out and earn a decent living? If they expected him to part with his hard-earned money, they could think again!

Today, it appeared to be the turn of these gypsies. He could spot two other similarly dressed women trying to sell the knitted garments out in front. One of them even had a baby strapped to her back, for extra sympathy, he supposed.

“Sir!”

The woman shook the garment in front of him. Shailesh gritted his teeth and shook his head to indicate his disinterest. He studiously avoided her gaze, but the woman was persistent.

“Sir. Only fifty.”

This time she shook the scarf so vigorously that it tickled him in the nose, triggering off a powerful sneeze. Irritation quickly gave way to an overwhelming fury. Just who the hell did she think she was, thrusting stuff through his window and demanding that he buy it?

“Told you, I don’t want it!” Shailesh barked at her. Hadn’t he already indicated that he didn’t want it? Didn’t she get the message, dammit?

A bus that was several cars ahead began to move. About time, Shailesh thought, itching to jam down on the accelerator. Traffic in Bangalore—bah! The worst ever.

Kabhi tand nahin hoyega, Saheb.” Her voice was flat, ominous. You will never feel the cold.

As the car ahead began to move, Shailesh glanced at the woman. Her muddy gaze made him shudder involuntarily and he made up his mind. In one swift move, he pushed the window button of his car and the window rolled up. The woman snatched her hand away just in time as he accelerated and zoomed ahead, a wicked grin on his face. As he drove on, he realized something was fluttering by his window. It was that damned scarf! She had been quick enough to save her hand, but she had been too late to rescue the scarf. It was fluttering by his window, jammed at the edge. He could see her stunned face in his rearview mirror. Serves you right, you bitch, he thought, a savage thrill coursing through his body. He watched as she raised her right hand and pointed a terrible index finger at him. The skull ring glinted in the sun and Shailesh swallowed. He thought he could hear her cursing him.

At the next traffic light, Shailesh carefully pulled the scarf inside the car. It wasn’t a great scarf; the knitting was all thick and nubbly. It seemed to have some pattern on it, and it smelled of camels and tents and travel. Ugh! Why couldn’t it have been a soft, nice scarf, something he could wear around his neck to combat the nip of the cold December air? He would probably just give it away to the security guard at work. He shoved it into his backpack that lay on the passenger seat.

By the time Shailesh returned home that night, he had forgotten all about the woman at the traffic light and the musty scarf.

*

The next day, it was a little past midnight when Shailesh returned to his apartment after the office Christmas party. He wasn’t sure how many drinks he had had, but it had made him lose all his inhibitions. He rued his crazy dance moves; he must have put off pretty Piyali completely with his display. Not that he had much of a chance with her anyway, but still. He was still perspiring heavily from his rambunctious exertions and the AC in the car was just not enough. He rolled down the window to let the cool winter air in. He liked the Bangalore weather—neither too cold nor too hot, unlike Delhi where he came from. Pity he was off to Delhi for the holidays. He winced as he thought of it.

Shailesh didn’t look forward to the annual ritual of the family gathering in Delhi. Members of their extended family flew down from USA, Canada, and the UK. There were endless parties and get-togethers, mostly with the same crowd and after the initial catching up, it became rather monotonous. Being an only son, Shailesh was duty-bound to be present and to be shown off to his relatives as a prize catch in the matrimonial market, much like a stud bull at a cattle fair. There was no way Shailesh could get out of it; after all, who did he have here in Bangalore anyway?

By the time Shailesh reached his apartment, the damp patches of perspiration on his shirt had grown as large as dinner plates. He mopped his brow as he got out of his car. Bangalore seemed to be getting hotter every year, he thought, and grinned. He was already beginning to sound like a typical Bangalorean! In a city that barely managed three seasons, each season slipped into the next like finely woven yarn, so that it could be quite confusing at times. It was the normal thing to complain about the inconsistent weather, and look accusingly at people like him—the outsiders who had come and settled down in Bangalore, upsetting the weather gods in the process.

Shailesh swung his backpack over his shoulder and made his way to the elevator. God, he was sweating like a pig! He may as well forget about Piyali completely, he thought wryly. Fat chance she would go for a guy who was as wet as a dripping towel.

He groaned when he reached his apartment. It was a complete mess. He would have to clear up everything before he left, else the place would be teeming with cockroaches when he returned. He would have to catch his beauty sleep at home in Delhi. There was no way he could clean up and sleep in the few hours that were available.

By the time Shailesh cleared up his apartment, it was almost three in the morning. The dishes were all done, the fridge was cleared out, three plump garbage bags stood like sentinels next to the front door, and his suitcase was stuffed with two weeks’ worth of laundry, which his mom would do for him when he got to Delhi. His bags were all packed, along with his laptop in his backpack that he needed to take in case there was an emergency at work. Now, he had an hour to kill before his ride to the airport showed up.

He sank on the couch and switched on the TV. It was on a news channel, and the news immediately caught Shailesh’s attention.

“Delhi is in the grip of an unprecedented cold wave. The temperature has been hovering around the zero degrees centigrade mark. All schools, colleges, and other educational institutions have been declared closed for the next two days by the Government. The sudden dip in temperatures is forcing people to stay indoors. According to the Met department officials, this is due to chilly, dry winds from the Northwest, which are sweeping through the city. They have forecast that this cold spell will remain for the next couple of days. However, the absence of fog has ensured that all flights operated normally.”

Visuals of the empty Delhi streets and the homeless huddled around bonfires came on. There was a ticker running at the bottom of the screen, advising travelers to contact their airlines and confirm their flights.

Shailesh cursed as he took out his ticket and punched the phone number of the airlines on his mobile. He was almost immediately connected to a representative.

“My flight for Delhi is at 6 a.m. today. Is there any delay or cancellation?”

“No, sir,” the lady politely answered. “The flight is on time. There is no delay for any of our flights. Is there anything else I can do for you?”

“No thanks,” Shailesh answered, wiping his brow with the back of his hand. Damn! It was getting really hot in here. He was actually looking forward to experiencing that familiar Delhi chill that froze one’s bones.

*

As Shailesh pushed the luggage trolley ahead of him, he scanned the thin crowd that stood outside the terminal, waiting for the arriving passengers. His parents always came to pick him up, and soon enough, he spotted them. They looked like overstuffed laundry bags with several layers of clothing bulging oddly, every inch of their bodies covered with thick woolens. In utter contrast, Shailesh had unbuttoned his shirt because of the heat, his fair face red like a boiled lobster, and his hair slicked down because of perspiration.

“I was worried about the flight,” said Shailesh, after the usual greetings. “Luckily, it was all ok. I saw the news, they were saying it is quite bad here?”

“Yes,” his father nodded. “It’s been pretty bad.”

“How could you come dressed like this?” His mother burst out. “Are you crazy? Knowing the weather in Delhi, you should have at least worn a jacket.” She sighed and shook her head. “Never mind, I’ll give you one of my shawls.”

Shailesh was in fact feeling like he was being cooked on a slow flame. The flight had been very uncomfortable, and he was sure that the temperature control had not been working properly in the plane. He had even asked the stewardess, but she had given him a strange look, and assured him that everything was normal. Everyone else had seemed quite comfortable. Some had even requested for blankets and were fast asleep. But Shailesh had felt so hot that he had to overcome the urge to reach over and rip open the damn windows!

“It’s ok, I’m fine,” he protested, and pushed the shawl back to his mother. She grumbled under her breath as they both waited for his father to bring the car. Shailesh longed to peel off his shirt and let the chill dig its teeth into his skin. What was happening to him? Had he caught some bug?

Their car pulled up, and Shailesh heaved his suitcases into the boot. Once in the car, he had to ask his mother.

“Ma, can you check if I have fever or something? I’m feeling so hot.”

His mother pulled off her glove with some difficulty. She placed her hand on his forehead, and withdrew it sharply. She then placed her hand on his neck, where it was coated with his perspiration. She withdrew it again immediately.

“You’re feeling hot?” She asked him, her eyes narrowing in disbelief.

“Yes, I’m feeling very hot.”

She turned to his father, squeezing her hand back into the glove.

“We might have to take him to the doctor,” she said, in a worried tone. “He says he is feeling hot, but he is cold, ice-cold!”

“What?” Shailesh couldn’t believe it. He put his hand against his forehead, and dropped it in shock. It was true. He was as cold as a block of ice. Then why was he perspiring, why was he feeling like he was on a slow boil inside? Why did he have this longing to strip off all his clothes right now and plunge into an ice-cold bath?

“Let’s get home. Then I’ll call the doctor.” Shailesh’s father replied. His priority was to get home first. He didn’t want them stranded anywhere on this cold, wintry night.

Shailesh’s mind was in a whirl, trying to pinpoint a reason for this maddening situation. Was it because he drank too much? He couldn’t recollect correctly, but he was sure he hadn’t gone overboard. He had felt just a nice pleasant buzz. He thought he had worked it all off with the dancing. Had he danced too much? Was it the food? He couldn’t think of a single reason why he had picked up this strange bug. What was happening? He felt prickles of fear light up his spine.

“Dad, can I roll the windows down?” He asked.

“Are you crazy?” His dad shot a glance at him. “Do you want us to freeze to death?”

“But I’m not able to breathe. I’m feeling so hot!”

“Don’t worry, we’ve almost reached home.” His mother caressed his arm, her eyes dark with worry. She should never have let her only son stay so far away from her.

Shailesh burst out of the car when it drew up in front of his house. If he had stayed inside a moment longer, he was sure he would suffocate and die. He felt like he was sizzling within, his insides being turned into a simmering stew.

“Shailesh! Are you alright?” His mother jumped out and ran behind him. Her teeth had already begun chattering and her lips looked blue.

“I’m fine. You… you get into the house, you’re cold,” stuttered Shailesh, mopping the sweat from his face with his drenched hanky. He didn’t know what he himself was going to do. A raging inferno had engulfed him, and he was beginning to feel scorched.

Inside, the house was as warm as toast, and comfortable enough for his parents to shed most of their layers. But for Shailesh, it was like he was in a sauna. Nonsense, he told himself. This was all his imagination. He clenched his teeth and refused to let himself succumb to this strange ailment. Instead, he began opening his suitcases.

“Mom, I got this Mysore silk sari for you. And dad, I got this really nice wooden prayer stand. You can put your Bhagvad Gita on it and read it during your prayer time.”

“You bought this also?”

Shailesh turned and was dumbstruck. His mom was holding up a red scarf, which she had spotted peeking out of his backpack. A bolt of pure fear shot through him. The scarf! That goddamn scarf!

In a flash, he remembered everything vividly. The woman at the traffic light. Her dress, her hair, her fingers, the ring… and the way he had ambushed her. He remembered her cursing, and the memory of it was evil. The same skull-and-bones pattern that had been on her ring was on the scarf, but with one difference. The skull had muddy eyes, just like the woman. And right now, it appeared to be staring intently at Shailesh, boring into him like a giant drill. He felt his throat close with panic.

Her words echoed in his head with ominous clarity. “Kabhi tand nahin hoyega, Saheb.” You will never feel cold.

A tsunami of cold dread swamped Shailesh. Was that what was happening to him? Oh Lord! What had he done?

He grabbed the scarf to his mother’s astonishment, threw open the door and raced out to the middle of the road.

“Take this, bitch. Take this away and leave me alone!” He screamed as he flung the scarf away.

His parents rushed to the door after him, horrified.

He kicked and stamped the scarf, boiling hot tears cascading down his cheeks. The scarf lay limply in the middle of the road and then, all of a sudden, it rose towards Shailesh. He tried desperately to beat it off, but like a python stalking its prey, it slithered around his neck. Around and around it wound, even as Shailesh screamed and tore at it. He fell to the ground, thrashing and flailing. Tighter and tighter, till he gave one last shudder and then lay still, a shadow on the ground in the frosty silver moonlight.

As if shaken from a trance, his shocked mother uttered a cry and ran towards the inert body.

“My son!” She cried as she knelt next to him and touched him. Instinctively, she jerked her hand away and looked back at her husband in frightened disbelief.

A distinct smell of burning flesh filled the bleak night air.

pencil

Anitha Murthy is a lazy dreamer, pretty content with life. A software consultant by profession, she likes to write whenever inspiration strikes her. She has been published both online and in print, has even won a few contests, and likes to try her hand at different genres. She lives in Bangalore and her home on the web is Thought Raker. Email: anitha.murthy.007[at]gmail.com

Delicate

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
Jill Quinn


CIRCUS
Photo Credit: Daniel Horacio Agostini

Sasha shivered. It had been a long winter, but he hoped that everything would be over soon. That’s what all the grown-ups on the streets said anyways. What did he know? He was just a little thief. They shooed him away at every opportunity.

It hadn’t always been that way. Once he had been a child with mother and a father, but then they had attacked the Winter Palace and the world had turned upside down. Earlier revolutions had failed, but not this one. This had ripped his family apart and tore at the very fabric of Mother Russia.

No time to think about that now. If this worked, he would have a little of his family back.

He approached the edge of the circus with a feeling of dread hanging over him. He checked his pocket one more time. A flashy bit of pink winked out at him in the darkness. It was still there. He had to stop checking, he would drive himself mad. He held it very carefully in the palm of his hand.

The tents and carts loomed over him. The smell of overcooked cabbage hung in the air. A woman scuttled by with a nervous gait.

“Excuse me, could you take me to the ringmaster?”

She eyed him up and down. From her garish painted face and hurried but graceful gestures he guessed she was a ballerina, but not the star of the show. The star would have just pushed him in the mud.

“Is it wise that a little one like you would meet up with him?”

“I need to do it. I have something for him.”

“Is it something he wants or something he needs?” She asked this question like it was very important.

“Something he wants.” Sasha tried to say it with confidence, even though he wasn’t sure. All he knew is he had to get it to the ringmaster and fast if he wanted to see Irina again.

“Let me see it.” The ballerina held out her hand. She had only one. He had thought the other hand was drawn up into her sleeve to protect from the cold, but now he saw it was just a stump protruding out of her coat sleeve. It wasn’t bandaged, but the flesh had a raw look.

“Give it to me.” She waved her hand again.

She might be graceful, but she had the authoritarian voice of a schoolteacher. Should he trust her? How did he know she wouldn’t run away with it?

The only reason he had survived on the street this long was because he didn’t trust easily. That and his lightning-quick fingers. He would have starved many times over without his newfound talent.

Sasha fished around in his pocket and displayed the trinket. The ballerina snatched it from his hand and dashed it to the ground.

“There, now go and don’t come back if you know what’s good for you.”

She ran away, crying into the night. Sasha didn’t have a moment to spare for her. He bent down and started anxiously scraping away at the dirt and muck.

Finally he saw the shine of pink diamonds. He sat back on his heels and sighed with relief. The tiny elephant was safe. Now he just had to make sure it worked. He jammed the little key in and cranked it. It took a moment, but the elephant raised its head in a creaking movement.

He didn’t realize he was holding his breath until he saw the puff of white in the air. Now he just had to find the ringmaster. He had to reach him before midnight.

A drunk was sprawled out over some old netting. Sasha poked him with a long stick. The man grumbled.

“Excuse me, can you take me to the ringmaster?”

The drunk grunted and pointed.

Sasha decided that was the best he was going to get, so he hurried off in that direction. Noises started to grow louder, lights started to grow brighter. The smell of cabbage started to fade and he smelled something else. Something that smelled a lot like rotting meat.

He finally reached his destination. A train car that stood open to the elements on one side. Herds of animals gathered around. He saw them as eerie half shapes that would come from nightmares. There were claws, fur, and lots of teeth.

He shuddered and it wasn’t from the cold.

“Step back. Step back. He’ll see you later.” A ferocious man swaggered forward. He didn’t have a stick or anything to beat back the animals. They made no motion.

“Step back.” He said again, gulping at a bottle. Then he roared out a wall of blue flame. There were neighs, roars, and squawks as the animals skittered away.

Sasha wanted to skitter away too, but the fire-breathing man saw him. He waved a hand.

“Come here. You’re expected.”

Sasha took a tentative step.

The fire-breathing man squatted down close so they could be eye to eye. He had no mustaches or beard, probably because they might catch on fire. He did have bushy eyebrows that seemed to dance about his face. All the sudden he seemed easy and friendly, like Uncle Artemi after some plum brandy.

“You have what the ringmaster needs?”

“What he wants.” Sasha corrected the man, but felt himself atremble with nerves. What if the man questioned him? What if he stole the elephant? What could the big man do to it? It wouldn’t survive another blow.

Sasha clutched onto the pink elephant in his hand, still protected in his little wool jacket. Too tight and he might break the delicate machinery inside. Too lightly and the man would might seize it right out of his pocket.

The man wrapped his arm around Sasha. “Little one, the two are often one and the same. You must be very brave to have come this far and done this much.”

“He has my sister.” Sasha said.

The man nodded. “You must not react to his appearance.” He tapped Sasha twice on the nose. “Remember that and you will be fine.”

The man stepped back and made an elaborate bow. “Continue on, my good man.” Sasha heard him say under his breath. “And may God bless you.”

Every step up the plank seemed to be an eternity. The fire-breathing man shut the door.

Sasha knew he should feel frightened, but his first sense was of a delicious warmth, something he hadn’t felt in months.

Then he began to take in the cozy interior of the room. Jewelry and shiny trinkets were strewn about as if a child had been playing. Everything was covered in green velvet and purple silks, elegance that would put the tsar to shame. That is if they still had a tsar.

There was a samovar glowing golden in the lamplight. His hands ached to hold a cup of tea, to feel the heat sliding down. There was no smell of rotting meat here, just tea and something like flowers.

His eyes scanned the room. He had to find Irina. Towards the back of the rail car there was a large Oriental screen, painted with flying cranes and dragons.

An orangutan stepped out behind the screen, wiping his hands on a cloth. He had the stiff-legged gait of someone who was trying to walk after a long time in bed. He was dressed in the style of a country gentleman.

“Oh good. You’ve come. Let’s see it then.” The ape adjusted his spectacles. His arms were far too long to make this dignified, but somehow he managed.

Sasha hesitated. “I need to see Irina first.”

The orangutan let out a rich liquid chuckle. “I need to see Irina, sir,” he said, unfazed by Sasha’s boldness.

“Yes, sir.” Sasha said.

The ringmaster rubbed his chin in a gesture that looked disturbingly human. “All right then. Irina, come out my dear.”

Irina walked out from behind the screen. She wasn’t Irina as Sasha knew her. She was just sixteen, still beautiful, but now tired and worn. What was worse, her face was a blank slate.

“Sit down, my pet.”

Irina walked over to a couch, sat and folded her hands primly over her lap. She moved with the grace of the acrobat she had once been, but there was no joy to her movements.

“Irina, do you know me?” Sasha longed with every fiber in his being to run to her and throw himself into her skirts and cry like he had not done in years.

She looked at him and smiled, but her face revealed no trace of recognition.

“You’re upset. Perhaps you’re too young to understand what’s going on,” the orangutan said.

“I understand, sir. You’re creating a better world.” Sasha swiped at his nose with his hand, resisting all impulses to cry. It wasn’t what he believed, but he knew what was expected.

“Not a better world. A fairer one. A just one.” The ringmaster gestured at a chair. “Please sit, my boy.”

Sasha sat down by a table that was scattered with implements. He tried not to stare at the saws and other cutting devices. Surely those were only used on the animals.

The chairs and tables were all low to the ground, all perfectly sized for Sasha. Or an animal that was about a foot or so shorter than a grown man.

The orangutan settled into his own chair as if he was about to tell a long fairy tale.

“You see, when the human ringmaster figured out how to make me talk and think that was a great moment, but when I could give the gift to the other animals…” the ringmaster tapped his long orange finger to his head, “…that was the miracle.”

Sasha decided not to mention that the orangutan had also killed the human ringmaster and many others besides. He and this circus had started a movement that had overthrown a whole government. Everyone knew that by now. It was all anyone could talk about, the great Animal Uprising. More and more animals were being given the special clockworks and special parts to make the world “fair.”

There was a roar close by.

“You see, my children are hungry for more miracles. There’s only so much I can do.” The orangutan held up his huge hands in dismay. “That’s where Irina comes in.”

“How, sir?” Sasha said. It took every inch of his courage not to run out into the night, but he had a feeling there was more than one animal waiting for a miracle. And most of them would be ready to gobble him up if a miracle wasn’t handy. Only the fire-breathing man could hold them back and he wouldn’t be so nice to someone who crossed the ringmaster.

“Look at her radiance.” The ringmaster gestured at Irina. He spoke in a low croon. “You humans are usually vile-looking creatures, but she has such an innocent, pure way about her. We animals don’t want to be like humans, we want to be better, the best. And the only way to be the best is to study what is most beautiful and right and true in all of you.”

Irina glanced up and gave another stupid smile. Sasha wanted to run over and slap her, just to get her to cry or laugh. To do something.

“You’ve studied her. Now you can set her free.” Sasha didn’t know how he would manage with Irina acting like a dress mannequin. Somehow he would do it. He’d care for them both this time and not lose her like Mama and Papa.

“Give me the elephant first.” The ringmaster curled his lips in a most inhuman way. Tongue licked teeth.

Sasha reached into his pocket and pulled out the pink elephant. In the golden lamplight, it seemed little and soiled.

The orangutan snatched it up and polished it with his cloth. He held it up and the pink diamonds shone again.

“Those nasty Romanovs could never appreciate something of such beauty. Only someone who works with his hands can understand the art that goes into even something simple. How nice of you to liberate it.”

“Thank you, sir.” He didn’t steal it from the Romanovs, not exactly. A freelance rascal had taken it during the confusion of the animals storming Saint Petersburg. Then Sasha had liberated it. Let the ringmaster think what he wanted.

“You’re very talented with your hands aren’t you, little man? There’s not many that could handle this situation properly.” The orangutan poured a cup of steaming hot tea from the samovar and handed it to Sasha.

“You have your elephant. We’d like to go, sir.” Sasha raised his voice a little. He curled his fingertips around the dainty china cup. It wouldn’t hurt to steal a moment’s warmth.

“You see, Sasha. We don’t just want to study you. We’re not trying to become you. We want you to become us. Don’t you see that’s the only way to fair world? No rulers, no chains. No king of the jungle. ” The ringmaster smiled at his little joke and caressed Sasha’s hand.

Sasha had to do his best not to show even a hint of repulsion. He knew if he did it would be the end of him and Irina.

“I was told you stick to a bargain, sir.”

The orangutan released Sasha’s hand. He sighed. “With your fast little fingers I could do so much. Someday I will create the perfect human being, much like your sort used to breed thoroughbreds. Or perhaps how your mama would sew up a little doll for your sister to play with.”

Sasha remembered for a horrible moment the ballerina with one hand.

“A doll?” Irina asked. Her voice was eager, but cracked and strange.

“Yes, my poppet. A doll for you later.” The ringmaster sounded amused, but bored, as if talking to a small child.

The orangutan’s eyes cut back to Sasha. It was clear he had no further use for Irina. “Very well. Give me the key.”

Sasha laid the key to the toy on the table. He did not want to touch that paw again.

The ape grabbed the key between two fingertips and wound up the elephant. This time it did not raise its trunk. It just sat there in that large brown palm.

“Oh dear,” said the ringmaster, but he didn’t sound very sad at all. He sounded almost gleeful.

“It worked just a moment ago.” Sasha felt as if he might have been better off with the lions and bears.

The orangutan smiled. “These things happen. It was only something I wanted, not something I needed.” Then in a fast move he shattered the elephant all over the table and flung the pieces at the samovar. The diamonds and clockworks fell to the floor, making a slight tinkling sound as they collided on the Oriental rug.

“Very well. Your sister can go. Irina, leave now,” the ringmaster said with a voice filled with a strange, terrible authority.

Irina got up and walked to the door. She pushed it open and walked out without a glance to Sasha.

Sasha laid down the tea.

“Sir, I’ll just be going. I have to look after her, you see.” He wasn’t sure if she could be trusted even a moment on her own.

The orangutan gripped Sasha’s wrists with a brute force, stronger than the grip of any man. “I don’t think so, my dear,” he said, his tone full of regret. “Your sister is free, but you must stay. You see, you’ve brought me something I want, but now you have something I need.”

pencil

Jill Quinn is a writer. She lives with her family in Washington D.C. and their lives are enriched by one very neurotic cat. Email: jill.kathleen.quinn[at]gmail.com

Shattered

Dead of Winter ~ First Place
Bethany Nuckolls


ice-crack
Photo Credit: Jeremy Hiebert

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face. —I Corinthians 13:12

The lake turned to glass during the night.

Next morning, he can see straight down to the bottom when he lays his forehead on its cool surface. He can see the minnows, brown and motionless like pebbles, hovering mere inches beneath his open palms. The surface is smooth, but not mirror-smooth. There are small dimples and flutters of frozen motion, a scattering of tiny proofs of life. And yet, overnight, it has all fallen still.

He crawls across the lake on hands and knees, exploring what he knows to be impossible. The touch of glass feels like water fondling his palms, or a breeze flowing through his fingers. Ripples are frozen, leaving giant undulations of pooling glass where, perhaps, a mallard has taken flight or a turtle ducked its head. The perfect roundness of every ring and dimple reflects the sun and glimmers, as unique as thumbprints. It seems as if time itself has stopped and he is the only creature still breathing in the world.

He wonders if he is still drunk from the night before. It occurs to him suddenly that the lake may not be frozen at all. Last he had looked at the calendar, it was the middle of June. Perhaps if he stops believing what his senses are telling him, he will wake up and discover that it has all been a dream.

He peers again at the lake bottom. The glass looks fluid, ready to melt, to shatter, and to swallow him. He can feel it giving way. So he holds his breath, and waits for the plunge.

*

A pair of running shoes on the bottom stair, visible in the half-light of the kitchen bulb.

“What the hell are those?” I demand, bare feet slamming into each wooden step.

Shane switches on the basement light, blinding me suddenly with the glare of harsh metal edges—pipes from the furnace and water heater. Dammit! My brother grins at me. There’s a mischief in his eyes that I rarely see.

“They’re yours, Dez,” he says, and I stop muttering curses under my breath. He hasn’t even mentioned the bottle of Corona Light in my hand, or how I’m not supposed to be combining alcohol with medication. He just flashes that stupid grin, like I’m supposed to throw my hands up and start dancing ecstatically on the stairs. Great, I’ve got a new pair of shoes.

I’m not a runner; Shane is. He runs every day to some end of the earth that I’ve never seen nor care about. I tell him I think he’s found a girl that he can’t quite catch. He thinks if he keeps running, one day I’ll follow him. He never says it, but I always know what he’s thinking. He’s thinking right now that this time I will go out, that I will put on those running shoes.

Not a chance.

“You’re out of your mind,” I say and walk back up the steps, Corona in my hand, towards the table shadowed in the kitchen corner. My corner. The wallpaper is peeling and the floor slopes down in the corner, but I like it that way. I like to see the old house peeling away, erasing the place where my wife and I once lived. Soon, I think, or maybe hope, all the echoes will be gone.

I hear my fool brother call after me, “Last one to the end of the road is a pig’s ass!”

Mere boyhood threats. But things haven’t changed much.

I thunder down the steps to grab those running shoes.

 

We used to race barefoot in the woods behind our home in Virginia. We’d follow a creek into the crowd of dark cedars that would suddenly burst apart into dew-soft clearings. There, we would see rabbits sit up straight on their hind paws, surprised at our coming.

I would always be behind, following Shane’s footprints in the muddy clay. I’d notice how they were larger than mine, the strides longer, although he was younger than me. I’d stop as if to catch my breath and say, “I’m going home now!” And that would turn Shane right around, because whoever reached the kitchen first would get to choose his favorite color of ice pop first.

When I was much older, I broke three of my toes, and I stopped running. My wife said it was my fault because I was kicking in the garage door with my bare feet. I don’t really remember anything about it. Shane says nothing on the subject.

 

Today, the sky smells autumn dry. The dirt drive is packed hard beneath my running feet. It is late afternoon and the shadows from the cornfield on my left are weaving a gold and dark mesh across the ground. To the east, trees grimace against the deepening light, turning as red as my face. My breath comes in quick gulps because I know I can’t do this. I can’t run this far. Ahead, I see a small blob of white—the T-shirt of my brother who is at least an eighth of a mile in the lead, shrinking into a human-shaped blur.

I stop to gasp for air, heart throbbing in my chest, phlegm filling my throat. I can’t do this. I will never be able to catch up to my brother.

I’ve only been first once, and that was by birth. I should have gotten the best as the oldest child, but I didn’t. On my ninth birthday, my parents bought me a new, black-and-yellow ten-speed bike. They gave Shane a plastic model airplane so he would not feel left out. Shane enjoyed his one little toy so much that he never even asked to ride my bike.

That night, I buried that toy plane in the woods. I told Shane that he must have lost it. Shane cried, of course, but he believed his older brother.

“I’m turning back!” I yell. “I’m going back and I’m never doing this again! You listening, Shane? I don’t run! I never wanted to run!”

I see Shane turn around, but I don’t wait for him to come to me. I walk back up the drive, gazing out at the lake behind the house.

In the basement, I toss the new pair of running shoes into the empty metal water trough beneath the stairs. Then I stride across the basement and push Dad’s old worktable aside. My head clunks against the hanging light bulb. Dammit! I try to steady it, and my hands scatter shadows over the floor. Bed frames and moldy books crouch against the walls and watch me in the half-light. My fingers do the searching. At last, I find the paint can right where my wife set it before she left, the kitchen only half-painted the yellow of lemons.

I pry open the lid, carry it to the trough, and dump the paint over the laces, the soles, the tread, drowning the shoes in yellow. Behind me, I hear my brother come through the door. He doesn’t say anything, and I know he’s watching.

*

A crow caws. He gasps from sleep, his breath ragged. His knees are sore, his muscles tense. The hardness of the glass sends shocks of pain up his arms where they have been pressing against the surface. All around him, little whirligigs fall from the maples, landing on the lake’s phantom surface with the sound of rain. No longer June, but November. The world around him is dying quickly. But he is unable to die, turned back by the lake’s unending flatness.

He thinks about calling for help. Then he remembers:

Shane is gone. Shane has left him behind. He put on his running shoes one day and just kept running…

*

“Put down the phone!”

Shane looks startled as he glances up at me. He’s probably not expecting me up at five in the morning, but as the doctor tells him, “Always expect the unexpected.”

“Goddammit, Shane! I said, put down the phone!”

I reach for the receiver while my right fist pulls back in readiness. Shane gives me one frightened look before trying to slam the phone back in its cradle. I grab it first. “Listen!” I yell into the receiver, “I don’t need any help! Got it? You leave me alone! You and all your goddamn medications! I don’t need you!Crack! Call terminated.

Shane looks at me, stares at me as if I am a rabid animal. I’m not crazy, I want to shout. I want to ram my words into his face. But as I look at him, I can’t help but see the little boy who used to run into my room at night and bury himself beneath the covers. Our parents had given us separate bedrooms, but we had slept in the same room almost every night. “I’m scared,” he had whispered so the shadows wouldn’t hear. It had been our secret so Dad wouldn’t find out. “Promise?” he would beg, the sheets crumpled in his fists.

I should have kept it. I shouldn’t have let one little throb of jealousy get in the way of my promise. For days after I told on him, I would hear Shane crying through my bedroom wall until late in the night, his door blocked from the outside by Dad’s armchair.

“You’re crazy!”

I don’t mean to yell, but I have a strong voice. “You are out of your mind! Don’t you ever, ever call Dr. Mellin without my permission! I decide who to call around here!”

Shane shakes his head. “You need to get better, Dez,” he says. “Why can’t you just accept my help? When are we going to stop playing this childish game of pretending that everything is okay?”

“When hell freezes over,” I snarl. It sounds petty. I’m not even sure what the petulant turn of phrase is supposed to mean—a figurative place undergoing a figurative change. The rest of the world is so set apart from reality that “normal people” can understand every last one of these damned, moralizing concepts. I, however, can only hurl them like blunt objects at the people who know me the best.

Shane has no comeback. He just stands there wordlessly, arms hanging limp at his sides as I turn to walk away. I give him a last warning look, but I feel shame creeping up into my face. So, like a striking snake, my hand snatches and yanks the phone cord from the wall.

*

The smoothness of the lake when he glides his hand over the polished ripples reminds him of ice skating at the university. Erika had taught him how to ice skate. Before then, he hadn’t even dared to try. He knew he would just keep falling on his ass and hear the jeers of the upperclassmen. But she had given him the courage to try, to take a risk, to have fun while he skittered about on his blades, feeling a pull at the bottom of his stomach every time he moved. She had been the one who had pulled him out of himself, who had allowed him to shrug off the mask he had worn throughout his freshman year. He had felt lucky to have won her as a friend.

He remembers.

He remembers laughing.

As he reaches out to touch a tuft of cattail poking out of the surface, his hand freezes in motion. He recognizes the image frozen beneath the surface of the lake… the crossed shape of a model airplane. It should not be here, but it is—dirt-covered, broken, and only an arm’s length away, yet as unrecoverable beneath the glass as a thoughtless deed.

Trapped.

*

“Erika sent this.”

Shane stands at the bottom of the stair, his white shirt stained yellow with sweat. He’s been running. I’ve been staring at my computer, so my vision is cloudy with after-images as I roll my chair back to look at him. I see that Shane is holding out an envelope.

“Come up,” I say at last.

No return address, but that’s to be expected. I rip open the paper and suddenly feel a hot sting. Damn! The paper cut bleeds across my finger and I smash it down against the fabric of the placemat.

A storm had rattled the windows hard the day Erika bought the lemon yellow placemats from the department store. “I just wanted to go out by myself,” she had said in a rusty voice, one longing to not speak at all. “Besides, I can’t return them now. The receipt got wet in the rain.”

She had crumpled the soggy paper in her hand, and the ink had bled between her tightly-clenched fingers.

And so the placemats had stayed, though now they are speckled brown and gray from food and dirt, and now red from blood.

“Damn envelope,” I mutter. “Doesn’t she know how to use email?”

Of course she does. She doesn’t have a computer at her apartment. Her residence is just temporary anyway, but I don’t think she has any intention of coming back, even if she does get the house and everything else through the divorce. For now, the house is my home—home until Dr. Mellin decides to lock me up if I don’t “improve.” It’s a nifty experiment, imprisoning me in my own house. I suppose he and Shane think that this regimen will cure me. Cure me of what, I’d like to know? Divorcing my wife? Marriage used to be a private matter. So had reading the mail.

“What does it say—if you don’t mind my asking?” Shane says, and I know he’s trying to lighten the gloom that curtains the off-yellow kitchen.

“She says, ‘Dear Desmond. Hope you aren’t lonely and you and your brother are getting along, neh deh-neh deh-neh…'” I fall silent, reading the handwriting that looks so familiar, curved in the smooth lines that are being crushed under my thumbs and stained by my bleeding finger. Her flowing hand reminds me of the softness of her dark hair. It was the most beautiful on summer days, when we went hiking in the Appalachians and its dark tangles looked like the patterns of the forest shadows.

We had gone hiking the day after Erika found out she was pregnant. “I might not be able to do this for awhile,” she had laughed. We had talked about names. If it was a boy, I would name it. If it was a girl, Erika would, and I could choose the second name. I had decided on Liam for a boy.

“It follows family tradition,” I had explained to her. “And it means ‘strong-willed.'”

“Like you,” she had said. Erika had a fondness for Hebrew names, so the girl would be named Abby, which she claimed meant ‘joy of the father.’ I had told her it was the perfect name.

It was born on a stormy March night that was much less intense than the confusion at the hospital. Although invited to stay, I left the delivery room and waited in the hospital lobby. Erika’s first contraction had struck me, like lighting, with a sudden doubt.

It turned out to be a girl, a crying, pathetic thing. But Erika loved it; she loved the lumpy red creature that could easily have been mistaken for a large and gnarly potato pulled up out of the earth. The strength of that love frightened me.

I tried to be gentle with it at first, praying that it would not open its eyes and see me, holding it in my arms. Then I tried ignoring it. But every day, I’d see Erika sitting in the rocker beside the crib, crooning to it, singing to it. She’d ask me to make her dinner, and I’d stiffly comply, clenching my teeth against a jealousy I knew shouldn’t be there. I knew it was wrong.

Her face is still vividly there. Her luscious, black hair melts into the creases of the paper. Her eyes gaze at me from between the folds. I can smell her scent on the letter. Her face smiles, then saddens, as a mist in my eyes fades the image out.

Shane puts a hand on my shoulder. I feel it like a blow. Our dad’s voice rings in my head. “You only see the surface, Desmond. You never really get the heart of the matter.” He is standing there in his crisp white shirt and khaki trousers. His frame is tall and thin. His clothes look like paper. I always felt that if I blew gently, the wind might carry him away. But his heart was too heavy. “Goddamn, you’re the most short-sighted son I’ve ever had to raise.”

“Dez.”

Shane whispers in my ear, and I start and look over my shoulder. I see his serious, brown eyes taking hold of mine, trying to draw me out of the darkness. But I can’t keep my gaze steady. I can’t hold it in. The next moment I’m on my feet and I’m swearing like I never have before. My lungs can’t hold it all, the pain, the swelling that fills my chest. My ears roar with static noise.

“I don’t care!” come the echoes of my own words, as if from a great distance. “I don’t care what you say, or anybody says! I don’t need her! I don’t want her!”

The letter tears in my hand, again, and again. The pieces flutter to the floor along with the tears that fall from my face.

I turn on my brother who is looking stunned. “Her… them… You’ll never leave me alone!” I accuse. “Nobody does! Listen to me, there is nothing wrong with me! I’m me… this is me! I am perfectly normal!”

Shane gets ahold of my left wrist and gives it a painful twist and I stop yelling so I can curse.

“Dez, listen,” he says. “Listen to me. You’ll be fine. You just don’t understand… you don’t understand.” He lets go of my wrist and takes several deep breaths, as if winded, despite all of his running practice.

At last, it’s my turn to win.

“I do understand,” I say, coolly. “I know why you’re here, Shane, why you came here. You’re the watchdog. Erika was worried about me, so you thought you’d do her a favor by keeping an eye on me. But that’s the older brother’s job, Shane. That’s my job. I’m supposed to look after you! It’s my right!”

I choke on my own words as I speak. The creature inside of me throws itself against the bars.

Shane grips both of my shoulders now, but he can’t look at me. He’s crying, and shame fuels my desire to run. I try to wrench away, but Shane does not let go. I glare into his tightened face. My fingers begin to reach for his throat. “God, how I hate you…”

“Desmond,” he says.

Something in the softness of his voice causes me to listen this time.

“I—I have always… always looked up to you. I just want you to know that. You were my only big brother and I wanted to be like you. Just like you.”

I jerk away from Shane’s grip. Liar, I think. I already know that he’s going to call Dr. Mellin. He’s going to have me taken away and locked up. They both think I’m crazy. But they don’t know crazy.

Crazy is crawling on a frozen lake without feeling the cold. Crazy is risking death by lying at its center, the weakest spot on the ice. Most of all, it’s being able to look down beneath the surface and see it all clearly, second by second, every regret, down to the deepest level of hell.

But I suppose none of us ever realize we’re standing on thin ice until it begins to crack.

I stalk away from my brother to find something that will stop the pain that is pressing against my ribs and pounding in my head. I search for something I can kick or hurl against the wall. Through a blur of vision, I see the curling ends of the lemony wallpaper border that wraps around the walls of the kitchen, cracked in places where my fist smashed the drywall. It used to frighten Erika when I lost my temper. Sometimes, I frightened myself.

On the cabinet beside the kitchen table, I see the hand-blown glass plate that Erika bought last summer at the Appalachian art festival. Erika had said she could see our own lake in its rippled bands of painted blue. The glass dims and wavers in my mind—a volatile thought coming into focus. Then it breaks beneath the sledgehammer of my fist. I watch the lake shatter into a hundred pieces.

*

He awakens once more. It is winter now. The glass has become ice. The cattails are gone and he wants to leave. He reaches for her hand, but it is not there anymore.

“You can do it, silly,” her voice says. “Keep your knees bent this time.”

Her voice is still there, but she is long gone.

He tries to stand, but his feet slide suddenly on the surface, and his fingers claw the ice for purchase. The lake groans, then cracks. The sun fades fast behind dark trees as he struggles again to stand, the way she taught him, with knees bent.

pencil

Bethany Nuckolls knew she wanted to be a writer since she was five, and thus seventeen years later she earned a degree in Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. Her writing has been featured in the university’s publications and also in various online publications. Her main hobby, aside from writing, is traveling around the country and the world, and many of the places she has visited have also inspired her stories. Lately, she has spent two years living in rural Japan. Email: writebackatcha[at]yahoo.com

Whitcher Cemetery

Dead of Winter ~ Third Place
Erica L. Ruedas


Old Family Cemetery
Photo Credit: Richard Freeman

There was a graveyard at Fort Ord.

Madge found out about it on her second night while patrolling with Ronnie, the cocky sergeant. He took her out beyond the barriers on Inter-Garrison, where only bikers, hikers, and cops and military personnel were allowed.

“See the kennels over there? The military used to keeps dogs on the base, and they’d have guys sleeping in those buildings nearby. Some of the fellas here, they say they can hear them howling at night when they drive by. I’ve never heard it, though.”

Madge sipped her coffee and stared out the window. The moon was out, and Monterey’s famous fog had left off for the evening so the kennels stood out clearly. They looked like everything else did on this base—old and abandoned.

Ronnie tossed her a grin and put the car in gear and they travelled a little farther down the torn-up road. There were more abandoned buildings, which Madge knew she should get used to on this campus, but Ronnie drove past them without comment and pulled up next to a small clearing surrounded by a chain link fence on two sides.

“Now, take a look here,” he said, glancing at her to make sure she was looking. “Now, not too many of the students know this, but there’s a graveyard here. Belonged to some family a long time ago, like 1800s or something. But anyway, when the government came ’round looking for land, the family sold it to them under one condition: that they could come visit this graveyard to pay their respects to their ancestors whenever they’d like. Military agreed, and they were the only ones allowed on this base during times of war, when the whole place was locked down.”

Madge nodded, but she was staring at the headstones outlined in the moonlight. The graveyard was small, with one large cross and one or two small headstones. If they had been closer, she would probably make out more, but Ronnie drove off again.

“You know,” he said, after a moment, “they say sometimes a little girl goes down to the kennels at night, wearing a blue silk dress. Those headstones all belong to kids, but they’re all really little kids, like two years old. Some of the fellas think it’s a girl killed by the soldiers, to hide evidence or something. And she hears the dogs howling, and goes down to the kennels to play with them, cuz it makes her forget the horrors she experienced here.”

Madge rolled her eyes. Ronnie was taking her silence to be fear, when really she was just wondering about the family buried in the graveyard. She loved history and visiting cemeteries.

They finally drove back to the station and spent a few hours filling out some paperwork and watching training videos from the eighties before everyone on the night shift packed up their gear and went home. Madge had taken a townhouse in the staff housing two miles away from the station, and, as she had sold her old car before moving, she hitched a ride with the campus shuttle on its second lap around the campus.

There was no one getting on the shuttle from campus to housing, so Madge struck up a conversation with the student driver. She was a business major, named Emily, and was in her second year. She shared Madge’s love of the history of Monterey, and on the short drive the two of them traded facts until Madge’s stop.

When she got back to work again that night, the office staff of the student transportation and parking services were leaving from their office next door. Emily was among them. “Have you been here all day?” asked Madge, shifting her gear to get at her swipe card to unlock the police entrance.

Emily separated from the group. “No, I just take a second shift on Tuesdays. Hey, have you been around the area yet?”

“No, not yet, I’ve barely had time to go grocery shopping.”

“Well, leave a message in the office—my boyfriend and I can show you around this weekend.”

“Cool, thanks.” Madge finally found her keycard and let herself into the station, waving goodbye to Emily.

An hour later she was in briefing, where she learned she was to be partnered with Sam, a tall, good-looking detective who was popular with the students. She also learned that she was in the driver’s seat.

“So, have you been learning the streets?” Sam asked her in the car as he made adjustments to his seat.

“Yeah, east/west streets are given the designation ‘Street’ and the North/South ones are ‘Avenue.’ I’m still figuring out the housing blocks—which one is Civil War again?”

“That’d be Frederick Park 1. The first left when you get past Inter-Garrison. Frederick Park 2 is Revolutionary War, and Schoonover is all on its own—that’s where you live right? Want to drive around there for a while?”

“Sure.” Madge called it in to dispatch and they drove the two miles back to the campus housing. They’d been driving around for a few hours when Madge asked about the graveyard. Sam laughed.

“Yeah, Ronnie likes to scare all the new guys with that. New girls. People. Sorry.”

“S’all right.”

“Anyways, there is a graveyard back there, but I’ve never heard of any ghost girls or ghost dogs or anything like that. Nothing much happens out there, anyway. It’s just a place to go when you get bored at night.”

Within a few weeks Madge was driving a car on her own, and as the students settled into the fall semester the station got busy at night with party bust-ups, disturbance calls, and one particularly interesting marijuana bust in the dorms where an R.A. discovered a student growing pot in her dorm room. She hadn’t had a chance to drive past the barriers on Inter-Garrison to see the graveyard yet, but it was hanging at the back of her mind. Thanks to Emily’s tours she’d found the cemetery in Monterey, but it was small and uninteresting compared to the mystery of the graveyard on the military land.

Just before the school’s fall break, Madge found herself driving around one night with nothing to do. She had already done a few sweeps of the abandoned buildings down by Second Ave, where students liked to steal souvenirs or smoke pot, so she drove down Inter-Garrison and through the barriers, trying to remember how to get to the graveyard.

She found it quickly, despite not having any landmarks back there, and as she approached the kennels her hands slipped on the steering wheel. She was more afraid of being found there by the MPs, as she didn’t know how to explain why a campus cop would be out here alone, but there wasn’t anyone else around. From the road near the kennels she realized she could see the headlights going up and down Imjin to Marina, something she hadn’t seen the last time she had been here, but as it was nearly three a.m., there were few headlights.

She don’t know why she did it but she got out of the car. She wished she had a camera so she could photograph the kennels by the half-covered moon, and she left the car running with the headlights off just in case. She could always tell the MPs she thought she saw someone moving out there.

The kennels were falling apart, some missing their gates, but Madge stood there awhile, imagining she could hear the dogs sleeping inside. The moon went behind a cloud, and it took a minute for her night vision to kick in. She had a flashlight on her belt, but she didn’t want to take the chance of it being seen.

When the moon came out from the clouds again, she suddenly heard a howl, and then another. She froze, staring at the kennels, but nothing was moving. The howls stopped, and Madge suddenly remembered it being mentioned in her orientation that there were still animals on the base, like deer and coyotes—and mountain lions. She realized that this was a stupid idea, to be in such a strange place by herself with nothing but some pepper spray and her gun, and she was heading back to the car when she saw the girl.

She had materialized behind a dilapidated building about a hundred feet from the kennels and was walking towards Madge, wearing an old-fashioned blue dress that shimmered in the moonlight. She was about seven or eight, and she was looking right through Madge at the kennels.

Madge stood staring at the little girl until her radio crackled to life and she jumped and ran to the car. In the car she chanced a glance back at the kennels and the little girl had disappeared. The radio crackled out something again, and Madge turned it up and heard dispatch calling her to suicidal student out in FP1. She acknowledged the call and drove back to campus, where she spent the rest of her shift counseling the distraught student and seeing her safely onto an ambulance to the hospital.

Two days later, Madge was walking around campus when she ran into Emily near the library.

“Hey, Officer Stevens, taking a class?”

“Oh, no, just looking around.”

“Well, be sure to check out our library. I think it’s the smallest university library ever.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, it’s in the Guinness Book or something. Anyways, I gotta get to class. See you at work!”

It occurred to Madge that she might find some history about the cemetery in the campus library, and as she was technically staff of the school, she had a library account. From the outside the library looked small, but inside it was even smaller. A nearby librarian spotted her and greeted her: “Can I help you find anything?”

“Yeah, I’m looking for some books on the history of Fort Ord.”

“Is it for a class?”

“Oh, no, I’m not a student, I’m actually a police officer that just started. I wanted to learn a little bit more about when this all used to be a military base.”

“Sure, we’ve got some books, but it might be best to try the city library.”

“Yeah, you guys are kind of small for a university.”

The librarian smiled apologetically. “Well, the school itself is only ten years old, and we don’t have much of a collection yet. But we do have a great interlibrary loan system, and there’s plans to build a much bigger library in the next five years or so.”

“Cool.”

The librarian spent a few minutes showing Madge some books on the history of Fort Ord then she left to help another student for a class. Madge picked up some of the books and took them to a study table so she could look through them. She flipped through several of the books, but none of them had any information about the land before it had been sold to the military by David Jacks. The librarian came by again and peered over her shoulder.

“Any luck?” she asked.

Madge sighed. “No, not really. None of these have the information I want.”

“You might want to try the city library—it’s behind downtown on Pacific Street. I think they’ve got a historical exhibit right now.”

Madge followed the librarian to the desk and took the slip of paper with the city library’s address. “Thanks.”

Rather than waiting to find someone to take her out there, Madge took the bus from the stop outside the library. She hadn’t been able to shake the image of that girl from her mind. She came home later with a stack of books about the history of Monterey, and she grabbed a beer from the fridge and sat down to read. There was still very little history mentioned prior to what she had begun to dub “The David Jacks Era,” but she eventually fond a footnote somewhere that said that a family called Whitcher had once lived on the land. There was no more about them in any of the books.

Just before fall break, the university started advertising a Secrets of Fort Ord tour for all the potential students coming to view the campus. It was a two-hour bus tour that went around the military land. Madge found that she was off that day, so she signed up. When she ran into Emily at work she found that Emily had signed up as well, and they agreed to go in the same bus.

“I hear there’s a graveyard out there,” Emily said, lowering her voice.

“There is, I’ve seen it.”

“Cool!”

On the day of the tour they met up outside the main university building with a large group of teens who were looking around nervously. “Ever been on the tour before?” asked Madge, craning her neck to see down the street.

“Nope, but my friends went on it last year and said it was cool. That’s how I found out about the graveyard. There’s really one out there?”

“Yeah, it’s really small, though.”

The guide they had was an old colonel who had been stationed on Fort Ord in the seventies. His commentary was dry but informative, and he was able to pepper it with some of his memories. At certain spots they were able to get out and walk around, except where there was a live training being done, and people crowded the windows to watch soldiers in full gear storming a building with their M-17s drawn.

They finally drove to the area by the graveyard, and everyone got out to look around. The fog had started to settle, so the colonel warned them to watch their step, as there was still a lot of hazardous material around, and Madge got a chance to go over to the small graveyard. There were only five headstones, and Ronnie had told the truth about them all being toddlers, except one, who had been an adult buried in the thirties. She couldn’t see where the little girl might have come from.

Emily came up behind her and looked over her shoulder. “Not much to look at, is it?”

“No, not really. Wish someone knew more about them, though.”

The fog grew heavier as the party walked down the road to the kennels, and Madge was enjoying seeing them in daylight when they all heard the howling. A few people laughed nervously, but the colonel explained that it was probably just coyotes.

“Those aren’t coyotes,” someone said.

“Well what else could they be?” asked Emily.

“That’s some kind of dog. There’s a dog out here.”

Everyone looked around, but no dogs appeared. Then Emily suddenly screamed, and the colonel ran over.

“What is? Did you step on something?”

Emily shook her head, pale under her make-up. “No, I thought I saw a little girl over there by that building,” she said, pointing to the corner where Madge had also seen the little girl.

“There’s no children on this tour,” the colonel pointed out, sounding irritated.

Emily shook her head again. “It was definitely a little girl.” She turned to her Madge. “One of the cops told me there’s this ghost of a little girl out here. I bet it was her.”

“Was it Ronnie?” asked Madge, as the colonel started herding them towards the bus.

“Yeah, him, I had to do a ride-along with him my first month and he took me back here and tried to scare me. I didn’t believe him, but…”

“Yeah, he told me the same thing too.” They got back on the bus and Madge followed Emily to the back, where Emily leaned her head towards Madge’s.

“You know, I bet it’s someone from the graveyard over there on the other side of the road.”

“All the people buried there are under five or over thirty,” said Madge.

Emily looked disappointed. “The girl I saw was around eight, and I know I saw her.”

Madge peered over the seats and lowered her voice. “I’ve seen her too.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, a few weeks ago. Was she wearing a blue dress?”

“Yeah!”

“Same girl.”

Back at work the next day, Madge went to Ronnie immediately. “Did you try to play a joke on us this weekend?”

“No, I was up in the Bay Area with my girl. Why?”

Madge had known that, but she soldiered on. “Someone tried to scare one of the tour groups, out at the cemetery.”

“Oh, that Secrets of Fort Ord tour? I been on that a few times. Probably one of the theater students doing his own Blair Witch thing.”

“They saw a little girl in a blue dress.”

Ronnie laughed. “Oh, come on, you don’t believe that, do you? Hey, Sam,” he said, as the tall detective came into the room, “our newbie here believes that old ghost story.”

Sam laughed at the irritated look on Madge’s face.

“You want one of us to ride with you, huh? You too scared to go alone?” taunted Ronnie, getting too close to Madge. She punched his arm and walked away, slightly satisfied when she saw him rubbing his arm.

Emily met her for dinner the next day.

“It definitely wasn’t Ronnie,” said Madge, as they sat down.

“Well, what else do you think it was?”

“I don’t know. I looked it up and the family those graves belong to is called Whitcher, but none of those graves belong to an eight-year-old girl. And I can’t find anything else.”

Emily chewed her pizza thoughtfully.

Madge spoke up again. “Look, it’s not the best source of information, but Ronnie said maybe a girl was molested and killed out there, and they buried her to hide the evidence.”

“You think there’s someone else actually buried out there?”

“Maybe. It doesn’t have to be from when this still belonged to the military. It could be someone more recent, and no one’s ever around out there, so it wouldn’t be too hard not to get caught. Either way that makes it a crime and I have to investigate it. What if someone’s really buried out there?”

“Well, get the other cops in on it.”

Madge knew she didn’t have enough evidence to even mention it to Sam, and she was more interested in getting to the bottom of a possible ghost story. “They won’t believe me, not after I got after Ronnie for trying to scare us,” she said.

They finished their lunch and Emily got up to head back to class when Madge caught her arm. “Hey, go on a ride along with me next week. We’ll head out there again, look around.”

“Sure. When do you work next?”

“Thursday.”

“Cool, I’ll meet you at the station, then.”

Up until Madge grabbed the shuttle to work, she tried to find information about any missing girls in the area, but nothing came up. She finally printed out some pages that she knew were going to be irrelevant and ran out the door. To her surprise, Emily was driving the shuttle.

“Someone called in sick, so I’m driving till 7:30. I’ll come by then, though?”

Madge got to work and filled out the paperwork for a ride-along, then grabbed her car and drove around the housing for awhile. The night was quiet for a Thursday, and she was able to drive back to the station to pick up Emily.

“Here’s some stuff I printed out earlier, but I don’t think it’ll help,” she said, tossing the print-outs in Emily’s lap.

Emily went through them quickly on the way to the road blocks and shook her head. “There’s nothing here.”

When they got to the kennels, Madge shut off the car and the headlights. They sat staring at one another for a minute, and then Madge took a deep breath and got out of the car. Emily followed her.

The night was foggy, and Madge felt safe enough pulling out her flashlight. “Stay close to me,” she said. Emily hugged herself and followed Madge to the kennels.

They spent a few minutes looking around, but Madge never found anything suspicious. She was about to tell Emily she was going to call it quits when Emily gasped and pointed to the shed. Madge shone her flashlight in that direction and saw nothing, but Emily grabbed her hand and pulled it away, and Madge saw the little girl coming towards them.

Once again, she was looking right through them towards the kennels, but this time there was no howling. The fog rolled across the field, and Madge’s blood froze as she watched the little girl pick her way to them. She was within twenty feet when Emily’s hand seized Madge’s and tugged her away.

Madge nearly dropped the flashlight as they ran to the car, and was adjusting her grip on it when Emily tripped just ahead of her. Madge stopped to help her up and turned around, but the girl was gone, or at least had gone far enough towards the kennels that she couldn’t be seen. Panting, Madge pulled Emily up and turned on the flashlight to make sure she was okay, and Emily gasped again.

At her feet was a greying bone.

This time, Madge grabbed Emily and pulled her to the car, where she started it and kicked up clouds of dirt taking off.

They drove around for an hour or two to calm down and decided that they would report it to Sam. When they got back to the station, Sam listened to them quietly, then radioed for a back up team to go out there, where Madge and Emily led them to the bone. It was bagged up and taken as evidence.

A few days later, Madge joined a team of MPs, Ronnie, Sam, and a few other cops as they went over the ground near the kennels. A dog had been brought in, but he found nothing until they got to the place where Madge and Emily had been standing the other night when they last saw the little girl. It was there that he started whining and growling at nothing, and tugging on his leash.

“What’s wrong with him?” Sam asked the handler, but the handler just jerked the dog away.

“Get away from the area, folks,” he said. “Hey, Parkins, you want to get an air quality tester over here?”

A couple of hours later, more MPs, in masks this time, were going over the area. Carbon monoxide, in concentrated amounts, had been detected near the kennels. Sam wanted to go back to the station, but since Madge wasn’t actually on duty, she elected to stay.

She was there when one of the MPs fell through the dirt, and his teammate barely caught him before he dropped fifty feet into a well behind the kennels, and she watched as they uncovered the rest of it, and blasted the carbon monoxide out of it.

By the time the city historians got there, it had been worked out that the well had belonged to the Whitchers, and vandals looking for metal had disturbed a lot of the surrounding soil, allowing the carbon monoxide to reach the surface. The gas, along with the story Ronnie had planted in Madge and Emily’s heads, and a nearby family of coyotes, had been the source of the bone, the howling, and the apparition. The little girl was never seen again.

pencil

In her day job, Erica fixes software and databases, but at night she is a dancer, writer, and photographer. Email: eruedas[at]gmail.com

The Red Blanket

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
Tamara Eaton


Warm Furry Blanket
Photo Credit: Steve Jurvetson

The Pueblo—1682

In the time of the great disease she watches as one after another the people of her pueblo sicken and die of the fever from the pale-skinned ones. Her husband falls ill. The pueblo shaman performs the healing ritual, but when the chants and prayers are complete, she stares at her beloved’s lifeless body. She wrenches away from the bed pallet. On the other side of the room the baby cries. With a last look at her husband, the young mother clasps the infant in her arms, and runs across the village.

She enters the church at a rush. “Padré, help us! Tell me how to save my daughter. You know this sickness. You are well. Tell me what to do,” she pleads, her tongue tripping over the foreign words.

“You must remove the child from the village,” he instructs her.

She acquiesces. “Gracías, Padré.” Turning, she walks back down the center of the small church.

“Wait,” he says. “Let me pray with you.”

She stops and kneels facing the altar. His voice drones an echo in the dim chapel. The aroma of burning candles normally consoles the Indian woman. Nevertheless, at this moment, the fragrance oppresses her and a slight nauseated sensation reels her stomach. Breathing deeply, she regains her equilibrium. The woman parrots memorized lines, finding no comfort in the foreign language. The baby squirms, uttering a short whine.

“Shh.” The mother strokes the young infant’s cheek. The prayer ends. The woman nods to the elder Franciscan priest, rises from her knees and retraces her steps.

Vaya con Dios, my child,” he calls to her retreating back.

Walking through the village, she hears the moans of sick friends and family hanging on the crisp air. Saving her daughter’s life is her only concern. The mother ignores the misery of the others and returns to her plain adobe room.

Her preparations are simple, and she tells no one her plans. To protect the small one from the bitter cold she bundles her in the red blanket, a gift from her grandmother. Trembling hands place corn into a pack for the journey along with a skin of water. A small leather bag contains corn pollen. She concentrates on the effortless tasks, shunting her own fear to the back of her mind. The mother lifts the baby into her arms and exits the warmth of the shelter into the high desert winter.

She wanders for hours before coming to a path leading up the mesa. The trail is long and treacherous. Many times she stumbles. The precious weight in her arms does not cry. Shivers no longer rack her or the baby. At long last she reaches the end of the trail. She sets her valuable burden down on a rock outcropping.

Sprinkling the white corn pollen in the wind, the woman prays, “Please Great One! Hear my prayer! We can go no further. Protect us here from all sickness and death.” She bows her head and snowflakes alight on tangled black hair. Tears run down her cheeks.

It is her grandmother’s voice she hears on the wind. “Keep the baby wrapped in the red blanket, and she will remain safe.”

A great sigh escapes her and she brushes the wetness from her face. Confident in the protection of her ancestor, the woman returns to her infant. Holding the baby to her breast, she feeds the child. She reverently touches the blanket, stroking it and cherishes the warmth of the precious little one inside. Wind whips violently around mother and child. She ducks her face away from the icy currents lifting her hand to protect her eyes. In the brief unguarded moment, a gust rips the red blanket away from her daughter. It flies away, swirling in the breeze.

Recalling the promise of her grandmother, she rushes after it, the infant in her arms. She must not lose the red blanket. Placing the babe on the rock once more, she runs over the mesa chasing the treasured fabric. It dances, calling her to play, teasing her mercilessly. The wool cloth flies up and skirts the rocks before being lifted again on another blast of air. A cry from the baby jerks the mother’s gaze back to her daughter. The baby appears small in the distance. The woman is surprised how far she’s run in such a short time, but she’s nearly to the edge of the mesa. Lying on the rock, the child will freeze without the warmth of the blanket and her mother.

“Be strong little one. I’ll be back in a moment,” she calls. Again, the woman turns to watch the blanket. She scrambles over the sandstone rocks and sees the cloth caught on the branch of a mesquite tree at the cliff rim. This will be the last chance to reach it. Balancing precariously at the edge of the slippery rocks, she strains toward the bright wool. Her hands grasp a handful of air. Another sharp gust rips at the white elk hide she wears and the shifting weight causes her foot to slip. Grabbing a tip of the red wool unbalances the woman and she topples to the sandstone shelf above the canyon. Her neck snaps on impact and her wail echoes on the wind.

The child lying on the rock whimpers, falls asleep, and wakes no more.

On his herb-gathering walk after the weather clears, the priest finds the child lying on the mesa in death’s sleep. He says a prayer for the little one and builds a small cairn of rocks over her. A short while later, he spots the woman’s broken body whose hand clutches a red blanket. He shakes his head and expels a soft moan. His advice to her had not saved her or the baby. He prays over the woman and spends an hour gathering rocks to gently place over her body. Before setting the final stone atop the makeshift tomb, he uses it to scratch a name into the cliff.

In passing years sagebrush and scrub oak grow around the lone grave hidden below the mesa rim. The marker: a cairn of red stones. Visitors to the concealed burial place are an occasional deer or elk wandering down the slightly worn animal path along the edge of the mesa. The harsh desert climate reclaims the land.

 

Nuevo Mexico—1785

The vaquero sits tall in the silver-trimmed saddle and rides his horse up the steep path cresting the last rise to level out onto the mesa. Far from being lonely, he takes pleasure in his solitary travels over the ranchero’s vast terrain. Today he’s looking for stray cattle possibly left behind in the summer pastures after the fall round-up. Gathering gray white clouds foreshadow an impending storm. He gathers his jacket closer to ward off the dropping temperature, and pulls his sombrero down so it won’t fly off in the rising wind. Hoarfrost covers the brush, creating a bleak, peculiar landscape. Creeping over the mesa, the fog flows through the crags and crevasses of the canyon below. Within a few moments he can see only a few feet in front of his mount. The familiar site becomes a strange foreign land surrounding him. The horse spooks, bucking him in his saddle.

“Whoa! Easy El Diablo. What’s wrong?” He pats the horse’s neck to calm the animal.

Hearing a noise, he turns in his saddle toward it. He reaches his gloved hands for la riata, taking it off the saddle’s horn to prepare a lasso before dismounting. Usually he’d remain on the horse, but with limited visibility, he prefers to have his feet on the ground. His leather boots scuff the loose sand on the mesa. He leads El Diablo by the reins, peering into the freezing fog surrounding him. The sound reaches him once more. He is convinced the whimper is a calf so he continues toward it, rope in hand.

Through the mist an Indian woman materializes. He drops El Diablo’s reins and darts back to hunt for a hiding place. A sandstone indentation provides cover. There hasn’t been any Indian fighting in the area, but he warily watches the woman. Though he thinks she must hear both his footsteps and those of the horse on the sandstone, he sees no indication that she sees him yet. He is ready to run if she shows any signs of hostility. He lets out a breath he is surprised to find locked in his chest.

She strides back and forth, not more than twenty feet in front of him. Her gaze searches, without seeing him. He stands. The woman’s focus lands on something beyond him. She runs toward him. He sidesteps to avoid her, but she brushes past him and a flash of colder air enshrouds him. He gasps drawing his knife, spins around, he makes the sign of the cross and watches her whirl to stand opposite him. Her eyes widen, eyebrows arched.

Mí niña? Have you seen my baby?” Her voice is desperate.

“No.”

“Please find her. She will freeze without the blanket.” The woman raises a red blanket, supplicating the stranger for help.

He backs away crossing himself once more. “Bruja? Please don’t hurt me.”

“Help me.” She pleads. “I must find my baby.”

The vaquero shakes his head. “No. There is no baby here.” His voice quivers and he trembles. “Madre de Díos.”

“Ask her to help me find my baby. She is a mother. She understands.”

Is she asking him to pray for her? He shakes his head again.

“Please. Ask the Virgen de Guadalupe to pray for me. She will hear your prayers.”

He kneels in the dusting of snow covering the mesa now. He closes his eyes and folds his hands in prayer. “Madre de Dios, protect me from this spirit.”

“No!”

He repeats the prayer and lifts one eyelid. Is the specter crying now? Yes. Her tears slip down her pale red-brown cheeks. He hangs his head; sadness replaces the fear his heart. “I cannot help you, Spirit.”

“You must.”

Her simple request is hopeless. How can he make her understand? “Señora, it is not possible. You do not live in my world.”

The fog lifts expanding the visibility. He gazes around seeing the mesa once more. “Where are you from?”

“The pueblo.”

“Why did you leave your village?”

“The sickness. To save my baby.” She shrugs her shoulders.

“Where is she?”

“I left her on the mesa so I could catch the red blanket.” She raises the wool cloth in her hand. A sigh of exasperation escapes the woman’s throat.

“Where did you find the blanket?”

She points to the edge of the mesa. The man follows the direction of her gesture and glances over the cliff. There is a cairn of stones. He nods in understanding. Circling back toward the spirit he finds no one.

Emotions conflict in his mind. He understands the spirit is in pain and wanders the mesa looking for her lost child. As much as he enjoys the solitude of the setting, he cannot imagine eternally drifting over the mesa. How can he help her rest peacefully in her grave? The solution is obvious—if he buries her body and hides her grave, the spirit cannot roam perpetually restless. This he can do. In the frigid wind and snow flurries, he clambers down the side of the cliff using the animal trail. Upon reaching the cairn, he dismantles it with trembling hands. Clean stark white bones, the result of a century of heat and dehydration, are unveiled. With a shovel-shaped stone he digs a small hole in the sand and places the dry bones inside. He covers the grave with sand. Perhaps the spirit can now sleep, but he doubts he will sleep this night. The vast uninhabited mesa loses its allure for the young vaquero. He climbs the path to find El Diablo waiting. Lost cattle will wait. The young man mounts his horse and heads down the trail.

 

Flat Top Mesa—1888

She paces the floor of the cabin. Ten feet one way, turn, ten steps the other direction. Four walls built for comfort and shelter trap her inside. Her life is framed in waiting moments. It will be at least two hours before he returns. If she stays here, her imagination will take over. Her husband often pokes fun at what he terms her “tetched thoughts”. Unable to bear the silent aloneness of howling winds any longer, Maggie wraps her shawl tight around her auburn hair and rounded belly, opens the door to escape the cabin’s clutches. Animals need tending: an excuse and a necessity force her outside. The door wrenches out of her grasp. Pulling her full weight on the doorknob she latches it closed.

Head down, she presses through blowing snow flurries of the dim afternoon toward the barn. Frigid temperatures threaten blizzard conditions on the top of the mesa. She’s lived here a mere two years, but experience makes her aware of nature’s deadly dangers.

I hope Arthur makes it back before it hits, she thinks. If not, I could be stuck alone here for days. Thrusting the thought from her head, she plods on to the barn; watering eyes blur her vision. Each step exerts energy from her already exhausted body. Her extra load weighs her down in this eighth month. The short trip takes her an extra ten minutes this late afternoon fighting the gale. At last she arrives finding the barn door open. Maggie gaze searches the murky shadows to find no cow or calf inside. She must find them. They depend on the milk for the winter. Bracing herself for a moment on the doorframe she turns to renew her struggle against the winter.

Slow measured steps. To fall now would be a deadly misstep. She peers through half-closed eyes to make her way toward the pasture. Her best guess is the animals went to find water at the well. Buffeted by the wind she continues the search. Clouds darken the afternoon further to early twilight and the wind pushes her long skirt against her legs. Ignoring the cold, she continues. The first pain doubled her over with its force. She grips her belly and a wetness slides down her legs. Maggie slumps to her knees. Snow falls now in heavy freezing wet sheets blinding her to everything except the red sandstone disappearing beneath the snow.

“Uhhhh,” she gasps. “Not now, baby. I need to find the cow.” Maggie lifts her heaving body. One step before another contraction rips through her abdomen. She pants puffs of frozen air. Knifing pain brings her back to her knees. Teeth chattering and legs weak she lifts one leaden leg and then the other to stand up.

“Oh God please!” the wind whisks her scream away.

Scarlet drips onto the snow. She watches in disbelief. “No!

Strength she didn’t realize she possessed allows her to leverage her body against a frost-covered rock. Trance-like, she places one foot deliberately in front of the other.

A low fog now obscures the visibility. Blowing snow masks the landscape into an unfamiliar mysterious ice-shrouded world. She hears a cry. It sounds like an infant bawling. Confused, Maggie berates herself for what must be a ploy of her active imagination. The sound comes again on the wind, more definite this time. A babe’s whimper. She was sure it was more than the wind. It must be the calf bleating. Gritting her teeth to block the pain she heads the direction of the sound. She creeps forward toward the mewling noise.

Maggie catches herself in a stumble: a girl-child of no more than two months old lies naked brown against the snow. The baby whimpers now, hiccoughing, gasping for air. Impossible. The agony must be playing tricks with her mind. Shutting her eyes, she takes a deep breath expecting the vision to disappear. Delusions occur in dire situations. Barely raising her eyelids, she squints, disbelieving her own senses.

“Save me and you save your own babe,” the child says in a woman’s voice. “Leave me, and your infant is lost.”

Maggie staggers back from the naked girl, but maternal instinct urges her forward. She reaches a tentative hand out to touch the child. The baby’s skin is frigid underneath the woman’s fingers. At the edge of her vision the small whiteness her world has become at the moment, she sees a patch of red blow toward them. Reaching for it, she recognizes the scrap as the wool of a small blanket. She wraps the babe within it and cuddles her close to her own tender body, sharing her heat. The animals will have to fend for themselves. She turns, finding her bearings, retracing her steps. Snow obliterates the trail she’s left before she can follow it. She turns, but cannot see the house or the barn. Dim pale clouds surround her in the darkness now complete.

An elk emerges white and ghostlike out of the fog, staring intently at the woman with the child. It walks toward her and then away. Maggie’s never seen one so tame. She watches it watch her and the baby. They stare at one another for long moments. The elk seems to beckon her. On this evening filled with strangeness, she doesn’t question this vision and walks toward the animal. In the presence of the elk, a strange lethargy quiets Maggie’s anguished body. Trusting the magic of the moment, she chooses to follow. The animal leads her watching, leading, turning, watching, and leading once more. With the assistance of the elk, the return journey is shorter.

The cabin comes into view through the blizzard. She rushes toward it, opening the door to enter. Before she closes the door, she turns to look for her animal guide, but sees nothing except blowing whiteness and fog.

Laying the baby on the bed, she stokes the fire and begins to heat some water. Maggie lights a lantern. Pain returns to her distended belly, tightening snake-like around her middle. Catching her breath, she leans against the rough-hewn table. The wetness she felt out on the mesa returns. Her time has come; she has no doubts now. There is nothing to be done but to prepare to have this baby. She lurches to the bed and another pain seizes her. Closing her eyes, she catches her breath and lies on the straw mattress.

A soothing warm hand strokes her cheek, “Shhhh. My sister, shhhh.” Maggie’s eyes flutter open. An Indian woman stands next to her wiping her forehead with a cloth.

“Who are you?” Maggie asks. Her eyes are unfocused. She shakes her head, trying to clear the wooziness.

“White Elk Woman.”

“I don’t know you.” She pulls away from the woman and a contraction takes hold of her belly.

“It’s all right, I’ve come to help.” White Elk Woman’s soft voice gentles the skittish woman.

“But who? What?” The baby. “Where is the babe?”

The labor pains rack her body. White Elk Woman eases Maggie into a sitting position, stuffing pillows behind her.

“The child comes.”

During the next protracted minutes, time speeds by. Maggie follows the terse directions of the black-haired woman, confident that someone capable is assisting her.

“I need to turn the baby. It will hurt. I will try to do it fast.”

Unbearable pain is tolerated. The child Maggie carries slips into the stranger’s hands. White Elk Woman bathes the child, wraps it in a red blanket, and places it in Maggie’s arms.

“Keep her safe,” the Indian woman says. “Close your eyes. Your work is done for now, my sister.”

Maggie looks at her baby. The girl-child sleeps, worn out by her recent ordeal. The mother, too, is exhausted and her eyelids droop before opening wide, “But wait, where is the baby from the mesa?”

White Elk Woman smiles. “The baby from the mesa is safe now.”

Maggie’s heavy eyelids close.

“Thank you Maggie” is the whisper she hears before fatigue overtakes her and she drifts into a dreamless sleep.

The new mother wakes to a clear, calm morning, the storm having blown itself out overnight. Her babe snuggles close in her arms. She gazes in wonder at her miracle.

Arthur bursts through the doorway. “Maggie, I’m so sorry I couldn’t make it home last night. The blizzard came up so fast.” He stops short at seeing the bundle in his wife’s bed. He looks from the baby to his wife. “Oh Maggie. How? What?”

“It’s all right, Arthur. White Elk Woman helped us.”

“Who? What?”

Maggie explains the arrival of the Indian woman of the night before.

“But where is she?” he asks.

“I don’t know. I fell asleep.”

“Honey, it must have been horrible for you. I’m sorry you had to go through this all alone.”

“But I wasn’t alone,” she counters.

He shakes his head. Arthur loves his wife, but he knows she is liable to imagine stories. His gaze explores the small cabin. There is no evidence of anyone’s presence other than his wife. “There is no one else here.”

“She was. Maybe she took the baby and went home.”

“The baby is here.” He holds his wife close. He can’t imagine the strength of this woman, to have endured the pain and birth of a child all by herself.

“No, the other child,” Maggie says.

“Other? Sweetheart, rest. I’m here now.” He strokes her tangled auburn hair.

Arthur backs away as he sees she sleeps.

He goes to tend the animals. Finding the barn door open he searches the pasture for the cow. A mooing comes from the edge of the mesa. Walking over, he sees an animal path he’s not noticed before. He cautiously makes his way down the cliffside. He finds his cow with her calf lying on a ledge. He ties a rope around her neck and leads her and the calf up the path. On an outcropping he reads and mentally translates the faint Spanish scratches in the sandstone: White Elk Woman.
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Tamara Eaton is a former high school English teacher who is taking time off to rediscover her muse. She is a “snowbird” who splits her time between Nevada, New Mexico, and South Dakota where she is helping to renovate a ninety-year-old brick high school. Email: tamarae9[at]hotmail.com

Inside Voice

Dead of Winter ~ First Place
Lana Thiel


Free Scared Child Alone in the Dark Creative Commons
Photo Credit: D. Sharon Pruitt

She wasn’t opposed to the bitter cold; at times she welcomed it. The icicles clinking outside of her window summoned noise to drown out the voices. The wind ricocheted against the glass begging her to allow it inside. Violet remained focused on her work, ignoring the temperamental outbursts. She was never satisfied with her accomplishments; a small mistake could cost her. Everything. She sewed quietly, weaving the needle in and out, as she rocked in the creaky wooden chair. It had been her grandma’s. Grandma Ninny, with the slanted eyebrows and crooked mouth, who said children were to be seen and not heard. Ninny, who wore pleated wool skirts that smelled like mothballs and worn shoes. Ninny, who scrubbed Violet’s hands with bleach and antiseptic when she wrote with her left.

Violet’s hand shook as she stitched the pieces together, back and forth, one red button, then another. Her right hand steadied the material. But something wasn’t right. Something was always missing. Violet held her project up to the light. She could feel it pulsing in her fingers as she lost her grip and it fell to the cold floor.

The rushing wind screeched against the house. Violet peered through the curtains hoping to see the wind as it raced by. But the street was quiet, blanketed with the dark shroud of night, and everything was still for the moment. A few burnt orange leaves clung to the very tops of the trees, arrested in fall, as winter advanced. She scrunched her face into a tight fist as she complained of the noise outside. She spoke in a low, unpleasant tone. “Should be seen, not heard… seen, not heard.”

Violet continued gluing gray yarn to her project, making sure it was short and even. If only she had musky perfume, she thought, to make it come alive. To make her come alive. There were times she could see through the yarn for what it was, a mess of split ends from constant hair rollers that left puzzling shadows on the wall, the beady red eyes that warned her, “Practice makes perfect.”

Violet repeated the phrase as she sewed the object together. She spanned the room to marvel at her creations. This one would make the collection complete. The blinds rattled, as if someone had opened a window inside.

“You ruin everything you touch,” a low voice sprouted from Violet’s stomach.

Violet began to cry softly as a hand reached up and slapped her cheek, sending her backward. She slid to the floor and crept around the room, crawling under the table. One by one the feet appeared beneath the chair.

“Come out, come out,” the low voice said, snickering.

Violet clutched her project in her hands as the feet glided right, then left, and the small round objects appeared on the tablecloth looking like twisted hair. Rollers. A scream resonated in the old house.

“Use your inside voice!” the deep voice scolded.

The shape disappeared from the tablecloth. The feet went missing. Violet climbed out from her hiding place. She kissed the half-finished doll, brushed her hands through its gray hair, which caused some of it to fall to the floor.

“Look what you did,” the voice snarled again.

The glue stuck to her left hand, drying to her fingers. Bits of hair decorated them.

Thump. Thump. Thump. The doll moved in her hands. It was almost time for it to join the others. Only a little while until she’d be here. Violet clutched the gold cross around her neck, pressed her fingers into the points. A door leading to the attic rattled and she knew what she had to do. It was like he said, “Upon this night you shall be healed.” Everything seemed clearer now.

She lifted the doll to her face and swung it between her fingers as the wind rushed outside, laughing with unwarranted cruelty. She lost her hold on the doll and it spun to the floor and slid toward the closet. She had spent a great deal of her childhood in there, playing hide-and-seek, hanging by scratchy rope which rubbed against her soft skin. She remembered the sound of the wire hangers clanking together, a sound that induced pain in her stomach.

“Idle hands are the devil’s playground,” the low voice growled.

“Too tight, too tight,” she whined.

Violet picked up the doll and brushed its hair. She wondered how the closet felt: too warm, too tight, too cramped. She picked up another doll from her collection, one she had spent hours on. It had black button eyes and a rosary draped over its head. She fondled the beaded rosary and held it against her body.

“Look what you did,” the voice said.

Violet knew she was ruining everything but she couldn’t stop. The house rattled from inside. Violet gathered all of her dolls, dolls she’d made in the past few days to prepare for this night, and walked to the window. The trees were bent in half, right outside the glass. She thought about stepping away before the wind shattered it, but she held out her hand instead, yearning to touch the wind, to feel it slip between her fingers. Violet dropped the dolls and watched as the glass shattered and embedded itself into the skin on her left hand.

“I caught you—red handed!” the old woman said, and grabbed her tightly by the wrist. She dragged her to the kitchen table. She saw them, adorned with red fingernail polish.

“It’s the devil’s influence before my very eyes,” Ninny said. She scraped each nail until the beds were bloody and scarred.

“That’ll teach you. That’ll teach you good,” Violet bellowed. She gathered all of her dolls again to rush to the attic where they would be safe. She needed to escape from the wind.

“Not so fast, young lady,” the low voice said.

“Gotta get out… gotta get out,” Violet repeated and turned the old key in the door to the dusty attic.

For a moment the house was still again. A calming smell drifted through Violet’s nose as she climbed the stairs. She placed the dolls by the others, covering the slowly expanding shadow on the interior wall of the attic, the storage space that now bowed out. The dolls sat, making a silhouette on the wall that looked like the outline of a frail body, a dark set of eyes, an angry grin.

Violet turned away from the shadow, afraid that if she looked any longer, it might emerge and become real. She faced the stairs and thought about the way Ninny’s legs had lifted, how her body had danced down the stairs like a clumsy bird in flight. Foot, shoulder, knee, head. When she danced Violet had sung a sweet melody in her head, “Upon this night… upon this night… upon this night.” She remembered how her body had opened up, how all of the meanness had spilled out of her and stained the stairs. Each movement had been so effortless, so elegant.

Violet heard the wind push its way through the house until it knocked on the attic door. She scrunched her eyes, focusing on the doorknob, turning right, left. She’s arrived, she thought, she’s finally come for me. She scooted her body closer to the crowd of dolls lined up against the wall next to the looming shadow. The shadow that would not go away, that refused to be buried, even in the dark. The intense smell breezed past her, filling her body with calm and nausea.

That’s when Violet heard a light rap-tap-tap on the attic window. Rap-tap-tap! She gathered her dolls in her arms and leaned against the wood, against the shadow. Warmth spread over her back as she petted the dolls’ hair and stared at their button eyes. Then she noticed the blood trickling down her left hand, smearing the faces of the dolls. She smiled as she rapped lightly on the wall behind her. And the wind came to a sudden halt.

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Lana Thiel is from Appleton, Wisconsin where she works as a high school English teacher. She enjoys writing poetry and fiction in her spare time and has self-published one novel. Email: fionashakespeare[at]aol.com

Bridging Christmas

Dead of Winter ~ Third Place
Kristi Petersen Schoonover


My eight-year-old sister Kelly says that Santa doesn’t come to Salisbury.

“That’s ridiculous,” I say. The latest in a string of ridiculous things in this nowhere village. Like the football team only plays against itself and I have to be up making breakfast at 5:30, because our school’s an hour away and the bus, according to the guys, takes even longer in the winter on account of the plow attached to its grill. “Santa goes everywhere.”

“How do you know?”

“Because I’m eighteen.”

“You’re wrong, Graham. He doesn’t come here,” she insists. “Ask your nickelback friends.”

“Quarterbacks.” The kitchen linoleum is out of the forties with dancing salt shakers for a design, and it’s so cold it’s numbed my toes. I just hate stuff on my feet—even if Mom says we shouldn’t walk in this house barefoot because of the mice. It’s not the city, she’d said. Country mouse poop is loaded with esoteric diseases. It still wasn’t enough to keep me from wearing socks, but now that it’s December—a much harsher December than two hundred miles southeast in New York City was, I might change my mind. “My friends are quarterbacks.”

“My friend Shelby says they don’t need Santa because they have their own special guy called The Flannel Man.”

The toaster pops. A piece of toast rockets from the slot and hits one of the pinged white metal cabinets. The wallpaper’s dingy, the couch sags in the middle, and the porch windows leak in the summer rains, but we have a toaster that could dance if it weren’t even plugged into the wall. Mom’s concession. Not like there could be much of a concession for her driving Dad away and moving us to a town whose main drag is a single-plot cemetery, a combo gas station/general store/post office/diner, and a decrepit barn covered in deer antlers.

I shovel the eggs and sausages onto two plates and set one in front of Kelly.

She frowns. “I don’t like sausage.”

“Then don’t eat it.” I reach for the pepper and blanket my eggs.

“Why didn’t you make bacon?”

“Because we’re out and Mom hasn’t been to the supermarket in awhile.”

Bacon’s Kelly’s favorite, and when we lived in the city there was always plenty because Mom could get it right around the corner. But the only place we can buy it up here is the Price Chopper in Gloversville, which is a total haul. So she only goes there once a month—and then doesn’t buy enough.

“Do you think Mom will buy some so we can have it on Christmas?”

“That’s three weeks away,” I say, stabbing my egg with a fork. The runny yolk creeps toward my toast. “I’m sure we’ll have some by then.”

“If she doesn’t, maybe The Flannel Man will leave some on the porch! Shelby says last year The Flannel Man left them a whole roasted pig for Christmas, so I bet he’ll bring me bacon!”

“Who will bring you bacon?” Mom shuffles in, looking haggard. She’s in her bathrobe, and she’ll probably be in it all day. Not like she drinks anymore—she used to, after Dad took off, but since we moved here, she’s channeled her creative energy into making jams. Jerva’s Jams, she calls them. She churns them out, decorates the jars with red gingham, and sells them in the I-90 rest stops next to the shot glasses that say I ? NY.

“The Flannel Man,” Kelly says. She hasn’t touched her breakfast.

“Who the hell,” Mom says, pulling a mug out of the cabinet and peering inside it, presumably looking for mouse crap, “is The Flannel Man?”

“She’s got something in her head that Santa doesn’t visit here because they have their own dude who does it just for this town. Something her friend told her.”

“It’s true!” Kelly stands up and almost falls over. She was born with one leg shorter than the other, so walking’s difficult enough; when she’s excited, she forgets and does things like falls over getting out of chairs. It’s why I always have to look after her.

“Kelly!” Mom reacts. “You need to stay calm. You don’t want to crack your lip open again.”

“But it’s true. He lives under the bridge. The abandoned bridge.”

I almost choke on my toast. “Not the one on our property?” I say. Elkie told me Mom was able to get this broken-down place cheap because our driveway used to be a town road that connected Route 29A on one side of Trammel Creek with 29A on the other. You made a left onto our driveway, you went three miles, you passed our house, and then you went about three hundred feet to an old wooden bridge. I guess five years ago part of the wooden bridge collapsed. The town didn’t fix it or move the debris, they just left it. Built a new bridge in town instead. Nobody wanted property with a broken bridge. It was cursed, Elkie said.

“Yes.” Kelly nods enthusiastically. “Our bridge! The Flannel Man lives right up the road!”

“That’s a bit silly, isn’t it? A man living under that falling-down thing.” Mom sips her coffee.

“He does! Shelby told me her brother saw him and he was like this big hairy ape-man. Like Bigfoot.”

Mom dries the cup, pours her coffee, and sighs. “Somehow I doubt a Bigfoot would be running around leaving gifts on people’s doorsteps, even if he were a friendly neighborhood one. Now eat your breakfast and hurry up.”

I get up and put my plate in the sink just in time to see a wood spider crawl down the drain. “It was probably just some animal he saw. There’s tons of bears and stuff around here.”

Mom touches my arm and murmurs, “Graham, don’t scare her.”

“Did I sound like I was trying to scare her?”

“Not really,” she says, sipping her coffee, “but I know that tone of voice.”

She’s talking about the first few months after Dad left. I tortured Kelly. I was just pissed off and she was an easy target. I played jokes on her, told her there were ghosts living in her closet, shit like that. Mostly so Mom would talk to me, though. She wasn’t doing a lot of that after Dad left. She was talking a lot to the bottle of blackberry brandy instead. If I was being yelled at, at least I felt like I existed. “That was a long time ago, Mom.”

She eyes me, dumps her coffee in the sink, and shuffles toward her bedroom. “I’m going back to bed for awhile.”

Outside, there’s fog. Make no mistake, it’s cold, but there’s fog. It’s another thing about the Adirondacks I hate. In the city, if I saw fog, I knew it was warmer out. Here, the fog billows in like something out of a John Carpenter film and leaves ice on the leaves behind it. I help Kelly into her Barbie coat and mittens.

*

Me and Elkie smoke cigarettes during lunch in the woods behind the school. There’s a private clearing surrounded by a huddle of evergreens and tons of boulders that have plenty of holes for us to hide lighters and ditch butts. In the summer, it’s a festive hideaway out of the Adirondack humidity, the kind of place you want to toast marshmallows. Now, though, with a foot of snow on the ground, the logs we sit on glazed with ice, and freezing rain stinging our cheeks, it’s creepy.

I flick the Bic and light up, then pass the cigarette to Elkie. “So who the hell is this Flannel Man my sister keeps talking about?”

“Oh, he goes back, like, a hundred years or something.” One of her long black braids is caught under the collar of her coat and the other one hangs loose; the incongruity is annoying. “There was a town up on top of the mountain called Bungtown ‘cuz they made barrels or some crap. And like at the end of the 1800s everybody who lived there got plague or whatever and died, but there was this one guy who survived and he came down and moved underneath the bridge that used to be on your property.” She takes a drag. “He had to live there because nobody wanted to go near the old fart for fear of getting sick. But I guess he had scads of money and he missed his kids who died, because every Christmas he supposedly left presents for all the kids in town on their porches.” She passes the cigarette back to me. “He did that for like ten years and then he disappeared, and the parents felt so bad they started giving their kids stuff from ‘The Flannel Man’ instead of Santa.”

I get what Kelly is saying now. “So nobody writes ‘to Jimmy from Santa’.”

“Pretty much,” she says. “Around here, it’s ‘to Jimmy from The Flannel Man.’ Kinda bizarre. Every couple years some freak resurrects the whole thing and really does leave presents from The Flannel Man on people’s front porches. You’ve lived here long enough to see there isn’t much to do around here, much less in the dead of winter, except for shovel snow. Like last year there were like six families said they woke up Christmas morning and found presents on their porches, presents they didn’t buy.” She stands up and stretches.

“So it’s true? Shelby did have a whole pig roast left on her porch on Christmas last year?”

Elkie’s trapped braid finally comes loose. “Oh, yeah. But like I said, some freak like Shelby’s brother Seth probably did it. Bored, wanted to get his rocks off.” She takes the last drag off the cigarette. She tries to pitch it into the cup-sized hole in a boulder we’ve been using all week to toss our butts. “He would, too, he’s such an asshole. Let me tell you that apple don’t fall far from the tree.” That’s when I notice the hole is empty. There should be at least five or six butts in there—me and Elkie make sure we dump it every Friday, so hunters or anybody cross-country skiing or hiking through these woods on the weekends won’t find it and discover our secret patchaway—but today’s only Wednesday.

“Elk, did you dump the butts? Our hole’s empty.”

“Why the hell would I do that in the middle of the week?” She pulls her hood up over her head and wraps her scarf around her mouth. “Maybe it was The Flannel Man, ooga-booga,” she laughs as her booted feet crunch through the snow.

There is a crash in the woods behind us and I turn and look.

Elkie doesn’t seem to hear it and keeps walking.

*

The last time I saw my father was Christmas Night two years ago, and he was wearing the brand new peacock-colored flannel shirt, XXL, that was the first present he opened that day—the one from me. And I was surprised he liked it so much.

My Dad was always all about his job, working his ass off, crunching numbers in some cubicle at a company. Mom and me and Kelly, especially Kelly, with all her surgeries for her legs, we never wanted for anything. He was always working, working late, leaving before I left for school and coming home after I was in bed. And I thought he loved his work. So every Christmas I bought him business-y things. Ties. Or dress shirts. Or pencil cups and boxes of paper clips.

But for the better portion of that year, I found out Dad wasn’t all work and no play. At least, he didn’t want to be all work and no play. I heard Mom yelling at him at night. It seemed like she was always asking him for more stuff, we need a new car, I bought this new dress, Kelly needs to have a trip to Disney World… the more I listened, the more I figured out that Dad really didn’t like work; he was just doing it for us. And he never yelled back when my Mom got all harpy. The only thing I ever heard him say back to her at a volume above normal was, “Jesus, aren’t you ever going to appreciate what I do for you?”

So that Christmas was the one that I decided to encourage him to take a little down time for himself. To go do something guy-esque, like bowling or hunting or fixing cars. And so I took a risk. And I bought him the flannel shirt.

He put it on and buttoned it up. “This is nice, Graham,” he said, feeling it. “It’s really comfortable.”

“I thought you could use it,” I said.

He looked at me for what seemed like a long time. I know because we got almost all the way through “We Three Kings,” which was playing on the stereo, before he winked at me and said, “Don’t you worry, I will.”

“Open mine!” Kelly demanded. She was chewing on a very crisp piece of bacon, and crumbs fell from the corners of her mouth to the rug. “Open mine!” She handed him the box, inside which was a tie with martini glasses on it.

He thanked her by patting her on the head, but then said, “Okay, now comes the best part! Kids, let’s get to opening your presents!”

Later, after Mom and Kelly were in bed, me and Dad were cleaning up the living room. He still had the shirt on.

“I really like this, Graham,” Dad said. “Really. I know it was probably a little scary for you, buying me something so different.”

“I didn’t think you’d like it,” I answered. “I was nervous.”

“See?” He nodded. “It pays to take a risk, doesn’t it?” He took a piece of wrapping paper, tossed it in the fireplace, and lit a match. “I want you to remember that. Sometimes you need to be not so safe about things. Sometimes, you need to change it up if you’re going to make yourself happy.”

The next morning I got up, and Mom was sitting at the kitchen table, crying. “Your father’s gone.”

“Where’d he go?” I was rummaging in the refrigerator in search of leftover eggnog—the only thing I was allowed to drink in my parents’ house, and I could have it for as many days as I pleased until it was gone, but once it was gone, there would be no more.

“No,” she said. She blew her nose. The worn-out tissue broke apart and disintegrated into tiny white bits. “Gone forever. He won’t be back.”

I stood there, blinking. “Why?”

But she cast her gaze to the floor, went to the bedroom and slammed the door. That was the first night I saw her really drunk, and after that, there was eggnog in the house every night and I could have had it whenever I wanted.

We made it through one more Christmas in the city.

Then, this past April, we came here.

*

It’s the middle of the night—almost morning, actually—and there is a thunk, a crash, and Kelly screaming. I hear Mom rush downstairs, and when I get down to the kitchen and flip on the light, I realize Kelly wasn’t screaming in horror, but in surprise.

“He was here! He was here! The Flannel Man!”

Mom rolls her eyes. “For God’s sake, Kelly, it’s five o’clock in the morning and I only just went to bed an hour ago. I was up all night, I didn’t see anyone.”

“He was here!”

“You had a dream,” Mom says. “All this bat-shit talk, it’s got you imagining stuff.”

But through the dark of the kitchen, out in the indigo night, I think I see a shadow dart by the window. And I hear footsteps.

“Mom, take Kelly and go upstairs.”

“Graham—”

“I’m on the football team, Mom, I can handle it. Now take Kelly and go upstairs and lock the door. Somebody is definitely out there.”

She is about to protest further, but then Kelly says, “I told you!”

They tiptoe out of the room; they tiptoe up the stairs. And the sound of the Civil-War era stairs creaking under their lighter footfalls chills me, because I realize it’s familiar. I’ve heard that sound in the house before. I’ve heard that sound in the middle of the night when I knew both Mom and Kelly were in bed.

Whoever’s out there has been inside our house.

I have no choice.

I close my eyes, take a deep breath, and cross myself, and in my head, I heard Dad say, sometimes you need to not be so safe about things. I grab the mop, because it’s the only thing even close to a weapon, pull open the door, and rush out onto the porch, shrieking “yeeyeeyeeyeeyeeyeeyeeyee!

But there is nothing but the sound of the wind chimes and that mournful mountain silence broken only by the occasional hoot of an owl.

Until I see the footprints in the snow. Footprints that don’t belong to me, or Kelly, or Mom. Because they start in the corner by the woodpile, trail off the edge of the porch, and wend their way toward the frozen stream in the direction of the broken bridge.

I look back at the house. In the upstairs hall window I see Mom and Kelly’s huddled shadows.

I swallow. I should follow those tracks to the bridge and put an end to this once and for all. For all I know, it’s that asshole Seth, like Elkie said. But then I feel how cold my feet are and realize I’m out here, in the snow, barefoot.

On Christmas Eve.

I wave an ‘all-clear’ up to Mom and Kelly, and I see Mom pull the sheer curtain across the window and the hall light goes out. I balance the mop handle on my shoulder and start to walk, as fast as I can because my feet are burning, back toward the porch—

But I see a dark, hulking shape moving toward the bridge. Son of a bitch! “I see you!” I yell, and the thing stops for a moment and turns. God, it’s thick in the middle. Big, I can’t tell how much bigger than me, but tall.

“Get off our land!”

The thing turns and starts to run back toward the broken bridge, and I follow it, hoping to catch up with it before it decides to duck into the woods. As I get closer I can hear its heavy footfalls, a heavy crunching of the iced-over snow. God, my feet are burning!

Crunch. Crunch. Crunch.

It veers toward the broken bridge.

“Get out of here!” I shout, waving the mop. The shape is standing on the embankment, just above its lair, and it’s watching me advance, making no move to retreat. I keep running, brandishing the mop handle. I try to become one with the burning in my feet, to use the pain for courage, and I rush at the figure, raise the handle over my head, and poise to strike. And when I do, the handle clubs nothing. I end up falling down in the snow.

The dark shape has vanished.

*

Mom’s Swedish meatballs taste like plastic because she makes them with the powdered sauce that comes in a box. But it’s Christmas Day and she’s making something other than jam, so I’m not going to complain.

“So,” Mom says. “If you didn’t see anyone, what was all that yelling out in the yard?”

I hadn’t wanted to frighten them, so I had lied about the dark shape. “Just raccoons. I went all the way up to the bridge, Mom,” I say. “There was no one there.”

“You didn’t see The Flannel Man?” Kelly is sitting by the Christmas tree, sorting presents to the strains of Frank Sinatra’s “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”

I look at Mom. She has that stern I’m-warning-you-young-man look on her face.

“No,” I say. “No, Kelly. There’s no such thing as The Flannel Man.”

Mom nods her approval as she stabs meatballs with her fork puts them into the Crock Pot with that vile yellow sauce.

“Really? Because he left us presents!”

One of the meatballs falls off Mom’s fork and makes a soft splish as it lands on the metal countertop between the stove and the Crock Pot.

My chest pinches. “Stop joking around, brat.”

“No, really! He left us presents! Come and see!”

Mom and I don’t move for a moment, and then we head into the living room, lit only by the twinkling white and red lights of the tree. Kelly’s got a gift, wrapped in red shiny paper, in her hand. At her feet is a pile of four or five more. “See?”

Terror: that shadow person was in this house last night. There was someone in our home.

“They have our names on them!” Kelly is beaming. “Look! Kelly. Mom, these two are for you. And Graham he even got you, too! We should go down to the bridge and thank him and maybe bring him some meatballs!”

Mom looks at me, her eyes narrowing. “Graham,” she hisses. “How could you?”

It takes me a second to figure out she’s accusing me of playing a prank on Kelly. “Mom. I didn’t! I swear!

Her expression turns sternly dubious. “Right. You said you didn’t see anyone last night.”

“I…” I know I have to come clean or she’ll blame me. “I… I did, Mom. I did see someone. I lied. I’m sorry.”

She scowls. “If your father were around—”

But she doesn’t finish her sentence. There’s no sound in the room except Frank Sinatra crooning “There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays.”

“Where’s Kelly?” she asks.

Kelly is gone.

Mom’s voice goes up in pitch a notch. “Where’s Kelly?

As if in response, I hear the wind chimes on the porch and the slam of the door.

“Kelly!” Mom screams and clambers to her feet, nearly tripping on her bathrobe as she races toward the kitchen.

“Mom, I’ll go.”

“Graham, she’ll fall, she’ll get lost, she’ll— Oh, God! She took the meatballs!”

I set my hands on her upper arms. “Mom, I’ll get her. Go sit down.” And then I’m out the door, running, my feet freezing because I once again am a complete ass and am running outside in the snow barefoot. “Kelly!” I see her, in her yellow nightgown, hobbling down the embankment. She vanishes behind the skeletal bushes.

I envision her cracking her skull open on the boulders that line the creek and pick up my pace. I scramble down the embankment, slipping a few times on the ice, but arrive under the bridge unharmed.

Kelly stands there, her mouth hanging open, her little chest heaving, her breaths coming out in white puffs.

She is staring at one big, hairy man, all right. He’s got a squirrel-colored beard and hair that looks like fourteen chickadees have built nests in it. But he’s far from Bigfoot. He’s just your regular old homeless guy living under a bridge. Only something’s different.

I’d know that peacock-colored flannel shirt anywhere.

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Kristi Petersen Schoonover‘s short horror fiction has appeared in WrongWorld‘s latest multi-media anthology, I’m Going to Tell You One More Time; Barbaric Yawp, The Illuminata, New Witch Magazine, MudRock: Stories & Tales, and over a dozen others, including Sussurus Press’ I Am This Meat anthology. Her stories “Wailing Station” and “King of Bull” took 2nd and 1st place, respectively, in Toasted Cheese‘s 2006 and 2007 Dead of Winter Contests. She holds a BA in Literature and Creative Writing from Burlington College and is pursuing an MFA at Goddard College in Vermont. E-mail: petersenschoonover[at]gmail.com

Merry and Monroe

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
Shannon Schuren


She keeps it hidden in a box under the bed.

She only keeps the bed—the same uncomfortable one she’s slept on since childhood—because it is high enough to house the box, which fits snugly beneath the tarnished frame, which holds the coiled springs, which lie beneath the torn mattress, all of it covered by the quilt hand-sewn by her grandmother.

She takes comfort in these layers. They are all that muffle the voice when it calls. Teasing, pleading, wounding. She tries to ignore it, has faced the sofa in the opposite direction so she doesn’t have to look at it. Still, the loft is sparsely furnished. It is easily heard or seen from anywhere in the apartment.

She used to worry that visitors would ask questions.

Luckily, no one has ever come.

She took the loft on a whim, something temporary until she made her mark. The gray walls hadn’t suited her then, but she wasn’t going to be here long enough to bother. Now, ten years later, the only splash of color in the room is the framed photo on the wall of herself at eighteen. She is beaming a smile reserved for moments of utter joy, a smile her lips have long forgotten. She is like a goddess, her blonde hair teased and sprayed and washing over her shoulders like a river of liquid gold, her sequined gown shining like jewels in the floodlights. One arm clutches a bouquet of roses; the other is raised to hold the teetering crown in place upon her head.

Sometimes, she wakes with the smell of the roses in her nostrils—that heady mixture of earth and fruit, of life and promise. Her skin is flushed from the heat of the lights and the thrill of the moment; her head throbs from the bobby pins being jammed against her skull, a pain so delicious it makes her cry.

She was supposed to do more. Change the world, or at least travel it. She’d thought about college briefly, thought more about dating college men. Education itself was for ugly girls with no talent, or so Monroe tells her. Girls who live in one room walk-up apartments on the bad side of town and who eat tomato soup from a can for supper. And sometimes not even for those girls.

She eats over the sink, then rinses the can and plastic spoon before recycling them. It is time to dress for work. Perhaps the blue dress tonight, or maybe the red. It doesn’t matter. She is invisible, even to those who pay to see her.

She kneels by the bed and runs her hand across the bumpy leather of the box. Her fingers fit perfectly into the worn grooves in the plastic handle, and she no longer feels the repeated bumping on her thigh as she moves down the three flights of stairs to the street outside, the weight as heavy and familiar as the door to the vestibule, the snow packed against the curb, her own thoughts.

The bar is full by the time she arrives. She slips in through the side door, catching sight of herself in the glass door. Her hair, once the color of sunflowers, has now faded to the same dull brown as the watered-down rail brandy. Her eyes are as gray as the smoky air inside. She belongs now, just like the regulars hunched protectively over their drinks, or the bartender, wiping the same liquor spills with the same dirty dishrag.

In the back, she wrestles the box onto the table. Her hands are shaky, and she takes a deep breath before flipping open both clasps and lifting the lid.

“Hello, Merry.”

“Hello, Monroe.” She stares down at the dummy. His black hair matches his tuxedo, and the rose in his lapel is as red as his painted grin. His marble eyes glitter with intelligence, or perhaps it is malice. She can no longer tell. “How did you sleep?”

“How do you think I slept, you stupid little twit? You know I hate that box.”

“I’m sorry, Monroe,” she mumbles, as she does every night.

“The blue satin again? I suppose you think it’s charming,” her dummy sneers. “It makes you look like a washed up prom queen. But then again, I suppose that’s what you are.”

“Yes, Monroe.” He’s right, he’s always right.

“I don’t know why you bother. I’m the one they come to see.”

She used to spend this time before the show telling Monroe to behave, urging him to curb his sharp tongue, warning him not to offend the customers. But that was back when she still had a voice.

“Hey, fatso,” Monroe will tell the overweight woman in the front row. “Why don’t you swallow your misery instead of that burger? It’s got a lot less calories.”

And the woman will laugh along with the audience, and Merry will pretend not to see the tears shining in her eyes.

“You over there.” He’ll raise his little fiberglass arm to point at the old man with the paunch under his shirt. “Who do you think you are, Hugh Heffner? That blonde on your arm is young enough to be your granddaughter. I’m guessing you’ve got money, Heff.” And to the blonde: “I don’t care how rich he is, honey, I guarantee you can do better.”

The man will guffaw, all the while keeping one arm wrapped tightly around his date, holding on to her youth and beauty for dear life.

Merry had once been young and beautiful. Special, they’d said, and she believed them. She’d been promised fairy castles and happily ever after, but now she knows those things don’t exist. The world is dark and cold and plastic and people are so hungry for something real, they pay to hear the smallest morsel of truth. Even when it comes out of the mouth of her dummy. No matter how painful or humiliating, for one moment it makes them feel something.

Merry will make them feel something, too.

“It’s Burger Lady tonight, Merry,” Monroe whispers after the show.

She bites her lip. “No, Monroe,” she pleads. “I can’t. Not again.”

“You’ll do it. So shut up with the stupid arguments.”

She closes her eyes for a moment, rests her forehead against the rough brick of the building. She kicks at the snow, now muddied with cigarette butts and vomit, and wishes she’d worn a sweater. It’s cold tonight, though the metal dumpster blocks some of the wind. She fingers one of the rust holes.

“I know what you’re thinking, Merry. But you’re the piece of garbage, not me. Throw me away? After all I’ve done for you?” he hisses as she slams the box shut and fumbles with the latch. “We’re connected, you and I. You can’t escape it. I’m your voice.”

She shivers and drops her gaze, steeling herself against the words and the wind as the back door swings open and the woman from the audience stumbles out into the alley.

“Look at her eyes, Merry. She’s living a fragile, lonely, bloated existence. She’s already dead inside. You know what that’s like, don’t you? She needs you to help her finish the job.” His voice is muffled now, low but still audible through the thin walls of his case, the case she shifts to her left hand so that she can better grip the carving knife in her right.

Once, she thought she’d have more. A handsome man to love her, thousands of adoring fans. But those things are just a long ago fantasy, and she knows the difference. Reality is Monroe’s voice, her dingy apartment, the smoky bar, this rat-infested alley. And the feel of the knife in her hand.

The burger lady moves toward a nondescript blue car parked along the curb. Merry slips from the shadows and falls into step behind her, the knife secured in the pocket of her parka.

She doesn’t like to hurt people. She doesn’t want to be a monster. She’s just a faded beauty queen with a puppet whose voice has long drowned out her own.

She approaches the woman as she reaches her car, careful to avoid the skids of ice along the snow-packed street. “Excuse me, but my car won’t start. Do you think I could get a ride home?”

These are the first words she’s spoken on her own in a long time, and she revels in the sound of her own voice. She throws back her head and laughs, partly from the sheer joy of speaking again, partly to drown out Monroe’s muffled accusations about witnesses on the brightly lit street.

She isn’t worried about getting caught. In fact, she yearns for it. And when it happens, she plans to keep her mouth shut and let Monroe do all the talking. The stupid bastard never can keep his mouth shut. He was wrong. There is an escape, and she’s found it. Who’s the dummy now?

pencil

Shannon Schuren lives in Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin with her husband and three children. Her stories have appeared in The Storyteller, The Chick Lit Review, Mysteryauthors.com, and Toasted Cheese, among others. Her first novel is available at major online bookstores and at her website. E-mail: schurshan[at]hotmail.com