Broken Bridge

Dead of Winter ~ Third Place
DJ Tyrer


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

George blessed the storm. For most folk in Cumbria, it was a disaster, but for him and Bill it was a source of riches. The two of them sat in the cab of the rented van, wrapped up against the winter chill. Rain lashed against the windscreen, making visibility poor in the early-morning light.

The white van ploughed a furrow through the flooded lane, past the ‘Road Closed’ sign, sending waves sloshing over the hedgerows before the waters crashed back down behind them and rippled back into stillness. Overhead, the sky was a slate grey. Dark clouds glowered on the horizon, threatening worse: Most people were hoping they held snow that would fall upon the higher ground and offer the sodden county some respite, but they were hoping otherwise. The longer the rains fell, the more villages they could loot.

“Remember,” said George, glancing at Bill, “just take small things—jewellery, electronic gadgets, that sort of thing. Stuff you can hide in your clothes. If someone spots you hauling a widescreen TV down the street, they’ll know you’re up to something.”

“I ain’t stupid,” Bill replied.

George didn’t bother to correct him.

They were almost at their destination. The village had been evacuated after the bridge connecting its two halves had collapsed into the white, frothing torrent that had replaced its usually docile river.

“You sure it’s safe?” Bill asked, clutching the dashboard, as the van splashed down towards the cluster of houses, the water rising up its doors and dribbling in about their feet.

“’Course it is.” George slowed to a crawl, no longer able to discern what hazards the water might conceal.

“That’s odd,” Bill said, after a moment, pointing.

“What is?”

“The bridge.”

“What about it?” George was more concerned with keeping the van on the road.

“Look at it: it looks as if it exploded. There are chunks of it all over the shore.”

“That’s the force of the water for you,” George replied as he parked the van in a shallower area of water. “Right, let’s get out there and fill up. Come on.”

“Gah, it’s freezing,” Bill exclaimed as he climbed down into the water.

“Keep your mind on the prize.”

“Will do.”

They had to clamber over the sandbags that were piled up in the doorways of houses. While intended to keep homes dry, they had been overwhelmed by the rising waters and now served to dam the waters in. The various knickknacks and household items that made a house a home floated on the pooled waters. Even heavy pieces of furniture—tables and fallen shelving units—floated about like so much driftwood. There was a stink of sewage in the air.

They climbed the stairs. The homeowners had carried up as much as they could of value, conveniently laying the goods out for them to pick over. Finishing with them, they proceeded to grub through the bedroom drawers. Anything of worth was slipped into the many voluminous pockets of the coats they wore.

“Good haul,” George commented with a grin as they headed back down the stairs. Suddenly, he paused and put a hand on Bill’s shoulder. “What was that?”

“What was what?”

“I thought I heard…”

“I didn’t hear anything.”

They were silent a moment. It was unlikely any rescue workers would be about, but it paid to be careful.

“Nah, it was probably nothing,” decided George and they continued on their way.

After a few houses, having picked them clean of trinkets of any value, the two men trudged back to the van and divested themselves of the objects stuffed into their pockets. In the back were a number of plastic bins, allowing them to sort the items by type. Then, they waded off down the street to the next set of houses.

“Hey, this one looks as if something crashed into it,” Bill said, gesturing towards one building that had been halved in size.

“Probably the water caused it to collapse,” said George as they went inside and began to look about the ruins. He sighed, annoyed. “I don’t think we’re going to find anything here. It’s too much of a wreck. Let’s move onto the next one.”

They climbed back down the piled rubble and began to splash their way along the street.

Suddenly, they were bowled over as the building just ahead of them exploded apart as if it had been struck by an artillery shell. It happened so fast, they didn’t register whether it was the blast or the wave that caught them. They plunged beneath the filthy, frigid waters. Then, they broke the surface, spluttering in terror and confusion.

“Help!” shrieked Bill. “I can’t swim!”

“Shut it, you muppet. It’s not that deep; you can stand.” George helped him to his feet, then looked about and said, “What the hell just happened?”

Bill just shook his head.

“Houses collapse inwards,” said George. “They don’t explode outwards.”

“Didn’t the news say something about the risk of a gas explosion?”

“They’ve turned it off. I doubt it’s that.”

“Then what was it?”

They were interrupted by the splash of an oar and a voice demanding, “What are you doing here? Don’t you know it’s dangerous?” A man in a kayak was paddling towards them along the flooded street.

“Just checking on our house,” George lied, easily.

“You’re not from around here,” the man countered. If he were a local, he probably knew his neighbours by sight.

“I meant our aunt’s place. She got out ahead of the flood, so we thought we’d best check how it was.”

“Really?” The man was silent for a moment, then said, “Still, whatever you’re doing here, it’s dangerous. Especially if you’re motives aren’t entirely pure.”

George ignored that last jibe and said, “Sure, I can see that: That house just collapsed.”

The kayaker laughed. “Collapsed. Yeah.”

Soaked through and feeling frozen, George found the man’s tone irked him. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing. Just that it’s dangerous here.”

“No, come on, what do you mean?”

“Just that you really ought to get out of here, assuming you want to live.”

Although Bill shifted nervously, sending ripples out across the waist-deep water, George snorted and said, “Really? Is that meant to be a threat, or are you talking about the weather, ’cause the forecast says we won’t get another band of heavy rain till this evening. Things aren’t going to get any worse.”

“Floodwaters are the least of our concern.”

“Come on,” said George, turning to go and gesturing for Bill to follow him. “Man’s a loony.”

“Evil has been set free here,” the man called after them.

“Loony.”

There was the crash of another house being torn apart.

“Best get out of here,” George muttered. “The flood must be getting worse, after all.”

Then, they stopped dead, staring in horror. Something large and black loomed into view, having just crashed through another building. Brickwork tumbled off it as if shrugged away and water ran off it in rivulets. The size of a hill, they could barely comprehend its form: it had bulk and they had the impression of numerous legs, but beyond that it might have been a shapeless mass.

Bill swore. George gave a shriek.

“What is it?” Bill demanded as they continued to stare.

“Evil,” called the man in the kayak from behind them, maintaining his distance.

The thing began to turn towards them.

“Run!” shouted George, pulling at Bill’s shoulder.

The kayaker was already paddling swiftly away. Between waist and chest deep in the water, George and Bill could barely make much speed at all.

Behind them, the enormous bulk lumbered slowly but steadily after them. They attempted to pick up speed, but fear could only achieve so much.

“This way,” called the kayaker, turning down a side street. They followed as best they could.

“What is it?” George shouted after him.

“Evil—bound here for six-hundred winters within the bridge. When the floodwaters tore the bridge away, it was freed once more. You need to leave this place, if you want to live.”

“Back to the van,” said George.

Unfortunately, their only means of escape lay past the creature that threatened them.

There were more crashes, more houses being destroyed, as it headed towards them.

Clambering over rubble, they slipped around it and, finally, returned to the van. The man in the kayak was bobbing close by.

“You should hide,” he said. “If you leave now, it will follow your van. It might come for you, anyway—evil calls for evil. But, there is a chance: my grandmother taught me the old chants that bound it. I’ll try to bind it once again, if I can. You should be able to escape then, whatever happens. If I fail, perhaps the wind will change direction and blow in some truly-icy Siberian air. Maybe that will freeze it in the waters long enough that I can find a way to deal with it, or someone else can.”

“Well, I’m not hanging around to find out,” said George, climbing into the driver’s seat. He looked at Bill who was hesitating at the passenger door. “You okay?”

“I didn’t want to come,” he replied. “I’m going to find somewhere to hide.” With all the rubble about, there were plenty of options and he quickly jogged off to secrete himself. It was a wise move.

George decided not to wait. Leave the kayaker to his crazy plan, he decided; he turned the key. The van didn’t start. He swore.

The waters shook about him and he tried again, but still there was nothing.

Then, an enormous leg like a pillar of slick, black stone came down immediately in front of the van. A moment later, its twin crashed down upon its roof. George didn’t have the opportunity to register what had happened. He was dead.

Bill trembled where he hid. He was certain it was getting colder, that winter was here with a ferocity. He wasn’t sure where the man in the kayak had gone, but he could hear him declaiming loudly somewhere within the confines of the devastated village. Bill wondered if it were possible for the man to bind the thing as he said his ancestors had. He had a horrible feeling they would all die together in this godforsaken place.

Chill winds blew in and the voice of the man rose in pitch as he cried out again and again for the thing that had escaped the bridge to obey his words. But, wondered Bill, what was there to bind it within?

Maybe, Bill thought, if it followed the man, he might have a chance to get away.

Perhaps, with the temperature dropping, they would all die here of the chill. Bill certainly felt as if he might.

It was growing nearer.

Bill made up his mind. He started to run.

He might just make it, he thought.

He heard the pillar-like legs crash down into the water just behind him, sending up a spray that fell upon him like stinging darts of rain.

He didn’t make it.

Something seized him by the waist and he felt himself being raised up into the air. For a brief moment, Bill got a clear view of the devastation wrought upon the village. His final thought was to wonder if they had deserved their fate, as the man had implied: was this all some hideous punishment? Then, he ceased to wonder: He was dead.

The rain continued to fall and, slowly, the floodwaters continued to rise, the weather indifferent to the horror it had released.

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DJ Tyrer is the person behind Atlantean Publishing and has been widely published in anthologies and magazines around the world, such as Chilling Horror Short Stories (Flame Tree), All The Petty Myths (18th Wall), Steampunk Cthulhu (Chaosium), What Dwells Below (Sirens Call), The Horror Zine’s Book of Ghost Stories (Hellbound Books), and EOM: Equal Opportunity Madness (Otter Libris), and issues of Sirens Call, Hypnos, Occult Detective Magazine, parABnormal, and Weirdbook, and in addition, has a novella available in paperback and on the Kindle, The Yellow House (Dunhams Manor). Facebook. Email: djtyrer[at]hotmail.co.uk

Cutting Your Own

Dead of Winter ~ Third Place
Bunny McFadden


Photo Credit: Robert Linsdell/Flickr (CC-by)

The red velvety rope steadied me as I trekked down the path, dragging my borrowed saw through the day-old snow. Through the perfect rows of tiny trees, I could see my children dashing. We’d never find the perfect tree in time, I worried, biting at my winter-chapped lips. And it had to be perfect this year since we’d be alone.

“Mama, that one’s so cute!” Valeria pointed excitedly at a hobbled tree, one even smaller than the rest of the miniatures. Her coat sleeve rode up on her wrist. They grew so fast. Next week marked halfway through kindergarten.

“Eww, that one’s ugly and short, just like you!” Aléjandro poked his head between the branches of the next row, his shaggy brown hair hanging over his eyes. A few sprinkles of snow began to gather on his cap.

“They’re all short, Alé!” Valeria snapped.

“Enough, I don’t want to hear it,” I could hear myself say. I sounded just like my mother. A shudder ran through me. I was beginning to think the miniature tree farm was a mistake. It sounded so picturesque when I saw the flyer sticking out of Valeria’s binder last week.

“Cut Your Own!” it read in mottled photocopied letters. A garish cartoon of an evergreen was crookedly drawn in the middle. At the bottom was an address on an unfamiliar road, but when I looked it up, it was only an hour from home.

“Let’s hurry up so we can get hot chocolate,” I called, but the kids were already past hearing distance. The rows of trees were neat, almost like desks in an empty classroom. If it weren’t for the snow that had begun to fall in earnest, I could see the end of the path and the little hut at the entrance. The conifers were just tall enough that I couldn’t see the kids, but I could hear them fighting. I stood alone in the row of miniatures.

I picked a rotten day to cut down a tree.

Last Christmas was so different. We took a plane to see Jeremy’s parents in Florida. It was the kids’ first time flying, and even on the tiny seats their little legs swung without touching the floor. I spent Christmas Day on the beach, reading for fun while the kids played with the waves. And then it was January and the bottles kept piling up and the conspiracies kept piling up and the snow kept piling up until I couldn’t take it anymore.

Substitute teachers don’t make a lot of money, and the district only paid me once a month, so when the eagle finally landed I bundled up Valeria and bribed Alé with screen time. The tree farm was in Edgewood, not too far of a drive. We didn’t really have the space for a full tree anyway, and most of our old Christmas stuff was in storage till I got the court things settled. “A mini tree will be perfect,” I kept saying to the kids. Small isn’t bad for now. Like I said about the rental. Like I said about the used car. Like I told Valeria when she complained her coat didn’t fit this morning.

Down the aisle, a hunched figure appeared. I turned my attention to the nearest pine, dabbing at the tear starting to chill my cheek. I wasn’t really in the cheerful spirit you have to be to say “Merry Christmas” without scaring someone half to death.

Each tree had a tag fluttering in the snowy wind. I reached out and turned this one over, trying to look busy. The tree was knee-high, so I had to crouch down to get a better look, leaning on the saw like a crutch. In blood red script on the tag was the word Noel. It was tied with a red thread. The name set off a dozen memories of late-night fights and printed police reports that Jeremy kept trying to get me to read. Common name, I told myself.

The stranger was beside me now, speaking. I straightened up, accidentally pulling the tag off. Embarrassed, I slipped it into my pocket.

“I said, did you find what you were looking for, mija?” the withered old lady smiled, revealing eggshell-white teeth. She gestured down at the tree from under her black wool cloak. The tree bent away in a gust of wind, brushing my leg.

“I think so,” I answered. The saw I’d borrowed from the neighbor down the hall suddenly felt heavy in my mittened hand. “Well, aren’t you going to cut it?” the crone said, almost urgently.

I bent down, reaching over the velvet ropes that separated the aisles, and put the saw to the bark, scraping it once. The sound made me wince. It hit me that I hadn’t seen my kids in a few minutes, but it would be rude to stop cutting the tree now…

“You know, I have to check with my daughter first. She’s the picky one,” I explained, setting down the handsaw against the rope. The withered woman frowned. Her black eyes narrowed at me.

“Better hurry before you get snowed in,” she warned.

I looked down at the ground. The snow at my feet was growing. She was right. I squeezed the tag in my pocket nervously.

The old lady began hobbling on stilted legs back toward the hut at the entrance. I couldn’t even see the headlights of cars on the road; the storm was getting worse. I looked down at the tree again.

“Mama!”

The shout sounded far off, muffled. I dropped the saw and spun, looking over the tops of the small trees. Something didn’t feel right. Maybe I needed something sweet; my blood sugar felt like it was dipping. “Valeria? Alé? Alejandro, you get back here right now,” I said, my voice rising. “Valeria?” These kids never listened to me.

The red velvet ropes along the aisle swung in the sharp wind. The strings of vintage Christmas bulbs above were unlit. Who puts together a Christmas tree farm and doesn’t even bother lighting the place? I ripped off my mitten and dug in my deep coat pocket for my phone or a snack, but I must have left everything in the car. Instead, I felt my fingers curl around paper. I pulled the tag out. It had gotten wet with snow; the red ink had bled and I could barely read it.

The kids were probably fed up with our adventure. The car was unlocked; they were probably in there, fighting over Alé’s phone. “He better not run out of data,” I thought to myself as the snow stung my face. This tree would have to do. I’d marked it, but I needed to do something about my blood sugar before I could finish.

It was getting darker by the minute, and they still hadn’t turned on the lights. I walked against the wind, holding the velvety ropes that separated the path from the trees. After what felt like forever, I was at the thin red door to the hut. It was the size of a garden shed; the window was on the other side, and I could see the edge of the chalkboard price sign. I knocked, mittens in hand.

“Mama,” I heard again. This time, the voice was much closer, and it was not one of mine. I could tell. Was there someone in the hut? I tried the handle; the brass was immovable but hot to the touch.

“Hello?” I shouted above the whistling wind. “Hello?

Suddenly the door opened a crack and the crone’s black eye was there. I couldn’t see behind her; she filled the frame of the door completely. Had she grown taller?

“Have you chosen, then?” the woman asked, her wrinkled mouth almost immobile.

I nodded my head. “Do I pay first?” I asked, handing her the tag.

She snatched it from my hand, looking down at the lettering. “Yes, yes, whatever price you think is right,” she told me, her black eyes glittering. She reached inside and grabbed a ceramic piggy bank shaped like Santa. That was a little strange. I couldn’t remember the price of a tree. My brain felt sluggish. I needed to eat something, and soon. I dug out a twenty from my pocket.

“Is that enough?”

She gestured silently to the ceramic figure in her hands. Instead of the familiar suit with black and gold buttons, this Santa was wearing a red robe that draped over his face. His arms were crossed in front, the sleeves meeting at their opening, and the slot for coins was right below the tip of his pointed white beard. I folded the bill and slid it in. A dozen Christmas lights flickered on behind me, their vintage bulbs burning brightly and illuminating the woman’s face.

“Would you like to come in for a cup of cocoa,” the withered woman asked, and I could see a loneliness in her face that hadn’t been there before.

“Sure,” I said after a moment, stepping into the tiny hut. An ancient radiator was plugged into the wall, and there was no sink or microwave. Everything sat on a small green card table. In the same outlet, there was a cord that led to a single electric kettle that looked like it was straight from the eighties. The withered woman reached into a box under the little card table and set out two plain mugs. “Cold day, isn’t it,” she said. I nodded politely, rubbing my hands together. There was a metal folding chair leaning against the wall; I maneuvered over to it and pulled at its rusty hinges.

“So, where’s the husband,” the woman asked as she clattered an ancient-looking can of cocoa powder around on the card table.

“Oh, it’s just me these days,” I replied.

I lost myself in thought for a moment, remembering the way Jeremy used to fish out his marshmallows for the kids to share any time we had hot chocolate together. Before he started thinking the neighbors were kidnapping children. Before he drunkenly accused one as she dragged out her trash cans in the wee hours of the morning.

The kettle whistled and snapped me back to the little hut. I could almost feel my hands again.

“Thank you for the cocoa,” I said politely, smelling the watery mess in my mug. I took a sip and nearly choked. It was unexpectedly spicy but better than I’d expected.

“Of course. A bit of chile powder, like my mother used to use,” she said. “That’s how they would make it back in my day. A bit of chile powder. Since the Mayans, you know. That’s the secret.”

I took another sip.

“That, and the blood.”

I didn’t have a moment to react to this; someone under the table enveloped my legs and I screeched, jumping halfway out of my seat. It was Valeria. “Mom, can we go?” she said, looking up at me, her voice muffled from under the table. “I’m cold.”

“How did you even get in here? Go wait in the car,” I said. “It shouldn’t take too long. Maybe Alé will help me cut our tree.”

“No!” the woman shouted. I’d almost forgotten she was there. She hustled us out of the hut, slamming the door behind her. I hadn’t even had time to put my mittens back on. She gripped my elbow tightly, her fingers like claws locked around my flesh. “You must do it alone.” Valeria shrunk behind me, hugging my legs tight.

“Sorry, she’s a little shy around strangers,” I explained. The woman’s tone changed. She smiled down at my daughter, her white teeth glinting.

“Quiet as a Christmas tree,” she said, beaming down at Valeria.

I turned to my daughter and put my hand on her shoulder. “I’ll be right there, I promise. It won’t take me long.” She pouted and silently turned toward the dark lot where our car was parked. It was annoying that I had to do it alone, but I understood. There were so many laws about child safety these days. That was something Jeremy never understood when he would go off on those long rants about stolen children. The world wasn’t like that anymore. Maybe when we were growing up, but everybody had phones these days. It was another thing we’d argued about, and he didn’t let up even after we got Alé his own cheap cell.

The snow and wind had stopped and the air was still. The sun wasn’t out anymore, but the Christmas lights illuminated the long aisles of miniature trees. I returned down the center path toward the one I’d chosen, the woman walking behind me. When we reached mine, she deftly lifted the red velvety rope to make the trunk accessible.

Even in the calm, the needles seemed to shimmy.

“What did I do with the saw?” I asked, searching around. I left it right here, but it must have gotten covered with snow. I couldn’t even see our footprints from earlier, just mine and the owner’s, stretching back to the hut at the entrance. I crouched to look under the tree and saw a puddle of something sticky.

“Mama,” someone screamed in my ear. The sound made me fall back, my unmittened palms pressing into the snow. With my head next to the tree, I could smell it now. Blood. A scream rose in my throat.

The saw mark I’d made in the little trunk was bleeding. The puddle grew, turning the snow around the tree sticky with black blood. The smell was unmistakable, even to my frozen nose.

“What the hell,” I whispered, pushing myself back into a seated position.

The woman was suddenly above me, her eyes glowing unnaturally. Her smile had turned to a strange grimace. The wind tore at her black wool coat. Through the flapping fabric, I could smell a rot that bit at my cold nose above the smell of fresh blood from the tree. The lights flickered above me.

“Don’t say that in vain,” she snapped, her eyes growing blacker. She stretched out above me, filling the sky. The scream that was lodged in my throat shook itself loose now.

The withered woman reached out her arms and I saw feathers under her coat. She was transforming in front of me, growing taller. Little black barbs ballooned under her skin, erupting into feathers that sprang out wet and reddish black. She shook in front of me, wagging the feathers and sprinkling me with her blood.

For a moment more, I was frozen in horror, trapped under the giant bird-woman.

Mama!” I heard. Looking between the legs of the creature I saw Alé and Valeria there at the end of the aisle, screaming.

I kicked at the creature’s strange long legs, feeling guilty for a moment when I saw her falling, but it was too late. I turned and ran through the snow, away from the tree, away from the woman. The snow flurried around me, but I couldn’t stop. I yanked my children up, holding them under my arms as I skidded over the icy path to the car. Behind me, the snow flurried. A shadow lifted into the sky. The bird-woman rose into the air and flew at us with demonic speed. I reached the door of my car and threw the children in, clawing the door shut behind us. “Lock the doors!” I screeched, and my voice sounded like it belonged to someone else. We scrambled around, snapping the locks into place.

The creature slammed on our hood, dragging her claws deep into the thick metal. I fumbled in my pocket for the keys. Alé and Valeria screamed, clutching each other in the passenger seat. In front of us, the creature screeched, her beak opening to reveal an endless throat.

I made the sign of the cross and turned on the ignition. The headlights flashed on, and she was gone. A flurry of white snow passed in front of us, covering the claw marks in the hood. The engine sputtered for a moment, then whined in submission.

When we got home, the marks were gone.

We went with a plastic tree that year, in the end.

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Dr. Bunny McFadden (she/they) is a Chicana mother who tinkers with words for a living. Email: bunny.the.bookworm[at]gmail.com

Rules

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
Gail A. Webber


Photo Credit: Adam Buzzo/Flickr (CC-by)

I looked down at my boots, trying not to shuffle while a cold wind blew between us.

My grandfather seemed like a giant standing over me, a giant who was shaking his finger at me. In his other hand, he held the rabbit that two minutes ago I was so proud to have shot. “We only hunt rabbits in winter, Narina.” He leaned closer, and though I couldn’t see him, I felt him get closer and imagined him drawing his grizzled eyebrows together. I’d seen it enough times before. “They carry a sickness in the warm months. It makes people real sick.”

“Yes, sir,” I said, registering the new rule: Wait until winter to kill rabbits. Rules had always made me feel safe, even if breaking them meant I’d get punished. But since punishments hadn’t lasted too long or hurt too much in the past, they just reminded me to be more careful. To think before I decided to do something. What scared me lately about rules was that the older I got, the worse punishments seemed to be getting for the same violations.

…like standing in the corner facing the wall for twenty-four whole hours with one of them always watching to make sure I didn’t move.

Rules. I’d learned some early: Don’t talk back. Never lie. Do your chores. Take your punishment. Others came later: Tell me if you see a strange person. Never go outside without your knife. Gut your kill in the field. Stay out the meat shed. I was eleven years old and had quite a long list to remember.

The first time Granddad gave me the rule about seeing a strange person, I was confused. From when I was really little, Gramma had read me stories about the long-ago-people in the Bible, but I’d never seen another human besides us. I thought we were the only people left, but the rule about strange people meant we weren’t. That was when I first started to wonder about other things I’d been told, whether they were true or not, but I trusted my grandparents then, and knew better than to ask for more information than they offered.

Even with my head down, I could tell Granddad was still looking at me funny. “Did you hear me, Narina?”

“Yes, sir.” I tried to be obedient—I liked how they treated me when I obeyed. But how could he expect me to obey the rule about killing rabbits when I didn’t know about it? It wasn’t fair. The whole concept of fair and not fair consequences was something I’d only recently thought up, but I knew it was right.

As for that day, I didn’t think I had done one thing wrong.

I had awakened before Gramma called me. That was unusual because I’d been having more trouble getting awake lately and Gramma said it was because I was growing up. That made no sense because Gramma and Granddad were already grown and they always got up really early.

Anyway, I’d been having a dream about running, racing a deer faster and farther than I’d ever been. When the deer jumped into a river, I followed it in, still chasing. The dizzy excited feeling the dream gave me didn’t fade like most dreams did when I sat up, and my excitement mounted as I thought about the river. I had been warned about the river.

I could go as far as I chose in three directions from our cabin. Only one direction was forbidden to me, and I was never to go that way. Not hunting, not hiking, and not for any other reason. Granddad said the river was in that direction, beyond our fields and beyond our forest, and that it was dangerous for me to even look at. He told me if I ever got lost and found myself near it, I was to close my eyes until I’d put my back to it and then hurry home as fast as I could.

I couldn’t help wondering if “beyond the river” might be where Granddad’s strange people lived, if they existed at all. I fantasized about what they might look like, made up reasons why we never tried to see them, and why I should be afraid.

But nobody said I couldn’t dream about them—a person can’t control her dreams—and maybe the dream would come back.

My insides felt all jumpy that morning. I couldn’t sit still, couldn’t go slow. I needed to do something, so I got my knife from the table beside my bed, crept downstairs real quiet, and grabbed the .22 rifle by the back door. Then I ran to the place where our fields meet the woods.

After I shot a fat rabbit, I gutted it right away, just like I was supposed to, and ran back home fast. The proof was that blood was still dripping from the carcass Granddad had taken from me. I wanted to look at his face, but was afraid what I would see.

It’s not fair. I didn’t know.

I swallowed down a sigh and waited to find out what my punishment would be this time.

“So, this is the right thing done the right way.” I looked up to see him standing straight with a little smile curving his mouth. “Last week, we had our first hard frost, and this morning the ground is hard and there’s snow. Truth be told, it’s not much snow, but enough to call this winter. Well done, Narina.” Granddad always used my whole name instead of calling me Narry like Gramma did.

While I was still adjusting to the idea that everything was okay, he patted me once on my shoulder, the only way he had ever touched me. Gramma was another story. “And it’s a good shot too,” he said. “Right behind the front leg. I’ll hang it while you go help your grandmother.”

“Always hang your game for a few days” was another of his rules. He said it made the meat taste better and get tender, and we had a special outbuilding for that—the meat shed. Granddad did the butchering in there too. It seemed like it would have enough space inside to hang four gutted deer carcasses, but I didn’t know for sure. I wasn’t allowed to even look in there. “Don’t ask me why,” was another of Granddad’s rules.

He flicked his hand, the one holding the dead rabbit, and blood spattered in the snow. “Now git. You’re standing there like you been bewitched. Don’t let your grandmother do all the breakfast chores by herself.”

I ran to the cabin.

In the kitchen, I found Gramma bent over the woodstove, as tiny and neat a person as my Granddad was a huge one. She was lifting fresh cornbread from a covered pan onto a plate and didn’t look at me. “Where was you?” she asked.

“Hunting!” I leaned against the log wall and pulled off my boots. “I got a rabbit. With one shot!”

She looked at me with an odd expression and I wondered if she hadn’t quite heard me. As I was about to repeat myself, she said, “I am grateful for the food, Narry, and know your confidence comes from being well-taught and from practice. But avoid pride. No good comes of it.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Gramma had rules too.

I never knew my mother. Granddad said she died, “going someplace she had no business going,” whatever that meant. It never sounded quite right to me, but the one time I’d pressed him for details, I got locked in the feed room for two days with a jar of water but no food. All I knew was my mom died and her parents—Granddad and Gramma—had raised me on their farm where they mostly followed the old ways. I learned to live that way too.

We cooked and heated with a woodstove, kept food cool in the summer in our spring house, and did without whatever we couldn’t grow, make for ourselves, or kill. Planting started in early spring with cool weather crops like kale, broccoli, and beets. The rest went in as the weather warmed, mainly from saved seed. Once some colorful little envelopes of new seed appeared along with old clothes Gramma would remake into things for the three of us. I never knew where either the seed or the clothes came from, and all Gramma would say was, “God provides.”

For seven months, there was always something growing or needing harvest, and weeds that needed pulling grew everywhere our food crops did. Whatever we didn’t eat fresh had to be “put up” for winter eating, a big job after harvest.

We kept chickens for eggs, goats for milk, and a few hogs for cleaning up scraps. Sometimes Granddad would kill a hog or a chicken if hunting was bad or if he wanted something different to eat. But most of the meat for our table was whatever he—and more recently he and I—could shoot. We ate rabbit and squirrel, venison, groundhog, and some other meat I couldn’t identify. Some creatures are hard to tell by just skinned pieces. It wasn’t an easy life. But whatever else we lacked, we always had plenty to eat.

Gramma looked me up and down. “Go change and wash up before you lay the table, Narry.” She shook her head at me and I took one step back. “You need to learn not to hug fresh kills, but that can’t be helped this time. Put your bloody clothes in the vinegar pail. We’ll launder them later.” She meant the pail on the back porch where Granddad always put his clothes after butchering.

I changed and did as I was told with the soiled clothes. When I came back to get out plates and utensils, I remembered my great shot that morning and couldn’t help smiling. Then my mind went to what Granddad was doing with my rabbit right then and a question came out all by itself.

“Why won’t Granddad let me in the meat shed?” I had never dared to ask that before. “He should know I’m not scared of dead things, and if he let me watch him butchering, I could learn. And help.”

Most of my questions didn’t make Gramma angry like they did Granddad. This time, she shrugged her shoulders while she put slices of fatback into the iron skillet and slid them around so they wouldn’t stick. “It’s his special place,” she said. “One of them, anyways. People got to have their own places.”

That made me wonder where my special place was… if I even had one. It felt like something in me moved sideways and I held my breath for a second. Finally, I asked the rest. “But why can’t he share his place with me?”

I wasn’t paying enough attention and had to skitter away at the last second before Gramma got to me. Usually, she only pinched me when I did something bad, but sometimes it felt like she did it for no reason. Either way, she pinched so hard it really hurt, and the black and purple bruises lasted for weeks. She hardly ever did it when I was little, but as I got older, I had two or three of those bruises all the time, no matter how hard I tried to follow the rules. As old as she was, she could move like a snake and she was brutal.

I kept the table between us until she went back to the bacon as if nothing had happened.

After a few minutes, she said, “Narry, sing us a song.”

We didn’t have electricity or a telephone then—I didn’t even know about those things—and we never went anywhere except hunting. The only music I had ever heard were the songs Granddad played on his mandolin, and one of my favorites was “On Springfield Mountain.” I liked the story, about a boy who got bit by a poisonous snake. A girl who tried to save him died because she had a rotten tooth and when she sucked out the poison, it got in her too.

So, I started singing that, but Gramma stopped me. “Heavens, girl! That’s a frightful song. Sing something more suited to the child you are.”

I wanted to tell her I was no child anymore, but decided that was a bad idea. So, I held my tongue and tried think of another song. “The Green Grass Grows All Around” was a silly piece Granddad taught me when I was about five, but it seemed exactly what she wanted to hear because once I got going, she bobbed her head in time.

The salty-fatty smell of bacon filled the kitchen, and the sizzling sound made it smell even better. As I was thinking about cornbread, bacon, and the eggs I knew Gramma would scramble to go with them, I heard footsteps on the front porch.

My grandmother’s head snapped up. “That ain’t your Granddad’s walk. I need to… No, you’re faster. Run out the back door and fetch him from the meat shed!”

If Gramma was right and it wasn’t Granddad, then who? While I was still wondering, a knock sounded on the door.

“Stop staring, girl! Be quick!”

“But I can’t go in…”

“Git!”

I ran out, sliding in the snow as I rounded the side of the cabin. Over my shoulder, I shot a look toward the front porch. A strange man stood there holding a little case. He wore clothes like I’d never seen, a kind of jacket that didn’t look at all warm. It matched his trousers, both blue, but not like blue jeans. Shocked to see an actual stranger, I tripped and stumbled the rest of the way to the meat shed, arriving in a rush. I hesitated only a second before I banged on the door.

“What in holy hell…” Granddad bellowed from inside and the door flew open. I got only a glance at the long stainless-steel tables inside before he gave me a hard look and slammed the door behind him.

“A man is here,” I choked out. “Gramma said come get you.”

I swear he growled and took off at a limping lope, getting up onto the porch faster than I thought he could. The strange man turned as if to say something, but Granddad didn’t give him a chance. He grabbed the man up by the shirtfront, punched him once in the face, and dragged him backwards down the porch steps toward me.

I had a million questions I knew I wouldn’t be allowed to ask.

Granddad seemed surprised to see me still standing in front of the shed and yelled for my grandmother. “Pearl! Get Narina back in the cabin and keep her there. I need to deal with this.”

I didn’t wait for Gramma to come get me, but ran inside on my own. What I found there puzzled me. Never in my life had I ever seen my grandmother shaken—not when a bear was tearing the chicken house apart, not when she shot a copperhead that had me cornered in the barn, and not when she thought a fever would take both me and Granddad. But this man… it seemed like seeing this man had made all her bones like jelly.

A couple of times while we waited, I tried to sneak a look out a window, but each time Gramma grabbed me away. I heard noise a little later—like a shout or a wail—but I figured it was one of the animals. Even back then, my mind sometimes turned one thing into another and I had learned to let strange thoughts be. Usually, they went away.

It was a long time before I heard a door slam outside. I peeked out before Gramma could tell me not to and saw Granddad padlocking the shed. There was no sign of the strange man.

Boot steps on the porch. Front door creaking open. My grandfather framed in the doorway. “I sent him on his way,” was all he said.

Gramma went to him. “A car?” I think her voice was louder than she thought it was, because I hear her clear as day. He shook his head.

“What’s a car?” I’d never heard that word before.

Both of them looked at me, but neither responded. “Then how?” Gramma asked him in a whisper, but I still heard her. “Walking the road?”

He shrugged and said, “Still so overgrown you can’t hardly find it.” Then he sat down at the table and waited for Gramma to fill his plate.

I knew what overgrown meant, like fallow fields and gardens gone to weeds, but “car” and “road” were two new words. Apparently, they had to do with the man. “What’s a car?” I asked again. “And what does ‘road’ mean?”

Nobody answered me that time either, and it was all I could do to keep from getting loud. But I knew that wouldn’t get me anything but punished and I still wouldn’t have an answer. There had to be a way to find out all the things I wanted to know. There had to be.

I buttered my cornbread and stole looks at them between bites. They both kept their eyes down, fastened on their plates until their food was gone.

I was still looking at Granddad when he cleared his throat and locked eyes with me. I jumped.

“We will speak no more of this incident. You are to forget it, Narina.”

My mind spun as all the things I thought I knew fought to rearrange themselves. I had every intention of keeping silent despite the questions tumbling over each other in my mind. But I couldn’t. “Forget it? How can I? This changes everything!”

Granddad scowled and his mouth twisted into an ugly frown. “Not one thing has changed for you.”

“But that man!” I felt like something had hold of my insides, and I didn’t care what they did to me. “They’re beyond the river, right? Those people. A lot or just a few?”

Gramma’s eyes were as big as two full moons and Granddad gripped the edge of the table. He pushed himself slowly back, his knuckles white.

I knew I had crossed some kind of line and was afraid again, not afraid enough to keep silent, but my voice came out squeaky. “What else haven’t you told me? What else have you lied about?”

Granddad lowered his chin and glared at me from under heavy eyebrows. When he finally spoke, it sounded like thunder. “Narina, stop. I mean it. Stop. We’ve kept you safe from them. From yourself. Like we tried to do for your mother. She wouldn’t listen, and look what happened to her.”

I felt my head tilt sideways like a dog hearing a strange noise. “What do you mean? You said…” Realization dawned. “You lied about that, too.”

“Bite your tongue, Narry!” Gramma snapped. “What do we have to do to make you behave? Maybe you’d listen if we put you in with the pigs. You don’t need all your toes, and you’d remember that lesson for the rest of your life!” She reached across the table for my arm, but I dodged her and jumped up, knocking my chair over backwards.

Granddad stood up too, his face red and his hands bunched into fists at his sides. I held my breath. Not once in my life had he ever struck me, but right then I thought he would. I wondered if his fists would kill me. Instead of striking out, he took a few steps back, seeming to shrink. He cracked his neck sideways and said in a low tone, “All you need to know is that the creature is gone.”

“Creature,” my grandmother repeated.

Granddad’s eyes bored into mine, now more with sadness than anger. “It’s gone. You won’t see it again.”

I opened my mouth to ask them why they called it a creature instead of what it was, a man. Then I closed my lips tight together, locking my words inside. I felt years older than when I’d shot that rabbit only hours earlier, and wondered if my questioning was a serious mistake. I was confronting the ones who had always had more power than I did, and wasn’t considering what might happen to me. I wasn’t careful…

Wait. Be silent now. Just wait.

A few days later, I woke to the smell of breakfast cooking—bacon, but not quite bacon—and Gramma calling my name. My bedroom window was foggy and wet with tiny drops on the inside. Granddad called it condensation and said it was from my warmth on the cold glass. Odd.

After dressing, I went downstairs and began to set the table without being asked. I could see that Gramma must have been up for a while because a pile of sewing lay on the side table beside her favorite chair. I didn’t understand how she could see well enough to sew by just the morning light coming in the windows, and wondered if she somehow did it by feel.

“Making something for Granddad?” I asked her.

She nodded without taking her attention from the skillet. “I was. A hunting vest, I thought. But that fabric isn’t sturdy enough for that and I may make something pretty for you instead. The fabric’s got a nice feel to it. Might be nice against your skin. God provides. Go over there and see if you like it.”

I couldn’t help smiling. It had been a while since she’d made anything for me, and I liked the idea of getting something new. But as I got close to her chair, I stopped, first puzzled and then suddenly understanding.

The fabric was blue, but not like denim, and there was enough for matching jacket and trousers, both now completely disassembled.

I went to the window and saw it had started to snow again, large flakes drifting down in the still air. My grandfather was just coming out of the meat shed, limping against the weight of the slop bucket he carried, presumably for the pigs. A couple of long bones stuck out the top. We hadn’t gotten a deer in a long while, and the bones were too long for anything else I could think of. Granddad closed the shed door, but didn’t lock it.

Even from a distance, I could see his hands and clothes were bloody, the way he always got from butchering. Head down, he headed for the hand pump where I knew he would wash himself. He did, and when he finished, he hoisted up the bucket again and disappeared behind the barn.

We had a rule about lying, but I knew they’d lied to me, and I had unanswered questions. Like how old clothes appeared again and again out of nowhere, what “creatures” Granddad hunted that had meat I couldn’t identify, and why my grandparents kept us so isolated.

I needed to know what had happened to the man whose blue clothes had become a pile of Gramma’s sewing, what bones Granddad was feeding to the hogs, and what the bacon/not bacon was that Gramma was cooking that morning. I thought all those answers, but wasn’t willing to admit to myself what I feared might be true. Not yet.

The answers were in the shed, and if I went out now, I’d have at least a few minutes before Granddad came back or Gramma came looking for me.

A few days ago, I’d felt like I didn’t care what they did to me, what the consequences for violating rules might be. Now it was time for me to act.

Without giving myself time to reconsider, I ran to the back door and pulled on my boots. Then I grabbed my coat and the .22 rifle—I might need both. I heard Gramma calling me back, but ignored her and ran all the way to the shed, my breath coming in white puffs that sent snowflakes whirling. It wouldn’t be long before Gramma came after me. Called Granddad. And I was sure that whatever happened after that wouldn’t be good, given the pile of rules I was in the process of breaking.

I yanked the open the meat shed door and looked inside.

The carcass was headless and gutted, hanging over a hole in the wood floor. It was minus one leg and a strip of belly muscle, the same place where pork bacon comes from. I recognized what—or rather who—this had been. Not a deer. On the stainless-steel table beside the carcass lay a boneless chunk of meat, rolled and tied as a roast. My throat clenched when it struck me that I might have eaten a fair amount of this kind of meat in my life.

In a rush, answers to all my questions tumbled over one another. It all made sense now. I heard Gramma’s shout to me and another to Granddad and turned to see her trying to hurry herself toward me. She wasn’t fast. Neither was Granddad. They would never catch me.

I didn’t have a chance to think about what was I going to do now that I knew the truth about life on this farm. The decision came fast and easy, and almost before I knew I had decided, I was running as fast as I could in the one direction I was never supposed to go.

I didn’t know exactly where the river was, but it had to be there or else why would Granddad make a rule about not going past it. I believed it was there. It had to be. And just like in my dream, I would jump in and cross it.

Running faster than I’d ever run, I scared up a young doe from the underbrush and we raced together, just like in my dream. When we got to the river, I knew she would jump in and I knew I would follow her. I felt dizzy with the wonder of it, and my insides vibrated with something more exciting than fear. Maybe the unknown. Maybe freedom.

On the other side of the river, I would find those other people wherever they were. After that, I wasn’t sure. All I knew was that I wasn’t going to let my grandparents take me back to the farm.

I felt doubt crowding past the excited feeling. That water would be cold, winter cold, and if I made it to the other side, I’d be soaked. Maybe get sick. Maybe die from it.

“I’ll find another way over,” I told myself out loud.

Then I heard Gramma’s voice in my head. “God provides.”

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Gail A. Webber is a retired science teacher who lives and writes on a small farm in Maryland. Her stories have appeared in Fiftiness, The Tower Journal, Toasted Cheese Literary Journal, Persimmon Tree, and others), and in anthologies including 2016 Write Well Award, The Way You Walk Through Madness, and Writings to Stem Your Existential Dread. She has published three novels and a volume of short stories. Facebook. Email: gail_webber[at]hotmail.com

Fitting Room #3

Dead of Winter ~ First Place
Jason Porterfield


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

Cashmere topcoats. Merino wool scarves. Gloves made from some kind of nanofiber so new that it hadn’t been properly named. All illuminated by a golden show window light that invited thoughts of blazing fireplaces and designer Irish setters, crystal tumblers and old Scotch.

The shop windows on Duvivier Street held wonders that Dimitri LaFitte knew were out of his grasp. Those tony things may as well have been on display in a lunar showroom as in the street-facing windows of Faberge Leaf. It was the kind of store that probably checked one’s references before admitting access.

“Don’t even think about going in that place,” His uncle Dansby had told him one long-ago December evening when he noticed the teenaged Dimitri peering in as they walked by on their way to the city’s annual tree lighting.

“They wouldn’t let you in. You don’t carry the right kind of cachet.” Dansby rubbed his thumb against his fingers, the universal sign for cash. Dimitri felt his cheeks flush at the thought of his wallet, empty in his back pocket except for a picture of his ex-girlfriend, a losing scratch-off lottery ticket he bought at a vending machine, and his learner’s permit. Why bother carrying a wallet at all?

He thought of Dansby every time he walked by the storefront. His uncle so casually dismissed the idea of going into a place that was frequented by people who made astronomical amounts of money, whose hourly earnings may well have topped what Dansby made in a month as an accountant.

Dimitri didn’t exactly promise himself that someday he would go into that store as a customer, but he never passed it without experiencing a deep yearning for the kind of life its stock of luxury goods represented and the income needed to attain them.

Yet somehow Dimitri had not risen to those economic heights when fire ravished his apartment building some fifteen years later. He had a steady job, a collection of furnishings and clothing—most of it purchased new but not at boutiques. There was a little credit card debt but not enough to make it hard to pay his bills.

The fire department’s inspection of the ruins of his former apartment building revealed multiple structural issues were to blame for the conflagration.They found evidence that the building’s owners bribed city officials for years to look the other way when safety issues with the wiring and heating systems arose. A settlement with the tenants was offered and rejected. When a jury found fault with both the building’s owners and the city, a significant sum of money was divided among the former residents and Dimitri suddenly found himself rather wealthy.

His first acts on receiving his portion of the damages awarded were to pay off his debt, buy an inexpensive condo in the same neighborhood and reinvest a sizable portion of his payment so that he could remain relatively comfortable for life.

Only then did he begin to fantasize about visiting Faberge Leaf. He visited the store’s website, a glitzy affair of high-definition images that didn’t actually feature any merchandise and certainly didn’t mention prices. Apart from a few basics, he had not replaced most of his wardrobe after the fire. The one exception he made was to pick up a nice suit, a tailored specimen from a noted label. It was expensive, but didn’t threaten to put any kind of dent in his bank account.

Dimitri took the day off for his trip downtown. His new suit, worn a time or two to break it in, was cleaned and pressed. He called Uncle Dansby before getting dressed and told him of his impending trip to Faberge Leaf.

“Oh Dimitri, don’t go to that store!” Dansby practically shouted. “Take that money and go back to the place where you bought your suit. They know you now and they treated you well. Give your money to someone who has earned it.”

“You know I’ve wanted to shop there since I was a kid,” Dimitri retorted. “Now I’m someone who can actually afford whatever it is they stock there and I’m going to go there and they are going to serve me like they would any customer.”

“Let me ask you a question.” Dansby paused for long enough that Dimitri wondered whether he was still on the phone. He was almost surprised when the older man spoke again. “Have you ever seen anyone coming out of that store looking happy that they’ve been shopping there? Or looking like they just had the time of their life? Have you?”

“Well, no.” Thinking back, Dimitri couldn’t remember ever seeing anyone coming out of the store at all. Nor could he remember ever seeing anyone go in. But who, apart from security guards, notices people going into shops?

“See? That store didn’t solve their problems or make their lives easier. It probably made them worse. Now they had a pricey jacket but none of their things matched it. They had to go back for new accessories, new shoes, new jewelry to set it off. And by the time they finished, the whole thing would be out of date by the standards of the Faberge Leaf.” Dansby practically spat the store’s name in Dimitri’s ear.

“Don’t worry, Uncle Dansby,” he said, now holding the earpiece a safe distance away. “I won’t lose my head, and I’ll be sure to give you a full report.” He hung up before the older man could say anything else and proceeded to get dressed.

Dimitri hired a car to take him downtown. It was too cold to walk. Besides, he intended to splurge and saw no reason to waste the experience by taking public transportation or a common rideshare. His charcoal-gray suit was immaculate beneath his black wool overcoat as he stepped onto the sidewalk. A storefront mirror reflected his neatly trimmed hair, the matching tie and pocket square the suit store helped him pick out, his shiny shoes and the silver glint of his wristwatch, an expensive piece he had inherited from his grandfather and kept in a safe deposit box.

He was pleased with what he saw. He strode down the sidewalk with purpose and crowds parted around him, some pedestrians even stepping into day-old banks of snow to get out of his way.

Faberge Leaf appeared uncrowded, though he could see employees inside. He made to grab the door handle and pull it toward him, but noticed the buzzer just in time to avoid the embarrassment of having the door catch in the latch. He smoothly changed the motion and pressed the buzzer with his index finger, allowing a small smile to play across this lips.

A moment later, the latch clicked and he went inside.

The store was bathed in golden light, the sort that illuminates favorite memories of family gatherings or good times spent with friends. A faint aroma of jasmine was in the air. Hidden speakers played the sound of breaking waves. He felt soothed, content.

An employee glided over. Dimitri caught the man’s glance flick up and down his body, his mind surely assessing the quality of everything from his shoes to his haircut. He gave Dimitri a warm smile.

“Welcome, Sir.” He held out his arm. “May I take your coat?”

Dimitri murmured his thanks and passed the overcoat to the employee, who promptly disappeared with it into an area behind the sales counter.

“Would Sir like a refreshment?” Another employee had popped up at his right elbow with a tray of beverages. To his surprise, the cups held cold drinks rather than the coffee or aged Scotch Dimitri expected. He chose one at random that tasted of lychees and summer afternoons. He couldn’t wait to tell Dansby about being addressed as “Sir” like a character in a 1930s British melodrama.

The employee accepted his empty cup with a nod and followed the one who had taken his jacket.

“Please, Sir, take your time with the merchandise.” Another employee had approached. “Simply come to the desk when you are ready to try something on. And do stay out of the third fitting room. It is in a ghastly state.” The man made a face. Dimitri had a hard time imagining what would cause an employee of such a fancy place to arrange his features into such a hideous mask.

“Must be a really big spider,” he thought to himself, making a mental note to investigate the third fitting room at the first opportunity.

He took his time, going over fine scarves, gloves, and shirts of such fine knit they might have been made by caterpillars. He was briefly hypnotized by a display of neckties with patterns so subtle and understated that they seemed to hold the key to infinity.

Eventually he chose another suit, a silk and poplin outfit in a subtle, blue-check pattern that would be ideal for warmer weather. He grabbed a tie and pair of shirts that would match the suit. Thinking about conditions outside, he also selected a fine scarf that could only be cashmere and an umbrella with gold embossing. Nothing was priced, but prices did not matter.

He approached the sales counter and an employee promptly appeared.

“Would Sir like to try on those items so that we can assure a proper fit?”

“Yes, thank you.”

The employee came around the counter and led him to the back. “Any of these fitting rooms should be fine, except the one on the end. Stay out of #3.”

The employee emphasized the point by scowling at the fitting room door in question. Whatever Fitting Room #3 had done to him, he wasn’t ready to forgive or forget.

“Why not use that one?” After being in the store essentially by himself for more than two hours, according to his watch, this was the first limitation anyone had placed on him.

“It’s not up to our standards,” the employee sniffed.

“So it’s closed or something.”

“No, it’s closed. It’s just not for a man of your—ah—discerning taste. Please, Sir, don’t go in there.”

Dimitri saw it, the moment the employee had sussed him out as someone who maybe had enough cash to afford to step into Faberge Leaf, but would never again have that sum. Windfall inheritances. Lucky nights at the casino. A winning lottery ticket. The employee’s eyes told him that he was still trying to sort Dimitri into one of those categories.

“Very good,” Dimitri responded, injecting as much ice into his words as possible. He strode toward Fitting Room #3.

“Sir, I must ask you to stay out of there.” The words were almost forceful.

“Thank you, but your assistance is no longer required.” Without another glance at the employee, he entered the fitting room and closed the door with a satisfying click.

There wasn’t anything special about this room, he thought. The light was subtle, designed to soften lines and flatter features and figures. Every wall was mirrored.

He took a long look at his reflection, dressed in the best suit that he had ever owned. Even in the flattering light, it looked like an off-rack discount model when compared to the items he had seen in the showroom. He looked at the blue suit he had chosen. Next to it, the one he was wearing resembled the sort of garment prisoners are given after their sentences are up. He hurried to change into the one he picked out.

He dressed with pleasure. Every piece of the suit seemed to banish a month of winter from his mind. He smelled the jasmine again. His mouth tasted lychee.

He perfected the knot in his tie and once again stepped into his shoes. A multitude of Dimitris looked back at him. He glanced at his footwear. The shoes would do, but it wouldn’t hurt to check the store for something more appropriate. At least his watch went well with the new outfit.

He moved his arms, bemusedly watching untold thousands of Dimitris do the same. Up, down, out, flapping up and down, crossing and uncrossing. He sat down and stood up, then tried walking in place. When that didn’t work, he paced the circumference of the fitting room. The other Dimitris followed. He thought about humming a John Philip Sousa march, then remembered that he was in the most exclusive store in the city.

After three of four turns around the fitting room, Dimitri decided he had seen enough. The suit would have to be modified, but not by much. The employees had implied that they could tailor items in-store, perhaps even as he waited. He could have another of those delicious lychee drinks, or perhaps ask for something hot. He was beginning to feel a chill despite the hint of jasmine in the air.

It was time to go, but he had gotten turned around in the fitting room. He scanned the walls for the door. He was beyond being amused by the other Dimitris also scanning their own mirrored walls, so he didn’t notice that some of the reflected Dimitris simply stood there, watching him.

He turned in a circle, but couldn’t spot the door. He put out his hands and felt around, but touched only cold glass. The smell of pine needles drifted in through the ventilation system. He did find the hook holding his old suit. Feeling chillier by the second, he draped the blazer over his shoulders. Under the hook he saw a small button marked “Ring For Assistance.” He pressed it and listened for a sound. He heard the tinkle of icicles hitting the ground and shattering.

“I need assistance!” he shouted, pressing the button so hard his finger ached.

“Assistance is unavailable at this time,” a chilly voice informed him.

By then his breath was fogging in the air and he was shivering. The mirrors remained unclouded. If anything, they were more clear than before. He watched one of the Dimitris shiver for a moment, then stop.

“But I’m still shivering,” he said to himself. “I’m still cold and getting colder.”

His body was shaking violently. Unable to stand any longer, he slumped to the floor. The other Dimitris remained upright. Some appeared to straighten their posture, towering and looming from his perspective. Still wearing their new blue suits, they stepped toward him, unbuttoning their jackets as they did. Some Dimitris offered him wolfish smiles full of teeth. Others were expressionless.

He heard the sound of ice shattering as they breached their barriers. The smell of freshly frozen snow was in the air as the Dimitris reached for him with their cold, cold hands.

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Jason Porterfield is an award-winning journalist and author living in Chicago, Illinois. Email: jporterfield99[at]gmail.com

How Can We Live Without It?

Savage Science Fiction / Fantasy Contest ~ Third Place
Ian Bentwood


Photo Credit: wintersoul1/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Lisa was restless—again—and woke me up. I sighed deeply and tried to change position to get comfortable. The duvet had slipped off my shoulders and the night chill made me shiver. I reached down and felt around to find an edge of some part of the duvet to pull it back, not wanting to open my eyes or wake up fully. Eventually I found a corner and pulled it over my shoulder and moved slightly intending to go back to sleep.

“Jeff, are you asleep?”

“Yes,” I mumbled sleepily, thinking what a ridiculous question to ask, so deciding to give a nonsensical answer.

“I’m hungry again.”

I gave another deep sigh. My pregnant wife seemed to have regular bouts of starvation and they seemed to be getting more frequent as she neared the end of the third trimester.

I grunted in response. What could I say? I squinted at the digital clock: 3:37. Another deep sigh as I realised I was awake now and had maybe lost half-an-hour’s sleep. I rolled over to face towards her in the gloom. I could make out her silhouette and could see she was sitting up. The sheet had dropped and her heavily pregnant stomach was clearly visible. “What do you fancy at 3:37 in the morning, baby?” I tried to sound a bit more sympathetic than I felt. What was it going to be this time? Pickled onions? Chilli pepper? Chicken wings?

“Ice cream. I fancy some ice cream.”

“Great!” I heaved a sigh of relief. At least we had some of that. Going shopping at 3:37 to satisfy her particular pregnancy-oriented craving was one of my biggest fears.

“I bought some vanilla yesterday in anticipation. It’s in the freezer.”

I rolled over thinking that her problem could be self-solved without me needing to leave the cosy comfort under the duvet. The bed rocked and rolled like a mini-earthquake as she shifted her weight to the side to locate her slippers and then stood up to shuffle out of the bedroom into the living room. She turned on the light and the illumination exploded through the doorway forcing me to cover my eyes with my arm at the brightness overload and I rolled away from the door to minimise the dazzling effect of the bright light. I heard her padding around in the living room, then suddenly she screamed.

“What is it?” I reluctantly rolled back towards the door wondering what had happened. Another spider or cockroach had scared her, perhaps?

“It’s gone!”

“What’s gone? I am sure I put the ice cream in the middle freezer compartment. Maybe I didn’t—check all of them.” We had a fridge-freezer—the top half being a fridge, the bottom half a freezer with three separate compartments.

“No—the fridge has gone.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

Lisa was often forgetful and the ‘baby-brain’ effect had increased the frequency of her forgetting where she put things, but surely she hadn’t forgotten where the fridge was. “It’s in the far corner near Adam’s bedroom.” Our kitchen was too small to have the fridge actually in the kitchen, where it was really needed—a source of nuisance and something we promised to resolve when we moved after the second baby was born.

“I know where it was, but it’s not there now.” Lisa was getting exasperated.

Oh dear, I thought, I’d better go and help her find it before she got really emotional and upset with my lack of support. I threw the duvet back and sat up. Looking for my slippers I put them on and stood up and stretched. I glanced at the digital clock—3:45—another disturbed night—and walked into the living room where I blinked to adjust to the bright light and could see Lisa standing in the spot where the fridge had been yesterday—it definitely was not where it should have been.

“Oh.” I couldn’t think of anything meaningful to say, so I said it again. “Oh, you’re right, it’s not there,” I stated the obvious staring at the fridge-shaped gap in the corner of our living room.

Lisa turned to face me and gave me a reproachful look, which she reserved for special moments when I was acting like a child. “Help me look for it, then. Don’t just stand there looking like Adam.”

Our apartment wasn’t big—we had a large living room and a balcony, but otherwise there was only a small kitchen, toilet/bathroom, and two bedrooms.

“It’s two metres tall, sixty centimetres wide and sixty centimetres deep, and weighs fifty kilograms. It can’t have got far.” I tried to make a joke about it as I still wasn’t fully awake or appreciating the seriousness of the situation. “Anything else missing?” I looked around trying to remember what else we had and looking for any other obvious gaps, but couldn’t see any. It only took a few seconds to look in all the other rooms to confirm that the fridge had not mysteriously decided to move into one of the other rooms, for a change. I quietly opened Adam’s bedroom door, not wanting to wake up our three-year old, which would only complicate matters, but he was soundly asleep. I could hear him breathing softly. I quickly glanced around his room and confirmed that the fridge hadn’t decided to sneak into Adam’s room in the night, so where was it?

I returned to the living room. Lisa had subsided onto the sofa and was playing with her hair, looking confused. I checked the windows and they were all securely closed. It was too cold to leave them open at night, but I was concerned that maybe a burglar had broken one of them, but everything was unchanged, exactly as I remembered when I checked the previous evening, so how had the fridge been taken out of our apartment? I sat next to Lisa on the sofa and put my arm around her, and she laid her head on my shoulder.

“The windows and doors are all locked and closed. How on earth could anyone take the fridge and close the window or door behind them and leave no damage? I’m baffled.”

“I still want some ice cream,” she said in her little-girl voice.

“We can go to the ice centre in the morning and get some. Nothing much I can do now. Maybe I should call the police? Maybe the burglar is in the area if they act quickly.”

I picked up the phone, dialed the emergency number. After a couple of rings it was answered by a female voice.

“Which service do you require?”

“Police.”

“One moment, please.” A few clicks, then another ringing tone. A bored voice answered.

“Police. What is your name?”

“Jeff Hadstock.”

Then the usual detailed questions concerning address, phone number—all kinds of box-filling questions. Finally he asked a meaningful relevant question: “What is the crime you wish to report?”

“My fridge has been stolen. If you send someone quickly you might be able to catch the burglar.” My urgency didn’t affect the attitude of the bored voice on the end of the phone.

“How did they steal it?”

“I don’t know—that’s the strange thing—the windows and doors are all locked and undamaged. We don’t know how anyone could steal it without breaking in.”

“Are you sure you even had a fridge?”

“Of course, I know I had a fridge.”

“You can claim on your insurance if you’ve got proof of purchase. You’d be surprised how many people try to claim things they don’t even own were stolen. Just quote the crime number: 290821/34. They will refund you the full replacement cost of the fridge.”

“If you send somebody quickly, you might be able to catch the burglar. They can’t have gone far—it’s a large fridge-freezer.”

“I’m sorry, we have nobody to spare to chase fridge-burglars. They are busy pursuing murderers, drug-dealers and terrorists, etcetera. Call your insurance company and—”

I slammed the phone down. “That was an exercise in futility.” I turned to Lisa. “Let’s go back to bed. We’ll order a new fridge in the morning.”

Lisa got up and we walked slowly back to the bedroom, my arm around her shoulder.

“Our fridge magnet souvenirs from our holidays were stuck to the door. I guess we’ve lost them now.” She shrugged sadly as we turned off the light and got back into bed.

The next morning, breakfast was somewhat different from normal without the fridge. “I want my soggies,” Adam sat at the table tapping his bowl with the spoon staring miserably at the dry cereal. The milk had been in the fridge and his favourite breakfast meal—sugar-coated wheat shapes soaked in milk—was now not possible.

“I feel the same as Adam,” Lisa said miserably tapping her empty glass where her normal juice drink would have been, if the fridge hadn’t been stolen.

“Yes, I understand,” I stared at my cup of black coffee, which looked unappetising without the splash of milk, which was my regular morning beverage. “Let’s go to the corner cafe and have breakfast there.”

“Hooray,” said Lisa and Adam in unison, tapping the table with their spoons, looking like a couple of kids.

I unstrapped Adam from his high chair and he wrapped his arms round me for a big hug. “Soggies! Soggies!” he cheerfully sang as I helped him into his warm jacket and shoes. He waited expectantly by the door as Lisa and I got our coats and other things, anticipating the early-morning adventure—a trip to the corner cafe before nine in the morning was an unexpected bonus and he was excited about the change in routine.

There was a cold wind blowing the autumn leaves around as the sun struggled to brighten up the atmosphere through the greyness of the clouds as we strolled the few hundred metres down to the corner cafe. The bright lights shining out onto the gloomy street were an oasis of sunshine with the welcoming anticipation of our favourite breakfasts beckoning. I gave Adam a piggyback and I trotted like a horse, whinnying and neighing, making him scream with pleasure as he clung tightly to my back as if I was going to try and throw him off like he was breaking in a wild pony.

I pushed open the door to the corner cafe and headed for an empty table by the window. I glanced around the small room—around six–seven tables mostly filled with single people or couples talking quietly.

“What would you folks like, this morning?” The cheerful cafe-owner greeted us and handed us the plastic-coated menu. I took the menu, but knew it well enough to order without looking.

“Hi Greg. Three bowls of Wheaties with cold milk, two plates of egg, beans and mushrooms on toast, a cup of white coffee, mango juice, and a strawberry milkshake.” I smiled back at Adam who was happy at hearing his favourite drink being ordered.

Greg made notes of our order and read it back to us. After I confirmed the order, he hesitated. “I’m afraid it’ll be a little slower than usual this morning. We were burgled last night and Sally had to pop round the cash-and-carry first thing to restock.”

“Oh, sorry to hear that.” My ears pricked up at the thought that we weren’t the only place in the neighbourhood that had been burgled. “What did they take?”

“That’s the funny thing,” Greg got a strange look on his face before continuing. “They only took my three fridges. Nothing else. Not even the £350 cash in the till I’d forgotten to take home with me last night. Just the fridges.”

I glanced at Lisa who was also listening intently.

“Don’t worry, folks, our normal service will be resumed shortly, just a little longer wait than usual. You’ll have your soggies very soon.” The last comment was addressed at Adam and he ruffled his hair causing Adam to giggle cheerfully and tap the table with his spoon.

Greg left to prepare our breakfast order, leaving Lisa and I to stare in surprise at one another.

“Looks like we were not the only victim of the fridge-burglar last night,” I said grimly before turning to entertain Adam until our order arrived.

Fifteen minutes later, our meal arrived and Adam cheerfully shouted out “Soggies! My soggies!” as the bowl of his favourite cereal was placed in front of him and he tucked in happily and noisily. Shortly after, we were all eating and chattering having forgotten the events of the previous night, when our reverie was disturbed by the insistent ringing of my phone. I put down my knife and fork, reached into my pocket and answered the phone—“number withheld” surprised me mildly as I looked down at the screen while answering it and held it to my ear.

“Hello?”

“Mr Jeff Hadstock?” The voice sounded familiar, but I couldn’t place it.

“Yes, how can I help you?”

“Mr Hadstock, this is Police Sergeant Lashkey. You rang at 3:47 this morning to report a fridge burglary and…“ He hesitated and swallowed before continuing. “…I’m sorry for treating you in a less than helpful manner at the time, but…”

He hesitated again so I felt I should say something, although it was tempting to criticise him for his attitude, but I felt more cheerful now as the sun appearing through the clouds and shining in the window brightened my mood.

“That’s okay, I understand how busy you are and after all, it’s only one fridge.”

“Thank you for being understanding. It’s just that since your call we have had numerous additional calls from all across the area near your apartment, all reporting just fridges and freezers having been stolen and all without any obvious signs of forced entry.”

I looked at Lisa who was watching me intently and raised my eyebrows to show her my surprise.

“I’d like to ask you a few more questions, if you have a moment?”

“Yes, sure.” I had another bite of toast while waiting for his next question.

“Thank you, Mr Hadstock. Was anything else stolen?”

“Not that we have noticed so far. Just the fridge-freezer.”

“Please describe it.”

So I gave him the details of its size, contents (as far as I could remember) and its make and model. Lisa interrupted me to remind me to mention the fridge magnets on the outside, so I added them to the list.

“How old is it?”

“Around eighteen months—in good condition.”

“When did you last remember seeing it?”

“We went to bed around 10:30pm yesterday and it was still there then, as far as I remember. I didn’t specifically check, but I think I would have noticed if it had not been there.”

“What time did you discover it was missing?”

“We woke at 3:37. I remember checking the clock. It was shortly after that that we noticed it was missing.”

“Did you hear anything?”

“No, nothing and all the windows and doors were locked and closed. Nothing damaged. How do you think it was stolen?”

“Thank you for the additional information. It matches all the other victims’ stories. Some time between one a.m. and three a.m., all the fridges and freezers were taken without any obvious signs of forced entry, broken windows or doors, and without anyone seeing or hearing anything. Do you have any CCTV or webcams in the room where the fridge had been located, which might have seen anything?”

“No, nothing. Have you any ideas at all how they were taken?”

“Is your wife pregnant, by any chance?”

I was stunned by the question out of the blue. “Yes, but why?”

“Oh, nothing to worry you, but all the other fridges and freezers were also taken from households where there was a pregnant woman living there.”

I looked up at Sally as she carried plates around the tables to the customers. Yes. She was clearly very pregnant as well. Maybe Sgt Lashkey had a point.

“And it was Hallowe’en last night—not that I am superstitious,” he added quickly.

“There were also a significant number of UFO sightings reported in the area. Also unusual. We will investigate further and let you know if there is any chance of getting your fridge back. Please contact me directly if anything else strange happens.” He gave me his contact details and I made a note on the phone’s notepad and then ended the call.

I looked at Lisa who has been bursting with curiosity as to the content of the conversation.

“They haven’t got a clue.” I shook my head. “Curiouser and curiouser.”

“It was also a full moon last night.” Lisa added. “The moon did look larger than usual.”

“Well, it’s my shift on the moon shuttle this afternoon, so I’ll get a close up view to see if there is anything unusual happening there.”

After breakfast, we walked back home more cheerfully. It was still very windy and we had to hold onto our hats to avoid having them blown away. Adam clung to me tightly as well to keep warm.

“Okay, I’d better head to the launch site. I need to take off in an hour. See you tomorrow.” I gave Lisa and Adam a kiss and headed out the door to my car.

Once I was at the shuttle launch site, the conversation was only about the disappearance of the fridge-freezers overnight, but I had to complete the pre-flight preparations and had no time to join in the chit-chat.

“3… 2…1… we have lift off.” The automatic launch sequence was completed and the huge engines automatically kicked into life, lifting the moon shuttle clear of the launch pad. I held onto the controls and could feel the familiar vibration through the joystick as the giant shuttle transporter rapidly accelerated into the grey sky. The g-force crushed me into the seat and I prepared for the sudden release as we left the Earth’s atmosphere and the acceleration would ease off.

“Space control, everything okay. We are clear of Earth’s gravity and heading to the moon. We will report in an hour when we enter moon orbit.”

“Roger that, Jeff. Have a safe trip.”

It was the usual uneventful trip, but I had always enjoyed the spectacular views of our blue planet—the only colourful sight on the trip—as it shrank behind me. The grey sphere of the moon approached in the windows, growing larger and larger as the shuttle quickly approached. I adjusted the controls and hit the boosters to slow the approach, changed the angle to head into moon orbit. The normal approach to the moon base was a single orbit of the moon, then onto final approach and hand over to Moonbase Control for the automatic landing. I sent a brief message to Earth’s Space Control to confirm that I had successfully entered moon orbit and was switching to Moonbase Control for landing.

I looked out of the window while orbiting the Moon at a height of only 500 metres. I scanned the barren surface. I was used to seeing nothing but dust and crater, but was stunned to see that there were piles and piles of what looked like the missing fridge-freezers. What had happened?

“Moonbase Control, this is Shuttle5. I am seeing hundreds of missing fridge-freezers on the surface.”

“Sorry, repeat your message?” They clearly did not believe me.

I repeated the bizarre comment.

“Take some photographs and report to Command Control on landing.”

“Roger, Moonbase. See you shortly.”

The view-screen had a recording facility, so I angled it towards the stacks of fridge-freezers and recorded the amazing sight.

After landing, I headed to Command Control with the video images on a memory stick.

“Hi, Jeff. What’s this nonsense about fridge-freezers? Show me your video.”

“Yes, sir, I know it sounds crazy, but the video will prove what I said.” I showed him the video and he was incredulous.

“Last night, the gravitational monitoring team reported an extreme and unprecedented jump in their readings. This coincided with a high point in sunspot activity and solar wind. I wonder if the combination could have caused a huge spike in magnetic attraction focused towards Earth, which somehow caused the fridge-freezers to be dragged to the moon? It seems unlikely, unless there was some additional attraction from Earth.”

“Well, sir, the homes all seemed to have pregnant women, perhaps that was an additional factor?”

He pondered for a moment. “Yes, of course. Pregnant women give off large amounts of additional magnetically-charged perspiration capable of magnifying magnetic energy, as well as increasing electromagnetic energy at a very specific frequency. I remember from university conducting research into magnetic discharges from pregnant women. That makes sense. The combination would have created a local bubble, and would have reacted with the coolant in the fridge-freezer—a very specific and unique magnetic bubble.”

“Well, sir, it’s that or witches on broomsticks as it was Hallowe’en last night.”

He was not amused. “Okay, you’ll need to lead a team to rescue these fridge-freezers and begin the process of returning them to Earth. I am sure their owners will want to be reunited with their belongings as soon as possible. This is now your top priority. For as long as it takes, I will direct all moon shuttles to collect these items and return them to Earth. Do you understand?”

“Yes, sir. I suspect that my shuttle could take around 100 per trip. I will start immediately.”

I was late home, and Lisa and Adam were already asleep by the time I quietly opened the door and carried our fridge-freezer back to its normal place. I crept back into our bedroom and kissed Lisa on the cheek. She murmured slightly, turned and opened her eyes in surprise. Seeing it was me, she wrapped her arms around me and kissed me.

“Have you got my ice cream?”

“Yes, it’s in the freezer. Do you want some?”

pencil

Ian Bentwood is a retired lawyer who has recently caught the writing bug from his author wife. Email: bubblyian[at]163.com

The Story I Have Not Told

Savage Science Fiction / Fantasy Contest ~ Second Place
Robin Hillard


Photo Credit: Marco Verch/Flickr (CC-by)

Dear MaryAnn,

I enjoyed our wander through the woodlands yesterday, as we filled our baskets with the herbs you are learning to use. You might find it hard to understand that I took even more pleasure walking through the village with you and taking a meal to those working in the fields.

Such ordinary scenes, you might think. A crowd of women standing around the well, chattering as they pulled up buckets of water, and laughing at a shared joke. We watched the children chasing ducks and that little boy with whose face was purpled by the handfuls of berries he stuffed into his mouth. Most of all I loved passing the cottages, with their cheerfully open doors and neat rows of summer vegetables.

You cannot imagine a time when crops rotted in the fields because there were not enough hands to harvest them, or paths so rarely used that they were smothered with weeds. When I remember how it was during those sad years I can only thank the Lord for our good fortune and pray for our continued health.

I was no older than you when the sickness came. It started slowly. A messenger from London brought a bolt of cloth to replenish our tailor’s stock. How could we know he brought the plague with it? He’d hardly been gone a day when our tailor showed signs of the disease. He was dead within a week, and another soon followed him to the grave. Then we lost our baker and his wife. There were more deaths, and the rector knew what to expect. He gathered us all in front of the church and talked about the plague. In a story that’s been retold so often it’s taken a life of its own, he told us how the sickness would spread from home to home. It would decimate a hundred parishes if it was not checked. I believe in centuries ahead people will come to see the circle of stones he had us set around the village, to keep ourselves inside and others away. The tale will become a legend, as our village is praised for containing the sickness and our rector becomes hero like Robin Hood or giant killing Jack.

There is another story, one that has never been told because I am the only person who knows it. It touches on things that are hard to believe and might leave me open to censure from the church. Christians are not supposed to traffic with the spirit world, and even in these wiser times the dangerously stupidly might talk about witchcraft. But the story should not be lost. I don’t have any children of my own, so I am writing it down for you, the girl my cousin named for two of my sisters. I’ll tell you what happened to me while the village was recovering from the plague and the pages can be passed down, through the generations of your family till one of them chooses to share it with the world.

“Why didn’t you ever get married, Cousin Meg?” you asked me yesterday. “You must have been a very pretty girl.”

The question made me smile. I was not bad looking, though I say so myself, but there were few villagers left after the plague and no young men.

You wonder why I never moved away? That only shows how little you know of those hard years. No parish would welcome a lass from our village, any more than they would come to visit us.

The rest of the county were grateful to our village. The plague could have spread like a fire through the neighbouring parishes, but because we isolated ourselves after the first deaths, the sickness stayed inside the circle of stones.

The Earl sent parcels of food from his estate, and others were willing to trade if they could leave their goods under the biggest rock and collect coins from the hole our stonemason chipped out of its side. Coins soaked overnight in vinegar.

But they were frightened of us.

I remember walking down the path, the same path that we used today, a full season after the last death, and I did not see another soul.

A couple of sheep straggled across through a hole in the hedge.We’d managed to shear their coats ready for the summer, but Dad burnt the wool. We’d made a very poor job of clipping the beasts, but even so we might have got some money for the wool, had anybody been willing to buy cloth-stuff from us. It would be close to another Christmas before we could trade at the market or outsiders be willing to work on our land.

I had to wipe my eyes when I passed the Joyces’ cottage. The garden was smothered in a prickly bramble that even blocked the front door. The cottage had been empty for over a year, the family nothing but names scratched on a rock in the woods behind the village.

Sarah Joyce had been my closest friend. There was no secret we didn’t share, not even when William walked her down by the stream and they had their first kiss. She told me about it at school the next day, and I’d been determined not to be left behind. That Sunday, on my way home from church, I lingered under a large oak, pretending to watch the birds. Thomas Slater had been at the service. The tree wasn’t exactly on his way home, but I knew he could see me and, as I expected, he turned aside. After a few words we walked together arm-in-arm along the very path Sarah and William had used.

Thomas was one of the first to die in the plague. He was buried before our stonemason died so although he was buried in a field, he had a proper headstone with the letters professionally carved. In the following months I lost five sisters, a brother, mother, grandmother, and aunt. Nobody was allowed to touch the plague-dead bodies, the surviving family tied ropes around their legs and dragged them to holes away from the cottages. No ceremonial funeral for my family, their only memorials were their names scratched on the rocks, but for the rest of his life Dad kept fresh flowers beside each one.

Our house once held twelve people, but after the sickness there were only three, myself, Dad, and little Tom.

As you read this, MaryAnn, you’ll understand how desperately I missed my grandmother. We had not been close while she was alive. My little sister, Ann, was her pet and followed her everywhere. Ann was fascinated by herbs and the various elixirs and diffusions our grandmother made from them. Had she lived she would have followed our grandmother as the village’s wisest woman. But our grandmother, like all the old people, died, and her knowledge died with her.

The plague disappeared with the first snow, and when we realised the dying had stopped, we said a grateful prayer. With so few people left to manage the land, I knew it would be hard to survive but I did not realise how much we would miss my grandmother. Until the night Jacob Carpenter came with his little boy.

I was clearing away the last of our meal when there was a loud banging on the door. It was Jacob with Johnny in his arms. Jacob had lost his wife and had to raise the child by himself. Naturally he doted the little boy. Johnny was boiling hot and coughing so hard I terrified his heart would burst.

He thrust the child into my arms.

I knew why Jacob had come. This cottage was where Jessie Burton used to live, where more than one baby grew into a bonny adult because of her skill. Where Jacob believed his son would be healed. But I am not my grandmother. I’ve never felt so helpless in my life.

I took the child. What else could I do?

His father collapsed onto the bench. “Thank God,” he said, as I bathed the boy’s face. “Thank the good Lord that you’re home.”

His gratitude burned in my ears. I felt as useful as one of my father’s sheep.

If one of the Burton girls was meant to survive, why couldn’t it be Ann? She spent so much time with our grandmother she might have been able help the child.

Dad pressed a mug of ale into Jacob’s hand, assuring him the boy would be all right.

Johnny was coughing fit to tear his chest in half.

I said a prayer myself, every bit as fervent as Jacob’s—but only in my heart. I did not want my words to frighten him. “Please God, help me. Tell me what to do.” With so many people suffering, how could God be expected to hear one young woman’s prayer?

I felt a pressure on my arm and something gently turning me to the cupboard. To the shelf of carefully labelled remedies. There was some dried stuff in a jar labelled: “For the Cough.” How did Grandmother use it?

The dried some-kind-of-leaf had to be a tea. The kettle was on the stove, and the fire, surprisingly, was hot enough to bring it to the boil. How much of the stuff should I use? If the tea was not strong enough, it would not stop the coughing, but some of plants my grandmother dried could be poisonous if used to lavishly. Too strong a tea be as bad for the child as a coughing fit.

I pulled down a mug and spoon and said another prayer. “Please don’t let me make him worse.” Something was holding my hand, guiding it the way Mum used to do, when I was five and making my first shaky “A” on a slate. I let my hand pick up the spoon, and drop leaves into the mug once, twice. My hand reached for the kettle. It poured water into the mug, but before I could take the drink to Johnny, I felt myself turned around again to face the cupboard. There was honey on the shelf.

When I was younger, and my chest was torn apart with coughing, my grandmother would make me a drink that smelled like this. I could remember the sweet taste. She told me that the bees were wise and their honey, together with her herbs, would fight the evil thing in my chest. I said another prayer, truly grateful for whatever spirit the Lord had sent to help me. I stirred honey into the tea.

I carried the sweet tea to the boy and held the mug to his lips. He was coughing so hard he could hardly drink, but he managed to swallow a little. Then a little more. Was there a space between his coughing? Or was I dreaming. I said another prayer.

I prayed for wisdom, for knowledge, but most of all for whatever power had guided my hands to stay with me.

I sat with Johnny all night. Dad went to bed. There was nothing he could do and in the morning, he would be struggling to save our corn.

I sent Jacob Carpenter to fetch more wood for the stove. Anything to get him out of the room. His watching eyes made me remember that I did not have my grandmother’s skill. I made another mug of her healing tea. Again, the gentle pressure on my hand told me I was doing the right thing.

“The worst is over now.”

Was that a voice in my head? I had prayed so hard and feared so much that I did not know what was happening in the real world. Johnny was sleeping at last, and I sat watching his chest rise gently with each breath.

I should have been happy. Especially in the morning when Mr Carpenter pressed my hand and blessed me.

“You have saved my little boy. Thank the Lord that you are here.”

That did not make me feel good. Nor did Dad’s words when he came for breakfast. “We are blessed to have you with us Megs,” he said.

Some blessing. Why, oh why, hadn’t I clung to my grandmother? Watched her collecting plants, learned how she prepared them for her remedies?

I was not the only woman still living in the village but, because of my grandmother’s reputation, I would be the first to be called when there was trouble.

“You need to rest, Megs.” Dad said. “We can’t have you getting ill.”

Rest! When all I could think of was Johnny and the other children in the village. And Jacob Carpenter, who thought I could fill my grandmother’s shoes.

Like any young woman, I could bake a loaf of bread, brew ale and make a meal, I had learned that much from my mother, but most of the time I preferred looking after the cows or working off my energy by digging in the vegetable patch. There would be plenty of time later to later to learn the more advanced housewifely arts.

There had not been plenty of time, or a houseful of women to share the work. I did not have a grandmother to tell me how to protect our precious children from the inevitable ills of childhood, or to nurse their parents through the misfortunes of an ordinary life.

There was so much knowledge I did not have, and I felt the lack like a gaping hole in my heart. I went to bed, but I could not sleep.

I shut my eyes and tried to imagine the future. There had been no cure for the plague, but now the plague was gone, and we still had to face the ordinary misfortunes of life. There would be more coughs and fevers, headaches, and toothaches. There would be accidents, cuts, and broken bones. Before plague, our meals were often interrupted by neighbours calling for my grandmother. In the normal way of things, when my grandmother left us, my mother would take her place, and after her there would be my sister Ann to take on the duties of a wise woman.

My grandmother was gone, my mother and cleverest sister were both dead. That left me to carry a burden made heavy by my ignorance.

“Help me,” I whispered into my pillow. Did I hear a rustling, as if a wind was moving the drapes? Could I feel a hand on my forehead?

Sarah and I used to scare ourselves with stories of ghosts. We would sit close to the fire on a winter’s night and talk about the dead rising to visit the village. The spirits we conjured never meant well. But that morning, when I felt a presence in the room, I prayed for it to be the spirit of my grandmother. I begged her to leave the afterlife and be my guide in the living world.

“Grandmother?” I whispered. “Jessie Burton, are you there?”

Was it my mind, shaping the rustling into words? The soothing “yes child.”

When I left my bed, the afternoon sun chased that hope away. I felt even more alone than I had in the days after my last sister’s death. I checked the cupboard shelves, reading my grandmother’s writing on the labels of each jar as I tried to remember what she did with them.

I moved into the garden, looking at the bushes: rosemary, lavender, thyme, and sage. I pulled the leaves of different mints and rubbed them for their scent. Could I remember the powers of each herb?

I picked a little from each bush and laid it on the bench. I studied the jars on the shelf, comparing each to the leaf. These were not dangerous herbs, if I knew which to use, I could at least turn them into teas, which would be better than nothing.

But there were other plants. When my grandmother went into the woods with Ann, they came back with baskets of strange leaves and twigs which they boiled or soaked in vinegar or wine.

As I bent over the bench I felt a presence again, like a hand on my shoulder. Had the spirit of my grandmother left her afterlife to hover over her least skilled grandchild. Did she sympathise with my distress?

“Help me,” I whispered, only half believing.

I was interrupted by a scream that had me rushing down the path. The Gillis cottage! Margaret Gillis had never been the same since the plague took both her boys. Dad had dragged her out of the stream when she tried to join them.

She was shrieking. I got closer. She was rushing down the path. Her sleeve had caught alight. There was smoke pouring out of her front door. I grabbed her and rolled her on the ground. Into the mud to smother the flame.

There was nothing I could do about the cottage. It would have to burn. What about the woman? I had put out the flame on her sleeve, but her arm was badly burned. What would my grandmother do?

“Help me,” I whispered as I took Margaret in my arms and stumbled home.

Something had taken my hands before, this time I felt a presence in my mind. It guided me to the pump. Cold water. Keep cold water on the burn. Then it directed me to an ointment in a large jar in the cupboard. I smeared ointment on Margaret’s arm and wrapped it in a cloth. I made a soothing tea from leaves in another jar and after giving it to Margaret put her in my bed. Her bandages would have to be changed through the day, with more ointment, while the tea would keep her dozing while she healed.

I did not know what was in the ointment, or that sleep-making tea.

Had it been my grandmother guiding me?

“Yes, child,” from the voice in my head. “I’m with you for a little while, a spirit among the living. I must use our time well.

I had to replenish the shelves with remedies from made from the herbs in our garden and collected from the woods. As I held each plant, I opened my mind to my grandmother’s knowledge and tried to prepare her remedies. I did not know how long I’d have her spirit guiding me, so I dare not take time to rest. At the end of the seventh day bunches of herbs were hanging by their stalks, others were steeping in oil or wine, and I knew how to finish the remedies and when to use them. I needed to sleep, and understood that when I woke up, my grandmother’s spirit would have gone back to the afterlife. I would be by myself again and there would be difficult days ahead but Jessie Burton’s house would be there to serve the villagers.

You know the rest of the story, MaryAnn. When you were growing up the plague was but a sad memory. Life returned to our village, the children grew and had families of their own. As people lost their fear of us, I was able to move around the county and I took every opportunity to gather knowledge and practise the skills my grandmother gave me.

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Email: Robin.hillard[at]outlook.com

The Broken Heartstone

Savage Science Fiction / Fantasy Contest ~ First Place
Cara Brezina


Photo Credit: James St. John/Flickr (CC-by)

Princess Morwenna rode her unicorn across the lush grassy plains at a gentle canter as she embarked on her quest to obtain a new Heartstone for the Orb of Marais. Earlier that afternoon, a cataclysmic bolt from the ether had damaged the magical crystal powering the light that blessed the people of Marais with good health and fortune. If it were not repaired without delay, chaos and misery would descend on the kingdom.

She guided her steed into a deep valley that marked the edge of the Hayim Hills. Her destination lay deep in the rolling expanse. A generation earlier, gnomes had mined the depths. They’d vanished into the unknown, leaving behind their tunnels and underground conveyances. One of the tunnels contained cut slabs of the same type of crystal as the Heartstone.

“Princess Morwenna? Where are you?”

The voice of her trusted retainer, Julio, came from the magic mirror tucked into her belt. She raised the little looking glass up to her face and saw him regarding her anxiously.

“We’ve just entered the hills,” she replied.

“Let me know when you’ve reached the relief depot.”

The surface of the mirror swirled and returned to showing only her reflection. She tucked it away.

The trip to the Hayim Mines was too long to be completed without respite. She needed to stop and allow the unicorn to feed and rest before continuing onward to the mine entrance. Survival supplies were stored in the relief depot in the foothills. Much time had passed since anyone from Marais Castle had frequented the station, however, and Julio had fretted over whether she’d be able to locate it.

They need not have worried. Before long, Morwenna rounded a bend and espied a red crystal atop a rough low building constructed from the surrounding rocks. She slowed the unicorn to a walk and circled the station. The crystal should have been illuminated, but it had evidently been struck down by the same magic that had incapacitated the Orb of Marais. Morwenna brought out her magic mirror again.

“Julio, I’ve arrived at the relief depot, but I’m unable to get inside.”

“The spell on the door must be affected by the bolt from the ether,” her retainer muttered. “Try using your magic mirror to counteract the ward on the latch.”

Morwenna dismounted and approached the vertical rock that most resembled a door and held the magic mirror close to the grain of the stone. To her surprise, the mirror almost immediately displayed a cheerful swirl of color that ended with a tinkling sound of descending harp strings being plucked.

The door opened.

“I’m in,” she told Julio.

“Great. Find some sustenance for your steed and make haste for the mines. Darkness approaches.”

He ended the exchange before she had a chance to ask about conditions at Marais Castle. For the first time in her memory, they had been forced to close the drawbridge that linked the Castle to the surrounding community. She could only imagine the panic that must have ensued among the peasants.

She located bags of grain by following the smell of molasses and oats. Her unicorn ate hungrily and showed no unwillingness to continue the journey.

The Hayim Mines were at the end of a well-traveled though overgrown road. They arrived at the entrance to the tunnels without the unicorn ever slowing its pace. Without allowing herself a moment of hesitation, Morwenna pulled the lever in front of the wooden door. It slid open, revealing a compartment large enough to hold a dozen workers. Morwenna stepped inside and pulled the corresponding inner lever to close the door.

The air inside the car smelled sterile and sharp. She inhaled deeply as the elevator began its descent. The OrionCo Mining conglomerate had ceased operations on the planet of Marais over two decades ago after determining that the mineral reserves weren’t worth exploiting. The inhabitants of the planet’s sole settlement had continued to monitor the infrastructure of the mines, and Julio had assured Morwenna that the generators and conveyance system had recently been tested.

Neither of the mentioned the coronal mass ejection that had occurred earlier in the day or the damage it could have wreaked on the mine’s systems. The situation was desperate, and she had to take the risk.

She reached for the com device at her belt with a gloved hand. The temperatures on Marais required that humans swaddle up thoroughly when outside, and every centimeter of her skin was covered.

“Julio, are you there? I’m descending.”

Julio’s strained face appeared on the screen behind the convex face plate of his LX-3 helmet. As chief engineer of the utility station, he’d been assigned one of the handful of suits in the stockroom that protected against the effects of weira gas. Morwenna would have been given one as well for her mission to the mines, but the suits were incompatible with design of the skimmer that she’d flown for the journey.

“No setbacks so far?”

“Equipment’s functional and no indication of damage. Any progress at your end? Is the power grid still down?”

Julio grimaced.

“There’s no hope of fixing it with the weira gas affecting everyone. Right now I’m just trying to maintain vital operations until we get the beacon activated again. We need that crystal. The auxiliary power systems can’t keep the heat running for long, and after that—”

“You can count on me,” Morwenna assured him.

“Thank you, Princess Morwenna.”

He flashed a hint of a grin, ending the transmission before she could remonstrate with him.

The elevator came to a gentle stop and the door opened automatically. She stepped forward, and motion sensor lights turned on to illuminate the tunnel before her. She brought up the map of the mines on her com although it was unnecessary. As head mechanical engineer of the Marais utility station, she’d memorized the network of tunnels long ago in case of emergency.

The tunnels and chambers were scattered with equipment and pieces of cut crystal left behind by OrionCo. She paused when she passed a robotic dolly in a niche in the corridor. She couldn’t remember the precise dimensions of the cut crystal she was retrieving. She activated the dolly and instructed it to follow behind her, just in case she needed it.

In the aftermath of the company’s departure, the utility station team had salvaged and stored a sampling of the best pieces of crystal. Morwenna set her steps toward the storage cache, located in a chamber deep underground that required taking another elevator ride as well as a trip in a single tram car that remained on the track. She heaved a sigh of relief every time the equipment functioned reliably.

Under other circumstances, entering the storage chamber would have been exciting. The walls were lined with huge slabs of crystal in a dozen shades, ranging from nearly transparent to inky dark indigo. Morwenna immediately turned her attention to the three pale yellow samples set aside in an alcove. They were each nearly as large as her torso, and she felt relieved that she’d thought to bring along the dolly.

This particular type was a photonic crystal that had unexpectedly saved the sanity of the early settlers of Marais. After the planet was discovered, data analysis sent back from robotic probes and rovers had indicated that Marais possessed nearly an ideal habitat for human beings. Upon landing, though, the first explorers began experiencing bizarre hallucinations soon after being exposed to the planet’s atmosphere. The culprit was found to be a hitherto unknown organic gas in the atmosphere.

Weira gas nearly thwarted settlement on Marais, but a pair of amateur prospectors devised a solution through pure chance. As they tested the properties of some of the crystals they hewed out of cliff faces, they discovered a particular crystal that interrupted the wavelength of the solar ultraviolet light that catalyzed the creation of weira gas in the atmosphere.

The modern day settlement on Marais was protected by a beacon that amplified the properties of the crystal, preventing local formation of weira gas. Scientific analysis had indicated that the crystalline structure of the compound was highly stable.

Nobody had anticipated the direct hit from a CME that devastated the infrastructure of Marais and damaged the crystal. Celia, a materials scientist at the utility station, had conjectured that the eruption had disrupted its magnetic properties.

Fortunately, potential replacements were available. Unfortunately, they were located 80 kilometers away from the utility station, and all of the vehicles that shielded pilots from the effects of weira gas had been damaged. Therefore, Morwenna had made the journey in an aged and unreliable skimmer.

Two of the crystals were labeled as superior candidates for a replacement beacon, and Morwenna bent at the knees to pick up the first and place it on the dolly. After settling it into place, she lifted the second and positioned it next to the first. She secured them in place with a strap.

She took a couple steps forward and waited for the dolly to follow her lead. As it began to move, she heard a percussive crack from the bed of the dolly. She raced around to inspect the cargo.

One of the crystals had fallen against the other. Examining it closely, she realized that its base was slightly rounded. It had probably rocked outward when the dolly started moving, then rebounded inward after being restrained by the strap.

Morwenna observed a fresh crack near the top of the other crystal.

She felt sick with guilt over her negligence, but she couldn’t fix anything. She found a survival blanket hung on a wall and tore out a wide strip. She undid the straps, tucking the padding between the two crystals before securing the load once again.

After she’d made her way back to the entrance, she contacted Julio before opening the door to the outside.

“I’ve got the crystals. I should be back in less than two hours. I’ll have to stop at the fuel depot again midway through,” she told him.

She cut through his exclamations of relief, her stomach roiling at the prospect that neither crystal would be found suitable because of her own carelessness. She wasn’t going to tell Julio about the damaged crystal yet. He was already dealing with a host of crises.

Humans under the hallucinogenic effects of the weira gas could still function adequately for basic survival. Morwenna could operate her skimmer even though she believed she was riding a unicorn. But the town residents and the staff at the utility station wouldn’t be competent enough to work together to fix the damage wreaked by the CME.

She hit the “open” button on the illuminated wall panel. For a moment, she regarded the red and black silhouette of the skimmer. A moment later, a unicorn stood in its place.

*

When she neared to the outskirts of the town, Princess Morwenna immediately observed that the peasants were unusually restive. The Castle was located a short distance away from where the townsfolk lived and worked. If the magic workings performed by the Castle sorcerers sparked a catastrophe, the people of Marais would not be directly harmed.

Morwenna was unsurprised that the peasants had been disturbed by the effects of the bolt from the ether. But many of them had ventured outside their own environs and were congregating around the moat that surrounded the Castle. It would be inconvenient if the Castle sorcerers and nobility were required to repel an invasion.

She guided her unicorn around the moat to the back wall of the castle, disregarding the peasants who shouted and pointed at her approach. With a mighty leap, the unicorn cleared the moat and landed on solid ground on the other side. Morwenna retrieved the crystals from the saddlebags and left her steed in the hands of a lackey.

Her courtiers greeted her with enthusiasm that faded only slightly when she made the admission of her personal negligence. They paid more attention to the crystals. Celia, a sorceress skilled in transmutation, directed her apprentices to place them on the workbench.

“First, we must assess the integrity of these potential Heartstones,” she declared. She bathed each in the light of an amulet that could detect the impurities and inconsistencies beneath the surface. The results were displayed on a large magic mirror, and Celia scowled at the mystical designs in dissatisfaction.

“Neither is perfect,” she said. “But the former Heartstone possessed flaws, as well. The question is, which is more likely to be effective, taking into consideration the unique traits of each? We need to choose quickly. I don’t have the luxury of time to perform a formal divination.”

“Perhaps it would be safer to work with the crystal that we know is undamaged,” Julio suggested, with a glance of apology directed toward Morwenna.

Celia nodded a grudging assent.

“The genie’s waiting for it.”

The apprentices placed the crystal in the vault where the genie would pare down the crystal with a blade crafted out of light that would burn away the vision of any human who dared view it directly. While the crystal was being processed, Julio contacted Yuri, the mayor of the town.

“We’re going to be transporting the new Heartstone to the Tower of Light shortly,” Julio told him. “How are conditions in the town?”

Yuri hesitated and grimaced involuntarily.

“The peasants are confused and restless,” he finally said. “I recommend that you guard the Heartstone closely when you bring it to the Tower. I don’t believe that anyone would deliberately sabotage the work, but they may hamper your progress through misguided actions.”

“The crystal’s purification is complete,” Celia announced from across the room. The apprentices opened the door of the vault. The crystals jagged edges had been rounded down into curves, transforming it into an enormous luminous yellow egg. The apprentices carried it back to the workbench, and Celia assessed it with her amulet again.

“Well?” Julio finally asked.

Celia slowly shook her head.

“There’s a significant flaw near the center. There’s a chance that it might be partially effective, but I’d rather take the time to process the second crystal now rather than install this one only to find that its magic is inadequate for our needs.”

Morwenna restrained herself from wailing aloud in guilt and frustration. The fate of Marais hinged on the purity of the stone she’d damaged.

Julio consulted with the Steward of the Castle about the logistics of transporting the Heartstone to the Tower of Light. The Tower’s site had been chosen so that the Orb would provide protection to both the town and Castle. It was located at the edges of town, and the main road out of the Castle led directly to the Tower entrance.

At the moment, that road was thronged with peasants.

“Coming out!” one of the apprentices announced. The pair lugged the second stone out of the vault for Celia’s inspection. Everyone watched anxiously as she examined it with her amulet.

“I don’t observe any critical imperfections,” she finally said. “The recent crack runs on a diagonal, and it did not extend into the interior of the stone. We’ll test this one first.”

Morwenna felt herself blush at the mention of the new damage, although nobody looked her way.

“We’ll transport both stones, nonetheless,” Julio decided. “Convey them to the unicorn.”

Peasants crowded the road across from the drawbridge, and Morwenna feared that they would rush the Castle as soon as the bridge was dropped into place. Pages shouting “Make way, make way!” and brandishing flags managed to clear an opening for the procession surrounding the unicorn. Morwenna slowly guided her steed forward, and the courtiers of the Castle surrounded her in tight formation. The disarray of the peasants helped prevent delay during the short trip. Some of them attempted to halt confront the members of the court, while others joined the courtiers as escorts of the Heartstone.

When they reached the Tower, Julio stepped forward to undo the wards that sealed the entrance. The throng of peasants had grown during the trip, and Morwenna felt battered by the congestion and cacophony.

She leaped to her feet, standing on the hindquarters of her patient steed.

“People of Marais!” she shouted. “As your Princess, I am dedicated to reversing this calamity that has brought distress to us all. I ask for your confidence as—”

She lost her balance as the unicorn shifted position, but the people around her had erupted into cheering. The entrance to the Tower stood open, and the unicorn had moved in response to the lackeys removing the pair of heartstones from the saddlebags.

“Hurry, Morwenna,” Julio said over his shoulder as he began ascending the 287 steps to the top of the tower.

Morwenna rushed up, quickly passing Julio, and she reached the great globe that made up the Orb of Marais. Maintenance of the Orb was one of the tasks of the Princess of Marais, and she quickly disassembled the pegs and pins that held the top segments into place. By the time the others entered the chamber, she had unfastened the brackets holding the original Heartstone into place.

It didn’t look any different from the last time she’d examined it. Morwenna directed the lackeys to remove the old Heartstone, and Celia and her apprentices positioned the new crystal in the cradle. Morwenna secured the brackets and replaced the segments of the outer shell. The final step was flipping the switch that connected the flow of magic throughout the Orb.

Nothing happened.

“When will it start working?” one of the lackeys asked.

Morwenna opened her mouth but found herself at a loss for an answer. She glanced toward Julio.

His appearance seemed to flicker as she looked at him. She saw him clad in his familiar chartreuse and peacock doublet, but then he was replaced by a bulky figure swaddled entirely in gleaming white material topped by a panel of opaque curved glass. The two versions of Julio toggled back and forth several times, until the spaceman won out.

“I think it’s working,” Julio said.

The utility station staff stared around in dumbstruck bewilderment as their individual versions of reality faded and they returned solidly to the control room of the Marais Beacon. A few people started crying. Celia hugged Yuri, and the lackeys ran to the windows to look down toward the ground.

“Well done, Princess Morwenna,” Julio remarked. Morwenna sagged back onto the railing and dissolved into laughter of relief and embarrassment.

“You could have had it worse,” Julio told her in a low voice. “Celia thought that she on vacation at an exclusive resort hotel.”

“I’m glad to be back,” Morwenna said. “Believe me, you’ll never have to worry about me trying to establish a monarchy on Marais.”

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Cara Brezina is a freelance writer who lives in Chicago. Email: borealisblue[at]gmail.com

The Night on the Rock

A Midsummer Tale ~ Third Place
Christina Hoag


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

Richie coasted down the hill in his Plymouth Duster and turned into the shopping center. Three cars were parked in the middle of the empty lot. Their drivers lolled against the fenders with ankles crossed, smoking and drinking from bottles in paper bags like they owned the asphalt. Richie knew them from school, who didn’t? Mark Ambriano, Lenny Wosniewski and Butch O’Brien. They’d just graduated.

Richie cranked up Lynyrd Skynyrd on the eight-track, checked the windows were rolled down and pressed on the gas. The engine rumbled. As he sped past the three guys, he glanced in the rearview mirror. They didn’t even turn their heads. Douchebags.

He spotted a parking slot under a light. He braked and spun the chrome steering wheel with the heel of his hand, so the Duster stopped within the white lines. He got out and stood for a second to admire the wax job he had spent the afternoon on. The car gleamed. He had bought it three months ago with his dad pitching in a thousand bucks for his seventeenth birthday. So it wasn’t Mark’s 357 Mach II Mustang, Butch’s black-and-gold Trans Am or Lenny’s metallic blue Challenger with a white double-stripe, but that was why he had signed up to take auto shop as his senior year elective instead of art. He’d make his ’72 Duster into something those assholes would have to look at. Deck it out with a spoiler, jack up the rear suspension, give it a cool paint job with the money from his job at the car wash.

Twirling his keys on his forefinger, he sauntered over to the blacked-out storefront of Palace Games. It was just after nine and summer’s darkness was settling into a Friday night thick with invitation. The manager was ushering the last customers out of the supermarket and locking up. The arcade and a dusty fabric store were the only other tenants in the strip mall. The rest of the windows bore “for lease” signs and whitewash curls.

Richie swung open the door to Palace Games and was greeted by a blast of cigarette smoke and the driving bass line of Ted Nugent’s “Cat Scratch Fever.” He fished a couple quarters out of his pocket and jingled them in his palm as he roved. Clicks from the air hockey tables and the tinny bells of pinball filled the air. Kids crowded around the new Space Invader game machines. Keith wasn’t around. He was probably at the Dairy Queen waiting for Charlene to get off work. He’d been asking her out for two weeks and she kept turning him down. Richie had told him to give up already, but as Keith pointed out, what did Richie know? He’d never had a girlfriend.

Richie knew all the kids from school, by sight if not by name, except for two girls wearing tight Sasson jeans playing Star Trek pinball. He was good at pinball. That and welding sculptures out of scrap metal with his dad’s oxyacetylene torch. Everybody thought his stuff was weird, except for Mr. Sampson, the art teacher, who was always encouraging him to enter contests. He had won a couple. But the prizes didn’t mean much to his father, a welder at the Ford plant. His dad would stand with his hands jug-handled on his hips, head cocked, as he considered his son’s contorted shapes. “Good seams,” he’d say finally.

“But what do you think of the form, Dad, the expression?” Richie would ask. That was how Mr. Sampson talked. He’d say things like the “expression of the piece,” “the evocation of emotion,” “the resonance.”

“Well, it’s a piece of fine cutting, just like I taught you,” his dad would answer. Then he’d take Richie to the salvage yard and they’d pick out bits of metal for Richie’s next welding “practice.” At least, Richie got to keep making his sculptures, but he wished that just once his dad would see the creation, not the welding.

Neither girl looked up when Richie sidled up to the machine and shook out a Marlboro from the soft pack, plucking it out with his lips. He shot a look at them over the lighter’s flame. The one playing had wings of brown hair hanging in front of her face as she leaned over the machine in concentration. She was as tall as Richie. The other was baby-faced, shorter, with a dirty blonde Dorothy Hamill haircut.

The ball rolled into the chute. “Game over” flashed on the board.

“Agh!” the one playing threw up her hands.

“You did good. You scored a lot more than last time,” the short girl said.

“I did shitty.”

“That’s not bad,” Richie said. They noticed him for the first time. “Mind if I take a shot?” They moved aside and he slid a quarter into the slot. As he hoped, they stayed to watch. The silver ball popped into the launching chute. With the cigarette dangling from his lips, he pulled back the spring-loaded lever as far as it would go and released it with a twanging thud.

The ball zinged from pillar to pillar as bells pinged. Aware he was on show, Richie put extra effort into swiveling his slim hips to the rhythm of the flipper button he pressed and thrust his pelvis forward when he hit both at once. Points mounted to an impressive total at game’s end.

“You’re really good at this!” the short girl said.

“I’ve been playing a long time.”

“Oh, that’s why,” the slim one said.

“I haven’t seen you ’round here before. What school do you go to?”

“OLPH,” the short one said.

The local parochial school.

“How ’bout you?” the slim one asked.

“Indian Hills.” Richie jerked his thumb in the general direction of the high school.

“What grade are you in?” the slim one said.

“Senior. Going to be.”

“We’re sophomores,” the short one said.

“So, ah, what are you girls doing tonight?” Richie looked at Spock’s ears on the machine’s backboard and felt his own ears get hot. “Want to go for a ride?”

The girls looked at each other. The slim one leaned into the short one’s ear, then straightened.

“We have to be back by eleven-thirty,” the short one said.

“Sure, no problem. I’m Richie, by the way.”

“Lisa,” the slim one said.

“Vicky,” the short one said.

They walked out into the parking lot. Richie looked for the muscle-car trio, but they’d gone. Figured. Just when he had girls to show off.

“Our parents think we’re at a birthday party tonight,” Vicky said. “They’d never let us come down here by ourselves.”

“So, you’re playing hooky.” Richie got in and leaned over to pull up the passenger side lock. He was glad when Vicky slid in first on the bench seat, then Lisa.

“Can you cop us some beers?” Lisa was combing back her feathered hair.

His hand accidentally-on-purpose brushed Vicky’s knee as he put the car into drive. “Er, sure.”

Richie drove down Oakland Avenue, past the car wash where he worked, to the DQ next to the bowling alley. He hoped Keith was there. He’d know what to do. He pulled into the DQ lot. Keith’s Chevy Nova was parked three slots down from the entrance, as usual. He exhaled.

“Shit!” Lisa slid down in the seat. “Why didn’t you tell me you were going by the bowling alley? My dad bowls every Friday night. Get down, Vicky. He knows I’m with you.”

She grabbed Vicky’s arm and tugged her down. “Don’t worry, Lis. He’s probably inside.”

“I’ll be right back,” Richie said.

Keith was sitting with a soda and playing drums with straws on the table. Charlene was wiping down the counter.

“Hey, man,” Keith said.

“Hey. Any luck?” Richie gestured his head toward Charlene.

“She’s coming round.”

That’s what he said every time.

Richie slid into the booth and leaned over the table. “I got two chicks in my car ready to party.”

Keith stopped drumming and looked out the window. “I don’t see anyone.”

“They’re on the floor in the front. They’re scared their old man might come out of the bowling alley and see them.”

Keith grunted and resumed drumming. Richie slapped his hand down on the straws. “They want to get some beers. What the hell do I do?”

Keith removed Richie’s hand and resumed drumming. “Go hang out at the back door of Oakland Liquors and ask someone to buy you a six-pack.”

“I never did that before.”

Keith gave him an oh-come-on look. “Man, you are such a dork.”

“Come with. Charlene’s not going with you and you know it.”

Keith looked at her bobbing ponytail as she wiped down the ice cream machine. “What do they look like?”

“Real foxes.”

“I have first dibs.”

“Done.”

Keith slipped out of the booth. “Later, Charlene.”

She looked up surprised. “Hey wait, Keith…” The door closed on her voice.

They laughed. “‘Bout time you showed her, dork,” Richie said.

*

Richie struck out twice with asking people to buy him a six-pack. It wasn’t as easy as Keith had made it out to be. One man gave him a dirty look. Another told him he should know better than to drink at his age. Richie lit a cigarette and inhaled. Smoking scratched his throat, but he liked hanging out with the cool crowd in the smoking courtyard at school, so he kept doing it.

Laughter rippled from the car. He glanced over.

“Hey, what’s taking you?” Keith yelled.

Richie shot him the middle finger.

A Harley pulled in. A guy and a girl dismounted, pulling off their helmets. Bingo.

Seven minutes later, Richie trotted back to the car with a paper bag containing two six-packs of Lowenbrau. Much to his annoyance, Keith was sitting in the backseat with Vicky. Lisa was riding shotgun.

“Party time!” Richie sang.

Keith grabbed the bag and handed the girls beers as Richie put the car in gear. “Let’s go to the rock,” Keith said.

“At night?” Richie said.

“It’s summer, man,” Keith said. “Live a little.”

“We’ve never been to the rock, have we, Lisa?”

“No, let’s go,” Vicky said.

“Don’t worry, man,” Keith said. “The trail’s easy. Here, have a Lowie. Loosen up.”

“I have a flashlight in the trunk, I think,” Richie said.

Lisa shuffled through his eight-tracks in the glove compartment and held one up. “I love this album.” She slid the tape in. The Allman Brothers’ guitar riffs twanged as they passed the “Welcome to Oakland, New Jersey” sign and wound up the mountain.

When “Ramblin’ Man” kicked in, Richie belted out the lyrics while Keith air-drummed. The girls laughed and joined in the chorus. Richie chucked his empty out the window as they rounded a bend. Keith did the same and then plucked the bottles out of the girls’ hands and tossed them.

“I didn’t finish that one yet,” Vicky protested.

“Spit and foam at the bottom. Have another one.” Keith stuck his head out the window and wolf-howled. Richie howled even louder. Keith was right. There was something about a summer night that stretched the possibility of everything, made life large.

Richie pulled into the entrance to the Ramapo Mountain Reserve, parked and got out. He was pretty sure his father had a flashlight in his emergency kit. He opened the trunk and found it. He switched it on and shone the light around the lot. The beam caught three parked cars, cars he knew.

“Let’s gooo,” Keith called.

They followed the cone of light along the path. The rock lay a mile up on the mountain ridge. It was a huge slab of stone that sloped down to a lake surrounded by pine trees. The trail narrowed as it grew steeper and stonier. The girls panted and stumbled. The boys grabbed their hands and pulled them along.

“This is really far,” Lisa said.

“It’s kind of creepy,” Vicky said.

“Almost there,” Keith puffed.

The climb finally gave way to a “Swimming Prohibited” sign. They stood at the water’s pebbled edge catching their breath. The moonlight glistened on the lake’s black surface surrounded by the dark silhouettes of trees. The air was still and summer-sticky. Richie’s spine prickled. A whoop of laughter from down the shoreline invaded the silence. Richie remembered the cars.

“Party up ahead. Let’s go.” Keith started down the narrow track along the shore. Richie and the girls fell in behind him.

A few minutes later, they climbed onto the rock. Richie looked around. No one. Then a grating rumble sounded. He shone the flashlight up the slope. Three beer bottles rolled down, then a voice called out of the darkness.

“Hey, move. You’re in the way!”

The group shifted to the side. Mark Ambriano, Lenny Wosniewski and Butch O’Brien came into sight as they raced after the speeding bottles, which hit a stone at the bottom with clinks.

“Mine won!” Mark said.

“Who’re you fooling, man, it was mine,” Lenny said.

Butch leapt down to the stone where the bottles had rolled to a rest and smashed them against the rock. Only Keith laughed.

“Butch, quit that shit!” Mark said.

Lenny walked over to them. “You guys wanna party?”

“You got the brewskis, we got the weed,” Mark said.

“It’s decent stuff,” Lenny added. “Sinse.”

Richie, Keith and the girls followed the three guys up the slope. Lenny, Butch and Mark sat next to the girls, leaving Richie and Keith sitting next to each other across from them in the circle. Keith looked at Richie, twisting his mouth as if to say, “This is bullshit.” Richie shrugged.

Lenny expertly rolled a joint from a baggie of pot. A bottle of Jack Daniels came from somewhere and was passed around. Richie felt like he was floating above the scene. These guys would never give him a second look at school. Now he was partying and bullshitting with them like they were buddies.

After a couple joints, shots and a beer, Richie’s head was fuzzing. Voices blurred. His closed his eyes and saw the star-speckled sky on his eyelids. He opened them and wondered vaguely how he was going to get back to the car. He looked around. Keith was lying on his back. Butch was rolling another joint. Mark’s arm had disappeared around Vicky’s back and she was leaning into his shoulder. Lenny and Lisa were making out. The night that had seemed in the palm of Richie’s hand had slipped from his grasp. He elbowed Keith.

“Let’s get out of here.”

“Yeah.”

They stood. Richie’s head swam. He grabbed the flashlight and lurched down to the lake. He splashed water on his face. The cold wetness broke his stupor. Keith stumbled behind him. He threw some water on his face and shook his head.

“That reefer was wicked.” Keith’s voice sounded like it was in slow motion.

They started down the trail. The moon had brightened, silvering the lake. Richie switched on the flashlight, took a few steps then heard a retching noise. He turned and shone the flashlight. Keith leaned on a tree trunk and and wiped his mouth with his T-shirt.

“You okay?”

“Yeah, now that I barfed,” Keith croaked. He walked to the lakeside and splashed more water on his face.

The flashlight was faint. “Not much battery left,” Richie said. “If we hurry, we might make it before it goes dead.”

A high-pitched scream pierced the air. Richie and Keith froze.

“Hold her!” Butch.

“Leave her alone!” Lisa.

Another scream.

“Shut the fuck up!” Lenny.

A girl’s sobs. “Leave us alone!” Lisa.

“Shut your fucking mouth! It’s your turn next.” Butch. A slap. A cry. “I told you, shut it.”

Keith and Richie looked at each other. “Jesus fucking Christ,” Keith said in a loud whisper.

“What do we do?” Richie whispered.

“Fuck!”

“We got to go back.”

“Are you shitting me?” Keith snatched the flashlight. “They’ll think we’re part of it.” He set off down the trail. Richie was paralyzed. “Richie, they’re just goofing off. Come on.”

He hesitated, then followed Keith. They skidded down the first steep stretch, then Richie paused and listened. Crickets chorused, nothing else.

Keith turned. “What the fuck are you doing? Come on, man. We don’t want those guys on our asses.”

“I don’t know.”

“Those girls were going along with them. You saw.”

Richie couldn’t move.

“Listen, if you want to be a dork, that’s your fucking problem.” Keith moved off at a fast clip.

The flashlight’s beam bobbed into the darkness. Keith was probably right. The girls were looking for trouble. He’d go back and find them all laughing. He’d look like a real douchebag. Richie jogged to catch up with Keith, but a lump formed in the pit of his stomach.

*

The rest of the weekend, Richie worked his hours at the car wash then slumped on the couch in the basement watching All in the Family reruns.

“You feeling all right, Richie?” his mom called down the stairs.

“I’m fine, Ma.”

As the laugh track played on the TV, Richie played the night over in his mind. The screams. The crying. “It’s your turn next.” Something bad happened. He should have gone back. He should have told Keith it was a lousy idea to go to the rock in the first place. Why did he ever listen to him?

Maybe it was just the pot that spooked him. Those guys would never have done anything to the girls, would they? They were just roughhousing, got carried away, like Keith said. And those girls really did ask for it. They wanted to go to the rock. They were making out with those guys. He wasn’t responsible for them. Or was he? He drove them there.

Richie felt a weight on his chest that made it hard to breathe. He’d experienced that once before, when he was ten and playing in the sea at Wildwood, letting the waves dance him around like a piece of driftwood. It was fun for a while, then the waves got rough, crashing over him and clawing him under. As soon as he got his head above surface, another wave slammed against his body, submerging him. He kept swallowing saltwater and his throat was burning. He thrashed and flailed but he couldn’t get his head above the surface. Then suddenly he was breathing air. He couldn’t remember how he got out, but he was able to swim to shallower water and walked back to his towel and collapsed.

*

Monday was a good day at the car wash. Richie made fifteen bucks in tips. Feeling lighter than he had all weekend, he strode into the kitchen after work and opened the fridge.

“Get out of there. Dinner’ll be ready soon.” His mother spoke without looking up from the newspaper she was reading at the table.

He grabbed the milk carton, poured himself a glass and gulped.

“There was a gang rape of some teenage girls up at Ramapo. They’re looking for the suspects.” His mother turned the page. “I always told you kids got up to no good up there.”

Richie spluttered on the milk.

His mother looked up in alarm. “You okay?”

He wiped his mouth with his forearm. “Went down the wrong way.”

He rushed into his bedroom and flopped on the bed, burying his face in the pillow. Gang rape.

He was responsible for two girls getting raped by three guys. Was he an accessory? An accomplice? A witness?

Richie didn’t feel like eating, but he didn’t want questions from his parents, so he shoveled down his dinner and retreated to the basement. Laverne and Shirley was starting when he heard the doorbell. A minute later, his mother opened the basement door. “Richie, some boys are here to see you. Mark, Butch and Lenny.”

His stomach clenched. “I’m not home, Ma.”

“I already told them you are. They said it’s important.”

Richie hauled himself up the stairs and out to the front porch, carefully closing the door behind him. His parents were in the living room, playing along with Jeopardy.

Mark stood on the porch. “Hey Richie, got a sec?” Mark cocked his head toward the driveway, where Butch and Lenny hovered. They walked over. Richie shoved his hands in his pockets.

“So, ah, you know the other night, well, nothing really happened, you know,” Mark said.

“You didn’t see nothing anyway, right.” The way Lenny phrased it, it wasn’t a question.

“We’re just saying because those girls were real wasted, and they might be going around saying stuff, but they were real easy, real teases, you know. Nothing happened like they might be going around saying. And you were there, and your buddy Keith, so they might have got all us guys mixed up. It was real dark, you know what I mean?” Mark arched his eyebrows.

Yeah, Richie knew. He was trapped. He wanted to knock that smart-ass look off Mark’s face with a right hook like his dad had taught him with the punching bag slung up on the tree in the backyard. He slapped at a mosquito on his arm instead.

Butch took out a hunting knife and cleaned his fingernails with the blade tip. The steel glinted. His old man was the police chief. Mark’s dad was a lawyer. And Lenny, rumor had it that his father was in prison for killing someone. Richie’s chest felt tight. He cleared his throat. “I really don’t remember much of that night. I was pretty shitfaced.”

“That’s what we kinda figured. We just wanted to make sure,” Mark said. “So now we got that all straightened out, we’re cool, man, okay?”

“Yeah, yeah, sure.” Richie’s skin squeezed his bones.

“Let me know if you want some help with that Duster,” Mark said. “We could do a real cool paint job on her, a racing stripe or flames on the fenders even.”

“Yeah, sure,” Richie mumbled.

Keith. He waited until they left, then he got in the Duster and cruised down to the Dairy Queen, keeping right on the speed limit although he wanted to go faster. As he walked to the door, Richie could see Keith through the window, scarfing down ice cream at a booth. Charlene was serving cones at the walk-up window.

“How’s it going?” Keith’s spoon clattered into the empty banana split dish as Richie sat across from him. Keith pulled a napkin from the dispenser and swiped it across his mouth.

Keith leaned over the table. “Charlene’s going out with me after work. Told ya I’d get her. Take it from me, girls like the chase.” He grinned. “I took a bottle of Southern Comfort from the liquor cabinet. The old lady’ll never miss it.”

“Cool.” Richie grabbed the salt shaker and spun it. “So Butch and them just came by my house.”

Keith lowered his voice. “I told them I didn’t see nothing, hear nothing, I was wasted off my ass. I don’t even remember how I got home. That’s what happened.”

“But we heard them, the girls screaming and all that.”

“Richie, we left. We didn’t hear jack. End of fucking story. You say any different, we’re going to land in a major pile of shit, capisce?”

Richie tipped the shaker and poured the salt onto the table. There was something soothing about watching it flow into a perfect white mound.

“Would you quit that? Charlene’s going to think I did it.” Keith glanced over his shoulder and brushed the salt on the floor under the table. He grabbed the shaker out of Richie’s hand and set it aside. “Besides, no one’ll ever believe us over them. One of them’s old man is the police chief.”

“It was your fucking idea to go to the rock.”

“Don’t dump this shit on me.” Keith jabbed his finger at Richie. “You were the one who begged me to go with you. Those girls were sluts. They were looking for trouble and got what they deserved.”

“Keith, I’m closing out the register. I’ll be done in five,” Charlene called. “Can you bring over your dish?”

“Sure.” Keith stood. “Think about it, Richie. You’ll see I’m right.” He grabbed the dish and walked to the counter.

Richie drove home and opened the garage door. He fished a wrench out of the toolbox and unscrewed the Duster’s rear bumper. He put on the welding mask and gloves and fired up the oxyacetylene torch. He twisted and melted the bumper into a contorted figure until his arms ached.

The next night after dinner, Richie went into the garage and dismantled the Duster’s front bumper and grill and started welding. His mother peered through the half-open door as she wiped her hands on a dish towel. Her brows knitted. A few minutes later, the door flung open. His father marched in, a rolled up newspaper in his hand.

“Son, what in God’s name are you doing? Have you lost your mind?”

Richie focused on his seam.

His dad whacked the newspaper hard on the tool bench. “Richie, you pay attention to me when I’m talking to you! Turn that torch off!”

Richie didn’t stop.

His father took two steps and yanked off the spigots on the oxygen and acetylene tanks. The torch’s flame fizzled. “Get in the house!”

Richie, still wearing his welding mask, got up and turned on the tanks.

His father’s face looked like all his blood vessels had burst.

“Richard. Get. In. The. House!” His dad’s arm shot out toward the door. Richie lifted the torch. Its 3,000-degree blue flame spit directly at his father, who reeled back and crashed into the garbage cans.

“I never should’ve given you the money for that car. You’re goddamn spoiled!” He hauled himself up and went into the kitchen. “Jesus Christ, he almost killed me with that torch! I don’t know what’s wrong with him.” His dad’s voice floated into the garage.

“It must be girl trouble,” his mother said.

The door closed. Richie kept welding.

The next night, Richie came home from the car wash, took his dinner plate into the garage and started working on the hub caps. His father entered and sat on a milk crate.

“Son, you can tell your old man. You got some girl knocked up?”

Anger rose in Richie’s throat. He wasn’t going around knocking up girls. He ignored the question.

“Jesus, Richie, this is crazy.” His father combed his hair with his fingers. Then he got up and retreated to the kitchen.

“It’s that goddamn art teacher,” he heard his dad say. “I’m going to fix this once and for all.”

The next night, Richie went into the garage and flicked on the light. There was an empty space where his welding equipment and sculpture had been. He got into the Duster and banged his forehead against the steering wheel. He slid the key into the ignition and backed out the driveway. He roamed downtown for a while, feeling his rage descend into a dark but stable mood, then decided to head to Burger King for a shake.

“Hey Richie!” Mark, Butch and Lenny were sitting at a table with trays of burgers and fries. Shit. He considered walking out, but he’d look like a wimp. He nodded at them and ordered a chocolate shake, then added a Whopper and extra-large fries that he didn’t want. Maybe they’d be gone by the time his order was ready. But they weren’t.

“Richie, over here!” Mark waved at him. He twisted toward them, pulled by the string of obligation, and sat at their table. “We’re going to borrow a swimming pool, if you want to come.” The others chuckled. “The Politanos are away so we have a little swimming party there at night. The house is set back. No one sees us.”

“Sure.” Richie heard himself say. His chest constricted again, the waves buffeted him, closing over his head. He couldn’t breathe.

“Let’s pick up Veronica on the way,” Lenny said.

“We know what that’s about,” Butch said.

“You betcha!” Lenny wiggled his eyebrows.

They all laughed.

Richie tried to smile, to go along, but he couldn’t. He knew his father would kill him for sneaking into someone’s yard. Did he really want to turn into another Mark, Butch or Lenny? Did he really want to join their club? Then memory struck him like a lightning bolt. It was his father who had plucked him out of the ocean all those years ago. Dad had deposited him in shallower water where he could safely swim to shore.

He stood up. “I just remembered. I gotta do something.” He walked off.

“Hey, you want your food?” Butch called.

“You can have it,” Richie said.

He drove home and entered the living room. His father was in his recliner, watching Wheel of Fortune, a folded newspaper on the table beside him.

“Dad, you gotta minute?”

pencil

Christina Hoag is the author of novels Girl on the Brink and Skin of Tattoos (Onward Press). Her short stories and essays have been published in numerous literary reviews including Lunch Ticket, Shooter, the Santa Barbara Literary Journal and the San Antonio Review and have won several prizes. She is a former journalist for the Miami Herald and Associated Press and Latin America foreign correspondent. Email: choag24[at]gmail.com

Boys Will Be Boys

A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
Robin Kirby


Photo Credit: rockpool73/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

“I think Toby Gardiner lives in that house.” Miranda pointed at a low-set fibro beach shack, set in an overgrown garden. “Do you want to see if he’s home?” The house itself was unimposing, but the places along this stretch of dirt road backed on to the open sea. My parents’ beach house was a luxurious high-set with views forever, but it didn’t have that mesmerising sound of waves breaking on the shore night and day.

It struck me that Miranda may have contrived staying with me for the sole purpose of putting herself in the path of Toby Gardiner. She had mentioned this latest crush when we were discussing our plans for the summer holidays.

“He’s such a doll.”

Toby Gardiner was a year older than us and had attended a different school. He would be going to university down south soon. Miranda had met him through a friend one weekend and had watched out for him when we attended the end of year inter-school swimming carnival. Neither Miranda nor I were very sporty, but we’d been in the cheer squad, dressed to kill in short skirts and tight T-shirts. During their animated conversation, she’d found out that he was an only child and that his father had recently died of a heart attack. She had also found out that his family beach house was walking distance from mine.

“OK,” I replied, “but if he’s there I don’t want to stay very long.”

Miranda sauntered to the screen door. “Anyone home?”

“Hey, Miranda, isn’t it?”

I had to admit that Toby was pretty cute. He had a bit of a surfie look about him: bleached blonde hair, bronzed skin. A shame all his attention was on Miranda. Boys always seemed to go for Miranda. She was my best friend and all, but really, she wasn’t what you’d call beautiful. A little on the chubby side, baby blue eyes, blonde curls. I guess buxom was the word that fitted best, maybe even voluptuous.

It turned out that his mother was due home in a few minutes, but would be at work the next day. While she was away, some of his mates would be coming over for a game of cards and a few drinks. Toby said it would be fun to have a couple of girls there as well. How about it?

“Bingo,” said Miranda as we meandered back home. The sun beat down relentlessly on our bare heads, but we hardly noticed as we giggled together and concocted a plausible story to tell my parents about what we’d be doing the next day. I wondered what the other boys would be like.

*

“That’s it for me,” said Shane, throwing his cards into the middle of the table.

I had been checking him out for a while. He was the one who owned the dust-streaked car outside Toby’s place. He had been intent on the poker game and his restless eyes rarely left his cards. The boys had started with piles of coins in front of them, but his had now dwindled away to almost nothing. They were drinking beer from cans and laughing about the fun they’d had last night when Shane had hit 100 miles per hour down the straight stretch of Harbour Road.

It felt like Miranda and I were privileged to be on the sidelines. I didn’t know what to make of the third boy. They called him ‘Cliffo’ and when we sat down, he announced with a perfectly straight face, that he had a certificate proving he was sane. He didn’t sound like he was joking, so I repressed my desire to giggle. I had no experience with mental illness. He might be for real.

Shane and Cliffo had been hurling the empty cans through an open window in some kind of ‘who can get his can the furthest’ competition.

“Hope you’re going to pick those up,” said Toby.

“Ya going to make us?” said Cliffo.

“Thought my mum scared you shitless.”

Shane shrugged and wandered outside and collected the cans, put them in the rubbish bin, then grabbed his car keys. It turned out he was off to meet his girlfriend in town. Drat. The three boys had a muttered conversation near the door, there was some skylarking and laughter and I heard the car spin its wheels in the dirt as it took off.

Toby came back to the main room with Cliffo. By now, Miranda had gone to sit on the lounge and Toby sat down close beside her. There was some desultory conversation about holidays and school and how hot it was. I could see that Toby had an arm around Miranda and I tried not to watch as his hand surreptitiously slipped inside her blouse. She blushed and moved side on so we couldn’t see.

Cliffo watched unblinking for a minute and then went and got himself another beer from the fridge. He came and stood right in front of me and I noticed for the first time that he was tall and that his eyes were an intense blue.

“Let’s get out of here,” he said.

Suited me. I just wanted to get away from the embarrassing situation of sitting around watching my friend being seduced.

“Alright.”

Cliffo walked through a doorway and I automatically followed. He closed the door. We were in a starkly furnished bedroom. I panicked, but then realised that there was probably nowhere else to sit down in the small beach shack. At least we couldn’t see the others.

We both stood in silence. He took a few sips of beer then handed me the can.

“You finish it. I’m not supposed to drink ‘cause of my medication.”

I walked to the window but couldn’t see the sea, just bushes. There was no breeze. The room was stinking hot. No fans. No air-con. I’d never actually drunk a full can of beer before. It was bitter on my tongue, but at least it was cold. Perhaps I’d relax a bit more and be able to string more than two words together if I got a little tipsy. I gulped it down and put the can on the sill. Cliffo was still standing, just watching me.

“Did they tell you why I was in the funny farm?”

“No. No one said anything.”

“Tried to commit suicide.”

For some reason, that made me feel better. I could relate to depression and suicide. Not like madness, which to me was a scary kind of unknown.

“Oh. Sorry.”

The room was starting to spin a bit and I felt a little woozy. I sat on the edge of the bed. Cliffo lay on his back and stared at the ceiling.

“It’s OK,” he said. “I’m not going to jump you or nothin’. You can lie down.”

It was tempting. I was decidedly dizzy by now, so I carefully stretched out, keeping to the edge of the bed.

After a few more minutes of silence, Cliffo propped himself on his elbow.

“You’ve got a nice belly.”

I was wearing black footie shorts and a midriff top. Yeah, my stomach was toned and tanned. Looked pretty damn good really, despite the sheen of perspiration.

“Can I touch it? Just gently?”

What could be the harm? It wasn’t like a sexual thing. And anyway, he was suicidal. If I said no, I might hurt his feelings.

“OK, but nothing more. Alright?”

Up ‘til now, I had only experienced some sweaty handholding and a couple of sloppy kisses from pimply youths at school. I was starting to worry a bit about being left on the shelf or that maybe I came across as an ice princess or something. I was nearly sixteen, after all.

He lay a hand on my stomach. It was warm and not unpleasant. After a few more minutes, he gently began to draw small lazy circles around my navel. I closed my eyes. I felt less nauseous that way. And I could almost imagine he was someone else. Some romantic hero from that shadowy world of my imagination.

The lazy circles slowly, slowly expanded and a distant part of me was aware that disembodied fingers had ever so gradually pulled down the elastic waistband of my shorts. Those sensitive fingers were now trailing across my lower belly, creating pulsating tingles lower down. The beer had certainly relaxed me and I experienced these new sensations with a dazed sort of detachment.

Something in the back of my mind was tugging at me, bothering me. It was that irritating goody two-shoes part of me demanding to be heard, to remind me that this was wrong, and nothing like the romance of my imagination.

He wasn’t the one. This person beside me had discoloured teeth and I was becoming increasingly aware that he smelled of stale beer, cigarettes and rancid sweat. While I tried to summon up the wherewithal to somehow extricate myself from this situation, I lay inert like a rabbit in a spotlight. The problem was that a wilder, more untamed part of my nature that I barely recognised was willing me to continue, to keep exploring the sensuous mysteries that Miranda was no doubt experiencing in the other room.

I felt a clumsy, inexpert fumbling between my legs. OK, enough was enough. This was downright tacky now and most definitely not what I wanted. I started to pull away but he was big and heavy and kind of pinning me down. There was a rough probing into the area my mother euphemistically described as my ‘private part’ and I finally galvanized into action and yanked frantically at his hand while desperately trying to pull my shorts up. God, surely that wasn’t the end of my virginity.

Without warning, he leapt off the bed and headed out the door, gleefully shouting to the others. I sat up, stone-cold sober.

“I win. I win. Fingered her. Come on, Toby, pay up.”

I felt my face flushing. I ran from the room, not caring what state of undress Miranda was in. Slamming the screen door, I pushed blindly through the bushes to the road, hoping against hope that Miranda would follow.

She did. “Are you for real? You let Cliffo do that?”

I couldn’t help myself. I couldn’t bear the thought of her judgement or her pity. “He was lying. He just touched my stomach. That’s all.”

“Didn’t sound like it,” she said.

“I didn’t want to say anything back there, because I felt sort of sorry for him. You know, because of the depression and suicide and stuff.”

“What? He told you he was suicidal?”

“Yeah.”

“The lying toad,” said Miranda. “Toby reckons he’s a bit of a psychopath. Really weird if he’s off his meds.”

“So, it’s because he’s insane that he made that bet with the others?”

“Nah. Boys will be boys. That’s what a lot of them are like.”

That was the initial turning point of my summer. It hurt me right to my very core that the other boys had gone along with the bet, that they’d laughed about it and thought it was a great joke. I was deeply ashamed about the way my own body had betrayed me. Deep inside, I knew that never again would I put myself in a position where I could be humiliated by anyone. I didn’t care anymore if boys thought I was a prude or if I became an old spinster. No male would ever make a fool of me again.

“So Miranda, what about you? Was Toby trying to win a bet too?”

“God no. Toby and I are in love.”

Later, Miranda and I sat on the warm sand watching the dancing, foaming waves as the shadows lengthened. Tears rolled down my cheeks and I told her the truth about what had happened.

“You should report him,” she said.

“Who to? It’s not like I kicked and screamed.”

“But you didn’t say yes and you certainly didn’t know he was just doing it for a bet. That would have to be deception or false pretences or something.”

“You know how embarrassing it would be to tell a cop? Or my parents? Anyway, he’d probably say I led him on.”

“Yeah. I get what you mean. Guess you’re just going to have to live with it.”

*

A few weeks later and the humidity was almost unbearable as the torrential rains of the wet season threatened. Miranda and I were back at school, and it wouldn’t be long until Toby left for university. I didn’t care what Cliffo or Shane were planning to do with their lives. I hoped I would never see any of those boys again as long as I lived. I received sporadic reports from Miranda about Toby’s phone calls and the frenzied trysts in the back of Shane’s car, on the occasions when Toby could borrow it.

On my way out of the house one oppressive morning, I glanced at the daily newspaper on the dining room table. The macabre picture of a smashed-up car caught my eye. The impact had been so forceful that the car had split into two and the roof had peeled back, as if a giant had opened a can of sardines.

Toby Gardiner and Shane Walker had been killed in the single vehicle rollover.

For a moment, I could scarcely breathe. Miranda would be devastated. Then it was almost as if a switch had been flicked, and I turned and walked into the mind and spirit of my more mature self. I breathed deeply and was calm and in control. I would be Miranda’s support. I had been a part of her idyllic summer and we would weather this together. I understood. I was the only person who had known the unfolding of her first real love. I knew I could do this.

*

The small church was filled to overflowing for the double funeral, despite the teeming rain. Miranda and I stood at the back and vainly scanned for spare seats.

“We should be up at the front with Toby’s mother,” whispered Miranda.

“But you’ve never met her, have you?”

“Yeah, but I was his girlfriend. Do you think I should introduce myself before the service starts?”

I instinctively knew that would be a disaster. I had noticed a woman come and sit in the front row by herself and guessed it would have to be Toby’s mother. She moved like an automaton, face drawn, eyes dead. And so alone.

For a few moments she sat staring at the two coffins. I felt that she was trying to work out how she would ever bear the dreadful weight of the deaths of first her husband and now her only child. Then people came and surrounded her, hugged her, kissed her cheek. Cliffo was among them. I shuddered.

Miranda and I remained squashed among those standing at the back. We sang the hymns and said Amen at the right times in the prayers and then the eulogies started. A petite slip of a girl came to the front. She looked Eurasian to me. Thick black plait, liquid eyes. She took a deep breath and began:

“For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Raya. I’ve been Toby’s girlfriend for two years and we were the world to each other.”

There was an audible gasp from Miranda, thankfully drowned out by people fanning themselves with their service sheets.

“Of course, there was another woman in his life…”

I felt Miranda stiffen.

“…his beautiful mother, Leila, who is heartbroken.”

Raya went on to explain about Toby’s mother sending a telegram to her in Malaysia, where Raya had been caring for her sick grandmother. She talked on about the plans she and Toby had made for opening a mental health clinic for disturbed youth once she and Toby had qualified, plans to volunteer overseas, to marry, to have a family.

I whispered in Miranda’s ear. “Do you want to go?”

She tearfully nodded and we quietly sidled out into the damp churchyard and found a sheltered seat on a low brick wall.

“I think I need to set the story straight,” said Miranda. “I think Toby’s mother and Raya need to meet me, to know that Toby had fallen in love with me.”

I was silent for a minute. It was clear to me that Toby Gardiner wasn’t the Mr Nice Guy everyone painted. He had been quite content to keep his exotic princess as his long-term plan but to have fun with my friend Miranda while Raya was off the scene. This was a powder keg just waiting to be ignited.

“No, Miranda. What good will it do?”

“It would make me feel better. Less like a bloody stupid idiot.”

“I know you’re hurting. But if you tell them, then three people will be hurting. It’s not like Toby’s mother or Raya did anything wrong. They knew Toby for a long time and shared heaps of experiences with him. You’ll make their memories of those times ugly and distorted. Would that be fair?”

Miranda dabbed at her eyes with a damp, twisted tissue. “Guess we’ve both learned a lot about boys this summer,” she said, with a weak smile.

More than that, I thought. We’d learnt a whole lot about life.

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Robin Kirby followed her heart and studied English Literature at University in Townsville. It taught her to appreciate great writing. A Creative Writing course gave her the practical tools to try herself out as a freelance writer. As a result, she was fortunate to have a few short stories published but that was many years ago and it didn’t seem she could make a career of it. She turned to other professions and also saw a bit of Australia, moving from Townsville to Darwin, then on to Perth and finally back to the Tropics again. Working as a psychologist in a psychiatric unit gave her insight into personality and behaviour; university administrative positions encouraged her to be meticulous and to respect high standards; teaching piano lessons opened her eyes to the rhythms and cadences of expression. Family? Well, family is her reason for being. Full circle. Now she’s back following her heart, but with a lifetime of experiences to add colour and authenticity. Writing. Email: robknibb56[at]hotmail.com

My Virginity and Other Losses

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
April Vázquez


Photo Credit: dianne.dacayana/Flickr (CC-by)

The first thing Kyle Mayhue says to me when he opens the door of the trailer where he lives and finds me standing on the front step is, “You look tough with your hair like that.” He pooches out his mouth in a pucker and nods approvingly.

I haven’t seen him in over a year, since he dropped out of high school and stopped riding my bus. He looks older, like an adult almost, with a sparse reddish beard and tan, muscular arms. His curly, dark auburn hair is a little longer, but his face is unchanged besides the beard: coarse, with a wide nose and a long, deep scar on his right cheek that crinkles into a dimple when he smiles. I probably do look different to him, with my eyeliner and bizarre clothes. My hair is shaved down to an inch on one side, and down to my chin on the other.

Kyle works third shift at the factory at the bottom of the road. He lives here on a dirt hill with his grandmother in the wasteland of shacks and trailers that lie between the factory and Kingstown, the Black neighborhood at the edge of Larrimore. Even from the doorway, the place smells like fried food and cigarette smoke. Behind him I can see a box of powdered sugar donuts on the kitchen table among a mess of papers and clothes, under a glaring light bulb with no shade. A dreadlocked dog shuffles around the dusty yard on a long rope.

I’m here, ostensibly, to buy weed from him, but what I really want is to get into the habit of seeing him again. What I’m buying is his time.

“Come in,” he says.

I visit him once a week all spring, buying marijuana every time. When I’m there I smoke a little with him, but what I buy I don’t smoke. I scatter it out in the woods and rake leaves over it with my foot, then I wad up a piece of notebook paper around the baggies. The truth is that I don’t really like to smoke it. It’s just a way to justify my visits.

Kyle’s grandmother, Marlene, is loud, vulgar, and good-natured, with a raspy voice and wheezy laugh. She has a big bosom and disproportionately small waist, and she draws on her eyebrows in thin, brown pencil lines that give her face a quizzical look. She chain-smokes Marlboro Reds and loves the Jerry Springer show, which, because it conflicts with her work schedule at Ruby’s convenience store, she watches when she gets home at night. I’m here in time to see her today because it’s a teacher workday.

“You gonna tape Jerry for me or what, Kyle?” she says, twisting her lips to exhale out her cigarette smoke to the side.

“Naw. I’m sick a you watchin’ that shit. It’s embarrassin’.”

“You know what’s gonna happen if you don’t tape it,” she says, balling up her fist and shaking it at him.

This is their shtick. He gives her a hard time, but he tapes the program for her. He even watches it. One day I arrive in time to catch the last part of the show with him. Two surly brothers are in love with the same girl, a scrawny, pasty-looking child from Alabama, not yet in her twenties. They scream and curse one other as the audience chatters like primates, urging them on to an open brawl.

“Ain’t this sick?” Kyle asks, yawning.

“Yep,” I say. But we keep watching it.

As time goes on, I stop buying weed from Kyle, and he eventually stops offering it to me, even to smoke. Instead we watch TV or play video games or listen to CDs. To listen to music, we go into his room, where the stereo stands between a weight bench and the bed along the far wall. At first we sit on the floor, which is covered with thick, orange carpet and smells faintly musty. Then we sit on the bed, on top of an old green sleeping bag, then eventually we lie on the bed, though we don’t touch. I begin to visit every day, inventing excuses for being out in the afternoons. I say I have activities after school, science club, Spanish club, National Honor Society. Or that I go to Becca Bradham’s. I know my mother won’t check up on this story; she considers Becca’s family beneath us.

Kyle never touches me. He lies on the bed and smokes cigarettes and softly sings Pink Floyd songs, occasionally getting up to change the CD. He waits until I’m ready.

*

On the day I’ve chosen, I skip school. Anyway, it’s winding down now; the seniors are out already, leaving the rest of us restless and indignant about having to show up. We’ve come to the purgatory of post-yearbook signing and academic awards, with nothing to look forward to except interminable exam reviews and, finally, the exams themselves. Crestdale High can spare me for the day.

I spend the morning at Don’s Pancake House, having a leisurely breakfast, then on a bench under a maple tree at the city park immersed in The Bell Jar. I wake Kyle up at just after one o’clock, knocking softly, then louder, on the door of the trailer. It’s hot as hell, the hottest day this year, the kind of sultry summer day that makes the whole outdoors feel like a sauna in central North Carolina. The top of Kyle’s Buick radiates heat in squiggly waves, and as I stand on the cinder block step, sweat beads on my upper lip and brow and makes a pool in my bra.

He comes to the door bleary-eyed, with a slight flush to his skin. He’s wearing only pajama bottoms, emblazoned with the Duff’s Beer logo. “Why didn’t you come earlier?” he says, squinting into the sunlight, grinning. He closes one eye, scratches his chest. “Come in, lemme brush my teeth.”

When he comes out of the bathroom, he has little drops of water on his face. They glisten in the sunlight. I walk over to him, stand in front of him, closer than I’ve ever stood before, and with one finger wipe a drop of water from his cheek down through the groove of his scar.

“Be soft with me,” I say, biting my lower lip. “It’ll be my first time.”

His skin is salty. He keeps his eyes closed, and I see that the lashes are longer than I’ve ever noticed before. His back gets slippery with sweat, there’s more hair than I thought, and a dog howls, far away, from the direction of the factory. The air conditioner rattles. It hurts, but not too much.

When it’s over I notice there’s a little blood on the sleeping bag. “I’ll tell Grammaw it’s motor oil. She prob’ly won’t even notice,” Kyle says, kissing my nose. I decide I’ll keep a tally, I tell myself we’ll do it twenty times. Surely once you’ve done something twenty times, you know how it’s done.

This is how I begin, but the weeks spread out into months, and I lose count of my tally, knowing the number was well beyond what I’d planned. There’s nothing I can really pinpoint that I don’t like about Kyle. I keep waiting to tire of him, not to want to see him anymore, but the feeling never comes. So not seeing him has to be a planned act, a decision. Just like going to bed with him was, but harder to make. Anyway, it’s summer, and the ungodly heat seems to have trapped me into a sensual lethargy. Like Daisy Buchanan on the day in New York City when Jay Gatsby challenges her husband, I can’t imagine taking any serious action, making any change in such heat.

I keep it up till September. It’s only when the mornings grow cooler and the first leaves show a pale cast of pale orange and yellow that I begin to imagine letting Kyle go. On the day I’ve chosen, it’s raining.

“I can’t see you anymore,” I say to his shoulder as soon as I walk in. I look up at his face, where his grin has frozen, then, in an instant, he’s made his expression blank. He takes a step back, his movements stiff. I watch him pick up his denim jacket where it’s slung over the arm of the couch. A fine white cat hair sticks out from the collar, reminding me of the thistles I used to get stuck in the cuffs of my pants when I played outside as a child. Like tiny archery arrows.

“You getcha a boyfriend?” he asks. “A rich one, that you don’t have to sneak around with?”

“Yeah,” I say softly.

“That’s cool. I’m just gonna run out to the store, get me some cigarettes. I’ll see you around.” He doesn’t look me in the eye.

While he pulls on his jacket and gets his keys, I look out the window at the drizzle hitting the leaves of the nearest tree, light green but veined with red-purple lines that bespeak the cold to come. I feel it already, in all the blueish veins that lead to my heart.

Kyle leaves without another word. He’s never looked as good to me as when he walks out the door.

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April Vázquez is the winner of the William Van Dyke Short Story Prize and Carve’s Prose & Poetry Contest, and her work has been nominated for Best of the Web, the Orison Anthology Award, and two Pushcart Prizes. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in dozens of publications, including Salon, Ruminate, The Windhover, and Sweeter Voices Still: An LGBTQ Anthology from Middle America. Email: aprilsosaso1111[at]yahoo.com